Title: Falling With Exquisite Grace

Author: Well, duh.

Rating: Old enough to know better, discreet enough to not quite be pr0n.

Pairing: I HATE this category. But shockingly, this one is a "Neo/Merv" story.

Warnings: If you are squicked by slash, gay relations, or anything of the sort, hit that little red "X" button right about now. There's a lot of that in here.

Disclaimer: I don't own the Matrix movies, or any of the people involved. There's a fine line there, but I'll get into that a little later.

A/N: Okay. First off: most of this is a true story. Believe what you will, but in case you think I've gone competely off my rocker, here: w-w-w, truthofthespoon dot net. That should explain a lot.

Assuming you're either back with me here or haven't left the page, I also would like to dedicate this story to someone very important to me. It isn't rocket science here, people. laughs. I told them I'd write something down for them... and instead of the enlightening drabble I'd envisioned, I got this, written in ONE marathon twelve-hour session. Whoo. So here it is. My manifesto, as fanfiction. Enjoy.

Oh, and that single line, "Here comes the war machine"? That's from a Bush song. It's called -drumroll- "Warm Machine". Not mine, sadly.

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Chapter One: The Fight Against Peace

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War brings out the best and worst in people – it is a fact of nature, a universal truth. Only in moments most extreme do the majority of beings ever really touch the center of themselves: unpleasant or altruistic, afraid or standing without fear before the maelstrom.

But to those who live the reality of war, the constant struggle between safety and freedom, to those who are not defined by anything as lofty as "pure ideal" discussed and sketched out and pointed at across a boardroom table… to those to whom war is an empty chair where someone they loved once ate and laughed and wept, a scar that will never entirely heal, a tattered mess of blood and sinew and bone, scorched fields and blackened skies… to those who are haunted every waking moment by the ghosts that lurk just out of reach – always seeing, never quite seen, and never exorcised: the unconscious knows the truth the mind rejects, that forgetting equals death, and one must never forget – and the ghost of what is yet to come… to those who are standing on the front lines at any given second, juggling peace and freedom like razored flaming knives that might drop at a moment's inattention… to those who know the bone-deep difference between peace and a temporary cease-fire paid for in blood…

To those people, this struggle creates endless shades of gray.

Where once was an enemy: now simply another sentient being, struggling to exist, to survive, to be free; where once was a knowledge of right and wrong, now the real understanding that circumstances dictate pain; fear spawns hatred, hatred spawns death, and death brings nothing if not more hatred. A cycle, forever unending.

Until now.

Where once was an impassible wall; now, perhaps, a door.

If one can keep up the dance.

Worlds within worlds; a perfect microcosm of civilization. He muses, Neo does, in the shadows of the corner where he lurks, that if the world at large – Zion, perhaps, which to his mind has become increasingly uncomfortable, these last days, simply another system of control bound and constrained by the legends of hatred, the tales passed down of "evil machines" from generation to generation, the stories of how the poor oppressed humans had vanquished their oppressors with the help of the One… a mindset poised forever on the brink of another war because it did not know how to learn from the first – or even the entirety of the Matrix, could see the melting pot of beings that stood, drank, danced, and laughed in this room… if they could see that, they might wake up to a truth more important than that gained by a red pill and a half a glass of tepid tapwater.

If only they could see.

Here, knowledge may be power, but the real power was in rising above the knowledge that you had knowledge… he curls his lip at the confused complexity of that thought. Look, I'm esoteric.

A party, then: or what a party dreamt of being in its more ambitious moments. Everyone present chosen for a very specific reason, brought by invitation only, gathered in this, this neutral expanse. Human -- rarely – or program, Exile, part of the System or beyond it, it really didn't matter now. And Neo sometimes thought that he had learned more about human nature from his efforts here, now, after the war, than he'd ever learned during or before it: the intricate mechanics of life.

Here comes the war machine.

