*Max Ride belongs to James Patterson and not to me.*
So wow, this is the end. It took so long but I hope the wait was worth it. I want to thank you guys for all the reviews, each and every one of you. I know I did not answer all of them, but I do read and cherish every single one. In fact, one review prompted me to go on this writing spree and finish this darned thing!
I want to thank everyone who read this story, who put it on your story alerts, who favorited this and who even put this in your communities. Thanks guys. This has been my most successful story so far, all thanks to YOU. You are great. You put up with my long spaces between updating, my unfunny sarcasm and my drastic changes in tone.
Hope you enjoy!
He found her in a bar in the middle of the country. She had settled in a tiny town, off of any major roads or highways.
It made sense in a way. She had spent so many years in the city. Maybe it was time for a change.
She was a bartender for the rough and burly types who worked in the nearby mines. Omega expected her to be holding off their advances, using that forked tongue of hers as well as her superhuman strength. She was a fiery one and he expected to be burned alive for even stepping in her presence.
It did not happen like that at all.
In fact, when the little bell above the door announced his presence, she looked up from wiping down the counter and smiled. Not smirked. Not grinned. Smiled. With teeth. Like it was good to see him.
Omega was thrown. Not only by how attractive she looked with all the anger drained from her face. But by the fact… she… smiled.
She must not have recognized him, he realized reluctantly.
He sat down on one of the aging stools at the bar and studied her face. She looked very, very different. There was no smoldering hatred hidden behind her eyes. She looked a little blank. A little lost. A little friendly.
Omega swallowed and looked at the wood counter underneath his fingers. He was not expecting this.
"What can I get you, Stranger?" She asked him cheerfully. "We have beer, whiskey… uh, beer." She laughed. "You know how the supply thing goes, especially over here."
He nodded like he dealt with that type of thing often. "Yeah." His voice was harsh, deep.
He peered at the other people hunched over the bar. They were dirty and looked like they had fought a few rounds with Time and lost. He felt out of place. His leather jacket looked fairly clean and there were no holes on any parts of this clothing. He hadn't had a showed in weeks but he had dipped into a clean stream or two when wet wipes couldn't cut through the smell. His gaze kept moving, ignoring the distrust in everyone's eyes.
He saw one man clutching a mason jar full of a white liquid.
She caught his gaze and laughed again. "You really are looking for the good stuff." She leaned over the counter conspiratorially.
Her hair fell over her shoulder. It was longer than Marian's business cut and the ends were now scraggly. But Omega decided her hair looked better that way. Wait… was her blouse… pink?
"Now, I don't like to tell any stranger that comes through here about our special stash. But you look like a respectable fellow. Tom-the owner- he makes the best moonshine this side of the Mississippi if I do say so myself. Would you like a taste?"
She smelled fresh, clean. He was breathing it in greedily before he realized she had asked him a question. How was he going to talk to her when she didn't even remember she hated him?
She waved her finger at him like he was a naughty boy. "Nuh-uh. First taste and if you like it, I'll charge you whatever I want. Got it?"
With eyes full of mirth, she headed off into the back and came back with his very own Mason jar. She poured a bit of the liquid into a shot glass and he could smell the pure alcohol from his stool.
She pushed the glass towards him and he tried to face it bravely.
Omega, like all the other experiments, was immune to the effects of alcohol. But that didn't mean that he could not taste it. He had tasted moonshine before. He was not exactly excited to try it again.
"When do you get off work?" He asked, half stalling.
"Already flirting with me and you're not even drunk. Try again, don't be a sissy."
The man next to Omega laughed and raised his glass in a toast.
"You tell him, Carol!" Someone from the back chimed in.
"I meant it." Omega said before downing the glass. It was like someone lit a fire in his esophagus. He winced and pretended his eyes weren't watering.
She leaned in and peered at his face. "Well, he's a little cross-eyed," she announced to the room. "Should we give him more?"
The drunken men roared their approval.
She grinned and pushed the Mason jar his way. "You earned it. Now pay up."
"How much?" He asked.
"Ten bucks if you want the whole thing."
"No, how much to I have to drink to ask you what time you get off today?"
There was a wolf-whistle from somewhere behind Omega's left shoulder.
She looked at him appraisingly. She was considering it, which was good. "Okay, look, I'm not looking for a boyfriend, okay?"
"She's already got me!" The man next to Omega slobbered.
"Yes. And I've already got Tim, Jean and Harold," the men nodded when they were mentioned, "so I don't need anyone else."
It took Omega a few seconds to realize that was the list of people who would beat him up if he tried anything, not the list of actual boyfriends.
