He opened his eyes to artificial light, dimmed ever-so-slightly so as not to be painful. He opened his eyes to the hum of recirculating air, and the coolness of a sheet spread over him. He opened his eyes to the blinding ambient whiteness that marked the Garden Infirmary.
And to Siobhan, sitting at the end of the bed, one leg in a cast and torso heavily bandaged--the final proof that he hadn't been dreaming all this time.
She was as cool and inscrutable as she had ever been, flipping through a magazine that rested on her lap, frowning ever-so-slightly in boredom. Behind her, armed and at alert, stood a SeeD he didn't recognize.
The guard cleared his throat, and Siobhan glanced up. "Hm," she acknowledged, nodding slightly. "Looks like you're awake."
The statement was so simple, so obvious, that in the light of all that had occurred Zell found himself without any way to respond.
Siobhan seemed to understand. "Hyne," she remarked, grimacing. "We have a lot to catch up on."
Zell looked down at his hands. They had taken his gloves--but that was to be expected. He felt oddly powerless without them. "He's dead, isn't he?"
Siobhan seemed to understand. "Yes."
There was a long silence as he tried to come up with something to say, and came up empty. "......you must all hate me."
"Some of us do." There was something oddly reassuring about her frankness--if not her words. "...not all of us."
With some difficulty, he sat up. He was exhausted--that much, he could tell. Aside from that, he was unable to make sense of the jumble of sensations impinging upon his brain--physical, emotional, whatever; all were tied up into the same lost confusion.
"...I really didn't want to hurt him," he said, hoping repetition would make it believable. (Or, better yet--true.)
Siobhan exhaled sharply, turning to look at the guard. "You can leave now. I can take care of myself." She glanced back. "And Zell's not going to hurt me. Are you?"
Zell looked down at his hands, feeling the blood run to his face. He shook his head.
Siobhan nodded to the guard, who gave Zell a sideways glance and stepped out. Then she sat down on a stool across from him, watching him with the most peculiar expression he had ever seen. It was in the same class as pity, but somehow.... utterly her own.
"You remember everything?"
Wordlessly, he nodded.
"Then I don't have to tell you what you did."
He shook his head.
Siobhan sighed. "The Desperados took us to Juska. When we came to it was me and Tanker in a holding cell--you were nowhere to be seen. After a while someone came by and told us we were going to stand trial. They handcuffed us and marched us off. Tanker broke loose and attacked them--he took three bullets, and they dragged him off somewhere. We don't know what happened to him--if he's even alive."
Zell didn't respond. After a moment, Siobhan took the cue to begin speaking again.
"I guess I was just smarter. I took my time. They loaded me into some kind of transport with a guard to watch me--strapped me in, and everything. When they got me to the tribunal house they had to let me out, and that's when I made my move. I managed to... convince... my guard to unlock the cuffs, and I took out the guards when they tried to get me out. Then I broke and ran. Got myself lost in SubEsthar, and managed to contact Garden. They got me set up with someone who could extract me, and I made it back here."
Zell blinked. "...'m glad you're safe," he murmured, almost to himself.
"I was lucky." He could almost feel her looking at him. "I don't know what happened to you, but it's not like I can't guess. When we tested you, you were full of residual chemicals. We've... seen them before."
(Chemicals.) Zell was taken aback by the way she said that--matter-of-factly, as if it was no surprise whatsoever what had happened or why. Oddly enough--he felt like laughing. "Chemicals? It was all just chemicals?"
"Don't joke about this, Zell." There was a note of warning in Siobhan's voice. "We don't know. We don't know if that's all it was. You probably have the best idea of anyone. But at least take it seriously."
"You think I'm not." (Dammit, I--I don't think I could take this any more seriously if I tried to--)
"I didn't say that." Siobhan looked at him, long and carefully. "If I were you, I would want to talk about this."
"Was that advice?" Zell was uncovering a latent talent for cynicism, it seemed, that he hadn't previously been aware of.
Siobhan glanced away. "An admission," she said. Then she cleared her throat, looking pointedly back into his eyes. "And an offer. Not too many people want to be your friend right now."
(I don't even want to be my friend right now.) "...oh."
There was a moment of silence that grew more awkward by the millisecond.
"Well?" Siobhan prodded.
Zell glanced up. "Er--I'm just supposed to start?"
"You think of a better way?"
He shook his head. "...not really."
(How can I just--) "...I don't know what to say."
"Try this," Siobhan said. "Start at the beginning. Start with the mission."
(O--okay.) He swallowed. "I guess it... I don't think I had this much trouble on the mission." (Not with killing. I didn't mind it then--) "Nothing felt wrong, like it does now. I don't even remember what happened, really, but it didn't feel wrong."
Siobhan was nodding, listening patiently. Just like she had on the docks. (Let the crazy man talk....)
...it didn't matter. Even if she didn't care, even if she hated him, even if she thought he was out of his mind, it was good to have someone listen.
