TwentyFour by Yessian

Category:Maximum Ride
Genre:Adventure, Tragedy
Published:2009-08-20 08:08:19
Updated:2010-01-01 12:43:03
Packaged:2021-05-07 02:40:40
Summary:The discovery of her expiration date gives Max a limited time left to live and set things right. It's over, tonight. WARNING, character death.

Table of Contents

1. Happy Birthday
2. Everything
3. What's Left of Me
4. Expiration, Before I Die
5. Never Coming Home
6. Target One
7. An Antidote?
8. The Secret
9. What Goes Around

1. Happy Birthday

Author's Note: The other story, "Of Ravens and Wolves", is currently on a short waiting period, for as long as it takes for me to get everything together (as it's been total chaos here at home). I would like to thank all of the patient readers that read and reviewed on it, and the additional stories, as well.

This here, for now, is a request/challenge-prompt from a friend that had to focus a Maximum Ride story around the song "24" by Jem (and 13 others), and had to include character deaths. (To which I originally was like, "AGH, WHAT?! NO!") But as I tried it out, I came to see that it might not be...that bad. Eh, you, faithful reader-and-reviewer, decide. But I do warn you that this may be disturbing in some areas, and you might even hate me for what I'll be doing to the characters themselves. Please tell me what you think, so I'll know whether to keep going or not.

Disclaimer: If I owned Maximum Ride...people would probably not enjoy it as much, lol.


Introduction: Happy Birthday

And it was all going so well, too...

And then, it wasn't.


I blinked. Fang's face swam fuzzily into focus.

"Max?" Said someone else. Someone familiar. Who was that? "Honey, are you all right?"

Dr. Martinez. Mom. I heard myself groan, as if from a distance. "Set her on the bed, quickly."

I felt his arms lift me like a feather, and then I was resting on my bed, completely dazed. Curiously, there was no accompanying pain, just a light-headed, rushing feeling in my mind that nearly sent me into peals of laughter. Each of my limbs weighed a ton, and I couldn't even think of moving them. Someone was testing my forehead and neck, Mom, I guessed. I was seeing faces in bright blurs of light and color, followed by shadows, and hearing in much the same way. "She's got a fever, all right," came Iggy's voice.

Oh, not Mom, then. How did I miss that? Fever? Why was everything so blurry?

Then Nudge - I knew it was her this time - was pressing a cold rag to my forehead, and God, it was wonderful; I hadn't realized how hot I really was. I heard myself groan again at it.

But in the mess of melding sound and spectrum, I wondered. What was going on? One moment, I'd been having the time of my life, flying with Fang; and the next...

The next...

I tried to remember.

A sudden flash of light and exploding pain in my stomach and my head, worse than those brain-attacks that I'd had when my Voice was moving in. But this time, not accompanied by pictures or reels of tape. This time, it was just flashes and explosions and chaos and -

Remembering was too much right now. My mouth was so dry, my eyelids so heavy.

"Max? Max?"

And I was out again.

The mid-noon found me alone in my room with the door shut and me gasping like a fish, startled awake by a pretty horrible dream that I couldn't remember. I sat up in bed, panting in a cold sweat, and then holding my head as it began to spin again. So dizzy...I staggered sideways out of bed and into the bedstand, flailed wildly and hit the wall. Swayed and tottered to the door...and then it was gone again, just like that.

I was perfectly fine.

The doorknob turned. "Are you awake, sweetie?"

It took me a minute to find my voice. "Uh...yeah."

My mom came in and blinked in surprise. "Oh, you're feeling better?"

I tried to think about what I was so sure I was missing and totally forgetting. "Uh...uh-huh."

She frowned slightly, not quite convinced, and felt my forehead, and I suddenly remembered what had happened the night before, the date, everything. It didn't help that I still didn't have a clue of what had gone on at all, though. It really didn't. Dr. Martinez's eyebrows raised. "It's gone...your fever's completely gone. How odd."

"Maybe it was just a bug," I suggested, just as confused as she was. I mean, I know that as an avian recombinant lifeform, our powers of healing is a LOT faster than a normal person's, but this was there and gone so fast that it was kind of creepy. Either way, she nodded, still concerned, but then said, "It's a good thing, though. Everyone, and Gazzy especially, will be so happy to see that you're alright."

Oh, that was right! The Gasman's birthday! I snapped to. "Oh crud, I gotta go get the presents together and check on the cake and -"

Mom chuckled and laid a steadying hand on my shoulder before I could go into hyperdrive. "That's my Max. Don't worry about it, the flock took care of everything while you were sleeping it off. And by the way..." And here she winked, " did the date go, besides that nasty bug?"

I felt my face grow hot. I shuffled, my wings snapping around my shoulders a little defensively. "It was, uh, aheheh..." Did I just giggle? Was that a giggle? A real weak attempt at one? Argh, get your head straight, Max. "It was cool," I said at last, lamely. It was better than cool. Fang was better than -

"Max? Are you okay?" Angel had appeared by Dr. Martinez's leg. Her eyes brightened immediately, and she'd jumped into my arms. "Max! We were so worried! What happened?" She cried.

I held her close and buried my nose in her hair. Angel, Angel, my baby Angel. Having them see me like that, dead to the world and probably looking pretty close to it in reality, must have scared them, and I felt bad about it. "It was just a bug, sweetie," I assured her, and clamped down on the thoughts that said a weird, FAST bug that causes aneurisms and blows up your insides. I didn't know what it was, but it was gone now, and everything was going to be okay.

And better yet, there was no Voice in my head to tell me otherwise.

I didn't want to jinx myself, so the three of us went into the kitchen, where Ella and the rest of the flock were sitting. I noticed that everyone looked a bit dazed. "Yo, I thought this was a birthday party!" I called, balancing Angel in one arm and putting a fist on my hip with the other, my wings out in mock menace. Everyone looked up at once, and there were varying cries of "Max! Thank goodness!" and "I TOLD YOU SO!", followed by a huge, tackling group hug.

I love my flock.

They'd decorated the kitchen with balloons and streamers, and under the table were nothing but packed and carefully wrapped boxes of presents for my Gasman, who was wearing the first present he'd gotten, a Jack Sparrow hat-and-dreads. (Yes, the theme for the birthday was pirates after they'd dragged me to the movies to see Johnny Depp as an undead pirate. It was WELL worth it.) Everyone else had opted for piratey hats instead of the party variety; Iggy and Ella were wearing colorful bandanas and clip-on hoop earrings, Total had somehow found himself in an eyepatch (by Angel's doing, I was sure), Nudge had on a magnificent hat with a spray of feathers, and Fang -

- Dunno, just something very funny about seeing a bird-based freak (if a very beautiful one) of nature with a black, wide-brimmed hat and matching magnificent plumes. Fang noticed me staring at him and said, "Arrrr."

Dr. Martinez, I noticed, was also dressed very-much pirate-like, with a billowing white poet's shirt and burgundy corset/bodice dress. She attached an earring and scowled at me. "Avast, mateys, it's Cap'n Terror's birthday!"

I laughed aloud and sat at the table, trading Angel for Gazzy, who leapt into my lap and hugged me. "Isn't this great, Max? Oh, yeah, where's your costume?"

Before I could reply, Nudge and Ella and Iggy had plopped a hat on my head and attached an eyepatch and earring on me. "Ahar, there 'tis!" I said, amid the laughter.

Great big beer mugs, ones that Mom and Angel had found at a renaissance store while out shopping, were plopped in front of us, filled with foaming rootbeer; and as one, we each held a toast. "To the Kapitan!"

"To the Kapitan!" We shouted, knocking our glasses together and tossing them back like real swashbucklers. Angel adjusted her dress and scarf and Total could be heard chuckling next to Akila and Magnolia, who had just arrived, and were probably wondering what the heck was going on and if we'd finally lost our minds.

But who was to care about sanity lost? I caught a glimpse of a worried glance from Fang, very subtle, over the rim of our mugs, and I made a note to apologize for what had happened, whatever had happened, and make it up to him, make it up to all of us. I had scared him, all of them. Under the table, I let go of the rubber cutlass in my hand and grasped his fingers, making sure that we had eye contact. I promise to make it up, as soon as I can. I'm okay.

He, like Mom, didn't look entirely convinced, but he gave my fingers a gentle squeeze and a look that held no blame, only a soft longing. The moment between us was interrupted by the merriment of the feast that Iggy and Ella were setting up: an entire two hams and roasted chickens, a huge set of ribs and rolls and biscuits and pies of every variety, and spaghetti and multiple dishes of rice... none of it really went together, but with us, food is food, and good food is GOOD FOOD, so it didn't matter.

We sang piratey songs and even watched everyone's favorite movie, (Gazzy's other early present that he nearly exploded for - almost literally - the third Pirates' movie) and stuffed ourselves full. Everything, for once in his life, was going perfectly, and I didn't want to see it ruined. His enthusiasm, such honest happiness, was so rarely seen; Mom was taking pictures of all of us and laughing and singing along, and Gazzy was fighting Iggy over the table with their rubber swords. I sat back and watched, feeling great, feeling happy for him, for all of us having so much fun.

And then my eyes rolled back and I jolted in pain. No, not again...not now...

I stood up and excused myself, doing my level best to pretend that nothing was wrong and it was only a pit-stop, and got the heck out of there.

The moment I was out of the kitchen, lights were blinding behind my eyes and the world was flip-flopping dangerously. I staggered into the bathroom and shut the door, and only just had time to make it to the toilet before I puked that wonderful feast out. What a waste. I took ragged breaths and knelt on the carpet, stomach roiling and feeling as though my head were finally going to burst open. A pang of fear shot through me - what if the Voice was coming back? Oh, please no, I can't deal with that, I groaned in my head, then capped it, in case Angel was paying attention out there. I had no idea of the range she could pick up from, so tried to stop thinking so hard.

