"So what's the Third Kingdom like?" Neo asked. The sun shone through the big windows, flooding the room with light and making the wooden walls seem to glow.

"Fourth Kingdom," Eve corrected him from the floor. Her attention was caught by the huge sheet of butcher paper before her, and the squiggled lines and circles she'd drawn. Splotches of blue, red, and yellow paint lay everywhere. Eve was learning to finger-paint. She'd decided that painting with her elbows was more fun than with her hands, which not only made a bigger mess, but made awful sucking noises when her elbows stuck to the paper and she had to pull them apart.

"I know this is the Fourth Kingdom," Neo said. "But what about the Third?"

"Is no Third Kingdom."

"The Second?"

"Just the Fourth Kingdom." She looked up at him, a wide line of blue paint smeared across her cheek. "Just mine."

"But-"

"Have you ever been anywhere else?" Trinity asked, purposely interrupting Neo's question. Having already entered into four childish arguments with Eve that morning, it was obvious he didn't understand how to deal with her natural stubborn tendency to assume she was always right. Not wanting this conversation, too, to degenerate into Neo insisting "Did not!" and Eve shouting "Did, too!" for a full half-hour, she decided to stop them before they could get into more trouble.

The child seemed mystified by this question, and Trinity struggled to explain herself. "Have you ever been outside the Fourth Kingdom?"

"There is nothing outside the Fourth Kingdom."

"There has to be," Neo said. "We weren't always inside it."

"No," Eve agreed, "you weren't."

"Well, where were we before we came here?"

"You were not," the child said, and that seemed to please her well enough as an answer, for she said no more on the subject.

They tacked the huge sheet of paper on one wall, displaying the artwork, and then set about the task of cleaning all the paint off the floors and off of Eve herself. This second task was considerably harder than the first, for Eve, having lived exactly how she pleased for all her remembered life, took exception to having to bathe so often. It eventually took the combined efforts of both Neo and Trinity, and many tears on the child's part, to scrub her clean. She sulked for a full hour afterward, but the incident was soon forgotten in her fleeting memory and she was cheerful for the rest of the afternoon.

Neo kept watching this strange creature, having trouble dealing with the lightning-quick changes in temperament and behavior that the child exhibited. He wasn't used to this, wasn't used to acting as caregiver to anything, much less a human child. He remembered his failed attempt to keep goldfish alive, and the turtle he'd had as a child. All had died within a month, and he felt sure that this was a sign he was not meant to care for anything.

Combined with Trinity's wry humor as she watched him attempt to relate to Eve, this had him tied in knots. He was, by turns, furious with Trinity for putting him in this situation and utterly grateful to her when she came to his rescue. It was obvious that she, too, had little idea what she was about. But Trinity had always possessed a stronger shield and better mask than he had, and though she was just about as lost as he, she hid it better and her bluffs often turned out to be correct.

So they muddled through this unexpected task of childcare, neither quite knowing what to do but somehow managing. Eve didn't seem to realize there was anything amiss at all, and she went about her days with childish cheerfulness that Neo knew he could never truly keep up with. He collapsed into bed at the end of each day, too exhausted to do more than wait for Trinity to collapse next to him before surrendering to sleep.

And it continued, the days stretching into weeks. Every day Neo worried that Trinity was slowly becoming more and more attached to their new little charge, and tried to deny that he was becoming attached as well. Life settled into a rhythm, something that would have been utterly pleasant were it not for the nagging feeling that they still hadn't figured out what they had come here to find.

That, and the fact that he could not bring himself to make love to Trinity while in the Matrix. His desire for her sharpened each day they remained celibate in each other's presence, turning into something that twisted in his gut if she so much as brushed against him accidentally. They'd taken to touching each other as little as possible, neither wanting the humiliation of knowing Tank or Morpheus-or possibly both-could look at their vital signs back in the real world…and know.

"How did you make the Fourth Kingdom?" Neo asked one afternoon as Eve crouched near him on the grass outside the cabin. Trinity was stretched out on her stomach beside them, asleep in the warm sunlight streaming down through the trees.

Eve shrugged.

"It's not like how you finger-paint, or draw, is it?" Neo pressed, though he thought he knew the answer.

"No," she agreed, plucking a blade of grass. "Drawing happens here." She flexed her small hands, wiggling her fingers. "The Kingdom happens here." She touched her forehead.

"What do you see when you do it?"

"I don't see anything," she replied. "It just happens."

"Just happens?"

She nodded. "Like…" Struggling for words, she crawled into Neo's lap and opened the picture book he was holding. She turned the pages until she found the one she was looking for, a picture of a little boy having a birthday party. "Like birthday wishes," she said, pointing at the cake with its lit candles. "I wish, and it comes true."

"But who grants the wishes, then?"

"I do." Eve looked at him, then, the strange look she used less and less often the longer she spent in their company. "You still don't b'lieve me, but you want to." She cocked her head to the side. "It's harder to hear you, but I still know."

"When you hear me, is that wishing too?"

She nodded solemnly. All at once, in a flash of understanding, Neo realized why he hadn't understood before how she was doing what it was she did. His mind traveled back to his meeting with the Oracle and everything Morpheus had said while trying to convince Neo that he was the One. It had all been a matter of belief, really. That's what they'd tried to explain to him, and what he just didn't understand.

Now, just maybe, he did.

"You have to go away again," Eve said. Her eyes held his, calm. There was no screaming, no flashes of temper. "I don't want you to."

"Can't you wish and make us stay?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because you're not like the rest of them."

"Who?"

"The other people who live here."

Neo nodded. He cast a glance over at Trinity, who still slept. Though she was technically still his commanding officer, this was his mission, and he knew she would not mind him taking initiative.

"Will you come with us when we leave?" he asked.

Eve considered the question with the careful deliberation only the very young possessed. She looked up at him. "Can I come back if I want to?"

