cover

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by James Patterson

Title Page

Acknowledgements

To the Reader

Epigraph

Part One: Meeting Doctor God

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Part Two: Home is Where the Heart Breaks

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Part Three: What Happens in Hollywood … Stays in Hollywood

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Part Four: The Totally, Completely Unthinkable

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Epilogue

The Other Epilogue

Copyright

About the Book

Can Fang escape a terrifying prophecy?

Maximum Ride is used to surviving – living constantly under threat from evil forces sabotaging her quest to save the world – but nothing has ever come as close to destroying her as the horrifying prophecy that Fang will be the first to die. Fang is Max’s best friend, her soulmate, her partner in leadership of her flock of bird kids. A life without him is a life unimaginable.

Max’s desperate desire to protect Fang brings the two closer together than ever. But when a newly created winged boy, the magnificent Dylan, is introduced into the flock, their world is upended yet again. Raised in a lab like the others, Dylan exists for only one reason: he was designed to be Max’s perfect other half.

Thus unfolds a battle of science against soul, perfection versus passion, that terrifies, twists, and turns … and meanwhile, the apocalypse is coming.

About the Author

JAMES PATTERSON is one of the best-known and biggest-selling writers of all time. He is the author of some of the most popular series of the past decade – the Alex Cross, Women’s Murder Club and Detective Michael Bennett novels – and he has written many other number one bestsellers including romance novels and stand-alone thrillers. He lives in Florida with his wife and son.

James is passionate about encouraging children to read. Inspired by his own son who was a reluctant reader, he also writes a range of books specifically for young readers. James has formed a partnership with the National Literacy Trust, an independent, UK-based charity that changes lives through literacy. In 2010, he was voted Author of the Year at the Children’s Choice Book Awards in New York.

Also by James Patterson

ALEX CROSS NOVELS

Along Came a Spider • Kiss the Girls • Jack and Jill •
Cat and Mouse • Pop Goes the Weasel • Roses are Red •
Violets are Blue • Four Blind Mice • The Big Bad Wolf •
London Bridges • Mary, Mary • Cross • Double Cross •
Cross Country • Alex Cross’s Trial (with Richard DiLallo) •
I, Alex Cross • Cross Fire • Kill Alex Cross

DETECTIVE MICHAEL BENNETT SERIES

Step on a Crack (with Michael Ledwidge) • Run for Your Life
(with Michael Ledwidge) • Worst Case (with Michael Ledwidge) •
Tick Tock (with Michael Ledwidge) • I, Michael Bennett
(with Michael Ledwidge)

PRIVATE NOVELS

Private (with Maxine Paetro) • Private London
(with Mark Pearson) • Private Games (with Mark Sullivan) •
Private: No. 1 Suspect (with Maxine Paetro)

STAND-ALONE THRILLERS

Sail (with Howard Roughan) • Swimsuit (with Maxine Paetro) •
Don’t Blink (with Howard Roughan) • Postcard Killers
(with Liza Marklund) • Toys (with Neil McMahon) •
Now You See Her (with Michael Ledwidge) • Kill Me If You Can
(with Marshall Karp) • Guilty Wives (with David Ellis)

NON-FICTION

Torn Apart (with Hal and Cory Friedman) •
The Murder of King Tut (with Martin Dugard)

ROMANCE

Sundays at Tiffany’s (with Gabrielle Charbonnet) •
The Christmas Wedding (with Richard DiLallo)

THE WOMEN’S MURDER CLUB SERIES

1st to Die • 2nd Chance (with Andrew Gross) •
3rd Degree (with Andrew Gross) • 4th of July (with Maxine Paetro) • The 5th Horseman (with Maxine Paetro) •
The 6th Target (with Maxine Paetro) •
7th Heaven (with Maxine Paetro) • 8th Confession (with Maxine Paetro) • 9th Judgement (with Maxine Paetro) •
10th Anniversary (with Maxine Paetro)

