Title: The Brightest Life

Author: Ashantai

E-Mail: ashantai@hotmail.com

Archive: Please ask!

Rating: G

Pairings: None

Spoilers: Pollo Loco, I guess maybe Hit a Sista Back and Meow, though not as much.

Summary: Why didn't Zack and Max ever discuss Ben? This is my answer, a missing scene taking off directly from where "Hit a Sista Back" left off and ending right before the beginning of "Meow."


THE BRIGHTEST LIFE

Hear the cry for new life, the morning's flame...
You were the brightest life that burned too soon in vain.
Who will bring you back from where there's no return..?
"Ben's Song" by Sarah McLachlan

Max gazed into the sky over the Space Needle, thinking about Tinga, about Charlie, about their little boy, about how she wished the fairy tale that Tinga told Case could have come true for her. She just wished that her sister had been able to live happily ever after... Max hated to think what Lydecker was doing with Tinga, how soon the brainwashing- or "reindoctrination," as they liked to call it at Manticore- would start. She knew that Zack would never want to let what happened to Brin happen to Tinga, but if they didn't get to her soon enough, it might be too late. Max forced herself to stop thinking of that; it was up to her and Zack to make the fairy tale become reality, and Max had promised her nephew he would see his mother again.

Max stiffened as she felt more than heard the footsteps approaching her from behind- who would be up here? To her knowledge she was the only one who liked to walk around on top of the Space Needle... the only one unafraid of heights enough to do it. She tensed, waiting for an attack, but then slowly smiled as she sensed who it was. Zack stopped next to her.

"Must be in the genes," he said after a moment. She looked at him; he was gazing out at the city lights. Max wondered briefly if he even noticed their beauty, or if he only saw them in a military way.

"What?" she asked, shaking the thought away.

"Going up high to think. I do it, you do it... we all seem to." Max smiled a little to herself.

"Must be an X5 thing," she agreed.

"I found out that they didn't take Tinga back to Manticore," he told her. She smiled.

"That's great. When do we move out?"

"I'll have to gather some more intelligence first," he explained. "See where they might be holding her." She nodded.

"Just tell me when," she said. Zack slowly turned to her, hesitation in his eyes.

"I know about Ben, Max," he said, barely above a whisper. She felt nausea hit her at his words; the look in his eyes scared her because she couldn't read it. She dropped down onto the roof of the Needle, hugging her knees, and Zack sat beside her tentatively. He looked over at her, touched her arm.

"Why did you have to be in Canada, Zack?" she breathed finally in a shaky voice. "If you'd been there..." She trailed off and he looked away.

"I know," he said. "I'm sorry." She looked at him, shrugged heavily.

"It's not your fault. Tinga needed you. You couldn't have known." Zack cringed at her words.


"You don't appreciate the mission anymore, Zack?" A voice from two years ago came back to him. It added in a cruel voice, "Have you gone soft?"

"Lydecker is going to be on to you so fast," he told his brother, ignoring the attempt to provoke him. "You put your barcode on their necks, Ben."


"Zack?" Max called him back to the present. He glanced up at her hesitantly. She looked like she wanted desperately to ask him something but she was afraid. Finally, she spoke. "You... you're not- I mean, you don't..." Max took a deep breath and tried again. "You don't... hate me now, do you?" She shook her head. "I mean, I know you don't hate me, but... you're not.... are you mad at me, Zack?" He sat there for so long that it terrified her; he was thinking about what he would have done in her place. Of course he would have gotten Ben out of there, tried at least to get him out of there. He looked at Max; a few tears had rolled down her cheeks.

"I'm sorry," she said, her voice shaking. "I was so scared, Zack. And Ben..." She shook her head.

"He was a psychopathic murderer, Max," he said finally. "It's not your fault." She looked at him.

"He was lost," she said stubbornly. After a moment, Zack slowly nodded. She still loved Ben, Zack could see it in her eyes. Ben had hurt her so much, forced her to go through so much, done things which she hated, yet she still loved him. And Zack did, too.

