I do not own Maximum Ride or any of its characters, yadda yadda ya, and I hereby and proudly present: Icaria, second-place winner of the "What should I write next?" poll.
Yes, I know it's not Pyromaniac, but I'm currently in the process of seeing if I can get that story looked over. So, for now, Icaria it is. Besides, I've been dying to post this. I'm figuring the timeline isn't quite as important as usual, since this IS an AU, but I'd say sometime after they rescue Angel from the School.
Warnings: violence, probably some mild language, Jeb-father-angst, and Ari and the whitecoats...and a whole lot of family issues. We've got Iggy vs. Ari issues, Jeb vs. Ari issues, and most of all, Iggy vs. Jeb issues. Family love abound.
Characters: Iggy, Jeb and Ari B. Yes, Ari. Because I love that adorable bundle of teeth and claws.
Chapter One: On Top of the World
It was exactly four o'clock in the morning, and Jeb Batchelder had a headache that threatened to split his head in two. He grunted and lifted a hand to knead his forehead. It was a useless gesture, he knew—once his head started hurting, it was all down hill from there.
Jacob Marling, one of his closest associates and the only person he would dare to call a friend around here, was giving him a wry half-smile that only emphasized the hard lines around his mouth. His coffee-brown skin was a painful contrast against the colorless walls of the training room, and his coal-black eyes were drooping with exhaustion. Jeb knew that as weary as his friend looked, he looked even worse. He had been up since eleven at night, and had only been able to snatch a half-hour nap before being woken up again to oversee a surgery.
"Hopefully not," he said wearily. "I don't think I could stand another one of those."
"What's it this time? Lack of sleep?" Jacob frowned at him disapprovingly. "You haven't been eating, have you?"
Jeb shrugged and gazed out at the training room sprawling out below them. "Maybe it's sleep. Maybe it's not."
Jeb flinched and closed his eyes. And maybe it's that.
Beside him, Jacob whistled as he peered from their spot on the balcony into the cavernous training room. "Your son's getting better. Look at that—look at him, Jebidiah."
Reluctantly, Jeb opened his eyes just in time to see Ari's fist bury itself in the face of his opponent. The Eraser toppled onto its back, its furry claws flying up to its ruined snout as it howled in agony.
Immediately, three more Erasers replaced it. They went down in a matter of seconds — a punch and a kick to the stomach here, a sharp uppercut to the chin there, a headbutt to finish off the last mutant standing. Thick, heavily muscled arms and legs were a deadly blur, delivering bone-crunching blows with every swing.
Clawed feet clicking on the smooth floor of the training room, Ari turned in a circle to admire his handiwork. He looked up, a wide smile revealing his gleaming fangs, and grinned at Jeb.
Jeb sighed and returned to kneading his forehead with his knuckles. Ari's need for his approval was as transparent as glass, and it wearied him. He did not approve of what the mutated seven-year-old was training himself to do. But…
I am a terrible father. I owe him at least this.
Lowering his fist from his forehead, Jeb tiredly met his son's praise-thirsty eyes and offered a short nod.
Ari's grin grew even wider and he straightened his massive shoulders, leering down at his beaten opponents in a deplorable display of arrogance. The tension in Jeb's forehead grew. His head throbbed.
"You really don't look good," Jacob said worriedly. "Is it the lights? They're pretty harsh, especially at four in the morning…"
"I'm fine," Jeb lied.
"Hmm." Jacob leaned on the balcony's rail and eyed his friend out of the corner of his eye. "You know, the surgery really wasn't your fault. It was a failure from the start. How could you have expected it to blow up in your face?"
Jeb winced. "I'd rather not talk about that now," he muttered. It was the only reason he was here and not in bed. He had supervised the operation on some unlucky experiment for two hours. Then, just when he was beginning to sway on his feet, the surgery had come to a grinding halt with the experiment's sudden death. Needless to say, his superiors hadn't been pleased. The subject had not been worth much, not nearly as valuable as the flock members, for instance, but it had held the foundations for a potentially ground-breaking discovery that held relevance towards Max and her family. Jeb had never been clued in on what it was, exactly, but he assumed that it failed when the patient died.
The higher-ups could not afford to dispatch him, being as knowledgeable on the flock as he was, but that did not mean they could not punish him. That was the reason he was watching Ari train in the first place. His superiors knew how it would make him feel to watch his young son use brutal violence. It was only to be expected that they would make him observe for hours on end.
Three hours he had spent on that balcony. Three long, mind-numbing, horrendous hours of following his son's erratic, vicious movements, of hearing sharp shrieks of pain, of listening to bone and gristle crack and snap beneath Ari's cruel fists.
