Icaria by Kimsa Ki-Lurria

Category:Maximum Ride
Genre:Adventure, Drama
Characters:Ari B., Iggy, Jeb B.
Published:2010-04-03 19:48:43
Updated:2017-09-09 00:19:00
Packaged:2021-04-23 23:33:53
Summary:Iggy is captured and brought to Jeb. Faced with his mistakes, Jeb is forced to question his motives and actions of the past fourteen years. Who does he owe allegiance to? The School, his mutant son Ari, or a winged boy determined to hate him? Redemption fic.

Table of Contents

1. On Top of the World
2. Rapture and Rupture
3. Parenting Problems
4. Call it Conditioning
5. Bridging Mountains
6. White World
7. Dysfunction
8. Sibling Rivalry
9. Bad Blood
10. Cumulonimbus
11. Off the Face of the Earth
12. Problem Child
13. Daedalus and Icarus
14. A Mercy Plea
15. Impulse and Imminence
16. Illusionary
17. Crescendo
18. To the Sky
19. Waiting in the Wings
20. Family Reunion
21. Old Routines and New Wounds
22. The Abomination and His Amusements
23. The Brother of My Enemy
24. Aftershock
25. Enemies in the Dark
26. Escape from the Snake's Den
27. The Clock is Ticking
28. Abort Mission, Abandon Ship
29. The Man of Many Loyalties
30. We Were Enemies
31. Memento Mori, Part One
32. Memento Mori, Part Two
33. Memento Mori, Part Three
34. The Resilient
35. The Protector

1. On Top of the World

I do not own Maximum Ride or any of its characters, yadda yadda ya, and I hereby and proudly present: Icaria, second-place winner of the "What should I write next?" poll.

Yes, I know it's not Pyromaniac, but I'm currently in the process of seeing if I can get that story looked over. So, for now, Icaria it is. Besides, I've been dying to post this. I'm figuring the timeline isn't quite as important as usual, since this IS an AU, but I'd say sometime after they rescue Angel from the School.

Genre: Drama/Suspense/Adventure

Warnings: violence, probably some mild language, Jeb-father-angst, and Ari and the whitecoats...and a whole lot of family issues. We've got Iggy vs. Ari issues, Jeb vs. Ari issues, and most of all, Iggy vs. Jeb issues. Family love abound.

Characters: Iggy, Jeb and Ari B. Yes, Ari. Because I love that adorable bundle of teeth and claws.



Chapter One: On Top of the World

It was exactly four o'clock in the morning, and Jeb Batchelder had a headache that threatened to split his head in two. He grunted and lifted a hand to knead his forehead. It was a useless gesture, he knew—once his head started hurting, it was all down hill from there.

"Another migraine?"

Jacob Marling, one of his closest associates and the only person he would dare to call a friend around here, was giving him a wry half-smile that only emphasized the hard lines around his mouth. His coffee-brown skin was a painful contrast against the colorless walls of the training room, and his coal-black eyes were drooping with exhaustion. Jeb knew that as weary as his friend looked, he looked even worse. He had been up since eleven at night, and had only been able to snatch a half-hour nap before being woken up again to oversee a surgery.

"Hopefully not," he said wearily. "I don't think I could stand another one of those."

"What's it this time? Lack of sleep?" Jacob frowned at him disapprovingly. "You haven't been eating, have you?"

Jeb shrugged and gazed out at the training room sprawling out below them. "Maybe it's sleep. Maybe it's not."


Jeb flinched and closed his eyes. And maybe it's that.

Beside him, Jacob whistled as he peered from their spot on the balcony into the cavernous training room. "Your son's getting better. Look at that—look at him, Jebidiah."

Reluctantly, Jeb opened his eyes just in time to see Ari's fist bury itself in the face of his opponent. The Eraser toppled onto its back, its furry claws flying up to its ruined snout as it howled in agony.

Immediately, three more Erasers replaced it. They went down in a matter of seconds — a punch and a kick to the stomach here, a sharp uppercut to the chin there, a headbutt to finish off the last mutant standing. Thick, heavily muscled arms and legs were a deadly blur, delivering bone-crunching blows with every swing.

Clawed feet clicking on the smooth floor of the training room, Ari turned in a circle to admire his handiwork. He looked up, a wide smile revealing his gleaming fangs, and grinned at Jeb.

Jeb sighed and returned to kneading his forehead with his knuckles. Ari's need for his approval was as transparent as glass, and it wearied him. He did not approve of what the mutated seven-year-old was training himself to do. But…

I am a terrible father. I owe him at least this.

Lowering his fist from his forehead, Jeb tiredly met his son's praise-thirsty eyes and offered a short nod.

Ari's grin grew even wider and he straightened his massive shoulders, leering down at his beaten opponents in a deplorable display of arrogance. The tension in Jeb's forehead grew. His head throbbed.

"You really don't look good," Jacob said worriedly. "Is it the lights? They're pretty harsh, especially at four in the morning…"

"I'm fine," Jeb lied.

"Hmm." Jacob leaned on the balcony's rail and eyed his friend out of the corner of his eye. "You know, the surgery really wasn't your fault. It was a failure from the start. How could you have expected it to blow up in your face?"

Jeb winced. "I'd rather not talk about that now," he muttered. It was the only reason he was here and not in bed. He had supervised the operation on some unlucky experiment for two hours. Then, just when he was beginning to sway on his feet, the surgery had come to a grinding halt with the experiment's sudden death. Needless to say, his superiors hadn't been pleased. The subject had not been worth much, not nearly as valuable as the flock members, for instance, but it had held the foundations for a potentially ground-breaking discovery that held relevance towards Max and her family. Jeb had never been clued in on what it was, exactly, but he assumed that it failed when the patient died.

The higher-ups could not afford to dispatch him, being as knowledgeable on the flock as he was, but that did not mean they could not punish him. That was the reason he was watching Ari train in the first place. His superiors knew how it would make him feel to watch his young son use brutal violence. It was only to be expected that they would make him observe for hours on end.

Three hours he had spent on that balcony. Three long, mind-numbing, horrendous hours of following his son's erratic, vicious movements, of hearing sharp shrieks of pain, of listening to bone and gristle crack and snap beneath Ari's cruel fists.

"What's wrong, then?" Jacob was asking. "Did you hear back from the search party?"

"No," Jeb sighed. "Not y—"

As if by some godsend, ringing footsteps echoed along the hallway behind them. Jeb and Jacob whirled around to see a fine-boned woman hurrying toward them, her long hair swinging in disarray and her lab coat lopsided on one side. She looked like she'd run the entire perimeter of the School just to reach them.

"Anne," Jeb said in surprise, "what is it?"

The Asian woman gave him an inscrutable look. "You're needed down at the docking bay. The search party just got back—they've caught one of the mutants."


Gone were the signs of his impending migraine. Jeb beamed at the woman as if she'd just told him he was free of the School and the people who ran it. She stared at him like he'd tried to bite her.

"That's excellent news," he said. "Did they say which one they caught?"

Anne shrugged cautiously. "No, and it wasn't my place to ask. I suggest you get down there, fast—the freak's putting up a struggle."

"Yes, yes," Jeb said with a hurried nod. It had to be Maximum. Any member of the flock would fight if cornered and captured, but if the mutant was giving the whitecoats that much trouble, it had to be Max. He prayed it was. This was just the break he was looking for.

"Thank you." The two words made both Jacob and Anne stare at him in bewilderment, but Jeb couldn't have cared less. He strode past the woman with Jacob at his side, making sure to keep his pace as even as he could so he wouldn't seem overly excited.

Behind him, he heard Ari's gruff voice shout out from the depths of the brightly-lit training room. "Jeb!"

A wince went over his shoulders at the fury in his son's voice, but he kept walking. He would deal with Ari and his insatiable hunger for praise later.

"So what's got you so excited?" Jacob widened his eyes at his friend meaningfully. "I'd think that you wouldn't be quite so happy about dealing with a violent mutant this early in the day."

"No," Jeb agreed distractedly, "but I've been looking forward to this for a long time."

It was true. When the School had stationed him at this particular base, high up in the Canadian Rockies, he thought he would never see Maximum and the other mutants before it was too late. That was precisely why the School had done it, he supposed; they suspected he was growing too close to the flock and removed him from the equation.

And here Max was, coming right to him at the place he least expected to see her.

Jeb knew he should not be happy that Max had been captured (because he was sure it was Max; who else would it be?). Most likely, her flock would come looking for her and attempt to initiate some daring rescue that would end up injuring them all. It would probably work, too. Every time it seemed the School had only to reach out and crush the flock within its grasp, the flying mutants would somehow manage to get away. It was frustrating and infinitely relieving at the same time.

Still, Jeb was glad that he would have at least a little more time to convince Maximum that he had her best interests at heart. Because, when it came down to it, that was what really mattered in his deception-ruled life.

It took him and Jacob less than six minutes to make their way from the training room to the docking hold. Jeb barely noticed anything else on his way there. Only the hallway with the impossibly thick glass wall caught his attention, and that lasted for the briefest of moments. There was a storm raging outside, snow and sleet pounding against the near-impenetrable glass. The snowfall was so thick, Jeb could barely see the towering mountains surrounding the building complex. A chill slipped in from outside and wiggled its way into his bones.

"That's a nasty storm," Jacob observed quietly. "I have no idea how the chopper could have made it through that…"

"If the Erasers have something to do, they'll do it," Jeb said off-handedly. "No matter how impossible it seems."

By the time they reached the docking room, a cavernous area with walls and a floor of cold metal and cement, Jeb's superior was already standing at the entrance.

"Doctor Stark." Jeb inclined his head deferentially and earned himself a dismissive glance in reply. Nehemiah Stark was, in all honesty, not exactly an imposing figure on a superficial basis. He was of a medium build and while his height leaned towards the higher numbers, it wasn't enough to make him seem intimidating. No, it was the way Stark held himself that made people jump to follow his commands. The lines in his face were more from cruelty and distaste than age, his immaculate hair a premature gray that only supported his cold image. If Jeb were to guess his age, he would aim around forty-five.

"Batchelder. That one's yours, I presume?"

As always, Stark's voice stiffened Jeb's spine and automatically made him pay attention. Jeb followed Stark's pointing finger into the docking room.

It wasn't Max. There was no mistaking the lean, skinny form that whirled itself about with unerring precision to land a punch or roundhouse kick on an Eraser's snout. The wings were a soft mix between red-copper and white, instead of the speckled brown-and-tan wings he had expected to see.

It was Iggy.

Jeb tried to tamp down the disappointment he felt in his chest, and failed.

"Yes, sir," he said to Stark. "One of mine."

"Well," his superior said with the slightest hint of condescension in his frozen-glass voice, "control it."

"Yes, Doctor Stark."

His steps past the emotionless man were clipped and controlled, however hard it was to resist the urge to simply run the distance. Jacob stayed behind, seeming to realize that something had gone wrong. Jeb's heart hammered in his chest. The further he got into the room and the more he saw, the less he liked the situation.

More than a few whitecoats had gathered to watch the spectacle and lined the wall in muttering clumps. The lights that had been installed in the ceiling so high above him glared harsh on his head, making him sweat. Erasers moved and darted around Iggy like feeding sharks, ducking in and out, jeering. Within their roiling midst he caught flashes of the boy—a glimpse of a torn, dirtied white shirt; long gangly legs, lashing out to kick an Eraser in the gut; soft-colored wings stretching wide and far; strawberry-blond hair drenched with sweat; a young face, twisted with fury and desperation. It was only when he was within feet of them that he saw the blood on the glassy floor.

Jeb stood up tall, conscious of a dozen stern glares on his back, and cleared his throat.


Some of the Erasers looked very much like they would rather disobey, but they all fell back at the sound of his voice with looks of barely-concealed resentment. Jeb let his gaze trail onto the boy in front of him and forced himself to smooth his expression free of emotion. The tall boy was swaying where he stood, looking for all the world like he was about to keel over from pain and exhaustion.

"Iggy?" Jeb prompted.

Iggy started at the sound of Jeb's voice. "Jeb?" His voice brimmed with disbelief.

"Yes," Jeb replied, careful to mask the flash of worry he felt at the sight of the boy's bruised face. His bottom lip had split and blood dribbled down his narrow chin in a trickle of crimson. One of his eyes was going purple, and he was pressing one arm to his side in a way Jeb didn't like.

A myriad of emotions flickered across Iggy's face in a matter of seconds. Jeb spotted relief, hope, and misery before anger swooped in and dominated them all.

"Traitor," Iggy hissed hatefully. Jeb restrained a wince.

"No," he started. "I—"

"You're with them! Max told me about you, but…you…" The boy's skin turned an alarming shade of red as he scrambled for words. "We trusted you!"

Jeb really had no idea what he was going to say to that—he wanted to be trusted, he'd loved the flock as if they were his own children, and he wasn't a traitor—but before he could even open his mouth, Stark spoke from behind him.

"Which one is this?"

He hadn't heard the man come up behind him. Jeb whirled around and inclined his head at the steely look in Stark's pale eyes. Behind Stark was Jacob, and behind him was a familiar hulking form: Ari. He hadn't seen his son come in, either, though how he could not have felt the heated glare Ari was spearing him with, he didn't know. Why, exactly, Ari was angry with him was another matter entirely.

"Igneous, sir," Jeb said promptly. "The third-oldest."

"Igneous, hmm?" Stark pinned the boy with a critical gaze, as one did an insect with a needle. "What are its strengths? I've heard different things about each of the mutants."

Jeb could feel Iggy's blistering glare through his coat and forced himself to ignore it. "He understands fire and its properties better than most people I know. His knowledge of explosives is expansive, too, and his sense of hearing is superhuman —"

"But it is blind," Stark interrupted bluntly. Jeb nodded hesitantly, not liking the nasty grin that crawled onto Ari's face.

"Yes, sir. He is blind."

"Hmm." With one stride of his gray-clad legs, Stark had brushed past Jeb to stand in front of Iggy. He took the boy's chin in one hand and tried to move his head from side to side, but Iggy jerked his head free with a silent snarl.

"Don't touch me," he spat.

Jeb felt his heartbeat falter before picking back up again. Stark straightened and wiped his hand clean on his long coat.

"Too defiant," he announced coolly. "It would prove troublesome for our colleagues to perform tests on, and the blindness is a massive hindrance. You have a record of how it behaves in the lab room, Batchelder?"

Something cold settled in the pit of Jeb's stomach and refused to move. "Yes, sir. He proved…difficult…to deal with in all cases."

Again, Stark merely let out a thoughtful "hmm" and turned his gaze back to Iggy, who had gone mysteriously still. Behind Jacob, Ari's grin stretched even wider, until it almost looked painful for him to smile. The cold feeling in Jeb's stomach spread up into his chest and seized his heart.

"I have no use for it," Stark said. His shrewd gaze traveled slowly from Iggy's bruised form to Ari's grinning face, back to Iggy, and then finally landed on Jeb. In the whitecoat's pale, glittering eyes, Jeb could see nothing but detached, smug amusement, and he knew that his punishment was not yet over.

"You. Ari." Lifting a single finger to point into Iggy's glaring face, Stark turned back to Jeb's eager son. The faintest of smirks appeared on the whitecoat's countenance.

"Kill it."

To be continued…

A/N: Review, save a blind pyro today!

2. Rapture and Rupture

Here you have it - the second chapter of Icaria (and anyone who can figure out why I named it that gets kudos). Thank you: MissStud, blackberry01, Aleria14, BlueWingedKitty, Moe10, DigiBleach, flYegurl, and Illucida for reviewing. You guys are the reason I posted this chapter before running off to Santa Barbara. And a special thanks goes to those who have come over from In Reverence...which will have a sequel, now that the results are in. I will try my best.

I do not own Maximum Ride, and therefore own none of its characters...most noticeably Iggy, Jeb, and Ari. Which makes me sad. :( I wonder if Mr. Patterson would let me borrow them for a day...or a month...maybe a year or ten...

(Side note: I've always pictured Jeb as world-weary Jim Gordon from Nolan's Batman movies. Is it just me, or does that man fit Jeb's description perfectly?)



Chapter Two: Rapture and Rupture

An eager growl sounded low from Ari's throat. Jeb stepped between his son and Iggy, who looked as anxious for a fight as Ari did.

"No, stop," he commanded. Ari came to a rough halt and gave his father a confused, furious stare. Jeb forced himself to ignore it and concentrated on Stark's back; the older man had stopped at the sound of Jeb's voice and was slowly turning around.

"Resisting my orders, Batchelder?" Stark widened his eyes almost imperceptibly.

Every one of Jeb's nerves went on alert. He had to be incredibly careful where he tread next; a single wrong word, and he might be hurled off the mountainside along with Iggy.

"No, Doctor Stark. I do not believe, however, that exterminating Igneous would be the wisest course of action."

Stark gestured abruptly to Ari, who was still eyeing Iggy in blatant, bloodthirsty anticipation. "Explain," he ordered curtly.

"Earlier today, you had me participate in an operation linked to Maximum and her kin. It failed, but I wasn't informed that the investigation was over."

Stark leaned forward in the smallest of movements, and Jeb could not help but feel a little spark of triumph in him. He had his superior's attention.

"You want to continue the experiment with Igneous," Stark said slowly. "Do you even know what we were trying to do?"

Jeb shook his head. And I'm not sure I want to, he silently added, but would never dare utter it out loud. " It just seems a waste," he reasoned, "to throw away one of the very mutants we are targeting, especially now that he cannot escape."

"Watch me," Iggy muttered under his breath. Jeb closed his eyes for a moment and sent a silent prayer to whoever might be listening that Iggy wouldn't make his job any harder than it already was.
Stark studied Jeb silently for a long time. During those few seconds, which seemed to stretch on into infinity before Jeb's wide eyes, he heard only the tripping of his heart, his own barely-controlled breathing, and a low, angry growl that was starting to rise in Ari's throat.

"You understand," Stark said slowly, finally, "that you would be solely responsible for this particular experiment and its results."

Jeb tried very hard not to release his breath in a giant sigh of relief. "Yes, sir. I understand."

"Hmm." Stark nodded curtly and said, just before pushing past Jeb to interrogate the search party, "See that I get results, Batchelder, or the mutant won't be the only one to pay."

Inside his stomach, Jeb's entrails shriveled into a tiny ball of anxiety and foreboding. He nodded sternly to himself and moved to take Iggy's arm.

Iggy pulled away. "Leave me alone."

Jeb leaned in as close as the simmering boy would allow him to and whispered urgently, "If you don't let me take you back, I can't guarantee that they won't force you. Please. For your own sake, come quietly."

Iggy's mouth thinned into a knife-sharp line of suppressed anger, but he allowed Jeb to take the arm he was clutching against his side. Jeb felt something wet and sticky against his fingers and pulled his hand back in surprise. Blood coated his skin.

"It's just a scratch," Iggy muttered.

Jeb sighed resignedly. "I'll get that looked at later," he promised. "For now…come."

Jacob took Iggy's other arm without prompting and helped Jeb support the faltering mutant as they made their way from the docking bay. Ari snarled threateningly at them as they passed, and Jeb made a conscious effort not to wince. His son was going to hound after him for this little stunt.

It's worth it, Jeb thought stolidly. Without Iggy, without any member of her flock, Maximum would be driven to distraction. She can't afford to lose her concentration now.

If he was perfectly honest with himself, his job had less to do with his sparing Iggy than his own feelings did. He'd raised Iggy just as much as he had raised the others, even if he had to admit that he'd showered Maximum with more attention than her siblings had received.

It's only natural, he insisted stubbornly, supporting Iggy wordlessly as the boy began to stumble. She was special, different even back then. It was crucial that I focused my teachings on her. After all, she is key. The others are…are…advantageous.

"Where are you taking me?" Iggy asked sullenly. His mouth turned up in a humorless smirk. "Do I get my own five-star room, complete with silk blankets and room service?"

Jeb grimaced. "No."

"A cage, then." Iggy made a face and crinkled his blackened eye in a way that must have been painful. "Typical. Don't you guys ever come up with something new?"

"You could sleep with the Erasers," Jacob offered. Iggy made his eyes go very round.

"No, thank you. I like my face exactly the way it is."

Jacob and Jeb led Iggy through several more hallways until they reached the room they were looking for. By that time, Iggy was leaning heavily on Jeb and pinching his lips into a colorless knot of pain. He was even paler than usual from blood loss. Jeb frowned. He would have to get that arm bandaged immediately. Otherwise, Iggy might not make it long enough for Jeb to save him…

"Here we are." Jacob set about unlocking the door to the containment room. Iggy's sightless eyes went wide at the sound of the door creaking open, and Jeb almost stumbled when the tall boy tried to jerk away. Jeb knew that if Iggy had his usual strength, he would have knocked both him and Jacob on their backs and taken off in an instant. But the boy was woozy and weak from blood loss and the beating, and it probably took all his willpower just to tug his arm away from Jeb's iron grip.

"Let me go," Iggy said faintly. "It's Max you're after, not me, so let me go."

"I'm sorry," Jeb whispered, and meant it. "I really am. But you know I can't do that."

"Quick, inside," Jacob said with a nervous glance behind them. "They might come to check on us."

Iggy tried again to break away from Jeb. Jeb held on as tightly as he could and struggled to wrap an arm around the boy's middle to stabilize him. Unfortunately, Iggy chose that moment to fight, and his foot tangled with Jeb's as the man stepped forward. Jeb stumbled and nearly fell, allowing Iggy to tear his arms free and make a break for it. He only made it three steps before his numb limbs gave out on him and sent him crashing into the wall.

Jeb righted himself and watched in consternation as the dizzy boy tried to fight his way back to balance. There was no way he would be able to get a six-foot-tall, defiant mutant inside a cage without some major bruises and perhaps a broken bone or too. Steeling himself, he came forward and spun Iggy's fumbling form until his back was facing Jeb.

Sorry, he thought, and brought the heel of his hand down on the back of the boy's neck with crushing force.

Iggy stiffened before going completely limp in Jeb's arms. Jeb grunted; the boy was nearly as tall as he was! It was hard enough to balance him when he was partially awake. Now that Iggy was unconscious, Jeb could only lift half of him off the floor. Turning red with exertion, he dragged the tall mutant into the containment room.

It was dark. He knew it wouldn't bother Iggy when he woke, but he still lamented knowing that the boy wouldn't be able to wake to at least the small comfort of warm sunlight.

"That one's about the right size." Jacob's voice was strangely restrained as he pointed to a large cage sitting next to several smaller ones. Jeb nodded abruptly in thanks and half carried, half dragged Iggy into the cage.

Iggy's head flopped pitiably on his shoulder as Jeb propped him up against the cage's bars. Crouched in the cage, which was large enough to hold them both, Jeb sat back on his heels and studied the unconscious boy in front of him. There were so many things he hadn't had the time to notice before that he was only seeing just now: dark bruises beneath Iggy's closed eyes, a thin trail of blood running from somewhere under his hair, the hollowness of his cheeks. The child looked haunted, even unconscious.

"I'll take care of him, Jeb," Jacob's voice rang out in the dank room. "You go on and get some sleep. It's my job to look after the wounded ones, anyway."

Jeb nodded absently and ducked out of the cage. "His head's bleeding too," he said, "and…if it's not too much trouble, could you…get him something to eat? It's, uh…it's no use if he's distracted when I start the experiment."

"Right," Jacob said, and flashed him a thin smile. "That's why. Don't worry, I won't get caught."

Jeb felt a sudden rush of gratitude for the man before him. "Thank you," he sighed, and walked wearily out of the room.

Ari was waiting for him.

"You're disappointed," his son growled. Jeb started and gave Ari a wary look. He was leaning against the wall with his beefy arms crossed over his chest, a dangerous glint in his eye and one lip lifted in a perpetual snarl. Jeb felt his shoulders droop under the thought of getting into another argument with the mutant-child.

"Disappointed in what, Ari?"

"Disappointed that it wasn't Max," Ari snapped. "Don't play dumb. I could see it in your eyes. You thought that freak was Max, and when it wasn't…"

His son paused and glared down at the tiled floor before lifting his gaze back to Jeb. "I would have done it, you know. I wouldn't have failed you."

"Ari, I don't decide who they send—"

"What are you talking about?" Ari snarled. "You're in charge of the investigation, aren't you? Aren't you? Why don't you send me? I hate being caged up in this place, like some kind of…of…"

Animal. Jeb winced. His head fell forward into his hand as if all the muscles that held it up had been cut. "Ari, please. Not today."

Ari pushed off the wall to tower over his father. "No, Dad. Every day. Every day until you stop treating me like a nuisance and start making sense. Until then…"

The look he sent the containment room was enough to curdle Jeb's blood. Ari pivoted on his heel with a hate-filled snarl and stalked off down the hallway, his thick fur bristling with anger. Jeb sighed and thumped the back of his head against the wall.

Jacob emerged from the room, his hands covered in Iggy's blood. "Kid's stabilized. Good thing I had my gauze on me, or he might have lost even more blood," he said, and caught sight of Ari storming away. He looked back at Jeb's forlorn expression and shook his head.

"Jeb," he said tiredly, "what are you doing?"

Jeb ran a worn hand over his face and watched his son go.

"I don't know..."

Iggy woke exactly as he had every day of his life for the past four years: to darkness.

Only, this was a different kind of darkness. It wasn't a darkness filled with the soft breathing of his flock-mates or Nudge's shrill voice chattering at him to wake up and cook her breakfast. This was a cold darkness, where the very air felt wet and seemed to cling to his skin even though he wasn't moving. He could hear something gurgling to his right. Iggy jumped in alarm and hit his head on something hard for his trouble. He spent the next several minutes curled in on himself in a tiny ball, trying to will away the pain that rocketed through every inch of his skull.

His fuzzy mind flashed through to the last thing he remembered. He remembered struggling to escape from somewhere, falling against a wall, and then someone's hand driving down into the base of his neck…

Iggy sat up with a gasp. Jeb. His ex-surrogate-father had knocked him out.

"That jerk," Iggy grouched under his breath.

Jeb was the last person Iggy had expected to meet. He didn't know where he'd been taken to, but he had felt the cold wind leaking through the walls of the helicopter and knew that wherever he was, it definitely wasn't California. Was he even in the United States anymore?

Iggy shivered as the memories of his last moment with the flock bombarded him like an Eraser's fists. The wolf-mutants had ambushed the flock, grabbed and trussed him up so tightly he could barely breathe, and taken off to stuff him into the trunk of a car. From there, it was a long enough drive that Iggy passed out and woke up more than once. Then, just when he'd thought he would finally get a chance to break free, the Erasers had reached in, injected him with a sedative, and bundled him into the helicopter.

It was fast, efficient, and organized. So much so that it had taken his flock by surprise and robbed them of the chance to rescue him, judging by how he wasn't already lounging around on a warm beach pretending to ogle the beach bunnies.

Well, what d'you know? He thought dryly to himself. The School actually did something right for once. And the flock probably has no idea where I am. I have no idea where I am.

Iggy shifted to lean back against the cage's bars. He took a quick inventory of his injuries: one bruised eye, a split lip, one lacerated arm, and a bleeding head. Check. All in all, not too bad.

He knew it could have been much worse; someone had actually bandaged his head and arm. Iggy frowned to himself. That was strange; the whitecoats had never seemed to care whether he was half drunk with pain and blood loss before, so why now?

The only reason his mind could come up with was that the "experiment" he was in for was bad enough that they would actually prepare him for it. The thought made his every nerve squirm with dread. He'd heard them mention something about a surgery gone wrong before—they weren't going to…operate on him, were they?

"'Course not," he reassured himself. "Jeb wouldn't convince them to save me just for that…"

Back to Jeb again. Iggy winced and tried to battle down the mixed wave of anger and relief he felt at meeting his former father figure again. Jeb wasn't on his side—he was a whitecoat. A traitor. He didn't deserve Iggy's gratitude, he deserved Iggy's fist in his face.

Which is the first thing on my "things-to-do-when-I-escape" list, Iggy thought determinedly. He raised himself to his knees. His head just barely scraped the cage's ceiling. Using his reaching hands in place of his eyes, he felt his way around the cage until he had a good picture of how tall and wide it was. The cage was bigger than he expected, but it still wasn't big enough for him to stand or stretch his legs in. He couldn't pick the lock since it had some kind of metal casing around it, and even if there wasn't the casing, it wasn't like he had anything to pick the lock with.

Which means I'm screwed, he huffed to himself. Great.

Iggy had no way of telling time, but he estimated it was hours before someone finally came to get him. During that time, the only sounds he heard were his own measured breaths, the wet gurgling of whatever creature was in the cage next to him, and the occasional agonized scream from outside the room. In short, the usual. Iggy was bored out of his mind and had resorted to entertaining himself by picking at the bandage around his head when the door finally opened.

He shot up, only remembering not to bang his head on the cage's ceiling again at the last second. As the clipped, measured footsteps neared him, he forced himself to lean against the cage's bars and appear nonchalant.

"What?" he asked with an insolent smirk. "Miss me already?"

"Not likely, freak."

The tiny hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Iggy got to his knees and balled his hands into waiting fists. His blood pounded in his ears. "Ari. What are you doing here?"

Ari clucked disapprovingly. "Show some respect, you useless mistake. I'm not the one in the cage."

"I'm the mistake?" Iggy raised his eyebrows and adopted a surprised expression. "Huh. And here I thought that's why Jeb left you all those years ago. My bad. Must've been the dog breath."

Ari snarled and jerked the cage hard enough to send Iggy tumbling against the bars. The injured side of his head struck the unforgiving metal and the world dissolved into a meaningless hum of agony and heat. Dimly, he heard Ari unlock and swing the cage's door open.

"I would watch my mouth if I were you," the wolf-mutant said smugly, and fisted one of his claws in Iggy's shirt. He dragged Iggy out of the cage and dumped him onto the floor. Even through the throbbing in his head, Iggy could feel the cold leaking into his bones. He shivered and forced himself to ignore the pain.

"What do you want?" he asked. His voice didn't come out half as strong as he would have liked it to. Somehow, he could almost feel Ari smirking.

"Break time's up. The good doctors want to see if Jeb really can make something of a failure."

Iggy gritted his teeth. Ari noticed and growled warningly, curling his clawed fingers around Iggy's injured arm. "Don't try anything. They never said you had to be in one piece when I brought you in."

Before Iggy could think up a proper insult, Ari had jerked him to his feet and shoved him forward. Iggy stumbled, hands flailing aimlessly before he found the wall and followed it to the door. He was tempted to make another run for freedom, but Ari followed his thoughts' path. Iggy felt the cold muzzle of a gun digging into the small of his back.

"Don't," the wolf-mutant said. "You know I won't wait to shoot."

No, he wouldn't. Iggy drove his fingernails into the raw palms of his hands and walked stiffly, guided by little jabs and pushes from the muzzle of Ari's pistol. The taller mutant chuckled quietly to himself every now and then, almost as if he was reveling in Iggy's misfortune. Which, in all honesty, he probably was.

Iggy didn't dare try to escape with a gun to his back. That didn't mean he was completely helpless, though; he concentrated intensely to how many steps it took for him and Ari to reach their destination, whose voices he heard as they passed, how many doorways they passed through. It was a short distance from his room to the room where the experiment would be taking place. Iggy counted two right turns, a left, then seven steps down the hallway and into the room.

"I brought 'im!" Ari called. His gruff voice echoed vociferously around the room, bounding and rebounding against Iggy's hypersensitive eardrums. Judging by how Ari's call sounded, the room was huge, almost as big as the docking bay he'd been brought to after waking up in the helicopter.

"Bring it here," a cold voice ordered. Iggy bristled—it was the same man who had wanted him killed earlier.

Ari jabbed Iggy with the gun. "Get moving," he ordered. Figuring it wouldn't be wise to snap at the wolf-mutant with the gun, especially while an important man who wanted him dead was in the room, Iggy complied. Barely.

He walked until Ari stopped pushing him with the gun's muzzle. The important man—Stark—was probably looking him over, if Iggy's hair standing on end was any indication. From the doctor's left, Iggy heard a voice he'd been hoping he wouldn't have to deal with that day.

"Hello, Igneous," Jeb said. Iggy hated how kind his voice sounded. Hadn't he heard what Iggy had said to him before? He was a traitor, and Iggy wasn't going to forget it.

The only reply he gave Jeb was an unwavering glare. He could hear the man swallow and shift uncomfortably.

"I see a night in a cage wasn't enough to curb its defiance," Stark said silkily. "Are you certain you can handle it, Batchelder?"
"Positive, sir," Jeb replied mildly. "Igneous will comply with the experiment. He knows what will happen to him otherwise."

Iggy scowled at the subtle hint and folded his arms defiantly. He wasn't going to let anyone push him around, least of all a man who wasn't brave enough to confront him about his disloyalty.

"Hmm," Stark said. Iggy could feel the doctor's empty gaze on him again and squared his shoulders. "Report directly to me when you are done."

Stark left the room with sharp footfalls. Iggy was suddenly and painfully aware of the presence of more beings in the room. Heavy breathing, a couple of scattered chuckles, the cracking of a knuckle or two…

Erasers, and a lot of them.

"In phase one of this experiment," Jeb was saying, "we will test how your defense and offense skills are affected by your lack of sight. Defeat your opponents in any way possible."

Iggy could feel the man's pleading gaze on him. It was the same look that Max and the others gave him when they made a crack about his sight without thinking, the same look he felt when Max wanted to talk and he was ignoring her. He turned his head away. Jeb wanted to talk? Too bad. He wasn't going to let his ex-father, of all people, guilt trip him. If he wanted to talk, he was going to have to bring himself down to Iggy's level and visit him in his cage. Maybe that would teach him.

Ari growled impatiently.

Jeb gave up trying to get the winged mutant to talk, heaving a weary sigh. Iggy steeled himself and callously ignored the faint sense of guilt he felt stirring in his chest.

"You may begin."

A/N: So we got a tiny peek inside Ari's head (which we will be exploring extensively in this 'fic) and got to experience things from Iggy's pov. He's mostly back to being his snarky little self, but I'm afraid he's still somewhat bummed out about being kidnapped. Next chapter will have more Iggy/Jeb dynamics and a lot of drama, so in the meantime...review?


3. Parenting Problems

Sorry this is a day late; it's been so hectic that I barely managed to squeeze in time to write. But I know that if I don't post it now, I probably wouldn't get around to it until later next week, so here it is...

Thank you reviewers!! You guys are too nice to me. I don't have time to reply to the reviews just yet, but I will reply once I make the time. Seriously, you guys, keep commenting - it's the reason this is up right now and not later.

Disclaimer: I don't own the Maximum Ride series. I do own this fanfiction's plot, any weird swirly plot twists it contains, and the emotions. Really - this chapter is charged with emotion. (I know you'll enjoy that, BlueWingedKitty - oh, and let the "Ari challenge" begin. ;D)



Chapter Three: Parenting Problems

Jeb watched Iggy drop to the floor with no small measure of sympathy. The boy groaned and lifted a trembling hand to his forehead, where Jacob's bandages had come undone. Already, blood was beginning to seep through the thick gauze. Iggy dropped his hand to his side and squeezed his eyes shut, faint shame staining his cheeks with color.

Ari laughed uproariously.

"Hush," Jeb told him. Ari gaped at him in outrage, but Jeb's attention was focused on the frail-looking boy sprawled on the floor of the training room. After taking down three Erasers, Iggy had begun to falter, and by the time the fifth one stepped up to attempt to pummel him into submission, it was over. Iggy's nose bled, his split lip had reopened, and his head was drooling blood once more.

"All right," Iggy said from the floor, and flopped one hand in a weak wave. "I surrender."

"I can see that." Jeb's lips twitched up with the smallest sign of amusement. "You took down four Erasers on your own. That's more than we expected."

"Yeah, well," said Iggy sourly, "you never expected much from me anyway."

The boy had a way of making Jeb wince that would have had his enemies clamoring for his advice.

"That's stage one of the experimental process," Jeb said, pretending not to hear Iggy's biting statement. "Are you certain you can't beat another?"

Iggy turned his head and gave Jeb an unseeing, incredulous stare. "I just spent the night crammed in a cage. Before that, I was kidnapped, tied up and thrown into somebody's trunk before being shoved into a helicopter full of hungry Erasers. I'm still dizzy from all the drugs they stuck in me, my head has sprung a leak, and you're asking me if I'm sure I can't beat down another wolf-mutant twice my size?"

Jeb grimaced. Well, the drugs don't seem to have impaired your sense of sarcasm, he thought sourly, but kept that thought to himself. The boy was right. "Fine. Rest. The second stage will begin soon."

Iggy grunted and busied himself with wiping the blood from his nose. Jeb deliberately turned away from the Erasers still groaning on the polished floor and examined the notes he'd written on his clipboard. Iggy had improved his defense skills from the last time Jeb had seen him fight, though that was to be expected. What stunned him was how well the boy had adapted to the loss of his sight.

I doubt any human being could adapt that so quickly, he mused. Although…Iggy isn't exactly a normal human being…

Beside him, Iggy was struggling to stand. Even before the fight his movements hadn't been as fluid as Jeb suspected they should be. Now he was moving with a distinct wobbliness that had the whitecoat on edge.

"What exactly did they put into you?" he asked. Iggy jerked his head up and gave Jeb a thick scowl that relayed just how intelligent he thought his ex-father was.

"How am I supposed to know? All I know is that it knocked me out and made my head go all fuzzy."

"Alright," Jeb said through the impatience quickly rising as color to his cheeks, "how much of it did they put in you?"

Iggy shrugged casually and rubbed an angry red spot on his neck. Jeb stared at the spot suspiciously. "I don't know…I remember getting jabbed with a needle two, maybe three times? Once in the neck, I think. Can't remember. They probably did a couple more in between, just to make sure I wouldn't wake up to give them a fight."

From where he was still looming behind Jeb, Ari let out a frustrated growl. "What does it matter? It's not our job to baby him!"

Jeb shot his son a withering glare. "No, but this is an important experiment, and I won't have my results skewed just because a couple mutants got overeager with the knock-out drugs."

He turned on Iggy. "Iggy—walk toward me."

Iggy set his jaw in the same mulish look he'd worn whenever Jeb had told him to clean his room or take a bath. The image sent pangs of regret and nostalgia through Jeb, and he forced himself to push them aside into the cobwebbed corner he saved for everything he had to feel guilty over.

Just as he'd suspected, Iggy's balance was precarious at best. The energy it had taken to beat down four colossal Erasers, added to the drugs still circulating through his system, the recent blood loss, and his head wound, all made for a weak and wobbly winged mutant. Iggy stopped several feet from Jeb and raised his eyebrows challengingly.

"See?" he said. "I can walk."

Ari snorted. "Barely…"

"Better than that clumsy lumber you manage half the time—"

"That decides it," Jeb said loudly to interrupt Ari's answering snarl. "Iggy, I can't do anything about the drugs in you—your body will just have to get them out on its own—but you should eat something. The mess hall isn't far from here. After that, you should go back to your—your quarters, and get some rest. I expect you to be fully functional tomorrow."

"What?" Ari roared indignantly. "You are babying him!"

"It's a simple matter of science and experimentation, Ari," said Jeb. "I wouldn't expect you to understand."

"You never expect me to understand anything," Ari grumbled under his breath, but backed down.

"Food?" Iggy seemed oblivious to the tension between father and son. As soon as food was mentioned, the defiant jut to his jaw had vanished, leaving his face young and eager again. "What kind of food?"

Jeb allowed himself a small, crooked smile. That's the Iggy I used to know. "You'd be surprised. Since the higher-ups usually rob us of sleep, they have to make up for it with meals."

"Hot dogs? French fries?" Iggy asked eagerly. "Burgers?"

"Err…no," Jeb said awkwardly. "Steaks and vegetables and the like."

Iggy shrugged flippantly. "Whatever. Just as long as it's not roasted squirrel. That gives me stomachaches."

Ari's lips twisted up in an expression of disgust at the same time Jeb's stomach clenched in vague revulsion. He did have to give the boy a point for endurance, though.

"Come," he said, taking Iggy's elbow to guide him along the hallways. To the Erasers still milling around and looking like they didn't know what to do, he said brusquely, "You can leave."

Ari moved forward before Jeb could take one step toward the door.

"I'm coming with you," he said, and folded his arms across his barrel chest to show that no one could convince him otherwise. Jeb furrowed his forehead.


"What?" Ari widened his eyes in mock innocence. "I'm hungry."

He couldn't argue with that, even if Ari was just saying it to have a reason to lurk around and antagonize Iggy. Neither could he say that only whitecoats—humans—were allowed in the mess hall, because he was taking Iggy there. Jeb caved in the end.

"Fine," he said, but let his disapproval ring clear in his voice. Ari seemed immune. "You can come. But stay quiet. I don't want you making a scene and getting me in trouble."

Ari grinned wickedly. "Oh, no, Jeb. I would never."

The walk from the training room to the mess hall was undoubtedly one of the most tense and awkward walks Jeb had ever endured. He kept his hand tight around Iggy's elbow, fearing that if he let go Ari would use it as an excuse to bowel the thin mutant over. Of course, there was always the possibility that Iggy might try to escape again, but he hoped that Ari's presence, as well as his gun, would be enough to convince the boy to stay where he was.

"Here we are," he said tiredly as they entered the mess hall. He scanned the large room filled with chairs and tables and spotted a solitary figure hovering around the breakfast foods. The dark, shiny head was instantly recognizable.

"Jacob," he said, relieved that it hadn't been someone who could get him in trouble—like Stark. That would have been a nightmare. He would have to hurry over to his superior's office as soon as he put Iggy back in the containment room.

Jacob jumped, nearly dropping the tray of food he was holding. "Jebidiah!" he squeaked. "You startled me."

"Just coming to feed the boys." Jeb lifted his eyebrows curiously at the mountain of food on the taller man's plate. "Who's all that for?"
Jacob's gaze jumped from Jeb to Iggy. "For him," he said. "I couldn't feed him yesterday because he was out. I thought because you were training him today he might need the extra energy."

"Training?" Iggy curled his lips into a confused frown. "What do you mean, training? Training for what?"

"Let's get your food," Jeb said, neatly sidestepping the question. Ari lumbered heavily behind him as he took Iggy to Jacob's side.

"Here." Jacob passed the tray over to Iggy as carefully as he could. The man was obviously uncertain on how to act around a blind, winged mutant. He'd soon learn that Iggy was not one to be treated like a glass trophy. "Lots of egg, bacon and hash browns so you can stay awake."

"Thanks," Iggy said with a wide grin. "I can't remember the last time I ate like this. I think it was back when you were around, J—"

The boy's smile faltered and crumbled before Jeb's eyes into a resentful frown. "But then, that was before you left."

He pivoted on his heel and felt his way to the nearest round table, leaving Jeb stinging at the implied betrayal in his words. Ari grunted in annoyance and moved away to fill his own tray.

"What's that all about?" Jacob whispered, eyeing Iggy as he leaned over his food protectively and began to take short, angry bites. "And…hey! What happened to his bandages?"

"Training," Jeb muttered back. He knew Iggy could probably hear every word they said and was only pretending he couldn't. "Do you have your gauze on you?"

Jacob gave him a mildly offended look. "I always have my gauze."

"Good. Do me a favor and fix his head back up when he's done?"

"Sure, Jeb." Jacob looked slowly between Iggy and Jeb, and a thoughtful expression crossed his face. Jeb stared at him.


"Nothing!" Jacob hurried away to fill a tray for himself. Jeb was more than tired of people acting strangely or hostilely around him, and he moved forward to sit next to Iggy with a slouch to his shoulders. Iggy steadfastly ignored him and stuffed a forkful of eggs into his mouth.

Jeb leaned his elbows on the table and massaged his forehead. "You know I didn't want to leave you," he said wearily.

Iggy swallowed audibly and stabbed his hash browns. "Oh, yeah? Does that apply to just Max or all of us?"

"All of you," Jeb said curtly. He was getting tired of Iggy's assumptions that he only cared about Maximum. He had raised all of them, hadn't he? Didn't he deserve at least a little gratitude? "I cared about all of you, Igneous, but I had no choice."

Iggy made a face. "Do you have to call me that?"

Jeb blinked. "Call you what?"

"Igneous," Iggy said, and gestured vaguely at the air with his knife. "It's…it's horrible. It sounds like something only a crusty old dad would call me."

Jeb offered a small smile, even though he knew Iggy couldn't see it. "But I am a crusty old dad."

The scowl was back and plastered unwaveringly on Iggy's young face. "Not anymore, you're not," he said bitterly. "You gave that up when you went to join these sickos, remember?"

Back to square one again. Jeb sighed heavily. He had never imagined that Iggy, cheerful and joking Iggy, would prove to be almost as stubborn as Maximum on the matter of his "betrayal." Oh, he knew Iggy had a head as hard as rock and an iron will, but he'd hoped that he would be able to sway the sarcastic boy if he could just explain.

And why do I want him on my side? Jeb wondered to himself. He's not nearly as important as Maximum, not in the long run. Why should I care if he hates me?

Because, no matter how hard he tried to distance himself and look at the situation objectively, he knew he didn't believe that Iggy wasn't as important as Maximum. Not personally, anyway. It might be Maximum who would save the world, but that didn't mean that Jeb loved any of her siblings any less than her.

Itex isn't going to last forever, he thought as he studied Iggy's tense, angry form. And when it comes crashing down, I don't want this boy or his family to be my enemies. I didn't raise them just so I could let my job turn them against me!


The abrupt question startled Jeb out of his thoughtful haze. "Huh?" he said dumbly.

Iggy rolled his sightless eyes. "Don't you know how to argue, or is that not how things are done over here? You know how it goes—I yell at you, you say something sappy back, and it goes in an endless circle until someone gets bored."

Jeb stretched his lips in a strained smile. "I don't remember you being this sarcastic."

"Max tends to rub off on you," Iggy muttered through a thick wad of eggs.

"Well," said Jeb, "if there's one thing I did right, it was to teach you not to speak with your mouth full."

Iggy swallowed his eggs thickly and gave Jeb a mischievous grin. Jeb's spirits had just started to rise when a shadow fell over them like a storm cloud over the sun.

"Mind if I join?" Ari looked between Jeb and Iggy and widened his eyes meaningfully. "Or am I interrupting family bonding time?"

Iggy instantly retreated behind a fresh scowl, effectively destroying any progress Jeb had made with him. Jeb fought the urge to yell with frustration.

"Of course, Ari," he said tightly, gesturing to the spot across from him. "Sit, eat."

Ari kept his narrowed eyes on Iggy the entire time he moved to take his seat. If Iggy felt the other mutant's burning glare, he didn't show any sign of discomfort. He simply sat there and wolfed down the remainder of his breakfast.

"Something to drink?" he asked Jeb. Jeb's spirits quailed further when Iggy wouldn't look in his direction.

"I'll get you something," he said. It was only after he'd risen that he thought leaving the two alone, even if he was only going several feet away to fetch a bottle of water, might not be such a good (or safe) idea. Luckily, Jacob came back at that moment and plopped himself down on Iggy's other side.

"You can have more if you want," Jacob offered the boy. "If you're really hungry, you…"

Iggy was up and hurrying toward the food with an unnerving sense of direction before Jacob had even finished his sentence. Jeb flicked a quick gaze to Ari—glaring at Iggy as if he wished he would burst into flame, as usual—before making his way to the cooler to get a water bottle.

By the time he got back to the table, Iggy had already beaten him there and was working on his stack of bacon. Jeb handed him the water bottle, which was popped open and half empty in the space of a few short seconds, and sat down on the boy's free side. For a while, chewing was the only sound in the entire room.

Until Jeb realized that Ari hadn't touched his food, and was still scowling at Iggy as if wishing him a slow and painful death.

"Ari, you should start eating before someone comes in," he said. "If we're discovered, we'll all be in trouble. The only ones allowed in here are nor—"

Ari's head snapped in his direction so fast Jeb was surprised the mutant didn't get whiplash. Jacob had dropped his fork and even Iggy had stopped eating, his fork poised halfway between his mouth and the plate.

Ari's voice was dangerously quiet when he spoke. "The only ones allowed in here are what, Jeb?"

Jeb closed his eyes. Why could he never get things right with this child?

I'm a terrible father…if ever there was a place in hell for being a horrible father, it'd be where I'm headed…

"I didn't mean," he started, and faltered. "Ari, you know I didn't—"

"What, Jeb? Didn't mean what? That only normal people are allowed in here?"

Dead silence. It couldn't have been quieter if they had all stopped breathing.

"Well," said Iggy with a nervous smile, "I think I should just…"

"Shut up," Ari snapped at him before rounding back on Jeb. "Isn't that what you meant, Daddy? That I'm not normal? That I'm a freak, just like him?"

He jabbed at Iggy with his knife, and Jeb was suddenly thankful that the winged mutant was blind—he wouldn't have wanted him to see the ugly hatred on Ari's face when he was mentioned.

"That's not what I said," Jeb quickly intervened. "And you're not a freak."

"Aren't I?" Ari was on his feet and red-faced now, his huge muscles trembling with restrained fury. "What am I, then? Look at me! Look at me, Father! Look at what you let them do to me!"

Jeb was looking. And behind the grotesquely bulging muscles, beyond the eyes tinted red with fury and the snarling teeth, all he saw was a hurt little boy, lashing out as he only knew how.

His son's words rang endlessly in his head.

Look at what you let them do to me!

"Um." Iggy was already sliding away from the table and the tension that Jeb could almost taste. "I realize this is a really awkward family moment and all, so I think I'll just head back to my cage and…"

He had barely taken one step before Ari lunged forward and lifted him off the floor by the front of his shirt. Jeb jumped to his feet with a shout.


"What do you think you're doing?" Ari hissed into the smaller mutant's face. "I can see right through your little game, freak. Stop messing with my father!"

"What?" The pull of his shirt against his neck must have been painful, but Iggy still had the nerve to form a retort. "I'm not trying to do anything with Jeb! He's the one who won't leave me alone."

"Ari, set him down," Jeb said in as placating a tone he could manage. He walked forward with slow, careful movements, leery of upsetting the hulking mutant.

Ari speared him with a furious glare that nearly knocked Jeb over with all the hatred he saw behind it. "Ari," he said slowly. "Let…him…down."

His son snorted and let Iggy fall to the floor with a heavy thud. Before anyone could react, he had given his father one last glower and stalked out of the room.

Iggy stared up at Jeb from the floor and mouthed, "Wow."

Jeb buried his hands in his hair. "Get up," he told Iggy tiredly. "You need your rest."

We all do.

A/N: Told you there'd be emotions. Emotions galore.

Mistakes? Comments? Review?


4. Call it Conditioning

I am late. I'm sorry, but this week and last were horrible, and I couldn't find any time to write. Now teachers are letting up a little in sympathy, so I had a little time to get back to Iggy and Jeb and their wonderful world of experimentation and family drama. ;)

I do want to thank everyone who reviewed, though. -gives hugs and free Iggy plushies- Use them well. Or not so well. Whatever fits your fancy. ;P

Disclaimer: I don't own Maximum Ride, and therefore I do not own any of its characters, and that must mean I own neither Jeb nor Iggy. Ah...logic!

Bit of Fax in the opening scene, but only because it's canon. pandorad24, simongirl, review replies are at the end.


Chapter Four: Call it Conditioning

It was dark out, darker and colder than she had expected. Misery weighed down on her shoulders and added an empty chill that even the freezing night air couldn't match. Huddled against the grimy wall of a safely shadowed alley, Max was so absorbed in her dark thoughts that she jumped when the piercing headlights of a car passed by.

Geez, she thought, wrapping her arms around herself in a vain effort to keep warm. When did I get so jumpy?

"Go to sleep, Max."

She turned her head to frown at Fang. Angel and Gazzy had curled in against him, and Nudge leaned on his other side. All three mutants had plunged beneath the surface of sleep more than an hour ago; all three were so exhausted that the last time she'd tried to wake them, she'd had to shake them by the shoulders.

"Can't," she said thickly. "Not tired."

Fang raised his eyebrows at her and said nothing, but his silence said everything he didn't. Max rolled her head against the wall and groaned.

"Alright," she croaked. "I'm exhausted. But I can't sleep. It was probably that day-old burger I picked out of the dumpster."

She gave a half-hearted laugh at her own joke and winced when Fang, as usual, saw right through her and didn't react.

"Alright," she sighed, "it's Iggy. We just got the whole flock together again. We had Angel, we were on our way to finally find a safe spot, everything was gonna be fine…and then…he's gone. Just like that."

Fang kept quiet, waiting for her to spill the thoughts she'd kept pinned inside her for the past two days. She licked her dry lips and let her gaze wander over the younger children. What was going to happen now? She'd already shown that she couldn't keep them together when the Erasers came; Angel had been kidnapped, and just as soon as they'd gotten her back, Iggy was taken.

"We have no idea where he is," she whispered harshly, feeling the beginnings of hot anger starting to spark up like a fire she had no intention of controlling. "At least with Angel we knew they'd take her to the School—we weren't even out of California when they took Iggy. And he wasn't at the School when we went to break him out."

Max clenched her fists. Her teeth grated against each other in barely-controlled frustration. "So where is he?"

Fang reached out and gripped her fingers tightly. His hands were as filthy as hers, but she was used to being dirty. Only when Jeb had been around had they ever been clean. But she couldn't think about that, either; thinking about Jeb made her so angry she couldn't think straight.

"We'll find him," Fang said firmly. There was no question in his voice, and his determination made her strong. "Whatever it takes, however long it takes, we're going to find him. We will find him, Max."

Max nodded. When the children were asleep and there was no one to see her, no one but Fang, she could let herself give in to her uncertainty and fear.

Could, she thought, glaring at a car as it blared past. That doesn't mean I will. Ever. We're gonna find you, Iggy.

And when they did find them, she was going to make his kidnappers cry.

"Right," said Iggy, and lifted his arms. "Remind me what this is supposed to do."

"That…" Jeb stuck the last electrode carefully to Iggy's exposed chest and sat back to observe his handiwork. "Would be telling."

"I'm going to find out anyway. You could just make my life a little easier and side with me for once, you know."

Iggy could practically feel the older man studying him. "I can't tell you," Jeb said, "because I myself am not completely sure of what these will do."

Iggy frowned and poked suspiciously at an electrode stuck to his forehead. "Aren't they supposed to monitor my breathing and stuff? They've never put them on my forehead before. Or the back of my neck."

"These are different."

"Different how?"

Jeb didn't reply. Iggy could hear his footsteps moving back toward the door of the training room and scowled after him, wishing—not for the first time—that he could see the man's expression. He heard the glass sliding door that separated the training room from the observatory deck snick shut and knew the experiment was about to start.

Now it was just him and a room full of twisting, hard-angled walls he was somehow supposed to navigate…blind, of course.

He'd been woken up that morning by Jeb and was dragged down to a training room to begin the official experimentation. Stark had come, said a few words, and left. Then Jeb had stuck cold electrodes all over his head and chest and told him that he would be trying to work his way through a maze.

Okay. Hadn't he done this before? Wasn't this the whitecoats' favorite routine?

"What's the point of all this?" he shouted.

Jeb's voice was broadcasted across the cavernous room. "Just to see how the new equipment works out. Call it…conditioning."

Iggy frowned, confused, but before he could ask his questions a blaring alarm exploded in his ears. He jumped in surprise.

"Go!" Jeb shouted. "That's the signal!"

Iggy took off. He guided himself by running one hand along the wall beside him and keeping one stretched out in front of him to avoid crashing. His head pounded with blood and the strain of intense concentration as his bare feet crashed against the polished floor.

Keep running. Don't stop moving. If you do, they'll shock you until your hair starts to smoke. Keep moving.

He'd run mazes before, but the experience didn't help him in new traps any more than it did in the outside world. Despite his efforts to memorize how many steps and turns he had taken, he had to stop and backtrack two times before he started to feel confident. Even those brief stops had encouraged the whitecoats to electrocute him; he'd felt his hair starting to stand up and had immediately started running again.

Iggy was starting to run out of breath by the time he finally found the end to the maze. He stopped to catch his breath; he knew the whitecoats wouldn't stop until he was falling over with weariness.

"An adequate time," a bland voice said. "But not as good as you promised, Batchelder."

"He'll do better in following trials," Jeb countered. "Iggy."

Iggy had immediately straightened as soon as he'd heard Stark's glacial, emotionless voice. He stared at the blackness that he knew was Jeb's face and kept his own expression carefully inscrutable. Just because Jeb had defended him from Ari the day before didn't mean he had forgiven his former father in the slightest.

I'm still not playing along with you, he thought rebelliously. I won't play whatever game you're setting up.

Judging by Jeb's sigh, he already knew the general direction of Iggy's thoughts. "Right. Run it again," he said.

Iggy set his jaw and stiffly turned away, into the mouth of the maze. He prepared himself for a long day of running the same course over and over again while twisted scientists watched and criticized.

For the first part of his second time through the maze, Iggy's expectations were met. He remembered his way through the first minute or so, and after that was lost. At the risk of being electrocuted, he stopped and probed the back of his neck. Something had been bothering him ever since he had first set step in the maze. A single spot at the base of his neck was tingling ominously, a fact he didn't like at all. Had the whitecoats implanted something in him while he was asleep? No…they couldn't have. He would have felt it. Even if they had injected him with something to make him sleep, he would have heard them come in…

"Subject is aware," a voice announced over the intercom. Iggy jumped and whirled around, startled. Aware? Aware of what?

"Initiate experimental phase," Stark's voice commanded.

Iggy backed up warily. "What—?"

The floor fell away beneath his feet. Iggy reeled in shock, feeling himself stumble and reach out with wildly waving arms for something to catch himself. He fell against a wall and curled his arms over his head, bracing for impact…

But he wasn't falling. The ground was gone beneath him, but he wasn't going anywhere.

Iggy lowered his arms from his head, gasping in confusion. The tingling in the back of his neck had erupted into a full-scale buzzing that ate its way along his spine and filled his head with white noise. His head felt too heavy for his body, his feet numb, and his arms and legs were loose and felt like they were different parts of him entirely.

Electricity jolted through his frame. Iggy was caught by surprise and howled in pain. He couldn't think through the buzzing in the head or the numbness in his limbs…emptiness stretched endlessly beneath him, but he knew the ground was there because he wasn't falling.

His body jerked with electricity three more times before he finally managed to string together a coherent thought.

They want me to run, he realized. They want me to run like this.

"I can't!" He clutched at his head and wasn't surprised to find that he couldn't even feel his own hands. "Stop!"

The next electric shock knocked him to his numb knees and ran long enough to tell him that they wouldn't stop even if he begged them to. Iggy stumbled to his feet, tried to take a step, and careened into the wall. He pushed himself away and nearly fell over. Nausea rose in his stomach.

Keep moving, he reminded himself. Keep running. Whatever you do, don't stop.

Iggy ran like a drunken man until time stopped running with him. He had lost track of how many turns and stops he'd made and was just stumbling around, running blindly into walls and tripping over himself, hoping that he would find the exit before his mind and body gave out on him and he collapsed.

He knew he had made it through when he fell and didn't crash into another wall. There was still no floor beneath him; there was a pulling sensation in his stomach and he knew he should be falling, but he wasn't. It was like he was suspended in mid-air. The ebony-drenched world swirled and his mind and stomach rebelled. He dry retched.

"Excellent," someone was saying over the humming in his head. "Terminate the experiment."

And suddenly, the world was back again.

Iggy was too dizzy and disoriented to realize that his head had stopped buzzing and that he could feel the floor beneath him again. He fisted his hands in his hair as he fought down the bile rising in the back of his throat. The pain of his fingernails digging into his head wound brought him back to his senses with a sharp jolt.

For a long time, Iggy lay curled in on himself, gasping and getting used to the feel of having his arms and legs again. His entire body hurt from all the times he'd run into a wall or fallen onto his face; without his balance, without anything, he hadn't been able to catch himself.

"Congratulations, Batchelder," Stark said. "You have convinced me of the merit of keeping this subject alive."

Iggy gritted his teeth and glared hatefully into the space where Stark's head should have been. "What did you do to me?" he hissed.

Stark ignored him. "Clean it up," he told Jeb. "I want to see it run again."

Iggy sucked in a breath. Again? He couldn't do that again—it was by pure, dumb luck that he'd managed to make it out of the maze with the barest amount of control over his own body! He couldn't do it again; he would go in and never come out. He would be sick.

"J-Jeb," he gasped, and turned his sightless gaze on the man. "Don't…"

There was a long, dead moment of silence. Iggy felt himself despairing the longer Jeb kept quiet and withdrew into himself, closing off his weakness and desperation from the world. Jeb wouldn't save him. He couldn't even overcome his fear to help his own children.

"I…" Jeb cleared his throat. Iggy could hear the man's voice tremble when he spoke, though he couldn't tell if it was because he was disturbed by what he'd seen or by what he was about to say.

"I believe it would be unwise to have him run immediately after the first time," Jeb finally said. His words were rushed together, as if he was afraid to simply utter them. "I suspect that it was by chance that he made it out of the maze the first time. He is not so strong that he would accomplish this feat a second time."

Iggy was so relieved he barely felt the sting from Jeb's words. He waited, still sprawled limply on the floor, as Stark's silence began to grow heavier and heavier with each second.

"I want it to run again," Stark said slowly. Iggy's stomach tightened in fear; suspicion fairly dripped from the man's words.

He did not have to see to know that Jeb was abandoning him. His father wouldn't help him—not with his own life at stake.

Iggy clenched his fist. You coward.

Jeb started to speak, his voice heavy. Before he could form a single word, the intercom buzzed and a whitecoat's voice cut through the other man's reply.

"Doctor Stark? You're needed down in operation room 2117."

Stark let out an irritated growl. "Now?"

The whitecoat's voice turned into an apologetic squeak. "Uh…now, sir."

Cloth rustled as Stark whirled on Jeb. "Continue with the experiment. If I do not receive extensive results by the end of this day, I will terminate this project."

He didn't wait for a reply. His angry steps retreated and the glass door hissed shut behind him, leaving Jeb and Iggy alone in the training room.

Jeb knelt and pressed a cool hand to Iggy's forehead. "How are you feeling?"

"How do you think I'm feeling?" Iggy retorted as he struggled into a sitting position. He was still furious with Jeb for nearly leaving him to Stark's nonexistent mercy.

"I'm sorry," Jeb said. Iggy paused and stared outright.

"I had no idea…" Jeb stopped and took in another deep breath before continuing. "I had no idea that this was going to happen. I knew they had been planning something for the flock, but…never something of this magnitude."

Iggy's heart skipped a beat. They were going to do this to the flock. To Max and Fang and Nudge—to Gazzy and tiny Angel.

"Wh…what do you mean?" he asked shakily. "What did they do to me?"

Jeb swallowed loudly. "I don't know how they did it, but…I've overheard some people talking. They say that this…this project they are working on robs the subject of its balance and basic motor functions. Sight, hearing, sense of direction and control over your own arms and legs—it takes everything from you. Makes you easier to hunt. Easier to catch."

"Easier to kill," Iggy concluded grimly. Suddenly aware that they might be monitored, he leaned forward and whispered urgently under his breath, "They're going to use this against the flock. Against Max."

His words found their target. Jeb said harshly, "That is why I am telling you this. In case they come to find you, you must inform the flock of this plan. Too much relies on Max to have her face this."

Iggy drew back in disgust. "You're not going to help us. You're going to leave us on our own."

"Iggy, there are things you don't know," Jeb replied desperately. "Things you can't understand. Please. Just listen to me and warn the flock. Whatever happens, this cannot happen to Maximum. Iggy? Iggy, are you listening?"

Iggy sat back and let his face fall into a cold mask. Jeb wasn't going to help him. He was on his own. He was the only one between his flock and this horrible experiment.

"Yeah," he said harshly. "I understand."

"Good." Jeb shifted around awkwardly. "Get some rest—you have a long day ahead of you. I wish I could keep you from feeling the project's effects again, but I can't afford to arouse Stark's suspicion. You have to understand."

Iggy nodded sharply, but he was already letting Jeb's words drop into the background. The flock was searching for him, was probably already on its way here, wherever here was. He had to get out. He had to warn them.

And if Jeb wouldn't help him, then he'd better stay the hell out of his way.

Ari had seen it all from the observatory balcony. He'd come in after Jeb had left to join Stark down in the training room and had chased out the balcony's sole occupant with a predatory glare. Alone, he leaned on the balcony's railing and peered through the glass that separated him from the room. There, he waited to enjoy the show.

At first, it had been entertaining to see the bird-freak staggering around, running face-first into walls. Then, towards the end of half an hour, the mutant still hadn't escaped from the maze and Ari had begun to worry. Oh, he wasn't worried about the bird-freak—the boy's senseless stumbling had been more annoying than anything else after a while. It was knowing that the bird-freak always had a good sense of balance and direction that worried Ari.

He had seen the winged mutant in strange surroundings before, had watched him walk through an area once and memorize where things were without the slightest trouble. It was uncanny. It was weird, scary, and wrong—but most of all, it had never failed. The bird-freak was consistent in his freakiness; it was part of the reason Ari hated him, other than that he was trying to steal his father when he'd already stolen him once before.

So if the whitecoats were willing to do something to one of their special, expensive bird-freaks, something so frightening that it robbed the blind boy of his unwavering sense of direction and balance, what would they do to him, a patchwork, expendable soldier? How long would it take them to figure out that what they had was the perfect threat to an unruly Eraser?

Ari's hair stood on end. All they had to do was activate whatever it was they had, toss him to his fellow wolf-mutants, and he would be dead. He would have no way of fighting back against the Erasers, and he knew that they wouldn't hesitate to rip out the throat of one of their own. The device would be just as effective on a walking subject than one flying high above the ground, where loss of motor control would send a mutant plummeting to a quick and messy death.

It had to be stopped. Ari didn't care if the device was used on the bird-freaks; in fact, he would love to see Max crawling helplessly at his feet. He looked forward to it. But the device was too much of a potential danger to him to allow it to exist.

And when there's a threat, he thought with a grim smile, I won't rest until it's gone.

Down in the training room, Jeb was pressing a concerned hand to Iggy's forehead. Worry and love were written across his face in a disgusting play of emotion that churned Ari's stomach and made him want to retch.

"I'll get you," he promised Iggy hatefully, not caring that the boy couldn't hear him. "As soon as I get rid of whatever the whitecoats have, I'm coming after you."

He watched through a red haze as Iggy leaned close to Jeb and whispered urgently, his eyes wide with dawning trust and false innocence. His attempts to bring Jeb over to his side made Ari clench his hands around the metal railing until he felt his bones would crack with pressure.

"Stay away from my father, you freak," Ari hissed. "He's mine!"

When he finally stepped away and stormed out of the balcony, he left the rail crumpled and dented where he had clutched it. But he didn't notice, and he was too filled with hate and determination to care.

If he doesn't leave my father alone, he promised himself, I'm going to kill him before the whitecoats ever do.

To be continued…

A/N: Aw, Iggy's back to being grim and serious (I think the situation called for it, though - don't know how you can be funny when you're being experimented on by people who want to kill you and your family...hmm), our favorite wolf-mutant is being a sadistic and possessive!Ari again, and Jeb is going "Maximum-savior-of-the-world!!" once more. Hmm. I didn't like it when he did that in the book, and I don't like it here either, but it's what he does...and don't worry, I'm about to break that annoying habit of his. Heh heh heh.

Many of you want some Ari-bashing courtesy of Iggy. Well. I have a feeling it's coming up soon. All you have to do is click that little green button that says "review"...I need to get better at subtlety. Badly.

And there is a teeny tiny Star Wars reference in the chappie. Only a die-hard fan who's watched the third movie WAY too many times (me) can pick it out...but it's up for the challenge if any of you want to take it. ;) (Hint: Obi-Wan says it to R-2!) Yes, I'm a dork. Your point?

pandorad24: Thank you! I hated that the book completely ignored the whole situation with Jeb and Ari, and I also disliked Patterson overlooking Jeb's interaction with anyone other than Max, so I decided to write a story about it. With some explosions and whitecoats and Erasers thrown in, of course.

simongirl: Well, it is shorter than saying the whole thing. Plus, it's catchy, and I'm sure every Iggy fan has called him a blind pyro or something along those lines sometime.


5. Bridging Mountains

Sorry I'm so late, but I'm not about to give you a giant paragraph on why I'm a week behind schedule. Just busy and a bit of writer's block, but I've cured that. :)

Thanks for the reviews! I'm amazed at how consistent and loyal you guys are with commenting -- I have to admit, without your responses, I probably wouldn't have made myself slough through this chapter. Your reviews really do work! They're great incentive to keep working hard on this story. So keep it up! :D

Disclaimer: I don't own Maximum Ride or its plot, characters, or wonderful blind pyromaniac. I'm only borrowing.



Chapter Five: Bridging Mountains

Ari was avoiding him. Jeb didn't notice it at first, so busy was he with investigating the whitecoats' means of experimenting on Iggy, but he started to pay attention after he walked into a room and his son immediately walked right out. He was used to being the focus of a hundred mixed, angry signals from Ari, but his son had never blatantly gone out of his way to avoid him.

What made it worse was knowing that he, Jeb, was completely at fault.

He couldn't explain his reasons for neglecting his son without feeling crushed between vague guilt and firm resolve. The world's future weighed down on his shoulders like Atlas's great burden; over the years, he had become so involved in planning out the flock's next obstacle and fending off the School's innumerable attempts to kill the winged mutants, that he'd forgotten his son. Somewhere in the middle, Ari had just gotten…lost. It was the only way he knew how to explain it.

It's not my fault, he thought desperately as Ari passed him silently in the lifeless halls. Too much rides on everything else. He's going to have to grow up on his own.

He's only seven years old, a nagging voice admonished him in the back of his mind. How can you expect him to raise himself in the middle of all these mutants and murderers?

I'll make it up to him later, Jeb promised himself, taking refuge behind the familiar, comfortable excuse he'd used to console himself for the past seven years. I'll be a good father. I'll be supportive, loving, patient. But not now. Now…I have work to do.

More work than ever, especially with this new and frightening development. No matter what he seemed to do, all of his colleagues somehow managed to avoid talking about the new flock experiment. He'd caught several people in the midst of a related conversation, but as soon as he entered the area they quickly changed topics or moved away.

"Wonderful," he muttered to himself as he and Jacob walked down one of the hallways toward Iggy's containment room. "Now everyone is avoiding me." And I wonder who put them up to it. If I wasn't sure that Stark was suspicious before, I am now. There's no possible way he'll let me in on anything to do with how the experiment works.

"I'm not," Jacob said.

Distracted from his grim thoughts, Jeb glanced up from the floor at his friend. "Hmm?"

"I said, I'm not avoiding you."

Jeb gave the other man a small smile. "No, you're not. Thank you."

Jacob beamed. "Oh, you're welcome. Besides, being around you is entertaining. Interesting things are always happening."

"I'd rather have things settle down for a while," Jeb confessed as he watched the polished hallway floor pass beneath his feet. "I suppose…sometimes, things can get a little too interesting."

Jacob was quiet until they were only several feet away from the room Iggy was kept in. "I'm going to come along for the ride today," he said. Jeb stopped in the hallway and gave him a curious frown. "I mean, I'm going to come with you and Iggy for today's experiment. After seeing what he looked like when you were done with him yesterday, I'm not sure I want to leave him to your mercy."

He cracked a wry smile at his own joke and slipped his hands casually into his pockets. "I have my gauze and the antibiotics in here, don't worry. Oh, and a couple of vitamins and some apples. It took a couple tries, and there were some close calls where people became a bit too curious about why I was asking for all of these things—I just said I'd pulled another all-nighter…people here can be so paranoid—but I got everything. Iggy should feel better by tomorrow, if there aren't any more problems."

Jeb stared at Jacob in silence for so long that the other man's smile faltered and he began to shift uneasily on his feet.

"What?" he asked with an uncertain smirk. "Hey! Earth to Jebidiah. Come in, Je—"

"What are you doing here, Jacob?"

Jacob jumped and stared at him with wide eyes that shone in his head like the drachmas used to bargain a path across the River Styx. "What do you mean? They offered to hire me, I needed the money so I took the job—"

Jeb waved his hand impatiently. "No, no. I meant, why are you here? Why aren't you with your family, reading bedtime stories to your children or kissing your wife goodnight? You're not like anyone here. You're a better man than any of us, myself included. What are you doing with ruthless, money-loving psychopaths like us? Isn't there somewhere else you're supposed to be?"

To Jeb's surprise, the other man's eyes darkened and his shoulders drooped, as if Jeb had just draped a blanket of crushing iron across his back. "Of course there is," Jacob said quietly. He looked up at Jeb from under lowered brows. "Do you really want to know why?"

Jeb merely nodded, wondering silently if he had gotten himself in over his head again.

Jacob took in a strengthening breath before casting a quick look around to see if anyone was listening. No one was; except for them, the hallway was completely empty.

"You remember I told you about my son, Caleb? Football star, good grades—not the best, but good enough—underclassman in a great college. Good kid. He had the best heart I'd ever seen in a kid his age."

Jacob's eyes misted over for a moment. Jeb was already holding his breath, waiting for the tragedy he knew was bound to follow. A man like him didn't live life, encounter happiness, and not expect something to come and take it all away. Life was too cruel, too ill tempered and envious to allow someone his peace and joy.

Jeb's fears weren't disappointed.

"Night of his nineteenth birthday, he and some friends were out partying and drinking…I thought I'd taught him better, I really did. I thought I'd taught him how dangerous that can be. But he went and did it anyway, and while he and his friends were out, they ran into a boy they didn't like. Caleb talked about him once…his name was Tony Gerald. Rumor had it that he'd been hanging around Caleb's girlfriend too much for his liking, and, well, Caleb was drunk and thought it might be a fun idea to rough up the kid as a birthday present to himself."

Jacob stared solidly at the floor in front of him, his gaze firm and unwavering, but his voice trembled when he spoke his next words.

"He killed him. My son killed someone else's son. He was too rough on the kid, drunk with his friends cheering him on, and he forgot to stop…or that's what he had to say in his defense. But it was too late. It didn't matter if he didn't mean to kill the boy or not, the fact remained that he was…that he'd murdered someone. And not just someone. Not just anyone's child."

Jacob sucked in a loud, painful breath. "Tony's father was a whitecoat, Jeb."

A low, jerking chuckle started in the man's throat and spilled out of his mouth in twitching folds. Jeb felt nauseated. He had an idea of what happened next, but he couldn't come up with the words his friend needed.

"What a coincidence, huh?" Jacob shook his head and raised a shivering hand to wipe harshly at his eyes. "You know, they say there's no such thing as coincidence, but there's no way God or whatever being's out there could be cruel enough to set my son up like that. I can't believe that. But…coincidence is still reality, and the reality was that my son was nineteen and about to be tried as an adult for second-degree murder. Murder, Jeb. Do you know what that can do to a man, to a man's father? I would have given anything to save my son, I-I would have taken anything to save him."

He paused. "I used to be a doctor. Whitecoat Gerald's story was leaked up to his superiors, but it wasn't his son they were interested in. It was mine—or rather, how they could use him to get to me. Because if there's one thing the whitecoats don't excel in, it's healing. It's taking care of people, putting their test subjects back together once they've broken them. Everyone here joins because they want to poke and prod and pull people apart, but never because they want to fix someone. I did. I do. And the whitecoats knew that.

"Maybe I'm—no, I know I'm selfish. I'm the most selfish man alive. But I couldn't see my son behind bars, Jeb, I just couldn't. So I took up the deal. I signed the contract. My employment to Itex in exchange for a complete and thorough cover-up of Tony's murder. Itex is in the government—it had the means to make someone disappear forever. So my son gets to go free, live his life, get a second chance. I'm stuck here, but…all I need to know is that he's alright. That's all I need."

The silence was the kind Jeb was most familiar with. It rushed in like a raging flood, roaring in his ears till he feared he would go deaf. It filled in the gap left behind by the end of Jacob's story, the absence of empty reassurances that Jeb couldn't give, the sacrifice of one man's future for another's. Jacob cleared his throat roughly and lifted his reddened eyes to Jeb's, and in his gaze was a fierce and steadfast determination that Jeb had never seen in him before.

"I lost my son, Jebidiah. That doesn't mean you have to lose yours. Either of them. And that's why I'm going to fight for them, for you and your sons, to make sure these whitecoats never get to take them away from you. Don't tell me you're not attached to them. I see it when you look at them, at both of them. I know that look. And don't tell me it's not my place. That's all I've ever heard since I came here, and I don't need to hear it from you."

Jeb finally stirred from the near-comatose state Jacob's story had plunged him into. Straightening his shoulders, he offered his friend a small, shaky smile. "I never said I would. Thank you."

Thank you, even if I myself don't know what to do, even if I don't know if I can help Iggy find his way back to his flock…and that's what scares me.

Jacob had been willing to sacrifice his freedom for his son.

Was Jeb?

Jeb shivered and moved briskly to open Iggy's door. "Come. We should…we have work to do."

Jacob's only reply was a taut smile, but it said everything in their world of ice and cruelty and lost people with only each other to hold on to.

Barely fifteen minutes later, Jeb's head was trying to kill him. He groaned and pressed his fingers deep into his temples as Iggy chattered on, oblivious to his pain.

"I'm telling you," the boy said warningly. "I can't fly in here. It's too cramped. Even if your psycho-buddies weren't using me as a guinea pig for their new experiment, I'd have trouble judging distance and everything. Keep me in here and all you'll get is the imprint of my face on the wall."

He paused and pretended to look around at the blank walls of the training room. "Well, now that I think of it, that would probably freshen up the place. Who's your decorator? He sucks."

Jeb let out an explosive sigh. Behind him, Jacob was chuckling quietly to himself. Jeb shook his head wearily and waved a hand at his friend. "Jacob, just…quiet. Not you too."

"You can't do that," Iggy protested. "Whatever happened to freedom of speech?"

"Itex isn't a democracy," Jeb grumbled. He started to say something else—he wasn't sure what, to tell the truth; Iggy's endless comments were starting to run all his thoughts together in one meaningless mush—when something in Iggy's demeanor made him hesitate. A sly thought starting to form in his head, he studied the boy. Iggy still looked pale and haunted by the mental torture he'd undergone the day before, but he was disturbingly energetic for someone who was about to face the same torture again. In the air.

Maybe it was the vitamins, Jeb mused. Jacob did promise they were the strongest and fastest-acting ones he could find…

No, that wasn't it…or if it was, it wasn't everything. He was missing something. Something important…

"You seem very…energetic today," he commented neutrally. Iggy picked up on his tone immediately; Jeb could tell by the way he leaned forward just the slightest degree, his sightless eyes nearly glowing with concentration. It reminded him of his days back with the flock, when he told horror stories on Halloween night…Iggy and Gazzy had always been his most avid listeners, giving out twin cries of "awesome!" when the others would be flinching away with fear and disgust…

No, no. Jeb shook himself free of the nostalgia of the past and forced himself back to the present. No time for those memories now. Concentrate.

"Well," Iggy said carefully, "yesterday was yesterday, and today's…well, duh, today. But…you never know what a new day will bring."

That's it! Jeb narrowed his eyes and eyed the tall boy suspiciously. He's up to something.

"Maybe the boy's right, Jebidiah." Jacob walked up to his side and raised his eyebrows meaningfully. "The training room is big enough, but if he's going to be flying blind—er, sorry—if he's gonna fly without any sense of control or navigation, you may as well put him in a larger area to better observe the flight patterns."

The medic focused intently on Iggy's expression. "Perhaps…the docking bay?"

Iggy's lips twitched up in a sign that Jeb recognized as his attempt to control a grin wide and full enough to put the Cheshire cat's to shame.
"Wouldn't want to screw up the results," the mutant said, much too innocently.

Watch yourself! Jeb felt like shouting. We are being watched, you know, even if they can't hear us.

Both Jacob and Iggy were looking to him for a response. Jeb hesitated and fought to regain his senses. He wasn't entirely sure what was happening, but he was fairly certain that Iggy was, in some vague, too-obvious way that was sure to have them both killed, asking for his help in whatever plan he'd cooked up.

Quickly, Jeb, quickly, he thought to himself. Make a decision! Help him or not…he's going to try his plan out eventually.

On the one hand, he didn't want to endanger himself or Iggy (the winged boy still had to get out and warn the flock about the new threat) by helping in whatever half-thought-out, insane plan the mutant had come up with. On the other hand, he needed Iggy's trust more than anything if he was to earn back Maximum's loyalty. If he didn't take this opportunity to win Iggy over, he might never get another.

It's like bridging mountains, he thought with a steadying breath. One plank, one step at a time…

He closed his eyes and took the plunge.

"The docking bay does sound preferable in this situation."

Iggy didn't need to say it—the word, his sentiment, was written all over his face: awesome.

Thanks, Jeb.

Even if it was only imagined, Jeb heard the thanks clear as the notes from Hermes's lyre. He only hoped it was worth it.

Down to the gargantuan docking bay went the two whitecoats and the winged boy, the older two on either side of the younger. A team of supervisors, led by Anne Chen, the same woman who had alerted Jeb to Iggy's capture, clung to their every step like shadows. Stark had appointed them as controllers of the new experiment, but not even their presence could daunt Iggy. Only someone who had known him for a long time would be able to see the bounce in his step or the peculiar, eager light that lit up his blind eyes.

Oh, yes, he was definitely planning something.

Inwardly, Jeb was violently praying that Stark would not go down to the training room to check up on their progress. He had an excuse, but he couldn't afford any more suspicion from his superior, and Stark was nothing if not paranoid.

The docking bay was relatively empty. Most of the helicopters were gone, leading Jeb to think that they had been taken out to capture more unfortunate souls to use as test subjects. Several mechanics tinkered with helicopters here and there, working with the pilots to ensure that their aircrafts were working properly. Two Erasers stood by stiffly, looking bored out of their thick skulls.

"Batchelder," Anne said to catch Jeb's attention. "We need to wire the subject to the electrodes."

Iggy's happy glow finally started to dim, but Jeb noticed that the boy looked no less determined than he had before. In fact, he looked even more focused now. A shudder went down his back. This was not going to be pretty.

"Yes, ah…I'll do it." He took the electrodes from the woman's waiting hands and drew Iggy a little distance away. Jacob stayed behind and distracted the supervisors with inane chatter on the experiment that would follow. Silently, Jeb sent up a silent thank-you for his friend.

He could feel the people in the docking bay watching curiously, now. They would have to be very, very careful. Keeping his face conspicuously void of any emotion, he peeled off an electrode and smoothed it over Iggy's temple.

"What are you up to?" he hissed under his breath.

"Just trying to do what you told me," Iggy muttered back. Jeb picked up another electrode and stuck it to the boy's other temple.

"Would you mind reminding me what that is?"

"It's not something I can just blurt out in a second." Iggy twitched when Jeb reached for the hem of his shirt. "Can you…put them under it? I think I'm going to need this."

Jeb raised his eyebrows, but set himself to work slipping the electrodes under Iggy's stained, tattered shirt. "You're trying to escape."

"Wow," said Iggy. "You really are smart—ow! If you're gonna move an electrode somewhere else, be gentle! I think you took off a piece of my skin with that one."

"That's the least of our concerns right now." Jeb pressed an electrode over Iggy's heart with a little more force than he needed to, but he was growing frustrated. The boy wasn't listening to him. He had never been good at listening, and he wasn't trying to change that, not even now that it was more important than ever that he listen to someone wiser than him.

"You know, one day, that's going to get you in trouble." The words were out of Jeb's mouth before he could stop them. Iggy gave him a startled, curious look with his striking, sightless eyes.

"What're you—?"

But Jeb had just finished putting on the last electrode and could no longer continue their harried conversation. He straightened his coat and backed away as if repelled by the boy. The supervisors reported directly to Stark; even if Stark didn't buy his act, it was better than not pretending to be detached.

"We're ready," he told them.

The supervisors formed into a thick knot of humans, pushing Jacob out of their midst. "We will begin the experiment momentarily," one man said. "When Ms. Chen give the order, the subject is to engage in fligh—"

Iggy yawned loudly and cracked his neck. "Yeah, yeah. How many words does it take to tell me to fly?"

With that, he kicked off the floor and snapped his wings out. Jeb couldn't help but watch in admiration as the boy went from the ground to almost the docking bay's ceiling in the space of several seconds. Iggy was improving, that was certain, and if he was improving, there was no doubt in his mind that Maximum had improved even more.

The boy was starting to come down for a low swoop when the whitecoats started the real experiment. Jeb watched in sympathy as Iggy went limp mid-air, crashing into the side of a helicopter before scrambling his way back into the air. The experiment went on like that for twenty minutes. Sometimes the supervisors would activate the new tool when Iggy was closer to the ground, sometimes when he was near a wall or parked helicopter. More often they caught him when he was climbing higher into the air, his expression determined and his long wings flapping madly to keep his reeling body aloft.

Jeb recorded the results distractedly, making half-hearted notes at the near-complete lack of control over his body Iggy had when the supervisors activated their cruel tool. Thirty minutes was nearing, and the winged boy was starting to falter more and more. He couldn't take much more strain without a break. Jeb didn't want to call off the experiment for fear of disrupting Iggy's plan, which he was starting to suspect wasn't going to work.

Just when he was about to give up and relieve Iggy with a short break—the boy was currently slouched against a helicopter, breathing hard—the three mechanics who had first been in the docking bay hurried over to the supervisors with the Erasers on their heels. Jeb turned away from Iggy, distracted by the worried expression on one mechanic's countenance.

"Sir, we're going to have to ask you to move your experiment elsewhere."

"Why?" Her elegant face set into a mulish look, Anne stepped forward to stand by Jeb's side. "We're in the middle of an important investigation."

The mechanic blinked and wrung his wrists nervously. "But, ma'am! A fresh load of Erasers is about to come in. We just heard from the radio tower."

Jeb heard Jacob make a choked sound behind him and turned in concern. His friend mouthed silently, Iggy.

Jeb whirled back around. His eyes went immediately to the helicopter Iggy had been leaning against; it was closer to the docking bay's monstrous doors than the others were, so it wasn't difficult to find.

But Iggy had disappeared.

"Alright," Anne was saying. "Batchelder, get your mutant over here so we can hold him while the chopper comes thr—"
She cut herself off with a violent oath when she followed Jeb's gaze and noticed Iggy's absence. Her fingers flew out to point commandingly at the two Erasers standing near by.

"You two! Get out there and bring us back our mutant. And do it now, before the doors open!"

The words had barely finished snapping their way out of her mouth when the doors began to slide open. Jeb heard the oiled hissing of giant gears twisting and turning. The Erasers threw themselves forward with angry snarls, running on all fours as they scoured the docking bay for the missing boy.

Her eyes glinting furiously, Anne whirled on Jeb. "Batchelder!" She spat his name like it was a terrible disease. "Where is that mutant?"

The doors slid completely open and let in a gush of frigid air. Jeb shielded his face from the cold and shouted over the wind, "How should I know? I thought one of yours was watching him!"

Anne stared at him incredulously. Jacob shouted something, but the heavy thud-thud-thud of the approaching helicopter's rotors and the shrieking wind drowned him out. The Erasers had reached the helicopter parked near the doors and were circling it in obvious confusion. They weren't finding Iggy.

Jeb smiled.

Beside him, Anne let out an inarticulate snarl and grabbed a mechanic by the shirt.

"Close the doors!"

He stared at her as if she had just told him to murder Stark. "What? But the helicopter's coming through—if I give the order now, it might be stuck, and we'll lose an entire group of Erasers."

"So what?" Anne drew the man closer until she was fairly spitting in his face. "They're just Erasers. We can buy more of them any time we want. But if this mutant gets out, Stark will eat you alive. And that's after he's done with me, and I'm done with you. Understand?"

The mechanic scrambled to radio in the order to the tower. Jeb's attention was already back to the doors and his missing ward. The Erasers had given up searching and were crouching behind the broad hull of a helicopter for protection from the incoming chopper's merciless winds. The helicopter was already lowering itself into the docking bay when the mechanic's order got through. The doors began to close.

Off in the shadows near the docking doors' left corner, Jeb saw a flash of white and red-copper.

"There it is!" Anne howled at the Erasers. "It's right there, dammit!"

The Erasers couldn't hear her over the helicopter's draft, and Iggy was already at the doors and beginning to unfold his wings. He leaned against the violent wind from the helicopter's beating rotors. Jeb thought he heard the boy laugh.

Anne spat out a foul curse and pulled out a small piece of metal from her pocket. It was a shiny, cylindrical tube no longer than Jeb's hand, and had a blue button glowing at its tip. Anne's thumb was hovering just over it.

Jeb followed her gaze to Iggy just as the boy launched himself forward, sprinting hard against the push of the helicopter's wind. The doors were already sliding shut, threatening to pin both boy and machine between them.

Jeb's gaze flew back to the machine in Anne's hand. In an instant, he knew what it was.

"No, wait!" he reached out a hand and grasped her wrist. "You can't—you'll damage him—"

But Anne had already pushed the button. Jeb whirled back around just in time to see Iggy already in the air and passing close under the incoming helicopter's belly. There was a moment when he and the helicopter were in the same spot, and seemed to hover between the massive doors sliding toward them.

Then Stark's cruel machine activated, and Iggy dropped like a rock. He crashed to the floor past the doors and tumbled toward the edge of the docking bay, a graceless, mindless mess of feathers and limbs.

"Turn it off!" Jeb ordered Anne. She stared at him rebelliously. "Now!"

He was still her superior. Anne nodded and clicked the machine into inactivation. His spirits rising with hope, Jeb turned back to the docking bay's doors.

He was too late. He caught a flash of Iggy's startled expression and his flailing, grasping hands a moment before the boy disappeared over the edge.

With an ominous boom, the doors slid closed.

To be continued...

A/N: Hope you all enjoyed the return of snarky!Iggy and a bit of character development for Jacob and Anne. And I promise to reply to all of your reviews as soon as I have the time.

Comments? You know I lo-ove them...


6. White World

Gah! I am so, so sorry I took so long to get this chapter out - you've no idea how sorry I am. But I have to admit, the drop in reviewers was discouraging, as was a sudden sludge of writer's block that hit me full on every time I tried to write this chapter.

I would like to thank flYegurl, Aleria14 and Ren Black for reviewing. You guys are so great. :)

Disclaimer: I don't own Maximum Ride. I do, however, own a pack of double-stuffed Oreos...quickly diminishing, but it's still there...


Chapter Six: White World

Iggy snapped his wings out to catch the wind. There was a second in which the world stretched endlessly beneath him and his wings were just heavy things dragging him down, and then the wind pushed at his feathers and sent him soaring into the sky.

The boy threw his head back and laughed out loud. God, it felt good to be free. He hadn't felt this kind of exhilaration since he and Gazzy had called the hawks to break the rest of the flock out of the School. Which, now that he thought about it, really wasn't that long ago…but that didn't change how amazing it felt to spread his wings and feel real, freezing, icicle-touched air chasing the warmth from his body.

He'd known that wherever he was being kept, it was cold, but he had never realized just how cold it was outside. The wind felt icy enough to freeze his wings into feathered glaciers and send him plummeting back down to the ground. His cotton shirt and denim jeans did absolutely nothing to protect him from the weather.

Wish I'd had the sense to grab an Eraser fur coat before I left, he thought dryly to himself.

Iggy paused for a moment in the air, trying to decide which direction to fly in. There had been no way to judge which way he'd come when he had been crammed in that helicopter—being drugged and disoriented enough to puke probably hadn't helped—and the only sounds he was getting were the howl of the wind and the shouts of the whitecoats in the radio tower.

Whatever, he thought. I'll just fly and hope I don't end up in the middle of Antarctica.

He blinked—and nearly fell out of the air in shock.

The world was white. Above him the sky was a fuzzy, pale haze, and below and around him he could see craggy edges of white and light gray, with the occasional black splotch. Iggy's mind was reeling, his heart pumping madly, his hands shaking in the freezing air.

He could see.

"Whoa," he muttered, pushing himself higher into the air with a thrust of his shivering wings. "Whoa, whoa, whoa…"

It…it couldn't be happening. He was hallucinating. He was dreaming. He was…he was…

He wasn't blind.

Well, it wasn't entirely the truth. It felt like he was seeing everything through flashback-vision, with no details and everything cast in a weird blurriness, but he could see the majestic forms of mountains rising all around him, the fuzziness of the sky and its billowing clouds, his own wings flapping to keep him afloat and his hands shaking in front of his face.

"I can…see…"

Below him, jutting out of the mountain face like a harsh and sudden nose, was the School. Or what he assumed was the School. It was a massive, blocky gray mass of clear windows and cloudy concrete, with a stout tower rising from one of its corners. Iggy could see a bright light blinking at the apex of the spire and immediately guessed that it was the radio tower. He wasn't too far away from the tower, and if he squinted, he could look through the windows and see blurry white shapes scurrying around in a panic. Whitecoats. No doubt calling in reinforcements to get him back where they wanted him.

Two great doors at the front of the building were pulling back to reveal a deep, gaping hole. Iggy grimaced: it was the docking bay. Already, he could see a gray shape lifting off the slick floor and hovering toward the opening in the wall. Helicopter, he thought vaguely. Damn. They're already onto me.

Well, they were too late. He was in the air and he could see where he was going. He was gone.

Where? A nasty, vicious voice in the back of his head asked. Where will you go?

Why should he wait? Why should he even wait a second to get away from here?

Because he was out in the middle of freaking, freezing nowhere, with not a hint of civilization in sight, and nothing in his stomach but a couple of apples and some vitamins. Because he was battered, shaken and tired, and there was no way he was going to make it if he just threw himself out into the cold and hoped he could find somewhere safe to rest.

Iggy hesitated, doubt gnawing at his anxious mind. Think. Think.

He could hear a steady thrum-thrum-thrum coming up from beneath him and nearly took off at the sight of the helicopter rising toward him—fast.

Filling his lungs with air so cold it felt like it was making his lungs prickle, Iggy spread his wings and flew as fast as he could away from the helicopter. He came close to the radio tower, where a whitecoat was rushing out onto the observatory deck that ringed the spire's apex. The man's coat flapped wildly around him as he hefted something long and dark into his arms.

At that moment a gush of wind from the helicopter's rotors buffeted Iggy to the side. He heard something go bang just before something whizzed by him so close he felt it brush his neck. Arms wind milling and heart jumping, he fought to regain his balance.

The whitecoat had just fired at him! The shot didn't have the right sound to be a bullet, so the whitecoat was probably trying to sedate him, but he didn't care. That was it—no matter how impossible his chances of surviving the frozen mountain range was, he was getting out.

And suddenly, the helicopter was right there.

Iggy gave a surprised squawk and immediately pushed himself higher into the air…right into the whitecoat's path.

Something sharp lodged itself in his neck. His wings went limp, his body folded, and the white world went black.

The man in the black suit needed to go. Well, either that, or they could run again…but Max was tired of running. She was tired of running, only to have someone important taken from her.

No more running.

"Fang," she muttered, and nudged him in the ribs. Hard.

He whirled on her, an irritated scowl flashing like lightning on his serious face, but her expression silenced him before he could complain. He'd seen the black suited man.


She pretended to be absorbed in the study of a smudge of gum on her shoe. "Do you have to ask?"

"Right." He turned and took Angel's elbow to get her attention. The blue-eyed girl blinked and stared up at him. Seeing the look in his dark eyes, she trotted over to Gazzy and Nudge and whispered in their ears.

"Which way do we run?" Fang was already eyeing possible exits. They were in the middle of a busy shopping plaza, where they had stopped to regain their sense of direction before they set off in search of more clues to Iggy's whereabouts. So far, they had nothing. Until now.

"We don't run," replied Max. Fang looked over at her in surprise. "We're going to take them on. One of them has to know where Iggy is."

He nodded silently and ducked down, pretending to tie his shoe while he scanned their surroundings. "Five Erasers, one for each of us. Two to the left, beneath that umbrella stand there, and three on your right."

"Got it." Max started to take a step forward and hesitated. She hated making scenes. It was like raising a red flag in the middle of a crowd and shouting, "I'm here! Come and get me, and don't forget to bring all your friends and their giants guns!"

"Wait." She stood on her tiptoes to see over the heads of the people around her. "Wait." The plaza was definitely not the place to stage a fight. But down a ways from the plot, the street led to a dirtier patch of town, where a chain-link fence and a broken-down train blocked the crowds from a maze of railroad tracks and storage buildings.

"Follow me. We'll jump the train and confront them on the other side of the fence. Act like you don't see them. Act like you're just trying not to get lost in the crowd." With those words of instruction, Max gripped Angel's hand with one hand and Gazzy's with another. Fang and Nudge followed close on their heels, both of them walking with a casual slouch in their shoulders.

Max's heart thrummed excitedly in her chest. She could see the Erasers moving out of the corner of her eye, coming in from both sides to flank them.

I don't think so.

She picked up the pace a little, her shoes slapping against the concrete as she pushed past people who shot irritated glares her way or called her out for bumping into them. Every one of them was ignored. Max could feel adrenaline pulsing through her arteries and veins, filling her head with that hyper-sensitive awareness that she always got before a fight. She wasn't just trying to get away this time. She was trying to get some answers.

Iggy's life was hanging on this.

"Run for the fence when I say so," she said, squeezing the small hands holding hers. "Got it?"

Both Angel and Gazzy nodded. Behind her, Fang and Nudge added, "Got it."

They were away from the crowd and almost to the fence now. Max could see the men in black suits, the Erasers, starting to catch on. They walked faster, and then began to jog.

"Ready," Max whispered. "Ready…go!"

Angel and Gazzy let go of her hands at the same time and sped for the chain-link fence like it was a five-course meal. Fang had passed Max in an instant and leapt for the fence. He dug his fingers between the links, got a foothold, and was in the air and flapping his wings before she had even reached the fence.

"Go!" Max shouted, and threw herself at the fence. Nudge was right beside her, Angel and Gazzy already almost to the top and pushing themselves over. "Go, go! Over the train and hold your ground!"

The Erasers were already abandoning their human forms. She could hear bones and gristle snapping and popping as they morphed, could feel hot dog breath on her ankles. Grunting with effort, Max reached the top of the fence and propelled herself over. Her wings snapped out and she flapped, putting herself out of reach just as a pair of Eraser jaws snapped where her foot had been.

Her flock was in the air and aiming to land on the other side of the broken-down train pressed up against the fence, which provided a momentary obstacle for the Erasers before they hurled themselves over the fence and landed on top of the train.

Max swallowed and dove down, putting solid ground beneath her feet. Behind her, it was as she had expected it to be: dirt stretched in all directions until it was cut off by the backs of office buildings. Railroad tracks crisscrossed beneath their feet, and storage cars decorated the otherwise empty landscape. It was a sudden and startling change of scenery from the gleaming, upscale shops they had just visited.

"This is probably what's behind Hollywood," Gazzy mused.

The Erasers wasted no time leaping from the top of the broken-down train to land in front of the flock. Their fangs gleamed in the harsh sunlight, muscles bulging like tumors.

"Not gonna run?" The Eraser in front asked. He smirked and flashed his incisors threateningly.

Max clenched her fists and got into a defensive position. "From you? Don't make me laugh."

The Erasers hurled themselves at the five mutants. Max ducked, feeling the air whoosh across the back of her neck as the lead Eraser's fist missed its target. In a second she was back up and driving her fist into the Eraser's gut. The Eraser went oof, which was good, because her knuckles felt like they'd been crushed into putty.

"Max!" Angel screamed. An Eraser had knocked her on her back and was raising its heavy, booted foot to deliver the last blow. Max acted quickly. She rolled under and between her Eraser's legs, shot to her feet, and delivered a roundhouse kick to the head of the Eraser threatening Angel. It lurched to the side, yowling, and Max brought her foot up for another judicious kick—this time, right between the eyes.

The Eraser went down like a sack of bricks. A vicious growl was the only warning she had before a fist cuffed her on the side of the face. Max crashed to the ground, her head spinning. She swept out a leg and knocked the Eraser's feet out from under him. Before he could get back to his feet, she had her knees on his chest and was delivering punch after punch to his face.

The Eraser spat out a glob of blood and gripped Max's oncoming fist in a huge claw. His other fist came up and nailed her on the side of the face, sending her rolling off his chest and onto the ground. He was on her in an instant, his meaty hands tight around her throat. Max gagged.

"Max!" Angel screamed.

"It'd be a lot easier if you would just die already," the Eraser growled. Max choked and writhed as the edges of her vision began to go black…

Fang appeared out of nowhere. He kicked the Eraser off of Max and pummeled him in the stomach, barely seeming to notice when the monster managed to land a hit. Max rolled onto her side and gripped her throat, coughing. Angel hurried to her side, her blue eyes huge and round with worry.

"Max? Are you okay?"

Max's throat was too sore to get any words out. She merely nodded in reply, blinked the water from her eyes, and rolled to her knees.

The Eraser Fang was wrestling was the only one still on its feet. The others lay in the dirt in various states of unconsciousness, some of them knocked out cold and others too dizzy or bloodied to even raise themselves on their elbows. Nudge and Gazzy helped Max to her feet.

"I'm fine," she rasped to the questions on their anxious faces.

She turned just in time to see Fang deliver the final blow. The Eraser's head snapped back, his eyes threatening to roll into the back of their sockets.

"Oh, no you don't." Max stepped forward and slapped the Eraser awake. Its bloodshot eyes flew open. For a moment it didn't seem to realize it had lost; and then it spotted its downed partners and let out a hateful growl.

Max grabbed the front of the Eraser's shirt and held her fist close to his nose. "Listen up, dog meat," she spat. "I'm going to ask you some questions, and you're gonna answer them, or I'll pound your face black and blue. Get it?"

The Eraser drew its lips back in a sneer. "Do you think you scare me, little girl?"

Max drove her first into the wolf-mutant's nose. He grabbed his bleeding face and howled before she jerked on his shirt and made him look her in the eye. "No. But I can sure as heck hurt you."

The Eraser positively shook with anger. But he didn't make an attempt to back talk her again.

"Where is my brother?"

"What brother, you—"

"Iggy? Tall, blind, reddish wings and hair? Him? A squad of Erasers took him a couple days ago. Where did they go?"

The Eraser snorted. "How the hell should I know? I'm assigned to the Death Valley squad."

Max blinked. "Wait…there's another School? Which one did they take him to?"

"I told you, I don't know. All I know is that it's not in America. Why don't you go ask a whitecoat who knows?"

Max felt as if she'd been punched in the kidneys. Iggy's not in America?

"Uh, Max?" Gazzy was staring with wide eyes at the sky. "More are coming."

Max's head snapped up. Off in the distance, she could see two helicopters headed their way. Beneath her, the Eraser started to chuckle.

"Alright, we're gone." She jumped to her feet and was surprised when the leaden weight in her chest didn't keep her from flying. Her heart felt heavy enough to drag her down to the ground and under. Far under.

Fang waited until they were high above the ground and far enough away from the helicopters not to worry. He drifted over and brushed the tip of her wing with his.

"We'll find another way. Someone else will know."

Max bit her lip and shook her head. "He's not even in America anymore, Fang. How are we supposed to find him now?"

He didn't have an answer for that, and Max wasn't surprised to find that she hadn't been expecting one.

Jeb was going to be sick with worry.

Overpowering the urge to pace was nearly driving him insane. He ran a hand through his hair distractedly, only slightly startled to find that he was shaking.

Stark was waiting for him behind the door. His boss. The one man who could make him tremble with just a single frown or glare sent in Iggy's direction. Jeb didn't even try to deny his affection for the boy anymore. He had regarded Iggy as a son years ago, had spent countless hours helping him get used to living blind. Try as he might, he couldn't simply wish away the bond that had formed between them. Jeb was a rational, practical man who didn't try to deny reality. He knew he loved the boy.

And when Iggy had escaped, he'd felt torn between joy and worry. His son was lost—free, but lost—in the deadly reaches of the Canadian Rockies. Iggy needed to escape. Staying here ensured nothing but suffering on his behalf…and besides, he needed to get out to warn Maximum of the School's new weapon. But that did not change the danger of the situation.

He had been so worried that he hadn't been able to restrain a jolt of relief when the Erasers brought Iggy back inside and bundled him back into his cage. True, the School wasn't exactly the ideal place to be, but it was warmer than the Rockies any day, and the boy was ensured food and rest here.

No. If Iggy was going to escape, he would need plenty of rest and food and a sense of direction to survive the mountain range. All of which Jeb could give him. He could prepare the boy for what he was about to step into.

But first, he would have to survive Stark's anger…and that was something he couldn't put off any longer.

Raising a hand and sending up a plea to anyone who might be listening, Jeb knocked on the door in front of him.

"Come in," Stark's glacial voice commanded.

Stark's office was as cold and bleak as the rest of the School. His chair, positioned behind a metal desk stacked with neat piles of paper, was the only one made of cloth and comfort. The walls were painted white, except for the one behind Stark's desk. It was constructed of the same thick, hurricane-proof glass that made up the wall leading to the training room.

Stark himself was standing with his back to the glass wall. His arms were folded across his chest, his ice-blue eyes trained on Jeb like the crosshairs of a sniper rifle.

"You let your mutant escape."

Jeb folded his hands behind his back. Stark's every word was laden with condescension and a deep, quiet anger that crackled in the air like forming icicles.

"It was a minor incident, and he is back within the facilities," Jeb countered, sounding much calmer than he felt. "Everything is under control again."

"Is it?" Not a single muscle twitched on Stark's impassive form, but he loomed in the room, a giant on his own territory. "Somehow, I'm beginning to doubt your ability to handle the situation, Batchelder. Maybe you're just a little too close to this experiment."

Jeb's breath stilled in his chest. "Pardon me, sir?"

