I smiled softly to myself as I tossed the remaining popcorn into the trash and straightened up the living room, because for the first time in forever, things felt normal.
I felt like I had my family back.
I knew our parents being constantly away had to be paying a heavy toll on my sisters. I couldn't imagine how hard it must be for Angel, never having her parents to tuck her into bed every night, or attend her dance performances or school plays. And I knew, even though Max would never admit it, she struggled with our parents' absence more than she would ever be willing to admit, and if I were truly honest with myself I'd admit it's affect on me as well. I know we were trying our best, but I could only do so much.
I know I was their brother, their temporary guardian, but Max seemed to resent me even more these days because of it.
I don't know what changed. We had always been so close. All three of us. I was their big brother, their protector, the one they would always go to when they were in trouble- but now, things just seemed so different.
Max and I's relationship just seemed so strained.
I knew deep down that all she truly needed was for me to be her brother, her best friend as we once were, but I just couldn't afford to do that. I had too many roles and responsibly to juggle.
I had to practically fight her to even speak to me more than her curt one-word responses.
I felt us drifting farther and farther apart, and as much as I hate to admit it ,it was slowly killing me.
I have to admit, I was more than a little shocked when Max suggested we all say in tonight and have a family day- not that I would even in a million years dream of objecting to her request.
After I left to retrieve their requested food, I made a quick call to Ella, canceling our date for the evening. I felt a small tinge of guilt at her disappointed tone, but I shoved it down.
My family came first, always.
And I don't regret my decision. I've felt more alive tonight, spending just a few short hours with my sisters than I have in months.
I missed this, I missed them.
I chuckled as I moved to sit on the couch, checking my phone for any messages for the first time tonight and noticing Max and Angel had changed my background to them making ridiculous faces as they shoved massive scoops of ice cream into their mouths.
After unlocking my phone I noticed it was not the only photo they had taken tonight, as my phone was filled with candid shots of all three of us throughout the night.
Smiles, actual happy expressions on all three of our faces; not posed or strained or force.
I smiled softly to myself as I felt a small tug at my heart. After a few moments of contemplation, I selected a few of my favorites and sent them in a message to our parents with the caption, "Wish you were here."
I really wished they were here.
I wanted desperately for things to go back to normal, to just be the loving brother again. I didn't want to be a parent.
After securing the house, locking all the outside doors and turning off the lights, I retired upstairs.
Just as I reached the top of the stairs, my phone buzzed with an incoming message.
It was from our father.
I know son, we wish we were too, more than you could ever know. Thanks for the pictures, we love seeing your smiling faces. Keep the fortress secure and tell your sisters we love them and hope to see you all soon.
I snorted, as if I'd tell them that blatant lie, "soon" was a very vague term in our parents' vocabulary. Shaking my head at the text, I sent back a quick, "I will, night" before moving to check on Angel as I always do.
Before opening her dorm my phone buzzed again.
We're so proud of you. Love you Ari, Good night.
I paused for a moment, shocked. I hadn't heard those words out of his mouth in quite some time.
I'm proud of you.
It shook me to the core. I knew our parents meant well, and they did truly love us, but they were just so clueless sometimes.
We didn't need the lavish things they bought us with their money, we just needed them.
Shaking it off, I slowly opened Angel's door, careful not to make noise and wake her from her precious slumber.
I smiled softly as I felt my heart swell at her, well, Angelic sleeping form. I gave her a soft kiss to her forehead, pulling the covers more securely around her before exiting her room.
Feeling a rather harsh tug at my heart, I felt my feet bring me to Max's door instead of my own. I'd never admit this to her, but I always checked on her before heading off to bed myself.
I knew she was not a small child anymore, but I checked on her more for my sake and sanity than her own. Of course she would throw a hissy fit that could rival any five year old if she knew, but I needed the comfort of knowing both of my sisters were safe before I could ever drift to sleep myself.
But tonight, a part of me hoped she was still awake, as I needed to get something off my chest.
I knew we couldn't continue living like this, so distant and cold. I needed to clear the air. I needed my loving little sister back.
I knew in order to get any sleep tonight, I needed to apologize to her for being such a hard ass recently. I needed her to know I meant well, and I only did the things I did-the things I do- out of love. I knew she was growing up, as much as I hated it, but to me, she would always be the sweet, naïve, little sister who always trusted me to comfort and ease away her pain. I needed her to trust me like that again.
After a long sigh, I knocked softly on the door, waiting for a response. When I wasn't greeted with one, I slowly nudged the door open, eyes adjusting to the dark room.
"Max, are you still up?" I asked softly as I moved farther into her room, nearly tripping over her shoes tosses hazardously around the room.
