Even In Death.
Rating: T (as for the series)
Disclaimer: Don't own anything James Patterson does, and right now I don't want to because a horde of disappointed fans are about to lynch him because of book four.
Author's Notes: This fic contains MARI. This fic is also part three of a series, it makes more sense if you read the others first. Those others are "Wash It All Away" by yours truly and "Burns Inside Of Me" By the awesomely awesome Supergirrl.
This fic is dedicated to her for putting up with me. This fic was supposed to be done last year. Six hundred words of it have been sitting round for about seven months doing nothing. Then I wrote the other three-and-a-bit thousand just now. It took me a while.
All errors are my fault, yadda yadda. The name of the song and rough idea come from Evanescence's Even In Death, but this isn't a songfic.
Bear in mind that this is written for a pre-book-three AU. Max and Ari are not related.
Max's current insane quest had led her back to the place where it had all began. Or mostly began, she still wasn't sure about some of it. The hallways of the School were so different from what she remembered, and that helped the fact that she could actually stand to be here. If it was the same, Max doubted that she'd be able to walk through the corridors like she was doing now. The memories were that painful.
Angel was outside, she knew, sitting on the cliff tops, just watching. Her flock had decided five years ago that she needed a constant minder to make sure she didn't go off by herself and do something, anything, stupid…again. The rest of them were back 'home', what passed for home at this time of year. Which was 'supposed-to-be-summer-but-more-like-winter'. They'd wanted to come along, well, except Fang who still wasn't over the fact that she did love Ari despite everything he'd done. At least Fang's dislike of Ari hadn't crossed over into how he acted towards Lee, who he adored.
They decided, in the end, that they'd send Angel with her. Fang wasn't leaving Nudge, Nudge couldn't fly in late-stage pregnancy. Iggy wasn't going back to the School if he could help it, and Gazzy was…busy. Doing fourteen-year-old boy…stuff. She stopped asking a long time ago.
The current corridor was light, airy and smelled like hot sand, which might have had something to do with the fact that one end had been blown open by one hell of an explosion. The walls were greyed with soot and the floor was covered with the desert sand and the broken glass from the windows. The entire North-eastern wing of the school was just gone, and much of the rest of the place showed its abandonment. The Whitecoats had just cleaned out and left – gone to their latest hellhole in Texas.
What she remembered were the ways down into the lower levels. Sorta. She knew that two of the three entrances were in the Northeast wing. The third way was a little fuzzy. Most of the School was underground, just the two story main building, the garages, hangars and three outer buildings showed above the sand. And they'd be swallowed up soon; most of the place was half under sand already.
She stepped carefully around a mummified-skeleton-thing into a half damaged corridor. There were a few here, and it wasn't as if the skeletons themselves could hurt her, but she'd found out a while ago that touching the mortal remains of the dead threw her Ari-given ability to see ghosts into overdrive. Then said ghost would generally show her how it died to voice its displeasure at how said remains were being treated. This one wouldn't likely be happy about just being left here. Besides being a Whitecoat and generally not liking her and her kind, that is.
She'd thought that Ari's appearing to her shortly after she'd found out about her one-in-a-million chance daughter's conception was his own doing, and it was. Except he'd had to change her to do it. He'd changed the part of her mind that controlled Sight so that she'd see him. And everything else that was dead and still hanging around for whatever reason.
It had come in useful sometimes over the past five years, but mostly hadn't. It was all good that her flock had gotten used to her half-conversations with the Voice, so they didn't think she was too crazy now. She'd also turned out to be right, which had helped the credibility of her incredible ability to mimic Haley Joel Osment.
The basement stairs loomed out of the dusty corridor, and she carefully peered into the gloom, checking the structure to make sure that it would be safe enough for her to go down without the whole structure caving in. It looked safe enough in an unsafe kind of way, so she decided that, yeah, she was going to go through with it.
It had been about six months ago when the other-dreams started. The dreams of a mutant bird kid who had been on the run for years, then kidnapped and held by an Eraser for two years, then let go, only to have the one she loved, who happened to be her kidnapper die. And right after that, she'd found out she was pregnant. With his baby – Ari's baby.
Lee, her and Ari's little girl, nearly four years old now. She was mostly human, and hadn't picked up much from either parent on the mutant genes side, except for a soft, sheer to the point of being invisible, downy coat of fur and small wings. She couldn't morph like Ari did, nor did she have particularly lupine features. If anything, she had only the Eraser beauty and hardiness. Maybe Max was a little biased about the first part though. She wondered if the fact that despite Ari being half wolf, Lee didn't show it because Ari had been grafted when he was three, unlike her, she'd been grafted before she was born.
