Archive: Please ask!
Pairings: M/Z, but you decide what kind (ie: familial or romantic?)
Spoilers: AJBAC, CREAM
Summary: Though the horribly-unimaginative title is probably pretty self-explanitory, here's my summary: What if it was Zack who found Max dying in the forest in AJBAC and not Logan?
Zack fired at a young clone of Jondy following him through the forest foliage outside Manticore and the child went down. He hurried through the bushes and over fallen logs, until finally he saw her, lying in the middle of a clearing, her eyes shut. His heart nearly stopped as he dropped to his knees beside her, throwing aside his machine gun and pulling her gently into his arms.
"Max?" he whispered. Slowly, her eyes opened and focussed on him with difficulty. She smiled.
"Zack..." Her voice was tiny and it frightened him. He parted the camouflage jacket she wore and cringed in pain as he saw that one of the X7s had landed a shot in her heart. A quick look told him what he didn't want to know: she wouldn't survive this.
"Max..." he breathed, pulling her closer and looking into her eyes. She knew it, too.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"Shh, Max, it's okay," he said, powerless to stop her from leaving him and terrified of that fact. Zack managed somehow to smile down at her. "You're going to be fine," he lied to both of them.
"Zack," she said. He met her eyes, the eyes of a baby he'd held, a little girl he'd nurtured, a teenager he'd watched out for, a young woman he'd protected. Loved. "Zack," she said again. "Don't bother. I know you." Zack wanted to punch someone; he hated being so helpless. But she was right: there was no point lying to her. She had always been able to read him so well.
"I'm sorry, Maxie," Zack said finally, softly. "For everything. For letting Manticore capture Brin... For not being there when Ben needed me... for making you have to kill him..." He choked on his words but barrelled forward; Max was watching him with tear-filled eyes. "I'm sorry that I let them kill Tinga..." He averted his eyes and stared up at the starry sky. "I'm so sorry." It wasn't supposed to end like this, not for her; he'd failed another sibling. His baby sister, Max, whom he loved. He'd failed her. He was a bad CO, a bad brother... he was just bad all around and they'd all be better off if he'd never been born. Max's cold hand touched his face.
"When I see Tinga," she breathed, "I'll tell her that for you if you want me to, but you've got nothing to be sorry for. That wasn't your fault." She coughed, and there was silence for a moment before she spoke again. "And when I see Ben... I'll tell him that I'm sorry." A tear rolled down her cheek. "Because I didn't know how to save him.... And because I never got a chance to tell him that I loved him."
"He knew," Zack whispered to her, wholly and utterly believing it. Knowing it. Max smiled a little, and then suddenly she coughed again, and her face went slack and her eyes closed. Fear seized him; he grabbed her hand and squeezed it, hard. Her eyes reopened and looked up at him with difficulty.
"Just hold on, Maxie, please," he whispered, begged. She gazed up at him with terrible pain in her eyes and it ripped at his heart.
"Zack," she said, starting to tell him she wasn't going to make it out of here, but he didn't want to hear her say the words though they both knew it. He placed a hand on her lips, stopping her.
"You're such a good soldier, Maxie," he told her, trying to give her some consolation in his own way, trying to tell her that all the times he'd been angry at her for disobeying orders didn't matter, had never mattered... trying to tell her that she could never disappoint him. That he loved her so much and he was so sorry. He took a huge breath. "I was always proud of you."
Max looked up at him. There were tears in his blue eyes. He looked so scared, and it frightened her because she'd never seen him scared before. He touched her hair. She smiled up at him as his tears started to fall. Some of them landed on her cheeks and combined with her own. She coughed again, tried to swallow the blood that was rising in her throat, but couldn't. Her eyes fluttered closed and only his quick and desperate squeeze of her hand made them open once again.
"Max, why did you..?" he took a ragged breath, gathered his thoughts, tried again, "Why did you let it go?"
"Let what go?" she asked, her groggy mind struggling to understand what he was talking about.
"The red balloon," he whispered; his voice seemed to be coming from far away.
"Lydecker was there," she murmured in a tiny, fading voice, confused that he'd brought up something that seemed so trivial at a time like this. "I thought he would punish me if I didn't let it go."
"I was there, though," Zack's voice came softly. "I wouldn't have let him lay a hand on you."
"I know that, Zack." She reached up and touched his face. "But then he would have hurt you."
"God, Max," he whispered as his tears continued to fall. "I should have gotten you all out a long time before I did. I should have been a better leader, a better brother. Then maybe-"
"No," she said, in as firm a voice as she could manage. "Zack, you saved us. You're a better brother than anyone could ever hope for. I owe you my life, my freedom- everything."
"You don't owe me anything, Maxie," he whispered. "There was never any question or decision. It was my responsibility to protect you." He shook his head, struggled to find the words. "It wasn't just a responsibility. It was more than that. I wanted to protect all of you, always. You were my family, and..." He shook his head again, frustrated that he couldn't say what he wanted to properly. Max's eyes started to close and she coughed again; she was fading fast. Zack grabbed her cold hand and squeezed it hard for a third time, terrified to let her slip away now. He still had so much to tell her, things he should have said a long time ago. Her eyes snapped open once more but they were terribly glazed. She looked up at him sadly and he knew that he would never be able to tell her everything, wished that he had said it all before this moment, before now when it was too late to say the words.
"I love you, Zack." Her voice was like a fading breath of wind; he could barely hear her.
"I love you, too, Maxie." His voice was equally soft. "I love you so much. And I'm sorry... for everything."
"No, don't be sorry," she told him in a tiny voice. "Don't ever be sorry, Zack." She smiled at him. The blood was rising in her throat, choking her, and the pain in her chest had dulled the edges of her vision to a hazy blackness.
"Tell Ben I'm not angry at him," Zack choked out. "And Tinga and Jack and Eva..." Zack gazed down at her, his eyes terribly anguished, his face soaked with tears though he didn't care. "Tell them all that I love them," he whispered. Max gazed up at him, surprise at his words showing through the pain in her eyes.
"I thought you didn't believe in the Good Place," she managed to choke out, knowing that she wouldn't be able to speak soon enough. He squeezed her hand and brought it to his lips, kissed the backs of her icy fingers.
"I believe in you," he whispered. Max gazed at him for a moment, the lines of his beautiful face; she loved him so much, couldn't remember a time when she hadn't loved him because there hadn't been one. He'd been there at her first memory and now he was here at her last. How fitting that her life should turn out to be such a satisfying circle. Zack would appreciate the order of it, too, if he hadn't been so sad now.
Slowly, with a small smile for the first man she'd loved, the grown-up version of the boy she'd adored, the only one out of all the people in her life that she'd always trusted, her big brother, Max allowed her eyes to flutter closed. This time when Zack clutched her icy hand and squeezed it tightly, she didn't come back to him.