Zach's eyes were wide.
"This place is amazing. What is it?"
He looked around again more carefully, and then grimaced. "He's rich, too? Shoulda guessed. He's got everything else."
"He didn't use to be." Ghost hesitated, unsure of how much he should say. But the resentment was so palpable, and so unfounded, and it was all common knowledge, anyway. "The opposite, in fact. This," he gestured around the beautiful, tranquil living area, "is a thank you from Zion. They moved in just this last week. They didn't have enough privacy in their old place anymore..." He paused, seeing the blank expression on Zach's face. How could he even begin to understand? The crowds, thronging the walkways around Trinity's apartment, hushed, worshipful, completely oppressive? Understand what it had been like, in that tiny sliver of a room, ever since they'd been back? Visitors had instinctively whispered, constantly aware of the people just outside that thin steel partition. Trinity and Neo had whispered too, had made carefully veiled allusions to anything personal, even in their own home, plainly afraid their conversations were overheard. Ghost had hated the bare hour he'd spent there, so he'd not been surprised by their decision, just that they'd held out as long as they had. He'd been saddest when he'd heard of their only request: that the old apartment be kept aside for a year or two, in case the publicity died down again, and made its reoccupation a possibility. This denial of the truth was uncharacteristic, but their longing for anonymity was anything but.
The new apartment was set squarely on the main concourse, with a secret exit through the upstairs wall into the military complex next door, and a cleared zone into the main Zion square. Nobody was allowed to mass there; civilian police ensured a free flow so the Temple, hospital, council buildings and military complex could be easily accessed. This was the only private home allowed here, in the civic area, by all the public buildings, adjacent to the main Temple entrance. And inside, the layout had been designed with privacy in mind at Ghost and Morpheus' express insistence in the planning stages; the double-height living area shielded the bedrooms, the processing room and the dining kitchen from ears and eyes, even from their less intimate guests. They had spaces that would always be private, hidden away from any but the very closest of friends.
Ghost sighed. "Come. We'll explain everything." Enough, anyway he amended silently to himself. Information on Neo and Trinity was now strictly on a need-to-know basis. Gossip germinating wildly from the tiniest snippet became a jungle inside a day, in Zion. He'd lost count of how many times he'd been told that Trinity was pregnant, that Neo was having an affair, that the machines were paying insiders to assassinate one, the other or both.
He led the way through the room, and over to the carved stone stairs at the back, the kitchen door half-hidden beneath it.
As they ascended, Zach realized they were reaching a mezzanine balcony, overlooking the living area. Off it were five doors, all closed; the left-most one at a right angle, and the other four in a row, facing down to the living room. Ghost knocked at the last one on the right.
Morpheus opened it.
Link was inside as well, typing rapidly into a central bank of monitor screens, and while he raised a hand in awkward greeting as Zach entered, he didn't stop his work.
Ghost felt momentarily envious. He'd not mind an excuse to be preoccupied to the point of invisibility, if he had to be here at all. He'd been assigned many unpleasant tasks in his service of Zion, but this was indubitably one of the worst. And nobody knew. Nobody knew that assigning him this job was tactless to the point of cruelty. Observing Zach's desolation might remind him powerfully of his own.
He'd long buried the memory; he'd had to, if he was to remain close to Trinity, was to build the relationship with Neo that any continued closeness to her required. His honest liking for the man had eventually made that easier, and by now, it wasn't faked. He regarded Neo as a friend in his own right. But he didn't want to remember how he'd felt that evening, Trinity's face glowing, her words falling over one another in uncharacteristic eagerness, telling him this newly freed man could do amazing things. Was the kindest, gentlest, most courageous person she'd ever met; that he, Ghost, just had to meet him too, had to know. He'd known more than she realized; even before she told him, he'd known. It shone out of her, said a great deal more than her words could begin to. And that had been shocking, too, in a woman as guarded and cautious as she was. The pain had been breathtaking when he'd first seen them together, grasped quite how reciprocal it was. And now he was to inflict it on someone else.
Zach didn't believe Neo felt the same way she did, and Ghost knew the dim flame of hope which burned on that fuel. It was about to be extinguished.
"We felt this apartment would afford more privacy than the communal options available to us," Morpheus said, his face impassive. "Link will operate for us. Please, take a seat." But Zach didn't move.
