All I Really Want by Skye Maxwell

Category:Maximum Ride
Genre:Family, Friendship
Published:2008-12-26 12:12:29
Updated:2009-06-28 17:37:45
Packaged:2021-04-04 14:49:30
Summary:Just because it's the holiday season doesn't mean the flock can just push pause & stop running. Even if they can't have a normal Christmas, Max is determined to make the kids happy, which leads to one huge question: What do they really want for Christmas?

Table of Contents

1. Whayoowoffakriffmuff?
2. What I Want, What I Need
3. Fun and Functional
4. Electrically Ecstatic
5. The Joys of Gift Giving
6. Don't Be a Hippo Crit
7. Everyone Needs to Be Saved
8. Tonight's the Night
9. Bonus Chapter: Giggle Fits

1. Whayoowoffakriffmuff?

"So I'm thinking about heading into the city tomorrow night during your watch to get some stuff for the kids. Just a few little gifts, that's all. It won't be much, but hey, it's better than nothing," Max said, lifting her gaze to the sky.

Fang shifted his legs in front of him, thinking about her plan.

When he didn't speak, she went on, "Then I can surprise them in the morning when they wake up. It's not much of a Christmas, but I think they'll like it. Maybe I'll even pick up a cheap pot and plastic cups and some of those little chocolate powder packet thingies, and- and we can… boil some water…"

Max stopped speaking and put her head in her hands. How can I ever give them anything that measures up to a real Christmas?

Max wasn't one to get all excited about something like Christmas, especially since they had never had an actual Christmas and didn't know the meaning of it, but the kids had been hinting that it would be nice to do something, anything, for the holiday. And Max wasn't one to let an opportunity to make them all momentarily happy just go to waste. They were still little kids, and they deserved to have some sort of Christmas.

Fang looked sideways, seeing that Max's hair was concealing her face. She pulled her knees close to her and buried her head in them. She groaned and massaged her temples while she took longer and deeper breaths. He could tell that she was stressing herself out again over things that she couldn't control.

"Whayoowoffakriffmuff?" she said, her voice muffled by her knees.

"What?" Fang asked quietly.

She lifted her head up and angled her body so she could see him better. She repeated, "What do you want for Christmas?"

Fang quickly came up with several witty replies and was wondering which to brighten Max's world with when a small roar made Max's head swivel.

"It's just the Gasman," Fang reassured.

"Since when was the Gasman a dinosaur?" Max implored.

"It's called snoring, Max," Fang said, with a small eye roll that was wasted on Max, whose head was still turned away, looking at Gazzy and the rest of the flock.

"Sheesh, maybe I should get him some anti-snore nasal spray for Christmas," Max said with half-hearted humor.

Fang didn't know what to say to that either; whether to go along with the joke or confront the problem behind the joke.

"So what do you want for Christmas?" she asked for the third time.

"What?" he said, silencing his own thoughts and tuning back into Max.

"Geez, Fang, are you deaf tonight?" she said with concern in her voice.

He was about to say no when she turned to him and he saw that her eyebrows were raised and that there was the slightest hint of a smile on her face. He might have smiled back if he didn't know that she would insist on asking again…

"But seriously, what do you want me to pick up for you at the store? If you don't tell me what you want, I'll be forced to get you one of those red, old-lady Christmas sweaters; one with a big reindeer on the front that has a red nose and lights up whenever you move," Max said, with a stern look on her face.

"How'd you know?" Fang said with mock excitement.

Max hit him in the arm, and of course, they were both inevitably inclined to imagine Fang in the aforementioned sweater. Fang grimaced, and Max held the impossible image in her mind until it sent a shudder down her spine. Creepy.

"You cold?" Fang teased, "Maybe you need that sweater."

"In your dreams," Max replied with a smile as she swiped a few unruly strands of hair out of her eyes.

He shook his head, and she hit him in the arm again.

"But seriously, Fang-"

What do I really want for Christmas? "Nothing that you can get from a store," he muttered.

"What did you say?" Max asked, not understanding the quiet clump of words.

"Nothing," Fang told her, looking away.

Max groaned. "Fine, be that way. But when I get you that sweater, you have to wear it."

"Right…" Like that would ever happen.

"Go to sleep, Fang. I'll wake you up when it's your watch. Okay?"

"Are you giving me permission now?" he said sarcastically.

"Yes, I am," she stated confidently, "Now go before I change my mind."

"Yes, Queen Max," he said, standing up and giving a small bow. "Whatever you say, Queen Max."

He turned to walk away as she swallowed the urge to reply with, 'You better believe it.'

Instead, she called out in a hushed voice, "Don't make me hurt you on the day before Christmas Eve!"

He called back over his shoulder, "I wouldn't dream of it, Queen Max."

This is not the typical Christmas fic you see on the Max Ride archive, but I hope that's not a bad thing. This fic is inspired by "Better Days" by the lovely Buffalo-based Goo Goo Dolls. Happy Holidays, and I hope you like this.

-Skye Maxwell

2. What I Want, What I Need

Hello. :)
Thanks so much for all of the lovely reviews. To all the anonymous reviewers, I wish I could reply to you. Just know that I would if I could.
Here's the second chapter of "All I Really Want."

The Gasman sported the red sweater with pride. He began to do a small victory dance, and the reindeer's red nose went crazy, blinking on and off every half of a second.

He paused in his dance to inform me of something that he seemed to think was very important.

"Don't worry, Fang. There's a matching sweater just for you!"

I put on a threatening look. "Gasman, I swear, if you even try and touch me with the tip of the sleeve of that sweater-"

I felt a gentle hand shaking my shoulder, trying to wake me up.

I opened my eyes to an exhausted-looking Max standing above me. I looked in her eyes, which were positively sunken.

"Hm? Oh, hey Max," I mumbled.

"Your watch," she said.

I stood and brushed the dirt off my pants as she walked past me toward the rest of the flock.

"Max- wait," I whispered urgently.

She turned around quickly, alarmed by the urgency in my voice.

"Whayoowoffakriffmuff?" I said in an exaggerated tone, wanting to see the face she made.

But she didn't make an immature five-year-old face like I expected. She just said, "Nothing, Fang," and turned away.


Knowing her, she probably just spent her whole watch over-thinking everything and blaming herself for all the problems we were facing.

I hate it when she thinks.

Honestly. She's great at fighting, and fighting requires snap decisions and reactions. If only she worked like that when she wasn't smashing a flying robot's face in.

Dude, she would punch me in the face if she knew that I just thought that.

I sat down where she had been, because it had a good view of the surrounding area.

I considered the question again.

What do I really want?

What I wanted couldn't be shoved into an old box and covered in cheap gift wrap. Sure, we couldn't have a "normal" Christmas with a roaring fireplace and a collapsible plastic Christmas tree with glittering packages littering the floor beneath it, but I didn't need that.

What I needed was something more than that.

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days

'Cause I don't need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days

So take these words and sing out loud

'Cause everyone is forgiven now

'Cause tonight's the night the world begins again

I needed our lives to be better. Don't get me wrong, being experimented on since before I could speak made for a lot of cherished childhood memories, and running for my life is loads of fun.

Not really.

I wanted something more for all of us. I wanted the kids to wake up in comfortable beds and be able to go downstairs in a warm house to a kitchen full of edible food that isn't stolen or taken from a dumpster. I want them to be able to play goofy little kid games, instead of playing the sadistic cat-and-mouse games of the School and Itex and whoever else wants us dead. They're just kids! Those things should be a right of passage, not unreachable fantasies.

I want Max to be able to smile at them, no, really smile at them, and I want her biggest problem to be something like Nudge eating sugar cookies for breakfast or Iggy and the Gasman building bombs or… me.

You know, instead of her current biggest problems: a crack-headed voice invading her brain, flyboys trying to kill her and her family, an evil scientist for a father, having to save the world, me…

Okay, so I'm just a problem in any circumstance.

I wanted the world to just shut up, maybe save itself and leave us alone. I wanted it to give us at least one day off, where we didn't have to worry about where our next meal was coming from or who wanted to wipe us off the face of the planet. If the millions of people on this earth would just wake up and see the threat that is right in front of their faces, the world's fate wouldn't be resting on our shoulders. But they're blind. And not like Iggy, who can still function perfectly well. I wanted an end to the madness; a moment of peace in the noise.

But what I wanted most- I wanted something only she could give me: her trust. I lost it when I left her, and now I didn't know if it would ever be fully restored. I'll admit that over the past few months, things had come closer to being normal, but only on the surface. Underneath that, there was still that mistrust and anger and doubt. I knew it, even though I didn't want to know it; I could feel it.

I needed her forgiveness. I needed what we had before I left and ruined everything.

I need some place simple where we could live

And something only you can give

And that's faith and trust and peace while we're alive

And the one poor child who saved this world

And there's ten million more who probably could

If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them

So take these words and sing out loud

'Cause everyone is forgiven now

'Cause tonight's the night the world begins again

I needed her trust.

Maybe we wouldn't live to see Christmas. Who knows? Expiration dates could show up, flyboys could pop in for a visit… Could I look death in the face knowing that she didn't forgive me?

What I really needed was for the world to stop spinning for just a little while. I needed the dictators to tell their men to cease fire, I needed the murderers to develop consciences, I needed all the branches of Itex to have an office Christmas party…

No, I didn't need the world to stop spinning; I needed it to reverse its rotation. If I could change the past, I never would have left her. I never would have forfeited the trust that had so religiously belonged to me. I didn't deserve forgiveness, but God, did I want it.

I wish everyone was loved tonight

And somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days

So take these words and sing out loud

'Cause everyone is forgiven now

'Cause tonight's the night the world begins again

'Cause tonight's the night the world begins again

Maybe the world could be forgiven, but- was I part of the world?

No, I was Fang. Just Fang, off and alone by myself.

What did I want for Christmas?

What did I need?

I needed-

I needed…

Ugh, never mind.

And the story continues...
Gotta love Fang. Poor kid.
Anyways, please review, I love questions, comments, and suggestions. Feel free to send constructive criticism, too.


3. Fun and Functional

The main theme for this chapter is humor and/or sarcasm. I love writing in Max's POV. ;)

"I swear, Fang, this is your last chance," I said clearly, looking him straight in the eyes.

"Nothing, Max, okay? Nothing," he repeated quietly.


"Yes, I'm sure, Max."

"Fine, but don't complain to me when you don't like whatever random thing I get you," I told him. I had just woken him up, and I stood, ready to leave.

The boy couldn't just make my life easy and tell me what he wanted? It's not like I was going to get him a freaking sports car or a tennis bracelet with his birthstone in it, sheesh. He could ask for a stinking package of hot dogs, and I would be happy. But no, he has to be stubborn.

Let me tell you right now, I'm not going to look for that red sweater, but if fate just happens to bring it across my path, you better believe I'm going to get it and have the entire flock help me shove him in it, if necessary.

Man, I sure am in the Christmas spirit!

I threw my pack over my shoulders and adjusted my windbreaker as I looked over the flock one last time before my departure. Nudge and the Gasman were sprawled out comfortably on the ground, and Iggy was nearby, with his head resting against a tree. Angel was nuzzled against Fang's side for warmth, and Total was resting in her arms, next to Celeste. Angel squirmed a little as she slept, and I gave a small smile as Fang glanced at the top of her head.

He looked back up at me and said, "Be careful."

"When have I ever not been careful?" I said in a mock-sweet voice.

He didn't seem to find it funny. I think our timing was off or something. We hardly ever seemed to be in joking moods at the same time lately. How unfortunate… so much good sarcasm gone to waste.

He continued to give me a serious look, and I made a point of sighing loudly. Angel squirmed again at the noise, and I quickly shut my mouth.

The look on his face was starting to bother me, so I whispered, "I'll be careful."

He seemed content with that, so with a final parting nod, I unfurled my wings powerfully and took off into the Christmas Eve night sky. I could feel him watching me for a while, until I was out of his vision's range.

He always watched over me; he was always ready for another brain attack or for me to do something life-threatening and stupid. It annoys me sometimes, but if I'm being painfully honest with myself, I can't really blame him.


As I flew northwards, everything (on the ground, at least) became steadily more suburban. Roads, streetlights, and ant-sized cars appeared. Uniform houses in rows materialized, looking picturesque with their colorful lights and blow-up snowmen in the front yards.

They're just normal little houses in a normal little city with nothing too special about it, right? Then why does seeing them make me feel like I wanna throw up? Because- that's where we would all be if we didn't have, you know… wings. Not there, exactly, but in places just like the scene below me, scattered across the country.

Angel and Gazzy would be bunking together in a normal house, playing in the backyard with a dog that didn't speak. Not in English, anyway. Nudge would be in a beautiful two-story house with a two-car garage and a big swimming pool in the back. She would have a big brother who looked just like her and would be best friends with him, and a baby sister to play with. Iggy would be going to a normal high school, and he would have bobble-headed girls throwing themselves at him. He would be able to see their pretty, empty heads, and he would never feel the urge to blow up the school's football stadium.

Fang is the hardest to imagine in a normal home. He'd probably be a total pain in his parents' butts, and he would rebel and join a motorcycle gang. Definitely.

Don't look at me like that, I'm just kidding. He'd probably be a darling little angel for his parents, and he would have a brush cut and wear sweater vests that matched his socks.

Okay, I don't know which one of those would be worse.

As I continued to fly, I gave a small laugh, but that didn't make the puke-ish feeling in the pit of my stomach go away.

some place simple where we could live…

What would normal kids be doing now? They would be tucked into their sheets, dreaming of what Santa Claus would bring them in the morning, blissfully unaware of the crumbling world around them. Not caring about global warming, not knowing that their lives were in danger because of evil scientists and the By-Half Plan. Unable to fight for their lives or make elaborate escape plans or fly…

I didn't want that for my flock, did I?

Sadly, yes I did. Emphasis on 'sadly.'

