oooOOOOOooo

"Wait!" I yelled, "What's going on?" I saw Dylan and Iggy about to go in to a burning building.

"Max, what are you doing here? You were supposed to stay safe!" Fang yelled at me.

"Dani and I couldn't stand not being here." She nodded in agreement with me.

Fang kissed me. "I'll be mad later. I've never been happier to see you than right now." He hugged me tight.

"Someone want to explain to me why Dylan and Iggy are going into the deathtrap?" I asked.

Iggy obliged, "The bomb has to be placed just right. Dylan's the fastest, so he's going to light it and to try get out."

"Try?" That didn't instill confidence.

"Well, whoever goes in, may not make it back out," Iggy explained. "The fuse is too short. I wasn't thinking when I planned this." I could hear the frustration in his voice.

"If we could light it by remote, at least from the stairwell, one of us would have a good chance," Fang added.

An idea popped into my head. I knew they wouldn't go for it, but I was the leader and they weren't going to have any choice.

"I can do it."

"No way. Not even up for discussion," Fang crossed his arms over his chest.

"Listen for a second. Remember at the cliffs, when I threw fire at the pillow? I've tried a few times to hold and control fire since then. What if I throw fire at the fuse? Maybe I can do it from the stairwell. Then all I have to do is go up the stairs and out."

"If you don't clear the building, you'll be toast," Dylan spoke up. "No, it's still better if I do it."

I put my hands on my hips. "My way makes the most sense. You all know it. Iggy, I'll follow you down and you put the device where it needs to go. I'll give you two minutes to get back out to completely clear the area. Then I'll light it and run like hell." I eyed them all as they contemplated. "I can do it."

Fang and I were caught in a stare-down. We didn't have time for this. I opened my mouth to speak, but he beat me to it.

"You're right," he said to my surprise. He never ceased to amaze me. Pulling me close, he whispered, "But you better come back to me."

We kissed for what possibly could have been the last time ever. That thought would hit me a little later.

I hugged the other two, then followed Iggy to the door. I turned to look at Dylan, Fang and Dani standing helpless, one last time.

"Remember this stairwell. Don't confuse it with that one." Iggy pointed to the stairs across the way. "The further down this hall, the better," he said. Even in a crisis situation, Iggy still had his bearings. I hoped my sense of direction would be as good as his.

"Here are the matches." He handed them to me and walked down the hall into the inner workings of Itex, the mainframe computer, the central location of all it's data and major equipment. It was a frightening place to be.

Iggy felt his way around the room, eventually placing his and Gazzy's mother of a bomb in just the right spot. Satisfied, he came back down the hall to me.

"Can you see the fuse from here?" he asked me.

"Yeah. Boy that thing looks a whole lot smaller from back here, though," I worried.

"Maybe you should practice with the matches," he suggested.

I struck one against the box and held it to my hand. The flame stayed when I took the match away. I threw it down the hallway. It only made it about half way. Luckily, Iggy couldn't see that.

"I guess I'll have to throw a little harder," I said sheepishly. "You better get going." I took out my cell phone and checked the time. "Is two minutes enough for you to get everyone far enough away? Maybe I should give you three. Just in case. I want everyone far away when this goes off."

Iggy didn't move. "This doesn't feel right, Max. It's always been me or the Gasman to do these things," he protested.

"Already decided," I said curtly. "Iggy, in case something goes wrong . . ."

"Don't," he cut me off.

"In case," I began again. "I love you. You've been a great brother and a great friend." The possible last kiss with Fang was starting to hit me. "Tell them all I said I love them too. Every one of them. And help Fang get through it." He put his hand on my arm as if to stop me from talking. "Just in case. But I'm gonna make it, don't worry."

I hugged him tightly, tears in my eyes. "Now go. Time starts now!"

"We all love you, too, Max," he said and took off up the stairs.

I looked at my cell phone for the time. It seemed to take two hours for two minutes to go by. I'd give him another minute, I decided. Then I heard what sounded like gun shots and perhaps a helicopter. I couldn't wait any longer.

My hands shook as I lit one of the matches. It went out in my hand. My palms were too sweaty. Crap. I wiped them on my jeans and tried again. This time it held. I concentrated on the flame, willing it to grow. When I thought it was big enough, I pitched it at the fuse as hard as I could. My accuracy was off a bit and I set something else on fire. I got out another match. Before I could light it, I noticed that the flames had crawled across some obviously flammable material and lit the fuse.