It had been hard at first, knowing that she was pregnant. She'd been back with the flock for three months, missing one, then two periods. After the third, she'd known. Even if it had taken nearly the whole jumbo-sized box of tests to prove it. That had been when Ari had shown himself to her for the first time. She'd found out that, even in death, he was still with her. They'd talked, he'd understood her fears. She could talk to him without judgement, unlike the Flock, their reuniting still to new, the bonds between them too stretched for that kind of honesty.
Then she'd met his mother, and that had gone down well. Mahalia Batchelder was the bravest human she'd ever met and one of the prettiest too. She'd watched Ari throughout his life, and stayed with him in the afterlife as Ari had stayed for Max and Lee. They got on well and Mahalia confided in Max one day that she thought Max was the perfect person for her son, and she was proud that Max had finally, truly forgiven Ari for what he'd done. Both Mahalia and Ari helped her get through the 'dark times'.
When the flock found out, Fang had been furious, Iggy and Gazzy were disgusted and Nudge and Angel were torn between anticipation and fear. All of them had remembered the other recombinant crosses. Max just hoped that her baby would be alright, and tried to get past it all. It hadn't been easy, but she'd managed.
And then Mahalia Ella Ride had been born. And contrary to the boys' beliefs and the girls' fears, she hadn't been a monster, or a spectacular failure of reproduction. She'd looked almost like a normal human baby, with a little bit more hair, brown-blonde like her father's had been when he was little, and two tiny wing-stubs beneath her shoulder blades. Every single one of the flock had breathed a sigh of relief. Within a week they were twisted 'round little 'Lee's finger.
Max ducked under a half collapsed beam, searching in the near dark. Here the roof was whole; much of the old underground part of the complex was still standing. The explosion had happened about three years back, and they'd had nothing to do with it. A gas leak had started in one of the oldest parts of the building, one of the disused corridors. One tiny spark set it off, and blew most of the School apart, killing most of the occupants – Whitecoat, experiment, and the dozen or so remaining Erasers. The few that hadn't died had set up shop in Texas. They'd lost every single piece of data they'd ever had when the servers had blown. The Whitecoats had always been paranoid about being found out, all the data had been stored on site. She had it on very good authority that this new lot hadn't even managed one experiment yet surviving past a few days old.
She unfortunately had no idea where she was supposed to go now – not really. Max flipped out her torch, lighting it up, and then blinking at the brilliance. The underground level was slightly larger than the ground one had been, all the stuff that wasn't good for much was stored down here. Including the morgue and crematorium, her destination. She just wasn't sure where it was.
But she had a fairly good idea, as she turned into another corridor, she saw, or rather felt a flickering presence out of the corner of her eye. Haunter ghosts never tended to move very far from what they knew, and the poor experiments knew very little but this building. Another flicker, and another – she knew she was getting closer.
At the end of the corridor stood an ominous iron door, blackened with soot, but not rusted. Not enough water. She stepped into the room, and there became an almost constant flicker in her periphery. But it was annoying, distracting more than anything else – they couldn't hurt her.
Max scanned around the room, waving her torch. There they were, three huge ovens, built into the walls, these doors rusted and buckled with heat. The room was almost bare apart from that, the walls concrete, cracked with the concussive force of the explosion, the floor littered with dust and the occasional chunk. A few gurneys lay scattered around, and there was only one other door. Max walked towards it, curious.
She pushed the door open, putting her shoulder into it. An overturned gurney blocked the door, and she shoved it aside with a powerful thrust. The buzz in here was as bad as it was in the oven-room. A quick walk around the room assured her that there was nothing much in here – no half mummified bodies in the trays, and none of the body bags were full. Nothing here, which made her job slightly easier.
She headed back to the first of the ovens; all three were huge, standing taller than her, and four paces across. They were massive gas powered furnaces designed to turn corpses into unrecognisable dust. Even burned to this, the ghosts knew what they had been, and so they stayed here. Trapped, almost. Not knowing that there was someplace else, something more they could get to.
She was here to give them helping hand. The few that had found their way had come to her, made her dream of them, asking her, pleading for their friends and fellows to be set free. To end their suffering. And so she'd come.
But it was more than that. Ari was here, what was left of him. He hadn't told her until she'd already decided to come here. He didn't want to make this about him. She'd been upset, and had avoided him for a few days, keeping herself deliberately out of their shared dreamworld. Then she'd realised she was being stupid and jealous and afraid.