But it was harder, really, to maintain peace than to fight for it: when people believe that their lives, their way of life, is threatened, they will do anything to protect it. They will sacrifice that which they thought they knew; they will stand before things that inspire fear in the most steady hands; and they will, perhaps, even listen to one man, reaching out to both sides in an effort to bring a halt to the needless death, the wailing mothers, the crumpled, skinny not-quite-teenagers with the scars and the haunted eyes and plugs still shining wetly through a dark fuzz of new hair.

But let them think they've won… well, that's another story.

What he had found is that people will often fight to protect victory, as fervently as peace.

And so he tries: tries to tell them, even one at a time, that the peace will hold only as long as they care to hold it; that if they cannot see the wrong in both sides they are simply perpetuating the wrong. That not fighting because the other side's not fighting – even though you would, oh yes, those sons of bitches killed my whole family, my son was on his first crew assignment on that ship and those bastards slaughtered him, ever leave me alone with an EMP and a field of them I'd take out every last one – is an exercise in futility.

That the hatred, the fear, is what began this all in the first place.

Most of them think he's gone around the bend: that his journey to the Machine City, the injuries that laid him down for two months after Kid and the Hammer and an abundance of faith had brought him back to them, have addled him into "sympathy for the enemy".

Well, they did keep him alive, they say. Maintained him on some… who the hell knows, some system of wires or tubes or something – those bastards, we pulled him out once and after everything he did for them, they have the sack to hook him up again like a fucking piece of meat -- and so he probably feels like he owes 'em.

Sympathy for the Machines? The idea that the Matrix isn't a system of control meant to oppress, but in actuality perhaps even a mercy, something to allow the vanquished carbon-based beings a comfortable dream-world that contained all their history, all that which was familiar, their hopes and dreams and loves and pains and fantasies, the green of a grass at the edge of a child's Slip'N Slide, the orange-red-gold explosion of dawn, cool water on a summer's day and the feeling of the arms of someone who loves you… instead of nothing but an empty blackness, tubes and wires and a choking thick syrupy mass clogging eyes and nose and chest, forever awake and aware and unable to scream in a horrible nightmare stasis? A mercy? That the humans themselves would never even have thought to offer, had the victory been the other way around?

How dare he even suggest it.

The Machines are evil. Humans are oppressed. Black and white, and if in a hundred years – or a hundred days, as Neo secretly thinks, terrifyingly, is much more likely – the war begins again because no knowledge is passed down but this hatred… well, then, they'll fight again, won't they?

Sometimes Neo almost despairs.

He has had better luck with the Exiles.

In six iterations, there has never been a human with the idea that destroying the Matrix is not the solution to the conflict: this, he has been told. But why destroy the System? In the part of his brain that is part Machine – and, perhaps, always has been – he simply cannot comprehend this. Yeah, sure… the Matrix has "enslaved" humans for generations: even in his mind, he hears the quote marks around the word. But if there is real peace, then those who choose to leave the System can do so: there is no slavery, no constraint, no bondage there. And for those who don't… well, who could honestly blame them? Some people are content with their lives, digital or not – they like their hot baths, their football games, chasing after their children in the backyard. Taking that away from them because you think it is your duty to "free" them whether they are ready or not is, as far as Neo is concerned, just another form – and a worse one than the Matrix could ever be – of slavery. It's like believing that the world is a place of horror and sin, and that the biggest favor you could do someone is to "purify" them… by killing them. No choice, no questions. Thanks, we're doing you a favor. Be sure to be grateful.

Grateful. Neo's hand tightens convulsively around the slender red glass he holds.

And until the sky is cleared, the Machines need the fields to survive. As simple and uncomplicated as that. There are no ulterior motives, no glorifying in oppression – something else he has come to learn, that that kind of hatred, that self-righteous pleasure in another's suffering, is a uniquely human trait – it is a simple desire to be allowed to exist. Humans fought for that right; they died for it. For millennia, since the beginning of time. Any sentient being deserves that freedom. Create a child; the choice of whether that child lives or dies is taken out of your hands the moment the essence of whatever divine you believe in breathes life into the spark. Children are not objects; they are living beings, fragments of the cosmic. Humans may have created the first Machines… but that has never given them the right to take that life away because they think they can.

Because they're afraid.