Crap! How much time did I lose? Every second counted.

I booked it up the steps, three at a time and shoved open the emergency exit. Iggy was standing right there. Why didn't he get out of the way?

Before the door could even close again, the building exploded upward in a huge fireball, engulfing a helicopter. The huge emergency door blew off its hinges, missing us by inches.

Seemingly, out of nowhere, Dylan was there yelling for us to get down. Didn't anybody do what I told them?!

I didn't have time to react before Dylan spread his wings and pushed me and Iggy to the ground. A secondary explosion forced a ball of flames out the door.

oooOOOOOooo

Silence.

My eyes fluttered open. I must have lost consciousness for a moment. Deafened by the explosion, I could hear nothing. Breathing was difficult, not only for the smoke blanketing the area, but because Dylan lay on top of me. Turning my head, I saw Iggy pinned as well, still. A cold shiver went through me. He slowly lifted his head. Blind and temporarily deaf, he groped for something familiar. I was able to reach out my hand to squeeze his in reassurance. A look of relief spread over his face.

"Dylan, get up!" I yelled. At least I think I yelled. I still couldn't hear anything but a soft, high-pitched whine. I shook him. He was still out. Carefully, I crawled out from under him and saw Iggy trying to do the same. Smoke hung thickly in the air, reducing visibility. I wasn't sure where anyone else was. I shook Dylan again.

Suddenly, my hearing came back, bombarding me with a cacophony of screaming, shouting, sirens and smaller explosions.

"Iggy, help me turn him over!" I shouted. Even though Iggy was only a couple of feet away, I had to repeat myself for him to hear.

I gasped when I finally saw Dylan's wings. They were in tatters, burned on the edges, missing most of the larger feathers on the bottom. His shirt had been singed off the back as well, revealing badly burned skin. Hot tears began to sting my eyes. I blinked them away, trying to stay focused.

Iggy and I carefully turned Dylan onto his back. "What's happening, Max? Is he okay?" Iggy asked.

I put an ear to his chest.

Nothing.

My own heart seized in my chest. I punched him hard over his breastbone.

"Max! Tell me what's happening!" Iggy yelled. I was still too choked up and focused to answer.

I listened to Dylan's heart again. Still nothing. I brought Fang back once, I can bring Dylan back, I thought.

I punched him again and again. Lacing my fingers together, I placed the heels of my hands over his heart, pushing down and counting. Iggy didn't have to ask me what was happening. He knew.

"Come on, Dylan! Please come back!" I begged.

Gates and Burgess found us in the clearing smoke and took over. Roger continued CPR while Ted began to examine Dylan. All I could do was watch. And pray. To whom, I didn't know. I noticed a grave look pass between Roger and Ted.

"Why are you stopping? Don't stop!" I yelled. I grabbed Roger's shirt. "You can't stop! You have to save him. Dylan!"

Roger put his hand over mine. "I'm so sorry, Max. There's some shrapnel embedded deeply into his . . . there's nothing we can do," he choked out.

I was numb. The whole scene was surreal. Surely, I must have misunderstood. I searched Roger's eyes for any sign of hope, but there was none.

"He's gone," he said quietly.

I sat back on my heels, looking at Dylan. He looked like he was simply sleeping, except for the burn marks on his arms and hands. I got up and stumbled a few feet away before dropping on all fours and vomiting violently.

It had nothing to do with morning sickness. I was heart sick. One of my flock, my family, one of the few people on Earth I loved, was gone. Forever. He gave his life to save me. Like he always said he would.

oooOOOOOooo

You did it Max. You saved the world. Itex is gone and millions of lives saved from extermination. Just as I've always said you would.

Not all of it

I know it's hard, Max, to lose someone. But it's one life compared to millions.

