AN: As expected, "The Final Warning" mucked everything up. I did not read the fourth novel (I wiki'd it) and the story will continue as if the events in it never happened, although I will incorporate a bit of it into 15YG, because I realized that some stuff fits marvelously (and freakishly) well. To those of you who have not read "The Final Warning", there's not much to worry about because you probably wouldn't even know the spoiler if I put it in, haha.
Much beta love to Griffin's Flight, who makes sure I do not sound like an illiterate idiot.
Chapter Five: Day Light
Max waited. She waited until the sun went down the horizon and there was no light other than what the street lamps had to offer. Still, no one came for her. Yet, she had seen a lot of things that day; avian hybrids walking around (all of them no older than her), children playing, and people more or less coexisting together. It was extraordinary. It was unreal. It was just a little bit scary too.
"How?" Max had asked Miguel before he left her. The hobo had started to appear slightly ill the longer he stayed at the park. He clearly did not like open spaces. Her question provided her with two things; a distraction for Miguel and an explanation to ease her scattered mind.
"How what?" Miguel had fired back, just as confused as she was.
"I mean," Max gestured to the winged children at the playground, "Since when did this happen? They're, like, normal kids. Not stuck in some lab as experiments…." Like how I would be.
"Well, I guess they are just normal kids, only with something a little extra," Miguel said, "You're the first one I've met, but you have an interesting view for an aveman."
Max let out a frustrated sigh and held out her hands, "Like you said, I don't get out much. Is it like this everywhere now?"
"I mean bird people being free to walk around in public without anyone wanting to hunt them down to use them as lab rats! How did this happen? I thought—I thought that me and my flock were the only-"
Perhaps it was the little edge of hysteria that crept out or the wild look in her eyes, but Miguel clamped his hand over her shoulder to silence her. Max paused for breath, helplessly shrugging his hand off.
"Sorry," she grimaced, "I'm just lost here. Tired… Confused."
"I'll go find us something to eat then," Miguel said, a little too eagerly. He stood up and started shuffling away. "Stay here, I'll be back."
Max had watched him leave, wondering where and how he was going to get the food. Well, she was prepared to eat anything at any rate. Stomach growling, Max rose from the bench and made her way towards the playground. There were a few kids running around, but most of the earlier occupants had left. Much to her relief, the avemen teenagers were also gone. Even if she took off Miguel's coat and exposed her wings, Max felt that she would not have fitted in very well anyway. She was used to hanging around younger kids, so it was only natural that she squatted beside a little winged boy in the sandbox. Maybe she could find out something.
"Hi," she said with a friendly smile.
The boy had noticed her before she was even in. He stopped his intent digging and gave her an openly curious look. "Hello?"
"That looks fun," Max commented when the boy didn't say anything else, "What are you making?"
The boy shrugged, moving his small wings up as he did. He was obviously hesitant to share the sandbox with her. "I'm just digging."
Max knew that he probably did not want to be bothered. She was in the middle of standing up when a lady– most likely the boy's mother—came by with quick and measured steps. She took her son's hand.
"Come, we have to go home now," she said with a wary mother's eye on Max, "Daddy's waiting."
The little boy frowned, not wanting to leave his play area. Another glance at Max, however, seemed to change his mind. The boy got up, shaking sand from his wings and left with his mother.
Max sat back, appalled. What had she done? Did she look dangerous? Was it Miguel's ragged coat? Honestly, it didn't look that bad… and she was only being friendly. Max looked around, but she couldn't see the little boy or his mother. There were still some kids in the playground, but none of them ventured to her part of the sandbox. Pursing her lips, Max shrugged off the coat and casually stretched out her wings.
A few minutes later, a girl with black curly hair wandered over to her. She had a mottled grey pair of wings speckled lightly with a pleasant blue color.
"Can I play too?" she asked.
"Sure," Max said with a grin. The younger girl grinned back.
Maybe the boy had been unfriendly and maybe this girl just wanted to play, but Max had a rising suspicion that their actions had not been based naturally. She stood up, waved bye to the girl, took Miguel's coat in her arms, and started to walk around the playground. Well, she hadn't noticed before, but there was a distinct separation between the children in the playground. Small clusters of avemen kids and smaller clusters of normal children. Of course, there were one or two groups with mixed beings, but even then they stood or sat next to each other accordingly.
Max went back to her bench and found that Miguel was waiting for her there. He handed a plastic bag to her. Max glanced inside, finding four large sandwiches, neatly wrapped.
"You bought these?" she asked dubiously. By now she figured that Miguel's feelings could not be damaged so easily.
Miguel shook his head and looked rather pleased with himself. "There's a deli nearby that likes to make fresh sandwiches. They give me the ones that they want to throw out. They should be fine, but watch out for the cheese anyway."
