A/N: Oh my gosh. It's over. I finally finished it. I'm... wow. I don't know what to say. It just... happened... so suddenly! Wow. But hey, there's always room for a sequel. I love you my watchers, readers, and fave-ers! And now, the disclaimer: Del belongs to me. Derek belongs to JaxSolo. Everybody else belongs to James Patterson. (The first three books were the best, Jimmy Pats, but we love you anyway.)


Chapter Thirty-three – You Can't Take Me

There was no doubt in my mind that the boy in the picture was Derek; I just knew. Besides, it was obvious that Batchelder knew, but if I hadn't had a chance to study it, I might've been fooled—note, might have. Not a definite, but a probably. After all, it didn't look much like Derek, at least not the Derek that I remembered. His hair was cut military-short, and the picture itself looked like a mug-shot of some desperate criminal because of the way it was set up. But the thing that startled me the most was the way his eyes looked. They were still their interesting red-brown color, but they looked . . . dull. Dead. As if the very fight and fire that had made him who he was had been sucked out with an industrial-grade vacuum cleaner. He just didn't look like Derek, at least not where it counted. I felt tears start coming to my eyes to see him like that, but I blinked enough that they never fell. I held out my hand for the picture, instead, gently stroking it when Batchelder passed it to me.

"What did they do to him?" I breathed, still gazing at the horribly cold red-brown eyes that stared out from the photo. Batchelder sighed heavily.

"I don't know, Del," he replied, "but I've got a pretty good idea. You may consider what you've done to be the ultimate expression of independence, but to the Director, it's the ultimate expression of rebellion. Before all this, you were worth at least ten million dollars in research alone, maybe fifteen once all the training and programming was added in. Honestly, you were the most expensive, most valuable piece of research that Itex ever achieved."

"I've heard this crap before," I grumbled. "I'm so special, so valuable, so important, the ultimate weapon. Though I never did figure out how I could be so 'ultimate' without being invulnerable. What, was the Director just being arrogant again and spewing out a bunch of worthless nonsense?"

Batchelder was silent for a few minutes before he exhaled and gave me a long look. I immediately got the feeling that I was about to hear a little more revealing news about myself, and I got that creepy sensation of the bottom dropping out of my stomach. Ever had that? It's a weird feeling like your stomach just fell out of your belly, kind of. It's weird. I hate it. Anyway. Batchelder shifted slightly on his bed before he deigned to answer me. Yes, this man knows so freaking much about me, folks. Ask him sometime. I'm going to.

"Assassinations," Batchelder said simply with a long, silent exhale through his nose. "That's what you were created for. Assassinations, covert missions, things that required equal portions of stealth and skill. You were designed to be a one-person army, but not sent out into the middle of heavy combat. You were created to go behind enemy lines and spy for whoever had paid for you."

I swallowed hard, gazing back down at the picture of the boy that had been Derek. Wow. Me, a spy. A winged spy. I thought I could understand when he said that. I would be a highly-trained weapon, able to be turned on and off via my subliminal encoding, and unable to refuse orders once that encoding was activated. I'd do everything I was told without arguing and be able to provide my own transportation, too. Wow. Just . . . wow. Batchelder sighed and continued.

"You're a novelty, Del. There is nothing else like you; none of the other Mark Two hybrids came anywhere near what you were designed to be. Not even Derek is like you, and he was the best of those left after you got through with them."

Yes, it always came back to that, how I'd slaughtered so many fellow mutants just to prove that I really was worth all the millions of dollars worth of research that had been put into me. But I had proved it, and I had been so close to being the ultimate in espionage. No, I'm not mourning it; not really. I mean, it would've been interesting to see what I would've become, what kinds of adventures I would've had, but I wouldn't have been human. I wouldn't have found friends, and I most certainly never would've realized that there is more to life than orders and Itex. But I saw what was happening here, what the Director was doing . . . why she'd scrawled We won onto the picture.

"She's going to try to make him like me," I said slowly, nodding with comprehension. Suddenly, it all made sense. She was going to take Derek, "refurbish" him, and . . . "He's going to hunt us down."

Batchelder just nodded in silent agreement as I sagged back against the wall, clutching Derek's picture close to my chest. He wasn't Derek anymore, I realized with anguish. He was probably Subject Seventeen again, but unlike he was before, he was probably now a mindless, emotionless pawn of the Director that wasn't even going to try to break free. She was probably trying to make him everything that I should have been, the assassin I'd been designed to be . . . everything. And I knew, with a sinking feeling in my stomach, what was going to happen, what the Director's plan was.