"Yes," he agreed softly after a moment. "He was lost."

"The nomlies..." she said. "They scared him so much."


They moved through the corridors of Manticore behind Lydecker, Max next to Ben. They hadn't been this far down before, only ever in the sub-basement. But this was the basement itself- cold and dark. They marched in formation, their bare feet freezing on the cement floor.

A raspy, laughing voice suddenly came from beside her. Their eyes had been forward obediently and they hadn't noticed anyone approach them. Max turned in surprise with the rest of her siblings and stared at a door next to them. A man's face, horribly dirty with wild eyes, looked out of a barred window set in the door. They fell back against the wall in fear, eyes wide. Max glanced at Ben beside her; he was staring at the man, if you could call it a man. Ben's eyes were terrified, his whole body tense. The whatever-it-was rasped at them again, a cackling sound, with a grin on its horrible face revealing rotten teeth.

"Get moving, soldiers," Lydecker's voice came from the front of the line. "No one told you to stop." Slowly, they started to move off, and the thing watched them. It took all of Max's self-control not to run away as she felt its disgusting eyes on her back. They passed three more doors, also containing the same frightening beasts.

"They're just anomalies," Lydecker told them, sounding disgusted with their fear. "Don't be weak."

That night, Ben told them that the things in the basement were called nomlies, and even Zack had started to believe him, though he hadn't at first. They had described the nomlies to their CO in fright, and he had thought they were making it up because he hadn't been there in the basement to see them. He didn't think they were real. But they were real; Max had seen them for herself. Only later that night, when she was back safe in the barracks with Zack and the others, she shrugged them off. But she noticed something strange: even hours later, there was still deep fear in Ben's eyes.


"Yes," Zack agreed. "But it wasn't so much them that he was terrified of. More like, becoming them..." Max suddenly started crying and it alarmed him.

"I told him he was a nomlie, Zack. I told him he was a genetic mistake, and his eyes... He'd scared me, I was angry, but I didn't mean... Oh, God, I'm sorry Ben." She dropped her head into her hands and Zack slowly put a hand on her back. She leaned into him. "I'm sorry," she whispered again.

"It wasn't just them," he repeated.

"No," Max agreed softly against his shoulder. "He was afraid of a lot of things."


"Only the best soldiers get to go to the Good Place. The ones who fail... you know what happens to them?"

"They disappear," Max offered; Zack glanced over at her but all the others' eyes were trained on Ben, listening en rapt to his story.

"To the Bad Place," the boy agreed. "Where they open you up and drink your blood until you're almost dead. Then they leave you there for the nomlies."


The children each extracted a tooth, one after the other; Max was last. She put her hand in her mouth, cringing slightly as the pain came when she pulled. Zack looked over at her, some blood trickling from his mouth. He'd done this, and he was the CO; he backed up this strange proposition of Ben's. Max pulled out her tooth and placed it on the cloth, and Ben smiled up at all of them.

"They make her stronger," he told them. They looked at the picture of the Blue Lady, propped up against the warm air vent of the High Place. Ben explained, "So she can fight the nomlies."


Jack being dragged out of the room... blades buzzing as they cut him open... Ben, so frightened, climbing up to the High Place.

"Why?" A scream Max watched him utter, a yell that caused Krit to clutch his ears in fear and for once made Zack uncertain of what to do. "What did we do wrong?" he screamed from the roof. "We believe in you!" And then he was caught.


"Do you think he really believed in her, even after we left?" she asked into his shoulder. He didn't have to ask who she was talking about.

"I don't know," Zack answered honestly. He gazed down at the top of her head for a moment, then up at the stars.


"Long time no see, Ben." That was it, all he said as the seventeen-year-old entered his bedroom, where Zack had been waiting for the past three hours. If his brother was surprised at his sudden appearance after- what had it been, five years?- he didn't show it. Zack was eighteen.