"I never thought about it that way--I never knew I could do that. I mean, I--" (--what am I saying? I knew I could do that. I knew I could kill. I didn't know killing was wrong. I didn't know I could do something wrong--that wrong--and never know about it.) "It's just that when I saw the video of what happened, when me and Drake--"
A sudden realization hit him.
"...Drake! Drake didn't come back! Siob, you--" he lunged forward, ignoring the way it made his head spin, and grabbed Siobhan's arm--on the verge of shaking her to get his point across. "You can't let him back into Garden! He'll--I don't know what he'll do, but he can't come back!"
Siobhan pulled, wrenching her arm from Zell's grip. "Okay, okay, calm down. You're not making any sense, you know that?"
Zell shook his head. "Drake is the reason for all of it. We can't let him back here!"
Siobhan was giving him the strangest look. At length, she shook her head. "Zell?"
There was a beat of silence as she scrutinized his face. "Who the hell is Drake?"
Half an hour later, Xu entered the Infirmary with a stack of papers in hand. "I've checked every record we have," she said. "There's no mention of anyone named Jeshua Drake, or anyone named Drake at all. We can't find anyone who knows a Jeshua Drake, or who knows of him. For all we can tell, he doesn't exist."
(...I don't get it.) "But he was on the mission. Cid assigned him to be on the mission! The contingency officer. He--he told me that he worked for SeeD--"
"Zell." Siobhan interrupted him with a force he didn't contest. "There were only three people on the mission. You, me, and Tanker."
(That can't be right.) "But I--I saw him. I talked to him."
(When?) He blinked, shuffling through a thick mental fog. (Sometime at night. At night--by the ocean. He was smoking, and I told him he shouldn't be--) "I... don't know. But it was dark out."
Siobhan glanced at Xu, who shook her head. "...we were only in South Side for one night," she said. "We got to Esthar in the morning and headed down. We met up with our contacts and you went to get the IDA. You got back to the warehouse, and we met up with you there. ...this was all before sundown, Zell. You were unconscious for the entire night."
"Someone helped me back," he said, voice made shaky from lack of certainty. "You weren't there, and Tanker wasn't there, but someone helped me back to the warehouse. I can remember it." (I--I think--)
"Who? A phantom SeeD?" Siobhan shook her head emphatically. "This might not be the best time to trust your memory, Zell. You--"
"I remember Drake!" It came out much more vehement than he had intended. "I remember him! I saw him and I talked to him and he was there when I stole the IDA and I--I--I'm not making this up!"
(...but Drake was never in any of the memories with Tanker and Siob....)
All at once, he collapsed. Every muscle seemed to switch off, to deactivate as cleanly as if a switch had been flipped. "...help me," he whispered.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Xu making a discreet exit. A moment later, Siobhan's hand was on his shoulder. "What do you need?"
(I need to know what's going on. I need my memories. I need to go home. I need to go back in time a week so that none of this would ever happen. I need--) "...I need to know I'm not going crazy."
He could almost hear Cutwell's stiff retort. You're a danger to yourself and others.
"We'll get to the bottom of this," Siobhan promised. "Trust me, Zell. Do you trust me?"
(Yes! ...no! I--I don't know!) "Can I?"
"Of course. Always."
He wanted to believe her. In a lot of ways, he needed to. But she was Siobhan, the eternally unreadable--and he was nothing more than a rookie, confused and oblivious. The Blue Dragon scandals, Fordham's voice whispered to him. The subordinate was never informed, never aware.
"Then--tell me." He swallowed. (I have to know. I need to understand it.) "Who was wrong?"
The gentle pressure on his shoulder didn't release. "What?"
"You and Fordham and everyone. ...Fordham said that all this was wrong, that it--it wasn't right, but I don't--I don't know. You can't both be right. So--who was wrong?"
Siobhan laughed--a low chuckle. (What's funny?) "...wow," she said.
(...?) Zell glanced up, not sure what he would see--and not expecting what he saw. Siobhan was smiling thinly--the same way she had in Joe's in South Side. You're cute when you're oblivious.
"No one was wrong, Zell. Just... right, in different ways." Siobhan let go of his shoulder, leaning back.
(But that--!) "That's impossible!"
"I don't see why," Siobhan countered smoothly.
"He's right. Killing people is wrong--killing for the sake of killing, killing for no purpose whatsoever."
"We don't decide to kill these people," Siobhan said, gesturing offhandedly. "We don't choose who lives and dies, and if we didn't do it, someone else would. SeeD isn't a... a hive of murderers. You're not a murderer, Zell. ...you're a gun."
Zell shook his head. "Is that right?"
Siobhan shrugged. "Maybe not. Different, anyway."
