He can’t remember who suggested it in the first place, and after it’s all done, nobody wants to admit to being the one with all the bad ideas.
At the time, Harold simply thinks: “What’s the harm?”
They’re not holiday people, not family people. They’re all friends, but they treat each other with a caginess usually reserved for enemies. The holidays might be safely ignored or celebrated quietly, singly or in pairs. There’s no need for an official acknowledgement of the season. Not an office Christmas party, for goodness sake.
It’s only that winter is very long, and since everyone seems amenable there’s really no reason not to.
So they each bring a gift to the safehouse that day - anonymous, one by one - and place it in the center of the big wooden table. They’re each assigned numbers - 1 through 5 - and that irony is not lost on them. Harold offers to generate the numbers randomly using an app on his phone, since it won’t take but a moment and it would be the most fair. But Root insists on torn pieces of paper, drawn from a hat. She can be traditional in that way.
For a moment, he idly wonders if she’s a cheat as well, but that’s dispelled when John is the one to hold up the scrap of paper with the number 1 scrawled on it in pen.
John selects a box around two feet long, flat and slim, wrapped clumsily in newspaper. Perhaps a piece of sporting equipment, Harold finds himself hoping, as his roomful of social malcontents and assassins for hire lean forward, eyes on the tearing paper. Perhaps...a kitchen implement? A very long, thin cheese board?
Or, Harold realizes as Root’s eyes light up, as Shaw sits up straight, as John’s mouth curls imperceptibly, a hatchet. Perhaps that.
“Nice,” Root says, rising to her feet as John lifts it up so the curving blade catches the light.
Shaw leans in, voice low, eyes smoldering with envy. “Very nice.”
“That can’t be $25 or under,” Fusco says, managing to keep his voice light, though the fleeting, nervous eye-contact he makes with Finch tells a different story. “Look at that fancy-ass thing.”
Not the words Harold would have chosen, but he has to admit as John spins the hatchet effortlessly in one hand that it is a beautiful object. A beautiful, dangerous object.
“If they found it ,” John says rather carefully, “then it’s free. And under budget.”
“Whatever you say, Saint Nick. I thought there was a rule about picking your own thing.”
“You’re not supposed to try to figure out who brought what, Lionel,” John says as he tosses the hatchet into the air and catches it, one-handed.
Fusco shrugs. “Suit yourself. You’re the one with the axe.”
John puts the hatchet back in the box, puts the lid back on. “OK,” he says, tucking it under his arm. “I take this. Number 2 tries to take it from me.”
“Not until you leave the building,” Root adds. “The safehouse is...you know, safe. Also if number 2 doesn’t want the hatchet, they can unwrap another present and number 3 can try to steal from either of you.”
“How long is this going for again?” Sameen asks, cracking her knuckles.
“As long as it takes,” Root says, firmly.
“We throwing elbows?” Fusco asks, setting down his drink.
“Sorry,” Harold interrupts. “I was under the impression that this would play out over a single night? We’d all trade presents? There would be a certain amount of good-natured stealing? And it wasn’t a contact sport ?” A roomful of blank stares. “I looked up the rules, but I’ve never played,” he explains, ruffled and faintly affronted.
After a few silent seconds, Sameen says, “I left him off the group text ‘cause I knew he’d have a problem with it.”
This is met with sighs of acknowledgement, nods of agreement, and Harold bristles.
John tries to soothe him. “We modified it,” he says. “To make it interesting.”
“And more... us ,” Root adds.
“I see,” Finch says softly, skeptically. “I suppose I have to ask if this might constitute a distraction from our work.”
“It could,” John says, “but it’s not going to.”
“We’re pros, Harold,” Shaw agrees.
“We’re not going to let a silly game distract us from something so important,” Root adds.
“I have a job to do,” Fusco interjects. “I’m not gonna let somebody get hurt just so I can get one over on these chuckleheads.”
Finch considers it for a long time. “I suppose,” he says at last, his voice still harboring a hint of doubt. “What’s the harm?”
John thinks about most things most of the time. He’s aware of his surroundings, the cars blowing by them in the streets, kicking up dirty slush, the pedestrians ahead of him, behind him, across the street. He’s faintly aware of shapes in windows, many stories up, and occasionally of grim shadows on rooftops. He’s aware of the ground beneath his feet, the cracking and warping of the concrete, made slick with the sleet. And he’s aware of the extra weight at his side, wavering with every movement, a slight bump beneath his coat.