Another wave of nausea hit me, but this time, it was nothing but dry, choking, gagging heaves that spent my energy, and I toppled onto the rug, scrunching it between my fingers in the mind-mess in my skull. There was nothing else to do. I couldn't speak, couldn't make a sound, couldn't feel or be aware of anything else. Someone was drilling into the back of my head with a bit 12-feet-wide, spinning, tightening, until I could hardly breathe -

- And then it was gone again. I choked out a sob, burning up. What was that? My body was made of noodles, dead meat. I somehow managed to push myself up to the sink and splash my face. The water was so cold when it hit, SO cold, that I flinched. The fever was making me hot, burning like a flare of the sun. I splashed myself again, forcing the room to stop its tilting and swaying, and then...nothing. It disappeared. I was fine again. I slapped the counter in frustration. What WAS this?!

I had no idea how much time had passed since this sudden brain-blast, but when I finally stepped out of the bathroom, a little thrown-off by the sheer situation of it being there and gone, just like that, Dr. Martinez was hugging Gazzy and Iggy and Ella were bringing out the cake. It was a masterpiece for them, a great big, chunky, fudgy, chocolatey thing that probably had enough sugar in it to kill a herd of elephants, and decorated with that Pirates of the Caribbean skull in icing. It was pretty neat.

The hallway wasn't a long one, but it seemed so to me, so dim and shadowed compared to the glowing kitchen. Everyone was really, truly, happy; I'd never seen Iggy look so proud of himself, with his and Ella's arms entwined, as though his blindness was nothing; Nudge and Angel driving the Gasman's new remote-control car and the dogs chasing after it or thumping their tails excitedly; Fang, with the faintest pleased smile on his lips; my Mom telling an ecstatic Gazzy that he couldn't open his eyes until the cake was on the table.

This was the image of our happy, perfect family. They were what made that kitchen glow, not just the lights. I can't describe what made me lean on the doorway of the room with my arms crossed, just watching. Maybe I was afraid that I'd have another attack and ruin the party.

"There you are, Max, what took so long?" Said Angel, alerting everyone else that I was there. I snapped out of it and said, "Well, you know, I guess the cranberry sauce gave me the runs. I thought you checked the expiration date, Iggy."

Iggy gave a good-natured scowl. "The Lysol is in the first cabinet, if I remember correctly."

"Oh, ha, HA." I clapped my hands together. "All right, let's do this, everybody!"

Everyone but the Gasman stood up at once. Gazzy opened his eyes to behold the magnificent birthday cake with awe. All of us belted out heartily: "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU..."

The dogs howled in unison.


Gazzy was so happy, he was practically bouncing up and down in his seat with delight. My heart went out to him.


A faint, all-too-familiar prickling at the back of my scalp.


Was trouble nearby? What was - ? I saw Fang bring his eyes away from our birthday boy and trade one last look with me.

One last...

"...TO YOU...!" Everyone shouted, "ARRRRGH!"

And the entire house shook, then disappeared in a peal of blinding light.

2. Everything

A Few Hours Ago

A beautiful day in a perfect lifestyle lately, I've noticed. For the past year or so, we'd been lying under the radar at my mom's house, and even though this time we were assured our safety - yeah, right - the natural survivor just doesn't leave, you know? All of us, no matter how 'domesticated' we eventually became, IF we ever became, would ever truly relax, ever again, I think. Me especially.

But how could I not be amazed at how well everyone was adjusting? A full year and a half of no one trying to kidnap, murder, blow us up, take us apart, and the like - and it felt really good.

Gazzy and Angel were having the time of their lives lately, in having a good sleep each night and never having to wake up in a cage; I could hear them now in the yard, playing with Akila and Total. Nudge had started a small project in the garage with Iggy on their own go-carts (when it came to machines, Nudge was your girl, and with both of their heads on the case, this promised to be an interesting summer, indeed); inside for the moment, Iggy and Ella, my sister, were cooking together in the kitchen, preparing a huge birthday feast for the Gasman, who would be turning nine on the next day.

Fang was...well, where was he? Oh well. Dr. Martinez, my mom, was out shopping for some last-minute items at the nearby superstore, leaving us alone at the house, me alone in the living room, watching a music video. The singer, I noticed, actually wasn't bad. Unlike all the other bands I'd noticed, Matt Bellamy would actually sing to you, not whine or scream or cry into the microphone. So surprised at this was I that I didn't notice a certain someone stalking into the room.

Strong, wiry arms slipped around my neck in a gentle embrace, and I almost jumped through the roof. Calm down, you, it's just Fang, I reminded myself, trying not to have a heart-attack. "Oh, there you are," I mumbled, a little miffed that he'd been able to startle me, and even more so that my question was answered. Fang, naturally, said nothing. "Where've you been?"

"...Around and about," he said off-handedly, and I patted his arm. We'd grown...closer lately, and yet still seemed so far apart. A year and a half ago, him putting his hands on me like this would have freaked me out and been WAY too forward, but I guess we were maturing in our old, teenager years. Now I welcomed it, the small things that he did like this, and didn't mind at all. "Gonna sit down?"

He hesitated, then glided smoothly around the couch and perched next to me. I noticed that his wings were a bit damp, as was his hair, and suspected that he'd been in the shower this entire time. He let them fall over his legs so they wouldn't get the couch wet and turned his attention to the music video, and for a long moment, there was a somewhat tense silence between us. What was I expecting? This whole romance factor that I'd decided to try out just wasn't for us, and yet...I swallowed nervously.

Then, hesitantly, he spoke: "I was wondering" He fidgeted, playing with a loose feather in front of him. "...Will you go flying with me tonight?"

Now wait a minute, this was unusual. We never had to ask to go flying before, especially with each other. The way it was asked, so formally...I almost laughed at the strangeness of it. This, folks, is the way a mutant bird freak asks another mutant bird freak on a date. Thankfully, this isn't the strangest thing we've had to deal with. In a bold move exhibiting a confidence that I knew I completely lacked in situations like this, I reached over and took his hand. Fang looked at me in about the same amount of surprise as I felt. "You didn't have to ask that," I said, feeling my face burn. God, how cheesy!

A slow, uncertain blink, and then we were leaning in, we were kissing, a quiet and nervous kiss, but not losing an ounce of the volumes of what we felt for each other. Yes, I thought, my heart pounding with a happiness I rarely ever felt at all these days, a rare enthusiasm and assurance that everything would be fine; yes: I love Fang.

I spent the rest of the evening after a hearty dinner of laughing and ribbing and joking and mucho the gobbling of foodz in my room, trying to find something to wear. The last time I'd gone out on something similar to a date as this, the night had unexpectedly turned chilly, and Fang and I had to huddle together for warmth. Embarrassing, but ironically, very pleasing, to hold each other in the night under the moon and blah blah, blah blah, blah BLAH. (I hate these mushy moments.)

Let's see...a dress is certainly out of the question. Next.

White tanktop? Maybe under a hoodie.

Black West Coast Choppers hoodie? Eh.

Yellow Anime hoodie? Meh.

Simple button-ups, blouses? Too nice to mess up in case of danger, but...

Eventually, I settled for a simple long-sleeved gray shirt that I knew would fight off the chill, and a pair of jeans. Who cared about fashion much, anyway? Sure, there were some tiny tears and burn marks on the jeans and one sleeve, but details, details. Pleased with my choice, I set the clothes on the bed and ducked into the shower to freshen up. Having a shower every week...a major improvement. No, understatement - a HUGE improvement. I never knew I WAS that color until I started getting them in regularly.

The steam rose in the bathroom as I scrubbed down with a new scented soap, courtesy of Ella, I think, my mind frantic. What if I still smelled like a trashcan? What if my hair still had lice or dandruff? Better wash that, too. Don't miss a spot, did I miss that spot, am I clean? No, not clean enough - am I clean now?, do it again.

The water was getting cooler, and I had to step out, squeaky clean and shining like the bald spot on Mr. Clean himself. I toweled off my wings and hair carefully, then wrapped a towel around myself and went to the mirror and stared at it. It was completely foggy. I stared a little more, thought about it, then allowed a rather girlish giggle that I would have kicked myself for a few months ago...and started writing.

Max & Fang.

Stupid, I know, but it was all I could think about, just the moment. I drew a heart around it, then added two sets of wings to it, and an 'X' beneath it. There. I grinned and went to my room.

Just as I was adjusting my shirt, Ella came in. "Hey, someone's sexy," she teased, and I rolled my eyes. How could she say this outfit was in any way sexy? "It's not me, is it?" I teased back, deciding to play along anyway. Ella giggled and plopped down on my bed. "So it's a date tonight, huh?"

"Yeah," I said, still reeling by the sheer thought of it. "Wait, how'd you know?"

"Iggy told me."

"...How did he know?"

"Come on, Max, Iggy's got the best ears on the planet," Ella reminded me. "That, and, we were kinda spying on you."

I gave her an incredulous look, to which she shrugged. "Everyone in the house does it. EVERYONE knows you two are practically head-over-heels for each other, not to mention, a perfect couple."

"Yeah, yeah," I grumbled, blushing as I tried to make my hair a little more manageable. Ella picked up the hairdryer and started drying my wings. "You're gonna do fine, I'm sure you will," she encouraged, even though I felt like I'd do better if someone told me to go BASE-jumping without wings. "I mean, you've taken out everything that's ever come across your path before, right? Everything but the Fangmeister."

There was a tap at the window, and I was so edgy that I almost jumped again. "Speaking of which, look who's he-re," she sang, clicking off the dryer.

I couldn't stop the corners of my lips from twitching. Always dependable Ella. I slid the window open, and Fang, perching on the ledge like some medieval (very handsome) gargoyle, gave me a look that asked if I was ready. I looked at Ella, and she only winked, and then we were out of there.


Horrible, cold, piercing daylight, in a world of smoke so thick that I believed that Earth resided in a white cloud.

Terrible, burning pain along one side of my body, my face.

And a frightening, dreadful culmination of smells - clogging smoke, an unknown, sweet, delicious scent, and the acrid smell of burning hair.

