Author's Note: The other story, "Of Ravens and Wolves", is currently on a short waiting period, for as long as it takes for me to get everything together (as it's been total chaos here at home). I would like to thank all of the patient readers that read and reviewed on it, and the additional stories, as well.
This here, for now, is a request/challenge-prompt from a friend that had to focus a Maximum Ride story around the song "24" by Jem (and 13 others), and had to include character deaths. (To which I originally was like, "AGH, WHAT?! NO!") But as I tried it out, I came to see that it might not be...that bad. Eh, you, faithful reader-and-reviewer, decide. But I do warn you that this may be disturbing in some areas, and you might even hate me for what I'll be doing to the characters themselves. Please tell me what you think, so I'll know whether to keep going or not.
Disclaimer: If I owned Maximum Ride...people would probably not enjoy it as much, lol.
-Introduction: Happy Birthday
And it was all going so well, too...
And then, it wasn't.
I blinked. Fang's face swam fuzzily into focus.
"Max?" Said someone else. Someone familiar. Who was that? "Honey, are you all right?"
Dr. Martinez. Mom. I heard myself groan, as if from a distance. "Set her on the bed, quickly."
I felt his arms lift me like a feather, and then I was resting on my bed, completely dazed. Curiously, there was no accompanying pain, just a light-headed, rushing feeling in my mind that nearly sent me into peals of laughter. Each of my limbs weighed a ton, and I couldn't even think of moving them. Someone was testing my forehead and neck, Mom, I guessed. I was seeing faces in bright blurs of light and color, followed by shadows, and hearing in much the same way. "She's got a fever, all right," came Iggy's voice.
Oh, not Mom, then. How did I miss that? Fever? Why was everything so blurry?
Then Nudge - I knew it was her this time - was pressing a cold rag to my forehead, and God, it was wonderful; I hadn't realized how hot I really was. I heard myself groan again at it.
But in the mess of melding sound and spectrum, I wondered. What was going on? One moment, I'd been having the time of my life, flying with Fang; and the next...
I tried to remember.
A sudden flash of light and exploding pain in my stomach and my head, worse than those brain-attacks that I'd had when my Voice was moving in. But this time, not accompanied by pictures or reels of tape. This time, it was just flashes and explosions and chaos and -
Remembering was too much right now. My mouth was so dry, my eyelids so heavy.
And I was out again.
The mid-noon found me alone in my room with the door shut and me gasping like a fish, startled awake by a pretty horrible dream that I couldn't remember. I sat up in bed, panting in a cold sweat, and then holding my head as it began to spin again. So dizzy...I staggered sideways out of bed and into the bedstand, flailed wildly and hit the wall. Swayed and tottered to the door...and then it was gone again, just like that.
I was perfectly fine.
The doorknob turned. "Are you awake, sweetie?"
It took me a minute to find my voice. "Uh...yeah."
My mom came in and blinked in surprise. "Oh, you're feeling better?"
I tried to think about what I was so sure I was missing and totally forgetting. "Uh...uh-huh."
She frowned slightly, not quite convinced, and felt my forehead, and I suddenly remembered what had happened the night before, the date, everything. It didn't help that I still didn't have a clue of what had gone on at all, though. It really didn't. Dr. Martinez's eyebrows raised. "It's gone...your fever's completely gone. How odd."
"Maybe it was just a bug," I suggested, just as confused as she was. I mean, I know that as an avian recombinant lifeform, our powers of healing is a LOT faster than a normal person's, but this was there and gone so fast that it was kind of creepy. Either way, she nodded, still concerned, but then said, "It's a good thing, though. Everyone, and Gazzy especially, will be so happy to see that you're alright."
Oh, that was right! The Gasman's birthday! I snapped to. "Oh crud, I gotta go get the presents together and check on the cake and -"
Mom chuckled and laid a steadying hand on my shoulder before I could go into hyperdrive. "That's my Max. Don't worry about it, the flock took care of everything while you were sleeping it off. And by the way..." And here she winked, "...how did the date go, besides that nasty bug?"