It’s a lot to keep track of, all of these variables, so sometimes he’ll opt to not listen to Fusco’s voice. Not that what he’s saying is necessarily uninteresting or useless, but it’s usually irrelevant, as they’re both very aware that Fusco does most of the actual police work in this partnership. Fusco has become a known quantity to John, a dependable anchor to tie himself to. He doesn’t need to be watched all the time. And Fusco is sometimes happy to simply bounce ideas off of John like rubber balls off a blank brick wall.
“So,” Fusco asks, nudging against his side, “do you like him for it?”
John sucks in air through his teeth and prepares to fake being very, very sharp. “History of break-ins,” - because Fusco did say something about break-ins, right? - “That alone makes him worth looking at. Throw in the surveillance and the obsession with children and it’d be irresponsible not to consider him.”
“Really?” Fusco says, eyebrow raised. “That’s funny, ‘cause I’ve been talking about Santa Claus for the last minute and a half. Didn’t know you had it in for him. Where’s your head at, Wonderboy?”
Reese remains guiltily silent.
“Not to mother you, big guy,” Fusco says, stuffing his hands in his pockets, “but you promised Glasses this wouldn’t interfere with anybody’s work, and you are checked out today.”
“I’m always checked out when you talk.”
Fusco kicks a little slush onto Reese’s pant leg. “Not like this,” he says. “Usually you’re just thinking about something else. This is just you being paranoid. And for the record,” here, he brushes Reese’s side with his arm, pressing the hidden hatchet gently against his side, “I hate that you’re carrying that with you.”
“Worried about something, Lionel?”
He snorts. “Sure. Worrying the longer you carry an axe, the more I start to look like a tree.”
“More a stump,” Reese says, “but you’re not far off.”
“ Hysterical . You know, I’ve had some really shitty partners in my day, and I’m not gonna claim you’re the worst, ‘cause you’re not, but even when it was really bad, I never wondered if my partner was gonna come at me with an axe. And with you, it’s like 50-50. Not great odds.”
John’s about to come back with a retort when he hears the roar of a motorcycle approaching at speed and remembers why he shuts Lionel out sometimes. He spins just in time to get clotheslined by a dark figure in a motorcycle helmet and crash to the ground.
He’s not aware of much in the moments after when he’s lying there dazed, trying to find enough air to speak. The figure dismounts, their boots crunching in the slush beside his head. They crouch beside him, throw his coat open, take the axe from its holster around his ribs. Satisfied, the figure rises up to full height.
“Hey, Lionel,” Root chirps, muffled behind her helmet. With that, she belts the hatchet to her side, hops on the motorcycle, and speeds away, darting among the cars.
They stand there a time, Lionel standing with his hands in his pockets, John wheezing on the ground.
“So I guess she drew the 2, huh?” Lionel remarks, glancing down at John’s prone form.
John groans miserably.
“Don’t be sad, pal.” Lionel grips John under the arms and drags him to his feet. “You had to give it up sometime. That’s how the game is played.”
John limps into the safehouse, battered and bruised. Faced once again with a wealth of items, he picks something small and rectangular, wrapped in cheap, spangly paper and adorned with a glittery bow. He tears back the paper, revealing the matte black plastic of a taser.
In the darkened safehouse, John grins.
This has Root written all over it.
Somewhere on the other side of the wall, a train roars past. They’re barely aware of it, the two of them tangled together in Root’s slim bed in the subway station, bare skin to bare skin. She can feel Shaw’s strong hand trapped between Root’s belly and the mattress, Shaw’s breasts pressed against her back, Shaw’s soft breaths tickling the hair at the nape of Root’s neck.
Root is warm. She’s content. She’s drooling a little bit on the stuffed animal she’s using as a pillow. Nothing can ever be perfect, but it comes really close. Root stretches as best she can, luxuriates in warmth. “You awake, sweetie?” she asks.
“Ngh,” Shaw groans, burying her face in Root’s neck. Her free hand wanders clumsily over to cover Root’s, squeezes it as if to say I’m alive .
Root intertwines their fingers. “You have anywhere to be today?”
Shaw shakes her head, shifts gently against Root, pressing her down. She lifts Root’s hand up, presses it against the headboard.
Root lifts her hips with a sigh. “Then let’s stay in bed.”
“I’m so glad we’re on the same page,” Shaw purrs.