"No," Neo said. He leaned back against the trunk of a tree, and Eve shifted in his lap, turning to face him and sit up fully. She sat on his stomach and regarded him as he spoke. "You can't ever come back," he said, "but there will be other people there for you to be with. Other real people. People like you and me."

"You are not like me." It was one of her reiterated phrases, but this time her words seemed less certain.

"You can learn secrets," Neo said, trying to sound cajoling. He didn't know how fair that was, but this child had no idea what a matrix was, and she wasn't searching for the truth of anything. Making her wonder what the Matrix was wouldn't work. She couldn't care less.

"Will you be with me?" she asked. "Trinity too?"

"Yes," Neo said. "You'll go to sleep here and wake up in our home, outside the Fourth Kingdom. We'll be there when you wake up."

She still didn't look particularly convinced that leaving her home was a good idea, and Neo knew it would take a lot of trust on her part, trust that he and Trinity would take care of her. With a realization no less acute than the one he had had before asking Eve to join them, he realized he didn't want to leave the child here. He tried to tell himself that it was for her own good that she accompany them back to the Nebuchadnezzar, that she couldn't hope to grow up here where everything was of her own making and nothing was real at all. It would be worse than leaving her in the real Matrix to whither away.

The truth, he knew, was that he would miss her.

"Maybe," Eve said finally. "Maybe I will go with you." And with that she climbed off of Neo's stomach and ran over to the swing that they'd had Tank put in one of the trees.

"Trinity." Neo shook her shoulder gently. "Trinity, wake up."

"Why?" she mumbled, opening one sleepy blue eye and lifting her head from her arms slightly.

"I figured it out."

She was awake instantly, sitting up and brushing her hair out of her face with an impatient hand. "What is it?"

"It's a riddle," Neo said. "I didn't understand, but now I think I do."

"Well?"

"Remember how Morpheus kept harping on me about believing in myself?" Neo said. "It was all about belief with him. He thought that if I believed enough, anything was possible."

"What he said was true."

"Yes, but there are two sides to it," Neo said. "We couldn't figure out how Eve was changing the Matrix because we kept looking at the problem from my angle, and how I change it. In reality, she's doing the exact opposite."

"Not following." Trinity frowned.

"It's hard to explain," Neo said. "It's like…I don't believe the Matrix really exists, and so I'm able to change it based on my belief that it's not real."

"I'm with you so far."

"She changes it because she believes it is real. Eve believes this Fourth Kingdom of hers is the only place in the entire universe, and what's inside it is all that exists. Remember when we tried to explain to her that there are places outside of it?"

"She didn't believe us."

"Exactly." Neo looked pleased with himself. "She believes this place is real, and she believes it so blindly that it actually bends to her will."

"Jesus." Trinity shook her head. "It was staring us in the face all the time, and we never got it."

"I knew the answer was something simple," Neo said, shaking his head. "It's been hammered into us since we were fucking unplugged. We just weren't asking the right questions to lead to it."

"So she believes the world is something she creates, something she bends to her will." Trinity bit her knuckle and stared at the grass, creases appearing between her eyebrows as she frowned. "And it does, because she believes it."

"So the question is-what do we do now?"

Trinity's eyes met his. "We go home."

"With or without her?"

"That's up to her," Trinity replied. "It's not right to force someone to accept unplugging."

"But you want to free her," Neo said. "I know you do."

"I do. But I'm worried."

"Why?"

Trinity shrugged. "She has great faith. What happens to her when she realizes her Kingdom is not real? What happens when we wake her up and she can't change things anymore? What then?"

"Then she learns to survive just like everyone else," Neo said. "Morpheus said children accept these things easier than adults do, remember? She'll learn."

"I hope you're right."

*****

Tank stretched and blinked, willing his eyes to stay open. His shift hadn't been that long, but it was about to get longer. He heard Morpheus stirring, the clanking of the ladder as the older man climbed onto the main deck and stepped toward the Core. The fatherly hand rested on his shoulder for a long moment, and then was lifted away.

"A message from the Oracle, sir," Tank said. "She wants to see you. As soon as possible."

"Why didn't you wake me?"

"She said not to."

Morpheus nodded. "Do you mind the extra shift?"

"No, sir. Load you up now, if you like."

Morpheus sat in his chair, waiting for the data spike and wondering just what it was that the Oracle wanted him for.

*****

"Hello, Morpheus."

"Do you talk to all the ship captains as much as you talk to me?" Morpheus asked, an amused smile playing on his lips. Today the Oracle was crocheting, and there were no cigarettes anywhere near her.

"Och. You know very well that your crew is special."

He accepted that remark with an incline of his head and sat on one of the sagging chairs in the Oracle's living room. Today it smelled of Murphy's Oil Soap rather than baking, a change he didn't mind. The smell of fresh baking always reminded him of things they no longer had in the real world.

"I wanted to talk to you about the mission I sent your kids on."

"They say they've found who you're looking for, and they have a pretty good theory on how she's been manipulating the Matrix." He leaned back against the coarse polyester chair with a sigh. "It's improbable, but not impossible."

"Morpheus," the Oracle chided, "I thought you of all people would understand the power of belief."

"Oh, I understand belief just fine. I just don't understand the physical manifestations of that belief."

"Well." The Oracle wound the ball of dark blue yarn and picked up a ball of pale yellow, tying it into the pattern she was slowly crocheting. "Let's turn this into a lessoning then, shall we? What do you think the entire basis of the New Age and neo-Pagan movements are, I ask you, if not your so-called coppertops attempting to subvert the system and gain some control over their lives?"

"That's a scant few, and they haven't the power or the control this child has."

"But it's the same concept." She smiled. "What is the force they call magic? What is energy, in this place? All the talk of energy that they ask to do their bidding-what are they doing but bending the Matrix to their will?"

Morpheus shook his head wryly. "Why does talking to you always make me feel like I should be back in elementary school?" he asked.