"A technical term. It'll all become clear when we explain."
"This better not be surgery," he said lightly, but there was genuine anxiety just beneath. Morpheus' face softened.
"Nothing of the kind, have no fear. He operates the programs we require if we are to throw light upon your new situation. Explanations are easier with that supplementation."
"Explanations? When Neo isn't here? He said he'd do it."
"We dissuaded him. There are things he would find it difficult to tell you."
Morpheus smiled. "Because Neo is - he remains - a most unassuming man."
"I don't follow."
"He would find it difficult to explain that he is also a wholly remarkable one."
Zach's jaw set to muscle. Then he said abruptly, "So why isn't she doing it?"
"You don't want to hear this from her, Zach," Ghost said gently. "Trust me. You don't."
"People keep saying that," Zach said, a slight note of desperation evident. "Trust them. Don't ask questions. Don't I deserve a bit of trust back, by now?"
"Yes," Ghost said. "But Morpheus and I have to be the ones to tell you what's going on." He reached across and put a hand on Zach's shoulder. "Believe me, this is being done for your sake. It's been very carefully considered. Neo wouldn't ever renege on a promise like that if he weren't convinced it was right - for you."
Zach stared at the four drive chairs, set around a bank of monitors, as Link began to type a string of commands, and then at the streaming green code. "What's that? It's no programming language I've ever seen."
"Here, it's just for a program we call the construct."
Link glanced over. "It codes the Matrix, too," he said. Zach looked at him, then back at the others, and then finally sighed and motioned to the drive chairs. "So what are those for?"
"This is their... you could call it their study," Ghost said carefully. "Neo and Trinity's. Those chairs are where they work."
Zach stared around him again, at the chairs, the bizarre paraphernalia beside each one. "They have some kind of dentist fetish and nobody told me? 'Cause I have to warn you, it's not one I share."
Link raised an eyebrow. "See, you say that now... but trust me, it grows on you guys. I've seen it a million times."
"A million?" Ghost said, and smiled. Link's determination to lighten the tone impressed him; the least he could do was try to help. Before they blew the poor bastard's world apart.
"Jack-ins?" Link said cheerfully. "By now, probably. And Zach, Trinity's the only poddie I know who ain't a construct fan. Could call her weird over it in fact only I don't wanna die so I'll just call her rare. So. Month from now, you'll be doing this as a vacation. C'mon! Siddown, relax. I'm a pro. You won't feel a thing." He'd moved over to Zach's side by now, begun typing into the small screen next to the chair, which promptly lowered in response, then he too patted Zach's shoulder encouragingly. "Here. Take the weight off."
Zach sat down, suspicious, before gingerly leaning his head back, imitating Ghost and Morpheus in their own chairs. "That's what the dentist always said," he muttered.
"The what now?"
"Relax. You won't feel a thing..." and then he jerked rigid, as an indescribable electric jolt connected with his brain.
She looked up. "Hey. You're home early."
He slid onto the bench, next to her at the big kitchen table. "You didn't answer my question."
She smiled briefly, the distant, unfathomable smile he'd seen her give others so often. "I'm fine," she said. He hesitated, looking at the impassive expression, then decided to let it go. She'd talk when she was ready, it wasn't fair to force that moment. She stood up and walked over to the countertop, her back to him, then returned with two glasses in one hand and a bottle in the other. "Here." She set a drink before him, before pouring her own. "Figured we could probably do with it."
"Thanks," he said, surprised, staring at the glasses. They were beautiful, hand-blown in cobalt blue; he was certain he'd never seen them before. Her eyes followed his.
"I found another closet earlier," she observed. "Under the stairs."
"What was in it this time?"
She indicated her glass. "These. And enough liquor to kill us." She eyed him as he took a first swallow. "I thought you were meant to be with the Council all day?"
"I was." Then, "Christ." He blinked, his face contorted. "What is this?"
"The bottle says vodka, but my money's on ethanol. Let's hope we live through the night. So what happened?"
"Happened?" he was still blinking.
"With the Council."
"Oh." He took another swallow, and grimaced as it burned its way down his throat. "Told them I had something more important to do."
She touched his hand. "Thank you."
"It'll be okay," Neo said quietly, watching her. Her restlessness was worrying him. "He'll be okay."
