It took three days before Booth could work up the courage to see Zack in the hospital again. Actually, that was wrong. The courage had been there, he just needed a little time to sort out his own emotions before he tried to get a handle of Zack's. Three days was long enough for the anger to fade into a kind of cold hurt. Long enough that he could talk to the kid without wanting to kill him.
Everyone else knew exactly how they felt. Cam was furious with the kid, unable to fathom his betrayal. Booth knew he wasn't anywhere near as smart as Bones, but he understood people. If Camille and Zack hadn't been lovers, he'd be damned. Bones was confused, but she was getting over it, throwing herself into work. Angela had cried a river of tears and Hodgins…well; Hodgins had lost his best friend. They all had their emotions but Booth had one thing they didn't. He understood Zack.
He understood the kid in a way that only one soldier could understand another. That once you got used to taking orders from someone in a combat situation, never questioning, it was damn hard not to fall into the same trap back in the "real world." It was probably the one reason he had joined the FBI. Same guy giving you the orders, just suits instead of fatigues. There was always comfort in familiarity.
No, the problem wasn't courage at all; it was that Zack's situation stirred doubts in him that were better left buried. Because, really, what was the difference between them? They had both taken lives in blind allegiance to a higher power. Did the fact that Booth was working for the greater good excuse his actions? But then, Zack had felt he was also working for the right side. Whose greater good? Was taking out secret terrorist sects in the deserts of Iraq and different than taking out secret sects in the middle of DC?
It was different, it had to be, but damn if Booth could see how. After all, Zack had cut the throat of a lobbyist, and known what he was doing was wrong in the eyes of the law, if not by his own moral compass. But Booth had shot a man in cold blood, allowing his blood to spray onto an innocent child. Something that was not technically wrong in the eyes of the law, but wrong to his own set of morals. So who was better between them?
Probably neither, he had finally concluded. They had each done what they had to, in service to a higher power. It didn't escape his notice that despite the similarities, Zack was going to be the one who hung for it, not him. In this life, at least. Who knew what was waiting for them, or their victims, in the great hereafter?
That was the reason Booth had pleaded for mercy, to have Zack found incompetent to stand trial. It wasn't some misplaced sense of guilt over not paying enough attention to the kid. It was the deep down knowledge that it could well have been him in that closet, screwdriver in hand. That he would have taken out the target without question, without remorse.
The question then became, did Zack feel remorse? Booth knew he did. He might not have felt it at the time, but he did now. Now that the mystery surrounding the Gorgamon had been peeled away and it was determined that he was, after all, just a man behind a curtain. The same way Booth had been fine in the desert, but depressed back in the states. It was an entirely new type of misery to know you built a belief system on a lie.
Finally, he had been unable to stand the questions and worries floating around in his head. He made excuses to Bones and took a day off work so he could go to the hospital and talk to the man face to face. A quick stop at McDonalds got him two milkshakes, as a sort of a peace offering. He couldn't imagine that Zack would refuse to let him in, but a small bribe never hurt.
As he had suspected, Zack was pleased to have the company. As he had also suspected he was alone. Alone but not deaf, as he turned to study Booth intently. There had always been something penetrating about Zack's gaze, as if he could look into your thoughts and knew it all. Most of the time, Booth backed down from that stare, uncomfortable at having his thoughts assessed, but today he stared back unflinchingly.
After a minute or so of the staring contest, Zack broke eye contact and smiled slightly. "Hello Agent Booth, why are you here? I already told you what I can remember, which should have been everything you needed. Did I leave something out?"
That, Booth reflected, might be a large part of the problem right there. Zack assumed that you were interested in him, not for his company, but for his brain. He had very little sense of himself as a person, outside of his intelligence. So all it had taken was one person to stroke his ego in exactly the right way, show him a little attention, and he had followed them like a lamb to slaughter. It was a brutal realization, especially since Booth knew that he was particularly guilty.
"No, nothing like that. I just thought you might want some company." The dark eyes hardened, again searching him for some sign of deceit.
"I don't get it. I told you how to get to the Masters place, and I'm assuming you did, or you wouldn't be here, so how come you came back? I shouldn't be any more use to you." There was nothing to indicate he was upset about any of this. In his world it was just how things happened. He did what was expected of him mentally, and was ignored the rest of the time.
Hurriedly, Booth held up the milkshakes, trying to escape his roving thoughts. "Yes we found him. He's dead. I thought…well, I thought we you might be lonely, so we could spend a little time together. I brought milkshakes."
Zack smiled the light coming back into his eyes. For a moment, he looked all of sixteen, just a child pleased with the treat. Except he wasn't. He had played an adults game and lost, now he would be facing the adult consequences. Booth felt his heart catch, but forced himself to show nothing on his face. "You want chocolate or strawberry?"