"Shit," I cursed silently as I misjudged the distance between her nightstand and bed and stubbed my toe on the hard wood.
I was met with silence.
Grumbling, I plopped down on her bed and held my toe in pain.
"'What? No snickering at my ill fortune? What's up with you Maxie? I know you're not that heavy of a sleeper," I questioned incredulously, "Come on."
I shook what I thought to be her sleeping form before meeting something far too soft to be a body.
Knitting my eyebrows together, I moved swiftly to switch on her bedside lamp only to be met with a lump of pillows covered in sheets where her sleeping form should be.
My first instinct was to panic, to worry.
However, these feelings quickly were surpassed with feelings of rage as I put two and two together.
She had snuck out, and I began to wonder if this was the first time, or the only time I had caught her.
Fuming, I began to search her room for any clue of where she would have gone.
My first instinct was to called the police, call a search party, but I knew that was far to drastic.
I desperately wanted to call Nudge and ask her where she was, but then she would tip off Max that I knew she had snuck out, and that wouldn't do.
I needed to catch her in the act.
Fueled by rage, I began sifting through her belongings, looking for what else she must have been hiding from me.
I began dumping drawers, sifting through their contents. At first I could find nothing incriminating and I almost called off my search, when I found it.
Underneath a pile of textbooks was a recent photo of Max and a boy.
And they looked far too chummy.
After inspecting the photo for a few more minutes I began to see red.
The bastard had been out with my sister. Touched my sister.
Behind my back.
I growled under my breath, an almost animalistic sound, as my hands clinched into fists, crumbling the photograph.
All this time, she had been lying to me. Every night she didn't come home, ever time she claimed she had been with Nudge.
All a lie.
I couldn't trust her anymore.
I barked out a bitter laugh.
And to think I'd actually come to apologize for being so harsh with her, so protective, so controlling, when this whole time she had been deceiving me.
She was not responsible enough to be left alone. She had broken my trust and I was going to make it damn well clear to her what she had done.
Ari waited quietly, in the dark for Max to return home, leaving him to reel in his rage.
He was about to give up his stakeout to search for her, growing more worried and angry by the second, when he heard a soft bang against the window, the sound of a ladder being placed along the wall.
He glanced at the clock, a quarter past two.
His worried dissipated and was quickly replaced with rage.
How dare she.
How dare she sneak out. How dare she come home this late. How dare she lie to him.
He waited in silence as she quietly ascended the ladder and the window slipped open.
After she was safely secure in her room, she leaned out the window and gave a small thumbs up before swiftly shutting the window and locking the hatch.
Just as a swift breath of relief escaped her mouth, Ari saw his chance.
He flicked the lights on, glaring at her frozen form, arms crossed over his chest in an intimidating stance as she looked to him with eyes wide, like a deer caught in headlights.
Max was frozen in place as her heart dropped to the pit of her stomach, feeling as if she were about to throw up.
She'd been caught and there was hell to pay.
They stayed silent for what seemed like ages, Ari glaring harshly at her before she finally spoke, struggling to form her words, "A-Ari, what are you doing in my room?"
She winced slightly as the words escaped her mouth. "Yeah," she though bitterly, "you get caught sneaking back in way past curfew and you're accusing him of being in your room without permission, yeah, real smart."
His eyes flashed as he stomped closer to her, now mere inches apart from each other.
"Oh, that's real rich Max," he sneered, "Well if you must know, I came in here to apologize for being such an ass to you recently and to thank you for taking the time out of your day to spend it with us, but imagine my surprise when I find your bed empty. I guess I shouldn't have been so naïve to believe you thought your family was more important than your social vendetta. I mean a whole day with your siblings? It must have been torture. I mean we practically forced you to sneak out the window didn't we?"
The bite in his tone caused a shiver to run down her spine and his words caused guilt to quickly seep into her pores.
"Ari, I-" She began, but was quickly cut off.
"Don't you dare," he warned, his tone dark, "Don't you dare even try to lie to me Maximum. I know what you've been up to."
She froze again, eyes wide as he tossed a crumpled picture of her and Fang towards her. It was from the night of the fair, their real first kiss.
She tensed at the bite in his tone, his eyes flaring.
He knew, there was no use denying it.
"What do you want me to say Ari?" She questioned, her voice uncharacteristically small.
"Nothing," He spat, "I have a pretty good picture as to what you've been up to lately. All the late nights, the nights you claimed to be with Nudge. I wouldn't believe you anyways, all that comes out of your mouth lately is lies."
She flinched at his words, almost as if he had physically reached out and slapped her. He would never do such a thing, but it felt as if he did.