"Don't play games with me!" Stark leaned forward a fraction of an inch, and Jeb found himself wanting to lean backward a fraction of a mile. "I know your background with these mutants. I know your connection to them. I warned you what would happen if I suspected that you were becoming too close to the mutant. And you failed."


"You have one week."

Jeb's heart leapt up to his throat and caught somewhere in his vocal cords. His mouth opened, but no sound came out. He closed his mouth again. One week wasn't nearly enough time for what he had in mind. He had to earn Iggy's trust again and somehow find a way for him to escape. He couldn't do that in one week.

"After the week is up, I expect to have the full results of the experiment on my desk," Stark said coldly. "Regardless of whether or not you think you have gleaned everything from it, I am giving the mutant to the surgeons." He smirked, showing a flash of perfect white teeth. A chuckle rumbled somewhere in his throat. "They've been asking for a sample of its brain. Who am I to disappoint them?"

Behind his back, Jeb's hands curled into fists.

Stark lifted his chin imperiously and nodded jerkily toward the door. "I've said everything that needed to be said. Leave."

A/N: A minor change in plot, since this is AU: I gave Iggy his "snow-blindness sight" back, like in The Final Warning, but I advanced the time a little. Plot reasons.

Kimsa: Review? Please? I'll give you Stark plushies!

Iggy: I think that'll just scare them away…

Kimsa: But they're adorable…here, have one!

Iggy: Ow! It bit me!

Kimsa: Ooh…better hope you don't get rabies. Well, I probably can't bribe anyone with a Stark plushy, but please review anyway. It motivates me to write better and faster. :)

7. Dysfunction

Wow. You guys out-did yourselves this time. Thank you flYegurl, DigiBleach, blackberry01, blue-eyed-cow, Illucida, wolfdefender01, Megz9339, koko5x and BlueWingedKitty for reviewing! Umm...how many ways can I say thank you before I run out? I think I already have...just know that each of your comments is adored and appreciated. :)

Look at that! A new chapter, right on time! I'd gotten pretty far on this chapter a while ago, was all happy and proud of myself...and then I realized that the chapter was not going where I wanted it to go, and that I was burying myself in a hole. So I re-wrote it, and then re-wrote it again, and now it's finally how I want it to be.

Plenty of Ari in this chapter, but we go back to Iggy in the later part. A very important chapter, methinks, as it sets up practically everything that will happen later on. Just make sure to pay attention to the promises Jeb makes Ari. I can't stress their importance enough.

Disclaimer: You may sue me, but the fact remains that I don't own MR, and all you'll get is what's in my pocketses...uh, lint. Yeeaah.

Chapter Seven: Dysfunction

Ari looked the dying mutant straight in its staring, glass eyes. He was not afraid. He was not going to throw up. And he was definitely not feeling pity for this rotting thing curled up in its cage, its crooked limbs twisted at impossible angles, the uncontrollable twitches leaving its wretched body as it slowly died right in front of him.

It might have been a girl, once, if the structure of the blistered, feline face and the long, thin blond hair were any indication. Now it was just a mistake that made his stomach and—weirdly enough—his chest hurt when he looked at it.

Getting soft, puppy dog? A nasty voice jeered in the back of his mind, but he was relieved that it sounded more like himself and not like the Voice.

No, he thought with a heartless scowl, and forced himself to watch the light leave the girl-mutant's wide brown eyes. For a moment he stayed crouched in front of the cage, one clawed hand bracing his considerable weight against the bars as he stared hard at the corpse's face. Big brown eyes, long blond hair, what might have been a strong physique if its owner hadn't been starved within an inch of death.

The mutant looked a lot like Max.

His stomach heaved, making Ari wince. That was weird. Wasn't he supposed to be excited by the idea of having Max dead, not horrified?

"Dead," he announced gruffly, getting back to his feet to tower over the lifeless mutant's cage. "Get it up and ship it out."

The three Erasers he'd brought with him glared at his brusque command, but he paid them no mind and moved back toward the rolling cart they'd brought to take the mutant away. This was the second time this week that Ari had been saddled with clean-up duty. The process was simple: wait for the mutant to die, pick it up, roll it out, and toss it in the furnace. Nice and easy to remember.

He hated it. Clean-up duty reminded him of when he had been kept in a cage and the Erasers had come in and leered at him, waiting to see if the unnatural grafting of his genes with wolf ones would finally do him in. And sometimes, when he wasn't so completely wrapped up in pretending he didn't care, clean-up duty repulsed him. Sometimes, there was a little voice in the back of his head—not the mean voice, and not the Voice, either—told him this was wrong. It told him that being here, helping the whitecoats throw away mutants that had once been human beings, was really, really wrong.

But that was stupid. Stupid voice in his head. He knew what he was doing. He wasn't scared or disgusted or anything! He was Ari and he was strong, and he would prove it to the world even if it killed him.

"Hyde, quit slacking off!" One of the Erasers barked to his partner. "You're letting your end slip!"

The Eraser, Hyde, only groaned in response and buckled in at the knees. The cage went crashing to the floor with a foul curse from the other Eraser's end. Ari stepped forward, frowning as Hyde slid to the slick floor with a muffled whimper. The downed Eraser twitched once, growled, and went utterly still.

"Damn," cursed the third Eraser, staring at his surviving partner with a wild look in his eyes. "Is that it?"

Ari dropped down to Hyde's prone figure and peered into his empty, staring eyes. A quick scan of the downed Eraser's motionless chest told him everything he needed to know.

"Dead," he grunted for the second time in five minutes. Get him up and ship him out.

"You sure?" The third Eraser said. Ari ignored him and rolled Hyde over, pushing aside the dead Eraser's long, shaggy hair as he studied his neck. Sure enough, emblazoned on the skin in blaring black numbers, was the current date. The same freezing, numbing dread Ari felt whenever he saw the numbers on the back of someone's neck filled his veins.

That was the sixth Eraser down this week. The sudden deaths were growing more and more frequent, happening at the most random times. Ari could just be speaking to an Eraser, and that Eraser would suddenly drop and slump over, dead.

Suddenly, the back of his neck felt cold and clammy. How much time did he have left?

One of the Erasers snickered. Still obviously put-out by Ari's ordering him around, he sneered, "What's that, Ari? Got something on your neck?"

Ari's heart leapt up to his throat in shocking, paralyzing terror. Only when he noticed the Erasers were laughing at him did he realize it had been a cruel joke.

"Shut up!" he snarled, and kicked the rolling cart into the chuckling mutants. They both went down with surprised, angry cries, but he stormed out before they could regain their senses and come after him.

His heart was thumping madly in his chest and his lungs weren't working right. Every one of his hairs was standing on end. Ari dug his claws into the back of his neck, where the numbers would have been. They were just joking, right? Just being mean to him? It wasn't anything unusual; they were always mean to him.

Yet he couldn't shake the leaden feeling of doom that clung to his shoulders. Ari nearly sprinted down the hall, fingers pressed to his neck, his head flicking back and forth. He needed a mirror. Or something! Something to check that they really were lying.

He spotted a whitecoats' bathroom and ignored the warnings his mind automatically put up against entering the human lavatory. The frightened mutant paused for a moment, feeling a panicked whimper build up beneath his tongue, before he pushed past his trepidation and rushed to the nearest mirror.

Ari turned his back to the reflective surface and twisted his neck to the side to get a good look at the hard-to-see spot. His breath left him in an explosive rush when he saw nothing but normal, unmarked skin. He was going to be okay. He wasn't going to die before his eighth birthday.

Turning back around, Ari felt his chest fill with hot, thick anger. Those jerks! He knew the other Erasers hated him for what he was, but this was low, even for them. They knew how terrified he was of death, how hard he had fought, how hard he'd been fighting since he was three years old, not to let the Reaper take him.

He would kill them. He would bash their heads against the wall and run his talons through their faces and never mind what Jeb would say about controlling his temper, he was angry and he really wanted to hurt someone—

Footsteps. Ari's sharp, sensitive ears picked up the sound while the whitecoats were still out in the hall. Fear rose in the back of his throat like bile. If the humans caught him in their bathroom, there was no telling what they would do to him. Erasers were nearly as low as test subjects, in their eyes. To have one sullying their bathroom just by being there would send the humans off the edge.

Ari didn't know what else to do except hide. He slipped into the nearest cubicle and scrambled on top of the toilet before locking the door from the inside. Not a moment too soon, either, because two sets of footsteps pushed through the bathroom door a second later.

"Wait one second," one man said. "The doctor's not going to stick Batchelder's head on a pike?"

Father. Ari bared his teeth on reflex. What had Jeb done now?

"No," the other man replied, his voice partially drowned out by the sound of running water as he turned on the faucet. "I heard he let Batchelder keep the project and everything. They're going to watch him even closer, of course, but he still gets the job."

"That's…generous of Stark." The first man let out a malicious chuckle. "He's up to something, I bet you. There's no way he would let Batchelder off the hook that easily. Just wait, Anders. Jeb Batchelder's in for a nasty surprise a la Stark."

Ari's teeth ground against each other painfully. As if winning Jeb's affection, eliminating Iggy from the picture, and finding a way to get rid of the whitecoats' newest project weren't enough trouble, now he had to protect his distant father from his psychotic, murderous boss and his sneaky plans.

"I don't blame the doctor," the whitecoat named Anders added in. "Batchelder's been sneaking around a lot, asking questions about the Extermination Effect. Practically everyone knows how it works, but Stark warned us against telling Batchelder. He wants to keep him as much in the dark as possible."

"I haven't heard how it works," the other man sulked. Ari's ears perked up, his every nerve lighting up in alertness. He knew that of all the places in the School, the bathrooms were the only place people could speak and not have to fear being monitored. Not even Stark was invasive enough to put cameras in the bathroom. Faced with their only measure of privacy in the entire facility, Ari guessed the whitecoats would finally spill everything they knew.

"It's simple," Anders explained. "Each mutant has a chip wired into the back of its neck. Most of them get it implanted when they're newborns, so there's no way to get it out without severing something important. Activate the chip's trigger and you send signals into the subject's spinal cord and up to the brain. From there, it's all reactions."

Ari felt the back of his neck again. He didn't feel anything strange poking out. Did Erasers have the chip too? Did Ari? He couldn't remember having a chip implanted, but he'd undergone so many operations when he was little that he couldn't be sure.

"The chip we're talking about," the unnamed whitecoat said slowly, "it's the one that kills the mutant, isn't it? The termination chip?"

Ari's heart nearly stopped in his chest. Like a nightmare come back to haunt him, he saw Hyde's limp body lolling on the floor again, the black numbers painfully blatant against his bloodless skin.

A chip implanted by the spinal cord? That was what was killing the Erasers, what would eventually kill Max and her flock and every other mutant the School had sprouted? That was what was going to kill him? A tiny piece of machinery?

Why? Ari wondered, and was frustrated to find that he sounded like a hurt, betrayed little boy. Why would they exterminate us? They created us!

There was no answer to his unspoken question, because at that moment the door to the bathroom creaked open and another set of footsteps entered. The two whitecoats had been speaking in hushed, harried mutters, as if afraid that even in the privacy of the bathroom they would be overheard, but they went dead silent at the new arrival.

"Hello, Anders, Steele," the new person said cordially. Ari jumped at the familiar voice and nearly lost his balance; he had to catch himself against the side of the cubicle to keep from falling. The plastic groaned under his weight, but the whitecoats' greeting drowned the noise out.

"Afternoon, Batchelder," both men said dryly. And without another word, they stalked out of the bathroom, leaving Jeb and Ari alone.

Ari hesitated only once before setting foot on the floor and pushing the cubicle's door open. His father was bracing himself on the bathroom's counter, his coat sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Jeb's normally immaculate hair, and Ari couldn't quite remember seeing so much gray in the brown locks, hung in disarray around his lined face, and his dark eyes stared blankly at the empty space in front of him. Only when Ari shifted did he notice his son's reflection in the bathroom mirror.

"Ari," he said, whirling around. He wrinkled his forehead. "What are you doing here?"

"Eavesdropping." Ari allowed himself a brief wave of satisfaction in seeing the way his father started at his deep drawl.

Jeb's eyes were wary. The boy knew his father was considering asking him what he'd heard, and he was briefly unsure why he'd even admitted that he had heard anything at all.

But this is just what I need, he thought eagerly. This is the perfect reason for him to finally trust me! He needs me now.

Being needed felt good. It was warm like the feeling in his stomach when the whitecoats actually let him eat hot, fresh food instead of the packaged stuff they insisted would help him grow bigger and stronger.

"What did you hear?" Jeb finally asked.

Ari grinned cheekily. "Why should I tell you?"

Frustration stained Jeb's weary, patient face. "Ari, if there's something you know, you need to tell me. This is not a game."

Just like that, the comfortably warm feeling Ari had gotten was gone, replaced by a fierce, violent heat in the bottom of his chest that he recognized as the beginnings of rage. "If you want to save your little bird-freak," he said, his voice dropping to an intimidating drawl, "then you need me. And I don't like being talked to like a kid. Especially since you only seem to care about me when I have something you want."

His father had the decency to look mildly chastised. He lowered his graying head and ran his hands over his worn face before nodding. "Alright, Ari. What do you want?"

Ari beamed. His father was asking him what he wanted! For a long moment he simply basked in the attention Jeb was giving him, a level of interest he hadn't felt from his father in years.

"I want to know what you're up to," he said, "because I can tell you're planning something. You always are. It's just what you do, and I don't think that with one of the freaks in your hands, you would just be following orders like a good whitecoat."

Jeb looked away, confirming Ari's suspicions. "That's what I thought. You've been going behind their backs again. And I want in."

"Ari, there's nothing you can do." Jeb hesitated right after he said the words and looked up, considering his son again. "But then again…you can be inconspicuous if you want to be. You blend in with the other Erasers. No one would think twice if they saw you in the room."

Ari wasn't sure whether to be insulted or pleased. He settled for something in between and folded his thick arms across his chest. "What are you up to, Jeb?"

His father went stiff, making Ari tense in response. This was it. He had been working toward earning his father's trust and pride for four long years. If Jeb didn't see the benefits in recruiting him now, he never would, and all Ari's chances of having his father love him would be as good as gone. He fought the urge to hold his breath.

Years seemed to pass between father and son as they stared the other down. Emotions and thoughts flitted through Jeb's dark gaze too fast for Ari to catch, and by the time his father finally nodded with a sigh, the boy was exhausted.

"I am trying to figure out how the whitecoats are making their newest project work," Jeb said. "I've done research and I've questioned nearly everyone I've come across today, but no one will tell me anything."

"I know what it is," Ari smirked. His father's arms dropped limply to his sides and he took an excited step forward.

"You do? Tell me, Ari!"


Jeb gawked at him. Ari nearly giggled with glee; he had never seen his father look so surprised. When he closed his mouth, his jaws even made a sharp clicking sound. "But…what?"

"First, you have to promise that you won't abandon me again," Ari said. He fixed his father firmly in his sight, his eyes narrowed meaningfully. "You go, I go. I'm sick of this place and everyone in it. I want to get out, and there's no way that I'm getting left behind again. I always get left behind."

He trailed off, lost in the memories of his life before this moment, before he came back to himself with a jolt. His father was looking at him with a confused mixture of pity and regret, and it was doing bad things to Ari's stomach. He grunted and held up two fingers. "Second," he said firmly, making sure to chase away any remaining bitterness in his voice, "you tell me everything you're planning now and in the future. Third, you listen to me. I mean really listen to me. I was human before you let them at me, you know. I deserve to be listened to too!"

Maybe if his father listened to him, Ari would be able to explain himself and all the bad things he did, and then his father would like him. Jeb had to like him. There was nothing he cared about more in the world.

His father was deathly silent. Ari lowered his hand to show that he was done, but still Jeb remained quiet. The silence was starting to make Ari nervous. He shifted on his feet, scowling, but didn't take his gaze away from Jeb's. The man's face was inscrutable. Ari had no idea what the man was thinking and it was making him nervous.

Finally, just when he was about to stampede out of the room in a fit of tense fury, his father spoke.

"I promise." Jeb's voice sounded oddly hollow and weary, as if he'd had all the life sucked of him like the brown-eyed mutant Ari had seen die not half an hour ago. "I promise to all those things."

Ari felt like grinning again. He felt his chest swelling with an emotion he couldn't name, his feet itching to jump up and down. But no—he wasn't some little kid. He didn't do embarrassing things like that. "Good," he said instead, and told his father everything he'd overheard. Jeb was pale and shaking by the time he was finished, but there was an assessing look in his eye when he looked at his son, and Ari hoped his father was glad he'd chosen to trust.

"We'll need to get moving right away," Jeb said. He whirled on his heel with Ari following. The mutated boy scowled briefly, thinking that already his moment in the spotlight was over, but his father turned and gave him a half-grin before they exited the bathroom.

"Good work, Ari."

And Ari felt happy enough to float straight up into the sky.

Today was a good day.

Iggy came back to the world with a strange throbbing in his head and an ache in his lower spine. He blinked his eyes open and sat up to crack his back, when he realized: in front and in back and all around him was a very familiar dark abyss.

The boy slumped back and felt his shoulders clang into the metal bars of his cage. He was blind again. And imprisoned—again! How could this have happened? Had he dreamt the whole escape attempt? No…his body was hurting in places he didn't even know it could hurt. He hadn't been dreaming.

But…he'd been so sure he could see…

"Confused? I'm not surprised."

Iggy jumped, banging the back of his head against the bars. He clutched it for a moment and glared at the source of the noise. "You know, you really shouldn't do that to someone who just got shot with a tranquilizer gun. Getting shot full of sedatives can make a guy kind of…jumpy."

"I can see that," Jeb said amusedly. His voice lost its wry tone as he turned his attention to the way Iggy was curled up inside his cage. "How are you feeling?"

How do you think I'm feeling? Iggy wanted to retort, but he bit his tongue. Jeb was annoying and the last person he wanted to see at the moment (once he was sure Iggy wasn't harmed, he would probably go off on another rant about how the fate of the world was resting on his escape), but he was also the only ally he had in this place. If he could call a traitor his ally, that was.

"I'm fine," he said. "Just sore and a little depressed about getting caught again. And…"

He hesitated, grinding his teeth against one another as he pondered his situation. Jeb was a mystery. Years ago, Iggy wouldn't have hesitated to trust the man with his life and the lives of his siblings. Now, he was so confused about his "father" that it was starting to make his headache worse. Was Jeb his friend, his father, or his enemy?

Well, he thought, making a face, things can't get much worse than they already are, can they?

"And what, Iggy?" Jeb prompted.

"And…I'm blind again."

The containment room filled with silence. "Again?" Jeb repeated.

Iggy curled and uncurled his long fingers nervously. "Outside, I could see. It wasn't all that clear, and everything was fuzzy, but I could still see. I saw mountains and snow, and this place. The School."

"Hmm." Jeb's leather shoes squeaked as he shifted in thought. "That's very…interesting. You said it only happened when you went outside? You didn't start to regain your sight while you were inside the docking bay, or before then?"

"No. If I had, it wouldn't have taken me so long to break out of this place. It just happened when I went outside. One second I was completely blind, and the next, I could kind of see. Now I'm blind again."

He could almost hear the clogs clicking together in Jeb's head. "I think…there is one way you could have seen. The experiment that robbed you of your sight was originally meant to enhance it...but during night, when colors are either muted or nonexistent altogether. The world outside these walls is incredibly bright, a direct opposite of what you were intended to see. Your eyes were meant to see a complete absence of color, black: the blackness of night. But when faced with the blinding whiteness of the Rockies' snow, it overloaded you changed eyes, which were only meant to see black, and blinded you all over again."

Iggy groaned. "English, please."

"In other words," Jeb said slowly, "your current blindness was canceled out the blindness brought on by seeing pure white, so you had your sight back. If a little fuzzily."

There was the quick, dry sound of skin slapping against skin as Jeb clapped his hands together delightedly. "This is wonderful! Now you'll be able to see once you escape again."

"Hold on a minute." Iggy sat up and held out his hands in the universal whoa, Nelly gesture. "Suddenly you've decided to help me?"

"You're like my son, Iggy," Jeb said gently. "Of course I'm going to help you."

Iggy blinked. Blinked again. "Um," he said, pretending to duck around and look for hidden cameras. "Are we being recorded or something? Like on America's Funniest Home Videos? 'Cause last I remember, you didn't want to have anything to do with helping me get out of here."

Jeb drew in a long, shaking breath. "I know. I was mistaken. I know you may not believe me, Igneous, but I am telling the truth when I say that I am trying to help you. Please trust me. I would never do anything to hurt you or your family."

Iggy mustered up all the anger, fear, and grief he'd felt over the years and aimed it in a sightless glare at Jeb. The man was offering to help him. If Iggy said no, then he'd be on his own with no idea what to face or how to get around opposition. Jeb was on the inside; he could give Iggy a heads-up whenever something bad cropped up.

But then again, the man had already betrayed him once. There was no way Iggy trusted his former father figure, not when he was on the same side as the people who had stolen his sight. And yet…he needed help. He couldn't make it through this alone; his failed escape attempt had shown him that.

"Fine," he grunted, ignoring the relieved sigh that came from Jeb's direction. "But all I need is some decent food and a good night's rest—"

"That won't be enough to survive the Rockies," Jeb interrupted. "I can help you there."

Rockies? Like in Canada? So that was where he was. Iggy pushed aside the thought and leaned forward with a frown. "I'm listening."

"If Stark and the others still have their newest project, sleep and food won't be nearly enough to get you through a night in the mountains." The man snorted depreciatingly. "They're calling it the 'Extermination Effect.' Typically dramatic of them. What I will try to do is harden you against its effects."

Iggy's mouth dropped open. "You think I can get used to that thing?"

"If you can overcome its effects, you will survive," Jeb insisted. "But this is a last resort. I have recently found out from a semi-reliable source that they have implanted a chip inside you and every other mutant they created. This chip is what allows them to scramble your brain's signals and sever the connection between brain and muscle."

"A semi-reliable source," Iggy repeated. "Why do I get a bad feeling when I hear that?"

"That's the other thing," Jeb said reluctantly. He raised his voice and called out, "You can come in."

The door slid open with a pressurized hiss, followed by familiar, heavy footsteps.

"It's about time," Ari's gruff voice grumbled venomously. "What took so long?"

Iggy was sure his mouth fell open all the way to the floor of his cage. He could almost feel Jeb's uncertainty and sheepishness seeping through the bars.

"He is a valuable asset," the man said as way of explanation. "Jacob and I are suspect, so no one will share any information with us, and there is no one else I trust not to speak. We share a common goal. We just need to work together."

"How do you like that, bird boy?" Ari jeered. "You 'n me are on the same team now!"

A/N: ...And cut! End chapter 7. :)

Ari and Iggy teaming up. Betcha didn't see that coming. I definitely didn't until I started the chapter for the third time. Umm, these characters have minds of their own, so I just kind of let them do what they will and try to write it in a way that makes sense. :D

As for Iggy's snow-blindness, Patterson's explanation doesn't make any sense to me. White is a color. Black is an absence of color, so by all rights, if Iggy can see because of a complete lack of color, the Antarctic tundra shouldn't be what triggers the return of his sight. It should be like the utter blackness of a black hole that brings his sight back. So, since what Patterson was saying didn't make any sense according to the basic laws of physics (yeah, yeah, Physics nerd), I made up my own explanation. Hopefully it made sense.

Next chapter: Sibling Rivalry. Iggy's reaction to being forced to work with Ari, Jeb's uncertainties about recruiting his mutant son, and finally the Iggy vs. Ari fight you've been waiting for.

Review? Iggy plushy!


8. Sibling Rivalry


nathan-p, wolfdefender01, flYegurl, Illucida, blackberry01, blue-eyed-cow, DigiBleach, BlueWingedKitty, lillypad22 and Ren Black: you guys are the reason I write, other than the fact that I just LOVE it, and the reason I try my absolute best every time. Thank you. :D

Longest chapter yet - nine pages on Word! I worked hard on this, but my inner editor's going, "You could do better." I don't know. We're each our worst critic.

Disclaimer: You may sue me, but the fact remains that I don't own MR, and all you'll get is what's in my pocketses...uh, lint. Yeeaah.

Chapter Eight: Sibling Rivalry

"You're joking," Iggy gasped. "Come on, you've gotta be joking."

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend. And considering the enemy of my enemy is actually my son," Jeb countered in a no-nonsense tone, "and can be trusted to scope out situations I otherwise have no access to…no. I am not joking."

"But…" Iggy gestured in Ari's direction and received a challenging growl in return. "He's Ari. He's an unstable time-bomb just waiting to go kaboom! You can't expect me to trust him!"

"You know, I'm not too happy about this either, bird-brain," Ari spat. "But my dad says we gotta work together."

Iggy nearly laughed out loud. Him and Ari work together? For what? So he could end up as chopped liver in the dog-boy's food bowl? No thank you! Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

Jeb had other ideas.

"I don't think you understand the severity of the situation, Igneous," he said seriously, using that horrid name again to get the winged boy's attention. "We are utterly outnumbered and out of options. Stark has reduced our training time to one week. Once that week is up, you'll be given to the whitecoats to do with as they please. We need someone on the inside."

"You need me," Ari said smugly. Iggy dispelled the urge to wipe off the smirk he was sure the other boy was wearing on his face. The last thing he needed to do was give Ari the satisfaction of a response.

"I don't need anyone," he said pointedly. He turned to Jeb's general direction and said, "And if you're working with Ari, I'm not gonna work with you. That's it. End of story."

"Iggy, please," Jeb said pleadingly. "Listen to me—"

"No." The boy felt the lines around his mouth tighten in anger. "No, okay? Listen, this guy helped kidnap Angel. If it wasn't for him, we would have been able to fend off the rest of the Erasers and none of this would have happened!"

"That's unfair," Jeb protested, sounding oddly offended. "Ari was just following orders—"

"Your orders. Which reminds me, why should I even trust you? Why should I do anything you say? You betrayed us! I bet you were never on our side in the first place! You're the reason Angel was kidnapped and we had to travel halfway across the country to get to her. If you hadn't betrayed us, none of this would have happened! You ruined our lives—and all because you're crazy enough to believe that Max is some messiah who's gonna save the world!"

Iggy's ears rang with the silence that descended after he finished speaking. He didn't even think he heard Ari or Jeb breathing. But god, it felt good to let go like that.

"Well," Jeb croaked. He paused and cleared his throat, sounding like he was choking on a frog. "That's that, then. I suppose we can't convince you if you're that set against helping us. I'm sure you can escape without our help, even if Stark is going to be watching you closer than ever. And I'm certain the Extermination Effect won't be a problem, nor will getting a warning to Maximum, or somehow finding a way to extract the termination chip that is ticking away your living minutes as we speak. I suppose you can do all of that on your own. Can't you?"

Iggy was sure that if he could see, the world would be sheathed in a veil of red. You unsubtle, manipulative, scheming jerk!

"No," he ground out angrily. "I think…I'd need a little help with that."

Ari chuckled quietly. Jeb only let out a weary sigh and said, "I'm sorry it has to be this way, Iggy. I don't want to be your enemy."

"Then why did you leave?" Iggy asked, and tried to pretend that he didn't hear the desperate hurt in his voice, tried to pretend he didn't notice the utter feeling of betrayal that burbled and sizzled beneath his surface like a disease.

Ari's presence faded into the background. In Iggy's mind, he and Jeb were the only ones who existed in the world, father figure against betrayed son: facing the demons of their past and present.

"We needed someone on the inside," Jeb said softly. His voice was filled with weariness, like that of an old man or a veteran of war. He sounded as if he'd seen too many horrors and betrayals in his life and would break if he saw any more. "I couldn't let any of you know what I was doing. You were children; you still are children. I was afraid that if I told you what I was planning, you would accidently give something away."

The man shifted uncomfortably. "I see now that that was a mistake I never should have made. I should have let you know what I was planning to do. Now I've lost your trust. What do I have to do to get it back?"

Iggy was sorely tempted to say something like Jump off a cliff if I tell you to, but he didn't. He folded his arms and leaned against the back of his cage, settling his face into a mulish look. "Just get me out of here. Get me out of here and don't send anyone after me. Then I might start trusting you."

"Yes," Jeb said determinedly. "But you do understand that if I am going to help you escape, we need someone in Ari's position…"

"Yeah, yeah, I get it. We need the mutt," Iggy grunted. He smirked at the threatening growl Ari sent in his direction. "But that doesn't mean I have to be happy about it."

"Just you wait, freak," Ari sneered. "Any chance I get, I'm gonna show you just how happy I am with this whole plan."

And Iggy grinned. He couldn't see it, but he knew the bloodthirstiness in his grin matched that in Ari's hungry snarl.

"Alright, alright," Jeb said in a placating tone. Iggy remembered that the man pinched the bridge of his nose whenever he was stressed and smiled to think he was doing it then. He sounded like he was breaking up two bickering children. "That's enough of that. We need to get moving. It's already half past noon and our limited time slot is slipping through our fingers. Today…we'll try something different with the experiment."

"Are we gonna be, uhm, supervised?" Iggy asked, already forgetting about Ari's promise.

"Yes," Jeb said sourly. "Anne Chen's team is already outside waiting for us."

"Chen," Iggy repeated thoughtfully. "Is she the one who was there when I tried to escape?"

"Yes. She's a horrible woman and an excellent scientist. And she hates being late, so I suggest we leave immediately."
"Where are we going?" Iggy asked as Jeb unlocked his cage. "You said we were doing something different."

"I am going to test a hypothesis." Jeb tapped Iggy's arm and guided him out of the cage and to the door. Ari clumped sullenly behind them, his presence like a mountain looming over Iggy's unprotected head. The boy started to feel claustrophobic.

"What kind of hypothesis?" Iggy prompted, just as Jeb opened the door to his containment room.

"Batchelder," a woman's voice said silkily. "You took your sweet time, didn't you? Not something I would expect of a man walking his last steps."

She sounded much too cheerful to be discussing her colleague's death; Iggy instantly decided he didn't like her.

"Good afternoon, Ms. Chen," Jeb said politely, and deliberately turned away from her voice. The woman spluttered incredulously, bringing a smile to Iggy's lips.

"Going somewhere without us?" She asked dangerously. "Doctor Stark specifically said that we are to accompany you on any excursion you make with the mutant."

"Well, then by all means, come," Jeb countered collectedly. "We're just on our way to the White Room."

"Why there?"

"It's part of the experiment."

He continued walking without another word, obviously signaling that the conversation was over. The group of whitecoats hesitated, disgruntled, before following after them. Iggy listened to the distinct sets of footsteps and counted: three people. Only three? He would have thought that with his escape attempt, Stark would have had an entire army surrounding him at all times.

A shiver of foreboding went through him. The boy attempted to mull it over before Ari decided to remind him that he was still there and still not happy about being shanghaied into working together—mainly, by poking Iggy's back with one sharp talon to keep him moving. Iggy nearly jumped at the prick of pain and quickly shot the taller mutant a vicious glare.

"Ari," Jeb said warningly. "Behave yourself."

Iggy smirked, imagining the look of put-out surprise on Ari's face. Looks like old Jeb still has those eyes in the back of his head…

He was so wrapped up in his enjoyment of Ari's chastising that he forgot entirely about the feeling of foreboding he'd had a moment before. It drifted to the back of his mind and stayed there.

As they walked, Iggy kept his fingers hooked in the cool fabric of Jeb's lab coat and allowed the man to guide him. It reminded him painfully of how Jeb had once been the one to take a stand and help him get used to living life blind. He was always the one Iggy held on to, before he disappeared and the Flock became the boy's support system.

Iggy shook the thoughts away. It was so easy to fall into trusting this man. No matter how hard he tried, he kept reverting to old Iggy: the one who loved his faux father and would follow him without a second's doubt. Years on years of looking up to the man were all coming back, like a bad taste in his mouth that refused to leave.

No, he reminded himself. He's a traitor. Trait-or. You don't know what goes on inside his head. He could turn on you in an instant. Just like he did years ago.

With that harsh thought in mind, Iggy tightened his grip on Jeb's coat and set his jaw in determination. "Where are we going?"

"There's a special room that I'd like you to see," Jeb replied happily. He didn't seem to notice the sudden hardness in Iggy's voice. "And I do mean literally see. We usually use it to hold the, uh…the disobedient mutants, but I want to test a theory."

Iggy didn't have time to question it. A couple more steps and the entourage arrived at its destination. There was the airy sound of a slick door sliding open, and Jeb ushered him through with an excited push of his hands. Iggy scowled and opened his mouth to tell the man he didn't like to be pushed around…

Then he got a really good look at the room.


The entire room—walls, floor and ceiling—was an eye-burning, blazing, perfectly pure white. He guessed he could understand why it was used to punish rebellious mutants; to anyone else, the sheer brilliance of the room's coloring would have been disorienting. It looked even whiter than the world he'd seen outside, though that didn't seem possible.

Iggy raised his hands in front of his face, reveling in the feeling of shock that went through him. He couldn't pick out sharp details like the lines on his palms or his fingernails, but he did see each of his long fingers contrasted against the sharp white background. His lips twitched up into a giddy smile.

This is too cool.

The slick-snap of the door sliding shut behind Jeb and the other whitecoats caught Iggy's attention. He whirled around.

And, for the first time in four long years, was faced with the sight of his father.

For an apocalypse-obsessed, ranting, traitorous lunatic, he looked surprisingly normal—well, what Iggy guessed was normal, anyway. He stood a little taller than Iggy at 6"2 and had narrow shoulders, dark hair, and a square-ish moustache. He peered at Iggy through a pair of round glasses, squinting his eyes against the blaring whiteness of the room.

Towering behind Jeb like a colossal statue of muscle and teeth was Ari. Iggy wouldn't have known it was him if he hadn't known the exact numbers of Erasers that had entered the room with them: one. The mutated boy was a mass of hulking muscle and thick, spiky dark hair. At the very least, he was an impressive seven feet tall. His narrow eyes immediately found Iggy and pinned him in a challenging, inescapable glare. Incisors as long as Iggy's pinkie peeked out hungrily from between thin lips.

So this was what Jeb had turned his son into. Despite how annoying and dangerous the boy was proving to be, Iggy couldn't help but feel a sudden, sweeping wave of pity for the seven-year-old…and disgust for the man who had let him become what he was.

"Can you see me?" Jeb suddenly asked.

Iggy nodded, sliding his gaze back to his former father before Ari decided that he didn't like Iggy's staring and chose to do something violent about it. "Uh-huh," he said dumbly. And then, because he couldn't resist, he added, "Your moustache would make Captain Hook proud."

He envied Max and the others even more so when he saw Jeb's flabbergasted expression. They got to see these things all the time, and in sharp detail. All he got was a mix of blurry edges and vaguely discernable shapes.

But I can still see!

"What is happening?" A woman with long, sweeping dark hair stepped forward, her almond-shaped eyes narrowed in an ugly glare. "Batchelder?"

"Part of the experiment," Jeb said slowly, his hand straying almost unconsciously to his moustache, "is to rob the subject of his sight. Against a background of complete white, Igneous can see. This will enable us to gather more information on the efficiency of the project."

Iggy's stomach sank. They'd brought him in here just to steal his sight the instant he got it back. He should have known that the only good thing to have happened to him in days would be taken away.

The Chen woman nodded thoughtfully. Iggy saw her hand dip into her pocket and take out a long, cylindrical tube with a glowing light on the end. He turned to gave Jeb a quizzical stare and had to resist the urge to whoop when he found he could actually communicate with the merest of glances. His former guardian gave him a meaningful look and nodded.

A cold fist gripped Iggy's gut. So this was the thing that Jeb talked about: the trigger.

The woman holding the trigger in her spider-fingered hands eyed Iggy suspiciously. "Doctor Stark gave us implicit instructions on what he wanted us to accomplish today."


"Doctor Stark wishes for us to test the mutant's ability to fight blind."

Iggy's gaze snapped back to Ari. The boy had tilted his head at the Chen woman's words and seemed to be thinking it over. He must have reached the same conclusion Iggy had, because he gave the boy a broad smile and cracked his knuckles.

Needless to say, it wasn't exactly a heartwarming gesture.

Jeb rounded on the trigger-woman. "In this room? Against Ari? There's not enough space for Igneous to fly—he won't be able to fight to his best ability in here."

Iggy looked around him. It was true; while he might get high enough to avoid Ari for the most part, the towering mutant would easily be able to reach up and grab him if he jumped.

"Orders from Doctor Stark," Anne Chen snapped. There was a definite pugnacious look in the way she set her chin. The other whitecoats shrank back from her as if she were a rabid pit-bull. "You may be in control of supervising this operation, but Stark left me in charge of ensuring that his orders are carried out and his results received. You already let the mutant escape once. The good doctor doesn't want that to happen again."

At the mention of his merciless boss, Jeb backed down immediately. He looked nervously between Ari and Iggy, tossing glances like a tennis ball, but Iggy was focusing on not folding under the taller mutant's powerful glare.

"Wanna play?" Ari's incisors flashed again in a dangerous smile. Coming out of the mouth of any other seven-year-old, the question would have sounded innocent, friendly even. When Ari said it, all Iggy could hear was the promise of his head getting bashed against a wall. He made a face.

"Not really."
"Too bad." Ari flexed his muscles ostentatiously and cracked his neck. "'Cause I'm in the mood for a game."

Jeb flinched at his son's words and turned away from Anne. He gripped Ari's arm, pulling him down until the mutant was crouched over him. "Watch yourself," he hissed under his breath. He was so quiet even Iggy barely heard him. "We work together, remember?"

Ari lifted his lips in a mutinous snarl. "Right," he rumbled, but his eyes were set on Iggy. Jeb pulled away, his expression tinged with a hint of regret and otherwise unreadable.

"We'll conduct the experiment in two phases," Anne intoned. "In the first stage, the subject will retain its sight. In the second, it will undergo the Extermination Effect. You may proceed."

Iggy knew he was going to lose before Ari threw the first punch. For four years, he'd lived without his sight. Now that it was back, he felt happier and more complete than ever…except for the fact that he wasn't used to fighting like this. There were too many things to register. He heard all the familiar sounds of his opponent barreling toward him, counted the steps it took Ari to reach him and felt his neck prickle when the other boy's fist came hurtling at him.

Yet the sight of Ari bearing down on him, fist flying, was too much for his senses. He reeled.

Duck! He screamed at himself, and ducked just in time for Ari's first to go whistling over his head. Iggy brought his knee up and rammed it into the Eraser's stomach. Ari doubled over, gasping with pain, and Iggy took his chance to back away as fast as he could.

"Come back here, you runt!" Ari howled. He recovered an instant later and lunged for Iggy, claws grasping wildly. Iggy closed his eyes. The world cascaded into a blanket of black again. He'd been trained to fight in the dark. Blind, he was safe.

A fist hummed through the air again. Iggy pinpointed its location and dropped to the ground, sweeping out a leg to knock Ari's out from under him. The Eraser stumbled and went down with a crash. One of his claws caught the side of Iggy's arm, sending a wave of raw pain through his torn flesh.

There was no time to tend to his arm. In an instant Ari rolled back to his feet and came at Iggy with feet, arms, and fists swinging wildly. Iggy ducked, spun, and leapt to avoid Ari's blows, but it was only a matter of time before he made a mistake.

"Quit jumping around!" Ari yelled furiously, and moved too fast for the sound to register. His fist connected solidly with the side of Iggy's face, his booted foot following closely to pummel into the boy's stomach. Iggy collapsed backward on the floor and gasped with one arm wrapped protectively around his stomach. He opened his eyes to see Ari coming down on him, teeth bared in a vicious snarl.

Iggy gritted his teeth and kicked Ari square in the chest.

The Eraser spun away with a roar. Iggy leapt to his feet and snapped his wings out, pushing down on the air as he easily soared up to the White Room's ceiling. Ari reached out a hand and grabbed Iggy's ankle. With a merciless pull, he yanked the boy down to his level and got a kick in the jaw for his trouble. Ari's head twisted to the side with the force of his blow, and Iggy saw him spit blood, but the grip on his ankle never faltered. Growing desperate, he brought back his fist, batted away Ari's attempt to block him, and cuffed the Eraser on the side of his head.

Ari let him go. But Iggy didn't move away as the other boy had expected. He leaned forward with his momentum, fisting his hands in the front of Ari's shirt before he pushed him to the floor. The Eraser was already off balance from Iggy's blow, and he went down without resistance.

Iggy winced at the sound of Ari's head connecting solidly with the floor. His hands still fisted in the mutant's shirt, he leaned back, knees driving into the Eraser's unyielding stomach.

"You really, really hate me, don't you?" He asked, spying the way Ari was still snarling, his eyes filled with a wild, animal rage directed solely at him.

Ari didn't bother with a sarcastic answer. Still panting and holding his bruised jaw, he looked Iggy in the eye and ground out, "Yes."

Something snapped inside. Iggy balled his hands into tighter fists and slammed the Eraser's head back into the floor. Ari retaliated, bringing his fist up to crash into Iggy's unprotected cheek. Iggy crashed to the floor, head spinning, and barely managed to roll out of the way before Ari's fist dented the spot where he'd been lying scant seconds ago.

Iggy jumped to his feet and hastily backed away, his fists raised. Ari stayed where he was, panting with the full force of his hate and anger, his eyes unblinking and drilling a hole through the winged boy's head. Iggy clenched his hands tightly, his fingers pressing painfully into the palms of his hands.

"Why?" he shouted, feeling himself shake with anger. "We never did anything to you! Why the hell are you always trying to kill us? Why can't you just leave us alone?"

Ari looked surprised, stunned even, for a second. Then, Anne Chen's voice broke through the tense silence.

"End phase one."


The familiar, hated effects of the Extermination Effect immediately crushed Iggy's control into tiny, scattered shards. He slid to the floor, clutching his head as white noise roared in his ears, and curled into a ball. His eyes were wide open, but he was blind again.

"Now, Ari!" he heard Anne shouting. It sounded like she was yelling from a mile away. "Strike!"

Iggy forced himself to his knees. He had to fight. He had to fight. Jeb said he could beat the Extermination Effect—he said it was possible.

Control. Come on, control! Stand up!

He envisioned himself getting up, standing as tall as he usually did, and felt his legs obeying his silent command. Slowly, like a toddler taking its first wobbly steps, he straightened until he was standing up. It felt weird, standing on nothing, but he had done it.

Iggy grinned proudly. I did it!

He didn't even hear Ari swing his fist again; this time, the blow made a solid hit and knocked him on his back.

There goes all my hard work. Breathe. Ouch, that one hurt—no. Breathe.

"Down already?" Iggy heard Ari say tauntingly over the roaring in his head, but there was something else in the mutated boy's voice. If Iggy hadn't thought he was still relatively sane, he would have called it reluctance.

Ari's thick fist curled in Iggy's shirt and brought him back to his feet. He swayed at the sudden movement, his eyes rolling back in his head as his stomach pitched. Ari snorted in disgust, but Iggy couldn't help but notice that the Eraser wasn't letting him fall back.

"Do I really have to fight him now?" Ari asked someone. "Look at this! He can barely stand." He shook Iggy for emphasis and let him slump limply against the wall.

"Alright, that's enough!" Jeb shouted over the white noise. "Anne, cut the trial. That's enough for one."

The world snapped back beneath his feet. Iggy opened his eyes—he hadn't even realized he'd had them closed—and the white world swam into blurry focus. Ari loomed over him like a monster most kids expected to see under their bed. The Eraser leaned down and snarled in Iggy's face, his breath rank, "I hate you because you're part of the reason my dad left me in the first place. You already took him once, and you're still trying to take him."

Jeez, Iggy thought in frustration. What does it take for this guy to realize I'm not trying to steal his dad? "I'm not—"

"Liar," Ari hissed. He leaned back the slightest bit, going quiet. A strangely vulnerable look crossed his face and suddenly, he was back to being the little blue-eyed boy who had toddled around after Max like a lost puppy.

"Why can't you just leave us alone?" he asked.

"Ari," Jeb said warningly. The Eraser snorted and backed off, his ruthless mask back in place, giving Iggy room to breathe—or wheeze, was more like it.

"Give us ten minutes," he heard Jeb say to Anne and the whitecoats. "You have your results. They both need to rest. Ten minutes."

"Ten, and not a second longer," Anne snapped, and her two partners stayed close to her heels as she pivoted and left the White Room.

Iggy found himself the center of Jeb's attention almost immediately. The man probed his sides and face, checking for bruises and broken bones. He promptly ignored Iggy's whining and flinching.

"Come on—" Iggy gasped as the man poked a particularly sore spot on his ribs. "I said I'm all right!"

Jeb's face set into a stern mask as he spun to face Ari. The Eraser met his eyes and lifted his chin defiantly, one hand cupped gingerly over his split lip.

"I told you to watch yourself." Iggy winced; Jeb's voice was deceptively quiet and calm. He only ever spoke that way when he was truly, incredibly angry. Once, Iggy remembered that he and Gazzy had been playing with their bombs again, and one of them had gone off at the wrong time. Both he and his partner in crime had moved out of the way fast enough to avoid being blown up, but the blast had nearly demolished part of their house. Jeb had spoken to them in that voice right before sentencing them to a three-month grounding—meaning no more bombs or fire for twelve weeks straight. It had been torture.

Now he was turning that voice on his biological son, and it looked like Ari knew his father well enough to understand what the tone meant. He faltered in his unyielding stance for a moment, his eyes drifting to the floor before he yanked his gaze back up and set his jaw stubbornly.

"I did watch myself," he snapped. "Didn't you see me? I could have pummeled him into a pulp if I wanted to! And I didn't fight him much when he was in phase two, or whatever they called it. I left him alone!"
"You overstepped your bounds," Jeb said. Iggy tried to discreetly melt into the wall. Jeb's angry voice was really scary. "I told you we have to be working together, not fighting each other at every opportunity! And you!" Jeb turned to face Iggy, his expression thunderous. "This is as much your fault as it is his! What were you thinking, taunting him like that?"

"I wasn't—"

"What did you expect?" Ari broke in, interrupting Iggy's self-defense. He was giving Jeb a look that was both terrifyingly angry and just a little bit confused. "Did you really think that now that we're working together we'd suddenly go all lovey-dovey and forget about all the bad blood between us? Is that what you thought? Because it's never going to happen! I'll work with him, but the instant we're done, the second this whole operation is over, everything's gonna be exactly the way it was before."

Jeb stood up and met his son's gaze unflinchingly. "I am trying to work toward a greater cause. I am trying to save all of our lives, and I can't do that if I always have to break you two apart!"

Silence reigned in the White Room. The loudest sound was the pounding of Iggy's heart; he was surprised that neither Ari nor Jeb seemed to hear it, but they were staring the other down without a hint of familial love between them.

"Go, Ari," Jeb finally said, rubbing wearily at his forehead. He seemed to age ten years in the space of a few seconds. "Go on. I need to attend to Iggy right now."

Jeb turned his back on his son and knelt in front of Iggy, his hands going for the winged boy's worst injuries. For a moment, Ari looked furious and hateful enough that Iggy thought he was going to attack Jeb. Then he went quiet, and as he looked at his father and his rival acting as father and son should, all of the anger and hatred in him drained away. He looked suddenly vulnerable and helpless, his eyes darkening with hurt. Iggy watched as Ari went from infuriated, bloodthirsty Eraser to rejected, wounded child without ever moving a muscle.

Ari noticed Iggy staring. He flinched, looking unsure of what to do for a painful moment, and then he turned on his heel and was gone.

A/N: Enjoy? Not enjoy? Either way, please review!

Next chapter will be more light-hearted - this one was pretty intense, I think. I'm a bit nervous about how this turned out, as it was a very critical chapter and acted as the first escalation for the conflict between Iggy and Ari. Let me know what you think.

Ari plushie?


9. Bad Blood

Aaaaaand, thank you so much, blue-eyed-cow, blackberry01, BlueWingedKitty, lillypad22, koko5x, Illucida, flYegurl, soccerislife14, and Ren Black for reviewing! I'm glad you liked the clash between Ari and Iggy.

This chapter is a bit more light-hearted than the last one, since two of our main characters aren't swinging away at each other anymore, but no fluff yet. Sorry, I usually don't write that much fluff. And this is our longest chapter yet - that's why it's a couple days late.

Disclaimer: I do NOT (see, I did it in Caps Lock - pay attention to it!) own MR. Or Iggy. Or Ari. Or Jeb. :(

soccerislife14 - your review reply is at the end! :)

Enjoy, and don't forget to review!

Chapter Nine: Bad Blood

"So," said Jacob, examining what Iggy was sure was an impressive black eye, "tell me again: how big was the truck that ran you over?"

Iggy laughed. The sound echoed around the empty medical room. He guessed he was lucky there hadn't been anyone else in the infirmary when Jeb brought him in; every scientist in this nuthouse only seemed to want to pick him apart. "About seven feet tall, buff in ways you can't imagine with a nasty right hook and a serious anger management problem."

Jacob's upbeat nature faded for a moment as he made the connection. "Hmm," he said, applying more ointment to the sensitive skin around Iggy's right eye. "Jebidiah's son?"

"Yeah." Iggy felt his smile fall and shifted uncomfortably on the chair Jacob had directed him to. His black eye was the last injury the friendly whitecoat was attending to; Jeb's right-hand man had already seen to Iggy's bruised ribs and aching cheekbone. "Yeah, he doesn't like me so much."

"Don't take it personally," Jacob reassured him. "I don't think that boy likes anyone. That's half his father's fault. Don't get me wrong, Jebidiah is a great man. But sometimes I don't think he knows how to separate his work from his family."

The man's bones creak as he leaned his weight back on his heels. "He becomes so wrapped up in saving the world that he loses sight of what's most important."

There was something in Jacob's voice that told Iggy the kind whitecoat was speaking from experience. Jacob seemed to realize his concentration had dissolved in the midst of his thoughts, because he cleared his throat and asked curiously, "Where is Jeb, anyway?"

"Uh…" Iggy fought the urge to lean away from Jacob's hand. The man seriously knew what he was doing, that was true, but Iggy's eye felt like it was still throbbing with the force of Ari's punch. "He's off looking for Ari."

"Ah. Did the boy run off?"
"Err, no. Not exactly."

Go, Ari. Go on. I need to attend to Iggy right now.

Iggy grimaced at the memory of the cold words uttered earlier in the afternoon, and ducked his head. Jeb had pretty much just threw Ari out in favor of Iggy—neglected his own son for someone he only pretended to care about. Iggy felt guilty for some reason, like it was his fault Jeb had shunned his son. "Jeb kinda chased him out."

"What?" Jacob jerked in surprise, his fingers stilling over Iggy's bruised eye. "Why would he do that?"
"I don't know," Iggy shrugged. "I don't get half of what goes on in his head."

Jacob sighed and shook his head disapprovingly. "Sometimes, I don't think I do either," he admitted quietly. Iggy looked at him in surprise. Jacob chose that moment to give the boy a smart pat on his cheek, eliciting a pained gasp from the winged boy. "Don't worry, kid. Jeb knows what he's doing."
Does he? Iggy wondered. He couldn't help but doubt Jeb's grasp on the situation. The guy was in over his head, that was for sure. He said he could handle things if he had help, but could he really? Seriously, how many guys could balance two partners who wanted nothing more than to beat each other within a centimeter of death, one of whom was his biological son and the other his adopted son, a boss who wanted him dead, a messiah to protect (who, whoop-di-do, also happened to wish he was dead), a sinister project made by even more sinister people, and a chip that could kill its owner at any moment?

If anyone asked Iggy, and no one had yet but he kept hoping that one of these days someone would care what he thought, he would say Jeb was way in over his head.

But, of course, Jeb had to do what Jeb had to do. Iggy was just sorry it involved him.

"Well," Jacob said, bringing Iggy back from his thoughts, "that's about it. Just try not to get hit by any more trucks and you should be fine."

"Thanks," Iggy smiled.

"You're welcome." Jacob straightened from his kneeling position, making a face as his bones cracked and popped. "Agh! I'm getting old."

Iggy smirked. It had been nice of Jacob to come in and take care of him while Jeb left to find his wayward son and bring him back to their side. After the fight between him and Ari, Iggy had been allowed his ten-minute break before Chen and the rest of the whitecoats had come and made him fly circles around a brutal training course. He was still amazed his injuries weren't more serious than they really were; he'd been expecting at least a couple bruised ribs and several lacerations. But no, his super-human body had saved him again.

Footsteps in the hallway outside the medical room startled Iggy into rising from his chair. He thought it was Jeb racing down the hall for a second—it was always harder to tell individual sets of footsteps apart when they were all jumbled up from running—but the voice that stopped in the doorway, reedy and out of breath, didn't belong to his faux-father.

"Marling!" the new whitecoat exclaimed. "There you are. You're needed in examination room 559. A surgery's just gone wrong."

"I'll be there." Jacob turned to Iggy and touched him lightly on a thin shoulder. "Stay here. I can't tell you how much trouble you'll be in if you leave and are caught without an escort. Just wait until Jeb comes back."

Iggy nodded silently. He stared sightlessly after Jacob and the harried whitecoat as they left. As soon as he was alone, the silence of his isolation bore down on his shoulders like a physical weight, making his stomach quiver with anxiety. Anyone could come in at any moment and take him away. Jeb wasn't here to protect him this time. If Chen or, god forbid, Stark came in, he wasn't sure he had the arguing skills necessary to fend them off.

Well, there was always using his fist to tell them exactly what he thought of being stuck in a dog crate again, but that was suicide.

The winged boy reached out a hand and brushed his fingertips against the metal they came into contact with. He traced the outline of the structure—rolling gurney—before shakily moving toward the door.

Jeb couldn't be far. It wouldn't be any trouble to find him. And Jacob was a nice guy, but Iggy had trouble obeying orders from anyone.

He ran into two hospital beds and an IV stand before he reached the open door. Pushing his way into the hall, Iggy tilted his head both ways, scanning for the sounds of approaching footsteps. There were none. Heartened, he turned left to follow the direction Jeb had taken when he charged off in search of his son.

Iggy traced the wall with his fingers as a method of memorizing the way he had come. The lack of irregularities in the wall made it hard to memorize his path of travel. Much like the sleek floor beneath his cold, bare feet, the walls were made of a slick tile that provided little traction for his hands. Without landmarks to check his passage, Iggy back to being fully blind and completely disoriented.

Hmm. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to come out here after all, but he couldn't sit back and wait for Jeb to return. He was sure Ari could avoid his father for as long as he wanted.

Iggy reached what felt like a fork in the hallway and stopped. Which way had Jeb gone? He could either go left or straight, and he was having trouble remembering how many turns they had taken when Jeb had brought him to the medical room. Iggy folded his arms in frustration and thought.

We came down from the training course room, took a right, a…a left? A left, and then another left, and then…

Straight. Iggy wasn't entirely certain, but he was pretty sure, and it was good enough for him. He continued down the hallway.

Less than a minute had passed when a set of clipped footsteps came tearing down the hallway, headed straight for Iggy. It took him only a moment to identify the owner of the footsteps, and he backpedaled desperately.

Darn it! It's harder to get back than I thought—

The footsteps stopped suddenly, filling the hall with silence.

"What are you doing out here, runt?" Ari's rough voice growled.

Iggy winced and straightened against the wall. Great! He's the last person I want to be alone with.

"I was looking for Jeb," he said truthfully. Ari would probably know if he was lying.

"Why?" Ari's voice burned with bitterness. "Isn't he always with you?"

Iggy frowned at the pointed comment, but kept himself from responding. He didn't need to like Ari. He didn't need to get along with him, either. He just needed to tolerate the boy, and their mission could be pulled off as a success. Jeb might be a traitor, but he was a smart one, and if he thought a truce between Iggy and Ari was necessary for success, then fine. He would try.

But if Ari tried to stage another fight, Iggy was all for it.

"He went looking for you," he said. "You didn't see him?"

"No." Ari paused, and Iggy could practically hear the question that was no doubt resounding throughout his head: Jeb's looking for me?

"Doesn't matter," the mutant seven-year-old said gruffly. Iggy heard his shoulder joints pop as he shrugged. "Now get out of my way."

The Eraser made to stalk past him. With his impressive bulk, he seemed to take up half the hallway. Iggy whirled after the other mutant, realizing in a flash that though Ari might hate his guts, the Eraser probably wouldn't do anything too serious to him. Jeb would be angry if Ari hurt Iggy, and if Iggy was right, then the last thing Ari wanted was his father to be angrier with him than he already was.

"Wait!" he called out, cursing inside his head at the surprised smugness rolling off the taller mutant. He'd gotten good at sensing when someone was acting smug; it came from years of living with Max when she was reveling in her "I'm-the-leader-and-you-have-to-listen-to-me" mood. "Where are you going?"

"Why do you care, runt?"

"I don't," Iggy said pointedly, "but if Jeb's looking for you, then he'll find you. I'm looking for him too."

Ari's low growl echoed off the walls of the hallway. Suddenly, Iggy found a fist balled in the front of his shirt and his back was pressed painfully against the wall.

"I knew it," the Eraser hissed hatefully. "You're just trying to take all his attention for yourself!"

Iggy blinked. Ari sounded like Angel when she didn't get something she wanted: petulant and resentful. Lifting his hands up in a slow, placating gesture, he decided to treat Ari with the same caution he treated an angry Angel with.

And then some. Angel didn't have claws and fangs as long as his pinkie.

"Not really. I just don't want to get caught by a whitecoat when Jeb's not here, you know? Dunno if you've noticed, but none of the whitecoats like me too much."

Ari snorted, but held back on any sarcastic comments he had and continued to barrel down the corridor. Internally, Iggy breathed a sigh of relief: step one in establishing a truce with Ari, complete. If only Jeb could see him now.

He took one step before realizing that he was in trouble. Ari was walking quickly, and though Iggy could follow the sound of the mutant's stomping footsteps with no trouble at all, he was still having difficulty navigating the hallway. One turn of the corridor and he would be left behind.

Iggy set his expression into a mulish look and set off behind Ari. He would go as fast as he could without disorienting himself. He was used to having someone's belt or shirt to hold onto while he walked. Going down a hallway without any landmarks and too many turns and twists was just…unnatural. Still, he was going as fast as he could.

Apparently, it wasn't fast enough for Ari.

"What's taking you so freaking long?" he snapped, coming to an abrupt stop a good ways from Iggy. Iggy glared at him, but had the feeling that he was off a little and was probably staring over the Eraser's shoulder.

"Oh, I don't know," Iggy said sarcastically. "I'm just kind of blind."

"Aww," Ari sneered. "Do you need me to hold your hand?"

"Not if you don't want me to bite it off."

Ari had no comeback for that one. "Just hurry up," he snarled, and whirled on his heel. "Don't know why I'm waiting for you in the first place," Iggy heard him mutter under his breath, and tried all the harder to pick up his pace.

"Maybe because Jeb was right, and we really do need to settle a truce?" he suggested.

"Why would I want a truce with a runt like you?" Ari snapped, and turned a corner. Iggy could tell instantly when the big Eraser turned; the acoustics of his coarse voice changed, not echoing quite as clearly as they would have if they didn't have to bend around a corner. Iggy strode forward resolutely and breathed a sigh of relief when the acoustics snapped back into focus.

"Because it's the only way to beat the whitecoats," Iggy replied. "Jeb was right. We can't win if we're always fighting with each other."

He nearly grimaced after he said the words. Jeez, he sounded like Max, all democratic and reasonable. When she wanted to be, that was. All he really wanted to blurt out was, You're a jerk, and being your partner is the last thing I want, but he was pretty sure Ari already knew both of those things and felt the exact same way about him.

Up ahead, Ari barked a biting laugh and whirled around another corner. Iggy sighed and hurried to catch up.

"We don't need you," Ari said shortly. "We'd do fine on our own if it weren't for you and your freaky family."

We're the freaks? Iggy thought incredulously, picturing Ari's monstrous Eraser form. He bit back the comment. It was hard to hold back biting retorts when Ari really, really deserved them, but Max was always telling him that he should think before he spoke.

Well, ha. Take that, oh wise-and-great leader.

Thinking of Max and the flock made depression sludge over his shoulders like sluggish tar. Where were they? Were they looking as hard for him as they had for Angel? Had they found any leads yet—were they on their way right now?

Iggy was too engrossed in his thoughts to notice that Ari had stopped. He stopped so close to the Eraser that he could hear the other mutant breathing.

"What?" he asked. His nerves tingled with excitement and anticipation. Did Ari want to fight?

"Why are you so slow?" Ari asked suddenly.

Iggy frowned and turned his head away. "Why do you care?"

"You're slowing me down!" Ari snapped. "And I can't leave you because if something happens and some Eraser comes down here and finds you alone, Jeb will say it's my fault."

"All right, fine. Turn around."
Iggy could almost feel Ari's eyes drilling holes into his head. "What?"

"Turn around if you don't want me to slow you down anymore."

The only sound was the quiet hum of Ari's anger and the shifting of his feet as he grumblingly obliged. Iggy reached out a hand hesitantly, fearing that if he extended it any farther he wouldn't get it back. Then, he hooked his fingers in Ari's belt loop.

Ari whirled around, jerking Iggy's fingers loose and snarling right in his face, "What are you doing?"

"Sometimes I hold onto someone's belt so I won't get left behind." Iggy shrugged, pretending his heart wasn't beating a hundred miles a minute.

For a single, heart-stopping moment, Iggy thought Ari was about to pummel him. Finally, the Eraser spun around with an angry huff and growled, "Fine."

Iggy brushed the air until he found the simmering boy's belt loop and slid his fingers through again. Ari was off in an instant, his footsteps even heavier and pounding than before. Iggy swallowed past the tightness in his throat. It was hard to resist the urge to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

Don't think about it. Pretend it's Max or Fang or someone else you're holding on to, not a seven-foot Eraser who wants to bite your head off.

Impossible. All it took was for Iggy to picture what they must look like: a fuming, hulking Eraser leading around a tall, skinny boy like the babysitter from down below, and he was caught between mortification and an almost irresistible need to laugh out loud.

It took Iggy about five more seconds to realize that it had been a long time since he'd run into anyone besides Ari. And the twists and turns the Eraser was taking seemed more and more random.

"You're not lost, are you?" he asked before he could think to keep his mouth shut.

"No!" Ari barked. Several turns and an utter, tense silence later, he shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably and stopped in his tracks.

"You are lost." Iggy leaned back on his heels but kept his fingers hooked through Ari's belt loop; he didn't know when the agitated Eraser would take off again and didn't want to be left behind like some scrap for the wolf-mutants to pick up.

"I haven't been here that long," Ari admitted waspishly. The Eraser managed to infuse dislike and condescension into his voice even when he was indirectly asking for help.

Great, Iggy thought. They were lost in the middle of the School, the only place Iggy couldn't just up-and-away from at the first sign of trouble. The only person around was a moody Eraser with a beating-people-up problem, and Iggy himself wasn't known for having a mild temper.

"Backtrack?" he offered, anxiety starting to stretch through his hypersensitive nerves.

Ari grunted and spun around, heading back down the way they came. "Everything looks the same here," he muttered absentmindedly. "Even the doors. Too many numbers that don't mean anything."

"Try one," Iggy suggested.

Ari snorted. "You know even less than I do, don't you?"

Iggy clenched his teeth to avoid saying something nasty in return. "Yeah. Probably because I've been locked up inside a cage ever since I got here, and even when they do let me out, it's only so they can stick electrodes and needles in me. Not to mention I can't see where I'm going because I'm blind."

"Watch it," Ari warned him. They strode in silence for a minute or two before the Eraser said, "There are five levels to this School. We're on the bottom level, where they have the big training room and the docking bay. Not too many people come down here, because this is where they keep most of the reject mutants. Like you. And…the Erasers stay down here too."

Iggy's lips twitched. Who's a reject now?

"So you go into one of these doors," Ari said, a low growl in his voice, "and you don't know what you'll find."

Something nasty, Iggy's mind supplied readily. In a sudden flash, memories of heat and drilling machines and tortured, animal screams pounded in his head. He held tighter to Ari's belt, not noticing the curious look the Eraser gave him.

"So get off this level, then." Iggy cleared his throat, hating the abrupt fear that quivered in his voice.

"I don't know where the stairs are."

Iggy was about to reply when he heard thundering footsteps headed their way. Raucous laughter rang out into the cavernous hallway, making the tiny hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He ground to a halt and tugged on Ari's belt.

"You hear that?" he asked before the other mutant could snap at him. Ari went still and quiet, listening as attentively as Iggy was.

"You said Erasers stay on this level, too?" Iggy didn't bother with trying to hide the tremor in his voice this time.

"Yeah," Ari said grimly, and headed back down the hallway at a furious pace. Iggy nearly stumbled over himself; if he hadn't been holding onto the towering Eraser's belt, he would have been barreled over.

"Why are you running?" he asked as Ari picked up the pace. The Erasers behind them were getting closer. "It's me they don't like."

"Yeah," Ari said, coming to such a sudden halt that Iggy ran into him and bounced off as if he'd crashed into a brick wall. The other mutant didn't even flinch at the unwanted contact.

"But they don't like me, either."

The click of a door opening and Ari's hand digging into the scruff of his neck cut off any reply Iggy had. The winged boy found himself shoved like a pack of meat through the doorway and into the room. Ari snuck the door shut quietly and waited by the door, listening in silence as the Erasers walked past.

"Ugh," said Iggy, reaching up a hand to cover his nose. The first thing to hit him was the smell. It slid into his nose like a noxious slug and made the back of his throat sticky with bile. His stomach heaved and pitched like a furious ocean. He knew this smell. It was the stench of preservative that wasn't quite doing its job: half-rotted bodies and putrid, vomit-inducing death.

"What's that smell?" Ari asked, his voice thick with disgust. Iggy felt the Eraser nudge him out of the way as he turned around. There was silence for a few seconds as Ari took in the sight before him.

Iggy couldn't stand the quiet.

"What?" He asked, frustration with his inability to see starting to well up in him. He hated not knowing what was happening! "What is it?"

And then Iggy heard a sound he never thought would come from Ari: a high-pitched whine, the same kind dogs made when they were hurt or terrified half out of their wits.

"What?" Iggy nearly shouted.

"Get out," Ari whimpered.


"Get out now!"

Iggy instinctively ducked at the half-mad roar and fumbled for the door's handle. His fingers found it and twisted.

The lock jammed.

"Uh." Iggy jiggled the handle a little, and then harder when nothing happened. "Um. Crap. Ari?"

"What?" Ari's voice was still undercut with the panicky, wolfish whine Iggy had heard a second ago. The Eraser sounded terrified. And he wasn't going to like what Iggy was about to tell him.

"We have a problem."

Ari shoved him aside, snapping, "What are you talki—"

The door handle rattled.

Silence. Rattle, rattle, rattle. Then Ari whined again.

"Yeah," Iggy muttered, his heart and stomach sinking into a little twitching puddle somewhere near his feet. "My thoughts exactly."

Jeb was half ready to give up and take the day off. More than fifteen minutes of searching and he still hadn't found Ari—not that this School wasn't big enough to hide a seven-foot Eraser for hours, but he had thought there were only a few places Ari was willing to go to avoid his father. Apparently, Ari was angrier with Jeb than he thought.

Well, he had essentially chosen Iggy in favor of his son, but surely Ari understood the fragility of the situation? All it would take was one wrong punch and the tender truce holding the three of them together would split open like brittle skin. They couldn't afford to be throwing hits at each other every chance they had. It was detrimental both to the team and the mission.

Iggy wasn't where he was supposed to be, either. Jeb had walked back to the medical room on the first level and only found a battered experiment that had apparently been dumped and left for dead.

Where could he have gone? Jeb wondered. His fingers twitched with the urge to pull his hair out in frustration. Did no one understand how dangerous this entire situation was? Was he the only one who saw how much everyone's lives hung in the balance? All he had worked for, all he'd sacrificed in order to bring about the survival of humankind? He had left behind the family he'd always wanted, the woman he might have loved, and a long life of peace and normality. For what? So two rebellious mutants could gallivant off into danger's maw whenever they saw fit?

Jeb leaned against a wall and buried his face in his shaking hands, ignoring the odd looks people gave him as they passed by.

Calm down, he urged himself. Deep breaths. No help will come of panicking when Iggy and Ari need you most.


Jeb nearly leapt away from the wall, his heart jumping along with him. Jacob was standing in the middle of the hallway, his white coat spattered erratically with a deep red substance that almost sent Jeb spirally back into a panic attack.

"Is that…blood on your coat?" Jeb asked hoarsely.

Jacob looked down in surprise at his coat and gave Jeb a strange glance. "Yes. Jebidiah, are you all right?"

Jeb shook his head and ran a hand over his face, an action he found was beginning to become more and more of a habit. "Yes. Yes, I'm fine."

"You don't look 'fine.'" Jacob rested a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder. "Did you find Ari?"

"No." Jeb winced. "I searched as much of the first level as I dared, and the second level as well. No sign of him." He eyed Jacob's spattered coat, noting in the back of his mind that none of the passing whitecoats offered the blood more than a distracted glance. Why did he associate himself with these people, again? "What were you doing?"

Jacob grimaced and rubbed at his head. "Helping with a surgery. Turned out for the worst, though; it was already too late by the time I arrived."

He hesitated, glancing around, and pulled something square and silver from his pocket. It was a tiny metallic chip, smaller than the pad of Jeb's thumb.

"Is this what you were looking for?" Jacob smiled.

"I…" Jeb took the chip between his fingers. It felt fragile enough to snap without effort. "Jacob. Is this the…"

"Termination chip." Jacob leaned toward Jeb, casting nervous, suspicious glances at every whitecoat that passed by them. He should not have bothered. No one was trying to get close to the two people they had been ordered to avoid.

"How did you know about it?"

"Stroke of luck," Jacob admitted. "I overheard Steele talking about it earlier today and figured you might want to take a look at it."

Jeb was distantly aware that he was staring at the termination chip like it was the answer to all his unspoken prayers, but he couldn't help himself. The chip was such a very, very small piece of flimsy metal. How could it be the source of death for all of the School's mutants? Iggy and Ari included?

A whitecoat passed a little too closely for Jeb's comfort. He slipped the termination chip into his coat's chest pocket for safekeeping and later analysis.

"Did you find Iggy?" Jacob asked.

Jeb shook his head. "I went to the infirmary, but I didn't find him."

Jacob stared at him, brown eyes wide in his head. "I told him to wait for you. Jeb, he's lost down there?"

"Keep your voice down," Jeb hissed, making a frantic gesture with his hands. The shock of seeing the termination chip broke open like an egg shell, leaving him feeling vulnerable and frustrated again. "I know how delicate the situation is."

He spun on his heel and strode down the hallway, Jacob following close behind as he made his way to the first level and his two lost charges. The termination chip was tiny and weightless as air in his chest pocket, and the two mutants on whose shoulders this mission rested were missing, but he couldn't help feeling that he was a step ahead.

Jeb and Jacob were so preoccupied that they didn't notice a gray-haired figure watching them as they hurried by. Narrowing his eyes in suspicion, Nehemiah Stark watched his two subordinates pass. In the back of his scheming mind, a dark idea began to hatch like the beginnings of a plague.

"Uh, sir?" The whitecoat who had been asking him a question tried to get his attention. "I was…saying…?"

Stark turned around and gave the whitecoat a wintry smile. "Yes," he said genially, the false kindness in his voice sending chills down the poor man's backbone. "You were saying?"

A/N: The five seconds it takes you to review = hours of happiness for me. :)

soccerislife14: Thank you! Reading MR gave me a LOT of practice studying fight scenes, and since I love reading them, I love writing them as well. Thanks for reviewing!


10. Cumulonimbus

Early update, early update! Why? Because BlueWingedKitty, BuryTheCastle, Fangfan1, Illucida, blue-eyed-cow, pandorad24, blackberry01, Ren Black, flYegurl, juniper294, and lillypad22 are the best, that's why! Thanks for reviewing, guys. It means a lot, and I love each and every one of your comments. I just want to get this chapter posted - then I'll reply. :)

I had a reader ask me about this quite some chapters ago, so I'm just going to make a public announcement: no, there will be no Iggy romance in this 'fic—or romance for anyone else, in fact. Unless it's Fax, since that is canon, and even that will be strictly limited. Sorry if you're disappointed, but I for one think there are more than enough romance stories plugging up the Maximum Ride fandom. This ain't one of them.

Disclaimer: Wanna hear a joke? I own MR. Haha, yeah! Gets me every time. Jacob Marling IS copyright me, though, and if you steal him w/out permission, I shall know.

pandorad24: I love your reviews! Yet there are so many long ones that I can only reply to one this chapter since I don't want to make "Cumulonimbus" endless. It's already longer than any chapter before it. So your review reply is at the end. :)


Chapter Ten: Cumulonimbus

Calm down. Be patient. Help is on the way.

The droning of the Voice in Ari's head wasn't enough to distract him from bashing the door down. He burrowed into the fragile wood with his long claws, intent on ripping the offending obstacle into tiny broken pieces. Someone was growling in fury—himself, probably. There was no way any of the room's other occupants were going to be growling again.


Keep your head straight, the Voice instructed coolly. Nothing can hurt you in here. Your father is coming to help.

Jeb? It didn't matter. The Voice always told Ari the truth, even if it was a weird, kind of twisted truth, but he wasn't going to stay in this room with its horrors just so his father could come and save him. He was Ari. He didn't need saving, he could take care of himself. He was a big boy now and he was not going to sit there and wait for daddy to come to the rescue.

With one final, judicious kick, the door snapped under the force of Ari's assault and gave way.

"Finally!" Ari pushed through the door's fractured remains, ignoring the splinters that wedged happily beneath his skin and started to burn. He heard the stupid runt-freak scramble out of the room behind him. Closing his eyes, Ari forced himself to calm down, like the Voice had told him to, and leaned against a wall. All he wanted to do was sprint away from that nasty room as fast as he could, but he wasn't going to show the runt how afraid he was.

"Uh," said the runt after a couple minutes of strained silence, "so…what was in there?"

Ari snapped his eyes back open and wished that the runt could see the glare he was getting. But the blind freak only stared at him sightlessly in that disturbing way Ari hated—how could he meet Ari's eyes when he couldn't see squat?—and raised a pale eyebrow. Ari snorted and stomped away down the hallway, not bothering to wait for the blind boy to try and hold onto his belt again. That had been weird.

"Dead stuff," he grunted blatantly. "It really smelled."

There. Maybe the runt would accept that explanation.

But, like Max, the freak managed to be more perceptive than he looked.

"That's why you wanted to get out of there so badly?"

"I have a sensitive nose," Ari snapped. Would Jeb really notice if he roughed up the weirdo a little bit? Just a little?

"Right," said Iggy in a tone that said he clearly didn't believe Ari's excuse. Anger roared up sharp and burning in the pit of Ari's stomach. He jerked to a stop and turned around, leveling his meanest glare at the sightless boy's eyes. The runt only raised his other eyebrow and leaned back the slightest bit, not looking intimidated at all.

Darn it.

"You're annoying," Ari told him, before he could stop himself. The runt's mouth fell open in disbelief.

"Are you kidding me? You're the one who's been hunting my flock nonstop! Try turning around every few seconds to check 'n see if some psycho's after you. That's annoying."

Ari studied the bird-kid through narrowed eyes. He actually looked kind of angry now. Well, good. Now he knew how Ari felt half the time. "You're stealing my dad away."

The runt let out a sudden, explosive yell and tore at his yellow-red hair in fury. Ari leaned back, alarmed.

"How many times do I have to tell you?" Iggy yelled. "I'm not trying to take Jeb away from you! You can have him! You can have him a gajillion times over! I don't want 'im! He's the one who keeps coming back to us."

Ari felt some of his own anger spike in retaliation. "It doesn't matter if you're trying to steal his attention or not! You just do. By existing. Don't you get that? As long as you and your weird friends are around, my dad won't care about me! He's too freaking obsessed with looking after you bird-freaks!"

"Well, what do you want me to do about it?" Iggy snapped.

"I…" Ari clenched his fists so tightly his claws broke the skin of his palm. All of his anger and frustration rose up and pushed through his throat, making it hurt. He wanted a lot of things. He wanted his dad to pay attention to him. He wanted Max to like him and be his friend. And he wanted everybody else—the whitecoats, the Erasers, and everyone else in the wide, horrible world—to just go away. Go away and never, ever come back.

Iggy's harsh expression softened into something less angry and judgmental. "Look," he said quietly, "I know you don't like me. And I sure as heck don't like you. But could you just chill, just this once, and work with me?"

A clear, familiar voice rang out in the hallway before Ari could utter a single word in reply.

"Ari! Iggy!"

All of Ari's blustering, violent anger burst and went out of him in a heavy sigh. The sight of his father brought some of it back, but suddenly he just felt tired and kind of stretched out, like his skin when he was morphing into full Eraser mode.

"There you are!" Jeb strode toward them with Jacob following close behind. His eyes glinted with relief behind his glasses, but there was something tense in the way he was furrowing his forehead. Ari remembered that the runt had said his father was looking for him. That had been a while ago; maybe Jeb had been worried? About him?

But no, Ari thought as Jeb's concerned gaze slid over to Iggy. He couldn't care less about me.

"Is everything all right here? Ari?" Jacob asked. Ari blinked at him and shrugged. At least this Jacob guy cared enough to ask.

"Fine," Iggy grunted. His jaw was clenched in a way that told Ari he was still angry about the whole Jeb thing. Well, so what? Let him be angry.

Cooperation is key, the Voice said in its lecturing tone. Dissention in the ranks leads to division. Division leads to failure. Failure leads to death.

Whatever, Ari thought sourly. He's not my friend.

But he is Jeb's, the Voice said meaningfully.

Ari blinked. So?

But the Voice had gone silent.

"…looking for you." The runt's voice filtered in as through a fog, startling Ari out of his daze. He was abruptly aware that Jacob was frowning at him almost thoughtfully, and he scowled, folding his arms and looking away.

Come back, Voice! What did you mean?

"You didn't have any trouble?" Jeb asked Iggy, and Ari knew his father was glancing at him out of the corner of his eye.

"No," said the runt, "but we did almost run into some Erasers once. We went into a room until they passed by, but…" He stiffened, almost as if he could feel Ari's glare on him and was ignoring it. Stupid. "There was…something else in there."

Jeb frowned. "What was it?"

Iggy shook his head and waved a hand in front of his milky-blue eyes. "Dunno. The whole blindness thing doesn't really turn off when I want it to."

Jeb flushed, looking embarrassed for a moment. Ari enjoyed his discomfort…at least, until his father turned to him for answers. His stomach did a funny dropping motion, like an elevator that had its cables cut.

"Ari, did you see what was in the room?"

Ari shifted uncomfortably on his feet, shooting the runty freak a pointless, heated glare. Finally, he shrugged, affecting indifference, and said in a low growl, "Just a bunch of Erasers. Dead, of course."

He hesitated. Jeb was looking at him with confusion on his exhaustion-lined face. Ari knew his father was waiting for more; his hulking, seven-year-old son couldn't possibly be afraid of dead things. "They were…uh, dissected. Each of them had the back of his neck cut open."

The urge to touch the same spot on his neck was so strong Ari felt his fingers twitch. Understanding lit up in Jeb's eyes as he made the connection.

"You think it might be linked to the Extermination Effect?" he asked eagerly. Ari shrugged. "Ari," said his father, "which room was it?"

No. No way was he going back in there. No way was he going to be faced with the dead, half-rotting Erasers, near carbon copies of himself. It was like looking at a dozen dead Ari's. His greatest fear. Yet what made it worse was that he had recognized the Erasers. He'd known them while they were still alive, lived and ate with them. And every single one of them had died of the same thing: their expiration date.

It meant the whitecoats didn't burn the bodies of the expired Erasers like they said they did. They kept them down here, locked in a room and dissected, left to rot once the termination chip was removed.

It was just as he had feared. The whitecoats were experimenting with the Extermination Effect…on Erasers.

And Ari couldn't fight off the terrifying, numbing feeling that he was next.

Jeb didn't seem to understand why his son was holding out on him. He opened his mouth, his eyebrows creasing with the first signs of frustration. Jacob reached out a hand and rested it lightly on his friend's shoulder, stopping him before he could grill Ari for answers.

"Just tell us what room number it was," the dark-skinned man said with a soft, understanding smile. "We'll handle it from there."

Ari ignored the pull of his father's eyes. "Don't remember which number it was. But I broke down the door."

Jeb's eyebrows sailed straight up to his hairline. Jacob cleared his throat, surprised, and nodded. Ari felt a flash of irritation; did this guy have to take everything in stride so easily? His calmness was making Ari feel unbalanced.

"That's fine," Jacob reassured him. "Stark doesn't monitor much of the lower level, so I'm sure no one will know it was you."

Oh. Ari scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. He hadn't thought about getting in trouble for breaking down a door.

"Just go straight down," he muttered, cursing the feeling of heat rising to his cheeks. Jeb brushed past him without another word. Jacob gave Ari an offhanded, contemplative look and followed his friend down to the room with the dissected Erasers.

Ari jumped at the feeling of something pulling on his belt. When he looked down, Iggy's piercing, sightless blue eyes stared straight back at him. The runt opened his mouth, looking like he wanted to say something, but shook his head at the last second and stalked off down the hall.

Ari stared after him, his mind divided between being freaked out and just plain confused.

The Voice had made a point of reminding him that Iggy was chummy with Jeb. Well, so what? He wasn't an idiot. He could tell that Jeb liked Iggy more than he liked Ari. Was it supposed to make him feel better, or something? Because it really wasn't.

You're missing a key figure, the Voice piped up. You want your father to like you.

There was no doubt in Ari's reply. More than anything in the world.

Then do as he says. Play his game. Work with Igneous. Your father is more liable to like you if you cooperate with his plans.

Cooperate. Jeb wanted him and the runt-freak to work together. Like a movie script playing out in his head, the runt's earlier words came to the forefront of his mind.

"Jeb was right. We can't win if we're always fighting with each other…could you just chill, just this once, and work with me?"

Ari groaned in exasperation and ran a hand through his thick hair, pulling hard enough to yank out a couple strands.

Fine! He snapped at his Voice, the runt, and the world in general. I'll work with precious, runty little Igneous. But only until Jeb likes me.

Of course, said the Voice, but there was something incredibly smug in its tone.

Jeb hated this feeling of helplessness. Here he was, a spy in the School's innermost circles, the man in charge of training the messiah of the New Age for her highborn destiny, and he couldn't even stop a group of half-insane men from sticking needles into his surrogate son.

On the metal examination table, Iggy jerked against his restraints, straining so hard that blue veins stood out against his pale skin. The whitecoat administering the drugs smirked and plunged the needle in deep. Even through the thick viewing window, Jeb heard Iggy yelp. He flinched.

"What's that, Batchelder? Feeling sympathetic?"

Breathe. One, two, three. One, two, three. Calmed, Jeb turned and offered Anne Chen his most genial smile. "Not at all," he said collectedly. Anne narrowed her dark, almond-shaped eyes. Her light-colored face looked ghastly surrounded by her long, midnight-black hair, giving her the appearance of a lampade, a spirit from the Underworld of Greek mythology.

"Did you think that because your little guinea pig boy is undergoing a special experiment that he wouldn't have to take his drugs? Tsk. So arrogant," simpered Anne.

Jeb clenched his jaw. Actually, he had been hoping—desperately, in fact—that Iggy would be spared the usual "vaccine treatment" that most of the School's mutants received. Essentially, it was playtime for the whitecoats. They got to inject a mutant with whatever serum they had invented and record the results. Even the mutant's death was perfectly acceptable.

Anne obviously knew Jeb had been hoping that Iggy couldn't have to endure this hellish process, and she was deliberately needling him, waiting for him to make a mistake. He was halfway tempted to give her one, just to wipe the infuriating smugness from her face.

No, he thought, calmly directing his gaze past Anne and her ever-present whitecoat duo to the white-tiled room and its patient. She reports directly to Stark. I cannot afford to slip up in her presence.

Someone made a quiet, queasy sound behind him when the whitecoats injected Iggy with something that made him contort into an impossible C shape. Jeb turned around, startled, but it was only Ari. His son was staring into the testing room, his skin several shades paler than normal and his blue eyes wide and round. Jeb turned back around slowly.

Not for the first time, he wondered what horrors his son had been subjected to in the process of becoming an Eraser. If Ari's reaction was anything to go by, he'd endured something similar to what Iggy was now going through. Possibly even worse.

Not my fault, his self-defenses immediately kicked in. I had to leave. I had to train Maximum.

Yet, somehow, he didn't believe his own excuses anymore.

In the white-tiled room, a buzzer went off. Iggy slumped back on the table and spat up something foul and brownish-colored. It landed squarely on the whitecoat's shoes, sending him into a fury. Jeb thought he saw Iggy smile.

"Alright," he said, waving a hand at the whitecoat in charge of opening and closing the glass sliding doors. "Open them up. I need to take him back and get something in his system before he goes into more training."

Jeb could feel Anne's scathing eyes on his back as he, Jacob and Ari moved into the white-tiled room to recover Iggy, who was busy grinning through the blood from having bitten the inside of his cheek. The whitecoat who had jabbed him with the needles had turned vermilion in the face and looked like he was seriously considering sticking the needle in Iggy again, just for spitting on his shoes.

"We can handle it from here," Jeb said coolly, laying a warning hand on the other man's shoulder. The man shot him a nasty glare, muttered something under his breath, and stalked out of the room.

"Jeb," Iggy croaked. His teeth were stained red from the blood in his mouth, and his hands were shaking ever so slightly, but he wore a smile big enough to light up the entire room. "Thanks for dropping by. Didn't think you'd have the stomach to watch all of that."

Jeb swallowed back his relief at finding that Iggy did not hold him responsible for his torture. Reaching for the clasps that kept the boy attached firmly to the table, he angled himself until he was sure Anne and the other whitecoats couldn't see his lips moving.

"Can you walk?" he asked, worriedly touching the inside of Iggy's chafed wrist.

"Dude," said Iggy hoarsely, and spat a little bit of blood onto the floor. "I'm blind, not an invalid. Besides, I'm used to this kind of stuff. Remember when I was six and they injected me with that stuff that made my stomach bleed? That was way worse."

Jeb didn't laugh, though he did hear Ari snort in disgust. It was obvious by the way he still twitched with the after effects of the injection that Iggy was putting up a front. Jeb took it as a good sign that the boy still had the energy to disguise his pain; it was when Iggy went silent that he started worrying.

Jacob undid the last clasp holding Iggy prisoner and slid his hands under the boy's shoulders. "Alright, up you go," he said, offering his quiet support. Iggy's fist curled in the front of Jeb's coat, pulling him forward as he struggled to lift himself up. It was apparent by the time he swung his legs over the side of the table that he would be unable to walk unsupported.

"Iggy," said Jeb, reaching out a cautioning hand to hold the boy back, "I think you should let one of us help you."

Iggy pushed his hand away in irritation. "I'm fine," he snapped, released Jeb's coat, and slid off the table. For a second he stood upright on his feet, a self-satisfied smile strutting on his lips.

And then his knees wobbled, and he toppled over…straight into Ari.

Jeb winced and prepared himself for the worst. Jacob groaned, covering his eyes with both hands.

Ari stared down at the smaller mutant clinging to his jacket, blinking, as if he wasn't quite certain how Iggy had gotten there. Then, what Jeb recognized as the beginnings of rage passed over his face like a shadow.

"Uh," said Iggy. He lifted a hand and patted Ari's muscular chest, tapping his way up the Eraser's front until he reached his strong jaw and felt the bared canines. Recognition flashed across his face. "Oops," he squeaked. "You're not Jeb."

"Good one, runt," Ari growled. He looked like he wanted nothing more than to pummel the smaller mutant for daring to touch him. Then, he flashed a glance in Jeb's direction, and the rage on his face was swiftly replaced by annoyance. Just as Jeb was about to step in, Ari reached down with one meaty arm, grabbed the back of Iggy's shirt, and tossed him over his shoulder. Iggy let out an indignant squawk.

"I don't need you to carry me!" he protested, kicking his long legs like a little child who hadn't gotten his way. "I can walk!"

Ari snorted disdainfully and stomped toward the doors. "Yeah, right. Just shut up and let me do my job."

Jeb followed dazedly after the odd pair, feeling vaguely like he'd been hit by a truck. Ari hadn't torn Iggy's throat out when he'd beaten others for simply looking at him a strange way. And now he was…helping? Had someone pushed him into a different world while he wasn't looking?

Jacob stared between Iggy and Ari, eyes boggling. "Jebidiah, what did you say to him?"

"Nothing!" Jeb muttered. Ari stalked past Anne, nearly bowling her over as he went. She sent him a vile glare that quickly directed itself toward Jeb as he and Jacob passed her.

"Goodnight, Ms. Chen," he said. She only glared and pressed together her thin, frowning lips.

Iggy slumped over Ari's shoulder with his arms swinging loosely from side to side with the Eraser's stride. He had a consternated expression on his face that said he very much wished he had the strength to jump off and walk himself. Iggy opened his mouth, looking like he was about to snap out a complaint, when a loud rumbling filled the empty halls.

Ari belted out a laugh. Iggy instantly flushed a bright shade of cherry and scowled.

"Cut that out!" he snapped, slapping Ari's back and earning himself a hateful growl from the Eraser. "I haven't eaten in ages."

"I can get you something," Jacob offered helpfully. "It's nearly ten o'clock. There won't be many people down at the mess hall."

Iggy gave him a hopeful smile. "I like pizza."

Jacob laughed and patted Iggy's bobbing head. "None of that, young man. You need nutrients."

The boy groaned. "You sound just like Jeb."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Jeb smiled. He looked up at Ari's face as they walked, taking in his son's expression. Ari looked puzzlingly…complacent. He didn't look happy with the situation—Jeb could not imagine how much self-control it took him not to toss Iggy onto the floor—but he wasn't wearing his usual mask of fury, either. Perhaps the boy was finally coming around and starting to realize that emotions did not mix well with the mission.

Perhaps there was hope for him, after all.

The thought brought Jeb back to the staged fight that had taken place earlier in the day. Ari had been presented with the chance to break every one of Iggy's bones with the promise of little resistance. Yet he hadn't taken it. Instead, he had held Iggy up when it was obvious the boy couldn't stand on his own, and refused to fight him when he was down.

It was so unlike his son that it still threw Jeb for a loop. Was his son actually capable of compassion? Had he encountered some kind of understanding with the winged boy? Jeb remembered that the two mutants had been screaming at each other during the fight, telling each other off for ruining the other's life. Had Ari realized just how similar his situation was to Iggy's?

Jeb dispelled the notion immediately. Ari wasn't the understanding type, nor was he the compassionate one. Most likely his wolf's genes had reacted to the situation and recognized Iggy as an equal in combat. His wolfish instinct must have held him back. There was no other explanation.

Because if there was, then Jeb was wrong about his son. Ari wasn't just a rage-driven, vengeful, half-insane killing machine that didn't know how to control his volatile emotions. He was still human beneath the fangs and fury.

And that possibility frightened Jeb most of all, because he knew he couldn't abandon his son a second time. He would have to save Ari, even if it got him killed.

"We're here," he heard himself intone. Their mismatched group came to a halt at the door to Iggy's containment room. Jeb clicked the door open, acknowledging Jacob's departure for the mess hall with a weary nod.

"Turn on the light," Ari grunted, stepping into the cage-filled room. "Can't see a thing in here."

Jeb flicked on the light switch. A single, bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling lit the room with a dull, sickly glow. He looked away from the unmoving masses in some of the room's other cages and leaned tiredly against the wall.

"Oh, not here again," Iggy grumbled, sniffing the foul, tainted air. "This place smells like Gazzy's dirty socks. Or Max's cooking. Oogh, that's worse."

Ari slung the boy off his shoulders and set him roughly on his feet. Iggy teetered dangerously for an instant before catching himself on the side of his cage. Ari unlatched the cage's door.

"In you go," he said smugly. Iggy glared at him.

"Are we being recorded?" he asked.

"No," Jeb replied, shutting the door. "Stark does not bother with installing cameras in the containment rooms."

"Then I'll wait to get in the cage." Iggy slid down to the floor and pushed his back against his cage. Looking rather green and shaky, he pulled his knees to his chest and buried his face in them. "Getting stuck with needles always makes me kinda sick. I think I might puke."

Ari backed away hastily, a disgusted look on his face. Ignoring them both, Jeb reached into his chest pocket and pulled out the termination chip. Ari straightened up.

"What's that?" he asked curiously.

"The termination chip," Jeb answered without thinking. Ari's breath whistled through his canines.

"That's what causes the Extermination Effect?" he asked, sidling closer. "That puny little piece of metal?"

"Apparently. Jacob retrieved it during a surgery earlier this evening."

Ari scratched the back of his neck. He didn't seem to notice he was doing it, because when he caught Jeb looking he hastily pressed his hand back to his side.

"I have one of those," he said thoughtfully, his rough voice sounding impossibly young. Jeb flinched. Only seven years old! And you let them stick that in him?

"You 'n me both," Iggy groused from his spot on the dingy floor. He lifted his head, but quickly ducked it back down again when the blood fled from his face. "Ugh. I'm gonna hurl."

Jeb's train of thought trailed back to the dissected Erasers he and Jacob had found behind the door Ari knocked down. Just as Ari had described, each one had had the back of his neck sliced and pried open to enable easier access to the termination chip. Some of the Erasers had even been gutted, no doubt in an attempt to find any adverse side effects of the expiration date. It hadn't given Jeb much insight into the Extermination Effect, but it had reminded him of the urgency of the situation. The whitecoats were getting too comfortable and adventurous with their new toy. If he, Ari and Iggy didn't act quickly, the mission could go down in flames.

"Umm," said Ari slowly, jerking Jeb's attention back to the present. The Eraser rocked back and forth on his heels, looking strangely awkward and uncertain of himself. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a couple crumpled pieces of paper, and shoved them in Jeb's face.

"Here," he grunted, looking away. "I snagged these from Chen when she wasn't looking."

Jeb blinked and smoothed out most of the wrinkles from the papers. Extermination Effect, read a line of blocky letters across the top. Jeb's jaw fell open. Random words jumped out at him as he scanned the first page. Formation. Trigger. Commencement. Expansion. Termination chip. Deletion.

Ari mistook his expression for horror. "She doesn't know I took it," he said hastily. "They were just sticking out of her pocket. I grabbed 'em when I pushed past her, but I swear, she couldn't have felt a thing—"

Jeb released a sharp, ecstatic burst of laughter. Ari leaned away from him as if he'd gone insane. Iggy glanced up from his knees, gagged, and returned to trying to hold in what little food he had eaten.

"I'm gonna puuuuke," he groaned.

"This is wonderful, Ari!" Jeb exclaimed, holding the two pieces of wrinkled paper up closer to the light. Glee grew in his chest and ballooned outward, making him feel as if he was about to burst with excitement. Ari leaned forward, an eager gleam entering his eyes when he realized Jeb wasn't angry with him for taking such a risk.

"It is?" he asked. "I didn't get to look at the papers after I took them. I thought Chen might notice."

"They're on the Extermination Effect," Jeb said elatedly. "This just makes our mission that much easier."

Ari beamed, his chest puffing up with pride.

"That's nice," Iggy said through gritted teeth. "But dude, seriously. I'm gonna puke."

Jeb's smile died away into a stern frown as he studied the end of the second page Ari had given him. His son took a worried step toward him.

"What?" he asked, noting Jeb's frown. "What's wrong?"

"These are only the first two of six pages," Jeb said. "The rest…the Extermination Effect's defects, its deletion…it's all on the last four pages."

Ari grimaced. "Then I still have to get the rest."

"Only if it is absolutely imperative," Jeb replied. He folded the papers and tucked them carefully into his front pocket with the termination chip. "Anne will be keeping an eye on those papers now that some of them are missing. I doubt you'll be able to get them without being caught. Just…stick to listening around as much as you can. You've done well, Ari." Jeb reached up and rested a hand on his towering son's shoulder, not missing the flash of happiness that passed through Ari's blue eyes.

"Someone's coming," Iggy rasped from the floor.

Jeb lowered his hand just as Jacob burst through the door, his eyes wild and his arms filled with food for Iggy.

"Jacob," Jeb said in surprise. "What's—"

"Stark's sent someone to look for you, Jeb," Jacob sputtered. "If he finds you here, talking with your sons…"

Jeb felt the blood drain from his face. He had forgotten entirely about giving Stark his daily report on the progress of the Extermination Effect. Stark already suspected him enough as it was. If whoever he sent found him apparently conspiring with Ari and Iggy, not only would they lose their only means of gathering information, all three of them would probably be thrown into cages until they rotted.

Iggy leaned over and threw up.

"Thank you," Jeb said, giving Jacob a grateful nod. "Would you…take care of them? Make sure Iggy eats and that he feels better?"

"Of course," Jacob said.

Jeb ran from the room without another word. He knew the exact way to Stark's office and hurried as fast as he could, slowing down to keep up appearances whenever someone passed him in the hallway.

Just as he was rounding a corner on the uppermost level of the School, Jeb encountered Anne. She gave him a hate-filled glare and for a terrifying moment, Jeb thought she knew what Ari had done. Then, she spat, "Batchelder. I was just coming back to inform Doctor Stark that I could not find you."

So Stark had sent Anne. Of course he had.

"I apologize. I was held up," Jeb said with a polite inclination of his head. He waved a hand to the door labeled Nehemiah Stark in capital gold letters. "You first?"

Anne blew past him through the door without a backward glance. Jeb followed close on her heels and closed the door behind him, looking up as he went.

"Doctor Stark, I—"

The first thing he noticed was that it was dark. A black sheet of metal covered the glass wall opposite the office door, highlighted by a video from a projector hooked up to a gleaming, whirring laptop. Stark was sitting with his back to Anne and Jeb, his hands folded calmly in his lap and his every muscle still, focusing on the web-cam video as it played out on the wall in front of him.

Jeb heard Anne make a noise of surprise. The video showed what looked like the inside of a very high-tech van. One whitecoat cringed on the floor of the vehicle, cupping his bleeding cheek with a trembling hand, while the other was on his feet with a gun in his hands, shouting as he tried to block the interior of the van from view.

He wasn't succeeding. Not completely. Beyond the shouting whitecoat's shoulder Jeb saw the open doors of the van, a flash of blond hair and a familiar face.

His heart skipped a beat.


Max had her fists up and her teeth bared, a look of fury on her face as the whitecoat trained the gun on her. She stared past the whitecoat at the video screen, seeming to look right at Jeb. Shock registered in her eyes.

Stark reached out to the laptop's mouse pad and moved his cursor over the screen. Before he could stop himself, Jeb moved forward.

"No, wait—"

He was too late. Stark closed the live video before Jeb could reach him, but not before he heard gunfire split the air. Someone screamed on the other side of the connection.


Then the screen went black.

A/N: Love me or love me not for that cliffy, please review. Catch any typo's? Plot holes? Anything you'd like to see? Let me know!

I'm afraid all I have to bribe you at the moment is a Jacob plushie. :D Comes with angsty backstory and everything.

pandorad24: For your review to Chapter 2. Yep, "In Reverence" is mine. Thanks, and I know, that unpublished sequel hangs over my head every time I open up "Icaria." Honestly, though, I don't know if I should even write the sequel anymore - on the one hand, it would provide closure. On the other, it would take away the readers choice: to choose for themselves whether Iggy got his wings back or not. I don't know, we'll see. But back to the rest of the review. Thank you! I've wanted to be a writer ever since I was nine years old, and that dream hasn't even showed the slightest possibility of fading, so to hear that you think I have what it takes: it's great. :D Inspiration does kind of jump out at the most random times, doesn't it? I think this entire 'fic was inspired by a daydream I had. "Icaria" literally stemmed from a daydream about an argument between Iggy and Jeb. From there, everything just kind of...grew. :) Thanks for reviewing!

Next chapter: Jeb scrambles to cover his tracks, the flock gets into trouble, and Ari plays spy.

Until next time!


11. Off the Face of the Earth

I have a confession to make. This entire chapter was written up on Document Upload, so if there are any horrifying mistakes/typo's I didn't catch, I am apologizing way ahead of time. Spell-check is my hero. Without it, I might not catch the little mistakes that otherwise get tossed out into the cold, so...see anything wrong, just let me know, and I'll change it.

On a separate note, you guys have outdone yourselves - well, you outdid yourselves before, but you've outdone what you've outdone. Yeeah. Thank you - blue-eyed-cow, pandorad24, Illucida, blackberry01, BeTrueToThyself, Ren Rain, flYegurl, juniper294, Aleria14, BlueWingedKitty, soccerislife14, and lillypad22. You guys pushed us to just over 100 reviews - here, have a cookie. :)

Note: I can't remember the exact relationship between Jeb and Ari's mother, but I'm assuming they loved each other. Whew. The chapters just keep getting longer and longer!

pandorad24: review reply at bottom. :D

Disclaimer: I solemnly swear that though I am up to no good, I'm not about to steal the copyright...uh, rights to MR. 'Cuz they're not mine. I do own Jacob Marling, Anne Chen, and Nehemiah Stark, however, so hands off. :)

Chapter Eleven: Off the Face of the Earth

It was stupid. It was impulsive, not thought out at all, and completely a last-minute plan.

It was also Max's idea, so no one said a word against it.

"You'd think that after so many failures they'd learn a little subtlety," Fang commented dryly, leveling a flat stare at the bulky white van parked to the side of the winding dirt road. Max rolled her eyes and cracked her knuckles, crouching lower behind the towering tree when one of the Erasers standing guard outside the van glanced her way. The shadows of the trees bordering the empty road provided more than enough cover, and after a minute the Eraser turned back to his partners - all five of them - and dove back into their lively conversation. Whatever it was that Erasers gabbed about when they were bored and in the middle of nowhere because the van ran out of gas.

"Subtlety? Yeah, right. This is the School we're talking about." Max winced at her own words. They sounded so much like something Iggy would say - well, everything sounded like something Ig would say, now that he'd been gone more than three days. It was like he'd dropped off the face of the earth. She missed him so much that it physically hurt.

Well, she thought, flexing her fingers and eyeing each Eraser in turn, time to give some of that hurt to those who deserve it most.

"How do we know these whitecoats have the intel we're looking for?" Angel asked. She squinted her bright blue eyes and squatted in the leafy ground beneath the trees. "I can't really hear what they're thinking, but I don't think it's about Iggy. It's about us."

"Probably hoping to add us to their collection now that they've already got Ig," Gazzy muttered darkly. Ever since Iggy had been taken, he'd drooped into a grumpier, more introverted version of his usual chatty self. Max didn't blame him; when Angel had been taken, she'd become so angry at some points that she couldn't see straight. Iggy was the Gasman's partner in crime, the bird-kid he'd most likely share a cell with if they ever went to prison for, like, blowing up a bank or something. And now he was in the hands of those monsters. Again.

"Alright," Max said, feeling her blood rush through her veins. It was time to hurt somebody. "Plan's simple. Take out the Erasers. Strangle info on Iggy's whereabouts out of the whitecoats. Got it?"

"And then fly as fast as we can to where Iggy is," Nudge concluded with a firm nod of her dark-haired head. "Got it."

"Got it," Gazzy and Angel supplied.

"Yeah," Fang said. He shot her a look in the shadows, a look that said he was just as ready to bash some heads as she was. Max grinned. And then an instant later, she had sprung to her feet, balled her fists, and was sprinting toward the group of Erasers huddled around the white van.

The wolf-mutants obviously had no idea what was coming for them. They jumped at the sound of Max's footsteps pounding over the dirt, but by the time they swung their guns around, the flock was already on top of them.

Max reached the Erasers first and tackled the closest one. Around its thick waist her legs went, and one, two, three times her fists lashed out and struck full-on blows to its snarling face. The Eraser gurgled through the blood pouring from its nose and went down. Max jumped up, abandoning the downed Eraser, and set to work helping Angel fend off a wolf-mutant intent on taking off her blond head.

"It's - oomph - kinda harder to aim - augh - in the freaking - ow, dammit - pitch black!" Fang snapped, ducking the flying kick of one Eraser and the balled fist of another. Max clapped her hands over an Eraser's ears, dropped away when she heard its shriek of pain, and leapt on the back of the Eraser trying to take Fang out from behind.

By this time the whitecoats had heard the commotion and flung open the doors of their van.

"It's them!" One whitecoat shouted to his partner. "Get Doctor Stark off the other line before they..."

Max rammed her elbow into the back of the Eraser's neck and jumped at the whitecoat instead. The skinny man made a high-pitched squawk of surprise and scrambled backward, but not before her fist caught the side of his face hard enough to split skin. The whitecoat crumpled to the floor of the van and lay there, whimpering and clutching his bleeding cheek.

The inside of the van was like something out of a sci-fi movie, Max decided, only not as cool. Computers, radios and speakers were built straight into the walls of the van. A laptop balanced precariously on a folding chair near the driver's seat fed what looked like a live video. Max caught sight of a gray-haired man with a cold expression, before the second whitecoat moved and caught her attention. He was on his feet with his teeth bared in a frightened, panicked grimace.

And there was a gun in his hand, pointed straight at her. Oh, joy.

"Get away!" The whitecoat shouted. His hands shook as he cocked the gun into position, ready to fire at any moment. "Get down and put your hands over your head or I'll shoot!"

"Yeah, right," Max told him. "You can barely hold that thing steady."

The whitecoat's stance faltered. Max took the opportunity to peer past him to the laptop he was obviously trying to block from her view. The gray-haired man wasn't alone this time; two other whitecoats stood in the background, their faces slack-jawed with shock as they watched her scene play out. Max had eyes for only one of those people. He was the person she'd prayed she would never have to see again in her life.


"Down!" The whitecoat said. "I mean it, mutant!"

Max dropped. Behind the whitecoat the screen of the laptop flickered and went black, and she thought she heard someone say, "No, wait!"