Right now, I would gladly trade those millions for that one. The world can go fuck itself for all I care. I'm done

Slowly, I got up and watched the rest of my flock gathered around Dylan. They were all crying in varying degrees, including Fang, clinging to each other for comfort. Dani clamped onto Iggy, probably realizing just how close she'd come to losing him. We'd all come close to dying at one point or another and we all had the scars to prove it. Fang did die. But we always pulled through. We thought we were invincible. Why should this time be any different? I observed my flock as an outsider, scanning the scene. They were the eye of a hurricane, silently gathered in the center of turmoil. None of the frantic, screaming people running away from the chaos even seemed to notice they were there. I caught sight of a few erasers scrambling past. They scarcely paid attention to the ring of mutants that had once been their primary quarry. It was as if the universe was shielding my flock in reverence for the fallen. Numbness took over and settled in for the long hall.

Fang walked over and wrapped his arms and wings tightly around me.

"I'm so sorry Max," he managed to eek out between small sobs. Fang was literally crying, over Dylan. I couldn't remember the last time he shed real tears. Why wasn't I? I hugged Fang back and held on for dear life.

"I know," I answered.

"It's not right," he said when he composed himself. "He saved you, saved Iggy, saved my family. I'll never get a chance to thank him. It should have been me. I'm supposed to take care of you."

Nudge, Angel, Sunny and John joined us, all clutching fiercely.

"It's not fair," Nudge cried. "It's not fair!"

Angel looked up at me with a tear-streaked face, "What are we going to do, Max?"

I turned back to look at Dylan lying on the ground, "We're going to take him home."

The group hug disbanded, each of the members looking at me puzzled.

"Max," Fang started. "We have to get out of here."

"We're not leaving him," I said firmly, my voice, in the same monotone since hearing the words 'he's gone'. "I won't leave him here alone. I owe him at least that. I owe him everything, but this is the only thing I can do for him now."

I contacted Jeb, delivering the news myself, both good and bad. No one else was in any shape to take charge. That's what I do. That's who I am. I had almost forgotten that there was good news. Jeb was pleased and proud that we fulfilled our mission well. When I told him about Dylan, he was about as emotional as he was when Ari died. Which is to say, cold as ice. Oh, he said he was sorry, blah, blah, blah. But there were no words of real comfort. No break in his voice that gave away any hints that he actually had a heart.

Jeb had greased the wheels enough to get Robert, Roger and Ted safely out of Iraq and into Turkey, where the Coalition to Stop the Madness would provide air transportation to the United States. Getting two doctors and a body guard out was one thing. Getting Dylan's body out would be up to the flock.

There wasn't much left of the site that was once Itex, but we fashioned a makeshift sling to carry Dylan between us as we flew over the mountains into Turkey. We had to stop and take turns often. Van, Turkey, was only two hundred and fifty miles away, but it took us the better part of the night to reach our destination.

There wasn't enough room for all of us in the CSM jet. I knew there wouldn't be. Fang and I decided to stay behind and wait for the jet to come back for us. I was glad for the break from the cry-fest. And the 'are you okay?'s. I knew Fang would let me sit in silence if I wanted. But now we had nothing to do but wait. And remember.

oooOOOOOooo

The thought of sitting around, waiting and thinking wasn't appealing, so Fang and I decided to fly to Madrid in the mean time. The CSM jet would meet us there the next night and take us home. Seventeen hundred miles was a long way. But it kept me from having to talk much. Flying at top speed occasionally, Fang and I made it to Madrid in less than twelve hours, stopping a few times to eat. Not that I had much of an appetite.

Once we got to Spain, we went to went to the prearranged meeting place. I hardly took much notice of the beautiful landscapes as we flew over. Or the diverse architecture of the city. There were some strange looking buildings, some gorgeous hotels that looked liked palaces and something that looked sort of like the space needle in Seattle. Under different circumstances, it would have been a lovely, proper honeymoon destination. I spotted a huge bullfighting ring and vaguely remembered thinking how barbaric and senseless it was. To kill for sport. I hoped I would never have to take a life again, even in self defense.

"You've been awfully quiet, Max," Fang brought me out of my space out.

"There's nothing to say," I answered. "Nothing I say will change what happened." Even to myself, I sounded robotic.

"But you need to let it out," Fang said.

"So now you're my therapist?" I snapped. That was uncalled for. "I'm sorry. I know you're just trying to help." I leaned against him as we sat in a small airport, waiting for our ride. "I have to keep it together, at least until we get home. I can't think about it now."

He kissed the top of my head and I looked up to smile at him. I noticed that his eyes were glistening a little more than usual. He was still emotional about the ordeal. I had to look away. We sat in silence once again.