At first, I thought it was raining, sprinkling on my face, but it turned out to be a busted water pipe nearby, shooting high into the air. The silence was deafening. I was stunned, and trying to piece together what had just happened. Everything was so muddled after the explosion.

...The explosion.

A nightmarish flash of memory of light and disentegration into space.

I sat up at once with a hoarse roar, gasping, and then choking, hacking, as my lung were seared with smoke and ash. The reflex made my aching ribs jump painfully, and I figured that they had to have at least been cracked. Somehow, I maneuvered myself into standing, and tottered into what had been a tile wall, and supported myself against it. A mental check gave me an aching wing, a useless, dislocated arm, my hair a burnt mess, one side of my body a bit crispy, and both of my legs pretty banged up.

Funny, how something so painful as a dislocation, at least, didn't make me cry like it had before. Maybe it was the deadness of the atmosphere, or the thrill of the moment, the realization that something horrible had just happened and I couldn't yet grasp it. I regained my breath steadily, and croaked, "Report."

I waited. There was no reply.


The only sounds were the thundering water pipe, rushing like a geyser, and the crackle and pop and creak of burnt and charred timbers. Around me was a smoking heap, a mutilated wasteland of ash, coming down like snow, and such thick clouds and plumes that the rest of the world could not be seen beyond it.

And my family was under there, somewhere.


Despite my injuries, I began digging with one arm and one wing, panic rising in my gut, the cold claws of dread making me nauseous. I searched half of the enormous, endless pile with a strength I didn't know I possessed, my head pounding and fear rising. It didn't matter that everything I touched burnt me, didn't matter that I was in tattered pieces, that I could taste my own blood from biting down when the shockwave hit.

I didn't matter.

More than half the rubble. I was nearly sobbing. "GOD D*MNIT, REPORT! REPORT!" I toppled over a support beam with a dull crash. "GAZZY! MOM! ELLA! ANGEL! NUDGE! IGGY! TOTAL! MAGNOLIA!" My throat hurt, my voice rasped. "Fang!"

And still, nothing. I set my good shoulder into another beam and heaved. Akila was lying under the remains of what had been the kitchen table. Frantically, I lifted her out as carefully as I could. The wood had fallen in such a way that she'd been lying in something like a house structure, a rough triangle that protected her under the mountain of debris. "Akila!" I dragged her into my arms. The poor malamute whined softly, dazed, but after a quick check, she seemed mostly all right, save for maybe a paw.

But that was fine. I could fix that. I lay her back down. "Shhh... I'll be back."

A creeping thought hounded me. If Akila was here, then my flock should be right around her.

I shifted another beam, digging and shifting ashes and twisted bits of metal, and...I fell to my knees in the ashes, shocked, disbelieving.

My family. My wonderful, beautiful, freaky family. Every one of them, lying in a rough circle as to where they had been standing.

My beautiful, darling Angel.

My beautiful, wonderful Gasman.

My amazing mother, my awesome sister.

My lovable, chatty, Nudge.

My outstanding and ever-so-strong trooper, Iggy.

My furry little Total and loving Magnolia.


I was kneeling in the still-smoking, what-was-left remains of Fang and my family.

All I had left in the world...


3. What's Left of Me


The thing I'd feared the most, ever since we'd adopted each other. The thing I'd always feared.

I was numb. I had never imagined that their end would come like this. Now, what reason did I have left in this world?

But my mind was completely blank, completely hollow. I reached down, a lump constricting my throat, and held their ashes in my hands, held them close, and let them sift between my fingers. They floated away on the wind and were washed off in a dirty series of streams by the broken pipe, taken off to a place where I could never reach them again.

I couldn't take that thought. In my grief, I sank down into the brittle remains and cold ash up to my elbows, lay down in it, lay my face in it, and simply faded in and out of existence, disbelieving and believing at the same time. This was as close as I'd ever be to them again. The ash was cool against the side of my face, and I closed my eyes, wondering if I could slow myself down and 'die' like I had last time.

But this time, like, for real.

A brainburst came in the middle of it, but I was too far gone to care. I think it passed, and I even drifted into something like sleep, and only came to when I felt a warm, wet tongue on my cheek. Akila. I'd forgot about her. But I still couldn't compel myself to pull a phoenix right yet, if ever.

Akila licked me again, more urgently this time, and in some imaginary background (what was real, what wasn't?) came the screaming wails of sirens and air choppers. I needed to get up. I needed to get up, right now. What did it matter if they took me, though?

They couldn't hurt me any more than this.

But Akila... I saw her in the corner of my eye, barely standing on three legs, her ears flat to her head and one eye closed, bits of her fur singed. I at least owed her.

Somehow, I found the strength to sit up. First things first. I took my arm into my hand, and bit the end of my tattered shirt. KER-POP! CRRRACK!

I gulped a few breaths, then tore my shirt and tended to poor Akila.

"Let's get out of here, girl."

I'm not sure where I thought I was going, looking as I did, with my wings held tight to my back and limping down the street with a giant dog in my arms.

I probably looked like a fallen angel, or one fresh back from a furious battle in Hell. I'm sure I attracted a lot of points and stares.

But where was I going? Don't know. All I remember is an endless street, and then someone's backyard, and then the green of the grass and its smell in my nose. Then, blackness.

Where I ended up was a best friend of Ella's' house. This friend was Linda, a classmate of hers. We got along surprisingly well, and there was many a sleepover at both her and our houses.

It was Linda who found me in her yard, and Linda who didn't call the police, but dragged me and Akila inside. It was Linda and her mom that removed the useless clothing from my wreck of a body and washed the ash and grime and dirt and blood from my hair and skin and wings. (Yes, Linda knew my secret.)

When I awoke, I was bandaged up on Linda's bed with Akila at the foot of it, her nose tucked under her tailtip. Her ears were still laid flat, and I wondered if she were feeling the same thing I was, the emptiness, the loss, the sadness. I sat up dazedly, and felt my face. I'd been lucky. My skin had gotten pretty torched. Some of my hair had been chopped away, and I was wearing fresh P.J's. My wings were spread to the side of me, one with a splint.

I felt like hell.

I didn't want to move, didn't want to get up, but I had to see the extent of the damage, so I quietly slipped out of bed and down the hall, back into the bathroom. This was followed by what must have been hours, just staring at my reflection. I bypassed the damage entirely, as it was something I could live with; the scariest thing about it were my eyes. They were so dull, so lifeless.

Linda appeared in the mirror. She had short brown hair and was commonly mistaken for a boy the way she dressed. "Max? How are you feeling?"

I didn't say anything. Couldn't say anything. I made the lightest shrug. Linda hesitated, then touched my arm. I noticed that her eyes were red from crying. All of her friends were dead. All of them except me.

I found my voice momentarily. "Do you...hate me?" I asked. Did she hate me for being the only one? For being a freak? If I'd never met Ella, this never would have happened...

Linda looked up, swollen eyes suddenly fierce. "Of course not. You're my best friend too, Max. And I'm thankful that you're alive. I could have lost ALL of you today."

Her words made my heart ache, and I held the edge of the sink, lowered my head. She leaned against me. "What happened?" She whispered.

I stared sightlessly at the drain. "I don't know," I replied honestly. I was surprised to feel a surge of anger, unfathomable, quiet, anger, bubbling inside of me. I'd smelled enough bombs in my time to know one when I smelled and felt and saw one, and it couldn't have been one of Iggy's going off. "But I WILL find out."

Linda looked at me worriedly. "Max, what if they were trying to kill you, too? They might come back for you."

"Then I'll have to get them first. I'll have to leave," I said, my logic stirring me. That would be my resolve. I had a pretty good idea who was responsible for this, and the cold, bitter tang of vengeance sat on the tip of my tongue. I knew why I'd survived and everyone else hadn't. I'd been standing in the effing doorway.

She knew my history well enough to know what and who I was talking about. "Oh, please Max, don't," she almost begged. "I'll lose you, too."

"We'll both die if I stay here much longer," I reasoned, hating to do this to her, but she would be all I had to lose, what was left of me. "You know that."

We made eye contact, and we reflected each other's anger and grief. We understood each other. Linda searched my eyes long and hard, and then said, "Then at least allow me to help you, in whatever way I can."

Spoken like a true friend.

Before she left, she said, "You were pretty beat up when we were scrubbing you down, you know. Thought you were a ghost at first, all painted up."

I managed a sort of half-laugh at her humor. She smiled sadly. "You had burns everywhere...even on your tattoo."

It took a moment to register what she'd said. "...Tattoo?"

Linda blinked at me. "Yeah, the one on the back of your neck? The date? Even though it's kind of weird to put a date there, you wouldn't be able to see it too well..."

I felt cold. "Th...thanks, Linda. I'll...I'll be out in a bit," I said, my voice a little higher than normal.

It looked like my path was decided, after all.

A/N: I own Linda Levin, but sadly, not Maximum Ride! Thanks for R&Ring!

4. Expiration, Before I Die

A/N: L.L is based off of the person who requested this, by the way ;)

I almost spent the night in the bathroom, curled in a ball on the carpet. Thoughts and memories and images were racing through my head, but not induced by an annoying Voice this time, instead, just me, my mind in hyperdrive.

I think I cried all night. The tears wouldn't stop coming.

Somewhere I'd heard that once the expiration date showed up, I'd have thirty days left to live. I was probably down to twenty-nine or twenty-eight, since the brain blasts started up. I thought of Ari, and what he must have been through. I prayed to some unknown deity that might or might not have been God; I cried some more. I sang to myself and rocked back and forth, trying to get my head around everything.

But what got me the most was the fear. First it was there, and then, POOF - nothing. After a time, I couldn't cry anymore, and my head and eyes hurt from doing so much of it. "Max, you are going to die," I told myself.


"Your expiration date just appeared."

Still, nothing. Nothing at all.

I checked myself back and forth and realized that I'd developed absolutely no fear of it, because I'd been wanting to die since I'd found out that my flock was no more. Why didn't I just take my life right now? Go to the kitchen and skewer myself, or better yet, fly and drop out of the sky?