Then the gun fired, the shot echoing painfully in her ears as the bullet whizzed over her ducked head, and she tackled the whitecoat around his stomach.

"Max!" Someone screamed behind her.

She and the whitecoat went crashing to the floor, knocking into the folding chair and bringing the expensive-looking laptop down with them. Max landed on top and lifted a fist. The whitecoat raised his hands above his face and flinched violently. Max nearly snorted in disgust. Wimp.

"Who was that?" she demanded. "That man with the gray hair."

The whitecoat pursed his lips, his grass-colored eyes bulging with fear. She was probably just a dangerous, out-of-control animal to him. An animal that would stop at nothing to get what she wanted. Well, Max was fired up after more than three days of missing her blind brother, and was in no hurry to console the man.

"Look," she snapped, bringing her fist closer to the man's trembling jaw, "I really don't like your kind and I have no problem punching someone when they're down. Especially when it's someone like you. So if you don't tell me what I want to know, I swear, when I'm done with you, you won't even be able to talk straight anymore."

"Nehemiah Stark," the whitecoat blurted. "He's the director of his School."

"Which School?" Max asked. "The one with Iggy?"

A look of confusion mixed with sharp terror crossed the whitecoat's face. Then, his expression closed off, leaving her with a sneering, arrogant man in her grasp.

"I know what you're planning, mutant, and so does he. You can't beat him. He's smarter, a hundred times smarter, and more cunning than anyone you've ever met. And he knows everything. He'll know if I tell. I'm not telling you anything."

A high, fractured whining started up in Max's ears - it was the sound she heard every time she became so angry she saw red.

"Max?" Nudge's frightened voice piped up. The whining died away in Max's ears, until she was suddenly aware of someone gasping in pain behind her. She gave the whitecoat a good punch in the face - just in case he decided to get smart and try to run away - and turned around.


But she'd already seen. The bullet the whitecoat had aimed at her chest had missed her head by centimeters when she dropped, coming so close to impaling her in the skull that it grazed a couple flyaway hairs. By sheer, dumb luck and her own superhuman reflexes, the bullet missed her.

But it hit Fang instead.

From his spot on the floor of the van, Fang gave her a queasy gesture that was more grimace than smile. "Nice of you to notice," he joked, but his voice shook. His shaking hand was pressed tightly against his side. Max could see the tell-tale red stain spreading out through the fabric of his shirt.

"Max, it looks really bad," Nudge whimpered. Her face was shiny with frightened tears. Gazzy's skin had gone several shades lighter.

"Let me in," Max said. She scuttled close on her knees until she was at Fang's side. It wasn't the first time Fang had been shot and it probably wouldn't be the last with their kind of luck, but the bullet didn't look like it had come out the other side. It was still lodged inside of him and Max really, really didn't think she could get it out with her bare hands without damaging something important. Fang met her gaze, and though his eyes were hazy and glazed with pain, he was giving her a stubborn look that said he was going to try and muscle it out.

Max looked over at the whitecoat, who had abandoned nursing his broken nose and was now eyeing the fallen gun near Max's foot, then at the unconscious whitecoat Gazzy had knocked out, and back at Fang.

You know, if anyone's listening out there, I could really use some kind of divine intervention here. No? Okay.

It looked like she would have to wing it. No dorky pun intended.

"Are all the Erasers out?" Max asked.

Gazzy nodded. "We finished them off when you were interrogating that whitecoat."

"Sure that other guy's blacked out nice and good?"

Nudge smiled shakily, her eyes flickering between Fang and Max for a second, and patted the unconscious whitecoat's chest. "Fang took him out."

"Right." Max got to her feet and stood over the whitecoat she had tried to interrogate. He stopped staring at the gun by her feet and cringed away from her.

"You're kind of in our way," Max informed him. "Out you go."

Three seconds later, two whitecoats were tossed out of the back of the van, onto the pile of downed Erasers. A second later, the van roared to life and sprung forward, completed a clumsy U-turn, and screamed back down the dirt road toward civilization. The whitecoats and Erasers turned to specks in the rearview mirror.

"Max, are you sure you know what you're doing?" Nudge asked nervously as Max narrowly avoided running the van off the side of the road.

"No, not really," Max replied cheerfully. She snuck a glance at Fang, who seemed to grow paler with every bump and swerve the van took. Gazzy and Nudge hovered at his side, their young faces tense with worry. Gazzy had removed Fang's jacket and was pressing it to the older boy's bleeding side.

"Nudge, you see that laptop on the ground?" Max asked, snapping her eyes back to the road when she almost ran into a tree. "It's important. Don't lose it."

"Where are we going?" Fang asked weakly from the floor. He'd closed his eyes and was lying with his head cushioned on Nudge's knees.

Max clenched her teeth and ignored how her every instinct screamed at her not to utter the words she knew none of them would like. But Fang was hurt, bad - worse than bad, actually. And they couldn't afford to lose another flock member.

"We're going back into the city," she said, firmly not looking back at their worried faces. "We're getting you to the hospital."

Sorry, Iggy. I'm not gonna let Fang die. But we're coming. I promise.

Well, this is nice, isn't it? Now Stark knows for certain which side you're on. He was probably waiting for this moment all along. No, I'm certain he was. And I've given it to him.

Jeb pressed his hands to his sides and took a deep breath through his nose as Stark swiveled his chair around. The cold man sported his typical uninterested look, but there was something insufferably smug in it that made a shiver ripple up and down Jeb's stiff spine. Anne's thin lips curled up at the corners into a hungry, eager smile.

"I'm sorry," Stark said softly, his voice a silky, predatory purr. "I didn't quite catch that. What did you say to me, Batchelder?"

Jeb kept himself perfectly still. "I apologize, Doctor. I did not mean to impose. I simply thought that, as per the interests of Itex, we should have watched the scene play out to ascertain the flock's whereabouts and wellbeing..."

"I am well aware of where your 'flock' is," Stark snapped. "My whitecoats have reported to me that the mutants are currently scouring the lower half of Oregon for answers to the sixth mutant's location. Obviously, they have no leads and are simply letting themselves be run off the hunt by my scouts. As for their wellbeing, I'm sure you can guess what the sound of a fired gunshot implies."

The man leaned forward and gripped the armrests of his chair tightly. His silver-gray eyes glimmered in the darkness of the room. "I worry about your interest in these mutants, Batchelder. Perhaps I should remove you from the case and place Ms. Chen in charge instead."

Anne twitched at the sound of her name and gazed at Stark adoringly, an excited glint entering her dark eyes. Jeb's hands shook with the effort of keeping himself under control.

"With all due respect, Doctor, perhaps you are overanalyzing my reactions. I am under direct orders from the Director to glean as much from these mutants as we possibly can. If all that can be learned from them is obtained, the orders are to sell them as weapons to the highest bidder. Injuring or killing them is entirely detrimental to this goal. If you suspect ulterior motives from me, I ask that you provide evidence before making unneccessary accusations. I assure you, my connection to this operation is strictly occupational. There are no ulterior motives. With all due respect, sir."

Jeb's hammering heart and the rushing of his blood in his ears was the only sound he could hear for a long, torturous moment. He hadn't realized how defensive the words sounded until they were out. Perhaps he was getting too close to the flock. He'd loved them, he knew, even though he had tried not to. Love was linked entirely to emotion, and emotion could destroy a mission in a second. If Maximum was to save the world, she needed a mentor who had access to inside information and was emotionally detached from the situation. The future of mankind was much too important to risk on love.

Or, that was what he told himself. He ignored how much he'd heard his love for the flock, and how much he wanted to protect them for selfish, loving reasons, come out in his defensive words. He could only pray that Stark hadn't heard his fatherly instincts seeping through.

Finally, just when Jeb was about to explode from holding his breath for too long, Stark reached out and pressed a button on his desk. The black metal sheet covering the window-wall slid up into the ceiling. Outside, the air was calm and clear, even if the night sky did not offer much in the way of light.

Stark rose from his seated position. Standing up, he was on eye level with Jeb. "We'll see," he said icily, then turned away to put his chair back behind his desk and close the laptop. Jeb released his captured breath in a long, silent whoosh.

"I assume you came here for a reason, Batchelder?" Stark said after a few seconds of silence, during which the only noise was the rustling of paper as Stark tidied his desk. The gray-haired man sent Anne a distracted glance and added, "Ms. Chen, you are no longer needed here."

"Yes, Doctor," Anne said with a tiny bow of her elegant head. She pointedly did not look in Jeb's direction as she swept from the room, closing the door behind her and leaving Jeb and Stark alone.

"Yes, sir," Jeb said. His heart finally slowed to a normal pace, and the roaring in his ears died down to a low hum. One of these days, all this stress was going to do him in. He gave Stark the report he expected, carefully leaving out any mention of Ari or Jacob, though his joy at finding that Ari and Iggy were showing signs of cooperating burbled in his chest like a spring. Maybe the boys weren't getting along just yet, but with a little more time and interaction, he could see it happening.

But why did he care if they got along? They were key pieces to the dangerous game he was playing. All he needed was for them to work together. They did not have to like each other to do that.

But, a smug voice in the back of his head added, you do care. You want them to get along because they're your sons. And no amount of denial on your part is ever going to change that.

Which was exactly what he was worried about. Jeb didn't expect to come out of this alive. He knew he loved his children, even if he did try to deny it, and when he was caught in the cross fire, he didn't want them to mourn. He didn't want them to miss him. He knew it would hurt. He knew exactly how much losing someone you cared about hurt.

It happened with Ari's mother and now it was happening with his biological son himself. And Jeb would let it happen, because it was for the best. It was best if Ari didn't miss him when he was gone. Even if he did feel like he was dying every time his misshapen, twisted boy looked at him and held only hatred in his blue eyes.

"A satisfactory report," Stark grunted. Jeb snapped back to the present situation and folded his hands behind his back, the ideal picture of an obedient, alert subordinate.

"Remember, Batchelder, you have five days tomorrow to complete your project. After that, Igneous is no longer in your hands."

"Yes, sir. I understand." Jeb licked his lips and resisted the urge to fidget. He could sense that Stark was about to say something else.

"I've received word from Ms. Chen that some rather important papers of hers are missing."

For the second time since entering Stark's office, Jeb's heart missed a beat. Stark scrutinized him carefully and said, "Papers on the Extermination Effect. I trust you will tell me if you ever see them."

Meet his eyes, Jeb instructed himself. Always meet the eye of the person you're about to lie to.

"Yes, Doctor," he replied smoothly. He hesitated, heart beating quickly in his chest. He was going to try something incredibly risky, but it had to be done - he had to know. "Actually, sir, I have a request to make, if it's not too much to ask."

Stark merely raised a silver eyebrow in reply. Jeb took another steadying breath. "I would like to be granted temporary custody over the trigger of the Extermination Effect." Seeing Stark's incredulous expression, he hastily amended, "Only during the experiment itself, of course. The rest of the time, Ms. Chen would have..."

"Absolutely not," Stark interrupted.

Jeb blinked, pretending to be surprise and taken aback. In reality, he'd known Stark would deny his request before he ever opened his mouth. "Sir, I assure you, I have the School's best interests at heart..."

"Let me make myself quite clear," Stark sneered. He flattened his hands against the polished metal of his desk, pressing so hard that the whites of his knuckles shone through his skin. "I do not trust you. You may have everyone else in this damn operation fooled, and the Director may have faith in you, but I do not. If I had my way, I would donate you to the School as experiment fodder. The trigger stays with Ms. Chen."

"Sir," Jeb persisted, not giving the other man the opportunity to win back his breath and composure, "I don't believe..."

"No, Batchelder!" Stark barked. Whatever blood had been in his pale countenance was now gone in his fury. He looked sallow enough to melt into the wintry background behind him. "I shouldn't have to repeat myself."

"Perhaps a copy of the trigger, then?" Jeb insisted. This was what he was getting at; he doubted someone as paranoid and methodical as Stark wouldn't make a copy of the ticket to a revolutionary experiment.

"Impossible," Stark snorted.

"I don't see why not," Jeb said stubbornly. "Then Ms. Chen and I would both have equal parts in the experimental phase..."

"No," Stark ground out. The cords of his neck stood out, and the muscle over one of his silver-gray eyes twitched like a dying beetle.

"Why not?"



"Because each trigger is specific to one mutant's DNA and one only!" Stark exploded.

Jeb leaned back on his heels. His lips twitched, dying to curl up into a satisfied smile. Excellent.

"So Igneous has only one trigger?" he probed, keeping his eyes on Stark's bloodless face. But his momentum had been lost. The man looked livid at his own slip-up, if the way his hands were shaking, even pressed against the desk as they were, was any indication.

"Out," Stark whispered.


"I said out, damn you!" Stark screamed. For a second he seemed to disappear against the snow and white-drenched mountains, but an instant later he was back in his position, glaring at Jeb with more hatred than Ari could ever give out. Jeb blinked. He must have been seeing things.

"Yes, sir," he said quickly, and, not wanting to endanger the mission more than he already had, hurried from the office.

Early the next morning, the fourth day since Iggy's unexpected arrival, Ari glared down at his packaged mush of a breakfast and imagined having what the runt had had for dinner last night.

Meat, he remembered. Lots and lots of tasty, yummy meat.

That Jacob man was weird. He'd actually thought to bring some food for Ari too, as if he was going to eat in that dark, dingy room with the blind runt. Like a friend. Ari had snagged a slice of steak anyway and stalked out. The second he found a safe place to eat, he scarfed the entire thing down before anyone could come and take it away from him. If there was one thing he'd learned from living with Erasers, it was to always, always eat your food the instant you got your paws on it. Otherwise, someone was bound to knock you out and steal it from you. And then give you a kick, just because they could.

A shadow loomed over Ari, blocking out the harsh glare from the fluorescent lights of the Eraser mess hall. The seven-year-old lifted his head and scowled at the sight of the black-haired Eraser standing on the other side of his table. He was flanked by two more Erasers, each a little bit smaller than their leader.

"If you're not gonna eat that," the Eraser said with a toothy grin, "I might bust your head open for it."

The others let out low, malicious chuckles. Ari scanned the mess hall, noting that no one was paying any attention to the scene playing out. Either the Erasers were too busy burying their snouts in their meals, occupied with sparring with each other, or just looking the other way. It wasn't like anyone cared if he got beat up. Ari wasn't particularly liked, not even among his own "kind."

"Drop dead," he sneered at the Eraser. Mush or not, breakfast was breakfast.

The Eraser peeled back its lips to reveal deadly-looking incisors longer than Ari's. "You..."

Like every other time he'd seen it, it happened too quickly for Ari to process. A strange look crossed the Eraser's face, and the next thing Ari knew, the mutant was slumped over the table with his wide-eyed, ugly face in Ari's breakfast.

The mess hall went silent. Then, their faces twisted with terror, the two Erasers who'd accompanied their now-dead leader backed away from the table as if it was contaminated with a deadly virus. The rest of the hall's occupants went back to what they were doing, acting as if one of their own hadn't just died during breakfast, though some of the Erasers did look nervous. Ari got up slowly from his seat at the table and craned his neck to check for numbers on the back of the Eraser's neck.

6-16-05. Today's date. As if Ari needed confirmation.

A nasty chill scuttled up and down his back. Suddenly deciding that he wasn't hungry after all, the boy moved to step away from the table...but not before he heard a snippet of conversation from a group of Erasers huddling near the table.

"It's happening more and more," one Eraser muttered. "Yesterday my bunkmate went down at lunch, and the day before that, our captain and his right-hand man keeled over during training. It's like a freaking virus. It's spreading."

"Anyone one of us could be next," another Eraser mused anxiously.

"Can't we stop it?" an Eraser with bulging eyes asked.

"I asked Dag what he'd heard," the first Eraser broke in. "You know he's been goin' around, listenin' in on anything he can hear. He said there's a chip in the back of your neck. Like a tracking device, you know? He said the whitecoats experimented with it. It's what makes the numbers come up. And you can't take it out because it'll paralyze you, and you can't kill it with chemicals or nothin'."

Dag and chemicals. He'd heard of Dag before - apparently he was one of the smarter, more independent thinkers in the Eraser ranks, and a "bad egg" in the whitecoats' point of view. Ari stored the information in the back of his mind for later. He was sure Jeb would want to know about this. Not giving the dead body sprawled over his breakfast another look, he pushed past the huddled group of nervous Erasers and stepped into the long, white hallway leading to the stairs.

It was six o'clock in the morning, but Jeb was bound to be up. Ari didn't think his dad ever really slept. Maybe he snoozed with his eyes open.

Ari had almost made it to the stairs when he heard the unmistakable sound of Eraser laughter. It was coming from around a bend in the hallway, accompanied by the sound of feet pounding against the white tiles. A second later a tall, skinny figure in dirty jeans and a tattered white shirt careened into the wall, caught himself against the tiles, and ran clumsily down the hallway toward Ari.

It was the runt. Great.

Ari held his breath, knowing that the freaky kid could hear him breathing from five feet away. Iggy ran with his hand along the wall, a look of extreme concentration on his flushed face. He collided hard with Ari and bounced off, landing hard on his back with his feet in the air.

Ari smirked.

"What the..." Iggy pressed a hand against his bruised forehead and glared up at Ari's stomach. "What was that?"

"What are you up to now, runt?" Ari asked. He expected the runty kid to blanche and go running back the way he'd come. Instead, the stupid mutant actually seemed...relieved that he'd run into Ari and not someone else. He scrambled to his feet and ducked behind Ari's back.

"Good, it's you. Mind telling your buddies to lay off a little?"

Before Ari could ask what the runt was going on about, his pursuers rounded the corner. Leading a group of six hulking Erasers was a brown-haired wolf-mutant with four jagged scars running down the length of his face. Ari fought back a groan.

Perhaps now is an ideal time to prove your loyalty, the Voice said cryptically.

Shut up, Ari told it.

"Batchelder!" The scarred Eraser exclaimed. His incisors flashed hungrily, the eagerness in his gaze only increasing when he saw that now he had not one mutant to run down, but two. The Eraser's name was Rawley, and he'd hated Ari ever since the seven-year-old had given him his distinctive scars in a food brawl.

"Not another food fight?" Rawley taunted, eyeing Iggy like a particularly tasty slab of steak. "Go on, Batchelder, get out of here and maybe I won't beat you so hard during training."

Ari bristled. Rawley was one of the only Erasers whose viciousness matched Ari's own infamous temper, and he wasn't afraid to use it as a threat. Well, Ari would beat him here, right now. Rawley wouldn't get the runt. For one reason, Jeb would never forgive him if he let any harm come to poor, wimpy little Igneous. And two, he just liked to see Rawley gnash his teeth in frustration.

"You can't eat this one, Rawley," Ari said smugly. "Stark will bite your head off and toss your ugly butt off the side of the mountain."

"I just wanna have a little fun," Rawley jeered. "We're bored. What's so wrong with a little entertainment? Come on, Batchelder. Step aside so I can get at the runt."

"What if I don't wanna let you have it?" Ari asked, ignoring the runt's sound of indignation.

Rawley growled. "I saw it first."

"Finders keepers, freak."

"I'm feelin' the love and all," the runt whispered from behind the safety of Ari's back, "but he doesn't sound like he's gonna give it up."

Rawley took a couple steps forward. He wasn't quite as tall as Ari, but he made up for it in bulk. "Back. Off."

Ari leaned forward and lifted his lips away from his fangs. They were impressive and he knew it.

That was the snapping point for Rawley. He sprung forward and slammed hard into Ari's stomach, knocking the Eraser flat on his back. The runt moved out of the way at the last second. Ari saw him lunge for the other Erasers and snap a solid hit to one mutant's nose.

Rawley's fist came down on Ari's head like a shovel. Ari blocked the hit and shoved the heavier Eraser off of him. In an instant he'd sunk his teeth into the Eraser's arm. Rawley howled.

Something heavy crashed into Ari, ripping his fangs free of the mutant's tattered arm. He caught a flash of yellow-red hair and flying fists both human and not, and then an Eraser was trying to rip his throat out with its fangs, and he sank his teeth into its shoulder. The mutant backed off, shrieking. Ari rammed its head into the wall and it went down faster than an expired Eraser.

"A little...umph...help over here!" The runt's muffled voice piped up. Ari kicked an Eraser in the snout and whirled around, barely taking in the sight of Iggy struggling to hold off the snapping jaws of a wolf-mutant before he went to help. His boot connected crushingly with the snapping Eraser's cheek and knocked him out. Iggy grinned up at him thankfully. A bruise was forming over his left eye and his cheeks bled furiously where an Eraser's talons had nicked him, but he looked relatively intact.

"Get up, stupid!" Ari said, and jerked the runt to his feet. "Don't stay down!"

Four Erasers were left standing, Rawley included. He was cradling his bitten arm to his chest, an expression of sheer fury on his face.

"Go get 'em," he told his group. Everything was suddenly a blur of fists whistling through the air, feet flying into chests, and heads snapping back with the force of heavy punches. In minutes unconscious Erasers were sprawled on the floor, some of them alert enough to moan in pain. Ari stood over an Eraser that had managed to tear into his shoulder with its fangs. He was sure he and the runt had gotten everyone.

Except for one.

"Whoa, look out!"

A furious roar erupted in the quiet of the hallway. Ari pivoted just in time to see Iggy leap onto Rawley's back and bring him kicking to the floor. Rawley's claws missed Ari's neck by inches. Iggy landed on the scarred Eraser's stomach and, his face set in a grim expression, hit Rawley between the eyes. The Eraser went down.

Iggy sat on the Eraser's stomach, breathing hard. Then, pretending to look around him, he smirked. "They all out?"

"Yeah," Ari said dazedly. He rubbed the back of his neck. Just a couple more seconds and Rawley's claws would have been stuck there.

"You, uh..." Ari blinked, looking from Rawley to Iggy and back again. "You took him out."

"Yeah." Iggy bounced to his feet and pressed a hand gingerly to his bleeding cheek.


The runt blinked up at him and raised his eyebrows. "Uh. Because he was gonna kill you. Does that not...make sense?"

"No, I..." Ari shook his head, feeling strangely off kilter. No one had ever saved him before. He'd always been the one to watch his back. To have someone else do that was strange. But...not really in a bad way.

"Come on," he said gruffly, rolling his shoulders and continuing for the stairs. "We've gotta find Jeb."

"Anything to keep me from getting tossed around again." Without missing a beat, Iggy slipped his fingers through Ari's belt loop. Ari growled in annoyance.

"You never have this trouble in the air," he complained.

"Yeah, well, there aren't any walls to run into up there," Iggy said.

These five days are going to be the longest of my life.

A/N: Hey, look, they're getting along. I have no idea how this turned out, but I was desperate to post something. Please review!

pandorad24: (your review to chapter 10) Usually it takes me about a week to update, with the new chapters appearing anywhere from Friday-Sunday, which really isn't that long considering my sporadic updating record. O.O Hmm. I'm changing that with Icaria and trying to either update ASAP or on that weekly basis. Yeah, "cumulonimbus" is a type of storm cloud. I meant for the chapter to relate to how, just as a storm cloud builds and heralds the coming of a storm, the events in chapter 10 were building up to lead to the climax. -shrug- Though the climax is far away, chapter 10 was important because Ari finally started to cooperate with his father's wishes. On another note, I don't see why your mom won't let you post the stories. Maybe she's afraid that input from anyone other than professionals might badly influence your writing and self-esteem. I was afraid of that for a little bit, but then I trusted that I was strong enough to discern good input from bad. And it's amazing, the rush you get every time someone favorites/reviews/alerts your work. Plus, you get fantastic reviewers like those in my audience. Writing fan'fiction has opened me up a LOT to what my target audience wants to see. Besides, even if you don't post stories, opening an account of your own would make replying to your reviews a lot simpler. :) Love ya back. In the non-creepy way.


12. Problem Child

Thank you reviewers! juniper294, BuryTheCastle, Fangfan1, Illucida, flYegurl, mycatisobese, nathan-p, HeWhoCrys, BeTrueToThyself, Aleria14, Ren Rain, lillypad22, pandorad24, xflightlesxbird and blue-eyed-cow all get a big hug from yours truly. Welcome into the story to those of you who are new, and welcome back to those of you who've been with us since chapter 1.

There's been a bit of confusion about when events are taking place. This opening scene occurs just after the opening scene of chapter 11, when Fang was...err, shot. So it goes like this:

Day Three: (ten-eleven o'clock at night) Fang shot, Jeb interrogated by Stark, Jeb gets information out of Stark.

Day Four: (wee hours of the morning - one-three a.m.) Opening scene of this chapter. Later on (six o'clock a.m.), Ari and Iggy's fight with Rawley and the other Erasers.

I think I made it pretty simple. Hope that clears things up! :)

Disclaimer: I'm female and not even of the legal voting age yet, so I can't possibly by JP. Therefore, I don't own Maximum Ride or any of its characters. (i.e., Iggy). Jacob Marling, Nehemiah Stark, Anne Chen and various OC's are copyright me, however.

pandorad24: I think you know what to do. :)

Chapter Twelve: Problem Child

"So...one more time. How did your brother...uh, Fnick, was it?"

"Nick," Max corrected the doctor calmly. Darn it, Nudge. You and your motor mouth.

"Right." The doctor, a tall, broad-shouldered man with thick blond hair and a goatee, narrowed his hazel eyes and tapped his clipboard with gloved fingers coated in blood. Fang's blood. "Tell me again. How was Nick hurt?"

Out of the corner of her eye, Max flicked a glance at her remaining (intact) flock members. Nudge, Gazzy and Angel slumped lower in their waiting room chairs and stared at their feet. "Alright. Like I just told your buddy over there," Max sighed, gesturing sharply to an older doctor giving her a doubtful look, "we were taking a walk. And these crazies just come out of nowhere and try to mug us because, you know, we're kids. They grabbed Nick and threatened to shoot him if we didn't give them money. We told them we didn't have anything, but...I guess they didn't believe us."

Well, no one was going to give her a Best Actress award, but Max thought she did a fairly good job by the doctors' satisfied expressions.

"Is there any way to contact your parents?" the blond-haired doctor asked.

"Uh..." Max exchanged glances with Nudge and the Gasman. "Yeeah, they're...out of town."

"Cell phones?" the doctor asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Err...no, they're bad with technology...okay, look, Doctor..."

"Sanderson," the blond man supplied. "Neil Sanderson."

"Doctor Sanderson," Angel said sweetly, sitting up in her chair and giving him her nicest smile. "We love our mommy and daddy. So I think it would be best if you didn't try and call them. We don't want anyone to worry."

"Uhm. Yes, of...of course," Sanderson said faintly. There was a dazed, dreamy look in his eyes that Max knew a bit too well. Lately, Angel had gained the ability to control people through sheer willpower - or maybe something else. Whatever it was, it was weird, and Max didn't like it. Angel, she thought in a warning tone. Angel blinked at her with wide sky-blue eyes and shrugged her shoulders innocently, as if to say, So what if I'm taking over people's minds? It's saving our skins and it's fun!

"Okay," said Nudge. "Can we see our brother now? 'Cause we really, really miss him. Like, a lot. You know, as in the, I-can't-sit-here-anymore-because-I-have-to-know-if-he's-all-right kind of way. You know? So can we? Please?"

Sanderson seemed to snap out of the trance Angel had landed him in. "I'm afraid not," he said sternly. "You see, your brother was a risky case. The bullet narrowly missed hitting anything important, and we have him on close watch at the moment."

"It's been hours," Gazzy muttered under his breath.

"Yes," Sanderson said with a dark look at the eight-year-old. "I'm afraid it's a slow business, saving the life of a kid with wings."

Max winced. In an instant, all of her instincts were on alert. She noticed that Nudge and Gazzy were already almost out of their seats, while Angel was glaring fiercely at Sanderson and the other silent doctor.

"Don't worry," said Sanderson. A slow, unreadable smile crossed his face. "I've seen stranger things. And it's not exactly my business to hand over a patient to the government or anything. But be aware: the instant we're sure Nick is stable and well enough to leave, we're calling in the officials. Because this isn't normal."

"Yessir," Max said hurriedly. Fang would be healed within the next two or three days, not the weeks these guys were expecting, and the flock would be up and out before one sneaky government official could poke his nose into the building. But Sanderson didn't need to know that. "We understand."

"Good." Giving them a nod, Sanderson pulled his clipboard tight against his side and gestured at his partner to join him. "Now, if you'll excuse us. We have your brother to attend to."

The men swept from the waiting room and back into the hallway. The receptionist shot them a puzzled look as they passed, but then shrugged and went back to clicking away at her computer. After a couple minutes, the only sounds in the waiting room were the occasional cough or quiet sniffle from the room's other occupants.

"Alright," Gazzy sighed, pulling his legs up to his chest and giving the forest-green carpet a judgmental look. "I think I might explode."

"Just make sure your stench doesn't get to any of the weaker patients," Max said. "The last thing we need is for some smart guy with a PhD to claim you killed his patient."

"I didn't mean it like that. I mean, we're here, actually here, in a building full of guys in white coats and needles and stuff. And I want out."

Ohhhhh. Max could understand that. She and Gazzy weren't the only ones who were having claustrophobia issues and traumatic flashbacks, it seemed; Nudge and Angel were also looking squirmy, and she couldn't imagine what Fang was going through. If he was even awake by now. He'd fallen unconscious just before their stolen van reached the nearest hospital. They'd made quite a scene, four kids dragging their bleeding brother around like a piece of luggage after parking their van on the sidewalk.

Well, it couldn't be helped. It's not like we could have flown him in here. Max eyed the laptop resting in Nudge's lap. That was the key to everything. She had been too wound up to even think about opening it before Sanderson and that other doctor had come in to tell them "Nick" was going to make it out okay. But now...it was looking really tempting. If she wasn't sure she'd probably just have to close it right up again when Erasers popped out of the handbag of the lady sitting across from her, or some other random, impossible place (paranoia was a hard thing to get rid of), she would have fired it up right then and there.

Nehemiah Stark, she remembered the whitecoat saying before she kicked him out of his van. The director of his School. He'd looked the part, she had to admit. The icy eyes, rigid posture, and impeccably spotless white coat were all pointers to the obvious: evil. Evil and powerful, enough so to be in control of an entire facility of evil whack-jobs. Including Jeb. Add traitorous whack-jobs to that list.

She hadn't expected to see Jeb there. She'd thought that he would have still been in the Death Valley School, not out of the country. Well. Maybe he got what he deserved - maybe his superiors had gotten PO'd because he'd let the flock escape, so they'd sent him to some isolated building in the middle of nowhere. Or, that was what she imagined this new School looked like.

How many Schools are there? Max wondered. How many lost, freaky, patchwork kids like us?

Predictably, there was no answer. Story of my life.

The flock waited, shifting uncomfortably on their narrow chairs and sometimes getting up to pace, for more than an hour. Finally, Max couldn't take the silence anymore and marched over to the front desk.

"Excuse me," she said, trying to give the receptionist her politest smile. By the look on the polished woman's face, Max only succeeded in scaring her. "Err. Yeah. My name's Max. I'm here for my brother Nick. He's the black-haired kid we brought in. You know, the one who got shot."

"Right," the woman said uncertainly. "Yes, I remember. How can I help you?"

"Uh, well, we were kinda wondering when we could see him. See, he heals faster than most people, so I think it'd be alright if we just checked in."

"Miss, it's been less than five hours," the woman said. "I doubt your brother has resurfaced from the anesthetics yet."

"Like I said, he's different. He's probably up and about by now. And I swear, we won't make any noise, we just want to check..."

"No one's allowed in until the doctor says so. Have you received permission yet?"

"Uh..." Max pressed her fists hard against her side. Her teeth ground loudly against each other. "Yeah, no. Listen, could you call the doctor in? Just let us talk to him."

The woman heaved a long, heavy sigh, as if family members concerned about their loved ones were nothing more than irritating children. Which, in this case, the flock was, but that wasn't the point as far as Max was concerned.

"I'll call him up," the receptionist conceded. "What was his name?"

"He just came in here," Max said. "You know, the tall blond guy with the greenish eyes? Err...Neil Sanderson! That's it. Neil Sanderson's his doctor."

The receptionist wrinkled her brow and slowly shook her head. "There's a Doctor Sanderson, ma'am, but he's not the man who just passed through here. I'm not familiar with the man you described. Doctor Sanderson is a short man with black hair and brown eyes. Perhaps your details are mixed up?"

Something cold drifted into the bottom of Max's stomach, like snowflakes clumping together into something much, much heavier. "What? No, he...he said he was Neil Sanderson."

The receptionist pursed her lips. "Miss, I'm sure you're worried about your brother, but that's no excuse to make up..."

"Which room is my brother in?" Max demanded.

"Room 237 on this floor. But, Miss...hey, you can't go in there!"

Max ignored the receptionist's protests and marched over to the door "Sanderson" had disappeared through. "Sorry, I need that," she heard Angel say, but didn't wait to see what the blond girl was doing. At that moment a doctor came through the door, asking for a waiting family member. Max shoved past him and slunk through the door opening.

"Wait!" The doctor cried, but his protests were cut off when Nudge, Gazzy and Angel pushed past him and followed Max as she jogged down the hallway.

"Good job, Max," Angel said over the sounds of the doctor and receptionist hurrying after them. "What room is he in?"

"237. All these are in the 20's, so it's farther down." Max frowned. Angel had a black backpack that was much too large for her strapped over her shoulders. "Angel, what's that?"

"Oh, just something to carry the laptop," Angel said vaguely. "A nice man let me borrow it."

Borrow it? Yeah, right - more like "handed it over because you liquefied his brain."

"Kids, I'm telling you," came a voice. Max saw a hand clamp over Nudge's shoulder and immediately went into attack mode. Her leg snapped out without a single thought, knocking both the receptionist and the doctor to the ground. There was no time for worrying about whether the people would call security after that stunt - maybe this whole building was filled with people working for the School. That's what "Sanderson" had to be - a whitecoat. There was no other way around it.

Why does this always happen to us? Max wondered furiously, stomping down the hallway.

"Max, wait! That's the one!" Nudge called. Max followed her pointing finger to...an open door. The numbers 237 were printed in dark blocks. As the flock watched, the door swung open further to release a tall, good-looking man from the room's depths.

"Everything is secured," his gravelly voice said into the cell phone he held up to his ear. Even though the fluorescent lights in the hallway weren't incredibly harsh, a pair of sunglasses perched on his perfectly-formed nose. "Yessir. I'll be right up just after I..."

He trailed off, noticing the flock out of the corner of his eye. A nasty smile broke over his face and he said into the cell phone, just before flicking it closed, "Sorry, sir. The freaks are here."

The man was clad in a black suit that only heightened the look of perfection about him. Too perfect, Max's mind added. Male-supermodel-perfect.


Without another word, the Eraser turned and took off down the hallway.

"After him!" Max barked. The flock burst into action, their long legs carrying them after the Eraser. He looked behind him, flashed a grin, and swerved to the right at a fork in the hallway. Angel suddenly skidded to a stop.

"Wait, Max! That isn't the right way! He's trying to lead us away from Fang."

Max came to a sudden stop and looked quickly between the left and right forks in the hallway. The Eraser slowed and stumbled to a halt once he realized the flock wasn't following him, and a frustrated expression lanced across his too-perfect face.

"Fang's on the roof," Angel said slowly, staring hard into the Eraser's eyes. Her skin went pale. "Um...and they have a helicopter."

"Let's get out of here." Max back up slowly, keeping her eyes trained on the Eraser as he realized that they were about to make a run for it.

The Eraser leapt forward, teeth bared in a vicious snarl. Max pushed open the door to the nearest room and immediately headed for the nearest, largest window she could find. The hot summer air pushed tendrils of hair away from her face as she swung both her legs out and dropped to the ground.

Angel screamed from inside the room, attracting stares from the few people walking on the sidewalk that crossed by the bottom level of the hospital. When Max whipped out her wings and Gazzy and Nudge sailed through the window one after the other, their wings already unfolded, people's mouths dropped open. Good thing it was nearly three in the morning - otherwise, the crowd would have been much, much larger.

"Up and away!" Max said, reaching through the window to help Angel. She could already hear the familiar whump-whump-whump of a helicopter's rotors humming above the hospital.

Angel's feet had just made it over the window sill when the Eraser appeared in the window, human fingers reaching wildly for her. Max dealt the perfect face an unforgiving kick that left it looking not-so-perfect anymore. An instant later she and her flock were in the air, wings flapping furiously, ears closed to the sounds of people exclaiming in shock far below them.

"I see it!" Nudge said, pointing high above their heads to a dark blotch against the ebony sky.

"Fly faster!" Max shouted. They were now close enough to hear sharp voices barking out orders. None of them belonged to a certain dark-haired winged mutant.

A gunshot echoed out into the air when the flock got too close. Nudge shrieked, spiralling off balance and grabbing onto a nearby windowsill as blood streamed down her arm.

"Nudge!" Max shouted.

"Just nicked me," she shouted back, and pushed herself back into the air. "Keep going, I'm coming!"

Max turned her head, just in time to see that she and the others had reached the hospital's roof. The helicopter was already taking off, its rotors humming and pushing out a wind that threatened to blow the flock off the rooftop. Max folded her wings against her back and gripped Angel's wrist when the little girl staggered against the wind.

"Get down!" she ordered. Gazzy and Angel both immediately pressed themselves against the roof, their hands covering their heads. Nudge clambered onto the roof and curled in on herself, too small to withstand the force of the wind blowing against her.

Max settled into a crouch, squinted her eyes against the stinging wind, and pushed forward. Only when she was almost directly beneath the rising helicopter did she snap out her wings and leap up.

Cruel laughter erupted in her ears a split second before the gunshot did. Max spun away, reeling in pain that exploded along her shoulder and spread out. The wind was too strong; it pushed her back onto the roof, where she stood crouched, her hair whipping wildly around her face as hot blood pulsed down her front.

Up in the helicopter, a whitecoat appeared in the open doorway and waved his gun at her cheerfully. It was "Sanderson," looking more like a whitecoat than ever with a gun in his hands and an insane tilt to his blond-haired head.

"Bon voyage, little girl!" he jeered. "Want a last look?"

Before Max could snap something insulting back at him, "Sanderson" reached over, pulled over a figure by the front of his frayed shirt, and jerked the black bag from his head.

Fang's familiar features popped into view. He was pale from blood loss and bluish from nearly being suffocated, but there was a dark, fierce look in his eyes that told her he would give his captors hell.

"Fang." Max clenched her free hand into a fist, her other one pressed sharply against her gunshot wound. The need to leap back into the air and punch the daylights out of "Sanderson" and his men was almost overpowering, but the constant threat of the gun pointed at her face held her back.

"Mr. Anders," another whitecoat called "Sanderson." Max tensed in shock; it was the same whitecoat she'd thrown out of the back of the van. He'd obviously called support in and traced the flock to the hospital.

The blond man looked around. An Eraser came up from behind Fang and tried to wrestle him back into the black head-bag.

"Max, don't come after me!" Fang shouted through the Eraser's fingers. "They're trying to..."

The rest of his warning was lost when the black bag went back over his head again. "Sanderson," or Anders, slid the helicopter door shut. The aircraft lifted higher, and then the whitecoats pulled away, taking Fang with them.

And another piece of Max's family.

"Max?" Nudge asked in a trembling voice. "What do we...what do we do?"

"We follow them," Max said, and her voice was harder than steel. The whitecoats were probably going to try and store Fang wherever they were keeping Iggy. The flock would follow them there, and bust both of its captured brothers out.

"Come on!" she shouted, wings already stretching out to catch the stuffy summer air. "They have to stop sometime. We'll tail them until then."

One by one, the last of her flock rose up after her. Max sailed up into the air, still clutching her bleeding shoulder. The gun wound hurt like all heck and then some, but she'd been through worse and gotten through. Now wouldn't be any different.

She had her family to save.

Iggy usually considered himself a pretty good judge of character. Fang was the quiet-yet-tough type, and was the first person Iggy wanted at his back if things were about to get nasty. Max was obnoxious, kind of overbearing sometimes, and a complete mother hen who totally knew how to kick some serious butt. Nudge? Chatterbox, but she had a good heart. Gazzy was just plain awesome, though Iggy had to admit that he didn't feel that way after the kid had Mexican food. Angel was a sweet kid, though there were moments when she made the hair rise on the back of his neck.

So, all in all, he knew what kind of people they were (the good kind) and how to deal with them.

And then there was Ari.

Iggy fixed his sightless stare on the spot he knew Ari's back to be. His fingers jerked in the Eraser's belt loops as Ari stomped on step after step, taking them all the way up the stairs to where he thought Jeb was. The seven-year-old mutant was...complicated, at the very least. Maybe even more complicated than Iggy suspected Angel was beneath all her sweet, fake little girl layers. Iggy didn't know what to make of the kid. On the one hand, he was pretty nasty most of the time. And he'd made it clear that he couldn't be happier if Iggy and his family disappeared for good. But it had only been three days, four if he counted today, and Iggy had been around the Eraser enough to see his personality waver.

One second Ari was an Eraser with a brutal temper, intent on taking Iggy's head off the minute Jeb's back was turned. Then he did a one-eighty thing, and he was just some wounded kid, like a scared toddler playing dress-up in a monster's body.

Now he was being decent. For Ari, anyway. Which meant that he had yet to lob a biting insult or try to take a swipe at Iggy's head, even though Iggy was sure the kid was probably upset that he'd had to be saved by a "runty freak."

Or maybe...maybe Iggy was finally on his way to making the guy see how much good came of them cooperating. Iggy decided to test his theory. If he came out intact, he'd succeeded in making Ari see the logic in Jeb's partnership idea. If not...well, he didn't like to think about that part.

"So...how do you know where Jeb is?" he asked.

Ari grunted. "He's always one of either two places. In the training room or his bedroom."

And he wouldn't be in the training room because I'm not there, Iggy filled in. "How do you know he won't go looking for me in the containment room?"

"Because I saw him heading back to his room around three in the morning. Dunno why. But it means he probably slept right through his alarm. He does that sometimes."

Something warm bubbled in Iggy's chest. Before he actually thought about what he was saying, he blurted, "Yeah, he's gettin' to be an old man, alright."

Ari stopped in his tracks. Crap, thought Iggy - that wasn't something to say to a boy who idolized his father in every way possible. "I-I mean, there were some times when Gazzy and I would blow somethin' up, and Jeb would sleep right through it. Then he'd come downstairs later and wonder why there was a hole in the wall."

A barking laugh stopped Iggy's rambling a second before Ari started clomping up the stairs again. "Did he give you the look?"

"Yep," Iggy said, feeling his breath rush out of him with relief. "Hands on his hips and everything. And then he used the tone. 'Ig-ne-ous Ride!'"

It was the weirdest thing, hearing Ari laugh without the accompanying tinge of insanity. His voice was rough and distorted, but he actually sounded...normal. Just like a little kid poking fun at his too-anal dad. And Iggy had been the one to make him laugh.

Maybe this is a dream. Maybe that Rawley guy knocked me out when I jumped on him, and this is all a dream, and in the real world Ari's drawing a mustache on my face with another Eraser's blood or something.

As if he realized just how absurd the situation was, Ari shut up and huffed gruffly. Back into tough-guy mode, Iggy thought dryly. Darn problem child.

"We're here," Ari said curtly. Iggy hung on to the other boy's belt as he pushed to their floor and stepped into the hallway.

"How high up are we?" Iggy asked.

"Highest level," Ari grunted.

So the same level as Stark's office, right? Iggy wanted to ask, but he had a feeling he'd used up all his good luck for the morning with that round of fun at Jeb's expense.

"Jeb?" Ari asked, knocking hard on a door. "Hey Jeb, you in there?"

Iggy waited on the edge of his nerves, shifting nervously from foot to foot. Anyone could come down the hallway - Stark, Chen, anyone. "Can't you get inside?" he asked impatiently. He had a feeling Ari was giving him a dirty look.

"Scared, runt?" he asked. "Scared that someone's gonna come and I'll leave you all on your own?"

There's the Ari I know, Iggy thought with a mirthless half-smirk.

But before he could snap anything back - something that would certainly get him into more trouble than he could afford to be in - Ari spoke up. "'Cause I'm not. Gonna leave you all on your own, I mean. You, uh...I have to pay you back."

Pay me back? Iggy blinked once, twice, even though he couldn't see. "For...for what?"

"Don't be a jerk," Ari snapped roughly. "Pay you back for...for saving my butt back there, alright? For taking Rawley out before he could take me out."

"Uh, you don't really have to..."

"Erasers don't have too many rules," Ari said quietly, "but one of them is that you always give somebody his due. Usually it means kicking someone's butt because he kicked yours, but it's the same if someone saves your skin. You have to do the same thing."

Iggy rocked back on his heels, stunned. Ari was acting...not like Ari. At least not the Ari Iggy thought he was. He was actually being fair? He was practically telling Iggy that he had his back! Because Iggy'd had his for however short a time.

But I didn't think it would be that big a deal, he thought to himself. I mean, I heard Rawley move for him and I just took him out. Instincts and everything. I'd do the same thing for the flock a hundred times over.

"Uh...okay." Iggy winced at how stupid and shallow his reply sounded next to Ari's words. The kid had actually acted mature for a second, and Iggy said, "Uh okay."

"Don't think that makes us friends or anything," Ari said waspishly. "I still hate your guts."

"Yeah, I know, I know," Iggy said, but he couldn't help but notice that the hateful words hadn't held their usual heat. "But...uh, thanks. I, err...appreciate...it."

Footsteps behind Jeb's bedroom door saved Iggy from enduring what was sure to be an awkward silence.

"Finally," Ari muttered. The door clicked open.

"Ari? Iggy?" Jeb's harried voice came. "What on Earth...?"

"Oh." Iggy released his hold on Ari's belt and lifted his hands to his lacerated cheek. Some of the blood had run to the collar of his shirt and crusted there. He knew he was probably getting another black eye if the way his left eye was throbbing was any indication, and that wound on his cheek probably wasn't pretty. Ari probably looked just as battered.

"I know this looks really bad," Iggy said, holding his hands up in a placating motion, "but we didn't beat each other up."

"You...get in here." Jeb shooed them into his living quarters and closed the door behind them. "Now," he said in a breathy, weary voice, "tell me what happened."

"Okay," started Iggy. "I was just sleeping in my cage, minding my own business, and in come these Erasers. They tore open my cage and I ran down the hallway. And then Ari found me and we beat them up and came to find you. The end."

Ari let out an amused huff at Iggy's abbreviated version of events. "Erasers get into fights all the time," he added. "So don't look so peeved. No one's gonna suspect we're a team just because we ganged up on some losers."

"That's exactly what I'm worried about," Jeb sighed. "What if the Erasers talk?"

"They won't," Ari sneered. "I don't think you get it, but Erasers have pride too. They won't talk unless they beat us black and blue."

"Well..." Jeb sighed again - was it just Iggy or was there something seriously wrong with his faux father's stress levels - and said, "Sit down on the couch. Right behind you, Iggy. Your shoulder looks worse than anything else, Ari, but I can clean your cheek up without too much trouble, Iggy."

"Sure." Iggy let himself fall back onto the couch without a hint of hesitation. He sank into the plushy cushions and closed his eyes in rapture. "Jeez. This the best break I've had since we broke Angel out of the School."

"You can bring in an army of hawks to break out a six-year-old but you can't break yourself out of here?" Ari asked incredulously.

"Hey, I did it once already. It's just harder now because they're watching me even closer." Iggy rubbed at his weary neck and shook his head. "I'd give anything to be outta here."

"You may get that chance sooner than you think," Jeb broke in. Iggy heard the man's joints creak as he knelt in front of the couch. He jumped when something cold and wet pressed against his cheek, whatever substance it was coated in sending shivers of pain along his face.

"Medicine. Believe me, Igneous, you need it." Jeb continued with cleaning away the blood from Iggy's wounds as he talked. "I found out something important from Stark."

"Stark?" Ari repeated warily. "What're you talking about? He's not on our side, remember?"

"No, he definitely suspects us," Jeb agreed slowly. Surprisingly, he didn't sound as impatient with Ari as he usually did. Maybe seeing Ari and Iggy working together did something to calm his nerves. "But I believe he let something slip. It's possible that it might be a set up, but I doubt it. Even Stark is human, and he makes human mistakes."

"So what'd he tell you?" Iggy asked, suddenly impatient.

"You only have one trigger. I thought they might have made more, which would have made studying the Extermination Effect easier, but...it seems we have to secure the trigger from Ms. Chen."

Ari groaned. "You're not gonna make me go sneaking around her room, are you? Gross!"

"No," Jeb said, and this time there was that familiar impatience in his voice that said Ari should know better. "I'm not quite sure how we're going to get the trigger, to be honest. But...as difficult as it makes the situation, at least we don't have to worry about them making another trigger in case one is destroyed."

Yeah, big relief, Iggy thought, wincing as Jeb plastered a bandage over his cheek. The psychos only made one trigger to destroy you, Iggy, isn't that great? Now we just have to steal it from the meanest lady in the world and hope she doesn't trace it back to us and get us killed!

"Your eye should heal on its own," Jeb said dismissively, and moved on to attend to Ari.

There was a rustling of fabric, and then Ari snapped, "I don't need any of that!"

Jeb heaved another bone-shaking sigh. "Ari, I need you to cooperate."

"I am!" Ari protested. "I saved the runt's life, didn't I? I could have left him to the Erasers."

Iggy could almost feel Jeb's confusion. "I...no, Ari, I was talking about your shoulder."

"Oh. Well, I don't need help with that, either!"

"Oh, come on!" Iggy snapped, abruptly tired with Ari's hard-headedness. He knew he himself could be stubborn and proud sometimes, but this was ridiculous. "Just let him fix you. What if you get rabies or something?"

"I'm not gonna get rabies," Ari grumbled, but he stopped protesting. Jeb hesitated, obviously stunned by his son's complacency, but Ari's pained hiss told Iggy that the father had went on to attend to his son's shoulder.

Hey, look at that, he thought proudly to himself. Ari's listening to you!

"Anyway, I heard something," Ari said a couple minutes and many meaningless grumbles later. "In the dining hall. Some Erasers were talking about someone named Dag, who's been collecting info on the trigger."

"An Eraser?" Jeb repeated, surprise palpable in his voice.

"Yeah, Jeb. An Eraser. We can think for ourselves, you know, just as much as this runt can."

"Hey," Iggy muttered, but he was too absorbed in the argument unfolding before him to protest further.

"I wasn't...that's not what I meant," Jeb said in irritation. "I just wondered why an Eraser would be worried about the Extermination Effect. It's meant for the flock, not wolf-mutants."

"Yeah, but you saw the dissected Erasers yourself! The whitecoats are already trying to see if the Extermination Effect works on Erasers too. Dag gets that. And he got some intel...he said you can't beat the trigger with chemicals or anything, so if you were thinking of making up a serum or something...don't."

Jeb hmmed to himself. Sensing that the man was about to go into his "thinking mode," Iggy hurriedly broke in before he and Ari were left sitting bored out of their minds while Jeb worked his way through whatever thoughts he kept piled up inside his head.

"So what do we do now? What's the plan?"

His former father took a moment to answer. "Just...stick to the original. Iggy, I need you to focus on overcoming the symptoms of the Extermination Effect. Try your hardest to break through whatever it is you feel when the trigger is activated. Ari, I need you to get close to Dag. Find out everything he knows and report back to me. I'll be studying those papers you took from Ms. Chen, and...Jacob and I will try to figure out a way to get that trigger into our hands."

"Yeah," said Ari, "since when is Marling a part of this?"

"I trust him," Jeb replied immediately. "He's a good man. He won't betray us."

"Are you sure?" Iggy asked. "Sorry. It's just that people I trust have a funny way of betraying me when I least expect it."

If he could have seen Jeb's face, he imagined it would have been twisted in a grimace of regret. "Igneous, you know..."

"Yeah, I know why you had to do it. Inside info, blah blah. I still think you should have told us something."

Jeb's voice was heavy with guilt when he spoke. "Yes, I know. That was a mistake I will always regret. But I need you to trust me now, Iggy. Trust me."

Iggy licked his lips. The silence whined in his ears the same way it did whenever someone had gotten in trouble at home and everyone was still reeling from the force of one of Max's tirades. He had trusted Jeb. Trusted and love him with all his mutant heart. Having such a strong, loving background with someone didn't exactly make it easy to be nasty and cruel to him, even if there had been an element of betrayal. Iggy still heard the voice of his father every time Jeb opened his mouth. Maybe he didn't fully trust Jeb yet, but it was hard to deny the man's loyalties when he was doing and risking so much just to make sure Iggy escaped intact.

"I did," he said quietly.

Seeming to understand that he wouldn't get another answer if he begged for one, Jeb finished bandaging Ari's shoulder wound and ushered the two mutants through the door as soon as he was done. From there it was a long trip back down to the training room. Iggy was happy to have the choice to hold on to Jeb's coat instead of Ari's belt, because as much as the Eraser had eased up on him over the past day, being too close to the wolf-mutant still made him jittery.

Chen and her merry group of whackos were waiting for them, of course, as was Stark, to Iggy's crippling disappointment. Even people with sight could feel when someone was staring at them, and for Iggy this sense was heightened tenfold. He swore he could feel little icicles forming along his spine every time Stark looked his way. Jeb must have really set him off to bring him down on their heads like this.

The experiment consisted of pushing Iggy through a maze riddled with Erasers with only his fists as a means of defending himself. Chen seemed to enjoy pressing the trigger's button at random times - sometimes Iggy could hear her cackling laughter over the white noise pulsing in his ears. He decided that was the first thing he would overcome. He concentrated until he thought his head would burst from the effort. By the time he collapsed outside the maze, bruised and battered, for the fifth time that day, his head was throbbing with pain...but he'd done it.

Well, sort of. Sound came through in patches, like a broken radio, and there was more white noise than clear sound, but he had accomplished part of what he set out to do. Jeb had been right. It was possible to overcome the Extermination Effect. One just had to concentrate really, really hard.

Iggy pressed his flushed cheek against the cool tile floor and sighed in relief. Somewhere above his sprawled form Chen and Jeb were bickering using words way too nerdy for him to understand. Strangely, Stark wasn't butting in on the argument, and Iggy thought he had left...until the man's voice came from a spot by the training room entrance.

Stark was speaking so quietly Iggy could barely hear him, even with superhuman hearing.

"Then you have them in your sights?" Stark said. "...Good. No, do not engage, not unless they press you. I want to keep them running. ...Yes. Keep it unconscious at all times. The last thing I need is for that mutant to break free of its restraints and return to its brethren."

A low, malicious chuckle from the doctor made Iggy's breath hitch in his throat. "Excellent work, Mr. Anders," Stark purred. "We shall lead them on a merry chase."


As if sensing that Iggy was listening in on his conversation, Stark broke off and barked at Jeb, "Your mutant can't even stand on its own. How am I to expect some results when it is so pathetic?"

"Hey!" Iggy muttered. He raised a finger, intending to give Stark a piece of his mind, but flopped back against the floor before he could utter a single word.

"I think it's time for a break," Jeb said. He wrapped his hands around Iggy's arm and supported him as the boy staggered to his feet. Iggy leaned against his former father, feeling like he was nine years old again and just needed someone to comfort him.

"In its cage," Stark said sharply, as if he suspected that Jeb might secretly be letting Iggy sleep in a comfy top-rate suite.

"Of course." Iggy felt a shiver go through his utterly exhausted body at the tension he felt between Jeb and Stark. Blankly, he remembered what Jeb had said about Stark suspecting that he and Iggy were planning something.

Jeb led him from the training room and back to his cage. Iggy sighed as he crawled inside, curling into an exhausted ball the instant he hit the cold metal.

"I'm sorry," Jeb said, and this time, he sounded like he really meant it. "But the chances are that Stark will send someone in to check that I've done as he instructed. I can't afford to risk that. Just take a good nap, rest a little, and in half an hour I'll come to get you."

Iggy nodded with a little mumble - what he was saying he didn't even know - and flopped his hand at Jeb weakly. His eyes were already half closed in a peaceful half-asleep state. Distantly, he felt Jeb's hand descend gently onto his head, and then the man sighed again and was gone.

Sleep came on him with wide, open arms. Iggy dreamed about being back home, wrapped in the arms of his family members, ruffling Gazzy's lively hair and plugging his ears against Nudge's endless chatter...

The door slammed open, startling him so badly that he jerked out of sleep and hit his head against the bars. Iggy growled under his breath and clutched the back of his head tenderly. The sound of infuriated grunting and gnashing teeth filled the air, and before Iggy could so much as lift his head again, his nose tickled with a familiar, hated scent: an Eraser's signature cross between the smell of fetid meat and dried blood.

"Come on," an Eraser growled, "in...you...go!"

The cage next to Iggy jostled his when something heavy landed inside it. He heard its door slam shut, and then Eraser laughter filled the air, while the cage beside Iggy filled with vicious snarling and hateful words.

"In an experiment cage, just like the trash you are," the same Eraser jeered.

"You're gonna pay, Jagger!" a rough voice snarled. "When I break outta here, I swear, you're dead! You hear me, Jagger? Jagger!"

Laughter was the prisoner's only answer. "Have a nice day, Dag," Jagger sneered. Then he and the other Erasers filed out of the room and slammed the door shut behind them.

Dag? Iggy blinked through the pain radiating from the back of his head. The Eraser smell was still there, Dag's voice had sounded just like an Eraser's, and...Iggy remembered something Ari had said. Something about an Eraser who'd been investigating the Extermination Effect.

This is that Eraser?

Iggy shifted into a seated position. Immediately, the heavy, angry pants and sound of fangs grinding against each other stopped.

"Who's there?" Dag asked warily. Iggy felt himself smile. Well, looks like I won't be sleeping, but maybe I can get something out of this guy.

"Hi," he said cheerfully. "I'm Iggy."

A/N: Longest. Chapter. Ever. But I hope you review anyway. :)

pandorad24: (your review to chapter 4) Haha, well you can bring that response number back up again. :) Too bad, if you can write as well as you admit you can, I'd have loved to see what you could come up with. -blush- I don't know if I would call Icaria a masterpiece, but thank you. I work very hard on this little baby here. It robs me of many hours of sleep. :/

(your review to chapter 6) -gives Iggy shot- There! All better, no more rabies. Stark wants more than Iggy's brain in a jar. He'd like to see Jeb's brain in there too. O.O But the suspense is what makes Icaria tick. Good, it's working. I don't think I have the guts to kill Iggy, but I'm rather good at doing things I thought I wouldn't. So hee. We'll see. He'll definitely get into trouble, that I can tell you.

(your review to chapter 11) For the love of Fnick (that name made an appearance in here, ha!) I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Lots of interaction between Ari and Iggy - they're so much fun to write, you should try it some time. Mostly it sounds like "bicker, bicker, bicker -punch- bicker." Though I'm working on changing that. Hmm. Jacob is Jeb's Jiminy Cricket! He'll be very important to Jeb's growth, both as a character and a kinder, more considerate person. On a separate note, why yes, much more will happen because of Fang getting shot. Sorry to make you wait, Ig. There are some things that must be done before you're rescued. :D

Anything you want to see? Things you don't want to see? Improvement tips, con. crit? Review!


13. Daedalus and Icarus

I can't believe it - I actually did it! I got this chapter out before I take off to Maui! Yep, I'm leaving on a 9-day vacation, so there won't be any updates until after I get back...which is precisely why this chapter is out so early. Not to mention the support from pandorad24, lillypad22, blackberry01, Illucida, Ren Rain, BeTrueToThyself, flYegurl, juniper294 and soccerislife14 was encouraging. =D Thanks, guys!

This chapter, people, is why I considered naming one of this story's genres "angst." Let that be your warning. And I know it's taking a while, but don't worry - our trio is going to get out of the School soon. I'm just trying to make sure I don't miss anything as I build up to the big scene.

Thanks go to nathan-p for the tip on how far the Canadian Rockies stretch.

Disclaimer: Maximum Ride isn't mine. Stark, Jacob and Anne are all mine, though, as are Anders, Dag and Jagger.

pandorad24: look down.

Chapter Thirteen: Daedalus and Icarus

Max followed the helicopter with weary brown eyes, counting the miniature men crowding around it as it touched down in the middle of the whitecoat base to refuel. Without her superhuman sight, she wouldn't have been able to see the men; she and her flock were positioned far on the other side of the dry grass field the base was stationed in. Obviously, the whitecoats had built the place way out here to avoid attracting attention. Which was a good thing for them, because Max doubted the public would have liked seeing a secret School base bristling with machine guns and turrets right outside its bedroom window.

"Twenty-four," she announced, finished counting. She turned to Angel, who was sitting with the laptop leaned against her thin legs. "Got anything?"

The blond girl scrunched her nose and shook her gold curls. "I'm sorry, Max, but their minds are all closed off to me. It's like they're robots or something. All I got was that the guy who took Fang is named Joshua Anders, he's working for Nehemiah Stark and they're planning to...to...I don't know! They're planning something, but Anders cut me off before I could get anything more from him."

"It's okay, Ange," Nudge said, patting the younger girl's head comfortingly. "I mean, it's not like I'm doing anything that useful. All I can do is sit here and wait for the gunshot wound to close up. It hurts a lot. Like, you remember the time when we were practicing our flying moves, and you wanted to pull off this crazy trick, but you ended up crashing into me..."

From his sprawled position on the grassy ground, Gazzy groaned loudly and pressed his hands over his eyes. "Please don't, Nudge! Not right now!"

"He's right." Max shifted on her bottom and winced as the movement strained the torn skin of her shoulder. Anders might not have been a great shot with that gun of his, but he really knew how to make a mutant hurt. "We should be saving our energy right now. They might take off at any minute."

"They just landed." Nudge prodded the bloody cloth wrapped around her upper arm and made a face. Max had torn off the bottom hem of her shirt to use as a bandage and, well, her shirt hadn't been too clean to begin with. "I don't think our four-hour flight was good for this. Max, do you think it might get infected?"

"If it does and we have to take you to a hospital, there's no way I'm leaving your side," Max muttered darkly. She rubbed at the bags beneath her eyes, surprised that her fingers didn't come away purple. You'd think that we'd have learned our lesson by now: men in any kind of white coat = evil.

There was a quiet blip as Angel started the laptop up. Catching Max's curious glance, she said, "I thought we could get some research down while we wait. We can't get into that base with all those guns pointed at us, and I don't think Fang is even conscious enough to break out of there, so we're stuck."

"Gee, that's cheerful." But Angel was right. Max scooted over to the girl's side and looked over her shoulder. Angel pulled up a dozen documents under files labeled things like, "Itex," "Schools," and "Extermination Effect," whatever that meant.

"What's Itex?" she asked, seeing an official-looking seal stamped across every document's top. Nudge and Gazzy leaned in closer.

"I think it's..." Angel frowned and magnified the screen. "I think it's a company...behind the Schools."

"You mean it controls them?" Nudge asked.

"Yeah. It's like the big bad guy behind lots of little bad guys. And behind Itex is someone named Marian Janssen...this document calls her the Director," Angel concluded.

So that's who we have to beat if we want all of this to end: not just one School, but this big huge corporation. Great. "What about Ig?" Max shifted a glance over to the helicopter that kept Fang hostage. She was getting a nervous, shifty feeling in the bottom of her stomach, as if the aircraft would take off without her noticing.

"I'm looking," Angel said, her smooth forehead in frustration. "I can't find anything, but...oh, wait! Here!"

On the current document was a thumbnail picture of Iggy. Below that a label read "status: detained. Stationed in Canadian Rockies."

"He's at the School in the...Rockies?" Angel said.

"Rockies? As in Colorado?" Nudge asked, confusion clear on her face.

"No, up in Canada." Angel leaned back, her fingers slack against the keyboard. She turned a confused expression to Max. "But...Max, if they're keeping Iggy in Canada, where are they taking Fang?"

Max's eyes went wide as she remembered Fang's warning. Max, don't come after me! They're trying to...

"They're trying to lead us away," Max murmured.

Her flock stared at her in shock.

"Who do we go after?" Nudge asked.

"Iggy," Gazzy said firmly, his small jaw set in a stubborn look. "Oh, come on, Max. He's been at that place for four days! Don't you know what they could have done to him?"

"I know, I know," Max said, wincing. She looked at the helicopter again, torn. Her heart felt like it was being pulled in two different directions. And it was giving her a stomach ache, so she had better make a decision fast.

"I got something!" Angel said, sitting up straight, her blue eyes wide. Her hands fluttered in excitement. "From Anders! They're about to take off. And they're headed to..."

Max waited with baited breath for the little blond girl to finish, but Angel just stared into the distance. Far across the field at the School's base, the familiar sounds of a helicopter starting up filled the silence.

"Headed where?" Max asked impatiently. "Ange! Snap out of it! Where are they taking Fang?"

Angel looked at her with huge eyes. "To Germany. To Itex Headquarters, Max."

"Max?" Nudge said uncertainly. "The helicopter's already lifting off. Which way do we go?"

Max looked between the remaining members of her flock. Gazzy had a look on his face that said if Max went after Fang and left Iggy behind at the whitecoats' mercies, he would never forgive her. Nudge was staring at the picture of Iggy with a sick look. Angel was fixated on the helicopter, which was lifting into the bright morning sky. Max stood up.

Germany or Canada. Headquarters or School. Fang or Iggy.

And though it made her stomach pitch with anxiety, Max knew what they had to do.

"Split up," she said shortly. "Nudge, Gazzy, you go after Iggy. After Angel and I break Fang out of that helicopter, we're coming right after you, and then we'll all meet up."

"Meet where?" Gazzy asked. He was up and bouncing on the tips of his toes, his face flushed with excitement.

"Home." Max unleashed her wings from their hidden position and rose to her feet. "The Colorado house."

She didn't wait to see what they thought of the idea. Fang couldn't escape on his own, however strong or resourceful he was, and Max hated the idea of putting off Iggy's rescue more than she already had.

Angel shut the laptop, slid it into the backpack and handed the entire thing over to Max. Max accepted it without a word and slung it over her shoulders, her eyes directed skyward and to the helicopter rising into the blue.

"Be careful!" Nudge called. Then she and Gazzy pushed off the ground and into the air, heading away from the helicopter. Max exchanged a solemn glance with Angel.

"Ready?" Angel asked.

"You know it."

And then they were in the air, the wind whistling over their feathers, their gaze set firmly on the helicopter fleeing before them.

For a long time, silence was king over Iggy's containment room and its sole two prisoners.

"You're one of the birds," Dag said finally. There was an uninterested tinge to his rough voice, but at least it wasn't the hate Iggy usually heard whenever an Eraser jeered at him. "You're the one they're testing the Extermination Effect on."

Iggy perked up at the sudden, guarded interest in the Eraser's voice. "Yeah. It sucks."

"It's supposed to," Dag sneered, but he sounded even more interested than a second ago. Iggy heard metal bars creak as the Eraser leaned forward in concentration. From Dag's point of view, this was a perfect opportunity to learn more about the Effect from one of its victims. Iggy struck up a grin.

"I heard that you're doing some investigating."

Dag growled warily. "Who told?"

"I just heard it passing by," Iggy said, feigning nonchalance. "But it got me wondering. What do you know?"

"Why should I tell you?"

"Because," Iggy said cajolingly, "I know what it feels like, but that's about it. If you give me some more info on the Effect, maybe I can beat it."

"No one can beat it," Dag replied. "It was Stark's idea. You think you can beat Stark?"

Iggy shrugged. "Stranger things have happened."

Dag was silent for a while, thinking over Iggy's words. The bird kid's heart thundered in his chest. Jeb's entire mission could possibly rest on what this Eraser had to say; the sooner he talked, the sooner Iggy would break free of the School and get back to his family. The thought filled his chest with unbreakable resolve. I'm gonna do this, he thought, and felt the lines of his face harden in determination.

"I'm not saying anything," Dag said firmly. Noticing how Iggy started to protest, he interrupted, "Not unless you give me intel in return. You know the idea. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. Even you birdies can understand that, can't you?"

"Yep." Iggy smirked and leaned his back against the bars of his cage, waiting for Dag to make the first move. The Eraser snorted impatiently. Apparently, his curiosity wasn't enough to overwhelm his natural Eraser distrust.

"Well, don't let me hold you back," he said.

"Fine." Iggy blew his breath out, stirring some of the over-long bangs that hung in his face. Then, he went on to describe the effects of the E.E. in detail, knowing that if he didn't connect all the dots, maybe this Eraser could. Dag sat patiently in his huge cage, silent except for the occasional question or grunt. He absorbed each and every one of Iggy's words like a well-seasoned steak.

Finally, Iggy finished. He sat back, feeling slightly winded - at most, he could only have gotten ten minutes of splotchy sleep, and that didn't feel like it did him much good. Jeb would probably return in less than ten minutes. He needed to grill this Eraser, and he needed some answers fast.

"Your turn," he said in an encouraging tone. "I held my end of the bargain."

For a terrifying instant, Dag was quiet, the air rippling with resentment, and Iggy feared that he wasn't going to get the answer he, Jeb and Ari desperately needed.

"I know a couple of things," Dag admitted at length. "One: each mutant the whitecoats give a trigger only has that one trigger. No more than that. They made it by linking a specific mutant's DNA to the mechanics in the trigger, wired it up to the termination chip in the back of your neck - you have one of those, you know - and that was that. But the DNA has to be fresh. Brand new, even. If a certain amount of time goes by and the whitecoats don't get some new DNA from you, the trigger stops working."

So they can't have made triggers for the rest of the flock, Iggy thought with relief. They were all broken out of the School too long ago.

"So they're getting new DNA from me every day, huh?" he asked.

"Yeah, whether they stick you with a needle or just pick up some skin cells," Dag answered smugly. Iggy scowled. "And another thing. Even better. Because the trigger has a direct line to the termination chip, if you get your hands on it and manipulate the controls just the right way, you can deactivate the chip. Permanently."

Iggy leaned back, his head buzzing with the weight of this news. He could save his family from being terminated. He could save himself from being terminated. "Do you know how to do that?" he asked eagerly.

Dag scoffed. "Do I look like a whitecoat to you?"

Not even bothering to make up a sarcastic blindness joke, Iggy shook his head.

"Well, then," Dag snorted. "That's all I found out, besides the fact that the whitecoats are planning to use the Effect as a way to discipline us Erasers. Like a leash. Well, I'm telling you, runt, they're not gonna do it. Not to me. I'm gonna get my paws on my trigger when they make one for me, if they haven't done it already, and I'm gonna figure out a way to stop it. They're not terminating me. Not me. Not me, never..."

The Eraser's paranoid rambling dissolved into silence. Iggy sat in his cage, ignoring the nervous mutters that came from the Eraser every now and then, and let the information sink in. He had to get to Jeb. He knew he couldn't break out of this cage - he'd tried way too many times to count already - but he couldn't stand the thought of sitting here with everything he had learned.

Iggy didn't have to wait long. Before five minutes were up, two sets of muffled footsteps came through the thin door.

"Company," Dag grunted, rattling at his cages like a wild animal. "Finally, I'm getting out of here! Next time I see Jagger, I'm ripping his throat out."

"What exactly did you do to make him stick you in a cage?" Iggy asked curiously. He felt Dag's heated glower blistering against his skin.

"Nothing," Dag muttered. "I never did anything to that piece of trash. I stick to myself. He just decided he had a problem with me."

Iggy frowned, confused, but dismissed it as Eraser behavior when the door swung open. Immediately, his ears were assaulted by a pair of arguing voices.

"Sir, I must insist against this," a man's voice said. Ah. The man of many loyalties himself: Jeb. Finally!

"Why?" Iggy recognized the glacial tone immediately: Stark. Aw, man. "I hope you're not getting attached to this mutant, Batchelder."

"No, sir." Jeb paused in front of Iggy's cage. "What...an Eraser?"

"Yessir," Dag said, "and a very unhappy one at that. Mind letting me out?"

Stark sighed disdainfully. A second later there was the sound of a lock unlatching, and Dag's footsteps bounded out of his cage and the containment room without another word to Iggy. Which was just as well, because Iggy didn't know if he wanted to be the center of attention between Jeb and Stark.

"Sir, what you're suggesting could jeopardize the entire experiment," Jeb said. "I need Igneous in his best condition for the Extermination Effect..."

"You know what I think, Batchelder?" Stark's voice slowed into a predatory, dangerous purr. "I think you want your precious mutant in its best condition because you care. I'm sure the Director will be very interested in this new development."

Jeb went frighteningly quiet. Dread scuttled through Iggy's ribcage, making him shudder. What had Jeb been trying to protect him from this time? It must have been horrible, if he had stood against Stark for so long; it sounded as if they'd been arguing for some time.

"No, sir," Jeb finally said. Iggy could almost see his shoulders drooping with defeat.

"Good," Stark said smugly. "I'm glad you see reason." His voice turned frosty once more, and before Iggy could try and make a break for it, he commanded, "Bring the mutant."

Ohhhhh, dear. Oh, dear, oh, dear.

"Ouch," Iggy hissed, jerking his arm from Jeb's grasp. "You're killing my arm!"

Jeb took the boy's elbow, careful to be gentle this time around. He didn't dare apologize; he could feel Stark breathing down the back of his neck.

The only time he could remember wanting to abandon the School more was when he had been forced to leave Ari behind. He hated this feeling of helplessness, a feeling that spilled through his insides and brought his heart to a hammering speed. What do I do? He thought desperately, his eyes flicking back and forth as he, Iggy and Stark neared the "needle room," as the whitecoats called it. It was the same room every mutant had to enter whenever the whitecoats decided to use a plethora of new serums on live test subjects.

The thought of Iggy undergoing a painful testing session normally made Jeb's stomach squirm with distaste, and the guilt of knowing that he was unable to stop it. But Stark had outdone himself this time. He had produced a new serum, one he said had been in development for three years. Now it was ready to test.

And he'd chosen Iggy.

Jeb already knew better than to pray for help. None would come. And he would be forced to watch as Iggy underwent something worse than ever before.

Let go, he ordered himself as he, Iggy and Stark reached the needle room. Let go.

The rectangular viewing window jutted into the white room, allowing the whitecoats to watch the entire process from behind a safe barrier. Anne stood to one side of the viewing window, her pretty face twisted into an ugly smile. "Hello, Batchelder," she greeted him, her voice sounding like honeyed, poisoned sugar.

Let go, Jeb told himself. But his grip on Iggy's elbow only tightened. The boy sensed his disquiet and looked up, giving him a confused look.

What's wrong? His sightless eyes asked. And though he knew Iggy couldn't see him, Jeb looked away.

I can't do this.

"Jebidiah," a rich voice said gently. Jacob was standing at the corner opposite Anne, a look of sympathy on his dark-skinned face. Obviously, Anne hadn't been shy with the details of Stark's new serum.

Let go.

Inside the needle room, a whitecoat stood by a metal table with restraining straps, waiting with a lethal-looking needle in his gloved hand. Ari and another Eraser stood at opposite sides of the small room. Jeb's son was staring at him, his blue eyes piercing straight through the thick glass into his heart. His gaze seemed to accuse, condemn and question Jeb all at once.

Let go, Jeb begged his hand, which was still cupped around Iggy's elbow. Stark gave him a slow, deadly glare.

"Batchelder," he said warningly.

Let go!

He had to. He had no choice. If he defied Stark, the Director would be the first to know. And then everything he'd worked for, everything he'd sacrificed, would be for nothing. The world would be lost. All because of his love as a father.


And Jeb closed his eyes in defeat. "Yes, sir."

Stark didn't hesitate. He wrenched Iggy from Jeb's slack grasp, dragged him from the motionless man before Jeb could change his mind and abandon his mission to save one boy. And then Stark had shoved Iggy into the room, and Ari and the other guard came forward and strapped Iggy into the restraints, and the whitecoat injected Jeb's adopted son, and he was too late.

It's an interesting serum, if I may say so myself, Stark's silky voice rang in Jeb's head. It's been in production for quite some time now. And I plan to test it on Igneous. You see, Batchelder, the serum does more than inflict agonizing pain. It invades the subject's neural system and brings forth images. Hallucinations. I thought it would be interesting to test it on your blind mutant. Imagine being blind for years, and then getting your sight back! But...aha, I'm afraid it's not quite that wonderful. You see, the hallucinations aren't exactly...pleasant.

"Watch carefully, Batchelder," Stark said. A sadistic smile stretched across his thin, pale lips. In a sing-song voice, he added, "Don't forget to take notes."

At first Iggy looked stunned beyond words and imagination, his mouth dropping low enough that Jeb thought it might fall off. A look of rapture and unspeakable joy crossed his pale face. Then he flinched. Flinched again, but harder. His narrow limbs suddenly went taut, his jaw tense, his hands shaking. Then his body started to twist, his head snapped from side to side like a berserk yo-yo, his mouth gaped open.

And Iggy screamed.

Jeb flinched before he could stop himself. His hands curled into painful fists, his nails digging into his palms and breaking skin. He was distantly aware that he was trembling, his gaze fixed on the thrashing figure strapped to a metal table. Bile rose in his throat. Jeb swallowed.

Stay strong.

The thick glass of the doors and viewing window did barely anything to keep out Iggy's screams. It sounded like his lungs were being rended apart.

"I wonder what it sees," an intense whisper came from Jeb's left. Stark was leaning forward, hands nearly pressed flat against the window as he watched Iggy writhe in pain both emotional and physical. A look of sick fascination ruled over his colorless face, and in that moment, Jeb had never hated anyone more than he hated the man before him. Suddenly, he understood how people were capable of committing murder. He wanted to wrap his hands around this monster's neck and wring. He wanted to see the light fade from Stark's eyes. He wanted...

A gentle hand descended on Jeb's shaking shoulder. Startled, he whirled around, but it was only Jacob standing there, a look of agonized pity on his face.

No. Jeb closed his eyes, hunching his shoulders as Iggy's screams only intensified. I will not lose control. I have control. This monster will not break my facade.

Jeb's eyes flew open. Stark's words ran through his mind, torturing him with their inhumanity. He'd suggested that Jeb was attached to Iggy. He threatened to tell the Director about Jeb's defiance.

And suddenly, Jeb knew why Stark had given him this extra week with Iggy. He knew why Stark hadn't fed him to the Erasers for his failure.

Stark wanted to see Jeb slip up. He wanted to see him give away his attachment to Iggy, to Max and the rest of the flock. He wanted Jeb to reveal his flawed humanity. And the instant Jeb did, Stark was going to tell the Director everything.

He wants to ruin me, Jeb realized, staring at Stark in horror. He knows where my loyalties lie and he plans to tell the Director, to ruin everything I've worked for. All he needs is proof. And he plans to get it by breaking Iggy. By making me act in desperation to save the boy.

He couldn't. He couldn't do it, he couldn't endanger the mission. The world...or the boy.

I have control, Jeb thought firmly. I have control.

A flash of blood on Iggy's chin caught Jeb's eye. The boy had bitten straight through his lower lip in a futile attempt to keep his screams in. His cheeks glistened with tears.

I have control.

Ari was staring at Iggy's shrieking figure, his wolfish face twisted in an expression of terror. Jeb didn't have to imagine what the boy was seeing. He knew Ari was seeing himself strapped to that table, four years old and bristling with needles. Stark had showed Jeb pictures.

I have control.

Jacob's grip on Jeb's shoulder was almost painful. The dark-skinned man's face had gone pale, his teeth clenched together in a look of outright horror. "He's not going to make it," he whispered. "There's no way he can survive that. Jeb, Stark is going to kill him!"

I have control!

Stark. Staring, smiling, chuckling low in his throat. Waiting. Waiting for Jeb to crack. Waiting for his triumph to come to him like a dog.

Jeb bit his tongue, tasted blood.

And then it was over.

Jeb sagged against the wall in relief. A silence devoid of screams had never sounded so beautiful to him. Stark was glaring at him, livid, but Jeb couldn't care less about the monstrous man. He had eyes only for the boy now lying half-unconscious on the metal table.

"Procedure complete," Anne said quietly. Even she looked disturbed by the effects of Stark's serum.

It happened quickly. One minute Ari was standing completely still, and the next he was at Iggy's side, jerking violently at the tight straps that held the boy down. Stark made a startled noise in the back of his throat, but by then Ari had already gathered Iggy up in his arms and was stalking past Jeb, moving faster than he had ever seen. The gaze he shot Jeb was enough to freeze his heart in his chest.

"Batchelder!" Stark screamed at him, but Jeb and Jacob spun on their heels and fled the viewing window.

Only when they were a good distance from the needle room and had taken enough turns to lose any pursuers did Jeb speak.

"Ari!" He called. Iggy flopped limply in Ari's arms with every step the mutant took. He was only a foot shorter than Jeb's son, but Ari carried him as if he weighed no more than Angel.

As Jeb drew closer, he realized that Ari was muttering a string of undiscernable words under his breath, like a prayer or a mantra.

"Won'tletthemcatchus...won'tcatchme, won't let them do it to me too, not again, not again, not again..."

"Ari." Jeb reached forward and placed a hand on his son's trembling arm. Ari flinched and raised a fist, but stopped short when he realized it was his father.

"Jeb." Ari shook his head. His eyes cleared of the nearly manic look that had taken them. "What they did to him, it reminded...reminded me of..."

A rush of something both painful and warming rushed through Jeb's chest. Ignoring Jacob in the background, he stroked his lost son's arm comfortingly. He didn't know what he was doing. It just felt right. "I know. I know. Ari, you have to put Iggy down. You're going to drop him like this."

Ari hesitated, a look of confusion crossing his face when he noticed he was holding Iggy, as if he couldn't remember how the boy had gotten there. "Yeah," he said shakily, and set the winged mutant down on the floor with a gentleness that stunned Jeb speechless. He'd forgotten his son could be so tender, and there was none of the boy's usual hatred for the flock in his blue eyes. He just looked scared, shaken and vulnerable. Jeb had the odd urge to hug him and brushed it aside, remembering abruptly that Ari probably wouldn't accept it. Instead, he gave his son's arm one more calming stroke. It seemed to work. Ari stopped shivering and looked away, some of his old self returning to him.

Ari taken care of, Jeb dropped to his knees by Iggy's side. All of the guilt, grief, and horror that had held him prisoner at the needle room swept back on him like a vengeful beast. He smoothed Iggy's damp hair from his forehead and dabbed at the blood dribbling from the boy's lower lip. The unconscious boy stirred, flinching away from Jeb's touch. Jeb's heart squeezed painfully in his chest.

"Jacob?" he called, needing to have his friend by his side. Jacob was there in an instant. He pressed a hand against Iggy's forehead and pulse, checked his chest for breath and made sure the boy wasn't seriously injured from thrashing around. Finally, he sat back on his heels and nodded.

"He'll be alright," he said softly. "Physically. Mentally? I can't say. We'll have to see when he wakes up."

Jeb felt like throwing up. This happened because Stark was trying to get to me. Because of me.

It was like a dam shattered piece by piece inside him. Jeb reached forth and gathered Iggy in his arms, pulling the unconscious boy close to his chest. He buried his face in Iggy's damp hair and stayed there, shaking, as the tears built up inside him and refused to come out. Too many years of practicing emotionless held the sobs back. He couldn't cry, not even now, when he had nearly lost his adopted son.

"Jebidiah," Jacob said quietly after a moment, "I know this isn't the right time, but you need to hear it."

Jeb nodded silently. He didn't look up from Iggy, keeping his eyes closed shut tight against the emotions raging through him.

"I told you about my son," Jacob said. "I told you how I lost him. And I promised I would help you save yours. So I am asking you now, Jeb. Please don't make my mistake. Please, don't. If I had the chance to choose between my son and all the riches, all the happiness in the world, I would choose my son. I know what you're trying to do. But this isn't worth it. Not this. Nothing is worth this."

Jeb lifted his head. His face and eyes were dry, but his throat was on fire. His gaze drifted from Iggy's slack-jawed face to Jacob's crumpled expression, and then to Ari, who was leaning against a wall, staring into nothing. His son was seven-years-old and haunted by things Jeb couldn't imagine. To have two sons like that...

He had lost Ari's mother. It might already be too late to save Ari. But he would not lose another.

Out of the blue, Jeb recalled a story he had loved when he first entered Itex's service. It was one of the more memorable of the Greek mythologies: the story of Daedalus and Icarus. Jeb had always admired Daedalus's strength and efficiency, how he had fashioned wings of feathers and wax to escape King Minos's clutches. But what he had wondered at was Icarus's disobedience. Daedalus had warned his son not to fly too high or too low, and had believed that Icarus would trust his word. Yet Icarus had gotten cocky.

And so he fell into the ocean and drowned, and the island he had fallen near was called Icaria, as a tribute to Daedalus's loss.

His loss will not be mine.

Swallowing past the ache in his throat, Jeb met Jacob's gaze and nodded.

A/N: End chapter 13. Reviews are my lifeblood, so please, please leave me something nice to come back to when I return from Maui. =)

On another note, I've put up a poll to see how long you guys think the chapters should be. Right now they're about 6000-7000 words. Take a second to vote - it won't take long, I promise! Until then!

pandorad24: (your review to chapter 12) Well, your reviews are awesome. How can we not reply to them? =) Congrats on having an original. Fun, isn't it? Daunting, also. But fan'fic is fun too. Aw, Fang didn't mean to steal Iggy's spotlight! He just does...it's like the bad guys can't keep their hands off him. Well, Jeb is doing his best, even if he needs a ton of help along the way. That's where Jacob comes in. Ah, Jacob. But now that Jeb has finally realized the importance of family over duty, I hope you'll forgive him a little. He's a slow learner. Yep, yay for Dag! Now that Iggy has all the information Jeb needs, all our trio is missing is the trigger itself. :D

Thanks for reading, everyone!


14. A Mercy Plea

Woot! I'm back. =)

juniper294, flYegurl, lillypad22, Illucida, Locked in a Stony Tower, pandorad24, BeTrueToThyself, xflightlesxbird, Ren Rain and hopewithgreywings are all awesome for reviewing. Thank you so much for your continued encouragement and support! As much as I love writing this story, I have to admit that your reviews are what make me try so hard to update on a continuous basis.

Warning: this chapter contains brief descriptions of torture and character death. Nothing too graphic (since I really am trying to stick to our T rating), but it's the implications that might be disturbing. If this bothers you, go ahead and skim over the two italicized paragraphs in Iggy's POV. Also a warning for some patches of angst throughout, and questionable use of pills.

Disclaimer: Not mine! Except the plot, idea and my OC's.

hopewithgreywings: Ack! Okay, it's here! Enjoy. :)

Chapter Fourteen: A Mercy Plea

When Fang opened his eyes, his first thought was that he had gone blind. A spike of fear lanced through his constricted chest before the sounds of a thrumming helicopter rotor and the stench of Eraser registered to his fuzzy head. Then everything came rushing back in on him like a tide: getting shot, waking up in a hospital bed with a whitecoat leaning over him, being tied up and carried to the hospital's roof, the helicopter, Max, and then a black bag over his head and a needle in his arm...

"Yes, sir," a deep voice said from Fang's right. The boy shifted on the helicopter's floor, wincing at the pain radiating from his bound hands. He was starting to feel claustrophobic. It was all he could do not to strain against his restraints and try to break free. But he knew even if he tried, he wouldn't get anywhere.

"Yes, Doctor Stark. We still have tabs on the flock. They've split up, just as you planned."

Fang went still. Anders, as he remembered the man who'd kidnapped him was called, sounded like he was talking on the phone to someone. Stark. Fang had been a little distracted when Max was interrogating the other whitecoat in the van - Rickman, or something like that - but he had caught the name of the man who had orchestrated Iggy's capture.

Split up? Fang covertly tried to untie his hands behind his back. It didn't matter if it was a futile effort, he just had to try.

"Maximum and the one they call Angel are trailing us. The other two should be on their way to Canada...and right to you, sir."

Something growled near Fang. He went still, pretending to be unconscious when a heavy boot nudged his side. An Eraser, probably trying to check if he was awake. Fang waited a second before renewing his efforts to escape.

"Reinforcements are less than two hours away, by our calculations," Anders said. "When they arrive, the mutants will not stand a chance."

"Hey!" Rickman's reedy voice interrupted Anders's conversation and Fang's efforts to break free. "The freak's awake!"

Fang gave up trying to be sneaky and arched his back, lifting off the floor in an attempt to free his bound wrists. But he was too late. The last thing he heard before an Eraser's boot slammed into his face and the world went spinning back into darkness was a tinny voice, laughing on the other end of Anders's phone.

Can you hear me?

Iggy's first instinct was to turn away from the sound, to cover his ears and hope that whoever was asking him questions when it was obvious that he was dying would take a hint. His limbs felt thin and brittle, like they would snap if he dared move a muscle. A wobbling groan warbled from his aching throat. Jeez, what had they done, stuck a screwdriver down his esophagus?

Igneous. Iggy.

That's my name, don't wear it out, came the automatic response. Yet something held him back. Maybe it was the throbbing pain in the back of his skull, or better yet, the feeling that he was floating high above the ground, that he'd forgotten something really important, and the minute he remembered, he would come crashing back down to earth. And there would be no more time for jokes.

Son, the stubborn voice called gently.

Iggy groaned. "Go away, Jeb."

A pair of relieved sighs blew over his head. "He's okay," a deep voice like chocolate said. Jacob, his fuzzy mind placed a second later. What's Jacob doing here? Where is here?

"Jacob?" Iggy asked. He opened his eyes, not that it made any difference in what he saw. What he saw…

Something niggled at the back of his mind like a termite. Dread rose in his stomach, but before he could remember just what he'd forgotten, Jacob placed a gentle hand on his forehead. Yowch, the guy had cold hands. Or maybe Iggy's forehead was just very hot. Belatedly, he realized he was shivering violently.

"I'm here, boy," Jacob said reassuringly. "And your father, and Ari."

Ari! I can't let him see me like this, he'll hold it over my head for a year—

Iggy surged upright, his hands pushing off of the comfort of a plush mattress. The movement jolted his head. Sudden, blinding pain rocketed through his skull, like a billion suns had imploded in his brain. Iggy shrieked and clutched his head, knuckles digging into his scalp, his teeth grinding against each other until he thought his jaw might break. Frantic hands pushed at his shoulders, trying to make him lie down again, but his head was spinning and that niggling feeling was pushing to the forefront of his mind—

Home. An E-shaped house, just like Max and the others described it. His flock. He could see them. Each and every one of them. His family. His friends. Max, Fang, Nudge, Gazzy, Angel. Joy unlike anything he'd ever felt before. He could see, he could see…

A cold room. A white room. Needles and Eraser jaws, and they were cutting off his flock's wings with rusty saws, dumping the mutilated bodies at his feet when they were done, and he was next, and he couldn't do anything but watch and scream, scream, scream—blood, spreading and everywhere and in his mouth and hair and under his fingernails and pleasemakeitstop, I don't want to see anymore, pleasepleaseplease—

Stinging pain erupted across his cheek, snapping his head to the side. Dimly, Iggy heard Jeb and Jacob cry out in shock—"Ari!"—and then a set of heavy hands gripped his shoulders and shook him hard enough to rattle his brain in his screaming head.

"Stop it!" Ari screamed in his face. "Stop it, stop it!" He shook Iggy again when the boy didn't respond. Iggy blinked, stunned, his mouth open in shock and his throat on fire. Vaguely, he realized he must have been screaming. And Ari had slapped him. Something told him he should have been upset about this, but all he could think about was the flock dying right in front of him.

"I-I…" he gasped. "I saw…"

"Don't," Ari snarled. Something like hate tinted his rough voice, but Iggy got the sense that it wasn't directed at him. "Don't say anything. Don't even think about what you saw. Don't think about it at all. Because if you do then it'll only get worse, and then it'll get into your dreams, and you'll never be the same. You'll see it every time you look at them. So don't. Be quiet. Be quiet."

Iggy's teeth clicked as he opened and closed his mouth silently. It was a nightmare. Nothing else. A nightmare. A dream. Everything's fine.

But it wasn't. He felt his body shudder, his throat clench, and Ari must have seen that he was about to cry out, because he gripped the back of Iggy's head and mashed the boy's face into his shoulder.

"Quiet," he rumbled. And that was all it took for Iggy to come undone, for him to sob silently into Ari's shoulder and grip the Eraser's jacket as if it was the only thing keeping him linked to sanity.

How long they stayed like that, Iggy almost falling off the bed with his face buried in Ari's shoulder, and Ari kneeling on the floor with one hand on the back of Iggy's head and the other an angry fist curled by his side, Iggy couldn't tell. All he knew was that he was exhausted by the time his noiseless cries died, more exhausted and limp than he'd been in a long, long while. And he was incredibly uncomfortable, wanted to pull away and act as if nothing had happened, but Ari wasn't letting go and Iggy wasn't ready to face anyone yet.

Eventually, he had to come up for air. Ari was pressing Iggy's face into his shoulder a little too close for comfort, and the winged boy found that he could only get oxygen through his mouth. "Mmmrph," he said, and pushed on Ari's chest with his hands. Ari grunted and released him.

Free, Iggy slumped into a seated position on the floor. He directed his swollen, sightless eyes to where the ground was, his face flooding with color and heat once he realized that he had just broken down in front of two of the people he distrusted most in the world. And he'd just cried into Ari's shoulder! Ari, who had no right to smash Iggy's face into his shoulder and tell him to be quiet when screaming about it would have only made Iggy more embarrassed later.

Jeb's knees clicked as he rose and settled a hand on Iggy's shoulder. There was something uncertain in his voice when he spoke. Hollow amusement twitched at Iggy's lips; Jeb was out of practice at being a father.

"Do you need to talk about it?" his father asked solemnly. Iggy winced and shook his head vehemently.

"Not now," he said hoarsely. "I think…I want to sleep."

"Yes, of course." Jeb went away for a second while Jacob helped Iggy back into bed—he ached like someone had run him through the dry cleaner a couple dozen times. Ari was so quiet Iggy nearly forgot he was there.

"Here," Jeb said just when Iggy had gotten under the covers. He pressed a pill into the boy's hand. "Normally, I wouldn't…but this is different. It will keep the nightmares away."

Iggy took it dry, and a minute later, the world dropped away. He slept for a long time, and hours later, woke to find a hand on his shoulder. Someone was snoring softly at the side of his bed.

"He fell asleep waiting for you to wake up," Jacob's voice whispered in the quiet. Jeb's hand left his shoulder, though the snores continued, and Iggy could only assume that Jacob had moved his father's hand for him.

"Do you need help?" Jacob asked, still in that almost-silent whisper. Iggy started to shake his head, but a short-lived attempt to sit upright had him admitting otherwise. Jacob helped him out of bed and supported him when he swayed on his feet.

"It still hurts, doesn't it?" he asked as he led Iggy away from the bed.

Iggy nodded. Like all hell, he wanted to say, but the ache in his body was nothing compared to the agony he'd felt during the real thing. "Where are we?" he whispered instead.

"Jeb's quarters. We brought you here after the…the experiment. Stark can't monitor us here; even whitecoats are allowed some privacy rights."

Stark. Iggy shuddered at the name, hatred and fear surging in his gut. If he ever set foot in the same room as the man again, he would tear him to pieces. Or run. Or both. He didn't know; he was torn between loathing and terror, and it was starting to give him a headache on top of his already-present headache.

"Where's Ari?" he asked, sensing the lack of a third presence in Jeb's rooms.

"He went down to the combat rooms to blow off some steam after you fell asleep," Jacob answered, and ushered Iggy into a chair. "He was very upset about what they did to you."

Iggy snorted. "Yeah, right."

"Don't be so quick to judge," Jacob chided him gently. "I think it reminded him of what they did to him when he was younger."

Iggy frowned. He'd known Ari must have gone through terrible things when Jeb left him for the flock, but he hadn't thought it would be so hard for the kid. He was Jeb's son. Wouldn't they have cut him some slack?

Apparently not, a dark voice muttered in the back of his head. He went through the same level of torture you did, but he was only three then…

A shudder shook his shoulders at the thought. Don't think about it at all, Ari's voice echoed in his brain. Because if you do then it'll only get worse, and then it'll get into your dreams, and you'll never be the same. You'll see it every time you look at them.

It had sounded like he was speaking from experience. Had Ari been talking about the flock as well, or the whitecoats? Was that why he hated the flock so much, besides the reasons circling around Jeb? What did he see every time Max appeared in front of him?

Jacob's calming voice drew Iggy back to the present. "We have to get some food into you."

"I'm not hungry." No sooner had he finished protesting, a gurgle erupted from his stomach. Iggy scowled.

"I'll get you some toast," Jacob said good-naturedly.

While the man puttered about the kitchen, Iggy felt his way around, trying to take in his surroundings. There was a plastic table in front of him and three more chairs set around it. A sleek tile floor sucked the warmth from his bare feet, leaving them somewhat numb—like he'd felt when the saw blade landed on Max's wing

"Here you go," Jacob said cheerfully. The clattering of the plate on the table jolted Iggy from his daze. He shivered, feeling bile rise in his throat, and hurriedly shoved a piece of toast in his mouth. Be quiet, he repeated. Don't think about it. Don't think about it at all.

In a matter of minutes, the plate, with the toast and eggs Jacob had generously piled onto it, was clean. Iggy pushed his face into his hands, basking in the feeling of being full. Don't think about it at all.

"I want a shower," he muttered, threading his fingers through his lank hair. It'd gotten greasy and blood-stained during his stay at the School, and desperately needed a wash. If Max could see me now, she'd be wondering if she was under some kind of hallucinogen the whitecoats cooked up. Imagine, me, actually wanting to take a shower.

"This way." Jacob led him from the tiny kitchen to the bathroom, where he ran the water and helped Iggy locate the shampoo and soap. Iggy made sure the door was locked when Jacob left, and set about undressing before making his cautious way into the shower.

He practically melted under the clean, warm water. It was like the shower was washing away all the fear, anger and worry he'd felt ever since being kidnapped and thrown back into the nuthouse. More than four days' worth—he hadn't really had a chance to shower while breaking Angel and the others out of the Death Valley School—of sweat and grime came away under the soap and shampoo.

He stayed there for a while, stretching his wings out and letting his aching muscles relax under the hot water. Actually, it was a little too warm. He was starting to get the sense that it was burning his skin in long trails, running down his back and chest like—blood spraying his face, his family's blood, drowning him in a shower of red—

Instinctively, Iggy yelped and lashed out. The slick floor betrayed his feet and in a moment he'd lost his balance and landed hard on his back. One of his wings collided loudly with the shower door, rattling it.

"Darn it," Iggy muttered, and turned the water off. Sliding the shower door open, he had just reached for a towel when Jeb's worried voice came through the bathroom door.

"Iggy? Are you all right?"

"Fine," Iggy called irritably, annoyed with himself for falling over like some kind of clumsy toddler. Annoyed with Jeb for waking up and rushing to his aid like that, like he deserved to act like a father.

"Are you sure?" Jeb asked.

"Yeah, Jeb." Iggy wrapped the towel around himself and stepped out of the shower. He reached out a hand and groped around for his clothes. His grimy, torn clothes.

Almost as if he'd read Iggy's mind, Jeb said, "I have something for you to wear. Will you open the door?"

Iggy grunted. "Fine."

A wave of cold air rushed in the second he opened the door. Jeb pressed a set of clean clothes into his hands.

"The shirt's thick and the jeans are sturdy enough," he said. "I know it can get cold in here. And they should fit you well enough, since you're about my height."

"Thanks," Iggy muttered, and closed the door again. He dressed quickly, not wanting to stay in the stuffy bathroom any more than he had to. He desperately needed something to distract himself. Something that didn't have to do with Erasers or saws or blood.

But Jeb will want me to go right back to training with the Extermination Effect, he reminded himself glumly. The Exter…He froze.

The Extermination Effect! Dag—the DNA samples—how could he have forgotten everything he'd found out?

"Jeb!" Iggy fumbled with the bathroom door's lock. "Jeb?"

Jeb was there in an instant, his voice concerned. "What is it, Iggy?"

"I remembered—" Iggy pulled the door open and grinned at where he knew his father's head would be. He knew he must look somewhat deranged, with his hair flying in all directions and his face flushed, but he didn't care. "I have something important to tell you. About the Extermination Effect."

Jeb had him seated in a chair at the kitchen table, spilling the information he'd gathered before Iggy could blink. Both Jeb and Jacob listened patiently while Iggy told his story, from how Dag had been thrown into the cage next to him, to Stark's arrival. When he was finished, both whitecoats had fallen into a deep silence.

"The trigger has to be in one of three places," Jacob finally said. "One: Stark's office. That seems the most obvious choice. That, or his archives. It's where he keeps all the confidential material he doesn't want anyone else lying eyes on. But my best bet would be on his office. You know Stark, Jebidiah. He would want to have the trigger nearby, just to feel like he's in control."

"And the third place?" Iggy prompted.

"Anne Chen's quarters," Jeb answered grimly.

"He would trust her with that?" Iggy asked doubtfully. Stark—jerk, I'll break his nose next time he gets close to me—didn't seem like the kind of man who would trust anyone but himself.

Jacob sighed wearily. "I think you underestimate just how devoted Anne is to Stark. She deifies him, has since before I first got here. He's more than a boss to her. He's like a god."

"He knows that and, arrogant as he is, assumes that she would never turn against his word," Jeb picked up. There was a measure of disgust in his words that Iggy had rarely heard before, but he sympathized completely. Why anyone would idolize Stark, he had no idea.

"The question is," Jacob said, "how do we find out which location is the right one?"

Iggy lost track of the conversation from there. The pain from his ordeal didn't like to be shoved into the back of his awareness, and now that his muscles were cooling down from the shower and tensing up, he was suddenly aware of a bone-deep ache echoing throughout his entire body. He pressed the heels of his hands into his throbbing eyes. Jeez, he couldn't remember the last time he hurt this much. Even his wings felt like they'd been stamped on. He felt like a war veteran, with old wounds that just wouldn't go away even after the fight was over.

"…ggy?" Jeb's alarmed voice penetrated the haze that had settled over him. "Iggy? What's wrong?"

"Nngh," Iggy ground out from between clenched teeth. The images were starting to creep up on him again, like monsters in the night. Don't think about it, Ari's mantra kicked up again. Don't think about it.

"I'm fine." Iggy lowered his hands to his lap and sat up straight. He'd been through worse before. He could take this. This was nothing. Just a minor setback. Just a little thing.

"Do you need to lie down?" Jacob asked in concern. Iggy shook his head at the kind-hearted man's offer. The last thing he wanted was to be idle. With nothing else to occupy itself, his mind would turn to the ordeal to keep itself busy.

He forced himself to his feet, scraping the chair along the tiled floor as he rose. "We should…get out and look for more clues," he said with a clenched jaw. He was determined not to show weakness in front of Jeb. Come on, you're strong. You can get over this. "Or…or practice overcoming the Extermination Effect. Didn't you say we don't have much time left, Jeb?"

"Five days," Jeb clarified. Air whistled through his teeth as he took in a deep breath. "That's…plenty of time. I think we can afford a mercy plea for today."

Iggy frowned. Was Jeb doing what he thought he was? "A mercy plea?"

"Jeb's way of saying we can take a day off," Jacob clarified fondly.

"A day off?" Iggy repeated. "We can do that?"

"I'll come up with an excuse," Jeb said. His bones creaked like an old man's when he rose from the table, and Iggy didn't flinch away this time when hands descended on his shoulders. Jeb was…risking the mission? For him? Since when did he do things like that?

"What they did to you today was cruel and wrong in every way possible," Jeb said quietly. "And you have no idea how much I hate myself for not coming to your side when you needed me. But it made me realize that…that I have more important things to worry about than making sure Maximum is prepared for her final duty. The world will always pick itself up again, will always be there. You, and Ari, and everyone else I put aside for my duty…won't. You won't be. And I'm not going to lose you again because of my mistakes."

Iggy was still. He could feel the lines of tension in his father's trembling grip, knew the man was speaking as deeply from his misled heart as he could, but still two years of separation engulfed the space between them.

"How do I know you're telling the truth?" he asked softly. Jeb's hands retreated from his shoulders. Disappointment and despair tainted the air.

"Because I believe he is," Jacob suddenly said. His chair scraped the floor as he pushed up from the table. "Believe me, I know a bad man when I see one—they're all over this godforsaken place. And I also know a liar when I see one. And your father's neither."

Iggy rocked back in surprise. In the short amount of time he'd known the man, he'd never heard Jacob quite this…convinced of himself. He was sure, without a doubt, that Jeb was speaking the truth. That, and the way Jeb had shaken when he spoke (Jeb always shook whenever he was experiencing a strong emotion), was enough to convince Iggy.

It was like the world had tipped on its axis. Jeb had just admitted that he'd committed wrong, horrible mistakes, and then he'd gone on to practically pledge himself to his family. This was something the old Jeb would do. Maybe Iggy's father hadn't been a complete lie, then. Maybe he'd actually meant it when he told the flock he loved them, or tucked baby Angel into her crib with caring hands, or helped Iggy around while he got accustomed to a world drenched in black.

"You're serious," was all he could think to say.

Jeb forced out a wheezing, breathy laugh. "Yes, Iggy, I'm serious."

"Oh." He just stood there for a moment, soaking it in, before leveling his father with a grim glare. "You know you still have to convince the flock that you're on our side. They're not going to make it easy on you."

The man made an uncomfortable sound. "Yes," he admitted slowly. "But…to get my family back, it's worth it."

So there it was.

All Iggy really wanted to do at the moment was take another of those pills and pass out on the bed, but he, Jeb and Jacob all agreed that the first thing they had to do was find Ari and tell him that he didn't need to go search Dag out for information. Iggy held onto Jeb's shirttail as they made their way from the first level to the last, no longer feeling the confliction he'd experienced whenever he was forced to hold onto Jeb for support. He still hadn't forgiven the man completely; Jeb would have to work hard if he was going to earn Iggy's forgiveness. But at least he now knew that Jeb was really on their side. He didn't think the man would otherwise risk the entire mission just to give Iggy a day off.

