A/N: A bit of a tangent to the story "Of Ravens and Wolves" that is an alternate version of the one to be shown in that story of the flock's escape, told from Ari's point of view. Special thanks to the Beta Team for doing what they do best. Please R&R, and I hope you enjoy it!
And Leave Me With Nothing
Max. I've always looked up to you. Ever since I first saw you through the glass as they shot you up with ten different liquids on the papered table, I respected you. Your wings, unlike everyone elses, did not stay flat to your back or drag along the floor - it was like they had their own personality. Right then, they were half-folded and twitching, the feathers falling to the floor.
Molting is usually gross, but on you, it was BEYOND gross.
It was SO cool.
And your eyes, unlike every other experiment I'd ever seen, had the glimmer of something more behind them. Hope, maybe? I felt a twinge of disappointment at that conclusion; you had no reason to hope other than because MY father kept giving one to you. He'd always come in and visit you and a couple of other freaks and tell stories about some mythical world outside the School that had stuff like burgers and parents and perfect lawns and people that cared about other people's feelings.
What a load of crap. But you guys ate it up. I ate it up, as I hid in the doorway out of his sight and listened to him weave his tales about the impossible.
You may not have known this, but I was a prisoner there, too. There was nothing to do. The whitecoats didn't want me underfoot, so would keep me in a space of only a few rooms at a time; I had no one to talk to, not even my own father, because he was always either staring into space, talking with the other whitecoats, or playing with you.
And you...did you even know I was alive? Whenever I was allowed to see you, it was like if Jeb ignored me, you would ignore me, too. No matter what I did or how hard I tried. And Jeb helped. I made something for you once, when I'd learned to fold paper animals. I made you a whole bunch of cranes, because they had wings and were beautiful too, just like you.
But he intercepted them. He tore them out of my hands and shredded them, and told me to go back to my 'room'.
And I honestly thought that you hadn't noticed. I remember countless nights of crying myself to sleep, from boredom, loneliness, rejection, everything. I resolved to try and block you out for the millionth time, even though I knew it would probably never work.
I looked up at you, startled. You hardly ever talked to me. I forgot about trying to be distant and invisible from you in that instant and felt that rare rush of acknowledgement. You'd noticed me. You really had.
The way you used to stand was a lot like Fang at that time, but not as slouchy - your head was always back, like you owned an army or something, eyes half-lidded. Always better than the others. You were what I wanted to be: strong, smart, valued, amazing...loved.
You looked at me - you really did - and said, "Wanna see something?"
I nodded, forgetting to speak. What could I say?
You stalked over and knelt down, and your long, slender fingers untied my shoe laces. Blinking, I set down on one knee too, to imitate you, to be as cool as you looked right then. I'd always gotten someone else to tie my shoes, because the velcro straps were just annoying to wear. And YOU were going to teach ME to...
"First. Make a bunny."
Did you just say...? Did you really just say...?
Oh, yeah. You held two loops in either hand, the bunny's ears. I nodded. Right. Make a bunny.
You grunted and went on. "Tie its ears in a knot, one under the other...done." You untied my other shoe. "Your turn."
That's right, you had so little to say back then. Or at least, to me. Determined to get it right, I made the bunny ears with each string, but had difficulty getting them to tie.
"The other way."
Right, right. I couldn't mess this up, not for you. And after three more grueling, embarrassing, frustrating tries, I got it.
"I did it!"
You grinned, one of your rare ones. "Yeah. Can you practice that?"
I sure could!
A klaxon went off, and the grin faded from your face. It had become stony and set and determined, the face that gave away no emotion. The face that I wished I could present every day and appear fearless and brave.
How could anyone be so strong?
You stood up and wow, you ruffled me hair. "Later, Ari." And you walked back into the arms of the waiting whitecoats to begin her testing again. I stood there in the hallway, elation pumping through my veins, making me dizzy. You touched my hair. You called me by name. You never do that!
I looked after you with longing. I didn't want you to go through all of that pain that awaited you. I wanted, for one moment of imagination, to escape with you into that mythical world that Jeb knew so much about. One where we could both be free of the chemical smells and the low ceilings.
Jeb. He was talking to me? What did he want? I turned around anxiously. There he was, stopping in front of me, and looking down at me with an expression I didn't recognize. Fondness? Care?
No, I couldn't believe this...if I did, I'd be walking right into another -
"Ari, would you like to learn something?" He said, kneeling down so we were eye level.
I shrugged, angry at myself for the overwhelming hope that filled my chest. Dad was here, he was talking to me. He was looking at me. He knew I was here. "'Kay."
He reached down to my shoe and untied it, and all the hope I'd had was gone in an instant.