Vengeance, wasn't it, Max?

I nearly screamed in raw anger. On top of EVERYTHING ELSE, the Voice just HAD to come back, didn't it? Didn't it?!

"What do you want?" I snarled. "Come to rub it in my face with that Confuscious crap of yours? Come to tell me to go save the world? Well guess what? I've got no reason to anymore, and on top of that, I'm about to DIE!"

Yes, it mused, you will die, Max. But not yet. Don't you want to find the people that did this?

"I want answers," I hissed. If I was going to start rampaging, I didn't want this stupid Voice to tell me to do it. It could be a trap, for all I knew, and I was sick to death of jumping through hoops for people. "Give them to me, Jeb."

It sighed. Sweetheart, there are some evil people at work. Vengeful people. They've got someone new to do their work for them. You, Maximum Ride, are no longer capable of saving the world in their eyes.

"So just eliminate me, right?" I snapped. It made sense. "What do you want? I'd much rather die alone than have you talk me through it."

The way it's being have 22 days to get back at the people that did this. I'll help you in any way that I can.

"Tell me who did it already!" Geeze!

...It's a team from Itex led by the new Director, Mr. Rushing. They built a...a new flock, a new YOU. And they are nothing like you.

I was incredulous. "They made a new...?"

Sleep, sweetie, he said, shutting my brain down. I'll tell you everything in your sleep.

Linda's family is military, and did a lot of overseas work in their day, with plenty of souvenirs; in fact, it's mostly what their house is. Linda's room was full of carvings of whales and seals and even had some voodoo dolls lining the walls. There at a corner of the room was a rack for a Japanese sword set, and on the other walls, beautiful fans. Her father kept an entire room of guns, and they'd put in an extra room for sparring and kendo practice, since Linda was a martial artist in-training.

There was little time to mourn with the family the loss of their friends, or mull the mystery of what had happened and why I was still alive. The Levin family was out of the house most of the time, as well, trying to help sort everything out. Linda stayed home from school to be with me, and after sitting with each other in companionable silences and doing a spot of light sparring here and there, I finally announced that I was going on.

My family was dead and being replaced. Someone was doing this to me on purpose. Linda and I pulled out the stops on food and movies and basically turned the TV room into a nightmare, pouring over re-drawn maps and charts from my head and going through the details and plans over bowls of ramen.

(Yes, she is also an anime freak.)

"The last time I traveled to the School, it was pretty taxing," I said, "but now, it's practically next door. It should be only four hours, if I travel light, and even less if I use my speed."

Linda chewed on her chopstick reflectively. "What about Itex?"

I narrowed my eyes. "They set up a base nearby, to drop off their people and and little house-call," I said, with no little hint of venom. I circled it with a marker. "I'll hit there first, and if I don't get what I want from there, I'll make the flight to New York and take them out, there. The trip, as I said, should be a whole lot faster."

She tapped a place on the map, in Florida. "Here, too?"

"If I have to, but I don't think I will. We took care of Gozen and the U.D. last time, and I was pretty sure they wouldn't be coming back."

I sifted through a couple of the papers taking up the space of the coffee table and slurped my noodles hungrily. I'd stood out in the rain this morning, and it was refreshing, freezing; it rejuvenated me and cleared my mind. I was ready to get down to business. "These are the people I'm looking for, these scientists...and this here, their poster-girl." Max III, if you please. Went by the name "54g97ro1", for now, though.

Akila poked my leg with her nose. I was happy to see that she was looking and feeling so much better. I'd been giving her special attention lately, but she seemed to have turned into me - quiet and determined about something. At least her eye had healed just fine, and was as clear and blue as ever. I scratched her behind her ears. Linda took a look at the people in the photographs. "She looks just like you. Something way different about her, though. Something in her eyes."

A predator's eyes. Cold, merciless eyes. Jeb or the Voice or whoever he thought he was may have been right about her dropping the bomb on us, but I had to go to the source.

THEN I'd go and kill her. In 20 days.

I stood up, finishing my bowl. "I need gear."

Linda nodded. "I got stuff prepared. You know how Dad's crazy about his gear, even though he's retired," she said, stepping over the movie boxes and popcorn bags and soda cans to get to the closet. "I brought everything in here, so you could pick what you liked."

"Excellent." And it was true, everything I'd need for this little venture of mine. "I'll be leaving tonight."

"I know." Linda directed her gaze to the floor, and I tried not to look at her. It seemed that she'd have all of her friends gone, after all. "You can keep Akila with you," I murmured, going through the supplies. "She needs a good home, some good R&R. Not some crazy end-days with me."

Linda patted the dog in question fondly, if still sadly. "It won't be the same without you. Without any of you. You're all I have left, and..." She clenched her fists. "I want to come with you."

"No." Out of the question.

"Please, Max."

"No, you'll be killed."

"But so will you!"

"And what would your parents think, huh?" I shot back. "They need you, right here! They are your family! Take care of them!"

"You were my family, too!" She cried, angry. "YOU are my family, all that's left, and I didn't take care of you! Now you'll go off to die and I'll be alone again!"

I lifted my hand to punch her, and ended up hugging her instead, hugging her tightly and mumbling "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," over and over again, and Linda cried into me, holding on and probably never going to let go. She should hate me for this. She wasn't the one to blame. But if I could save just one, just one of my family remaining, then I could go peacefully, with one less regret.

Yeah, right. The dead are dead, and they do not care.

"I can't take you with me," I said, wiping my eyes with a free hand, "but I'll call you, I'll definitely call you. You have an extra phone, right?"

"Yeah," she sniffled, as defeated as I felt. "Promise me, okay?"

"I promise."

The both of us drew apart, wiped off all the tears. Linda sniffed and picked up the remote control, and I shut the closet door. "How about one more movie? For old times' sake."

I nodded, clearing everything away. "Yeah. Just one more."

5. Never Coming Home

A day or so ago

The night was perfect. Fang and I coasted, our wingtips touching as we soared above the town and the trees, higher and higher towards the half moon, to limits not yet discovered. We were both quiet, and simply enjoying the other's company; what was there to be said in the middle of something so mind-blowingly cool, so impossible?

We were flying, we were free, riding the back of the wind in loops and twirls and sharp, spiraling spins. I closed my eyes, the wind ruffling my hair, feeling at home. Fang came up beside me. "Want to try something?"

I looked at him. Dark and containing a strong, quiet grace; that was my Fang. His eyes held a tiny light of mischief, and I looked around quickly, in case he tried something stupid like dive-bombing me. "What is it?" I asked warily, ready to smack him upside the head if he made an attempt. He must have seen my apprehension, because he grinned and held out his hands to me. "Grab a hold. What, don't trust me?"

I gave him a long-enough lasting look to get my point across, then reached out for his hands, grasped them, and waited for the mayhem to ensue. But it didn't, at least not yet. We were flying higher. "I watched a pair of eagles doing this all week," he explained, flapping powerfully into a harsher altitude. Higher, ever higher, past the clouds. "How much higher are we gonna go?" I wondered, heart beating faster.

He stopped, and we hovered. "This should do."

" what?" What were the eagle's doing, anyway?

And he wouldn't stop grinning, like he knew that whatever it was he was about to do was going to be the coolest thing we'd ever seen. "Ready?"

"For what?"

"Are you ready?"

"What is it?!"

Fang suddenly folded his wings and fell backward. Before I could even call out for him, he'd locked our legs together and let go of my hands. "Fold your wings or they'll get torn off..." Was all I heard before we started plummeting to the ground. I didn't want to - it was complete madness! - but I did, and was nearly screaming on the way down as we turned over and over and over, faster and faster like a falling cannonball. "FAAAAAANG!!!"


The danger, the rush, the thrill! How could I resist?! "YEEEEHAAAAH!!!"

Gravity brought us close enough to grab the other's hands again, and we tumbled to earth that way, so fast that I could feel the G-force pulling my lips back from my teeth. I threw my weight forward, and we spun faster, picking up speed, and Fang, not to be outdone, twisted in another direction to make sure we were free-falling completely out of control. My heart was going to leap out of my throat, but you know what? It belonged to him, anyway.

And just before we were about to hit the ground astonishingly hard, our legs disconnected, and we spun off in different directions, using our momentum to glide high above the buildings and circle each other in the air, higher and higher, and higher...

...And do it again.

And again.

We variated it and performed acrobatics in the air - Fang would fly steady and I'd hang upside down from him with no hands and no wings; we'd toss and swing each other high above the earth like wild, winged monkeys, and sail through the space, laughing hysterically. I usually don't hear Fang laugh all that often, and when he does, God, it's to die for. It makes my day.

Finally, after a rolling air-tackle, Fang caught me around the waist, and we were kissing again, a deep kiss that we couldn't get enough of. Let the normal, puny humans of this world scurry around, always in a hurry to go nowhere. Let the world ever roll into the deepest reaches of space for eternity. Let the moon take the sun's place and stay forever. We folded our wings around eachother and fell into another free fall, our hearts almost pounding out of our chests, forever one bird-freak, forever a part of each other.

Saying the date was amazing would be the understatement of the century.


I woke up on the couch, feeling emptier than ever, and yet much resolved; I knew what I had to do. Quietly, I picked my way through the messy TV room and to the closet, where I heaved all the gear that I'd picked out for myself and took it to the sparring room.

This time, things would be serious. Linda had found me simple holsters. I might point out that up until now, I never believed in guns, hated them. But now, I would have to become someone that I hated - my enemy - to destroy my enemies. To become that which I hated and feared most.

I made sure to bring plenty of bullets. In a backpack, I put in all of the copies of information, the clips, some food, and two rolls of special clothes; with a pair of scissors, I whacked off the uneven bits of my hair and evened them out as best I could, leaving me with much shorter, choppier hair than I'd had before; I changed into the black army coveralls and combat boots, and made sure to put on the vest underneath, just in case. There were a pair of matching leather gloves, and a ski mask if I should need it, too, but I put the mask in the bag.