"Fang?"

"Hmm?"

"My Voice said it's over," I said it casually, like I was telling him what was for dinner.

"What? When?" he asked. "You mean over, over?"

I picked my head up and faced him. "It said we saved the world. From Itex. Do you think it was telling the truth?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. Didn't it tell you one time that all the erasers were gone? Maybe it wasn't a lie, though. Maybe it just doesn't know everything," he offered.

"An all-knowing Voice that doesn't know it all? That's my luck, isn't it?" I laughed humorlessly. "It doesn't matter anyway. I told the Voice that I'm done. No more fighting. No more saving anyone. It's just my family from now on." Instinctively, I put my hand over my belly. "Our family."

"Good," he said. I could hear resentment in his voice. I remembered that he wanted me to give up saving the world years ago, when he kissed me for the first time, for real, and he wanted us to run away. How different would our lives be? I sighed. Oh well, you can't go back.

"I'm sorry I didn't listen to you when we were younger," I said quietly.

He craned his neck to look down at me, puzzled and laughed a little. "Are you talking about something specific? Because you never listened to anybody about anything. Ever."

I couldn't help but smile at that. He was right. "I mean, when you wanted me to stop listening to the Voice, and Jeb, and go to some island and live a peaceful life."

"I was a stupid fourteen year old kid, Max. Selfish for wanting you all to myself. I'm glad you didn't listen to me. Good and bad, everything that happened in our lives has led us here. Right here, right now. We're together. We have a baby on the way," he smiled brightly, as if he just remembered that. "I can't believe we have a baby on the way." He paused with kind of a goofy look on his face before continuing. "We have a new flock. I'm thankful for all those things. If we had given up, who knows if the rest of the flock would have even stayed with us. We wouldn't have ever met-any of the new flock. There would be no James. Everything would be different than it is now. Maybe it would have been better, maybe worse. We'll never know. And as much as we're all going to miss D-Dylan, I think it's better to have had a short time with him, than none at all." His voice hitched over the name, and with it, my heart. That was, by far, the longest inspirational speech ever given by Fang. I could feel the beginnings of a crack in my shell. (like my bird metaphor?) But I was determined to stay strong. I was Maximum Ride, damn it.

Everyone else had gotten home safely the day before. Mom, Ella and Jeb were waiting at the house, too. Roger was finally going to get to meet his daughter. I wondered how that would go. I wished I could have seen their expressions, but it probably would have put me right over the edge.

All eyes, except Iggy's, of course, were on me as I walked in the door. Ella was crying as she ran to me. Instead of wrapping my arms around her like I should have, I put my hand up and simply said, "I can't." I knew it must have hurt her. I walked straight up to my room without acknowledging anybody else. Before I got out of earshot, I heard Fang say, "She's not ready, yet."

I sat on my bed, alone in the dark.

Fang is right, you know. You have to let it out.

You have the worst timing, you know that?

I told you that you needed Dylan. That you needed each other. Without him, you wouldn't have survived.

I should have stayed away, like Fang wanted me to.

Even Fang knew you weren't going to stay away. I didn't try to stop you because Dylan was there to keep you from harm. That was his purpose.

His purpose? Are you saying that's why you wanted us together? So he could sacrifice himself to save me?

I knew he would give his life for yours when the time came. There is so much more you can do, because you survived. He fulfilled his destiny well, and you've fulfilled yours. Of course, in a perfect world, it would be his baby you're carrying.

He thought I was his destiny. Well, he used to.

You were. Just not the way he thought. As regrettable as it is, he was a means to an end. You were more important.

He was a person, and he was important to us. We loved him. You wanted him to be a sperm donor and a body guard, then get tossed aside. Why didn't you tell me? You could have warned me. I could have prevented it.

"I hate you!" I screamed out loud.

Fang appeared in the doorway.

"Not you," I said quietly. He sat on the bed next to me and held my hand.

"I know," he said gently. " Let it out, Max."

I thought about what the Voice told me. I would tell Fang later. But for now, I just cried.

Finally.

The End

oooOOOOOooo

This story is finally over. I didn't want the last chapter hanging over my head. There is a continuation called Evolution Disillusion. I haven't worked on it for a while, but eventually I will get back to it. So far, there are 27 chapters. Thanks for reading!