Suddenly, a cold handcuff clicks around Root’s wrist. “Really?” Root says. “Again?”
Shaw sits up with a grunt, stands, and walks off down the mattress to the foot of the bed.
She hears rummaging, things being pushed aside, drawers pulled open. “Just sit tight, Root.”
“I’m gonna turn around in ten seconds,” Root says, “and if you’re not holding something fun , I’m…”
Shaw makes a satisfied noise. “Yeah. I think it’s pretty fun.”
Root wheels around to find Shaw naked, balancing the hatchet in one hand with practiced ease. “Oh, baby,” Root says. “I’m not mad, just disappointed.”
Shaw snorts. “You’ll get over it.” She bends to the floor, finds her pants and starts pulling them on.
Root tugs at the handcuffs, finds she’s held fast to the headboard. Just like she knew she’d be. Just like she arranged to be. It’s unfair . “That’s not playing fair,” she says, out loud.
“It’s the game,” Shaw shrugs before tugging her shirt over her head.
“At least uncuff me. You have it now. I lost it for this round.”
“Yeah,” Shaw says, pulling her jacket on, “but I kinda need a head’s start. And no offense, Root, but if anybody’s not gonna play fair, it’s you. If you want it back, come get me next round. If you want to steal it back in the same way...I’m not gonna complain.” With that, she wheels around and steps out the door.
“I’ll see you later, Root!” she calls from somewhere in the tunnel.
“I’ll see you in hell, sweetie!” Root shouts.
Her only answer is the rumble of another passing train.
The taser hangs from John’s wrist, clattering against the edge of the desk as he types.
“Yeah, I guess that’s better,” Fusco says, dubiously eyeing it from behind his mountain of paperwork.
“It would be harder to kill you with a taser,” John remarks.
“That’s the spirit,” Fusco says, and then, “Hey, you hear about what happened this morning?”
“What happened this morning?” John asks, and that’s when he becomes aware of boots pounding on linoleum and he looks up just in time to see Root skid to a stop in front of his desk.
“Back so soon?” John says, gripping the taser tightly.
“I’m not in the mood, John. Hand it over.”
“If you want it back, you’re gonna have to fight me for it. Fair, this time.”
Root sighs. “I don’t fight fair,” she says, digging in her jacket pockets, “and I don’t have time for this.” She reveals a small device, made of black plastic, with a single gray button. Before John has a chance to ask what the hell that thing is and what it has to do with anything, Root slams the button and a jolt of pain shoots up through John’s taser hand, up his arm, and through his whole body until he’s on the floor, twitching.
“I brought the taser, John,” Root says, pocketing the remote. “You really think I didn’t come up with a way to get it back if I needed it?”
Peering curiously over his reading glasses as Root snatches the taser from John’s unresisting wrist, Lionel asks, “How’s it going, Honey Bunches of Oats?”
Root pockets the taser. “Honestly, Lionel,” she pants, “I’m just so upset.”
“Yeah, I get that kinda vibe.”
“I can’t believe she would use our relationship against me like that.”
“I mean, it’s how the game works.”
She groans in disgust. “You’re missing the point , Lionel.” Off Root stalks, vanishing from the precinct just as suddenly as she appeared.
Finally, Lionel puts his pen down and sets about peeling John off the floor. “How bad is it?” he asks, helping John to his feet.
“Not too bad,” John grits. It’s not the first time he’s been tased. He wouldn’t bet on it being the last time either.
Lionel falls quiet, staring into space for a moment as he guides John back into his desk chair.
“You still with me, Lionel?” John asks.
“Oh, yeah,” he says, patting John on the back as he settles him into the seat. “I’m just thinking about my gameplay. You fuckers are dangerous.”
John, feeling like he hasn’t slept in a thousand years, shambles miserably into the safehouse and selects a gift in a very large, very tall wine bag, weakly beautified by a shiny paper bow.
It contains - surprise surprise - a double magnum of wine.
As John tucks the massive green bottle under his arm, he wonders if he could get away with opening it tonight.
John isn’t as worried about the wine. He doesn’t think it’ll go as fast as the taser or the hatchet. That and it’s fragile and harder to hide on his person. So he goes light on security, only locks it in a small safe, which he locks in his filing cabinet at the precinct.
Still, he’s faintly disappointed to find the cabinet drawer hanging lazily open, the safe unlocked, the double magnum of wine perched triumphantly on Lionel’s desk.