We were going to die. All of us. Not just me—all of us. Me, Max, Ig, the rest of the Flock, Batchelder, Dr. Martinez, Ella . . . even their Bassett hound. All of the Director's enemies would be eliminated in one solid blow, and it was going to be at the hands of someone we'd all considered a friend only a few days ago. I stared at the picture for a long time, tracing the hard, cold lines of Was-Derek's face, trying to ignore the icy yet angry look in his now-foreign eyes. Batchelder was as silent as I was, but after a while, he sighed thinly through his nose and touched my hand to get my attention.

"You know what you have to do, don't you?"

I sighed, sliding the photo back into its envelope and pressing down the brad that was holding it shut as I nodded. Yeah, I knew. We were going to have to run, hard and fast, then make an about-face and strike. Of course, we wouldn't be able to strike on our own. We'd have to, I dunno, get a hold of the President and get him to call out the military against Itex. Then again, when was the last time you heard of the leader of the free world listening to a bunch of mutant kids? Yes, I can see the headlines now: "PRESIDENT BEGINS INTERVIEWS WITH HUMAN-AVIAN HYBRIDS!" Did I mention mutant?

But I also knew this: Was-Derek would be sent after us, with orders to kill and show no mercy. And if we wanted even a smidgen of a chance . . . then running was our only alternative now. I looked up at Batchelder, clenching the envelope containing the picture tightly in my fist.

"We need to tell the others," I said decisively. "We need to tell them because we're all gonna die if we don't. And, well, I don't exactly want to see Max's mom and sister get whacked because they haven't done anything wrong. If there's anyone the Director's got a beef with, it's me. She's going to be coming after me because of how much I've ticked her off, and . . . and I can't let Derek or anybody else suffer because of that."

Yeah, I sounded all darn heroic. Go me. Who cares? Batchelder nodded at me, though, in agreement, and I got up to go tell the others that our little Arizona vacation was over. As I left the room, I found Max waiting for me in the hall, and from the hard, determined look on her face, I knew she'd heard everything, from the revelation of where my chip was to what had happened to Derek. My legs suddenly felt weak with the thought that wherever I would run, the Director would know and follow, but I leaned against the wall to support myself.

"I'm sorry, Max," I breathed after a moment of silence. "I didn't know. I didn't—"

"Not your fault," she told me, striding back for the living room. "Here I thought we'd get off free again. A mutant's work is never done."

"And you've been doing this for four freaking years," I grumbled as I followed her. "You've probably expected it to be finished by now."

"Itex has the whole world in its grasp, Del," she told me. "You can't take down something that big in two weeks."

When we got back to the living room, everyone looked so happy that I couldn't help but feel terrible for taking them away from their vacation. Max's mom would be coming back home from the clinic soon for lunch, and where would we be? We might be gone by then, unable to have said goodbye and thank you. Oh, and I still couldn't fly, remember? Oh yes. We'd have to escape Itex on foot. Oh boy! What fun! NOT! But Max took charge of the situation with a sharp "Okay, gang, listen up," and all ears turned toward us. She then explained what was going on, though I noticed she didn't tell them what had happened to Derek, and as she spoke, I watched the others' faces. They went from looking cheery to looking disappointed and even a little angry in a matter of minutes.

"This sucks," Gazzy muttered. "Every time we wanna do somethin' fun . . ."

"I'm sorry, Gaz," I replied as earnestly as I could, "and Max is too. Listen, we'll have fun, I promise. One day, real soon, we'll go somewhere and do something awesome."

"Like London?" Angel asked with wide eyes as she stroked Total.

"Yeah, London," I snorted with a shrug. "What the hell."

It was okay for me to promise them the freaking moon because, well, we wouldn't have this problem if I didn't have a tracking chip in my brain. Yeah, yeah, my fault, I get it. I couldn't help but apologize to them for this, but about the time that I got out "I'm sorry, guys" . . .

"Sorry for what?"