"You have your strengths, Morpheus, and I have mine." She smiled, then; it was a gesture touched with sadness. "There are things you accomplished that I could not. Even life."

Morpheus knew his mind was hopelessly inferior to the one he now communicated with, but it was wise enough in that moment to remain silent. What pain hid behind the Oracle's helpful words he could not measure though he knew its source.

She cleared her throat, then, and forced a smile. "Now. About this child your protégés are even now trying to free." Her eyes leveled. "I don't know yet if she will come with them. But if she does…" The Oracle trailed off, and seemed to choose a different way to approach her topic. "Morpheus, it's time for Neo and Trinity to learn my truth."

"Are you sure?" Morpheus asked. "Few know. Even fewer know the whole story."

"You think you can protect me from a truth that happened lifetimes before you were born?" the Oracle asked, her voice brimming with amusement. "Morpheus, you may be a father to your ship and her crew, but you cannot father the entire human race. I am older than you-by far. I can handle myself. It is time for Trinity and Neo to know." She moved the yellow yarn out of the way and returned to the blue. "This is a blanket for the new child, if she is willing to go with your crew. Remember your promise. Bring her to me as soon as you can-whether inside the Matrix or out."

Morpheus nodded, unwilling to argue with the Oracle when she made a direct request. "Of course," he said, and that was the end of that.

*****

Morpheus sat in his loading chair watching the Matrix spill across its screens. Tank was probably sleeping, or should be if he wasn't. The Neb was as quiet as she ever got, with just the two of them conscious and nobody rushing about or having conversations while they worked.

He missed his crew, he had to admit. Though Neo had sent an exit to Switch, Apoc, and Mouse, they hadn't wanted to leave him and Trinity alone in this strange corner of the Matrix. Tank had been unable to run tests over the exit-it was as lost in the Matrix code as the crew and the child causing the disturbances. But nobody questioned its ability to work. They trusted Neo's creation, just wanted to make sure he and Trinity were as safe as they could be. Morpheus allowed them to stay, knowing he and Tank could handle the Neb unless something urgent came up and knowing it made them feel better to be close to their comrades in case of an emergency inside the Matrix.

Morpheus was unsurprised that they had not found any trace of Agents in this so-called Fourth Kingdom. If, indeed, the child had created it and was controlling it, likely these sentient programs did not exist within it. He weighed the likelihood of the Agents even knowing about the Fourth Kingdom's existence and found it unlikely. They surely would have hunted down and killed a human child with such abilities long before now, were they able to reach her. But with no actual humans hard-wired to their system within the Fourth Kingdom-save the child herself-they would have no way to get there. Agents were disinclined to walk; they would not have hiked inside. It was entirely possible that they couldn't even see it, since the entire Fourth Kingdom was no more than a very small anomaly within the scope of the Matrix itself.

Idly, Morpheus wondered what it would be like to have a child on board once more. They hadn't had any real children on the Neb-Apoc had been unplugged the youngest, and he'd been almost sixteen. Trinity was the youngest he'd ever unplugged before, and she was strangely grown-up for her age, anyway. This child was young, and still very much…well, a child. He knew they were headed toward some very exhausting and very amusing days as they tried to acclimate this new "recruit" to life in the real world.

If she agreed to join them.

There was never really a question about contacts joining them. They purposely picked people who wanted the truth so badly that they didn't mind leaving their old lives, people who hadn't much of a life to leave anyway-people who would benefit from being unplugged. But with a child who didn't really understand what they were asking of her and likely wouldn't care even if she did… He didn't know what she would choose, and this was a new experience for him.

Again, his mind wandered to the Oracle and just what she might be plotting. It was hard to imagine such an utterly unprepossessing grandmother-type person actually plotting, but there was much that went on inside the Oracle's head that no one else could guess. Why she now wanted Neo and Trinity in on her secret-that was as baffling as anything Morpheus had ever heard from her before. He wondered what she wanted with this new child-she had not even asked for Neo to be brought to her right away. She'd given him time to adjust to the reality, the truth, and to start his training.

But she wanted this new child, should she agree to join them, as soon as humanly possible. Sooner than humanly possible. Morpheus couldn't fathom it, and though he knew he really should just allow the Oracle her eccentric ways and believe she had a good reason for what she chose to do, he found it extremely difficult to dismiss his thoughts out of hand.

He didn't understand, and that was something Morpheus had a very difficult time dealing with. He liked to be the one in charge, the one holding the keys that would unlock new minds and start them on the path toward rebellion against their machine masters.

But the Oracle knew what she was doing. Morpheus knew that.

He had to have faith.

*****

Eve had fallen asleep in Trinity's arms.

Neo almost smiled when he saw his superior officer, his life partner, sitting in a chair in Eve's room and holding the sleeping child on her lap. She was staring at the blank wall opposite her, holding the child, but something in her face stopped him from smiling. It was love, but it almost hurt Neo to see and he couldn't quite explain why.

Eve had changed in the weeks she'd spent with them. Her hair was considerably shorter-after realizing with her first hair trim that it didn't hurt to have her hair cut, she had insisted it be cut as short as Trinity's. Trinity had refused, point-blank, to cut her hair quite that short, but the curly brown locks now just barely brushed Eve's shoulders instead of hanging in a heavy mass down her back.

She was cleaner now, too, though she still managed to get filthier than Neo could imagine by day's end. She found every single mud pit in the entire forest, he believed, and seemed to enjoy rolling in both mud and dust, staining her clothes with grass, moss, and the red bark of the trees, and getting the pungent tree-sap in her hair and on her skin. It didn't come off very easily, either; Neo likened sap to bubble gum that way. She still ate messily, though she was getting better, and art projects continued to strew glue, paint, scraps of paper, and bits of clay everywhere-including on her person.