"Do you ever think about the Blue Lady?" Ben asked, sitting down on the bed next to him. Zack looked him over; he had grown a lot. He'd left this reunion way too long.

"She was just a story," Zack said, even as his eyes warily surveyed the various Virgin Mary icons gracing the walls of Ben's room. They worried him. "Are your foster parents treating you alright?"

"Yeah, they're fine," Ben said after a moment; he turned to his brother, and there was something in his eyes that Zack had never seen before.

"She was just a story," Zack repeated; Ben gazed at him for a moment, then glanced away.

"Are you here to tell me my position's been compromised again?" he asked; Zack heard a slight shake in his voice and cringed at the sound. He knew that having to leave Arizona when he was twelve had been the hardest thing Ben had ever had to do. But Lydecker had been on to him. Zack cursed himself; he should have checked up on him before now! He looked at the Virgin Mary pictures again and shivered slightly.

"No, I just came to see if you were okay," Zack said; Ben turned to beam up at him, looking for a moment like the happy twelve-year-old boy Zack had last seen him as.

"Really?" His eyes were so full of hope, but that something else was still there too. It scared Zack; what was it? He clapped his little brother on the shoulder and tried to shake the thoughts away.

"Of course."


"Maybe he did," he added softly.

"But I figured out that she wasn't real when we got out, and you did..." She was frustrated. "It was just him who didn't get it. I don't understand... the rest of us are fine, we survived out here." She looked at him, fully expecting that he would have the answers like he always did when they were children. "Why was he different?" she asked.


Jack fell out of formation and Max felt her heart catch. The guards came over picked him up, started to drag him from the room. Zack would tell her later that he was being taken to be made better, but right now she was scared. She looked at Ben, across from her; his eyes had gathered tears and his body was subtly shaking. She leaned out of line and watched Jack being dragged from the room. The guard turned, jerked an angry finger at her.

"Eyes front!" he yelled. Max snapped to attention, tearing her eyes away from her brother, not knowing that it was the last time she would see him alive.


Max looked back at Zack but he glanced away from her.


"Tell Ben to stop yelling," Krit said fearfully, sitting down next to Zack. "The guards will hear him." Zack turned and looked toward the window Ben had climbed out of, seeing Max staring out of it. He frowned, knowing that Ben was scared, devastated, but uncertain of what to do about it.

"What did we do wrong?" They heard his voice scream from the High Place. Zack looked at Krit and touched his shoulder.

"He's sad about Jack," Zack told him, just managing to keep back the shake in his voice. He was sad about Jack, too. The boy looked up at him.

"Make him stop yelling," he said again, in a smaller voice. "Or I'll beat him up." He was hiding his fear with toughness, as always.

"We believe in you!" Ben's scream came again. Zack turned to tell Max he wanted Ben back inside, but the sirens suddenly broke the silence of the night. Krit covered his ears as though in pain, his eyes filled with both anger and fear.

"Go back to bed, now!" Zack called to Max, motioning for the rest of the children who were up to do the same. All but Krit him scampered away quickly, climbing between their blankets and closing their eyes. Zack, worried, gazed toward the window, knowing that he couldn't leave most of his siblings alone in order to save one brother already in the process of being apprehended. Krit hesitated for a moment, looking out the window. He started to stand, fists clenched, but instead shivered suddenly as Ben's voice stopped screaming from the roof and the yard outside was flooded with an unholy light.


Zack threw Eva to the ground on the sparring mat, ending their match as other brothers and sisters around him did the same. The whistle blew and they started to switch partners.

"599!" a guard's voice came from the sidelines. "Lydecker wants to see you, now," he said. Zack walked over to him and was led to Lydecker's office. His heart stopped as he saw Ben there, his clothes dirty, his hair a little longer and his bones a little easier to see than they should have been, his skin terribly pale, his eyes hollow. He'd been gone for two months. Lydecker had told them that he was undergoing treatment and was fine, but Zack could see now that this was not the case at all. It was all he could do not to jump on the man and snap his neck right there. Ben didn't even look at him as he came to stand at attention next to him.