Even if she set his ashes free, he said, he'd still be here, for her, until she crossed over to be with him. She'd been so relieved, and had thrown herself into his arms. Nudge had giggled at her expression for the entire next day.
The ashtrays were more like a huge drawer along the bottom of the furnace, underneath the massive gas-jets. The first one was jammed, but Max, like all the flock, was super strong and heaved it open with ease. There wasn't much left. Five thousand degrees of fiery gas leaves little of the very flammable body behind. She wondered how many lives were represented here, in this tray. It didn't really matter, but it did. So many had suffered worse than she.
Max set the torch down on the nearest gurney, angling it to make sure the area she was in lit up. She dug out of her pack the massive black plastic bag and collapsible shovel she had brought specially for this. Are you sure about this? Angel's question echoed in her mind. "Yeah," Max said aloud. "I can do this. Okay.
When she'd first said that she wanted to go back to the School, the Flock had thought she was nuts. When she'd said that she'd wanted to go back so that she could scatter the ashes of a bunch of dead experiments, including those of her dead lover, so that their ghosts could be free to move on... A few years ago, Max herself would have thought that was nuts. Insanity was relative, she decided.
She settled into the drudge of hard labour. Although it wasn't hard, strength-wise. It was just exacting. She had to be careful and gentle, trying not to stir up too much of the powder-fine dust, shifting small amounts from the tray to the bag. Even so, the air became a little more murky, and Max tried not to think about what she breathed in.
The flickers became worse, and in the gloom she thought she saw – no. The first tray took about half an hour, and so she started immediately into the second. The flickers became steadily worse and worse, and while they couldn't touch her, couldn't affect her at all, it was distracting to have something that had half its face burned off, the other half littered with patches of hair and scaly skin loom up over her shoulder, only to disappear as she looked at it.
After an hour and ten minutes, as her watch told, she had to stop for a break. The Flickers were too much, and she was freezing, despite being in the middle of a freaking desert. "I'll be back," she whispered to the air. "In a minute, I need a break. You guys are making my head hurt."
She left her stuff behind in the room, and followed her original path back up to the light. Once she was near the half-ruined corridor, the heat returned and warmed her bones. She sat down on the sand and rested her head on her hands, closing her eyes. Even though she couldn't see them, she could still feel them. They'd followed her out, curious by the stranger who was in their midst, the one who could see them. She lifted her head and blinked blearily. Again, that flicker that looked a bit like an...No. That didn't matter anymore. They couldn't hurt her.
Still she stood again, and kept walking, the movement shaking out her shoulders and her legs. The sand was thicker around here, the desert reclaiming the land for its own. It hadn't taken long, and she thought that this place would be almost gone in a few years, buried.
She turned a corner, and spied the cliffs where Angel waited patiently, soaring above on thermals that shot her skywards. She was twelve now, twice the age she'd been when this had all started. Still blonde and blue eyed, she had tanned to a golden brown in the sun. She'd grown out of some of her worse personality traits, and was one of the kindest people Max has ever met. Angel had lost her ability to understand non-(mostly) humans as her other telepathic-variant abilities had grown, and she had a huge range, nearly three miles at a stretch. She could only compel at short distances though, and the empathy that came with knowing what other people thought had made her sensitive to other people's wants and wishes.
The rest of the flock had changed too, grown in many ways. Fang and Nudge had gotten together about two years ago, and they were happy, and hoping to have a little son. Iggy and Gazzy were the wildcards, and Max hoped that they found someone sometime, and she didn't really mind if that was each other.
Max wandered back to the crematorium to finish the last tray. It was easier than the first two – the end was in sight and she knew that what she was doing was the best thing. The flickers were still harder to ignore, as was that indefinable thing she felt, almost a hum, a crackle, a tang of ozone and metal in the air, the shiver up her neck.
The dust had settled a little while she'd been walking, and the air was clearer. Maybe that was why she noticed. She looked directly at the flicker, and he vanished. Frustrated at herself and her gift, she stopped, closed her eyes for a minute, then opened them and looked unfocused at the wall. Images sprung up all around, half flickers, where she wasn't looking. "Ari," Max whispered. "Oh, it's you!"
And it was. She hadn't recognised him at first, she'd forgotten his Eraser form as she had grown used to the form he used in the dreamworld, the face he would have worn if he'd grown up as he should have. This face, with dark eyes, pale face and bullet hole in the temple she knew, had known for only three years, but it wasn't really the face of 'her' Ari, just like the memories of the curious little three-year old weren't. She hadn't really truly loved Eraser Ari, as she termed it in her mind, there had always been doubts. With Dream Ari there was no doubt at all. She knew.