If they're so desperately afraid of the Matrix, Neo thinks, and not for the first – or the hundredth – time, why don't they simply work with the Machines, to clear the sky? They were the ones responsible for that destruction, after all. Clear the sky, give them back their freedom – does Zion think the Machines want to be bound to the human race? It's an unwilling symbiosis on both parts, after all – give them back their power source, and let both races live their own way, if not in harmony, then at least in peace.

It is an idea he has been trying to fight for for months.

Here, in the Matrix, he has at least begun to move ahead, in tiny, tiny steps.

A human, the Sixth Anomaly, coming forward to speak of peace, of moving beyond old hatreds, old prejudices. Speaking from a connection with the Source, speaking of free will and a desire to end the death, the destruction. The endless cycle of helpless iteration. Trap a program in a loop, and it will repeat itself until the end of the world. Until the program is interrupted – or rebooted – or until the parameters are changed.

A systemic anomaly; a glitch in the System.

A departure from the cycle.

At first, most of those with power on the Machine side had simply dismissed him as a lunatic: What can he do? But he persisted. While Zion whispered behind his back about his sympathetic leanings, while those for whom peace was not a profitable prospect spoke in firewalled rooms, built code bombs in basements with the sole purpose of shutting him up forever. Even now, standing here, the hand that he is flexing around the tall thin glass – and he doesn't drink, but here all rules seem to be suspended – is scorched from the third knuckle down the back of his hand: it's an ugly, badly-healing wound, and bending the reality of the Construct aside, there were always new weapons.

If peace doesn't make a passable profit, there's always death.

Finding out that there are no sides makes trying to establish alliances surprisingly difficult: he didn't want to create a little stronghold, to play the never-ending chess game of power and influence to buy the human race – and, by association, the Machine empire – just a little more time. He wanted a real, honest audience for the idea of true peace: he wanted, needed, to build that Bridge.

He wanted them to understand that they were all one race, in the end.

When you really came down to it.

So, after endless nights walking the rain-damp streets with the high collar of his coat turned up against a digital wind, after battles both physical and emotional with those from all sides who would rather hate than understand, rather kill than reach out to… after tiny steps – where he once put the word out in the same chat rooms he'd once practically lived in, L337 hackers and teenage wannabes, 'ware for hire and the same places Trinity had eventually found him, now he put out a different message entirely; after lurking in the places where the influential lurked as well, after offering up his own sacrifices, his own demonstrations of honesty and dedication to the ideal – he'd at last been illuminated with a course of action. And once he'd initiated it, he'd had to laugh long and hard at himself: both for doing it at all, and for taking so goddamn long to figure it out. In the end, he'd done what generations in the Matrix had done before him, when they had something significant to offer, to ask, to put on the game table when last bets were called.

He'd gone to the Merovingian.

And now here he was, half-hidden in shadow in one of the chateau's more spacious social rooms: lurking quietly, thinking, and waiting for it to be time to begin again: the talk, the understanding, the planning. Watching as programs, beings, intermingled half-drunkenly or full-on smashed – although the Merv had a facial expression he reserved particularly for those who became drooling intoxicated idiots in public in his House, and Neo, biting his tongue because it wasn't his place to criticize his host's moral demonstrations, had occasionally seen these same guests finding upon their next visit that the coded wine, or whiskey, or what have you, did not at all agree with them – and watching their interactions. Learning. Always aware even at the deepest level of his mind that these were people, people who laughed and loved and had the right to live and exist and be free.

"I just have never..."

" ...heard a program speak of love?"

"It's a... human emotion."

"No, it is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?"

"Anything."

"Then perhaps the reason you're here is not so different from the reason I'm here."

And again, over and over, Neo had found that the thought most people found it easy to scoff at was true: preconceptions meant nothing. There were those who thought the Merovingian was the reptile of the Machine world, cold-blooded, without reason or compassion; Neo, having reasons that drove more insistently than self, dug deeper. Instinctively knowing that this might be his path to a middle ground; to peace. Because even now, there were those that would not listen to him, Neo, simply because the majority of the shell he currently resided in was, still, human. Regardless of the wires and plates, regardless of the cameras wired to new holes in his skull, the 'gift' of the Council of Zion when sight would have been the last thing he'd've asked for. Just as the humans were not without their prejudices, their pre-ordained hatred, there were those among the Machine empire and the Exiles who had nothing but contempt for these, their original jailers. Meat bags with half a conscience; slaves to biology.