Fusco stretches like a cat, all self-satisfied, and puts his feet up on the desk. “Really.”
“Stole it off your desk when I brought you coffee this morning. You never carry it around with you anyway.”
“The combination for the safe?”
Fusco snorts. “It was your birthday. Easy.”
“How did you know…”
“Lots of people use their birthdays for stuff like that. I asked Glasses what your birthday is and, presto, it worked. And now I know your birthday,” he says, with the kind of smug confidence of a man who is planning to throw you a deeply embarrassing birthday party.
“I’m surprised you didn’t go for the hatchet,” John says. “It’s popular so far.”
“What, and paint a target on my back?” Fusco asks. “Count me out of the pointy objects rat race, Cujo. Me and Mr. Magnum here will be just fine on our own.” He pats the oversized bottle. “Anyway, you should be thanking me. You’re back in the game.”
John considers what’s left for the taking this round. The man has a point.
“I don’t mind that he took it from me,” John says, voice almost lost under the blaring party music. “I just mind that he has it.”
Shaw, in heels and hating it, forces her way through the crowd. She’s only half-listening. “Oh, yeah?”
Their Number is Willis Morse, risk-taker, gun-owner, and incompetent embezzler. The location is his office Christmas party, insufferable. The hors d’oeuvres are spanakopita, sub-par. As if her tight dress and heels weren’t enough of a handicap, she also has a violin case weighing her down. Although the violin case does have a hatchet inside it, so that makes things a little more exciting. Anyway, it’s not weighing her down as much as John, who’s being a real fucking albatross tonight.
“It’s not that I think he’s going to fall off the wagon just because he’s got a bottle of wine in front of him,” John murmurs as the crowd thins and the music starts to fade, “but…”
“But you do,” she interrupts. “And it’s kinda shitty. He got sober on his own. He goes to bars for you guys all the time and he doesn’t drink. I’m not a trust kinda person, but maybe trust him like...a little bit.”
John frowns, visibly annoyed by how right she is. People give her a lot of shit for not doing feelings, but at least she doesn’t need to save people so bad that she makes shit up like this. Not that Lionel couldn’t start drinking again, not that she wouldn’t try to get him back on the wagon if he did. Just that you know when Lionel’s hurt. He lets you know, even if he doesn’t say so in so many words. And he’s not the type to hold the thing that hurts him in his hand just so he can feel how bad it is.
That’s something John would do.
John checks his phone. “We have to move.”
They pick up the pace as the sounds of the party become fainter and fainter, into a world of flickering fluorescent lights and deserted cubicles. There’s nothing here, not for anybody. John heads for the glowing red exit sign, ushers her into a gray, empty stairwell that echoes with every click of her heels, booms when the door swings shut.
John leans over the railing and peers down onto the landing below. “They’re supposed to meet on that floor,” he whispers.
They are Willis Morse, of course, and Carrie Weissman, an analyst who’s been sending Morse increasingly worried emails about why a certain account looks a little lighter than it should. Shaw knows this because a couple of days ago, Finch force-paired Morse’s phone with his and he’s been texting up a little worrywart storm about the analyst ever since. He’s not wrong. He’s just up her ass about it.
John looks over the railing again before settling back in the doorway. “I do trust him,” he says after a moment.
“Sure,” Shaw says, leaning beside him, eager to take the pressure off her heels.
“I do,” he repeats, letting his head recline against the door. “If I didn’t, he wouldn’t be around anymore.”
Shaw can’t argue with that.
“Look,” he says softly, pointing up. “Mistletoe.”
Shaw glances toward the ceiling and sure enough, there’s a little green and white sprig of mistletoe up in the door frame, embedded in a gummy stalactite of Blu-Tack, a skeezy little monument to corporate hookups. “Doesn’t it feel good,” she says, “to have never worked in an office.”
When she looks at John, he’s already gazing back at her, eyes soft and shimmering in the dim light of the staircase, a tiny smile playing over his lips. “Sameen,” he says, very softly. “There’s something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time.”
As he leans into her, she’s ready to punch him in the jaw, to knee him in the balls so hard he sees Jesus, but all he does is casually yank the violin case out of her hand.
“Really?” Shaw says.
John smiles to himself as he steps back, tucks the violin case under his arm.
“We’re spies and you steal this thing with ‘hey, look over there!’? Are you shitting me?”