"I just want to talk." Omega added hastily. He could take them, easy peasy but people in these parts didn't exactly like mutants. Especially since the only mutants they came in contact with used to be Itex's enforcers. Even he could not shrug off bullets buried in his back.
She pursed her lips and shook her head. "We can talk here, Lover-boy."
Okay, so maybe her attitude was still there.
Well, he was going to have to commit. "Do you know how you got here?"
"I walked, like I always do." She waved him off and moved to walk away.
He jumped up and clutched her wrist. His fingers easily wrapped around the frail bones and he flinched. She was so weak, even as she tried to pull out of his grasp.
"That's not what I meant. But you don't remember anything, do you? The Flock, Jeb, G., nothing."
She stopped and glared at him. By now her "boyfriends," drunk or not, were rising from their seats.
"I think you need to leave."
He let her go and nodded. "I think I do. I'll give Amy your best."
He was halfway to his truck before he heard the front door slam shut.
"Amy is dead!" She yelled at his back.
A small flicker of hope ignited in his chest and he couldn't snuff it out. He turned. Slowly.
She looked confused. Conflicted. She was biting her lip while glaring at him and he had to laugh. Everything she did was so unlike the woman he had known for just a couple of days.
"I don't know how I know that." She stated. "But I know she's dead. And I know I can't remember how I got here five years ago. And I can't remember who I am. But I know she's dead and I think you have answers."
He nodded and walked closer to her. "I know who you used to be."
"Who?" Her chin jutted out as she acted like she really didn't care. But she did. It was good to know her pride was still intact.
"You called yourself Maximum Ride and I think your Beast sacrificed itself to save you."
She got in his truck once her shift ended. She said good-bye to her boyfriends who were staring Omega down, tucked her tips in her shoe and climbed in Omega's beat-up Toyota.
They drove for a few days. She even pitched in to help him pay and pilfer gas and food. He took her to the middle of the woods. No one was around for miles and there was a clean stream running through the middle of the property. But his pride and joy was at the end of an overgrown path in the middle of the trees. He drove over foliage and avoided fresh saplings off-road to get to it.
It was a little cottage. It had one room plus a loft and it was so run down that it was pitiful. But it had a decent roof, even if the front door was a little lopsided. And a fireplace. And it was warm and full of supplies.
He hadn't talked about Max's past the whole way over. She had asked, and he had told her that he couldn't really say.
"I didn't know you that long. But I knew you at the end. I'll tell you more in the cabin."
Now they were here. In the cabin.
She poked around, kicked the wooden frame of the only bed. She inspected the stove and ducked into the cellar.
"What is all this?" She called up.
Omega walked down to the cellar and stood next to her. She was prodding a full IV bag with her finger.
"Medicine." He answered simply. "Vitamins. Cocktails of drugs to keep you alive."
She froze and looked at him. "Am I dying?"
"No. But you don't feel well do you?" He asked, peering into her face.
She did look sick. He noticed from the start, but the smiles she gave out distracted him. But he could tell she was lacking something. She hardly ate. She hardly slept. She was weaker than even a normal human.
She sighed. "I've always felt this way. I don't really understand what it's like not to be so tired all the time." She stared at the bags and then at him. "I think I'm ready for that explanation now."
He couldn't tell her everything. He could not explain his need to find her. He could not explain how what she said had buried so deep in his head that he heard her voice in his sleep. It would seem creepy. Weird.
Instead he told her a version of the truth. When she had disappeared, Jeb sent out search parties. Then, believing she was dead, he had put out a very nice reward asking for information. For a location of a body.
Omega had been wandering the city alone. He had escaped Itex, but he did not know what to do with his life. He spent every day coddled by an organization bent on world-wide destruction. He could join Jeb and the rebels. But he cringed at the thought of handing himself over to people he had considered to be the enemy all of his life.
But he saw the posters. He was intrigued. So he reluctantly had a long conversation with Jeb and finally decided that he could do it alone. It was hard, it was frustrating. No one had seen a bird woman. There was so much ground to cover, so many dead ends. But he needed something to do. The search for Max Ride had given him purpose, even if he was just looking for a body.
Two years in he found a large feather. It was hers. Three years in he found more. Four years in, he started hearing stories about folks stumbling across a dying woman lying in a pile of feathers. A month ago, he heard the last story-a folktale really, about a couple who had taken in a woman who had no memories except waking up in a local field hospital with a garbage bag full of feathers.
He tracked the couple down and was told about how their little "Carol" had moved a few towns over to start her new life.
And then he found her. She had smiled at him, and he knew that this woman was Max.