I landed softly on the roof of a random store, musing over the images I had created of the flock and their normal lives. I wanted them to be safe (well, safer) and happy.

Just a chance…

I just loved them all so much…

that maybe…

Sorry, sorry, didn't mean to get all mushy.

we'll find better days…

It's Christmas, gimme a break.

I quickly jumped off the roof and descended to the ground. I checked the premises, and when I was sure it was all clear, I proceeded to search for the store's back exit. It was late, so of course it was closed, and I was going to sneak in.

What? I was breaking in and stealing for good reasons; I don't think they could get too mad at me for that.

The lock on the back door was surprisingly easy to pick; I'm sure Iggy could do it with his hands tied behind his back. I shut the door quickly behind me, shutting out the cool, intoxicating night air. I listened and scanned for any threats, trying not to feel claustrophobic after shutting myself in the store. Even though the store was big and no one was around, I couldn't just drop my paranoia. The moment I stopped being paranoid, I would be gagged and in a sack, being dragged back to the School. So the paranoia is here to stay, my friends.

The store was quiet and dimly lit with the fluorescent after-hours lights. I checked for security cameras and spotted a couple, but one was hanging from the wall and obviously not functioning. I slid along the back wall until I was under the other camera, but it was off. I peeled myself off the wall, thankful for the store's bad security.

Looking up, I noticed I was in the toy department. Angel was going to be easy to get something for. I picked an aisle and walked down it, peering up and down the shelves. Within a minute, I was sick of the toy department. So many preppy freaking Barbie dolls, all perfect and smiling stupidly. Ugh, what are they teaching kids these days?

Fighting off another headache, I turned onto the next aisle and spotted Angel's gift immediately. It was a little white dress, just the right size for Angel's grimy angel bear, Celeste. What Celeste really needed was a good run through a washing machine, but at least her dress would be clean now. Easy enough, right?

I found Nudge's gift next; it was a little necklace with a crescent moon pendant. On the tip of the crescent sat two little stars whose tips were touching, so that it looked like they were holding hands. The chain was long so that it wouldn't choke her in her sleep, and it looked like it would break if a flyboy or something tried to strangle her with it. Yup, that's me, always thinking.

On my way to find gifts for the guys, I passed the pet aisle, and I was oh-so-tempted to get a box of dog treats for Total. Or a muzzle. He would hate me for that. Be nice to the mutt, Max, it's Christmas. After telling myself that several times, I left the pet aisle behind me.

Then I heard music, and I thought I was finally losing it. As I walked, it got louder, and I realized that one of the radios in the electronics department had been left on. A Christmas song was playing. It was an instrumental; there were no voices and no words. It sounded like a song that would play on a cartoon when a cat was chasing a mouse, with sleigh bells added in. It was upbeat and happy, but as I continued to move forward through the lonely store, the music that was supposed to be happy developed a mysterious and sad undertone that made my heart hurt. A song that was supposed to be merry and pleasant seemed dark and unyielding to me, stabbing at my insides. What was going on with me? It was just a song.

Before it could plague me any longer, I walked swiftly to the radio and shut it off. The lack of music filled and hung in the air above me, and the emptiness seemed to bother me even more than the music. I hurried away from the radios and tried to refocus.

I found Iggy's gift next: camouflage duct tape. Okay, it's not as lame of a gift as you're thinking. According to the kids, who have been stealing Fang's laptop a lot lately, there are about a million and two things you can do with duct tape. Apparently, it can 'fix anything,' which I doubt, but that's just because I'm naturally a skeptic… and because I just don't see duct tape fixing your truck's carburetor or your uncle's broken marriage. Just saying.

Plus, it was camouflage, so we could wrap someone in it, dump them in the woods, and no one would ever find them! Fun and functional, baby!

Or I could put it over somebody's mouth when I wanted them to be quiet… Man, Iggy might have to loan his gift to me.

Moving on…

I went to the pharmacy and got some anti-snore nasal spray for the Gasman. Okay, so maybe that gift was more for me than him. If you heard him snoring, you wouldn't blame me.

Of course I had to get him something else. I settled on a pack of playing cards. They're lightweight, they can be used to break into houses with simple locks if you're not in the mood to unscrew the window screens, and he could share them with the others. Three in one. Man, I'm good.

I got to the grocery department and started picking things off the shelves. Beef jerky, granola bars, apples, crackers, and some weird little string cheese things. The kids needed some calcium… gives you strong bones and whatnot.

I found the hot chocolate powder packet things I told Fang about, the ones where you pour the powder into hot water and voila! You have hot chocolate. Amazing, huh? I also got some plastic cups and sprung for a package of mini marshmallows. I couldn't help it; sugar is my weakness.

Then I went and found the lightest, cheapest pot I could find, so we could boil the water and chuck the pot afterwards. I shoved it in my pack, which was starting to get heavy.

I thought I did pretty well. All the gifts were easy to carry around and not life-threatening, plus, the kids would freak out over the hot chocolate.

Satisfied with my allotment, I started to head towards the back. One sad excuse for a Christmas coming up!

I was almost back to the toy department when I stopped in my tracks, realizing that I hadn't gotten anything for Fang. Man, what am I supposed to get for Mr. Difficult? He said he didn't want anything, so maybe I could actually not get him anything.

No, that's what he wanted me to do, and out of the mere spirit of contradiction, I chose to ignore his wishes and get him something anyway. Ha, in his face.

But what?

I ran through a list of ideas. Batteries? No. Paper clips? No. A hacky sack? Er- no…

This was proving to be harder than I expected.

There was a toy department, a gardening department, a grocery department… Where's the Black Stuff for Difficult Teenage Boys Department?

You're standing in it, sweetie.

I stiffened, but still managed to roll my eyes. Go away, Voice. And don't call me sweetie; that's just wrong.

Lighten up, Max. It's the holiday season.

Really? I didn't notice. Thanks for telling me, Voice. What on earth would I ever do without you?

I don't know, probably not much.

For some reason, I wasn't appreciating the Voice's newfound humor.

Voice, for my Christmas present, could you just leave me alone- preferably forever?

I was just trying to help you out, Max.

Gee, thanks. Next time I need someone to tell me where I'm standing, I'll be sure to come to you.

Fine, don't take my help. That's your own choice.

Really? It's my choice? I thought it was Santa Claus' choice! Thanks for telling me!

And the sarcasm keeps coming.

Merry Christmas, Max, the Voice said. I sighed with relief, hoping that that meant it was leaving.

Same to you, Voice.

I'll pretend that was sincere.

Have fun with that, I thought, and just like that, the Voice was gone.

I looked around me, inevitably wondering what the Voice was talking about. The only black things I saw were a couple of microwaves.

Stupid Voice. I was not getting Fang a microwave.

The phrase "mere spirit of contradiction" belongs to Washington Irving, not me. Don't you love it?
How'd you like the flock's gifts? I tried to keep them realistic and somewhat practical.
There's a bunch of questionable material in there to comment on, so please do so. Reviews are love!


4. Electrically Ecstatic

Angel felt the warmth of the sunrise on her back. She gingerly opened her eyes, breathing in the fresh air. She realized that her head was buried in Fang's chest, and she turned her face up to look at him.

How does he still manage to look tired while he's sleeping? she thought. She tried to pull away from him as slowly and gently as possible, so that she wouldn't wake him up. She regretted the decision immediately, though, as she began to lose his comfortable warmth.

Despite her efforts, his eyes slipped open. He looked down at her wearily, wondering why she was in the position she was, poised inches away from his chest.

She gave a guilty smile as she quickly moved away. "Sorry, Fang. I didn't mean to wake you up."

He sat up straight against his tree and said, "It's okay, Angel."

Angel got worried when she noticed the dark circles under his eyes.

"Are you okay?" she asked quietly, not wanting to wake the others as well.

Fang frowned, wondering what had prompted the question. "Yeah, I'm fine," he said.

"Okay… if you say so," she replied sadly, looking away. She knew something was wrong, but she was also smart enough to know that she would never get it out of him.

"Cheer up, Angel," Iggy said, appearing before them. "Don't let the bad man get you down, especially on Christmas."

Fang narrowed his eyes at Iggy, which of course had no effect on him. Iggy had been walking around nearby, knowing that if he didn't move around, he would fall asleep on his watch, and then Max would have to kill him.

"Iggy, that's mean," Angel said as she stood up, accidentally waking Total. Sorry, Total, she thought to him. Grumbling, Total made his way over to the others, who were still sleeping.

"Sorry, Ange. Please don't tell Mom, or she'll ground me," Iggy said, turning his head in Max's general direction.

Angel couldn't hold in her giggles, and she hugged him tightly around his legs.

Iggy smiled down at her. "You sure are short," he said, with a laugh in his voice.

"Iggy!" Angel said too-loudly, with stark indignation.

"Ugh," Max groaned as she was roused out of her sleep.

"Oops," Angel said, feeling guilty for the third time in a couple minutes.

"Rise and shine, Fearless Leader! It's Christmas!" Iggy said with purposefully annoying cheeriness.

"Shut up, Iggy," Max sighed, refusing to open her eyes.

Nudge and the Gasman stirred then, with a bit more excitement than Max. Nudge, who had one arm over Max, pulled her arm back and practically bounced off the ground and over to Iggy and Angel.

"It's Christmas!" she proclaimed loudly as Angel ran to hug her.

The Gasman also got up, leaving Max alone, lying on the ground. He stumbled over to the others with a sleepy grin on his face.

The four of them began to make a commotion, and Max rolled over, turning her back to the noise.

"I'm with you, Fearless Leader," Total muttered, moving closer to her and nestling into a spot near the middle of her back.

Fang came over and nudged the top of Max's head with the toe of his sneaker. "Wake up," he said bluntly.

"Go away," Max replied, still refusing to open her eyes to the light of the rising sun.

"Wake up," he repeated, his voice sounding closer to her. She reluctantly opened her eyes, almost jumping back when she saw Fang sitting cross-legged a few feet away from her head. Images of him in a leather jacket and then a sweater vest flashed across her mind, and she blinked a few times, wanting them to disappear.

"Leave me alone," Max said, throwing an unenthusiastic punch at him. He caught her hand easily and gripped it tightly.

"Get. Up."

Her hand twitched, and she pulled it away. "No," she said firmly, letting her eyes close again.

"Stop making my pillow move!" Total called from behind Max.

"I resent that," Max said tiredly, hardly able to get the three words out.

"Come on, Max."

"I was up most of the night getting gifts, and then Gazzy was snoring so loud, and…" She began at a mutter and trailed off into silence.

Fang watched as her breathing went even again, wondering why she was so exhausted. Well, not so much wondering why she was exhausted, more like, wondering why she wasn't hiding it. He went to shake her awake, but caught himself when he saw the momentary peace that showed on her face. Her sleep was so shallow now that she couldn't slip into nightmares, but was still separated from the rest of the world.

He watched as the fist of hers that he had caught slowly unfurled and the steadily rising sun cut pieces of the darkness out around her, forming shadows beneath her. She unawarely buried her head in her arm, letting out an almost inaudible sigh.

"Max!" Nudge exclaimed, coming back over and almost tripping in her excitement. She kneeled beside Max and shook her, a bit more violently than Fang had planned on doing.

"Hm?" Max murmured. Fang tried not to say anything as the calm peace that had taken over Max's face dissipated. It had been so brief, Fang thought, as he started to wonder if it had really been there or if he had just imagined it.

Max sat up, throwing Total into a muffled rage of angry mumblings. Max eyed the sunrise warily as she pulled Nudge into a tight hug. The rest of the flock made their way over as Max released Nudge.

They were all cast in warm orange light, as their outlines on the ground became more defined.

"Merry Christmas, Max," Angel said softly and sweetly, still feeling a little guilty for waking Max in the first place.

She threw her small arms around Max's neck, and Max smiled, squishing Angel in return. Gazzy joined in, also wishing Max a Merry Christmas. When they all pulled apart, Iggy said from the side, "Is the gushy hug fest over yet?"

Max stood up gracefully, despite her fatigue, and stood in front of Iggy. So he would know where she was, she said, "Why? Did you want one too?" She tried not to laugh.

"I thought you'd never ask!" Iggy exclaimed, throwing his arms around her in a sappy hug. Fang, still on the ground near Total, smirked as the others broke out in bursts of laughter and as Iggy smothered Max.

Iggy put his chin on top of his Max's head as she tried to break his hold without actually breaking him. "You sure are short," he said, with a smile.

I wish everyone was loved tonight…

They all knew that Iggy was trying to be funny, but Fang could see that the smile on Iggy's face was real. The anger on Max's face, however, wasn't real as she ducked out of Iggy's hold.

Before Iggy could say anything else, Max turned and walked away from them, saying, "I guess it's present time, then."

The uninformed flock members looked at each other quizzically as Max unzipped her pack.

"What are you talking about, Max?" Gazzy asked cautiously, thinking she had lost her mind. And it wasn't the first time he, or any of them for that matter, were suspicious of her going insane.

"It's present time," Max said again, producing five small, identical gift bags.

"No way! Gifts? On Christmas?" Nudge squealed happily.

Max inwardly grimaced at the cruel irony of Nudge's words.

"Yup, gifts," Max said with a small smile.

"No way! This is way too cool. When did you have time to get gifts, Max? Where did you get them? How did you pay for them? This is so awesome, Max! You're like, the bestest ever! Did I just say bestest? Is that even a word? Whatever, I don't care, because you're like, the bestest! I'm so excited."

"I've noticed, Nudge," Max said.

And Fang could tell. Just by watching her face, which didn't portray what she was really feeling, he could tell that Max was absolutely ecstatic. Electrically ecstatic, insanely ecstatic, undeniably and beautifully ecstatic, seeing her flock happy. And they hadn't even opened the gifts yet.

5. The Joys of Gift Giving

It's my last update of 2008! Oh, how quickly the time passes.
It's present time! I'm not really sure how I feel about this chapter, but I hope you like it!