"You wanted to see me, sir?" he managed.

"What's this about a Blue Lady?" Lydecker asked. Zack stiffened.

"Sir?" He feigned confusion.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about, 599," the man said coldly. "This is no time for games. 493 told me you each pulled a tooth out to give to this... picture?" He held up the Blue Lady, and Zack saw something flicker through Ben's eyes. Then it was gone and they were hollow and unseeing again. Lydecker took the metal garbage can from beside his desk and dropped the picture into it. Then he lit a match. Zack was terrified that Ben would leap at Lydecker, but he didn't move, and Zack found Ben's passivity even more frightening.

"I want to know everything about this Blue Lady," Lydecker said to Zack icily as she burned in the trash can. The man was angry. "We might have to take you all down to psy ops for this, 599! There is no room for weaknesses- you are perfect soldiers."

"Understood, sir," Zack said. "It won't be necessary to put us all through psy ops. The Blue Lady is unimportant. Ben is an anomaly in that matter." Next to him, he felt Ben's sharp intake of breath as he struggle not to cry. Zack did nothing though it pained him to feel his brother's reaction. He was almost positive that Ben would now be subjected to more tests... he knew that this was the best decision, to sacrifice one to save the others. But still, calling his brother a nomlie was the worst thing he could have ever done. Lydecker was staring at Zack; Zack stared back at him.

"Since the psychiatric testing seems to agree with that," he ground out, surprising Zack, "I'll let you take him back now." He turned to Ben. "But I am watching you, 493." He looked at Zack. "He'd better be the only anomaly," he said. Zack hesitated, tried to think of a way of not saying that Ben was a nomlie again, knowing that it might kill his brother. Then, finding none, he slowly nodded. Lydecker stood there.

"Dismissed," he finally said. On the way back to the barracks, Ben wouldn't talk to Zack, nor did he tell any more stories. Sometimes late at night Zack would hear him whispering to himself. Only once did he hear what he was saying, so he couldn't be sure it was what he said every time. But he suspected.

"It's okay," Ben would whisper. He hadn't stayed up to give Max and Jondy shadow shows since before he was taken to psy ops. "It's all going to be okay," he said softly in a strange voice. Zack laid there, listening, not knowing what to do. "You're a good soldier," Ben breathed, tearing at Zack's heart. "Not a nomlie. Never a nomlie... just a good soldier."


Zack shook the painful memory away.

"I don't know why it was only him, Maxie." He wished that he did.

"He didn't want to leave," she said, pulling back from his arms and wiping at her wet cheeks. "He thought we should have stayed in Manticore. He told me that."

"The rest of you are doing fine," Zack said stiffly. He'd made the right decision for them, Ben was just an- he shoved the thought away. They sat there for a few moments, saying nothing, sitting in silence together. After a minute or so Max looked over at him.

"I could almost see what he meant," she said, then added hastily at his shocked look, "For a second." She looked down at her hands thoughtfully. "Do you ever miss Manticore?" she asked softly. Zack's head turned toward her sharply as she asked this; he fixed her with a wary gaze.

"Of course not," he said suspiciously, hesitantly. "Do you?"

"Sometimes," she said. "I miss the nights, anyway. The days were always training, but the nights... all of us sleeping in one big room, me and Jondy playing, Ben's stories-" She looked away. "Well, not the scary ones so much..." She glanced over at him. "I really missed that when we got out. The first night I spent alone... I'd never been alone at nighttime before." She smiled as a memory hit her. "Do you remember that time that we all piled into your bed- me and Zane and Jace and Tinga and Krit- because of one of Ben's stories, and you tried to make us go to sleep by making up stupid rhymes?" She laughed softly, shook her head, gazed out at the sky. Her smile faded slightly. "You never let yourself loose like that anymore."