And also...I almost started crying again. Linda's most prized possession, a full tang ninjato she'd gotten off of Budk for her birthday, with accompanying straps, with a twenty-seven inch blade. It was meant for stealth, and so completely black, and I saw that she'd scratched the name into the side.

I clutched it close to my chest. She knew me all too well. I shouldered my backpack and strapped the sword over my shoulder, then headed quietly for the door. I put the cellphone in my pocket.

Her back door was a sliding glass one, and the moment I got there, I felt a tug on my pants, and looked back to see Akila. "You gotta stay here and watch Linda for me," I said, but Akila whined, not having it. I looked at her, and she looked at me, and finally, I nodded. She wouldn't stay if I told her to.

"Okay then." Like I wasn't carrying enough weight as it was. We stepped into the backyard, and both of us looked back at the house.

We were probably never coming back here again, and Linda knew it.

I would also probably never call. My promises were pretty worthless these days, weren't they?

I hopped from toe to toe, testing my legs and wings. I could probably use a few more days of recovery, but I was running out of time. Slipping my arms around Akila (and she is a HEAVY dog), I took a running start, and flapped as hard as I could. Up, down, yowch, up, down, yowch - until we could find a good current of air. The night was warm, so it was little trouble once we were on it; and it took us - Me, Akila,and the Fang - up, far away into the night, on the road at last.

Whoever the hell did this...they'd better throw out everything they had at me to save themselves.

Because vengeance would.



6. Target One

A/N: I feel that I should mention, as well - this story has NOTHING TO DO with Of Ravens and Wolves, nor the other stories I've put out. Also, my knowledge of Maximum Ride is limited in that I read the books maybe a year or two ago, and am going mostly off of sole memory and the first volume of the manga. I have not read "Max", nor can I entirely remember the events of "Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports". So if some things seem kind of choppy, know that I've taken a few liberties to make them as roundabout as possible, 'ey. :)

StarOfCalamity: There's plenty of Fax in this story, don't worry.

18wanda: Yes, I took out the flock without much drama (I figured that Max would have the most of it :) And generally, the genre "Tragedy" means that there is NO HAPPY ENDING. (Sorry to rain on the parade, happy-folks.) When I took up the challenge, I was told that it had to be a "Tragic" story, and I'll keep it that way. No pretty flowers and dancing elves here.

But, for the sake of continuity and keeping everyone satisfied, I guess I could look into making something like a fitting close. I mean, really, with 20 days left to live, it's just NOT a happy story, either way you look at it, lol. (I can't even imagine it xD) I will do my best!

VenomShadowCatt: Thank you, very much!

Everyone: I haven't had time to review your stories, but what I've read so far, I really, REALLY, like a lot. Major understatement, I know. Just know that I'll be over there, dropping off the reviews as soon as I can get the chance, because you more than deserve them. Thank you for your patience and for R&Ring! It means a lot to me.

Target One

I flew over the place where the house had been before I veered toward the School. There was nothing but yellow tape and patrolling men in hazmat suits. Probably working for Itex, and clearing up the mess. I wondered briefly if Jeb would attend Dr. Martinez's funeral, then tossed the thought away. When it came down to it, he was still as much a part of the "bad guy" forces as the rest of them, and I had no time to feel sympathies.

Super speed is a special ability for me, but I wasn't sure if Akila could survive it. I had to hold her tight in a certain way and slow down a bit, especially before I stopped, to prevent killing her, but in all, I neared the School's grounds in less than three to four hours, and the sun wasn't even up yet.

We landed several miles away from the facility itself, just in case of security measures, and so I had a place to come back to. Thankfully, in all the craggy jags in the rocks and cliffs, there were plenty of places to hide.

Remember that your chip will broadcast very loudly while you're here, Max, Jeb said in my head. I can block the signal for maybe an hour at best.

"Great," I muttered, putting down the backpack and making sure that I had everything. I tucked in my wings and held them down with the vest straps, then zipped up the coveralls again, and thought about how best to do this. Apparently, my first target on my Vengeance List would be a sort of spokesman for this Mr. Rushing, a subordinate or Deputy of sorts. I had to find him.

Unfortunately, I would have to keep him alive for information.

Fortunately, that didn't have to be long.

What's the plan if you run into any of the security? Was the question. I tested Fang against the back of my arm and found that the edge shaved off the hair by barely touching it. "That's easy. I get rid of them."

Have you ever actually killed anyone before, Maximum?

I frowned. Ari...didn't quite count. I'm sure I've caused a few deaths indirectly. I know I was responsible for the death of Gozen and the Uber Director. "Let's hope I can change that," I said through my teeth, determined, and squatted down to share some food and water with Akila, who was stretching and doing her do's, since it had been a pretty long flight. I am so hard on my friends. But she didn't complain, just wagged her tail and ate happily. I wondered how she could tolerate me.

Check this out, by the way - I'd found that the backpack Linda had chosen for me didn't way that much because of what I'd already packed - it weighed more because of what went into the hidden compartments - a Thermal Optics/ Nightvision set of binoculars and several variations of knives. Linda, always looking out for me and thinking of everything. I whipped out the Specs and stood up above a shielding rock so I could peer in at the base.

It showed up hotter than the landscape easily, mostly because the sun had not yet risen, and so there was no real accompanying heat; but this was perfect. I wished that I had enough room to bring along the sniper rifle, but oh well. "You ready for this, Akila?"

She poked my elbow with her nose and wagged in anticipation. I smiled, my first real one in some time. "All right. Let's do this."

You may not think it, but sneaking into a high-security, sicko-facility at before the butt-crack of dawn with a very large dog and a whole head full of passcodes and plans beamed in by some sort of mind chip, especially by a traitor in the midst of the company itself, is actually MUCH easier than it would have been if I'd wanted to try this earlier. I mean, really, look at this - the only way I'd got in last time was by getting captured.

I came in through a side door reserved for the cleaning crew. Of course, it meant jumping the barbed-wire fences with said canine without a sound in all of the blind-spots of the cameras and somehow dodging the patrolling guardsmen and their dogs, but like I said, when you are programmed to do it, it pretty much falls very neatly into place.

Hup - One giant leap over the first fence with Akila in my arms, over the heads of the guardsmen just leaving around the corner, and land with nary a sound; gather my legs under me and hup - again, over the second fence, puff up my ribcage a little to make myself a little lighter and "false glide" over the third fence, which was electrical. (Bet you didn't know we could do that, huh?)

This time, landing on pavement, directly in the blind-spot of the cameras. I put Akila down and straightened up, then walked with my head and shoulders back, like I was supposed to be there, and just moving in on the custodian equipment a little early today. Use the passcode, Max.

Well, duh. I punched it in with ease, and the door was open, leading into a maze of narrow corridors, like catacombs, that would take me into the very heart of the School.

At any other time, my fear would be overwhelming.

An endless nightmare of the first ten years of my life, of torture and sick insanity. The sterile and chemical smells of formaldehyde and ammonia blasting up from the hallways like a furnace, making my gut roil; the distant, steady murmur of noise from the hapless inhabitants, probably stuffed into dog crates like I had once been and left alone in the dark with nothing but their hands to talk to...

Maybe it was because my greatest fear had already come true - two of them, in fact - that I felt strangely calm. Yes, I was alert and twitching like a cat, but there was an underlying calm that made the smells, and the texture of the walls and floors, the memory of the halls become almost...obsolete.

I reached into my pocket quickly and withdrew a leash, and attached it to Akila's collar, before I forgot. We probably looked more like Night Crew guards or something, than a simple janitor. Akila leaned briefly against my leg, and we navigated the twisting maze of fluorescent lights and cold tile, going off of the map that Jeb had shown me in my head.

This Deputy, Mr. Ryan Rorsche. Going off the description, a skinny little snip of a guy with a neck thin enough to snap between my fingers, probably. He wore glasses - a geek, maybe? He'd have to be.

The hallways began to rise on a sort of incline, and I 'felt', just some inner-knowing, that I was getting close.

Closer... we passed other whitecoats as we entered the main hallways, but they didn't pay us any attention. Greencoats, bluecoats, whitecoats, hazmats, and more - even other black-clothed guards, like me. We blended in rather well. Even better than no one was really awake at this hour but the nightly cleaners and errand-runners.

My destination took me to an empty office. I un-clipped Akila's leash and slid inside.

In the gloom, I could make out a large, heavy desk. My destination, this Deputy's office, was on the third floor. Right now, the incline had taken me to the second level. Why was I here?

Wait here a moment, said the Voice. There's something you need to see.

I waited in the dark, breathing as lightly as I could.

Not two minutes later, a group of somethings passed by the door. I held my breath instinctively. What were they? It looked like a mass of different mutations - one, a furry black thing that towered over the others with very large ears; another, with hair like flames; a sort of android that looked very much like a more flexible version of Gozen; a - was that a ninja? And finally, one man in a white lab coat that I'd only seen in my dreams.

Bingo. Mr. Rorsche.

I wonder where you're headed. I could feel myself getting hot, like when I'm about to warp-out at super speed. It was an intense, almost jovial, giddy feeling, that made me almost want to dance in place and sing a little song about torturing my enemies. I had to get past that. But it was SO hard. My hand, resting on the hilt of the Fang, gripped it tightly, twitched, wanted to put its razor-sharp edge to good use.

All in good time, Max, my Voice assured me. Now hide somewhere. He will be back to this place.


Because this office used to belong to me, he explained. He wants to look at some of my files on the 'new Max' and Flock while I'm not there.

And indeed, there were footsteps approaching. Akila scurried out of the room - no place to hide a dog that big - and I jumped quietly on top of the desk, screwed open the ventilation hatch faster than I thought could be possible, and pulled myself up into it, closing it behind me.

And in a minute and fourteen seconds, my target came into view.

7. An Antidote?

An Antidote?