We all whirled around to find Dr. Martinez coming in from the clinic, and I realized that I hadn't heard her station wagon pull up outside even though I should've. That, to me, was not a good sign. I just swallowed hard as Max and Ella told their mom that we all would have to be leaving. Max, along with the rest of the Flock, told most of the story except things like "Oh, by the way, Derek's been brainwashed into the Director's service" and "Oh, Mom, guess what—Del has a tracking chip after all. It's in her brain." It was just the basics: Itex was after us again, we had to run . . . Before I knew what was happening, Dr. Martinez had pulled Max in and hugged her tightly, pecking her forehead, and a moment later, she was helping us get everything together for our escape. She must've packed two coolers full of food, as well as each of our backpacks with food, supplies, clothes . . . Even Batchelder was on the move, packing up. Angel was hugging his waist the whole time, though, and I could just feel how disappointed everyone was at having to run again.

"Hey, how're we gonna get outta here?" Nudge asked suddenly as she tossed some bottles of Kool-Aid into one of the iceboxes. "Del can't fly, and we've got too much stuff to carry anyway."

"Hey, yeah!" Gazzy piped up. "We can't carry all that . . ."

Dr. Martinez and Batchelder exchanged a look before Batchelder dug around in his pants pockets, tugging out a set of keys and tossing them to Max, who tossed them back to Fang.

"Take the SUV," he said. "Itex property, practically untraceable."

"We're gonna drive?!" Nudge exclaimed; I was just grateful Batchelder hadn't mentioned my tracking chip, which totally overrode the SUV's capabilities. "But we won't be able to drive fast enough to get away from 'em!"

"Yeah, we will," Iggy and I said suddenly and simultaneously. I glanced over at him while receiving a few curious looks of my own for my sudden optimism, but I shrugged and jammed my hands in my pockets. I went on. "We'll drive until we run outta gas, then we'll get more and keep going. We'll drive until we find somebody to help us, and when that happens, then we stand and fight."

"Besides," Iggy said, slipping his hand into mine and squeezing. "We've all been through enough crap that I'm really beginning to get sick of always having to run away. Maybe this time we'll actually be able to get something done, take out some bad guys."

And bring Derek home, I added silently to myself. There were a few nods of agreement; Nudge and Ella high-fived while Gazzy whooped and declared his intention to make more bombs with which to destroy all of Itex's evil minions. Max just gave me a look—a single, solitary look that said simply . . . "Thanks." I managed a tiny little smile before Dr. Martinez gave us all massive hugs before doing the mom thing of declaring "Okay, last stop for bathroom breaks before you hit the road!" A few of us—I won't say which to prevent embarrassment—took the opportunity and skedaddled for the bathroom, but after that was done, she gave us hugs all over again. Yes, even me. She was careful around my wing, giving my shoulders a gentle, mom-like squeeze.

"Sorry you can't stay, Del," she said. "I probably could've brought you into the clinic and done some work on your wing."

"Nah, it's okay," I shrugged; I was lying, of course, but she didn't need to know that. "It'll get better."

Angel knew I was lying because she glanced at me as if to indicate that she knew, but I ignored her. I just grabbed my backpack and slung it over the shoulder with the uninjured wing, heading out to the car. But then I glanced at my feet, then back at Ella.

"Hey, you want these back?"

"Keep 'em!" she said, waving me off. "I'll get some more with my next allowance; it's fine!"

She and Max exchanged a huge, sister-to-sister hug before there was a Dr. Martinez-Max mommy-daughter embrace that made me glance away out of feeling as if I were intruding. Instead, I just glanced up at the sky, wishing I could be up there rather than climbing into Batchelder's SUV. Gazzy and Fang were loading the gear into the back, and I found myself wishing we had guns. No dice. Iggy squeezed my hand before slipping into the backseat of the SUV, iPod already on and earphones already resting inside his ears. I glanced around, looking for Total and finding him in Angel's arms, when Batchelder surprised me by taking my shoulder.

"Del," he murmured, turning me so I was forced to look at him. "Chicago."

That was all he said in that enigmatic way he had before he pressed a plain white keycard into my palm. I thought maybe he was supposed to have given it to Max—maybe she was still hugging her mom or something—but no. He'd meant to give it to me. My brows furrowed at that mysterious mention of Chicago but tucked the card safely into my backpack. I started turning toward the SUV before I stopped, glancing back. Max and Batchelder were embracing tightly, and I realized abruptly that this was the first time I'd ever seen the almighty Maximum Ride look practically teary-eyed. But she slipped into the passenger side up front, next to Fang, and I looked back to see Ella and Dr. Martinez standing on the front porch, ready to wave us off. The next thing I knew, though, was that I'd jogged back to Batchelder, grabbed his hand in mine, and given it a hard shake.