"We don't know that."
"You get a sense for it. Who can deal and who can't. You know that. He always fit in the first category, right from the start."
"Nothing in this situation fits any category," she objected. "It's all new ground."
"We'll make sure he's okay then. Whatever he needs."
"I feel responsible. For how much worse this is gonna be. And just the basics was pretty bad, for all of us."
"But it's not your fault," he said at once. "None of it, Trin."
"But my doing. And the distinction feels academic."
He looked down at his glass, at a loss. He swirled, and watched as the vertical rivulets formed, fluid evidence of just how strong the liquor was. There were bubbles in the glass, trapped. He wondered whether that was part of the design, deliberate imperfection. Then he looked back at Trinity. She let out a slow breath.
"I hate this."
"I know. But it's just the last bit now," he said softly. "It's almost over."
"You think so?"
She remained silent for a while, still frowning. He waited. Then she said, "I guess it depends. If he talks. If he trusts the wrong person..."
"You can't think that way. Chances are it won't happen. He has good instincts."
"If this gets out, someone's gonna try to kill him."
Neo shook his head. If he knew nothing else, he knew he could control a security arrangement in Zion. He requested something simple these days, something uncontroversial and easy to arrange, and people fell over themselves to secure it for him. "Then I'll ensure he's safe."
"Guarded forever?" Trinity said. "For the rest of his life?"
"If necessary. Yes."
"And me? Because it could come to that."
He flinched. "Don't. Please."
"This'd be the biggest scandal in Zion history." She looked at him, eyes clear. "You know that as well as I do."
"Nobody would believe him. They'd think he was crazy."
"And we could leave it there?"
Neo averted his face, unable to reply. She sighed.
He couldn't think about it. She'd always been his Achilles heel, she always would be. They'd been through so much already; alive and reunited by the narrowest of margins. He couldn't contemplate yet another threat. He didn't want to think about Zach anymore, or even the time stuck back in the Matrix, let alone the devastatingly complete estrangement from Trinity. He didn't want to acknowledge a fear that the whole mess was some terrible zombie, could rise up when least anticipated, might stubbornly refuse to die. He swallowed hard and cleared his mind.
"We can't spend the rest of our lives jumping at shadows, Trin. He'll keep his mouth shut. Morpheus and Ghost will make sure he knows what's at stake."
"They'll try," she said, and then leaned into him, as he took her hand in his and put his lips to her newborn hair.
"Is it true?"
The intimacy - they were sitting at the table, close together, their fingers intertwined - didn't escape him. The simple domesticity of it underlined all he'd lost; all he'd never really had at all. Neo's eyes met Trinity's, a conversation in that swift glance before he got up. "I'm due at a meeting," he said. "I'll be about an hour, Trin. Message me if you want anything."
"Is it true?" Zach repeated.
She waited until Neo shut the door quietly behind him. "You better sit down," she said then, her voice cool.
"No thanks. Look, they told me... a ton. Is it true?"
"Which part? The Matrix?"
"No. I know that's true. I'm not a complete moron, I'd quite the collection of dystopian fiction, and this place isn't exactly fucking Kansas. Or Oz, come to that. I'm not fucked up enough to invent a whole civilization. A whole culture. This place is real."
She was silent as she assimilated this. She wasn't prepared for it. A steel ship and a stony truth, surrounded by a pack of total strangers... it wasn't the easiest alternate reality to accept, not for anyone. She realized for the first time that the traditional, time-honored method might be badly flawed. It might create fierce loyalties, it might elicit a strong desire to serve on the ships helping to free others, but the human cost of that trauma-induced bonding process was very high. Zach had been shown a pleasanter reality, here in Zion. He'd been shown a life palpably worth living, people just going about their human destinies, fulfilling perfectly normal hopes and dreams. And either he was very anomalous, or it was significantly softening the blow.
"So what's the query?" she said slowly. "If you know where you are? Is what true?"
"That he's some kind of fucking... messiah. That he saved the human race, pretty much single-handed. That everyone here thinks the sun shines out of his ass. Which is about the only place it does shine, what with the nuclear Armageddon and all." He rubbed his eyes and blinked. "Oh. Yeah. And that you..." he cleared his throat, awkward, "resurrected him. And he's since returned the favor. That you guys were predicted by some oracle figure. All that. Is it true?"