"You… are… the bestest!" Nudge squealed once again as she anxiously fingered the gift bag.

"I got that, Nudge," I said. "Okay, guys, one at a time. Nudge, you go first."

I let my little chatterbox go first so that she wouldn't spontaneously combust. The others, who were all sitting around in a lopsided circle, didn't seem to mind too much, because they were still so excited by the mere idea of presents.

"And don't expect too much, guys," I warned as Nudge tore through her gift bag.

Okay, I might be wrong here, but I thought you were only supposed to tear open wrapping paper, and just pull stuff out of gift bags. Not that I was going to use them again, I'm just saying. But hey, whatever floated Nudge's boat, I guess.

"Don't expect much? Are you kidding?" Nudge shrieked as she pulled the necklace out and dangled it in front of her face. "This is the bestest Christmas present I've ever gotten!"

"It's the onlyChristmas present you've ever gotten," I pointed out. "And bestest still isn't a word."

"What is it, Nudge?" Iggy asked softly.

"Oh, it's a really pretty necklace, Igs! It has a banana-shaped moon on-"

"You mean a crescent moon?" Iggy interrupted.

"Yeah, that thing! And on the bottom tip of the crescent moon thingy, there are two little stars right next to each other, and- aww! It kinda looks like they're holding hands!"

Angel scooted closer to examine the stars. "They dolike they're holding hands! Even though stars don't have hands… that would be creepy… but aww! The little stars are so cute!"

The two of them exchanged a knowing glance and looked up at the rest of us. Actually, they glanced at us, but then they focused on Fang. And then- get this- they burst into fits of laughter.

"What?" Fang said emotionlessly, but I knew that he was more curious than he let on.

Angel sighed and touched the tip of one of the stars, saying, "Nothing."

I'm not gonna ask, I told myself, I am not. Going. To ask.

Nudge continued to beam as she placed the long chain around her neck. The kid's got a sweet smile, and I won't get into how that smile made my chest tighten right then.

She turned to me and said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you! You're-"

"The bestest?" I guessed.

"Yeah!" she said, proceeding to close the two-foot distance between us and practically tackle me with a hug. It was nice, once I swept her bush of hair out of my face. As soon as she was done nearly suffocating me with her thankfulness, she bounced back over to her spot.

"Okay, Iggy, you go next," I decided.

"Oh joy! I cannot wait!" he said happily, continuing Nudge's trend of ripping open the little bag. Too bad I wasn't close enough to hit him in the arm. Oh well, maybe later. Christmas was still young.

He pulled the roll of duct tape out and said, "Don't tell me what it is! I'm going to figure it out." He brushed the duct tape with his fingers and tossed it between his hands a few times. Then, he put the roll around his wrist and said, "It's a festive holiday bracelet."

Okay, I had to laugh at that. I couldn't not laugh at that. Iggy looked in my direction and smiled, and I realized I was the only one laughing. What? They didn't really think it was a 'festive holiday bracelet,' did they?

"It's duct tape, Ig."

"No, it's not!" he countered, which surprised me.

"Um- yes it is," I told him.

"So it's not a festive holiday bracelet?"

"Um- no."

"Well, okay. If you say so," he said, slipping it off his wrist. This time the kids were laughing, and I was just confused.

Ah, the joys of gift-giving.

Iggy felt it again and asked, "Why is it dirt and tree-colored?"

"It's camouflage duct tape."

Iggy seemed to light up at this new revolution. "You mean we could wrap somebody up in this stuff and throw them in the woods, and then no one would ever find them?"

My heart cracked a little bit right then.

"Yes, Iggy, you could do that," I said with a goofy smile on my face.

I'm so freaking proud of him. Great minds do think alike.

"Thanks, Max," he said, slipping the roll back onto his wrist slowly, as if I wouldn't notice.

"Any time, Ig," I said back to him, choosing not to burst his bubble and remind him that it wasn't a festive holiday bracelet.

"Gazzy, you go next."

Riiiiip! The shreds of the bag fell to the ground. And the trend continues.

He pulled the first object out of the pile of shredded bag-remains, and read the label out loud.

"Anti-snore nasal spray?" He looked up at me with terrified, innocent blue eyes. "I snore?"

I felt bad for him. He didn't even know. "Yes, Gazzy, you snore," I said, breaking the truth to him.

"Like a dinosaur, apparently," Fang added in from beside me.

The others nodded vigorously as I resisted the urge to hit Fang.

Gazzy turned to his sister with questioning eyes.

"Sorry, Gaz, it's true," Angel said, sounding as kind as she could manage.

"Oh, okay," the Gasman said, looking embarrassed.

"There's another gift in there, Gazzy," I said quickly, so that the disturbing new development wouldn't get him down too much.

"Really?" he asked, digging through the paper pile. Did he actually think that I would just get him nasal spray? Man, we really needed to work on the whole 'Christmas' thing. We had another whole year before the next one; I think we might be able to figure it out by then.

"Playing cards! Sweet!" he said. "Hey, Max, did you know that if you throw one of these just right, you can cut someone's neck open and kill them?"

Heh, they're even more fun and functional than I thought.

"No, I didn't know that, Gazzy," I said, wondering if I had a made a bad choice with the playing cards. "That's… interesting. Promise you won't throw them unless I give you permission, okay?"

"Okay! Thanks, Max," he said with a big grin.

Oh geez.

Total, who had been trying to go back to sleep, walked over and crawled into Angel's lap. "You guys are loud," he stated.

Angel petted his head, and he licked her hand.

"Sorry, Total, we're just excited about Christmas," Angel told him, scratching behind his ears.

"Oh. My. Goodness," he said, closing his eyes, "That feels so good. Max, let Angel open hers next so that she can back to scratching me faster."

Sheesh, he's such a dog. "Go ahead, Angel."

She ripped her gift bag open (big surprise there), and her eyes widened tremendously. Without a word, she pulled Celeste out of her jacket and switched out the dresses. She just stared at it wordlessly, and I started to get worried. Was cleanliness really that shocking nowadays?

"It's so pretty," she said quietly.

I hadn't thought it was too amazing in the store, but now I noticed the intricate design. It was made of some smooth, pearly white material and had a layer of lace over it. Delicate, curled ghosts of flowers were embedded into the material, and tiny bows adorned the tips of the sleeves.

What? I'm capable of appreciating pretty stuff… I think.

"Oh, Max," she said, just above a whisper. "It's just beautiful."

My little girl was in complete awe of the thing, and even though I couldn't really relate, I was really happy that she liked it so much. She still hadn't taken her eyes off of it by the time the Gasman finished describing it to Iggy.

"Just a sec, Total," Angel said, moving him off of her lap. She came over and stood in front of me, still not taking her eyes off of Celeste. When she finally did, her eyes looked shiny and trembling. She reached an arm out to hug me, and I couldn't help myself. I pulled her into my lap and squeezed her tight, as she buried her blonde head in my shoulder.

"Thank you, Max," she breathed into my ear.

"You're more than welcome, sweetie," I said, trying not to get emotional. My poor little Angel deserved so much more than this, and yet she was so delighted by something so freaking simple.

I wish everyone was loved tonight

And somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days…

"I love you, Max. You're all I really need for Christmas."

Man, the kid was trying to get me all emotional. "So you don't want the dress, then?"

She giggled and said, "No, that's okay. I think I'll hold on to it."

"Okay, you do that," I said quietly.

She kissed my cheek lightly before she returned to Total. Dang, I love that kid.

"Um, Fang," I said, trying to regain my composure, "Go ahead. You're last."

"I'm last because I'm the best, right?"

I almost snorted. Thank goodness for comical relief. "You think whatever you wanna think, Fang."

He calmly pulled the gift out, instead of mutilating the gift bag. The small, black object glinted ever-so-slightly in the sunlight. He turned it over in his hands, examining it closely.

"It's a flash drive," I said lamely, "You can put files from your laptop on there, in case it gets pancaked by a flyboy or something."

"Thoughtful," he evaluated. "And it's my favorite color. Thanks, Max."

I sighed with relief. It may have been a lousy gift, but at least he didn't appear to completely hate it.

There was a moment of awkward silence, but thankfully Angel broke it.

"But what about you, Max?"

"Me? What about me?" I asked.

"You didn't get a present," she said, looking sad.

"Oh… Well, seeing you guys get your presents was more than enough for me," I said honestly. She looked away, clearly not prepared to argue her point. What could be better than seeing the smiles on their faces? I'm convinced that not much in the world could be better.

I don't need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days...

"Total, are you ready for your gift?" I asked, with a grin on my face. Yeah, he annoys me, but the little guy makes Angel and the others happy.

His ears perked up. "I get a gift?"

I stood and held open my arms. "You ready for super speed?"

He jumped straight into my arms, tongue lolling shamelessly.

"You bet I am," he cried.

Total loves my super speed. It's like a normal dog who likes sticking his head out of the car window- to the extreme.

"We'll be right back, guys," I said. "Iggy, you're in charge."

I started to walk away, giving Fang a glance that told him to follow me. He got up and wordlessly walked by my side until we were out of the flock's sight.

"Okay, get my pack and take the food out. You guys can start eating while Total takes his little joyride. We'll be back in about twenty."

"Only twenty?" Total whined.

"Don't push your luck, Total."

Fang looked at me seriously, and I froze. Something was wrong.

"No sweater?" he asked.

Ugh, why do my arms have to be occupied right now?! I thought, wanting to punch him for alarming me like that. No, Max, it's Christmas. No punching. Wait till tomorrow.

I raised my eyebrows at him. "You really wanted one, didn't you?"

Fang gave a tiny smirk, and I laughed at him.

"I'm sorry to disappoint, Fang. Maybe you'll get what you really want next year."

The smirk disappeared instantly, the look in his eyes suddenly replaced by an emotion that I couldn't identify.

What did I say? Someone please tell me that he didn't actually want a light-up reindeer sweater. Someone. Anyone. Goodness…

He blinked and said, "Um, yeah, I'll get the food."

"Thanks," I said. "Back in twenty."

"Got it," he said, looking at the ground.

"Okay then," I said. I tightened my hold on Total and did a running start. I threw my huge wings open and shot into the air. I kicked into super speed, and everything around us became a giant blur.

"This is heaven," Total said happily from my arms.

I felt something wet and glared down at his little head. "Gross, Total. Put your tongue back in."

Happy New Year! I hope your 2009 is full of blessings and L.O.V.E. :D
I love you all! (In a non-creepy way, of course.)


6. Don't Be a Hippo Crit

Hi. How about I make my excuse for not updating in a while short this time? I'm busy. Sorry.
A lot of thinking going on in this chapter and some mild imaginary violence. XD

The others didn't even notice me when I got back. Nudge was too busy talking at about a thousand words-per-minute to Angel about their presents from Max.

I felt kinda bad that we hadn't gotten Max anything, even though we never had a chance to, and even though I know she was telling the truth when she said seeing everyone else happy was more than enough for her.

That's her, Saint Max, always just wanting the best for her island of misfit bird-children.


The Gasman and Iggy were playing some odd card game with the Gasman's new deck. I blinked when I saw the Gasman. Ever since I had that stupid dream, every time I look at Gaz, I see him dancing in that dang blinking reindeer sweater.

Don't laugh, it's not funny.

By the perplexed look on the Gasman's face, I could tell that he was losing whatever game they were playing. I don't know how Ig does it, but I don't question it.

Iggy showed the Gasman his cards, and the Gasman's jaw dropped.

"You cheated!" he accused, still staring at Iggy's cards.

"Yeah, accuse the blind guy of cheating," Iggy retorted.

Like I said, I don't question how he does it.

The Gasman picked up a card and flung it at Iggy in frustration, and it unenthusiastically hit Iggy square in the chest and flopped into his lap. Iggy's cloudy eyes widened, and so did the Gasman's as he realized what he had just done.

Iggy slowly curled his fingers around the edge of the card as the Gasman watched in horror, looking to be paralyzed by fear. I didn't understand why, though. It was just a card. Iggy held the card aloft, ready to throw it…

The words suddenly came back to me: "Hey, Max, did you know that if you throw one of these just right, you can cut someone's neck open and kill them?"

The way Iggy was holding the card… at just the right angle…

I was immediately compelled to imagine the Gasman's severed head lying on the ground, resting in a crimson pool of blood.

Hm, maybe I do need to get more sleep…

Nah. Sleep is for squares.

I took a few long, quick strides toward Iggy, and as calmly as humanly/avianly possible, I snatched the card out of his hand right before he was about to release it. I then whacked him in the back of the head and gave the Gasman a look that scolded him for starting it. The Gasman looked repentant enough. He also just looked really grateful, like he was going to jump up and hug me for saving his life.

That would be awkward…

Angel and Nudge finally looked up and noticed me when I was taking the card from Iggy, and they started giggling again. Okay, that's starting to get really annoying. But I'm not gonna ask why they're doing it, because I probably don't really want to know.

"Don't be a party pooper, Fang!" Iggy called to me as I began to walk back to Max's pack, having obtained a nice new ace of hearts to warm the inside of my pocket. "We were just having harmless fun!"

Yeah, it's harmless fun until you get your head cut off and then Max mops up the blood with my face.

And by the looks of it, the Gasman didn't mind too much about the 'harmless fun' coming to an end.

Iggy started complaining behind me, but I ignored him. I knelt down by Max's pack and unzipped it. Man, it was loaded. My stomach growled anxiously as I pulled Max's plunder out of her bag.

"Guys, food. Come get it," was all I had to say to get the four of them to run over hungrily.

Nudge began to babble as I tossed her an apple. "We hit the mother load! Where did we get all this? Did Max get it? I'm guessing that Max got it, since you're taking it out of her bag. Wow, she really went all out, huh? She's really the bestest. Don't forget to save some for her and Total. Wait, you wouldn't forget that. Why would you forget that? It must have been heavy carrying all this food plus presents. She must have been gone for a long time to get all this. I still furl baa bou noff-"

"Nudge, we can't understan yuh wiffer mowful," Gazzy told her, as he unconsciously shoved a granola bar in his mouth.