"I was a child then," he said stiffly.

"Maybe. But still..." She looked at him, examined the hard lines of his face, his troubled eyes. "I've hardly ever seen you smile out here."


Chicago was windy even in the summertime. Zack was twenty. He slipped through the window of his brother's apartment on West 24th Street, tense and agitated. He moved through the place, opening a drawer to find a collection of guns; he admired them for a moment before slamming the drawer shut angrily. He heard a door open from further back in the apartment, and a moment later there he was, standing before him in the living room. It had been three years since he'd last seen him but he looked exactly the same.

"Ben," Zack greeted hesitantly. Ben acknowledged his presence with a short nod, then walked into the kitchen and started fixing something to eat. "Ben, you have to stop this," Zack said. Slowly, his brother turned towards him. Zack searched his face for the boy he'd grown up with and found him for a split-second before Ben's eyes masked his emotions and turned cold again. He walked over to him slowly and Zack stood his ground.

"You don't appreciate the mission anymore?" he asked. "Have you gone soft?" It was a challenge, and every fibre in Zack's being wanted to respond to it, all his animal instincts and genes were telling him to, but he fought them back.

"Lydecker is going to be on to you so fast," he said. "You put your barcode on their necks, Ben."

"He knows. He knows that this what we were designed to do. He knows I'm a good soldier," Ben said. "He's already shut down the investigation twice," his brother scoffed, crossing the room and picking up one of the guns, polishing it with a cloth.

"Are you crazy?" Zack hissed. "He's not going to let you continue with this any longer than it's going to take to find you. He's going to find you, and he's going to take you back to Manticore, and I'm not going to be able to stop him." Ben started to walk toward the door, but Zack placed himself between it and his brother. "You know what they'll do to you, Ben," he said pointedly. "They'll put you with them."

"I'm not a nomlie!" Ben yelled, exploding at Zack. He shoved him up against the wall, the gun pressed to Zack's stomach only because he'd let him do it. Ben's eyes were full of rage, determination, and fear. It was in that fear that Zack found the child again.

"Ben," he said. "Stop it. This isn't you."

"What the hell do you know about me?" He fell away from Zack as though he was disgusted at having to touch him. "You saw me once three years ago for about five minutes!" Ben shook the gun at him. "You've lost your objectivity, Zack. You're not fit to be CO anymore!" Again, a challenge, given on purpose, and now he was waiting. Zack narrowed his eyes in confusion.

"What do you want, Ben?"

"I want you to get the hell out of my way," Ben snarled, but his eyes said something completely different. Zack didn't know what to do, didn't know how to read anyone's emotions unless they were obvious, and so he especially couldn't read someone who was giving him such mixed messages. He slowly moved aside and a look of intense loss and disappointment flashed across his little brother's for a split-second, then it was gone again. After a moment, Ben left the apartment, closing the door silently behind him when Zack had expected him to slam it. He stared at the door for a few moments, then clenched his fists. He left Chicago and never saw his brother again.


"I don't have time to smile," he said to Max after a moment, averting his eyes from hers. This conversation was making him uncomfortable. She touched his arm.

"I'm not trying to say that I wished we hadn't left. It's just..." She heaved a sigh, added softly, "I do miss the nights." Zack looked away.

"You know I keep you apart for your own safety. I wouldn't do it otherwise..." He looked down at his hands. "I'm not trying to make you miserable, Max. I didn't mean for-"

"I'm not blaming you, Zack," she said gently, stopping him with a hand on his arm. "I'm just saying..." She shrugged, looked out at the starry sky. "Not everything was bad about Manticore." She looked away. "And I miss them."

"Everything was bad about Manticore," he disagreed firmly.


"What are we doing tomorrow?" Brin's voice asked through the darkness of the barracks. Zack turned in his bed to look at her.