Which I would really enjoy, if it weren't in this psycho ward they call a school, he thought darkly.

"The combat rooms are just down the hall," Jacob said cheerfully. "We should be there in no t—Ari?"

The trio came to a shuddering halt. "What are you doing here?" Ari's growling voice asked sulkily.

"What's going on?" Iggy whispered to Jeb.

"We've stopped at the medical room," his father answered. The smell hit Iggy over the head the instant he, Jeb and Jacob filed through the door. The very air reeked of dried blood and antiseptics. He could almost hear the echo of screaming mutants.

Or maybe he was just nervous. The memory of Stark's serum was still fresh in his mind, creeping up on him even as he tried to distract himself from lingering on the images too long.

The horror must have shown on his face, because a moment later Jeb was helping Iggy up onto a hospital gurney. "Calm down," he said. "Slow your breathing."

"Trying," Iggy muttered, but fighting down the panic was a losing battle. An image of Gazzy, wingless and bleeding, flashed through his head. He flinched and gasped, fingers clutching the edge of the gurney.

Jeb smoothed Iggy's hair out of his eyes. "They're only hallucinations," he murmured. "The flock is fine."

"How do you know that?" Iggy asked gravely.

"Because," Ari's voice interrupted gruffly from a short distance away, "I know they are. Ouch, would you—stop touching it, Marling, I said it will heal!"

"It needs stitches!" Jacob insisted.

"It needs to stop being poked at, that's what it needs!" Ari bellowed. "St—ow! Marling!"

"What's happening?" Iggy's panic faded at the sound of Ari's angry protests and Jacob's staunch statements that the wound would fester if it was left alone. Jeb let out a dry chuckle.

"It looks like someone was a bit too enthusiastic in taking Ari on as an opponent."

"Rawley," Ari supplied, a vicious lilt to his voice. "He tried to bite off my arm for the beating we gave him. Stupid jerk. Should know when to back off. And I can take care of myself, Marling, so leave it alone!"

"Stacking a hundred Band-aids over the wound isn't going to help it, Ari," Jacob said gently. "Here—let me see it! It'll get infected!"

Recognizing that the struggle between doctor and Eraser was going downhill, Iggy filled his lungs with air and shouted, "What did you mean, you know the flock's okay?"

Ari and Jacob finally quieted down. "Whitecoats usually don't hide things around us Erasers," Ari said curtly. "They don't think we're smart enough to understand what they're saying, or something like that. Anyway, I heard that Stark's angry because the flock was supposed to be captured, but they got away. So they're fine. Whatever you saw back there, in that room, it's a lie. Just thought you should know."

A buzzing silence melted over the room after Ari's announcement. Iggy took the chance to fill his lungs with as much air as they could hold, and then released it in a long sigh.

"Thanks," he muttered to Ari. The Eraser only grunted.

A few more minutes passed mostly in silence, with Jacob dousing Ari's wounded arm in medicine and bandaging the puncture marks the proper way. Jeb stayed by Iggy's side, his unwavering hand on the boy's shoulder acting as a comfort. Iggy was just starting to relax, thinking that he could make it through the day without thinking about Stark's serum again, when a group of whitecoats came bursting into the room. Automatically, he froze, going taut as a slingshot as the smell of fresh blood permeated the dead air.

"Easy," Jeb said softly, rubbing comforting circles into Iggy's back. "Easy, Iggy, they're not here for you."

"Batchelder!" A man's voice rang out in surprise from the chattering mass of whitecoats. "Didn't think we'd find you here. Shouldn't you be locked in your room? I hear Stark's got it out for you."

Iggy squeezed his eyes shut and tried to blend in with the wall. Too late. The saw came hurtling down onto Max's wing, the impact arching her spine until she looked like she might snap in half…

"Good evening, Mr. Steele," Jeb greeted the other whitecoat frostily. "How is Mr. Anders doing?"

"Fine," Steele grunted sharply. "Off on business. But enough about us. What about you, and your little mutant back there? I see it's trying to hide against the wall. How cute. Stark's serum must have really done a number on it, huh, Batchelder?"

A row of laughter rose up from the other whitecoats, but Iggy barely heard it. All he could hear was his family screaming—Iggy! Iggy, help!—and the sound of his own wretched, helpless shrieks echoing through the room. He clamped his hands over his ears and curled into a ball on top of the gurney.

"He's none of your concern," Jeb said angrily. His hand left Iggy's shoulder, and suddenly the boy felt incredibly vulnerable and unprotected. Soundlessly, his mouth formed the words, come back, but his voice couldn't squeeze past the lump in his throat.

"Let us have a look at it," a woman's voice filtered in through the flock's screaming. "I hear its kind are the most successful recombinants yet."

A murmur of agreement rippled around the room as more of the whitecoats started to pay attention to the scene playing out before them. Cold, heart-stopping fear rose in Iggy's chest. Jeb might be standing up for him, but he couldn't hold against a dozen determined whitecoats with direct lines to Stark.

Get me out, he thought. The whitecoats' chatter surged in his ears, clashing with the screaming in his head. Get me out!

The gurney jerked violently beneath him. Iggy heard Jeb cry out in surprise, "Ari, what're you—"

Ari didn't even wait for his father to finish asking his question. With a rough push of his hands, the rolling gurney shot forward. Iggy clung to the gurney's rails for dear life as it collided sharply with something that went aieee, and then Ari pushed them out of the medical room and into the hallway.

"What are you—" Ari cut off Iggy's question with another heave of his arms, and then they were hurtling down the hallway, and the winged boy was too busy trying not to be thrown off to ask anything more. The wind brushed his hair from his face. They were going fast enough that Iggy knew he'd probably be sore for hours if Ari crashed the gurney, but though they nearly rammed into three people and almost tipped over twice, Ari kept running far away from the medical room.

Iggy leaned into the wind and stretched out his wings, letting them catch some of the air. A second later, Ari decided to come to an abrupt halt.

"Ack!" Iggy flew off the gurney, but managed to spare himself serious injury with a push of his wings. He hit the ground and rolled, finally coming to a stop on his back, wings and arms spread wide open.

For a while, they stayed like that, Ari panting to catch his breath, Iggy lying flat on his back on the floor. Something breathy rose in Iggy's throat, and before he knew what he was doing, he laughed. Long, loud, as if Ari were Gazzy and they'd just pulled off the most magnificent escape ever.

"What's wrong with you?" Ari asked grumpily when Iggy curled in on himself, tears of mirth pooling at the corners of his eyes.

"S-sorry," he gasped, starting to settle down. "I…I wish I could have seen their…faces…!"

Ari was quiet. Then he chuckled, just a little bit, and said, "Yeah. You should have seen Steele's face when I ran him over."

"You ran him…?" Iggy lifted his head to stare open-mouthed in Ari's direction. "You ran him over?"

"He deserved it."

"Ha." The laughter finally died down in Iggy's throat. Lifting himself to his elbows, he asked seriously, "Why did you…do that?"

"Do what?" Ari asked, and Iggy could tell that he'd made the other boy uncomfortable, but he wanted to understand.

"What you just did. You have to know that they're gonna punish you for it."

"So what? It was worth it. I've wanted to do that for a long time." Ari hesitated. Then, he said so quickly Iggy could barely pick the sentence apart, "And sometimes it helps if you run away from it."

There was no question what "it" was. The last remnants of mirth withered away in Iggy's chest at the thought of Stark's serum. He knew that he shouldn't be running away from his fears, but the thought of confronting them only made him feel sick.

Not yet, he thought to himself. I'm not ready yet.

"Uh, okay," he said, realizing that Ari seemed to want him to say something in turn. "I don't… Listen. I don't know why you're doing this for me, but thanks. Thanks for that and for…earlier."

Ari shifted uncomfortably at the reference to holding Iggy while he cried. It was obviously something neither he nor the winged boy wanted to revisit. "Seeing what they did to you kind of snapped me out of it," the Eraser said. "I guess you're not the golden boy I thought you were."

"No," Iggy said grimly. "I never was. And neither is Max, if you're gonna go down that road again. They hate her even more than they hate me, if that's possible."

Ari made a dismissive noise. "Here," he said. Iggy blinked and waved out a hand, confused. His fingers brushed against Ari's, and he realized that the other boy was reaching out to help him up.

"Come on, are you gonna take it or not?" Ari asked impatiently.

Iggy grinned, and wordlessly clasped Ari's hand.

Nehemiah was not happy. He'd had Jebidiah Batchelder, the traitor - he knew it, there was no other explanation for how the flock had evaded capture for so long - well within his grasp, had the means to make the man squirm. Anne had been there to act as a witness, the winged mutant strapped neatly onto the examination table, and then it had started screaming and the sound had been beautiful, exquisite.

But Batchelder hadn't moved a muscle.

Seated straight-backed in a rigid chair, the only sign that betrayed Nehemiah's cold fury was the silent curling of his fingers into a fist.

"Any update, sir?" Anne asked in a simpering tone. He spared her an emotionless glance. She stood right behind him, her almond-shaped eyes focused on the security video recordings in front of them. As always, she seemed to feel his gaze on her. Her breathing became shallower, her movements jerky and nervous. Oh, he knew how she idolized him. But it didn't mean she feared him any less than everyone else.

"None," Nehemiah said silkily, the cool collectedness of his voice belaying the simmering fury stirring inside of him. He knew she was asking after the situation with the other avian mutants, but, ha - the mere thought of including her in on his most secret plans was laughable. Poor, weak-minded little woman. As appealing and useful as she was, as far as he was concerned, she was on the same level of intelligence as some of the smarter Erasers. "Batchelder has maintained his focus and posture well. We're back to block one."

He studied the video recordings, calmly ignoring Anne's soft-voiced chatter. As he watched from the surveillance angle of a camera positioned on the School's last level, Ari and the winged mutant came hurtling down a hallway. The Eraser and avian suddenly stopped. Nehemiah watched what happened next with interest. The Eraser, whom he'd thought hated the winged mutant, offered the other mutant a helping hand. And then the two walked off, out of sight, back the way they'd come.

Nehemiah scanned the other videos until he found the one he was looking for. It was positioned just outside the medical room. As he watched, Batchelder and Marling (who he'd been rather disappointed to find was working with the traitor. After all, the man was the best doctor they had when it came to fixing mutants rather than breaking them...but no matter. He'd get a better replacement) trotted out into the open. There, the Eraser and winged mutant greeted them.

There was no mistaking the adoration in the Eraser's gaze when he looked upon his traitorous father. Nehemiah watched closely, brilliant mind hard at work.

"Ms. Chen," he said smoothly, reaching out a lazy hand to brush against the bare skin of her forearm. "When I give the word, have this Eraser - Ari - brought into my office. And, ah, do be on your best behavior. We don't want to frighten him off."

She was caught up in his spell, too absorbed by the pressure of his fingers on her skin to ask why he wanted to see Ari. Not that he would have told her anyway.

"Yes, sir," she said softly.

"Good girl," he murmured, and pressed his lips to her knuckles. Just for good measure.

A/N: End chapter 14. Thanks for reading - and don't forget to review! Even just a short line to let me know you're there and enjoying the story is appreciated.

Preview of Chapter Fifteen:

"Come in, Ari. Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. You look like you've had a busy day." Stark leaned forward in his chair and threaded his fingers on the surface of his metal desk. There was a smile on his face, and if it hadn't been so downright creepy—it reminded Ari of Rawley when he'd pinned a helpless victim in the corridors—it would have been welcoming.

"Am I in trouble?" It was the first thing that popped into Ari's head, and therefore the first thing that came out of his mouth. He clamped his jaws shut, worried that he might have set Stark off…but the silver-haired man only chuckled pleasantly and shook his head.

"Oh, no, Ari. Just the opposite, in fact."


15. Impulse and Imminence

AmyQueen95, pandorad24, juniper294, fangfan1, hopewithgreywings, Aleksander-Nikolaevich-Her, Aleria14, Illucida, flYegurl, BeTrueToThyself, blackberry01, xflightlesxbird, Anthemis, Ren Rain, and BlueWingedKitty all have my utmost gratitude. You guys pushed us past 160 reviews! Do you know how stupidly giddy that makes me every time I see it? Gaaah. Thank you, thank you! I will continue to try my absolute best with this story. I hope it's to your liking. =) For reviewing, you get a cookie and an extra-long chapter!

Disclaimer: MR is not miiiine. :P The plot, idea for "Icaria," and OC's are all mine, though.

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Anthemis: Haha! Well, I'm glad you're in love with it! Here's your update.

Chapter Fifteen: Impulse and Imminence

"Max? I think something's coming."

Angel's worried warning was almost lost in the steady heartbeat of the helicopter's rotors. The wind pushing her thick, blond tresses into her eyes, Max turned to frown warily at the little girl flying at her side.

"What makes you say that? The pack of flying Erasers barreling down on us from the north?"

Huge blue eyes blinked in surprise as Angel turned to follow Max's gaze. Sure enough, a group of ten or so airborne mutants and two helicopters snapped into view. The forms of the Erasers were barely distinguishable, but no other creature on Earth had those endless, bulging limbs and sneering jaws.

"Um," said Angel. "It was more of a really bad feeling, but yeah, the flying Erasers."

How the heck do those wings hold them up? Max really wanted to know, but in her world, asking questions without automatic answers was a stupid thing to do. Focus, she instructed herself. So Erasers can fly now. So not even the air is safe for us. So what? Doesn't mean I'm gonna hurt 'em any less.

"What do we do?" Angel asked anxiously. Her eyes flickered between the fast-approaching, flying Erasers and the helicopter that bore Fang. Max steeled her gaze and, with a strong push of her wings, sped up the pace.

"We don't have time to be careful anymore; we're breaking Fang out of that 'copter, guns or no guns."

The two winged mutants soared on into the sunlight-filled air as quickly as they could, their gazes set dead on the helicopter they were quickly gaining on. But just as speedily as they were coming on the aircraft, their enemies were bearing down on them.

"Max, they're getting closer!" Angel cried nervously.

"I know, I know! I can hear them!" Max shouted back. On the horizon, the line of blue that had appeared about a half hour ago had spread. She and Angel had to break Fang loose before the helicopter reached the ocean, or there was no telling who would drown.

They were almost to the helicopter when the aircraft's door opened and Anders poked his head out. A pistol appeared in his hand, glinting threateningly in the harsh sun.

"Down!" Max howled. The girls folded their wings and dropped. A gunshot echoed brutally in the air, followed by another immediately after. Max dodged the first and pulled Angel out of the second bullet's path.

"Keep moving!" she commanded, pushing Angel toward the helicopter. Anders leveled his gun at the girl, obviously not bothered by the thought of shooting a six-year-old.

Max clenched her teeth and, with a push of her wings, shot forward and slammed into Anders before he had a chance to pull the trigger. The man yelped in fury and lashed out at her with his gun. She ducked, narrowly avoiding getting hit in the eye, and slammed her fist into his unprotected stomach. Anders doubled over. Max rammed her foot into his shoulder, kicking him back into the helicopter's interior. His pistol went spinning down into the open air.

"Max!" Angel screamed from behind her, pointing at an Eraser with a revolver in hand. Max threw herself back before the mutant's shot hit her and used her momentum to dart underneath the helicopter's belly and come up the other side. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the flying Erasers were almost on them. Time to make a real move.

Grunting with effort, she pulled the helicopter's closed door open. Max ducked the instant she had the door free, and just in time: a bullet whizzed over her head not a second later.

"Fang!" she called out, and with that, threw herself into the helicopter.

Her fist impacted with an Eraser's snout. The wolf-mutant reared back, howling, and Angel appeared out of nowhere to wrap her arms around his neck and jerk him off balance. Max was a blur of motion, snapping uppercuts and kicks wherever she could, until she and Angel were the only ones left intact in the aircraft.

Fang was lying shoved into a corner. His wings and wrists were bound, but aside from the plum-colored bruise covering nearly half his face, he appeared unharmed. Max grinned and set to work untying his wings.

"Miss me?" she asked cheekily. Fang smirked.

"Like a cold sore," he said, but she thought she detected something warm in his tone.

"Max!" Angel screamed again, and this time, the warning came a little too late. Something slammed heavily into the helicopter's side, tilting the aircraft off balance and throwing Max and Fang into each other. Max scrambled to regain her balance.

"What hit us?" she yelled.

The appearance of two hulking, winged Erasers in either of the helicopter's gaping sides was her answer. Max leapt to her feet with a sharp, "Untie Fang!" to Angel, and then launched herself head-first into the closest wolf-mutant.

The monster yowled and swiped at her with his claws, barely missing. Max heard heavy footsteps behind her and whirled with her foot in the air. Her boot connected squarely with the other winged Eraser's forehead. While he was distracted, Max gripped his shirt with both hands and hurled him head-on into his partner. Both Erasers tumbled out of the helicopter and out of sight.

Yes! She cheered silently. And then: Oh, gosh, my arms…my poor arms…

Angel's ear-piercing shriek stopped Max from tipping over with fatigue. She turned just in time to see the last rope fall away from Fang's wrists, his dark wings spreading free over his head. Angel jumped to her small feet and balled her hands into protective fists as not one, but two new Erasers flew into the helicopter. Max started forward.


A thick arm snapped around her neck and cut off her cry before she could finish. Vile Eraser breath slid across her cheek as the wolf-mutant let out a triumphant laugh and pushed himself off and away the helicopter, taking her with him.

"Max!" Angel's despairing cry came, but the Eraser was unrelenting in his chokehold. Max scrabbled for purchase on the mutant's arm as six Erasers, including the ones she'd just fended off, surrounded her.

Out of instinct, she snapped her head back into her captor's snout. Hot blood spurted onto the back of her neck and the beast howled, but refused to let go.

"Grab her legs!" he barked to his partners. "Her legs!"

Max lashed out at the first Eraser to obey. He backed off hurriedly, cursing through the blood pouring down his chin, and Max felt a brief burst of satisfaction. A second later, the Eraser's partners had filled the gap, and cruel fingers wrapped around her ankles and flailing arms. The backpack holding the laptop dug harshly into her spine. No matter how hard she struggled, the Erasers wouldn't let go. They flapped with their ungainly wings, and before she could stop them, they were rising to the helicopter hovering above their heads.

No! Max fought harder than she ever had before. In the distance, she saw the other two helicopters drawing closer together. Something clicked into place.

Whoever was behind this attack was planning to split them up—again. One helicopter for each of them.

It hit her like a sledgehammer to the brain, the sudden, terrifying realization that she might never see Fang or Angel again. Panic at her own helplessness stung her throat.

"Let me go!" she screamed at the Eraser holding her in a chokehold.

And he did.

For a second, Max was too stunned to even react. Then the sounds of yelping and pained grunting registered, and she twisted her head to see Fang clap his hands over the Eraser's ears. The monster screeched and dropped like a boulder.

An unearthly shriek preceded the little bundle of white wings and curly hair that came hurtling into the side of an Eraser holding Max's left arm captive. The seven-foot beast was no threat in the face of Angel's fury.

"You leave her alone!" Angel screamed, clawing at the mutant's face.

Free! Max took advantage of her released arm and punched the Eraser holding her other arm in the neck. Her arm was released. Fang slammed the heads of two Erasers together and clamped his hands over the last mutant's ears before the other two had finished dwindling out of sight.

Well, Max thought, watching as all three of the helicopters recognized a battle lost and slowly made their retreat. That was…even tougher than I thought it would be.

"We did it!" Angel cheered exuberantly. Her hair was tangled and Max could have sworn she saw a bald patch where an Eraser's claws had found purchase (not that she would ever say it to Angel's face), there was a hand-shaped bruise forming over her left cheek and her lip was bleeding, but other than that…she looked like a normal, happy little girl. Aside from the wings, of course.

"Max," Fang turned toward her with a smile. The summer wind tossed up his long, ebony-black hair around his face, and he was pale and bruised, but all Max could think was God, he's gorgeous.

And then he went and said sternly, "You shouldn't have come for me."

Max threw up her hands, ignoring the returning pain from her still-healing gunshot wound. "Oh, great. So we go through all that trouble just to break free your sorry butt, and all you can say is, 'You shouldn't have come for me'?"

"No—" Fang held up his hands. "Listen…this was all a set-up—"

"Yeah, yeah," Max interrupted with a wave of her hand. "Stark was trying to lead us away from Iggy, and from what I saw, he planned to split us up too. But we beat him. So there. Don't worry, Nudge and Gazzy are on their way to go save Iggy."

Fang was as frantic as Max had ever seen him, his dark eyes wide and anxious. "No, Max, you don't understand. I heard Anders say that Stark knows about them too. He's sent a whole squad after them!"

Max rocked back in the air, shell-shocked. "But that…Nudge and Gazzy don't stand a chance!"

I shouldn't have let them go on their own! I should have known this Stark guy would anticipate we'd split! Why did I—


"Max!" Fang and Angel cried. "Max!"

But she couldn't even get her thoughts straight through the pain, let alone an answer. It was like her brain was boiling from the inside out, like someone was scraping out the contents of her skull with a blunt scalpel. Max felt her wings fold. The wind whistled in her ears as she plummeted toward earth.

She was going to die—she was going to—

Hello, Maximum, a cool voice came out of nowhere. I am your Voice.

Nudge hit the ground.

"Down!" she hissed sharply to Gazzy. He dropped like a sack of bricks and pressed himself flat against the asphalt. Asphalt-pebbles ground into Nudge's arms as she leaned forward on her elbows, but she ignored the discomfort. Both she and Gazzy slowed their breathing until they grew light-headed.

"Don't…move…a muscle," Nudge mouthed silently to her younger brother.

Heart-pounding seconds later, something heavy clinked as it was dropped and abandoned. Footsteps scuffed across the asphalt.


A door closed.

Nudge shot to her feet, a silly grin spreading across her face. "He's gone!"

"Yes!" Gazzy cheered, and leapt onto the dumpster like an old friend. "Bon appetite!"

The two children had been flying nonstop since splitting with Max and Angel, and they had barely entered the state of Washington when they decided they couldn't go another mile without a bite to eat. Luckily, there'd been a fast-food restaurant tucked into the side of a busy road, and Nudge and Gazzy had ambushed its dumpster for a good, satisfying meal.

"That was close," Gazzy said into the dumpster. His young voice echoed like a gong. "I mean, he almost caught us going through all this—ooh, chicken wings!"

Nudge withdrew a half-eaten hamburger and a small carton of burnt fries. "See any drinks?" she asked, trying not to touch the dumpster. Just because they were picking their lunch out of it didn't mean she had to touch the garbage any more than necessary. Icky!

"Uh…there's a carton of milk, but I don't think you wanna touch that. Oh, hey…"

Gazzy reached in with expert fingers and tossed a full bottle of orange juice to Nudge's waiting fingers. The winged girl inspected the juice suspiciously. "Why'd they throw this away?"

"I dunno. Maybe it was open when they gave it to the customer, and the customer wouldn't take it?" Gazzy suggested. He popped a chicken wing into his mouth, chewed, and spat out the bone. Nudge wrinkled her nose in distaste. "I've seen it happen before. Normal people are so picky!"

"Yeah," Nudge said faintly, guiding a French fry to her mouth. "I wonder why…"

The familiar whump-whump-whump of spinning helicopter rotors filled the summer air. Nudge's head shot up, her eyes wide with alarm.

"It's okay," the Gasman said around a chicken wing, and lifted a small arm to point at the two helicopters. "They're going away from us, see? Besides, they're too far away. There's no way they can see us."

"I don't really want to take any chances." Nudge got to her feet and brushed herself off. "Eat it on the way, Gazzy," she added, seeing his disappointed face. "It's not like normal people don't do it all the time. What's the difference? We'll just be eating it up high in the air, so if you drop a chicken bone, somebody's gonna, like, die. Just don't drop anything on anyone's head and we'll be fine."

"Yeah, but I always spill on myself," the Gasman said mournfully. A minute later they'd kicked off into the sky and were headed north, toward Iggy and the Canadian Rockies.

It took a couple of minutes of flying and munching on their lunch before Nudge and Gazzy noticed that one helicopter had flown into their path. The aircraft was still a relatively safe distance away, but the two mutants stopped and stared. The helicopter hovered in place.

"Is it…cutting us off?" the Gasman asked nervously.

"I don't…" Nudge trailed off when she spotted the other helicopter coming in from the left. A horrible, sludgy feeling squished into her stomach. "Um, yeah, I think it is. Let's get out of here."

Cut off in the front and to the side, the two children aimed right…only to see ten heavy, bulky figures rise into the sky and head straight for them.

"Are those…Erasers?" Nudge squeaked. "With wings? When did Erasers start to fly? Gasser, have you ever seen—?"

"Nudge, shut up! Now's not really a good time," Gazzy shouted, and pointed wildly to the only open space of air they had left. Ten more flying Erasers had just risen to fill that spot and barreled toward the two mutants on lumbering wings.

"We're surrounded!" Nudge shrieked, panicking.

"Up!" Gazzy pushed hard with his wings and flew higher above her. Immediately, ten of the twenty Erasers broke off and followed him. Nudge tried to cut them off, but the other ten Erasers reached her before she could get so much as fifteen feet.

She yelled in alarm and dealt a harsh blow to the snout of the Eraser nearest to her. Then a kick to another Eraser's abdomen, and a kick to another's eye, all the while feeling her heart pound with adrenaline as one of the helicopters zeroed in on her.

"Nudge, help!" she heard Gazzy cry. She took one second to see what he was screaming about, and the instant she was turned, a gunshot echoed into the air. Her shoulder exploded in pain.

Nudge shrieked, expecting blood to come gushing down her front, but…all she saw when she looked down was a long, feathered needle sticking out beneath her collarbone.

Tranquilizer dart, her mind registered fuzzily. Nudge fought to keep aloft, but her vision was already going. Her wings crumpled, and her limbs went numb so she couldn't even feel it when an Eraser slung her over his shoulder and flew straight for the helicopter.

"Gazzy…" she whimpered, reaching out a hand to the little white-winged blur thrashing in the middle of ten hulking Erasers. "Gazzy…"

The last thing she saw was the second helicopter dropping in, like a mechanical bird of prey, to snatch up Gazzy in its jaws.

The harsh, fluorescent lights burned his eyes and made it hard to see the face of the whitecoat leaning over him, but Ari guessed that was the entire point of strapping him down to a table until he could barely move. His skin stung where the whitecoats had attached electrical wires to his arms and legs. He bore his fangs. The man leaned back warily.

"Ari Batchelder," he said sonorously. "You understand why you are being punished?"

"Yes," Ari said stiffly.

"The stupid beast broke my leg! Kill it!" Steele howled vindictively from the corner of the room. If Ari cocked his head a little to the left, he could see the man leaning heavily on a crutch. The sight brought a smile to his face.

"No, Mr. Steele," the whitecoat bending over Ari sighed in exasperation. "That would land you with more than a broken leg."

"What does it matter to you?" Steele asked testily. "Are you threatening me, Dhami?"

"It's Mr. Dhami to you," the Indian man snapped. "And no, I'm not threatening you, but this is Batchelder's son, and if you kill the beast, I'm afraid we'll have Batchelder running to tell the Director on us."

Dhami tugged on one of the wires attached to Ari's bicep, and the shadow of a wicked smile crossed his face when the Eraser twitched.

"But rest assured, Mr. Steele, it will be painful."

Ari growled. He wished he could break through his bonds and tear the man's head off. I'll show you painful! But he couldn't. Because if he did, the whitecoats would have him killed, regardless of whom his father was.

"Start with the medium level," Dhami instructed the whitecoat at the controls. "Don't worry, this one's tough. It can handle the pain."

Ari didn't scream. It felt like his heart would stop with each volt they added on, with each jolt of electricity that arced through his muscles and made his spine twist and twitch, but he didn't scream. He wouldn't give them the satisfaction. He was young, embarrassingly so, but he had one very important rule: never scream. Not unless they tear it out of you with their bare hands.

"Higher, dammit!" Steele shouted. "I want to hear it scream!"

Never! Ari wanted to shout. But he kept quiet, even as the whitecoat at the controls upped the voltage as high as it could go.

Finally, Ari made a sound. He could barely hear it over the surge of electricity, but a muffled shriek slipped out before he could stop it. Steele barked with laughter, even as the flow of electricity snapped off with a hiss.

Ari slumped back against the table and closed his eyes. He kept them closed even as Dhami came forward to take away the wires and straps holding him down.

"Go on," the whitecoat said dismissively. "And let that be a warning. Next time you even brush one of us with your filthy hands, not even your father will be able to protect you. Now out!"

The door slammed shut behind him the instant he was out of the room. Ari turned and gave it a vicious glare. His hands curled into shaking fists at his sides, his upper lip pulled away from his fangs, and he wanted nothing more than to scream his head off at them…but he held himself back.

Enraging the whitecoats is detrimental to your survival, the Voice said in a sing-song tone.

"Teasing me is detrimental to yours," Ari snarled back, even though he knew as well as the next person that it wasn't exactly possible to harm a voice in his head. The threat worked, though, as the Voice quickly dropped its patronizing lilt.

You need medical attention. You look like you're about to fall over.

Ari felt like he was about to fall over, but he would hug Stark before he admitted it. "I don't need anything," he muttered, stalking off down the hallway with his arms stiff at his sides. "I'm strong."

Perhaps, the Voice said dryly, but you're not invincible. And you are very young…

Ari snarled hatefully, startling a whitecoat passing him in the hall. "My age has nothing to do with it. I could beat Max if I wanted to."

But do you?

"Yes! I hate her!" But even before he felt the Voice's smug disbelief rolling through his brain, Ari knew it wasn't the truth. Not exactly. Not anymore. No, he did. He hated Max. Didn't he?

Perhaps you hate what she stands for, the Voice said sagely, what she represents.

"What are you saying now?" Ari asked irritably. Weren't things confusing enough without a nagging voice in his head?

You hated her because she was everything you wanted to be. Loved, powerful, independent, respected. She was Jeb's daughter. And then you started hating her because you loved her, but she didn't love you back. And now? You've seen how the whitecoats treat the avian-mutants. You know they would abuse Max as badly as they abuse Igneous. She's no longer the shining star you thought she was, is she? You've seen what being Max is like. Can you honestly say you still want it?

Ari stopped walking. He had been so absorbed in what the Voice was saying that he'd lost track of where he was going. Inadvertently, his feet had guided him to the gargantuan training room. Inside, through a glass viewing window as tall as he was, he could see Iggy flying laps. The boy had a look of concentration on his face as Anne, accompanied by a small team of whitecoats, played with the trigger to the Extermination Effect.

Iggy floundered and fell in a clumsy heap at Jeb's feet. Ari watched enviously as his father bent down with a small smile and helped the winged boy to his feet.

The Voice's question rang in his head. Did he want what Max had? She had Jeb's attention, but it was skewed, tainted by his duty to train her as the savior of the world. The thought of Jeb looking to his own son as a tool made something deep in Ari's chest hurt.

You don't have to answer it now, the Voice said finally, sensing the turmoil its question was raising. But I still stand by what I said before. You need to rest. You are weak and in pain. If you don't take care of yourself, there will be consequences.

"Go away," Ari said wearily. What the Voice said was true—he was shaky and felt oddly heavy, like he weighed a hundred tons—but the idea of going back to his room, where Rawley was no doubt waiting for an opportunity to ambush him, didn't sound too appealing.

Fine, the Voice snapped. Ari got the sense that if it had a body, it would have thrown its hands up in frustration. See what happens when you ignore me.

"I'll be fine," he muttered, even though the Voice's presence had disappeared. The Eraser entered the training room just as Anne gave a disgusted snort and got up to leave with her team.

"This is beyond a waste of time," she snapped over her shoulder as she stormed toward the door. "Your mutant can barely walk straight under the Effect!"

"Give him more time!" Jeb helped Iggy into a sitting position. The boy had toppled over and was struggling to raise himself on his elbows. A look of intense concentration twisted his pale features.

"Ask Doctor Stark for more time if you need it," Anne replied heatedly. "Then we'll see."

She turned around just in time to avoid running into Ari. Anger flashed like wicked lightning through her eyes, but she stopped once his identity registered. Then, a look of guarded interest overtook her features. A shudder went down Ari's back.

"Hello," Anne said pleasantly, and swept out of the training room before he could remember to close his gaping mouth.

Jeb looked up as the door hissed closed behind the whitecoats. "Ari!" he said, and the boy was surprised to find that his voice carried more warmth than it usually did when he was around. Then, his father's eyebrows creased with worry. "Are you all right?"

"Fine," Ari said dismissively. He made a mental note to stand a little taller and try not to sway so much the next time he was punished.

"This is a waste of time, Jeb." The ru—Iggy, since Ari had decided that the boy really wasn't that annoying and could actually be funny when he wanted to, had finally managed to sit in an upright position. "I'm not getting any better at resisting the Extermination Effect. It's like I forget how every time Chen presses the button. Sure, I can hear you and think a little clearer, but it's still basically the same."

"We still have four days," Jeb said, a ray of hope brightening his words with confidence. "As long as we can find the time to practice every day, as long as you're able to, we should accomplish what we…Ari, are you sure you're fine?"

Ari blinked past the blurriness in his eyes. His father had a look of concern on his face, the likes of which Ari had never seen. He forced himself to stand straight, even though he was exhausted.

"Yeah," he said brusquely. "I'm fine. Quit asking."

After which, of course, his legs gave out and sent him sliding to the floor.

"What was that?" Iggy asked, just as Jeb got to his feet and crouched worriedly at his son's side.

"You're shaking," he observed quietly. Ari hissed in annoyance.

"It's just a…a side-effect. From the…tricity…" His tongue wasn't cooperating. Ari grumbled and brought his hands up to his spinning head. Couldn't Jeb leave him alone? This was embarrassing enough without him watching!

"What's going on?" Iggy asked. Ari was surprised to hear a note of concern in the boy's voice. He hadn't thought that Iggy actually cared or anything. Sure, he'd been nicer to the boy ever since Stark's stunt with the serum, but only because he had realized they were in the same position. And yesterday had been nice. A day off with Iggy and Jeb and Marling. Even if Marling had criticized the way he put Band-aids on everything that bled, and Iggy had been moody because of Stark's serum, and Ari had had to distract him once or twice. And he guessed that kind of made them almost-friends, which was a nice thought too, because he'd never really had a friend before.

Look at you rambling, the Voice's smooth tone interrupted rudely. I told you to rest. Now you're not even thinking straight.

Ari blinked. In the time he'd been lost in his nonsensical train of thought, Iggy had made his way over, and now he and Jeb were staring down worriedly on either side of him. Some of Ari's control started to trickle back.

"I'm fine," he said, waving them away. He nearly collided heads with Iggy when he sat up, only half-pretending to be irritated by their attention. Even if it was kind of nice, to be worried after. Even if it gave him a funny, glowing feeling at the top of his chest.

"What happened?" Iggy asked. "You look like crap."

Ari glared at him uncertainly. "You can't even see me, ru—Iggy."

If Iggy was thrown off by Ari using his normal name, instead of calling him "runt" or "freak," he didn't give it away. He widened his eyes with false shock and said, "I'm blind? When did that happen?"

Ari stared at him. Was this some kind of sick game that only Iggy knew about? Ignoring the other boy's comment, he shook his head and said, "It's none of your business anyway. Just what I get for running Steele over."

"You broke his leg," Jeb pointed out in a patronizing tone.

"It was worth it!"

"What did they do?" Iggy asked, suddenly serious again. Ari shrugged nonchalantly.

"Electrocuted me," he said flippantly. "Nothing worse than they usually do whenever I get into trouble."

"Too much of that will permanently damage your nervous system," Jeb said carefully. "You're lucky you lasted this long before collapsing."

"I'm feeling better, now," said Ari defensively. He caught the look on Jeb's face and immediately amended, "I'm tough. I can take it."

"You may be stronger because of your enhancements, but you're not invincible, Ari," Jeb said gently. Ari shuddered at how much like the Voice he sounded.

After a heavy pause, Iggy said, "If none of us is gonna keel over again, can we get something to eat? I'm starving."

"You ate not two hours ago!" Jeb said. Obviously, he wanted to continue with preparing for the Extermination Effect.

"I'm a growing mutant," Iggy replied with a straight face. "I need my nutrients."

Ari watched the unfolding quarrel silently, still trying to gather his wits about him. It was good that Iggy wasn't moping about Jeb's rooms anymore. All of the depression had started to get annoying. Looking at him now, aside from the occasional tremor that went through him at random times, and the haunted look that sometimes flitted through his blind eyes, Ari would never have guessed that Iggy had undergone something traumatic only the day before.

I guess he gets over this kind of stuff easier than most people, he thought. That, or…the bird-boy was just really good at hiding his pain. Ari was betting on that choice.

"Why are you…so good at lying?"

The question slipped out before Ari could stop it. Both Jeb and Iggy halted their light-hearted argument and stared at him in confusion. He might have been blind, but the bird-boy somehow knew that Ari had been speaking to him.

"What are you talking about?" he asked warily.

Ari clenched his hands into fists and shot to his feet. Everything about this was…wrong. He hated it, hated seeing people who didn't deserve it undergo unimaginable torture, hated having to look dying mutants in the eye and pretend that he didn't feel a gut-wrenching pity when they gurgled pitifully at him. For a second, Jeb and Iggy had seemed normal, just like an everyday father and son arguing about a football game, or cleaning a messy bedroom, or skimping out on chores. But it was all a lie.

"How can you be so…so happy?" Ari asked. Something burned behind his eyes, but he refused the idea that it was from tears. "You just…just yesterday, you were getting snot all over me, and now you're…you're…happy? I don't understand you!"

Iggy's face went icily inscrutable. "What? Do you want me to break down? Do you want me to cry on you again?"

"No! No. I just…" Ari shuddered. Why can't I have that? Why can't I have a tenth of the happiness you have?

But of course, there was no answer. He sat down heavily next to Iggy and looked down at his hands. A normal seven-year-old wouldn't have hands the size of baseball mitts. A normal seven-year-old wouldn't have claws that had drawn blood and screams, or fangs that had torn into raw meat, or be constantly in a state of half-morph.

"I'm sorry," he heard himself saying, as if through a fog. He was dimly aware of Iggy's mouth dropping open in ill-veiled surprise, but he didn't care how badly he embarrassed himself. His stomach was hurting and he just wanted everything to be better. No more hurting. No more. "I'm not mad at you. I just get angry sometimes."

Ari didn't look away from his hands. He could feel his father's gaze on him, though if it was disapproving (most likely) or kind (he prayed for it), he couldn't tell. Eventually, there was a shift in the atmosphere. He saw Iggy reach out a long-fingered hand, hesitate, and finally put it down on Ari's shoulder. The Eraser looked up.

Iggy's smile was both bitter and understanding, as if he understood how Ari felt completely. It was the nicest feeling in the world.

"Yeah, don't sweat it," Iggy said lightly. "We all get like that."

And though the bird-boy couldn't see it—or maybe because he couldn't see it—the corners of Ari's mouth finally lost their tension and began to curl up.

The door hissed open at that moment, startling all of them and sending them to their feet. Ari's heart sunk at the sight of Anne standing with her hands clasped neatly in front of her. She pointedly ignored Iggy and Jeb, but she was staring head on at Ari with a look in her eye that suggested he start running for higher ground.

"Ari Batchelder," she said crisply. "Come with me."

The woman turned on her heel and marched away without waiting for his reply. Ari exchanged a worried glance with Jeb, and his father half reached out to hold him back, but his arm dropped limply to his side at the last second.

"Go on," he prompted quietly. "I'm sure it's nothing too important. You'll be all right."

Ari nodded hesitantly and followed Anne, his long strides easily bringing him up to her speed. The woman didn't even look back to see if he was following. Obviously, she believed a short order from her was enough to ensure his obedience. Ari felt his lip curling in disgust.

"Where are we going?" he asked boldly after a minute. Anne looked like she'd rather be dunked in a vat of boiling oil than answer his question, but she quickly smoothed over her disgruntlement and gave him a genial half-smile. Ari was hit with the urge to back up. Weird lady.

"Doctor Stark has requested a personal audience with you."

A shot of ice zipped through Ari's chest. "With…me?" he repeated dumbly. "What for?"
Again, there was the disgust on Anne's face. He got the feeling he wasn't supposed to be smart enough to ask questions. "I'm afraid he wouldn't tell me. Not to worry, you're not in any trouble."

That only made Ari feel worse. By the time they'd ascended to the uppermost level of the School, his stomach was pitching as if he'd been dropped from a ten-story building, and his flight instinct was screeching at him to run. Anne opened the door and beckoned him in. He noted that she didn't follow.

Stark was sitting behind his desk, as usual, staring intently at a chessboard made entirely of glass. He looked up as Ari stood uncertainly in the doorway and beckoned with three fingers.

"Come in, Ari. Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. You look like you've had a busy day," he said silkily.

Ari nearly flinched when the door slammed shut behind him. Stark leaned forward in his chair and threaded his fingers on the surface of his metal desk. There was a smile on his face, and if it hadn't been so downright creepy—it reminded Ari of Rawley when he'd pinned a helpless victim in the corridors—it would have been welcoming.

"Am I in trouble?" It was the first thing that popped into Ari's head, and therefore the first thing that came out of his mouth. He clamped his jaws shut, worried that he might have set Stark off…but the silver-haired man only chuckled pleasantly and shook his head.

"Oh, no, Ari. Just the opposite, in fact."

Ari waited, but the man didn't elaborate. He merely gestured to the thin-looking metal chair in front of his desk, and raised a graying eyebrow. Ari sat. His eyes wandered to the glass chessboard in front of him. It didn't really look like there was a plan to the way the crystalline pieces were spread across the board, but then again, he knew next to nothing about the game. Only that it looked boring.

"I see you're admiring my chessboard," Stark said smoothly. His voice startled Ari, but the boy kept himself rigid in his chair. "Occasionally I indulge in a game or two, but never against anyone other than myself. I find that no one is on quite the same intellectual plane as I am. Playing against others just doesn't pose a challenge."

Someone's got an ego problem, Ari thought, but wisely kept the thought to himself. If Stark was perturbed by Ari's lack of response, he didn't let on. Instead, he leaned back easily in his chair and toyed with a glass piece in the shape of a horse.

"It is this intelligence, shall we say, that has led me to believe your father is in danger," Stark said coldly. Ari's gaze snapped back up to the doctor's, but the man was occupied with moving the horse-shaped piece. His thin, colorless lips twitched up.

"What danger?" Ari asked roughly. "From who?"

"From himself." Stark moved his hand to the other side of the board and fingered another piece, one Ari couldn't identify. "See this?" the doctor said, raising the piece. "This is called a bishop."

"What danger?" Ari repeated heatedly, only to freeze into complete silence when Stark gave him a dangerous look.

"It's come to my attention that your father has been…investigating, shall we say? On a certain Extermination Effect?"

"He's not—"

"Don't." Stark slammed the bishop down on the board, rattling the pieces noisily. "Lie. To me. I have seen him skulking around, asking questions, and you should know that I do have my sources. I know what he's been up to when he thinks no one is looking, and he is mistaken!" The ice melted away from his voice as quickly as it had appeared, leaving Ari feeling dazed as Stark shifted back into a smooth timbre. "But not to worry. I only have his best interests at heart."

Somehow, Ari thought he couldn't have believed that if he tried. His disbelief must have shown on his face, because Stark nodded and picked up the bishop again. "Your father," he said, swinging the bishop from side to side, "is only going to end up hurting himself badly in this situation. Yet I can understand why he is doing this. I was once in his position, you see. I, too, wanted to arise to a position of power. And here I am. But I'm afraid your father is going about it the wrong way. Let's say that other people…the Director, for instance…aren't quite as merciful as I am."

Ari watched, a sick feeling pooling in his stomach as Stark abandoned the bishop for a larger piece. The doctor noticed him watching and lifted the piece with a half-smile that spoke of poison and pain. "The queen," he said in response to Ari's nonexistent question.

"How do I know you're on my father's side?" Ari blurted. He knew by the way Stark's eyes went cold that he probably shouldn't have been shooting out every doubt that came to mind, but it felt like he could hide nothing from this man. Jeb had been so secretive about the investigation. Now that he was busted, would he still have use for Ari?

"I'm a logical man," Stark said coolly. "I think in terms of what's best for the company. For Itex. I can clearly see that your father is a benefit to our company, and that by ridding it of him, I would be hindering our success. No, I do not…like your father. But I can understand that we must sometimes work with people we do not like, for the greater good."
Ari perked up. That sounded just like what Jeb had said! Hadn't he told Iggy to work with Ari, even if they hadn't liked each other? It made sense. And Stark was a logical man, tons of people said so. Yet something was still niggling in the back of his mind, a sixth sense that told him something just wasn't quite right.

Stark studied him silently for a moment before leaning forward. "The Director, however," he continued, dangling the queen for Ari to see, "well…she has, shall we say, a temper. She doesn't see things quite as objectively as I do. She makes mistakes. If she were to find out your father is plotting against her, well…"

The queen knocked the bishop over in one brutal move. Ari winced.

"I'm sure you can make the connection," Stark smiled.

Ari cleared his throat, trying not to look at the lone bishop lying pitifully on its side. "So…you want me to…?"

Stark's smile wavered for a moment before he set the queen down and laced his fingers together again. "I want you to tell me about every move your father makes in his investigation. I want you to let me know what he's searching for before he finds it. So I can prevent him from creating a disaster, for the good of the company."

Ari narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. All of Stark's arguments made sense to him. He wanted to save Jeb from himself, which was a good thing. A lot of the decisions Jeb made only seemed to land him in a worse situation than before. And Stark was obviously devoted to his company and craft. Maybe he did really only want to protect Itex. "But," Ari said slowly, "what would I get out of this?"

To his surprise, Stark let out a wheezing chuckle. "I knew you were a smart one," he commented. He took up one of the smallest pieces and rolled it in his palm. "I'm sure you haven't heard of it yet, but Itex has picked up a new project. We've been grafting avian DNA with lupine DNA to create an entirely elite class of mutant."

Ari's ears perked up in interest. Seeing that he'd made a connection, Stark nodded. "Erasers with wings. And you can be one of the first."

Ari's heartbeat pounded in his ears. He would have wings! Like Max and Iggy and everyone else Jeb loved! He would finally be on the same level as the mutants he'd envied for so long. And then Jeb would love him, the new and improved Ari! Of course he would. He would.

The boy couldn't stop the giddy grin that spread across his features. "I'll do it," he said firmly. Something the Voice had said, some kind of warning it'd given him tugged at the back of his mind, but he brushed it away impatiently. The Voice wasn't here right now. Only Ari. He was old enough to make his own decisions. Besides, he would get to keep his dad and get wings! And maybe Max would love him then. And Iggy would be his best friend, and everything would be so much, much better. No more hurting, no more sadness or anger, and everything would be just perfect.

"Excellent," Stark said with a quiet laugh. It was the only time Ari had ever heard the man actually laugh, and he decided that it wasn't half as scary as he expected it to be.

Just out of inquisitiveness, and to fill the void of silence that was spreading between them, Ari pointed to the tiny glass piece Stark held in the palm of his hand. "What's that one called?"

Stark looked him in the eye. And smiled. "Pawn."

A/N: End chapter fifteen. Hee hee hee. :D

Review = faster update.


16. Illusionary

You guys make my day. Thanks (and cookies!) go to pandorad24, flYegurl, hopewithgraywings, Ren Rain, penguinsrawesome (yes, they are!), soccerislife14, BeTrueToThyself, blackberry01, ilikethisfic and Illucida.

Disclaimer: MR is not mine. Every OC in here, as well as the plot, idea behind the story, and Canadian Rockies School all belong to me, however. No les toca. If you want to borrow something, ask permission first.

Review replies for anonymous readers are at the end of the chapter.

To avoid confusion, here's a brief timeline of what's happening: the scenes with Max and the flock take place on the fourth day since Iggy's capture, and the scenes with Jeb and the others take place on the sixth day. It's a bit confusing, since the flock timeline lags so far behind, but don't worry: everything will make sense as the story goes on.


Chapter Sixteen: Illusionary

Where am I?

Oh, God, her head hurt. It hurt like all hell and then some, like someone had gotten wise, popped it off her shoulders and used it as a bowling ball to knock over half a dozen Erasers. Max pressed the heels of her hands against her burning eyes and tried to sit up. "Easy, Max," a voice said, just as a cool hand reached out and rubbed her shoulder. She put her hands down and blinked at the blurry world around her. Slowly, everything came into focus.

"Max?" Angel asked, eyes huge with worry. "Are you okay?"

Not really, she wanted to retort - she had no idea how she looked, but she bet anything it wasn't okay - and yet she managed to hold herself back and sigh, "Yeah, Ange, I'm all right. Uh...what happened?"

"You passed out," Fang answered. He was crouched by her side, his eyes even darker than usual with seriousness. "I barely caught you before you hit the ground. You were really out of it, Max."

"You were screaming and everything," sniffed Angel. Her eyes were red and watery. "It was awful."

"Oh." Max reached out her arms and let the little girl crawl into her embrace, wincing as Angel's head bumped her chin and sent waves of aching pain through her skull. Jeez, what happened, did her brain suddenly decide to grow three times bigger than her head? Was that why it hurt so much? "Don't worry, kiddo, I'm okay. It was just a...headache."

Not just a headache, something reminded her. Just before she'd blacked out, Max had heard a voice in her head. She frowned over Angel's blond curls. Well. That's weird. I know I'm unpredictable sometimes, but I never thought I'd gone off the deep end.

"A headache?" Fang repeated incredulously.

"Hey, it was a really bad headache," Max replied waspishly. She didn't tell them about the Voice - no need to freak them out over her own insanity. "Besides, who are you to judge? You got kidnapped by a couple of lousy whitecoats."

A little bit of color finally rushed into Fang's thin cheeks. It made Max feel mildly relieved, as she'd been worried that the whitecoats had done worse to him than push him around and stick needles in his veins. "Sorry, next time I'm shot and bleeding to death, I'll try harder not to get kidnapped. I'm fine, by the way. The gunshot wound is healing up nicely."

A smirk tugged at Max's lips before she could come up with something smart to say back. "I'm glad you're back, Fang," she said quietly. "I really thought this guy was gonna take you from us."

Just as quickly as it had come, the color drained from Fang's face. "Max, this guy, Stark...he's different. I know we've faced a lot of whitecoats, but this one...I haven't even seen him yet and I know he's in a completely different level from everyone else. It's like he can see every move we make months before we make it. He's smart."

"So what if he is?" Max shifted Angel in her lap and smoothed down the little girl's unruly hair. "The smarter they are, the bigger the ego."

"Yeah," Fang said shortly, and she got the sense that he thought she wasn't being serious enough. "But he's got Iggy, Max. And by now he's probably got Nudge and Gazzy, too."

Max's lips thinned into a grim line. She looked around as she thought, taking in the rolling green hills hemming them in from all sides. Getting Fang out had been a close call - she could almost smell the ocean breeze from here. A couple more minutes and the helicopters would have been out over the North Atlantic, taking Fang with them.

"Where do you think he'll take them?" Max asked.

"He'll split them up," Angel piped up suddenly. Seeing the others' surprised stares, she shrugged. "That Anders guy doesn't have a lot of mental barricades, so it was easy for me to get in. I overheard him thinking that Stark is gonna send Nudge and Gazzy off to different spots. One to Germany, the other to Canada, with Iggy."

Max felt her heart start to kick up a faster beat. "Then one of them is headed our way. Did he say which one?"

Angel shook her head, sending sun-gold curls flying everywhere. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "He was being really vague. He kept thinking about Nudge and Gazzy like, 'send that one to Headquarters, and the other one to Stark.' That's all I got."

"It's alright, Ange, we got it." Fang leaned back on his heels and fixed Max in the focus of his intense stare. "So. What next?"

Max released a shaky breath and looked to the sky. "What can we do? Wait? We have no idea where Nudge and Gazzy were when they were captured..."

"If they were captured," Angel put in hopefully. Max shook her head.

"Sweetie, I want to hope they made it out of there, too, but there's just no way they could have escaped. Stark sent an entire squad after them." She paused, her brow wrinkling in confusion. "Wait. Why would he send a whole squad after Nudge and Gazzy, but only half a squad after us?"

Fang ground his teeth against each other. "Because he knows Nudge and Gazzy are the weaker ones. He knows they won't put up as much of a fight, that we could beat anything he sent after us, so he's taking them out first. See, Max? He's planned it all out again."

Max narrowed her eyes. Well, we're not going to play his game anymore. Without another word, she slipped the laptop out from its backpack. It looked a bit scraped up from being bumped around on a rescue mission, but it started up fine when she pushed the power button. Fang raised his eyebrows.

"There's gotta be something in here about Stark's strategies," Max said in reply to his unspoken question. "Let's see...ha! Here's something."

And it was something. Max pulled up a document that showed a labeled map of North America. She watched as six blinking red dots appeared, five still in the United States, one motionless near Canada's border. That's Iggy, she thought, feeling a rush of excitement go through her. At the bottom of the screen read the caption, "Locations, Avian-Mutants."

"There we are!" Angel said, pointing with a dainty finger to three red dots stationed in Virginia. Max scanned the map until she saw the two remaining dots, one cutting through Washington into Canada, the other slicing across the U.S., headed straight for the North Atlantic Ocean.

"They have...trackers implanted in us," Fang said darkly. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Look," Max said, gesturing to the red dot inching across Idaho. "That must be Gazzy, or Nudge, whoever they're trying to take to Germany. If we leave now and go straight across, we can catch them in Iowa if we're making really good time, Illinois if we're doing okay."

"Let's do it," Fang said with a familiar glint of determination in his dark eyes. Max slipped the laptop into her backpack, and with a kick against the ground, they were off.

Iggy, help! Help us, please! PLEASE!

He woke up gasping. Out of reflex, in a futile attempt to hold off the images that plagued his mind, he lashed out with one long arm. His wrist collided against something cold, metal and unyielding, and he drew it back against his sore body with a pained hiss.

Propping himself up against something sturdy, Iggy tried to take stock of his surroundings. Something was moaning nasally somewhere behind him, and to his left someone was quietly sobbing. Add that to the stuffy stench of dried blood and the feel of metal surrounding him, and Iggy knew instantly where he was: the containment room. The flock wasn't here. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Just a dream, he reassured himself. It was all just a nightmare.

Yet the images from Stark's serum wouldn't go away. Iggy rubbed at his eyes furiously, even though he knew better than anyone that the action wouldn't help.

Wistfully, he wished he was back in Jeb's room, although they'd both agreed that letting him sleep in a bed would only set Stark off. At least he would have someone to talk to there. Jeb had always been a great listener, always knowing what to say, and on the rare occasion that the words wouldn't come, a warm hug worked just as well. Iggy curled into a ball at the memory. Back when Jeb had been living with them, he'd lived for shows of affection like that. Jeb's approval was always something he was fighting for.

I wonder, he thought dully to himself, if that's the way Ari feels all the time. Only, he never gets that approval.

Iggy had to admit, the Eraser had eased up over the past couple of days. He didn't call Iggy "runt" or "freak," and if he did, he quickly corrected himself. Iggy no longer felt blistering, hate-filled glares directed at him when his back was turned. He hadn't had to dodge one of Ari's crushing punches in a while. All in all, it looked like Ari had been sincere when he said he realized that he and Iggy were in the same situation. Of course, that didn't resolve the boy of kidnapping Angel and tormenting the flock, but it made disliking him a little harder. In fact, Iggy wasn't sure what he felt toward the Eraser, knowing his past and everything he'd been denied. He couldn't say he hated the kid, and he didn't really dislike him either. Overall, it was confusing and made Iggy's head hurt. He put his head between his knees and tried to block out the sounds of misery coming from the other cages in the room.

Less than five minutes later, the door slid open to admit a set of sneaking footsteps. Iggy tensed up immediately. A flurry of possible identities rushed through his head: Jeb, Stark, Eraser, whitecoat...

"Hey," a rough voice whispered. Iggy perked up in surprise.

"Ari?" He waited as the bigger mutant fumbled with the lock to his cage, unfolding himself and stepping out as soon as he was clear. "What are you doing here? Is it time to start training already?"

"No," Ari answered. It sounded like he was shifting uneasily on his feet, and there was something uncertain and reluctant in his voice. Iggy's senses went on alert. "It's one in the morning," Ari continued.

Iggy frowned. "Why...?"

"You don't get such great electrical power all the way up here, so the whitecoats try and balance it out across the School. Security's at its lowest now," Ari said, "so the cameras in the hallway will be out. And there's...there's something I kind of wanted to show you."

"Okaaay," Iggy said slowly, but Ari had already opened the door and was marching off through the corridor. Iggy jogged to catch up with the boy and slipped his fingers through Ari's belt loop. The Eraser didn't even flinch.

"Can't you give me a hint?" Iggy asked a couple minutes later. How Ari knew where he was going, he had no idea.

"You'll see when we get there," was the quick, dimissive answer. Luckily, Iggy didn't have to wait much longer. Ari stopped at a door and ushered Iggy inside, strangely silent. Iggy stopped just inside the room and stared around him. Ari shut the door behind him, and Iggy had to fight down a wave of instinctive panic before it overwhelmed him.

"Okay," he said, "what am I supposed to be seeing here?"

Something rustled in the blackness, startling him. Someone yawned, and there was a period of silence before a very familiar, young voice squeaked out, "Iggy?"

Iggy's mouth dropped open. No way. "Gasser?"

He felt Ari brush past him, and metal clinked against metal as he unlocked Gazzy's cage. A second later Iggy was knocked to the floor, his arms full of eight-year-old mutant. Gazzy's infectious, joyous laughter filled the air, and Iggy couldn't help but join in and hug his brother closer.

"Where's everyone else?" he asked. "Are you hurt? How'd they get you here? When the heck did you get here?"

"Slow down, Ig!" Gazzy laughed, pulling back and rolling back onto the floor. "Man, it's good to see you're okay. You even smell kind of fancy."

"I took a shower," Iggy said without thinking. Quickly, before Gazzy could ask about who had let him clean up - Jeb's betrayal was a dangerous minefield Iggy didn't want to cross just yet - he asked Ari, "How'd you know he was here?"

Ari grunted vaguely. "I saw them carting him in last night and followed them here. But I heard them say he's been here since yesterday, around the time Stark...uh, gave you the serum."

Iggy's eyes widened in realization. Stark had ordered Gazzy in while distracting Jeb and Iggy with the serum? No wonder he'd missed the commotion bringing in an avian-mutant was sure to cause. He'd been too busing screaming and hallucinating.

The memory of watching Gazzy's wings get cut off brought a fresh wave of terror rolling over Iggy's shoulder. Shakily, he asked Gazzy to turn around. The boy was confused, but obeyed; he even stayed completely still while Iggy made sure his wings were still there. Small feathers, full and healthy, if a bit dirty and not completely matured yet. Iggy sat back with a relieved sigh. Slowly, the image of Gazzy lying on his back, mouth distorted with unearthly screams as bloody feathers fell around him, started to fade away.

Ari was telling the truth, he thought. The flock was fine all along. Knowing that the hallucinations had only been just that had made dealing with the images easier, but it was having the proof right in front of him that eased Iggy's heart and mind. If Gazzy could make it out all right, then so could everyone else.

"Ig, what's going on?" Gazzy asked. "First Ari came in last night, acting all...not so crazy, and then he brought you here, and now you're acting weird. What'd they do to you?"

Slowly, feeling like he was walking on the edge of a very tall cliff, Iggy explained what had happened to him during the past four days. Gazzy punctured his story with questions - "Why didn't you just kick the Stark guy where it hurts?" - and exclamations of excitement - "Man, I wish I could've been there, we could've taken them out!" - until, finally, Iggy was finished. Iggy leaned back against the wall while Gazzy digested the information.

"That sounds really bad," he said finally, young voice subdued. "The serum thing, I mean."

Iggy shuddered. "It was. I don't really want to think about it right now."

There was an uneasy pause as all three mutants fell silent. "What about him?" Gazzy asked, and just by the tone of his voice and the Eraser's answering growl, Iggy knew he was talking about Ari. Iggy gave the Eraser a searching look, more for the other mutant's benefit than for his. What was he supposed to say when Ari was right there? He couldn't say he was really friends with the kid, but it was more than an uneasy truce. No one could really stay neutral toward one another after one had sobbed into the other's shoulder.

"I think he's okay," he said at length, making sure Ari could hear the trust in his voice. "He doesn't like the whitecoats any more than we do. When he did all that bad stuff...he was just confused. But he's on our side. Right, Ari?"

"Right, runt," Ari replied, but the insult was filled with more callous affection than malice. Iggy grinned at Gazzy.

"See? We're all trying to do the same thing: get the heck out of here."

Gazzy made a wary, thoughtful noise and scooted a little closer to Iggy. "Okay, Ig, if you say so. I guess...he did bring you here to meet me."

Ari made a noise of confirmation. "You have a couple hours left before they switch the cameras back on. I'll come back when it's time to go."

The atmosphere relaxed the instant the Eraser was out of the room. "You know, I still don't trust him," Gazzy told Iggy. "And I think he's mean."

Iggy shrugged. He wasn't entirely sure about Ari either, but he didn't exactly feel like discussing people's loyalties with his best friend right/partner in crime right in front of him. "Alright, about all those questions I asked you..."

The two hours they were allowed flew by on wicked wings, and before either of them knew it was time, Ari had slid back into the room and was hissing at them to hurry it up before the power switched back on. Iggy followed Ari back to his containment room in a gloomy haze. Only once he was secured back inside his cage did he speak up.

"I don't think I can take sitting here much longer, knowing that Gazzy's here too. When are we breaking out of here? Did Jeb ever tell you?"

"No," Ari sighed. Something in his voice told Iggy that he was growing tired of waiting for the opportune moment, too. "I don't think he knows when we're getting out."

Iggy shifted thoughtfully inside his cage. Something crossed his mind, and he leaned forward to peer up at Ari with sightless eyes. "You know, I meant what I said back with Gazzy. Taking me to see him was really cool of you."

Ari grunted noncommittally. "I just thought it might snap you out of your depressing mood. You've been all moody and stuff ever since Stark's serum."

Well, duh, Iggy almost snapped. But he reminded himself that he was trying to get along with Ari, and sucked in a deep breath instead. "It was horrible. Seeing that...stuff, I mean. Meeting back with Gazzy made it easier to ignore."

"But it never really goes away," Ari said emptily, and once again, Iggy had the sinking feeling that the boy was speaking from experience.

"Yeah," he said faintly.

Gloom settled over the two boys, staining their thoughts with the tainted memory of horrors they never should have seen. Iggy was the first to stir and shake the memories from his shoulders. "Well. At least we've got another member on the team, now. We're all on the same side."

"Yeah," Ari said in a strained tone.

Iggy remained oblivious to the other boy's discomfort. "Gaz doesn't trust you right now, but I think he'll come around. I mean, Stark's the real enemy here. Don't let him tell you anything sneaky, Ari. I know you probably already know this, but the whitecoats are really manipulative, you know? They'll sound all nice at first, but they're always just waiting to get you when you're least expecting it..."

"I have to go," Ari burst out, and hurried from the room. Iggy leaned back against the icy bars of his cage, a frown settling over his face.

Huh. Had he said something wrong?

Jeb buried his face in his hands. The noise in the dining hall swayed and faded, pulsed and rose in his sensitive ears with every breath he took. Slowly, he reminded himself that he needed to keep up appearances, and not only so Jacob wouldn't shove antidepressant tablets onto him again.

When he lifted his head from his palms, the doctor was staring at him with a look of consternation on his dark-skinned face. "You forgot about it, didn't you?"

"I've been busy," Jeb said vaguely, as way of an excuse. It was the truth, anyway. How was he supposed to keep track of something as mundane and superficial as a banquet when there were much more important things at stake - things like his sons' lives and his own and the future of the world?

"You have to show up," Jacob said earnestly. He cast a quick look around, but there was no one near their little table in the back of the hall. No one wanted to be around men Stark had condemned. "If you don't, Stark will be on those surveillance cameras faster than you can blink."

"I know, I know." Jeb slid a wary glance toward a camera posted on the other side of the dining hall and rose to his feet. "Come on," he told Jacob. "Let's continue this conversation elsewhere."

The two whitecoats drifted away from the chatter and bragging of their fellow workmates and walked down the open hallways leading to Iggy's containment room. Jeb's thoughts swarmed like ants out of an overturned anthill. Each School held two banquets in a year, one in the summer and one in the winter. At first, it'd most likely been established as a way for the School's employees to form bonds over talk of experiments and scientific progress in an attempt to disperse the competition that too often decimated partnership in the ranks. Today, it was just a way for people to gloat and compare success rates. Superficial. Ugly. Competetive. A sham of a get-together.

Jeb would have to go.

"If you don't go, Stark will have the perfect opportunity to frame you," Jacob muttered under his breath as they neared Iggy's containment room. "Then it will all be over."

Jeb nodded grimly. "I know." But it was such a perfect opportunity! Everyone, save those manning the radio tower and those overseeing unavoidable surgical procedures, would attend. The hallways of the School would be empty, all of its human occupants gathered in one giant room they usually used to hold crates and the like. Security would be low.

And most importantly, there would be no one in Stark's office, no one in his archives, no one to guard Anne's room if the trigger was hidden there.

"We have to take advantage of this." Jeb paused in his tracks. They had reached the door to Iggy's containment room, but there was one thing he had to ask. "Jacob," he said seriously, looking the other man in the eye. "This is going to be dangerous. If we do decide to take the trigger during the banquet, there is always a chance that they might find out you were involved. Are you sure you're willing to take that risk? The Director would never suspect you of a betrayal."

A rusty laugh rose from the depths of Jacob's throat. "Jeb, if I wasn't prepared for everything Stark can throw at me, I wouldn't have helped you in the first place. I told you. I'm ready to accept whatever happens. This place, it's...suffocating. I'll find another way to protect my son. But I'm not helping anyone here."

Jeb's mouth tugged up in a grateful smile. "Just as long as you know what you're doing," he said, and slipped into the containment room.

"Jeez, I was wondering when you were going to get here," Iggy's sarcastic voice piped up immediately. "Did you know that Stark kidnapped Gazzy?"

Jeb blinked. "No," he said slowly, gesturing quickly for Jacob to close the door and turn on the light. He bent down and unlocked Iggy's cage. "When did this happen?"

"According to Ari, Stark brought Gaz in while he was doing the whole serum thing." Iggy straightened and stretched. Jeb winced at the tiny cracking sounds his back made when twisted a certain way, but Iggy's face only registered relief.

"Is he all right?" Jacob asked.

"Yeah, as far as I could tell." Iggy frowned, making the lines in his forehead show prominently. Jeb eyed them with a sinking feeling - since when had Iggy gained stress lines? He was too young to have the scars of worry and anxiety.

"Jeb, I have to tell you, I'm ready to get out of here," Iggy said. "Ari's been thinking it's taking a little too long, too."

"We just need the trigger," Jeb replied, mind whirring at top speed. "Once we have that, Jacob and I will come up with a plan to get out of here."

"It'll have to be fast," Jacob warned him. "Once we have the trigger, Stark's not going to wait any longer to pounce on us. He'll trap us and keep us here, Jeb."

Iggy suggested, "What about we steal a helicopter? You know, just all of us move in at once and grab one?"

"That's the only way," Jacob replied. "Unless we want to walk out into the middle of the Rockies."

Jeb shook his head distractedly. "None of us knows how to fly a helicopter."

"Then grab a pilot and make him fly us around!" Iggy said.

The ideas circled in on each other as the anxiety and panic between the three grew. Where would they go? Who would they send to search the three places they suspected the trigger could be hidden? What about the flying Erasers? Word was beginning to spread about their creation - what if Stark sent some after them while they were in the air, vulnerable?

Eventually, the group reached a decision. The banquet was to take place near the end of the day, at seven o'clock. Since it was barely seven o'clock in the morning at the moment, that gave them twelve hours to prepare: they needed jackets to shield them from the cold, a pack of rations in case anything went really wrong, weapons to hold off their enemies. They needed to include Ari on their plans, since the decisions had been made without him.

"One more time," Iggy said, ticking off his fingers as he listed names. "Jeb's gonna be at the banquet. Jacob, you're going to pretend you have a big surgery you can't miss, but you'll really be searching through Stark's office. Ari and I will go through Chen's room. Once one of us finds the trigger, we'll contact Jeb, grab Gasser, and then all of us will head back to the docking bay to pick up a helicopter. Those always have guns packed into them, so that's not a problem."

He broke off and blinked. "Is that all? Shouldn't we have like a distraction or something?"

"The boy's right," Jacob agreed. "In case Stark somehow gets word of our plans, we should have something to divert his attention to."

"I can blow something up," Iggy offered eagerly.

Jeb was just about to dispel that idea - he wanted the operation as covert as possible, though how subtle you could be when you were stealing a helicopter, he wasn't completely sure - when he caught sight of Iggy's expression. The boy's milky-blue eyes were brighter, more alert than he'd seen them in a while. Everything in his coiled posture suggested happy anticipation. And though Jeb held subtlety above everything else, he knew Stark wouldn't be fooled by attempts to sneak out under his nose. The man needed something drastic to happen before he could be distracted.

"Alright," Jeb said, ignoring the wince that overtook his shoulders when Iggy punched a fist in the air. "You can blow something up. But I pick the target, and collect the materials for you to work with. And...nothing too big, Iggy."

Iggy grinned broadly. "Aw, Jeb. You take the fun out of everything."

Collecting the materials necessary for Iggy's bomb proved easier than expected. But then again, Jeb suspected that he could give the boy two paperclips, a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a cell phone, and he would come up with something explosive. How Iggy did it, he had never known. He was just thankful that it was about to come in handy.

Though the materials for the bomb were well within grasp, it took a fair part of their given time to gather them. Jeb had to participate in a surgery just to get a bottle of ammonia, and then again for a scalpel Iggy had requested. Luckily, no one wanted to deal with Iggy for the day - Anne was too busy preparing for the banquet, and Stark was nowhere in sight. No doubt overseeing proceedings for the upcoming dinner.

Finally, Jeb had everything he needed. He released Iggy from his cage once again and set everything in front of him. Ammonia. Scalpel. Radio. Rubber bands. Several bottles with contents he didn't even know could be dangerous until put into a teenage mutant's hands. And a gun. Jeb watched nervously as Iggy picked the weapon up and quickly took it apart with expert hands.

"Where did you get this?" he asked, fingering a bit of black firing powder between his fingers.

"That was Ari's gun," Jeb answered. "He was reluctant to give it up, so make good use of it, will you?"

Iggy raised an eyebrow and put the gun aside. "Come on, Jeb. Give me some credit. I know what I'm doing."

Jeb nodded and left the boy to his job. More than anything at the moment, he wanted to watch Iggy doing his best work, but he knew that if he disappeared, suspicions would rise.

He busied himself with pretending to be busy preparing for the banquet. That meant helping organize cages of mutants, cleaning up in the cargo room where the dinner would be held, and aiding doctors needing someone to oversee a last-minute surgery. All the while, he collected information to store away, anything that might be useful in their escape. The work helped distract from more disturbing things, like what he would do once the School had dropped him. If he admitted the truth to himself, he was wavering. What if he wasn't making the right decision in leaving with Iggy and Ari? He knew how important his family was to him, and yet the fate of the world was just as important, wasn't it? Would he still be able to help the flock if he was no longer in an insider's position?

Jeb was torn. Just five more hours, and it would be too late to turn back. He would have to either choose his family, or the School.

I thought you already did that, a snide voice said in the back of his mind. Jeb lowered his shoulders in shame. True. All he had to do was remember the sound of Iggy's screams in his ears, and his uncertainty disappeared. He just wished it wasn't so hard to turn his back on this gang of murderers and sadists.

By the time Jeb found himself wandering into the uppermost level of the School, he was dazed from the turmoil of his own thoughts, and didn't see Ari emerging from Stark's office until they nearly ran into each other. Both stopped and stared.

"Ari?" Jeb asked uncertainly.

The boy winced and looked away. "I, uh...got called up because I hit someone I wasn't supposed to. All Stark did was warn me off because I ran Steele over too."

Jeb got the unsettling sense that his son wasn't telling the complete truth, but he put his doubts aside for the moment. He needed to trust his son. Too long he had doubted him. Now, Ari needed to see that his father was there, and that he wasn't just some pawn in Jeb's games. "I see. Well, as long as you're unharmed..."

Ari nodded brusquely. He still wouldn't meet his father's eye. "Yeah, I'm okay."

Jeb nodded. "Good," he said, and then in a stronger voice, "Good. Very good. If you're not busy, Ari, there's something I think we should talk about. Follow me."

He walked off down the hallway, but it was only when his son called out that he realized that his footsteps were the only ones echoing across the walls.

"Wait! Jeb?" Ari looked from his feet to his father, a twisted expression crossing his face. Jeb waited patiently.

"Yes, son?"

The boy-Eraser jerked at the title of affection. For a moment he looked hopeful, ready to share anything that was on his mind with his father...and then something drew his gaze back to Stark's door, and his expression fell into shadow.

"Nothing," Ari said. "Forget it, it was nothing."

And because Jeb was trying to be a good father, he resisted the urge to pry, even though a sixth sense told him that it wasn't nothing - that, in fact, something had gone very, very wrong.

A/N: End chapter sixteen. Gah, I really struggled with this chapter, though I hope it doesn't show. It's because we're leading up to the big moment - the break out - and everything needs to be just right.

As usual, each and every one of your reviews is precious to me. Even if you've never reviewed before, take a couple seconds to type something in - I'd love to hear what you guys think. Especially now that we're closing in on the grand escape, and this chapter had an eau de filler about it. =/

penguinsrawesome: got your review. =) Don't worry, this story is my entertainment for the time being - I'll keep writing, definitely.

ilikethisfic: thanks! I knew Stark had to be doing something with his hands while he was drilling Ari, and I played with a couple ideas before settling on giving him a glass chessboard. I thought the glass aspect of it would heighten the image of his coldness, and that he only plays against himself does wonders for giving you a picture of his arrogance. =D


17. Crescendo

BeTrueToThyself, blackberry01, pandorad24, Locked in a Stony Tower, Aleria14, lillypad22, flYegurl, BlueWingedKitty, hopewithgraywings, AmyQueen95, Illucida and chulala, you have my thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedules to give me some feedback. All of your input, as always, is adored. =D

Because a reader brought it up: no, Iggy still has a long way to go before he's recovered from what he saw under the influence of Stark's serum. For the moment, things are so chaotic that he can convince himself he's unaffected by the hallucinations, but once everything settles down, the after effects will really set in.

Disclaimer: Neither Maximum Ride nor Chef Boyardee belong to me, though everything that you do not recognize does.

Chapter Seventeen: Crescendo

You are going the wrong way.

The Voice sliced in out of nowhere, cutting through Max's consciousness like a knife through water. She clutched her head as hot pain pounded behind her forehead. Again her wings threatened to fold, but she kept them out against the urge to drop from the air to the houses below.

"Max?" Fang glided to her side and brushed her wingtip with his in concern. "Is it the headache again?"

It was all Max could do to nod. What was this pain, this Voice inside her head? As the pain increased, she flung the thought out into the air: What do you mean, I'm going the wrong way?

And, horror of horrors, the Voice answered her.

Stark suspects that you'll try to rescue his captured mutant. The helicopter with your friend will take a different way.

"Max?" Angel asked, but Max waved her away.

Go to Kansas, the Voice instructed. Max narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

Why should I listen to you, Voice-in-my-head? She asked sternly. How do I know you're not just some sign that I'm finally going crazy?

Well, the Voice said slowly, and though she could not tell if it was even human, let alone male or female, she wasn't deaf to the smugness in its tone. If you want to take that chance, go ahead. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Max waited for something more, but the Voice had fallen silent. Abruptly, the pain began to fade from her head. She caught sight of Fang and Angel giving her strange looks out of the corner of her eye.

"Kansas," she repeated faintly. Something tugged on her lower stomach, turning her south. Max blinked. Toward Kansas.

Well. Her gut instinct had never been wrong before, why should it be now?

"Where are you going?" Fang yelled as she suddenly changed direction.

"Kansas!" she shouted over her shoulder. "Just trust me, Fang! I know what I'm doing!"

Well, it wasn't the whole truth, but it was good enough for the fractured remains of her flock. In tight formation, the three mutants soared across the states, following Max's instincts. The hot, teasing sensation in her chest started out small, and then grew as her worry did. What if she was wrong? Wasn't listening to a voice in her head a bad idea? What if she really was just going crazy?

"There! Up ahead."

Angel's excited cry pierced through Max's clouded thoughts like a siren. Her vision focused on a group of flying figures in the distance. All ten of them surrounded a hovering aircraft in crooked, sloppy formation. There was no mistaking the aircraft's identity: it was a helicopter. With one of Max's siblings inside.

"Nudge," Angel suddenly whispered. Her eyes went wide. "Max," she cried, tugging on Max's sleeve. "They've got Nudge!"

Which meant that the Gasman was already at the School. Max's fingers curled and uncurled fitfully. The thought of sweet, joking Gazzy stuck in a dog crate, prodded by needles and talons all because she'd let him out of her sight...no. They were going to break him and Iggy out of the School as soon as they rescued Nudge.

"Get in formation!" Max ordered. "Or…uh, as close to formation as we can get." It was kind of hard to take on a formation meant for six flying mutants, not three, but Fang and Angel automatically moved to flank her without confusion. As they gained on the group of flying Erasers—whom had just noticed them—Max added, "Let's make this fast. Grab Nudge, incapacitate the mutts, and lose 'em. We need to rest."

It was true. They'd been flying nonstop for longer than she cared to guess, and her body, superhuman and strong as it was, was starting to shut down. But she wouldn't make the same mistake she made on the mission to rescue Angel from the School. She wouldn't get sidetracked or pass out for several hours at a time.

Don't worry, Iggy, Gazzy, we're coming. And with that thought, she led the team that broke right into the heart of the gang of Erasers, scattered them, and jerked open the helicopter's door.

Max spotted Nudge right away. The winged girl was lying on the floor of the helicopter, blinking her eyes groggily. Her hands were tied behind her back, she was gagged and her wings were bound, but her feet and legs were free. Max decided to take advantage of this, gripped Nudge by her wrists, and hauled her out of the helicopter and into open air before her captors could fire off the first shot.

Nudge's weight dragged them straight down through the air, past Erasers grappling with Fang and Angel, past Erasers lurching about in agony from a couple well-placed punches from the winged mutants. Max got to work on Nudge's tied wings immediately. She loosened the rope and had the girl's wings free in an instant.

Nudge was already trying to wiggle her way free of the tight ropes around her wrists (plummeting through the air hundreds of feet in the air did wonders for waking up a sleepy mutant). Max helped her. The second her hands were loose, Nudge reached up, yanked the gag towel from her mouth, and launched herself into Max's arms.

"Ma-a-ax!" she sobbed. Her tears gushed down the back of Max's windbreaker like rain. One thing was for sure: the jacket did nothing to soak up the water pouring from Nudge's reddened eyes. "Max, thank God, oh my God, I thought I was a goner for sure! I-I mean, if you hadn't come, they would have taken me far away, and then I never would have seen any of you again, and I was all alone with a bunch of hungry Erasers who like bird meat, and then they stuffed a gag in my mouth because I wouldn't stop talking, and—oh, God, Gazzy, I lost him, Max, I lost him! I tried to fight them, but there were so many, and then they shot me with a tranquilizer, and I went all limp, and I tried to fight it but, Max, I couldn't, I just couldn't, and I failed!"

She wailed the last word into Max's shoulder and clung to her. Max patted Nudge's shoulder a little awkwardly (everything was awkward a couple hundred feet above the ground) and tried to gently disengage the sniffling girl at the same time.

"I know, Nudge, kiddo, it's okay. We're here. But we kind of need to be not here, you know?" Max said as kindly as she could. There. See? I can be caring and leaderly at the same time.

Nudge nodded and wiped her eyes shakily. "Yeah. Let's get out of here."

Without another word, Max put her fingers to her lips and whistled as sharply and loudly as she could. Fang and Angel broke away from the Erasers they had been fending off, and joined Max and Nudge. The Erasers were slowly regaining their senses and charging after them, but their clumsy wings were no match for the flock. Slowly, one at a time, the flying Erasers dwindled into the distance with every beat of Max's wings.

Within ten minutes, the broken flock had lost its pursuers.

Flock-one, Stark-zero, Max thought proudly. Well. Unless you count that he managed to kidnap so many of us, and still has two of us in his grasp at this very moment…

"You're back, you're back," Angel sang happily, cruising over to Nudge's side. Her snowy wings brushed comfortingly against Nudge's tawny ones. "Don't worry, Nudge. We're gonna go get Iggy and Gazzy next."

"Right after we rest," Max filled in tiredly. She was already drifting from her straight flight path, and she could see that even unmovable Fang was starting to dip in exhaustion. A new goal in sight—find a place to rest—and part of her flock restored, Max set herself to finding a secure place to set down. It had to be at least somewhat comfortable and clean, though finding a place that was out of sight was more important than anything else.

"How about something to eat?" Nudge suggested sleepily. Apparently, the drugs she'd been given hadn't gone out of her system entirely. "I could use a hamburger. Or three."

"Or four," Fang suggested quietly.

"And a pie," Angel chimed in.

"Unless you guys have any money on you, fresh food isn't gonna happen," Max said dryly. She hated to down their spirits right after they'd saved one of their own, but she had to be realistic. Even if it got her gloomy faces in response.

"Maybe we can find another vacation home," Nudge put in hopefully. "Like we did when we were looking for Angel."

"I can find one," Angel offered. She tilted her head a little to the side, blue eyes narrowed in concentration as she scanned the rooftops below. They were flying high enough that no dinky human would be able to tell what they were with the naked eye, but the mutants' hawk-like vision allowed them to pick out each and every figure below.

Angel let out a triumphant hmph when she found what she was looking for. "See that little blue house down there? And the car that just pulled away from it? That family's going away for a five-day trip and one of the kids forgot to close a window in an upstairs bedroom."

Max's mouth watered at the thought of the refrigerator awaiting them inside. All four mutants banked right and dropped into the house's backyard in a line. Max felt guiltier bashing through this house's window screen than she had when she, Nudge and Fang had pushed into the dusty vacation house, but desperate times called for desperate measures. And her stomach was definitely desperate.

"Look at all this food!" Nudge crowed, peeling open the refrigerator door. "Oh, Max, you don't think they'll mind if I eat their ice cream, do you? I mean, they have a nice home and everything, and probably a job, so they can afford to buy more, right? And we're starving!"

"Right, Nudge," Max replied absently, picking up a can of ravioli. Ah, Chef Boyardee, you're my hero.

"And, besides, it's not like we're gonna make them starve or anything. We're only taking a little bit of food. Besides, it would have all gone to waste! Five days without being eaten! Poor leftover pizza," Nudge said sadly to the limp piece of pepperoni pizza she'd picked out of the fridge, and promptly devoured it.

The four mutants ate their fill, though Max made sure that no one ate more than was necessary. For one thing, even if it needed to be done, she didn't like the thought of breaking into someone's home to eat their food. Second, they needed light stomachs if they were going to chase Iggy and Gazzy halfway across the country.

Lounging lazily in a reclining chair by the living room's huge flat screen TV, Max stared groggily out the window into the receding sunlight. It was getting late. She'd had no idea it had taken so long to fly across several states, find and rescue Nudge, lose the Erasers, and find a place to hunker down for a while. Well. On second thought, maybe it made sense that it was already starting to fall to night, but still. She'd wanted to keep flying.

If you continue at this rate, none of you will be any help to Iggy, the Voice piped up, startling Max from her drowsy state. Rest, Maximum. You deserve it.

What are you? Max asked hostilely, but the Voice had gone silent. She sat back in her chair and thought. The Voice had been right about Stark's plan to throw the flock off Nudge's path. Sure, the flock had that whitecoat's laptop, but it would have taken her too long to think to check it. Without the Voice, they might not have gotten to Nudge before she crossed over the ocean. And that would have been the end of their rescue mission.

So what was the Voice? Friend, foe, frenemy? She tucked away the question for later.

Max looked over at Nudge and Angel, who were curled up together on the living room's broad sofa. Nudge was already asleep, and Angel's bright eyes were dim with fatigue, half-lidded with exhaustion. Sometimes, Max forgot the girl was only six. No wonder she was pooped.

I'm pooped, Max thought to herself. Even Fang, who had opted (silently, as usual) for a smaller couch on the other side of the room, was nodding off to sleep.

Fine, she conceded, and muttered, "Goodnight, everyone."

"Night," Angel murmured sleepily, and closed her eyes. Fang flicked a glance in Max's direction and closed his eyes in silence.

Max tried to stay awake, but the pull of sleep was too great to ignore. Before she realized it, she was opening her eyes to wincing slits as piercing sunlight tapped against her eyelids. She blinked slowly.

And sat up quickly, her back cracking in protest at the sudden movement.

Crap, she thought, staring wildly at the clock over the TV. It was already almost ten o'clock in the morning.

"Up!" she shouted, leaping to her feet. "Nudge, Angel, Fang, up! We slept in."

"Again?" Nudge yawned tiredly, stretching languidly. "Ugh. Oh well. I haven't gotten that much sleep in a long time."

"Yeah, but Iggy and Gazzy are waiting on us." Max wandered into the kitchen to grab something for breakfast. Her thoughts drifted to Iggy, trapped in the School for five days. Five days. Even Angel hadn't been in captivity, alone, for that long. Max could only imagine what horrors her blind brother had undergone, and without anyone there to comfort him.

Breakfast was a rushed meal of cold cereal and half-burnt toast. Once they were back in the air, Max finally started to settle down. Not that she really wanted to be calm about the situation, but nothing was more soothing than having her hair swept back over her shoulders and her wings ruffled by cool, crisp air. Besides, Iggy and Gazzy needed her to be calm if she was going to rescue them.

If they hadn't been sidetracked so much, it should have taken Fang, Nudge and Max seven hours to fly from Colorado to California on their trek to rescue Angel. Max guessed it would take fifteen hours to fly to Canada from Kansas…and that wasn't including all of the rest and refuel breaks they would have to take.

The flock flew for four straight hours before Fang noticed that Angel was starting to crack and called a break. Exhausted, the mutants collapsed in a grassy field far from any signs of civilization and stretched their warm wings out in the sun. Max knew that everyone was tired and starving—again—but she opted to be the bad guy and make them keep going after a half hour of rest.

"Max, I'm hungry," Nudge announced pleadingly a short hour later, and another break was called for. Max was starting to think they were never going to get to Iggy and the Gasman in time.

"Hey," Fang said, sidling up to her as they perched outside of the restaurant whose dumpster they'd just pilfered. "What's wrong? You're all riled up again."

Max sighed and pushed her fries away to knead her forehead. "We've wasted so much time already," she said, watching cars buzz by on the street. "And the more time we spend resting or eating is more time horrible things can happen to Ig and Gaz."

"The kids have to rest, Max," Fang pointed out. He looked at her, coal-black eyes serious. "And so do you. You're not a machine, you know. You have to take a break just as much as the rest of us."
Max sighed and munched on her hamburger. "I know."

"Then relax." Fang leaned back against the bench he was sitting on and folded his arms over his stomach. "You can't exactly break into a high-security psycho ward without being rested."

As much as she wanted to fight his logic, Max knew Fang was right. She sighed. How did he always manage to do that? How come he could bring her down from her panic attacks like no one else could?

"Can we rest a bit?" Nudge asked from her spot next to Angel. Max looked at the two girls: both were staring at her with wide, pleading eyes. She could almost see their lips quivering.

"Yeah, alright," she agreed, and leaned back on the bench so her shoulder was touching Fang's. He lazily opened one eye and raised an eyebrow. But she only smirked and closed her eyes.

They flew on after that with only two more breaks—one at the end of the fifth day, and one three hours after starting off the sixth day—until, finally, the laptop showed that they had entered Canada. The flock pulled into a glittering town surrounding a smallish, squashed-looking mountain and quickly blended into the crowd.

"Where are we?" Max asked, leaning over Fang's shoulder as he propped open the laptop to the map page. Nudge and Angel were perched on the same bench Max and Fang occupied, and though they looked ready to keel over, they still had enough energy to chatter excitedly about the different souvenir shops they saw.

"We're in Banff, Alberta," Fang said, zooming in on the map. He pointed to two stationary red dots off in the mountains surrounding Banff. "There they are."
"The School is so close to this town," Max marveled, sitting back against the bench. She studied the happy people walking past. None of them knew that not an hour away from them was a hell hole full of misery and suffering.

"I guess whitecoats need food and clothes too," Fang said. "It's smarter to put a School close to a town where they can get supplies."

"Are we gonna save Iggy and Gazzy now?" Angel asked, breaking away from peering through shop windows. Max was just about to say, We have to come up with a plan, when her head erupted in familiar pain. Oh, God, she thought, not caring how many strange or worried glances she got from people wandering by. She clutched at her head and dropped to her knees, huddled on the ground.

I apologize for the pain, Maximum, the Voice said. Your brain is simply getting accustomed to hosting my presence.

You're a real whack-job, you know that? Max thought through the glaring pain. So, what are you? My friend? An ally? You helped us save Nudge, but every time you pop up, my head implodes.

I only wish to help you achieve your destiny, said the Voice cryptically. Max winced.

Oh, great. You too? It's not that destiny, is it, the one Jeb kept rambling on about?

Jeb was correct in his assessment of your destiny, the Voice insisted coolly. Max felt Nudge's hand descend on her should and made a conscious effort to quit rocking on the ground like a lunatic.

"I'm fine," she said, grinning through the tears of pain, but she had a feeling it came off as more deranged than reassuring.

The next step in achieving your destiny is simple, the Voice said.

Oh, yeah? Max thought sarcastically. Well, as sarcastically as she could when she was conversing with a voice in her head. And what's that?

Stay in Banff. Do not go after your brothers. You will only endanger your flock.

Max felt her mouth fall open. What? I'm not gonna sit here while they get poked at by whitecoats! No way!

You must stay, the Voice asserted.

Max grit her teeth and got to her feet. So what if the Voice had helped her save Nudge? So what? It was still just a Voice in her head. A Voice telling her not to go after her brothers, to leave them to the mercy of men without mercy. No.

I see, said the Voice wearily. Then I have no other choice but to detain you.

There was a sudden blast of pain, so great and terrible that Max thought her head had caught on fire, and then everything was darkness.

Jeb fiddled nervously with his cuff. This was it. In less than ten minutes, he would walk down the hallway into the gym-like room that had been turned into a banquet hall. And in doing so, he would set off a chain of events that would either condemn or save the people he cared most about.

So it was no wonder that he was having last-minute jitters. But really, couldn't he at least make his hands stop shaking long enough to clasp shut the last button on his cuff?

"Is everything ready?" he asked Jacob. The other man had dropped by Jeb's rooms to help him in case any plans came into existence at the last second.

"Yes, as far as I know," Jacob answered. He tugged at the hem of his suit jacket and shook his head, running his hand over his chin. "I need a shave."

Jeb gave a half-hearted chuckle. "I don't blame you. I've been so busy with everything that I forgot to keep clean." He ran a lined hand over his own stubble and shook his head. Enough trivialities. They had to ensure that everything was foolproof. He checked the tiny microphone hidden behind a carnation clipped to his chest pocket. It was a one-way microphone, so anything on his end would go through to the microphone's sisters (Jacob, Iggy and Ari each had one), but nothing would get through to his side. Jacob had found it for him.

"It's one-way, because I think it would be weird if, say, in the middle of appetizers, your carnation cracked a joke," Jacob had explained seriously.

In case of emergencies, everyone had hand-held radios synced to each other. Like walkie-talkies, but more high-tech, Jeb figured. Other than the one-way microphone, however, he would be cut off from Ari, Iggy and Jacob. Jacob had given him a small pager that would beep when the trigger was secured and everyone was ready to leave. Jeb slipped it into the pocket of his slacks.

"All set," he murmured to himself. He ran through the events as planned, just for good measure. He would go to the dining room, seat himself as far away from Stark as he could get. During appetizers, Ari would set Iggy free, and they would both hurry to Anne's room. Jacob should already be in Stark's office by that time. Once the trigger was found, Iggy would activate the bomb—it was just smaller than a football, yet slim enough to fit into the large pocket of his lab coat without being overly conspicuous. Jeb had stashed it in an empty operating room on the first level of the School. No one would miss its detonation.

Then, while people rushed to douse the fire and find the cause of the explosion, Ari and Iggy would grab the Gasman, and everyone would meet up at the docking bay to steal a helicopter.

So many ways for this to go wrong, Jeb worried, wringing his tie anxiously. Yet there was no room for mistakes. Even the slightest lag in timing, and everything would go up in flames. Iggy, the Gasman and Ari would no doubt be killed right away. Jacob might be sent into solitary confinement if he was lucky, though Jeb didn't think the School would kill him: he was too valuable. And he, Jeb, would face the wrath of the Director. That was not something that could be allowed to happen.

All Itex employees not otherwise engaged, report to the dining room, a cool, female voice came over the intercom. Jeb recognized Anne's soft voice immediately.

"That's it," Jacob said with an air of readiness. Jeb bid the other man good luck and left his rooms, heart hammering in his chest. There was nothing more anticlimactic than walking down the hall toward appetizers, yet Jeb's heart was thundering loud enough for everyone to hear by the time he entered the sparsely decorated dining room. Jeb's polished shoes clicked on the slick linoleum floor as he headed for a small, circular table farthest from Stark's grand, rectangular dining table. The lights felt like they were burning the back of his neck.

He was relieved to see that most people would rather sit up near Stark's table, in the weak and petty hope that he would overhear one of their accomplishments. There was a door not far from the table he'd chosen.

This could work, he thought hopefully as he took his seat. And then Anne Chen wandered over, dressed in a pencil skirt and crimson blouse, and he knew it wouldn't be as easy as he hoped.

"Batchelder," she greeted him with a saccharine smile. "What are you doing all the way back here? Come sit closer to the front. Doctor Stark has saved you a special seat at his side as congratulations on your progress with the Extermination Effect."

"That's really not necessary, Ms. Chen," Jeb protested weakly. Anne raised a perfectly trimmed eyebrow. "I would think that you should deserve all the credit for our success. After all, you were the one in charge of overseeing the operation."

"Oh, but I insist," Anne said smoothly. Her lips curled into a predatory smile. "As does Doctor Stark. He would be very disappointed if you did not accept his invitation."

Jeb clenched his hands into fists beneath the table. His gaze flickered to the door as a last, feeble attempt to reach out to the success of his mission. But he couldn't alert Stark to the fact that something was underfoot. "I would be honored," he accepted smoothly, and allowed himself to enjoy Anne's look of surprise.

He had a feeling it was the only thing he was going to be thankful for today.

Iggy wanted to pace, but that was kind of hard to do while trapped in a cage barely big enough to hold him. He settled for clenching his fists.

How much time had passed since he'd heard Chen announce the beginning of the banquet? Jeb had said he'd told Ari about what was going to happen—what if Ari got confused and didn't know that he was in charge of getting Iggy out? What if Rawley or another Eraser decided to come in and push him around again?

Iggy took a deep breath and held it. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt so high-strung. Calm down, he told himself. Everything's fine. Ari's coming right now, he just got held up or something. Yeah. He's coming.

To distract himself, he fiddled with the microphone clipped to his shirt collar. Jeb had given it to him, saying that if he pressed a little button on the side, everything on Jeb's side would come through. Iggy decided to test the theory. He pressed the button on the tiny microphone's side, and listened as Jeb exchanged pleasantries in an obviously fake tone with other whitecoats. Ugh. Boring. He turned the microphone off.

Iggy waited for what seemed like hours before, finally, the door to the containment room swung open.

"Ari!" Iggy jumped up, recognizing the heavy footsteps without even trying. "Great. What took you so long?"

"It's only been five minutes, runt," Ari said grumpily. "And hi to you too."

Oh. Iggy sat back with a sheepish expression while Ari undid the lock to his cage. "Sorry. Being cooped up in a cage all day, waiting for your imminent fate kind of does funny things to your head. Hi, Ari."

"Hey, runt." Ari helped Iggy out of his cage and turned without waiting, knowing that the blind boy would automatically reach for his belt loop. Iggy held on while Ari led him up staircases one by one, until they finally reached the first level. Sensitive ears picked up the sound of distant talking and laughter.

"No one's manning the security cameras?" Iggy asked, suddenly feeling nervous. This was the first and most important level of the School, after all. Wouldn't it be covered in cameras with the banquet only a couple turns down the hall?

"Yeah, but mostly everyone's at the banquet thing, and there are too many camera angles to take in at once," Ari said. "By the time they realize you're out and about, heh heh, it'll be too late!"

Man, Iggy thought, I am so glad this guy is on my side. And he was, for more than one reason, the obvious being that he wouldn't be chased around like a scared deer anymore. Plus, he'd decided Ari really wasn't that bad. Maybe a little unpredictable, grumpy and closed off to the world, but so was Iggy on bad days. Ari just had a ton more bad days than Iggy ever had.

And, he thought, listening quietly as Ari sprung the lock on Chen's door, I can't help but feel sorry for the guy. I bet he'd be cool if I just showed him that things really aren't so bad.

Look at him, talking about Ari as if he was going to adopt the Eraser as a little brother. Though, strange as the idea was, Iggy found he couldn't hate the thought.

"We're in," Ari whispered, just as the lock popped loose. Iggy held on as Ari slid into the room, surprisingly quiet for such a bulky mutant. The door snicked shut behind him, almost too silent to be heard.

"Okay," Iggy said, releasing Ari's belt. "Where do we look? A description would be nice, so I don't run into a wall or something."

"Uh…" There was a pause as Ari looked around them. "Oh, right. We're in the middle of a living room—tiny—to our right is the kitchen, to our left I'm guessing…yep. Her room."

"Lemme guess," Iggy said. "That's where the trigger would be."

"Uh-huh." Iggy followed the sound of Ari's footsteps into Chen's bedroom, but stopped at the Eraser's startled noise.

"What?" he asked impatiently.

"She's got a ton of cabinets in here," Ari said, his tone strained. Iggy groaned.

"Which means we're gonna have to look through all of them," he filled in.

"Yeah. There's one right next to you. Check that one out. I'll get the ones farther in here."

Surprisingly, the cabinets weren't locked. Iggy guessed that it was because not even Chen, in all her insanity, wanted to take the time to lock each and every cabinet she owned. All he had to do was feel around him, and he knew that Ari hadn't been exaggerating when he'd stressed how many cabinets there were.

They searched in silence for close to ten minutes, and Iggy had just finished going through his third cabinet when Ari's radio buzzed. The Eraser grunted in surprise.

"What is it?" Iggy asked when the atmosphere became too heavy and quiet for him to bear.

"I'm being called over to the banquet hall," Ari said, a note of worry in his rough voice. Iggy frowned.

"Do they suspect anything?"

"I don't know." Ari lumbered past him, throwing over his shoulder, "Just keep looking. I'll be back."

"Sure," Iggy called, but Ari had already left the quarters. He turned back to sifting through the files as a queasy sensation slid along the sides of his stomach . Why did he feel like he was missing something?

Jeb forced himself to swallow the lump of steak he'd stuck into his mouth. It was delicious, as everything was at the table, but he couldn't control the way his stomach pitched every time Stark looked his way. The man was sitting so close Jeb could smell his aftershave, and being in such close proximity was making him nervous. How would he be able to communicate with Iggy when Stark was right there?

"Batchelder," the doctor's silky voice interrupted Jeb's thoughts. Jeb turned to find himself once again the focus of two soulless, almost-silver eyes. When Stark smiled, Jeb half expected a forked tongue to slide out between his perfect teeth.

"The others have been wondering about your progress with the Extermination Effect," Stark continued. "We all know your subject has proved a…difficult one. Far too defiant, don't you think?"
Jeb almost smirked, but it was the thought that Stark might have been acting unsubtle on purpose, that kept him polite and deferential. "Yes, sir. I'm afraid Igneous is a difficult mutant to work with, but so are many of the subjects we bring in."

"Yes, but most of those mutants break after a certain amount of time." Stark raised his head to address the rest of the people at the reserved dining table. "You all have heard of the hallucinogen I've had in production."

It was not a question, yet automatically, thirteen of Stark's chosen agreed devotedly. "Pity that your mutant remains so defiant even after injected with the hallucinogen," Stark told Jeb. "I had thought it would break after seeing what it saw. Well. There is time yet for the effects to sink in."

Jeb remained very still. Stark was studying him out of the corner of one silver-gray eye, his pale lips twitching at the sides, as if in amusement. Abruptly, the man straightened.

"Ari," he said pleasantly, as if welcoming a long-lost friend. Jeb started and whirled around in his seat. His son was standing in the doorway of the banquet hall, looking around himself awkwardly.

"You called, sir?" he said gruffly.

Stark beckoned with one long, colorless finger. Ari shuffled forward, looking uncomfortable and out of place as he maneuvered his way through the maze of circle tables scattered around the banquet hall. He sent a glance Jeb's way, and in his son's gaze he caught a flash of panic and a question. But Jeb had no answer; he had not an inkling of what Stark was pulling out of his sleeve this time.

Ari arrived at Stark's side and stood uncomfortably behind the doctor's chair. Stark turned back around. Ari might as well have been invisible for all the acknowledgment he received.

"I remember telling you, Ms. Chen," Stark began, clearly addressing Anne, though his voice traveled easily across the table, "about the new project Itex has picked up. Giving Erasers wings."

A murmur went through the gathered whitecoats. Jeb risked sneaking Ari a questioning glance, but his son was staring at his feet.

"Currently, our School has thirty winged Erasers in its employment," Stark continued. "Though all of those were sent in by a different facility, from Death Valley. Yet we are making our way up: this Eraser," he said, pointing to Ari, "will be the first one to be gifted wings after creation."

Jeb didn't even try to hide his surprise. Ari was now looking nervously at the whitecoats that had suddenly turned to him in curiosity.

"But, sir," Anne said with wide, questioning eyes. "Won't that hurt it?"

Ari visibly bristled at being called an "it," but Stark didn't bat an eyelid.

"Of course," he said indifferently. "But Ari has already agreed to the procedure."

Just like that, the man turned back to his steak. A ripple of excitement went down the line of seated whitecoats, with many of them eyeing Ari like a juicy piece of meat. Jeb tried again, unsuccessfully, to catch his son's eye.

A movement from Stark distracted Jeb from his efforts. The steel-haired doctor reached down, extracted a sleek phone from his pocket, and put it to his ear. A flash of triumph arced across his face before vanishing, leaving his countenance as deplorably indifferent as ever. Stark put the phone back in his pocket.

"I've just been informed of a rather curious discovery," he said smoothly. He paused for effect, waiting for the whitecoats at his table to settle down.

"Igneous Ride has disappeared from its containment room."

Jeb sucked in a hissing breath, but the gasping that echoed across the table's occupants hid the noise. He straightened in his seat and eyed the door. He could make it. If he left now, just up and ran for it, he could make it to the door before Stark connected too many dots.

"How strange," Stark said, his silken tones jerking Jeb back to reality. "I wonder how a dumb animal figured its way out of its cage."

"Perhaps it had help," Anne suggested, her piercing gaze moving to Jeb.

Stark's gaze swiveled lazily from Jeb to Anne, and back again. "Perhaps," he murmured, fingering the knife in his hand thoughtfully. "But who knows? These things happen. What's strange is that it has been discovered in your room, Ms. Chen, going through your files."

No. Jeb stopped breathing. Anne was just as surprised as he was: she paused, forehead wrinkled in confusion. "My room, sir?"

"Yes. Though I don't know what it could be looking for." Stark hummed thoughtfully to himself, and pulled something silver from his coat pocket. The trigger. Jeb's heart sank.

"This, perhaps?" Stark suggested, and he was staring straight at Jeb when he said it.

"Darn it," Iggy muttered under his breath. He had searched through as many cabinets as he could, had even toppled some of them over and scattered their contents onto the carpet, but there was nothing there. Not a single hint of metal beneath his fingers, just paper, paper, paper.

Well, there were still a couple cabinets left…maybe it was hidden in one of those?

It had been a while since he'd last checked the microphone, so he pressed the on-button. A flood of noise filled his hypersensitive ears: Stark's voice, purring into the air, talking about…the trigger.

Iggy dropped the files he'd been about to sift through. "Oh, crap."

Jeb's voice, straining with panic, filtered through the microphone. "Iggy, Jacob, you shouldn't be there, but if you are, get out. Get out!"

Iggy bolted to his feet. The last time he'd heard his father yell like that, it'd been screaming at him to run, snap out his wings, and fly away from the School for the first time in his ten years of life.

Someone was hammering on the door. Iggy stopped in his tracks and spun around, mind whirring in panic, just as the door cracked and Erasers spilled through. He brought up his fists and yelled in fury, landing a solid hit on one mutant's broad snout. Then their claws dug into his shoulders and arms, restraining him. Something cracked down across the back of his neck. Iggy's eyes widened, and then he collapsed on the floor, limp and unresisting as the Erasers reached for him with their claws.

Jacob buried his fists into the files and pulled, spilling them across the floor as he dug through Stark's archives. He had looked through the doctor's desk, but the trigger hadn't been there, so he had been forced to turn to the room beyond Stark's office. The key to the archives' room had been in Stark's desk, luckily, and getting in had not been a problem, but finding what he was looking for was.

"Where could it be?" he wondered, wiping the sweat from his forehead in frustration. This was impossible. He was running out of time. If Iggy and Ari hadn't found it by now, it had to be in the archives. Where else would Stark keep it? A random dog crate?