Mr. Rorsche was a very gangly young man who looked like the perfect image of a geek fresh out of high school - thick glasses, a very skinny neck, large hands in comparison to the rest of his body, and a spattering of either freckles or acne across his face. His hair was short and brown and slicked back in some attempt to look somewhat appropriate. He was, of course, wearing a white lab coat, and an I.D tag around his neck on an Itex lanyard. Max watched him carefully from the vent.

The Deputy did not bother turning on the lights; instead, he hurried swiftly to the computer at the desk and propped it open with a movement so smooth that anyone watching could tell that he'd probably been planning this venture for a long time. His long, slender fingers began to type. He cursed under his breath. It had been a full month, and STILL, no one was able to get into these dratted files of Batchelder's. And worse yet, Batchelder was away on business in another country on a secretive project, and could not be contacted.

In the glow of the monitor, Mr. Rorsche sat back in momentary defeat, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. It was a private project, known only to him and the team he worked for; and still, even a week into the whole thing, he could not access any of those files. And reaching Batchelder was, of course, impossible at the moment.

Rorsche closed his eyes in thought. The other hand tapped the desktop impatiently as he tried to think of a way around this, and then easily reached for the holder in front of him.


It wouldn't get any better than this. I could feel the rush, the thrill, the edgy anticipation to take his head off! With a crash and a roar, I came down upon my first target, ready to, ready to -

- And found myself suddenly pinned to the desk with a surprisingly sharp letter-opener at my throat, staring up into the mirrored glare of the man's glasses.

After a few seconds of wondering how the heck that had happened, I came up with this:

Rorsche had already been reaching for the letter-opener before I'd come down; so he must have already known that I was here somehow. But how?

He filled me in on that. "Surprise, Maximum. I've been visiting this room every night for the past week, and not once have I ever had the beginnings of an allergy attack."

That explained part of that...(was he allergic to birds??) "And also, your reflection appeared."

"In the monitor?" I snarled, teeth bared. The edge of the desk was digging into my back. Rorsche actually smirked, and then I understood: "Your glasses."

"Yes," he replied, tapping them with a finger. "The lenses are just wide enough to give me the uncanny ability to see behind me. The monitor light helped, as well. I saw your shadow quite literally in the corner of my eye."

Well, fudging crap on a pork-chop.

The edge of the letter-opener pricked the skin very lightly. "So what should I do with you, now that you're apparently NOT dead?"

For all of this guy's geeky appearance, I could see that this had to be something like a very evil, very devious front. There was something sinister going on behind those lenses, something very scary, in that twisted little brain of his.

Don't underestimate your prey, Max.

You tell me this NOW?

"How about you ghost me already, freak," I spat. "I'd do it to you." What did I care? It might be an easier death than the one that awaited me.

"But that would defeat the purpose of why I need you," he almost purred.

"Why do you need me?" Felt I should ask.

"That's a secret," he said simply, and leaned closer to my face. I wanted to bite his nose off. "I know why you're here - why anyone in your position would be here. And I can only say that you've done a good job surviving and getting this far."

"I practically walked in. If you know what I want, then why not allow me the satisfaction of taking it?" I want your freakin' head as a trophy after you tell me what I need to know.

"Because it's not here, Maximum."

...Wait a minute. Were we talking about the same thing?

I cased my eyes and tried to look aloof. "What's not?"

"The antidote," he said, smiling. "You're dying because your DNA has reached the point of where it wants to unravel and tear you apart. But this wonderful little drug can stop all that from happening, and prolong your life...almost to as long as a normal human being's."

That was 70 years of life or more. So surprised by this knowledge that I actually took a moment to consider how tempting it was. As long to live as a normal human. I wouldn't die. I wouldn't...

I narrowed my eyes. Was that really what he thought I wanted? "Then where is it?" I tried. Rorsche tutted. "I can't tell you that. Not without a little...cooperation."

"Cooperation?" Yeah, right!

"Yes," he mused, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "If you do a little something for me, I'll do this little something for you."

"And what would that 'little something' be, exactly?"

"I said it's a secret."

Fine. I wasn't here for a stupid antidote, anyway. Anything that happened, I would still end up getting my hands on his skinny little neck. "Then no deal."

"You don't want to SEE the secret?"

What was he playing at?

"...Show me."

"Promise not to harm me."

Ha. "I promise, as long as you do."

"Then, I promise as well." Rorsche backed away from me and the chair, then turned the knife on itself and stuck it back into the holder. He turned his back to clean up the mess in the office, and I felt my throat. The blade had been so keen, that I could feel where the incision was left, but the pressure had been so little that it hadn't even bled.

Rorsche - I wanted to call him Roach - fitted the screen back in place above the desk and re-stacked the fallen binders and papers, then turned off the computer, all at his own speed. My eyes followed him hungrily, but I was calmer now, if a little mortified. I'd underestimated my enemy. The one working for the sicko that had done this to my family. Just because he was a human didn't mean that he wasn't a total slime-ball. I should know that.

On a whim, I seized the letter opener in a flash and held it out at the ready. "You let down your guard because of something I said?"

Rorsche didn't blink, but only smirked over a pile. I looked down to see what was so funny, and found a very small pistol protruding from just under his sleeve. "My guard is never down, Maximum. I don't want a knife in my forehead, and I'm pretty certain that you don't want a hole in your liver, so..."

I put the knife back, satisfied. I was getting to know my opponent, slowly but surely, and what I'd just gained was that not only was he armed, but he was also a quick-draw, and probably had other nasty gadgets up his sleeve somewhere.

Rorsche pushed up his glasses and adjusted his lab coat, then gestured to the door. "Please, after you, miss."

For the sake of appearances, I held my head up and strode past him into the hallway.

8. The Secret

A/N: How about a little twist or two? You deserve one. :)

The Secret

I didn't see Akila anywhere as we were walking, Rorsche slightly behind me, no doubt with the pistol still pointed at my back in case I tried to make a move. But that was good; she didn't need this aggravation. A multitude of thoughts were rushing through my head - an antidote? Did he really believe that's what I was looking for? What was this "secret" that I was supposed to see, that was worth the somewhat-betrayal of his own company? What did this lunatic want?

Best to just be quiet and start memorizing routes and markers for now. I was calmer, yes, but practically buzzing with reserve adrenaline in the probable event of a move. What was my next move? I'd kind of jumped into this thing blindly, even though I did have a voice that I hardly trusted in my head.

(What's that say about me, I wonder? Huh.)

Endless twists and turns down the hated hallways. This place - it's sights and smells, brought back horrible memories that, now that I had really nothing more to hang on to other than my hatred and my fury, seemed like nothing but the cold ash that had sifted between my fingers. It didn't bother me as much. Maybe it was because I no longer had a fear of going back in least, not for very long.

Rorsche paused by an automatic door. "Are you ready to see this, Maximum?"

I crossed my arms and simply glared at him. Don't keep me here all night, now.

He punched in a code, and the door slid back, to lead into another chamber with another door, which we crossed to get to - and then another one after that. There were four of these, the last with an enormous door with as big a set of bolts to hold it closed. Just what the heck was back there that needed that much protection? Maybe it was something like Gozen, but then, I had doubts that even he could knock down this bad boy.

It was a sort of...vault. There was hissing and whooshing of air and decontaminates, and then the wheel in the middle spun back on its own accord, and the massive door opened without a sound.

"Perfectly balanced," Rorsche explained, noticing my wide eyes. "And can only be opened at certain times of the day by three people at once. However, my codes allow me to get past it with less...hassle."


"THIS is the secret. I'll trust you to keep it to yourself?"

It was an enormous chamber of frosty computer equipment and some giant, shell-like machine taking up a whole corner and most of the freaking ceiling, jet black and rumbling, connected to a collection of pods that lined the backs of the walls; Rorsche pulled on a pair of gloves, and our breath appeared on the air as tiny puffs in the fluorescence of the lights. "Go on in, and have a look."

I did, cautious, my fingers twitching with nerves. What is this? I leaned over one of the large computers, wiping off the fog and frost crystals, and found nothing but a continuous stream of readings that I hardly understood. All of this equipment was fairly new. I'd come back to this. Turning, I walked up to the nearest pod, in the center of the room (there were seven main ones in the middle of the room), and wiped off the glass...

...And found myself staring at...myself.

The other Max? I thought, swallowing. Is she the one that carried out the orders to destroy my flock? Or is this just a clone?

Just a clone... I hurriedly wiped off the other five tanks, and there they all were - exact copies of my beloved flock, all seemingly asleep.

"They are only back-ups, as are all the ones in the other pods," Rorsche put in helpfully. I whirled. "Back-ups?" Like Max II?

Rorsche folded his arms and walked around the main ones, staring intently at the ones that housed Nudge and Iggy. "Each one of you has countless clones and variations, all from a single feather. Your DNA has so many strands and so much complex buildup, that it was nothing to test and experiment on how many ways it could be done. A more-mature feather was taken from each of you when you were last here. We could keep making these things forever."

I felt cold inside, and it wasn't because of the chill of the room. "What...what do you need so many for?" I asked, trying to keep the tremble out of my voice, but oh, I was so angry, so miserable. My Iggy, my Angel, my Fang; they all looked so real, their eyes closed, as if it really were them and only having a nap. "World domination?"

Rorsche actually cracked a laugh at that. "That was the original idea," he admitted. "Itex definitely wanted that, but only a select few could do it. They had this idea after both Max II and Omega had been taken down, and restarted with the Flyboys and Toy Soldiers. But no, that is not the Director's plan at the moment. In was originally Jeb Batchelder's plan."

"What is it?!" I demanded, tired of this.

"Think about it, Maximum. Normal human DNA carries on in only a single strand. YOUR DNA counts for over a hundred. All of our recombinant projects have tried and failed to live longer than the norm we set for them, because their DNA couldn't stick; but the more variations we have -"

"- The more ways you'll be able to find and retro-fit strands that will work, and thus, the antidote," I concluded quietly, turning my gaze back to Fang's - or his clone's - pod.


The glass was cold under my fingers. Without turning around, I said, "Where do I come in to all of this? What do you need me for?"