Max unwrapped one and ate quickly. The bread was a little hard, but otherwise it was probably the most delicious sandwich she had ever eaten. "So," she began between mouthfuls, "Where did those kids come from?"
Max tilted her head towards the playground. "The ones with wings."
"From their parents, I guess," Miguel said cautiously.
"So they were born that way?"
Miguel shrugged, "You're asking the wrong guy. I heard some stuff about them, but I don't know if they're true or not. About fifteen years ago, they just suddenly appeared. Y'know, after the big Itex scandal." He blinked. "How did you think you were born?"
Max ignored his question and threw in a couple of her own. "What Itex scandal? Since when? Fifteen years ago? I'm about that old and I've never seen any others like me." Except the flock, but she didn't think they counted.
"Well, you were sheltered."
Not that well, Max thought.
"So it's like this in New York too?" she asked, remember her time spent there. Last year, she definitely saw no avian hybrids about.
"Hm. I heard that New York has more of you guys, plus some more," Miguel said, "Not bird people, but other animals too. Not all of them are from rich families either. I heard that they were the first creations that got loose from wherever they came from."
Max ventured a guess that the hybrids loose in New York were most likely her fault. She had to hold back a smile, but after a moment of consideration, she didn't need to. Miguel's story did not add up. The more she asked, the less sense it made. She couldn't see any reason why Miguel would lie to her unless he was totally being misled. He seemed pretty sincere though.
"How do you know about Itex?" she eventually asked, idly starting on her second sandwich. If Miguel thought her stomach capacity a little weird, he did not say anything about it.
"You know that Itex is the company that makes practically everything, right?"
"Yes, even I knew that," Max huffed.
"Settle down. Well, at the time it would have been hard not to know about the big scandal," he said, shrugging, "Even homeless folks like me were passing on gossip for weeks."
"Lots of people died," Miguel frowned, as if trying to recall a vague memory, "I don't know. The government rounded up the media real good to keep it hushed for a couple of years. Apparently Itex had a lab and a group of its former experiments exposed them, the original avemen, from what I hear. After that, things became messy."
Max briefly wondered if there had been any avian hybrids before her. She was pretty sure there hadn't been, but Miguel seemed awfully truthful, if not clear with all the details. There was a lot of doubt she had accumulated in the past few hours. A part of her wanted to crawl under a rock and think things through while the other half wanted to interrogate Miguel. She had the feeling that the latter would only make her feel more confused, but it was rare for her to talk with someone ordinary. Even if he was homeless.
"Who were these former experiments? Are they… still alive?"
"Of course," Miguel said, flicking ashes from his cigarette, "They're still quite young. All five of them." He paused delicately. "Madison, do you read?"
"Yes," she answered, a little too offended to come up with a witty retort.
"Then I'm sure you can go to the library and read on anything there," he said gently, "No offense, but I haven't spoken this much in the last year." Max nearly scowled, but Miguel had been extremely helpful already. There wasn't any reason why she should get angry at him. The hobo glanced at her expression and held up his hands. "Sorry, but you know how I feel about… talking."
Actually, Max had forgot. It was hard to think of Miguel as anti-social when he had done nothing but converse willingly with her all day.
"It's getting dark," she noted just to change the subject.
"Do you still want to wait some more?"
Max shook her head, "I think I'll come back tomorrow. You wouldn't mind if I stay with you for a little longer, would you?"
Miguel regarded her with a quizzical smile. He shrugged. "No. Just as long as you don't ask anymore questions."
"Deal," Max agreed.
"Okay, but what if I told you that I was one of the original avemen?" Max asked, trying her best to keep up with Miguel while holding her breakfast tray. Both of them were heading back to the park. It was late morning and Max had figured out that Miguel had a very long fuse in terms of temper. Feeling none too guilty, she found it easy to exploit it.
"I doubt it. You're too young," Miguel answered tiredly, walking even faster.
"But I really think I am!" Max wheedled, "You're just a little confused. I don't remember any other avian hybrids before me. I was the first. Or the first successful one, anyway."
"How old are you? Fourteen?"
"Fifteen," Max corrected, almost bumping into Miguel when he stopped walking. The park was empty. The old man sat down on the same bench they had yesterday. She sat next to him, glad to leave the food tray on her lap.
"Oh, I see what you mean. You're just one of the first legal avemen. Your parents were probably the earlier ones to try it," he said, stroking his beard.
"You mean, we weren't born with natural wings? Did they graft us?"
"Well, it's getting to be a popular thing these past few years," Miguel said dryly, "Parents with heaps of cash to spare just go to an Itex lab and put wings on their babies. I heard they can also choose the eye and hair color too. You know the joke, right? Build-A-Baby."
Max stared at him dumbly.
"I take it that your parents never told you?"
"Just eat your food," he said, more for her benefit than his need for a minute of silence.