Jacob stared around himself. All that was left were the boxes in the corner, and those were locked. Stark had probably hidden the key to those somewhere else.

Quickly, Jacob clicked on the microphone clipped securely to his shoulder lapel.

"…if you are, get out," Jeb's strained voice came through. There was a scuffle, and then Jeb shouted, "Get out!"

Not a second later, there was a sharp yell on another end of the microphone. Yet the shout belonged to a voice too young to belong to Jacob's friend.

It was Iggy.

Jacob spun around, heart pounding in his chest. He ignored the papers strewn across the floor and hurried out into the hallway. He was alone. Breaking into a sprint, Jacob set his sights on the staircase just a short distance away—if Iggy was in trouble, Jacob had to get somewhere safe. There was no way he would be able to fight off a troupe of Erasers, and he would be of no help to anyone captured. No, the best thing to do was hide, wait out the storm, and reason his way into the situation to save Jebidiah—

A hoarse shout and the thundering of many booted feet caught Jacob's attention. He turned in time to see a group of Erasers round the corner and head straight for him. Jacob whirled around to bolt for the staircase…just as an Eraser rounded the stairs and drove its meaty fist into his face.

Jeb leaped to his feet and clicked the button on his hidden microphone. "Iggy, Jacob, you shouldn't be there, but if you are, get out. Get out!" he ordered, already sprinting for the door. He had almost made it when three hulking Erasers appeared in his way. One of them dropped a merciless punch to his ribcage. Something cracked loudly. Jeb collapsed to the floor, the world wavering in a haze of agony. Dimly, he heard Ari cry out in surprised outrage.

"I warned you what would happen if you meddled in my affairs," Stark's cruel voice snapped out as two of the Erasers bent down and heaved Jeb to his feet. He almost cried out at the pain. Nausea rose in his stomach, bile in his throat, but he blinked past the pain and tried to hold his head high.

Stark stepped close, too close, his face twisted in a hate-filled sneer. "Did you really think your pathetic attempts to surpass me would escape my notice?" he hissed. "I know everything you do before you do it, Batchelder. Everything you know about the Extermination Effect, you know because of me."

He pulled back, waiting for the meaning to sink in, but Jeb only glared at him. Stark scoffed. "You thought you were so clever," he spat. "Did you really think I would lose my composure to you? That I would tell you that the trigger was specific to one mutant and one mutant only if I hadn't expected you to weasel information out of me? I let you win that one, Batchelder. Do you really think Ms. Chen would have let the papers on the Effect hang so carelessly from her pocket, if I hadn't told her to, because I knew you would steal them? Who do you think encouraged the Erasers to have a little fun at the expense of their friend, Dag? Who do you think suggested that he needed to be punished for a crime he never committed, needed to be shoved into a cage right next to Igneous?

"The truth is, Batchelder, I am the one who let you get information out of me, I am the one who put the files there for you to take from Ms. Chen, I am the one who locked Dag in that cage. Me. It was all me. You might have dug your own grave—but I gave you the shovel."

Jeb sagged in the Erasers' grasp, limp as Stark revealed his final, masterful plan. Stark had been playing him all along. All the work he and Iggy and Ari had sweated over had only ever been plots in Stark's plan, planted by Stark himself. It was over. It had been over the minute he promised to help Iggy escape.

Stark eyed him coldly, dispassionate as Jeb gasped for breath against the pain in his ribs. Jeb's gaze slid to Ari, who was standing trapped between Stark and the dining table, a fractured look in his blue eyes. Stark followed Jeb's gaze, and a wicked, vicious smile twisted his face.

"Your son has betrayed you," he hissed sweetly. "He agreed to be my spy in exchange for wings and your life. Oh, you'll live, Jebidiah. I hold to my promises. But I never promised the boy that you wouldn't wish you were dead."

Ari's sharp ears caught everything. His control seemed to snap, and he leaped forward with a tortured, agonized howl: "Nooo!"

Stark whirled, mouth falling open in surprise as Ari's hands reached for his vulnerable throat. The Erasers holding Jeb dropped him in an attempt to protect their boss. Something snapped, and an agony Jeb had never encountered exploded through his stomach, blinding him—

And then everything went dark.

A/N: End chapter 17. Maybe the title for the last chapter, "Illusionary," makes more sense now - Jeb's belief that he had everything under control, that he had a chance of escape, was all just a cruel illusion. :)

We made it to 191 reviews! YES! I never thought that this story would get so much attention—I know asking for a certain number isn't something I usually do, but do you think we could make 200 reviews before Chapter Eighteen comes out? That would be amazing! And I do apologize for the horrible cliffhanger. I hope it does not cause any of you physical pain. ;)


18. To the Sky

-is speechless- 13 reviews for the last chapter? nathan-p, fangfan1, chulala, pandorad24, Ren Rain, juniper294, Aleria14, BeTrueToThyself, blackberry01, flYegurl, lillypad22, soccerislife14, and Illucida all get a dedication for reviewing and pushing us past 200 reviews. I think I've stopped giggling giddily now. -sneaks look at review number- Nope, still giddy! =D

(Note: this chapter is my entry for Project P.U.L.L.'s 9/17 post, founded by Bookaholic711, who came up with the project as a wonderful way to banish writer's block. Join! It works! :D)

Disclaimer: Maximum Ride doesn't belong to me. Can you believe it? I can't. :(

Chapter Eighteen: To the Sky

The world came back in scratchy, ill-formed patches, like trying to get reception at the top of the tallest mountain. He blinked slowly, wincing as dull agony rocketed through his stomach and spine. His blurry eyes showed him cold, gleaming aluminum above and around him, glowering white lights molded into the ceiling. And tickling his cheek from where it lay on the floor was a single reddish feather, stiff with congealed blood.

The sight of the feather brought everything back. The banquet, the trigger, Stark, all of his plans gone to waste…

"Hey, you're awake."

Jeb jerked at the rusty, sleep-groggy voice and turned his head. The pain in his ribs was so intense that his sight blacked out for a minute, and he had to wait for it to filter back. Something clinked when he moved his wrist. A gleaming chain encircled his arm, chaining him to the aluminum wall.

"I'm guessing these are their dungeons. Pretty clean dungeons, if you ask me," the boy continued. Jeb shifted on his back: Iggy. It was Iggy. He breathed a sigh of relief.

"I thought they'd hurt you," he murmured wearily, pointedly not looking at the bloodied feather by his head. He could see where it had come from; Iggy's wings were bound and chained to the wall, so it wasn't hard for Jeb to pick out the blood-crusted feathers at the base of the boy's wings. It looked like he had taken a nasty hit to the back of the neck, and the blood had trickled down from there to his feathers.

"Yeah, they got a pretty good hit in, but that's all," Iggy said. He slid a sightless glance toward Jeb, jingling the short chains wrapped around both wrists as he did so. "You don't sound so great, though. When they brought you in, they were talking about binding your ribs and giving you a serum that's supposed to speed up the healing process. They gave it to you, by the way, which is probably one reason you're awake. Are your ribs broken?"

Jeb winced at the memory of the Eraser's fist plunging into his ribcage. The thought that such a blow would have only knocked Max on her back rankled, but he was thankful that his ribs had most likely only been fractured.

"I don't think so," he answered, prodding his tender ribs. His sides were wrapped snugly in unyielding white gauze. Jeb lifted his head and took a look around him. He and Iggy were the only ones in the prison room. Jacob had to be somewhere else—and Ari, he remembered. Ari, who had agreed to be Stark's spy.

The thought hurt too much to linger on, thought the last thing he remembered seeing did help to alleviate the pain: Ari, charging Stark with his claws ready to strike.

"Stark," Jeb said slowly, hopefully. Perhaps if Stark was injured, their judgment would be postponed. It was a horrible thought, he knew, but years of putting the mission before any individual's wellbeing backed him up. "Iggy, you don't know if he's…?"

Iggy sighed and shook his head. "He's fine. They brought me in here before they brought you, and I was already awake by then, so I heard that the Erasers grabbed Ari before he could do anything. I…" he paused, his voice filled with disbelief. "Jeb, did Ari…? Did he really…?"

Betray us?

"Yes," Jeb croaked. The pain of it filled him like a knife to the ribs. "Yes, he worked with Stark."

Stunned, hurt silence filled the room. Jeb let his head sink back to the floor. He had the urge to ask how long he had been unconscious, but wasn't sure if he would like the answer. Besides, what did time matter? It was over. Stark had won. He'd seen this day coming and had plotted everything out, every last detail, had probably known exactly what length of chain to get so Jeb and Iggy wouldn't be able to reach each other even if they stretched as far as they could.

"What happened, Jeb?" Iggy asked. "I got your warning, but it was too late. I thought you had everything planned out. What went wrong?"

"I did have everything planned," Jeb replied, staring blankly at the ceiling. "But so did Stark. He set us up. He told me that the trigger was specific only to you, he told Anne to let us take the papers, and he ordered the Erasers to put Dag in the cage next to you. He knew we would try to escape."

Iggy wrinkled his forehead in confusion. "But how? We kept everything a secret! How could he know everything?"

Ari, Jeb's mind automatically answered, but he pushed the thought away. His son was many things: confused, tormented, misguided, but he wasn't a traitor. There was no way he would have told Stark about their plans. Stark had planned out everything from the depths of his own intelligence. Ari had nothing to do with it.

Then what did he do as Stark's spy? A cruel, taunting voice in the back of Jeb's head jeered. He silenced it without another thought.

"I guess it doesn't matter," Iggy said when it became clear Jeb wasn't going to answer him. His tone stung with the bitterness of defeat. "That's it, isn't it? That's the end of it."

Jeb closed his eyes and released a long, cleansing breath. "That's the end of it," he echoed emptily.

There was a pause. Then Iggy burst out, "How can you say that? How can you just lie there and…and give up? Come on, come up with something! You always have a plan. So let's hear it."

"Not this time, Iggy." Jeb directed his gaze to the wall opposite him, unable to face the sheer disappointment in the boy's sightless gaze. "I'm sorry."

Iggy made a disgusted noise and turned away, but several minutes later Jeb heard him sniff forlornly. He pretended not to hear the boy cry and closed his eyes again.

The two prisoners waited in silence for a long time. Jeb drifted in and out of fitful sleep, woken sometimes by his own screams as the healing serum did its work a little too well. He could feel the fractures in his ribs mending themselves. Through the haze of pain and his own muffled groans, he heard Iggy muttering comforting nonsense. The boy couldn't reach him, chained to the wall as he was, but he made up for it with meaningless, soft words.

The process was agonizing and excruciatingly slow, but by the time the pain finally abated and let him sleep, Jeb was sure his ribs were fully repaired. Tender, and painful to the touch, but healed.

Eventually, Iggy detected footsteps in the hallway outside. Jeb braced himself. Not five seconds later, the door to the prison room hissed open, and in the doorway lurked a familiar figure.

"Ari!" Jeb said, lurching up in surprise. He ignored the sharp flare of pain this movement elicited as his son walked toward him, head lowered. A painful-looking gash stretched from just above his eyebrow to the middle of his cheek. Jeb knew the wound would scar, even if Ari did heal at an amazing pace, and despite all that he had learned about his son's shortcomings, he couldn't help but feel sorry for the boy. This was his son, whom they had obviously punished for attacking Stark. He could only be thankful that Ari hadn't managed to land a hit on the doctor. Otherwise, the punishment would have been much more severe.

Three Erasers appeared in the hallway beyond. One of them, a tall brute even broader in physique than Ari, stepped into the room. He was fingering his rifle and eyeing Ari in a way that gave Jeb goose bumps.

"Make it fast, traitor," the Eraser sneered. "The good doctor doesn't like to be kept waiting."

Ari didn't respond. He kneeled at Jeb's side and got to work undoing the chain from around his wrist. Jeb risked sending a glance Iggy's way and saw that the boy was glaring at Ari as if everything they'd gone through in the past six days meant nothing. Jeb's heart quailed.

"They're letting me live," Ari said quietly, his voice a repressed rumble from over Jeb's head, "so I can watch when they take you away. They're going to separate you and then send all of you off to Germany. To Itex Headquarters."

There was no question that Ari would be staying behind. Jeb didn't want to ask it, he really didn't, but it slipped out before he could stop it: "And what will happen to you after we're gone?"

Ari met his father's gaze, and in his wide blue eyes, Jeb saw fear. Then Ari shrugged and looked away. "They'll kill me," he said indifferently, as if he was talking about getting a slap on the hand instead of his impending demise. Jeb didn't know what to say. Ari finished unshackling him and helped him to his feet.

"I'll take that," the other Eraser snapped, and grabbed Jeb by the arm. Ari bristled visibly, but the Eraser leveled the rifle at him, and Ari turned away to free Iggy.

The blind boy sent Ari a gaze of simmering, molten fire, and wordlessly looked away when the Eraser bent down to undo his chains. Ari winced.

"Don't be mad at me," Jeb heard his son plead quietly, sounding so young and abandoned it made his heart lurch in his bruised chest. "Iggy? Please?"

Iggy pursed his lips and didn't say a word. Ari's shoulders slumped, and he went back to undoing the clasps from around the boy's wings in silence.

The crisp ring of footsteps was the only sound to be heard as the silent group made its way to the docking bay. Jeb kept his gaze focused straight ahead. He could see Ari being followed closely by the Eraser with the rifle, just as much as a prisoner as his father was. Iggy was behind Jeb, silent. Jeb desperately hoped the boy wasn't planning some insane feat of escape. The whitecoats would shoot him without a second's hesitation.

Finally, the group reached its destination. The Erasers forced each prisoner to enter one at a time, Jeb first. Jeb pushed down the sudden flare of panic that lanced through his chest and walked through the cavernous doorway into the gargantuan room beyond.

His gaze focused on a solitary figure standing by himself near the open doors of the docking bay. Stark was clad in his lab coat, as usual, and almost blended in with the wintry background of the Rockies beyond. Anne stood off to the side, something cradled in her hands. Jeb was too far away to see what it was.

It appeared as though every whitecoat and Eraser in the School had come to see their group banished. They lined the walls, some shaking their heads in disapproval, others grinning in excitement and ill-veiled glee. Jeb had the urge to glare at them, but forced himself to keep a calm appearance and focused instead on the groups of Erasers standing around Stark.

He spotted the Gasman and Jacob almost immediately, each standing in the middle of his own circle of Erasers. As his Eraser dragged him closer, Jeb picked out Jacob's swollen eye and the Gasman's rumpled appearance. Aside from both looking shaken and frightened, they appeared unharmed.

"Batchelder," Stark crooned once Jeb arrived in front of him. The Eraser kept the mouth of his gun pressed deep against the small of Jeb's back. "So good of you to join us. I assume your ribs are healed?"

"Well enough, thank you," Jeb said calmly. Stark raised an eyebrow.

"I am glad to hear it," he said slickly. "The Director, once informed of your betrayal, specifically requested that you be in pristine condition so she may break you personally."

Jeb said nothing. Stark adopted a conciliatory expression and gestured grandly to four helicopters behind him. A pilot sat ready in the cockpit of each aircraft, awaiting orders. The doors to each helicopter were open. Inside, Jeb could see a large cage. His stomach pitched.

"I assume you'd like an explanation of what will happen after you are loaded into the helicopters," Stark said smoothly. "You, Marling, and your two mutants are to be detained at Itex Headquarters in Germany. The Director is…eagerly awaiting your arrival so she may dole out punishment."

A smile flickered at the corners of Stark's listless mouth as he pulled out two palm-sized discs from his pocket. "Here is the evidence of your crimes. These discs contain the video recordings of all your treacherous deeds, including the events leading up to last night. So if you are considering pleading innocent, I warn you, I have the power to condemn your word. Right here, in the palm of my hand."

Jeb kept his face carefully impassive. He had expected something like this to happen; Stark wasn't the type of man who left room for mistakes.

"I also took the liberty of dismantling your mutant's bomb," Stark said coolly, gesturing to the back of the docking bay. Jeb risked a glance and saw an Eraser carry the bomb in and rest it on the floor. Turning, he finally saw what it was that Anne was holding: the trigger that would set off the bomb and prompt the explosion.

Stark studied Jeb's face sharply, his eyes intent and focused. A flash of frustration flared across his face when Jeb remained emotionless, but it was quickly wiped out by a smug, predatory look. "It's been a pleasure having your company, Batchelder. I must admit that I'm disappointed the Director has requested the delivery of Igneous. I had so looked forward to dissecting its brain. Ah, well. The Director has promised to send me a sample, as a token of her gratitude."

Jeb heard the Gasman let out an angry yell from within his circle of guards, and he couldn't stop the sudden fury that lanced across his face at Stark's heartless words. The doctor caught the flash of emotion he'd been waiting for and leaned back on his heels, looking hatefully smug.

"Start them up," he said with a gesture to the pilots, and four helicopters' engines revved to life.

Jeb took a deep breath. This was it. This was the moment he'd been dreading. His Eraser nudged him forward to the first helicopter. Inside the aircraft two Erasers waited, seated on either side of the large, open cage. The cage's purpose became painfully clear. Stark intended to ship all of them—not just Iggy and Gazzy—in cages. Like experiments.

"Ari," Stark's voice purred from behind Jeb. "If you would do the honors."

Jeb turned in shock. His son stared at Stark in outright surprise and a deep, burning hatred that made his grudges against Max and the flock seem petty and impotent. The Eraser guarding him nudged Ari with his rifle, and Ari started forward. Jeb's Eraser shoved him into the cage.

"I'm sorry, Dad," Ari said when he reached the helicopter. Jeb could barely hear his son over the roar of the aircraft's thrumming rotors. He watched numbly as Ari reached out and locked the cage. Stark's laughter roared over the rumble of the helicopters' engines.

Jeb only saw it because his son's face was so close to him. There was a sudden shift in the light in Ari's eyes. His face lost its helpless, haunted look, and a fury so demented and unstoppable bloomed across his features that Jeb leaned back. Ari's lips twisted in a wordless, hateful snarl.

Then in one smooth motion he spun, delivered a bone-cracking kick to chin of the Eraser watching him, grabbed the rifle as it fell, and aimed it at a point across the docking bay. Stark's laughter cut off abruptly, and a scream rose from Anne's throat as she dove to the floor.

But Ari wasn't aiming for Anne or even Stark. Jeb followed his son's eyes to the true target. Icy shock filled his veins.

"Down!" he screamed. Iggy, the Gasman, and Jacob instinctively threw themselves on their stomachs.

An instant later, just as the Erasers surrounding him prepared to level their guns at him, Ari fired off a shot. The bullet struck its target.

And Iggy's bomb exploded into flames and shrapnel.

The effect wouldn't have been so dramatic if the bomb hadn't been resting next to a helicopter. A piece of shrapnel penetrated the aircraft at a key point, and the resulting explosion rocked the docking bay. Whitecoats were sent scrambling away from the fire and Erasers hurried to put it out. The air was instantly filled with smoke, shouts and calls for help.

Ari moved faster than Jeb had ever seen him. He shot forward, grabbed Stark by the scruff of his neck, and stuck the rifle to his neck.

"Freeze!" he shouted. Everyone suddenly stopped moving, frozen as they took in the sight of an Eraser holding a gun to their leader's throat. Stark was trembling with rage.

"What are you doing?" he howled. "Don't obey it! It's a stupid animal, someone shoot it, you idiots—"

Ari rolled his eyes and wordlessly banged Stark's head against the helicopter's hull. The doctor's head made a satisfying clang when it connected with the metal. Stark went limp.

"Just shut up," Ari growled to the unconscious man. He lifted his head to address the whitecoats and Erasers gawking at him in wordless shock. "If any of you moves, he gets it. And then the Director gets you."

Not a single soul moved. Ari gestured roughly with his chin toward Iggy, Jacob and the Gasman, who were still belly-down on the floor. "You three. Get in the chopper. Now."

No one needed any extra prompting. All three shot to their feet and rushed for Jeb's helicopter. The two Erasers, including the one whose rifle Ari had stolen, moved out of the aircraft and a safe distance away. The pilot started to get out of his seat too, but Ari spotted the movement and barked, "Not you. You stay where you are."

The pilot sat back down, his face ashen.

Ari backed up slowly, his rifle still dangerously close to Stark's neck, and got into the helicopter. "If anyone follows us," he said, voice ringing loud and clear throughout the room, "Stark's dead."

With that, he slid the helicopter's door shut and snapped to the pilot, "Get us out of here."

Jeb leaned back in silence as Jacob worked furiously to unlock his cage. The instant the lock fell away, he crawled out and straightened. The helicopter had already lifted off the floor of the docking bay and was making its way for the gaping doors.

"Don't you dare stop," Ari ordered the pilot. His eyes were cold and hard, his jaw set in unyielding determination. Jeb joined Iggy, Gazzy and Jacob as they sat down uneasily on the seats built into the walls. The latter three were exchanging alternating looks of confusion and exhilaration. Jacob finally turned to Jeb, who was seated across from them, and mouthed, What's going on?

Jeb shrugged his shoulders. Ari wouldn't make eye contact with any of them, and none of them attempted to address him. At least, not until the helicopter had cleared the docking bay and was safe in the open air. Then the tension drained from Ari's shoulders and he abandoned the rifle (and Stark) on the floor.

"Whew," he said with a jaunty grin to his father.

There was a stunned, confused pause. Then the helicopter exploded with noise.

"Are you crazy?" Iggy shrieked. "What the heck is going on?"

"Dude," the Gasman giggled, doubling over in his seat, "that was awesome. That was totally awesome!"

"I'm alive," Jacob groaned, patting his chest and arms in limp relief. "I can't believe I'm still alive."

Ari shot Iggy an irritated look. "What do you think just happened? I just saved your butt from being shipped off to Headquarters, runt."

Iggy's pale face flushed with color. It was obvious that he was going to say something rash and insulting, so Jeb got back to his feet. Iggy and the rest of the helicopter's occupants instantly quieted.

Jeb cleared his throat—his knees were wobbly from the adrenaline rush, and his throat was incredibly dry. "Ari," he said quietly. A wave of relief and exhilaration rushed through him and, before he could restrain himself, he lurched forward to clasp his son in his arms.

Ari stiffened in shock, but Jeb couldn't have cared less. An unsteady laugh exploded from his throat as he drew out of the embrace and shook his son by the shoulders, a huge grin splitting his lips painfully. "Brilliant boy!" he exclaimed. "You brilliant, brilliant boy!"

Finally, Ari snapped out of his daze. An uncertain, yet bright grin lightened his face. "I couldn't let them kill you guys," he said with a shrug.

"Oh," Iggy said in a loud voice. "I get it. You did have a plan, didn't you, Jeb? This was your plan?"

Jeb laughed again. "No, it wasn't. This was all Ari."

His son puffed up with pride. Iggy only looked more confused.

"What's going on?" he asked, voice dripping with suspicion. He shot Ari a distrustful glare. "He's on our side now? I thought he, you know, just kind of betrayed us."

Ah. Jeb released his son's broad shoulders and stepped away. His ribs were still sore, and the excitement of the day was wreaking havoc on his tender sides. "He did," Jeb said, and when Iggy opened his mouth, he added quickly, "and yet he didn't."

Iggy blinked. "Huh?"

"Ari did agree to be Stark's spy," Jeb explained. "But he didn't tell Stark everything. He held back information, made sure Stark thought we were farther behind in our investigation than we really were. Stark still managed to put the pieces together, but the fact remains that Ari attempted to mislead him."

Iggy paused, digesting this information. "How do you know?" he asked. Jeb sighed. It was in Iggy's nature to question everything, and getting him to trust someone was even harder than getting him not to blow something up. In a situation where survival was in question, these attributes were often Iggy's best values. Yet just as often, they made getting close to him difficult.

"Because," Jeb sighed, knowing that nothing short of the true answer would convince the blinded boy, "Ari confessed about what he did. He told me he was working for Stark."

Even Jacob looked stunned by that confession. The Gasman just looked completely lost, and Iggy was shaking his head vehemently, as if trying to shake the confusion from his head. Reluctantly, Jeb explained.

After he had found Ari coming out of Stark's office earlier the previous day, he had been consumed by the question of what his son was hiding. Ari had followed him around as Jeb went through the motions of pretending to prepare for the banquet. His son had seemed uneasy and nervous, as if he would snap at the slightest provocation. Finally, when they were alone in a hallway, Ari had broken down. He'd told Jeb all about Stark's offer, his reasons for giving in, and the half-formed plan he'd put into action: to trick Stark.

Jeb had been caught between horror, anger and admiration. He'd been terrified that Stark would discover his son's amateur attempt at manipulation. The mere fact that Ari was taking it upon himself to protect those he cared about was also cause for admiration. Yet, above all else, Jeb had been furious. Furious that Ari had truly intended to spy, that he'd only decided to try and fool Stark later. Furious that Stark would force his son into such a position.

Eventually, he'd come to realize that he should be grateful Ari trusted him enough to confide in him. Years of manipulation urged him to use this opportunity, to go along with Ari's plan. Yet a father's instincts won out in the end. He'd instructed Ari to be careful and stay on his guard with Stark at all times. He could not tell Ari to abandon his spying duties altogether…Stark would kill him if he backed out of the deal. Yet Stark hadn't suspected anything, if only because of his own arrogance and prejudice: he considered Ari too much of a mindless animal to ever have thoughts of manipulation.

Once Jeb was finished explaining, the only sound in the helicopter was the thrumming of the rotors and the hum of the engine. Iggy leaned back in his seat and gave Ari an uncertain look.

"Uh. So you never really betrayed us, huh? I guess I kind of…owe you an apology. Err, sorry. Sorry for doubting you."

Ari gave him a thin smirk. "All I wanted was to protect Jeb. And also…uh, I thought that if I had wings…you would want to be my friend."

"You…that's…" Iggy shook his head. "Yeesh, you never learn, do you?" he said with a wry smile. "It's not about the wings. Whether you hate us or want to be our friend, you think it's all tied back to the wings. Uh…let's put it this way. Look at Jeb. Not a single feather. Human, normal-looking, boring…well, not the moustache, but…the point is, the guy was our father. Maybe not literally, but figuratively, or whatever. And no wings. Get it? It's not the wings."

Iggy paused to take a deep breath. "And…we are friends, Ari. Don't you know that by now?"

The Gasman gaped at his best friend. Ari looked just as surprised, but he seemed to realize that Iggy wasn't lying to him, because he broke into a timid, hopeful smile that was so unlike any of his usual smug smirks or maniacal grins that it brought an entirely different light to his face.

A low groan from the floor interrupted the moment. Everyone turned to stare at Stark's motionless form. The doctor was beginning to stir.

"Oh, right," Iggy said darkly. "Him."

Jeb got up without a word and knelt at Stark's side. It didn't take long for him to find the discs containing the security videos. In the doctor's other pocket, he discovered the trigger to the Extermination Effect. Jeb pocketed his findings and gave Stark a disapproving shake of his head.

Your arrogance and need for power have taken away your only means of condemning me, he thought.

"So, now that we've got him, what do we do with him?" Iggy asked from his seat.

"I say we throw him overboard," Gazzy voted vehemently.

Jeb immediately dispelled the idea. "We can't. We need him to bargain with."

The Gasman shot him a black look. Jeb was abruptly brought back to reality: he had no place to go against the boy's ideas, even if he knew better. Despite all the evidence that showed Jeb had turned against the School, anger and mistrust still tainted the boy's gaze. Jeb sighed to himself. For now The Gasman wasn't giving him any trouble about his sudden disappearance two years ago, but he had a feeling that once they landed and everyone had settled down, tempers would erupt.

"He's the only reason we haven't been shot at," Jacob's voice filtered in through Jeb's thoughts. "Speaking of which…I need to tell the pilot to take us to Banff."

"Banff?" Iggy repeated as Jacob rose to make his way to the front of the helicopter.

"The closest town," Jeb replied absentmindedly, trying to ignore the heat of Gazzy's glare. "They will most likely look for us there, but we can hope that with Stark as a bargaining chip, they won't get too close to us."

"Let's put him in the cage," Ari said suddenly. Iggy turned to him with a big grin, and even Gazzy seemed to snap out of his anger.

"Yeaaah," said Iggy. "It's, like, what did you used to say, Jeb? Poetry justice?"

"Poetic justice," Jeb corrected him. "And I don't think putting Stark in the cage would be the best course of action. Because," he said loudly, seeing the way Iggy and Gazzy both opened their mouths to immediately protest, "what happens if the School sends someone to follow us, and we need him on hand?"

"We just unlock the cage and pull him out," Iggy argued. The set of his jaw said that he was stuck on the idea of locking Stark in the cage. The Gasman looked like he would back Iggy up to the end of the world, and Ari just looked confused.

"He would put up a fight," Jeb countered.

From the front of the helicopter, Jacob said, "Ari could knock him unconscious again."

Ari brightened considerably. Jeb shook his head.

"And what about later? We can't take him into town like this."

"We'll leave him here," Iggy shrugged.

"We can't, we need him as leverage."

"We can fight them off just fine," Gazzy argued.

"Not all of them," Jacob pointed out. "They'll send tons of Erasers after us."

Iggy groaned. "Jeez, he's not even conscious and he's still causing problems. Why'd you have to bring him, Ari?"

Ari bristled. "We needed a hostage!"

"You could have grabbed Chen—"

"This is bad," Jacob said with a fearful glance at his unconscious superior. "He looks like he has a concussion, but if he wakes up and finds some way to contact the School, he could cause a lot of trouble for us."

"Just stick him in the cage!" Gazzy said loudly.

"No—" Jeb protested.

Ari shot him a frustrated glare. "Well, what do we do with him?"

"Eat 'im," Iggy suggested cheerfully.

"I'm not gonna eat him—"

"Don't be picky!"

"Tie him up," Jeb commanded.

Ari growled. "With what, my chest hair?"

"That could work…" Iggy said.

"Shut up, runt!"

"I think we should tie him and put him in the back, just in case," Jacob voted.

"We just went over this," Jeb said wearily. "What are we going to use as rope?"

"Ari's chest h—"

"I said shut it, Iggy!"

"Jebidiah, what if he has a tracking device on him?"

"That…sounds like something he would do…"

Iggy tore his hands through his hair. "Man, he's tracking us and he's not even awake?"

"Jebidiah, maybe we should—"

"I don't think—"



Ari snapped. In one jerky, barely-controlled move, he picked Stark up by the collar of his coat, pushed the sliding door open, and shoved the unconscious man out of the helicopter.

For a moment, the whistling wind was the only sound to be heard. And then…

"I can't believe you just…" Jacob said with wide eyes, pointing to the spot where Stark had just been.

Iggy held up his hand to Ari. "High-five, buddy."

"I didn't know what else to do," Ari muttered evasively as Jeb rose from his seat.

Jeb pushed past his son to the door, the wind whipping his white coat around him. The helicopter was flying low over a flat stretch of snowy mountain. He couldn't spot Stark amidst all the white, but the fall wasn't steep enough to have even knocked the man unconscious again, let alone kill him. Jeb would have worried about frostbite, save for the three dark shapes curling around a mountain's corner.

"We have a problem," he said, ducking back inside. Everyone looked up, but he moved past them to the pilot's cockpit.

The pilot gave him an apprehensive stare as he came up. Jeb ignored him. Banff wasn't far away. By helicopter, it would take ten minutes to reach the town, and he could easily pick out individual buildings from here. Yet Jeb suspected they wouldn't make it to the town in time.

"We're being followed!" Jacob cried. Jeb turned around to see the other man leaning out of the helicopter's open door. There was a burst of sharp, staccato noise, and Jacob ducked back inside the safety of the helicopter's interior with a startled look on his face.

"And they're firing at us," he added.

Jeb whirled on the pilot. "I want this helicopter to be going as fast as it can."

The man met his eye and pushed back in his chair. His Adam's apple bobbed nervously in his throat. "You can't make me fly without the doctor," he said, strained defiance in his voice.

A sudden looming presence behind Jeb growled, "You'll fly this chopper to Banff if you know what's good for you."

The blood drained from the pilot's face. With a weak nod, he turned back to the controls and put the helicopter up to top speed. Jeb turned to give Ari an amused look.

"Good negotiating," he complimented him. Ari smirked.

"It sounds like there are three of them out there," Iggy said, tilting his head. His extraordinary hearing picked up the sound of the pursuing helicopters' engines with ease. "One of them broke off from the others—probably going back for Stark."

Jacob stepped up into the cockpit, his expression serious. "We're not going to make it to Banff, Jeb," he said. "They'll either shoot us down or cut us off before we get there."

Jeb nodded grimly. "What else can we do?" he asked. "We can't fight them."

"I think we can," Iggy said. He was on his feet, a stubborn look on his face. The Gasman nodded in unmoving agreement.

"We'll take them out from the air," he said.

Jeb shook his head. "It's too dangerous. You could be shot."

"Then what do we do?" Iggy asked in frustration.

Something clanged against the helicopter's hull, jolting the aircraft to the side. Jacob joined Ari at the open door and peered out at the two helicopters peeling after them.

"Jeb, they're gaining on us," he said worriedly.

Ari lifted the rifle and fired at the nearest aircraft. There was the sound of exploding glass, and someone shrieked. Jeb whirled back towards the cockpit's window.

Just a little farther, he thought, eyes straining toward the town as they drew nearer. Just a little bit farther!

The helicopter suddenly jerked to the side. Jeb, caught off guard, flew into the wall. Pain ricocheted through his sore ribs, and for a moment he curled against the wall, gasping at the burning in his sides.

"We're hit!" Ari screamed, coughing on the black smoke that billowed into the helicopter from outside. "They hit something important!"

A smattering of gunfire peppered the helicopter's hull. Ari turned back with a snarl on his lips and fired off a couple of shots at the attacking choppers.

"Pilot," Jeb gasped, turning on the man, but the whitecoat looked just as panicked as Ari.

"She can't take it," he said, referring to the helicopter. "We're gonna have to make an emergency landing!"

There wasn't time for one. An emergency landing meant steps, procedures, processes that would take up precious time. By the time the helicopter would set down, their enemies would be upon them.

Jeb sucked in a hissing breath. He knew what they had to do.

"Lower us down," he commanded the pilot. "Keep as close to the ground as you can."

The helicopter wobbled as it dipped toward the ground. Jeb got back to his feet and lurched across the aircraft's interior to the compartment he knew was where the whitecoats stored survival gear. He popped the lock and retrieved five backpacks full of rations and five thick, heavy snow coats.

"Take these," he ordered, tossing one to each member of his group. Iggy caught his pack and jacket with unerring precision and felt the material with a frown.

"You don't seriously want us to jump, do you?" he asked, correctly following Jeb's line of thought.

Jeb nodded, and then added for Iggy's sake, "We don't have much time. Once we're close enough to the ground, I want you to—"

Another explosion rocked the helicopter. Ari roared as a burst of fire licked too close to him and shouted, "They clipped the engine!"

Jeb's heart skipped a beat. "Out!" he ordered sharply. Without waiting for them to obey, he grabbed the pack in one hand and the jacket in another, and leapt out the door.

The wind whistled in his ears. There was a terrifying second where Jeb realized how far he was about to fall, and then something jerked at his shirt. He saw copper-white wings unfurling with a snap from his peripheral vision as Iggy grabbed his shirt and tried to slow them both down.

One, two, he counted in his head, and then his feet hit the snow, his knees buckled, and white surrounded him from all sides.

A/N: End chapter 18. Hope you enjoyed that bit of Stark-bashing. I figured we kind of needed it after the last chapter.

Gah, I hope this chapter held up to the last one - I've been waiting to write this chapter (and the next) since the beginning of the story. :D

Review? I'm starting college next week, so I don't know if I'll be able to update as frequently as I usually do, but I will definitely try. Reviews are encouragement, though.


19. Waiting in the Wings

You guys. I love you (in that non-creepy way that only authors can feel for their reviewers): nathan-p, pandorad24, Bookaholic711, BeTrueToThyself, Ren09, Illucida, Aleria14, Aleksander-Nikolaevich-Her, chulala, hopewithgraywings, lillypad22, flYegurl and soccerislife14. Sending thanks and cookies from the dining hall at my college. They are delicious. :)

Disclaimer: Maximum Ride isn't mine. The OCs in this story, this story's plot, and the locations herein are, though.

Warning: brief language.

Note: the pilot thing is for soccerislife14. :)

Waiting in the wings: an idiom that literally means "in the background, but waiting to act on short notice."

Chapter Nineteen: Waiting in the Wings

"Fly faster! Faster, you idiot, he could be injured! If he dies out there, I'm telling the Director it was your fault."

Anne ignored the resentful look the pilot gave her and peered anxiously through the window at the motionless figure sprawled on the snow. She didn't believe in coincidence, and there were no such things as miracles, but she supposed that it was just plain lucky that Nehemiah had been thrown out of the helicopter at a point where the craggy, frostbitten mountain rose and leveled out. If the escapees hadn't been flying over that specific break in the mountains' cruelty, she had no doubt that Nehemiah would be dead.

The pilot maneuvered the helicopter until it was hovering mere feet off the snowy ground. Without waiting for the man to find an area to land, Anne jerked the doors of the helicopter open and leapt out into the frosty air. No one cried out for her in worry, but she didn't care. She didn't need others' compassion. All she needed was Nehemiah.

Anne sank to her hips in snow. She gasped at the icy shock that ran through her body, but steeled herself with the thought that Nehemiah's fall had been cushioned. Dredging up as much of her willpower as she could muster, she forced her freezing limbs to push through the sludge to the doctor.

As she neared him, Anne saw one of Nehemiah's hands come up to shield his eyes from the blinding sun. She renewed her efforts and finally made it to his side, puffing with effort.

"Doctor Stark?" she said tentatively, reaching out a hand to touch his shoulder.

Nehemiah's hand dropped back to his side. She saw his eyes flicker toward her and away, the silver-gray orbs rolling in their sockets as the doctor's body registered the pain in his head. Blood matted several strands of silver hair to Nehemiah's forehead. One of his legs was twisted strangely beneath his body.

Anne spun around to see two Erasers jumping out of the hovering helicopter. They landed waist-deep in the snow but lifted themselves easily and made their way toward her.

"We need a stretcher!" Anne shouted, and one of them turned back.

"Where are they? Traitors…"

The questions were rasped at her like accusations. Anne turned to see that Nehemiah was glaring at her, though that might have been partially due to his concussion. She felt a sudden rush of hatred for the Eraser that had done this. Ari. She would remember the name, and when the time came, she would have the mutant slaughtered like the animal he truly was.

"Gone, sir," she said crisply, curling her fingers in the fabric of his coat. "But we sent two helicopters after them, filled with Erasers. They won't get far."

Nehemiah shook his head. Suddenly, his fist came up and wrapped itself in the front of her lab coat. Anne found herself jerked down until her nose was nearly touching Nehemiah's. Her heart pounded in her chest.

"Listen t' me," Nehemiah hissed, his words slurred by the pain in his head. "I want them dead. I want their bodies handed over to me when I get back to the School. I will not accept anything less. Understand?"

Anne trembled. Nehemiah's eyes were no longer cold and silver-gray. The pupils had turned pitch-black in his fury, and as she watched, the blackness spread until the whites of his eyes were completely gone.

Shit. Anne glanced around—Nehemiah was changing and if anyone saw, she would be held responsible. Luckily, the other Eraser had gone back to help its partner with unloading the stretcher. The two mutants were on their way over, but if she could get Nehemiah to calm down, no witnesses would have to die.

"Sir, you have to calm down," she urged him quietly. "You are losing control of your appearance."

Something ugly flashed across Nehemiah's face, and Anne had the strange, inexplicable thought that he no longer cared if anyone knew that he wasn't completely pure—wasn't completely human—but an instant later he was his usual cold, emotionless self. As she watched, the black faded from his eyes, leaving them pale and almost colorless again. He flickered briefly, disappearing into the background as he often did when he was angry and started to lose control over his human appearance, but that was the end of it.

Nehemiah met her eye as the Erasers came and helped load him onto the stretcher. He didn't even wince from the pain as they jostled his concussed head and broken leg, keeping his eyes focused unwaveringly on her the entire time. The Erasers strapped him down, securing him, and carried him toward the waiting helicopter.

Anne trudged through the snow after them. She saw Nehemiah lift his head to look back at her, and his sharp gaze said tell anyone of this, and you die.

Those were the exact words he'd used nearly five years ago, when she'd first found out that he had spliced his own DNA with that of a recluse spider and a chameleon. But unlike with the others, he hadn't killed her. She had been witness to his inhumanity and yet he'd let her live.

For that, she loved him. He was a merciful man.

Gathering her coat around her, Anne pushed through the snow and waded back to the helicopter.

Cold. Cold and white, all around him, and when he opened his mouth the iciness rushed in and numbed his gums, turning him into a shivering wreck. Air, his mind cried, and he reared up, pushing free.

Jeb's head burst free of a blanket of snow, his mouth wide open as he gasped for air. He flailed clumsily with his arms as he fought to extract himself from the hole he'd created. His arms had just managed to raise him to his knees when there was a sharp, high-pitched yell that sounded a lot like Geronimoooo, and something landed heavily on his back, pushing him face-first back into the snow.

"Ungh," said whoever had landed on him, and scrambled away. Jeb caught sight of a flash of blond hair and white wings as the Gasman righted himself.

"Up!" Jacob's voice cracked hoarsely against the strain as he pushed himself to his knees. Ari exploded from a pile of snow next to the man, aimed the rifle he'd snatched from the Eraser, and fired off a shot. The bullet punctured the window of one of the helicopters circling back around to capture them, and the aircraft swerved wildly to the side as the pilot tried to avoid Ari's rifle.

"Take that one out too!" Gazzy cried, pointing to the helicopter bearing down on them. "Hurry!"

Ari aimed and fired, but the helicopter turned at the last moment and the bullet embedded itself harmlessly in the thick hull. The boy-Eraser let out a yell of frustration.

Jeb found a long-fingered hand grabbing the collar of his coat, and he grunted in surprise as Iggy jerked him to his feet with ease.

"Come on, old man, keep up with us!" the boy joked, his milky-blue eyes gleaming. His copper-white wings shone where the sun hit them, his reddish hair was sticking up in all directions, and his cheeks were flushed bright with the cold and adrenaline. It was the most alive Jeb had seen him since he'd gone blind.

The man pulled himself away to take stock of the situation. The two helicopters were veering back for another chance at bringing them in. The helicopter they had just jumped out of was spiraling off into the distance. As he watched, it came to a hard landing and upended in the snow. The pilot tumbled out of the cockpit, dazed but alive. He freed himself not a second too soon, because the flames reached the gasoline tank, and the helicopter went up in a ball of flames.

"Is everyone all right?" Jeb shouted, wincing as Ari fired again at the second helicopter. He hit his mark, and the engine erupted with a deafening boom. Everyone dived to the ground as shrapnel went skidding through the air.

"Here!" Iggy cried, leaping back to his feet as the helicopter crashed a safe distance from them.

"Here," the Gasman croaked. He was shivering and pale, even bundled up in the thick jacket Jeb had grabbed from the helicopter's supplies. Ari was standing next to him and offered Jeb a curt nod. Jacob was too busy scrambling into his snow jacket to answer.

The hum of the sole remaining helicopter filled the air, and Jeb whirled around to see three Erasers leaping out of the aircraft's interior. Each one landed feet-first in the snow, sank, and promptly lifted himself out to aim the pistol in his hand. Jeb had no doubt the mutants wouldn't hesitate to shoot.

Ari had fired before any of them could react. The bullet caught one of the Erasers in the shoulder and sent him spinning into the snow. Both remaining Erasers leveled their guns on Ari and fired. The boy-Eraser threw himself down faster than Jeb could blink. One bullet sailed harmlessly over his head, while its partner managed to nick his bicep as he flattened himself to the ground. Ari hissed and whipped to his feet.

"Tag-team!" Iggy suddenly yelped out. He and the Gasman leapt into action. The Gasman gripped a handful of snow and flung it into the nearest Eraser's eyes. In the short seconds the mutant took to flinch away, Iggy gripped Gazzy around the middle and hurled him at the other Eraser. The boy landed on the mutant, knocked the gun from his hands, and clapped his hands over his pointed ears. The Eraser went down with a howl of agony.

Iggy made short work of the remaining Eraser. In mere seconds the mutant was rolling on its back, clutching its broken nose and fractured ankle.

Jeb watched as the helicopter dropped a ladder and the three injured Erasers retreated to safety. "We have to move now," he shouted over the drone of the aircraft's engine. "They're bound to send reinforcements."

"Where do we go, exactly?" Jacob yelled, eyes squinting against the wind as the helicopter retreated into the distance. "How are we supposed to get to Banff?"

"We can walk." Jeb was already turning away to make his way down the mountainside. In the distance, he thought he could see a road winding between two sloping mountains. So they weren't too far away from the town. All they had to do was follow the road, and it was bound to lead them to Banff.

The others didn't seem quite as optimistic, and to be completely honest, Jeb didn't blame them. They were tired and battered; being shoved into prison cells and chained to the wall wasn't overly kind to a person's recovery. The mountainside they were standing on was steep. If one of them fell, it was a long way down, and though there wasn't a cliff at the end of the slope, there were unforgiving trees scattered across. Fragile human beings usually didn't come out for the better when rammed into a tree.

"We can make it," he insisted, brushing snow from his glasses. "We just have to work together. Iggy, Gazzy, you can fly above us and direct us toward the town. Be ready to catch us if we fall. We'll make it. We just have to keep an eye out for anyone Stark sends after us."

To his relief, no one protested his plan. Iggy and the Gasman took to the air and quickly gained altitude until they were bulky white blurs against the white-blue sky. Jeb pressed a hand against his tender ribs and eased out a bracing breath. Then, he began to climb.

He was exhausted and sore after less than fifteen minutes of wading through knee-deep snow. The freezing air coated his lung like frost, sending icy jolts of pain through his barely-healed ribcage with every gasping breath he took. Ari cupped his elbow, his face grim and determined as he supported Jeb all the way down. Some of the color had faded from Jacob's dark skin. They all might have been wrapped tightly in thick winter coats, but the chill slipped in between the cracks in the material, searing their skin with wicked cold.

"We're almost there," Ari said reassuringly as Jeb sagged against a tree. They were deep in the sparse copse of pines, now, safe from any unfriendly eyes Stark sent after them. Jeb raised his gaze to the sky. Iggy and the Gasman were circling down, sensing that something was wrong.

"I just need…to rest…a little," Jeb wheezed, squeezing his eyes shut as his ribs protested with the desperate movements of his lungs. Jacob sat down heavily in the snow and slung the backpack from his shoulders.

"Who knew going downhill could be this horrible?" he muttered to no one in particular.

"We can't stop for long," Ari said brusquely. He still hadn't let go of his father's elbow. Jeb found the energy in himself to be touched by his son's concern.

"We haven't even made it to the bottom of the mountainside yet," Ari continued worriedly. He fingered the rifle where he had slung it across his back, between his jacket and the backpack. "If Stark finds us here…"

Iggy and the Gasman had reached them by that time. The two boys landed easily in the snow, their eyes curious.

"What's going on?" Iggy asked.

Jacob piped up, "Jeb just had to take a breather. We'll be back on the road in no time, boys."

Jeb sighed wearily and shook his head. "Ari's right. There's no time." He pushed himself off the tree with a grimace, and he tried to hold back the groan of pain that pushed out from under his tongue when his ribs protested. He didn't quite succeed, and Iggy lifted his eyebrows in a sardonic expression.

"I heard that," he said. "You don't sound so good."

"It's my ribs," Jeb said breathlessly. "The bone is healed, but...I have a feeling whoever created that healing serum didn't have the reduction of pain on their mind."

The team of escapees lapsed into silence for a moment. Ari shifted on his feet, grunted to himself and unhooked the backpack and rifle from his back.

"Here." He tossed the rifle to Jacob, ignoring how the man squawked and fumbled with the weapon as if it were a burning coal. "Be careful with that. Iggy, can you carry another pack?"

"Sure," Iggy said, and took the backpack from Ari. Jeb turned to his son and opened his mouth to ask what he was up to, but Ari gripped him under the arms without a word and hoisted him onto his back. Jeb instinctively wrapped his arms around his son's neck.

"What are you doing?" he asked uneasily.

"I'm gonna carry you," Ari said curtly. "Ain't it obvious?"

"I'll be fi—"

"We'll go faster this way." Ari's tone left no room for argument, and Jeb couldn't exactly see a reason to protest, aside from his pride, so he kept quiet and merely held on. Ari turned to Iggy.

"Do you guys know where you're leading us? 'Cuz we're following you."

"There's a road around the other side of this mountain," the Gasman answered. "We can fly there in a couple minutes. You'll have to go around, though. It might take a couple hours."

"We don't have a couple hours," Ari startled irritably, but Jeb broke in.

"We have no other choice," he sighed. "Let's focus on getting to the bottom of this mountain. Then we can think about going around the other one."

They trekked on in silence, enveloped in a tense quiet that was broken only by the rasp of their labored breathing and the steady fwump-fwump of Iggy's and Gazzy's wings. Jeb caught Ari looking enviously up at the flying brothers now and then. At first he thought that his son might be jealous that Iggy was paying more attention to the Gasman now, but then his mind drifted to the reason the boy had agreed to "spy" for Stark. He'd wanted wings. Perhaps it had only been one of the reasons he'd agreed to the doctor's plans, but it was a motivation nonetheless. It was obvious he still wanted to be able to fly.

But would it be worth the cost? Jeb thought. He would be in constant pain from the operation; combinations of different species of DNA are never not painful when grafted after fetus development.

The thought of his son in constant pain tore a seam through Jeb's heart. Later, he would have to confront the boy on his dream of flying with the flock. Ari had to understand that it just wasn't worth the pain, the burden. But for now, he would rest, and ignore the unwavering ache in his sides.

Time became an endless, blurred thing, winding around the beleaguered deserters like a coiling strand of sand from an hourglass. Minutes had no meaning. They distorted into hours, hours into dozens of hours, of lifetimes spent trudging through the snow and never getting anywhere. The wind kicked up and blistered the skin on Jeb's cheeks. Ari pulled up the hood on his jacket and barreled into the wind like a soldier plunging into the midst of his enemies. Jacob's teeth were chattering so loudly Jeb could hear them five feet away.

Twice, Iggy and Gazzy were chased from the sky by the sound of approaching helicopters, and the group was forced to duck behind the nearest cover they could find. The helicopters always passed ahead without incident, but they took their time combing through every inch of mountain they could find. Precious minutes were wasted, minutes during which Jeb's feet grew numb from the snow that slid into his boots, and the breath wheezed in his chest like the notes from a dusty, old accordion.

Still they trudged onward.

Finally, just when Jeb was about ready to call another break—and a longer one this time, perhaps an hour or two; even secured on Ari's back as he was, he was completely drained of energy—Jacob let out a hoarse, dry cry of triumph.

"The road!"

Jeb looked up from where he'd let his face fall into Ari's jacket. Sure enough, they were standing on the top of a steep hill that overlooked an empty road. The snow had been shoveled off to the side to make way for passing cars.

"Civilization!" The Gasman's young voice cried from high up in the air. Jeb looked up to see the boy dive down and press his hands against the road. "Sweet asphalt!" he cried, slapping his hands against the road enthusiastically. "I never thought I'd miss you."

Iggy landed next to him and stood there, exhausted but grinning. "We're not that far," he said. "If we just keep following the road, it'll lead us into the town. It might take a while, but we've made it."

"Good enough for me," Ari said bluntly, and made his way down the hill. Jeb clung on tightly, reaching out a hand to steady Jacob whenever his friend started to falter.

They had just set foot on the road when Iggy cocked his head to the side. "Wait," he said, cupping a hand to his ear. "I hear something."

Jeb immediately assumed the worst. "A helicopter?"

"No…" Iggy's sightless eyes widened. "A car engine."

Jeb hesitated. Instincts he'd bred into himself out of necessity screamed that it might be a trap, but what were the odds that Stark would find them now, here? And why would he send a car after them when he had an army of Erasers and more than several helicopters at his aid?

"Jeb," Jacob said warily, eyes focused on the road where it curved around the side of the mountain and out of sight. "What do we do, Jeb?"

"Wait." Jeb licked his lips, gave the plan some thought and nodded his head firmly. "Just wait. It's probably just a tourist. There's no point in running even if it's one of Stark's. If he knows where to look for us, he knows how to find us."

Nonetheless, the group gathered against the side of the road. Iggy and the Gasman slid their wings through the slits they'd created in their jackets and folded the feathered limbs against their spines. Ari set Jeb back on his feet, where he swayed for a second before steadying himself.

"Dismantle the rifle," he told Ari. The boy-Eraser looked at him in surprise, and Jeb explained, "Only so much that you can put it back together easily. If they are tourists, we don't want to frighten them. Perhaps they can help us."

Ari nodded and got to work dismantling the stolen rifle. He had just finished stuffing the pieces into his backpack when two vans rolled around the corner.

Jeb knew immediately that these people weren't whitecoats. The snow sleds strapped to the vans' roofs and the skis poking out of the open trunk were dead giveaways: these were civilians, not men trained to pick apart helpless mutants while they were still alive and thrashing.

Iggy brought up a cocky grin and muttered, "Watch this." Then he walked to the middle of the road and stuck his thumb out. The vans screeched to a stop, coming within an inch of the boy. Jeb fought the urge to slap his forehead.

A man and a woman sat dazed in the front seats of the first van. They stared open-mouthed at Iggy and glared, a gesture that was lost on the blind boy. He sauntered over to the woman's door and knocked until she rolled down the window.

"Hi," he said cheerfully, offering his friendliest grin. "Our car broke down a ways back, and we had to walk all the way here. We're cold and hungry and kinda lost, and my dad over there," here he gestured vaguely to Jeb, who immediately started to lean on Ari, "is hurt. Think you could give us a lift? We want to get him to a hospital."

The Gasman walked over to Iggy's side and tugged on his sleeve. "Jeff," he said, blue eyes huge and glistening, "I'm hungry. And cold. Are these people gonna help us?"

Jeb's mouth nearly dropped open at such an outrageous (and completely fake) display of innocence. Even worse, Iggy gave a sage sigh and patted the boy on his head.

"It's okay, little Junior," he said piteously. "We'll get you home."

There was really no way to refuse after that. The group ended up splitting, with Jeb and Ari in the first van, and Iggy, the Gasman and Jacob in the next. Jeb was thankful for the furred hood Ari had drawn up around his face; his son might not have been fully morphed, but he still didn't look completely human. No amount of pitiful acting on the boys' part could convince a sane tourist to let a half-mutant, half-human into their car.

As it was, the tourists didn't question (perhaps they were afraid, and rightfully so), except to ask what had happened to his ribs—he said he'd had a bad skiing accident, and hadn't had to fake the pain—and if he wanted them to take him straight to the hospital. Jeb politely declined. Just the idea of lying in a bed, strapped to machines that poked and prodded him when he was already mostly healed, vulnerable to any form of attack…it wasn't exactly the most reassuring image. He said he would take care of the children first, and then look to himself.

He forced himself to relax for the short time he and his group of fugitives were in the van. Stark wouldn't think to look inside a van full of tourists. They were perfectly safe. Perfectly so.

Unsurprisingly, he was a tense, tangled ball of nerves the entire ride into Banff. By the time he managed to convince the driver to pull over on a street lined with souvenir shops, he was half ready to jump out of the van—whether it was moving or not.

"You're sure you want to get off here?" the man said, his eyebrows drawing together in the middle of his forehead. Jeb gave him a conciliatory smile and let Ari help him out of the van.

"We should be able to make our way from here," he said, leaning heavily on his son. "Really, you've done enough already. Thank you very much for your help."

"Well…" said the man uncertainly, "okay then. You're welcome."

Jeb watched the vans pull away, remaining in his spot on the sidewalk until the vehicles had disappeared around the corner of a hotel. Then he surged into motion, whirling on his heel and stalking down the sidewalk. The others scattered to keep up with him.

"Where are we going?" Jacob asked, shedding his snow jacket as people started to give him strange looks. Jeb merely ignored the stares and headed straight for the hotel.

"I'm going to ask someone if they have a car rental service here," he said. "We need a mode of transportation if we're going to make it out before Stark finds us."

"We're leaving already? Nuh-uh."

Jeb stopped at the sound of the Gasman's protest and turned around. The eight-year-old was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, his skinny arms folded across his chest as people flowed around him. If Jeb hadn't known that the boy knew five ways to dislocate a person's arm and was second only to Iggy in knowledge of pyrotechnics, he would have thought the Gasman was just another boy pouting about not getting his way.

"Gazzy," he said, automatically falling into the strained tones of fatherhood, "what's this about? We have, at the most, several hours before Stark sends his entire Eraser legion to scour this town. We do not want to be here when—"

"I'm hungry," the Gasman said stubbornly. "And tired. And I want to at least sit down before we go running off again."

Jeb didn't know what to say. The Gasman was never this unreasonable when it came to surviving, to doing what had to be done. He studied the determined jut of the boy's chin, the hard glint in his blue eyes, and it came to him: this wasn't about being hungry or tired. This was about showing Jeb that the Gasman didn't trust him, wouldn't obey him or listen to him as he'd used to. Before Jeb had left them.

"Gazzy," Jeb sighed.

"I'm with him on this one, Jeb," Iggy said. He shrugged when Jeb lapsed into surprised silence and added, "We're exhausted. You're exhausted, look at you—well, I can't see it, but I bet you look ready to collapse right now. Dunno how your ribs are holding up, either, but if Ari had to carry you down the mountainside, I'm guessing you're not holding up so great."

He shifted when Jeb still didn't say anything and took a step toward the Gasman. "Come on. You know how fast we burn through energy. We haven't had anything real to eat in a day. And I don't think violence-induced unconsciousness is the best way to catch up on rest. So can we have a, uhm, what'd you call it? Mercy plea?"

Jeb looked between the two boys, both going against his plans, though for completely different reasons. Whereas Iggy looked repentant and exhausted, the Gasman was glaring at Jeb with enough heat to burn a hole through the thick jacket he was wearing. Jeb glanced at the silent members of their group. Ari wasn't saying anything—he was a bit too busy glowering at the Gasman—but even he looked tired. Jacob met Jeb's eye and shrugged, as if to say, Heck, the boy's right. We're beat.

Jeb sighed and ran a hand through his sandy-brown hair. One of these days, he was just going to pull it all out. "Alright," he said. "We'll get something to eat. And we'll rest. But then we have to move, and fast, or Stark—"

The Gasman rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah," he said, took Iggy's sleeve and headed off in the direction of the nearest fast-food restaurant. Jeb fought to suppress the frustration rising in him—the boy was only acting out because he felt betrayed. If Jeb had been in the Gasman's position, he wouldn't have been particularly nice to him, either.

"I can tie him up and leave him for Stark," Ari offered, following the blond boy with narrowed eyes. "I wouldn't miss him."

"Hush," Jeb chided gently.

"Do you have any money, Jebidiah?" Jacob asked, coming up alongside the other man. Jeb opened his mouth, only to close it when he realized he didn't.

"That's alright," Jacob smirked, pulling a thick wad of bills from deep within his lab coat pocket, "I do. I grabbed a couple before we were thrown into jail cells."

Jeb watched the man go into the fast-food restaurant Iggy and the Gasman had disappeared into. He sighed suddenly, feeling older, much older than his age. Ari noticed and rumbled, "This is better, isn't it? We didn't make a mistake? The flock is gonna hate us, you know."

Jeb nodded. "I know," he said, and moved to follow Jacob.

Waking up from the Voice's attempt to "detain" her was like getting up that first day, knowing that Jeb had betrayed the flock. She just didn't want to open her eyes and face the pain. What was the point in waking up? The flood of memories, the realization that it hadn't been a bad dream, would only hurt. She really didn't want to.

But she knew she had to.

Squinting against the sunlight streaming across her face, Max opened her eyes. And was promptly swamped by two very relieved mutant girls.

"Max!" Nudge cried, wrapping her thin arms around Max's neck. "Oh, I'm so glad you're awake! We thought you might be knocked out for, like, ever!"

"Not forever," Angel corrected the other girl. She looked up at Max with sincere blue eyes. "But we were worried, Max."

Fang appeared behind the two girls, leaning against a brick wall. It was then that Max noticed she was stretched out on a wooden bench placed between two buildings. People walked by on the sidewalk in front of the buildings, unconcerned and easily going on with their lives. Never mind the unconscious girl in the alleyway.

"Good to see you're okay," Fang said quietly, and she thought she might have seen a glimmer of relief in his dark eyes. Then the tenderness was gone, and his face was carefully (and dangerously) blank. "Now are you gonna tell us what's going on, or are we just gonna have to keep stashing you in alleys whenever you pass out for no reason?"

Max thinned her lips. She couldn't hear the Voice any longer—maybe it had decided to up and leave? Maybe she wouldn't have to lie to her friends. No, the look on Fang's face said that if she lied to him, he would know, and he would be very upset about it. He probably wouldn't talk to her for a while. She sighed and resigned herself to telling the truth.

"Alright," she said, "but you're going to think it's crazy. I've had this…voice in my head ever since I got the headache. You know, the one I got right after we rescued Nudge? It's just this voice in my head that keeps giving my directions. Last time I listened to it, it helped us save Nudge. Then it told me to stay here in Banff, and not to go after Iggy and Gazzy, but I wouldn't listen to it. So it knocked me out."

Max caught the three mutants' confused expressions and shrugged. "Look, I'm sorry, I don't get it either. I just know it's this voice in my head that won't leave me alone."

"Did it threaten you?" Nudge asked, her eyes wide and her voice hushed with worry. Max shook her head.

"No, actually. Aside from the whole knocking me out thing, it says it wants to help me 'achieve my destiny.' Whatever that means."

"It could mean anything," Fang said harshly. "Don't trust it, Max. It might just be another whitecoat thing."

Max nodded. Her head wasn't hurting as badly as it had before; in fact, all that remained of that horrible headache that had blasted her unconscious was a dull ache at the back of her skull. If she concentrated on something else long enough, she forgot about it entirely.

"I think I'm okay," she said, swinging her legs over the side of the bench. She rubbed her eyes and glared into the sunlight. "Still early."

"You were out for a couple hours, but nothing too long," Angel said. "What do you think we should do? Wait here like the Voice said?"

Max paused. On the one hand, she really didn't enjoy the idea of being knocked unconscious by something inside her head. On the other hand, her brothers were counting on her. Hmm. Being spared pain, or rescuing family?
"What do you think we're doing?" Max asked with a light smirk. "I don't care what this Voice says. We're going after our missing pyros."

The blinding grins from Nudge and Angel told her she'd made the right choice. Max got to her feet and led the way out of the alley, merging easily into the flow of civilians and tourists. She felt Angel link her fingers through hers before she'd gotten five steps.

"Max," Angel said, "I have a feeling about where we need to go."
Max's smile faltered. "What? What're you talking about, sweetie?"

Angel nodded firmly, as if listening to a voice only she could hear. "I think we should go across the street," she said, gesturing to the stores opposite them. "Something important is waiting for us."

Max exchanged glances with Fang and Nudge, but they looked just as nonplussed as she felt. "How do you know?" she asked warily.

"I have a feeling," Angel said shortly, and wouldn't say anything more.

Great. As if this day wasn't weird enough with a voice dancing around inside my head, now Angel's gone on another of her power trips, Max groused to herself. "Alright, kiddo, we'll go across," she relented, and waited until the street was clear to cross. A movement from a nearby fast-food restaurant caught her eye as she moved. A tall, gangly boy wrapped in a heavy white jacket pushed through the doors, holding the hand of a smaller blond boy. The small boy turned his head away from her, looking down the street. Max realized that both boys were vaguely familiar…in fact, they were really familiar…

"Max," Angel breathed, raising a dainty finger to point at the two boys. "It's them!"
The taller boy's head whipped around at the sound of Angel's voice. Without the hood of his jacket blocking her view of his face, Max recognized his features immediately: the long nose, the pale skin, the constantly-smirking lips and the strands of strawberry-blond bangs poking into cloudy blue eyes.

"Iggy!" she cried, a smile bursting across her lips. She was smiling so broadly it felt like her face was about to split in half.

The smaller boy pivoted at the sound of her voice, and a look of shocked joy crossed his face when he saw her. "Max!" the Gasman shouted, bouncing on his toes. "Max, Nudge, Fang, Angel!"
Max grinned and kicked up into a jog, ignoring the honking of cars as she crossed the street. Her brothers. They were here. Just like that. Finally, finally they would all be together, and this time she would make sure nothing came between—

Jeb Batchelder pushed through the swinging doors of the restaurant, followed by a horribly familiar, hulking figure. He saw her immediately, his brown eyes going wide behind his glasses, his mouth falling open just the slightest bit. A surge of hatred went through her, and she stopped in her tracks, surrounded by honking cars.

Then the figure next to Jeb turned and saw her. His face was partially obscured by the raised hood of his snow jacket, but she would recognize those bloodshot, insanity-tinged blue eyes anywhere.


And he wasn't even two feet from her brothers.

"Iggy, Gazzy, look out!" Max yelled out in warning, and burst into a sprint, her fists raised. Her wings snapped out, drawing shocked screams from people on the sidewalk, and before anyone could react she threw herself through the air and barreled straight into Ari.

A/N: End chapter 19. I have this odd, niggling feeling that I'm well on my way to giving my readers a coronary with all these cliffhangers...hmm...

I put up a poll to see what my readers think about Stark. Please vote. Also, I leave notes on my profile, in case anyone wonders how the story is progressing, or whether my workload is keeping me from updating, or anything, for that matter.

Reviews are this author's lifeblood, actually. Drop me a line even if you're not in the mood - because it certainly puts me in a good one. :)


20. Family Reunion

I am back. Big, HUGE thanks to lillypad22, nathan-p, Raptor, pandorad24, flYegurl, BeTrueToThyself, blackberry01, Aleria14, Illucida, Locked in a Stony Tower, AM83220, AmyQueen95, chulala and WinterSky101 for sending your comments - they've kept me going so I can find time to fit Iggy and Ari in my crazy schedule. =)

Warning: brief violence and character death. Also, use of Ari's human form as shown in the manga adaption of Maximum Ride. But I took creative liberties with his hair because he's a blonde, not a brunette, darn it.

Disclaimer: Maximum Ride doesn't belong to me. Every OC herein does, though.

Chapter Twenty: Family Reunion

Anders ducked, his hands flying in front of his face as he shielded his fragile nose. The paperweight Nehemiah had thrown missed by a mile, cracked violently against the wall and fell to the floor. It seemed he still hadn't completely recovered from the effects of the concussion, and the thought of his own humanity weakening him again brought him surging to his feet. Anders was taller than him by at least a head, and Nehemiah was made even shorter because he had to lean on a crutch to support his broken leg, but the blond man nonetheless cowered in the face of his superior's rage.

"I gave you Erasers," Nehemiah hissed into Anders's face. "I gave you guns and explicit orders on what to do. And you failed. Do you know what happens to people who fail me, Joshua?"

The man swallowed. His Adam's apple bobbed in his narrow neck. "Sir, if I could just explain…the mutants, they are…"

"Nothing more than that! Mutants. Mere, dumb animals, incapable of human emotion or forethought or subtlety!" Nehemiah leaned into the man's face, the crutch creaking beneath his weight. "You were outsmarted by animals, Joshua. How do you expect me to let you continue your employment with such a record?"

Anders swallowed again. Then, lifting his chin proudly—all of these whitecoats were the same, Nehemiah thought with annoyance, arrogant and impudent—he said, "My apologies, sir. But didn't those animals just outsmart you this morning?"

There was a sharp gasp to Nehemiah's left. He could see Anne staring open-mouthed at Anders out of the corner of his eye, shocked that anyone would be so stupid as to insult the doctor. Nehemiah leaned back on his crutch, face inscrutable and icy. The familiar sparks of anger started up in his stomach, but he did not attempt to contain them. The sparks ignited the fire, heat rising in his stomach and arcing through his body until it reached his chest.

Anders jerked away suddenly. His hazel eyes went wide, and his flaccid mouth dropped open.

Oh, dear, Nehemiah thought to himself. I must have lost control over my appearance again, and he's seen. How unfortunate for the boy.

Anders started to inch toward the door. In one swift move that belayed the slower, pained movements he'd been making before, Nehemiah leaned down and scooped up the thick, glass paperweight in his hand. It made a satisfying thunk when it collided with Anders's temple. The man collapsed.

Anne shrieked in surprise, then quickly clamped her hands over her mouth. Nehemiah scrutinized the body. Hmm. Still twitching. That won't do. He brought the paperweight down on Anders's temple again, and, satisfied, coolly limped away from the body and turned to the stunned woman behind him.

"Have someone clean him up when we're finished here," he instructed her frostily. She lowered her shaking hands and nodded, chocolate-colored eyes wide. Nehemiah turned away toward his desk.

Disorganized. Everything was so…disorganized. Yes, that was the perfect word for it. The mutants were gone, the traitors Batchelder and Marling with them, and if he didn't have them all back within the day, he would have to personally explain his failure to the Director. It was not something he was looking forward to.

So it will not happen, he thought decisively. Not long ago, he'd received word that the scouts he'd sent out to comb the mountains for the escapees had been unsuccessful. He would have had them disposed of as well for their failure, but he needed as many troops as he could afford. An entire legion might have to be sent after the mutants. Oh, but it didn't mean he couldn't punish his subordinates for their failure. How to do it? He could cut out their tongues. Erasers didn't need tongues to fire a gun, and the thought of the stupid animals trying unsuccessfully to form their crude words brought a flush of amusement to his boring world.

Well, he could devise up a way to punish them after they had finished their job. For now, he had to think.

Nehemiah limped his way to his chair and sat down gingerly. He tossed the crutch to the floor and watched in pale amusement as Anne scrambled to pick it up. He had always prided himself on being a good judge of character. Even the thickest, most impenetrable of shields around a person was no match for him when he put his mind to discovering their personality, their deepest secrets and most dangerous desires. Anne had been his grateful, loyal puppet for five long years. Granted, she wasn't the strongest person—she'd already been weak when he found her, insecure and vulnerable, and he'd swept down to claim his prize the instant he realized it would be laughably easy.

Now she wouldn't think twice about slitting her own throat for him. He was certain that following Batchelder's train of thought would be barely harder. The man would go to Banff. He and the others were strong, but they carried with them a younger mutant, who would no doubt feel entitled to rest and food before continuing on. The little hybrid would most likely be distracted by his immediate needs, rather than the long-term goals of the group. Young animals were often this way, and Nehemiah was sure it would be no different this time around.

"Send everyone," he said, fingering the king piece of the chessboard still settled on his desk. He rolled the glass piece between his fingers and smiled. "They are bound to be in Banff. If they are not, spread the forces, tell them to search everywhere. And call my bodyguards. I will be accompanying the legion."

Anne stirred, her knuckles whitening around the crutch. "But, sir, your leg!"

Nehemiah rolled his gray eyes in her direction. She swallowed and flinched back, lowering her head submissively. Without a word, she was cowed. Nehemiah turned back to his chess piece.

"My injury is of no importance," he said indifferently. "I will send the Erasers after them. The beasts will trap them in Banff. And when they do," he continued, setting down the king in its rightful place, "I will be there."

"Max, no!"

Iggy heard Max's wings unfurl with the dry rasp of feathers whistling through the wind. A second later there was the sound of heavy impact, and Ari's familiar growl charged into the cold air. People were shrieking. Max grunted with exertion, and there was the sick sound of skin smashing into skin, and the world was so jumbled up he couldn't make sense of anything—

Exploding into desperation, Iggy leapt forward with his hands outstretched. One found Ari's jacket, the other curled into the back of Max's shirt, and he yanked the two apart. Max pushed against him, straining to get at Ari. Iggy released Ari and held Max back by her forearms.

"Stop it!" he snapped at her. "What the hell are you doing, Max? He's on our side!"

There was a stunned pause as Max went completely still. Someone gave a girlish gasp, and he thought he heard Jeb sigh wearily.

"What?" Max said. "Iggy…he's…it's…it's Ari!"

"Well, duh," he said, and released her. He heard her shoes scuff the pavement as she took a step back, her face no doubt twisted with confusion.

"What's going on here?" Fang's quiet voice was stern, colder than the snow that had crept into Iggy's shoes and melted there. Iggy winced; when Fang sounded like that, it was time to start giving him explanations.

"Yeah, Iggy," Max said frostily. He heard her take another step away from him. "Mind telling us what's going on?"

Jeb coughed awkwardly at Iggy's side. "Maximum, I realize this might not be the first thing on your mind, but—"

"You!" Hatred burned behind Max's voice like raging embers. "I saw you in that webcam! You're working with Stark. You kidnapped Iggy and took him away from us!"

Iggy didn't react quite fast enough to stop Max as she lunged forward. There was a smack and a muffled yelp as Jeb was knocked on his back. Ari let out a furious roar and pushed Iggy aside to get to Max.

"Would you—" Iggy clenched his hands into fists and dove back into the middle of the fight. Again he pushed the two mutants apart, this time sending them both heated glares. "Cut it out! Neither of you are helping!"

"She hit my dad!" Ari protested.

"He deserved it!" Max shouted back. "He betrayed us! If it was up to me, he'd get a little more than a punch to the face."

"Shut up! Both of you!" Iggy dropped his arms to his sides and stepped back. "This isn't getting us anywhere. Max. Listen. I'm telling you the truth—Ari and Jeb aren't trying to hurt us. You don't know the whole picture."

"Yeah, you know what, I'm starting to see that," Max said waspishly. "So why don't you start explaining before I start thinking you've gone and done something stupid, like go over to their side?"

Keeping control over himself was difficult—more than anything, Iggy wanted to yell at Max for ruining what should have been a joyous reunion and was instead turning into a nightmare. How could she say something like that? How could she even think it? Harsh words rose ready to his tongue, but he swallowed them back down. He needed his flock. He'd just gotten them back; he didn't want to drive them away again.

"All right," he said through gritted teeth. "But, uh…not here. I kind of have the feeling that we're being watched."

There was a sheepish pause as everyone scanned the crowd that had no doubt built itself around them.

"I suggest we move somewhere quieter," Jacob piped up quickly. "Somewhere less populated, maybe?"

"An excellent idea, Jacob, as always," said Jeb, and took Iggy's elbow to lead him down the street. Iggy heard Ari immediately start after him, a low growl still rumbling in the depths of his broad chest. A moment later his flock's footsteps followed rapidly as the group pushed through the crowd. Someone must have called the police; sirens wailed on the horizon.

The pace Jeb set them at was fast and clipped, a hasty running-walk that threatened to evolve into a sprint at any moment. They finally stopped in a place that was cold and open, judging by the lack of resonance in their voices.

"We're in a parking lot behind a big hotel," the Gasman said, knowing that Iggy would be wondering. Iggy smiled. He'd missed having around people who knew how difficult it was for him to be blind, and tried to make it easier on him any way they could.

"Now," Jeb said, releasing Iggy's elbow, "we're going to go through this calmly and quietly—"

"Oh, come on," Max interrupted snidely, "do you really think—"

"Because," Jeb said pointedly, "we really don't want to attract attention to ourselves right now. We are safe for the moment, but Stark is most likely scouring the mountainside for us, and I highly doubt we want to draw him down on our heads. Even you can't outrun what he's sending after you, Maximum."

Max's silence acted as her grudging agreement. Iggy allowed himself to relax a little, though he could still feel the tension in the air; if Max was listening, there was half a chance that what Jeb was about to say would get through to her. If they were lucky.

Or she might go off again and try to punch a hole through Jeb's head.

Max said, "First things first. I want to know what you're doing with my brother."

Iggy answered before Jeb could. "He broke us out of the School. Or…well, he tried. Ari's the one who stole a helicopter and…"

He trailed off, sensing his flock's confusion. "Uh. Maybe I should start at the beginning."

He began with his kidnapping and ran through the events leading up to the present moment as quickly and concisely as he could, constantly aware that Stark's forces were still out there somewhere, searching for them. By the time he finished, Iggy's throat was dry and his feet were begging him to let off the pressure. Other than helpful interjections made by Jacob every now and then, his story went uninterrupted. Absolute silence settled over their group the instant he finished. Iggy held his breath, waiting for the tirade he knew was coming from Max.

Instead, to his everlasting shock, it was Mr. Silent who spoke up.

"So," Fang said quietly, "what you're saying is that Jeb is suddenly on our side, and Ari isn't really that much of a psycho killer after all?"

Iggy winced, knowing that Ari was probably sending Fang death glares for his comment. "Well, Jeb was always on our side—he just had a funny way of going about helping us—and…yeah. That's pretty much it. Look, man, I know that sounds really hard to believe, but you have to trust me on this."

"Right," said Fang, after a pause. His wings made a dry, whipping sound as they snapped out into the frigid air. "Well, if that's it, I'm out of here."

"What?" Both Iggy and Max exclaimed at the same time.

"Fang," stumbled Max, "you can't just go. We just got Iggy back."

Fang's voice was hard and unrelenting. "Iggy, are you coming?"

There was no question that Fang meant without Jeb and Ari and the other whitecoat. Suddenly, the world seemed even quieter than before. Iggy could feel Jeb's ever-watchful gaze on him, putting pressure on the back of his head; Jacob's gaze was invisible but pleading; and Ari's gaze was the most painful of all, full of hope and worry that burned the back of Iggy's neck. He sighed.

"No, Fang," he said. "Not without them."

Fang let out a disgusted snort. "Fine. Max, you coming?"

Max sucked in a shaky breath. Iggy turned his gaze to her, not caring that he only saw blackness before him. He wanted her to see how much he needed her to stay, how much it would hurt if she left with Fang.

Finally, he heard the rustle of hair against fabric; she was shaking her head. "Fang, cut this out. I'm not leaving Iggy. None of us are splitting up. We just got back together again. And I trust Ig. I don't trust Jeb or Ari, but I trust him."

"I'm staying with Iggy," the Gasman put in forcefully, and by the tone of his voice Iggy knew he was standing with his small arms folded and his chin jutting out definitely. He smiled, a warm feeling sprouting in the cold confines of his chest.

"Me too," said Nudge, though Iggy heard a tremor in her voice when she directed her gaze past him to Ari and the two whitecoats. Angel slipped her tiny hand in his and squeezed reassuringly.

It would have been a powerful sight, if he could have seen: Fang off on his own side, with the rest of the flock standing on the same side as two of the people they hated most in the world. Because of him. For one terrible, horrible moment Iggy thought Fang was going to abandon all of them. Then his brother scoffed.

"Guess I'm not going anywhere," he said darkly. The skin on Iggy's forearms prickled as Fang added dangerously, "But if either of you does anything suspicious…"

He didn't need to finish the sentence. The message rang out loud and clear.

The crisis averted, matters progressed quickly. Jeb and Iggy set to finding a car in the hotel parking lot, one that would serve to carry those without wings. Iggy worked the lock on the driver's side, re-wired the controls and had Jeb, Jacob and Ari loaded up inside before hotel security could come down on their heads. Jeb drove the car out of the lot with strict instructions to follow and not stray in case Stark foresaw them leaving Banff, and in under ten minutes their ragtag group of refugees and mutants was on its way, headed for freedom.

Iggy flew high above the road with his family. From this high up, the flock could still easily pick out the Toyota Jeb had nicked, but any regular human looking up at them would only see very large birds. For a moment, Iggy had almost stayed behind with Ari in the car; the Eraser-boy had been uncharacteristically quiet, and Iggy could almost feel the waves of tension and nervousness rolling off him. Part of Iggy wanted to stay behind to keep the boy company. But the thought of being cooped up when he could fly high above the ground overrode everything else. Besides, he'd missed his family. This was where he belonged, up here, with them. He was so happy he thought he might be able to tolerate everything they did that set him off.

"Omigosh, omigosh omigosh—"

Well. Except that.

"This is so cool," Nudge babbled. "This is, like, a really cool movie where the good guy breaks the characters out of prison, but then they find out he's working for the bad guys and think he's a bad guy, but it turns out he might not be, and the guy who's been hunting them goes over to their side, and now they're all working together, and it's…just so cool! And, um, we really missed you, Iggy."

"Yeah," added Max, "we're not letting you out of our sight this time." The tips of her wings brushed against his as they flew, the brisk air ruffling over their airborne bodies. Iggy lifted his head and closed his eyes. Gosh, but this was great. He was back with his family, safe from Stark and all his crazy plans, up in the air with what felt like all the time in the world…who knew a week could feel like so much longer? Was it really only seven days ago that he'd been brought in, kicking and punching, and thrown at Jeb's feet? Was it really only seven days ago that he'd hated his surrogate father and his mutated son?

"So," Max said in a low, drawn-out tone. Aw, great, here it comes, Iggy thought, and sure enough, he was bombarded with questions not a moment later.

"Are you really on Ari's side now?"

"Are you sure we can trust Jeb?"

"I don't think this is a good idea…"

"Let's ditch them! They won't know where we went!"

Iggy gritted his teeth. "We're not ditching them," he said to Gazzy's excited exclamation. "I didn't really tell you the whole story. Stark came up with something that could put us out of the sky for good. It's like a trigger that shuts off all your motor functions, so you can't even walk, or fly…"

The flock members fell quiet for a moment, lost in thought.

"How does it work?" Max finally asked.

Iggy shrugged. "It's all kind of complicated, but from what I got, the trigger gives out a signal to a chip in the back of your neck. We all have one. And it's…"

"It's what?" Nudge prompted, after Iggy's words trailed off. His mind whirled for an answer. The news that each of them had a chip implanted in the back of their necks, a chip that could kill them on command, wasn't going to go over well with them. He wondered for a moment if he shouldn't tell them later, once everything had settled down from the addition of three members to their group. But if not now, when? When would he ever have the courage to tell them that they were all slated to die?

"It's a termination chip," he blurted out in a rush of breath. "It's, uh, what kills the Erasers when their time goes up. That's why they don't last so long; because they're all reaching their expiration dates. And I think we have expiration dates, too. I don't know when, but…they're there."

Shock and dismay were funny things, the way they could silence an entire group of human beings with a few choice words. For a long time, no one said anything. Iggy's heart sank further and further the longer everyone remained silent. He hated to be the bearer of bad news, especially news as bad as this, but he hoped that his flock would overcome this obstacle, just as they'd always overcome every other hurdle in their life. What was one more, right?

The Gasman was the first one to stir from shock's hold. "Can't we just dig out the chips?" he asked. Iggy shook his head.

"I don't think so. They've been with us since we were babies, I think. If we tried to dig them out now, we'd just end up damaging something important. We might not even be able to walk or fly anymore."

A shudder went through the six mutant children at the very thought.

"We'll deal with this once we've got everything figured out," Max said decisively, swooping in to save the day once more. "Right now, let's just focus on getting caught up on rest. You especially, Ig. You look like you've gone through hell."

Iggy smiled wryly. More than you know, he thought, but said nothing, merely happy to be back with his family.

Ari wanted to tear something apart. He eyed the headrest in front of him and flexed his claws experimentally, toying with the idea of ripping it to shreds. No one would mind, really. It wasn't their car, why should they take care of it? Why should Jeb mind if Ari decided to vent a little anger and tear something to nice, tattered little pieces? Nice, tattered pieces, just like the ones he wanted to reduce that mean Fang-freak to…

"Whatever you're thinking about doing, Ari," Jeb's voice drifted warningly from the front seat, "it's not a good idea. Don't."

Ari shot his father a nasty glare. Jeb was eyeing him through the rearview mirror, his brown eyes creased with thought. In the passenger seat, Jacob sat slumped over, his head lolling as he napped. He had passed out from exhaustion almost as soon as they had gotten on the road, and now Ari found himself half-envying, half-resenting the man, because currently he was Jeb's only distraction and his father was always more critical when he had nothing else to divert his attention.

"What's wrong?" Jeb asked softly. Ari stared pointedly out his window.

"Nothing," he answered shortly, even though he wasn't exactly supposed to lie to his father. A quiet sigh from the front seat and the creaking of the chair as Jeb shifted were his own reply.

Ari had lied—everything was wrong. He was locked away in a tiny car with a frustratingly low ceiling while Iggy and the bird-freaks soared free and high above him, they were on the run from the nastiest man Ari had ever met, and he was sure that Iggy wouldn't have time for him now that he was back with his freaky friends.

In an unconscious gesture of distress, the Eraser-boy slumped down further into his seat and pulled his hood over his eyes. He should have known Iggy wouldn't want to be his friend once he got his old friends back. Granted, he and the bird-boy had only shared a tentative friendship for several days, but it had been nice. Ari liked that feeling of having someone there, someone on whom he could depend, joke around with, and (maybe, maybe) play with and talk to.

But now that feeling was gone, and Iggy was all the way up there with his winged friends, and Ari was stuck in this cramped little car with only his overly-critical father to talk to. Not even once they got out of the car would anything be all right. That Fang-freak would give him a nasty, burning glare, and Iggy would be too preoccupied with his family to pay attention, and…

"Can we leave?" he suddenly asked. Jeb widened his eyes in surprise.

"Leave where, exactly?"

Ari shrugged, feeling inadequate and uncomfortable. "I don't know. Somewhere else. I don't…the bird-freaks, they hate us."

"Not all of them," Jeb said slowly. "What about Iggy?"

"He's got them," Ari mumbled resentfully to himself. He had the sudden urge to cross his arms huffily and resisted; he wasn't some little kid throwing a tantrum, no matter how much he felt like one. He was trying to be strong and grown-up about this, but the truth was that he had a psycho whitecoat chasing after him, and he was tired, and all he wanted was to go back to where things made sense. Jeb nodded slowly in the driver's seat.

"Things look bad right now, Ari, but where else would we go? We can't go back to Stark," Jeb explained. Ari fisted his hands.

"I know that," he muttered, angry at being treated like a particularly stupid child. "But we don't have to be around the bird-freaks, either. Can't we just go to one of your hideouts? Just stay there until you figure out a way to beat the Extermination Effect?"

But Jeb was already shaking his head. "You know we can't do that," he said, eyes going back to the road. "The flock needs us. The Extermination Effect isn't something they can beat on their own, and they need help if they're going to overcome the termination chip, as well. Ari? Are you listening?"

"Yeah," grunted Ari, though he wasn't really. Jeb was going into lecture-mode, something Ari hated almost as much as the condescending current he occasionally detected in his father's voice. Jeb seemed to realize that his son wasn't paying attention, because he sighed and clenched his fingers tightly around the wheel.

"Iggy's a good boy, Ari," he said quietly. "He won't abandon you for the flock."

Ari jerked his head around to stare at his father in surprise, but the ex-whitecoat had turned on the radio and was searching for the police station. The Eraser-boy turned back to his window and the snowy landscape, his mind spiraling in a hundred different directions at once.

He stayed this way for a long time, brooding over his situation in silence while his father listened to the police broadcast and made adjustments to their route every now and then. They drove and drove, and eventually the hum of the engine lulled Ari into an uneasy half-asleep state. He dreamed about running and flying, burning chemicals and glinting syringes, and jerked awake with a start the instant he felt the car pull up and stop.

In the passenger seat, Jacob was also stirring awake. "Wha time isit?" he slurred sleepily, covering his mouth as he yawned.

"Nearly noon," Jeb answered wearily. He leaned forward and rested his forehead on the steering wheel. "We've been driving for several hours."

Ari peered curiously out the window. They were in a public parking garage, nestled between a van and a motorcycle. The light was dim here, but he easily picked out six skinny figures making their way toward the Toyota, their wings flashing out of sight as they drew near. Ari sucked in a deep breath and got out of the car, pretending he didn't notice the wary glares sent his way as he straightened.

The air bristled with tension. All six members of the flock stopped before him, and once more he was reminded of the gulley that separated him from them. Together, they looked...normal. As if they were just six kids who'd lived their lives out together, and nothing more. Family. He didn't miss the way Fang-freak was glaring at him darkly enough to blot out the sun, or how the Gasman was holding Iggy's wrist tightly, or how even the smallest mutant looked at him with a measure of distrust in her big blue eyes.

Someone suddenly drove by on a growling motorcycle, startling them all into action. Ari's fists came up out of reflex, and Max and Fang-freak jumped back, their faces suddenly grim with battle-readiness. But the motorcycle rider just sped down the garage without looking back and parked in the next open spot he found.

It was a small distraction, but it reminded everyone that they weren't alone. Ari stood down, relaxing just the slightest bit when the flock followed suit.

Jeb and Jacob stepped out of the car and came up behind him. Ari held himself very still under the flock's scrutiny and opted for looking away and pretending they weren't worth his time. He heard Max give a disdainful snort and automatically bristled.

"Come," Jeb said, his voice echoing through the parking garage. His voice had taken on that conciliatory, coaxing tone he used when he wanted to break tempers and get back to the task at hand. "You look tired. I'm sure you could all use something to eat."

"We can get our own food," Max retorted shortly. Jeb shrugged his shoulders in agreement.

"Yes. I suppose that's true, then. Just let us know if you get tired of eating out of dumpsters and we'll order you something fresh, warm and—hopefully—not crawling with maggots."

Ari smirked at the flock's torn expressions.

"Fine," Max ground out, "but I hope you know what you're agreeing to pay to."

Jeb gave her a dry, remorseful smile. "No, I know exactly how your appetites are."

An awkward silence drifted over them at the reference to Jeb's time spent as the flock's surrogate father. Max shifted uncomfortably and snapped, "But we get to pick the place."

"Nothing too fancy. Keep in mind," Jeb said, already walking toward the exit, "that if you bankrupt me, you bankrupt yourself in the process."

Ari had begun to follow his father and Jacob when a tiny, warm hand slipped into his. He stopped in his tracks and stared incredulously into a pair of wide sky-blue eyes.

"I can make everyone not really notice that you're there," Angel said, "but…do you have a more human form? I get really tired when I control people's minds."

A shiver that had nothing to do with the cold air travelled up and down Ari's arm. Slowly, with the vague feeling of moving slowly to avoid upsetting a dangerous predator, he dropped Angel's hand and discreetly wiped his own on his jacket. So she could control minds as well as read them, could she? The thought of what she might be able to make him do gave him a headache.

Ari nodded silently in answer to the girl's question. Yes, like every other Eraser, he had a human form—somewhat. It hurt, though, to maintain the mirage, to condense the muscles and claws into a harmless-looking body. He used the form so rarely that barely anyone, aside from his father, knew he had it. It made his head ache, and besides, why would he look like a scrawny human when he could take on the visage of something so much more intimidating? A visage that would make people respect him and fear him as they should.

But if the mind-reader-freak was convinced that she wasn't strong enough to make people not notice him, then fine. He would change. The last thing he wanted was for reports of a wolf-demon to reach Stark and bring him down on their heads.

Wordlessly, Ari shifted. The process hurt even more than going into full-morph did, and he couldn't stop the pained shudder that shivered through his form as his muscles contracted, shrinking instead of growing as they should have, the planes of his face cracking and shifting, his fangs retreating to be placed with the useless, flat teeth of humans.

Finally, everything was in its place. He trembled and almost swayed at the pain, but the worst was over, and now all that was left was a dull, constant ache ringing in his bones. The flock stared openly. Several of them had their mouths hanging open; Ari could see cavities at the back of the Gasman's jaw and wrinkled his frustratingly small, sensory-dulled nose. Even Jeb and Jacob had stopped up ahead and came back to see what was happening. Jeb's expression relayed nothing of his inner emotions, but Jacob was staring at him with the same shock and surprise he saw on the freaks' faces.

"Good enough for you?" Ari grumbled at Angel. The golden-haired girl only nodded solemnly, flashed him a thankful smile, and attempted to take his hand again. He jerked it out of reach and stalked off toward the garage's exit, fuming.

The flock chose the first fast-food restaurant they found and eagerly gathered at the entrance like starving animals. Ari caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror-like windows and paused. He stood at the back of the group, looking awkward and out of place, too still and voiceless at the base of a group of children that bounced and chattered like it was Christmas. He was taller than everyone else, even in human form. His hair was still short and yellow, his eyes still frowning and blue, but the face that stared back at him wasn't his, not by a long shot. This face was smooth and hairless and approachable, despite his best efforts to twist his expression into something ugly and unfriendly. The eyebrows were sharp and scowling, the mouth cruel and pinched with distaste. The only real bit of him that remained was the long, thin scar that started high on his forehead and ended beneath his right eye. (He was glad he still had that, at least; it was his first battle scar, courtesy of a nameless Eraser he'd fought, and he carried it with pride.)

Otherwise, Ari looked almost every bit as human as Iggy and the others did. Almost. There was still something fundamentally wrong about him, a sense that everything wasn't right with the blue-eyed stranger in the window, but he trusted that the mind-reader's abilities would take care of anyone noticing before it was too late.

The smell of sizzling patties assaulted him the moment he stepped inside the building. His stomach rumbled hungrily in response. Even with this puny, ineffective nose he now had, he could clearly catch the smell of cooking meat. His mouth felt very dry. Sure, it had only been a couple hours since he'd last eaten, but he had an abnormal metabolism. A metabolism that was reminding him, very loudly, that it wasn't quite finished with him for the day.

"Ooh!" The annoying freak called Nudge bounced excitedly on the balls of her feet. "I want one of everything! Especially those little apple pies they have. I want one of those, and two cheeseburgers, and a large fry, and—"

The good thing about this form, Ari had to admit, was that he wasn't as attuned to everything as sharply and could more easily ignore things that annoyed him. Like Nudge. He stepped up to the counter and opened his mouth to order, only to find Fang-freak by his side.

"Two cheeseburgers," Fang-freak ordered, all the while staring unflinchingly at Ari out of the corner of his dark eye. Ari quivered with the need to punch the boy. Hard.

"Three for me," he told the cashier. One of Fang-freak's eyebrows twitched.

"Four," he said sternly. Ari paused and narrowed his eyes.

"Five," he countered, a dry suspicion starting to niggle at the back of his head.

Just as he'd thought the boy would, Fang-freak responded with, "Six cheeseburgers."






Jeb came up between them and pushed them apart. "That's enough," he said, glaring. "Stop behaving like children, both of you."

Ari glared sullenly, while Fang-freak only snorted and turned away with an air of condescension about him. Jeb turned back to the frazzled-looking cashier and gave her his most disarming smile.

"I'm sorry about that, they can get a bit…competitive," he said. "I'll order for them."

Ari went off to the nearest open booth and plopped down on the seat, shaking with anger. He stared out the window, brooding again, when he felt the cushion dip under someone else's weight. Baring his teeth (and regretting that they weren't maybe an inch or two longer and sharper), he turned to see who dared bother him.

Iggy gave him a nervous smile and raised his hands. "I can feel you glaring at me, you know. Relax. I'm not here to bother you."

Some of the tension went out of Ari's shoulders. Vaguely, he remembered that he was supposed to be mad at Iggy for leaving him for the flock, but he was just too tired. Too tired and hungry and alone.

"Just ignore Fang," Iggy continued, leaning casually against the booth's backrest. "He can be a jerk to everyone, sometimes. He's just giving you a hard time because…uh, well…"

"I'm the enemy," Ari finished grimly. Some color stole into Iggy's cheeks.

"That's not what I said," he insisted. "He just doesn't want to trust you."

Ari scowled fiercely at Fang-freak's turned back. What did he want? A certificate guaranteeing that he, Ari Batchelder, was not a psycho, never had been, and really did not want to go back to the people who poked him with needles and electrocuted him when he didn't do as they wanted? Who would want to go back to that?

But Ari decided Fang-freak must be stupid or something, because he obviously couldn't see that.

"I don't care what he thinks," Ari said, scowling out the window. "All I care about is getting this termination chip out, and then…maybe going somewhere quiet with my dad, where no one will bother us."

He realized a second after he'd said it that this wasn't the smartest thing to say to someone who had once been his enemy, but Iggy only nodded in understanding and sighed. "Yeah, I can understand that. I just want to be with my flock and stop being shoved into dog crates and stuff."

Ari hesitated. "Having wings really isn't so great, is it?"

Iggy tapped his finger thoughtfully on the table. "It is," he disagreed slowly, "but it's the people who come after you, the people who gawk and stare and call you freak, that makes it hard."

Ari lapsed into guilty silence. He'd been one of those people, once. He snuck a sidelong look at Iggy, taking in the other boy's solemn, almost melancholic expression, the way he was sitting very still and staring into nothing. Suddenly, Ari wasn't sure how he could ever have hated this boy. He was…he was easy to talk to, and he listened, and didn't judge. It was good.

"I'm glad I don't do that anymore," he said. Iggy gave him a confused look, and he added, "Call you freak and stuff, I mean. I'm glad I'm not your enemy anymore."

And Iggy smiled, bright and full, as if Ari was his brother instead of someone his flock hated almost as much as the traitor Jeb Batchelder himself. "Yeah, Ari. Me too."

Lunch was an awkward and silent affair, and Ari was glad when it was over and he could shed his human image and climb into a new car, since Jeb insisted that taking the same one would be unwise unless they wanted to catch the authorities' attention. The flock flew high above the winding road, though Ari didn't begrudge Iggy for joining them. He felt better about Iggy reuniting with his old friends. If the other boy still liked him enough to talk to him, even though the flock obviously didn't feel as kindly toward him, then Ari was okay with being left behind every now and then. Just as long as Iggy didn't try to make him friends with Fang-freak or anything.

They traveled for another hour straight, with Jacob in control of the wheel and Jeb in the passenger seat this time. Ari stared flatly out the window and wished for something, anything to relieve his boredom. All there was to see outside was a bunch of greenish-brown hills and towering trees, with the sun peeking out every now and then from behind the frayed layer of clouds in the sky. Aside from the occasional passing car, there were no signs of civilization, no passerby to make scary faces at and laugh when they wet their pants.

A harried burst of tapping on Jacob's window startled Ari from his bored stupor. He looked to see Max flying alongside the car, her blond hair whipping wildly in the wind, her eyes wide and worried. Her voice came muffled through the window.

"Behind you!" she shouted, pounding on the window. "Behind you!"

Ari turned just in time to see a hulking helicopter barreling down towards them out of the sky. Behind their car, a black Humvee rose huge and imposing in the back window. They were going too slowly to outpace it.

Jeb lurched in his seat and made a grab for the steering wheel. "Turn—"

But it was too late. Without warning, the grill loomed in Ari's vision, and then the world jolted on its axis as the two vehicles collided.

A/N: End chapter 20.



21. Old Routines and New Wounds

Hey, all! I just want to give a quick shout-out to WinterSky101, flYegurl, MaeveNeri, pandorad24, lillypad22, BeTrueToThyself, checksthisatleastweekly, nathan-p, Mikky58, Ren09, Contains Demons and Aleria14 for reviewing - you guys know how much I love and appreciate your feedback. :)

Disclaimer: Not mine. All OC's, locations, plot devices, etc. etc. are copyright Kimsa, however.

As always, enjoy, and please leave a review when you're done.

Chapter Twenty-One: Old Routines and New Wounds

If there was one thing Max prided herself on, it was being able to tell who was her enemy and who wasn't. She could spot a disguised Eraser from a mile away, could pick out the whitecoats from a crowd by the way their eyes gleamed with malice and that boundless hunger special only to scientists in the midst of making a huge discovery. And she was sure she could have recognized her two biggest enemies, Jeb and Ari, with a blindfold over her head and plugs stuck in her ears.

Lately, though, Max wasn't so sure who was her enemy and who was her friend.

So, she thought, flying high above the black car that currently carried her two biggest problems, let's list off some facts. Jeb Batchelder: whitecoat, traitor, ex-father, but…somehow, suddenly on our side. Ari Batchelder: psycho, half-mutant Eraser, and also somehow on our side. Right. As if any of this makes sense.

Idly, her gaze drifted toward the still clouds. Out of the silver-gray haze, she saw a dark, bulky shape cutting through the frosty air. A helicopter! Max's eyes narrowed.

All right, maybe I'm confused about enemies and allies at the second, but that is definitely not on our side.

The helicopter rolled out of the haze of clouds like a metal monster, beating out that familiar thrumming sound that haunted her dreams on empty nights. The flock immediately scattered into its escape position; it was an old routine, one built from countless instances of attempted kidnapping, and they were used to the motions.

Then Max saw the Humvee roaring down the road toward the little black car in front of it, and she was unpleasantly reminded that her flock members weren't the only ones she had to look after now.

It's a trap, her paranoid mind immediately concluded. It has to be. Look at us, we're in the middle of nowhere with two whitecoats and an Eraser, and a helicopter shows up? It has to be a trap!

But the way the Humvee was tearing toward that little car didn't seem very friendly to her, and with a glance at Iggy's worried expression, Max knew something was up.

"Max," Iggy called over the roar of the helicopter's engine. "Jeb and Ar—"

"I know ," she yelled back. Great. This is gonna be fun. "Break formation, guys, get to the car!"

Instantly, six mutant children flattened their wings against their spines and dropped out of the sky. The helicopter was left blundering amongst the clouds, looking impossibly clumsy next to the smaller winged figures darting through the air.

Max reached the car first. She pulled up alongside the driver's window and hammered on the glass. The other whitecoat—Jacob—and Jeb looked over at the same time, their eyes wide.

"Behind you!" Max shouted, pounding on the window again. "Behind you!"

Both men whipped their heads around to stare open-mouthed at the Humvee screaming toward them. Max barely had time to catch Ari's stunned expression before Jacob slammed on the gas, and the little car shot forward. It wasn't fast enough to avoid collision, but the extra burst of speed saved the car's occupants from a horrendous crash. The Humvee collided roughly with the car's bumper. With a screech, the smaller vehicle lurched forward. Max pulled away, flapping furiously and rising into the air as the black car and the Humvee screamed down the road.

Iggy veered toward Max from her right. "Are they okay?" he yelled. The chill in the air had sucked all the color from his face, making him look almost deathly in his concern.

"Yeah!" Max paused and snuck a look into the back window of the retreating black car. "But, uh…I think Ari might have learned a valuable lesson in vehicle safety today. Always wear your seatbelts, kids."

The helicopter was upon them before Iggy could ask what she was talking about. Immediately, the six bird children separated, each taunting the helicopter on in a different direction. The helicopter swerved in confusion once before heading straight for Max. She huffed. Typical.

To add to the fun, four flying Erasers hopped out of the helicopter and headed for her with expressions that were entirely too eager for her comfort. The flock had faced worse. They made short work of the winged wolf-mutants, and in no time at all each flying Eraser was down, either cowering inside the helicopter or lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. Max folded her wings again and let herself lose altitude, angling her body so she glided straight for the two black shapes that were by now mere smudges, even in her raptor-like vision.

"Take out the Humvee, guys!" she shouted to her flock. "And don't stop for anything! These guys are probably gonna head right back to Stark the minute they get their heads back on straight."

As she drew closer and started to notice the charred skid marks on the asphalt, Max realized that the two vehicles were stopped in the middle of the road. The distinct shout of gunshots rocketed against her eardrums as she came near. Instinctively, she covered her head and rolled in the air, but a quick scan told her that she and her flock weren't the targets. The Humvee's occupants, in the form of five looming Erasers, had unloaded and were busy trying to get Jeb, Jacob and Ari under control. Jeb was struggling to evade one Eraser's swiping claws, and Jacob was holding off another with what looked like a crowbar (she hoped he'd found it in the car and hadn't been carrying it with him all along).

Ari easily had the worst of it. The remaining three Erasers had ganged up on him, and though one of them was sporting a nasty gash on its snout, they all looked alert and mean and bloodthirsty.

"What do you say, runt?" One of the Erasers cracked his knuckles and flexed his claws. Ari glowered at him from over his cupped hand; bright blood leaked from between his fingers, a souvenir from the car's collision with the Humvee.

The Eraser gave out a nasty cackle and took a step toward Ari. "Stark wants you dead, and I'd be happy to do him a favor—"

Out of nowhere, an angry voice erupted from behind Max.

"Like hell you will!"

Iggy flew past her, moving through the air so fast he was a blur. The Eraser spun around, his teeth bared. Max had time only to blink before Iggy was on the wolf-mutant, pounding away at it with his fists.

Wordlessly, the flock split up. Max saw Angel, Gazzy and Nudge head for the Erasers threatening Jeb and Jacob. Fang veered toward the Eraser with the bloody snout, and Max leapt for the last one at exactly the same moment as Ari.

They almost collided head-on and jumped back at the last second.

"Watch where you're going!" Ari shouted.

"Why don't you?" Max yelled back. "I had him first!"

"Did not, I—"

The Eraser decided to remind them he was still there by leveling his gun at Max's head. She dropped to the ground, and the bullet arced harmlessly overhead while Ari launched himself at the other wolf-mutant. The two went down, snarling and kicking at each other. Max wisely got out of the way before something nasty could happen. Briefly, in the confusion of flying fists and claws, she made out Ari's fist going up and then coming down with bruising force. The other Eraser groaned and went abruptly still.

Ari rolled off, shaking his head as if he were a dog drying itself after a bath. "Told you he was mine," he sneered.

Max scowled and was just about to fire off something she probably would have regretted saying when she heard Fang shout her name. She whirled to find Iggy on the ground, clutching his right eye as the Eraser he'd attacked loomed over him. The gun in the wolf-mutant's hand glinted hungrily in the pale light.

"No—" Max took a step forward, just as she realized that the Eraser wasn't pointing the gun at Iggy. He was aiming it at her.

"Max!" Fang shouted, still grappling furiously with his Eraser. "Max!"

There was a sharp roar, and the next thing Max knew, her shoulder was shrieking with pain and she was sprawled face-down on the asphalt. She scrambled to her knees, prepared to beat to a pulp whoever had knocked her over. Only, that person was Ari, and she had been in his way when he'd leaped forth and crashed into the armed Eraser.