"New DNA, probably. You have mutated on your own in the past year and a half, with new powers. You have evolved. And therefore, I'll only need another piece from you - hair or skin or a feather will do."

"Your new Max isn't adequate?" I presumed, feeling him circling me.

"She's got her own abilities, but she's lacking something of yours...something only the original has, the one thing that has not yet shown up in all of the spliced pieces of DNA. As you can see, we've already got the ones in your beloved flock."

I tensed, but kept my eyes on the clone's long, dark lashes. It hurt, more than anything, to be staring at him, and yet I just couldn't look away. "And so with my new can make this antidote?"


"But if I give you that, it'll make your clones stronger," I pointed out. "You know that I've never wanted anything to do with you - Itex, the School. I'd just be handing you another advantage, whereas all I get out of the deal - IF it works - is a prolonged life and more vermin to exterminate."

"OR we could make you better," he said, his brown eyes glinting in a way that told me he was teasing. "Infuse you with new powers. Can't guarantee that it won't be painful, though..."

"Stop screwing with me."

"Give me your DNA. Then you'll have a longer life, and the new flock, the best of the pack, will get to come with you - and they won't have expiration dates. You'll all live and have more time and chance to be like the other normal, pitiful, destructive humans that you've always idolized."

He leaned in next to my ear, and I stiffened in disgust. "You could have your love back," he said quietly. "Your beloved Fang. Your darling Angel. I'll even set you up on somewhere remote where you can live out the rest of your days while the clones do your job for you, that you could never do for us."

How tempting.

I closed my eyes, shutting out the image of Fang's clone. "It would be pointless. ...They wouldn't be my flock."

"Reprogrammed with their last thoughts and memories and emotions? We have the technology. It'll be like they never left."

I just couldn't imagine it. How low would I stoop, just to have them back? Their copies? It just wouldn't be the same, no matter how much they acted like their originals. I had seen their deaths, their remains, and been a part of it. "I...I can't. I just can't."

To my surprise and suspicion, Rorsche only nodded and gestured toward an open area that could be seen through a wall of glass. "I see that you need a little more time to think about it...more persuasion, then." He snapped his fingers, and the pod housing Fang's main clone flicked on a flashing green light. My eyes snapped open - just as his did.

At once, the liquid inside the pod bubbled and frothed and sank away, and the hatch popped open with clouds of steam; I stepped backward in shock as the Clone stepped out with all of Fang's dark grace, his large, dark wings folded around him.

"This is Fang's Master Clone," Rorsche explained, as I backed into the glass wall. "He was the best of the bunch, but at present, while his replacement is being made, has an expiration date and no memories of you. He's a clean slate that only knows what we've programmed him to know so far. Think of him as a sort of...Fang II."

Fang II's eyes bored into my own, making my insides freeze. That look in his was like I had become the prey.

His wings spread open, dripping the viscous fluid onto the vents in the floor, and revealing him in the tight black bodysuit of memory cloth that encased his skin up to his neck and just below his jaw. This so-called Master Clone looked like a wilder version of him - his hair down around his back and shoulders instead of up, like it usually was; the nails solid black and curving; the eyes as bright and piercing as a hawk's.

He stood at ease, his wingtips brushing the thick wires that hung from the ceiling.

Fang, he was really alive...he just looked a bit different, that was all...

"But do you see what we could accomplish?"

No, that's not Fang. You know it's not.

Rorsche stood proudly to the side and nodded to the Clone. "Go to her, Fang. She has missed you."

Fang II advanced.

I couldn't back up any further, nor could I find it within myself to move. It was and it wasn't Fang. And yet my subconscious would not allow me to move at all. I was stuck, frozen in place. I missed him, so, so much - there was a gaping hole in my chest where he used to be, and now, he was returning - just a different form, right? - to fill that void again.


He stopped, barely four feet away, and reached out to me, offering his hand, that I may take it and escape with him. His head was tilted to the side, expression unreadable, and he had not since spoken a word: "Max."

It's you, you're's really...

I outstretched my own hand, reaching towards the chaos that I knew to be of the same, and not the same. I was mesmerized by his eyes, the way they were seeing into my mind, seeing into my soul...

"Go on," Rorsche whispered.

...Inches from touching...





Having an eighty-pound Alaskan malamute - an angry Alaskan malamute - land on you is not fun, believe me. Especially like that.

Rorsche screamed as my last, living, furious friend came out of nowhere and tore a good chunk out of his left shoulder. Where she'd come from, I didn't know, and didn't care; all I knew is that just her appearance had snapped me back to reality, just in time, and a smidgen too late, to do anything about it.

My outstretched hand flew to the ninjato protruding over my shoulder - just as Fang II slammed his palms into my chest.

The glass I'd been leaning against shattered, and I tumbled backward into the open space, fragments sprinkling around my head as I tried to regain my breath. I gasped for air, able to roll to my knees, but then he'd snatched a handful of my short, choppy hair and swung me into the nearest wall. I hit the wall on palms and toes and flipped off, rolled, and swiped his legs with my own, energy kicking in for battle. The ninjato, the Fang - my ONLY one to trust - flew from its sheath and came down to bear between us.

That was not Fang, not even close.

I had to accept that my Fang was dead, gone, and that I would soon be joining him in the afterlife...if there was one for people like me.

The point remained: this was a setup, a temptation that I'd fallen for, and I was back to my original plan: capture Rorsche and torture the sucker for information. What heart I'd had died along with my flock. I should have no qualms about killing an enemy with a loved-one's face.

A gunshot. Akila snarled and sank her teeth into Rorsche's wrist. For once, his cold resolve as a baddy seemed to have deserted him, leaving him with only a face contorted in fear and fury. "ICARUS!"

Icarus? Was that a password?

The Fang Clone opened his mouth and hissed at me with bared fangs. I turned the sword along itself...then struck.

We dodged and danced across the glass-strewn floor, ducking and weaving; but I couldn't hit him. The Clone's claws raked towards my face, and I felt the wind as they passed by, just barely missing me. We were evenly matched, and all that was being accomplished was the wasting of time. "Come on, Big Bird, can't you even fight like the real Fang?" I jabbed, skipping backwards as the flurry of sharp attacks - sharp, dangerous, scary attacks - were thrown at me. That was twenty blades to account for, on hand and foot, and a whole new set of them in his mouth as well, to dodge.

These insults didn't seem to work on him, either. I dodged another blow and slashed at his face, and succeeded in clipping a fraction of hair. Yes!

If it were really Fang, that would have ended it. My life would have been in his hands. He hated cutting his hair.

This Fang barely paused in my brief moment of victory. Before I knew what had happened, I'd been hauled up by the neck and thrown backwards again, this time with my outfit smoking. Fire?!

Fire, indeed. The Clone spun around, and the area became hot, the tile melting under my boots; flame had appeared at his hands, and followed him like a ribbon-dancer. Good Lord almighty, was this hiding in his DNA this ENTIRE TIME?!

It had been a year to develop more powers, I know; but back then, when he was still alive, Fang had only been able to produce a spark or two. NOTHING LIKE THIS. The glass hissed as it melted, and jumped like magma sparks; I dragged in a hot, strangulating breath of air and held tight to the sword with sweaty palms, prepared to kill him. I had to do it. The two of us stared each other down, one with a pathetic little sword, the other with a ball of fire in his hands, waiting for the other to make a move.

I leveled the sword between his eyes...

...And then Pandora's box blew open.

There was a flash of red and green and blue, and then, I was flying back to the main door, Akila raging beside me, the both of us being sucked out by something that could have been a giant vacuum. I only just managed to snatch Rorsche by the collar on our way out. We sped through the chambers and doors at the mercy of this ludicrous wind, round and around and around, until we were back in the hallway - and the whole place was on full alert, the sirens bleating in our ears.

The final door slid shut behind us with a slam.

9. What Goes Around

What Goes Around...


"All personnel, please be alert. A specimen is loose in the building. I repeat, a specimen is loose in the building. Sector 12-D; Sector 12-D."

Damn straight!

In a surge of adrenaline, and not bothering to ask what the heck had just happened, I got up and seized Mr. Roach under the arms, and dragged him into the nearest office, shutting the door. The Fang was at his jugular.

"Tell me where your Boss is," I demanded, as the sound of approaching boots came closer. Akila growled beside me. Rorsche's white coat and fingers were stained with blood. I assumed that Akila had made him drop his own gun, because he didn't have it now. His eyes were screwed up in pain. "We...had a deal...Maximum..."

"Yeah? Well ****your little deal, okay?" I snapped, on a rush, nerves fraying. "Did you honestly think I wouldn't act on every reason to tear you apart?" Did he really?

He only groaned. Akila growled at him, fur bristling like a wolf.

I removed the blade from his neck...then slammed it down into his injured shoulder.

His scream almost busted my eardrums, but I kept steady. "TELL ME, or I'll leave your sorry corpse here!"

"Mr. Rushing is in Hong Kong!" He shrieked, flailing helplessly. "He's on vacation and left me in charge!"

"Is he lying?" I demanded.

I don't think so, my Voice responded, actually saying something for the first time in a while.

"What is he planning?!"

"I told you, to expand his army's lifespans and raze the earth!" He pleaded, spasming. "His team is working in secret - "

"Who is all in his team?"

"Him, me, the third Max, your Master Clone - "

" - And they're all in China right now?!"

"Yes, but he'll be back in a week - "


BAM BAM BAM! "Secure the area! Guns out!"

We'd run out of time. Damn it all! I twisted the sword cruelly, a small token of what he'd done to me, to my flock, and what he was planning to do to the world. Roach screamed again. "ICARUS!!"

"Out of the way!"


The door was ripped off its hinges by the same strong wind. This time, I tore my sword from Rorsche's shoulder and turned onto my back by reflex.

Go with the flow, Max.

Why not?

Me and a flurry of flying papers were sucked out into the hallway in an instant, like air from a punctured tank in space. There was a dull roar of rushing wind, and I wondered if Icarus was a password for turning on this seemingly Emergency-Vacuum thing. As it turned out - me, speeding along on my back with my sword held above my head, ready to deal damage to whatever and whomever I ran into, Akila beside me - that Icarus was not exactly a thing, but something like a person.