FAMILY OF PAGE-TURNERS

MAXIMUM RIDE SERIES

The Angel Experiment • School’s Out Forever •
Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports •
The Final Warning • Max • Fang • Angel • Nevermore

DANIEL X SERIES

The Dangerous Days of Daniel X (with Michael Ledwidge) •
Daniel X: Watch the Skies (with Ned Rust) • Daniel X: Demons
and Druids (with Adam Sadler) • Daniel X: Game Over
(with Ned Rust)

WITCH & WIZARD SERIES

Witch & Wizard (with Gabrielle Charbonnet) •
Witch & Wizard: The Gift (with Ned Rust) •
Witch & Wizard: The Fire (with Jill Dembowski)

MIDDLE SCHOOL SERIES

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (with Chris Tebbetts
and Laura Park
) • Middle School: Get Me Out of Here!
(with Chris Tebbetts and Laura Park)

ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

Daniel X: Alien Hunter Graphic Novel (with Leopoldo Gout) •
Maximum Ride: Manga Vol. 1 (with NaRae Lee) • Maximum
Ride: Manga Vol. 2 (with NaRae Lee) • Maximum Ride: Manga
Vol. 3 (with NaRae Lee) • Maximum Ride: Manga Vol. 4 (with
NaRae Lee
) • Maximum Ride: Manga Vol. 5 (with NaRae Lee)

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logo

Many thanks to Gabrielle Charbonnet, my conspirator, who flies high and cracks wise. And to Mary Jordan, for brave assistance and research at every twist and turn.

To the reader

THE IDEA FOR the Maximum Ride series comes from earlier books of mine called When the Wind Blows and The Lake House, which also feature a character named Max who escapes from a quite despicable School. Most of the similarities end there. Max and the other kids in the Maximum Ride books are not the same Max and kids featured in those two books. Nor do Frannie and Kit play any part in the series. I hope you enjoy the ride anyway.

“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.”

— Henry David Thoreau

PART ONE

MEETING DOCTOR GOD

1

I’M A GIRL of extremes. When I love something, I’m like a puppy dog (without all the licking). When I’m cranky, I’m a wasp (like, a whole hive of ’em). And when I’m angry, I’m a mother bear with a predator after her cubs: dangerous.

I say this because lately my life seemed to be all about extremes. Like right now, for instance. I was soaring twenty thousand feet in the air with the five people I loved most in the world — and no, we weren’t on a plane, hang-gliding, or hot air ballooning. We preferred to use good old-fashioned wings. The technology’s been around for eons.

If you’ve ever dreamed you could fly, I can confirm that it’s all that and better. Even if you’re desperately flying through a subway tunnel to save your life, it’s still off the charts. But today, flying over Africa … it was as good as it ever gets. Maybe the best part was that for the first time in a dog’s age, we weren’t on the run from madmen. We were on a mission — to do good.

“Max!” Iggy called over to me. “Why did they name themselves Chad? I mean, Chad. It’s like naming a whole country Biff or Trey. I don’t get it.”

“Ig, don’t be ignorant,” I scoffed. “It’s not like all the people there named themselves.”

“Why not? We named ourselves,” Nudge noted, as if I needed to be reminded that we were raised in a lab under the supervision of science geeks.

“Only ’cause we’re special.” I gestured to her twelve-foot wingspan. “Hey, check that out!” I pointed to a Martian-like rock formation in the distance.

Fang turned his head and gave me one of his classic half smiles — you know, like the kind of smile Mona Lisa would have had if she were a guy. A teenage guy with longish scruffy hair, dark eyes, and a leather jacket. Mmmmm.

The whole trip had been as exhilarating as one of Fang’s killer smiles. Even the hundreds of miles of shifting, mysterious desert dunes had been amazing. We’re world travelers and all — we’ve lived in wilds as extreme as Death Valley and Antarctica — but there was something downright otherworldly about what I’d seen below as we crossed over — oh, crap, I’d forgotten the names of all of the different countries.

“Mauritania, Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Chad together are about sixty-eight percent desert,” Angel recited, reading my mind. Literally. She’s powerful like that.