The Eraser toppled back with the force of Ari's momentum. The gun in his hand went off a second later, piercing the ground directly next to Max's cheek.

Max's mouth fell open. Her gaze jumped jerkily from the bullet hole in the ground to Ari, and back again. Had he just…saved her? No. Noooo. Impossible. He hated her! But there was no mistaking the ferocity with which he was tearing into his own teammate.

She felt like a particularly slow computer. Max thought the right phrase was does not compute, but her mind was too shocked to form even that short sentence.

The armed Eraser was taller and broader than Ari, and quickly overpowered him despite the younger Eraser's heated struggles. Ari went down. The armed Eraser laughed, his boot pinning Ari's throat to the ground, and had just raised the gun in his hand when Iggy's tall form leaped onto his back.

A yell from Iggy as he brought the Eraser to the ground startled Max from her daze. In seconds, she was on her feet and jumping for the downed Eraser, sailing over Ari's coughing form. Two hits from Max and Iggy, and the Eraser was bloody and dead to the world for at least a good ten minutes. Max exchanged a grin with her brother.

A ragged cough from behind alerted her that Ari was already up on his feet, albeit massaging his throat tenderly. He sent the unconscious Eraser a deadly glare. "Damn Rawley," he cursed. "I should take him out while I have the chance."

"Eh, yeah," Iggy said with a jaunty shrug, "but then who would annoy us at every opportunity?"

And even though she knew they were supposed to be friends now, and that saving the other's life was probably something they did all the time, Iggy and Ari looked at each other without hostility. And laughed.

Okay, Max thought. It's official. Things have really gone crazy around here.

That brief skirmish was more than enough to remind the fugitives that Stark was still close on their tail, and that they should get as far away from their pursuers as possible. The ragtag group took to the road again, with the flock in the sky and Jeb behind the wheel of the battered car. This time, Jeb was determined not to take any more breaks. They were going to keep moving, keep pushing themselves until they reached the brink of collapse, and even then they would only stop long enough to catch their breath. Then they would be on the move again.

This mindset was nothing new to Jeb, and he was sure that it was nothing new to the flock, either. Yet he couldn't help worrying that the flock would protest. Before he'd "betrayed" them, they had lived a relatively comfortable life in their own house, safe and free from the cruelties of Erasers and whitecoats. They might want to go back, and he couldn't allow them to do that.

The flock had listened to him in the past, had trusted that his judgment was sound. This had saved their lives more than once; what if they wouldn't listen to him now? They were still so, so young…Angel was six, only several years away from being a toddler. The Gasman was eight; more than once, Jeb remembered finding him crying in his bedroom over bad memories from the School. Nudge wasn't even twelve yet, and Max, Fang and Iggy—fourteen! They were strong and self-sufficient well beyond their years, but they were still children.

Jeb squared his shoulders. No. No matter how much they resisted him, he knew what was best for the flock. And with Stark on their heels, no doubt with some method of tracking the winged children, even a safe house could not protect them.

"Are we there yet?"

Jeb peeked into the rearview mirror. Ari had wiped away the blood from his bruised nose, but it was still cocked at an odd angle. Jeb winced. If it started to set the wrong way, it would need to be broken again and set properly. He didn't relish the idea.

"I was wondering the same thing," said Jacob from his spot in the passenger seat. There was a nasty cut where an Eraser had caught him on the side of his jaw, and a bruise was darkening the skin on his wrist where that same Eraser grabbed him, but he was otherwise unharmed. He'd had the sense to buckle his seatbelt before he started driving.

"Not much longer," said Jeb. "There should be a city right ahead once we cover these hills."

"Aren't we supposed to be hurrying?" Ari prodded, raising his eyebrows at the speedometer.

"Yes, yes," Jeb said, and subtly pressed down on the gas pedal. The gas tank was running too close to empty for comfort; they had been driving for only ten minutes since the encounter with the Erasers. Worry about being discovered gnawed at his mind the entire ride to the nearest city, and by the time Jeb found a suitable motel for them to spend the night, he was ready to barricade the rented room and board up the windows against prying eyes.

"I can't believe we flew that long," the Gasman groaned. He made a show of stretching out his cramped muscles, his young face wrinkled with relief. "Aaaah. I think I could sleep for a month."

"Two months for me," Iggy put in. He tilted his head in that way that said he was taking in his surroundings as best he could, listening to the rumble of car engines, heels clicking on the gum-spattered sidewalk, people chatting and grumbling around him in a haze of cacophony.

At least, that was what Jeb had taught him to do.

"Inside, everyone." Jeb made for the plain, whitewashed motel. He heard Ari shifting into his human form by the uncomfortable grunt the boy made against the grinding of gristle and bone. The sound made his hair stand on end.

Inside, the motel was as tacky and plain as it appeared on the outside. The floral carpet, mixed with the dim lights and peeling, yellowish paint, ensured Jeb that he wouldn't be breaking their group's budget by spending the night.

"Hi, welcome, how can I help you?" The words were uttered in a monotone by the female receptionist, who didn't bother looking away from the magazine she clutched in her jewel-studded fingernails.

"Two rooms for the night," said Jeb. "And could you recommend a good place to eat?"

The receptionist sniffed and said, "Chinese fast food place, right down the street, just look for the movie rental store, it's right next to it."

Jeb paid the fee and turned around to find his group of fugitives divided again, with Jacob and Ari standing off to one side, exchanging awkward, uneasy looks with the flock members. "Are we all alright?" he asked slowly. It was as if his voice had broken a spell; the two groups immediately broke apart from each other and looked pointedly in opposite directions.

Iggy, who was closest to the Eraser-boy, reached out and hooked his finger through Ari's belt loop in a seemingly unconscious gesture. Ari didn't seem bothered by it, and Iggy still didn't appear to realize that what he'd done was taboo, but Max's mouth had dropped open. The Gasman had a thunderous look on his face, and Jeb's shoulders twitched with the urge to wince; no doubt, the Gasman was usually the person Iggy turned to when in need of direction.

"Come on, Iggy," the Gasman said. He reached out, grabbed Iggy's hand and forcefully pulled him in the other direction. A startled look crossed over the blind boy's face, but he was oblivious to the silent war that burst into flame as the Gasman and Ari glared at each other wordlessly.

All Jeb could do was sigh and lead the way to their rooms.

Predictably, their group split up again into two very distinct sides the instant they reached the rooms they would be staying in for the night. Each room had two beds; Jeb sat down on the nearest one as soon as he was through the door. Ari walked past him and sprawled onto the other bed with a satisfied groan. Jacob collapsed into a chair and rested his head in his hands.

"Sitting still has never been that hard," he moaned.

"If I fall asleep," Ari said with his face buried in the pillows, "don't wake me up. Or I'll eat you."

"Ari," Jeb said, but he was smiling.

He must have drifted off, because the next thing he knew, he was jerking awake at the sound of someone knocking on the door. Ari had already opened it and was standing back to let through the flock.

Max kicked the door closed behind her, came to the middle of the room and set her hands on her hips. "You three," she said, pointing at Jeb, Jacob and Ari in turn. "I think we all know that we don't trust you."

"Hey!" said Iggy.

"All right," Max corrected herself, "all of us except Iggy. So we've decided to put you through a little test."

Angel stepped forward, her hands clasped neatly behind her back and an innocent smile on her face. "I'm going to read your minds and make sure you're clean," she said brightly. "Don't worry, it won't hurt. We just want to make sure you're not going to turn us in to the whitecoats."

Predictably, Ari growled and folded his arms over his chest. Jeb noticed Fang taking a step toward him, his dark eyes almost glowing with eager anticipation. If Ari noticed, he didn't give it away. "Don't you think we would have done that already?" he asked angrily. "We were just ambushed by a bunch of Erasers! They tried to kill me, too, you know!"

"That could have been a trick," Fang put in with a glare. "You could have made it look like you were being ambushed, just to get us to trust you."

Ari bore his teeth at the dark-eyed mutant. "You think you're worth that much effort?"

"All right, all right." Jeb held up his hands as both mutants took a lunging step toward the other. "Please, let's stay calm here."

"I'm not letting them poke around my head!" Ari said with a vicious jab of his finger in Angel's direction. "She could turn me into…into her mind-slave or something!"

Iggy reached out and ruffled Angel's curls. "Don't worry," he reassured Ari, "she won't do anything like that. She's a good kid. And the flock won't back down from this. I tried telling them that you aren't out to get them or anything, but they don't want to trust me."

Immediately, five pairs of eyes turned toward the blind boy with looks of concern.

"We trust you, Iggy," Max insisted. Her brown eyes darkened as she gestured toward Jeb's side of the room. Suspicion and resentment festered in her words like open wounds. "It's them we don't trust."

Angel trotted forward before Ari could set loose the nasty comment he no doubt held on the tip of his tongue. From Jeb's vantage point, his brawny son nearly eclipsed the tiny, pink-clad girl. "I promise not to hurt you or go through anything you don't want me to see," Angel said earnestly. She reached up a hand and patted Ari reassuringly on the chest, which was as high as she could reach. "I just want to make sure your thoughts on the School and Max are clean."

Ari leaned down toward the little winged girl. Jeb saw Max and the others stiffen, their feet automatically shifting into offensive positions.

"Only thoughts on Max and the School," Ari hissed warningly. "You poke into my memories on anything else from before the Canadian School, and I'll have you for dinner."

Max looked as if she was about to have a spastic breakdown, and Fang made a strangled noise, but Angel only smiled and patted Ari's cheek affectionately.

"No you won't," she said cheerfully. "Now. Go sit down on the bed so I can read your mind."

Jeb had to admit that this moment was…well, just plain amusing. His son would probably ignore him for a week if he caught Jeb smiling, but the sight of Ari perched on the edge of that horrible, paisley-patterned bedspread, his claws folded obediently in his lap while he stared down with wide, uncertain eyes at the tiny, curly-haired girl before him, was too good not to grin at.

"Okay," said Angel. She got down on her knees, leaned back on her heels and folded her hands neatly over her dress. "Everyone be quiet. I'm focusing."

At first, nothing happened. Ari sat and stared at Angel with an obviously-fake bored expression, and Angel stared back with an intensity that was more than a little intimidating for a girl her age. A minute passed, two minutes, three. Then Ari shuddered. It was like a fine earthquake went through the center of his core and spread down into the very tips of his fingers.

"Not those," he said hoarsely. "All right. All right, stop."

Angel sat back and nodded crisply. "He's clean," she said simply. Max's mouth fell open a fraction.

"Uhh…Ange, you're…you're sure?" she asked, looking between the golden-haired girl and the hulking mutant who was still staring at Angel as if she'd tried to eat him alive. "Just like that?"

"Well," Angel said, "he's got a bad temper, he pretty much hates us all—except Iggy, he likes Iggy—but he hates the School more. That ambush was never part of a plan he made up, it was as surprising to him as it was to us."

Max took a reluctant step back. "Okay," she said, sending an uncertain glance Ari's way. "But we're watching you. Jacob's next."

Jacob took the mind-reading much better than Ari had. He sat neatly in his chair the entire time with an attentive look on his face. The only time his expression registered anything other than polite thoughtfulness was toward the end of the session, when Jeb knew Angel must have gotten close to the reason Jacob was employed by Itex. The man made an oddly broken noise, his expression crumpling, at which point Angel hurriedly backed out of his memories.

"I'm sorry about your son," she said, so quietly that Jeb could barely hear her. Then she turned to Max and said, her expression unbreakably serious, "You would have to worry about me turning bad before you worried about him."

Surprisingly, Max only sent Jacob one thoughtful look before turning on her heel…to look straight at Jeb. He almost bowed his shoulders under the weight of her gaze. In her narrowed eyes he saw all of the resentment, hatred and disgust that had built up from the moment he had shown up alive and "in league" with the whitecoats. It was then that he realized the only way he would win Maximum Ride's trust again was by a miracle. And he didn't believe in those.

"Your turn, Jeb," Max said, and her voice was frighteningly calm. "Angel? Do your worst."

Jeb sat rigidly still in the only other chair in the room, his heart tripping over itself as it hadn't done since he had orchestrated the flock's escape from the School four years ago. Angel stood in front of him with a grave expression on her young face. Her eyes were large and blue and unforgiving.

I tried, Jeb thought, knowing she would hear him. He only hoped she detected the real remorse in his voice. I tried to be a good father and a good mentor at the same time. I guess I failed, didn't I?

Angel's expression didn't change an inch. A little, she thought, and then she was in.

Flash. Back in the E-shaped house, cradling baby Angel in his arms, reading to the flock from a storybook. Peace. Contentment. Back when they were a family. A burst of pain went through him, but he knew it wasn't his pain because Angel hurled the image away with a little cry and moved on. Everything was made of disjointed images, all rushed and jumbled together like a child's painting, running into each other, until Jeb wasn't sure what was past and what was the long-gone past.

Leaving the flock. Regret, reluctance, maybe it would be better if I stayed after all—no, be strong, leave them, it's for the best—Maximum Ride will save the world—

At the School. Electrocution. Experimentation. They experimented on themselves, too, and they carved me because they couldn't let me get off scotch free when I had "betrayed" Itex—no one will ever see my scars, no one will ever get close enough to see, this I swear—

Max, thought Angel, trying to make him focus. Jeb almost winced at the memories that came slamming through his head, images of Max in a cage, Max spread-eagled on an operation table, Max driving her fist into an Eraser's face, Max hugging him, Max hating him, saying nothing, only glaring, glaring, hating, and he wanted to tell her why he was doing this but he couldn't. He loved her and the flock more than life itself, but he couldn't say it. Because she would never understand why he had abandoned his family for the greater good.

He had made sure she wouldn't. He'd taught her to be a better person than that.

Finally, the deluge stopped. Jeb sagged back against his chair, exhausted. His head was hot and pounding, as if all the blood in his brain had caught fire and was being pumped through with all the force behind a jet plane's engine. Angel stared at him for a long time, silent. She waited until he had calmed down until she reached forward and put a small hand on his knee.

"You loved us?" she murmured. Her voice quavered, and once again Jeb was reminded of how young they all were, how young and vulnerable and hurt he'd left their hearts.

"I did," he said. His throat was suddenly dry, and he swallowed thickly. "I do," he amended. Angel's lip quivered.

"But you left," she said.

"I was a fool." Jeb curled his fingers into fists and looked away, remembering. "I thought that…if I left, you would all be forced to learn to support yourselves. I thought it would…make you stronger. I wanted you to survive. I wanted to help you survive. I took the inside job because it gave me inside information. I kept the Erasers from you for two years."

He looked back to her and saw that her lip was stiffening, her young, girlish face retreating behind its inscrutable mask. "It wasn't worth it," he said quietly. "The information, the insight into Itex's very foundations, all this information I would have killed to have before…it wasn't worth it, in the end. Because I lost you. I lost all of you. And nothing is worth that."

Angel's eyes were red. She reached up her arms and keened, "Jeb," in a long, lost little wail that struck down all of his barriers and left him only a man responding to his daughter's call. He reached out and scooped up the little girl, who buried her face in his shoulder and let her tears stain his shirt.

"All right," he shushed, patting her on the back. His throat wound tight, and he coughed, fighting back the prickling heat behind his eyes. "All right, Angel, it's all right."

He looked up to find everyone's eyes on them. Ari's face displayed a solemnity that was rare for him, Jacob was looking away out of courtesy, and the flock members had varying degrees of surprise and confliction on their faces. Jeb's gaze went to Max, who above all else looked as if she wasn't sure whether she should join in or rip Angel away from him. A myriad of emotions flashed across her face: worry, relief, confusion, and then she took a step back and did what he'd taught her to do best.

"I'll be in the room," she muttered, spun on her heel, and practically bolted out the door. In a neat row, Fang, Gazzy and Nudge followed her out. Of the flock only Iggy and Angel remained.

"Well," said Iggy, pretending to look around the silent room, "on a scale of one to ten on the shocker-o-meter for the flock, I'd give that a nice eleven."

Ari snorted and almost-playfully cuffed Iggy on the back of his head. The blind boy rubbed his head and glared, to which Ari only raised an eyebrow and growled, "Aren't you going to follow the rest of them?"

Iggy held out his arms. "Do you see me going anywhere? I think I'll spend the night here, if that's okay. Things seem kinda tense over in flock-land."

"Whatever," Ari shrugged, but Jeb could tell his son was pleased.

Jacob got up from his chair and smoothed his hand over Angel's ruffled hair. "Is she okay?" he asked, speaking in the tone people reserved around sleeping babies.

"I'm okay," Angel answered quietly, prying herself out of Jeb's arms. She stood on the floor and wiped the tears off her cheeks. Despite the fact that she had just cried on the shoulder of the man her flock hated, a small, budding smile worked its way across her lips.

"You can stay in here if you need to," Jeb suggested slowly, still uncertain as to what the little girl thought of him, but Angel shook her head.

"I think I'd better go back to the flock so I can tell them that you're okay," she said. Jeb nodded and watched her slip out of the room. She didn't turn back and she didn't say another word.

Iggy sat down on the nearest bed with a heavy sigh. "I don't even know what to say right now," he huffed. "You guys have already done so much to prove you aren't on Itex's side. I believe you. I mean, I can't not believe you after everything, but…what do they want?"

Jeb sighed and got up from his chair. He felt like a man twice his age, rickety, heavy, bound to crumble to dust at any moment. But fate wasn't that merciful.

"They want me to go back in time and undo that first, horrible mistake I made," he said. "They want my betrayal to have never happened."

Iggy ground his teeth in frustration. "But you can't!" he cried, almost tearing at his hair in his ire. "It's impossible! They're asking for something impossible."

"I know," Jeb said listlessly, and Iggy fell into a sullen silence.

They rested and brooded for a time, waiting on the edge of their wits for the flock to come knocking again. At first Iggy looked somewhat put-out that his family members hadn't come back for him, then he looked angry, and he finally descended into a mood that was half self-righteous, half peeved.

Eventually, their bodies decided to remind them that none of them were invincible, and Jeb and Jacob set off to find food. When they came back Iggy and Ari were parked in front of the fuzzy-screened TV, equally intense looks of rapture on their faces. Neither of them had ever spent much time with television, and even for Iggy, who had to go by the sound effects and Ari's limited descriptions, the experience was just absorbing enough to make them forget about their current situation.

The mismatched group of scientists and mutants ate their fill and collapsed immediately after. Jacob wound up falling asleep in his chair, and Ari and Iggy sprawled in separate beds. Jeb sat himself down at the room's cramped desk and set to work examining the trigger, determined that as long as he had some quiet time, he would find out as much about the Extermination Effect as he could. He had a mission to complete.

An undetermined amount of time later, he found himself waking up with his face cushioned on his arms and his neck set at an odd angle.

And someone was screaming.

Jeb bolted upright and shot to his feet. Iggy was thrashing around in his bed, feet and hands flying everywhere, his long limbs lashing out against unseen enemies. Ari was trying to grab on to the other boy, but a dark bruise over his eye told Jeb he was having little success.

"What happened?" Jacob asked, stirring in his chair. He saw Iggy and scrambled to his feet. "What's wrong?"

"I don't know!" Ari shouted. He reached out and managed to snag one of Iggy's flailing hands, but the boy jerked it out of his grip and lashed out again. Ari dodged and added, "I woke up because he was whimpering and stuff in his sleep, and then he starts screaming his head off for no reason!"

Frantic knocking erupted on the door. "I'll get it," Jacob offered, and hurried across the room. As soon as he pulled open the door, five anxious mutants came piling into the room.

"What's going on?" Max asked sharply. Her gaze shifted from Iggy's flailing, shrieking figure to Jeb and back again. "What did you do to him?"

"Nothing," Jeb protested. "He's having a very bad nightmare." He ignored Max's incredulous cry and listened closely to Iggy's shouts. There were words lost in there, and as he paid more attention they became clear.

"Get away!" the boy was yelling. "No—no more, please, I don't want to see this anymore, I don't want to see—I can't—no more, no more, no more no more no more…"

Jeb blanched. It sounded like…like…

"Jeb!" Max's piercing call brought him from his thoughts. "What is wrong with him?"

"They had a new serum at the School," Jeb answered hoarsely. "It makes the subject hallucinate. I don't know what Iggy saw, but whatever it was, it was so terrible that he nearly beat himself unconscious going through spasms."

The blood drained from Max's face. The Gasman looked as if he was going to be sick, and Nudge had her hands clamped over her mouth, her eyes wide and glistening.

"You let them torture him?" Fang asked accusingly. Jeb flinched, but before he could make a reply, Ari lunged forward and finally grabbed onto both of Iggy's wrists.

"Runt, wake up!" he bellowed. Iggy's eyes flew open and he jerked away, panting.

"Wh—" he stammered, his eyes wide and staring. Terrified. "Wh-where…where am I?"

"The hotel," Ari said. "Canada someplace. With your flock. Remember?"

"The flock," Iggy repeated. The color faded from his cheeks. He looked like a ghost. "Oh, God," he wheezed. "They're dead. Ari, they're dead, I saw the Erasers cut off their wings—and there was blood everywhere, and it was on me, and—couldn't get it off, couldn't—"

"Listen." Ari gave Iggy a little shake. "Your…flock," he said slowly, punctuating each word with another shake of Iggy's wrists, "ain't…dead. They're right here. Look—someone get over here, show him you're all right."

Max stepped forward slowly with her hands spread out, as if Iggy could see her. He started to shake as she drew near, his eyes roving in the dark room, as if he was seeing unspeakable horrors everywhere his sightless eyes turned. Ari guided Iggy's hands when Max was close enough and made him pat her outstretched wings. Iggy's fingers fisted in Max's feathers and slowly, painfully, the panic began to leave his gaze.

"See?" said Ari, letting go.

Max sat on the bed and took Iggy's hands in hers. "We're okay, Iggy." She led his fingers to her face and waited patiently while he traced over her nose and eyes. "We're all okay. It was just a dream. All right?"

Iggy let out a shuddering sigh and sank back against Ari's shoulder. Max's face registered shock, and then a slow, grudging half-acceptance of the bond between the two mutants.

"Ari," Iggy croaked with a half-hearted smirk, "I don't think I can avoid this thing anymore."

"Yeah," Ari agreed with a breathless, mirthless laugh. "I guess not."

A relieved sigh passed through everyone gathered. Jeb moved behind his son and rested a hand on his shoulder; he could tell Ari was weary, just as worn out from running and dealing with emotional trauma as they all were. When Ari didn't shrug him off or glare, just ignored him, Jeb almost smiled. Then his eyes drifted to where his hand was positioned. And everything fell apart.

He knew there was no way he could have seen it earlier; Ari had been wearing the thick snow jacket the entire day, and it was only when he'd gone to bed that he'd taken it off in favor of the cotton shirt he wore beneath. There was really no way for him to have seen.

Jeb swallowed and backed away, stumbling. Everyone turned, their relieved smiles turning into frowns when his knees hit the back of the other bed and he had to reach out a hand to stop himself from falling.

"Dad?" Ari asked, his eyes confused and concerned. "What's wrong?"

Jeb shook his head. There were no words for what he'd seen.


Numbers on the back of Ari's neck.

Anne took her away from the door of Nehemiah's office, trembling. She knew her employer could act somewhat…unhinged at the best of times. She accepted it and learned to pretend that it was nothing out of the ordinary. But not even she could pretend this was normal.

Carefully, Anne pushed the door open the slightest crack and peeked through. What she saw and heard made her quickly back out and close the door again, but not before she had gotten a clear picture of what was inside.

She walked away with hurried, clipped steps, her heart pounding. In her eyes was burned the image of Nehemiah Stark, doubled over his desk with uncontrollable, wicked laughter, while on the desk rested a silver trigger, exactly like the ones they used to terminate Erasers.

A/N: The endgame is revealed.

Stark, if they didn't hate you before, they certainly must hate you now. BUT hopefully that hate doesn't extend to the authoress. :)

checksthisatleastweekly: Thanks! You know, I actually hadn't realized that I was creating parallels between the two groups thinking about leaving each other - I just went with what I thought the characters would think. :) Love the name, btw.


22. The Abomination and His Amusements

12/10/10 P.U.L.L. post for Bookaholic711's anti-writer's block project.

Dear criminey. I had a ton of trouble with this chapter. Don't know why; it might be because we're approaching the end of this story, and getting to the climax is always a hard point for me. (I know someone asked me how long Icaria will turn out to be, but I can only say that I'm not quite sure yet, to be honest. Probably around another five or six chapters. Maybe less, maybe more. Dunno. :D) So reviews would be much, much appreciated.

Aaaanyway, thank you flYegurl, nathan-p, pandorad24, blackberry01, WinterSky101, lillypad22, soccerislife14, Contains Demons, Ren09, BeTrueToThyself, and AmyQueen95 for reviewing. That last chapter was nerve-wracking to write, so your support was even more awesome to me than usual. =)

Warnings: Brief language in the Jeb-POV, which comes right after this opening Stark segment.

Disclaimer: MR isn't mine. Jacob, Stark, various other OC's and the plot for this story are, though.

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Abomination and His Amusements

The enemy was winning.

Nehemiah had sent a legion of Erasers after the fugitives, had kept in touch with his men the entire time they scoured earth and sky with their guns ready and their teeth bared. Batchelder and his freaks had been in Banff, if reports from the local police department were to be believed, but no one knew when they'd departed or how. Nehemiah had been forced to split the legion, sending squads of Erasers and whitecoats in a dozen different directions with threats of imprisonment and dismemberment if the fugitives were not located within the day. Hours later, a squad reported back: they had intercepted the enemy on a countryside road and were engaged in combat.

A thrill of excitement had gone through Nehemiah. Again, he would have Batchelder and the Director's prized mutants in his hands. He would deliver the mutants to the Director wrapped in a big bow stained red with their own blood, and when she granted him anything he wanted for giving her what no one else could, he would ask for only two things.

A position at Itex Headquarters, a secure place in the heart of the company where he could rise to his full potential…and Jebidiah Batchelder.

He would make the man pay, would physically take him apart the way Batchelder had threatened to dismantle everything Nehemiah worked so hard to achieve. First would come the fingernails. Little things they were, but Nehemiah had discovered at an early age, when the other children at school had taunted and pushed him around because of the odd color of his eyes, that ripping them off with a blunt object caused excruciating pain. In his scientific opinion, the best part about the procedure was that, despite the agony of it, the subject did not die from blood loss. So, start with the fingernails.

Then would come the feet, beginning with an amputation near the metatarsal bones and working up from there, then the legs, in neat and separate segments. So Batchelder couldn't run away. Then Nehemiah would have the wounds sewn up and cauterized, treated to prevent infection, and still Batchelder would not die. Not yet. Still to come were the fingers, the hands, then the arms up to the elbows, and finally the entire limbs altogether. He had been wondering about what a certain poison would do when inhaled through the lungs. Destroy the traitor from the inside out, as Batchelder had planned to do to Itex. He could almost taste the delicious irony of it on his tongue.

Then, then Batchelder would be dead. A fitting death for a traitor. And Nehemiah would take a picture, and frame it, yes, though he wasn't usually a sentimental man. Or maybe he would come up with more methods later on, when he was bored of ordering around Erasers and underlings. Still plenty of time to concoct torture methods. Still plenty of time.

But for the moment, Nehemiah was in a troublesome spot. The squad that had failed to capture Batchelder's brood couldn't shame the doctor anymore from the ditch their bodies had been dumped into, but now Nehemiah was in the difficult position of finding the fugitives once more and bringing them back. It would take time. Batchelder, as much as he hated the man, was not stupid. He would run. He would hide the flock as he had for two entire years, safe from prying eyes and searching bullets. Nehemiah couldn't afford to wait two weeks, let alone two years.

What to do, what to do?

Currently he was seated in his office, twirling a pen between his long fingers. Outside his wall-length window the world was dark, almost pitch-black in the night. Somewhere out there, in the cold, was his prey. And he had to find a way to reel them back in before the Director had his head.

Idly, Nehemiah's thoughts wandered to the bodies of the unsuccessful Erasers. Perhaps he should have brought one of them back to display in the Erasers' mess hall. Then they would see proof of what happened when they failed him.

Nehemiah paused. Issues dealing with the dead Erasers brought his train of thought back to a very important subject that had come to his attention: the Erasers' expiration dates. He had known about the termination chip and its ultimate purpose for a long time, but it seemed that Erasers were getting antsier about the issue, trying in their clumsy, futile ways to find some method of stopping their death from bearing down on them. Stupid creatures. Sometimes the expiration date came naturally, and sometimes (with particularly unruly Erasers) the whitecoats activated it.

The pen abruptly stopped moving between Nehemiah's fingers and clattered to the desk.

He could activate an Eraser's expiration date. Ah, he'd forgotten about that minor detail. Now it might serve him better than it ever had before.

Nehemiah rose calmly to his feet, still using that blasted crutch, and took out a key from his lab coat's pocket. The triggers used to activate an Eraser's expiration date looked much like the one he had designed to control the Extermination Effect, albeit they were smaller and slimmer in appearance, almost akin to thick thermometers. Nehemiah had one for each Eraser his School produced. He kept them locked safe and secure in a hidden room adjacent to his office; it was accessible only by entering a code into the keypad attached to the wall.

He pressed a series of numbers into the keypad and waited patiently while the wall slid up into a vent in the ceiling, revealing a simple, metal-plated door. Nehemiah slid the key into the lock, twisted, and stepped through.

The room was massive in length, rectangular and made entirely of sharp edges and steel. Six rows of plastic shelving stretched down the room's length. Each of them carried hundreds of termination-triggers. The triggers were kept safe in thick metal cases, in case something ever happened and the shelves toppled.

As Nehemiah entered, motion-activated lights came to life in the ceiling, flooding the room with a silver-white glow. The doctor made his way down the aisles. He knew which trigger he would take without looking toward the directory he'd had installed, in case he had to send someone else in.

He located the trigger of an Eraser that had been in the squad he'd had "deployed." The creature wouldn't need it anymore, and Nehemiah had always hated wasting resources. Waste not, he thought, stepping out of the room and locking it behind him, want not.

Calling Anne in on his communicator link was his next step. "Ms. Chen," he crooned into the piece once he heard her soft voice on the other side. "I'm in need of a sample of DNA from Ari Batchelder. Just pick something off the brute's sleeping quarters, I'm sure it shed everywhere. Bring it to my office immediately."

With that, he terminated the connection and sat behind his desk with the trigger out in front of him. No, he did not have a trigger for that mistake Batchelder called his son. But there were times when the whitecoats ran short of triggers to use on certain Erasers, and they had found a way to get over that particular hurdle. The trigger that activated an Eraser's expiration date worked much in the same way as the Extermination Effect trigger. All the device required was a sample of DNA from the subject, some time to read the genetic layout and sync the DNA code with its technology, and the trigger would work as well as if it had been designed for that Eraser from the very beginning.

Nehemiah waited patiently for Anne to arrive. She would be as quick as possible, he knew, if not out of fear then out of reverence. He counted the minutes down as they passed. One, two, three, five now, six…and there it was, her timid knock on his door.

"Enter," he drawled. Anne stepped through the door with a fold of cloth held in her hands. She looked at him nervously, dark eyes wide and wondering as they always were when he was their focus, but he merely motioned her forward impatiently.

The woman set the cloth down on his desk and said, "I found a strand of his hair, sir. Is there anything el—"

"No, nothing," Nehemiah said curtly. He waved a hand at her and ordered, "Out."

A look of worry passed over Anne's face before she obeyed and scurried out of his office like a frightened rat. The instant she was gone, Nehemiah went to work. He popped the little lever on the trigger's side and opened the device to reveal its contents. Nestled securely amongst a multitude of blinking lights and wires was a single hair, frayed and dark. Nehemiah removed it carefully and tossed it in the trash can. The last trace of a failure of an experiment was gone.

As is this one, Nehemiah thought to himself as he unfolded the cloth Anne brought and displayed the strand of Ari's hair that rested there. He brought the strand up close, savoring the moment, enjoying the knowledge of what he was about to do to Batchelder. He didn't care about the Eraser. Ari was a vessel through which Nehemiah would torture his father. Batchelder would be forced to watch his son die, and unless he came crawling back to Nehemiah, there was no salvation, no miraculous escape. Not this time.

Nehemiah inserted the hair into its proper position and closed the trigger up. The blinking red button rested beneath his finger, begging to be pushed. He waited a moment, calculating in his head.

Once he pressed this button, the Eraser would have exactly two weeks left to live. And Batchelder would break, Nehemiah was certain of this, far earlier than that.

Without another thought, the doctor activated the trigger. There was a hum, the whirring of delicate machinery, and it was done.

Ari Batchelder was as good as dead.

He was numb. Vaguely, he realized that he should have felt something more than this, some streak of agonizing grief that arced through him like a barbed spear, but that had come and gone. Now he was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring down at his hands where they hung limply between his knees.

He was numb. Numb and cold and his son was going to die.

Jeb couldn't remember much of what had happened after he'd discovered the numbers on the back of Ari's neck. He'd been in shock, a haze that stole over him like a fog and wrenched the warmth and feeling from his body until he found himself sitting on the bed, numb and cold, with the flock gone. Someone must have ordered them out—maybe it had been him, maybe he just couldn't remember. Now the only ones in the room with him were Iggy and Jacob.

And Ari. He could hear Ari tearing apart the bathroom from where he was, and he decided that someone must have told the boy, because he was screaming with such a helpless fury that there was no other explanation.

Jeb blinked. His eyes burned, but when he touched his face his cheeks were dry. He couldn't cry. Not yet. His son wasn't dead yet.

The rational part of Jeb's brain, the part that had kept him alive all these years, burst back to life. He rose to his feet, pretending not to see the way Iggy was trembling where he stood. Pretending not to see the way the boy was gritting his teeth in anger.

"This isn't fair," Iggy said darkly. It was the angriest Jeb had ever heard him and it stopped him in his tracks, turning his head toward the shaking boy. Iggy lifted his head and looked Jeb in the eye, his sightless gaze unwavering.

"Can't you do something about this?" he demanded. "You were a whitecoat! You know things! You can stop this, can't you?"

Jeb looked away. Iggy took in a shuddering gasp and shouted, "Can't you?"

"I don't know!" Jeb shouted back. Iggy leaned away, looking shocked. The only sound in the room was the breaking of glass as Ari took out his fury on his surroundings. Jeb winced and made for the bathroom door. It was locked.

"Ari," he called, jiggling the doorknob. "Ari, open the door."

Over the sound of shattering tile, Jeb heard Jacob say to Iggy, "Don't worry, boy. We'll find a way."

"Get away, Jeb!" Ari howled. The man flinched at the pain in his son's voice; he hadn't heard him like this before. Not even when Jeb had returned to the School and Ari had confronted him for the first time in his mutated, disastrous form.

Jeb tightened his grip on the doorknob. "I'm not going anywhere," he said firmly. "Now open the door and let me in."

Ari's only reply was to hurl something heavy at the door. Jeb jerked back when the wood fractured, but stepped forward a second later and pounded on the door with his fist.

"Dammit, Ari, let me in!"

The door was yanked open. Ari loomed in the doorway, towering over his father's smaller figure. Blood stained the side of his neck and the front of his shirt in thin streams. His fingers were bloodied, too, the nails ragged and fractured under the force of his blows. Behind his son's huge figure, Jeb caught glimpses of shattered glass and broken tile. A cabinet had been ripped from its hinges and thrown, nearly breaking the door. Blood spattered the floor.

Ari leaned into his father's face and snarled, his eyes red, cheeks wet, "What do you want?"

Jeb reached up wordlessly and touched the back of his son's neck. Ari flinched away and turned back into the bathroom, his fists shaking at his sides. Jeb followed his son. Inside, the damage done to the bathroom was even worse than it had appeared from outside. Glass crunched beneath his shoes with every step. All that was left of the large mirror was a fractured patch the size of his head. There was blood everywhere, on the walls and on shards of glass, streaking the yellowish walls with vivid color.

From behind, Jeb had a good view of the back of Ari's neck. He sighed and pressed his fingers to the flayed skin. Ari hissed in pain, but didn't draw back from his father's touch.

"You tried to scratch them out?" Jeb asked quietly.

"It worked, didn't it?" Ari stared into the glass at his feet. His expression was reflected over and over at him, a warped, fragmented picture of pain. "Now no one can tell just by looking at me."

"It will get infected." Jeb turned toward the sink, which had managed to remain intact in the midst of Ari's rage. He turned on the faucet and washed his hands under the cold flow. "You should clean it."

"Who cares if it gets infected?" Ari asked angrily. "I'm gonna die anyway."

Jeb's shoulders stiffened. "Don't say that."

"Why not?" Ari spun around and towered over his father's shoulder, looking like he wanted to break something again before he whirled on his heel and lurched aimlessly in a different direction. "It's true," he said emptily.

"You don't know that," Jeb said coolly. Had to get his hands clean. Had to focus on something normal and rational or something inside would break.

Ari laughed mirthlessly. "Oh, yeah," he scoffed, "because the date on the back of my neck didn't mean anything. I got that tattooed on for kicks while you weren't looking. Right."

Focus. "There's still time—"

"For what?" Ari screamed. "I'm dead!"

"Goddammit, don't say that!"

Ari was an entire head taller than his father and then some, but even so, he flinched when Jeb lost the last of his tenuous control and snapped. Jeb took his son by the arms and shook him, saying, "Don't you ever say that again, do you understand me? I don't want to hear it. You. Are not. Going to die."

The boy drew himself up and pulled his arms free of his father's grasp. "Don't kid yourself, old man," he said tiredly. "You can't stop this."

"I can," Jeb insisted, and found that he believed it more than anything else in the world. The idea hardened in his mind, taking form, becoming something more than a promise: a belief. "I can stop it," he said again, and then again, just because Ari was staring at him with something akin to hope. "I will."

Ari's gaze flickered with hope, precious, budding hope. Then he shook his head violently and stepped away. "No you won't," he muttered. "Don't think I can't tell when you're lying just because I'm a kid. You can't stop it."

Before Jeb could reply, Iggy's voice spoke up from the doorway. "Could Stark stop it?" The blind boy's gaze brimmed with desperation as he stared at Jeb. "Jeb? Could he?"

Jeb opened his mouth and closed it again. "No," he said. His shoulders slumped in defeat. "I have no doubt that he's the reason Ari's…expiration date has been activated. It wasn't supposed to—none of this was supposed to happen. Not now, at least. I know for a fact that his expiration date wouldn't have started until much, much later."

Iggy took an anxious step forward. "Then if Stark activated, we have to go back! If he can start it, he should know how to stop it."

Jeb shook his head vehemently. "No. You don't understand. We can't go back; that's exactly what he wants. He wants you and your flock so he can give you to the Director of Itex, and he wants Ari and me dead. But even he couldn't stop this."

"Then what makes you think you can?" Ari demanded. Jeb turned to find his son staring down at him with both desperation and a challenge in his reddened eyes.

"I…" Jeb lowered his head and ran a hand through his hair. He didn't meet his son's gaze again. "I don't know."

Ari snorted and pushed past him without another word. The Eraser-boy ignored Iggy and Jacob entirely and made for the balcony, where he slammed the door shut behind him and paced in the moonlight, not bothering to hide his grisly form. Instinct told Jeb to call his son back in before he attracted attention, but rationality advised him that Ari's rampage had probably already drawn several calls for the police.

"What now?" Iggy asked. He turned to Jeb with a look in his eye that hadn't been there since Jeb's time with the flock. There was trust in that gaze. Deep, dependent trust. "Jeb? What do we do?"

Jeb shook his head. "There's nothing we can do," he said wearily. "Not right now, anyway. All the noise must have drawn attention to us. We're not safe here anymore, we need to keep moving."

"But what about Ari?"

"I'll hold to my promise," Jeb replied. "But for now we need to keep moving. We need to keep ahead of Stark. Go get your flock. We're making a run for it."

There was something in the feeling of dirt churning beneath his running feet, the wind tearing at his hair and stinging his face, the thundering of hot blood in his ears and temples, that got Iggy's heart racing not with adrenaline but with excitement. Being on the run again made him feel…whole, as messed up as it sounded. He felt normal again.

Of course, things were anything but normal. The flock didn't seem to know how to act around him anymore, especially whenever Ari entered the picture. Fang only spoke to him when it was absolutely necessary. For once, the winged children had to resist taking to the air, not only because they were being hunted by drones of helicopters, but because they had with them three wingless, former Itex employees.

And definitely not the least of their troubles: one of said tag-alongs was dying, and no one knew how to stop it.

They traveled on foot for a couple days. Jeb was leading the flock to North Dakota, where he supposedly had a second safe house hidden in the countryside. The plan was to drop in, grab supplies and leave immediately after, but Iggy had to admit that he enjoyed the idea of having a roof over his head for a short while.

Then maybe it would be easier for him to help Ari.

Though the empty expanse of blackness in front of him didn't change, Iggy could never resist sending concerned glances in Ari's direction every now and then. He stuck by the other mutant's side as much as possible and pretended not to feel Max's confused stare or Fang's resentful glower. After they had fled the motel, Ari had fallen into a depression that was as deep and smothering as the ebony that Iggy saw every waking moment of his life. It was as if all of the young Eraser's passion, all of his quick temper and hatred for the flock had gone out the window and shattered on the pavement below.

Ari just seemed so…lifeless, compared to his usual self. The only time he ever broke out of his haze was when Iggy had a nightmare or a hallucination about Stark's serum. Then, Ari would be there in an instant, steady, unmovable, someone Iggy could count on to always be right next to him despite his own problems. Iggy even tried poking at the younger boy's prickly sense of pride to coax some of the fire back into his gaze, but nothing worked. Ari just stood there and absorbed the blows as if nothing in the world mattered anymore. And maybe that was the case, for him. Knowing the exact date of your death and understanding that you wouldn't get to see your eighth birthday did things to one's priorities. Ari just didn't care anymore.

The knowledge filled Iggy's veins with poison fire. No. There was no way Ari was going to just keel over and die. Not after everything they had been through. He'd just started to see the boy as a friend, for goodness' sakes! If he had to, he would go right to Stark and trade himself in for a chance at saving Ari. He would do it in a heartbeat and never mind what the flock said.

Because there was no way he was going to sit by and let a seven-year-old kid die for that abomination's amusement. No freaking way.

"How much farther?"

Nudge's question tugged Iggy out of his determined musings. The normally talkative girl had been quiet for the past half hour, and he thought he knew why; faint rumbling sounds, which had started to grow in volume as the minutes went by, kept emanating from her stomach region. Practically the only way to keep Nudge quiet was to keep her hungry, but there reached a point when the dark-skinned girl would pipe up. And keep piping up.

Sure enough, Nudge continued, "I'm hungry. When was the last time we ate? Seven hours ago? With our metabolisms? The safe house isn't that far away, is it?"

Jeb, who was leading their ragtag group, came to a stop. Iggy had no means of visually taking in his surroundings, but judging by the coolness of the air and the branches that snagged his T-shirt every now and then, he guessed they were deep in the forest.

"I know this path," Jeb answered quietly. Ever since he'd discovered the numbers on the back of Ari's neck, it was almost as if he too had entered his own private depression. He was quieter than Iggy ever remembered him, standing still for minutes at a time without speaking a word to anyone. It was both weird and worrying. "Yes, once we crest this hill, we should be able to see it."

"And there'll be food inside?" The Gasman asked eagerly.

"And there will be food inside, yes," Jeb said tiredly, and they were moving again. Iggy looped his fingers through Ari's belt loop instead of holding onto the Gasman, as he usually would have done. Any little gesture to make the young Eraser feel more at home wasn't below him. Especially since there were only twelve days left to Ari's life.

No, don't think like that, he urged himself. Jeb will find a way to save the kid. He'll whip something out of his pocket at the last minute, just like he used to do. We'll be fine.

By the time they reached the top of the hill, they were all breathing heavily, clinging to each other for support after two days of endless hiking, running, and hiding behind the nearest building whenever a police car or white van drove by. The sight of the safe house, a building of coarse wood melding into the background of the trees around it, sent a vocal wave of relief through the nine refugees.

"How do we get up?" Jacob asked. Iggy frowned in confusion before realizing that this safe house was probably like the one back in Colorado, raised on stilts so the only way to access it was by letting down a ladder or flying.

"One of the children will have to fly up," Jeb replied, answering Iggy's confusion. "It's not locked. Anyone—"

"I'm up," Max said. A pulse of air brushed against the side of Iggy's face, and the dry whumping sound of flapping wings filled his ears as Max flew up above the house's stilts. Iggy rose with the rest of the flock, judging distance by the nearness of his family's wing-beats and the thump of their shoes as they landed on the safe house's porch. The instant he landed, the second the hollow echo of his feet touching wood vibrated through his eardrums, a wave of nostalgia passed through him like a cold chill. He breathed in deeply. It smelled like the E-shaped house in Colorado, like pine and clean air and freedom. It smelled like home.

"I'm so not leaving this place," Nudge gasped, echoing Iggy's sentiments. "It's like…it's just like the E-shaped house. It's like we've gone back home. I want my old room back. I want to go to sleep in my bed and not come out for a week and — omigosh, a couch!"

Iggy smiled as Nudge, Gazzy and Angel slid open a glass door and pattered into what must have been the living room. Fang and Max remained behind with him.

"Found the ladder," Max announced. Iggy heard her step toward the edge of the levitated porch, but just when he thought she would unravel it, she paused.

"Max?" Iggy stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder. She was absolutely still, motionless, her breaths coming shallow and fast. "Max? You have to let them up. They're good, Max, I know they are. They could have hurt us a dozen times over and we're still here."

"They could be waiting it out," Fang suggested darkly. "You have no idea what they're planning."

Iggy clenched his hands into fists. He was starting to get tired of Fang's stubbornness. "They're not planning anything," he retorted. "Max, come on. Look at me. I'm telling you, they're not bad people. Angel scanned them. They've been shot at by the same people Fang thinks they work for. They've saved my life and they're the reason I'm here now. Heck, Ari's dying because he turned against the School."

A quiet breath of air hissed through Max's teeth. Even Fang went quiet in shock. Iggy nodded jerkily, knowing that neither Ari nor Jeb would thank him for telling the flock without their permission. But they needed to know. Otherwise, they wouldn't take that first step in accepting that Jeb, Ari and Jacob weren't their enemies.

"Stark activated his expiration date to punish Jeb," Iggy continued. "If Jeb was really against us, he would have turned back by now. He'd already be gone and he'd probably have given Stark our location. So give it up already, Fang. Come on, Max. They're not here to hurt us."

The only sounds were the breeze rustling through the pine needles and the kids' chatter in the background. From down below, Jeb's footsteps crunched on the layer of dead leaves. "Is everything all right up there?" he called, but Iggy ignored him, staring straight ahead where he knew Max's eyes were. Finally, she sighed.

"I'm…I'm nodding, Ig," she said. "I believe you. I don't really want to, but…I do. 'Kay?"

To show him, she unraveled the ladder. It whistled through the air as it fell and rustled when it hit the leafy ground. Max lashed the ladder's handles around the stilts, securing them. "Come up," she shouted down.

Iggy leaned back and could not help but sigh in relief. He could still feel Fang's unease roiling in the air like a heat wave, but at least he'd avoided one hurdle. For now.

The three remaining fugitives clambered up the ladder. Jeb entered the house as if he'd been there forever and busied himself with cleaning out the kitchen's cabinets of packaged and canned foods to find something for the flock to eat. While he waited, Iggy explored. This safe house was smaller than the E-shaped house, only one level, with a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and three bedrooms.

Oh, great, Iggy thought. Small house. Not much space to hide from each other. This is gonna be fun.

As he expected, the flock voted Jeb out of the decision of whether or not they would remain at the safe house to get some much-needed rest. Jeb was furious, but the flock's trust in him was tenuous at best. He was forced to retreat while the flock took a breather for the rest of the day. The rest of the day soon turned into the wee hours of the next day, during which Iggy was woken up by nightmares again. For a long time he sat on the couch he'd opted to take so Ari could have his bed, gasping into the night and trying to ignore the tears that welled in his eyes and would not spill.

"Jacob is going into town," Jeb said later that same morning. He'd discovered Iggy fiddling around with what he could find in the kitchen sometime around seven a.m. and had joined him in preparing breakfast. "He's going to hand the disc with the surveillance videos over to the local police department with the coordinates to Stark's School in the Rockies. I would go, but they'll be looking for me. Hopefully, the videos will be transferred over to the government. The politicians can take care of Itex from there."

Jeb paused, and by the way the hair on the back of his neck prickled, Iggy knew the ex-whitecoat was studying him. He busied himself with emptying a can of preserved cherries into a straining bowl and asked in a strained tone, "Yeah? What is it?"

"You didn't sleep, did you?" Jeb sighed at Iggy's silence and asked, "Was it the…serum? The hallucinations?"

"I can handle it." Iggy sniffed and dumped the berries into a bowl. "What about you? Aren't you supposed to be working on a way to save Ari?"

Jeb went quiet for a moment. "The situation is under control," he said smoothly. "I'm working on something I think may help him. I can't be sure. But it's better than nothing."

"You only have eleven days," Iggy reminded him. But Jeb wouldn't be goaded. He turned away from Iggy, his silence as heavy and depressing as an endless night.

The day passed as could only be expected. Both Ari and Jeb stayed in their rooms, Ari out of his unwavering depression, and Jeb out of some unknown motivation that was a mystery to everyone in the flock. It was as if the flock members were the only ones in the house. Only when Jacob returned and asked to be let up did something change.

Iggy knew something was wrong the instant the man entered the room. He might not have been able to see, but he wasn't deaf to the way Jacob stumbled to collapse in a chair, the way his breaths came in short, broken gasps. Jeb came pounding down the stairs to join the flock in the living room, and even Ari emerged from his room to see what the commotion was about.

"Jacob?" Jeb went to the other man's side. "What's wrong? Did you deliver the disc? Were you followed?"

"I delivered them. Don't worry, I wasn't followed. They didn't even have time to properly get a snapshot of me before I was out of there." Jacob let out a shaky breath.

"But that's not everything," Jeb guessed.

"No." Jacob laughed mirthlessly. "Stark's gotten impatient. He's not going to give up, Jeb, he's not going to let any of us walk away from this. I don't know how I…ever could have thought that…"

His voice broke and trailed off. Iggy's heart pounded in his chest. He thought he knew what had happened. He wished it wasn't true, but he knew Stark, knew the lengths this one man, this abomination, would go to drive them out of hiding. And he knew that their pains were nothing but amusements to Stark.

"What is it?" Jeb asked, and by the tone of his voice, Iggy could tell he knew, too.

"My son," Jacob said brokenly, and dissolved into tears.

A/N: End chapter twenty-two.

Preview of chapter twenty-three: "The brother of my enemy is also my enemy," Fang said darkly. "And you're lookin' a lot like my enemy right now. So make your choice, Iggy. Whose side are you on?"

Reviiiieeew? :D


23. The Brother of My Enemy

Note: Okay. This is by far the longest chapter I have ever written. Evah. I promise never to do it again, so please just hold through this once. We open up with a Max-POV full of both angst and family fluff – I figured these poor guys deserved a bit of a break, what with everything I'm putting them through. Then we move on to Fang-POV, and finally an Iggy-POV, which we'll close the chapter with. :)

flYegurl, AmyQueen95, blackberry01, pandorad24, lillypad22, BeTrueToThyself, Locked in a Stony Tower, soccerislife14, Setari and WinterSky101 all get a giant hug from yours truly for reviewing! Thank you guys so much. Without your support, the story wouldn't have come this far.

Disclaimer: Maximum Ride isn't mine. Anything you don't recognize is.

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Brother of My Enemy

Max had never seen a whitecoat cry. Once, she'd come close to it; a whitecoat with some bandaged fingers, most likely broken in a skirmish with an unruly mutant, had reached into her cage for a blood sample. She'd lunged forward and bit into the man's broken fingers with sharp, angry teeth, jerking back in surprise when he howled like a hurt puppy and fell back with reddening eyes.

That was as close as the tears had come to falling from a whitecoat's eyes. Before then, she wouldn't have believed someone if he said that the Itex employees were even capable of human emotion.

Now she was watching Jeb, the man she'd thought was dead and then a traitor, consoling his whitecoat friend as Jacob's shoulders heaved with sobs.

Well, this definitely changes your perspective on things, she thought dryly. Great. Now I don't think I can ever go back to thinking that all whitecoats are evil and heartless.

Almost like a bad conscience that popped out and in at the worst times, the Voice in her head decided to add in on her thoughts. Be careful of judging people before you get to know them, it chided. Your world is changing, Maximum. You can't afford to hold onto dead grudges, especially where exceptions like Jacob and your father are concerned.

Max scowled. Anyone ever told you that you're really annoying?

Trust Jeb, the Voice urged her, undaunted by her irritated taunt. Listen to Iggy. Jeb is not here to hurt you. Trust him. You will need him more than you can possibly know.

"Your son," Jeb repeated quietly. Max waited for the Voice to say something more, but it had apparently retreated to let her see events play out.

"Caleb," Jacob said into his large hands. His voice was muffled and strained, but it was undoubtedly the voice of a father in pain. "They took…Caleb. My son. Stark was the one who arranged the cover-up of Tony's murder, he's the only one who could have…dug up the evidence. They arrested Caleb yesterday. Everything I've done, the…atrocities I've committed so my son wouldn't have to…endure this, it's all…useless."

Ohh, thought Max. So this was what Angel meant when she said we would have to worry about her turning bad before we worried about Jacob.

She looked away. It felt like she was intruding on something very personal, something that she wasn't supposed to see, and it was making her insides squirm with awkwardness more than anything else. "Come on," she said quietly, reaching out to her flock. "Let's give them some time, guys."

The flock filed out of the living room and into the hall. The house wasn't very big, so even the halls were cramped; Ari and Fang wound up in the same space and bumped into each other. Max winced, expecting a huge explosion, but Ari didn't even look up. He kept his head down, pushed past Fang and headed back to his room, where he slammed the door shut behind him. A quick glance at Fang revealed a confused expression on the dark-haired boy's face. His forehead was wrinkled in bewilderment, as if he couldn't understand how Ari could pass up a chance at a fight.

"He's…" Fang shook his head, sending overlong tendrils of blue-black hair slipping from his ponytail. Without another word, he stormed down the hall toward a door that led out onto the side porch; Jeb had chosen a house with plenty of escape routes, probably in the event that the flock was discovered by Erasers.

"Where are you going?" Max called after Fang. The rest of the flock members stopped where they were, staring after their quiet brother. A look of consternation twisted Iggy's features, and both Gazzy's and Nudge's foreheads were wrinkled with worry, but Angel looked merely pensive.

"I need some fresh air," Fang said over his shoulder. A moment later he'd pushed open the door and stepped out onto the wooden porch. His ebony wings snapped out, and with a strong push, he was airborne, drifting into the trees.

Max scowled. Oh, no. You're not getting away from this that easily.

"Anyone else up for a quick fly?" she said, stamping toward the porch. The pitter-patter of her flock's footsteps behind her was the only answer she needed. Within seconds the ground was gone beneath her feet, and she was in the air, flapping hard and swerving tightly to avoid crashing into the narrowly-spaced trees.

She leaned her face into the wind and breathed. This was more like it. She hadn't been allowed to fly much between the last few days, what with Jeb and the others stuck on the ground, and feeling the rush of air beneath her wings was heaven, pure and simple.

Now she just needed to stop mooning around and catch up to her high-maintenance, little avoidant of a flock mate.


The tall boy was already several tens of feet higher than her, but Max was faster than any flock member. She angled her wings to catch the wind and sailed high above the tree line, leaving the rest of her flock members behind.

"Hey, you!" she shouted, pulling up beside Fang. He looked at her with something like irritation in his dark eyes. Well, fine. If that was the way he was going to be today…two could play at that game.

"Max," Fang groused, "when I said I wanted some fresh air, that wasn't an invitation."

Oogh. That little…!

There was nothing Max wanted more than to slap the boy upside his head, but she forced herself to grin and bear his attitude for the time being. Come on. Got to get him to cooperate, and he's not going to do that if you yell at him.

"That's exactly what I wanted to talk to you about," Max said. "You've been kind of a jerk lately. Wanna explain why?"

Fang frowned and turned his head away from her. Suddenly growing tired of his standoffish attitude, Max swerved into him, nearly sending him toppling into the treetops.

"Hey," she said angrily. "I'm asking you a question."

Fang whipped his head around, and Max was almost floored by the look of frustration in his black eyes. Almost. "Then let me ask you one, too," the boy retorted. "Can you honestly just stand there and not see that something's wrong with Iggy? He was fine before they kidnapped him! And now that he's back, I don't know…the nightmares and everything…I heard him screaming last night. They did something to him in there, Max! That's my brother they tortured. And Jeb, he…he didn't deny that he just stood there and let them do it."

The wind whistled through Max's ears, a deafening howl. She glanced below them and saw that Iggy and the kids were milling around the treetops, circling and playing games with each other. Relief at seeing Iggy laugh and joke again, at seeing him act his normal self, stole over her.

"He apologized for that, didn't he?" she asked. "You heard him the night Angel scanned them. He's sorry. He made mistakes and he's really, really sorry for them."

"You sound like you've forgiven him already," Fang accused her.

Max sucked in a breath of air through her teeth. Had she forgiven Jeb? Could she forgive him for leaving the flock, for disappearing for two years only to appear a whitecoat again, a traitor, and then allow her blind brother to be experimented on while he watched?

"I haven't," she admitted, shaking her head. She stared grimly into the distance, where the sun had reached its peak and was shining dully through the gray clouds. "I don't know how long it will take me to forgive Jeb, or if I ever will. But Ari hasn't done anything wrong, and neither has Iggy. So I don't get why you're so set against both of them. Especially since we just got Iggy back."

Something pained and conflicted flashed over Fang's countenance before disappearing back into his inscrutable mask. "I'm not against Iggy," he protested. "I just…don't get how he got so attached to that Eraser so fast. Ari kidnapped Angel, Max. And he tried to kill you, too, more than once. How can you guys just…forget that?"

"We haven't!" Max shouted. "I…haven't. But now's not really the time to be passing judgment. Ari's…Ari's going to die." She winced at the words even as they left her lips, but forced herself to continue. "That's pretty much been decided by now. Iggy told me that Jeb is working on something to save him, but…I think Jeb's just grasping at straws here. And Iggy, if he's having these nightmares like this, he needs us to be on his side. Not against him."

"Do you trust them?" Fang asked abruptly, shooting her a dark look out of the corner of his eye. "Jeb and Ari, and that whitecoat they brought along. Do you trust them?"

Max bit her lip in an uncharacteristic display of uncertainty. "I…I don't, not completely," she admitted. "They've done all these things to bring Iggy back to us and I'm thankful for that, and I have to admit that it makes me feel a little better about having them around. It's just kind of hard to just get rid of all that distrust, you know? But…Iggy trusts them. And I'm on his side."

She paused in mid-flight and hovered in the air as best she could, looking her fellow mutant in the eye. Fang stopped and looked back with his usual seriousness, but she could tell that he was wavering, listening to the reason in her words.

"So, Fang," said Max, "whose side are you on?"

Fang narrowed his eyes. At his sides, his hands balled into fists. "I'm just trying to protect my family from anything that tries to hurt them," he said. "That's the only reason I'm doing any of this. What about you, Max? You really think you're protecting our flock by letting them in?"

Max lifted her chin. "Iggy's part of my family," she said sternly. "And whether we like it or not, he's brought Ari and Jeb into our flock. He's made them part of us. Do I think I'm protecting my family? I am protecting my family. Why don't you ask yourself if you're doing the same?"

Fang's features froze in surprise. A moment passed in which his unyielding features softened, and Max felt a brief spark of hope; maybe he was finally coming around.

Then a piercing shriek nearly split her eardrums, and all thoughts about making peace and cooperation shriveled into a little ball and died.

"Iggy, Iggy!" Nudge screamed. "Max—Fang—help us!"

Max and Fang dropped out of the sky on winged heels, moving so fast that the wind jerked their hair high above their heads and their cheeks stung with color. The picture snapped into vivid detail as they came close: Nudge, the Gasman and Angel were fighting to keep Iggy aloft by his arms, wings, anything they could grab onto. Their young faces strained with the effort and their wings flapped frantically.

Iggy had curled into ball, had drawn his knees up to his chest to knock against his chin as he drove his curled fingers into his eyelids, screaming in a horrible wail that seemed to echo across the entire mountainside. Max dove forth and gripped her brother firmly beneath his arms while Fang took hold of Iggy's curled legs and attempted to make them straighten.

"Iggy!" Max shook the lanky boy, but it did nothing to assuage his fears. He kept screaming, his voice breaking as it went higher and higher. She exchanged a look with Fang. "We have to get him on the ground!"

Her heart was pounding in her ears like a drum with a spastic percussionist at the controls, fast and hard and erratic. Come on, Ig, she thought desperately as they maneuvered her yelling brother through the maze of trees. Stay with us. Don't lose it yet, not yet.

He quieted somewhat when they stretched him out on the ground. His terrified shouts died down to whimpers, and he didn't fight back when Max pried his digging fingers away from his vulnerable eyes. "All right, Ig," she said in as soothing a voice as she could muster. "You're all right. We're all here. You're okay. Everything's okay."

Max lifted Iggy's head to rest on her knees and wiped his sweat-drenched, overlong bangs out of his closed eyes. On impulse, she shifted and angled her wing to brush her feathers against his face. At first he cried out and flinched away, tears welling up at the corners of his eyes, and then he seemed to shudder and calm. He leaned toward her and lifted up a trembling hand. She didn't pull away, not even when he curled his fingers into her feathers and held on with such a desperate grip that it grew painful for her.

"Shh," she said soothingly. The last of his whimpers dissolved away, and he was left shaking and frightened, but silent at last. Max stroked his forehead and lifted her gaze to her flock.

Their expressions ranged from tearful to shocked, with Nudge holding back horrified sobs, the Gasman staring at his best friend as if he'd never seen him before, and Angel looking at her hands with reddened eyes. Fang, Max was surprised to see, had somehow gotten hold of Iggy's hand during the commotion and was holding on as if nothing in the world could make him let go. His expression was grave, lightless. His jaw shook with barely-concealed rage at what had been done to his brother.

Max's gaze searched her flock while she asked, "What happened?"

Nudge shook her head when a couple more tears streaked down her cheeks, and Angel didn't seem to see anything but her hands stretched out in front of her. The Gasman lifted his flushed face and answered, "I don't…I don't know! We were playing, we w-were joking around, and I came in close to brush my wing against his, you know, like we do sometimes? And he…he turned all pale and started screaming, and h-he fell, and…"

The small boy broke off and shuddered. "And I'm sorry if I did something wrong, I didn't mean to," he whimpered.

Max shook her head and lifted a hand to touch Gazzy's cheek. "This isn't your fault, kiddo," she sighed. "Okay?"

Gazzy nodded tearfully. From the ground, Iggy finally uncurled his fingers from around Max's fingers and let his arm drop to his side.

"Sorry," he breathed, and she was so stunned for a moment that he was apologizing, apologizing when they should have been asking his forgiveness for almost letting him go through this alone, that her mouth dropped open.

"You?" Max let out a humorless laugh and tucked Iggy's hair behind his ear. "What are you sorry for? It's those whitecoats who are gonna be sorry once we get our hands on them."

A faint flicker of a smile worked its way over Iggy's bloodless lips. "'M sorry for…for freaking out on you like that," he shuddered. "I didn't…want to make any of you cry. You're crying, Nudge, aren't you? I can hear you."

Nudge sobbed and buried her face in Iggy's shirt. "You scared us," she whispered.

"Before you say sorry again," Max said gently, seeing the expression on Iggy's face, "I have to ask you if you can tell us…what you saw. We want to help you, Ig, but if we don't know what you're going through, we can't do anything."

Iggy shivered and struggled to his elbows. Max and the others held him rise into a sitting position, where he stayed with his weight leaned back on his hands. He stared into the distance, unseeing, but he must have been seeing something; his eyes darted to and fro as if searching for something in the emptiness, lost.

"I saw…you. All of you," he said shakily. A tremor went through him and he shook his head, as if he were a dog trying to shake off a coat of water. "I can't…I don't think I can tell you everything I saw. But we were…in a white room. At the School. And the Erasers came in with saws, and they…they…"

"Okay." Max put her hand on Iggy's shivering shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. "Okay, Ig. You don't have to say anymore, we've got you."

"I know that none of it was real," Iggy pressed on, "and I know I shouldn't let it bother me like this. I should be…stronger. I mean, I have to put up with you guys all day, I should be used to torture, right?"

He laughed weakly at his frail attempt at a joke, but the sound died in the quietness that surrounded them. "The images, they just…won't go away," he finished softly. His head drooped, as if a giant weight was pressing down on him from behind and above, and Max felt the sudden urge to envelop the younger boy in a hug.

Never one to ignore her instincts, she did just that. "I know, Iggy," she said. "But we're here for you. All of us."

And because she didn't know if he got the message, Max lifted her eyes to Fang's at that moment. She saw something shift in his dark orbs, something that relaxed the stern planes of his face and made him seem more like the Fang who could get her heart racing with a single look. He nodded silently, and though his expression gave away no signs, she saw him squeeze Iggy's hand.

They headed back to the house as soon as Iggy was well enough to fly again. Max made him sit down on the couch, threatening bodily harm if he didn't get some rest; she'd squeezed out of him the admittance that he'd barely gotten an hour of sleep the night before, and there was no way she was going to have Iggy made more vulnerable to the serum's effects if she could help it. Sure enough, Iggy crashed not five minutes after Max got him to lie down on the couch's cushions. She took his obnoxious snoring as a good sign, and made Fang sit with him in case the boy had nightmares while she went to fetch a blanket and a pillow.

Jeb and Jacob had already cleared out of the living room by this time and had retreated to Jeb's office. Max needed to pass by their closed door to get blankets from her room; hushed voices leaked out when she crept past. She caught bits of a conversation about some sort of trigger and a termination chip before the two men fell suddenly silent. Footsteps approached the door, and Max scurried down the hall before she could be caught.

She spread the blankets over Iggy's sleeping form with a gentleness that she would have denied had anyone claimed to have seen it, and abruptly remembered, "Oh—hold on, I forgot to get him a pillow."

Max turned back into the hallway to her room, and just as she was coming back out with a pillow in her hands, Ari opened the door to his room and stepped out into her path.

The two mutants stopped for a moment and stared at each other in surprise. Then Ari's gaze wandered to the pillow in Max's hands, and a look of mild confusion crossed his face.

"Uh," grunted Max. It was strange, but she felt the urge to explain what and who the pillow was for. "Iggy's passed out on the couch. I was just bringing him a pillow."

Ari's eyebrows went up in surprise. "Is he okay?" he asked, and his voice was so young and worried that Max rocked back on her heels in shock.

"Uh…yeah," she answered unsurely, "he's fine. He just had a bit of an episode with the serum earlier, and—"

"I should go see him," Ari decided. He turned without another word to her and strode down the hallway into the living room. Max stood stock still, her mouth gaping open and the pillow hanging limply from her hands. Well. That had been…really weird.

She went back into the living room to find Ari and Fang staring at one another, not unlike two very big, very strong cats glaring off in a territorial competition. Well, that was what it reminded her of—cats, with their strange, quiet intensity that seemed to convey a million messages in a single glare. The thought brought an image of Fang and Ari with long striped tails to the forefront of her mind, and she quickly stepped forward before she could either weird herself out or laugh.

"Here," she murmured, pushing the pillow beneath Iggy's head. He didn't even stir, a testament to how exhausted he was. Max straightened and looked around the room. Angel and Gazzy were seated on the same chair, their gazes caught uneasily between Fang and Ari. Nudge was sprawled on the other couch, looking dazed by the rush of emotions she'd experienced earlier. Max felt pretty much the same way, but one look at Ari, who had shrugged off Fang's stare and headed for the only open chair left, told her that she had to be on her toes.

True, Ari had been acting differently ever since the motel; she guessed that was when he'd found out he had only two weeks to live. It almost seemed as if he'd become younger—not physically, but mentally. When he did speak, it was in monosyllabic sentences in which he sounded meek and unsure of himself, not at all like the raving lunatic who had kidnapped Angel.

So he's only seven years old after all, she thought, looking at his hulking frame. Slumped tiredly in the chair, he didn't look as big as she remembered him. He wasn't small, not by any sane person's standards, but he didn't have the raging passion and hatred that she knew him for and it somehow made him…well, not as big a presence as she was used to.

"Who wants lunch?" Max was as surprised by her outburst as the flock was, but she didn't care. She was going to stuff these kids full of food; she was tired of people around here looking so run down and dead all the time.

She winced and sent a guilty glance in Ari's direction. Woops. Bad choice of words.

"You, cook?" Fang lifted an eyebrow and got to his feet from his kneeling position by Iggy's side. "I don't think so. I'll do it. Even I'm better than you."

"I can cook simple stuff!" Max put her hands on her hips and gave Fang a challenging look. He sighed.

"Fine. I guess I can let you touch the spaghetti," he relented. Max moved to follow him into the kitchen but paused at the last moment, turning around. Ari was staring silently at Iggy's unconscious form, his brow wrinkled with worry. There was genuine concern in those big blue eyes, and though it was weirder to Max than anything she'd seen in a long time, there was no denying the Eraser actually cared.

She took a deep breath and gathered around herself the words she'd said to Fang. Like it or not, she thought, Iggy's made this guy part of my family. So if I want to make Iggy happy, I have to treat Ari like part of the flock.

"Ari?" Max said in an unthreatening tone. "Is spaghetti okay with you?"

Ari stared at her as if she'd just asked him if she could take a bite out of his ear, appalled and more than a little confused. In her peripheral vision, Max saw Gazzy, Angel and Nudge all turn toward her with goldfish expressions.

"Um…yeah," Ari finally said. "I like spaghetti."

"Okay. Well, uh…good."

That was, without a doubt, one of the most awkward things I have ever done in my entire life. But…Max had to admit that she felt a little better for it. At least she was trying to make the kid feel more comfortable.

Lunch was just as awkward, if not more so, with Ari sticking out at the dinner table like a particularly bulky sore thumb. Max pretended not to notice the uneasy silence. She figured that the best way to make Ari feel at home was to act as if he'd always been a part of their flock. It was incredibly hard, since the sight of him kept bringing back bad memories, but her efforts were worth it when Iggy woke up to find Ari sitting amongst the flock. She hadn't seen his face light up like that in a long time.

So, Max set to work on a new project: making Ari a part of the family. She started small, like asking him what he wanted for breakfast, dinner or lunch. After a day or so, he started to look not quite as awkward about being asked his opinion, and openly admitted whether or not he liked something they were going to eat. Max did her best to fit the needs of the flock and Ari together, and the result?

She actually got a smile out of him. It came at the most random of times and would have made her mouth fall open if she hadn't been hoping for it all along.

She had gone to his room and knocked, pleasantly surprised when he opened it without making her wait. "Ari, Iggy's making chocolate chip cookies," she said. "Uh…I was wondering if you wanted any. He makes the best cookies. They're like heaven in your mouth, I swear. You've gotta have some."

And he'd actually smiled, just a little one, a teeny twitch of the corners of his lips, but it was still a smile. As if her cookie offer had just brightened his day. "Yeah," he said. His voice, no matter how young his words sounded, was still gruff and deep, and the single word of acceptance came out a harsh demand. He seemed to realize this and winced before amending, almost timidly, "I mean…yes please."

Then Max's mouth dropped open. "I, uh…okay, sure," she said, and headed back down the hall before she could make more of a fool of herself.

Four days went by. Jeb and Jacob remained locked away in the former's office, emerging rarely, probably sleeping even less if the shadows beneath their eyes meant anything, barely uttering a word to anyone when they did come out. No one knew what they were working on. Jeb had said that it was a project he hoped would save Ari's life, but he wouldn't provide details. Originally, Max would have leapt to the conclusion that Jeb wouldn't say because he really had no idea what he was doing. Now, she wondered if he wasn't revealing anything because he didn't want to get anyone's hopes up.

With barely a week left before Ari's expiration date, and Jeb practically living in his office, Iggy asked Max if she could find anything on Ari's condition on the laptop she'd stolen from the whitecoats. They searched for an entire day, sitting in Max's room and taking notes. One by one, the rest of the flock—even Fang—filed in and joined in on the group effort, forming hypotheses, making guesses, and getting absolutely nowhere.

"That's it," Iggy groaned, tossing a pile of notes onto a nearby desk. "There's nothing in here. Nothing."

Max sighed and studied Iggy's defeated form. His shoulders were slumped in dismay, his eyes staring sightlessly at a spot on the floor.

"Hey," she said, giving him a light push on the shoulder. "Let's go outside. Huh? Take a walk. We'll invite Ari along."

The flock, and its new member, trekked over the forest floor. After almost a day of being cooped up inside around the computer screen, the breath of fresh air felt like it was cleaning out all the frustration that had built up inside Max. She was…not quite surprised to find that she actually wanted to find a way to save Ari. The kid really wasn't that bad, now that his hatred and maniacal rage were gone. He didn't deserve to die. Besides, she thought, sliding a sidelong glance at Iggy and Ari, who were walking side by side and chatting, it would crush Iggy.

Before long, the flock came upon a thick stream. Gazzy and Angel immediately headed for it with happy cheers, while the rest of the mutants followed at a slower pace.

"Ack!" Angel wheeled backwards when her big brother stamped into the stream and sprayed her with water. "Gazzy, that's freezing!"

The Gasman only grinned mischievously and stomped his feet in the water. Angel backed away with a high-pitched squeal and scurried to Max's side. Max laughed and ruffled the younger girl's hair fondly.

"Come on, Ange, it's just water," she said.

Angel narrowed her eyes. "But it's really cold water!"

From the stream, Gazzy reached down and splashed water in his sister's direction. Angel squeaked and danced out of range, behind Ari's bulky frame. The young Eraser looked mildly surprised, but he didn't protest as he once would have.

Nudge ventured forward with tentative footsteps. "Do you think this water is clean?" she asked, bending down to cup some water in her hands. A sneaky smile crossed Gazzy's face, and before Max could spurt out a warning, the blond-haired boy had splashed Nudge from head to foot.

The dark-skinned girl staggered back, sputtering. "Gazzy!" she shrieked, and dove into the water after him. The stream was deep enough that the water came up to Nudge's knees and a little higher on Gazzy, and after a round of splashing both children were soaked and shivering.

Max shook her head and found a place to sit down where she wouldn't get splashed. Fang came down and sat next to her. She gave him a small smile, and to her immense relief, he returned it this time.

"Nyah-nyah!" teased Angel, peeking around Ari's leg. "Can't get me, Gazzy!"

The Gasman never had been able to ignore a challenge. In a quick lunge he cupped some water in his hands and hurled it in Angel's direction. With a shriek, Angel disappeared behind Ari again, leaving the young Eraser in the water's path.

The water splashed across Ari's chest. Everyone went quiet for a moment, silent, waiting to see how the big Eraser would react.

At first, Ari looked merely stunned. Then, something dangerous and wicked twitched at his lips, and he stepped forward into the stream. His huge hands reached down, cupped nearly a bowl's worth of frigid mountain water, and hurled it Gazzy's way.

If it was at all possible, the Gasman was even more drenched than before. He stood in the middle of the stream with a shocked cast to his face, his usually spiky hair flattened against his head and his eyes wide in their sockets.

Nudge giggled. "Serves you right, Gaz."

"Hey!" The Gasman leaned forward and splashed Nudge before whirling and splashing Ari, too. Iggy joined in before Ari could retaliate, and from there the five mutants burst into a chaotic mess of squeals, flying water and laughter.

Max smiled and stretched out on the leafy ground. "They haven't done that in a long time," she said, staring up into the trees. "Just…play, I mean. Without worrying about anything."

"Hmm," said Fang. He lay down beside her and folded his arms beneath his heads. "They finally get to be kids again."

The younger mutants played for a long time; how long, Max couldn't be sure. She had just started to drift off, her eyelids drooping closed, when Ari shouted, "Hey!"

Max shot up into a sitting position. Ari's hostile tone brought out her battle instincts, and though she knew that he wasn't a threat, she rose to her feet ready for a fight. What she saw made her stop in her tracks, panic rising in her throat.

Iggy, Gazzy, Nudge and Ari were all gathered in one spot in the middle of the wide stream. A short distance away from them, floating facedown in the water, was Angel.

Angel! Max ran toward the unmoving girl. She hadn't been paying attention. She should have been watching the kids, making sure Angel didn't get caught in the middle somehow and knocked over. Stupid, stupid! Of course no one would have noticed, they were all so much bigger than her—

But Ari had noticed. Before Max could even take that first step toward her baby, he'd lunged forward and pulled Angel from the water. She hung from his giant fist, limp and tiny as a rag doll compared to him. Her big blue eyes blinked owlishly.

"Angel!" Max ran up and scooped Angel in her arms, clutching her tightly, protectively. "Angel, honey, are you okay? Are you all right?"

"Max, I'm fine." Angel squirmed in Max's embrace and made a face. "I was just testing something out."

Max stared at her. "You were…testing…?" She shook her head and gave Ari a grateful look. "Thanks, Ari. If you hadn't noticed her, I don't…"

If her heart hadn't been pounding a million miles per hour in her chest, Max might have laughed at the way Ari looked when she thanked him. He stood shin-deep in freezing water, shivering, his thick hair matted against his face, his mouth half-open as if he couldn't believe she, Max, was actually thanking him. Then he shook himself, sending stray droplets of water flying everywhere.

"It's fine," he said, gesturing toward Angel's drenched form. "I thought she was drowning, but…she looks okay to me."

Sure enough, Angel sat still in Max's arms as if she hadn't just been facedown in the water, looking dead as road kill. The little girl shrugged and said with a cheeky smile, "I told you, I was just testing something out. And it worked! Guess what, Max? I can breathe underwater now!"

Okay, thought Max. I have no idea how I once thought this kid was the most normal of us.

Soon after Angel's revelation and a stern lecture from Max (Don't you dare worry me like that again, Angel, do you hear me? Or the next time Iggy makes cookies, you're not getting any!), the flock headed back up the house. They dried off and changed into clean, dry clothes before snuggling down in the living room.

Jacob had gone into town the day before to buy groceries with some money Jeb had stored in the safe house long ago, so Iggy grabbed a carton of milk and made hot chocolate. All seven mutants bundled up in blankets and curled up in a circle on the floor.

"This is great," Ari said into his mug of hot chocolate. Iggy grinned with pride.

"Yeah, Iggy, thanks," Nudge smiled.

Max set down her mug in the middle of the circle and, without a word, stretched out her fist. Immediately, five more sets of fists came out and set down on top of hers in the old flock tradition.

"Ari," Max prompted. The Eraser looked at her with wide eyes full of an emotion she couldn't quite pin a name to—it was something reverent, wondering and astonished all at once. Then, moving slowly, as if he was waiting for her to change her mind and chase him away, he stretched out his fist. It was clawed and hairy, and dwarfed all of theirs, but no one seemed to care that it looked out of place on top of a stack of pinkish, human fingers.

"To our flock," Max grinned, and their fists fell away.

So went the second time Maximum Ride worked a smile out of Ari Batchelder. She hadn't done anything spectacular for him, like finding a way to stop his impending expiration, but she was glad, nonetheless, that she had given him this. A place in her flock. A place where he could be loved.

Fang had been watching Ari closely for the past week, waiting. Waiting for just the slightest, barest hint that the Eraser meant to harm those Fang cared about. The snarl of teeth when someone's back was turned, a malevolent glare, anything.

He waited.

But nothing came.

At first, Fang had been perplexed. Everything he'd known about Erasers had crumbled at his feet like overturned versions of those block buildings Gazzy used to like to build (and then promptly destroy with a small bomb, but that was irrelevant). If there was one thing Fang hated, it was having one of his personal truths, something he'd believed in for the past fourteen years, shattered.

He'd believed that all Erasers were evil creatures without hearts, whose only joy was derived from other beings' pain. They couldn't love. They couldn't laugh without malice in their voices. They couldn't care about other beings.

They couldn't be…human. Not if they tried.

Then Iggy had come back to the flock with Ari in tow, claiming that the Eraser had changed, that he didn't mean the flock any harm. Yeah, right. Ari had been trained to kill the flock for years. Fang wasn't going to let someone like that right into the middle of his family.

So he'd kept the lookout, even if no one else would. Even if it turned his flock against him. He watched Ari from a distance and sometimes gave in to the malicious urge to taunt the other mutant, deliberating provoking him, waiting for the Eraser to slip up and reveal his true nature.

But after almost a week of waiting, Fang had grown tired and unsure of himself. Ari hadn't tried anything. He'd been shot at, beaten, and now he was dying because he had turned against Itex. Fang was stubborn and suspicious, but even he wasn't so blinded by his prejudice that he couldn't acknowledge reality.

Ari wasn't his enemy. Max, Iggy, Angel—they had all been right about the young Eraser. Ari barely cared about keeping himself alive long enough to see his expiration date, let alone finding a way to tear the flock down.

Initially, Fang had been angry at himself. He'd wasted all this time obsessing over something that didn't exist. He'd let his hatred carry him away, when the object of his loathing didn't even have the energy to hate him back.

Then, the guilt had come. All it had taken was Iggy's episode in the forest to snap Fang back to his senses. He'd held his brother's hand so tightly his knuckles had gone white, his bones had creaked and the muscles in his arms had gone taut with strain.

He was such an idiot. How could he have let a petty obsession blind him to his brother's need? Iggy had needed him more than ever, and he hadn't been there.

I'll make it up to him, Fang thought determinedly. I don't know how, but…I will find a way.

He'd set about his plan immediately, keeping close by Iggy's side despite the awkwardness of having Ari there. He did his best to cook Iggy the best food he could, didn't pick on Ari anymore, and joined in the search for an antidote to the Eraser's expiration date.

But nothing worked. Nothing was good enough to absolve him of his guilt.

What, then? Fang wondered. What do I need to do?

Then, late into the night of Angel's underwater stunt, it came to him.

Fang hadn't meant to stay up so late. He had just gone for a quick fly around the woods, because if there was one thing that cleared his head and helped him think better, it was crisp air in his lungs and the world beneath his feet. What was meant to be a five-minute dip through the navy-black skies turned into nearly two hours as Fang's guilt and ponderings chased him round and round the treetops.

When he finally came in to land on the side porch, the safe house was dark and quiet. Even the light in Jeb's office was out. Fang snuck in through the side door and would have gone straight to his room if he hadn't heard noises from the living room. A quick peek around the corner revealed a sight he never thought he would be faced with: his entire flock was asleep in the living room, sprawled out over the couches and easy chairs with their heads lolling and their mouths half-open in deep sleep. Iggy and Ari had fallen asleep in sitting positions on the floor, their legs stretched out and their backs propped up against the couch. It looked like everyone had fallen asleep watching a movie; Aladdin blared loud and colorful on the TV screen. Fang switched the TV off, plunging the living room into silence.


The dark boy jumped and spun around. Jeb was sitting in a chair on the outside porch, a cigarette dangling between his two fingers. He looked at Fang with a startled expression before settling back in a more relaxed position.

"What are you doing up so late?" Fang asked. Old suspicion pricked at him like an annoying tic that wouldn't leave him be.

"I was just about to ask you the same thing." Jeb turned away and blew a puff of smoke into the air. Frowning, Fang pushed past the screen door and stepped out onto the porch. Sounds in the night filled his ears. He welcomed the quiet after a long and tiring day, thankful that his eardrums were no longer hammered by lectures or advice that only made him more confused.

He sat down on the edge of the porch, swinging his long legs out into the open air. "I thought you quit that when you got us out of the School," he said, glancing at Jeb's cigarette out of the corner of his eye.

Jeb broke into a sudden fit of coughing and stamped the cigarette out with his shoe. "I did," he said hoarsely.

Fang looked out into the night. "Max says you're working on something to save Ari. But nobody's seen anything yet." He looked back toward the man with the graying hair and said, "Are you ever going to show us this miracle cure?"

Jeb's dark eyes rolled away from him. His fingers twitched restlessly, probably hoping for another cigarette to hold on to. "It'll work. It has to work," he rasped, shaking his head. "No, I can only pray that it works."

Fang narrowed his eyes incredulously. "Isn't this your son we're talking about?"

The man who Fang had once considered his father tilted his head to the side. "Do you have an antidote?"

The dark boy shook his head. "I just thought that you'd have gone to Stark by now, if he's the one who started this."

Jeb cringed and appeared to draw into himself. His fingers stopped moving, and then started up their spastic twitching again; it was an old method of coping that Fang recognized from the years he'd spent living around the man. The twitching was a sign that he was under stress.

"We can't go back there," Jeb said. "Stark will kill us all. Even if I got him to swear to saving Ari's life, he would go back on his word as easily as he gave it. He's not a noble man, Fang. He would kill me, and Ari, and kidnap your flock off to Germany. To Itex Headquarters."

"But he has to have a way, doesn't he?" Fang turned away to look back into the living room, where his flock members were asleep. Jeb followed his gaze.

"If…if the project fails," he said quietly, "it will be a hard blow to Iggy."

Fang curled his fingers until his fingernails bit into his palms. He had tried not to think about that. He'd spent so much time convincing himself that Iggy would eventually come around and forget about Ari that he hadn't thought about what would happen if Ari did die.

"He'll…he would get over it," Fang murmured hesitantly. "Iggy's tough. He's been through a lot and survived. He would survive this."

"Physically, perhaps." Jeb coughed and folded his arms across his chest, as if he were cold. "But the effects of the serum weakened him mentally. Ari was the first person to comfort him directly after the…torture. Torture victims often latch on to the first person they come into contact with after a traumatizing experience such as that. If Ari goes, and Iggy does not find it in himself to overcome this on his own…"

He sighed and massaged his temples. "You may lose him."

Fang's heart thundered in his ears. He licked his lips and cleared his throat roughly. "He wouldn't be alone. He has us," he insisted, but even as he said it, his thoughts were heading in a different direction. Jeb was right. Jeb was always right. Fang had no doubt that Iggy was strong enough to pick himself up after this—he'd survived losing his sight, why couldn't he survive these hallucinations? No, Fang knew that Iggy would make it through. Whether or not he made it through in one piece was an entirely different matter.

The dark boy gazed into the living room, at the hulking figure of the Eraser and the lanky winged mutant sleeping next to him, and in that instant he knew what he had to do. Jeb wasn't getting anywhere with this secret project. It was time to take things into his own hands.

The flock wouldn't like it. They wouldn't like it at all. He would have to come up with a cover, something to ensure that they wouldn't follow him. It would hurt Iggy, and it would hurt Max and the others, but it had to be done.

"Fang?" Jeb frowned and sat forward as the winged boy got to his feet and strode back into the living room. Fang ignored the man's call and headed back into the hallway, back to his bedroom so he could pack. He didn't want to stick around after he put his plan into action. He didn't think he could go through with it if he saw the pain on his family's faces.

His plan was compulsive, dangerous and ill thought-out— a Max-worthy scheme. He only hoped that when he got back she would forgive him.

Fang was going to see Stark. He was going to Stark to save Ari and, hopefully, his younger brother too.

Iggy woke up with a sore neck and stiff legs. He groaned and stretched with his arms up above his head and his knees curled up beneath him.

"Hey, look who's up," Max's voice said cheerfully above his head. Iggy tilted his chin up and grinned where he knew her eyes were.

"What time is it?"

"Early…ish,"she answered. "Come on. Jeb actually made breakfast today."

Iggy scrambled to his feet, bumping into something that moved and growled at being disturbed. He blinked before recalling that Ari had been sitting next to him last night…yep. There was no mistaking that thick head of hair.

"C'mon, Ari," he said, tousling the younger mutant's hair. "Breakfast."

"Coming," Ari grumbled sleepily. He lumbered to his feet and followed Iggy into the kitchen, where the flock was already set up.

"Iggy," Jeb's voice said from the dishes area. "Sit here. I have a plate for you already."

A well of contentment rose up in Iggy. For the past week, it had seemed as though everything in his life was going downhill. His flock members had started to act as if they didn't trust him. Fang, his best friend, had been giving him the cold shoulder. Ari was dying. Even Jeb had taken to hiding in his room, tinkering over some project that had a fifty percent chance of pulling through and saving the Eraser's life.

Now, everything seemed as if it might be getting better. Finally.

Breakfast passed happily. Jeb didn't rush back to his room to work on his project, Ari talked more than he had for the past week, and Jacob seemed to be moving on from his son's arrest. Iggy would have asked the man more about Caleb, but Jacob had been quiet and withdrawn as it was. He didn't want to chase him away.

Sitting down to a breakfast he didn't have to make was a nice change of scenery for Iggy. After he was done, he sat back in his chair and listened to the chatter surging up around him, a silly smile on his face. He was happy. He was home.

The peace didn't last long. Before late afternoon arrived, disaster struck.

It started with an accident and a knife. Iggy had asked Angel if she could help him prepare lunch in the kitchen, since Jeb had skulked back to his room and wasn't answering attempts to get him to emerge. Angel had gone to cut the tomatoes. The knife must have slipped, because an instant later there was a little shriek in Iggy's ear and Angel was asking for a Band-Aid.

"Max," Iggy shouted, reaching for Angel's cut finger, "Angel needs a Band-Aid!"

"Ow." Angel tugged away a little when Iggy's fingers closed around her injured hand. "Ow, Iggy, that stings!"

But he didn't hear her. He didn't hear anything except the roaring in his ears, didn't feel anything but the warm wetness of the blood dribbling against his hand. Blood like his flock's when the Erasers had sawed their wings off, inch by inch, blood gushing red and hot across the floor and over his hands.

Iggy was distantly aware of his knees folding as he dropped to the floor and covered his ears to block out the screams that rose around him like clouds of leaden smoke. Someone was shouting his name, asking him to come back to his senses, to come back, but he couldn't. He couldn't because he knew his flock was alive, but still the images came

"Iggy," said a gruff, familiar voice. Iggy reached his hands out. He knew that voice. He knew—Ari—and the images were starting to fade, to shrink back into his subconscious in curling tendrils, and he breathed a bit easier.

Until Fang said in a voice hateful enough to curdle milk, "Get your filthy hands off him."

Iggy blinked his eyes open. He hadn't even realized they'd been closed until then. "No, Fang," he said. His voice came out faint and weak, almost in a whisper. "Don't…Ari's only trying to help…"

"We don't need his help." Rough hands came down and gripped Iggy around his forearms, jerking him to his feet. A vicious growl unlike anything Iggy had heard in a long time sounded above his head.

"Don't push him like that," Ari said warningly.

"Or what?" Fang challenged. His grip on Iggy's arms tightened painfully. "What would you do, Ari? Do you think I'm hurting him? You're the one who hurt him."

Someone gasped. Iggy tore away from Fang and leaned shakily against the counter. He shook his head fervently in denial.

"It wasn't him." His voice didn't come out as frail this time, and he lifted his chin, feeling the beginnings of anger stir like spitting coals in his stomach. "It was Stark. This isn't Ari's fault."

"I bet he just stood there and let it happen, didn't he?" Fang's voice dropped into a threatening growl. "I bet he enjoyed it, too."

Solid, clipped footsteps entered the kitchen before anyone could react. "What's going on here?" Max barked.

"I had…an episode," Iggy said. "It's over. It really wasn't that bad—"

"Why're you kidding yourself, Max?" Fang asked suddenly.

Max's teeth clicked together as she closed her mouth with a snap. "What are you talking about now, Fang?" Her voice became dangerous and unyielding, and Iggy knew without being able to see that her jaw was set stubbornly, her teeth clenched.

"I'm talking about the hulking monster in our kitchen," Fang snapped. Ari hissed, sending a brief flash of alarm through Iggy. No, no—Ari couldn't go back to being hostile and mean, the flock had just begun to accept him!

"Fang, stop it!" Iggy shouted.

"No, Iggy, you stop it." Fang paced around the kitchen, his voice still dripping anger. "How long are we gonna have to put up with this? Your cuddly Eraser doesn't belong here, Iggy. He's the enemy. He kidnapped Angel, he's tried to kill Max! How could you let someone like that just…walk in here?"

"Ari is not out to get you!" Now the blood was roaring in Iggy's ears for an entirely different reason. His hands twisted into fists at his sides and he stepped close, until he could feel Fang's hot breath pushing against his face. "Why can't you just accept that? What is wrong with you? Why do you have to have someone to hate before you can do anything?"

Fang hissed in Iggy's face, "Don't you see what he's doing? What he's been doing all along? He's tearing our flock apart, Iggy, and you're letting him."

"The only one tearing this flock apart," Iggy said slowly, "is you, Fang."

"Iggy," Max exclaimed.

Fang snorted. "No, go ahead, Ig. Let it all out. Is that all you wanted to say to me? Huh? Might as well get it all out now, shouldn't you?"

Rage, hot and blistering, surged up in Iggy's chest. His hands shook with the urge to punch Fang in the face. "If this is how you're going to be, why did you even come after me in the first place?" he shouted. "Is Ari the only one you don't want here, Fang? Because it's starting to look like you don't want me here, either."

Max gripped Iggy's shoulder tightly. "Guys, cut it out—"

"Ari was there for me even when you weren't," Iggy pressed on. He didn't care if he hurt Fang. He didn't care if Fang never spoke to him again because of this. The words had been building up inside him for days on end, pressing at him, bursting free of their constraints, and he was tired of holding them back when Fang clearly wasn't restraining himself. "Where were you, Fang? Too busy obsessing over your own hatred that you couldn't even see that I needed you there for me!"

Fang was standing so close that Iggy felt it when the dark boy flinched and took a step back. Good, he'd hit a nerve. He hoped it hurt like hell.

"All right, stop." Max pushed Iggy away from Fang, almost knocking him against Ari. "That's enough. Both of you need to quit going at each other like that and calm the heck down already!"

"What," said Jeb's familiar voice from the doorway of the kitchen, "is going on here?"

Everyone went quiet.

"Dad," Ari said weakly.

"Ari," Jeb returned. His shoes clicked against the floor as he came further into the kitchen. His voice was very calm and controlled, exactly as it was whenever he was terribly, terribly angry. "Does anyone want to explain why, in the middle of something very, very important, I was interrupted by your scr—"

"The brother of my enemy is also my enemy," Fang said darkly. "And you're lookin' a lot like my enemy right now. So make your choice, Iggy. Whose side are you on?"

A hush fell over the room then, suffocating and humming with tension. Iggy swallowed thickly. Fang's challenging words echoed in his head over and over again, bunching together, crashing like a train wreck. He couldn't believe his brother had just asked him that. He couldn't believe Fang would be so cruel.

"Fang, no," Angel's tiny voice pleaded desperately. "I know what you're thinking and it's not a good idea. You can find another way. But not like this. This is bad."

There was a sharp intake of breath from Fang's area. For a second Iggy thought he would rethink his words, take everything he'd said back, but he didn't. "Well?" Fang prompted coldly. "What's it gonna be, Iggy?"

And though it was the hardest thing he'd ever done, Iggy pursed his lips and looked away, silent.

"Fine," Fang said hatefully, and stalked out of the room.

"Fang!" Jeb called after the dark boy. Max's strong footsteps took off after Fang's much quieter ones, her voice echoing through the hallway as she called him back.

"Iggy, what's all this about?" Jeb asked. Iggy just shook his head. His ears were still ringing. He felt as if all the energy in his body had been drained out, leaving him to lean against the counter in exhaustion.

Fang's and Max's footsteps came thundering into the living room. Iggy jerked upright when he heard the screen door creak open.

"Fang, stop!" Max yelled. "You can't just leave, I mean…"

"Leave?" Jeb repeated in a disbelieving tone. "Fang, be reasonable. With Stark's men out there, you won't stand a chance on your own."

"I'm not gonna stick around here and wait for you and that…that monster to turn traitor again," Fang snarled. "Until you all come to your senses and get rid of these guys, I'm not staying. Don't say I didn't warn you when the Erasers come to call."

"Don't be an idiot, Fang!" Max spat.

"I'm not," Fang snapped angrily. "Feel free to go ahead and stop being one yourself when you—"

"I'm coming with you."

Iggy jumped; Angel had been so quiet that he'd forgotten she was standing right next to him. Now he followed the sound of her light footsteps as she walked over to Fang's side.

"Angel?" Max's voice wavered with bewilderment. "What are you talking about? You're the one who scanned Ari and Jeb in the first place. You said they were clean!"

"They are," Angel said lightly. "I know they're good people. I've seen it. But Fang needs me on this trip. I see that, too."

"You're not coming with me, Ange," Fang insisted sternly.

"Yes," Angel said firmly, "I am. You really need me to come with you. And you need Nudge to come, too."

Nudge, who until that moment had played the part of a silent observer, squeaked, "What? He does? But…I don't want to go. I like it here. I don't think Ari's bad or anything."

"That's because he isn't," Angel replied matter-of-factly. "But Fang still needs you. Come with us, Nudge. It'll be fun."

Nudge whimpered. "But I—"

"Just," said the little white-winged girl in a voice that brooked no argument. "Come."

"O-oh. Okay."

"Fang." The Gasman had been quiet until that moment as well, but now he stepped forward with a voice much more solemn than his years. "Please don't do this. Don't go."

There was a moment in which Fang almost seemed to hesitate. Then he said, "Sorry, Gazzy," and stalked out onto the porch with Nudge and Angel at his heels.

Iggy heard Jeb sigh as if the world was crumpling at his fingertips. The winged boy stayed leaning against the counter. There he remained, silent, staring at the floor with a clenched jaw while Max yelled at Fang to come back, and then yelled at him to leave, if that was how he wanted it, and not bother coming back. He stayed with Jeb and Ari, the people he'd chosen over his brother, even as the dry sound of flapping filled his ears, and grew fainter and fainter in the distance, until silence was all that was left.

A/N: End chapter twenty-three.

Ugh. It was hard, but it had to be done. I'm guessing that this story is going to continue for more than five chapters, as I predicted.

Please review.


24. Aftershock

Woah! Okay, I was floored by the response to last chapter - our number of reviewers was only a little more than usual, but it was what you guys wrote that really made my day. If I haven't review-replied to you yet, don't worry, I will. =) I see that a number of you were confused, and I'll go back and see if I can make Fang's decision easier to understand. However, I do explain it a bit more in the Fang-POV of this chapter.

Thanks, lillypad22, soccerislife14, Ren09, pandorad24, flYegurl, AmyQueen95, blackberry01, Setari, chulala, ForgottenReveries, Locked in a Stony Tower, WinterSky101, and BeTrueToThyself for reviewing - you guys are awesome! You've pushed us almost to 300 reviews! That's amazing! :D

Note: soccerislife14, I found I couldn't review-reply to you the normal way, so I've left one at the end of this chapter.

For this chapter, the POV-lineup looks like this: Jeb POV, Fang POV, Iggy POV, Stark POV. Four different sets.

Disclaimer: Maximum Ride is James Patterson's. Not mine. No, really - it's that simple.

Chapter Twenty-Four: Aftershock

He knew this silence. It was an old enemy, a constant throughout his life, a leech that sucked away the bold vivacity that might have brightened his days and banished the stern lines from around his unsmiling mouth. It was the shocked hush left in the wake of some terrible disaster (usually his fault). In the living room he crouched in front of the TV, fiddling with the controls, reaching for a noise, any noise, with which he could drown out the quiet.

Jeb hated this silence.

"What are you looking for?" Jacob sat back in one of the easy chairs, looking for all the world as if it was the only thing keeping him up.

"Any word on the situation with Stark is more than welcome," Jeb answered distractedly. "It's been days since we had any news. Something must have happened by now."

Jacob sighed deep in his throat. "If there's anything on my son…"

Jeb briefly closed his eyes. Some people just didn't deserve the suffering they underwent. If Jacob hadn't helped Jeb and Iggy escape, he would still have a job and his son would be free…

No. Jeb shook his head. In this world they'd chosen, there was no time for guilt, no room for regrets. Jacob had understood the risks he was taking. He wouldn't appreciate being pitied when he'd made his own choices.

Nonetheless, that didn't mean Jeb couldn't comfort his friend. "How are you doing?" he asked gently.

Jacob returned to staring listlessly out the window. "All right," he said after a pause. "I think…I've always known that Caleb would have to face the consequences of his actions. We can't protect our children forever. And I know there comes a time when we have to let them face their responsibilities, but…I'd hoped that…"

"That you would never have to let them go," Jeb finished softly. He knew. Jacob nodded wordlessly, and the room lapsed back into that hateful silence.

Jeb flew through the channels so quickly he almost missed the news he was searching for. He sat back, watching with baited breath as the redheaded announcer read off, "Authorities are taking action after viewing a set of disturbing videos sent in by a man who was, until now, unnamed. An unknown benefactor has offered the man's identity. Ah…his name is Jacob Marling, a former doctor and the father of twenty-one-year-old Caleb Kyle Marling, who we've just discovered killed a man his age two years ago. Now, he's been arrested, but police have yet to make any progress on the search for his father, who handed in a set of coordinates and a disc full of security videos.

"The police won't disclose any details on the nature of these videos, only that they are…incredibly disturbing. They did mention, though, that the Canadian authorities are sending in a task force to the coordinates provided by Marling. Teams are waiting on standby to hear what happens next."

Jeb turned the volume low and sighed. "Stark will not stay and wait to be caught. He'll leave and disappear until he grows tired of waiting us out."

Jacob's honest, open face twisted in consternation. "What more could he do to us? He's taken both our sons and chased us into the countryside. And he probably has people in the government who could turn our own nations against us."

Bones groaning—oh, he was getting old, far too old for this game—Jeb rose to his feet and stared out onto the front porch. Three hours ago, half of the flock's six members had taken to their wings and disappeared into the cold. He still didn't fully understand why they had left; Fang had seemed so fiercely protective of Iggy the night before, as if he would do anything to protect his younger brother. Then had come the boys' explosive argument, and the next thing Jeb knew, Fang, Nudge and Angel were three winged figures fading rapidly into the distance.

He just…couldn't help but feel that he was missing something, something crucial and essential.

Jacob followed Jeb's gaze to the porch. "Is she still out there?" he asked solemnly.

Jeb's eyes slid toward Max's solitary figure, seated precariously on the edge of the elevated porch with her wings spread wide, as if she was about to jump into the air and fly after her flock mates. If she hadn't been sitting in the same position for the last three hours, he would have thought this was the case.

"Yes," he sighed. "She's still there."

Max didn't turn around when Jeb stepped out to join her on the porch. He sat down next to her, moving his legs out over the gap and trying hard not to look down. The flock had no problem with having the world beneath their suspended feet, but Jeb had never liked heights. He was always afraid that one day, the self-hatred and guilt would rise up in him like a poisonous snake, and before he could stop himself he would slide over the edge, into oblivion.

The winged girl stared straight ahead with her dark eyes—his eyes, he knew, though she wasn't aware of this and would probably only hate him more for his betrayal if she knew that he was her father in more ways than one. "Why'd you come out here, Jeb?" Max asked. Her voice sounded impossibly quiet in the heavy silence that surrounded him.

"I thought you might need some company," he said thickly. "It's been a hard day for you."

Max scoffed and tucked a loose piece of dark gold hair behind her ear. Certainly not her mother's hair; Valencia's locks were so deep a brown that sometimes he forgot it wasn't black, like congealed blood. "You think?" Max said. "Where's Iggy?"

"In his room, with Gazzy and Ari," Jeb exhaled. "I tried to get them to come out and talk with me, but…they wouldn't have it."

Max sniffed. "I talked to Fang before he left. I thought I finally got through to him, you know? He was acting…normal. Then he goes and blows up like this without any warning."

Jeb folded his hands neatly in his lap and waited for her to continue. Max raked a hand through her tangled hair, snorting out a cold, empty laugh.

"I mean…what went wrong? I thought he'd finally started to let go of all this. I thought he realized that Iggy needs us together, not running around starting fights and taking off." She blew a stray wisp of hair out of her face and leaned back on the heels of her hands. "And he just had to take the kids with him. Great."

Clearing his throat, Jeb eased back a bit from the edge of the porch. "You're not going after them?"

"After that stunt he pulled, screaming at Iggy like that?" Max folded her arms tightly across her chest and jerked her chin stubbornly into the air. Her wings twitched in distress. "Yeah, right. I'm not going to go running after him. Let him figure it out himself and come back on his own."

If Jeb hadn't known that Max was speaking out of childish frustration, he would have thought that she'd grown up enough to let her flock mates make decisions on their own. Apparently, she still had a long way to go.

"Then you haven't pieced it together yet," Jeb said with a sigh. He noticed Max turn to look at him out of the corner of his eye and felt the urge to turn toward her, to stare her in the eye and make her realize that something was out of place. Fang had been his ward for two years, and he'd spent much longer than that studying the boy at the School. He knew the boy. This wouldn't have been out of character for Fang if Jeb didn't believe that the dark boy would place his family before anything else.

"Pieced what together?" Max asked. She narrowed her brown eyes suspiciously. "What are you talking about?"

"Fang is a much smarter, more rational boy than this," Jeb replied. "Come on, Maximum. You know the boy as well as I do—better, probably. You said that you spoke with him before the fight and got through to him. I spoke with him last night, too, and he seemed as though he would do anything to protect Iggy."

"Then…then why did he leave?" Max's tone was rife with frustration.

"That," Jeb said, folding his arms across his chest, "is what I'm getting at."

"Wh…?" Max unfolded her arms and leaned toward the edge of the porch. A confused smirk twitched at her lips. "I…hah. I don't get it. None of this makes any sense."

"Think, Max. Fang would never put his prejudice before his family. You said that you'd gotten through to him, that he'd put his grudge away to help Iggy. So why would he do something like this, out of the blue, when you know he's not like that?"