"What's wrong, then?" Jacob was asking. "Did you hear back from the search party?"
"No," Jeb sighed. "Not y—"
As if by some godsend, ringing footsteps echoed along the hallway behind them. Jeb and Jacob whirled around to see a fine-boned woman hurrying toward them, her long hair swinging in disarray and her lab coat lopsided on one side. She looked like she'd run the entire perimeter of the School just to reach them.
"Anne," Jeb said in surprise, "what is it?"
The Asian woman gave him an inscrutable look. "You're needed down at the docking bay. The search party just got back—they've caught one of the mutants."
Gone were the signs of his impending migraine. Jeb beamed at the woman as if she'd just told him he was free of the School and the people who ran it. She stared at him like he'd tried to bite her.
"That's excellent news," he said. "Did they say which one they caught?"
Anne shrugged cautiously. "No, and it wasn't my place to ask. I suggest you get down there, fast—the freak's putting up a struggle."
"Yes, yes," Jeb said with a hurried nod. It had to be Maximum. Any member of the flock would fight if cornered and captured, but if the mutant was giving the whitecoats that much trouble, it had to be Max. He prayed it was. This was just the break he was looking for.
"Thank you." The two words made both Jacob and Anne stare at him in bewilderment, but Jeb couldn't have cared less. He strode past the woman with Jacob at his side, making sure to keep his pace as even as he could so he wouldn't seem overly excited.
Behind him, he heard Ari's gruff voice shout out from the depths of the brightly-lit training room. "Jeb!"
A wince went over his shoulders at the fury in his son's voice, but he kept walking. He would deal with Ari and his insatiable hunger for praise later.
"So what's got you so excited?" Jacob widened his eyes at his friend meaningfully. "I'd think that you wouldn't be quite so happy about dealing with a violent mutant this early in the day."
"No," Jeb agreed distractedly, "but I've been looking forward to this for a long time."
It was true. When the School had stationed him at this particular base, high up in the Canadian Rockies, he thought he would never see Maximum and the other mutants before it was too late. That was precisely why the School had done it, he supposed; they suspected he was growing too close to the flock and removed him from the equation.
And here Max was, coming right to him at the place he least expected to see her.
Jeb knew he should not be happy that Max had been captured (because he was sure it was Max; who else would it be?). Most likely, her flock would come looking for her and attempt to initiate some daring rescue that would end up injuring them all. It would probably work, too. Every time it seemed the School had only to reach out and crush the flock within its grasp, the flying mutants would somehow manage to get away. It was frustrating and infinitely relieving at the same time.
Still, Jeb was glad that he would have at least a little more time to convince Maximum that he had her best interests at heart. Because, when it came down to it, that was what really mattered in his deception-ruled life.
It took him and Jacob less than six minutes to make their way from the training room to the docking hold. Jeb barely noticed anything else on his way there. Only the hallway with the impossibly thick glass wall caught his attention, and that lasted for the briefest of moments. There was a storm raging outside, snow and sleet pounding against the near-impenetrable glass. The snowfall was so thick, Jeb could barely see the towering mountains surrounding the building complex. A chill slipped in from outside and wiggled its way into his bones.
"That's a nasty storm," Jacob observed quietly. "I have no idea how the chopper could have made it through that…"
"If the Erasers have something to do, they'll do it," Jeb said off-handedly. "No matter how impossible it seems."
By the time they reached the docking room, a cavernous area with walls and a floor of cold metal and cement, Jeb's superior was already standing at the entrance.
"Doctor Stark." Jeb inclined his head deferentially and earned himself a dismissive glance in reply. Nehemiah Stark was, in all honesty, not exactly an imposing figure on a superficial basis. He was of a medium build and while his height leaned towards the higher numbers, it wasn't enough to make him seem intimidating. No, it was the way Stark held himself that made people jump to follow his commands. The lines in his face were more from cruelty and distaste than age, his immaculate hair a premature gray that only supported his cold image. If Jeb were to guess his age, he would aim around forty-five.
"Batchelder. That one's yours, I presume?"
As always, Stark's voice stiffened Jeb's spine and automatically made him pay attention. Jeb followed Stark's pointing finger into the docking room.
It wasn't Max. There was no mistaking the lean, skinny form that whirled itself about with unerring precision to land a punch or roundhouse kick on an Eraser's snout. The wings were a soft mix between red-copper and white, instead of the speckled brown-and-tan wings he had expected to see.
It was Iggy.
Jeb tried to tamp down the disappointment he felt in his chest, and failed.
"Yes, sir," he said to Stark. "One of mine."
"Well," his superior said with the slightest hint of condescension in his frozen-glass voice, "control it."
"Yes, Doctor Stark."
