Disclaimer: I don't own Maximum Ride.

Protectors

I sat outside my mom's house with my chin cupped in one hand, leaning forward slightly and gazing into the endless night sky. The stars shone brightly in every direction I looked, and the trees cast eerie shadows across the open porch. If I sort of glazed my eyes and tilted my head sideways to a forty-five degree angle, the landscape almost, nearly, sort of looked like the E house… well, minus the mountainous land and mountain air, not to mention the deep woods and clearings… Okay, so maybe it didn't exactly resemble the E house at all, but I was feeling nostalgic and I had a darn good reason to be.

My emotions were all over the place. I grimaced as I realized they had been that way too often lately. The past few days had been one exciting, heart-ripping, disturbing adventure after another- I had been ousted by the Flock, nearly shot by my baby, had seen my sort-of-not-really-sure-what-we-are-right-now boyfriend get killed, had to revive my sort-of-not-really-sure-what-we-are-right-now boyfriend from the dead, had to watch the newest, creepiest, most confusing illegitimate Flock member nearly off himself- and that was only over what felt like the course of two seconds. And I realized, with a sinking heart, that those two seconds were basically the story of my life.

I should really get an award for that.

So of course, after the entire situation with the betrayals and the secrets and the deaths, I decided that I deserved two seconds to myself for a change.

And then a dark shadow-like shape landed beside me and I mentally groaned because really, I shouldn't have been surprised that I couldn't even catch a break before I was attacked by- well, whatever or whoever hated my guts this time (believe me, there are a lot of options on that list). And I had about a split second to think, Of course I can't; I'm Maximum Ride and I'm supposed to save the whole freaking world, before a familiar voice came from the shadow and I let a bit of my tension subside.

"Yo. You okay?" Fang asked.

A man of words, isn't he?

I laughed sarcastically, shooting him a sardonic grin and raising an eyebrow. "Shouldn't I be asking you that question? You're the one who died today, big shot."

To my surprise, he didn't laugh along with me. I'd expected at least a small smirk, but hey, you can't always win, not even if you're the famous Maximum Ride. Instead, he gave me a look that clearly read, Are you on Valium again, 'cause you're not fooling anybody.

Alright, Fang. I guess we're going to play it your way.

"Honestly, I don't know, Fang," I muttered quietly, "I mean, you don't really bounce back from all this-" I gestured around the open air vaguely "-in just a few minutes, if you know what I mean."

"Mmmm…" he huddled next to me, so close that I could feel the heat radiating off his body. Fang was silent for a few moments and I swore I was going to murder him if he just left it at that. Thankfully, sensing my growing irritation, he spoke up again.

"But that's just it," Fang said plaintively, "You didn't bounce back from it all and we're all wondering why."

My eyes flashed dangerously and I whipped my head around to glare at him.

"Are you trying to pick a fight with me?" I asked, "Who are you to make it sound as if being a leader is easy? You couldn't even last a week with Gaz and Ig in- in-" "Hollywood," Fang supplied calmly "-and you're ragging on me about why I can't just magically come back from this all? Well, news flash, Fang- we're mutants, not wizards or witches, and I'm not an emotionless rock- not – like – you!"

Okay, I admit- not one of my best moments. But he'd honestly had the nerve to say to my face why I wasn't happy, chipper, 'Old Max' when my entire life had just exploded in my face?

"I'm not trying to pick a fight with you Max. And I thought we were over the Flock split up," Fang reminded me, not fazed in the least by my shouting. "All I'm saying is you're Maximum Ride and if this had happened- if I had died- at the E house, you would have been fine. Sure, the Flock would have been sad, but you know how to live without me, Max. And I also know that my almost-death isn't all that's bothering you right now."

That was quite possibly the longest speech Fang had ever given. If I weren't so riled up, I might've called him out for it.

"Since when did you become God, Fang?" I simmered with unbridled rage, "If you really believe there's something else, you're kidding yourself."

"No, I know there's something else; you just don't want to tell it to me. I never said I was God, Max, but I do know you, and right now, something's going on."