Booth fussed with the controls on the bed, bringing it mostly upright and rifled through the drawers until he found a bendy straw to replace the straight one in the bag. He held it out carefully, allowing Zack to cradle it to his chest so he could drink. Zack fumbled it a little, but Booth wasn't going to help him out. That kid was going to be in bandages for a long time, and probably never get much dexterity back, so it was high time he learned to do it for himself. It would be slow going, but more than possible, Booth knew for a fact. After being rescued from the POW camp, he had needed almost all of his fingers to be rebroken and reset, since they had healed wrong after torture sessions. He had spent months in casts pretty similar to Zack's so he had a good idea of what could and could not be done.
For a while they sat in silence, enjoying the milkshakes and each thinking their own thoughts. Booth knew that Zack was staring at him out of the corners of his eyes, but he didn't take offense, particularly since he was doing the same thing to Zack. All the carefully rehearsed speeches had flown out of his mind, and he had no idea what to say to the kid now that he was here. Zack, too, seemed confused, and they spent another few minute staring at each other.
Finally Booth spoke, more to hear his own voice then because he knew what to say. "Listen Zack, I'm sorry."
"For what?" The feature softened. "What do you have to be sorry for, I'm the one who messed up?"
What was Booth sorry for? Not noticing that Zack had been kind of funny every since he came back from Iraq? Sending him in the first place? Always taking Bones with him on cases, even though he knew Zack was more than capable? Not really noticing Zack at all?
Booth laced his fingers behind his head, leaning back into the chair. "I'm sorry things turned out the way they did. That all this happened and no one was able to help you and that you didn't ask for any help."
They were both finished drinking, so he took both cups and tossed them, grateful to have somewhere to look besides Zack and those strangely old eyes. He returned to his chair. "Did they talk to you about the deal?"
"Yes. They find me mentally incompetent and I go to a secure mental facility for an indefinite amount of time, until it is either determined that I am fit enough to stand trial, or that I am legally insane, which we both know I'm not." Jesus, did Zack just repeat the deal verbatim? Booth knew he had, since he had written most of it himself. Never mind that, the kid was talking again. "I know you had a lot to do with that, Agent Booth and I'm grateful. I don't think I would make it in prison."
No, he wouldn't. With his pretty face and inability to keep his mouth shut, Zack would get torn to pieces before the first week was done and Booth was done sending men to their doom. Especially since he, of all people should have seen it coming. Part of his job was to help those that couldn't help themselves, a pretty apt description of the squints and he had failed.
"Is Hodgins really mad at me? He hasn't come to see me at all. Of course, I can't blame him under the circumstances but I thought he might."
Booth thought for a second. "He'll come. He's been moping around the lab, without anyone to do experiments with. The girls won't go anywhere near him, and I'm not smart enough to really help out. He misses you a lot and I'll tell him you miss him too."
"Don't bother. If he wants to come he can, but I don't want you to guilt trip him into it." They were brave words, but the slight tremor in his voice belied them.
Booth hadn't really thought much about Hodgins in the past few days, but once he did, something because clear that hadn't been before. "He'll be here. He knew it was you all along, or at least before the rest of us did, and he tried his best to protect you. He loves you, despite it all. He just needs a little time. We all do."
"Is Dr. Brennan alright? She's going to have to replace me now. Of course, she would have had to anyway, because, you know." He held up one bandaged hand. Booth cringed inwardly, remembering what lay under those bandages. The smoke filling the lab and seeing Zack just laying there, most of his skin gone. Field training had taken over, and he was able to keep Zack breathing until the ambulance could get there. If he hadn't done that, someone else would have. Or maybe not, maybe they all would have stood helplessly by until it was too late.
Again, Zack read his mind. "I'll bet you wish you had let me die then, huh? Then you wouldn't have to come out here or call in favors to get me into the nuthouse. It would have all been taken care of for you."
The thought had crossed Booths mind, more than once, as he tossed and turned at night, trying to figure out how things had gone so wrong. "Then we still wouldn't have known who the Gorgamon was and we'd be right back at square one, except without you."
Zack closed his eyes, clearly worn out with the visit. Booth could understand that too. There were just times when it was easier to curl up and sleep, forgetting both the physical and emotion pain, even if it was only for a few hours. "You're without me now."
It was true, and for the first time Booth realized that this was it. He wasn't going to come to the lab tomorrow and see Zack. He wouldn't see him next week or month or year. Bones would replace him, and that would be that. They would go back to the way things had been, only different.
A nurse came in and gestured him out. "I'm sorry sir, but Mr. Addy needs his rest. You can come back and see him tomorrow." There was no hint that she knew she was harboring a killer, although he knew they had all been told. He lightly patted Zack's jaw. "I'll see you later. Do you need anything?"
He opened one eye to a slit. "A time machine would be nice."
Booth smiled. "Yeah, well, I'll let you know about that." He squeezed Zack's shoulder one last time and left the room, abandoning Zack to whatever the nurse had in store for him. He had been in enough rehab centers to know that it wasn't going to be pleasant.
The warm air felt good as he left the hospital. The sun was too bright, but he couldn't bring himself to put on the sunglasses just yet. Instead he breathed deeply; glad to be out of the claustrophobic environment of the ICU. He knew he'd be back, but next time he wouldn't be alone. He'd bring Bones with him, or maybe even Cam. But that was for another day. Right here, right now, he just wanted to enjoy his freedom.