"Welcome back, Commander Roanoke," said the doctor.
"You had us very worried for a while there. Please don't try to move too much just yet. Your injuries are still healing."
Injuries... How had he gotten injured? He could feel the dull ache running over his face and along most of the length of his body, but-
Ignoring the doctor's advice and the sharper pain that came with moving, he brought up a hand to explore the bandages covering his face. "Ow." His voice came out gritty as though with disuse. "What... happened?"
"Ah," said the doctor, and paused a moment. "From what we were told, your mobile suit was seriously damaged at Jachin Due, after the ship you were defending exploded."
He frowned, and felt it pulling at the rawness that crossed his cheek and ran between his eyes. Mobile suit, yes, but... "That can't be right."
"It's a miracle you survived," the doctor said.
The ship you were defending exploded. That was wrong. He was sure of it, but when he tried to call to mind what had really happened, all that he got was a confused blank and a headache.
"The good news," the doctor went on, "is that you're on your way to a full recovery. You're a very resilient man, Commander Roanoke."
"That isn't my name."
"My name," he said. "It's-"
"Your name is Neo Roanoke," the doctor told him gently.
"-what kind of a name is that?"
"You're a Lieutenant Commander in the EAF," the other went on, as though he hadn't spoken. "We confirmed your identity based on OMNI's records."
My name is... Neo?
"You've been through a very traumatic experience," the doctor said. "It's not surprising that your memories would be.. confused, or blocked off. Don't push yourself. With time and plenty of rest, you should be able to remember more. That's what usually happens in cases like this."
He frowned up at the ceiling and tried to recall what had happened before the battle.
"I recommend that you try to rest. You still have a lot of healing to do."
The name of his ship.
"If you need something for the pain," said the doctor, "don't hesitate to call for a nurse."
The name of his commanding officer.
"I'll let you rest now."
After the doctor left, he lay staring up at the ceiling and tried to remember his name.
He got a few visitors over the next weeks - high-ranking officers in the EAF. None of them seemed familiar, but then, none of them claimed to have known him personally. They saluted him and called him Commander Roanoke, and after a while it stopped sounding like they were talking to someone else.
They all told him the same thing, in different words: We've lost a lot of manpower. We need you back on duty.
It was gratifying at first, but after several of those visits, their urgency started to bother him. The war was supposed to be over - wasn't it?
When he asked, they brought him a copy of his service record. Lacking anything else to do but lie in bed and ache, he studied it, searching between the plainly printed lines for anything that made sense.
Lieutenant Commander Neo Roanoke. Birthdate: November 29, C.E. 42. Blood type O. No next of kin.
This is me?
He read the list of stationing assignments and deployments, names of locations and bases and ships, but no door opened in his memory. They were just names on a page: 3rd Fleet. GAT-01 Strike Dagger. Served with distinction, Battle of Porta Panama.
Is this... all of me?
What else would there be?
He stared for a long time at the last assignment: Archangel-class battleship Dominion, destroyed during the battle of Jachin Due, September 27, C.E. 71. "Dominion" mean nothing to him, but "Archangel"...
He asked about it, and they told him that the Dominion was the only Archangel-class ship commissioned - a prototype carrier which had not, unfortunately, performed according to expectations.
It didn't sit well with him, but maybe that was guilt.
He slept often, an escape from the discomfort of his healing wounds and the sheer boredom of being stuck in a hospital bed with nothing to do and few visitors. And gradually, memories filtered back to him.
Sometimes he simply stumbled over them, like finding something he'd forgotten that he owned, while thinking of something else that suddenly brought an association to mind.
Sometimes he dreamed in feverish Technicolor, and woke up with the memories suddenly fresh and restored. He remembered the Dominion, in disjointed fragments, though the memories never entirely stopped feeling off somehow, like they'd been painted in the wrong colors. Jachin Due never resolved itself into anything clearer than a confusion of spangled space and explosions and blinding light, but when he dreamed of Panama the sight of the surrendering OMNI personnel who'd been gunned down by ZAFT pilots stayed with him in brutal clarity after he woke up in a cold and gasping sweat, and he didn't sleep again for a while.