“Not everything has to be over the top, Shaw,” he says, adjusting his jacket. “Sometimes you can just grab something. What was it Finch said? I’m a scalpel; you’re a hammer?”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. I saw you drive a semi through a fence last fucking week-”
A loud bang from the floor below and interrupts their argument. Footsteps, a woman’s voice saying, “I don’t want to put you in a difficult position, Morse, but if you can’t account for those funds, I’m going to have to bring this issue to…” and then a cry of pain.
Shaw darts to the stairwell to see the tops of their heads, Morse crushing a woman Shaw recognizes as the analyst against the rail, a gun held at the small of her back. “You’re not bringing the issue to anyone,” Morse snarls in her ear, “you…”
And that’s when John casually tosses the violin case over the railing and onto Morse’s head. Shaw vaults herself over the railing and drops to the floor beside him, taking him down to the ground. He’s about as good at fighting as he is at embezzling, she learns.
“Ma’am,” she hears John say to the analyst as he pads softly down the steps after her, “I think you’d better go back to the party.”
The analyst, wide-eyed and pale, wordlessly slips back through the door she came in from.
“Is she going to call the police, do you think?” John asks.
“Oh, yeah,” Shaw says, getting to her feet and passing the violin case back to John. “It’s all yours. But only if you carry this loser too,” she adds, giving Morse’s unconscious form a casual kick.
“That’s really fair of you, Shaw.”
“Can’t fucking believe you,” she says, stalking down the stairs ahead of him as John drags Morse behind. “You better hope that it’s not possible to kill someone with mistletoe…”
“I think…” John pauses to negotiate a tight turn. “I think it’s a little bit poisonous.”
“Watch your back, or you’re gonna find out firsthand.”
Root’s hard at work on a tricky piece of code when Sameen creeps up behind her, curls her arms around Root’s waist.
“You still pissy?” she murmurs against Root’s ear.
Root’s fingers pause on the keyboard as she considers. “I could be persuaded not to be.”
Shaw swivels Root’s chair around so they’re facing each other. “I can think of a few ways to make that happen,” Shaw purrs as their lips brush together.
Root pulls back, just a little. “John stole it from you?” she asks.
“Uh huh.” Shaw moves in again, so close their noses bump.
Root puts her hand on Shaw’s chest, stops her cold. “Doesn’t feel very nice, does it?”
Shaw sighs, sits back on her heels. She rests her arms on Root’s thighs, her chin on her arms. “It wasn’t great,” she admits. “It’s the game, but maybe I shouldn’t have exploited our relationship so I could have a cool axe for like...24 hours. Like maybe that wasn’t worth it.”
“ Maybe ?”
“OK,” Shaw says. “OK, definitely.” She blinks, eyes dark and liquid. “You really still mad?”
Root undoes the elastic tying back Shaw’s ponytail, lets her smooth, dark hair fall free. She runs her fingers through it, tangles her fingers in it, scratches Shaw’s scalp slow and lazy until her eyes drift shut.
“Persuade me,” Root whispers.
Thirty minutes later, Shaw is still pinning her to the chair and Root is well and truly persuaded.
Shaw stays for a while, puts her clothes back on and leans on the desk while Root puts herself back together and gradually returns to the code on the screen. Shaw makes coffee, brings Root a cup and sits beside her, watching Root work with idle curiosity until the text comes and with a quick kiss, Shaw has to leave again.
By the time Root realizes the taser is gone, Sameen’s half a mile away.
Root is halfway through planning a heist before she realizes that there’s nothing left to steal. Every single item has changed hands once this round. There’s nothing left to choose but the Russian roulette that is the gift pile in the safehouse.
She stands there, puzzling, for a very long time, hyper aware of the camera watching her movements. Not that she couldn’t outsmart it if she had to. But that seems...unsporting. She picks something small, thin, rectangular. Slightly thicker than a chocolate bar. Or perhaps, she thinks hopefully as the thick, matte wrapping paper tears away, a very thick chocolate bar.
It’s not. It’s very familiar, unfortunately. Glossy plastic. Input. Output. An LED light, currently dark. It’s an external battery.
Root’s howl of frustration fills the safehouse.
John places the tea on the desk next to Harold’s elbow. “I see your gift’s going over well,” John remarks.
Harold glances up at him balefully. “I was told there was a $25 budget.”
“I made an effort to honor that.”
“That makes sense,” John concedes.