He didn't care. Neo, the One, who had lived the life of a solitary hacker and programmer before being unplugged and then turned into a terrorist fighter, now knew that he loved this strange child who was so much more than she appeared and yet less than what they'd originally assumed. Yes, she manipulated the Matrix to her will, but it was an accident. Her destiny wasn't wound in it like his was. And he didn't much care. He loved her anyway.

"Trinity," Neo said, stealing softly across the room. She looked at him, and he saw the indecision in her eyes as she held the little girl. "She's asleep, Trin. Why don't you put her to bed?"

Trinity shook her head slightly and shifted her grip on the sleeping Eve. "I don't know what to do, Neo," she said softly.

"About what?" Neo drew up the only other chair in the room, a child-sized thing that was dwarfed by his adult body. He looked up at Trinity, vaguely wondering if he should abandon the chair and opt for the floor-there wasn't much difference, anyway.

"Is it fair to unplug her?" Trinity asked. "Maybe she's better off here."

"You don't want to leave her here," Neo pointed out.

"But I can't tell if that's selfish feeling or not," Trinity said. "Do I want her unplugged because I'll miss her, or because it's best for her?"

"Is the reason that important to you?"

"Yes."

Neo sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Isn't the truth better than living a lie?"

"But what if she hates us for it?" Trinity shot back. "What if she…"

"What?"

"She could become another Cypher. She could snap if we force her and she's not ready."

"She's strong, Trinity."

"So Morpheus thought of all of us."

Neo reached up and stroked the curly brown hair. Eve shifted in her sleep but did not wake. "You're the commanding officer," he said. "What you say goes."

"You're the One."

"This isn't something that can be fixed by decoding the Matrix or killing Agents," Neo replied. "This is your mission. You have to make the call."

"This is our mission," she reminded him. "We'll ask her. Whatever she says…we leave tomorrow."

Neo knew the reason for picking up and leaving so soon. She didn't have to say it. She wanted to leave before their charge captured her heart completely. He nodded and rose, placing a gentle hand on Trinity's shoulder and dropping a kiss on her head before leaving the room. "It's late," he said.

"I'll be in soon."

*****

"No."

"Eve, sweetie, we don't have time to argue," Neo said gently. "We have to go now. You can come with us if you want, but either way, we have to go. It's time."

Trinity had already walked on ahead, promising through the shell she'd built around her emotions that they would let Eve come with them if she wanted to. Eve hadn't answered the question, merely acted as if Neo and Trinity were abandoning her for good.

"You can't go!" she said now, panting a little, the quick, tiny breaths that Neo knew were the beginnings of a tantrum.

"We have to, baby," he said gently. "Come with us if you like. We love you. We want you. But we can't stay here anymore. It's time to go home."

"No!"

She ripped herself away when he tried to hug her, and flung herself away from the cabin and into the forest. Neo didn't know if she was angry or crying, and he jogged after her for a few steps before forcing himself to stop and follow Trinity. It seemed that she had made her choice, and they'd agreed not to second-guess her, no matter what the choice was.

Trinity was walking when he caught up with her, heading back toward where they'd left the exit and their friends. He captured her hand and squeezed it gently. Trinity didn't have to turn to know that Eve was not with him, and why. He saw a single tear make its way out of her left eye and start to trickle down her cheek before she raised a hand and angrily brushed it away.

"I'm sorry," Neo said, but she shook her head, jaw clenched so tightly that Neo could see the muscles in her neck and just below her ear quivering. He didn't try to talk to her again.

They walked the rest of the way back to the others in silence. They'd had phone contact, but only sporadically. It was the longest either had been separated from their crewmates since being unplugged, and both missed them more than they would admit. But the thought of seeing their friends again did little to ease the parting ache in their hearts as they said goodbye to the child they had cared for.

Trinity decided that she'd known all along that Eve would not agree to leave this place. She asked herself what sane person would leave a wonderland of her own creation to live on a rickety ship that smelled, tasted, sounded, and felt like unyielding metal where they struggled to survive in a war they were losing. She told herself life aboard the Nebuchadnezzar was no place for a child.

It didn't much help.

Neo felt an odd sense of failure as he walked the now-familiar forest. This was his first recruiting mission, and though he knew nothing had gone as planned and it really wasn't his fault, he also felt that, somehow, he had failed. They went on a recruiting mission and came back without a new recruit. Something about that smacked of failure to him. And he felt guilty, as well, for putting all his hopes on the shoulders of one very small child who didn't know what she meant to all of them. She was too young, too small, and too entrenched in this world of her own creation to truly understand what they had asked. She was too small, he kept telling himself. It wasn't anybody's fault.

That didn't much help, either.

"I see them! Hey, hey, I see them!"

"Shut up, Mouse."

"You shut up; he's every right to be excited."

A tight laugh tore itself from Trinity's throat as she heard the familiar sounds of squabbling. She had to admit that she had missed them. She could never have settled into a place like their cabin; not for good, anyway. And the weeks had turned into a vacation that was far too long. She was ready for work again, and it appeared that work was ready for her, too.

"Where is she?" Mouse asked as he saw Neo and Trinity approaching without the child.

Trinity's face warned Apoc and Switch not to say anything.

"She chose not to come," Neo said, his tone tight and clipped. Uncertain silence rose around them, Trinity staring at the ground, Neo watching Trinity, and the other three casting confused glances at everyone.

"Chose not to come? What do you mean?" Mouse said. "Nobody chooses not to come. I mean-"

"Shut up, Mouse," Apoc said again, and this time Switch didn't correct him.

"She's not coming," Neo said, in his tone a note of finality. "Now stop it."

"But-"

"Knock it off, Mouse," Switch said this time. She flipped out her phone and speed-dialed Tank.

"Wondered when you'd ask for a line out," their operator said. "I'm patching the call through now."

A piece of moss fell from the tree above them and hit Trinity's shoulder as the breeze heightened. She brushed it away with an impatient hand. Another one fell, and then a piece of bark.