"Yoo div uh same thing!" Nudge protested, swallowing the monstrous bite she'd taken. "Hippo-crit!"

"Did you just call me a hippo?"

"No, I called you a hippo-crit!"

"I'm pretty sure it's hypocrite, Nudge," Iggy said.

"And I'm pretty sure it's hippo-crit," she insisted.

"No, it's not."

Nudge turned to me. "Fang?"

Darn. My beef jerky and I couldn't just have a moment of peace? And since when was I the authority on matters of the English language? If it weren't for spell-check, my blog would look like it was done by a six year-old. No offense to Angel.

I made a quick decision. "Nudge is right."

"What?" Iggy cried. "No she's not! You're kidding, right?"


That's what he gets for almost accidentally killing the Gasman.

Dang, that sounds messed up.

The argument continued, but thankfully it steadily drifted away from where I was. Their voices became jumbled together as my mind drowned them out.

Max's words re-emerged on the surface of my thoughts, coming without warning in that haunting way they always did.

"I'm sorry to disappoint, Fang. Maybe you'll get what you really want next year."

She had no idea what she was saying. I knew she was just joking about a stupid sweater, but the words still got to me. What if I really did have to wait another year? Or worse… what if I never got it?

And something only you can give

And that's faith and trust and peace while we're alive…

Crap. I don't wanna think about that.

I tried to ward off the thoughts, but new ones just rolled in to replace them.

I started to wonder why Angel had asked if I was okay. Was it that obvious how worn out and worn down I was? Usually with me, nothing was obvious. Could she tell by just looking at my face? I wouldn't know; I don't see my reflection all that often, and when I do, it's not like I dwell on it. My face could be purple, and I wouldn't know it. At least, not until someone started mocking me.

Something I couldn't even begin to explain was wearing me down. Some form of bitter psychological anxiousness, maybe. Heck if I know what's going on with myself.

And Max- she seemed more worn than me. What's up with her not hiding it? Queen Max is the queen of hiding things, a specialist in the field of covering up unwanted reality with little white lies. Could it really be that she was that worse for wear that she couldn't hide it? I found that hard to believe, but definitely not impossible.

And another thing- she keeps looking at me funny. Granted, it's not as bad as the farce of demonic giggling that comes from Nudge and Angel, but it's still pretty annoying, especially since I can't always tell why she's doing it.

I used to be able to decipher her thoughts easily, like using a key to figure out a puzzle. Back then, I could almost get the entire puzzle together, except for a couple of pieces. Now, half of the puzzle always seemed to be missing, like someone had taken a handful of the pieces and thrown them in the trash can, or like they had spilled Coke over the handwritten key so that the ink bled into big black blobs of messy nothings.

Okay, I'll stop that now. You get it.

At least she seemed pretty happy that morning, despite the unknown things that were dragging her down. She made everyone happy, and as soon as they were happy, she was. It was simple, really. I don't know how she does it. It's just who she is. She's Max, the Maximum.

I felt the flash drive she'd given me in my pocket. I slipped it out and examined it again. Black, simple, and void of an Itex logo. Just how I like it. It was such a… Max-ish gift.

I have to admit that she did a really good job with the gifts. If it had been me, Angel probably would have ended up with a man-sized baseball glove, and the others would have ended up with lame things like batteries, or paper clips, or a hacky sack…

Actually, Iggy might like a hacky sack. But that's not the point.

I made a mental note to put all my files on the drive that night. You know, in case my laptop got 'pancaked.' I stuck it back in my front pocket for safekeeping, right behind the ace of hearts.

I continued to watch the flock as my thoughts suddenly began to go too fast, threatening to crash into each other. I had my guard up, (not that I didn't always have it up) in case the others had let theirs down. We always had to be watching our backs no matter where we were or what we were doing. Not being paranoid was too much of a risk.

I wish everyone was loved tonight

And somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days…

The four of them were now in a close circle, or a square actually, and they were playing a different card game. Nudge and Gazzy were one team, and Iggy and Angel were another team. Iggy ended up doing something stupid, and the four of them burst into loud, wholehearted laughter.

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days…

It was too good to be true. I wished it could happen more often. Not much could be better than seeing my friends- no, seeing my family- just enjoying life. All smiling, all cheerful, all forgetting their troubles.

It looks like you've done it again, Saint Max.

I found myself addressing her in my mind.

Will it ever always be like this? Will our lives ever be this simple? Am I asking for something that we can never have?

She wouldn't have those answers, but my questions desperately called for a response of some kind, of any kind.

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days…

Maybe it would happen after we kicked Itex's butt. Just maybe. Maybe the time for that butt-kicking wasn't as far off as it seemed. And after that… after that, we would have better lives. Not normal lives by a long shot, but I don't think I wanted a normal life. Just… a better life. A chance at seeing my family having better days.

That is, if we could actually accomplish the huge, and I mean huge, task of defeating Itex.

We're gonna win, right?

No, doubt like this didn't cross my mind often, but it had to some time or another. If we didn't win against our enemies, the possibility of better lives wouldn't even have a chance.

I felt someone looking at me. I looked at Angel and focused on her bright blue eyes, which were overridden with seriousness, somehow accompanied by a soft, reassuring smile.

Her young, quietly confident voice quietly entered my head.

Yes, Fang, we're gonna win.

Did you like it? Hate it? Do tell. (Review, please.)
Thanks for reading and waiting. Much love to you.


7. Everyone Needs to Be Saved

If you're wondering if a card can really kill someone, go on Wikipedia and look up the article "Card-throwing." That will answer your questions.
I really hope that my longest chapter ever makes up for the drought.

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days

'Cause I don't need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days…

I walked back towards the Flock, with Total trotting at my side in contented silence. I was surprised that his tongue hadn't fallen out yet, the way he let it hang out the entire time we were flying. He's such a dog. Did I already say that? Well, he is.

It was fine, as long as he didn't slobber on me or lick me again for the rest of the day, he had a good chance of living long enough to see the new year.

We had landed a ways off to be safe, so that I wouldn't get my wings caught in the dense branches above the place where the Flock was currently situated. That would be a slightly embarrassing call for help: "Help! My wings are tangled, and I can't get up!"

If that happened, I'm sure I would never hear the end of it.

So there we were- the Maximum and Doctor Droolface, walking back through the trees to our family. I spotted Fang's dark figure at a considerable distance, outlined neatly against the old forest around him.

Leather jacket, sweater vest, done.

Heh, that was the process I had to go through every time I saw him. I saw him as motorcycle-gang boy, then I saw him as brush-cut Princeton boy, and then he returned to normal Fang. I couldn't even help it. It's pretty creepy. Not as creepy as fanged man-dogs with wings grafted on their backs, but pretty darn close.

Even far away, he looked… tired or worried or… something. Which definitely spelled out 'NOT GOOD.'


He probably spent the whole time we were away thinking. Ugh, I hate it when he thinks. Okay, I know that sounds bad, but it's true. Whenever anyone in the Flock has enough time to just sit there and think, they tend to not turn out in the greatest of moods. That's our lives for you.

His brow furrowed in thought, and the back of my mind yelled, Hey, you! Stop thinking! Just be an empty-headed male, like you usually are!

My face got warm, and I felt suddenly… angry? Then, I burst into laughter, despite everything. I'd been doing that a lot lately. I think the insanity is making a permanent home in my brain.

Total cocked his head to the side in that doggish way of his, questioning me, but I didn't make the effort to explain my sudden outburst.

Fang turned to look at me, and as soon as he saw that we were both fine, he gave me the 'What's wrong with you?' look that I was all-too-familiar with. His expression quickly smoothed over, but somehow, it made him seem more tense.

I gave him a 'What are you looking at?' look, and he turned back to watching the Flock.

Within a few seconds, Angel was running towards us. Total jumped into her arms happily and licked her face, and let me tell you- I was way glad that it was her and not me.

Angel wrapped her free arm around my legs and said, "You're back!"

"Of course I'm back," I told her.

Another fear shared by the Flock: fear of other Flock members leaving and not returning. Sadly, that fear is well-founded.

She let go of me, and the three of us made our way over to everyone else. Nudge and the Gasman both smiled at me, but I caught Iggy mid-scowl.

"Angel!" Iggy exclaimed, "You just left when we were winning!"

"Sorry, Iggy," Angel said, turning to look at me and thinking, It's okay, Max. I'm not actually sorry.

I didn't know what to say to that, so I just gave her a nod, which seemed to be good enough for her.

"Angel, get your little butt over here!" Iggy commanded, not about to lose his game.

"Coming!" Angel called, setting Total down on the ground and hurrying over to the others.

Total followed, plopping himself down between Iggy and Angel. He peered at Iggy's cards and said casually, "There's no way you're gonna win with those cards, unless you're a really convincing liar."

Nudge and Gazzy wore identical grins as Iggy dropped his cards on the ground and put his head in his hands. "Total," he said, restraining himself, "You're lucky that Angel loves you so much."

Total, not knowing that he had practically just evaded death by raging bird-kid, licked Angel's knee and said, "Darn right I am."

I turned to walk back to my pack with a ridiculous smile that hurt my cheeks. Fang looked up at me questioningly, and I wiped the goofy smile off of my face. He wasn't supposed to see that. I sort of felt stupid for feeling so happy, like I didn't have the right to be as happy as that smile was.

He didn't say anything, which for some strange reason surprised me. I'm supposed to expect him to stay quiet, aren't I? I mean, he's Fang.

He tossed some beef jerky to me. I caught it with one hand and kicked my pack out of the way so that I could sit down beside him. I downed the jerky within a few seconds, practically ravenous after twenty minutes of hard labor. No, I'm not talking about flying at super-speed; that's easy. I mean dealing with that little piece of work whose name is shared with a breakfast cereal.

I reached into my pack and took out the rest of the food that they'd saved for the two of us. I went to call Total over to get his food, but he was… asleep. I rolled my eyes. Sitting in my arms and letting slobber fly at alarming speeds must be pretty tiring.

"We should get moving after they finish this next game," I told Fang through a mouthful of granola bar.

He nodded and stared straight ahead.

"We shouldn't stay in one place too long," I added, stating the painfully obvious.

No response at all this time.

"We'll fly around for a while and then find a place to spend the night," I said, searching his face for any sign of… anything.


Holding back a glare, I returned to the dangerously fast eating of my food. I was hungry. Dealing with him could wait.

"No, Max, don't touch it. I've got it," Iggy had insisted, taking the box from me.

"It's hot chocolate, I think I can handle it," I'd insisted right back.

After a long day of leisurely flying and musing over the Christmas lights on the ground, we'd found a cave to spend the night in. I was hesitant to stay in a cave because of… well, just because, but it (sadly) seemed to be the best option we had. It was already dark, and I had broken out the hot chocolate, which the kids got really happy about. I was going to try to help make it, but Iggy wouldn't let me.

"The way you cook? Nuh-uh, you're not touching it, Missy," Iggy had said.

"What does this even have to do with cooking? And don't call me that!" I said, stuffing my fist into my pocket so that I wouldn't hit him.

"Just sit down. Relax. Iggy's got it all handled, Miss Maximum," he'd said, snorting afterwards.

My fist came out of my pocket so fast that I'm sure that it was just a blur of motion as I punched Iggy in the arm.

So what if I couldn't go a day without hitting someone? It's not my fault.

"I feel the love," Iggy said, rubbing his arm, "and it hurts."

"Well, if you keep it up, you're gonna feel a whole lot more love…" I had threatened.

We had gone back and forth like that for a while, until I finally decided that it wasn't worth it, resigning to the other side of the cave. He could probably make it better than I could, anyways. But don't tell him I said that.

A few minutes later, Angel came over to me and handed me a cup of hot chocolate. "That was fast," I said as I watched the steam from my cup dance upwards to the cave ceiling. "Thanks, Ange."

"You're welcome," Angel said with a grin. She then took Gazzy, who was sitting nearby, by the wrist and led him over to Iggy. I swished the little marshmallows around in my plastic cup and inhaled the hot, sweet aroma.

Being my paranoid freak of a self, I thought, You know, if we're attacked by flyboys right now, I could get a head-start on one of them by splashing this stuff in their eyes…

I watched Nudge offer Fang a cup, which he looked at awkwardly before taking. Nudge began a small rant, her new necklace flailing around the entire time, but he managed to stop her somehow and sent her bouncing back over to the others. Oh geez, she was going to be hyped up on sugar soon. That's just scary.

I gazed after Nudge, but when I heard a loud spitting noise, my gaze snapped back to Fang. He was facing outward, so I couldn't see what was going on with him. My cup fell to the ground as I rushed over to see what was up. So much for my splashing-it-in-their-eyes plan.

It took me about half a second to figure out what he'd done. Before he hastily put his tongue back in his mouth, I saw that it looked like it was red and slightly swollen.

He'd burnt his tongue.

My mind immediately went off red-alert as the flock started laughing. I looked at Fang for a moment, taking in the hues of embarrassment buried in his eyes, and then I burst into an onslaught of laughter right in front of him.

Okay, so that might have not been the nicest thing to do, but hey, I'm not the nicest person around, if you haven't noticed. And trust me, you would have done the same thing.

Several hours and several uncharacteristic fits of laughter later, I sank down against the cave wall. You have no idea how hard it is to get four hyper bird-kids and a hyper dog to go to sleep on Christmas night. We'd played about fifty different card games, consumed the entire contents of the hot chocolate box and the marshmallow package, and joked on Mr. Burnt Tongue for hours. And I think I might have enjoyed every second of it.

Max enjoying herself? It's the apocalypse, right?

Leather jacket, sweater vest, done.

"Hey, Fang," I said as he appeared beside me and plopped down to the cave floor.