Bit by bit, he pieced his identity together, fitting scraps of memory to the factual framework of his service record. But it did nothing to dispel the gnawing sense of something missing, and the dreams he most wanted to remember - the ones from which he woke sometimes hot with sourceless anger but more often warm with a feeling he didn't have a name for - no matter how still he lay upon waking, trying to recall any one clear detail to hold onto, those dreams always dissipated like vapor, and the contentment he felt on waking turned cold and hollow.
No one who knew him ever came to visit.
Eventually they took the bandages off his face, and for the first time he could look at himself in the mirror. A stranger looked back at him, with blond hair grown out long and untidy, and stripes of livid scar tissue forking over his cheek and across the bridge of his nose.
That was when the nurses stopped looking him in the eye.
Once he was healed enough to get around he threw himself into physical therapy; he couldn't seem to master his memory but he could at least regain mastery over his body. It was a goal to work towards, and the satisfaction that came from steadily rebuilding muscle and endurance, from replacing the ache of healing wounds with the more honest ache of exertion and finally being able to move without pain at all, mostly filled in the voids within him left by the broad expanses of memory that never came back.
It was after one of those sessions that Admiral Sutherland returned to visit him again, this time in the company of a man who didn't wear an Omni uniform. "Commander Roanoke," he said, "I'd like to introduce you to Lord Djibril," and Neo took a hard look at the man that an admiral in the Earth Alliance would call 'Lord.'
There was something about this Djibril he wasn't sure he liked - something in the way he carried himself, or maybe it was the set of his eyes - but a soldier didn't disgrace an admiral on the basis of anything as nebulous as a feeling. "Sir," he said, and inclined his head with what he hoped was enough respect to pass muster.
Djibril met his eyes only for an instant before he looked away with an expression of frowning distaste, like the nurses, like everyone. "You're recovering very quickly," he said. "It's a shame they couldn't do more about the scars, though. It must be difficult to be reminded of your failure every time you look in a mirror."
The insincere sympathy in the man's tone had Neo's jaw tightening. He kept his mouth shut.
"Well," Djibril went on nonchalantly, "perhaps I can help with that. I'm here to extend an offer to you, Neo. I could use someone of your skills in the 81st Independent Mobile Battalion."
"I'm not familiar with that division," Neo said.
Djibril smiled, slyly. "No, you wouldn't be, would you."
"Although we're currently at peace," said Admiral Sutherland, "intel has given us reason to believe that PLANT does not intend to abide by the terms of our treaties. As for us, our hands are tied. We can't take steps to defend ourselves without breaking the treaties ourselves."
"So you're talking about covert operations," Neo said.
"The captain of the 81st answers only to me," Djibril told him. "And any requests for manpower or equipment will be filled without question with the best that OMNI has to offer, to allow the battalion appropriate freedom to act. I'm sure you can understand how important it is for me to have someone in that position who can be trusted to follow orders."
There was a dissonance about the whole thing, a static buzzing in the back of Neo's head - a feeling of betrayal he could not quite pinpoint the reason for. So it would not be peace after all, in spite of all the bloodshed that had bought the chance for it.
And whose fault was that?
And what else had he supposed that he might do with himself, when war was all he had any memory of?
"So?" Djibril prompted, expectantly. "Can I count on you, Neo?"
Neo inclined his head in a stiff nod. "Yes, sir."
"Excellent." He sounded smugly pleased. "You can think of it as a second chance, to make up for Jachin Due."
Afterward, walking down the hallway alone, he passed a woman wearing an OMNI uniform and the insignia of a lieutenant. She was nothing out of the ordinary, brown-haired and with a nice enough figure but not the least bit familiar, and he could not imagine what about her had prompted him to look twice. But when he did, for a moment by chance they made eye contact.
She winced and looked uncomfortably away as she moved on past.
He stared himself down in the mirror later, and the scar tissue glared back at him, still raw and vivid across his face, a badge of failure.
It gave him a cold feeling the first time he put on the mask and saw himself with half his face hidden, impassive and anonymous, but it was better than not being able to meet his own eyes in the mirror.