"Ari," she pleaded, feeling like her world was crumbling beneath her feet.
He shook his head, as he turned his back to her, eyes cold.
"You were with him, weren't you?" He questioned, but he already knew the answer, he was testing her. She didn't bother lying to him; it would only make matters worse.
She have him a small nod.
"How long?" He asked, although she had a feeling he knew.
She lowered her head, ashamed before answering, " a few months."
His body went ridged as she avoided his gaze, "You've been sneaking around with him like a little tramp for months?" he sneered, causing her to wince.
Never had he ever called her such a harsh word, and she felt her eyes begin to sting.
Hurt, she didn't even attempt to defend herself, there was no use.
This was not the Maximum Ride she knew.
Moving towards the door he suddenly turned, eyes cold and face stern.
"Maximum, I forbid you from seeing him again." His words were cold and a small gasp escaped her lips as she shook her head furiously, moving to plead with him.
"Ari, no! You can't do that," she argued, growing angry.
His eyes flashed dangerously dark at her defiance, "You are not allowed to date and you were damn well aware of that. You deliberately broke the rules, you've snuck out, lied to my face," he spat his voice now dangerously low as if challenging her to defy him, "you will do as I say Maximum. I am you guardian for the time being and you will sure as hell listen to me so help me God."
Her temper flared, eyes narrowing at her older brother.
"I am seventeen years old Ari, I am not a child so stop treating me like one."
His eyes flashed as he moved to face her, "You sure as hell are acting like one Maximum," he challenged, eyes cold, "And technically you still are. Mom and Dad put me in change, so you will do as I say."
Her temper flared, as he pushed her closer to the edge, she began to yell.
"News flash Ari, you are not my father. You can't tell me what the hell to do."
He growled at her defiance as he backed her up against the wall.
"Yeah, we'll it's the closest thing you've got right now so deal with it. And you will do as I say. You will not see that boy again. As of this moment you are under intense house arrest. School and home, that's all you get. You will not talk to him. I'm cutting off all connections to the outside world until I can trust you again, which believe me when I say will be a very long time. Give me your phone."
"What?" She screeched, clutching her phone to her chest protectively, "No!"
"Maximum," he muttered darkly, "Give. It. To Me. Now ."
She narrowed her eyes at him as he harshly yanked the phone out of her grasp.
"You know this isn't going to stop us right?" She challenged as he moved to storm out of the door, catching his attention, "We'll just find other ways to communicate. We go to the same school you know. We have class together. This isn't going to prevent us from being together."
He grew ridged, his eyes dangerously dark, scaring her as she took a slight step back.
He chuckled darkly, "You think I haven't thought of that?" he questioned causing her stomach to churn.
"I'm going to make it very clear to 'ol Fangy boy to stay far, far away from you. Apparently my first verbal warning wasn't affective, but make no mistake, this time, he will get the message."
"Ari, you can't do this," she pleaded, and she never resorted to such low measures, "Ari, stop. I- I love him. Why can't you understand that?"
He tensed at her confession, not wanting to believe it.
She was too young to be in love with anyone, it was just a phase, it would pass.
Shaking his head deliberately he answered, "No you don't Max. I love you and I'm trying to protect you. I know you don't understand now, but you'll thank me later. Men like him are pigs, all men your age are really. I'm protecting you. You'll thank me one day, and until then I'm willing to risk your teenage rage."
"No you don't Ari," her words were eerily soft, "because when you really love someone Ari, you'd do anything to make them happy, and you seem to do everything to prevent that."
He scoffed at her, pretending as if her words hadn't affected him, "You're being a dramatic bitch Max. Grow up. This is just stupid puppy love, you'll get over it." His tone was harsh.
She gave him a cold stare before turning her back to him, causing his stone heart to crack a little.
"I hate you," she whispered, her voice cracking, causing him to flinch.
"No you don't," he stated not sure who he was trying to convince, her, or himself.
She gave a bitter chuckle before giving him a cold stare over her shoulder, "Yes I do. I hate you and I don't want to speak to you, I don't want to look at you, God, I don't even want us breathing the same air. God Ari, you just push and you push! I can't take it anymore. I'm not a little girl anymore; I can take care of myself. You've over stepped your boundaries and I'm not going to forgive you for this. Get out Ari."
He moved to step closer to her when she blanched, "GET OUT."
He tensed, giving her a curt nod before exiting her room, slamming to door behind him causing to doorframe to shake.
He cursed under his breath as he heard Angel stir in her room, her meek voice causing his resolution to break.
After coaxing her back into bed, he stormed off to his room, throwing one last glance towards Max's room, her words haunting him.
I hate you.
He shuttered as he drifted into a restless sleep.