There was nothing much to do while waiting for the voice in her head to appear. Miguel had wandered off to relieve his ears from Max's constant questioning, mumbling something about more cigarettes. She didn't mind waiting by herself. It gave her time to digest whatever information Miguel had told her. Well, Max felt as if her brain was actually vomiting instead to taking in anything. She considered dropping everything, but her need to understand was getting in the way of blind acceptance.
Okay, Voice, Max tried, I'm getting really confused and that's usually when you start talking.
The absence of Jeb didn't escape her notice since Antarctica. She was used to his inconsistent chirps of riddles and vague comments; though those had been very limited ever since she had learned the Voice was him. Max wasn't afraid to admit that she was becoming increasingly worried with his silence. Jeb knew there were times when she should figure things out on her own and times when he should step in and guide her. Right now, she really wanted her father to say something.
Max swallowed her pride and cautiously asked, Dad? Jeb? Are you there?
Well, she had not raised her hopes that high anyway after a sticky minute or two without a single reply. Suddenly feeling stupid from obeying a foreign voice in her head, Max abruptly stood up, shaking her agitated wings. She had given Miguel's jacket back before he left since he insisted that she should wear it whenever they walked through the shabby downtown area. Max could venture a safe guess as to why.
Her mind was in a state of hazy awareness. There hadn't been much to do or look at, this being her second time in the park. Not many people were out today, so she suspected that it was a weekday with children at school and adults at work. Checking but an impatient sigh, she eyed the few passing park goers. It did not take her long to notice a figure walking with a purposeful stride towards her. Warily roused, Max kept on her feet. The park's cement pathway made it logical for the person to come her way and Max couldn't help but feel a little silly for staring intently at the stranger.
It wasn't her imagination then, when the figure turned into a pleasant looking woman with shoulder length hair the color of deep auburn. The woman was young and was probably no less than five years her senior. The majority of Max's attention, however, was drawn towards the woman's blue eyes. Aside from their bright sparkle and clear color, she couldn't escape the feeling of familiarity.
"You're the voice in my head," Max said with no question in her tone. She knew.
The woman paused. She had been staring at her with a vague expression of relief and controlled fear. Max suspected that it wasn't her personal self that caused the slight tremble in the woman's shoulders. Yet as soon as she had spoken, the woman's face abruptly turned from misty to pained disbelief.
"Max," she said with a small, quiet laugh and a shake of her head. "Ah. Of course you wouldn't recognize me." She appeared embarrassed and undecided.
Now prompted to knowing that she must have met the woman before, Max fumbled for a name and a face.
"Oh. Oh, I'm sorry," the woman said and, much to Max's horror, started to silently cry, though the woman appeared equally mortified by her own behavior. She hastily tried to wipe her tears. "Ah, crap. Sorry. I'm just confusing you more. Max, Max…"
Her voice was entirely new to her ears, but Max finally grasped the familiarity of the woman; her blue eyes, her knowing gaze, the way she said her name, how she was crying… Past the cheaply dyed hair, the mature face, the new height…
"Angel?" Max exclaimed softly, the shock of it rooting her to the ground.
That was all the woman needed. With a choked gasp, Angel reached over and pulled Max into a hug.
"I knew it. I knew you weren't gone. Not dead," she whispered fiercely into Max's hair, "I missed you."
Max could only stammer, "But- how?" She did not even have to say anything, not with Angel. Pulling abruptly away, Angel gave Max a small smile.
"I thought you would've noticed," she said staring curiously at Max, who got the feeling that Angel was slowly examining the tangled thoughts in her mind. "Max, all the things Miguel told you; he's right. We were the original avemen. All that was fifteen years ago, when you disappeared in Antarctica."
Angel paused, waiting calmly for Max to take it all in. While Max had no doubt that it was really Angel in front of her, the little blond girl had grown up with a new sense of smug aloofness. Her smile was not as innocent, her voice not as bright. It was funny how she had noticed it right away instead of trying to comprehend her current situation.
Probably picking up on her thoughts, Angel continued ruthlessly on, "Everyone thought you died. I didn't though. I knew you'd come back."
"This," Max began slowly, "-this is the future?"
Angel gave a short laugh that didn't quite suit her happy expression. "An interesting way to put it. To me this is the present, but I guess it's the future for you."
A cold chill ran down Max's spine and to the pit of her stomach. She felt a little queasy as she stared in a daze at Angel. Abruptly falling into the bench, Max lowered her eyes and focused mindlessly on the cement ground. Her whole life story was practically a sci-fi story, full of strange things that no ordinary person would see. How was time traveling any different? "How did this happen?" she asked wearily, as if nothing could shock her even more, "This… this can't happen."
"Don't think too much about it," Angel said with a careless shrug. She had spoken even before Max had gotten all of her words out. "The only thing that matters is you being here."