Oh my God, he was prying. Fang + Prying = Does Not Compute. This was Fang- in the fifteen years I'd known him, he'd always chosen dark, brooding silence over conversation. He just had to get the most talkative when I wanted him to just sit there and… be there for me.

Jeez, Max, mushy much?

I shuddered slightly and Fang studied me with an inscrutable expression on his face.

"You've been spending too much time with Total," I muttered. Fang gave me a look.

"Okay, fine, it's not just you, but it's never been just you, and- things have changed, Fang," I murmured haltingly, "Things are different now, and I can't just brush everything off like it doesn't matter anymore. I mean, it was easier then, when the Flock actually listened to me and Angel wasn't threatening to kick me out of the Flock or shoot me or whatever, and it was just the six of us, not the Flock plus my mom and Ella plus Jeb plus Total and Akila plus Dylan." My voice broke on the last word and I winced at my obvious display of weakness. I was good at giving motivational speeches to the Flock and yet I couldn't even speak about my feelings normally with the best friend I'd known all my life.

Fang was silent for a few moments. The air was riddled with tense apprehension and I couldn't help but wish he had just stayed inside with the rest of the Flock.

"We can take off, you know?" Fang turned to me seriously, "Max, look at me. We can leave them. Angel, Nudge, Iggy, Gazzy- they don't need us anymore. Angel's already shown what she values most, and honestly, I'm not too stoked about our recent addition either. We don't need to stay, Max. We're free."

I nearly snorted but then decided that this wasn't really the time for jokes. See, even I can be mature sometimes.

"And do what?" I questioned him, "Go to Las Vegas? Get caught my Dr. Haagen Dazs or whatever he's being called by these days? Angel isn't ready, Fang. She still- they still need me; I- I'm like their mother."

"No," Fang said, "you're not. You're not anybody's mother and I hope you're not for a really, really long time. You don't have to be there, Max. Angel was right about one thing, at least; the Flock isn't a job. We stay together because we love each other. But people we love leave sometimes. That's just life. And maybe it's time for you to let them be and just… let go."

Panic bubbled up underneath my skin and my heart gave a painful wrench. It was the same feeling that had overtaken me when Angel had kicked me out of the Flock, the same, familiar feeling that came whenever one of the Flock came close to not needing me anymore.

"I-" I clenched my teeth and tried to say something, anything, but I pulled a Fang and my words failed me. Tears rushed to my eyes and I blinked them back to no avail.

"You're wrong," I choked out, "When you really love someone, you stay with that person until the very end. I don't see them as my obligations, Fang; I'm here for them because they need me and I need them. That's all there is to it."

Fang didn't say anything; he just slung a wiry, bony, bird-kid arm over my shoulders and pressed me into his side. I resisted at first but then gave up, letting myself be held like the mushy sap that I am. And then the words just drained out of me and since I was too tired to stop them, I let my feelings flow.

"I- I've spent most of my life protecting them- protecting her- and she kicked me out and it was easy. And you- you just died today, and you don't know how scared I was when your heart stopped beating and you weren't there anymore! You were gone, and it hurt, Fang- it hurt so much. We're all breaking apart, and nobody needs me anymore and- and what happens if we all just decide we don't need each other? What happened to staying together, Fang? What happened to- to standing up for each other and being there and surviving through the thick and thin?" I shook my head, "I just… I thought we were a family, but… I guess not."

By this time, my voice had gone unbelievably shrill and my nose was running excessively. I sniffled every other sentence and wiped my eyes on more than one occasion. Either way, Fang chose not to notice, just patting my head as if I were a dog.

"And- you!" I snapped, shaking my head roughly so his hand would slide off, "What's the big deal with the heart-to-heart? Last time I checked, you were still as talkative as an-"

"Emotionless rock? Yeah, you mentioned," Fang stared so intently at me that I was forced to look away. "Max, we are family. Nobody thinks any differently about each other from when we were trapped in the School, except maybe you and me," he cleared his throat, "We'll always be family, no matter how hard it gets. We've been through too much to fall apart."

I looked up at him and shook my head slightly. "That's just it, though. We've been through too much. I'm only fifteen- I'm still a kid, Fang. We're all still kids and we shouldn't have to deal with this. We're hunted every day for being ourselves and frankly, it scares the heck out of me. Nudge, Gazzy, Angel… how many kids their age have been through hell and back? How many have grown up in dog cages? How many have had to live in trees and steal food from garbage cans just to stay alive? How many have survived to tell the tale?"