“Whatever. It’s too much freaking desert,” Angel’s brother, Gazzy, complained. “I wouldn’t mind seeing a few cows chomping away on some grass right about now.”

“A-plus-plus on the geography quiz, Angel. Gazzy, Iggy, extra credit when you check your attitudes at the door.” Even without parents, somehow I’d picked up the language. Seems to work when you’re the leader. “Listen, I know some of you are a little cranky from the long flight, but this is our chance to finally help people. Real people,” I emphasized, as if we’d grown up in a plastic bubble or something. Well, we kind of had. Do dog crates in labs count?

“Real people,” Fang clarified. “As in, not just a bunch of wack-job scientists.”

“Yup. Did it ever occur to you guys,” I continued grandly, “that when we were told we had to save the world, it might have actually meant saving people — like, one at a time? Sending a message around the world about people in need is great and all, but actually feeding people, giving people medical help and stuff? We’ve never done that before. I mean, this could be it, guys. Our destiny.”

“Max is right,” Angel agreed, in a very un-Angel-like manner. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on much these days.

“Word on the street is that you have to save the world, Max,” Iggy reminded me. “The rest of us? Not so much.”

Twit. Always trying to take the easy way out.

Not Fang, though. “Hey, Max, wherever you go to save the world — I will follow …” He did the killer half-smile thing. “Mother Teresa.”

My stomach flip-flopped as if I’d folded my wings and plunged into free fall. Hello, Max the Puppy.

I had exactly five seconds to enjoy sainthood before I caught sight of three black dots in the distance — and they appeared to be moving straight toward us.

Looked like Mama Bear’s cubs were in danger. And you know what that meant:

Bye-bye, Saint Max. Time to be a hellion again.

2

“INCOMING!” I SHOUTED to my flock. “Down, down, down!

Fast-moving objects directed at the flock usually belong to one of three categories: bullets, mutant beings with a taste for bird kid, or vehicles hired by an evil megalomaniac wanting to kidnap us and use our powers. Which might explain why I was working on the assumption that the three black dots meant one thing and one thing only: imminent death.

“Max! Relax!” Fang managed to stop me before I could execute my dive. “I think those are the CSM cargo planes.”

It was the Coalition to Stop the Madness (CSM), the activist group my nonwinged mom was involved with, that had asked us to go on this humanitarian relief mission to Chad and to help publicize the work they were doing there. And what with our previous adventures helping them combat global warming and ocean pollution, we were slowly being turned from feral, scavenging outlaws on the lam into Robin Hoody do-gooders. Meanwhile, I was still supposed to save the world at some point. My calendar was full, full, full.

So full that I’d forgotten this was the part of the journey where we were supposed to meet up with the CSM planes so we could be guided into the refugee camp.

I gave Fang a thank-you-for-saving-me-from-myself look. When his eyes met mine, I shivered down to my sneakered toes.

Gazzy called over to me, “I can’t see anything!”

“I can’t see anything either!” Iggy complained.

“I’m rolling my eyes, Ig.” I had to tell him that because he couldn’t see me do it, what with his blindness and all.

“No, there’s, like, dust clouds below,” Gazzy clarified.

I glanced down, and sure enough — the blurry endlessness of sand was even more blurry.

“Not dust devils,” Fang said. His dark feathers were covered with a layer of dust, and grit was caked around his eyes and mouth.

“No.” I peered downward again.

Just then Angel said, “Uh-oh,” which is always enough to make my blood run cold. In the next second, I focused sharply on a few dark specks at the front of the dust clouds. One of the dark specks raised a tiny dark toothpick.

This time I knew for sure that I wasn’t overreacting.

“Guns!” I shouted. “They’ve got guns!”

3

“QUICK! UP!” FANG shouted, just as the first bullets strafed the air around me with ominous hisses.

I angled myself upward, only to see the shiny silver underbelly of one of the CSM planes, now flying right above us. It was pressing downward — the rough landing strip was maybe a quarter mile away.