"How could the… the beast sacrifice itself?" She asked. It was the second day at the cabin. Omega had to move slowly, the information was just too overwhelming. Yesterday he had talked about his past. Today he talked about her past.
"It was something we-well the whitecoats had noticed. That an experiment could develop a Beast. The beast was there to protect the human part. They all thought it was kind of like having a split personality. But with more… tests… they realized that the Beast was a separate entity."
"I'm not following."
"It's like the Beast-the animal part- of a person detached itself from the human. It's like twins joined at the hip. Two parts of one whole."
She looked at Omega skeptically. "Oookay. So how did it sacrifice itself?"
Omega shrugged. "I don't know. All I know, is that sometimes, when it knew the body had a chance of being saved, it gave itself up. All the functions connected to the beast-the wings in your case-just… shut down. Stopped. And the body kept on going."
"That's why my wings fell apart." She whispered and the thought of it made Omega shudder.
Three days in she agreed to the IVs. She lay out on the twin bed and let Omega stick the needle into her arm. She shuddered, like she remembered how much she hated needles.
"I promise you," Omega soothed, "this cocktail will make you feel better. Two percent of your DNA has crumbled. The medicine will help rebuild it. Your DNA is very important and you cannot go without it for too long."
She looked vulnerable and it made Omega uncomfortable. "Will my wings grow back?" She asked in a soft voice.
"I honestly don't know. But you should stop feeling so sick."
Sometimes Omega wondered if he really should be doing this. Using pilfered Itex medicine to bring back terrible memories to this girl. She was nothing like Max. She seemed so nice. Innocent. Did he really have the right to remind her of her terrible past?
She said he did. She was adamant that he tell her everything he knew about her. She could not stand not being able to remember.
So five days in he gave her the medicine and watched her suffer.
"My body is on fire," she gasped. "Why am I in so much pain?"
Omega used a wet washcloth to gently wipe the sweat off her brow. "Your DNA is rebuilding itself and it's changing your whole inner structure. Your body is fighting it but at the same time, it wants the DNA to succeed."
"Is my Beast going to come back?"
"Maybe. She might not be the same though. Your beast surfaced because you were being tortured."
She looked up at him, risking a grin. He was sitting at her bedside, almost like a nurse. Almost like he cared.
"Are you going to torture me?" She asked.
"Does the pain from the medicine count?" His soft ministrations contradicted his snarky tone.
"No. Maybe. Maybe when I get my memories back, I'll torture you."
Omega had come back from hunting and had entered with a few skinned pigeons slung over his back when she spoke.
"Well, if it isn't Omega, Omega."
He froze. That tone of voice wasn't the one that belonged to the innocent Carol who happened to be Max. It belonged to Max, the rouge experiment who shot the director.
He turned around and raised a brow, half relieved, half… disappointed? "That's me."
She watched him carefully from her spot on the bed. "So, a week and a half of being at your mercy. Why, Agemo, I didn't know you cared."
He shrugged, refusing to be baited. He turned away, despite his need to study her face. Was there as much anger as there was before? Did she hate him?
"So… tell me," she drawled. She reeked of danger. Her voice ripped into his back like daggers. He ignored it as he started cleaning the birds in a bucket of fresh water he had brought in from the well earlier. "Tell me, who put you up to this? Itex? Jeb?"
He shrugged again, feigning disinterest. "I only talked to Jeb once. He told me about Amy, about your New Flock v.s. old Flock problems. He tried to make me pity you so I would go out and look for you for him."
"Do you pity me?" She hissed.
"I didn't accept his offer." He replied calmly. "He doesn't even know I went to look for you, much less that you're alive."
"Do. You. Pity. Me?"
He stopped and turned towards her. "No. And yes. Mostly, I pity that you couldn't beat me in a fight."
She snarled and lunged towards him. He caught her just as her legs collapsed beneath her.
"Stop." He ordered. "You're not strong enough to stand, much less try to rip my throat out."
She glared at him as he laid her back down. But she didn't rip the IV out. She just turned to lie on her side.
"My back is throbbing," she muttered bitterly when he sent her a quizzical look. Omega decided to take it as a good sign.
"So tell me, who runs the world now?"
"Jeb." Omega answered. He had a bed set up in the loft and would come down so he could go outside and relieve himself in the morning. Max always tended to catch him with a question when he came back. "Fang and whats-his-face… Marcus? They're his second in command. Two Vice Presidents for one President. No Congress."
She chuckled hoarsely. The pain made her sound like a smoker. "Marcus and Fang working together? Pah. They're ridiculous."