"Yo," he responded simply.

He looked over me quickly before saying, "You look tired."

"You look pretty exhausted yourself, Fnick," I told him. He really did look pretty bad. Then again, I probably had no right to talk.

He looked toward the cave entrance so that the back of his head was facing me. I'm pretty sure he was looking away so that I couldn't see his face, and it bothered me. We both seemed to have a lot on our minds.

"What's next, Fearless Leader?" he said, his head still turned away.

"Ha ha, very funny," I said dryly. It was hard to keep track of all the weird nicknames that were going around lately.

It took me a minute to realize that I hadn't answered his question. "Well, we rest, and then get the heck out of here, that's what's next. That's always what's next."


I could tell that he wanted more of a plan than that, but the thing was, I didn't have anything else. I was about to make up something to set his mind at ease when I saw a corner of a white something sticking out of Fang's pocket. Compelled by my curiosity, I took the corner between my thumb and index finger and swiftly pulled it out before he could even notice what I was doing.

"Ace of Hearts?" I said, raising my eyebrows.

"Got a problem with that?" he said, finally turning back to me, looking fairly calm.

"Nope, not at all." I bit back a laugh, not asking him why he had it. I had a feeling that he probably wouldn't tell me anyway.

I held the card up like I was going to hand it back to him, but as soon as he went to take it, I yanked it out of his reach. I held back a chuckle that, if let out, may have ended up sounding remarkably similar to one of Gazzy's evil cackles.

Fang grabbed my wrist with one hand and pried the card from my fingers with the other hand as I quietly started to laugh at him.

As he slipped it back into his pocket, I gave him an odd look.

"What?" he said, "My pocket was cold."

I paused for a long second before smiling and saying, "You're a freak."

And there it was: the hint of a smile on his face. That was all I was going to get, and frankly, it was all that I needed. Just a hint of a smile, just a maybe at happiness. That was enough for me right then.

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days…

Before he could look away again, I asked him, "So what did you think of le Christmas a la Max?"

I frowned when he looked away again, but then he said, "It was pretty amazing."

My heart, for some reason, gave one loud, irregular thump, jarring my chest like a bass drum.

Pretty amazing? Fang doesn't just say stuff like that.

He was smart enough to take my silence as a question.

"The mutt was happy, the kids and Ig were happy, you were happy…" he said, trailing off.

I said, "Yeah, but still, it was a pathetic excuse for a Christmas."

"Shut up, Max," he said, his voice suddenly becoming stiff. I was going to voice my surprise, but he went on, "It's the best Christmas they've ever had. You caused it. Just accept it. We're not other people. Don't compare us to them. Happiness isn't a pathetic excuse. Our lives aren't pathetic excuses, Max."

"That's- that's not what I meant, Fang."

"Then what did you mean?"

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days…

"I want more for them," I said quietly. "I want them to have what I can't give them."

I wish everyone was loved tonight

And somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days…

"Do you always have to be freaking Saint Max?" he muttered. I almost didn't hear it. Almost.

"Did you just call me-"

"I want more for them too, Max. You know that. But you just said that you can't give them everything you want to. But you do give them everything you can. And they love you for it. So stop torturing yourself. You may be the amazing Maximum Ride, but you can't do everything." He paused between each sentence, as if he were choosing his words even more carefully than usual.

"Okay," I said, my voice still at a low volume. I decided to change the subject back. "I thought it was Queen Max."

"It is."

"Then why did you call me Saint Max?"

"I didn't."

"You're such a liar!" I said too-loudly, making Gazzy groan in his sleep.

"Don't wake everyone up, Big Mouth."

"How do you go from calling me Saint Max to calling me Big Mouth?" I whispered.


If I was one ounce less mature, I would have growled at him right then.

"Why did you call me Saint Max?" I persisted.

"I didn't," he said, his tone almost convincing.

I hit him in the arm. I won't lie. It felt good. I went for the inevitable second hit, but in one swift motion, he caught the punch, enveloping my fist in his hand. Twice in one day. Man, I needed to kick some flyboy butt some time soon. I was starting to lose my touch.

"Now why would I call such a violent person a saint?" he asked, a hint of a smirk crossing his face as he looked at my fist in his hand. Hey, I said I liked hints of smiles, not hints of smirks.

"Can I have my hand back?" I asked, my voice tight as he tested my patience.

"You can have your fist back as long as you don't hit me anymore."

"What are you? Five? Do you want me to pinky swear, too? I won't hit you anymore, now let go."

"Thank you, Queen Max." He released my fist and watched it drop back to my side.

I'm going to kill him…

Fang then asked me again, "What's next?"

How does he change moods so quickly? He looked at me carefully, and I decided to not just make something up to get him off my back.

"I don't know, Fang. I really don't. My 'mission' is pretty much at a standstill. I have no coordinates, no instructions from the Voice except to 'lighten up for the holiday season,' no direction, no purpose… We're pretty much moving around from place to place just for the sake of moving. I don't like it. At all. I mean, I'm supposed to save the world, right? If it's so urgent, and if it's so important, then why am I here in a cave, sitting and waiting for flyboys to attack me? It's just so stupid! Does the world need to be saved or not? I can't stand all of this waiting and not knowing. If I don't do something soon, I'm gonna lose it, Fang. I'm just going to lose it. And don't tell me that I'm already halfway there, because-"

"Max, you're-"

"Because I already know that," I finished, not letting him interject.

Oh wow, didn't mean to let all that get out. Especially the part where I admitted that I was a few steps away from the crazy-house door. I mean, everyone in the flock already knew that, but I wasn't supposed to admit it out loud.

"You're not going to lose it, Max. Not all of it, anyways."

"How do you know that?" I said, starting another Nudge-like ramble, "I mean, my betraying jerkbutt of a dad talks to me inside of my head. I have to feed and take care of a family, and oh yeah, save their lives from time to time. Not to mention brain attacks, flyboys, Itex, and everything else. It's like my destiny isn't to save the world, it's to go insane thinking that I have to save the world! All this crap we've gone though, and my life, could all just be pointless."

As soon as the word 'pointless' came out of my mouth, he grabbed my hand and squeezed it so hard that I thought it would break. This time, I was the one looking away. I could tell that he was angry with me for saying that. I knew that he wanted me to stop, but I wasn't going to.

"I don't know what's next, I never know what's next. I can guess. I can pretend I know and make plans, but it's not up to me. What's next doesn't consult me before it happens, it just does. It throws itself in my face despite how much I try to avoid it, so what's the point of planning anything beyond it? I don't want to just sit here and take whatever is dished out to me, but I don't have a choice. But- I can't accept that… but I have to… It's just so…"

I wish everyone was loved tonight

And somehow stop this endless fight…

I tried to find the words, but I was too overwhelmed. I was exhausted and worried and just over it all-

"Can I have my hand back?" I said for the second time that night, the tightness returning to my voice.

"No. Not until you stop it," he said, his tone rigid and betraying his discontent with me.

"What are you? Five?" I said unenthusiastically as I leaned my head against the hard cave wall, not daring to let him see the emotions on my face. My hand was throbbing now with my too-loud pulse that was also pounding painfully in my chest.

"You're not pointless," he breathed.

I didn't say anything back. My hand in his had that warm, prickly, electrical feeling that signaled that it was going numb. What was with the death-grip? Was he afraid that if he let go, all of my craziness would explode out, and then he would have to mop up the cave floor?

And something only you can give…

"Let go," I commanded, my voice coming out strange and choked.

"No," he repeated, and I tried to control my suddenly erratic breathing.

He was so there. He was there for me.

And something only you can give…

They were all there for me, to save me when I needed saving. Because… everyone needs a savior- even Maximum Ride, the one destined to save the world, needed people to save her when she fell.

And the one poor child who saved this world

And there's ten million more who probably could

If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them…

That's why they were all there. To be with me, to be for me, to save me.

That's what I figured out this Christmas, kids. Everyone needs someone to save them, no matter how strong or smart or chosen-by-fate they are.

And something only you can give…

He was there for me, and as much as I didn't want to admit it, I needed him to be right where he was, beside me, crushing my hand and telling me not to be so stupid.

And something only you can give

And that's faith and trust and peace while we're alive…

"Okay. I know. Sorry," I said.

He knew what I meant.

"Circulation," I added.

His hand loosened instantly. Then he started to move, as if he were going to get up and give me some space.

My hand tightened around his reflexively. My face got hot when I realized what I'd done, but I didn't take it back.

"Stay," was the soft command that came out as I bravely ventured to look at him again.

"Okay," he said gently, not moving a fraction of an inch more.

He was there for me, right where I needed him to be.

He always watched over me; he was always ready for another brain attack or for me to do something life-threatening and stupid. It annoys me sometimes, but if I'm being painfully honest with myself, I can't really blame him.


If I'm being painfully honest with myself, I needed him to do just that.

If I'm being really painfully honest with myself… I wanted him to do just that.

Our first real Christmas was over, and what I got was something that I'd always had. And it meant more to me than anything. My family had my back, always, and we all loved each other. That was what would keep us together. That's why we wouldn't lose. That's what made everything worth it.

Tonight's the night the world begins again…

It most definitely wasn't a sad excuse for a Christmas. Forget I ever said that.

What was it? How can I possibly describe it?

Oh wait, I've got it.

It was the bestest freaking Christmas ever.

Everyone needs someone to save them. Even you. Good lesson for Max to learn on Christmas, huh?
Have you listened to "Better Days" yet? If not, you really should. Love that song.
Please review. And thanks a million.


8. Tonight's the Night

When I came back, I caught Max and Angel in the middle of a conversation. I might have been imagining things, but Max's face looked like it was flushed, and somehow Angel looked guilty and smug at the same time. I stopped short, not wanting to get into the middle of it.

"Angel!" Max said with her trademark scolding tone, "Stop reading my mind!"

Instead of looking ashamed like she usually did when she was caught abusing her powers, Angel just blinked. "You really don't get what it meant when it said you were standing in it?" Angel asked, steering the conversation in a different direction.

Who was she talking about? Standing in what?

Max replied, "Well, no. But- it doesn't matter now, because-"

"Well, actually, I guess you would have to put on a black sweatshirt or something to qualify, but-"

"What are you talking about?" Max's eyes were confused and impatient. I had no idea what on earth was going on, and apparently, Max didn't either.

I decided to make my presence known and said, "I have one. Why does she need it?"

"I don't need a black sweatshirt!" Max so-kindly informed me.

Ignoring Max, Angel said, "Because when Max was shopping for yo-"

A cry from Total halted Angel's explanation. "Arf! Er- I mean- help!"

He appeared and darted by, with a single piece of duct tape attached to his back flailing in the wind like a little flag, closely followed by Iggy.

"Come back here, you rodent!" Iggy yelled, his handy roll of duct tape at the ready.

"Pin the tape on the rodent?" I asked, enjoying the endless bounds of my own humor.

Max gave me a look, and I knew she wanted to know how much of the conversation I'd heard.

Just then, Total broke the gaze by jumping up into my arms.

"Save me!" Total squeaked.

Why does the mutt come to me for help?

"You said arf," I said to him, deflating his pride a little more.

He frowned at me and said, "I revert back to my natural instincts when I'm fighting for survival, okay? Sheesh."

"Fighting for survival?" I said dryly.

"You can't hide from me, Total," Iggy hissed, "I can hear your frightened little heart beating like Big Foot walking through a ballet studio."

Iggy advanced toward me, pulling a portion of the tape off the roll with his teeth.

"What'd you do?" I asked Total, not moving.

"Nothing! Now save me!"

"Save yourself," I said as I threw Total up into the air.

Angel watched in horror as his wings shot out and struggled to keep him aloft. I turned my head in case I couldn't hold in a chuckle at seeing the frantic look on Total's face.

What? I wasn't being mean, the mutt has wings; he should use them.

He began to fall, and Angel shot up into the air without even a running start, catching him in her arms and furiously glaring at me and Iggy as Total screeched about having seen his life flash before his beady little eyes.

Celeste fell out of Angel's jacket pocket, and I caught her, not wanting to give Angel another reason to want to whap me in the back of the head with one of her wings.

Angel landed, and Iggy walked toward her, following the sound of Total's heartbeats.

"Lay another finger on him, and then I'll use my powers to force you to wrap yourself in that duct tape, and then I'll leave you here. And guess what? No one. Will ever. Find you," Angel said.

I wouldn't be surprised if she spit venom after she said that. Six-year-olds are so violent nowadays, aren't they?

"Angel!" Max interjected, probably appalled at the fact that Angel was threatening to use mind control on Iggy and leave him in the woods forever. That's my guess, anyway.

Iggy said to Total, "Saved by an Angel again. Don't expect to be so lucky next time."

With that, he put the roll back on his wrist and stalked off, with Angel calling behind him, "There's not going to be a next time!"

"Get the tape off, Angel, it burns," Total said overdramatically.

"Okay. It might hurt a little, though, but you're gonna be just fine," she responded in a mother-like way. And I thought Max was aging too quickly…

Angel pulled at a corner of the tape and slowly began to pull it off. Total squealed like a pig as his paws flailed around. "The pain is too much! Make it stop! What have I done to deserve this suffering?"

"Gimme a break," Max said, echoing my thoughts.

Angel started to pull the tape faster, but Total just howled and moaned louder. Then she frowned and pulled the rest off in one quick motion. Total yelped again, and Angel's eyes widened seeing all the black fur that was stuck to the tape. Total glanced at it, and then he passed out.

"Total! No!"

Max told her, "It's okay, Angel. He'll be fine. He's just being a weenie."

If anyone else had said that, Angel would have made them punch themselves. But she just nodded at Max with big eyes and said, "I'm gonna go get him some water."

"Will you check on Gazzy and Nudge while you're there? They were playing cards by the river about an hour ago," Max said, not even pretending to care about Total's passed-out state. "And pick up Iggy on the way? He shouldn't be far. Stay with him… and don't make him hurt himself," Max added.