“Drop back!” I yelled. We all went vertical as the planes continued to come down practically on our heads. To escape from the bullets, we’d had to fly up right under them. The engines were way too close — the noise was deafening.

“Watch it!” I yelled, as one plane’s landing gear almost hit Iggy. “Drop down! Drop down!” Bullets are bad, but getting smushed by landing gear, toasted by jet engine exhaust, or sucked into the front of an engine were all much less fixable.

I could now make out the sun-browned faces of the men on … oh, geez, were those camels? The men continued to aim their rifles at us, and I felt a bullet actually whiz by my hair. In about half a second, my brain processed the following thoughts lightning fast:

  1. A bullet hitting the fuel tank on a plane: not a good situation.
  2. Slowing down not good: slow + bird kids = drop like rocks.
  3. Speeding up not good: fast bird kids + faster planes = getting flattened.
  4. The only choice was to go on the offensive.

Fortunately, I’m very comfortable with being offensive — at least on the not-infrequent occasions when someone’s trying to gun down my flock.

“Dive!” I shouted. “Knock ’em down!”

I tucked my wings flat against my back and began to race groundward like a rocket. At this speed, these shooters would need radar and a heat tracer to land a bullet on me. I could actually see the whites of their eyes now, which were widening in surprise.

Hai-yah!” I screamed — just for fun, really — as I swung my feet down and came to a screeching halt by smashing my heels right into a rider’s back. He flew off the camel, rifle pinwheeling through the air, and felt the joy of being airborne himself for about three seconds before he landed right in front of his pal’s camel.

“Get the rest!” I ordered the flock. “Free the beasts!”

There were about ten of these armed riders — no match for six hot, angry bird kids. We were used to dodging bullets; these guys were not used to aiming at fast-moving flying mutants. And the bonuses of being aloft are infinite: Snatching a rifle from the grip of a maniacal shooter isn’t as hard as you might think when you’re coming from above and behind.

Iggy flew in sideways and smacked one guy right off his camel, and Gazzy folded his wings around another’s face, causing him to panic and fall. I grabbed a gun and used it like a baseball bat, neatly clipping one guy in the gut, knocking him right off his ride. Unfortunately, I didn’t rise in time.

Which meant that for the first time in bird kid history, I got plowed into by a panicky galloping camel — with no sense of humor. Its head hit me in the stomach, and I flipped over its neck, landing hard on the saddle.

“Awesome move, Max!” I heard Nudge call from somewhere behind me. Wasn’t she busy helping to take these guys out?

My Indiana Jones moment lasted about a second before I was lurched off the beast. Just as my feet hit the sand, I managed to grab a rein and hang on for dear life.

My wings were useless — there was no room to stretch them out — and my ankles were literally sanded raw before I was able to pull myself up hand over hand and eventually clamber back onto the saddle.

“Whoa, Nelly!” I croaked, gagging on dust. I gripped the saddle with my knees and pulled back on the reins.

This camel did not speak English, apparently. It stretched its neck and ran faster.

“Up and away, Max!” Fang yelled.

I dropped the reins, popped to my feet on top the saddle, and jumped hard, snapping out my wings. And just like that, I became lighter than air, stronger than steel … and faster than a speeding camel.

I watched it race off, terrified, toward the nearest village. Someone was about to inherit a traumatized camel.

This mission was off to a good start.

4

“OKAY, FLOCK,” I said, finishing wrapping up my bleeding ankles. “So who’s ready to start saving the world, one person at a time? Say aye!”

“Aye!” Nudge cheered and took a last swig of water. Just twenty minutes earlier we’d landed in front of the astonished locals. The others, still worn out from the camel crusade, chimed in a little more sluggishly. Except Fang, who gave me a strong and silent thumbs-up.

Patrick Rooney III, our CSM contact, led us to our assigned area. I hadn’t seen a refugee camp before. It was basically acres and acres of tattered tents and mud huts. Two larger tents were being set up for donated medical supplies and food. Nudge and Iggy were set to unpacking crates and sorting materials, Fang to helping set up medical exam stations, which were basically plastic crates with curtains around them.