"What the…" She looked up and there, perched two feet above her head, was Eve.

"Wait," the child said, her eyes red from crying. Her voice trembled as she leaned down and dangled from the branch, hanging by her hands. Trinity reached up and grabbed her, plucking her out of the tree. "I'll come. I'll go with you."

"You sure?" Trinity asked, her wet blue eyes looking into Eve's wet eyes. "You can't come back again."

Eve looked around her forest, her Fourth Kingdom, and then nodded. "I know. I'll go."

Trinity had no more to say as Eve put her arms around her shoulders and hugged her tightly.

The rest of the process was a complete blur for Trinity as they downloaded the equipment they needed to unplug Eve. Morpheus joined them, for this was something that only captains were allowed to oversee. Eve did not seem afraid of him in the slightest, though she did reach up and pull his glasses off, turning them over and over in her hands as if she thought they might change into something else if she held them long enough. Morpheus seemed pleased with her and enthralled with the forest she had made.

She couldn't swallow a pill, so they had Tank mix the same chemicals in a small glass of water that she drank. Then they gave her a piece of candy to keep her quiet while they hooked her to the machinery and dialed the number that would force her mind back into its body in the real world.

Trinity knew nothing but anxiety as they maneuvered the Nebuchadnezzar around to pick her up after she'd been spit out of the disposal system. She and Neo were at Eve's side as her white, useless body was dropped to the floor of the ship and her nearly senseless eyes stared up at nothing. Trinity picked her up, trying to comfort the fear she saw in Eve's eyes, and it was Neo that delivered the line he had remembered from his own awakening-

"Welcome…to the real world."

*****

They had to keep her heavily drugged, for she lashed out whenever she woke and hurt herself more each time she moved. Morpheus wasn't overly concerned; Switch, in fact, had done the same thing after being unplugged and it had taken her a long time to calm down to a point where they could take her off the tranquilizers.

Trinity worried, even if Morpheus did not. She and Neo rarely left the child's side, and never both at once. When one went to eat and catch a few hours' sleep, the other was always in the medical bay. Their presence seemed to calm the child, so Morpheus said nothing and allowed them to stay. He had some clue that they felt responsible for what happened to this child they had taken care of, but he didn't realize that the responsibility had deepened to love.

She recovered much more rapidly than Neo had, for her body had not been wasting away nearly as long as his had. Two weeks she lay in reconstruction, and another week hooked up to an IV in her quarters and unconscious. When she was moved, they took an extra mattress out of storage and threw it on the floor of her cabin, Trinity and Neo taking turns sitting with her though she did not wake.

Trinity was the one with her when she finally opened her eyes.

"Hello," she said softly, not trying to scare the child. "Do you remember me?"

"Trinity," Eve said without missing a beat. She looked around gravely, touched her fuzzily-bald head, stared at the plug in her arm and the IV bag dripping nutrients into her vein. "Am I in a dungeon?"

Trinity moved to sit on the bed next to the child. "No, baby. This is our home. You're on a ship."

"Like a boat?"

"Yes," Trinity agreed. "But this one floats in the air, not on the water. Her name is the Nebuchadnezzar."

"Oh." Eve tugged at the needle inserted in her arm and got the first of many nasty little surprises in store for her on board the Neb. "Ouch!" she exclaimed, shocked. "It hurts!"

"Gently, little one," Trinity said, reaching over and pulling the needle out so slowly that it didn't hurt. "This isn't the Fourth Kingdom anymore. You can get hurt here, so try to be careful."

Rising panic showed in Eve's eyes as she picked at the metal plug in her arm. She twisted her head, and suddenly froze, her eyes widening. Trinity knew what she'd felt-the unaccustomed weight of the metal plug in the back of her neck. With badly trembling hands, the child reached back and felt it, ran her fingers across the metal. Her breathing had quickened and shallowed, a sure sign that there would be an emotional outburst soon. Trinity saw the warning signs and tried to divert the child's attention, but to no avail.

Eve screeched and rocketed off the bed, digging with both hands at the plug in the base of her skull and then clawing at the one in her arm. "Off!" she shrieked "Off! Now! Get it off!"

"Eve! Calm down," Trinity tried to soothe, but the child wasn't paying attention. She tried to bolt, but the door was closed and there was no place in the tiny cabin for her to go. Trinity caught her easily and tried to seat her on her lap, but Eve wiggled like a wraith and was using her childish fists and teeth to try and get away.

Trinity finally managed to situate the child so she could cause neither of them any more harm, holding her from behind and pinning her arms. The child panted and continued to scream, but she couldn't move her arms the way Trinity was holding them, and there was nothing she could bite, no matter which way she turned her head. "Let me go!" she continued to shriek, over and over, until the words blended into a single long wail and she began to cry in earnest.

Trinity gritted her teeth and held on, willing the child to calm down. Never had any tantrum been this bad-but this was true fear and sheer panic that Eve showed now, not simply childish whims.

It seemed like the gridlock lasted for hours, but Trinity knew it couldn't possibly have been that long. But finally Eve stopped struggling so hard, her sobs turned into hiccupy little breaths, and finally she cried herself to sleep and slumped in Trinity's arms.

A bead of sweat rolled down Trinity's face as she eased up on her grip. She knew she'd left bruises on the child's skin, and the sight of them filled her with guilt as she lay the sleeping girl down on her bunk. She'd have to tell Morpheus what happened as soon as she was sure Eve would not wake up again anytime soon. But…what then? Even Switch had not acted like this. Nobody had.

Fear pricked Trinity's emotions as she covered Eve with blankets and moved the IV and bag away from the girl's reach. She would take them with her, just in case. Eve had gouged her own skin with her fingernails in her frantic wish to remove her plugs, and Trinity lay the girl on her stomach so as not to place pressure on the bleeding back of her neck. She looked at the line of blood that trickled down Eve's neck and wet her shirt, and shivered. This was likely the worst pain the child had ever experienced, for the injury she'd inflicted upon herself was worse than the little scrapes and bruises she was forever picking up in the Fourth Kingdom.