Max stared at him in silence for several moments, her eyebrows drawn down sharply. "You think it was staged?" she whispered.

Jeb nodded curtly. "As much as you may hate it, Maximum, I was close to Fang once, too. I know him. He's…pardon the cliché, but he's the self-sacrificing type. He would stage something like this if he believed it would save someone else."

"How does this help anyone?" Max shot to her feet and paced restlessly, her wings fluttering angrily against her back. "Doesn't he get what this is doing to us? To me, and to—to Iggy, darn it! What was the point of that?"

"He didn't want you to follow him," Jeb answered. "He was probably hoping that you would be angry enough not to come." It was the only reason he could come up with that made any sort of logical sense. Fang was smart in his own way, Jeb had always known that, but he was also the type to resort to drastic measures without thinking the situation through. Now it might cost him more than it ever had before.

Max stopped pacing and frowned. "Why would he…?"

"I don't know. And I'm not sure I want to know."

"Then we should go after him!" Max took a lunging step toward the edge of the porch before swinging around and staring at him with eyes bright with worry. "If he's off doing something stupid that he didn't want us to know about, we should follow him."

Jeb rose to his feet. "Hold on," he said, holding out his hands in a placating gesture. "Now you're the one who isn't thinking things through. Think about Iggy. Fang left to help him, this I'm quite sure of. If you go, you will only hurt your brother more. At this point, we can't afford that. It will break him."

"He can come with me," Max insisted, but Jeb could tell that she was wavering.

"In his condition?" Jeb shook his head. "You and I both know that won't work. No. We need to stay together and try to heal him while we can. I need to work on the project. Besides, Fang has Angel and Nudge. She may only be six years old, but Angel must have discovered Fang's plan. She has it under control."

Max stood on the balls of her feet, her emotions conflicting like a civil war across her young face. For one horrible instant Jeb feared that her distrust of him would overcome and she would leave to bring back her wayward siblings, despite his warnings.

"Yeah," she said finally. The relief rushed out of him as if he'd just been punched in the chest. "Yeah, okay," Max relented, and plopped down to sit beside him. Her mouth dropped open, as if she wanted to say something, but she turned away to look out into the gray forest.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Jeb," she murmured.

Jeb closed his eyes and breathed in the cold. The silence was back, reaching into his chest, pulling hard. I hope so too, he thought, and the words drifted between them, unsaid and unheard.

Ditching the kids was harder than Fang thought it would be. Within the first four hours of flight time, he dropped randomly out of the sky, barrel-rolled into dense patches of low-lying fog, made leaps and lurches for crowded areas, distracted the two girls with something shiny on window display and tried to slip away while they were busy, ducked, skulked, army-crawled and did just about everything sneaky and stealthy in the book…and every single freaking time, they came back with shining eyes and asked him, as if they were not the slightest bit aware (a colossal lie) that he was trying to lose them, "Where'd you go, Fang? We thought we'd lost you!"

He blamed it on Angel. Somehow, despite his best efforts to think of other things, she'd managed to pick up on his plan. So if she could read his mind and discover his intentions when he was trying his best to protect his thoughts, why couldn't she sense his plan to lose her and Nudge when it was all he could think of?

"I think this is a very bad idea," Angel said after they'd been flying for about three hours and were about to cross the U.S.-Canada border. She swerved in close to him, so Nudge was out of earshot.

"You have to tell me this now?" he grumbled back. They were almost out of the United States.

"I think it's very stupid," she sniffed. "I just thought you should know."

"Thanks, Ange."

"I also think it's very sweet. Very sweet and very stupid."

Fang snapped his wings irritably, giving himself an extra burst of speed. Angel flapped her small, white wings and caught up to him easily with a thoughtful look on her face.

"Angel," he said, feeling annoyed again, "if it's such a bad idea, why are you and Nudge still following me?"

"Because you won't make it out alive without us."

He turned and stared at her in alarm. But the little girl only stared back at him in wordless, grim silence, her pale blue eyes glowing with an almost unearthly quality against the gray sky. Then she giggled, "Tee hee!" and swooped down to Nudge's side with a cheerful wave of her pinkish hand.

…Sometimes, he seriously wished he could grow eyes in the back of his head to keep an eye out for creepy little six-year-olds. Just in case.

They had barely crossed the border (and dealt with another of Fang's futile attempts at escape) when Nudge decided that she was hungry and needed a break. The three mutants dropped into the nearest town, found a convenient dumpster, and had dinner in a shadowed street.

Fang pulled out Max's laptop while the kids ate. He'd snagged it the night before and slipped it into his backpack, along with a pocketknife, two bags of chips and a water bottle. He had no idea what he needed to break into a high-security place like the School, but he was going for stealth, not brute force. The plan was to get in, sneak past the guards, trap Stark and force him into giving away the antidote to the expiration date, and then…then…well, he didn't know. He hadn't gotten that far yet.

What he did know was that his plan did not include two young, innocent girls he couldn't afford to have to rescue—

"Look what I brought!" said Angel happily, and slipped a wicked-looking knife from the little knapsack she'd brought along.

Well. Okay, maybe they weren't completely innocent.

But I'm still not going to put them in danger like that, he thought firmly.

"Gosh!" Nudge's eyes went wide at the sight of the knife clutched in Angel's small hand. "What's that for?"

Fang leaned forward and reached out a hand to take the weapon. "Angel—"

"It's for protection," Angel said clearly. She stared Fang straight in the eye, unblinking, as she answered Nudge. Her reflection gleamed on the knife's surface. "For the break-in."

Fang's shoulders slumped. "The break-in?" Nudge repeated, looking at Fang in confusion. "What's she talking about?"

He sat back on, the laptop balanced neatly on his knees. "This is why I've been trying to lose you two," he said. "It's too dangerous."

"What are we breaking into?" Nudge asked.

"The School," said Angel.

Nudge's mouth dropped open.

"We aren't breaking into the School," Fang said, pushing Angel's knife back into her knapsack. "I am. You're both going to go back home to Max and the others, and you're not going to tell them anything. Got it?"

"Why? Why are you breaking into the School?" Nudge wrapped her thin arms around herself and rubbed, to try and chase some warmth back into her bare arms. Again, Fang felt a stab of guilt; it technically wasn't his fault that Nudge hadn't had time to grab a sweater, but he was in charge of this mission. He had to make sure the kids were safe and taken care of.

"I don't think Jeb knows what he's doing with the whole saving-Ari thing," Fang admitted. He slipped out of his jacket and handed it to Nudge, who accepted it gratefully. "So I decided to go back to the School and find Stark."

"You want to force the antidote out of him," Nudge guessed. She shook her head and burrowed further into Fang's thick, black jacket. "But…Iggy told me Stark doesn't know how to stop Ari's expiration date."

Fang pressed his lips together. "That's what Jeb told Iggy. And you know Jeb. He's always looking out to save his own neck. If he goes to Stark, he's dead. He might have lied about what Stark knows about the expiration date just to save himself."

"But Ari's his son. His real son."

"Think that matters to him?" Fang glared out into the fading light. Bitterness and a resentment that had exploded into existence after discovering Jeb's betrayal welled up in him. He didn't care if Jeb thought they needed an inside job. He didn't care if it was all part of Max's training. Jeb's betrayal hurt as if the man Fang considered his father had suddenly turned around one day and tried to rip out his heart. Fang rarely let anyone get close enough to have that sort of influence over him. He'd given Jeb his precious trust. And the man had thrown it away as if it worth nothing more than a pair of dirty socks.

"You're being unfair," Angel murmured. Her face was downcast, her serious eyes lingering on her hands as they rested in her lap. Without the knife, they once again appeared soft and impossibly tiny. "Jeb loves Ari. He loves him so much it hurts. I saw when I scanned him. He'd do anything for Ari—for any of us. For you, too."

Fang's heart jerked painfully. I don't care, he told himself. He made his choice when he left us two years ago. Yet no matter how hard he tried to convince himself otherwise, he couldn't deny that the thought of having his father figure back made something in his chest ache with a horrible, painful longing.

"Stark has to know something," he insisted, changing the subject.

"Why are you trying to save Ari?" Nudge queried. "I thought you hated him."

Fang's shoulders twitched as yet another wave of guilt washed against him. "I did. But he's dying, and it's harder to hate a dying kid than I thought it would be. Even if it is Ari. Besides, he's important to Iggy."

Nudge wrinkled her nose in confusion. "But if you don't hate Ari…then why did you go and fight with Iggy over him?"

Angel answered before Fang could find the right words to explain his plan. "He was hoping that Max and Iggy would be angry enough that they wouldn't want to follow him."

"Well, that's dumb." Nudge crossed her arms over her chest and scowled at him. It would have been a bit more intimidating if she hadn't been drowning in a coat a couple sizes too large for her, but the disappointment and darkness in Nudge's usually-gleaming eyes was more than enough to cow Fang. "Why didn't you just sneak out at night and leave a note? Then we could have skipped all of this."

"I thought about that," Fang admitted carefully. "But Max would have tried to follow me anyway."

Nudge stared at him solemnly for a moment. When she did speak, her normally loud voice was toned down to a worried whisper. "You really hurt Iggy, you know."

Fang took in a deep breath and closed his eyes briefly. Again, like a bad dream that wouldn't leave him alone, he saw Iggy's hurt, furious expression flash in front of him. "I know," he said quietly. "But I'll make it up to him. I'll bring back something to cure Ari and I'll apologize."

He sighed, opening the laptop and clicking the on-button. "Eat your dinner. You have a long road back in the morning."

"Oh," said Angel flippantly, "we're not going. We're staying right here."

Nudge nodded, her eyes gleaming once more, but this time with stony determination. "If you're gonna break into the School, you'll need some help. Angel and I can distract the Erasers for you, or something."

"And then you can get the antidote, and we'll all get out," Angel finished.

"No," Fang said bluntly. "You're not going. I'm not going to put you two in that kind of situation."

Angel faked a huge, remorseful sigh. "Oh, all right. But when we get back, I bet Max is going to be so mad that she won't stop until she gets to truth out of us."

Nudge's lips pulled up into a very un-Nudge-like smirk. "And then we'll just have to tell her about your crazy plan to infiltrate the School and grab something that Jeb doesn't think exists."

The two girls grinned at him in the half-gloom, their eyes glittering with laughter. They reminded him of circling sharks. Fang fought the urge to shudder. He didn't do things like that, at least not on the outside.

"You won't do it," he responded. "Because if you do, then all you'll be doing is putting Max in danger. And you know that once Max follows, Iggy will, too."

Nudge's smile flickered into a concerned grimace, but Angel's expression went dead and flat, as it did when she was about to attack an Eraser head-on. "Fang, I already told you," the small girl warned him. "If you make me and Nudge leave, you won't come out alive. You'll be caught and they'll kill you. Please don't ask me how I know. I just do. You need us. Both of us."

She planted her hands on her hips with an air of, "So there." Fang sent a quick glance Nudge's way; although she appeared somewhat shaken by Angel's prediction, she nodded and placed her fists on her hips as well.

"We're not going anywhere," she said.

Fang clenched his jaw. The temptation to bolt into the air and try to lose them again rolled over him, but he knew that it would be as much of a failure as his previous attempts. His mind searched for another excuse to dissuade his sisters from coming with him. Nothing came to mind. Angel would either refute his arguments or, worst case scenario, turn him into a mindless zombie long enough to ensure that there was no going back for her and Nudge.

"Fine," Fang ground out. "You're coming. But the second things turn nasty, you're both out of there."

"Got it," said Angel.

"Got it!" Nudge smiled as if she'd been told it was Christmas Day and curled up in a small ball on the ground. This would be their campsite for the night, it seemed.

Angel soon followed Nudge in a little heap on the asphalt, burrowing in as close to the girl and Fang's thick jacket as she could. Fang stayed up for another hour or so, skimming through the laptop's contents to see what he could find. He, Max and the rest of the flock had already perused through much of the documents, but there was still one point that worried the dark boy.

He pulled up the program that showed the flock's global positions. To his immense relief, all six red dots, each labeling a flock member's location on the world map, had disappeared. That explained why their safe house hadn't been discovered by Erasers yet; as he and Max had worked out after going through the laptop's files, the technology that made it possible to track them needed fresh DNA every now and then. Because the flock members mutated continuously, the DNA the School must have had was now useless.

Fang closed the laptop as the power button began to blink red and slipped it back into his backpack. He lay down by Angel's side and stared up at the dark sky, thinking. Would it really be so hard to lose Angel and Nudge right now? They were both asleep. Neither of them had a map or coordinates like he did.

As if she could sense his thoughts, even asleep, Angel turned on her side toward him and flung an arm around his neck. Fang tried to pull away, but the blond girl only frowned a little and tightened her grip.

Great, Fang thought as the cold of the asphalt began to seep into his back. He wasn't going anywhere.

"That stupid jerk! How could he just leave us like that?"

Seated on his bed as he was, Iggy rested his forearms on his knees and listened to Gazzy as the younger boy paced agitatedly across his room. Ari was silent from his spot on the other side of his bed. Iggy hadn't heard a word from the ex-Eraser since Fang had left.

"I mean…why would he just…and then…he took Angel and Nudge with him! He took along my little sister!" Gazzy let out a frustrated growl. "What gives?"

"What gives?" Iggy repeated angrily. He clenched his hands into fists, ignoring the pain as his fingernails drove into the soft skin of his palm. "This is Fang we're talking about, Gaz. This is totally something he would do."

"Well, yeah. But I thought he didn't hate Ari anymore! None of this makes sense. Why did Angel go with him? She said she trusted Ari."

The mattress creaked as Ari shifted uncomfortably. "I'm sorry I made Fang go away," he said quietly. The first words he'd spoken since Fang's departure made up an apology he shouldn't have had to say.

"It's not your fault," Iggy said with a shake of his head. "Fang was looking for an opening like this all along. It's not your fault he finally found it."

"Maybe we're missing something." The Gasman sat down next to Iggy, only to bounce back up again and resume his pacing. "There's gotta be something!"

"Like what?" Iggy burst out. "What don't you get? Fang's gone."

He sprung up before Gazzy could reply and stormed out of the room. Wooden floorboards creaked beneath his feet as he stormed up and down the long hallway. He could hear voices streaming in from the outside porch and identified them immediately: Max and Jeb. Neither of which was someone he wanted to speak to. He didn't want to speak to anyone right now.

Out of nowhere, Fang's earlier words echoed in his head. "The brother of my enemy is also my enemy. So make your choice, Iggy."

The winged boy gritted his teeth. Make your choice. Make your choice. Well, he'd done just that. Too bad Fang was too much of a jerk to accept and respect his decision.

Iggy stopped and leaned against the wall. His breaths came shakily, as if they were newborn puppies tripping over themselves. Yeah, he was angry with Fang. He was so angry that his hands shook just thinking about the way the other boy had erupted for no good reason. But he couldn't ignore the sharp, aching pain in his gut, the pain that said he was feeling a lot more than anger.

Hurt. Iggy shook his head against the pain and forced himself to stand straight. So he was a little hurt that Fang hadn't put Iggy above his own prejudice. So what? He was pretty sure Gazzy had been wounded, too. Heck, Gazzy has asked the older boy to stay, had almost begged him in a quiet sort of way, and Fang just said sorry and left. Just like that. Just turned his back and jumped into the sky.

Well, fine. Fine. If that was how he was going to be…

"Then good riddance," Iggy snarled, and pushed the remnants of his hurt deep down, where even he would have a hard time fishing it out.

With his haphazard emotions at least somewhat out of the way, Iggy's mind was left to return to the one topic that had been bothering it for the past week: Ari's expiration date. Physically, Ari seemed as able as ever. Iggy had never caught him stumbling or out of breath. If he slept more than before, it was probably because he didn't want to face reality. Iggy knew that if he was in the younger mutant's position, he wouldn't want to wake up and think, I'm going to die, either.

He frowned, thinking of Jeb's "secret project." He had no idea what the man could be working on. Jeb and Jacob were constantly locked inside the ex-whitecoat's office, tinkering with whatever they were building, while the flock members were left to make up their own assumptions. Gazzy thought it was a microscopic bomb so tiny it could be pushed through the skin and blow up the termination chip without any damage to Ari. Max thought it was some sort of antidote in serum form, while Nudge had guessed that the project consisted of something so mind-blowing that she couldn't even imagine it.

Iggy had no idea what Jeb's project was. But now that he thought about it…why shouldn't he know? The door was right there, three away from his own. It wouldn't hurt to take a quick peek inside (in a manner of speaking).

He found Jeb's office by retracing his steps to his bedroom door, the last one in the hall, and running his fingers along the wooden wall. The doorknob was cool and smooth beneath his fingers, but he felt hot all over, like he did when he was building a bomb that Max had strictly forbidden him to create. He twisted the doorknob.

And, to his everlasting surprise, the door opened.

Iggy stood motionless for an instant, still surprised that Jeb hadn't locked the door when he'd come out in the middle of the fight. He guessed that the ex-whitecoat would have been a little distracted with the flock's shouting, but Jeb was usually so paranoid that he never made a mistake like this. Oh, well. It worked to Iggy's advantage.

The blind boy stepped inside and shut the door soundlessly. Jeb's office smelled like every other room in the safe house; slightly stale, musty, with that ever-present undercurrent of pine and woodland air. Iggy felt his way around the room, his sensitive fingertips stretched out in front of him.

Two bookcases filled to the brim with folders and crumbling paper lined one side of the room. On the other side was a towering cabinet, on which balanced dozens of bottles filled with different liquids that gurgled when he swished them, several microscopes and a silent laptop. Iggy felt around carefully, trying his best not to knock anything over. These liquids…was it like Max thought, and Jeb was formulating a serum that would cure Ari?

Something tugged on Iggy's instincts, reminding him that there was still one part of the office he hadn't explored. He headed toward the wall opposite the door and collided painfully with a desk. Taking a step back, he skimmed the wooden surface with his fingertips. It was a large desk and could easily seat two people. He could picture Jeb and Jacob hunched over this workspace, fiddling with whatever genius plan they'd come up with.

Iggy's hands brushed against something cold and smooth. He paused, frowning, and reached out. The object he took up in his hands was partially oblong, spanned about the length of his hand, and was overflowing with wires. Iggy felt a sudden surge of excitement. This was it. He could tell right away that this was what Jeb and Jacob had been working on for days on end, locked away without sunlight or fresh air, working at a breakneck pace to save Ari—and to think, he'd been worried that they didn't really have a secret project, that they'd just been saying things to comfort the flock…

Footsteps in the hallway outside startled Iggy from his musings. He considered dropping the thing where he'd found it and trying to hurry back to his room, but he knew that he wouldn't make it in time before he was discovered. Sure enough, not a second later, the door swung open.

"Iggy?" Jeb shut the door behind him with more force than was strictly necessary. Iggy felt a brief wave of uncertainty. Maybe he should have made a run for it after all…?

"What are you doing with that?" Jeb asked nervously. "Put it down!"

"Sorry," Iggy said, remaining where he stood as Jeb darted forward and snatched the project from his hands. A relieved, weary sigh slipped out from the ex-whitecoat as he set it back on the desk.

"You could have broken it," he said breathlessly.

"What is it?" Iggy asked.

"It's what Jacob and I have been working on for the past week. What are you doing here, Iggy? I thought I made it clear that this room is closed to everyone except Jacob and myself."

Iggy frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. "Well, what do you expect when you keep hinting that you have some big, secret project that you won't let anyone see?"

Against his expectations, Jeb only chuckled dryly and replied, "All right. I guess I should have seen it coming."

Iggy tapped one long finger over his bicep. "You still haven't told me what the project is."

"Ah. You're getting more astute, I see."

"Not really, no. I've always been this smart. And flattery will get you nowhere, old man."

If his eyes hadn't been so useless, Iggy was sure he would have seen Jeb smirking. "Fine," he said. "Do you know what that object was, the one you just picked up?"

Iggy shook his head.

Jeb paused a moment, hesitating, before he said, "It's the trigger for the Extermination Effect."

"What?" Iggy scowled in confusion. "That's the big project? That's what you've been working on all along?"

A hint of disapproval entered Jeb's tone. "Don't be so quick to assume I haven't been doing anything useful. Do you remember how the Extermination Effect works?" he asked slowly.

No, Iggy started to reply, but at that moment the door opened to let through the distinctive footsteps of Ari and Gazzy.

"Oh," the Gasman said upon seeing Jeb and Iggy apparently at a standstill, "we were just…looking for Iggy. We heard his voice come from in here."

Jeb didn't say anything. Iggy tensed, sensing that the man was hesitating not for lack of words, but because he was considering chasing the two mutants out of the room.

"Jeb, you should tell them too," he said quickly. He felt Ari's and Gazzy's eyes on him but maintained eye contact with Jeb, unwavering. "It's only fair. If I get to hear it, they should too."

"Hear what?" The Gasman asked.

Iggy had lived with the man long enough to know that Jeb always moved his hands when he was anxious or in the middle of a stressful situation. Now his fingers tapped out a nervous rhythm on the wood of his desk.

"He wants you to hear how the project works," Jeb said almost inaudibly. "The one Jacob and I have been working on to stop Ari's expiration date."

The floorboards creaked beneath Ari's feet as he leaned forward in anticipation. Iggy might not have been able to see, but he could feel the tension in the air without having to see his friends' faces. He was surprised that electricity wasn't jumping from his fingertips.

"As I was saying," Jeb continued, "I picked up the trigger for the Extermination Effect from Stark while we were still escaping from the School. He had it on him, and I kept it with me so he wouldn't be able to use it against Iggy. I thought nothing of it until Ari's expiration date showed up. I became so desperate for a solution that I reached out for anything, making connections, drawing similarities where I could.

"Then I remembered the trigger for the Extermination Effect—and that it works, essentially, exactly as the termination chip does. The Extermination trigger sends out electromagnetic waves, like those in light and x-rays, that communicate with the brain's central nervous system through the termination chip, and order the brain to shut down all control over motor function, like movement." Jeb paused as Ari made a confused sound. "In other words, the trigger indirectly targets your brain and scrambles the commands it sends out so your body can't obey those commands. The termination chip works the same way, but to a much more drastic degree. It orders your brain to shut down not only motor function, but your organs and nervous system as well. Like a self-destruct button."

"Wait—how does this help Ari?" Iggy asked. He understood what Jeb was trying to say—the Extermination trigger and termination chip both did the same thing, sent out electro-whatever waves to tell the brain to shut down parts of the body, yadda yadda yadda—but he didn't see how it was going to save his friend.

"The Extermination trigger targets the termination chip," Jeb said again, slowly this time, as if the answer should have been obvious and Iggy was just being obtuse. "And that's all we need. I believe that, with some major adjustments, we can change the message that the trigger sends to the termination chip. If we can make the trigger order the termination chip to send out a different message, a message that would stop the shutdown of all organs…"

"We can keep Ari from being retired," Iggy concluded. For a moment he stood there with his mouth hanging partially open, lost in how Jeb's solution could sound so simple and so complex at the same time. So Nudge was right. The project was some impossible, mind-blowing thing I wouldn't have thought of in a hundred years.

"It sounds so easy," the Gasman said, echoing Iggy's thoughts. "So why is it taking so long to finish?"

"It's a lot harder than it sounds, Gazzy," Jeb replied. "You see how all the wires have been taken out and rearranged? Jacob and I are still working on how to reconnect them so they'll send out the message we want. We also have to take into account how Ari's body will react to this change. The entire procedure combines both Jacob's knowledge on the human body, and mine, on the communication between mechanics and physiology."

"Um," said the Gasman, "I didn't really understand that last part, but…when do you think it'll be done?"

"I can't say," Jeb admitted. Sometime during his explanation, he'd stopped tapping his fingers against his desk, but now Iggy heard him pick it up again. "But it will work. And it will be finished before the expiration date arrives."

"Do you promise?" Ari asked.

Iggy jumped; Ari had been so quiet that he'd almost forgotten that the other boy was still in the room.

"Promise?" Ari said again. His voice, even as rough and deep as it was, sounded like that of a seven-year-old: young, hopeful, vulnerable. "Promise this is going to work? Jeb?"

"Yes, Ari," Jeb said solemnly. "I promise."

In a move that startled Iggy with its suddenness, Ari moved toward his father. Jeb grunted, his voice muffled, and then there was the dry sound of his hand patting Ari's back.

Gazzy sidled up to Iggy and whispered so quietly that Iggy himself could barely hear him, "Ari hugged him."

And though he knew that promises were as easy to break as human necks in their harsh world, Iggy smiled.

Two sets of footsteps thundered down the hallway at that moment. Iggy heard Ari pull away just as the people reached the open doorway.

"Maximum," Jeb said in surprise. "Jacob. What's wrong?"

"Lights, Jeb," Jacob gasped. His voice was tinged with panic. "In the woods, not too far away."

"I saw them," Max added grimly. "They're Erasers, with guns, I'm sure of it. And they're on their way here."

When Nehemiah had been a child, pale and thin and taunted, it had been his secret hobby to trap insects from his father's backyard and pull them apart with tweezers. Sometimes he pretended a bug was a mean kid from school. Sometimes he pretended it was an alien specimen yet to be seen by man, and he was the first to discover its bizarre secrets.

Sometimes he pulled, twisted and tore, and needed no more reason for it besides sheer fascination.

Now he scoffed to think how intrigued he'd been with playing with such tiny, insignificant creatures. They were nothing compared to what he worked on now. Now he worked on human beings, took them apart with instruments meant for surgery and instruments meant for no such thing. He knew each person's innards better than the back of his colorless hand.

But he wanted more, he wanted…he wanted to create, though not in that idealistic, irrational way of the optimists who believed they could make a better society out of the decaying world. They were nothing more than blind fools who were too weak to see the world as it truly was. No, no, Nehemiah wanted to create new creatures from the scraps and shreds of the ones he'd already taken apart. He wanted to see humans ripped apart and put together again as part-human, part-animal, he wanted to see hideous beasts rise from what had once been useless babes, he wanted to see myths, impossibilities, everything that people had once told him he could never have.

And he wanted it to be all his. His, and then people would be forced to look to him not in the hateful wariness they reserve for all things strange and impossible to understand, but in reverence. In worshipfulness.

Nehemiah's father had been an abusive man, though not in the physical sense. Words had been enough. They'd come, hurtful and loathsome, bursting at the seams with an unrestrained disdain that the father felt for himself and decided to turn against his inexplicable son. Demon. Freak. Not human. Not human, because his mother had died giving birth to him, a colorless child of teeth and almost-white eyes and unusualness. A child who was picked on at school for his strange demeanor, a child who enjoyed pulling apart insects and small birds in his father's backyard, a child who one day grew cold and unfeeling, and slipped into his father's drink nectar from the oleander plant his mother had kept in the yard.

Only when his father lay cold and still on the floor did Nehemiah leave. He took up the backpack he'd prepared for this very moment, slipped out the door, and disappeared.

He was found, of course, two years after he'd poisoned his father. Not even his keen mind could protect him from the all-seeing eye of the world's justice. Luckily for him, the men sent after him were employees of a certain company that was looking for new recruits. Sixteen years old, alone, with no other future ahead of him except one spent in prison, Nehemiah Stark was a perfect choice. Someone they could use.

Of course, he'd agreed. Had said yes and stepped into a world where he could rip, tear, rend as much as he liked. A world where he could create impossibilities.

Impossibilities like the one he was working on at this very moment, opening the unfortunate mutant wide and plunging his hands in, searching, searching—

"Doctor Stark?"

The gray-haired man stopped at the sound of a whitecoat's sharp tone and looked up with a baleful glare. Under his hands, the mutant he'd been operating on twitched spastically, trying to force his hands out of its open abdomen. He withdrew. His gloved fingers were covered in crimson.

"Mr. Crane," he said, placing the man's broad face immediately. Head of security, a no-nonsense employee. Crane knew Nehemiah well enough never to bother him unless it was absolutely imperative. "What is it?"

"A matter of national security, actually," Crane drawled. "It seems that those surveillance videos you lost to Batchelder have made it to the government after all."

Nehemiah straightened. "Complete the operation without me," he ordered the men who'd been overseeing the procedure. Without waiting to see if they obeyed, he slipped off his bloodied gloves and joined Crane outside the operating room.

"The government is sending a wave of officials to investigate us," Crane continued. "It appears Marling gave them coordinates."

"When?" Nehemiah asked flatly.

"Our contacts in the government say that the forces will be launched a day from tomorrow," Crane answered. "They would come earlier, but there are still some legalities that must be set in order."

Nehemiah folded his hands in front of him and thought. He was faced with two difficult answers here: one, to let the government discover his School and rely on his contacts in the system to silence any outburst…or two, to destroy all evidence of his experiments and risk the Director's wrath for eradicating years of work.

After a half-second of hesitation, the choice became clear to Nehemiah. He could not afford to let the School be discovered. Not even his government contacts had the power to control the outcry that would follow this; they couldn't even control the leaking of the School's coordinates. No, he would have to take the hard path and deal with the Director's fury.

Nehemiah would destroy the School. He had enough videos and files on his experiments to ensure that his years of study and research wouldn't go up in flames with the bodies of the mutants. It was time to leave this School behind. His heart kicked up an unfamiliar rhythm of excitement; he was ascending. Finally.

"Prepare for the building for evacuation of all employees," he commanded Crane. "Collect all files, surveillance videos, and records on our experiments here. Take with you only the Erasers you absolutely need, for protection. Leave all other mutants behind. We have a day to prepare for this. Before the government launches its forces against us, I expect us to be gone. No mistakes, Mr. Crane."

Crane blinked, wavering in an uncharacteristic moment of uncertainty. "But, sir…you're going to leave the mutants to be discovered by the officials?"

Nehemiah gave the man a withering look. "Of course not. We have stores of gunpowder and explosives in the lower levels, don't we?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then ready them," Nehemiah said coldly. "And ensure that the helicopters are functioning properly. I intend to be halfway to Germany by the time we blow this place to the sky."

A/N: End chapter twenty-four.

Reviews are like early Christmas presents to me. Even the little ones. :)

soccerislife14: Okay. Can I just say that your review made me absolutely giddy? Thank you so much! I work very hard on planning out this 'fic, and I'm glad someone is able to see and appreciate it. I really do love adding in the plot-twists and keeping my readers on their toes. I find that a predictable 'fic, while still enjoyable, just really isn't as suspenseful or intruiging as one that keeps you guessing. Hopefully, I'll be able to keep throwing you for loops throughout the duration of the story. =)


25. Enemies in the Dark

Disclaimer: Maximum Ride does not belong to me, though all OC's, original ideas, and plot devices do.

Merry late Christmas, everyone! And, ah, if you don't celebrate Christmas...err, good evening, had a lovely day, I expect? :P

Hugs and kisses (or not) to AmyQueen95, pandorad24, nathan-p, Setari, flYegurl, chulala, Aleria14, Storm-Horse101, Alactricity, huntermarra and BeTrueToThyself for reviewing, because you guys pushed us past 300 reviews! -confetti- I honestly never thought I would ever reach this point, and maybe it's not much compared to those people who have more than 1000 reviews (I have no idea how they do it) but I am infinitely grateful to you guys, to all my reviewers. -more confetti-

I think we should have about thirty chapters in total, so there can only be about five chapters, more or less, to go. We're almost there, guys! Hang in there! :D

This chapter is almost entirely Ari-POV, with a Fang-POV to close the chapter. Enjoy!

Chapter Twenty-Five: Enemies in the Dark

"I have a plan."

Ari looked up from slinging his backpack over his thick shoulders. His heart jumped in his chest with fiery adrenaline. Jeb had been prepared for this moment, this ambush, ever since they had first settled into the safe house. He'd given them each a backpack full of supplies necessary for surviving on the road—water, food, a blanket and a knife for self-defense. They were ready.

We've got to get out of here.

"What plan?" Jeb asked. He stood between Ari and Jacob, his dark eyes focused on Iggy and the bulky bundle he carried in his skinny arms. "Iggy…what is that?"

Iggy grinned at Jeb's wary tone. "You didn't think I spent almost a week just sitting around, did you? I knew something like this would probably happen, so I came prepared."

His fingers fumbled with the strings of the bag he carried. In the dim light of the hallway, Ari caught only a glimpse of red and yellow wires before the blind boy pulled from the sack four metal boxes.

"They're nothing huge," Iggy said, "but they should deliver a good kick."

Just then, Max and Gazzy came running from the young boy's bedroom. Max rested a hand on the small boy's back as he adjusted the straps of his emergency pack.

"We're ready," the Gasman announced breathlessly. Max nodded. Ari almost blinked at the wave of déjà vu that swept over him upon seeing the look in her eye. Those brown orbs were gleaming with a steely determination that he had always viewed from afar as Max fought to defend everything and everyone she held dear against the dangers of the world. Suddenly, he was very, very glad that he wasn't on the receiving end of her antagonism…for once.

"What's going on?" Max demanded, seeing the bombs in Iggy's hands. "Ig?"

"I think I know what we're gonna do," the blind boy replied.

"Well, you better do it fast. The Erasers should be here any second now."

Iggy nodded firmly. "We're gonna have to split up. Jeb, Jacob, Ari, all you guys without wings, climb down and hide in the trees. Wait for us. We'll let down the ladder, and the Erasers will climb up to see if anyone's inside. The second they're all in the house, we tie the bombs to the house's support beams and set 'em off. Each bomb counts down a little less than thirty seconds before it blows."

"You have four bombs," Ari said quietly, noticing a gap in Iggy's plan. "If you, Max and Gazzy set the bombs, one of them will go off after the other ones."

Max agreed, "We need a fourth person."

"I'll do it," Ari said instantly, seeing that Jeb was about to volunteer himself. "Dad, you and Jacob hide in the shadows and keep the trigger safe."

Jeb looked as if he wanted to protest, but after a moment of hesitation he nodded, his ingrained sense of duty kicking in. One of his hands unconsciously strayed toward his backpack, where Ari had seen him put the Extermination trigger.

Max smiled hungrily. "Then let's go get 'em."

By the time Ari climbed down the folding ladder and set foot on the leafy ground, he could clearly see the beams from the Erasers' flashlights cutting through the lightless dark of the night. He had time only for one worried glance, but he counted at least ten beams of light, already frighteningly close.


The young Eraser turned at Iggy's hushed whisper. A bomb was outstretched in the blind boy's hand. "Just press the big button when they're all inside. Then run. They're not huge bombs, but they'll definitely knock you off your feet if you're too close."

"Iggy, Ari, move!" Max hissed from the shadows of the trees. By her side, the Gasman stared with wide, excited eyes at the approaching lights, one of Iggy's bombs clutched nervously in his grubby hands.

"Coming!" Iggy grabbed tightly onto Ari's sleeve. The young Eraser took off toward the safety of the trees, crouching low as he tried to make his footsteps as quiet as possible. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of a white shirt as Jeb and Jacob fled into the trees behind the safe house.

Ari slipped through the trees until he found an ancient-looking specimen with a hollowed-out interior large enough to hide Iggy. He helped the blind boy into the hiding spot before crouching down behind the carcass of a huge redwood that lay nearby.

"How far are they?" Iggy whispered.

Still holding tightly (but not too tightly) to the bomb Iggy had given him, Ari lifted his head over the log to peer into the clearing that surrounded the safe house. He looked just in time to see the first Eraser break through the trees. The wolf-mutant howled triumphantly at the sight of the safe house, filled with warm light and the promise of tasty bird kids.

"They're here," Ari replied grimly.

A branch snapped nearby. Ari spun to see Max and Gazzy hiding a short distance away, huddled behind a thick row of bushes. In the faint moonlight, their hair gleamed like gold—they looked like angels. Grimy angels preparing to blast a bunch of wolf-mutants to high heaven.

Max turned her head and met Ari's eye. The breath stopped in his chest as something wary crossed her face, but after a half-second of uncertainty, she thinned her lips and nodded respectfully. Ari relaxed and nodded back.

"Look what we have here!"

A shout from the leading Eraser drew Ari's attention away from Max and Gazzy. All of the wolf-mutants had filed into the clearing and stood gathered around their leader, bristling with bared fangs and loaded pistols. In total, they numbered fifteen.

The lead Eraser, a narrow-boned creature with white-blond hair and pitted skin tinted a strange greenish hue, took a step forward and hefted his shotgun in his hands. Ari thought he recognized the mutant from Stark's School—Nero. Ari had heard about him and his strange appearance, a result of too many chemical experiments from the whitecoats. There were no words for how glad he was not to be working for those people anymore.

"Nine of you go up," Nero ordered with a jerk of his shotgun. "The rest of you stay down here with me. Wait for the pipsqueaks if they try 'n run."

Ari watched with a sinking heart as six Erasers remained behind while their squad-mates, one by one, ascended the ladder to the safe house. He exchanged a nervous glance with Max. If the Erasers stayed behind, there was no way he and the others would be able to set up the bombs without being shot at.

The last Eraser filed into the safe house. Ari swallowed tightly and rose into a half-crouch, his heart thumping madly in his chest. He would have to draw their fire. It was the only way.

"Ari?" Iggy hissed, hearing the young Eraser move. His sightless eyes were bright in the shadows of the hollowed tree. "What are you doing?"

Ari looked away, steeling himself. But before he could run out into the clearing, a shout rose up from the trees behind the safe house.


Ari jumped—that was Jacob's voice. Nero nodded curtly to his men and led them around the safe house, toward the trees where Jeb and Jacob were hiding.

Max leaped to her feet and made for the house, barking, "Crap! Go, go! Now!"

Ari lunged to grab Iggy's wrist and led the boy toward one of the house's support beams. "Here," he said quietly, guiding Iggy's hands to the base of the beam. "Just set it against this and press the button."

Iggy nodded. Ari hurried over to his own support beam and propped the bomb against its base. His finger hovered over the button that would set the bomb off. The seconds before Iggy's order seemed to stretch into minutes, hours. Sweat trickled into his eyes as he stared nervously into the shadows of the trees at the edge of the clearing.

"Oy!" Someone shouted from the safe house. "Nero, there ain't no bird freaks up here!"

"Now!" Iggy yelled.

Ari pressed the button and shot to his feet. Moving faster than he ever remembered moving before, he ran to Iggy's side, grabbed the back of the boy's shirt and sprinted the distance to the tree-line.

"Got 'em!" An Eraser shouted from the safe house. An instant later gunfire punctured the dirt behind Ari's heels. He and Iggy barely made it into the shadows before the Eraser that had noticed them alerted the others.

"Keep running!" Ari shouted, pulling on Iggy's shirt. He hadn't seen Max or Gazzy get away from the safe house after setting of their bombs, but he could only hope that they hadn't been hit by the Erasers' bullets.

"Wait, Ari!" Iggy called out. Ari never got to find out what the boy was going to say. One moment he and Iggy were running so quickly they were nearly tripping over their own feet, and the next moment, something roared and crashed into them like a freight train.

Ari rammed into a tree and landed hard on the ground. He barely had time to blink before an Eraser launched itself on top of him and wrapped its meaty hands around his neck.

"Ari!" Iggy screamed.

There was a sudden flash of light. Ari squinted against the blaze as four explosions joined into one monstrous, thundering detonation that sent a shockwave shuddering through the air. The Eraser flew off of him, tossed loose by a combination of the shockwave and the impact of Iggy's shoe against his temple. Ari lurched into a sitting position just in time to see the safe house collapse on itself. The air was rife with the trapped Erasers' screams, then the sound of shattering wood as the house toppled to the ground, and finally a silence broken only by the crackle of the explosion's leftover flames.

Ari rolled to his feet, rubbing his throbbing throat. Iggy delivered another forceful kick to the Eraser's head, and the mutant went limp.

There was no time for thanks. Three Erasers burst through the trees and advanced, their pistols trained on Iggy and Ari. One of them was Nero.

"Get 'em, boys!" Nero grinned.

One Eraser lunged at Iggy, the other two at Ari. He hesitated, not wanting to leave his blind friend on his own, but Nero lifted his shotgun and fired off a shot by Ari's ear. The young Eraser flinched and shouted to Iggy, "Get out of here! Fly!"

The blind boy spun on his heel and scrambled off into the shadows, an Eraser close on his heels.

Ari ran. Behind him, the Erasers yowled with bloodlust and half-insane laughter. He could hear their bones crunch as they morphed, turning into creatures that ran on all fours and would tear him apart with their fangs if they caught him.

His feet flew over the ground. Black shadows and half-silver moonlight flew by in blurred snatches as he fled. His heartbeat was a frantic death knell, ringing in his ears. Ari kept an eye out as he ran for a flash of blond hair or a white shirt, for any sign of his friends or father.

The Erasers jeered at him through twisted muzzles. "Run, run little traitor! We've got you-uuu!"

Directly ahead of him, a small figure with yellow hair leaped into his path. Gazzy! Ari grabbed the boy's arm, scaring him half out of his wits, and kept running.

"Where's Max?" he demanded. The blond-haired girl was nowhere in sight.

Gazzy's dirt-streaked face contorted. His short legs struggled to keep up with Ari's frantic pace. "We got separated. Some of the Erasers got out of the house before it went down and they chased us apart. We gotta keep moving, one of them's right behind me—"

A vicious snarl was the only warning they had before the two fully-morphed Erasers were upon them. Both mutants slammed into Ari, knocking him flat on his back. Nero ground his knees into the young Eraser's chest, grinning excitedly as the motion elicited a sharp cry of pain. With a roar, a third Eraser tore out of the trees, tackled Gazzy to the ground and pinned his small wrists behind his back.

"Careful with that one, Otto," Nero warned the third Eraser. "Stark wants him alive and bite-mark-free."

The Eraser named Otto sneered and forced Gazzy's face into the dirt. "Want me to take him to the car? He should fit in the trunk."

"Sure," Nero said. He paused and grinned spitefully in Ari's face. "But…not yet. Keep him here for a second. Let 'im enjoy the show."

Otto released his hold on Gazzy's head, letting him up so he could breathe. Gazzy gasped, "Darnit, let go of us, you rotten creeps! Or Ari will beat the stuffing out of ya!"

The boy's captor stuffed his fingers into Gazzy's mouth to keep him quiet. Fury flickered in the Gasman's eyes, and a moment later Otto jerked his hand away, yelling as blood welled around the bite-marks Gazzy had left on his fingers.

"Freak!" The Eraser dealt a hard cuff to the side of Gazzy's head. "Just try that again—maybe Stark doesn't want us chewing on you, but he didn't say squat about a couple broken fingers."

Something in Ari's chest exploded in heat. He had never really cared about Gazzy one way or another, but after the past week he guessed the boy was okay, and he wasn't about to stand by as a helpless kid was beaten around by merciless mutants three times his size.

"Don't touch him!" he barked, getting gingerly to his feet. Otto snarled and started to move forward, but a single, sharp gesture from Nero stopped him where he was. Ari glared at the lead Eraser with all the malevolence he could muster.

"Word around the School," Nero said with a sneer, "is that you're due to croak any day now. Tell us, kiddo. Organs shutting down yet? Muscles giving out? Or do you just fall over one day and stop twitchin'?"

The other Erasers laughed raucously. Ari gritted his teeth, but kept his jaw strong. Nero narrowed his eyes.

"Don't," he said, stepping so close that Ari could smell his rancid breath, "try to play tough, traitor. You deserve this. From what I've heard, you've been a stuck-up little prick for as long as anyone can remember because your daddy's a whitecoat. Well, what now, brat? Where's Daddy now?"

Ari put his hand on Nero's face and pushed the Eraser away from him. Nero staggered back, catching himself against his partner as he leveled at Ari a glare so filled with rage that a nervous shudder went down his back.

"Kane," Nero said to the Eraser next to him, "I don't think he's being very polite. Do you?"

"Nope," Kane said with a smirk. "Should we teach him some manners? As a farewell gift?"

"I think we should."

Ari managed to block the first few blows, but Kane followed up with a crushing kick that had him wheezing on his knees. Instantly, both Erasers set into him with their fists. Red-hot pain erupted in Ari's sides as the blows came raining down from all sides. He lashed out with both feet and caught Nero in the forehead.

The Erasers instantly backed off. Nero cursed, holding a thick paw to his wounded forehead where the edge of Ari's shoe had hit hard enough to break skin. Ari staggered to his feet, panting, clutching at his bruised sides with hands that trembled with pain. His stomach dropped when Nero reached into his pocket and took out a knife. The weapon shone dully in the moonlight, worn and stained with ancient blood.

"Little bastard," Nero snarled. "I'm gonna carve you up and deliver you to Stark personally. I think he'll like that."

"No!" Gazzy struggled in Otto's grip. The Eraser grunted and slammed the boy face-first into the dirt, holding him down with one gargantuan boot. Gazzy turned his head, spat out a clod of dirt and shouted, "Run, Ari! You jerks, leave him alone!"

Ari straightened his back painfully and glared Nero in the eye. The Eraser sneered. "Look at you," he spat disdainfully. "You're nothing but a useless, pathetic dead man. You hear me, little traitor? You're dead. Daddy can't save you from your expiration date. No one can."

Mere hours before, those hateful words would have sliced into Ari's very soul and crushed him. But now? Now he had hope. His father had given him hope, had showed it to him in the form of tangled wires and dull metal, and it had been beautiful.


Nero stopped, blinking. Ari lifted his chin and said again, louder this time, "No. I'll live. I'll survive this and live for a long time, become a grown-up and then an old man, and I'll have my friends and my dad. But you? Your expiration date will come eventually, and then guess what? No one will save you. No one will save you like they've saved me."

Nero's face twisted with maniacal hatred. "I'll kill you. I'll kill you. I don't care if you're gonna die anyway." He lunged forward, the knife flashing in his hand. "Come here, you stupid—"


Everyone froze. Nero looked down at his chest with wide, confused eyes. A puddle of red spread across his white-blond fur and burbled at the corners of his mouth. With a gurgling groan, he folded at the knees and toppled over. Behind his collapsed form stood two familiar figures.

"Dad," Ari breathed. "Max."

Jeb held a rifle in his shaking hands, his eyes wide behind his glasses and his mouth halfway open with shock, as if he couldn't believe his finger had pulled the trigger. Max looked the same, sans stolen weapon.

"You didn't really have to shoot the guy," she said. "I could've taken him out."

Jeb ignored her comment and slowly turned the rifle on Kane. "On the ground," he said, his voice still husky with shock. "Now. And you, let go of the boy."

Both Kane and Otto lifted their hands above their heads, their eyes trained on the weapon Jeb held in his hands. The ex-whitecoat waited until both Erasers were spread flat on the leaves before he nodded jerkily to Ari and Max.

"Ari, Max. If you would."

Simultaneously, two sets of superhumanly-strong fists, one from a winged girl and the other from an Eraser-defector, came down on the backs of the Erasers' necks. The wolf-mutants went limp immediately.

From his spot on the ground, Gazzy stuck out his tongue and rubbed it furiously with one dirty hand. "Euggh. I'm gonna have that Eraser taste in my mouth for weeks."

"Iggy?" Ari asked, searching behind Max and his father for some sign of his blind friend. "And Jacob?"

Max shook her head hastily. "No idea where they are. We were separated. Come on, we have to move," she said, grabbing Gazzy and nearly dragging him to his feet. "Someone must've heard that gunshot."

Sure enough, a howl sounded so close that the hair on the back of Ari's neck stood up. As a group, the four of them turned and raced into the trees as the sound of thundering footsteps rose around them like a cloud of locusts.

They only could have been running for a minute when an explosion sounded in the near distance. Ari came to a juddering stop with the rest of the group, his eyes straining to see in the darkness. A cloud of smoke rose to obscure the crescent moon, at its base a flickering collection of flames that spat sparks in every direction. Above the roar of the fire, Erasers screamed orders at each other as they scurried to regain order amongst their thinning ranks.

"Well," Max said with a huff, "I think we found Iggy."

"Look!" Gazzy pointed toward the site of the explosion. "Is that them?"

Ari squinted. Even with his enhanced sight, he doubted he would have been able to pick out the two fleeing figures without the aid of the blazing flames. With the orange-red glow of the fire behind them, it was easy to recognize Iggy and Jacob as they bolted from the scene of the crime.

"All right." His eyes still trained on Iggy's and Jacob's approaching forms, Jeb reached his hands out to grip Ari's and Max's elbows. "We have to find a place to hide."

Max shot him a disbelieving look. "Hide?"

"Yes, Maximum. We can't fight them. They're armed and we are not." Jeb looked around frantically for a hiding spot. It wasn't until then that Ari noticed they were at the same stream he and the others had visited only yesterday, though they had played at a site where the stream wasn't bordered by miniature cliffs on either side like this spot was. A large boulder rose out of one cliff side's edge and formed a long ledge. Jeb walked toward it and beckoned them forward.

"Here," he said, pointing. "All of you, get under the ledge. And keep quiet."

One by one, the group members dropped over the edge, splashing through the stream to crouch below the rock ledge. Ari pressed his back against the wall, trying to quiet the ragged, tired gasps that tore themselves from his throat. His ribs ached from the beating they had taken not five minutes earlier.

"You all right?" Max asked. He turned to find her watching him with worried brown eyes.

"Yeah," he rumbled, holding a hand to his side. "They gave me a good beating, that's all."

Max narrowed her eyes, looking as if she wished she'd dealt the Erasers more than a blow to the neck. Still above the ledge, Jeb hissed, "Iggy, Jacob, here!"

A moment later, Jeb and the group's missing members dropped into the stream. The air rushed from Ari's chest with relief, though Iggy's face was smeared with mud and soot, and Jacob was coughing up a storm.

"Too much smoke," the dark-skinned man choked out. "Sorry…"

"Shh." Jeb held out a hand and cocked his head to the left, listening. Ari strained his ears. With all the grace of stampeding elephants, the remaining Erasers were crashing across the terrain in search of the fugitives.

"They're coming. What do we do?" Gazzy whispered.

"Just…" Jeb squatted on the ground beneath the ledge and made himself small. "Keep quiet and wait."

They did. They waited until even the faintest sounds of the Erasers' pursuit had faded into the distance, waited until Ari's legs were cramped and all memory of warmth had left his aching body, until the moon seemed to lose some of its luster and left the world even darker than before. And still they waited.

Finally, just when Ari was sure he would explode from sheer boredom, Jeb straightened into a standing position. "All right," he said. "I think we've waited long enough."

The entire group let out one huge, relieved breath and spilled out from under the ledge and into the stream. Iggy bent over and dunked his head in the freezing water, scrubbing the mud and ash from his face and hair. Ari waded in and gave the boy a quizzical stare.

"What was that explosion?" he asked. Iggy coughed and ran a hand through his hair, sending water droplets flying.

"I found an extra bomb stashed in my backpack," he answered. "Forgot I had it there. But I usually keep a spare. I ran into Jacob after we got separated from the rest of you, and the Erasers were coming in on us from all sides, so I set off the bomb, and…kind of blew up their car."

Gazzy splashed his way over and complained, "I wish I could've seen that up close. It sounds like fun."

"Yeah, not so much," Iggy returned. "The Erasers caught us before we could get far enough, so the blast knocked me into the air. Jeez. I bet I'll smell like smoke till the end of the month."

"You guys," Max's voice called. Ari looked up to see the blond-haired girl standing back on top of the trench with Jeb and Jacob. She quirked an eyebrow at them and said, "Aren't you coming?"

Ari, Iggy and Gazzy clambered back up the trench to join the rest of their group. Jeb immediately turned on his heel and began to march in the direction Iggy and Jacob had been running before he intercepted them.

"What now?" Max asked, trotting to catch up to Jeb's side. "Jeb? Please tell me we have a plan."

Jeb turned his head toward her the slightest fraction. Ari knew that when his father angled his head like that, he was half listening and half formulating some concocted scheme to save himself. Only now, he had five other people to worry about.

"We can't stay here," Jeb said. "The Erasers will return with backup. I think that when Fang and the others left, the Erasers stationed in the surrounding area must have spotted them and searched for our hiding spot. If they can find us like that, they can definitely find us again. I have…one safe house left, in Maine. We'll go there."

Max stopped in her tracks so suddenly that Ari almost collided with her. "What about Fang?" she asked forcefully. "What about Nudge and Angel? If they come back, there's no way they'll find us."

"Serves them right for leaving us," Iggy muttered resentfully.

Max whirled on him with narrowed eyes. "Just so you know, Iggy, we think Fang was just faking that whole argument so we wouldn't follow him. He never meant any of it. He was just putting on a show to keep us away." She looked down at her feet, her eyes dark and filled with regret. "And it worked."

Ari saw Iggy's expression twist with surprise. He felt a certain measure of relief; if Fang-freak—err, if Fang hadn't really meant what he'd said to Iggy in their fight, then Ari hadn't been the reason the dark boy left and caused Iggy so much pain. It made him feel a little bit better about the whole situation.

"Max," Jeb sighed, "I know you don't want to leave Fang and the others behind. I don't either. But we can't stay here. The only weapons we have are a couple knives I got from the kitchen."

"I've got these," Max retorted, lifting her balled fists and shooting Jeb a look that said she'd like to use them on him.

Jeb only shook his head and turned his back on her. "You know those aren't enough against bullets. Come. We'll find a way to contact them, but now is not the time to wait."

The group moved silently after Jeb, their heads hung low as they left behind yet another home destroyed and lost. Ari struggled not to limp as he walked, but his feet slipped in the pine needle-covered ground, and he found himself wincing and gasping as random wires of pain shot through his bruised sides. He would be healed by morning thanks to his body's inhumanly quick healing rate, but at the moment his ribs felt like several of them had been bent neatly out of shape.

Iggy cocked his head at the uneven sound of Ari's steps and, with a concerned frown, wordlessly draped the Eraser's arm across his shoulders. Ari leaned on the smaller mutant as much as he dared to, thankful for the helpful gesture.

A small, grimy hand gripped his other arm and wrapped it around a set of equally diminutive shoulders. When Ari looked down, Gazzy's bright blue eyes stared back at him.

"Thanks for trying to protect me," the boy said. He went quiet and bit his lip, looking away. Ari was sure that Gazzy was more than aware of the tension between them because of their separate friendships with Iggy. But it seemed the eight-year-old was trying to reach out and make amends. "Are…are your ribs okay?"

Ari nodded his head slightly. "They'll heal."

"Okay," said Gazzy. "Uh…good."

Ari didn't miss the way Iggy's mouth turned up at the corners.

The group walked on and on in the forest, eventually coming out into a plain that they risked dashing through to save time. By the time Jeb sagged against a tree and called for a break, pale light was already breaking over the top of the horizon, making the land glow new and bright.

"Thank God," Iggy said. He found a spot on the ground and curled up as if it was a four-poster bed with a heating system built in. "I thought I was gonna keel over."

"Me too," Gazzy agreed with a pained groan. The eight-year-old sat heavily next to his blind friend and rested his chin on his hands with a tired huff. "Can we sleep now?"

Ari's father chuckled, though it came out more as a bone-weary, explosive sigh than anything else. Again, Ari was reminded that his father, though smart and sneaky, wasn't invincible. He didn't even have the stamina that Max or any of the other mutants had, which explained why he simply plopped onto the ground instead of sitting down like a normal person.

"Yes," Jeb murmured, his eyelids already fluttering into sleep. "We may sleep now."

Thinking, Ari made his way over to his father, skirting around Jacob's prone figure (the exhausted man had already made a nice spot for himself beneath a tree and was halfway asleep) and Max. The golden-haired girl stared into the distance, toward the brilliant sunrise. Pale, half-white, half-yellow light highlighted her haggard features.

Ari looked away. He still loved Max so much it hurt. The last week, despite the expiration date that hung over him like a roiling cloud of plague, had been one of the best of his life. Max had acted as if she actually liked him. She'd been nice to him, had even taught him a few things when he looked confused about something she said. Just like the big sister he always wanted her to be.

Yet he couldn't help being afraid that it would all end soon. Good things usually didn't last very long. Not in his life.

But…maybe, this one will?

"Hey, Ari."

He looked up at Max's soft tone to find her giving him a weak smile. "How're your ribs?" she asked. "I saw Ig and Gazzy helping you earlier."

"They're better," Ari admitted. "I just…need some rest."

Max snorted and tossed her hair back. "Yeah, don't we all? You look really tired, kid. Get some sleep. I'll take first watch."

Ari blinked in surprise and dipped his head thankfully. Then he turned back to his father, who still had his backpack on and was leaning against a tree. Jeb's eyes flickered open as he heard his son approach.

"Ari," he croaked hoarsely. "Is something the matter?"

Ari knelt at his father's side and worked his fingers under the straps of Jeb's backpack. "Oh," said Jeb, and sat up quickly. "The trigger…"

"It's fine." Ari breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the Extermination trigger still protected in the confines of the plastic case Jeb had stored it in. Holding the mess of wires and metal in his hands, he felt…light. Light and jittery and giddy. It was…a weird feeling, to say the least.

A weird falling called hope.

Jeb's fingers reached up and closed over Ari's own. Wide blue eyes met world-weary brown ones, and Jeb nodded.

"How do you feel?" Jeb asked.

Though he was exhausted beyond belief, his ribs felt like someone had driven over them with a tractor, and his days were numbered unless his father could pull off this miracle cure, Ari gave Jeb a wavering smile and said, "Great. I feel great."

"Something's up."

Scrunching his eyes against the blinding sunlight, Fang pressed himself flat against the snow, willing the whitecoats' eyes away from him and his ragtag flock. Not that those weak humans would have been able to see him clearly without binoculars, but he still didn't want to take any chances.

"What makes you say that?" Nudge asked in an uncharacteristically dry tone. "The whitecoats scurrying all over the place like they're on fire?"

Fang chose, wisely, to ignore Nudge's pointed barb. She still must have been upset with him over the whole theft incident that had taken place earlier in the day. What did she expect him to do? They'd needed snow gear—Angel had snatched only a thin sweater before they left, and Nudge didn't even have that. Unless they wanted to mug some unfortunate tourist in the street, there was no way for them to get what they needed except by stealing it from a store. Fang just prayed that their keep-your-heads-down trick had been enough to save them from the surveillance cameras.

Currently, though, they were safe from all manner of police and video cameras for the moment. All three of them were lying flat on their stomachs, protected from the cold by the thick snow jackets they had "borrowed." Stationed high on top of the mountain next to the one that housed Stark's School, they were basically protected from raving scientists and insane wolf-mutants with guns.


The fact that the School seemed to be descending into chaos did something to reassure the three winged children that they were safe for the moment.

"Look, they're leaving!" Angel cried. Fang followed her pointing finger to the open doors of some sort of docking bay as one, two, three helicopters lifted out and sped off into the distance. He narrowed his dark eyes.

"Gosh," said Nudge, temporarily appearing to forget her beef with Fang. "I wonder what could be happening…maybe they're sending out more Erasers to look for the rest of the flock?"

Fang squinted his eyes, straining to see across the long distance. Even with his enhanced sight, it was difficult to pick out the Erasers from the whitecoats as they scurried about on the School's flat roof and inside the huge docking bay. "No," he said, finally making out the different figures. "Those are whitecoats getting into the helicopters. Most of the Erasers are staying behind."

As he spoke, Fang noticed five dark forms flying in from the direction the other helicopters had taken. He watched as four of the helicopters went into the docking bay and one went up to land on the School's roof. Erasers poured out, and as soon as they had gone, whitecoats took their place. Four of the scientist-laden helicopters rose and thrummed away from the School at top speed. The one on the roof stayed behind as a group of whitecoats milled around it.

Fang snapped out his wings with a grim frown. "Let's go. This is bad; they're bringing the Erasers back in, not sending more out. We're going to see what they're up to."

Nudge and Angel followed him without a word as he flew from one craggy mountain to the next. He flew as quickly and quietly as he could, though something told him he could have made cawing noises and flapped as noisily as he liked, and still no one would have noticed him. Not that he would ever caw.

A walled trench had been constructed between the School's roof and the mountain, presumably to keep the snow from crashing over the building in the event of an avalanche. Moving stealthily, the flock members maneuvered themselves into the trench and snuck down its length until they were behind the last helicopter. Fang could barely lift himself high enough to poke his head over the trench wall's edge.

Though it would have been ridiculously easy for the whitecoats to spot him had they been paying attention to the trench by their feet, Fang could see the final group of whitecoats to depart the School, could pick out the crates of files they had stored through the helicopter's open doorway, could detect the anxious expression on the pilot's face and the way his hands clenched and unclenched nervously over the controls.

Despite everything he could see, Fang had eyes for only one person.

Nehemiah Stark.

The sudden burst of hatred in his gut startled even him. Fang sank back into the safety of the trench, his heart pounding, his hair whipping around his face with the force of the rotor blades' wind. He'd seen Stark's picture in a file on the stolen laptop, had studied the cold face and dead-looking eyes until he thought his own orbs might fall out, but nothing prepared him for seeing the man in person. Nothing could have warned him about the sudden urge he had to leap over the side of the trench and wring the monster's neck.

"Fang?" Angel stared at him with frightened eyes. "What's wrong?"

Silently, he picked her up and lifted her until only her face from her eyes and above showed over the wall. "That man with the gray hair, talking to that tall black-haired guy," he said. Angel nodded attentively as he quickly lowered her back into hiding.

"That's Stark."

Angel's eyes went wide. Nudge blinked rapidly into the helicopter blades' wind. "What do we do?" she asked, pitching her voice low so the whitecoats wouldn't hear them.

A cold, oily voice speaking over the sound of the helicopter's engine stopped Fang before he could answer.

"Mr. Crane, you're sure the explosives are set correctly?"

Fang lifted himself the slightest bit over the wall. Stark was talking to the tall black-haired man, his expression flat and uninterested despite the edge to his tone.

"Yes, Doctor," Crane shouted back, "everything's set to blow. The School should go up in less than thirty minutes."

Stark nodded curtly and turned on his heel, preparing to board the helicopter. Fang froze. Stark was going to…blow up the School? He hadn't seen any mutants being lifted onto the helicopters, which meant they were still caged inside. Still caged and about to be blown halfway to hell and back.

"Fang?" Angel tugged anxiously on his sleeve. "What do we do?"

He didn't know. For a moment sound seemed to fade into the background and disappear, leaving Fang in the eye of an invisible storm. His instincts and need for vengeance roared at him to jump out of the trench and give Stark what he had coming to him. No one messed with Fang's family and got away with it. No one.

But…if he allowed himself to be distracted, he would lose precious time in the countdown until the School went up in flames. Until the trapped mutants went up in flames.

"Wait," Angel said, pulling hard on his sleeve. "Fang. This isn't the time. He deserves it, but it isn't time for him to pay yet. Please. That's not your job. That's not what you're meant to do. This, saving the mutants—that's what you have to do."

Fang felt like whirling on the girl and demanding what supernatural, freakish power gave her the right to tell him what he was and wasn't meant to do. But he knew she was right. So though it killed him inside, though he wanted nothing more than to beat Stark until he was unrecognizable and bloody, he hid in the trench until the helicopter doors slid shut and the machine rose into the sky, taking into safety that hated man and Fang's only chance at revenge.

"It's okay, Fang," Angel said once the helicopter was a safe distance away and the mountainside was quiet again. "I read Crane's mind. They're going to Headquarters in Germany. We know where to find them."

Fang kept his mouth tightly shut as he levered himself out of the trench and reached down to help Nudge and Angel. "Come on," he said roughly, setting off immediately toward a set of stairs that led from the roof to the lower levels of the School.

Maybe it wasn't his part to hand Stark his just desserts. But he was going to ruin the good doctor's heinous plans if it killed him.

A/N: End chapter twenty-five.

Please leave a review on your way out! =D


26. Escape from the Snake's Den

Disclaimer: Mine, Maximum Ride is not. Want legal ramifications, I do not. Purposely channeling Yoda, I am...simply because I'm so tired of giving these disclaimers. Gahhh. :P

Still giving infinite thanks and hugs, hugs, hugs to flYegurl, Alactricity, WinterSky101, pandorad24, soccerislife14, AmyQueen95, Shar're from Abydos, BeTrueToThyself, and Locked in a Stony Tower for reviewing and making my day that much better. Reviews are the only thanks a fanfic writer has for posting and each comment means a lot to me. :) Okay, I'll stop gushing now.

Warning(s): we're dealing with some touchy material due to a certain psychotic scientist...Stark, that is...and his rather blatant disregard for human life and religion. Expect twisted-ness. Also, we're going in for an entirely Fang-POV with a small bit from Stark at the end. Sorry, no Iggy this chapter. I simply ran out of space to put his bit in (the entire escape scene got away from me and took over), but don't worry, we'll be back to normal next chapter.

On that note...enjoy.

Chapter Twenty-Six: Escape from the Snake's Den

The problem with breaking into a high-security building full of mutated children was, predictably, the people who worked there didn't want anyone to find their dirty, illegal secrets. It therefore took Nudge a good five minutes to get through the security panels warding the door that would let their group inside.

"Finally," she breathed, when at last the door's metal bolts rolled back. "I was starting to think we'd never get in."

Fang pushed the door open and strode through into a long white hall of fluorescent lights and polished tile. Memories slammed into him from all sides, horrific, fragmented images of unspeakable experiments and syringes, blinding light and drying blood. He shook them away without another thought and balled his hands into fists. He had a job to do.

Not a single Eraser was in sight. Weird, he thought, but who was he to complain?

"Do we have a plan?" Nudge asked. She stared down the hallway with wide-open eyes, her skinny arms cocked at a ready angle in case she had to throw a punch.

"Find the bombs," Fang replied curtly. "Shut them down and get the kids out."

"But, Fang," Angel broke in, "how are we going to do that? The whitecoats took all the helicopters with them."

Fang hesitated. "We'll deal with that when we get to it. For now, let's just try to find the explosives."

At that moment, a blaring alarm rang through the hallway, nearly deafening the children's keen ears.

"What's that?" Nudge asked shrilly.

"The security alarm," Fang said. "They know we're here."


In answer to Nudge's question, two Erasers sprinted around the corner, guns in their muscled hands. The three children threw themselves out of the way as one of the wolf-mutants fired.

"Fang, Nudge!" Angel shouted. She'd opened a door and was waving frantically at the descending staircase behind it. "This way!"

Both mutants bolted for the stairs. Fang slammed the door shut behind them, jerking back as a bullet dented the protective metal.

"Down," he ordered the two girls. They turned and scurried down the stairs with him on their heels. The stairs spiraled downwards, with a door marking the exit to every floor. Before they had gone down one level, the two Erasers clattered into the staircase after them.

"Move!" Fang shouted. Nudge reached the next door first and pushed it open with all her weight, spilling into another winding hallway. Fang followed Angel through and didn't even bother with closing the door behind him; there was no lock on this one, so shutting it would only be a waste of time.

"Quick, try another door!" Nudge shouted. The screeching alarm had been joined with the sounds of pounding Eraser feet and hoarse shouting.

Angel reached for the nearest door and flew through. Fang closed the door behind him as quietly as he could, not wanting to draw attention. He knew that the Erasers chasing them must have arrived at their level already, but there was so much noise he didn't hear the stairway door slam shut.

"Oh my gosh."

Nudge's horrified whisper had Fang wheeling on his heel, his fists raised. What he saw made them fall back down to his sides.

There was no point in preparing to fight the occupants of the room, even if he had wanted to fight them in the first place. Mutated children in cages weren't on his list of enemies.

Nudge dropped to her knees by a cramped cage. Inside, lifting his head to see what the racket was about, a small red-headed boy who couldn't have been older than Angel lay curled on his side. Aside from the scaly tail that must have been as long as Fang was tall, the way his left eye socket was empty and his right eye bulged grotesquely, almost falling out of its swollen socket, the boy seemed otherwise unharmed and healthy. He blinked at them with interest.

Angel lifted herself on her tip-toes to look across the other cages crammed into the medium-sized room. Only a couple, pitiful moans rose up from the mutilated children that resided within. Fang was grateful; he didn't think he would have been able to bear being surrounded by ragged screams. Not again. He'd had more than enough of that before Jeb saved them.

Outside, the alarm still blared violently. The heavy tread of an Eraser hurried past, and Fang thought he heard one of them order the others to check the rooms.

"We should hide," he said.

Angel remained standing as she was, her blue eyes filled with glistening tears. When she spoke, though, her voice was calm and level. "Fang, we need to help these kids."

"Not now, Angel, the Erasers are coming." Fang winced at the incredulous look Nudge gave him and said, "Look, I know you want to help them—I do too. But we have to take care of ourselves first."

"You can't," mumbled a young voice. Fang looked down to see the red-haired boy staring at him with his remaining bloodshot eye. He almost shuddered; he hadn't looked closely enough the first time to see that the boy's pupil was bright gold and bisected by a thin line, like a lizard's.

"You can't," said the boy again. "They're gonna kill us all. I heard the whitecoats say so when they took Mia away."

"Fang," Nudge said worriedly, "I think I hear someone coming for the door."

"Get behind a cage," Fang responded immediately. He gave the one-eyed boy a regretful look and added, "Don't worry, kid. We'll get you out of here."

Nudge and Angel hurried to different sides of the room and huddled behind the largest cages they could find. Fang outstretched his wings as much as he could and flew to the very back of the room, where the cages smelled like decay and held occupants that didn't even twitch when he flew past.

Not a second after he'd curled himself into a tight ball behind a cage that stank of old, diseased blood, the door opened and let a wave of bright light into the dim containment room.

"Ugh, it stinks in here," an Eraser's deep voice growled. "Look, there's nothing here but a bunch of squeakers."

Squeaker. Fang held back a shudder at the familiar term. The Erasers called mutated children "squeakers" because of the sound they made when they were stepped on.

"Not so fast," a second Eraser said. There was the sudden, jolting sound of metal against metal as the wolf-mutant rattled an experiment's cage.

"You, lizard boy," the Eraser spat, "seen anyone come in here in the last minute or so?"

Fang's heart skipped a painful beat. The blood roared in his ears as he prepared himself to either run or stand his ground and fight for his life.

"N-no," came the boy's frightened reply. Fang blinked.

"No?" the Eraser repeated dubiously. Something whistled through the air and the one-eyed boy shrieked, dissolving into hiccupping sobs.

"Are you sure?" the Eraser asked smoothly.

"Yes," wailed the tiny boy. "I'm sure, I'm sure, don't hit me again, please! Please!"

"All right! Shut up, already!" The familiar sound of an Eraser's boot connecting with the metal cage echoed into the stale air.

The first Eraser said, "Let's get out of here. Check the other rooms for the freaks."

Over the sound of the boy's stifled hiccups, the door clicked shut. Fang immediately shot to his feet and clambered to the front of the room, where the boy huddled at the back of his cage. A thin streak of blood covered the right side of his face.

"Did they get my eye?" he whispered fearfully, lowering his hands from his cheek. Fang breathed a sigh of honest relief when he saw that the cut ended an inch below the remaining orb.

"No, you're fine," he said. The boy smiled weakly.

Angel crouched at Fang's side and set to work unlatching the cage's lock. "What's your name?" she asked curiously.


"What were you saying earlier, Remy? About the whitecoats and Mia?"

Remy swallowed so loudly that Fang heard it over the agonized groans of the other children in the room. "They took her a long time ago," he mumbled. "Early, I think. It was weird, 'cause they didn't bring any Erasers with them this time. And they said somethin' about blowing up the School."

Fang nodded grimly and reached to help the small boy out of his cage. "Can you stand?"

Remy chewed anxiously on his fingernails and nodded. Fang noticed, with a lurch of his stomach, that the boy had chewed past the nubs of his nails and reduced his fingertips to scabbed stumps.

"Fang, help us," Nudge called. He gladly obliged.

It took only a minute or so for them to unlock all of the surviving experiments' cages—most had died in their cages and had to be left behind with a small measure of pity—and by the time they'd finished, five mutants stood in front of them, listening with terrified eyes to the sounds of the frantic search being conducted outside.

Fang studied the five rescues critically. Two of them were African-American boys who, despite the similarity of the long, broad fangs that protruded over their lips like those of saber tooth tigers, didn't look like they were related. They were a little older than him, taller and meaner-looking, as well. He understood that; to survive to such an age inside the School, you sometimes had to be as ruthless as your captors.

One girl with antlers sprouting from her hairless head looked to be about his age, though there was a resigned look in her eye that told him she was a lot older, mentally. There was also one brown-haired, Nudge-aged girl, whose round face was dominated by a fungus that reminded Fang of blue cheese. She leaned against one of the saber-toothed boys, looking like she might keel over at any second.

Then there was Remy. In all, out of the fifteen cages with mutants in them, only five contained survivors.

"Can any of you fight?" Fang asked the group, trying not to think too hard about the dead bodies he would be forced to leave behind.

One of the saber-toothed boys, the one not supporting the fungus-diseased girl, stepped up. "Who are you?" he demanded. His fangs gave him a lisp, but that didn't detract from his intimidating appearance in the least. Fang leaned back despite himself.

"My name is Fang," he said clearly. "This is Nudge, and Angel. We broke in to dismantle the bombs the whitecoats set up around the School."

The saber-toothed boy eyed him suspiciously for a moment before jerking a thumb toward the surviving kids. "That's Spider," he said, gesturing to the other dark-skinned boy. He leveled Fang with a warning glare. "We're not related, but we might as well be. If you cross him, you cross me."

Fang nodded in understanding. Like him and Iggy. Well, maybe not so much after the stunt he'd pulled the day before, but he was sure he would find a way to make it up to his bro. Somehow.

"I'm Dom," the boy continued. "The girl with the antlers is Greta, and the sick girl is Livy. You know Remy already."

Nudge turned to the second saber-toothed boy expectantly. "Why do they call you Spider?"

Spider smirked and moved closer to the light filtering under the door. Nudge gasped and took a step back. The boy had two extra eyes, black as death and without a pupil in sight.

"Oh," Nudge said in a small voice.

"Livy and Remy are the only ones who can't fight," Dom said. "The rest of us can hold our own."

"Good, because we're going to need your help." Fang folded his arms across his chest. "Do you have any idea where the whitecoats set the bombs?"

Spider answered in a controlled voice with the faintest hint of an accent Fang couldn't place. An imported experiment? Itex stretched further than he'd realized. "The bottom level. It makes the most sense if they want to take the entire building out in one go."

"Can we make it past security in time?" Dom asked. "I mean, thanks to you guys, the Erasers are crawling all over this place."

Fang gave the older boy a dark glare and was about to point out that if they hadn't broken into the School, Dom would have been blown to smithereens, but Angel spoke up before he could say anything.

"We overheard a whitecoat say the bombs had less than thirty minutes before they went off."

"That gives us about twenty minutes left," Nudge concluded.

The bald girl with the antlers, Greta, stirred at this point and said in a whispery voice, "There's a large group of Erasers down on the last level. They've gathered around the docking bay, but a lot of them are leaving to search for you, so if we go now we can probably get past them."

Fang, Nudge and Angel stared at the quiet girl in surprise. Greta looked uncomfortably at her bare feet.

"Greta can sense people," Dom said in answer to the flock members' silent question. "She's not exactly a telepath, but she can sense people's life-auras. Or something like that."

Fang saw Angel's eyes widen in interest out of the corner of his eye. "You think they're hiding the bombs in the docking bay?" he asked, trying to steer the conversation back to its real point of focus. Angel gave him a withering look, no doubt reading his intentions, but he ignored her.

Greta nodded meekly in response to his question. "I think so," she said. "Also…earlier, I sensed a large group of whitecoats going through a tunnel linked to the back of the training room."

Spider wrinkled his forehead in concentration. Fang saw the boy's upper two eyes scrunch and fought back a shiver.

"But that's impossible," Spider said. "I've been to that training room. There's no tunnel in the back of it."

"A secret tunnel?" Nudge suggested, her eyes brightening.

"Probably," Fang answered. "It would make sense for the whitecoats to have an extra escape route."

Spider took a step forward and scooped Livy up in his arms. Her head lolled limply on his shoulder. "Then what are we wasting time for?" he asked. "Let's go."

The alarm was still shrilling when the eight children entered the hallway. Immediately, they were faced with a group of four Erasers. The wolf-mutants stopped in the process of investigating another room and stopped, open-mouthed.

"Go!" Fang shouted.

The eight mutants surged forward with Fang and Dom in front, and Spider, Livy and Remy in back. Fang punched an Eraser square in the face when it aimed its pistol at him, then slammed the wolf-mutant's head against another's. Both went down, unconscious.

Dom and Greta set to work on the next Eraser while Angel advanced on the last one, her eyes narrowed and her face lowered, cast into shadow. The Eraser blinked blearily and shook its head in confusion.

"You're going to go to sleep now," Angel said in an eerie voice. "You're really tired. Really, really tired. Sleep, sleep—"

The towering mutant was asleep on the floor before the six-year-old telepath was halfway through her chant.

"Over here!" Nudge cried. She'd opened the door to the stairwell and held it as Remy and Spider, still carrying a half-unconscious Livy in his arms, went through. Dom and Greta finished off their Eraser and darted through the doorway. Fang and Nudge came last.

"How many Erasers around the docking bay now, Greta?" Spider asked.

Greta's eyes went blank for a moment. Fang thought he saw Angel shiver and falter as the older girl reached out with her mind, looking several levels down.

"Seven," the pale-skinned girl answered after a moment. "It's going to be hard. They have guns."

"All Erasers have guns," Spider muttered darkly. Livy whimpered in his arms, prompting him to heft her into a more comfortable position.

"We're here," Angel breathed. Fang stopped several steps from the door and asked if they had a plan.

"I can get you in," Nudge said, cutting Dom off just as he opened his mouth. "I know how to hack into computers and stuff. I've never tried to dismantle a bomb before, but I totally think I could do it."

"Great," Spider said, grabbing onto the collar of Remy's shirt to draw him by his side. "We'll stay here. We don't want to get in your way."

"We're going in with you," Dom said before Fang could ask him. Greta nodded silently.

Leaving behind three of their members, the five mutants moved out of the stairwell and into the hallway. Fang went over the odds in his head.

Five against seven, he thought, them with guns and us with no weapons—except the meat knife Angel just pulled out of her pack. Of course.

This was going to be a piece of cake.

Dom and Greta led the way, since none of the flock members knew their way around this School. Even down at the lowest level of the gargantuan building, the alarm shrieked loudly and painfully, driving into Fang's ears like a red-hot stick. He resisted the urge to cover his ears and readied himself.

Just as they were about to round the corner that would lead them to the docking bay, Angel darted to the front of the group and held out a small hand. "Let me go first," she whispered almost silently. "I'll order them to set down their guns, and then I'll call you out."

Dom looked as if he was about to protest, but Fang put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head. To Angel he whispered, "Be careful. Give us a signal when it's time."

Angel nodded, yellow curls bouncing against her small shoulders, and stepped around the corner.

Fang's heart pounded in his chest. Please don't let me have killed her, please don't let me have sent her to her death…

Then Angel said in a clear, powerful tone, "Put down your guns."

Dom shot Fang an incredulous look and stepped forward. Fang jerked him back, hissing, "Don't go out there! If the Erasers see you and start firing, Angel will lose her concentration."

"Angel's a telepath," Nudge murmured. Dom's dark eyes widened in understanding.

"I said," Angel called loudly, "put down…your…guns. Now."

Something clattered against the tiled floor. Then one, two, three…six more guns followed the first out of their owners' hands.

Fang sighed in relief. Suddenly, a deep, foreboding growl rose in an Eraser's chest, and Angel cried, "Fang—"

The dark boy shot around the corner and tackled Angel to the floor, just as an Eraser leaped forward and slashed at her with its wicked claws. Angel shrieked. Fang released her, rolled to his feet, then slammed his fist into the Eraser's snout and his knee into his gut.

Nudge, Dom and Greta came around and sailed into the middle of the Erasers. Fang joined them with his fists swinging, crushing any Eraser nose that presented itself to himself, ramming his feet into breakable kneecaps, clapping his hands over Erasers' ears and popping eardrums. Everything was a mindless blur of dodge, swing, duck, kick, dodge again, swing again.

Finally, Fang whirled in a roundhouse kick, and Dom caught his foot mid-air with a raised eyebrow.

"Look around you, kid," he said. "There's no one to fight anymore."

Fang jerked his foot free and took a step back, breathing hard. The saber-toothed boy was right. The Erasers lay on a heap on the floor, sprawled at all angles. Fang couldn't believe that they had actually managed to take all of them down. Then again, they did have Angel and her creepy mind powers, and none of the Erasers had regained possession of their guns.

"Let's move," Dom said, stepping over a downed Eraser. "I bet more are on their way already."

The docking bay's doors were shut. Just the sight of them towering high above even Dom's tall form gave Fang an idea of how big the docking bay really was.

Nudge rushed to the control panel that kept the doors sealed shut. Her mocha-colored fingers flew over the keypad and screen, moving almost quickly enough to form a blur.

"Hurry, hurry," Angel said, bouncing anxiously on her heels. She sported a nasty bruise over one cheekbone and her knife was nowhere to be seen (Fang really hoped he didn't find it embedded in some Eraser), but she was bright-eyed and alert. "I think someone's coming."

Nudge stepped back and said, "There!" just as the doors slid open. Fang had been right; saying that the docking bay was huge was a massive understatement. Sitting in the middle of the cavernous room, surrounded on all sides by boxes and boxes full of explosives, were twenty bound children.

"Oh, my God," Nudge gasped.

The group broke into a run as the children saw them and began to scream for help through their gags. Nudge dropped to her knees beside a curly-haired girl with short horns and hurriedly began to untie the experiment's hands and feet.

"What is the point of this?" Greta breathed, staring at the bulging boxes filling half the docking bay. "Why put these kids here in the middle of all this?"

"Because Stark's a sick, twisted bastard," Dom snarled.

Angel wrapped her arms around herself. "Maybe because they caused more trouble?"

"No." Nudge shuddered. The curly-haired girl, once free, immediately lifted her tattered shirt to display her stomach. A ragged line of stitches wound itself across her pinkish middle, outlining a bulging, rectangular shape. Nudge went stock still as the girl leaned forward and whispered something in her ear.

"Mia!" Fang turned to see Remy and Spider standing at the docking bay's entrance, Livy still cradled in the saber-toothed boy's arms. Remy bounced eagerly on his feet and pointed to the girl Nudge had untied. "Mia!" he cried happily.

Nudge whirled as the boy started forward and screamed, "Keep him away from her!"

The winged girl's tone stopped the one-eyed boy in his tracks. Fang stared at Nudge, horror freezing his insides as tears welled in her eyes and spilled over.

"Don't let him near us," she gasped.

"Nudge." He bent down and put a hand on one of her shaking shoulders. "What's wrong?"

Nudge shook her head and gasped, "The…the reason these kids are with the bombs is… because they are bombs. Mia said that Stark took them and stitched bombs into them. Because…because he wanted to make sure that even if the government set them free and got them away from all of these bombs, the mutants would still die. Because he's not going to stop until we're all dead."

Fang closed his eyes. He hated this. He hated everything about this situation, hated the man who was about to be responsible for the deaths of yet more innocent children, hated that he was going to have to leave these kids behind. Because there was no way they would be able to get the bombs out fast enough. No way.

He didn't want to have to tell Nudge. Angel lifted her eyes to his, and he knew by the way her gaze dimmed that she'd read his mind.

"Nudge," he said, drawing her to her feet. "Come on. We have to get out of here."

She looked up at him with disbelief in her eyes. "What…what are you…?" she murmured. "Fang! You can't leave them here!"

"Nudge, I don't want to abandon them! But we can't save them. You can't even shut down all of the regular bombs in this room in time to save the building. We were stupid to think we could. The School's gonna go up in flames no matter what we do. But we can get as many mutants out of it before it blows."

Nudge shook her head furiously. Her shoulder trembled beneath his hand. "I can save them," she insisted. Her voice broke. "Please, Fang, I can—"

"You can what?" Fang let his tone turn harsh, even as Nudge backed away from him as if he'd slapped her. She needed to understand. He'd looked into one of the boxes and had seen the time. They barely had fourteen minutes left, and the seconds were slipping through their fingers. If they tried to save these kids, they were dead.

"Hey," Dom said, "we've got company."

Spider lifted Livy and grabbed Remy by the hand, leading them hastily away from the bay's entrance as it filled with Erasers. Fang clenched his fists and put himself squarely in front of Nudge. Angel drew close to his side, taking his hand in hers for support.

"Look at this!" A tall Eraser strode to the front of his group of wolf-mutants. He was lanky and lean, with wild dark hair and gleaming eyes. In one hand he clutched a walkie-talkie; in the other, a long, dark pistol.

"Just who Stark told us to keep an eye out for." The Eraser grinned, displaying jagged white teeth as long as Fang's little finger. "What are you doing in here, eh?"

He paused, his gaze drifting past Fang to Greta. The antler-headed girl had straightened from reaching into a box and held one of the heavy bombs in her thin hands. The Eraser narrowed his eyes.

"What is that?" he asked.

Fang blinked at the sudden fear in the wolf-mutant's voice. Angel squeezed Fang's hand and said, purposely raising her voice, "Fang, he doesn't know about the whitecoats' plan. None of them do. The whitecoats ordered them into the training room to distract them while they moved the explosives here."

The Eraser leaned forward. "I heard that, little squeaker," he said. "It's a sneaky, last-ditch effort to save your skin and I give you points for ingenuity, but it doesn't work on us."

"Really?" Spider passed Livy over to Dom and held his hands out in the universal gesture of submission. "Just listen to us. We don't want to die any more than you do. If the whitecoats aren't planning to blow this place, where are they? Why'd they take all their important files and run?"

The Erasers shifted uneasily. "They've been meanin' to exterminate us for months," one Eraser told his leader. "You should know, Dag. You went looking around for answers on that Extermination Effect."

Uncertainty entered Dag's dark eyes. Fang stretched his wings out, preparing himself in case he needed to fly out of the range of the Erasers' bullets; the wolf-mutants had a tendency to look to their weapons for comfort whenever they felt threatened. Dag stopped and pointed at Fang.

"You," he said, his eyes going wide. "You're like that blind kid, the one who was working on a way to stop the Extermination Effect."

Extermination Effect? Fang thought he remembered Iggy saying something about suffering from the Extermination Effect at Stark's hands, but when had he talked to an Eraser about that?

Fang, Angel's voice said in his head. Fang, tell him about Jeb's project. Tell him that Iggy came up with a way to stop the expiration date.

"Iggy?" Fang repeated. Dag started.

"That was his name!" he said. "He'd actually gotten somewhere with his spying."

"He's gotten more than somewhere," Fang said, culturing his voice into a more self-assured tone. "He's figured out how to stop the expiration date."

A ripple went through the gathered Erasers, like the waves that spread from a stone dropped into a still pond. "You're lying," Dag breathed. "That's imposs—"

"Do I look like I'm lying?" Fang gave the Eraser his sternest stare. "Iggy had help from a whitecoat named Jeb Batchelder. I know you've heard about him. Together, they solved it. And if you help us get out of here before the bombs go off, we'll tell them to give you the cure."

He watched the Erasers without blinking, studying the shock on their faces and the wavering uncertainty in Dag's gaze. Dag had doubted and mistrusted the whitecoats for a long time, it seemed, just like every other Eraser Fang had come into contact with. Dag believed that there was a way to solve the Extermination Effect. All it took was a little push…and some mind-manipulation from Angel, it turned out.

"We promise we'll help you if you help us," the little girl said. She stared the Erasers down, unblinking. "We know a way to get out of here, a secret way, and we have the cure for the expiration date. If you try to stop us, then the bombs will go off and we'll all explode. If you help us, we'll show you the way out of here, and save you from termination. It's the smartest thing to do."

It was amazing, how far Angel's powerful mind could reach. Fang watched the Erasers' eyes begin to glaze as Angel's words and mind-persuasion worked over them, coupling with their natural distrust and dislike of the whitecoats who had ordered them around and mistreated them ever since they'd left their test tubes.

"How much time till the bombs go off?" Dag asked.

Greta looked down at the device in her hands. "Twelve minutes."

"Hmm." Dag lifted his right hand, not the one that clutched the walkie-talkie, but the one that brandished a black pistol. "You do know, squeaker, that if you go back on this deal we'll blast you into shredded meat?"

"We won't go back on it," Fang said firmly. "And yeah, we know. The same goes for you if you cross us."

Dag barked out a laugh. "Look at this! A squeaker haggling with Erasers! Fine, kid, you have a deal. What's in it for you?"

This was it. Less than twelve minutes till the bombs went off, and they somehow had to get all the mutants out of the building.

They could make it. They had to.

"Evacuate this building of all experiments and get them into the training room," Fang commanded. "Don't hurt them. Don't bully them into it, either. Just get them all down there in less than ten minutes."

"I have men on every level," Dag said. "I can have your mutants down in five."

"Then do it. And don't forget our agreement."

Dag grinned toothily. "Not for the world, squeaker." Then, he spoke into his walkie-talkie, "Everyone. I had that on speakerphone, so by all rights, you should know what you gotta do. But if you don't, then get this: get all the squeakers down into the training room on the last level. The whitecoats've left us to burn. Literally. Get the mutants to the training room for evacuation in less than ten minutes or go up in flames."

There was a surge of movement in the Erasers' ranks as they moved to follow Dag's orders. Fang strode forward with every intention of helping free any mutant he could reach when Nudge gripped his wrist.

"Fang," she said, her eyes wide and pleading. She looked back to the bound children, who stared at them with nothing but misery and resignation in their eyes. They knew what was going to happen to them. They had accepted this awful truth.

The little girl named Mia picked up the rope that had been used to bind her hands. She gave it to Nudge and then reached out her wrists, wordlessly.

A sob escaped Nudge's lips. "I can't," she gasped, shaking her head so hard that her hair whipped her cheeks. "Please, I…I can't…"

Fang moved forward and took the rope from Nudge's shaking hands. "Let me do it," he said, and knelt to Mia's level. She stared at him with huge brown eyes, lightless and empty, as if whatever soul she'd once had was long gone. Fang looked down and began to bind her hands to her ankles once more.

"What are you doing?" Remy appeared at Fang's side, his one golden eye brimming with confusion and anger. "Let her go!"

Spider bent down and scooped up the smaller boy in his arms. "No!" Remy shouted, struggling with all his might as the saber-toothed boy carried him from the docking bay. "No, put me down! Put me down! Mia!"

Fang finished binding the girl's only means of escape and stood up. He hated himself for doing it. But if the girl panicked and tried to run after them, there was a full chance that someone would be killed when she…no. He wouldn't think about that.

"Let's get out of here," he said, and turned his back on the whole thing. Angel stayed close by his side, still holding his head.

After a pause, her silence heavy as lead on his shoulders, Nudge followed him without another word.

Don't think. Just move.

Fang worked as fast as he could, his fingers delving into locks on cages and dog crates alike as he set free child after child after child. He told himself that for every child he'd left behind in the docking bay, he was saving three more, four more, tens of children upon children, spared because he'd sacrificed the needs of the few for the needs of the many.

In other words, he'd pulled a Jeb. Now he understood a little bit of what the man had gone through. It hurt with such a deep, throbbing ache that he wondered how the ex-whitecoat hadn't broken under the pressure.

"Fang." Angel pulled on his sleeve again, drawing him out of his thoughts as he lifted a three-year-old boy with tentacles from his dog crate. "We should really get to the training room. We have less than five minutes before the bombs go off."

Crap! Fang lifted the three-year-old in his arms and waded through the crying, confused children that filled the hallways. There were so many…so, so many…how were they going to get them all through in time?

He found the training room filled to bursting with experiments and Erasers alike. The wolf-mutants were shouting at the experiments and the experiments were shouting back, throwing the entire room into a chaos of anger and confusion. Nudge stood at the back of the room, her hands skimming over the metal wall.

"I've found it," she said once he and Angel drew near. "All I need to do is press the right spots in a sequence, and…yes!"

Almost the entire wall swung back, opening like a gargantuan, hidden door. The training room suddenly went entirely silent save for the groaning of metal as the secret tunnel was revealed. The passageway itself was dark, lightless, a massive hole bored deep into the mountain's face that went on too far for Fang to find a spot where it curved.

For a precious second, there was absolute silence.

"Move!" an Eraser screamed.

The horde surged forward. Fang barely managed to jerk Nudge and Angel away from the tunnel's entrance before he was slammed against the wall. His head collided sharply with the metal, sending his ears ringing. The three-year-old screeched in his arms.


A hand fisted in the front of his shirt just as he looked up to see Dom and Spider appear in front of him. Even as tall and broad-shouldered as they were, they were buffeted from all sides, pushed this way and that as if they were no bigger than Angel.

"What are you waiting for?" Dom yelled. "Get through!"

Nudge shouted over the chaos, "I have to stay back! I have to close the door behind us or the explosion will reach us anyway!"

Fang pushed Dom's fist from his shirt roughly. "I'm not leaving her behind."

Dom shrugged. "Your call." He reached out his arms for the boy with the tentacles. "Here, let me take him."

Fang handed the three-year-old over and watched as Dom and Spider, still carrying Livy and Remy, disappeared into the throng and passed into the tunnel. He caught a flash of Greta's antlers before she, too, was swallowed through.

"Fang!" Angel clutched her head in a panic. "Three minutes!"

No. Fang looked up. The crowd was thinning, thanks to the tunnel's entrance being as wide as it was, but there were still tens of mutants pouring in.

"We're not gonna make it," he whispered.

Somehow, despite the shouting and thundering of feet around them, Nudge heard him. "We'll make it!" she shouted. Her eyes were ablaze as he'd never seen them before. "Fang, we can make it! Look! There's the last of them!"

His heart caught in his throat as the last few mutants straggled through the training room's doorway. "Move," he said, and then he shouted it, raising his voice as loud as it would go, screaming because if the mutants didn't make it through in time he'd have to shut the door on them, and God help him, he was not going to sentence any more innocent kids to death today. "Move! Everyone, move!"

"Fang!" Angel shrieked. "One minute!"

The last mutants passed through, stumbling into the tunnel and leaving the training room empty save for Fang, Nudge and Angel.

"Nudge!" Fang threw Angel over his shoulder and raced through the tunnel's entrance. "Nudge, close it! Close it now!"

He didn't wait to see what she did. The darkness of the tunnel, lit dimly from behind by the lights in the training room, surrounded him on all sides. He felt like he was suffocating. Suffocating in a dark hole of rank, hot air and pushing bodies running in a wild, animal panic.

The tunnel's door groaned as it slid back into place. A sweaty hand encircled Fang's wrist.

"I'm here!" Nudge's voice cried in his ear. Cut off from the School, the tunnel was pitch black. Fang's eyes were so wide they felt like they would burst from their sockets.

"Keep moving!" he howled, pushing someone's shoulder when they stopped to take a breather.

"Thirty seconds!" Angel wailed. "Fang, I can feel it coming, it's coming in twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven…"

Run. Fang's blood was on fire. Run. His heart sped so quickly it didn't feel like it was beating at all. Run. Someone crashed into him, knocking him against the tunnel's rock wall. He scratched his arm on the rough surface and picked himself up again, clutching Nudge's hand so tightly he felt blood gather beneath his fingernails. Angel's head bounced against his shoulder.


"Five," whispered Angel. "Four. Three. Two. One."

It sounded like the mountain was roaring. The tunnel floor shuddered beneath Fang's feet and he went down, his hands automatically reaching to protect Angel's head as he fell against unforgiving rock. Nudge landed against him. Her shriek filled his ears.

The sound of rending metal was so loud, even from the safe distance, that Fang thought for one wild, panic-driven moment that the tunnel's door hadn't been strong enough to hold back the blast, and any second now a wave of fire would come racing down to incinerate them all.

But nothing came. And finally, when the roar of the explosion and the shriek of ripping metal died down, the tunnel was left full of not fire and death, but the hot, hushed breathing of tens and tens of survivors.

Fang would never know who, exactly, laughed first. But someone did, short and loud and full of a shocked gratitude, and it was as if that single bark of laughter was a catalyst. Suddenly everyone, children and Erasers alike, were laughing and throwing their heads back, shouting and crying for joy.

Angel wrapped her arms around Fang's neck and neither wept nor laughed; she only held onto him and trembled. "Yes!" Nudge shouted, pumping her fist into the air. "Fang, we did it! We made it!"

Fang leaned back against the rock wall, exhausted, and only because no one could see it in the absolute black of the escape tunnel, he allowed himself a grin so wide it hurt his cheeks.

They had made it. They'd survived.

Stark—eat your heart out.

Nehemiah folded his hands in his lap and tapped his fingers restlessly. The miniscule movement was the only sign that betrayed his inner impatience; on the outside, he was as collected and emotionless as ever, watching his wristwatch count down the time till the School's destruction.

Only about a minute now.

He leaned back, settling into his seat and stared aimlessly out the helicopter's windshield. The world passed by in a mix of snowcapped mountains and sparse trees. Nehemiah was glad to leave this cold world behind. In many ways, it suited him with its frozen exterior. It had kept him safe and hidden for many years.

But now…now, he was about to venture straight into the heart of Itex. Perhaps he would not be as safe as before, nestled in a viper's nest of two-faced colleagues who were only out to usurp him. It was worth the risk. He enjoyed being presented with a challenge, especially when he crushed it in the end.

A small movement to his left caught Nehemiah's attention. Anne sat in the seat beside him, her back rigid to an almost painful degree as she stared unseeingly at the helicopter's floor. He knew without a doubt what plagued her feeble mind.

In the spirit of good, clean fun, he'd brought Anne to oversee the operations that integrated bombs into selected mutants' bodies. The look of horror on her face had been delicious. He almost wished he'd had a camera with him at the time. Anne might have done heinous things under his command, but for some inexplicable reason this particular operation, this turning mutants into living bombs, perturbed her.

Well…"perturbed" was a weak term for her reaction. She had barely spoken a word to him ever since and had taken to staring at her hands with a strange look on her face, as if she couldn't believe those fingers had had a part in opening a mutant and slipping a bomb inside it.

Nehemiah cast a quick glance down at his watch. "Very soon now," he said quietly. Just as he'd expected, Anne flinched violently at his side. He restrained a chuckle. What a fun toy she was, what a silly little thing! And since this was turning out to be a rather boring trip, he might as well play with her.

A string of words, mumbled and almost too quiet to hear, drifted from Anne's lips. Nehemiah tilted his head the slightest bit. Were those…hymns? From his favorite toy? How interesting. He'd never thought of her as a pious woman. To think, after all these years, she still managed to surprise him now and then. He'd made the right choice in choosing her as his plaything.

"Five," he said, cutting over her mumblings. "Four. Three. Two."

Anne went completely still. "One," Nehemiah drawled. The woman next to him shuddered and paled, almost seeming to collapse in her seat. He knew she was thinking of the children. Of the poor, poor children wired up to bombs and blasted into itty little bloody bits.

Silly, sentimental creature…

Out of the blue, a wonderful idea overtook Nehemiah's head. Moving slowly, subtly, making sure that no one noticed what he was doing, he reached over and took Anne's hand in his. She jumped and looked at him with wide brown eyes.

He smiled at her and leaned in close, touching his lips to her ear. "Let us pray," he whispered.

Anne stared at him with lips parted as he pulled back, her face flushed from his touch and filled with shock. Then, as he watched, eagerness and gratitude stole over her expression, filling her eyes with adoration and hope. She actually thought he felt guilty about what he had done? She thought he wanted, needed to repent? She thought they had something in common, did she?

Pathetic. He could have giggled for glee.

Anne nodded, bowed her head, closed her eyes and began to recite, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name…"

Carefully, Nehemiah withdrew his hand from hers and set it back on his lap. He leaned back comfortably into his seat, closed his eyes and let Anne's platitudes wash over him, allowing himself to enjoy this game he'd created for her, in which she served and served and only existed to amuse him in the end.

A/N: End chapter twenty-six.

For reach review you leave, Stark will receive one bad karma point. :D

On a more serious note, do please leave a review - I was a bit anxious about posting an Iggy-free chapter this time.


27. The Clock is Ticking

flYegurl, pandorad24, Alactricity, Aleria14, WinterSky101, AmyQueen95, Locked in a Stony Tower and BeTrueToThyself have made me incredibly happy with their continued support. Thank you.

Special thanks to pandorad24 for pointing out that Iggy would be able to help Jeb with the anti-termination project. I still can't believe I forgot to take that into account. :/ Thanks, buddy.

We're reaching the close...if I have my way, there are only three or so chapters to go. Possibly four. I love a fully-developed ending that doesn't cut you off and make you feel like something's missing. If anyone's interested in what I'll write next, I've posted a list of potential full-length stories on my profile, under the "In the works" category. Take a look, and if you see anything you like, keep an eye out in the weeks after Icaria's finished. =)


Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Clock is Ticking

Iggy opened his eyes and breathed. He lay there for a moment, curled up on a bed of pine needles and hard dirt, aching and bone-exhausted but infinitely glad that, for once, his cheeks weren't stained from nightmare-induced tears. Add the warmth of the sun on his face and the fact that he and his friends hadn't been ambushed in the middle of the night, and he was feeling pretty good. He'd made it through to another day.

Which, honestly, was more than he could have hoped for.

"You're up."

The coarse rumble of Ari's familiar voice stirred Iggy from his musings. "Yup," the blind boy said. He sat up and stretched, yawning. "Anyone else up?"

"No, you're the only one."

Iggy cocked his head in curiosity. Ari sounded…different. His tone was almost light. Normal. Not like it had been for the past week or so; the seven-year-old had sounded like he had a great, physical weight on his shoulders, something that wouldn't even let him breathe easily. Iggy knew just what that "something" was, but could the smallest ray of hope really change a person's outlook like that?

I guess I'd feel the same way, he thought, if someone gave me an escape from those serum images.

"How're you doing?" he asked, trying to sound merely concerned and not like he was probing Ari for signs of change. Good change, hopefully.

"Why does everyone always ask me that?" Ari asked testily. And maybe Iggy wasn't supposed to be happy about being answered in that kind of tone, but he was. It was a sign that Ari was coming back out of his protective shell.

"Because we care," he answered simply. "You know, just a little. Besides, it'd be hard for any of us to carry you if you suddenly keeled over. You're like twice my size and triple Gazzy's."

Ari made a sound that was half laugh, half snort. "I'm not going to keel over," he replied dryly. "I'm tougher than any of you."

Oh, yeah, he was definitely starting to return to himself. That old arrogance of his was back with a vengeance. "Maybe, but who got us out of that whole mess last night?"

Ari grunted and grumbled something unintelligible. "Fine. I'll give you that one."

"Yeah, you better." Iggy shifted his legs into a cross-legged position and lifted his head, staring directly where he knew the sun should be, judging by the increase in warmth on his face. "But seriously, Ari. You okay?"

Instead of replying snappishly or making a rude retort, Ari only sighed a little bit and said, "Yeah. I'm okay."

Well…maybe the kid wasn't entirely back to normal. Maybe he would always be this way, caught halfway between his seven-year-old self and the older, sadder Ari born from the burden of his impending death.

"Do you…" Ari began uncertainly. "Do you think Jeb's project is gonna work?"

Iggy chewed on his words carefully, mulling them over before he said anything. "Yeah," he replied. He forced as much sincerity and firm optimism into his tone as he possibly could. "I mean, it's Jeb. His stuff always works. You have to believe that, kid."

It was a sign of how buried in his thoughts Ari was when he didn't smack Iggy for calling him "kid." Feeling like he was trying to walk on a tightrope with no one to guide him, the blind boy said quietly, "Do you?"

"I…I think so. Is it bad that I don't really know for sure?"

"Nah." Iggy shook his head and shrugged. "I mean, if someone came up to me and said they had a way to cure the serum's after-effects permanently, I don't think I would really believe them at first. Then I'd start to hope. It'd be like…like waking up from a dream. You wake up, and realize none of it was real, and even if it was real it doesn't matter. 'Cause everything's gonna be okay."

Ari was quiet. Then he said, "That…was corny. But, uh…thanks."

"Corny?" Iggy repeated, aghast. "That wasn't corny. Corny is one of Fang's deadpan pick-up lines. Corny is…is one of Max's inspirational speeches. What I said was just the truth. Not corny."

Ari's voice was practically smirking with amusement. "Whatever you say, runt."

There was a pause during which Iggy dissolved into ill-mannered grumbling and Ari chuckled quietly to himself. Then, the blind boy remembered something he still hadn't talked about.

"You know," he said slowly, carefully, "I feel a lot better about the hallucinations. I'm not as scared of them as I used to be. They're still crap to go through, and it's hard for me to come back once I'm in the middle of one, but…I'm not afraid anymore. I guess a big part of that's because of you."

Iggy smiled, enjoying Ari's stunned silence. "Thanks for bein' there, man."

Ari grumbled some more, probably trying to hide his embarrassment behind a tough exterior. "Yeah, sure. Runt."

Iggy laughed. "Hey. Just because you're abnormally tall—"

Ari promptly pushed him face-first into a bed of pine needles. "Augh!" Iggy shot up and sputtered, spitting needles off the edge of his tongue. Playfully, he launched himself at the larger mutant. "You—I'll get you for that—"

"Glad to see you're both awake," Jeb's voice said in dry amusement. Iggy, who had been in the process of trying to grab a handful of Ari's hair while the Eraser held him at arm's length, froze and sent his father a silly grin.

"Well, we were up before you, so technically, we're the ones who should be saying that to you. G'morning, Jeb."

Jeb chuckled. "Good morning, Iggy. Wake the others, would you? We should move on."

"Are we still going to that other safe house?" Iggy asked as he knelt to shake Gazzy awake.

"Yes," Jeb said in the crinkly, old-man-sort-of-voice that meant he was tired of talking about the topic; either that, or he was constipated. Iggy still hadn't figured out how to tell the difference yet.

Max protested when Jeb woke her up. "It's time already?"

"It's almost four o'clock in the afternoon," Jeb replied wryly. "We've been asleep for nearly ten hours. So yes, I'd say it's time to leave."

