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to the victor go the spoils

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She kisses him when he's broken and bleeding on the white sand of a beach somewhere off the coast of New York with a sunset framed in crimson in the background. It's a rushed and desperate kind of kiss and Max can still taste the blood on her teeth long after she licks her lips and swallows, all metal and copper on her tongue.

She remembers the way Fang had stared at her with a startled and what-did-you-just-do kind of look on his face with his hair wild and messed up, slicked with sand and seawater.

It was just a simple kiss, she tells herself, long after she'd gotten him cleaned up along with the rest of the Flock, a kiss-me-because-I'm-dying type of thing and it doesn't mean what some people would say otherwise.

Simple, short, sweet—the latter makes her gag—but it's hardly anything to remember all the same, a crappy-sort-of-first-kiss kind of thing. They'll forget about it in the morning as soon as dawn comes and when other important matters come to mind. Like hunting down Ari and ripping his wings out, preferably over the Atlantic because she's ninety percent sure that swimming is not his strongest suit. See, she thinks, a more important goal already.

Or that's what she tells herself, over and over again, when they're setting up their sleeping bags underneath some willow trees off the shore. She lays theirs out side-by-side—like always—and they settle in when it's all dark and she can see stars between the leaves. And Max tries not to think about the way she can still feel his gaze on the back of her head.

Virginia is, for the most part, boring. Boring and normal but she thinks she shouldn't be complaining because for the first time in what felt like forever, she has clothes that actually fit, hot showers every day, and meals that weren't the product of dumpster diving. She has a roof over her head and a life she'd only thought she's missed, but she's learned to count her blessings and take what she could get.

School, however, is another thing altogether. School is waking up at six-thirty in the morning, fighting for the bathroom and breakfast at seven, crowding into Anne's oversized black SUV at seven-thirty. School is seven hours of mindless lecturing in pastel and faux wood classrooms with sawdust desks, seven hours of being around people she had to pretend to like. Smile, nod politely, act normal, pretend —rinse, wash, repeat.

It gets tiring after the first two days and she hates it even more when she sees Fang pressed up against some girl with hair the color of sun burning up ocean sky. She doesn't know why her heart suddenly clenches—liar, her mind hisses; she knows it's true—and she turns away, back into the too-bright hallways of the school and lets her feet carry her to an unoccupied restroom, where she just kind of drops her bag and leans against the sink, hands on the shiny veneer, eyes staring down at her reflection.

The Voice—the stupid and annoying and wannabe-life-mentor Voice—spews out something along the lines of jealously and hormones and whatnot and it's really not helping, thank you very much and her reflection only shrugs in apparent apathy.Like that's really your biggest problem, she seems to say.

Max punches the mirror, then, white knuckled and steel boned, half-moons imprinted on her palms. The mirror only rattles loudly (too loudly) against tile and her reflection smirks right back at her—cheap plastic, you know, in case something like this happens—and she grabs her backpack, storming out the door only to crash into Iggy who tells her that they were just looking for her and Anne's here to pick them up so maybe she could get a move on?

She punches Iggy on his shoulder and lets him guide her out of the maze of hallways she swears (and swears again) she'll never be familiar with and out into the too-bright sunlight.

She doesn't sit next to Fang and ignores his questioning look, opting to take a seat next to Nudge, who's recalling about all the exciting details about her day to Angel, who's nodding at appropriate times, hands clasped together on her lap. The fifteen minute drive back to Anne's freaking mansion slash plantation seems far too long now.

Max avoids (ignores) Fang's gaze for the second time, thinking, you've got some shit to think about.

Did she ever.

"You know," she drawls slowly, conversationally, three days after she's done her part in thinking, "Sam asked me out on a date."

Fang's lying face-down on his bed before she walks in, and shifts so that he's on his side, facing her as she leans against the bedroom door.

"I believe you've established that at dinner," he says, running a hand through his hair, staring her down through his bangs. The light in the corner casts shadows across his face, but she knows him well enough to know that he's patiently waiting for her to elaborate on whatever she decides to tell him.

"I did," she replies, and twists a hand on the metal doorknob, the other resting on her hip. "And I was wondering when you would tell me about your date—" she pauses, and looks straight at him "—with Lissa."

He blinks, or at least she thinks he blinked. "Friday after school. At that cute contemporary cafe right next to the bookstore. Her idea."

Okay then.