"Thanks. Jeb," I said; "Jeb" was an afterthought, an afterthought that obviously surprised him, "for everything. I mean it."

"I know you do," he smiled. "Be careful out there, Del. Max knows a thing or two about survival that you don't yet."

"What about you?" Angel called from the backseat of the SUV. "You're gonna be careful too, Jeb, right?"

"Of course he is!" Nudge assured her. "He's always careful! Well, most always. Except there was this one time that—"

She fell silent as Fang reached around from the driver's seat and clamped a hand over her mouth, and I cracked a quirky little smile. I shrugged, glancing at Batchelder. It was then that I realized that he had no transportation and was as much an Itex-wanted person as any of us were—and I don't mean hugs-and-kisses-wanted. I mean thrown-into-a-sterile-lab-and-tortured-wanted.

"What about you?" I asked, echoing Angel's question. He shrugged.

"I've got my ways. Right now, Del, you go with them. I see that the Director was wrong about you. You may have been designed to kill, but that's not what you were chosen to do."

Something in his tone left me feeling all spooky, I guess a little like that "standing on holy ground" kind of a feeling, only lacking in the holy ground. I shuddered on pure reflex as I crawled into the backseat, between Iggy and Angel as I'd been on the way down here. The Flock leaned out all the windows and waved goodbye as we drove away from the Martinez' house, leaving Ella and her mom on the front porch and Batchelder and the dog in the front yard. I couldn't help but be a little scared as I looked down at my backpack, nestled beneath my feet and carrying both that picture of Derek and that mysterious keycard. Whatever it was, it opened something in Chicago. So I told Max that Chicago seemed like a good place to go, and while Nudge started off on a squealing spree about the Magnificent Mile, Max just gave me one of her Looks that said "You and I need to discuss this later." I just nodded slowly, gently nudging my backpack with my foot.

And I needed to rescue Derek. Well, maybe I wouldn't do it on my own—we needed to. The only trouble with that was that I didn't know where he was. He wouldn't be at the School; the School was half-destroyed, and I couldn't remember any other labs like that even though I knew they existed. For a moment, I entertained the idea that maybe Derek was locked down in protective custody in Chicago before I realized that Batchelder probably wouldn't have known that. Therefore, I reasoned, the keycard was for something else that might have something to do with either Derek's probable brainwashing or how we could bring Itex to its knees.

I think Angel noticed me thinking, because she was watching me closely. I turned to her and mouthed "Well?" She just shook her head and leaned over to me while Total peered out the window, little black stump of a tail just a-wagging.

"He didn't have any thoughts," she murmured, meaning Batchelder. "He didn't want us to know."

"Or maybe," I whispered with surprising quickness, "maybe he doesn't know what it is himself."

She nodded; that was, apparently, a very good possibility, but if I knew Batchelder, that wasn't the case. It didn't matter. It would take us maybe two days to get to Chicago, and that would give me plenty of time to tell Max about the keycard. Then she could decide the next move and I could help, because this was her show after all; it stopped being simply about me a long, long time ago.

But I knew I would get Derek back. Somehow I would; I just knew it. I'd do something to get him back to the way he'd been, with his optimism in spite of all the crap he'd been through, with his floppy brown hair, even with that awful trick he'd played on me what felt like a lifetime ago where he'd tricked me into believing my expiration date had appeared. That was another thing I wanted to find out. The Director had said I didn't have one. Did the Flock? Did Derek? Were they going to die and leave only me? I didn't know. None of us did. All I knew—all any of us knew—was that the situation had gone from bad to worse and we were all filled with a sudden, overwhelming determination to destroy Itex once and for all. After all, a lot of heroes are kind of just thrust into heroism, aren't they?

Iggy tapped me on the shoulder a little while later, holding out an earphone to me. I stared at it for a while, confused, then glanced at him as his head bobbed slightly to the beat of the music that was pouring from the earphone.

"What's that for?" I asked him, nonplussed.

"Listen," he told me with a smile. "I think it's your song."

"I don't have a song, you jerk," I grumbled, playfully punching him in the shoulder as I took the earphone and nestled it into my ear. The lyrics began flooding into my mind as I leaned back against the seat to just . . . listen.

Don't judge a thing until you know what's inside it

Don't push me—I'll fight it

Never gonna give in, never gonna give it up, no

If you can't catch a wave then you're never gonna ride it

You can't come uninvited

Never gonna give in, never gonna give up, no

You can't take me

I'm free.