Trinity nodded. "Yes," she said.
She was never comfortable with questions on this subject. She and Neo had suffered through too many formal enquiries into precisely how their tie impacted his abilities, and thus the war effort. It wasn't as if either were comfortable talking about private things at the best of times. She found herself falling back on the comfortingly technical. "Though in both cases it wasn't real death. It was just encoded. The variable was Neo's capacity to understand that, even when jacked in. So the reality of those events is somewhat questionable - it's just a giant sim, after all."
"But the love part's real."
Zach shook his head in disbelief. "That's fucked up," he said. "You get with some guy purely because he's a superhero? Sorry, but that's kind of creepy."
"Excuse me?" Her eyes narrowed and her head rose sharply to look at him. "What are you talking about?"
"You're with the guy because he's like, some sort of savior? Does he even know that? 'Cause if I were him, and I did, I'd be pretty offended. I mean, I'm not saying you're a starfucker or anything, but... yeah."
"I knew he was the One because of how I felt about him," she said calmly. "Not the other way round. It started on the ship, before he was much of anything except shocked out of his mind. I didn't give a crap about anything but him. That was how I knew it was him."
Zach raised an eyebrow. "Pretty subtle distinction."
"You think so?" she said, her face an impassive mask. "How unfortunate for you. I'd call it glaring."
He looked at her, and then a smile began to tug at his mouth. "You don't change, do you?"
"Did you expect me to?"
He shrugged. "Neo's pretty different. In this place. So yeah, I did wonder."
"I was pretty different in there when I wasn't half dying. You had to be if you wanted to live. We were soldiers. You can't let your guard down in that situation, you have a job to do."
He was quiet again, and then he said, "How long?"
"How long what?"
"How long did you have to wait? Till he was freed, I mean."
"Oh." She was silent for a while, then just when he was giving up hope of a response, she said, "Eleven years."
"Eleven?" He stared at her, jaw ajar. "And you just... wondered? All that time?"
"Not all the time. It was there, but I didn't exactly obsess about it. There was a lot else to occupy me."
He was thoughtful, pondering this, and then eventually he nodded. "Yeah, you had quite the career, right?"
"I was pretty busy," she acknowledged.
"And I guess there are worse things to be promised. Like, some great romance lies in your future, the full tall, dark and handsome gig. Lot of chicks go wild for that - plenty of psychics pay the rent on it." But Trinity began shaking her head before he'd finished speaking.
"It wasn't like that. I wasn't told we'd be together, that he'd even like me. That he'd be a decent person, either. Nobody ever said it would be reciprocal. Just that I'd fall in love, and that man would be the One. That was all."
"Yeah, but you knew he had to be someone. I mean, given."
She paused for a moment, and then said, "You know there was another One?"
"The guy who made the Prophecy in the first place? He came up, yeah."
"Did they tell you he had three wives?"
"He have a thing for divorce?" Zach was suddenly curious. "Not the family type?"
"Oh, he was the family type alright. He had a thing for polygamy."
Zach's jaw dropped. "No way."
"Claimed it was the best means to populate Zion. There were more women than men freed in the early days, on that basis. Makes sense, I guess, I mean he may have been right." Trinity took a swallow of her drink. "I used to wonder how much of it would be like the past, if the prediction was right. You know - would it be a redux, would he be kind of the same guy, reincarnated? If it was even true."
She shrugged. "There was always a wide variance on who believed and who didn't. Lot of people thought it was all just bullshit."
"Do any now?"
She raised an eyebrow. "How would I know?"
She looked away.
"Did you believe?" he asked, watching her. "Back then, I mean? Before him?"
"I didn't know what I thought."
"At..." he did some rapid calculation, "eighteen?"
"Shit, Kenz. They really need to lay that one on so ahead of time?"
"I've thought that. She could have waited a few years."
"Maybe she didn't want you making any mistakes."
"I made plenty of those."
"I meant with guys. Marrying someone else..." he tailed away, afraid this was too close to the bone. But she seemed unaffected, just shook her head.
"I was never one for commitments before. Just out of the question."
"You don't think being told a thing like that could be why?"
"Perhaps." She shrugged. "I don't regret it, so why analyze it?"