"Cute," she says, and walks towards Iggy's bed, unceremoniously dropping herself down on his fluffy blue comforter and messing up his pillows. "She's a nice girl. Pretty," she says, "and normal. Must be nice for a change."

It feels nice to lie and be herself again, to drop all the pretenses of being Maxine Ride, fugitive turned rural country girl with five adoptive siblings in tow, living in a place in Virginia that will never be called home.

Fang snorts and sits up so he's facing her, eye to eye, and rests his hands on black pajamas pants. "I don't think you came here to talk about Sam or Lissa or school but I know you well enough to know that you're not spilling everything. We can either sit here all night—or at least until Iggy comes out of the bathroom and kicks you out—and take our time dancing around some topic about school or we can actually talk."

She brings her legs up and sits criss-cross-applesauce, with her back against the wall, thinking that'll she probably regret this but Virginia is killing her and she desperately needs a distraction and bad decisions make good stories, right? "Let's do something. Stop pretending and just let go." Leans forward, then, and watches him carefully, shadows dancing across his face and all. "Let's forget about our parents. Sure, we have the files from Itex and everything, but there's time for that later. Think about it: when's the last time we ever enjoyed ourselves? So we should just be normal, or as normal we can possibly get. Everyone else is having fun."

Fang inclines his head and waits for her to go on and she swallows, blocking all the white noise in her head and her way her heart thuds against her ribs. "You, me, we're going to rule the school. Ace as many classes as we can with our limited knowledge of Algebra and Biology, date as many people we feel like it, and come out at the top of everything."

Fang raises a brow and she can't really blame him, she's half mortified and half determined to finish up her speech, godammit because—

"And the first to not live up to the expectations, loses."

—she's Max and she's a leap-before-you-think, act-and-ignore-the-consequences kind of girl. Pretty reckless, brash and bold. You know, the type of person who wasn't afraid to touch fire to see if it was as hot as everyone said it would be. Stubborn until the end, especially when it came to the matters of the heart. Mind over matter has always been a rule of thumb.

"What if I don't want to play?" Dark eyes glint beneath shaggy black hair and they both know the answer that's hanging in the air between them.

She raises her chin. "Then I win."

They're both up before anyone else the next morning and he's there, leaning against the open bathroom door when she sets her toothbrush down on the sink counter, rinsing the toothpaste out of her mouth, hair tied in a messy ponytail.

"Morning," is all he says, and she wonders about when she was so eager to dig her own grave.

"One month," she replies, hazel clashing with dark brown. "And no more."

Max tells herself that one month's not too long and marvels about how easily a lie could sound so like the truth if one wanted it to.

She has all but two classes with him, but it doesn't matter much because she'd managed to convince Iggy—I know I gave you hell for the stink bomb, she'd said, but think you can do it again?—to keep not-so-subtle tabs on everything for her and maybe because she's too nosy for her own good, asks him about what he thinks of Lissa and Fang.

"I'm not sure," he replies as they're walking to lunch together from English, "I haven't had an actual conversation with her but if Fang's coming out of his brooding emo phase, then I'm good."

"I guess," she replies, and shifts her books to her left arm as she reaches out and pushes the cafeteria doors open. She's still thinking over last night and thinking about all the ways it could've gone better and all the ways she could've just talked it out because best friends shouldn't fuck around like this.

"Max," Iggy says, stopping her in her tracks. His sightless baby blues stare right at her and she shifts her books again, twining her hands together. "Whatever you've talked about with Fang last night—"

"Don't worry, Iggs." She continues walking toward the lunch line and picks up overcooked spaghetti, lukewarm milk, and a pristine Washington apple. "We were just discussing the topic of normality. Or lack of, anyway."

She tries. Really, really hard.

But seriously, somebody should've told her that dating was the equivalent of pulling teeth—it's a crash course of knowing when to push and pull, knowing when to hit and when to run. It's nothing like what she'd seen in movies—you can't trust Hollywood, anyway—where people just know what to ask and have answers within a few seconds of quick thinking. But then again, the only movies she's ever had the good fortune of seeing were the old corny ones back when Jeb was still around.

(The people with blinding smiles and made-up faces, she knows that it's all part of the act but really, it's because they had no secrets to hide and—)

"So, Max. I know this is nothing fancy but the pasta they serve here is to die for."

It takes a few seconds to jerk her back into reality and Max quickly shrugs, aiming for the nonchalant and flippant look. The way to her heart was through her stomach, anyway, and she tells him just that.