It's sad that that instruction was necessary.

"Okay," Angel said obediently as she got ready to take off.

"Angel," I said, holding Celeste out to her.

"Just look after her until I get back," she said. She did a running start and took off, cradling her big baby of a dog.

As Angel escaped our sight, I looked at the bear in my hand.

What am I supposed to do with this?

Max sighed quietly, and I walked over to her.

"Any idea what she was talking about?" she asked.

"No clue. Hold this," I said, putting Celeste on top of her folded arms. She took the bear in her hand, held it up to her face, examined it, and started fixing an untied bow on one of the sleeves. I almost smiled.

And something only you can give…

When she was satisfied, she stuck Celeste inside her jacket and said, "I can't believe it's already been a week."

I nodded, looking up at the sky.

It's been a week since "le Christmas a la Max." The week had gone by pretty fast, and it was already New Year's Eve. We'd logged hundreds of miles in those seven short days, but we hadn't heard from Itex or anyone at all.

Maybe they did have that office Christmas party and they're still recovering. Fine by me. We could use the break. I'm sure as soon as their little holiday vacation is over, they'll jump right back in to their whole annihilate-half-of-the-world game, and we'll jump right back in to kicking their evil butts.

Over the past seven days, Gazzy stopped snoring. I mean, completely- not even a little wheeze. Needless to say, we're all sleeping better. Still not sleeping well, but definitely better. Angel's and Nudge's unexplained fits of giggles directed at me have died down, but they haven't disappeared completely. I'm still determined not to ask what that's about, because I still have that feeling that I really don't want to know.

Everyone is still enjoying Max's gifts. Every once in a while, I'll catch Angel staring at Celeste in her new dress and smoothing the wrinkles out of it. It's a little dirtier now, but not nearly as dirty as Celeste herself.

The edges on Gazzy's cards are already worn down from being used so much, and the box is slightly bent from Max hitting Iggy in the head with it. She hit him after he threatened to throw a card at Gazzy after he broke green wind. I really don't think you can kill someone or cut their neck open by throwing a card at them now that I think about it, and neither does Iggy, but Max doesn't want to take that chance.

It took them all about half a week to realize why their games weren't working out right- I still had the Ace of Hearts. I completely forgot that I had it. It's amazing how one missing card can affect the whole deck. Angel's getting really good at poker- without using mind-reading, she tells us- and I don't know if we should be concerned about that or not.

Nudge still rambles on and on about how she loves her necklace, and the way it dances around while she's talking has become an integral part of all that is the Nudge Channel.

Iggy has started using his duct tape for his bombs- you know, those ones that I'm not supposed to know about. He also used it to hold his right shoe together, to patch up a hole in one of his shirts, and sometimes he wears it on his wrist. He's such a… goof.

As for me, I put all my important files on the flash drive right before Iggy's watch and right after I updated my blog on Christmas night. I keep it in my pocket at all times, so unless I get pancaked, it'll be safe. And let's all hope that no one gets pancaked.

Max and I hadn't spoken about what happened on Christmas night since then, and we both preferred to keep it that way. We were both there; there was no need to talk about it. Thinking about it, on the other hand, was definitely not off-limits…

I'm not completely sure how to interpret what happened, but I'm sure it's nothing major and that I shouldn't waste too many hours going over it in my mind.

Max looked up at the sky with me, saying, "You think we could watch the ball drop in New York City from your laptop tonight?"

We'd watched the ball drop on TV once with Jeb, a few years ago. Actually, Max, Iggy, and I had been the only ones who had stayed awake long enough. I had watched the TV in silence as Max happily described everything to Iggy. It seemed like such a huge deal to us back then.

"Sure," I said, watching a single black bird streak across the sky. I actually started to feel sorry for it for a second. It wasn't lucky like me; it didn't have a flock. I know, calling myself lucky seems stupid, but it's true. I've always known that. I would never give up my wings or flying or my family for a different life.

"It'll be fun," she said, watching the same bird, "Right?"

It took her a moment to notice that I had walked away and was kneeling on the ground with my back to her, going through my pack.

"Hey! I was talking to you!"

When I didn't respond, she came over and said, "Fang, you can't just walk away like that when I'm talking to-"

"Here," I said, abruptly standing and turning to face her. She looked at the object I was holding out curiously, not knowing what to do.

"Merry Christmas," I said quickly as she gingerly took it out of my hand.

"Is this… a flower… made out of Iggy's duct tape?"

"It's a rose," I said lamely, suddenly wanting to be anywhere but there.

She turned it around very slowly in her hand, and I looked at all the little imperfections it had. I didn't think it was that bad; it was definitely better than my first three attempts. Then again, the signs of my impatience and my childhood void of arts and crafts were written all over it.

"So… you made this?" she asked with humor in her voice.

So now she was mocking me?


She paused, taking up a vacant stare.

"Max?" I said, wondering what was wrong with her.

"So… you made this?" I asked, wondering if my eyes deceived me, showing me embarrassment coming from Fang. I was surprised at the fact that he made a flower, of all things.

"Maybe," he said back.

I wanted to laugh, but I thought he might take it the wrong way if I did. I don't know why he felt the need to-

Wow, Mr. Raincloud made Maximum a flower. That's adorable. See what happens when you lighten up for the holidays?

Shut up, I told the Voice.

It always had the most convenient timing…

You know, it kind of reminds me of you. I bet Fang agrees with me.

What are you talking about?

Don't play dumb, Max, I'm talking about the flower. It's… stealthy… It's unconventional. It was made for a good reason. It's a bit rough around the edges, but that's what makes it perfect. It's not like other flowers, but it's still beautiful, nonetheless. It's still a flower. Just like you, Maximum.

Are you trying to make me barf?

I faintly heard Fang trying to say something, but I held a hand up, telling him to wait.

Someone doesn't know how to take a compliment.

I don't want your compliments, and I don't want you in my head!

Well, that's just too bad… on both accounts. Now, thank the boy for the Max-flower before he flies away and beats his head against a tree.

The- the Max-flower? You're nuts!

Probably. At least, that's how I acted at the Itex office Christmas party. Man, that party was a killer.

The Voice went to the Itex office Christmas party?

Wait, Itex had an office Christmas party?

This is too much.

Happy New Year's Eve, Maximum.

Hold on, you-

Sorry. I must be off now. Things to do, New Year's parties to attend. Goodbye for now, Black Stuff for Difficult Teenage Boys Department. Well, now that I think about it, you would actually have to do a race-change to qualify. Or put on a black sweatshirt. I'm sure Fang has one, you should borrow it.

I'm the Black Stuff for Difficult Teenage Boys Department? That doesn't make any-


And here I was this whole time, thinking it was talking about a microwave!

You're a sick, sick voice. That's not even funny, you sick…

And then it was gone.

Of course it was gone.

Of course.

"Max?" I repeated. Her eyes were directed at my arm, but I knew she wasn't really looking at it. "Are you talking to the-"

She held up her hand, signaling for me to hold on.

When her eyes finally lost the glazed-over look, they locked with mine, looking frustrated.

"You okay?"

She breathed in sharply and grabbed her head in her hand, saying, "Stan- stand behind me for a second."

Without question, I hurried to stand behind her. The hand clutching her temple fell to her side, her legs gave out, and she collapsed into my arms, her wings drooping and getting in my way.

I caught her underneath her arms, and I gently lowered her into a sitting position, not liking the feeling of her dead weight. She didn't move for way too long, and the deepest part of my stomach started to feel sick.

"Max? Wake up, Max, come on," I said, still kneeling behind her and holding her up in a sitting position.

After a minute or two, she took in another sharp breath, but my momentary relief was replaced with more concern as she muttered a curse and grabbed her temple with both hands. She started trembling underneath my fingertips in pain, and it sounded like she was suppressing a scream.

I wanted to kill whoever was doing this to her…

"Thanks," I heard her suddenly say through gritted teeth.

"Can you sit up on your own?" I asked, unable to see her face as her wings came back to life.

"Yep. And I can also tie my own shoes," she said sharply, shrinking away from my protective grasp.

She was being sarcastic. That meant she was either fine or in good enough condition to pretend that she was fine. I let go and went to sit in front of her.

"It was just the Voice," she said before I could ask, as she tried to casually wipe the sheen of sweat off her forehead, "And a mini brain-attack. No big deal."

I let the "no big deal" comment go, knowing there was no point in telling her that it was, in fact, a big deal.

"What did it say?" I asked, wondering if the Voice had finally given her the coordinates or instructions she's been waiting for, as my pulse finally returned to normal. Well, normal for a bird-kid, anyway.

"Um, it said Happy New Year's Eve."

Great. How thoughtful.

"Is that all?" I said patiently, knowing that it wasn't.

"And… it said the Itex office Christmas party went well."

I was about to persist with trying to find out what information the Voice gave when my mind actually registered what she had said. "They actually have those?"

"Apparently," she said, looking like she was struggling to keep her head up. She added in a mumble, "And apparently the Voice is now the freaky in-head version of The Love Doctor."

"The… Love Doctor?"

"Nothing," she said, making a dismissing gesture, as if it would erase my memory.

"Nothing about your mission? No directions or advice?"

"Not the kind of advice you would expect," she said vaguely.

"What kind of advice?" I asked, getting tired of prying the answers from her.

Ignoring my question, she started scanning the ground around her. Knowing what she was looking for, I looked behind me and picked up the flower that she had dropped. The stupid feeling returned as I handed it back to her, and I completely forgot the question I had just asked her.

Feeling anxious just sitting there, I stood up and stretched my wings, shaking some of the dirt and tension out.

"Where are you going?" Max asked from the ground.

"Nowhere," I assured her. "Just standing."

She also stood, but she almost fell again. I grabbed her arm to keep her up, but she reflexively flung my hand away and stubbornly said, "I've got it."

As soon as I let go, she stumbled forward and her wings shot out to help her stay balanced.

"You okay?"

"Just peachy," she said.

"Good," I said, letting a weary smile slip. I don't even know why I smiled. Having a liable-to-collapse-again-any-second Max on my hands should have made me do anything but smile.

But she smiled back, and the thought crossed my mind that maybe smiling once in a blue moon wasn't so bad if it made her smile, too…

"It's perfect, Fang. The flower, I mean," she told me, giving my already-faded smile a reason.

Overstatement much? Then again, I'd thought that she hated it. Not that there was no reason to hate it, I'm just saying…

"Thank you," she said, sounding undeniably earnest.

"You're welcome."

Arguing from a distance away disrupted the silence that was growing between us. The flock landed, and Nudge and Gazzy were going at it.

"Hey, don't tell them about the Voice or anything," Max said quietly, "I don't want to get them worried over nothing."

"You got it," I said, staring at the back of her head while she stared at the approaching flock. She stuck the makeshift rose into her inner jacket pocket, removing Celeste to give back to Angel.

"You cheated!" Gazzy argued.

Not this again…

"It's not called cheating, it's called winning!" Nudge shot back.

"Thirty-two games in a row is not winning," he said, as everyone tried not to laugh at the fact that he'd lost thirty-two games of cards. "You cheated."

"You're just mad because I beat you!"

"You're just mad because I figured out you were cheating all along!"

"And I'm just happy that we're all accounted for and that we're getting a move on," Max said, stepping between the two, showing no sign of the collapse she'd just had.

"Where are we going?" Nudge asked, effectively distracted.

"South," Max said with a smile.

"Sweet, we're migrating again!" Gazzy said, already having forgotten about the argument.

"Yep," Max said, swiping a twig out of Gazzy's hair.

"How's the patient?" Max asked Angel.

"He's going to make it, because he's a fighter," Total said from Angel's arms.

Angel smiled, and Max held out Celeste for her to take.

"Could you just hold onto her until Total is better? She says she doesn't like staying in my backpack, and I can't hold her and Total at the same time."

"Um, sure," Max said, tucking Celeste back into her inside pocket along with the flower, probably putting off the fact that Angel still believed Celeste could talk to deal with later.

"Well, let's go," she said decidedly. She picked up her pack and Iggy's. She handed it to him and said, "You ready, Ig?"

"Always ready when you are, Fearless Leader."

She hit him and then shot into the air seemingly effortlessly, being the deceptive and incredible leader she is, followed by the rest of us.

"That's a big ball," Gazzy commented, eyes wide as the clock in the corner of the screen ticked down. An announcer named Chuck rattled off statistics about the ball as the crazy people behind the barrier behind him tried to jump into his shot.

"That would make an awesome bomb," Iggy commented from my left. "Imagine if we dropped a slugger like that on Itex?"

"Yeah, I'm sure the tons of confetti would frighten the daylights out of them," Max said from my right.

The three of us, with our wings tucked in, were sitting on the wide edge of an old, rickety dock, on the end opposite of the end above the water. The kids and Total were sitting a few feet in front of us in the sand, gathered around my laptop. We were on an abandoned stretch of beach, and the cloudy sky was a dark sheet of black over us. It was a little warmer here than where we had been for Christmas, so we had shed our jackets and stuck to just a couple of layers of clothing.

"Hey! I know him!" Angel said excitedly, pointing at the screen.

"Who?" Max asked with alarm, leaning in front of me to see the screen since Gazzy was in her way.

Please don't let it be Gozen reincarnated or someone trying to by-half Times Square, I thought as Max blocked my view. I had the urge to push her out of the way, but then I remembered that I wasn't supposed to be agitating her.

"It's President Danning!" Nudge informed us cheerfully.

"Gaz, scoot to your right," I said, so Max wouldn't have to block me to see.

"Yes sir, Fang sir," he said with a cackle. He scooted, and Max moved out of my way.