Max frowned, "But-"
"That can wait," Angel interrupted and held up her hand. "I know what you're thinking, so don't bother asking just yet. Oh, Miguel's coming. What an interesting man." She had tilted her head, fixing her blue eyes on Max. "And no, I've never met him before. I looked into your head and his," she added in a tone of practicality.
Max's frown only deepened. Angel gave her another smile, a bit apologetic but thoroughly amused.
"Who's this?" Miguel had walked over, curiously eyeing Angel and keeping his distance. There had been no malice in his voice, only the unease of meeting a stranger. Angel answered before Max could.
"I'm Maddy's sister," Angel said, adopting an expression of concern. Max stared hard at her, wondering how far the telepath had pried into her mind. "Thank you for looking after her. I was- so worried."
"You shouldn't leave a good kid like her loose," Miguel answered bluntly, "I did what I could, miss."
Angel's lips trembled, an expression of private mirth crossing her face. "Of course," she said, hands going into her pockets to pull out a wad of dollar bills. She held it out to Miguel. "I'm sure you'll need this. Take it."
Miguel blinked in surprise, but he took the money with a nod of thanks. "So you guys are leaving," he said, sounding a little awkward.
"Thanks for everything," Max said, saving him. She smiled and held out her hand for him to shake. His grip was feather light and weak, but he had returned her smile with a crooked grin. It suddenly occurred to her that a plain good-bye was wholly inadequate. Max doubted she would see Miguel anytime soon and the thought made her feel oddly squeamish. It was a problem to be in the future and an even bigger one if she got attached to it. "Maybe we'll see each other again."
Miguel chuckled, giving her a sidelong look. "I hope not. That would mean you getting lost again. Maddy should be outside more," he added to Angel, "A bird's not meant to be caged."
Angel only smiled merrily and laughed, "Of course. Excuse me, but we have to go now. Thank you for looking after Maddy. Good-bye." She took Max by the arm and something about her firm hold stopped Max from protesting.
"Bye, Miguel," she said, looking over her shoulder as Angel walked her off. Miguel lifted his hand and waved once before he turned away and started walking in the other direction. Max opened her mouth to say something, but Angel seemed to always be a step ahead of her.
"What an interesting man," she murmured, tucking a loose strand of brown hair behind her ear, "I'm glad I found you safe, Max."
"Why wouldn't I be?" Max said with a sudden burst of heat, "I've taken care of myself before, not to mention you."
"Physically, yes," Angel conceded graciously and tactfully changed the subject. "And now we have a bus to catch, so hurry."
Max kept in stride with Angel, still feeling a bit irritated. They walked in silence and Max decided to get over "Where are we going?"
"You're joking. What are we going to do there?"
"We're going to see my brother. And before you ask that," Angel added, poking at Max's forehead, "I haven't seen him in three years and I have no idea where Nudge or Iggy are; so stop wondering. You're giving me a headache with all that thinking."
Max found it hard not to wonder at all and she couldn't help but let a few thoughts slip with spite fueling them. Angel's mild expression twitched and her blue eyes hardened. Under her icy gaze, Max glanced away, feeling ashamed that she was getting angry at Angel. It was clear that the older woman was only trying to be cheerful under stressed circumstances. When Max took the time to study Angel closely, the woman had darkened smudges under her eyes and her shoulders continuously tensed from time to time. It didn't take much intuition for Max to see that the future was riding on the bleak side of things.
They came to a bus stop with the bus just rolling in. Max blinked, looking curiously at the large transport. She assumed it was a bus because even after all these years, the vehicle still retained its boxy shape. The only thing that bothered her was the lack of noise. She could hear the quiet hum of the engine, but the door didn't even hiss when it slid open.
Angel went in first and she climbed up after her. As Angel was casually dropping in coins in the slot, Max saw the odd bulge on her back. Oddly relieved by this, Max took the window seat while Angel was perfectly content nearer to the isle.
"Wouldn't it be faster if we flew?" asked Max in a whisper. Despite the fact that avian hybrids were ordinary now, it was still a habit. It hadn't escaped her notice that even Angel was keeping her wings hidden under the baggy hoodie she wore.
"It won't be safe-" Angel began hesitantly, which was the first time Max had heard her sound so.
"We could wait until night," Max clarified, automatically trying to reassure Angel, fifteen years older or not.
Angel glumly sat back, which might've hurt with her wings in the way because the older woman straightened immediately. "I mean, I don't think it's safe for me, especially at night," she explained, looking a little sheepish and annoyed. The bus lurched into a steady speed, easing faster and faster by the second. Angel glanced at the moving city through the window and then back at Max. With a puzzled frown, she shrugged, "I think I might've forgotten how to fly."
To Max, she might as well have said that she had forgotten how to breathe, "What?"
"Don't worry. I'm sure I'll relearn it quickly," Angel said dismissively.
She chuckled, letting her head fall back against the seat and leaving Max in shocked silence.