"What have we done?" Trinity whispered to the sleeping child, wetting a corner of a blanket and gently wiping the tearstains away from Eve's face. Guilt welled up inside her, and she told herself it was because she'd known all along that something like this would happen. And it wasn't fair to Eve. None of it was.

The door opened then, and Neo came in quietly. He'd let his hair grow so that it approximated the length of his RSI's hair. No one would know by the visibility of his scalp how long he'd been unplugged-not like the child lying comatose before them.

"She woke up?" Neo asked, seeing the IV lying on the floor.

Trinity nodded quickly, and it was only as she turned her face toward him and he saw the expression in her ice-blue eyes that Neo knew something was very wrong.

"What happened?"

"She snapped," Trinity said quietly. "I didn't even tell her anything. She just…snapped. Went crazy. Tried to pull her plugs out."

"Jesus." Neo sat on the edge of the bunk and looked at the drying line of blood. He then turned back to his life partner. "She got you, too, looks like."

Only then did Trinity look down and see the bruises from little fists already beginning to darken her forearms, and the half-circle of little puncture marks where the sharp baby teeth had gouged her arm.

"Great," she said. "Stay with her, okay? I have to tell Morpheus."

Neo nodded and settled himself in by the child's side. "I'll be here," he promised as Trinity escaped to find her captain.

*****

Morpheus said little but to keep her drugged for a little while longer. He hoped that, with a little more time for her body and mind to recover, the shock might not be quite so difficult for her. He said nothing to the Oracle, somehow knowing that she already knew what had happened. He had a sinking feeling that she had known, all along, what would happen when they unplugged this child. It was at times like these that he most wanted to turn to her, and at the same time knew she would not give him the answers he needed.

Trinity still wore her self-appointed guilt in her eyes and on her sagging shoulders. The bite had not become infected, to Morpheus' relief, but she didn't take care of it as she should and it healed slowly. The child's injuries, on the other hand, healed rapidly in her body pumped full of nutrients and resting in drugged sleep.

After a week they took her off the tranquilizers again, and this time Neo and Trinity were both waiting as she woke up.

"I thought it was a dream," Eve said slowly as she sat up. "I feel funny."

"That's the tranquilizers, honey," Neo said. "We put you to sleep for a while."

"Oh." She looked around dazedly, then her eyes alighted on Trinity. "I bit you," she said suddenly, and her eyes welled up with tears. "I'm sorry!" she said, her lower lip trembling.

Trinity leaned forward and caught her up, hugging her fiercely. "Baby, you didn't mean to," she said. "You were just scared. It's okay."

As Trinity sat on the edge of the bed, Eve in her lap, the child tugged up Trinity's long sleeve and exposed the healing puncture wounds and the bruising surrounding them. But she also exposed the metal plug in Trinity's arm, and she fingered it wonderingly.

"I have one in my head, too," Trinity said, lifting her hair and turning her head so Eve could see it. "So does Neo. We all do."

"But why?"

"It's another kind of magic," Neo said, inspired by the metaphor. "Do you want to see how it works?"

Mystified, Eve nodded.

"I don't know if she's ready yet, Neo…" Trinity said, but he waved away her concerns.

"She's okay now. See?" And he caught Eve up in his arms, carrying her out to the Core. Trinity, full of misgivings, followed.

"Hello, little one," Morpheus said when he saw she was awake. "Welcome to the Nebuchadnezzar. She is my ship."

"Like on the river," Eve murmured, staring about her with wide eyes that still looked frightened. "But in the air." She then turned suddenly, unsettling Neo's grip and almost making him drop her. Her brow furrowed and she scowled fiercely, then looked up at Neo accusingly. "I want to grow a tree," she said. "Why won't it happen?"

"Wishes don't work like that here," Neo said gently, looking to Morpheus. Eve's breathing was speeding up and getting shallower again. Trinity dropped back, hidden by a vertical line of piping, and merely watched as the child worked herself closer and closer to another panic.

"Send me back!" she yelled. "I want trees! I want my gryphons! I want my Kingdom! Let go! Let me go! Send me back!"

She was struggling in earnest now, and Neo was having a hard time holding her still.

"She's gonna pop," Mouse said, and nobody noticed that he had stolen Cypher's line. Some things just never changed.

"Get me a needle," Morpheus ordered. "Now!"

Mouse and Switch both jumped to obey, flinging themselves down the ladder to the medical bay before their captain had turned back to try and help Neo control the writhing demon in his arms. She was babbling incoherently now, screeching at such a high pitch that it was actually painful to their ears, and her face was red. She reached out blindly and caught Morpheus' ear, scraping it painfully. They kept out of the way of her teeth, having learned that lesson from what had happened to Trinity.

She didn't stop screaming, and the two of them merely struggled to hold her steady until Switch came back, Mouse hot on her heels, holding a hypodermic needle filled with the tranquilizers they'd given her before. Within minutes they'd taken effect, and the main deck grew eerily silent without the child's screams echoing in their ears.

Morpheus helped Neo lower the child's unconscious body to the floor and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He looked up at his crew, all of them watching him for an answer. For a moment he felt lost. He didn't have an answer. This had never happened before. Nobody had ever so fiercely rejected the real world, especially not before learning the truth. He didn't know if it was because she was so young, or if this child was merely the kind of person they were not supposed ever to unplug. He couldn't say.

He couldn't say, and he knew they were waiting for an answer.

"Keep her sedated," he said finally, speaking to the room at large. "We'll figure it out somehow."