"Nothing this weak is meant to survive."

But in the Merovingian's characteristic self-interest there were the seeds of the beginnings of peace: odd, that, to hear spoken aloud, but no less true. Like a jeweler bent over his worktable – every inch of said table exquisitely crafted and shaped by the touch of his own particular hand – turning a precious rare gem over and over before his scrutinizing, magnified eye, the Merv had examined the ideas Neo had offered him, seen the younger man's sincerity, and paused to consider.

Not just lip service to peace. Not a pause in the war, not this ridiculous 'cease-fire'… like they're all somehow just holding their breath, children playing Freeze Tag in the school yard. Tag, you're frozen, with your guns and your bombs and your EMPs, with your upraised weapons and your smoking rubble. Changing the entire mindset. We're talking massive upheaval here, an entire paradigm shift, and it's a dangerous game to play – dance too far in the wrong direction and you dance straight into the firing line. Or fall, and everything falls with you. Because of you. But even though whispering in someone's ear never woke them out of a coma, sometimes a whisper is all it takes. To start a revolution. And that's what we want, really, isn't it? A revolution of thought. A revolution of mind. To shake up these centuries-old preconceptions about the evil of each other's race and be able to – metaphorically, at least – step up, shake hands, and be allowed to live as we choose? And, shit, maybe even together?

Neo's own ability to express these ideas, these plans, surprised and scared him, a little: throughout his entire existence after that single moment in which he'd made his choice and swallowed the pill, he'd never been the leader. That had been Morpheus: Morpheus, who could rally an army to exultation with a few well-chosen words. Morpheus, who could inspire the most die-hard skeptics to belief against their most passionate refusals; Morpheus who had taught him the first real truths he'd ever learned, who had released him to discover the Purpose that had led him here, who had been the father he'd never had in every clichéd sense that there was, Morpheus who had schooled him and led him and molded the warrior he had become.

Morpheus, who had died with the same black and white truths that he had lived with; died before Neo could give back the gift of understanding that the Source had touched off in his soul.

Died, before Neo could tell him that it wasn't about control, after all, and look: we can make peace. We really can.

"That is our karma."

"You believe in karma?"

"Karma is a word. Like "love". A way of saying 'what I am here to do.' I do not resent my karma - I'm grateful for it. Grateful for my wonderful wife, for my beautiful daughter. They are gifts. And so I do what I must do to honor them."

And so Neo – out of love, out of faith, out of Purpose or design, who's to know? – became the strategist, the median, the unbroken white center of the revolution. He became that leader: speaking to the shadowed groups in Zion, beneath the overhang of the nightly marketplace, in the corners of the docks as the morning cage-crews came on duty prepared for a day of grit and grime and grease. He spoke to those both inside and out of the Construct, the Matrix: he created places where those who were interested in hearing his unbiased truth might be able to… and sometimes it took all of his not-so-refined cunning and resources to create these places safely. After all, peace is not in some people's best interests. Back to the chat rooms, the message boards, the warehouses where the ship crews once scrambled for exits and met in secret to hide from the Agents of the System. Near the end of one memorable back-alley meeting, one of his own people, a new recruit – what Trinity had always referred to as a 'baby redpill' -- had even taken a careless, passionately spiteful shot at him: because he welcomed the Agents, the Exiles.

They thought he had betrayed them.

He knew better, even if they didn't; but his activities inside the Matrix once again took on that air of distant danger, smoke rising always over just the next horizon. Uncertainty. This was something that refusing bullets couldn't stop; he could rock back on his right ankle and flex a knee and rise above it, but he could never really escape it. Because hatred might not fly with you… but it's always waiting on the ground.

And there are always new weapons in the fight against peace.