His steps past the emotionless man were clipped and controlled, however hard it was to resist the urge to simply run the distance. Jacob stayed behind, seeming to realize that something had gone wrong. Jeb's heart hammered in his chest. The further he got into the room and the more he saw, the less he liked the situation.
More than a few whitecoats had gathered to watch the spectacle and lined the wall in muttering clumps. The lights that had been installed in the ceiling so high above him glared harsh on his head, making him sweat. Erasers moved and darted around Iggy like feeding sharks, ducking in and out, jeering. Within their roiling midst he caught flashes of the boy—a glimpse of a torn, dirtied white shirt; long gangly legs, lashing out to kick an Eraser in the gut; soft-colored wings stretching wide and far; strawberry-blond hair drenched with sweat; a young face, twisted with fury and desperation. It was only when he was within feet of them that he saw the blood on the glassy floor.
Jeb stood up tall, conscious of a dozen stern glares on his back, and cleared his throat.
Some of the Erasers looked very much like they would rather disobey, but they all fell back at the sound of his voice with looks of barely-concealed resentment. Jeb let his gaze trail onto the boy in front of him and forced himself to smooth his expression free of emotion. The tall boy was swaying where he stood, looking for all the world like he was about to keel over from pain and exhaustion.
"Iggy?" Jeb prompted.
Iggy started at the sound of Jeb's voice. "Jeb?" His voice brimmed with disbelief.
"Yes," Jeb replied, careful to mask the flash of worry he felt at the sight of the boy's bruised face. His bottom lip had split and blood dribbled down his narrow chin in a trickle of crimson. One of his eyes was going purple, and he was pressing one arm to his side in a way Jeb didn't like.
A myriad of emotions flickered across Iggy's face in a matter of seconds. Jeb spotted relief, hope, and misery before anger swooped in and dominated them all.
"Traitor," Iggy hissed hatefully. Jeb restrained a wince.
"No," he started. "I—"
"You're with them! Max told me about you, but…you…" The boy's skin turned an alarming shade of red as he scrambled for words. "We trusted you!"
Jeb really had no idea what he was going to say to that—he wanted to be trusted, he'd loved the flock as if they were his own children, and he wasn't a traitor—but before he could even open his mouth, Stark spoke from behind him.
"Which one is this?"
He hadn't heard the man come up behind him. Jeb whirled around and inclined his head at the steely look in Stark's pale eyes. Behind Stark was Jacob, and behind him was a familiar hulking form: Ari. He hadn't seen his son come in, either, though how he could not have felt the heated glare Ari was spearing him with, he didn't know. Why, exactly, Ari was angry with him was another matter entirely.
"Igneous, sir," Jeb said promptly. "The third-oldest."
"Igneous, hmm?" Stark pinned the boy with a critical gaze, as one did an insect with a needle. "What are its strengths? I've heard different things about each of the mutants."
Jeb could feel Iggy's blistering glare through his coat and forced himself to ignore it. "He understands fire and its properties better than most people I know. His knowledge of explosives is expansive, too, and his sense of hearing is superhuman —"
"But it is blind," Stark interrupted bluntly. Jeb nodded hesitantly, not liking the nasty grin that crawled onto Ari's face.
"Yes, sir. He is blind."
"Hmm." With one stride of his gray-clad legs, Stark had brushed past Jeb to stand in front of Iggy. He took the boy's chin in one hand and tried to move his head from side to side, but Iggy jerked his head free with a silent snarl.
"Don't touch me," he spat.
Jeb felt his heartbeat falter before picking back up again. Stark straightened and wiped his hand clean on his long coat.
"Too defiant," he announced coolly. "It would prove troublesome for our colleagues to perform tests on, and the blindness is a massive hindrance. You have a record of how it behaves in the lab room, Batchelder?"
Something cold settled in the pit of Jeb's stomach and refused to move. "Yes, sir. He proved…difficult…to deal with in all cases."
Again, Stark merely let out a thoughtful "hmm" and turned his gaze back to Iggy, who had gone mysteriously still. Behind Jacob, Ari's grin stretched even wider, until it almost looked painful for him to smile. The cold feeling in Jeb's stomach spread up into his chest and seized his heart.
"I have no use for it," Stark said. His shrewd gaze traveled slowly from Iggy's bruised form to Ari's grinning face, back to Iggy, and then finally landed on Jeb. In the whitecoat's pale, glittering eyes, Jeb could see nothing but detached, smug amusement, and he knew that his punishment was not yet over.
"You. Ari." Lifting a single finger to point into Iggy's glaring face, Stark turned back to Jeb's eager son. The faintest of smirks appeared on the whitecoat's countenance.
To be continued…
A/N: Review, save a blind pyro today!