Nobody moved until finally Trinity stepped forward-no one had noticed her presence before-and very gently pulled the unconscious child into her arms, holding her like an object so precious that to break it would cost her life. No one said a word as she bore the child back into the depths of the ship; nobody so much as moved until they heard the screech of a cabin hatch being shut.

Then a collective sigh ran through them and they turned to look at each other, nobody offering any answers.

She never really woke up again after that. Each time they let the tranquilizers wear off, she opened her eyes and immediately started babbling and screaming, flying into a raving panic without any pause. Nothing could keep her quiet or coax her into submission. Morpheus doubted if she could even hear them, and the wildness never left her eyes.

Trinity took to spending nights curled up on Eve's bunk, the child in her arms, holding her tightly as if she could will away her ailment by simply being with her. But whatever was wrong, it wasn't something that could be chased away like that. Trinity slept little, and Neo wanted to help her but didn't know how. She refused to leave Eve's side except for short, necessary trips to eat, shower, and go through the motions of living normally. But she didn't. She was becoming a shadow, and Neo didn't know how to help her.

Morpheus worried about all of them. He knew the Oracle was waiting, but he couldn't very well send the child into the Matrix heavily sedated. And whom would he send as her bodyguard, he wondered? She didn't trust Switch or Apoc, Mouse was training to become an operator, and Neo and Trinity were in no shape to go running about the Matrix. Trinity was making herself sick with worry over the child, and Neo was making himself sick with worry over Trinity. Morpheus knew he had to put a stop to it, but he was at a loss as to how.

It was Neo himself who finally alighted upon a possible answer and asked Morpheus' permission to attempt his experiment.

"I healed Switch and Apoc in the Matrix," he said. "Even Mouse, who was technically dead. Let me load Eve into the construct-go ahead and leave her unconscious. I want to see if I can fix what's wrong."

Morpheus gave his permission, and Trinity brought Eve out, carrying the child herself. Neo was already loaded into the empty construct as Trinity placed Eve in Trinity's own chair and carefully plugged her into the program.

She appeared in front of Neo, the rest of them crowding anxiously around the monitors to see what he might do. She looked like a heap of rags, her RSI reverting back to her forest clothes. Even unconscious, though, she kept the haircut Trinity had given her. Trinity felt oddly touched by this.

Neo knelt by her unconscious body and they saw absolutely nothing happening on the screen. It was unimpressively boring, but after a few moments he asked them to pull him out.

Opening his real eyes, he saw Trinity above him, felt her hand near the back of his neck as she unplugged him. For the first time in what seemed like years, she looked at him and smiled. The smile was full of pain, yes, but she had smiled.

Catching both of them completely by surprised, Neo reached up with one hand and hooked it behind her neck, drawing her down to him. He kissed her gently, trying to show her with the quick gesture how much he still loved her, before releasing her. There was an odd light in her eyes, but she said nothing.

"I can't fix it," Neo said, both his attention and Trinity's returning to the rest of the crew hovered around him.

"Why not?" Switch demanded. "You fixed us."

"But what happened to you was a result of the Matrix," Neo said. "It happened to your mind, not your body. I can't heal her just like I couldn't have healed Dozer if you'd plugged him into the construct. He was hurt here, in the real world. So was she."

"Do you know what's wrong with her?" Trinity asked, fearing she already knew the answer.

Neo's eyes confirmed it. "I'm sorry, Trinity," he said. "She snapped-literally. She's gone insane." He shook his head. "There's nothing coherent left of her mind. Nothing for me to work with, even if I could reach her from there."

Trinity was gone before she could hear Morpheus order a course for Zion, before she could hear the order that Eve was to be kept unconscious until they reached the underground city.

Neo was the one who followed her, who found her as she fell to her knees in the deserted hallway and was violently sick, her entire body shaking with the force of her heaving stomach. He was the one to repay some of her earlier kindness to him, when she had wordlessly helped him get over his difficult unplugging. He rested his hand against her forehead, carefully helped her to her feet, and walked with her to their cabin without a word.

He was the one to gently lay a cool, damp cloth against her forehead as she collapsed upon their bunk and fell asleep, exhaustion and grief warring for chief emotion within her heart.

*****

After cleaning up the mess in the hall and making sure Eve was asleep in her cabin, Neo returned to find Trinity still sleeping. He couldn't move with the noiseless grace that Trinity did, but he tried his best. She didn't stir as he gently removed her boots and turned the cloth over on her forehead, then pulled off his own boots and settled himself on the bed next to her.

Relief filled him when she turned in her sleep and unconsciously curled into his side. Neo snaked his arm around her, wondering dully when the last time they had slept like this had been. In the Matrix, it had been back in that damnable cabin. In the real world-not since Morpheus had sent them on this fucking mission to begin with. Neo sighed and pulled her closer, reaching around to wrap their blankets around them both. They hadn't had the time or the inclination to be together like this since returning to the Neb, so wrapped up were they in Eve's unplugging and decline.

He'd forgotten, though he had not previously thought that such a thing was possible, how incredible it felt to hold Trinity like this. He could feel her breathe, hear his own heartbeat loud in his chest, and he closed his eyes, trying to will his mind to shut up. There were too many questions they had yet to answer. What would happen, now, to Eve? They could not keep her unconscious forever, and she was dangerous both to herself and others in this state. He could not help her, and he didn't think anyone could.

But Morpheus had told them to lay in a course for Zion. Neo held to the faint hope that there was help there before following Trinity's example and falling asleep.

*****

Trinity half-woke a dozen times during that night, and always Neo was a steady presence near her. Even in sleep, he gripped her comfortingly and she fell back asleep with nameless fears plaguing her but none of them rising to the surface to claim her.

Neo woke at the insistent blinking of the lights as they came on for the day, abruptly realizing that he and Trinity had slept through the entire night and much of the previous afternoon. Feeling guilty-but not guilty enough to wake his sleeping partner-he gently pulled himself out of Trinity's arms and let himself out of their cabin, putting on his boots outside to cut down on the noise and then making his way to the cockpit where he knew Morpheus would be.