I felt my face grow hot. I shuffled, my wings snapping around my shoulders a little defensively. "It was, uh, aheheh..." Did I just giggle? Was that a giggle? A real weak attempt at one? Argh, get your head straight, Max. "It was cool," I said at last, lamely. It was better than cool. Fang was better than -
"Max? Are you okay?" Angel had appeared by Dr. Martinez's leg. Her eyes brightened immediately, and she'd jumped into my arms. "Max! We were so worried! What happened?" She cried.
I held her close and buried my nose in her hair. Angel, Angel, my baby Angel. Having them see me like that, dead to the world and probably looking pretty close to it in reality, must have scared them, and I felt bad about it. "It was just a bug, sweetie," I assured her, and clamped down on the thoughts that said a weird, FAST bug that causes aneurisms and blows up your insides. I didn't know what it was, but it was gone now, and everything was going to be okay.
And better yet, there was no Voice in my head to tell me otherwise.
I didn't want to jinx myself, so the three of us went into the kitchen, where Ella and the rest of the flock were sitting. I noticed that everyone looked a bit dazed. "Yo, I thought this was a birthday party!" I called, balancing Angel in one arm and putting a fist on my hip with the other, my wings out in mock menace. Everyone looked up at once, and there were varying cries of "Max! Thank goodness!" and "I TOLD YOU SO!", followed by a huge, tackling group hug.
I love my flock.
They'd decorated the kitchen with balloons and streamers, and under the table were nothing but packed and carefully wrapped boxes of presents for my Gasman, who was wearing the first present he'd gotten, a Jack Sparrow hat-and-dreads. (Yes, the theme for the birthday was pirates after they'd dragged me to the movies to see Johnny Depp as an undead pirate. It was WELL worth it.) Everyone else had opted for piratey hats instead of the party variety; Iggy and Ella were wearing colorful bandanas and clip-on hoop earrings, Total had somehow found himself in an eyepatch (by Angel's doing, I was sure), Nudge had on a magnificent hat with a spray of feathers, and Fang -
- Dunno, just something very funny about seeing a bird-based freak (if a very beautiful one) of nature with a black, wide-brimmed hat and matching magnificent plumes. Fang noticed me staring at him and said, "Arrrr."
Dr. Martinez, I noticed, was also dressed very-much pirate-like, with a billowing white poet's shirt and burgundy corset/bodice dress. She attached an earring and scowled at me. "Avast, mateys, it's Cap'n Terror's birthday!"
I laughed aloud and sat at the table, trading Angel for Gazzy, who leapt into my lap and hugged me. "Isn't this great, Max? Oh, yeah, where's your costume?"
Before I could reply, Nudge and Ella and Iggy had plopped a hat on my head and attached an eyepatch and earring on me. "Ahar, there 'tis!" I said, amid the laughter.
Great big beer mugs, ones that Mom and Angel had found at a renaissance store while out shopping, were plopped in front of us, filled with foaming rootbeer; and as one, we each held a toast. "To the Kapitan!"
"To the Kapitan!" We shouted, knocking our glasses together and tossing them back like real swashbucklers. Angel adjusted her dress and scarf and Total could be heard chuckling next to Akila and Magnolia, who had just arrived, and were probably wondering what the heck was going on and if we'd finally lost our minds.
But who was to care about sanity lost? I caught a glimpse of a worried glance from Fang, very subtle, over the rim of our mugs, and I made a note to apologize for what had happened, whatever had happened, and make it up to him, make it up to all of us. I had scared him, all of them. Under the table, I let go of the rubber cutlass in my hand and grasped his fingers, making sure that we had eye contact. I promise to make it up, as soon as I can. I'm okay.
He, like Mom, didn't look entirely convinced, but he gave my fingers a gentle squeeze and a look that held no blame, only a soft longing. The moment between us was interrupted by the merriment of the feast that Iggy and Ella were setting up: an entire two hams and roasted chickens, a huge set of ribs and rolls and biscuits and pies of every variety, and spaghetti and multiple dishes of rice... none of it really went together, but with us, food is food, and good food is GOOD FOOD, so it didn't matter.