A female announcer who spoke with a light Spanish accent smiled at us with chattering teeth and said, "President Danning and the First Lady are here tonight in the Big Apple to have the honor of dropping the ball on Time's Square. The First Lady is looking as elegant as ever with her red and white ensemble, along with a lovely navy scarf that was given to her on her recent charity trip to India. The pair is scheduled for a second trip to India. Actually, their plane leaves in just six hours. Those two never rest, do they? At a press conference two days ago, the President said, 'This job is only guaranteed for a short time, so I'm going to do everything positive that I can while I still have the opportunity.' Well, before he goes back to his mission of raising awareness in India, he's going to push the button and shower some confetti on his constituents. It's going to be great. Back to you, Chuck."

"I knew there was a reason I liked him," Angel said, beaming.

"Those two, in a weird way, remind me of us," Max said to me.

I raised my eyebrows. "Us?"

She shook her head. "No, not you and me, I meant all of us," she said.

I thought about it for a second and then said, "Yeah, they do… except that they're, you know, clean. And they wear 'elegant ensembles' and 'lovely scarves.' And they have people protecting them. And they can be seen in public. And they're older than fourteen. And they're not on the run. And they have food, and a home. And-"

"I got it," Max interrupted, frowning.

I stopped watching the screen to study her face.

"Sorry," I finally said. I usually wasn't one to apologize for anything, but I hadn't meant to upset her right then with… reality.

I wish everyone was loved tonight

And somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days…

"It's okay," she said dully, turning back to the screen.

A close-up of President Danning and his wife appeared. He was smiling, but his eyes were exhausted and his face had aged since we'd met him all those months ago. I could definitely see similarities between him and Max.

"Mrs. Danning is really pretty," Nudge observed. "Her teeth are perfectly straight, and shiny, too. Ooh, and look at her earrings! Are those pearls?"

Nudge has always had a taste for the glamorous and… pretty junk. I'm not quite sure where she got that from, considering that hole we all grew up in. Then again, I'm not quite sure how any of us can act normal (well, relatively normal) after what we went through.

"Do you think she's pretty, Max?" Angel asked.

"Yeah, I do," Max said without hesitation.

"I do, too," Angel said. "But she's not as pretty as you, Max," she added, smiling sweetly.

Max cocked an eyebrow as Angel turned back around. Iggy snorted. I looked at Max to see her reaction, but she whispered to me with a tight jaw, "Shut up."

I laughed in my head. Of course she would react like that.

"One minute, guys!" Nudge exclaimed.

Total and the kids started counting down in unison.

"Fifty-nine! Fifty-eight! Fifty-seven! Fifty-six! Fifty-seven!"

Gazzy, Nudge, and Total turned to look at Angel, who wore a guilty smile. "Sorry. I forgot we were counting backwards."

They all started laughing as the three of us watched them, happy that they were having fun. When they caught their breath, the countdown continued, with Angel hesitating a bit before each number.

"Forty-five! Forty-four! Forty-three! Forty-five!"

Angel slapped her forehead, laughing loudly, and everyone laughed with her this time.

The sound from the laptop was almost deafening as over a million half-frozen people in New York City counted down to the New Year. The ball was rapidly descending, and I don't know why, but I couldn't remember any of my problems at that moment. My brain couldn't recall a single reason to not to just enjoy the moment… call me crazy.

I wish everyone was loved tonight

And somehow stop this endless fight…

By the time they got to twenty, Total was prancing around happily, dancing to rhythm of the countdown and the kids' hysterical laughter.


Nudge turned to Max, Iggy, and me with big eyes and said, "Why aren't you guys counting down?"

Immediately, Iggy and Max started counting down with the kids and all the people in the world who greet the new year with New York, getting a big smile from Nudge. Iggy was wearing a huge smirk for some reason, and it grew with each second.

Max elbowed me in the ribs.

"What? Oh- uh, twelve…"


A flash of white light temporarily blinded me as a bomb exploded about twenty feet away, spraying sand everywhere. My heart started racing as I braced myself and Max simultaneously ducked and grabbed my wrist.


"What the-?" Max yelled as she looked up to see if everyone was okay.


Gazzy looked at Iggy and deafly yelled, "You set it off early!"


"Oops," Iggy said, grinning. The kids laughed more.


"You knew about it?" Max asked Gazzy accusingly.


"Everyone knew about it!" Gaz yelled, unable to tell how loud he was. "Except for you and Fang!"


Max spun to face Iggy. "You told everyone but me and Fang?"


"You wouldn't want me to scare the kids, now would you?" Iggy said with a menacing grin.

"Three!" he shouted, preventing Max from saying anything else.

I looked down at her hand, which was still urgently clutching my wrist. I could feel her nerves pulsing through her fingertips…


She followed my gaze down to her own hand, and her eyes widened in slight horror. She hastily looked back up at my face, embarrassed, probably thinking, Why does this keep happening?

And something only you can give…

"One," I mouthed as I looked at her. She looked back at me, dumbfounded, until shouts of "Happy New Year!" broke her trance. Her hand slid off of my skin as she turned to look at the others, avoiding my involuntarily incessant stare.

"That was awesome!" Gazzy yelled, snapping me out of my own trance as he watched all the happy dancing and screaming people in Times Square.

"Look at all that confetti!" Nudge said, eyes shining.

"My favorite part was the flying sand," Iggy said, snickering.

"I'm gonna strangle you," Max told him, but she didn't look at him, because then she would have to look past me.

Iggy ignored the threat to get up and spin Angel around over his head a few times. She was saying, "Iggy! Stop! Put me down!" but the way she was laughing like a mini-maniac, I don't really think she wanted him to put her down. Total started dancing again, this time joined by Gazzy.

Wow, they're pretty terrible dancers. They look like they were pulled right out of The Charlie Brown Christmas Special… like Linus… and Snoopy…

Oh man, I'm laughing.

I put my head down and failed miserably at trying to hide how I was shaking with silent laughter. Max finally looked at me, probably out of well-founded concern for my sanity.

I quickly and expertly regained my composure and said to her while looking at Total and Gazzy, "Snoopy and Linus."

"Really?" she said, looking amused, "I was thinking more along the lines of Snoopy and Pigpen."

Heh. I guess we could all qualify as Pigpens. Though Max sort of reminds me of the girl who always pulls the football away from Charlie Brown…

I started laughing again, a little harder, as Max gave me the crazy-look that I usually give her.

The mean girl with the black hair and blue dress? You mean Lucy? That's not nice, Fang, Angel thought to me. She looked at me seriously, but then she started giggling, not able to keep up the act.

Iggy left Angel to join the Peanuts gang, Nudge was still glued to the laptop screen, and Angel came over and crawled up into my lap, before Max could ask what was going on.

"Happy New Year, Fang," Angel said in that terribly sweet way of hers that assured me that I did have a heart somewhere in there. Her eyes were happy and tired as she let her wings extend all the way out and tried to wrap her tiny arms all the way around my torso.

"Back atcha," I said, easily wrapping one arm all the way around her to hold her in place. Her head rested on my shoulder comfortably, and her eyelids started to flutter.

"Are you getting tired, sweetie?" Max said softly from my left, pushing the blonde curls back as Angel lifted her head from my shoulder to look at Max. She nodded, and then her head found its way back to my shoulder.

Max delicately laid a hand on Angel's arm, saying, "Then we'll all go to sleep. But you're not sleeping right there, so come on, get up."

Angel murmured incoherently, closing her eyes and holding tighter to me. It felt so good to have her there clinging to me, because it meant that she wasn't at the School and that she was safe, because they'd have to kill me and the rest of the flock twice before they could ever take her from us again.

"They'd have to kill you twice? That's really sweet, Fang," Angel said, looking up at me.

"You really need to stop reading my thoughts, Angel," I said as sternly as I could manage at the moment, which I'm sure wasn't very stern at all.

"But yours are my favorite," she whispered, burying her head once again. I exchanged a glance with Max, and Max nodded, signaling that she would talk to Angel about it later, but failing to hide another look of amusement on her face.

My thoughts are her favorite? Why? Does that mean she reads my mind the most? That's… not good…

We heard a sniffle from Nudge's direction, and Max asked, "You okay, Nudge?"

Nudge sniffed again and said, "That guy right there being interviewed just proposed to the lady next to him."

"He just up and proposed to some lady next to him? That's awkward," Max said. "Why would he-"

"No, no, no," Nudge said, "They've been together for fifteen years, and he finally asked her to marry him. It's so sweet and sad, at the same time! Like that sauce! What's it called?"

"A1 Sauce?" Total guessed while doing the mashed potato dance.

"No, no, that other sauce," Nudge said, bouncing with the effort of trying to remember. "The kind that you put on egg rolls!"

"Sweet and sour sauce?" Gazzy said as the Peanuts gang stopped their antics to crowd back around my laptop.

"Yeah! That one!" Nudge said, turning her necklace back around since the pendant had gone behind her in her bouncy remembrance efforts. "It's like sweet and sour sauce!"

"Wow, that guy sure is slow," Iggy commented. "I mean, fifteen years?"

"Be quiet, Iggy," Nudge said, "You didn't hear the whole story!"

They argued amongst themselves while the rest of us, aside from our sleepy Angel, watched the random reporters stationed at different spots point out newly-engaged couples. I didn't really care to watch. I mean, that's great and all for those people, but being the slight realist that I am, I couldn't help wondering how many of them would end up staying together. The statistics aren't really in their favor, and they're not statistic-defying wonder-freaks like us.

"Time to go to sleep, guys," Max said, interrupting my thoughts.

A few useless groans came, but the kids were all actually pretty tired, so they only half-grudgingly complied with Max's wishes.

"Going to sleep so early?" Iggy protested, "It's a new year! We are compelled to celebrate and bask in its glory!"

"It's after midnight, you did celebrate, and you have the whole rest of the year to bask in its glory," Max pointed out. "You'll just have to bask in the glory of sleep for now."

"You're still mad about the bomb, aren't you?"

"Thanks for reminding me, Ig, I was just starting to forget about that," Max said, standing up.

"Uh-oh," Angel said, starting to lose the sleepy look in her eyes.

Iggy felt Max approaching as he said, "What's a little explosion between friends, Fearless Leader?"

"Remember what you said about love, Iggy?" she asked, getting a look in her eye that should have scared Iggy if he had been able to see it.

"Um, that it hurt?"

"Get ready to feel the love," Max said, cracking her knuckles loudly.

Iggy instantly started running, which was a good decision on his part, closely followed by Max.

"Halp!" Iggy mock-cried. "She's gunner keel me!"

"You're going to need halp in a second, bird-boy!" Max shouted as they disappeared from sight.

A few minutes and a few bruises later, they were back, and Iggy was conveniently ready to do what Max wanted and go to sleep.

"You're just not nice," Iggy said, frowning and rubbing his arm.

"Really? I didn't notice," Max said, her hair windswept and cheeks tinged pink with the effort of chasing Iggy and giving him the reserved-for-loved-ones-only beat-down.

Angel left my lap and appeared at Max's side, saying, "There's a nice cavern down the beach a ways, Max. I think we could sleep there."

"Okay, sweetie. We'll scope it out, see if it's safe," Max said, picking up and handing Angel's pack to her and adjusting the strap once she put it on.

Iggy shot into the air, saying, "Come, kiddies! We must scope out the cavern for our leader dearest!"

"Oh crap," Max said under her breath, ignoring Iggy once again. "Hey guys, we probably need to get rid of any obvious bomb evidence…"

More groans came, and Max sighed. "Fine, you all go and scope out the cavern, and I'll do it myself. I'll catch up."

"No, Max, I'll help you," Nudge offered, starting to take her pack off.

"No, it's fine. Really," Max said, looking at Nudge's tired eyes.

"You sure?" Gazzy asked.

"Yep. Now go," Max commanded, and Total, Angel, Gazzy, and Nudge obediently rose into the air beside Iggy, taking off toward the cavern. I watched them until they were out of my vision and then got up.

"Don't tell me you're staying behind to help me clean up exploded bomb bits," Max said.

"I'm not. I just needed to turn off my laptop and get my pack," I said, brushing past her.

I could imagine her mouth opening in disgust or protest, and I laughed to myself as I walked to my laptop. You can't blame me; she's fun to pick on. She stood in the same spot and watched me as I kneeled down to turn off the computer, but before I could turn it off, she softly said, "Hold on."

"What?" I said, taking my hand away from the laptop.

She approached me tentatively. "Come look at the stars and the water with me," she said with an innocent tone, making my heart constrict. She gave me an Angel-esque look that only someone without a heart could ignore, and as we've already established, I do in fact have one of those.

This time she was the one brushing past me. She hesitated for a second as she looked toward the end of the dock, but she quickly gathered herself and started walking again. She was acting unusual, but I didn't say a word about it. As I followed her down the old dock that didn't give me confidence in its ability to hold our weight, I wondered what had prompted her sudden change.

We made our way all the way down to the opposite end, and she sat down and looked up at the sky, swinging her legs above the water in a carefree way that just didn't suit her at all. I automatically took my place beside her, wondering if my suspicions were just products of my overactive paranoia or if something was really up.

"There are so many stars," she said at a whisper, as if any louder volume would disrupt the countless stars themselves. "Aren't they pretty?"

I looked up and noticed that the black blanket of clouds had turned into just patches of cloud here and there, revealing the stars we were now gazing at.

"Uh, yeah?" I said, wondering why she was asking.

"Can I see your flash drive for a second?" she asked out of nowhere.

"Sure," I said, taking it out of my pocket and slipping it into her hand, trying to think of but not voicing any question to reasons for why she would want it at that particular moment. She turned it over in her hand once before she set it on the dock a few feet behind herself

"Now, Fang, take a good look at the water and tell me if you think it's pretty," she said, no longer speaking at a whisper.


Before I knew what was happening, she was powerfully pushing me forward, and I was crashing through the dark water. Someone was feeling better. Suspicions confirmed, huh?

I hit the water with a gut-wrenching splash, and the force shocked me for a second. A very short second, mind you. I could hear Max's distorted laughter from above, and as I quickly got myself together, my first thought was, She did not just do that.