Siobhan glanced out the window, frowning in an attempt to phrase thoughts into speech. "Look. A gun isn't a bad thing, in and of itself. Guns have a useful purpose. They can be used for a lot of bad things, though, which is why so many people hate them." She sighed. "As mercenary groups go, we don't have so bad a track record. Most of the people we're hired against are the Galbadians, anyway, and they're pretty much the supreme asshats of all creation. For Hyne's sake, we saved the universe. If you want moral failings, there are worse institutions than SeeD out there."
Zell shook his head. "That doesn't make it right."
"Hm." Siobhan shrugged. "I never bothered to think about it. Most people don't."
(Well-- ...they should.) "I can't stop thinking about it."
"I don't blame you."
"Zell." Siobhan's voice brooked no room for argument. "Find me one completely moral person, and I'll show you a clever facade. We all choose our sins, and you're no different. At the end of the day, what difference does it make? One more dead guy who would be dead anyway in a few years? You could spend centuries wondering if it's right or wrong. What it all comes down to, though--it's just what we do."
Zell couldn't do anything but stare. "You're--" he spluttered, shaking his head. "You mean nothin's wrong? You think that way?"
Siobhan shrugged. "I'm a SeeD," she said. "I cope with that. Can you?"
Zell looked down. His hands were clenched so tightly that they hurt. "I don't know," he said.
"You are a SeeD, Zell."
"I don't know."
There was a long moment, and Siobhan sighed. "Maybe--"
"No--you don't get it!" Zell's head jerked up, and he faced her. "There are things I just know now, and I know that something is wrong. I can't just ignore it--" (It means something.) "...it'll only get worse. But I can't do anything about it, because if I try--"
Siobhan was listening, waiting for him to finish the sentence. And, just when he needed it the most, all eloquence abandoned him.
(If I try, then I turn into a killer--just as bad as who I want to change. No better than Tanker, no better than Cid, no better than damn Fordham and Cutwell they used chemicals to make me feel this way but if they didn't I would never have known.... And I don't know anything any more, except that something isn't right.)
"...if I try, nothing gets better. Different, maybe. But nothing gets better."
Siobhan nodded. "I know how it feels," she said.
(No, you don't.)
"...maybe you should try something else."
He stared at her, not understanding what she was asking him to do. "What else is there?"
"A universe of possibilities," Siobhan responded. "Ones that no one can show you, but you."
Zell blinked slowly. "...did you mean what you said?" he asked. "About brainwashing?"
"That the world brainwashes you? Yeah." Siobhan leaned back, looking past Zell and out the window. "No matter what you learn, no matter where you learn it, if you'll hold onto it without thinking, that's brainwashing. I don't care if it's with the best intentions or the worst--it's the same thing."
The guard reappeared, jerking a thumb back behind him. "SeeD Sierra?" he asked. "Xu wants to see you in her office."
"I'll be right up," she replied, effectively dismissing the man. Bending down, she retrieved a crutch from the ground just out of Zell's sight. Glancing back at him, she stood and turned to leave. "See you."
"Wait--!" The word was out of Zell's mouth before he realized he had nothing else to say.
Siobhan paused in the doorway, looking back at him. There was a moment of silence that seemed to last longer than it must have.
"You are a SeeD," she said, softly. "But that doesn't mean you can't be human."
And with that, she was gone.
He closed his eyes.
(Every one of us has nightmares. Being SeeDs, we will of course have nightmares of a different and more potent sort.)
SeeD wasn't right. The Ward wasn't right. It seemed like nothing was right or wrong, but that didn't seem right either.
Jeshua Drake, whom he had seen and spoken to, and who for all reasonable intents and purposes didn't exist.
He kept lining everything up in his mind. (Fordham. Tanker. Siobhan. Drake. Cid--)
There were seven lights. Seven in a ring and one in the middle. Seven altogether, and neither answer was right.
He breathed deeply and closed his eyes again, not remembering when he had opened them. He didn't understand it and no one could explain it. Fordham would tell him that there were eight lights. Siobhan would tell him that Drake didn't exist. Drake would tell him that killing was right. He didn't--he couldn't trust anyone.
Not even himself.
(Nightmares of a different and more potent sort. A nightmare is waking up one day and finding out that you can't live with anything you were, any way you've acted, anything you've done. And I can't. I can't.)
He was beginning to think he should have paid more attention to that lecture.
He tried to think back to it. He really did. But all he could remember were those same, useless words. Nightmares of a different and more potent sort. A different and more potent sort. Different and more potent.
It seemed as if he should be able to remember it. He grasped at it--little wisps of memories, of nightmares, of anything that seemed related.
Suddenly he remembered something--something about the night sky and the dark sea. (Nothing is real. Nothing is... complete. It's heads or tails, and you can't see the full picture. ...the best gamblers make sure the competition never notices when the deck is stacked.)
It was the only answer he had.
And it was Drake's voice and Drake's smile that came back to him then, sounding through the confusion just as they had sounded through the roar and swell of Estharan waves.
(We can deal with our big, bad dreams.)