"Six," Fang shot back, "Six kids have lived to tell the tale because we're stronger than those losers who created us. We've shown them time and time again that we're better than they are- what more do you have to prove, Max? We've done all those things you've mentioned, and a bunch more, but do you really think the kids would have it any other way? Sure, they might want real parents and the opportunity to go to a real school without being alert all the time, but none of them- not even Angel- would trade anything or anyone for a member of the Flock. We're family, Max, because we've been through everything and we're still together. We're the Flock, and birds of a feather flock together."

I stared at him in a mixture of disgust and admiration. "What have you been reading lately, Nudge's sappy romance novels? Where did you get that- that cheesy thing?"

"Gazzy used it before," Fang admitted, cracking a small grin, "Some stupid joke. So I guess you're feeling like yourself now?"

"I can still kick your butt into next week, if that's what you're asking," I retorted, "But... yeah. I'm better. And... thanks, I guess…" I mumbled softly. So sue me if I wasn't used to this whole grateful thing. The last time I tried to voice my thankfulness to someone, that person turned out to be on the enemy's side.

Fang's eyes widened slightly and he cocked his head toward me. "What was that?" he asked.

I narrowed my eyes. With our enhanced senses and all, it was very unlikely that he hadn't heard me and I was not going to repeat it just for his pleasure.

I punched him on the shoulder and he released his arm from my shoulders. I stood up and gave a small stretch, still sniffling slightly and rubbing my bloodshot eyes. "You want to go for a fly?"

"You were just going to leave us here while you went flying?" Gazzy stepped out from behind one of the surrounding trees and Nudge groaned in defeat.

"Gazzy, they were having a moment! It was so romantic and then you just interrupted-"

"Were they going to suck face? Ten bucks, Gaz, I win."

"Max, Fang! You just lost me the bet!" Gazzy whined. "And that's gross," he added as an afterthought.

My gaze shifted to the four faces of the bird kids that stood before me. Iggy, Gazzy, Nudge, Angel- they were all there, every last one of them, and they were all ready to go out for a nighttime adventure. It reminded me of old times, when we would soar above the mountains without a care in the world, playing pranks and racing each other across the sky.

"I guess we're going then," I said, smiling, "Who's going first?"

"Ooh, I'll go!" Nudge shouted, already running across the grass and opening her wings. She took off into the air, followed closely by Gazzy, Iggy, and Fang, who were racing each other to some tree. I looked expectantly at Angel, but she was staring steadfastly at the ground.

"Ang, we really gotta go if we're gonna catch up to them," I said teasingly, "You do want to beat your brother, don't you?"

"I- Max, I'm sorry," Angel said softly, her big blue eyes downcast and one leg hooked behind the other, "You were right. I'm not ready to be leader, and I'm sorry that I kicked you out."

I stared at her for a minute. She wasn't the baby I had tried so hard to save from the Erasers that first time she was kidnapped. This girl was an older, more mature Angel than the one I knew, one who could be power-hungry one second and a complete, well, angel the next. And I knew that this was the moment that I could tell her how much she'd hurt me and how badly it felt that she'd betrayed me when I'd raised her as my baby from the beginning. I could absolutely crush her and yell at her and shout and it would be completely justified. Angel was, after all, guilty, and a part of me took pleasure at having her reduced to such a state.

And then I frowned, because that wasn't me. Fang, in all his glory, actually knew what he was talking about. Angel was my baby- she was family- and family made mistakes sometimes. So with a firm shake of my head, I gave a lasting smile to her.

"I know," I said, ruffling her blond curls, "But everything's fine now. We'll deal with the other problems when they come, but for now… let's just fly."

Angel nodded, smiling genuinely at me, her curls bouncing around her head, and took off into the night sky. I unfurled my wings and looked on as five bird kids turned into specks in the horizon, and followed them.

After all, I was Maximum Ride, and I protected my family.

A/N: It's not even near perfect, but I had to get it out of my head. Please review!