Iggy helped Gazzy to his feet and brushed the dirt and dead foliage from the smaller boy's back. "Think you can make it?" He asked, feeling Gazzy sway drowsily.

"Mmhm," Gazzy mumbled.

"Okay." Then, sensing Ari's looming presence at his back, Iggy added, "If you get tired, let Ari know and he'll gladly give you a piggyback ride all the way to the safe house. Like a pony."

"Or you give me a piggyback ride and I squash you like a bird-kid pancake," Ari grunted. "Come on, runts, let's get moving."

Progress started slowly, to say the least. Each of them had his or her own aches and bruises to attend to; Iggy swore he tasted ash in his mouth, and Jacob still had some problems with clearing his lungs of all the smoke he'd inhaled. Ari's ribs were healed, for the most part, but the Eraser's silence told Iggy that he was hurting. And though Jeb, Max and Gazzy never complained about any injuries, he knew they were exhausted (ten hours of sleep or not) from the running they'd done the night before.

Courtesy of a certain eyesight experiment gone haywire, Iggy had no idea how long it was before Jeb called a break and let them eat the rations he'd stored in their emergency backpacks. All he knew was that it was significantly colder than it had been when he'd woken up, and the owls were starting to make creepy noises in the distance.

"Iggy?" Jeb called, just as the boy took his first bite out of a weird-smelling ration bar he'd uncovered in his pack. "Could you come over here for a second and help?"

Iggy rewrapped his dinner with a sigh and scooted over to Jeb's side. "Yeah?"

"Here." Jeb pushed something made of metal and sprawling wires into Iggy's hands. The Extermination trigger.

"There are five days until Ari's expiration date," Jeb said. "He, ah…scratched out the date on his neck, but he heals quickly, and the…the numbers are back. I've hypothesized that, when we nullify his termination chip, so to speak, the numbers will disappear."

He drew in a rattling breath that reminded Iggy of bones clattering against the floor. It was so wrong that he knew exactly what that sounded like. "I need your help," Jeb continued. "Jacob and I have been working on this for almost a week and a half, and the trigger's secrets still escape us."

"You'll have to tell me the colors of the wires," Iggy said, trying to sound calm and collected, but his stomach had started to churn painfully. This wasn't like dismantling a bomb. This was something big, this was…this was someone's life he was trying to save. He was more than accustomed to hooking wires together to destroy something, but to fix something? Someone?

Trying to distract himself, he took hold of a random wire and said, "Like this one. What color is it?"

"Blue," Jeb answered. "And this one's red, this one is black…"

Iggy's mind whirred as Jeb went through colors ranging from orange to white, letting the ex-whitecoat guide his fingers to the different wires. There were so many of them. How was he ever going to memorize where each wire originated, what it connected to, what it was supposed to connect to?

Concentrating, he skimmed over the mess of metal and plastic until he felt the wire he thought he was looking for. "This one," he said, venturing a guess, "is…white?"

"No," Jeb said, sounding vaguely disappointed. "It's red."

Iggy couldn't help it; he scowled viciously. "What about this one?" he asked, gripping another. "Blue?"


A strange buzzing filled Iggy's ears. Without thinking, he took hold of another wire—and the strangest thing happened. The wire felt white. How something could feel like a color, he had no idea. But he went along with it.

"White," he said confidently. Jeb's surprise was palpable.

"Yes," he answered. Encouraged, Iggy picked up another wire.

"And this one's green." Without waiting for Jeb to reply—he already knew the answer, instinctively knew that he was right—he took up another, and another. "Orange. Yellow."

"Whoa!" Gazzy exclaimed. Iggy almost jumped; he'd forgotten that there were other people watching. "How'd you do that, Iggy?"

"I…don't know. It's like I can feel the colors," Iggy explained.

"Interesting," Jeb murmured. "What about this one? Can you tell me what color this is?"

Iggy ran his thumb across the wire's length. "White again," he answered immediately. Like a whitecoat's jacket.

Jacob said, "I'd heard that the flock was constantly mutating, but I didn't know the changes happened so quickly."

"They shouldn't, not with the School's usual mutants," Jeb replied. "But the flock is special."

Iggy grinned. Being able to feel colors wasn't the same as having his eyesight back—nothing could compare to that—but it was still something.

"Does that mean I might get super-cool powers too?" Gazzy asked eagerly.

Max snorted. "Gaz, most people can't even stand up to your usual…uh, 'power.'"

"Not fair!" Gazzy cried, and judging by the sound of rustling pine needles, he'd tackled Max in a playful fit.

"Iggy," Jeb said, distracting the blind boy just when he was about to join in on the fun. "Focus."


They worked late into the night, much later than Iggy thought Jeb had meant to. By the time they put aside the Extermination trigger for some much-needed rest, everyone except Jacob, who had taken the first shift at lookout, was fast asleep on the forest floor.

The next day passed in much the same way. The group trudged over hills and rocks, keeping close by each other in case they were ambushed, saving their breath for walking instead of talking. Occasionally, Iggy couldn't resist cracking a joke, and one of the group asked Jeb for something or other, but they traveled mostly in silence.

That was fine with Iggy. After the previous night, he had a lot to think about; Ari's expiration date, his own newly acquired power, and most of all, how to set the Extermination trigger to save Ari instead of kill him.

Iggy ran over the images in his head, trying to picture the wires and their layout as best he could. It was a very demanding, distracting process; he tripped over a couple rocks and landed on his knees more times than he could count, but it was worth it. By the time their group arrived at the edges of a busy town, the first sign of civilization in a day, Iggy had in his mind a good picture of what needed to be done.

But food, as always, was first in line with the flock.

"When we go in," Jeb said in a hushed tone, referring to a convenience store he'd found, "keep your heads down and away from the security cameras. But try not to look too suspicious. We don't want the authorities coming down on us for the wrong reasons. Just grab something filling and pay for it with the money I've stashed in your backpacks. Jacob and I will wait outside; Stark has probably given them more information on us than is safe."

"Got it," Max said. Iggy threw in a firm nod of his head. He, Max and Gazzy knew what they were doing. They were better at avoiding the authorities than they were at cleaning their own rooms.

As a group, he, Max, Gazzy and Ari (back in his painful human form, unfortunately) filtered into the convenience store and set to work. Iggy kept a firm grip on the bottom of Max's jacket as she walked around, collecting packaged foods that crackled and probably tasted like heaven. When Ari stepped close with what smelled like an armful of delicious, steamy hot dogs, Iggy swayed on the spot and almost started to sing for happiness.

Luckily, he was saved from such an embarrassing stunt by the cashier's cheap TV.

"Now, a massive amount of reports have been flooding in about this so-called 'mutant horde' making its way across Canada," a reporter said. Iggy went still and felt Max do the same. A mutant horde? That sounded School-related.

He leaned in, listening as closely as the rest of his friends as the reporter continued.

"Some have hailed it as a sign of the apocalypse. Others think it's a protest movement against pollution and animal experimentation. But the most probable cause has been linked back to the security videos handed in by Dr. Jacob Marling. Some of the mutants in this 'horde' are the same ones shown in the recordings, leading people to believe that this is living proof that such a place exists.

"Authorities sent forces into the Rockies earlier this morning to scout out the rumors of this institution, but found only the charred remains of a building resting at the foot of a mountain. While authorities initially gave up on finding concrete evidence of the surveillance videos' footage, this mutant horde is now giving people cause to believe something is afoot. We were able to secure an interview with the horde's leader, who refused to give his name."

"Hey," said a separate voice in front of them, probably the cashier, "do you want to pay for those or not?"

"Shh!" came the four consecutive replies, and the cashier wisely shut up.

"We can't tell you anything about where we're headed," a boy's deep voice said. Iggy started; that was Fang! Fang was on the news! Being interviewed! Was he crazy? Maybe the mountain air had gotten to his head or something.

"All we can say is that we come from a place called the School, which is run by a company called Itex," Fang continued. "They've been experimenting on kids like us for years in the name of science. They want to make some of us weapons, sell some to make a profit, and others are just collateral damage. See this girl?"

There was the brief, muffled sound of shuffling, and then the cashier made a disgusted, horrified groan. "A girl," Max whispered in Iggy's ear. "Fungus-faced. Bad."

"This is Livy," Fang said. "She's ten, we think. None of us really know how old we are. But there are hundreds of kids just like us. Like Remy here—Rem, how old are you?"

"Six?" A little boy's voice answered unsurely. "Greta says I'm six."

"Six," the reporter repeated, sounding dazed. He quickly coughed and tried to regain some of his original professionalism. "And, ah…tell me, are you looking for help from the public?"

"Wherever we can find it," Fang answered grimly. "Itex Headquarters is in Germany somewhere, but the Schools are everywhere. We came from the School in Death Valley, California. I know for a fact there are more institutions overseas. There are thousands of kids like us all across the world, but I doubt any of them were lucky enough to escape. If you try to get out and they catch you, you get shot. Or fed to their guard dogs."

The cashier muttered sharply, "Jesus." Iggy wasn't fazed; this was all something he'd lived through first-hand, and though it had never ceased to be horrible, it was something he'd grown accustomed to. He was just amazed to hear what Fang was doing off with Nudge and Angel. Of all things, he'd broken into a School and set free hundreds of mutants.

The reporter was asking Fang more questions, now, but the dark boy rejected all of them. "We don't have time for this," he said impatiently. "We have to move. Jeb, if you're out there, listen up. Head honcho's gonna get a bad case of the measles. Could use some help fixing the roof. But if Iggy's cooking, it's first come first serve."

The signal dissolved into chaos as Fang fought off multiple reporters' questions. His distinctive voice broke over the din just as Iggy and the others were in the middle of paying for their food.

"And Ig, if you're listening…" Fang started. Iggy stopped where he was; Fang's voice sounded strained, almost as if he were pleading, something Iggy never thought he would hear the other boy do.

"I didn't mean to hurt you. You're my best bro. I had to leave. I had to do this and you couldn't come after me, not how you are. Just…let me explain, okay? I'll explain everything when I get back. Promise, bro."

Iggy stared pointedly toward the floor. He could feel his friends' eyes on his back and didn't want to look up for fear of encouraging them to talk to him about what Fang had just said.

Thankfully, Ari chose that moment to break in. "What did that message to Jeb mean? It sounded like it was in some kind of weird code."

"It was," Iggy said dryly, as they headed back outside to where Jeb and Jacob waited for them.

Jeb had taught them that code after they'd broken free of the School. It was supposed to be a fail-safe way of communicating with the rest of the flock when they were in trouble. Fang's message wouldn't have made sense to anyone on the outside, but in plain terms it was simple.

Everyone in the flock knew that the keyword "measles" was used to signify a large number, like a large group of measles on the body. The part with the head honcho was easy—Itex Headquarters.

Once, a daredevil stunt between Iggy and Gazzy had gone wrong, and they'd broken part of the roof in. It took a huge team effort to get the thing fixed again.

Finally, "Iggy's cooking" was another key phrase; if someone didn't make it to the table in time to catch one of Iggy's ever-popular dishes, too bad, no one was going to wait for you. You snooze you lose.

In regular English, the message meant this: Fang was planning to attack Itex Headquarters with the mutant horde he'd collected. He asked for Jeb's help in the effort, but if they didn't make it in time, Fang wasn't waiting up.

He was going to take Itex down with or without them.

Fang opened his mouth and sucked in a lungful of muggy, stale air. After their initial burst of joy at finding they'd survived, the mutants had gone back to milling around the cave-like tunnel, confused and disoriented. The Erasers had brought flashlights with them and shone them into the mess, grinning meanly when the children flinched back.

"You, squeaker!"

Wading his way through the mutant horde was Dag, the lead Eraser. Fang groaned to think of what the wolf-mutant wanted now; if he asked for proof that Jeb and Iggy had a way to cure the expiration date, the game was over.

Angel and Nudge drew close to him in trepidation as Dag stepped up before them.

"You, whatever your name is," the Eraser said with a stab of his flashlight. "You're the leader of the squeakers. Tell them to get moving, or my men will make them move."

Fang glared at the taller mutant in warning. "If one of your Erasers lays a hand on one of these kids, the deal is off and you won't get the cure."

Dag sneered. "You really think we won't force it off you?"

"You'd try," Fang countered calmly, "but there are nearly a hundred of us and only a dozen or so of you. What do you think would happen if I ordered these 'squeakers' to attack?"

Dag's cocky expression wavered. "You wouldn't stand a chance," he grunted, but Fang saw the shift of the light in his eyes and knew he'd won. "Fine. Just get them moving. I hate being in this cave with a bunch of freaks."

"Believe me, we don't like being with you, either." Fang ignored the snarl that flashed over Dag's face and said, "Let me borrow your flashlight."

The Eraser handed it over reluctantly. Fang held the light above his head and clicked it on and off rapidly, swinging its beam across the many mutants crammed together. The crowd hushed and turned toward him.

"Who are you?" someone asked.

"My name is Fang," Fang answered loudly. "I convinced the Erasers to let you all out of your cages, so quiet down and listen up. This tunnel has to lead somewhere. I want everyone to walk through without any trouble, and if anyone causes a disturbance, you'll have the Erasers to answer to."

"And once we're through?" an accented voice called. Fang flicked his gaze toward a bend in the tunnel and saw Spider towering above the other smaller, skinnier mutants. "What then, chief?" the tall boy questioned.

"Just…everyone stay together. We'll figure out where to go from there. For now, let's just try and get out of here without any problems, all right?"

A murmur of consent rippled through the gathered mutants. Dag stepped forward and waved his arm over the crowd, shouting, "All right, you heard the kid! Move along!"

Fang held in a sigh of relief as the mutants started shuffling forward. Angel took his hand again, and Nudge gripped his arm tightly as they moved with the crowd. Dag snatched his flashlight back and pushed forward, barking out warnings and commands whenever someone threatened to get out of line.

The tunnel went on for what felt like miles. More than once, Fang snagged his foot over a bump in the ground and caught himself against another mutant; they were all pressed so closely together that it was impossible to move without pushing against another person.

By the time the first mutants reached the tunnel's opening, Fang was tired, thirsty and sore from being pushed this way and that. The cry that announced the end was there sent a wave of verbal relief through everyone, but even that couldn't compare to the children's joy when they arrived at the mouth of the tunnel and stepped into fresh, crisp air.

Fang stood still for a moment, blinking into the light. The sudden lack of shadows was shocking to him after spending hours in a lightless, cramped space, and his eyes ached as they tried to adjust to such a big change.

The first thing he was aware of was the cold. The secret tunnel opened up into a narrow passageway bordered on either side by the frowning faces of the mountains. Snow clogged the path and came up to Fang's shins, rising even higher against the smaller mutants. Angel reached out her arms and smiled thankfully when he picked her up.

"Keep moving!" Fang ordered, seeing the mutants in front of him fall into the snow with slack-jawed expressions of joy and awe. "I know you want to stop and play, but believe me, it gets cold really fast. You'll freeze if you don't keep walking."

"Hey, chief!" Dom had made it to the front by now and stood staunchly in the snow. He'd given Greta the three-year-old with the tentacles, and took Remy from Spider to let him better cradle Livy. Remy lay with his head on Dom's shoulder, his mouth pinched and quivering, tears coursing from his remaining eye.

Fang tried very hard not to look at the kid, because if he did, he didn't think he would be able to stand the guilt of leaving the other children behind.

"What is it?" he asked, focusing on Dom's stern face instead.

"I've been talking to Spider," the tall mutant said, "and we've been wondering what's gonna happen when we hit civilization. People are going to freak when they see us."

Fang clenched his jaw. He'd thought of that already, and while he wasn't looking forward to it, it wasn't as if he could hide a hundred mutant kids in the mountains. "I'll negotiate with them or something," he replied. "It'll be alright. But we have to let the public know that the School is out there. We have to make sure this won't happen to kids, ever again."

"And after we've got their attention and they've decided to do something about it?" Spider questioned in his accented voice. "Face it, chief, none of these kids have anywhere to go. What do you think will happen to us?"

Angel stirred in Fang's arms. "We've made it on our own," she said softly. "Can't you?"

Dom and Spider hesitated. Greta lowered her dark eyes to the snow and adjusted the baby when one of its tentacles tugged on her antlers.

"Part of surviving out there is taking life one thing at a time," Fang said quietly. "That's what we'll do now. Keep moving. Follow the trail. We'll come out eventually."

He turned to trudge through the snow, paused, and came back around. "Oh…and don't call me chief. Ever."

The whitecoats had left an easy trail for them to follow, a jumbled, careless smattering of footprints and long ridges where the men had dragged their feet through the flawless snow. Their footprints led onward, through the path between the mountainsides and into an open slope of blue sky and blinding snow. Fang waited until all of the mutants had made it out of the tunnel before he, Nudge and Angel took to their wings in search of the nearest town. Several awe-struck gasps followed them on the way up.

It didn't take long for them to find signs of civilization. Almost immediately, Angel lifted a finger and pointed beyond a steep, rocky hill. "There! A village!"

"Get back to the others," Fang said. Quickly, he snuck a glance in Nudge's direction; the chatty girl had been depressingly silent ever since she'd closed the tunnel's hidden door. He wanted to take her aside and tell her it wasn't her fault—no one was to blame, except that sick madman—but there wasn't time. She was going to have to move past this on her own.

That was just the way things happened in their world.

It didn't take long for the mutants to make their way over the hill, even if it was craggy and had several spots that were more dangerous than others. Fang wondered what had kept people from snooping around and discovering the secret tunnel, until he spotted the barbed fence that towered much, much taller than any Eraser.

"It's wired," Dag said, confirming Fang's suspicions. "Touch it and you get a shock bad enough to kill you and anyone you're touching."

"How do we get through?" Fang asked.

"Well, the whitecoats came through here a while ago, didn't they?" Dag nonchalantly strolled over to a gate in the fence. Before Fang could even widen his eyes in shock, the Eraser tapped the gate's hinge with the back of a finger. The gate swung open with a creak.

"See?" Dag grinned. "I'm guessing they shut off the power, but were in too much of a rush to lock the gate after themselves. Besides, what's there for them to hide anymore? It's all blown up to smithereens."

Nudge shook her head, wrapping her arms around herself as her eyes strayed toward the countless children staring back at her. "Not everything."

Getting the children through was a mess, to say the least. Some of the stronger, robust mutants (such as the Erasers) scaled their way over the fence with ease, leaping high out of the barbs' way. Most of them, though, had to wait their turn to go single-file through the gate.

By the time they were all on the other side, a small crowd had gathered at the edge of town. Fang saw a couple police cars pull up and grimaced; he hated police. Why did they have to make everything so complicated?

"Gonna go negotiate?" Dag sneered. Fang walked away without another word, his wings stretched out fully on either side of him. He saw the townspeople's eyes widen as he drew near and stopped, outlined in snow and the pale white-blue of the sky, knowing full well the effect he was having on them. Angel stepped up beside him, Nudge on his other side, neither one of them blinking.

"We're not dangerous," Fang said, eyeing the way the policemen reached for their guns. "Come on. Are you really going to shoot a bunch of kids?"

"Who are you?" a policeman demanded. "…What are you?"

"We're mutants," Angel said cheerily. She gave her pearly dove-wings a flutter and batted her eyelashes innocently. "Isn't it obvious?"

Nehemiah stared at the television screen incredulously. This couldn't be happening. It wasn't possible. Things just did not happen like this, not in his life—nothing could be this laughably easy.

But it was happening. The proof of it was right in front of him; the mutants were coming to Lendeheim, to Itex Headquarters, straight into his waiting hands. It was so obvious by the look of grim anger in the lead mutant's eyes, the way he clenched his jaw when he said "head honcho," that he was planning an attack on the Director's stronghold. Nehemiah had learned to study people much subtler than this stupid, vengeful child. He could have judged the mutant's intentions blindfolded.

And now the mutants were coming here, to find him and try their clumsy hand at revenge. Let them. The Director had not been pleased to find he'd failed to capture them. Let them come and redeem him.

He would be ready.

A/N: End chapter twenty-seven. Favorites/alerts are good, reviews are love. P.S. I'm back at uni again, which is why it took a bit longer to get this chapter posted (good thing we're almost finished). I'm proud I managed to get it out, so every bit of feedback is counted as encouragement. =)


28. Abort Mission, Abandon Ship

Woot! huntermarra, Aleria14, Storm-Horse101, pandorad24, AmyQueen95, Locked in a Stony Tower, lillypad22, Alactricity, flYegurl, WinterSky101, BeTrueToThyself, soccerislife14 and penguincrazy all have my love. soccerislife14 has a review reply waiting at the end of the chapter. :)

The line-up for today: Stark POV, then Jeb and Fang, closing with Ari POV. I revised this chapter so many times, it's not even funny. In the slightest. And I got a really, really painful case of writer's block. I'm still not completely satisfied with this chapter, which isn't the wisest thing to say to a reader, I know, but I'm something of a perfectionist and if I didn't get this out now, this story would go nowhere. So. Just be on the lookout.

A lot of scheming/talking in this chapter, part of the reason I'm not so pleased with it, but that's most likely because something big and action-packed is coming up in the next chapter. Be patient with meh! D:

P.U.L.L. post 4/1/11.

Disclaimer: Nothing has changed in the past year/so. MR still isn't mine, believe it or not.

Enjoy? :)

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Abort Mission, Abandon Ship

"This is your fault."

Standing completely still, his hands folded neatly in front of him and his expression carefully unreadable, Nehemiah watched as the Director paced the length of her office like one of her caged mutants, throwing despicable glares his way every time she pivoted on her heel. He took her wordless accusations without blinking a single cold, ice-grey eye.

Calm. He was the calm in the eye of the storm. He would come out unscathed. Calm.

"I should give you over to Proctor or Vaughn, or Aldous—tell them to use you in their newest experiments. No consequences to worry about," the Director said vilely, coming to an abrupt stop. Her yellow hair lay in disarray across her heaving shoulders, framing a face that had gone bloodless in her panicked fury. When she spoke, the words came out as if she were biting each of them off the edge of her forked tongue. Nehemiah felt an icy pocket of contempt open up in his chest.

"If you had kept a closer eye on the mutants when I told you to, none of this would have happened," the Director snapped. "And now look! We're on the verge of being taken apart by the authorities! Not even our people inside the government can shut this up. The public knows." She raked a long-nailed hand through her tangled locks.

Nehemiah stirred for the first time since entering the woman's office. "Do the authorities know the locations of the other bases?"

The Director's face contorted in horror for a split second. "You had better hope not…"

Stupid, overemotional woman. Nehemiah stilled the urge to sigh. How could this be the head of the great Itex Corporation?

"Has the press released information that suggests they know where the other bases are?" he prompted tonelessly.

The Director narrowed her eyes. Her anger wavered in the thin air like a hesitating snake, reconsidering its initial urge to strike as the prey rose up and did something quite unexpected. "I'm…not aware that they know, no," she said slowly.

Nehemiah tapped his finger against his bicep impatiently. "Have the authorities taken immediate action against any of Itex's outlets?"


Eyebrows raised meaningfully, the doctor spread his hands. "Then, pardon me, but I fail to see the crisis. We have people deep in the government who, despite your misgivings, can smother this if they are given enough time. We have means of defending ourselves when the mutants arrive. We can stall. There is absolutely nothing to panic about."

The Director snapped back into motion, circling Nehemiah's motionless figure with bony hands that twitched and curled, looking desperate for the chance to wrap themselves around his neck. "Nothing to panic about? Really, Doctor? Did you forget that the government has evidence against us, that they can incriminate us for—for genocide, practically! Don't try to weasel your way out of this, you—"

"We'll plead ignorant," Nehemiah interrupted, ignoring the woman's outraged stare. "It happens with companies every day. A branch goes rogue and oversteps its boundaries. People want to believe in the goodness of others, they want to believe that no one could do this on purpose—we can exploit this. It is simple."

The Director paused. Nehemiah stood as still as humanely possible, waiting. Finally, the woman met his gaze and said, with heavy resentment, "Someone has to accept blame, Doctor."

Nehemiah's lip curled at his superior's ill-veiled attempt at intimidation. "One of my managers, then," he replied evasively. "Someone loyal, someone who will not question my orders. But I was never associated with the Canadian School. I never committed any of those so-called 'crimes,' because I was here all along. Wouldn't you agree, Director?"

Tension crackled along the air like a thin wire of potent electricity. There was a moment when the Director and the doctor stared at each other and instantly knew what the other was thinking: that Nehemiah Stark, despite this singular, horrific failure, was one of Itex's best assets. They could not afford to do without him. And he knew it.

"Yes," the Director submitted, finally. Nehemiah smiled.

"Now," he said briskly, and moved past her to seat himself comfortably in the chair in front of her desk. Thanks to the enhancements in his DNA, his leg had healed quickly enough to no longer require the crutch, but standing for long periods of time was still slightly uncomfortable. "To the business of the 'mutant horde' approaching us from the west. They will come by air."

"When?" the Director asked in a clipped tone.

Nehemiah tapped his finger thoughtfully against the armrest of his chair. "Apologies, Director. The mutant didn't specify the date of its arrival. I would assume that it will be on its way as soon as possible. These animals lack the capacity to plan matters out, of course. I anticipate it will try for a full-force attack and rely solely on numbers."

The Director frowned. "I think you underestimate these mutants, Doctor Stark," she said acidly, obviously still upset over his brief moment of insubordination. "They are, after all, our most successful recombinants yet. They were designed to be intelligent."

Internally, Nehemiah waved the thought away without a second's hesitation. These mutants, intelligent? It was almost enough to make him smile in amusement. He was the School's only successful recombinant, though he would never tell anyone, and he had been born human. Pure. That was the only logical reason that his mental capacities were higher than any other recombinant's. These…these animals, these creatures, these non-humans had been altered in their test tubes. They'd been born with their abnormalities. His otherness was purely a result of choice.

To think that these abominations were capable of intelligent thought…it was laughable.

"In any case," the Director began, breaking Nehemiah free from his musings, "I'll have my best men get on the case. We'll catch them off guard before they land in Germany."

Nehemiah stirred. "With all due respect," he said carefully, "I would like to take part in the defense plans." Seeing her narrow her dark eyes in thought, he added, "I understand that your faith in me has been shaken by the mutants' escape from my School, but I assure you: I will not underestimate their treachery again."

The Director drummed her fingers against the polished wood of her desk, pursing her lips as she looked him over, considering. "Fine," she assented. "But you report to me before you do anything drastic."

"Of course," Nehemiah purred. His pale lips fought back a smile.

"And the avian-mutants are to be delivered alive. I don't care about the rest. Batchelder is yours to deal with, as you wanted. But the avian-mutants, all of them—I want them alive and unharmed. Understand?"

"Yes, Director," Nehemiah said with a respectful dip of his head. It was better than he had hoped—he didn't have total control over the situation, but he'd been promised a major role. And Batchelder was his. He would get to test out that new poison, after all.

As for the avian-mutants, he didn't care if he never saw them again. Except, perhaps, for the blind one. He was sure the sightless mutant had something to do with Batchelder's desertion. If not for the blind freak, Batchelder never would have worked up the nerve to show his treachery for what it was. Nehemiah's falling-out with the Director was entirely the mutant's fault.

On his dearly departed father's grave, he swore he would tear the resistance out of the little demon if it killed him.

Accidents do, after all, happen…

"If there is nothing else you would like to ask," the Director said coolly, her eyes going frigid and distant, "I'd like to be left alone, Doctor."

"Of course." Nehemiah rose and inclined his head politely, handing his Director parting niceties that he neither fully heard nor meant. His mind was already moving on to other matters; primarily, the problem of ensuring that Batchelder and that mangy mutant were successful in making it across the ocean. They would be in need of funds and tickets for the quickest flights to Germany. And he would give it to them, just to see himself redeemed.

Anne was waiting patiently for him when he returned to his temporary office, her eyes bright and her back straight, like a dutiful child waiting for her father to come home. Nehemiah gave her an indulgent smile as sincere as a politician's and ordered, "Ms. Chen, please call my contacts in the American government and have them secure flights to the nearest city for Batchelder and Fang's respective groups."

A faint frown disturbed the woman's vapid expression. "Yes, sir. But…which ones should I—"

"Ballard and Crace. Neither Batchelder nor Marling know who they are, so they will be the safest agents to send. And they do have the sweetest faces." Nehemiah seated himself behind his desk and got to work while Anne hurried to make the calls. Finding that "mutant horde" would be no trouble at all for the average citizen, let alone a trained hunter like Crace. Ballard had contacted him earlier the previous day to report that her team of Erasers had discovered Batchelder's most recent safe house and set him running again. She was sure that she and what was left of her squad would overtake the fugitives soon. He would have to tell her to follow them from a distance instead and lend "help" when Batchelder reverted to instinct and made his way for the nearest airport.

In the background, Anne greeted Ballard cordially over the phone and gave her the assignment. Nehemiah barely paid attention to his subordinate's saccharine voice as he rose and stared out through the only window in his office. Even disgraced as he was, he was still a respectable force in Itex's ranks and had been stationed high above the massive, walled courtyard currently occupied by a vast portion of Headquarters' mutants.

Training, Nehemiah mused, watching with particular interest as a strangely human-looking mutant with brown hair flipped over an Eraser with apparent ease and kicked its legs out from under its bulky torso. Strangely enough, the mutant didn't stop to gloat as Nehemiah thought it would. It moved on without a second's hesitation and brought down another wolf-mutant with fluid, controlled movements.

Nehemiah would need to form a task force to apprehend Batchelder and his brood the instant they set foot in Germany. Mutants like this one would be suitable for the job. He knew its name: Omega. Supposedly, it was Itex's most successful recombinant to date.

We will see.

"Sir," Anne said quietly, "I've just gotten off the phone with Crace. Both he and Ballard have locked onto Batchelder's and Fang's locations and are poised to move when you're ready, sir."

Nehemiah afforded her only a short, expressionless nod before stalking wordlessly from his office. He had to find Omega's keepers and convince them to let him borrow the mutant for a little test run.

He was just the slightest bit curious to see how quickly Omega could snap a blind mutant's neck…

"Jeb? Jeb, are you all right?"

Prying his fingers away from where he was digging them into his burning eyes, Jeb lifted his head at Iggy's call and met the worried boy's gaze. Yes, he was tempted to answer, yes, I'm fine. Your brother is planning to attack Itex with a bunch of malnourished, half-insane mutants, I still haven't stopped Ari's expiration date, and I am doing great. Thank you for your concern.

But he was a grown man with responsibilities, not some half-mature child with an attitude problem, so he stowed the words back in his churning stomach from which they'd risen and simply shook his head. "This is…a problem," he said tiredly.

When he'd sent Iggy, Ari, Gazzy and Max to the convenience store to get food, he'd never thought that they might return with grim faces and even darker news: that their fourteen-year-old brother had somehow broken into the School, and was planning to do it again. Only, this time, he was heading right for the top. Itex Headquarters.

Then there was the lovely fact that if Jeb and the others didn't cut him off in time, he was going to launch his siege on Headquarters anyway, probably without a thought to back-up plans.

Currently, Jeb and his ragtag group of fugitives were hunkered down in a quiet park set apart from the rest of the hustle and bustle of the heavily-populated town. The strange looks sent their way by passerby normally would have set Jeb's instincts on edge, but he had more important matters to deal with than someone's opinion. Everything had fallen apart. Somehow, he and his wards had to secure means of transportation to Lendeheim, and they had to do it before Fang managed to get his makeshift army overseas. Jeb had no doubt that this would take time, but then again, Fang did have Angel. And having an adorable, telepathic six-year-old with a talent for mind control was definitely an advantage when it came to convincing someone to help you.

He could try to secure a plane ride to Germany. He had some money left, had remembered to grab his card just in case, just in case. Perhaps if he found a way to access his bank account…but no, he was sure Stark had shut it down. He must have; Stark never overlooked anything.

Jacob released a sudden, explosive sigh from where he had spread his coat on the grass and sat down. "Fang didn't say when he planned to ambush Itex, did he?" he asked.

Iggy, digging into the bag of chips he'd bought from the convenience store, shrugged and rolled his eyes in frustration. "No. Just that he was gonna take it down, and we could join in if we wanted to."

"I know I want to," Ari said darkly from his seated position on a bench. Even though he was disguised in human form, the hateful twist of his lips as he thought of the School made several civilians turn right around and hurry off in the opposition direction.

"For once, hairball, I agree with you," Max drawled. She leaned easily against the bench and furrowed her forehead. Without warning, something painful and loose moved in Jeb's chest; Maximum looked so much like her mother when she was deep in thought that sometimes he was tempted to tell her that she wasn't an orphan. She had a biological mother, a younger half-brother and a half-sister. And him. Her father.

No. Jeb turned away with a shudder and buried his hands deep into the pockets of his coat. Now was not the time. Later, maybe, he could dig his fingers into the tangled web he'd sewn together and try to find his way out of the cold-walled maze his mistakes had built around him. But not now.

Suddenly, the Gasman, who had until this point remained uncharacteristically quiet, leapt up from his spot on the grass and let out an angry shout. "That's it!" he yelled. "I'm so sick of this! Why did Fang have to leave? Why did any of this have to happen?"

"None of us like it either, Gaz," Max said tiredly. But Gazzy's eyes were already beginning to fill with tears, and Jeb knew his boy well enough to look for the reddening around his ears and cheeks.

"I hate them," he sniffed, and kicked forlornly at one of the bench's legs.

Quietly, Jeb rose to his feet and stepped carefully toward Gazzy. When the small boy only stared up at him with brimming eyes, the ex-whitecoat took the boy into his arms and stroked his flyaway hair gently, as he had when Gazzy had been a tiny six-year-old. Gazzy turned his face into Jeb's shirt, scowling with embarrassment.

"Do you remember what I used to tell you," Jeb said, his voice rasping—this caring tone had been long out of practice—as he patted down the boy's hair, "when you were little and you'd get upset?"

"It'll work out," came the muffled answer.

"Yes." Jeb lifted his gaze and looked at each fugitive in turn, letting them know that he was speaking to them, too. "It will work out. It always does. I promise you, I'll fix this."

Iggy set his jaw stubbornly and nodded. "I believe you, Jeb."

"So do I," Jacob added. Gazzy broke away and wiped his cheeks furiously.

"Me too!" he said.

Almost involuntarily, Jeb turned to Max and Ari. The muscles in Max's neck grew tense and taut, standing out beneath her skin as she met her father's gaze. Jeb could see a hundred different emotions and thoughts running beneath those dark eyes, eyes too much like her mother's, and for one uncertain moment he thought she would turn away.

Then she smirked and said, "Yeah, I guess so. You're probably one of the most stubborn, hard-to-kill people I know. If anyone's gonna fix this, it's gonna be you."

"Cute," came a deep growl from Ari's direction, "but there's a group of government officials coming in at three o'clock, so I say we get ready to run."

It was as if a bomb went off not two feet away from them. In an instant, the six fugitives went from relaxed civilians lounging at the park to a group of hunted people on the run, their nerves taut as they followed Ari's pointing finger to the black vehicles pulling into the street nearest them.

"Gaz, Ig, in the sky, now," Max ordered, snapping back into her role as leader almost instinctively. The two boys spread their wings without question and shouldered their backpacks, their eyes sharp. Jeb watched the three cars come to a screeching stop. His stomach shuddered; they'd spent too much time in one place when they knew full well that the Erasers from the safe house were still trailing them. He and the others had no choice. They would have to run for it and take someone's car again, because there was no way they were going to lose their enemies on foot.

"Split up," Jeb ordered. He had just turned away when one of the car's doors flew open and spat into the busy street a tall brown-haired woman in a black pencil skirt and heels.

"Wait!" she called, holding her hands up as if someone was pointing a gun at her. Cars honked and ground to a halt to avoid hitting her. When one man made to get out, the woman glared and pulled out a gleaming badge.

At Jeb's side, Jacob made as if to run. "Jeb? Do we go?"

Jeb hesitated. The woman crossed into the park and stopped on the grass, huffing, a hand over her heart. She was a willowy, fragile-looking thing, all pinkish, gesturing hands and a wide-eyed, honest face. Her lips curved to give Jeb a sheepish smile.

"Please, don't run," she gasped. "My name is Linda Ballard. I'm with the government."

"Like that's a relief," Iggy muttered.

Ballard didn't hear his comment. She turned and waved to the government vehicles, telling them to pull in by the sidewalk and stop blocking traffic. "Sometimes they need a little guiding," she said with an indulgent smile. Her cheerfulness dimmed somewhat when no one returned the sentiment, but she maintained her pleasant demeanor with the steadfast air of someone used to dealing with uncooperative people. "Are you Jebidiah Batchelder?" she asked, turning toward Jeb.

"I am," he answered slowly. Years of instinctively mistrusting people kicked up in his chest like a rusty old motor, scattering its dust everywhere. He had to remember not to assume that everyone in a black suit and car worked for Itex.

Ballard held out her hand and waited for him to take it, her expression remaining agreeable even when it took him a moment to reciprocate. "I hope we didn't startle you too badly. My superiors just sent us word that we were to find you before it was too late."

Max stepped forward and took a firm stance beside Jeb. She frowned and lifted her chin pugnaciously when Ballard looked surprised. "Too late for what?" the winged girl asked, narrowing her eyes.

"Uh…" Ballard made an obvious effort to avoid staring at Max's wings, stretched wide and far. "I mean…you and your group were very hard to find. We had to follow the testimonies of people who thought they'd seen you. You see, I work for a branch of the government that specializes in communications, and we recently got word of what they call the 'mutant horde' crossing Canada."

The woman smiled and shook her head, as if ridiculing the government's penchant for embellishing everything it laid its hands on. "I've actually been asked to secure flights for you to Lendeheim, Germany. Apparently, the leader of the 'mutant horde' let slip to someone that he was planning to move there, and since he sent out a message to you, we thought you had best be there when he arrives."

Jeb gave Ballard a meaningful look. "And the government is endorsing this move? Without questioning why a fourteen-year-old boy would want to move an entire army of mutants halfway across the world?"

Ballard shrugged her shoulders reticently. "In all honesty, sir, the boy's been so stingy with information that I think the government's just trying to go along with whatever he says because they think he'll cooperate if they do. They're desperate for information. You have to understand that this is a very big, very dangerous thing we're handling here."

"I do. More than anyone else," Jeb said stiffly. The words came out colder than he'd meant them to, and Ballard visibly recoiled from the icy expression he was sure had taken control of his facial features. For the second time that day, Jeb reminded himself that the woman hadn't done anything to warrant his hostility.


"I see," Ballard said quietly. She straightened her gray jacket and continued, in a slightly more hesitant tone, "If it's all right with you, we could go somewhere a little less public to—"

Max interrupted, her tone crackling like hot coals underfoot, "We don't go anywhere with people we don't trust."

Ballard's half-hearted smile dropped off her face entirely. "Oh," she said in a small voice. "Okay. Just…here, then?"

Jeb smiled politely. It was the type of smile that offered little reassurance and even less warmth, letting the woman know just how wary and alert he was. "Here would be best."

Ballard nodded. "Just give me a second," she said, and trotted over to the three cars waiting in the street. As soon as the woman was out of earshot, Max spoke up.

"Jeb, we should run. Like, now would be good."

The ex-whitecoat shook his head and whispered back, "I know what you're thinking. But even if these people work for Itex, we have to take what they're offering."

Max stared at him in outright disbelief. "You're kidding, right?"

"We have no other way to reach Lendeheim before Fang," Jeb replied, lowering his voice as Ballard glanced their way, then turned back to speak with someone in the first car. "It would be hard enough for you, Iggy and Gazzy to fly across the ocean. Bringing the rest of us along would be impossible without money for plane tickets, and we don't have that right now. We need what they are offering."

Ari asked nervously, "What if they're working for Itex?" His wide eyes zeroed in on Ballard's unthreatening figure as if she was about to transform into a monster from his nightmares. Jeb thinned his lips grimly.

"Then we'll just have to make sure we're ready for them when they do."

Around the circle of runaways, expressions hardened with steely determination. Ballard was faced with grim, untrusting looks when she returned, and the effect it had on her already-faltering confidence was apparent. She hesitated, almost taking a step back before she plucked up her courage and opened her mouth to make the offer once more. "About those plane tickets—"

Max immediately said, "We'll take them."

Ballard stopped and blinked, taken by surprise. "Oh. You will?"

"We will," Jeb confirmed with a nod of his head. "Provided we aren't surrounded by government officials wherever we turn, and you leave us to our own devices once we set down in Germany. We'd prefer not to be treated like criminals."

"I don't know if we can…" Ballard paused, catching sight of Max's closed-off expression, and shrugged her shoulders. "You know what? Sure. We'll figure something out."

"How soon can you get us to Lendeheim?" Jeb asked.

Ballard smiled pleasantly, and there, like a flicker of lightning in the far black of night, too quick and distant to fully grasp but still definitely there, Jeb saw something dark shift through her gaze. He grabbed hold of its image and branded it in his memory, a warning that he was putting Jacob and his children into terrible danger.

"We can get the flights for you now," Ballard said happily. "If you'd like, we can drive you to the nearest airport. I'm afraid it's quite a walk if you plan to take it by foot."

"We'd be grateful for your help, thank you," Jeb replied with a smile. Ballard nodded and directed the group into two different cars: Gazzy, Max and Jacob into one, and Iggy, Ari and Jeb into another. Jeb ignored the small part inside him that screamed this was a bad idea, a horrible mistake.

It had to be done. There was no other way.

That didn't stop the sinking feeling in his stomach as he lowered himself beside Iggy and Ari into the dark inside of the car, locked his own door, and watched in silence as the car pulled away from the curb and melted into the endless rows of vehicles rolling down the road.

The air inside the hospital was rank with the acrid stench of disinfectant and illness. After the whole disaster of being shot and then promptly kidnapped, Fang had sworn that he would never set foot inside such an establishment again if it killed him. He would rather bleed out on the sidewalk than breathe in this noxious air.

Yet here he was, sitting in a hospital's waiting room surrounded by dozens of starving mutants, staying right where he was because the kids needed a leader, and if he didn't go in, neither would they. Even when he did step through the hospital doors, it had been difficult for some of the more frightened mutants to come inside. They'd just been liberated from the School. For them to immediately go from Stark's house of horrors to a place that looked exactly like it was almost too much for them to handle.

It was almost too much for Fang to handle, though he never let on.

But the kids needed medical attention. Badly. Fang had seen a couple mutants already unconscious, whisked off to the emergency rooms to be stabilized—Livy had been one of them.

Until they were deemed stable, and until these starving kids were full of hospital food, he wasn't going anywhere. He was the leader here. The mutants' only source of hope. They looked up to him to lead them on their way.

He made a mental note to congratulate Max on handling the stress of it next time he saw her.

A small group of policemen stalked from the back rooms into the midst of the runaway mutants. Fang, sitting in a corner with Angel and Nudge, pointedly ignored the men and focused on clearing the plate of packaged food in front of him. The confusion on the policemen's faces was clear; he could practically hear their thoughts stampeding through their heads like a horde of elephants, chaotic and confused, heading everywhere and nowhere at once.

He didn't blame them. It wasn't every day you were mind-manipulated by a six-year-old girl into feeding a hundred starving mutants.

A burst of motion toward the other side of the waiting room caught Fang's attention. Dom, Spider and Greta had risen to their feet and were picking their way through the mutants sitting around them. Knowing that they would want to talk, Fang scooped up a last spoonful of powdered eggs and set his food aside.

"Hey, Fang," Spider called. He spotted Fang's expression and asked, squinting all four of his eyes, "What's got you in a knot?"

Angel and Nudge looked over with worried countenances. Fang shrugged and said, "Nothing. It's been a long day."

Dom snorted and sat down heavily next to the dark-winged boy. "You're telling us. Are you gonna finish your eggs?"

Fang handed the food over with another shrug. At his side, Angel gnawed thoughtfully on the edge of her fork and asked Greta, "Where's Remy?"

The soft-spoken girl winced and ducked her head, nearly taking one of Spider's numerous eyes out with her antlers. "They had to take him back with Livy," she whispered. "He wasn't…doing so good."

"Oh," Nudge murmured quietly. She blinked and looked down, then patted Greta's pale hand sympathetically. "We're sorry."

"He'll be fine," Dom said in a hard tone. Fang looked up to see the older boy staring hard at the air, focusing on something that wasn't there. He knew that look; it belonged on the face of someone who stubbornly insisted on assuming the best because he couldn't afford to do otherwise.

Spider seemed to have picked up the same notion. "They'll both be fine," he said with a confident nod.

A solemn silence entered the group like an unwelcome guest while as everyone tucked back into their food and tried not to think about what was happening to their littlest members behind the hospital's closed doors. Then Dom, whom Fang was beginning to think was just an ornery male version of Max, got straight to his point.

"We heard your broadcast earlier," he said. His dark eyes met Fang's unflinchingly. Something went stiff in the cast of his serious mouth.

Fang didn't say anything. Dom shifted and continued, "Man, we respect you and all, but it's kind of obvious you're in on something. And we want to know what it is."

Keeping his silence, Fang let the other boy stew for a moment before he answered in his usual unflappable tone. "You didn't have to come ask. I was going to let you in on it anyway."

Dom frowned. "Well, what is it?"

Fang leaned back against the wall and swept his gaze over the gathered mutants. Out of the two hundred and seventeen that had come through, only about fifty or so, including the Erasers, looked fit enough for his planned assault on Itex. The others had either been rushed to the overflowing emergency rooms, or were too weak or starved to do anything but lie in bed and wheeze.

But the others…

Sending a quick glance around the room for Erasers and finding none, Fang finally answered Dom's question. "Itex Headquarters has to go down."

Immediately, Dom, Spider and Greta became very interested. They leaned forward, their faces gleaming with color and their eyes bright as the gleam of snow against the windowpanes.

"I'm listening," Dom said eagerly. Spider's smile turned savage, and even sweet-faced Greta trembled with the need to fight.

"I'm going to ask the Erasers to help us," Fang continued. "Dag worked for Headquarters before he was moved to Stark's School. He knows all about its defenses and inner workings. It shouldn't be hard to convince him; we have the antidote to the Erasers' expiration date. And he's gotten rumors that Itex was planning to shut down all of the Erasers anyway."

Spider whistled lowly. "Now that's the first good thing to come out of the School."

"Not if we want the Erasers on our side. Temporarily," Fang added when Dom made a face, as if he'd just discovered that the pudding he'd been served was made of chicken fat. "Just as long as we have to, and then we go our separate ways."

"You want to infiltrate Itex and take it down from the inside," Spider said incredulously. "With what army? These kids? You'll never make it past the front door."

"All we need is a good, small force," Fang replied firmly. "Think about it. There must be hundreds more mutants at Headquarters."

Nudge brightened considerably and grinned fiercely for the first time since they'd emerged from Stark's School. "And if we can turn them against the whitecoats, we'll have even more people! It shouldn't be hard. If they're just as angry at the School as you are, all they'll need to see is that we can resist. We can fight back!"

"Right." Fang gave Nudge a rare smile.

Dom, Spider and Greta exchanged glances. "Alright," Dom said finally. Something flickered in his gaze like a live flame, strengthening his resolve and drive. "Yeah," he said again. He leaned forward with a wide grin. "We're in. As long as you can convince the Erasers to get us past Headquarters' doors…I'm in."

"Me too," Spider put in. Greta nodded.

"Then I'll need your help," Fang stated. "I can't convince everyone on my own. We'll let everyone get a good night's sleep tonight and break it to them in the morning."

"Where are you going?" Nudge asked, seeing him get to his feet.

Fang clenched his hands into fists and turned his head away from the policemen when they gave him sidelong looks. "To find the Erasers."

Angel and Nudge rose from their spots and followed him from the waiting room into the crowded hallway. He didn't question their presence; he needed all the support he could use at the moment.

"I'll help 'convince' them if you need me to," Angel offered sweetly.

"Thanks, Ange," Fang said, already picking out a couple Erasers from amongst the scores of mutants huddled on the floor. "But let's just use that as a last resort, alright?"

"Hey squeaker," Dag called when their trio finally pinpointed him. He was lounging down on the hospital's main floor, entertaining himself with sending threatening glares to the gathered policemen every now and then to see if he could intimidate them. "What're you up to? Where's my expiration cure?"

"You'll get that later," Fang said curtly. Dag growled low in his throat. The Erasers at his sides bristled and twitched their hands towards their guns, which Fang was only partially surprised hadn't been taken away from them; he wouldn't have tried to separate a wolf-mutant from its weapon either, even if he was a policemen with his buddies to back him up.

"Look, there's one more thing we need you to do. You said that the whitecoats were planning to shut you down, all of you, sometime soon."

"Yeah," Dag said. "Which is why we need the expiration cure, so if you're smart, you'll give it to us before we decide you're getting on our nerves."

"But it only works for one person at a time," Nudge interjected. "If you try and use it for all of you, some of you will already have died and it'll be too late."

The wolf-mutants looked at one another tensely. Seeing an opportunity, Fang stepped closer and said, "Dag, you know Headquarters' layout, right? I'm planning a break-in."

Dag laughed harshly. The sound was like a saw grating on steel. "You're crazy, squeaker."

"I'm serious." Fang matched the Eraser's gaze and held it as the smirk dropped off Dag's face. "We want to get inside. We're missing an important part of the expiration date's cure and we think it might be inside Headquarters."

A roaring growl rippled through the band of Erasers. Throughout the room, the policemen gripped their batons nervously and stood taut and tense as metal poles.

"You little lying sneak!" Dag thundered. "You said you had the cure—"

"I didn't lie," Fang cut him off. "I said we were working on the cure. I just didn't say it was finished."

"The part we're missing is in Headquarters, with Stark," Angel broke in. She stared the Erasers down with her eerie blue eyes and shrugged, "So we're gonna break in, get it, and beat up a couple whitecoats on the way. Don't you want revenge for everything they've put you through?"

Dag narrowed his beady eyes into a glare and jabbed Fang in the chest with a long finger. "If you're lying, squeaker," he said, voice low and threatening, "I swear, I'll tear you apart. Cure or no cure. Got it?"

Fang didn't break eye contact. "That depends. Are you in?"

Dag cast a searching look over his team of Erasers. "We'll talk it over," he said reluctantly. "We'll let you know in the morning."

Fang hadn't realized he'd been clenching his hands into fists until he released them. A few of his knuckles cracked with the release of the strain.

One of the Erasers behind Dag, a tall, bulky mutant with muscles the size of durians, stirred and asked, "How are you gonna get all of us to Germany, squeaker?"

For once, Fang was stumped. He'd known he would run into this problem eventually and had come up with a solution, but he wasn't sure if Angel was up to the job of mind-controlling an entire airplane crew into letting fifty mutants onto the fastest plane they had.

"Actually," said a jovial voice behind them, "I think I might be able to help you there."

Ari gripped the armrests of his seat tightly and tried not to think about what would happen if the flying hunk of metal he was trapped in suddenly decided to act like a hunk of metal and plummet right into the ocean. It was bad enough that he was already aching with the effort of staying in his stupid, skinny human form. Now he was practically twitching with worry, too, like some spastic kid with a nervous disorder.

Well, said a certain annoying, omnipresent Voice inside his head, at least you have the aisle seat.

It had a point there. If something went down, he was going to barrel his way through all the dinky little humans and be the first to the escape door…

"Hey." Even Iggy, sitting on Ari's left with his long legs bunched awkwardly behind the seat in front of him, looked more at rest than the young Eraser. Gazzy was a little pale, but he had the window seat and stared out into the clouds and deep blue every chance he got. Lucky squirt.

"Chill, man," Iggy said with a thin smile. "We're all feeling it. Besides, the pilot guy just said we'd be landing in a few. Didn't you hear him?"

Ari shook his head miserably. No, truth be told, he hadn't. He'd been a little too preoccupied with daydreaming about his watery demise the closer they came to Germany. It always seemed like, just when hope was closest, something came to snatch it away.

Twisting awkwardly in his seat, Ari turned to stare over his seat at Max, Jeb and Jacob, who were stationed behind him. Jacob was stirring in his aisle seat, obviously woken by the pilot's announcement. Max stared out the window at the night sky. She was so far off in the murk of her own thoughts that Ari doubted she noticed that the plane had already started to descend.

Jeb met Ari's gaze and offered him a humorless smile. His arms were folded tightly across his chest, his features rendered haggard and worn by the airplane's yellow interior light. Something was up.

"What's wrong?" Ari rumbled, without thinking. Jeb stiffened and cast a quick, fearful look at the people seated around them. Too late, Ari realized his mistake; but then again, he'd scanned the other passengers before they boarded, and none of them had looked like Erasers in disguise.

Man, he wished he had his gun. But that Ballard lady had taken it from him before they entered the airport, saying something about paranoia and jail time.

Jeb seemed to realize they weren't being monitored and shrugged away some of the tension in his shoulders. "Nothing," he said quietly. "Just…be ready. Once we're through customs, I want all of you to keep an eye out. I know Ballard said she'd have cars waiting to take us to Lendeheim, but stay clear of them at all costs. I don't trust her."

At that, Iggy and Gazzy swiveled under their seatbelts and joined Ari in sticking their heads over the seats. Quietly, Iggy hissed, "Do you want to carry the…the you-know-what?"

The trigger. There had been some trouble with getting that through the pre-flight scans, but Ballard had simply stepped up to security, flashed that badge of hers again and called someone before waving their group through without another hitch. Sometimes, Ari forgot just how powerful some people were. With that kind of influence, it was a wonder Ballard hadn't had a private plane waiting for them, instead of six seats in third class. Though…that would have been creepy, now that he thought about it. Almost as if she'd known they would come with her…

Jeb shook his graying head and replied, "Keep it. You seem to understand it even better than I do. If anything happens, I want you to have it on you."

A strange, shivery feeling rushed through Ari's human form, starting somewhere in his chest and traveling to the very tips of his feet. If even this stupid, dull human body was picking up uneasy sensations, then something was definitely wrong.

"Be careful," he burst out suddenly. Jeb stared at him in wide-eyed surprise, and Ari repeated, quietly this time, "Dad? Please be careful."

Jeb nodded solemnly. "Take care of yourself. All of you. If anything happens, anything at all, I want you to run. Don't look back. Don't get separated. Just run."

The flight attendant's voice rang through the cabin, startling all of them as it politely told them to remain seated and buckled in while the plane landed. Ari turned around and drove his fingers into his chair's armrests again. Metal creaked in a whining protest, but all he could hear was the roar of the plane's engine and the quick, staccato pulses of his own heartbeat.

"I have a bad feeling about this," he said aloud. No one answered.

As soon as the plane juddered to a halt, Ari's human body went into high alert. Everything was super-imposed with adrenaline, a blur of wide-eyed anticipation and shaking hands. Ballard greeted them as they left the plane and followed their footsteps like a starving shark, smiling pleasantly, her face no longer sweet and open but, in Ari's opinion, suddenly hungry and full of malevolence.

Vigilance, mumbled the Voice.

Their small group formed a tightly-knit bunch with Jeb and Max at the center. Ari stuck to Iggy's side like a burr from the landing space past customs. When they passed through the glass doors that led into the airport's main building, he finally started to relax. The street was there, a wide stretch of road clogged with other cars and people laden with luggage, but open space nonetheless. Ari breathed easier and let himself scan the buildings on the other side of the freeway, squinting against the gleaming city lights. He didn't notice the four big, black cars parked along the curb until Ballard pointed them out.

"Here we are," the woman said cheerily. Ari stopped in his tracks, his blood pulsing in his ears as Ballard waved them toward the vehicles. Vigilance, the Voice whispered again. Vigilance, Ari!

"Lendeheim's a couple miles from here," Ballard said, striding confidently toward one car and opening the passenger door of one. "It's a secluded area and usually not very easy for tourists to find. We'd be happy to drive you there."

No one moved. Then, Ari peered past Ballard into the interior of the car she made to board, and froze as he saw a familiar face. He had only seen the Eraser's human guise once or twice, but he would recognize that ugly sneer anywhere.

"Rawley!" he hissed. Rawley's mouth dropped open in surprise. Ballard's head whipped around almost frantically as she struggled to make the connection.

Iggy was faster. "That Eraser from Stark's School?" he asked, eyes widening. "He's here?"

Game's up, said the Voice.

"They're working for Stark!" Ari barked. "Get out of—"

The passenger door of another car clicked and swung open. There, dressed as usual in a white lab coat and a deadly expression that promised he wouldn't hesitate, was Stark. The gun in his bloodless hand was pointed straight at Ari's head.

Someone shouted, "Down!" but Ari was already flat on his stomach, shifting back into his half-Eraser, half-human form as the gunshot echoed somewhere above him. Screams erupted across the sidewalk. Airport security guards were yelling, racing toward the trouble, but Ari, Max and Iggy had already launched themselves into motion.

The three mutants sprang for Rawley's car and dispatched the Erasers inside with quick snaps of their fists. Ari got his hands on a wolf-mutant's pistol and pointed it threateningly at the Erasers attempting to get out of the other three cars. Jeb slipped past him, into the driver's seat.

"All of you, inside, now!" he ordered. Ari and the others threw themselves into the bulky car just as Jeb slammed the gas pedal to the floor. The car shot forward, careening its way past Stark and the other School's vehicles.

"Batchelder!" Stark's hoarse voice bellowed. "You idiots, cut them off! Don't let him get away!"

In the driver's seat, Jeb clenched his hands around the steering wheel and swerved around the cars that were too slow to get out of the way. Ari held on for dear life; he, Iggy, Max and Gazzy were squished in the back of the car. Jacob sat in the passenger seat and fumbled with his seatbelt.

"Where are we going?" Max asked tightly.

"We've got to lose them." Jeb drove onto the freeway and turned the stolen car toward the city that loomed on the other side. Ari chanced a quick look through the back window. Their pursuers were only a short distance behind them; one of them was so close, he could see Ballard firing orders to the Eraser driving the vehicle.

"We'll get into the city and lose them that way," Jeb continued. "The airport will have alerted the police by now. I'm sure Stark meant for this all to be a nice, quiet capture; he won't want to stick around when they show up."

"Yeah," said Max, scrambling for purchase when the car swerved wildly around a semi, "but neither do we."

Jacob was quick to point out that being arrested by the police was a far better option than being captured by Stark and the Erasers. Ari tightened his grip on the pistol when their car slowed to join the flow of traffic passing through the fringe of the city.

"They're right behind us," Max murmured, staring with wide eyes at the black cars behind them. "Jeb, they're right behind us!"

"Hold on!"

The car revved and put an extra burst of speed that carried them past an intersection just as the light turned red. Ari tensed; they were merging onto a long stretch of road less clogged than the one they'd just emerged from. The car accelerated to over forty miles per hour, skidding past the other cars making their way down the street. Anxiously, Ari turned halfway in his seat to check on their pursuers' progress, and stopped when he saw what was outside his own window.

Keeping pace with the speeding car as easily as if he was going for a stroll was a tall, brown-haired boy with strange silver eyes. The Voice immediately screeched out an enigmatic warning in Ari's head—Omega!

Then Ari saw the long knife in the boy's hand coming down, right for the car's back tire.

"Stop!" he shouted to Jeb, but it was already too late. He felt the impact as soon as the boy drove the knife into the tire. There was a horrendous noise caught somewhere between a pop, a hiss and a muffled boom, and the car slowed so suddenly that Ari was thrown into the seat before him.

Someone screamed—he was never sure afterward if it was him or someone else. The world was a frenzied jumble of spinning city lights and screeching tires, the gun was knocked from his grasping hands, and Ari thought for a split second that the car was going to turn over. Jeb finally managed to get it under control, and they came to a sudden stop. Ari had closed his eyes sometime during the chaos. He opened them when he heard the sound of breaking glass and felt cool air pulsing against his bruised face.

He wished he hadn't. Reaching for him through the shattered window without any regard to the way his arm was being shredded to pieces was the silver-eyed boy.

A furious roar ripped itself from Ari's gut. Jeb's shout of caution was a faded hum in the back of his mind as he tore his door open and threw himself at the boy named Omega.

A/N: End chapter twenty-eight. Whew! Review please! You're very lucky this chapter was so long, you know...otherwise, I would have had space to fit more in, and the cliffhanger would have been even worse than it already is. How is that possible, you ask? Oh...you'll see. :)

soccerislife14: ...8O I am dead. No, seriously. I have no idea what to say, except...thank you thank you thank you! When I first read your review I couldn't stop smiling, it was just the best praise I've ever gotten, and I am incredibly flattered. Especially since I'm working on my own novel at the moment, and your wonderful comments are great encouragement. All a writer really wants to receive in return for his/her hard efforts (aside from funds, but this is fanfic, this is just a hobby) is the acknowledgment that the writing is appreciated and enjoyed. So thank you so, so much for taking the time to put in that review. It's probably the best one I've ever gotten since joining fanfic. =) Hope you enjoy the rest of the story just as well!


29. The Man of Many Loyalties

Alactricity, pandorad24, BeTrueToThyself, nathan-p, penguincrazy, AmyQueen95, lillypad22, flYegurl, WinterSky101 and Storm-Horse101, have I told you all how much I love and appreciate your support? Yes? Okay, then, we're good. :)

Early update, because the brief break that let me churn out Chapter 28 is officially over, and I'm back in the middle of academic hell...err, I mean...college. :) So I decided to get this chapter out before midterms hit. I tried not to go for the cliffhanger again, I swear I did, but I'm not sure it was a success...those things are addicting.

Disclaimer: It's not mine. I swear.

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Man of Many Loyalties

Something hot and sticky, like scalding tears, coursed down the side of Iggy's face when he picked himself up from the floor of the car that had just come to a sudden and violent stop and pitched him out of his seat. He was shaking. The backpack's straps dug into his shoulders from where he'd secured them. His hands trembled unsteadily as he heaved himself to his feet and stepped out into the street, following the savage sounds he recognized as Ari's battle cries.

What the heck's going on? What just happened?

He barely had time to form the stunned questions. One second he was on the floor, bleeding from where he'd cuffed his head against something hard and unyielding, then he was on his feet in the road, and suddenly he was pressed to the ground again, flat on his back where he'd been knocked when someone's fist came out of nowhere and nailed him square in the face.

Instinct grabbed hold. Iggy rolled with the impact and lashed out wildly in his attacker's direction. His fist collided with something firm that gave under his knuckles with a suppressed umph!

Ari roared, and Iggy jerked back when someone's arm whistled past his face and connected with the same person he'd hit.

"Ari?" he called out, frozen in confusion. Too many sounds from the city, too much emptiness around him—he couldn't get a sense of anything. Ari's giant hand fisted itself in the back of Iggy's shirt and forced him face-first back to the ground just as the attacker struck again.

"Darn it!" Iggy snapped, spitting out gravel. "Would everybody stop doing that?"

"Above you, Ig!"

He reacted instantly to Max's warning, rolling again as something slammed directly where his head had been. Metal rang against the asphalt when the attacker withdrew and Iggy's mind sped as he jumped to his feet, ready for a fight. Had someone just tried to stab him?

"Iggy," Max shouted, "left!"

Iggy threw himself to the right and swung. The attacker's fist drove through the air where he'd been a moment earlier, and the assailant himself let out a surprised grunt when Iggy had the satisfaction of snapping a blow to the side of his face.

"Right!" Max barked. Iggy dodged again and swung out with one long leg. At the same time, he heard two blows fall heavily against the attacker's body. Iggy waited for the muffled thump that was sure to follow, signaling that the enemy was down, but nothing came. Instead, a pair of feet connected sharply with his chest in a flying kick and sent him crashing against the stolen car.

Iggy's head snapped back against cold metal. His sensitive ears rang like sirens, but he ignored the pain and shot out with a bundled fist. Cartilage crunched beneath his hand and the attacker gasped. Iggy left no room for escape. Two quick, open-handed blows to the enemy's shoulders and a smooth kick to his sternum had him stretched out on the ground in record time.

"Way to go, Ig," Max said in open, amused admiration. Iggy grinned cockily.

Which, of course, was when the attacker leapt to his feet and wrapped a clammy hand around Iggy's throat.

"I estimate it will take me exactly 1.2 seconds to snap your neck," said a coldly detached, uninterested voice. "Please, don't struggle."


Gazzy's voice rose through the rushing blood in Iggy's ears and accompanied the small boy's fist as it hurtled straight into the enemy's face. Iggy felt Max move in from the left, Ari from the right, and struggled to regain his breath as a flurry of punches resounded in the cold air. The enemy yelped, surprise and confusion clear and obvious in his cry when he landed heavily at Iggy's feat.

"Hey," said Gazzy proudly, "it only took us three seconds to beat your butt!"

"Leave him!" Jeb interrupted abruptly. "We've got to go—now!"

He was right. Already, Iggy could hear their pursuers roaring up in their rumbling cars. Someone, Max probably, grabbed hold of his jacket's sleeve and pulled him along as they sprinted across the asphalt.

Iggy coughed against the soreness in his throat as he ran. Once, he'd confided in Max that being lost was different for him than it was for other people. It'd been the truth; he was completely dependent on Max as they ran. When he felt her jump over an obstacle, he jumped; when she put on an extra burst of speed, so did he.

He guessed that, for someone who was used to being able to see, it was like undergoing the same thing he was experiencing: running for his life in a strange place, terrified and trying hard not to show it, with the city noise screaming in his hyper-sensitive ears. And blindfolded. Darkness all around and the world was falling into chaos, chaos—

Where are we?

"Watch out!" Max shouted. Tires squealed, the air stank of burned rubber. Max jerked on Iggy's jacket so suddenly that he almost lost his balance and fell on his side. "Double back!" Max ordered. "Move, move!"

He moved. He ran into the blackness filled with screeching machinery and blaring horns and tried not to trip over his own feet.

What's happening?

"Watch out—there!"

Iggy wasn't even sure who was speaking anymore. He was aware only of the pounding in his chest, the pain in his feet and legs, a gunshot echoing over his ducked head with every turnaround that they had to make. The blood on the side of his face felt like ice in the brisk night air, like the chill in the back of his throat when he ate a mint and sucked in a deep, freezing breath.

"Faster, guys, faster! They're on our tail!"

Jeb's voice sawed through the pandemonium like a serrated knife, rasping and desperate. "Maximum, Gazzy, Iggy, I want all of you in the sky, now!"

"We're not getting separated! We're doing fine!" Max protested. "Look, we're losing them."

"The police aren't coming fast enough, and there's no way we can outrun them anymore! It's a miracle we got this far," Jeb returned. Just then, an engine thundered nearby and sent the group scattering. There was a moment of utter confusion where Max's hands fell away and Iggy thought he heard Ballard screeching orders to her team of Erasers.

The blind boy fell against the street and scrambled back on his elbows, trying to get out of a melee he knew he wouldn't survive if he got in the middle of it. Rough hands embedded themselves in his jacket and he flailed with hard fists, fighting against his own helplessness and the Eraser holding onto him.

"It's me!" Jeb's familiar voice said. Iggy stopped moving and gripped the man's hand for all he was worth, his eyes wide and unseeing.

"What just happened?" he asked.

"Ballard cut us off." Jeb pulled on the boy's jacket, trying to guide him away from the snarls of the Erasers and Max's quick, loud punches. Iggy pulled back.

"I can fight," he insisted. Before Jeb could answer, the familiar sound of sirens split the air, wailing closer and closer with every passing second.

Police, Iggy's mind instantly registered. But instead of the dread and annoyance he should have been feeling, relief flooded his bruised, heaving chest. Police meant humans. Police meant that Stark would pull back. Police meant safety.

"We have to get to those officers," Jeb said, echoing Iggy's thoughts. This time, Iggy didn't resist when the ex-whitecoat pulled him forward. "Come on, Iggy, we can make it."

They broke into a run. Iggy pulled back suddenly, remembering, "What about the others? Max? Ari?"

"We're coming," Jacob's breathless voice shouted a short distance behind them. Max, Gazzy and Ari finished dispatching the remaining Erasers and ran to join Jeb and Iggy where they had stopped to wait.

"We stay together," Jeb said, his grip on Iggy's jacket tightening. "All of us."

"Great," Iggy replied, "now can we get out of here?"

The street flew beneath their feet. Picking out the sirens from above all the honking horns and yelling civilians wasn't an easy task, but Iggy finally judged that a nice group of police were at least four streets away.

We're gonna make it. We're gonna make it!

They couldn't have crossed more than ten feet before something heavy and solid slammed into Iggy and Jeb from behind, sending them sprawling on their stomachs. The asphalt burned Iggy's hands and front as he slid. He thought he heard Max shout over the scream of the sirens, but he couldn't be sure.

"Keep running!" Jeb commanded by Iggy's side. The boy didn't get to find out whether or not their group obeyed or not; there was a knife at the back of his neck and an impassive voice in his ear, and his world contained nothing else.

"You will not escape," said the attacker coldly.

"Iggy! Jeb!" Ari shouted. Iggy heard the big Eraser start for them when the two remaining cars chasing them finally caught up and skidded to a halt, so close that the exhaust from one of them burned the skin of Iggy's cheek. He pictured it easily: the two cars were blocking Ari and the others from getting to him and Jeb, and the police cars must have only been a street away by now.

A series of clicks announced the opening of the cars' doors. Moments later, Stark's smooth, smug voice found purchase in the cold air. "Batchelder. How good to have you back, my friend."

Jeb didn't reply. Instead, he whispered to Iggy, quick and steady, "Ready?"

Then the ex-whitecoat made a sudden movement, and the attacker with the knife fell away. Iggy and Jeb shot to their feet. The blind boy stumbled for a moment, confused and directionless with the cars blocking his way. Then Jeb put a hand firmly on Iggy's back and pushed him, hard.

Iggy fell through the gap between two of the cars and into the open. Ari's massive claws caught him before he could land on the ground.

Stark howled furiously. "Shoot them! Shoot!"

Shots rang out just as the police sirens pulled up short. Iggy felt a bullet graze his shoulder and dropped to the ground, covering his head. He reached for Jeb, knowing the ex-whitecoat didn't have the reflexes he did. His searching fingers found only air.

"Jeb?" he called. "Jeb?"

"Here!" Jeb shouted back, and Iggy almost smiled—until he realized that the answer wasn't close enough to be in the safe zone between Stark and the police. Which meant…


He scrambled to his feet, heedless of the danger posed by the bullets that had flown through the air mere seconds before. But Stark and the Erasers weren't firing anymore. Iggy could hear the engines turning, roaring back to life as the whitecoats prepared to flee the scene.

"Jeb!" he called. His feet carried him forward. They weren't going to take his father. Not Jeb. Not when he'd just gotten him back.

"Stay back, you little freak! All of you! Or Batchelder dies!" Stark's gleeful voice preceded the gunshot that followed by only a millisecond. The bullet barely skimmed the edge of Iggy's shoulder, but it was enough to push him back. A warning shot.

He didn't care. That monster wasn't going to take his dad. No way in hell was he going to just stand by and let this happen.

"Iggy, don't!" Jeb yelled.

The German police were shouting at them now. Iggy could feel the heat of their anger at the back of his neck like the stifling breath of an approaching beast. His feet were moving forward of their own accord, and he knew Stark had a gun to his father's head but he had to try, he had to do something.

Too late. The cars' doors slammed shut and the vehicles sped off down the street, engines screaming, carrying with them Stark and Jeb.


Something tore painfully in Iggy's chest. He heard the police shouting, probably ordering him to hold his hands toward the black sky, but he made no move to suggest he heard them. His hands remained at his sides, limp, empty as the stretch of space where his father had pushed him to safety and been caught in his stead.

As one, Fang, Nudge and Angel turned toward the speaker, their nerves already on high alert. He was a short, older man with a neatly trimmed beard and glowing brown eyes. White crept over the gray in his hair like encroaching winter, but something about the way he held himself, even as a couple policemen inspected the badge he presented them with, suggested he possessed a vitality much younger than his years.

"He reminds me of Santa," Angel whispered. Fang frowned; those old guys who called small children over to sit on their laps had always kind of creeped him out.

"It's alright, it's alright," the man was saying, waving the policemen away from him with an irritated air. "I know how to deal with teenagers! My grandkids are the same age."

"Just making sure, sir," a policeman said.

The old man huffed and adjusted his belt. "What am I, a first-time nanny? I raised three kids on my own, son, I know what I'm doing."

Nudge smiled and leaned in toward Fang. "I like him."

Fang only said, "Hmm," and watched the man approach.

"Sorry about that," said the old fellow. "These days, it seems the younger these policemen get, the more paranoid they are. My name is Benjamin Crace."

Fang took Crace's outstretched hand gingerly and let go as soon as possible. Crace didn't seem to notice; he appeared more preoccupied by the hulking wolf-mutants listening in on the conversation.

"Ah…if it's alright, why don't we head on over there?" His eyes were still glued on the Erasers as he pointed vaguely with one hand in a random direction. Dag sneered, making the old man jump.

"Yes, uh…over here, kids." Crace beckoned with one hand and led the way to the other side of the main lobby. Quickly, Fang bent down to Angel's level and asked her how the old man read.

"He's fine," Angel said after a second. "He's afraid of the Erasers and a little nervous about talking to us, but I don't get anything bad from him."

Fang relaxed. Barely.

"Here we are," Crace said, sitting himself comfortably in a chair. Fang, Nudge and Angel remained standing, eyeing the man before them with a mixture of uncertainty and amusement.

Crace slapped his hands together and rubbed. "It's cold out there," he said in explanation, nodding through the sliding glass doors to the dreary sky outside. "So first things first. How are the police treating you? Well? Good. And the hospital staff? Giving you enough food, medical attention? Very good."

Fang watched the man lean back in his chair and lace his fingers together. Nothing about him exuded malevolence on any level. And Angel had said that he was clear, mentally. Still, he'd seen the man flash a badge, and nothing good came of authority, in his experience.

"Are you with the police?" Angel asked, pointing to the very badge Fang had been thinking about. Crace looked down at the gold metal with surprise, as if he'd forgotten it was pinned to his jacket.

"Oh, no," he said hurriedly. "I'm with the government. Yes, I know those looks on your faces, that's probably not very reassuring. But my directors saw your broadcast earlier today, and they sent me over."

The old man leaned his elbows on his knees. "Now, we can't figure out what you meant by that message you sent out to…Jeb, was it? Jeb Batchelder, right? His was one of the names turned in by our anonymous source and we linked him to the School. Don't worry, we're not after him or anything. In fact, we've sent someone to find him and do for him that we're going to do for you."

"Which is?" Fang prompted suspiciously. Crace only smiled.

"The government has called together a meeting on what to do about the Schools. We've tracked down their Headquarters to a tiny town called Lendeheim, in Germany, and we're planning to send some people over there in a couple of days to negotiate. We in the government would be honored if you would join us there to provide testimony. Just to make sure nothing like this ever goes unpunished ever again."

The old man's expression grew solemn. "I have grandchildren your age and a little younger. It's already hard enough to see one of them get hurt in a soccer game or a biking accident, but to have them experimented on…I can't imagine the suffering you and the others must have gone through. Thousands of people are rallying up along the country in your defense. We want to help you—we can put a stop to this. All you have to do is say yes."

Fang, Nudge and Angel looked at one another. Hope was dangling right in front of them. Finally, all their efforts had paid off; the world had noticed them, and it was eager to help.

"What, exactly," Fang asked slowly, "are we saying yes to?"

Crace beamed. "I'm glad you asked," he said, and went on to explain that the government was only interested in transporting the mutants from Canada to the airport nearest to Lendeheim, Germany. Fang and his fellows would be left alone for the most part, though the media would no doubt want a piece of his testimony for their broadcasts. The idea made Fang cringe—he was no celebrity and he didn't want to pretend to be one—but it was a small price to pay for what the government was offering.

"I'll have to think it over," he said finally. "I don't know how many people would be coming with me, but…how soon could you get the tickets, if I had an answer for you tomorrow?"

Crace smiled brilliantly and spread his hands. "This is a matter of utmost importance. I could have the tickets for you that very day."

"Good. I'll get back to you tomorrow," Fang said, and left without waiting for the man to reply.

Angel and Nudge followed him as he made his way back to the Erasers. Tugging on his sleeve to make him stop, Nudge asked, "Fang? What now?"

"We have to make a plan," he replied, looking forward. "Headquarters is supposed to be a fortress. It's going to be hard getting in."

"What are we after, anyway?" Nudge asked. She wrinkled her nose in confusion. "I thought this was all about, like, getting the cure for Ari and stuff. Doesn't he…uh, you know, in two days?"

"That's why we're getting over there as soon as possible. Even if it's only us and Dom's group, and the Erasers, we have to try. Stark has to know something about it." Fang paused and eyed the Erasers thoughtfully. "And…we're gonna try and break more of the kids out of there. The government isn't moving fast enough. We have to do this ourselves."

Something told him this was all going to end in disaster, but that was probably just the pessimist in him raising its eerie-eyed gaze again. He brushed the foreboding away without a second glance. Right now, they had business to attend to with the wolf-mutants glaring suspiciously at them from a short distance away.

"Dag," Fang called as he drew near, "I need a layout of Headquarters' structure."

Dag grinned eagerly. "Just let me get some paper and a pencil, and we'll work it out right here. Boys, keep the squeakers company."

By the time Dag got back with several sheets of paper and a thick pen, of course, both groups of mutants were eyeing each other with a considerable amount of dislike. Just because they were working together, their alliance didn't mean they had to get along more than they had to. Vaguely, Fang was reminded of the uneasy truce between his flock and Jeb's group. He hoped that they were having more success at evading trouble than he was.

"Here," Dag said, spreading the paper on the floor and making a rough sketch of what looked like a castle straight out of Lord of the Rings. The police glanced over curiously, a couple of the braver ones sidling closer to the hulking wolf-mutants. A few meaningful growls convinced them to mind their own business.

"A castle?" Angel asked, chewing thoughtfully on a strand of her yellow hair as she considered Dag's unskilled drawing.

"Sure is," Dag sneered. "What's it look like, sugar princess, a fun house? It's a fortress right on the edge of a tiny scrap of a town named Lendeheim. About an hour or two, driving, from the city area."

"If it's so close," Nudge asked curiously, "why hasn't anyone found it yet?"

"Well, who's to say no one did? Sure, people found the place. We caught stragglers every couple of months or so, idiots who were too stupid to mind the rumors. I just didn't say anyone left."

Seeing the way the young girls' eyes widened considerably, Fang said sharply, "Alright, we get the picture. What's the quickest way into the castle?"

Dag shrugged and gestured to the clumsily-sketched castle. The fortress must have had at least five spires, rounded off by turrets. A massive courtyard sprouted from the castle's farthest side, and the entire compounded was sealed off by a towering stone wall and a moat. Fang blinked. Really? Were these guys full of themselves or what?

"I'd say the gates are the quickest way through, but that's not really an option," Dag said. "Here's the prison yard—it's where they have selections every now and then and pick off the ones who're too weak to keep up. Aside from the front gates, it's the most heavily guarded place on the entire castle, so if you're planning to fly in, steer clear; they've topped the whole thing with an electric grid. Snipers are stationed in the watchtowers, here, and here, and on this side they have a barracks for the Erasers, so you might wanna keep away from that, too."

A stunned pause filled the air with silence. "Great," Fang said hoarsely. "Is that all?"

Dag raised a thick eyebrow. "Too tough for you, squeaker?"

Fang's expression hardened. "No," he said sternly. "I'm just worried that you might not be able to keep up, that's all."

Angel and Nudge giggled behind their hands. Dag's lip curled dangerously, but thankfully, he remembered himself and turned back to the drawing. "Alright, kid, I'll give you that one. Now, look. If there's one thing we have to worry about, it's the electric grid over the prison yard. I'm guessing you want to fly in. If ya are, we're gonna have to take that out first."

He leaned back on his heels and tapped his pencil in thought. "My team will go through the sewers."

Though they were too aware of their reputations to protest, the Erasers exchanged open looks of discomfort. Fang frowned. "Won't they be expecting that? It seems like the obvious route if someone's trying to sneak in."

"Yeah, but they don't know you're trying to infiltrate, do they? See, I think you underestimate just how stupid they think we are. They're expecting us to make a full-on assault. So we'll send some people to the front, to distract them. Meanwhile, my team and I will be in the sewers—and believe me, they're not gonna look there. It's not just anyone's sewers; it's Itex's sewers. Know how many bodily fluids they've got running down there? Not to mention the missing body parts and the chemicals."

"Point taken," Fang countered.

Dag scoffed and continued, pointing to separate points on the sketch with hard, angry jabs of his fingers. "We'll exit here, near the barracks. With all the commotion out front, no one's going to be there. We'll slip through, disengage the electrical grid, and open the gates for the squeakers up front. Then we storm the place, and your little freak here can mind-manipulate everyone into anarchy as much as she likes. We're in, we take the whitecoats out, we're gone. Nice and simple."

Fang met the Eraser's dark eye. "You sound like you've given this a lot of thought," he said slowly.

Dag grinned. His smile was wide, mirthless, and challenging all at once. "You know what's it like to be stuck in this hellhole. You know what it's like to dream of escape, even when you know you're never getting out. 'Course I've given this some thought. It's how I survived."

Fang nodded solemnly. "And if something goes wrong?" he asked.

Dag's grin widened. "Come on, squeaker. If there's something we Erasers know your flock for, it's your damn slipperiness. Something goes wrong? Improvise. It's the one thing the whitecoats can't do to save their lives, so it's the one thing that'll save yours."

Without another word, the Eraser rose to his feet and cracked his neck with a grimace. "Well. We're off to get some sleep before we blow this place. Come get us when you're ready to leave, squeaker." Dag paused and scratched his chin. "Hey, that reminds me…how are we gettin' to Germany in the first place?"

Fang clenched his jaw and met Angel's and Nudge's gazes. "We're getting plane tickets from the government," he said eventually. He almost winced as the words left his mouth; accepting help from a stranger, especially a stranger he still wasn't sure he could trust, went against everything Jeb had taught them about survival. But what else were they supposed to do? It wasn't like he could ask Angel to control the minds of an entire airplane crew. She could probably do it, but he didn't want to think about the strain it would put on her developing brain.

No. They would take the tickets soon and mistrust Crace later.

But for now, they had to sleep.

The three children wandered back to the waiting room where they'd left Dom and the others. Already, nurses had brought in extra pillows and blankets for the mutants who were now scattered across the floor, snoring blissfully in the first unguarded sleep they'd probably ever had.

Fang, Nudge and Angel located Dom, Spider and Greta and curled up near them. Nudge fell asleep quickly; her soft, exhausted snores weren't hard to pick out right next to his head. Fang lay staring at the ceiling for a long time, sleepless. He'd thought Angel had gone to sleep too, until she touched his arm with a cold, tiny hand and stared at him with concerned baby-blue eyes.

"Are you okay, Fang?" she whispered. "Are you worried?"

"I'm fine, Ange." Fang patted his sister's little hand and gave her a small smile. "I'm just thinking."

"What about? No, never mind, I know."

Fang raised an eyebrow at her boldness. "You read my mind?"

Angel blinked. "No. But if I were you, I'd be worrying about how I'm going to convince the mutants to join me tomorrow. I'd be worried about Max, far away, and how to keep the Erasers in line long enough for them to infiltrate Headquarters, and I'd worry about Jeb and Iggy back in America, and I'd worry about finding a cure for Ari's expiration date. But most of all, I'd worry about just living long enough to get us all back home."

Fang stared at the little girl's face in the dark waiting room, and for a minute, he thought she really had read his thoughts. Then he realized that these were her worries too, and he wrapped an arm across her shoulders, letting her scoot closer.

"Yeah," he said quietly, and the word crawled out wearily into the lightless air of the hospital and beat at its head in anxiety. Fang turned his head away and closed his eyes.

His breathing had barely begun to smoothen out when Angel asked in a quiet voice, "Fang?"

Fang brought himself back out of the half-asleep, half-awake stupor he'd slipped into and met the small girl's eye. "What?"

"If you can't convince the others to join us, do you want me to 'suggest' it to them?"

Fang smirked in amusement and let out a quiet chuckle.

"Nah, Ange. I think we'll be fine. Now go to sleep."

"…Yeah, alright," she sighed. "It was just an offer."


Sleep came sudden and heavy, like a piano dropped off the edge of a building in one of those weird, old-fashioned cartoons people used to watch, and Fang found that he was being roused by from a deep, dreamless slumber by hands on his shoulders.

"Fang, come on," Nudge's voice called. "Everyone's starting to get up."

The dark boy lurched into a sitting position and blinked the sleep from his blurry eyes. All around him, mutants were waking themselves and stumbling about, energized and restless. Some of them already had their breakfast piled high on the hospitals' trays.

"Ooh, bagels," Nudge crooned after a mutant's tray as he walked past.

"Bagels? Never heard of 'em, but they sound tasty!" said a sarcastic, accented voice behind them. Spider flashed a broad, saber-toothed grin when the three younger mutants turned to find him, Dom and Greta standing wide awake and alert.

"Ready, big guy?" Spider asked Fang. When the shorter boy scowled, he raised his hands and said, "Well, what am I supposed to call you? You don't like chief, 'Fang' is rather boring if I do say so myself, and I've got this feeling you wouldn't appreciate 'sir,' either."

"Ignore him," Dom said with a roll of his eyes, and neatly dodged Spider's elbow as it made a pass at his ribs. "Seriously, Fang. You ready to make a speech?"

"I have to, don't I?" Fang asked flatly. Inwardly, he cringed; he really wasn't a talker even at the best of times, and today he felt the exhaustion deep in his bones, like a cancerous tumor spreading its fingers and taking every last bit of energy he had left in his battered form. How he was going to make a speech off the top of his head, he had no idea.

Unexpectedly, Angel stirred at his side and fixed her gaze on Greta, who stared back almost nervously. The winged girl said something too quiet for Fang to catch.

"What, Ange?"

"I said," Angel repeated, her eyes still focused solely on the bald girl with the antlers, "let Greta make the speech."

Save Angel and Greta herself, who simply stared open-mouthed at the tiny mutant before her, the other four mutants exchanged looks of confusion.

"Greta?" Dom rested a heavy hand on one of the girl's slight shoulders. She started and looked up at him from her short height, swallowing tightly.

"Okay," she whispered.

Uh, thought Fang. Alright, then.

They decided to let the other mutants finish eating breakfast and rounded up the Erasers before they called attention to themselves. Dom and Spider split up and strode down the halls of the different levels, shouting at the top of their deep voices, "After breakfast, everyone meet up on the first floor in the lobby. Unless of course you can't move or are being operated on, or something. In that case, stay right where you are and focus on not dying!"

It got people's attention. Before long, the whole "mutant horde," as the media had nicknamed it, gathered into the expansive lobby of the hospital's first floor. Fang had to squeeze past the mutants and police that had spilled into the hallway. There were more able-bodied mutants than he had thought there would be.

But then again, nothing was comparable to the desire for unity of people forced to look out for themselves their entire lives.

Leading to the upper levels of the hospital was a spiraling staircase. Nudge, Angel, Dom, Spider and Greta were already waiting for him at its foot, looking out over the mutants that had gathered to hear them speak. As he drew near and saw his friends' faces, Fang's stomach tightened; none of them met his gaze, staring instead at their feet or at his nose. Greta's flushed face was streaked with tears, and even Spider's eyes were abnormally bright.

"What's wrong?" Fang asked over the hum of the crowd.

Dom's strong jaw was clenched so tightly it made the muscles in his neck stand out almost painfully. His lips pulled back, trembling with anger as they bore the gleaming white of his saber teeth. "Livy's dead," he said curtly. "Sometime this morning. The fungus, it was…it was worse than they thought, it'd reached pretty far, and her brain, it just…"

Fang closed his eyes briefly. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. Dom looked away and glared at nothing, his fists trembling at his sides. Spider stared off into the distance, looking as if he were an entire continent away, back in a facility that may have been the place of his nightmares, but was still a place where Livy was alive.

Greta sniffled wetly, and just as Fang was about to step forward and offer to make the speech himself, she opened her eyes wide and gave the world the most fearsome scowl he'd ever seen.

God help whoever was stupid enough to mess with Livy.

"Everyone! Listen to me!"

The strong, authoritative voice that cut through the noise in the lobby didn't seem at first to come from the slight, skinny girl standing at the foot of the staircase, still clothed in the white uniform of the School's inmates. Then one took a closer look, and the look on Greta's tearstained face was unmistakable. She meant to win and wasn't afraid to break a few faces if it meant avenging her friend.

For a moment, Fang was reminded sharply of Max. He told himself the twinge in his chest when he thought of her was purely stress-related.

At the head of the crowd, Greta lifted her arms and cast her ringing voice across the room. "I've just learned that one of my only friends is dead, at the hands of the whitecoats. I know you all know what this feels like. I know you all hesitate in the beginning, when you're about to make friends, because you can't stand the thought of being hurt when they're taken away. Because they're always taken away!"

The girl's voice broke. Fang watched with the rest of the now-silent crowd as her bottom lip trembled. For a second, it almost seemed as if she would break down; then she squared her thin shoulders and continued, louder now.

"But it wasn't just her death that hurt. I thought we were safe here, away from the whitecoats, out of the School. I thought they couldn't hurt us anymore. I was wrong. Even when they're not here, they're still killing us! They'll never leave us alone. They'll grow stronger, and reach across the oceans and retire us all! And if you aren't dead…" She let out a mirthless chuckle, "Ha! You know you'll wish you were."

A ripple of grim agreement ran through the gathered. They knew. Fang knew, and Nudge, and Angel; he could see by the looks on their faces.

"But it doesn't have to be this way!" Greta continued. "This time, we can fight back! We can stop them from ever taking someone away from us again. See him?"

Fang found himself with the thin finger of a very angry girl in his face. "This is Fang, who broke us all out of the School," Greta said. "He and his two friends broke into Stark's School and set us all free. They're only three. If they can do it, why can't we? Why can't we make the whitecoats pay for everything they've done to us? Why can't we stand up for once? Fang and his friends are going to Germany today, to Itex Headquarters. They're going to break in and set everyone free, just like they did with us. But they can't do it alone. They need our help. They need your help!

"And if you stand back and watch, what then? Itex will win, and it'll grow stronger, and take all of us back in again. We can't let that happen. We have to stop this, now. I know your bodies are tired, and your bones are aching, but if we don't act, you'll never feel anything again!"

Greta paused to take a breath and threw her gaze over the gathered mutants. They were moving and muttering amongst themselves, restless, staring up at her with steel and fire in their gazes. Fang folded his arms in surprise.

It was working. It was actually working.

"Who's with me?" Greta murmured. Voices rippled through the room.

"I said, who's with me?"

Someone, Fang didn't see who, screamed in reply, "I am!"

Then again, someone else this time, "I am!"

"I am!"

"I'm with you!"

The words caught across the room like fire in the dry brush, leaping from mouth to mouth, jumping forth, hurling themselves into the air with all the force of a hundred vengeful mutants. Greta turned back to her friends with a stunned look on her face. The tears were dry on her cheeks, her eyes bright and determined. Dom and Spider stepped forward and rested their hands on her shoulders, smiling.

"We're with you, Greta."

"And with Livy," Greta breathed. "Livy, too."

"Livy, too," the fanged boys agreed.

"For Livy," Angel said. She squeezed Nudge's hand and looked up at Fang with a bright, wide smile.

"See?" she whispered. "I told you to let her make the speech."

Fang nodded. His gaze shifted over the crowd of cheering mutants until he found the stocky, older man he was looking for. Crace was standing by the door, clapping his heavy hands. He met Fang's gaze and raised his eyebrows meaningfully. Taking a deep breath, Fang inclined his head.

Crace's face split with a smile. "Good. Good," he shouted, and though his voice was completely drowned by the drumming and cheering of the mutants in the lobby, Fang knew exactly what he was saying.

Angel followed his gaze to Crace, and for a moment, something dark and fearful passed over her face. Fang turned to her in concern.

"What is it?"

Angel shook her head. "Don't worry about it," she said over the noise pounding through their skulls. Then she winked and gave him her most mischievous grin yet.

"I've got it covered."

Still, Fang couldn't help noticing that something with her still wasn't right, almost as if she were hiding something from him for his own sake. She shuddered and rubbed her hands over her arms.

"What's wrong?" he asked. "Angel?"

The little girl shook her head. "Nothing," she said shakily. "It's okay. Just a really bad feeling…"

She turned away quickly, to hide, but it did nothing to hide the way her shoulders caught and shivered. Fang's stomach turned cold. Nudge seemed to notice something was wrong, because she dropped to her knees next to Angel and turned the shaking girl around.

"Angel, what's wrong? You're crying!" she said in shock.

"I-I'm sorry," Angel gasped. Terror turned her eyes a livid, cutting shade of blue and sent tremors running through every inch of her small form. "Something's wrong," she hiccupped. "Oh, Fang—something's really, really wrong."

No sun. No air. Dirt and grime and God knew what else, sliding into the lines of his hands every time he tried to push himself up from the filthy floor, to lift his head and meet Stark's laughing gaze head-on.

"Why do you still try?" The man hissed. It sounded as if he were almost curious, as if he truly wanted to know what it was that made Jeb struggle to rise after every blow. He never replied, hadn't said a word since Stark had dragged him down here, in the dark, and locked him away from the sunlight. He kept his silence.

But it was getting harder. Harder to lift himself from the dungeon floor, harder to meet Stark's grin, harder to breathe. Harder to keep his eyes open.

"You're so interesting. I wish finding your motivation was as easy as prying open your skull and picking apart your brain. If only it was that simple!"

Jeb coughed. Something hot and red spattered against his fingers and dribbled down his chin.

"But this is much more fun, don't you think, Batchelder?" Stark stepped forward. His gleaming shoes entered Jeb's vision. "It's so much fun to finally get to play with you, when all this time you've been acting like the king on the chess board. Like the Director herself. Like you know everything. But that's my job."

Jeb's arms gave out beneath him. He lay on his stomach on the dungeon floor, his face turned toward Stark and the man's cold, gleaming smile. Stark tilted his head questioningly and raised his eyebrows.

"Such a curious specimen," he murmured. He paused. Silence in the darkness. Jeb closed his eyes.

"Tell me, Batchelder. I'm curious. Why do you still try?"

Noise. He was chuckling. No…no, Stark wasn't chuckling, he was—that was his own laugh, rising deep from the recesses of his bruised sides and spitting defiantly in Stark's surprised face. His children had learned from the best.

"If you don't know the answer to that now, you never will," Jeb said, and he was smiling, smiling for his children, somewhere, and yes it hurt but they were safe.

That was all that mattered.

A/N: End chapter twenty-nine.

Remember, killing the author will not result in anything good.

Review, yes?


30. We Were Enemies

Reviewers! flYegurl, pandorad24, AmyQueen95, Alactricity, Mariko Midori, penguincrazy, WinterSky101, Storm-Horse101, chulala, BeTrueToThyself, nathan-p and carpe-noche are great, great, great~! For this chapter, not much to say - it's shorter than usual, but I ended it where it felt the most complete. Next chapter will be much more action-packed than this; this is more a transition chapter, unfortunately. :/ Still, it took a lot of revising, so please leave a review at the end.

...Random note...saw "Thor" and had my brain melted by lack of believable plot...but omg Loki / Tom Hiddleston~

Disclaimer: MR isn't mine.

Chapter Thirty: We Were Enemies

The grip Max had on Iggy's left hand as the police van headed into the cold night felt like it was crushing his bones into a fine white powder that would disappear into the wind screaming outside the sealed windows. His wrist throbbed fiercely with the buildup of blood and he was fairly sure that if he could see, the tips of his fingers would be a faint shade of purple.

Staring grimly ahead, into emptiness, Iggy curled his aching hand around his leader's and bore the discomfort. It was the only thing keeping him from tearing apart the poor, unsuspecting policemen driving his flock into the unknown.

But he was so, so tired, so freaking sick of fighting.

Iggy quickly shook the thought away, giving a little shudder that stirred some of the blood back to his shrieking fingers. He couldn't afford to think like that. Yeah, he was tired of running for his life. Yeah, he'd gotten maybe—if he was lucky—an hour of sleep last night in a holding cell, sixty minutes of fitful tossing and turning interrupted by urgent hands on his shoulders and restless breath in the air and his name, muttered over and over, Iggy, come on Iggy, something's happening, we're leaving, they're letting us go

So his father was gone, captured by one of the cruelest, most unfeeling psychopaths Iggy had ever met, and Ari was set to expire any day now, and he and his flock were in police custody, being driven god-knew-where in the middle of the night.

So what? This was no time to give up. He'd been tempted, he would admit that much. But he wasn't about to break down again like some soft kid. He and the flock had faced worse before, hadn't they? They could handle this. Together.

If the policemen would give them a break and answer their questions, already.

"You still haven't told us where we're going," Max said from Iggy's side. Her voice cut through the silence, sharper and chillier than the night air outside the stuffy van.

One of the policemen responded, his voice thick with his German accent. "We already told you—we are taking you to friends."

"Yeah, yeah," Max snapped impatiently. "You told us already, otherwise we wouldn't even be here right now. We woulda broken free the minute you let us out of those cells, which we were only in because you had us at gunpoint. In fact… we can still break out right now. Unless someone, I don't know, wants to cooperate?"

Iggy braced his shoulders against the uneasy tension that packed itself into the crowded vehicle. Too crowded, too close. To soothe himself, he clutched the fingers of his free hand in the burlap backpack in his lap. At least the policemen had given this back to him, and in it, the Extermination trigger. It could be worse.

"How much longer?" he asked, not really expecting a straight answer.

"Nearly there," a second policeman answered. "Be patient, please."

A series of uncertain grumbles rippled through the group of fugitives. Iggy could sense the frustration rising in each of his friends; Max and Ari were wound tight, like two springs about to snap loose and unleash havoc on anyone they considered a threat, while Jacob and Gazzy were quieter, more passive aggressive, but frustrated nonetheless.

The only reason they hadn't already burst free of the van was because of a tiny bit of information the police had let slip. They had given the flock a description of one of the "friends" they were being taken to see. The description had matched Fang perfectly. And though the flock was more than doubtful about getting into a tight space with people who had shut them behind bars for a day, they had no other alternative. Any semblance of help, even false, was more than welcome.

The van began to decelerate. Iggy sat forward, his senses straining as he absorbed the sounds outside the vehicle. Wherever they were, it was busy; his ears were practically thrumming with the amount of chatter around them.

Gazzy, sitting next to him, leaned close and whispered. "We're way out from the city—maybe close to Lendeheim? It's some sort of military camp or something. There's a bunch of police and guys in suits. And…"

Iggy frowned. "What?"

"Mutants. Kids," Gazzy breathed in confusion. "Lots of them."

The doors to the van clicked open. Cold air rushed through, stinging Iggy's eyes as he let Max lead him out into the open. The police gave a curt command to stay close and led the way through the camp.

Iggy's hair stood on end as he became suddenly, brutally aware of hushed whispers cropping up in their footsteps. He was about to ask what all the attention was for when his flock came to an abrupt stop.

"What?" he asked, impatiently, before his ears were assaulted by the sound of small feet rushing over dirt and hard-packed earth. A moment later Iggy found himself tumbling backward, his arms full of two small, squealing bundles.

"Guys, guys!" the two strangers cried in very familiar, much-missed voices. "You made it!"

Angel, Nudge. Iggy's face felt like it was about to split wide open, his grin was so big. The flock surrounded the two girls like a blanket, enfolding them, their faces straining with relieved laughter. Iggy was so glad to have two of his family's missing members back that he nearly forgot about the third, until Fang decided to clear his throat.

The blind boy peeled himself away from his friends. Fang was always nearly too quiet to locate, but this time Iggy pinpointed him without a hint of trouble.

"Hey," Fang said. Something like an apology hovered beneath the surface of his voice, unspoken. Iggy tensed. His fingers curled and uncurled uncertainly.

Finally, he sucked in a shaky breath and forced himself to smile. "Hey," he muttered.

"Iggy, you—" Fang paused. "All of you. I had to do it. I thought for sure Stark would have something on Ari's expiration date, but to get it I had to break into the School. I wanted to keep you guys safe. You couldn't follow me, Iggy, I wouldn't drag you back, not after—what they put you through."

"Yeah, I know. We know," Iggy said. "But couldn't you have just written a note?"

He was almost sure Fang was smirking by now. "Would that have stopped you from coming after me?"

"No," Iggy answered slowly, "probably not. But still. It doesn't make me want to do this any less."

Then he pulled back, and punched Fang square in the face.

Compared to what Iggy was capable of handing out, it wasn't much of a hit, but the blind boy caught the whoosh of breath Fang released as he staggered back. There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Fang cracked his jaw and said, "I guess I deserved that."

"Yeah, really," Iggy replied. Then he stepped forward and wrapped an arm around his brother, grinning.

From behind him, he heard Max scoff and shake her head. "I'm never gonna understand those two."

They weren't allowed to catch up for long, but during that time Fang, Nudge and Angel brought Iggy and the others up to speed. Each side told their story and listened carefully, pulling the pieces together until they reached the inevitable.

"We thought we were in trouble when we got on the airplane to get here, but Angel took good care of Crace," Nudge was saying, her voice bright with triumph.

"I 'convinced' him and his men onto a different flight. They should be circling Peru around now," Angel said, but she sounded distracted, not proud. "I had a feeling he was bad. And… I felt something else, too. Something about Jeb."

Iggy clenched his hands. His fingernails dug painfully into his palms, but he stared straight ahead and forced himself to speak the words. "There was one other thing. When Stark cornered us in the city, Jeb and I were separated from the rest of the flock. We ran and I escaped, but Jeb—he—"

Max's fingers wound through his again, comforting and warm. "He's been taken," she said.

Everyone went quiet. Iggy could feel the horror radiating off his friends; it was as if he had been submerged in ice water filled with glass shards, every breath grating against the soft insides of his lungs.

"What?" Nudge's young voice was tinted with hysteria. "But—how? I mean—he can't have, he just…"

Fang asked, his tone unsmiling and dark, "How long?"

Max squeezed Iggy's hand. "A day. Twenty-four hours with that psycho."

"But we're getting him back," Ari added fiercely, startling them all. "We're gonna get my Dad back and he's gonna be okay, right?"

There was a moment of uncertain silence. Then Max, whom Iggy knew had doubted Jeb's true loyalty all along, said: "If it kills us."

Ari was fairly certain he was going to be dragged off into a dark corner and eaten by vengeful mutants as soon as his friends' backs were turned; he had antagonized more than several of Stark's test subjects during his time at the School and taken a gleeful pleasure in their torment, a fact he was now ashamed of. He lowered his eyes each time one of them sent a hateful glare his way.

If only he hadn't been so mean to them! He wished he could take it all back, everything: the bullying, the terrorizing, all those times his fists had taken out his anger on unsuspecting mutants. He wished he'd never hunted Max and the flock, had never hated Iggy or worse, his own father. But most of all, he wished he could just do everything over again. He would be much nicer this time around, and then everyone would stop looking at him like that, with hatred and fear in their round eyes, as if he was the devil walking amongst them.

Maybe Ari deserved his expiration date. Maybe it was justice, that strange, unreachable word his father used sometimes on quiet nights when the shadows beneath his eyes were at their darkest. Ari had never killed anyone, but more than once he'd made someone wish they were dead. Wasn't that worse than killing?

He was going to die soon. Very, very soon—he could feel it in his bones, his muscles, each stuttering jump of the stupid heart in his chest. Ever since he stepped out of the car, into the military camp full of frowning men and mutants who stared at him with reddened eyes, he felt impossibly calm. Too calm, as if everything inside of him had suddenly gone silent. As if everything had just stopped working. If not for the steady, relentless beating inside his chest, he would have thought he was dead already.

Soon, Ari thought, and the word burned behind his eyes.

He and his friends had been escorted into a large tent full of men in suits and a tense group of Erasers. Ari recognized several of them from Stark's School and pointedly ignored the leering looks they sent his way. In the corner, Iggy sat on a folding chair and tampered with something, his eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Jacob and the rest of the flock stood around a table in the center of the tent, reviewing some sort of tactical plan, but Ari had no interest in them. He pushed past the men around him and crouched by Iggy's side.

"Hey," Iggy said, without looking up from his fiddling fingers.

"How'd you know it was me?" Ari asked, though he wasn't really surprised.

Iggy shrugged. "Dunno. I just know. Here, look—" He shifted and held up his hands. Cupped in his palms was the Extermination trigger, its insides overflowing in a vicious tangle of colored wires. "Got it back from the police," Iggy grinned. "I almost have it fixed, Ari. If I can just figure out the right configuration, we can save—what's wrong?"

Ari leaned back. His insides shook. He felt empty and cold, all over, as if someone had taken a straw and sucked out everything warm within him. The mere mention of his expiration date made him want to take off, away from all of this, somewhere safe where no one would bother him.

"Nothing's wrong," he said. "I... was just wondering if your arm was okay."

"Oh," said Iggy. The police had sent in a medical unit when the flock members were locked securely in their cells, to take a look at Iggy's shoulder. The bullet had left only a scratch, barely deep enough to worry anyone, but Ari had a feeling Stark hadn't been shooting to kill. Where would be the fun in that? he thought bitterly. He wants us to come to him.

"It's fine." Iggy rolled his bandaged shoulder and winced slightly. "The scratch should heal up by the end of today."

"That's good." Ari shifted uncomfortably. "I think I'm gonna go outside for a little bit."

"Oh. Okay." Iggy furrowed his forehead, looking more than a little concerned. "But tell us if you feel weak, or anything like that. I don't know what the expiration date feels like when it's coming on, but it's best to be careful."

Ari nodded silently and pushed back through the crowded tent. His eyes were on his feet, and Fang as so quiet and still that Ari did not notice him until they'd bumped shoulders.

"Oh," he said, glancing quickly at Fang's dark eyes and then away. "Sorry."

Fang did