Steadily - I have no idea how I controlled my anger, but maybe it was because this was an opportunity to show him up - I took the laces from his hands and tied it up again. He blinked in surprise. "Oh, I see Max has already been here, then?"
Those were not the right words to say. I wanted to walk away and not even look at him, but he was here, and I was here, and we might not be able to talk again. Why did I insist of torturing myself like this? "Yeah. She showed me how."
"Such a fast learner," he murmured, and there he was looking into space again, talking to himself and not me. "I only just showed her thirty minutes ago."
And what?! He completely ignored me and walked off! How dare he leave me here like this!
I spent the rest of the day stomping around and punching things, even though it hurt and it didn't solve a thing. The whitecoats still ignored me. Time ticked on. Eventually, the fit wore down to a quietness, and I was invisible again, hanging around the glass walls of the testing rooms so I could watch you and the other bird-freaks get fed radioactive dye.
Hours passed, and they stuffed you back into the "Play Room" before putting you in the cage, at Jeb's request. He was still outside the room, talking to the whitecoats while you lay facedown on the floor, exhausted and panting. This was my chance.
I slipped in through the door and lay down across from you. "Max?"
Your eyebrow twitched, but you didn't say anything. Fury welled up in me again. How could they do this to you? I tried again.
"...What?" You mumbled.
"I, uh...thank you...thank you for teaching me how to tie my shoes."
You were silent for a moment, and then you started choking. I looked up in alarm, and then in confusion, to see that you were laughing.
"We're leaving tomorrow," you whispered, and I leaned closer in awe to hear. "We're getting out, can you believe it? Just a few more tests...and we'll be outta here. We'll have burgers. And movies. And beds to sleep in."
"Can I come?" I said excitedly. Was my dream coming true at last?
But you were too cool to say yes. You winced in pain as you tried to shrug, and only said, "If you want."
It was good enough for me.
I stayed awake long into the night, even when I knew I should probably get some sleep, but I didn't want to miss a thing. Images of all the great things we'd run into, of us becoming friends, kept floating before my eyes. In Jeb's 'apartment', I waited, for what I don't know.
And then I heard him get up in the other room, heard him get up and get dressed...at 2:00 A.M. Huh. Did he have to go into work early? I waited until I heard the door shut, and then rolled out of bed and opened it a tad. It took a second, because it was locked, but I had time to see him vanish down the hallway. I don't know what compelled me to follow, but I did, silently. He couldn't know I was there.
He wove down the familar maze of hallways to your room, where all the freaks were stacked in crates with an aisle between them in the gloom. I could not follow further, and waited outside behind a wall for him to come back. I waited, anticipation too much to let me fall asleep. And then you all emerged, and I fell into line with you in the semi-darkness, determined to not be left behind. It was happening, it was really happening. We were all leaving.
Jeb hadn't noticed I was there yet - no one had. It was you guys and a few other, weaker freaks that I'd never talked to. We wound between the corridors and their flickering flourescent lights, and right when we were halfway there...an alarm went off. The walls were instantly bathed in red, and the wailing started. I grabbed your hand, and you must have thought I was one of the othere mutants, because you didn't shake me off, and Jeb said, "Go!"
Thunderous snarling was coming up the halls after us. Erasers! We tore down them, left, right, left, right, around, as fast as we could; I was so much slower, and kept stumbling as you ran for your life, me hanging on like a flag in the wind. There was the exit! Jeb was unlocking them with record speed, and while that happened, the other mutants began to notice me.
"Ari?" You said in surprise.
Jeb whirled. "What are you doing here, son?" he said steadily, although I could see a vein pulsing in his temple. "I...Max said I could come, too."
They were getting closer. The Erasers and the dogs, barking and panting, swerving around corners like fur-lined ferraris. The door popped open, and Jeb ushered everyone out.
But you stayed. You had to make sure your flock got out before you. I didn't want to abandon you, but the sweet air coming through, the taste of freedom, so close...!
Jeb's hand stopped me. In fact, he held me there by the shoulder. "Max, go, now!"
Maybe it was the heat of the moment.
Maybe it was the way you trusted my father more than you trusted anyone.
All I know is that you did it. You left. You practically crashed through after the flock, leaving me, Jeb, and the other mutants behind.
"No," I cried, but Jeb held me there. "Not this time, Ari."
I watched as he shut the door after him, the red lights illuminating his face, the faces of the scared and screaming mutants, the fangs of the predators closing on on their prey. I stared in disbelief, the truth too much to bear. They were decoys. I was nothing. "I'm sorry."
The door shut.
And I stood there, hating him, hating you, alone and left with nothing, as the pack closed in.