Gazzy and Angel were, essentially, the entertainment — their pale blond hair and blue eyes were causing a commotion among the refugee kids. Not to mention the wings. Some of the youngest kids were running around, their arms outstretched and flapping, their smiles huge with delight.

Not that there was much to be delighted about. The six of us, the flock, had seen some hard times. We’d eaten out of Dumpsters and trapped small mammals for dinner. I’d eaten my share of rat-b-cue. But these people had nothing. I mean, really nothing. Most were skinnier than us lean-’n’-mean bird kids.

“People are going to be coming through here, getting vaccinated against hep B, tetanus, mumps, whatever,” the nurse, a guy named Roger, explained. “The grown-ups may be suspicious and unsure; a lot of the kids will be crying.”

Okay. I could handle that. I knew being Mother Teresa wasn’t gonna be easy.

“Here are some sacks of rice — they weigh sixty pounds each, so get someone to help you move them.” That wouldn’t be necessary — one of the few advantages to being genetically engineered in a lab. “The adults each get two cups of raw rice.” He handed me a measuring cup. “Give the kids these fruit roll-ups. They’ve never seen them before, so you might have to explain that they’re food. Do you speak French?”

“Nooo.” Just another one of those pesky gaps in my education. “I don’t speak African either.”

Roger smiled. “There are thousands of dialects in Africa — Chad alone has two hundred distinct linguistic groups. But Arabic and French are the official languages of Chad — France used to own Chad.”

I frowned. “Own it? They’re not even connected.”

“The way England used to own America,” Roger explained.

“Oh.” I felt really dumb, which is not a common feeling for me, I assure you.

A few minutes later, Fang was by my side, and we were handing out two cups of raw rice per person. It was all I could do not to just give them everything I could get my hands on. Fang and I kept meeting eyes.

“It reminds me of — so long ago — before Jeb sprung us out of the dog crates …” My throat caught, and Fang nodded. He knew it was a painful memory.

But it wasn’t the memory that was getting me. It was seeing so many people looking like … like they were still waiting to be let out of their dog crates. Despite everything we’d been through — some of it the stuff of nightmares — we were still way better off than the people here.

I was a little dazed by the time Angel strode up to us, leading a small girl by the hand.

“Hi,” said Angel, her face still caked with dust and grit. Her blond curly hair stood out around her head like a halo — which was a bit misleading in her case. “This is Jeanne. Jeanne, this is Max and Fang.”

Angel had that look that made me brace myself and prepare to explain that we could not adopt this sweet little girl. We’d already adopted two dogs (Total and Akila, now back in the States with my mom, Dr. Valencia Martinez, in Arizona). But this Jeanne was so adorable, I was almost afraid I’d just say what the hey.

Jeanne smiled. “Merci pour tout les aides.”

“Uh, okay,” I said. Jeanne came and gave me a hug, her thin arms wrapping around me. She patted my shoulder, her small hand rough against the back of my neck. Then she hugged Angel the same way.

“Jeanne has gifts,” Angel said seriously. “Kind of like us. She’s very special. Let’s show Max, Jeanne.”

Jeanne smiled shyly and held out her hand, palm up, as if she were waiting for us to put something in it. Another hungry child, desperate for food.

Angel pulled an arrowhead-shaped rock from the pocket of her cargo shorts. It was so sharp it looked like the tip of a spear.

“Angel, what the —?”

“Just watch, Max,” she said, as she started to drag the rock’s point across the heel of Jeanne’s open hand.

And blood began to flow.

5

“STOP!” I SCREAMED. Lightning fast, I swept the sharp rock right out of Angel’s grasp, and it went spinning off into the dust. “Have you completely lost your mind, Angel?”

“It’s okay, Max,” Angel assured me, and Jeanne nodded. “Oui, oui.”

I dropped to my knees and examined Jeanne’s hand while she sucked a finger on her other. She had a thin puncture at least an inch long. “Wait here. I’m gonna run to get a first aid kit,” I said breathlessly.