"But a decade's a long time."
"So I told myself it probably wasn't true and got on with my life."
"Yes. I hoped it was all bullshit until Neo."
Zach's mouth twisted. "Well, that's nice. All worked out perfectly. Lucky you."
Trinity looked at him. "Waiting for him to die was perfect?"
"Oh, c'mon," he protested, "that's kind of melodramatic."
"Martyrs tend to. It's the job description."
"But the way I was told it that was the same all through the war. On the ships, at least. Life expectancy in your line of work wasn't great."
"No, this was different. Far worse. Neo - he never had any instinct for self-preservation. He always cared too much about other people. And I never had so much to lose before either." Her voice became so quiet, he had to strain to catch her words. "You can't know what it's like to meet someone, and just keep finding more. That they're even more special than you thought. That there's even more to love, and so much more to lose. And that they want to be with you as much as you do them. I was so damn grateful. To him, for him. But it made it more frightening, all the time. Every day. For him, too. By the end, he was hardly sleeping at all - was in way worse shape than I was."
His throat began to close up. "So what did you do?" he managed.
She shrugged, her eyes still faraway, focused on past memory. "Got on with it. He needed me to hold it together. That was how I could help him. Stay strong, keep everything calm."
"How could you with that hanging over you?"
"We were happy, when we could be. That made everything manageable." Her eyes darkened. "We didn't have that lately. It proved the point."
Zach looked at her. What they'd shown him, in that program... what she'd been through, in that war. And yet his mere existence had added to their burdens. As if they'd not had to shoulder the unbearable already. In Neo's position, he knew he'd have left the whole episode buried in a past they only wanted to forget. Left Zach behind, so they could pretend it had never happened at all. But they'd freed him, instead. Brought him with them, a living, breathing reminder of the worst hit their relationship had ever had to take. Neo had done what he believed was right, whatever the risks or costs. Her words in that last visit to his apartment, so resented at the time, echoed in his mind. He'd do more than he should for anyone. He's the most unselfish man alive.
"Look, I should go." He stood up. "This can't be fun for you guys. I'll be okay now."
"You don't have to. You're welcome here, anytime. We're always here. If you need anything. Answers, help. Anything at all."
"I mean it, Zach."
He nodded slowly. "Yeah," he said. "You've never been a liar." He smiled a little. "Nor's he."
"No," she said simply.
"Nobody could have blamed him if he'd left me behind. Dropped all that time. But he didn't, did he?"
"He'd never leave someone in that place because of a personal complication. You've as much right to freedom as we have."
"Personal complication. That's a neat description." He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "You know Morpheus set me straight? I didn't matter, was the gist. You and Neo could take a lot worse than me and stay in good shape."
She sighed, tired, and eyed her empty glass. "He shouldn't have said that. It wasn't fair."
"And the truth shall set you free, right? Nobody said I had to like it."
She was silent for a moment, and then she cleared her throat, and he knew the subject was closed. She'd already been more open than he'd ever known her; it was unlikely to be repeated. This was his measure, his lot. "By the way, Neo's pulled in a favor," she said.
"At Settlement and Housing. Your friends - the ones who were freed before you. I can give you their addresses, if you want them. Here in Zion. Neo thought..." she shrugged, slightly awkward, hoping he'd not regard this as a brush-off: "we thought it might help you feel more at home."
Again, I'm so sorry about the lengthy gap. This story isn't abandoned and won't be; the plot is all straight in my head. But getting the characters to speak and sound natural isn't happening at the moment. I'm posting this because it gets me to a point the plot needs to and I just can't get it the way I want it; hopefully at a later date it can benefit from editing. The words aren't flowing well, I'm sorry and will update more regularly when they do.
Thank you so much for the reviews; I read them and I love them. I don't go on about them because I don't want to sound entitled (I appreciate people reading, whether they review or not) but I'm touched when people go to the trouble.
Finally, I found an article on the trilogy which I thought I'd share. You can't give links on this site, but if you google "John Kenneth Muir Reflections Matrix Revolutions" it should show up. It's a review of Revolutions, but it addresses the themes of all three. I think it's a seriously good examination of the philosophical/spiritual underpinnings of the trilogy (as are his earlier reviews of M1 and Reloaded) and very thought-provoking.