She didn't mention anything about hating the either of them. Jeb said she hated Fang with a passion. Was her hatred gone? Or did she just not care?
"So what is our new nation called?" She asked after a beat of silence.
"It's now the New Republic of the United States of America." Omega commented with a small grin as he rooted around the kitchen for tea. He found the tea leaves and an ancient pot. Taking a match, he lit the stove and starting boiling the leaves.
"Wow, whatever happened to democracy?" Max rasped.
Omega grabbed a cup and cleaned out his battered strainer. "The old America was always a republic, not a full democracy, I'll have you know."
There was a wheezing chuckle behind him. "Oh look who got an education."
He turned around to check that Max wasn't choking. His smile slipped from his face, but she looked fine. She was laughing of her own volition? If Omega had a diary he would definitely put that strange occurrence in there. "Do you really want to discuss politics right now?"
"I don't ever want to discuss politics."
Silence fell as Omega let the water start boiling. He brought over a steaming cup as soon as it was ready and placed it on the nightstand by her head. He was pulling away when she grabbed his wrist. She squeezed it and he smiled at the strength she had accumulated already.
"Why are you doing this?" She asked, the previous mirth gone from her voice. "I owe too many people too many things and I don't want you to be one of them unless I know why."
He pulled his arm out of her grasp. He liked her but he wasn't about to let her manhandle him. "We've been screwed over by the same people. Remember what you said that day that you would help me?"
"I didn't mean it." She cut in. "I said that only for survival."
He shrugged. "I know. But it haunted me. I finally figured out how to disobey and in the end… I ended up alone. I've never been alone before."
She was gazing at him, her eyes narrowed. He was being too honest, but he didn't care. He used the last argument he had.
"You never got to choose your Flock or even how you live your life, Max. It was always chosen because of fate. Now you can. I'll give you this cabin-no strings attached. You can live here for the rest of your life or move someplace else. If you want me to stay, I'll stay. If you want me to leave, I'll leave. That's it. The end."
She was trembling by now with the strain of looking at him. So she flopped back into the pillow and stared at the ceiling. It was quiet for such a long time, Omega thought she was already telling him to go.
"Are you saying we understand each other? That we've been through the same things, we're bonded or whatever?"
He snorted and sat down in his chair. "No. You inspired me to think for myself. I owed you one. I helped you get better. Debt paid. Now I'm talking about what happens after you get better. Will you go back to the children who abandoned you? Will you go back to the friends you made because G. was the only person willing to help you out? Or will you finally choose for yourself?"
"… I've never had a choice before."
He breathed out. "Neither have I." And it terrified him. But he would not tell Max that. She wasn't bad company, but they we not exactly best friends either.
"You know an awful lot about my past."
Omega grinned. "Jeb's a talker. I think he started crying once or twice."
She snorted but laid in silence for a while. "I'll give you an answer once I'm healed."
She never did give him an answer. But she never kicked him out either. Sometimes he would leave, to go pick up supplies and he would be afraid that she left without a word. But she never did.
She was able to stand up by herself after a month. Feathers started peeking out of her skin after two. She had small stubs growing on her back after three and the smile she sent him was one of the greatest things he had ever seen. The beast never came back.
They built a garden together and never discussed the past. He fixed the parts of the roof that had rotted and she repainted and put new hinges on the front door. Sometimes they would get in Omega's truck and just drive around until the gas ran out. She hunted. He cooked.
They got in more arguments than they could keep track of. Since they were physical beings, she would try to push him around and he always stopped her.
"I'm not going to let you do that to me." He would growl. "You will respect me and I will respect you."
She stopped trying to hurt him. They both knew she could do some damage if she wanted to. But she never did. She respected him too much. He respected her too.
It was strange. Neither of them had been in a relationship of any kind based on mutual admiration. They had always been forced into something out of fear or desperation.
Well not anymore.
Max never gave him an answer, but she never kicked him out either. She never left when she went flying and he never disappeared when he went out.
It was hard work, being civil with each other. Everything wasn't rainbows or butterflies.
But Max finally had a choice. Live in hatred or live in the moment.
She chose the moment. It was hard. It was brutal. But she was not the same Max that she had been before. And she never forgot Beastie's sacrifice. It changed Max in a way nobody understood.
So Max never gave Omega an answer. She never kicked him out and he never left.
For once, she had a choice. And for once, she was satisfied with the one she made.
So I hope you guys enjoyed it. I know the tone at the end is a bit different from the tone at the beginning, but I hope it still fits.
Again, it's been a good run. Thank you all so much for your reviews, for your patience, and just for reading this. I cannot thank you enough for your support.
Until next time,