Jeanne grabbed my arm with her nonbloody hand. “Non, non,” she said. “Voici.” She pointed to her oozing wound.

“I know, I know. I’m so sorry, Jeanne!” I babbled. “Please forgive Angel. She’s a little … unbalanced. I’ll fix you up right now. You’ll be fine, I promise.”

“Yes, she will,” Angel said calmly. How badly was I going to kick her butt later?

Jeanne placed the finger she’d been sucking on at one end of the incision and started pressing it.

“Jeepers, don’t touch that!” I said. “We need to keep the wound clean — keep it from getting infected.” I looked around. “Someone here who speaks French! Tell her not to —”

I broke off as I witnessed something unlike anything I’d seen before. And I’d seen a lot of weird stuff — including brains-on-a-stick (check out book three if you’re curious). Most of the weird stuff I’d seen had been nightmarish. But this was … something beautiful. Breathtaking. Miraculous.

As Jeanne ran her finger slowly along the bloody slash, pressing as she went, it closed up right before my eyes.

She had healed herself.

6

“ALL RIGHT, ANY second now …” The words were clipped, his accent thick. Mr. Chu leaned over his assistant’s shoulder, impatiently looking at a blank computer screen. And then, right on time, the screen flickered and split to show two charts, side by side. Points started blinking faintly, and small words began running along different lines: heart rate, temperature, blood oxygen saturation level, and so on.

His assistant peered at the charts for a moment, then typed “Maximum” on one side and “Angel” on the other. Mr. Chu became lost in reviewing the biological data streaming in from the microscopic monitors.

“Mr. Chu? You have a visitor, sir.” Another assistant stood in the trailer doorway, one hand on his weapon, as required.

Mr. Chu went down the short, narrow hall to the small receiving room. A young girl in a yellow dress stood there, twisting one of her thin braids between nervous fingers.

“Hello, Jeanne,” said Mr. Chu, smiling. Jeanne managed a tiny smile back. “You were successful in your mission,” said Mr. Chu, motioning to an assistant.

“Les filles oiseaux sont trés belles,” Jeanne said sweetly.

“Here is your reward,” said Mr. Chu, taking a lollipop from his assistant and giving it to Jeanne. Her eyes widened, and she eagerly ripped the wrapper off and stuck the candy in her mouth. Her eyes closed in rapture.

Mr. Chu nodded again, and his assistant quickly swabbed Jeanne’s upper arm with an alcohol wipe. The whole length of her arm was lined with dots, marking the sites of hundreds of needle insertions. And here was a new one, as the assistant injected the contents of a hypodermic needle into Jeanne’s almost nonexistent muscle. It was the first of a dozen injections to come in the next twenty-four hours.

Jeanne had learned to put up with all of the drugs — the pills, the drips, the shots. Without them, the side effects of being a self-healer were much, much worse. The treatments were a small price to pay for such rewards, after all.

Jeanne’s closed eyelids flickered a tiny bit as the needle went in, but she swirled the lollipop in her mouth and didn’t say a word.

7

WE WORKED ALL day, until dusk. The flock is usually chock-full o’ stamina, but it kind of depends on getting three or four thousand calories a day. By six o’clock, we were running on empty.

“Max?” said Patrick, walking up to me with a lumpy sack in tow. “Here’s some bedding — it’s not much, I’m afraid. There’s a tent set aside for you guys. Do you want to get it organized before dinner? You have about ten minutes.”

“Sure. By the way, Patrick, who was the camel platoon?” I asked.

“Don’t know for sure,” he said. “But some of the locals have a thing against Americans. It’s complicated politics we can talk about later. Right now, if you want to set up …”

“Sure, thanks,” I said, taking the sack. I looked at my tired flock. “You guys wait here — I think chow’s coming. And drink some water.”

“I’ll help you with that,” said Fang, nodding at the tent.

“Sure,” I said casually, but my heart was already speeding up.

We ducked through the worn nylon flap of our tent, and I dropped the sack. In the next moment we had our arms around each other, ignoring the dust on each other’s lips and our hot and sticky skin.