Rorsche's bodyguard, I thought, remembering the flash of information. Of course, there wasn't much known about said bodyguard, and now, I could see why: Icarus had to be something fairly new...or really, really old. All that the file had told me was that it was the first version of Avian ever created. And it looked like a potential failure.

Yes. Icarus was a six-foot-three, half human, half-macaw mess with a broad, metal mask that reminded me of Freddy. It was a mutant all right, a heavy, hulking red mop-thing with brilliant blues and greens and yellows painted into its feathers. A beautiful monster. It had its wings open wide, and I realized that it had used its massive appendages to manipulate the air in the building to do this.

"HAAA!" I yelled, as I neared the creature, and sank the sword into its feathery chest.

A wing cuffed me, and it was like getting hit by a Buick - I let go of the sword - but I rolled to my feet and unzipped the coveralls to the waist, reached behind me and snapped the fastenings on my wings (I was sure I'd killed it), retrieved my twin pistols from their holsters, all in one movement, and aimed them at the swarms of S.W.A.T. wannabes crowding the red-flashing hallways.

I'd kept my rage pent in enough in the past sets of hours of this hell.

My vengeance could start here.

Have you ever killed anyone before, Max?

Not yet. But soon.

Rorsche fished into his pocked wildly for his handset and began punching codes. "All complete clones...get out here, right now!" He spat into the receiver, and snapped it shut at once. He hooked his arm around an overturned chair and made it behind the desk as rapid gunfire tore through the air.

He hadn't expected Max to honor her agreement. No more than he would have honored his.

He just hadn't planned on there being a partner accompanying her, that dog.

The dog...


His body guard stumbled into the room. The ninjato was sticking out of its chest, and its head-feathers nearly grazed the ceiling. He grimaced. "Don't just stand there, let the Clones out!"

Icarus extended a heavy, exotic wing, in which just under the joint was a perfectly pale, cruelly-taloned, human hand, that snatched the blade from its breast.

The feathers shrank away, and it shrank as well, to about the size of Max herself. What stood in the beast's place was an ashen, anorexically-thin, long-limbed, stooping human with colorful wings sprouting from its arms and sharp bird's feet. Its face was still hidden by the mask, and a mane of bright red feathers flowed and bristled down its back. It looked a lot like a very skinny person trying to dress up like a very large bird for Mardis Gras. It twirled the sword in hand and made an abrupt about-face to do as ordered, without a word.

So THIS was what it was like to kill someone directly and mean it.

My bullet hit him in the chest, and he fell, the machine gun in his hands going off and tearing into the ceiling. There was a frozen moment in my mind where I thought, my God. I just killed somebody. A horrible moment where I felt bad for him; he was a human, and hadn't stood a chance; and then I remembered exactly why I was here. Each and every one of these sick nut-jobs would have done the same for me without another thought, HAD done the same to my flock.

They were the reason that I was what I was. They had made me into this.

So when the sudden surge of elation over my first kill brought me thundering back into focus, I felt really good.



Boom! Crash!

I dodged and rolled and leaped over startled and amazed heads, ducking grenades and zipping out of machine-gun fire. My blood was hot, and the world had slowed, and in Warp Mode, I fired left and right and wreaked havoc in every direction, swarms of black-decked guards falling like corn before the reaper. My pulse, timed to every shot, the target magnified with every beat, my soul attached to every bullet as they blasted from the smoking barrel and buried themselves into the flesh and bone (I could hear it in Surround-Sound), as though I had stabbed them with my own hand.

It was the closest feeling to Nirvana, that pure freedom, that I had ever come before. I was God.

All of my emotions, released at once into their heads and hearts. Every bullet with my family's name on it, with me in it, taking them out, five and ten at a time.

I swiftly reloaded and zipped up a wall to bring the rain on their heads. Slow motion for me, sheer Chaos for them.

"Get some ****ing backup in here, NOW!" A commander was screaming into his set. "This is insanity! Bring the whole freakin' army if you have to!"

My next bullet silenced him forever. Their screams were muffled in my ears.


"Shoot her? I can't even see her!"

"Where is she?!"



BANG! Between the eyes!

"Oh, YES!" I crowed, giddy out of my skull. Take that, you freaks! For Ari and Iggy and Fang and Nudge and Gazzy and Angel and Total and my mom and sister and Linda and Akila, and for everyone else you've made suffer!

That reminded me: I tore up the hallways, scattering goons like ninepins, and started busting doors and walls like an out-of-control pinball. Cages crumpled and shattered. The excited roars and chatters of the mutants reached me in that solitary tunnel in my mind, but there was no time to show them the flipping exit. I set free every single one that I could get a hold of, and inexplicably found myself next to a Power Box.

A wicked grin split my face.


The lights went out.

And then the screaming really started, because now they had to worry about an army of mutants that they themselves had modified to see and act in the dark.

It's like they say. What goes around...

"AAH, what IS that thing!?"

"Get it off of me! Get it off me!"

"GROOOAAAAARRGGHH....!" came a jubilant roar.

The School was being turned inside out. I hurtled over the epic battle of the mutant's own vengeance vs. the guard's and fighter's wimpiness - okay, so not a battle exactly, but a massacre - and back to where I'd last left Rorsche. I couldn't see in the dark, but I could smell him, smell everyone, and follow the scent blindly, with only the light of the gunfire and emergency glow-strips in the floor to light my way.

But then another scent caught my attention. Burning wood...!

I jumped as the monstrous lobby desk scooted after me, charred and burning. It crashed against the far wall, sending flaming splinters and smoke in every direction. I landed in a crouch and leveled my guns at Fang II.

He was standing at the head of an entire mass of shorter subjects, each wearing gasmasks. Were they clones? I couldn't see their faces, only their wings, which bore a resemblance to his own. I sized them up quickly. Gasmasks, tanks on their backs...were they wielding flamethrowers?

All right, Max. Stop thinking real-life, and start thinking Playstation 2.

That was some fairly good advice, for once, and it made me feel a lot better, for some reason.

The Mini-fangs rushed forward, spouting plumes of fire in my direction. I clenched my teeth - the prospect of ending up as KFC didn't appeal very much to me - and zig-zagged between them. It was like a show of tumblers, each moving before the other. For every move that I knew they'd make, they read my own and dodged, and vise-versa. It was a game of never-ending tag, where all of us were It and the first person to get tagged got either a burn or a bullet in the forehead.

The room was quickly growing hotter. Pictures and windows were oozing, and the paint was peeling off in nasty, slippery messes on the floor. I slid in one across the tile, pinwheeling, and collided with an over-turned armchair.


I ducked in the knick of time, and grabbed at the chair's sides, then hurled it at my attacker. Three Flamethrowers went down at once. Snarling, I followed up behind the chair and kicked another square in the chin. His head snapped back with a satisfying CRACK. My arms were waving free from the momentum, my fingers pumping the trigger, and one by one, the gas tanks exploded in brilliant flashes of metal and fire and clone. Bloody brilliant.

The fire alarms went off next. I hadn't expected them to be so loud. I cried out and covered my ears with my hands. Oh, great, dropped my guns.



That would be the MC's boot, square in my chest. I staggered back, unsure of which way was up again. I cracked my eyes open and saw the other Fang advancing fast, hand raised to probably take my head off. Focus! I ducked and swung a flurry of jabs at his midriff, even though it felt like my ears were bleeding. I'd have had more chances of taking out a rock that way: Fang II's knee came up out of nowhere and slammed into my forehead, and I hit the ground pretty hard, winded. nose is broken. Again.

REEEEE! REEEE! Screamed the alarm. I winced. Fang II was walking nearer. His eyes were squinted, so he was feeling the affects of the noise, too, but it certainly wasn't hampering him as badly. Either that, or he was good at not showing it. I heaved for breath and spat out a mouthful of blood that had seeped in, and stared up at him. His face held no expression.

In his right hand, a flame appeared, and grew bigger, burned brighter.

Such a cold look. I stared back at him with as much the same, sweating in the heat, feeling like I was trapped in a furnace. "You've got me. Do it. Go on."

Why is he hesitating?

He lifted the flame higher.

I sneered. "What? Too chicken?"

His boot pressed down on my throat, and I was vaguely reminded of Ari, back when we had been enemies. It was a devastating feeling, to remember, and made me even more determined to either be ghosted or ghost him. "GO ON!" I gargled.

Our eyes met. There was a hestitation in there somewhere, but what was he waiting for? Why didn't he want to kill me?


"You don't have to work for them," I said, trying it out. "They'll kill you the moment you start trying to think for yourself. Do you want that?"

No response.

"You have an expiration date. The next clone won't have one. And the moment they make him, you'll be tossed away like yesterday's trash. What will you do then, huh?"

The eyes flickered, wavered. Very slightly, the fireball ebbed...

And I took my cue. One of the guns had fallen just within reach of me. I snatched it up and fired without a second thought, and was surprised to see that I'd actually shot him.

I shot him twice.

Two nasty, gaping holes in his chest.

And all he did was flinch. Didn't make a sound, didn't fall, nothing.

We were frozen between us, me still holding the smoking gun and battling with myself - did I really just do that? And him, still looking at me. His dark eyes traveled to the bleeding wounds, then came back up and simply looked at me. They narrowed, and I tried to figure out what he could be thinking. Scrutiny? Hatred? Regret? ...Sadness?

The sprinklers turned on, shocking me out of the moment, and I jumped up, backed away, but he didn't follow me, only watched, made no move to stop me. Why? He could have dodged the bullets. I was pretty sure. Just...why?

Things are not always as they seem.

But what was that supposed to mean? I picked up the other gun and trained them both on him, even though I knew it was useless. A section of the ceiling rumbled and crackled with fire and electricity, and, with a last, confused look at the other Fang - not my Fang, I didn't shoot Fang - I booked it out of there.