He was right. Morpheus turned and nodded at his approach, and waved a hand at the copilot's chair. "Sit. You have questions in your eyes."

Neo sat but didn't say anything.

"Don't feel guilty," Morpheus said suddenly. "I think this was meant to happen."

"How can you say that?" Neo asked. "We just ruined that child's life for no purpose."

"It was well-meaning, which counts for more than you think," Morpheus said, but his voice was troubled. "I am truly sorry, Neo. I know you and Trinity cared for her."

"We love her," Neo said, unable to use the past tense yet. "Can't help it."

"From what you've said and what I saw of her before the unplugging, she seemed a sweet, tractable child. There is no reason for you to feel guilty. Feelings are what keep us from being machines, Neo. I seem to remember having this discussion with Trinity before."

Neo cracked a small smile, knowing how uncomfortable Morpheus must have felt talking with his pseudo-daughter second-in-command about love.

"Why Zion?" he asked suddenly. "Can someone there help her?"

Morpheus sighed, eyeing his protégé and measuring how ready Neo was to hear what he had to say. Neo was still exhausted, both emotionally and physically drained by the events of the past few weeks-months, Morpheus corrected himself. He could hardly believe it had been over two months ago that he'd originally sent them off to investigate the anomaly that had turned out to be Eve.

"No, Neo," he said. "I don't think she can be helped. Not here."

"Then why are we going in?"

Morpheus propped his fingers against each other, resting the tips together. "The Oracle has decided that it's time you and Trinity learn another hard truth," he said.

Neo looked up, wary. "What truth?" he asked cautiously.

"The truth about the Oracle's past," Morpheus said, "and what she really is. You see, Neo, it's not quite true that Eve is the only person ever to go mad upon unplugging."

Neo stared at him for a long moment, and then with dawning comprehension said, "The Oracle. She went mad. She couldn't take it either."

"Yes." Morpheus gazed out at the ruined tunnels as they flew by. "She told me to bring Eve to her, whether in the Matrix or in the real world. I can't very well show up at her apartment with an unconscious child in my arms…so we're going to go see her in person."

"She's in Zion? Permanently plugged in?"

"Yes."

"She wants Eve?"

"Yes."

"Can she help her?"

"The child cannot stay here, Neo; the real world is not for her. Whatever happens, you will have to say goodbye."

*****

Trinity opted to take Eve in herself, though Neo accompanied her as a silent shadow. They were hustled into the underground city, Neo seeing very little as they traveled deep into the capital building.

And in a silent, dimly lit room in the secret passageways of the capital, they gazed upon a sight few had ever seen. Like an overage, overweight sleeping beauty, the Oracle lay upon a comfortable bed, her eyes closed peacefully, plugged permanently into the Matrix. There was another bed, obviously new, next to hers. Neo waited in the doorway, not daring to disturb the utter silence of the room, as Trinity slowly bore Eve over to the bed and gently lay her down. It looked like a mother casting the first handful of dirt over her child's coffin. Trinity's hands were gentle and loving as she released Eve, pressed the button that would activate the mechanism and plug Eve permanently back into the Matrix, and placed a final kiss on the child's forehead.

Her eyes were dry as she turned around and walked quickly away.

Don't grieve, the voice whispered in her head as their guide walked them back through the hallways. Trinity flinched visibly; it was the first time she had ever heard the voices in her head here, in the real world. Only in the Matrix had they ever come to her before.

And why is the Matrix any different when it comes to your abilities? the voice asked. You're not the One.

Trinity knew that voice….

Of course you know me, confounded child! Don't weep for her. She's with me now, and you can come visit her any time you like. She remembers some of you, though not everything.

It was the Oracle.

Now stop that ridiculous guilt. You brought her to me exactly as I asked. And if you loved her along the way, well, that's a gift you gave her. It will make my job easier. Don't grieve. You haven't lost her. Just gained some valuable insight.

Trinity almost smiled. She felt Neo looking at her strangely, but ignored it.

Oh, I'm not the only one you hear. In fact, I'm not the one who spoke to you before. But now I'm going to change the subject. Tell me-still believe in God?

No. Oh, no. Trinity wondered if there had ever been faith there, even with her parents' pure belief.

What do you believe in, then?

Herself. Neo. Morpheus.

And why is that any different? There was a distinct chuckle. Belief is belief, no matter how you look at it. Don't despair; this isn't the end. It's only the beginning. And mark my words, someday you and Neo will get to use those parenting skills you learned with Eve. But then, you already knew that, didn't you?

The voice didn't speak again, and Trinity slipped her hand in Neo's as they walked. He squeezed her hand and she hid a small smile. So the Oracle knew.

Neo felt her squeeze his hand back, and relief flooded through him. Healing took time, but they would be okay. And they were in Zion, for the first time since he was unplugged, Morpheus was interviewing for a new operator (Mouse had failed miserably, not having the patience to sit and stare at the Core for hours on end), and new things were beginning all over the place.

Trinity's eyes were alive as they rounded a corner and a sudden window showed the backdrop of Zion unfolding before them-amazing, and oddly beautiful. If this were a movie, Neo thought to himself, it would be the perfect moment to fade to black.

*****

"Hello, Eve."

"Who are you?"

"You may call me Grandmother, if you like."

"What's a grandmother?"

"Why, I am!"

"Where's Trinity?"

"Not far, I promise. But she decided it was better for you to live here with me. Her home was too cold for you-remember?"

"I remember-sort of."

"You won't be cold here. Just look at this nice warm blanket I've made for you."

"You're…like me."

"Of course I am, child. Or, rather, you are like me. What are you doing?"

"Why is the metal in my head gone?"

"Metal? In your head? That's one wild imagination you've got, kiddo. Was it there in your dreams?"

"I guess so…yes. Yes. In my dreams."