“The flying was amazing, but … I’ve missed you,” Fang murmured, his hands getting stuck in the snarls in my hair.

“Yeah. And this is probably our only chance to be alone for a while.”

“I couldn’t stand seeing you get shot at today,” Fang said, kissing my neck.

I drew back in surprise. “You’ve seen me get shot at, like, a million times!”

He shrugged, scratching my back between my wings, making me shiver. “It’s worse now.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said, and held his face so I could kiss him again. It felt like we were in a time-free bubble, the only two people around, and in the ninety-eight-degree weather, I felt like I was burning up from my head to my toes.

“Max! Fang! Dinner!”

I jumped and pulled back. But no one came into the tent, so Fang’s lingering hands stroked up and down my arms as we tried to get normal expressions back on our faces. Part of me wanted to stay in there forever and forget the rest of the world, but I immediately felt guilty, thinking of the flock waiting for us outside. I was still responsible for them; we were still a family.

And always would be.

8

“PASS THE … GRUB,” said Iggy a few minutes later, holding out his hand.

“The brown grub or the yellow grub?” I asked. My face still felt flushed from my time with Fang. I hoped the others couldn’t tell.

“Either.” Iggy ran a hand through his reddish-blond hair, making it stand up stiffly with dirt and sweat. Later I was going to march everyone to the one water pump in this tent village, pump up a couple gallons of water, and try to decrust the flock as much as possible. We’ve got certain standards. They’re way low, but we have them.

“You guys did great today,” said Patrick. “You must be exhausted.”

“Um-hm,” I mumbled, picking up a white ball of millet paste. Dipped in the peanut–goat stew sauce, it was about a three on the Max Culinary Scale — above roasted desert rat or lizard-on-a-stick, but well below, say, a steak.

Roger, the nurse, handed Iggy a small dented bowl. “Dried fish, mixed with … stuff. Try it.”

We ate everything we could get our hands on. Living on the streets had beaten any pickiness out of us. Plus, we burn calories like a race car burns fuel, and we just couldn’t afford to not eat — whatever it was.

The fire leaped in front of us, looking pretty and feeling cozy and warm but smelling to high heaven, since its fuel was camel poop. Yes. I mean, a regular camel is no bed of roses, but its poop? On fire? The only one not wrinkling his nose was Gazzy. But as soon as the blazing sun had set, the desert temperature had dropped about thirty degrees, and the fire was welcome.

I ate, trying not to miss chocolate, and felt the warmth of Fang’s leg pressed against mine, here in the shadows. I was on my third pass of reliving our stolen minutes in the tent and already wondering when we could be alone again. These days I spent a ridiculous amount of time dreaming about someday just being able to spend all day with Fang. Alone.

Now my face was really burning. In my dream, the flock was safe somewhere, Total and Akila weren’t there, and no one was chasing us. I would have no worries, no need to be on alert. I could just relax. Which, okay, I suck at, but I was hoping that with practice …

“You guys met Jeanne today, didn’t you?” Patrick asked. “The little girl in the yellow dress?”

“She’s really special,” Angel said solemnly.

“Yes.” Patrick shook his head. “She used to have a father and four brothers. They’ve all died in the past two years, from either HIV or hunger or the outbreaks of civil war that keep happening. Now it’s just Jeanne and her mother, and her mom has been diagnosed with HIV.”

“Oh, no,” Nudge said, tears welling in her eyes. “So she’ll be an orphan?”

Patrick nodded sadly. “Most likely. In many other countries people can sometimes live long lives with HIV medications. But it’s different here. And there are so many other children like her.”

I choked down another millet ball (Note to self: Do not bother getting recipe) and looked around at my beloved flock, safe in a circle around the fire. Iggy was staring straight into the flames, able to because he was blind. Gazzy was examining each and every last bowl for any morsel that might have been missed. Nudge had her chin in her hands, looking at the ground, and I knew she was bumming about all the misery here. My life would have been incomplete without each and every one of them.

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