"It's okay," she relies easily. "The food's the most important thing. The restaurant can be gilded gold for all I care, but if their food is the equivalent of coal, I'll tell them where to shove it."

Sam laughs (genuinely, she notes) and holds the door open for her. Max smells lasagna the minute she walks in and her stomach immediately growls. The place—rustic cabin themed with real wooden rafters and cottage-esque windows—is only mildly packed and their server, a pretty blonde with clear blue eyes, leads them to a corner table where Sam also holds a chair out for her.

Everything goes smoothly from there as Sam points out his recommendations on the menu and doesn't make any comment on how she insists on having her own plate of pasta. She sits with her back to the wall and watches as Sam greets waiters and waitresses with easy smiles and she's thinking that it's such a pity that someone like him—bright-eyed and genuine and warm—was such on liking someone like her.

Everything continues to run smoothly, until, of course, when they're almost finished and waiting for dessert.

It's the part that makes her want to cringe in ever cheap chick flick she's ever watched.

The conversation begins with small talk but with every question asked and answered, she feels like choking on her glass of sprite as it slowly veers off to forbidden waters she doesn't feel like treading anytime soon.

"My little sister's always asking me if high school's scary and every time she asks that, I have to tell her no—it's not as scary as it is boring."

Max continues to take small sips until she realizes that it was probably her turn to say something to fill the silence that comes after.

"My siblings are okay with everything since three of us are in high school already and it's nothing new."

Sam raises an eyebrow. "Lucky you. So how is it living with five siblings?"

She swallows.

"Honestly, it's kinda great," Max says, and she feels that this is the only truth Sam's gonna get for the rest of the night."We may not get along for 24/7, but it's nice to know that somebody is always going to be around when you wanna talk about your problems."

Sam nods and leans forward, and there's no avoiding the plunge into topics she'd prayed that she'd avoid, prayed that Sam would do all the talking while she scarfed down the best lasagna she's probably ever eaten.

"So tell me more about yourself."

Max fingers a strand of dirty blond and prepares to tell the well-rehearsed lies she's spun in her head a thousand times over. She remembers going over it with Iggy—Fang would've declared her weak and demand his immediate reward to her bet—and the speech comes tumbling out before she has the time to doubt herself.

She tells him about the places she got to stay in while her missionary parents traveled, rattling off big cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit, just to name a few. She tells him of the people and friends she met and lost, spins lie after lie just because she can and Sam wouldn't know any better.

And it feels good in that moment because at that point in time, she wasn't Maximum Ride, failed experiment and wanted fugitive, leader of a Flock that bore more scars and bad memories that she could ever keep track of. Right now, she was Maxine Ride, missionary kid with a clean track record, five siblings in tow in rural Virginia.

Their dessert comes but Sam's attention is still fixated on her story.

"I guess my life's kinda exciting," she says, splitting the chocolate cake down the middle, "but I'll admit that this break of normality is what I needed."

Fabricated Max smiles with all teeth at Sam, pushing his slice towards him. He blinks, surprised, but finally shrugs and thanks her with a blinding grin.

The lies hanging in the air between them twinkle, but do not shatter.

They're waiting for the bill to come when she happens to look over Sam's shoulder at the window behind him when she sees it—a near perfect reflection of her, staring right back with dark eyes and mouth set in a smirk.


Sam looks back up and shoots her a questioning look.

"My reflection," she stammers, raising a hand to point past his shoulder.

Sam shifts and turns around to look, effectively blocking her view for a split second.

But like a good little fugitive like her knows that a second meant the difference between life and death, staying hidden and being found.

Her reflection's gone by the time Sam turns back around, a more than puzzled look visible on his face.

Her stomach drops and she quickly fumbles for an explanation. "Sorry—it was actually another blonde girl looking in."

Sam accepts the apology—just like that—and Max continues to play Maxine Ride, a perfectly sane type of girl, instead of Maximum Ride, a too-paranoid kind of girl with a crazy Voice in her head that never did offer advice when she really needed it.

Fang's lounging on one of the living room couches with a Chemistry book sprawled across his lap.

He raises a brow when he sees her, a silent inquiry of how it went and whether or not he should be celebrating if she failed and he now had the upper hand.

Max flips her hair and throws him a smile that she knows doesn't reach her eyes. "You can carve a 'plus one' under my name now."