"Flight simulator," he said. He heard a groan from Jace and frowned, knowing that she was afraid of heights and that it was a weakness; one of many she seemed to have. Out of all his siblings, she, Jack, and Max gave him the most worry- Jace was frightened of everything, Jack shook too much, and Max... well, Max was the littlest. "Go to sleep," he said to Brin. She closed her eyes obediently. On the other side of the room, Zack heard faint murmuring coming from Max's bed, where she and Jondy were playing under the covers.

"Goodnight," Zane's cheerful voice came. They all exchanged goodnights, something they did sometimes that both annoyed and pleased Zack. When the last goodnight had been spoken into the darkness, Tinga suddenly started to giggle as she often did; things seemed to always strike her as funny.

"Go to sleep, Tinga," Zack said. The giggling stopped almost immediately, but the room still wasn't quiet. Zack could hear the sounds of his two little sisters still echoing through the otherwise silent cement room, but far from annoying him, the happy sounds slowly lulled him off to sleep.


"The good parts..." he continued, "That was us." Max slowly smiled, turned to him.

"Yeah," she said, pleased with this revelation. "You're right." Zack looked away, out at the starry sky. He felt her hand on his arm.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he said heavily. She sighed.

"If you can't talk to me, you can't talk to anyone," she said. Zack brushed her hand away, stood up angrily.

"I don't have anything to say, Max," he snapped, walking a short distance away and staring out at the sky, his arms crossed over his chest. He felt her come up behind him and he stiffened.

"I'm sorry," she said; he turned to her, met her concerned brown eyes. Zack sighed, brought a hand up to touch her hair. But he stopped it an inch from her face and dropped his hand, looked away.

"No, I'm sorry," he said after a moment. "I'm just worried. About Tinga... About you."

"Me?"

"They're still here, Max, right inside this city. This is the worst possible place you could be." He fixed her with a hard look. "But you won't leave."

"We've been through all this before, Zack. I'm staying." She smiled a little. "I'm sorry, but I'm staying here."

"I'm not going to let them do to Tinga what they did to Brin," he said firmly. "And I'm not going to let them take me back there again." He looked at her. "Or capture you."

"I know that," she said after a moment, reaching her arms up and hugging herself. Then she swallowed slightly, looked confused as a flicker of something went through her eyes. Zack knew he had to get out of here soon; he could see the flush on her cheeks, could smell the pheromones thickly in the air.

"I'd better go see where they're holding Tinga," he said hurriedly. She looked up at him sadly, obviously not wanting to cut their conversation short so suddenly, and he had to physically stop himself from not taking his words back immediately. The wind blew softly through her hair; she was so beautiful that it actually hurt him. Zack clenched his fists, knowing he wasn't thinking right. Sister, sister, sister, he reminded himself angrily.

"Zack..?" her voice came through to him. "What's wrong?" She touched his arm and he pulled away as it weakened his resolve slightly. He stopped looking at her. She probably didn't even know yet...

"Gotta go," he said quickly, turning from her. He felt a little badly about his hasty withdrawal, but he knew she would understand later, and be thankful that he'd left. Besides, he needed to save Tinga, and soon, before they reindoctrinated her or shipped her off to Manticore. Zack felt Max's eyes on his back all the way to the edge of the Space Needle, and it took all his self-control not to turn around. He knew that if he'd stayed just a little longer they would have both been quickly lost, and neither of them needed that. He just hoped that she'd realize what was going on with her before she headed over to Logan's or Crash. If she didn't... well, Zack didn't want to think about that at all. He had a mission; he left the Space Needle, and immediately started to think more clearly as he moved further and further away from where Max was.

"God, I can't believe she's going into heat at a time like his," he muttered to himself irritably, then headed off to gather some intelligence on Lydecker. He had to find out where they were holding Tinga so that, once this thing wore off and they could be in the same room together again, he and Max could go and save her.