We sang piratey songs and even watched everyone's favorite movie, (Gazzy's other early present that he nearly exploded for - almost literally - the third Pirates' movie) and stuffed ourselves full. Everything, for once in his life, was going perfectly, and I didn't want to see it ruined. His enthusiasm, such honest happiness, was so rarely seen; Mom was taking pictures of all of us and laughing and singing along, and Gazzy was fighting Iggy over the table with their rubber swords. I sat back and watched, feeling great, feeling happy for him, for all of us having so much fun.
And then my eyes rolled back and I jolted in pain. No, not again...not now...
I stood up and excused myself, doing my level best to pretend that nothing was wrong and it was only a pit-stop, and got the heck out of there.
The moment I was out of the kitchen, lights were blinding behind my eyes and the world was flip-flopping dangerously. I staggered into the bathroom and shut the door, and only just had time to make it to the toilet before I puked that wonderful feast out. What a waste. I took ragged breaths and knelt on the carpet, stomach roiling and feeling as though my head were finally going to burst open. A pang of fear shot through me - what if the Voice was coming back? Oh, please no, I can't deal with that, I groaned in my head, then capped it, in case Angel was paying attention out there. I had no idea of the range she could pick up from, so tried to stop thinking so hard.
Another wave of nausea hit me, but this time, it was nothing but dry, choking, gagging heaves that spent my energy, and I toppled onto the rug, scrunching it between my fingers in the mind-mess in my skull. There was nothing else to do. I couldn't speak, couldn't make a sound, couldn't feel or be aware of anything else. Someone was drilling into the back of my head with a bit 12-feet-wide, spinning, tightening, until I could hardly breathe -
- And then it was gone again. I choked out a sob, burning up. What was that? My body was made of noodles, dead meat. I somehow managed to push myself up to the sink and splash my face. The water was so cold when it hit, SO cold, that I flinched. The fever was making me hot, burning like a flare of the sun. I splashed myself again, forcing the room to stop its tilting and swaying, and then...nothing. It disappeared. I was fine again. I slapped the counter in frustration. What WAS this?!
I had no idea how much time had passed since this sudden brain-blast, but when I finally stepped out of the bathroom, a little thrown-off by the sheer situation of it being there and gone, just like that, Dr. Martinez was hugging Gazzy and Iggy and Ella were bringing out the cake. It was a masterpiece for them, a great big, chunky, fudgy, chocolatey thing that probably had enough sugar in it to kill a herd of elephants, and decorated with that Pirates of the Caribbean skull in icing. It was pretty neat.
The hallway wasn't a long one, but it seemed so to me, so dim and shadowed compared to the glowing kitchen. Everyone was really, truly, happy; I'd never seen Iggy look so proud of himself, with his and Ella's arms entwined, as though his blindness was nothing; Nudge and Angel driving the Gasman's new remote-control car and the dogs chasing after it or thumping their tails excitedly; Fang, with the faintest pleased smile on his lips; my Mom telling an ecstatic Gazzy that he couldn't open his eyes until the cake was on the table.
This was the image of our happy, perfect family. They were what made that kitchen glow, not just the lights. I can't describe what made me lean on the doorway of the room with my arms crossed, just watching. Maybe I was afraid that I'd have another attack and ruin the party.
"There you are, Max, what took so long?" Said Angel, alerting everyone else that I was there. I snapped out of it and said, "Well, you know, I guess the cranberry sauce gave me the runs. I thought you checked the expiration date, Iggy."
Iggy gave a good-natured scowl. "The Lysol is in the first cabinet, if I remember correctly."
"Oh, ha, HA." I clapped my hands together. "All right, let's do this, everybody!"
Everyone but the Gasman stood up at once. Gazzy opened his eyes to behold the magnificent birthday cake with awe. All of us belted out heartily: "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU..."
The dogs howled in unison.
"HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU...ARRRR..."
Gazzy was so happy, he was practically bouncing up and down in his seat with delight. My heart went out to him.
"HAPPY BIRTH-DAY DEAR GASSER..."
A faint, all-too-familiar prickling at the back of my scalp.
Was trouble nearby? What was - ? I saw Fang bring his eyes away from our birthday boy and trade one last look with me.
"...TO YOU...!" Everyone shouted, "ARRRRGH!"
And the entire house shook, then disappeared in a peal of blinding light.