And then my second thought was, I did not just fall for that.

Well, two could play Max's game, especially since she was feeling better and had recovered from her no-big-deal episode earlier on. I rapidly formed my plan of attack and stayed underwater as long as I could stand, out of her sight.

You know what's about to happen.

She was gonna get it.

She had stood up and backed away to avoid getting wet, but as she started to get concerned, she sat back down to get a better look at the water.

I waited awhile until she said what I knew she would say eventually: "Fang?"

My head burst through the water as I locked my arms around both of her legs and she gave a small yelp. She threw her wings out as if they would act like brakes, but I dragged her in too quickly. I pulled her under and didn't let go until she gave me a weak, water-slowed kick to the chest.

She gave me a satisfying enraged look as I let go and swam upwards away from her. As soon as I took my eyes off of her, she took hold of my foot and started to drag me back down. I had the urge to grab her arm and drag her down farther just for fun, but we don't have gills or anything asinine like that, so we were running out of that nice stuff we call oxygen.

Against her vengeful wishes, I pushed my wings powerfully through the water and brought us both to the surface, both coughing violently like idiots. We simultaneously dragged ourselves back up onto the dock, wearily getting reacquainted with amazing, breathable oxygen. I sat where she had been sitting before, and she let herself fall backwards, laying where I had been sitting. As the air helped me regain my ability to put thoughts together, my blood pressure rose again, readying me to spring back into action in case any more friendly revenge was being planned on the Max front.

I chanced a glance at Max, and she was swiping wet, moonlit tangles of hair away from her face. She tugged at her wet clothes and coughed a few more times. Then she became deathly still as she looked straight up at the sky. My blood pressure calmed down a bit when she said, "You know, seriously, they really are pretty."

I looked back up at the sky that was the closest thing to what we could call a home.

"Yeah… Now that I've looked at it, the water really is pretty, too."

Max snorted. I chuckled, and she started laughing, accompanied with renewed fits of coughing. She sat back up and pushed my shoulder as she choked happily.

She was still laughing when she picked up the flash drive and stood up to go back. I looked up at her- a wet, dripping mess, laughing and waiting for me to go with her. Waiting…

"I'm sorry, Max," I blurted out, abruptly making the air around us change.

Since when do I blurt things out?

She waved the dismissing hand, and I looked away from her, back to the water. "It's fine," she said, "That was really stupid, but… it was kinda fun."

She was talking about what had just happened, but that's not what I was talking about.

"No, Max," I started, knowing I couldn't go on without doing what had to be done, knowing that I couldn't look death in the face with the unpardoned guilt of tearing her apart, knowing that I couldn't wait another year or another month or another second without saying something.

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear…

"What is it?" she asked, still standing and wanting to get going, having no way of knowing what was coming next.

"I'm sorry… that I left you."

Max frowned. "Left me? When did you-"

"And that I split our flock, and that I wasn't there when you needed me."

Her eyes changed as she realized what I was referring to, and she turned to face me.

"And for not believing you."

She opened her mouth to interrupt me, but I wasn't done.

"And I'm sorry for giving up your trust," I finished, all too aware of how my clenched fist was turning my knuckles white without even looking down at it.

I didn't look at her, and for the longest time she just stood there without saying anything. Her silence was killing me.

And something only you can give

And that's faith and trust and peace while we're alive…

"Yeah, you did leave me," she finally said, her voice sounding bitter in my ears.

I sat there, helpless for once, waiting for her to go on.

"Yeah, you took away half on my family, which was taking away half of what I live for."

I knew that. I knew it, and I hated it.

"And yeah, for a while you weren't there… when I needed you."

Her voice turned sad and got softer.

"When I needed you, Fang," she repeated. "I needed you then, and I need you now."

I could have said a hundred things right then, but of course, I didn't say any of them.

"And when you left, you did make it harder for me to trust you. But you can't really blame me for being a little wary after that, can you?"

"I don't."

"Okay, then."

I started to get a headache, hating how she just confirmed that she couldn't trust me.

"Do you actually think that I don't trust you at all?" she asked.

"No," I replied. I knew she trusted me to an extent.

"Fang, when you left, I may have trusted you less, but I still trusted you more than anyone else. And if you actually thought that I didn't trust you with my life anymore or that I didn't forgive you a long time ago for that, then you're just an idiot."

Yeah. That definitely makes me an idiot.

How could she still trust me more than anyone else after what I did? She had to be just saying that.

She stood there, looking down at me and reading my face.

"You don't believe me, do you?" She gave me a disbelieving look and said, "I think you're the one who doesn't trust me."

"What?" I said. Was she kidding me? That's the most absurd thing…

"You say you're sorry for not believing me back then, but I'm telling you that I trust you now and always did, and you're refusing to believe it!"

"No, I'm-" I paused. "-sorry. You're right."

I couldn't stop messing things up to save my life, could I?

She finally resumed her spot at my side. "Give yourself a break, Fang. Listen to me. I forgive you. I trust you. Now more than before. Especially since Christmas…"

And that's faith and trust and peace while we're alive…

It was the first time either of us had mentioned that since it had happened, and I thought back to that night, calming her down and then sitting with her in the silence.

She completed the role reversal by laying a hand on mine and saying, "Now quit being so stupid. I know you'll never leave me again."

"I won't," I said, assuring myself more than I was assuring her.

She added, "We're us, Fang. We kick butt together, we survive together, and we have each other's backs. It's what we do, today and tomorrow and however long until I say otherwise."

I nodded, letting her words sink in.

"Let's go catch up with everyone now," she said, taking her hand off of mine and getting up.

As I stared out at the water, I thought about how much I cared about her; how deeply embedded she was into my life, into my head and my heart. I couldn't help but love her incredible, undeserved, and unconditional faith in me… and just her in general. But don't tell her I said that. She knows it already. Partially. Kind of. Not really. Sort of.

So take these words and sing out loud

'Cause everyone is forgiven now

'Cause tonight's the night the world begins again…


"Wha- oh, sorry," I said, getting up and catching up with her.

As we stepped back off the dock, I picked up our jackets and handed Max's to her, making sure she put it on. We approached my laptop, and the New Year's celebrations were still going on. We stood side-by-side and watched them for a minute.

"How long do those people keep going?" she asked.

I shrugged. "Until they can't go anymore."

The screen displayed another shot of President Danning and Mrs. Danning, dancing with each other.

"Even the President has time for a little fun," Max said with a tired smile, bending down to close the laptop.

When she straightened up, I told her, "Even the hunted birdkids have time for a little fun." I looked down at her face and pushed her wet hair away from her eyes. "Even Maximum Ride and Fang."

I kissed her forehead, which turned warm at my touch. I was amused as I remembered the last time I did the same thing. She was wet that time, too… and that time I was also acting on impulse.

I felt something soft against my chest, and I realized that it was Celeste still tucked into Max's jacket, channeling Max's rapid heartbeats through her jacket and my sopping shirt.

I swiftly moved away from her, making her hair fall back in place as she stared straight ahead and as I went to busy myself with putting the laptop away.

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days…

I probably shouldn't have done that, but when you not only realize that you have a chance at better days, but that the person in front of you is your chance at better days, it's kind of hard to contain yourself. Even if you're me.

She didn't know that that small act of affection actually was me containing myself, to a certain degree. She didn't know that by giving me her trust that she was renewing a lost hope that had been eating away at me, that her words brought the hopes of the future humming back to life. She had no idea that she stopped my world, put it in reverse rotation, and gave me back everything that I had lost, starting my world over again.

She had no idea how pitiful and cheesy she made me.

That's probably a good thing…

What did I really want for Christmas? What did I need?

I glanced back at her, still dripping wet, staring up at the stars. She felt me looking at her and turned to give me a quick smile before turning back around.

I needed a chance, just a chance that one day we would all have something better.

And she gave that chance to me.

Tonight is the night our world begins again.

Happy [extremely belated] New Year.
Well, that's the end. Technically.
That's the "official" end of the story, but I'll be posting a small, humorous, third person POV chapterto clear up a question or two you might have.
I really hope that you enjoyed this and that you maybe even learned something. That would be awesome.


9. Bonus Chapter: Giggle Fits

Hey, everyone. If you haven't read the full version of Chapter 8 yet, click back, because I added a lot more to it.
Wow. I've never had to mark a multiple-chapter story Complete before. It's... weird. Uh-oh. Getting sentimental...
Before you start reading this last little chapter, I would like to sincerely thank all of you for taking the time to read and your patience and all of the incredible reviews. It really means the world to me. I'm so glad that a lot of you enjoyed this, and I hope to hear again from all of you in the future.
And to think, this was only supposed to be a two or three-shot. Haha, oops.
Now enjoy the final chapter of All I Really Want.

Fang and Max entered the cavern, immediately spotting the kids tucked into their sleeping spots and Iggy leaning against a wall opposite them. They all turned toward the entrance as Fang and Max approached, outlined in moonlight against the darkness of the cavern.

Max thought, Wow, they're actually all settled in and not bouncing off the cavern walls or trying to attack each other with flying cards.

Iggy told us to behave. He thought it would help you forget to be angry at him, Angel told Max, sitting up quietly as to not disturb Total in his sleep. He was out cold, though, so they could have brought all of Times Square into the cavern without waking him up.

Well, you can tell him it's forgiven and forgotten, Max replied.

Will do, Angel said with a grin, turning to Iggy as Nudge and Gazzy also sat up.

Gazzy rubbed his eyes, wondering if they were playing tricks on him.

He said uncertainly, "Why are you guys so shiny?"

Nudge asked, "Are you guys… wet?"

Fang and Max exchanged a humored glance, raising the flock's suspicions.

"Just a little," Max joked with a small laugh.

"Um… why?" Nudge asked, stretching out the word 'why' to indicate her extreme curiosity.

"Small accident," Fang offered.

Max didn't add anything to it, leaving the too-tired-to-interrogate flock to wonder about the possibilities as their eyelids threatened to shut.

"Thanks for taking charge, Igs," Max said, moving to him and giving him a small, one-armed hug, further indicating her forgiveness.

As she pulled away, he pulled her back in, giving her a trademark sappy hug.

"Now this is so much nicer than you beating me up," he said as he squished her hard.

"Iggy, let go of me," she said, not making the effort to struggle against the hug.

"So short," he said, lifting his chin up over her head.

Max couldn't help but let out a short laugh as she returned the hug, earning her release.

"Okay, you all go ahead to sleep, we've got flying to do in the morning," Max said, crossing over to the kids to say goodnight.

Angel's eyes lit up as Max pulled Celeste out of her jacket and handed her to Angel.

"Thanks, Max," Angel said, hugging Celeste tightly to her chest.

Fang looked at the bear, remembering how Angel thought she could communicate with it. He knew Celeste was just a toy, but as he remembered Celeste squished in between himself and Max, he thought at Celeste, Not a word about that to Angel, Bear.

The kids all laid back down, very ready to be swept away by sleep. Iggy leaned back up against the wall opposite the kids and slid down to the ground, shutting his eyes as soon as he was sitting.

"My watch," Max told Fang after the others had fallen asleep.

"Yes, Queen Max."

"I'm going to kill you."

"No you aren't."

"Don't be so sure."

"I will be."

Max paused to smirk. "Good."

Nudge woke up to the sound of Angel's voice in her head. She guessed it was about five in the morning as she opened her eyes and then squeezed them back shut.

Hey, Nudge. Nudge, wake up.

Yeah, Angel?

You know how Max and Fang have been looking really exhausted all the time lately?

Yeah, what about it?

Look at them now.

Nudge reopened her eyes, glancing first at Iggy, who was on watch by the cavern entrance, facing outward. She then looked at the two of them, sitting up side by side on the opposite wall.

They looked different. Nudge mused over it; they looked more awake than they had in the longest time, even though they were sleeping. Something had happened to them that the others didn't know about.

That's what I was thinking, Angel said, reading Nudge's thoughts.

What do you think it is?

I don't know, Angel admitted.

You think it's because of the New Year?

Maybe a little bit of it, but I think there's something more, something bigger.

Like what?

Before Angel could respond, Max made a small noise in her sleep, shifting around a bit and frowning. Iggy turned around toward the noise, and the girls pretended they were asleep in case he could tell they were awake by their breathing. As soon as he was assured that it was just Max and nothing to worry about, he turned back around.

Nudge. Nudge, look!

Max made another strained noise and moved around a little, and Nudge opened her eyes once again to see Max's hand slowly drift over to Fang's.

Is she awake, Angel?

You think Max would do that if she was awake?

Good point, Nudge said as they both watched curiously.

Then, to their further amazement, Fang's fingers somehow intertwined with Max's, and the frown immediately slipped off Max's face, leaving her expressionless.

Is Fang awake?! He has to be awake; there's no way he's not awake, Nudge said, marveling at the spectacle before her.

He's out, Nudge, Angel said, almost not believing it herself.

Oh wow.

The girls looked at each other and then down at the pendant hanging from Nudge's neck.

They then broke out into stifled giggles, shaking and developing tears in their eyes.

Angel, what's going on? Iggy thought, hoping Angel would hear and respond.

Angel gulped back a laugh as she looked back and forth between Fang and Max and the two little stars holding hands on the tip of the moon.

No one besides the two of them knew the reason for the fits of giggles that they had been directing at Fang and Max since Christmas.

"Look, Little Max and Little Fang," Angel whispered to the two stars. "You look just like the real Max and Fang."

Nudge snorted. "They would so kill us if they knew we named the stars that."

"But they'll never know, will they?" Angel said with a grin.

Nudge shook her head, feeling silly and hopeful and awed and anxious and happy all at the same time.

"Nope. Never."

Again, thank you all so much for everything. I hoped you all liked the bonus chapter. (But if you didn't, you can always just pretend this chapter never happened.)
Don't forget to review one last time and add me to your alerts if you'd like to see more of my writing.
I'll see you guys around. ;)

-Skye Maxwell