The Eraser nodded and smiled, showing the deadly canines of his wolf half. "I'd almost forgotten," she admitted. Ari cocked his head to one side. "That you looked like this," she explained. "Well," Max amended, "Without the bullet hole and blood anyway." The ghost chuckled, and she grinned. "Yeah, it's a bit like that... Can the others understand?" she asked him. He nodded. "Okay. That's good, I suppose."
She turned her head, and got back to her task, trying to ignore the flickers that made her head not-quite-buzz-but-sorta. It took twenty minutes, and Max was stunned to find out that she was quietly crying when she finished. She didn't even know what she was crying for. For herself, and Ari – the little boy and the Eraser she hadn't loved as much as she should, all the children who had died in this building, who had suffered. For the fact that she'd been free for as long as she had, for Lee and her flock being safe. She was so, so, so lucky. She'd been loved, she'd loved, and she had a family. These kids had never been loved.
She wiped her tears away with the back of one hand. Max put the shovel into the bag with the ashes and tied it tightly, bringing out the second bag she hadn't needed and using it for a second layer of security. It didn't take her long to pack everything up; she hadn't brought much down here.
The bag wasn't heavy, as she swung it up over one shoulder and exited the cold, dead room that had been the end of so many forgotten people. No one would know about them, no one cared, except for those mothers who'd grieved for their children. Except her. And she'd do what she could.
Ghosts streamed out side with her, down the broken corridors and out into the sun, there they looked like heat ripples on the sand. As she walked free of the ruins of the building that had been her prison for ten years, she gathered what little moisture in her mouth that she could, and spat on the sand. "That's what I think of you Whitecoats," she snarled. "May your ghosts be forgotten, doomed to haunt here for eternity." The Flickers, Ari among them cheered soundlessly at her words.
Shifting her burden, Max flicked out her seventeen foot wingspan, fully grown for a few years now, and launched into the air, in a heat haze of ghosts. I'm coming Angel thought to her, and Max sped towards the thermal along the nearest ridgeline, hitting it and letting the warm current lift her upwards with no effort at all. On her left wingtip, Ari flew, his huge, dark wings, twenty feet long and twice the width of hers. Soaring, with an ecstatic expression on his face. She laughed aloud at his joy, and wished that they'd been able to do this while he'd lived. Just once.
She dipped and dived, him following her across the pale sky in complicated twirls. She loved this, He loved this, and the occasional faces she saw of the others were lit with wonder and joy. Angel, grinning, swerved into position on her other wingtip as they climbed. She couldn't see the ghosts but she saw them through Max.
Abruptly, they hit a blast of colder air from the northern winds, and it was here that Max stopped her climb. It was beautiful up here, the burnt orange sands and the dark cliffs far below, with the toxic blue-green of Lake Badwater far below. "Here," she called. She flipped the bags back over her shoulder, hovering carefully. Angel swerved in close, and together they opened up the bags, letting the ashes blow out in the wind and swirl down, blowing apart. They'd scatter across the land, freeing the souls bound to them.
All around her the ghosthaze deepened, in front of her, the ashes seemed to form a pattern. And then, all of a sudden, the sky split in two, and she saw them, all of them. The faces of the experiments she'd rescued. And they walked forwards into the gap into the sky, into the place she knew as her dreamworld, the contact point, for her, between this world and the next. She saw their faces become what they should have been, little children, beautiful little children running into paradise. All of them. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
And there was one left. She looked at Ari, Eraser Ari, and then to 'Her' Ari, dreamworld Ari. Except they weren't really different, but one and the same. "We'll be here when you sleep. I'll be here when you sleep." And Eraser Ari almost-brushed her cheek with the massive fingers of one paw, and stepped through the gap, into dreamworld Ari. He waved once, and then the sky closed.
Max let go of the bag, as did Angel, and they watched it blow in silence for a while. Angel hadn't seen it, Max knew. She couldn't see the dreamworld in Max's mind. It didn't work that way.
"Max?" Angel asked.
"Yeah, sweetie?" she replied, turning to face the younger girl.
Angel was frowning, "You okay?" she asked. "You're crying."
Max smiled, and wiped the tears away again. "I'm happy and I'm sad, Ange. But I'm most definitely okay. They're free now." Angel nodded in agreement. "So how about we head home. I think I'm in need of a bath."
"You sure you're okay," Angel pressed.
Max considered it. "Yeah, I am. I have everything I need."