“If I’d known,” Harold continues, getting increasingly snappish, “that it was permissible to submit any piece of heavy artillery I happened to lift from a criminal…”
“...Perhaps I would have brought an M16 and things would be very different , but as it is…”
“I’m sure someone will want them,” John interrupts, diplomatically.
Harold sips at the tea John brought him pensively. “I suppose at this point it’s more of a leverage game. Only one person can have the axe.”
“Your phones are always dying during missions.”
Mostly because we destroy them, John reflects, but it’s a fair point.
“Speaking of which…” Harold clears his throat.
John waits a long time for Harold to finish his sentence, but he just blinks up at John expectantly. “Yes?” John asks, at last.
“The axe, John, if you please.”
He leans back in his chair hands clasped around the steaming mug. “Well, I’m not going to fight you for it.”
They maintain tense, disquieting eye contact for around a full minute.
John sighs deeply. “I hid it in the vending machine. Got sick of carrying it around.”
“Very clever,” Harold remarks. “Would you mind bringing it to me?”
He embeds it in the side of Harold’s desk from across the room which, in Harold’s view, is just showing off. Also: poor sportsmanship.
Lionel, as John did before him, pretty much figures out that carrying the magnum of wine around with him is a no-go. Hiding it seems like a sharper option, but thinking over the carnage he’s seen so far, Lionel doesn’t want to give anybody a reason to twist his arm over the location of a liter and a half of pretty OK wine.
So what he’s opted to do instead is keep the thing in plain view on top of his desk, cover it in blinking string lights, plop a golden, tinsely star on the top, and turn it into a local landmark.
When John appears at the other side of his desk, looking hangdog but determined, Lionel pretty much knows what’s coming. “Didn’t figure Glasses would go for the axe.”
“Harold’s a strategist,” John explains. He sounds beaten. “Will you give me any trouble if I…?” He gestures helplessly at the bottle, which is throwing beams of colorful light over his black suit.
“Be my guest,” Lionel says.
John lets out a suppressed, barely audible sigh of relief and begins to work at the tangle of lights.
“‘Course, I can’t speak for the other guys,” Lionel adds.
“Aw, what the hell?” asks Detective Ehler from two desks over. “You’re takin’ it down already?”
“Really brightened up the bullpen, man,” adds Detective Alvarez, passing through.
“Hey, Fusco, what gives?” calls Sergeant McNeill from across the office. “I thought you were gonna pass that thing around on Christmas.”
“Sorry, boys,” Fusco says, as he puts on his reading glasses and nestles smugly into his paperwork, “but fair’s fair. It’s Detective Riley’s pick for this round, so it’s Detective Riley’s wine.”
He takes a small amount of pleasure as John freezes under the cold stares of the entire bullpen, eyeing the alcohol thief with disgust.
Later, as John disentangles an extension cord so the lights on the wine tree don’t have to go down after all, Lionel remarks, “I’m surprised you went for it. Taser’s still in play, right?”
“I trust Shaw with a taser,” John says, working the cord out of a tricky knot.
“And you don’t trust me with alcohol, is that it?”
John goes very still, very careful. “No. No, that’s not it.”
“You send me to bars often enough that if you thought I couldn’t control myself…”
“That’s not it,” John interrupts, soft but emphatic. “I just...I don’t want you to have to control yourself. It’s not work. It’s a stupid game.”
Lionel considers that for a moment before rising to stand by John, stop him from making macrame out of the extension cord. “‘S kinda sweet, John.”
“Don’t get used to it.”
Lionel’s in no danger of that. But it is sweet. It’s nice to have somebody even worry about him around alcohol, even though Lionel was never too worried about that himself. If he didn’t think he could handle it, Lionel reasons, he wouldn’t have brought the wine into the game in the first place.
“I think I fucked up,” Sameen says to Lionel without really meaning to.
From his face, she can tell he didn’t expect it, the way his brow furrows and his knuckles turn white on the steering wheel for just a bare second. He takes a breath. “Yeah?”
Sameen thinks about taking it back for a long minute - figures Lionel would be relieved if she did - but realizes that if anybody’s gonna have an answer for her, it’s him. So he can suck it up.
“When I wanted to steal the hatchet from Root, I just went over to her room like usual and we…”
“And then I just stole it while she was distracted. And she got pissed off.”
“With you so far, kiddo.”
“And then in the next round when I wanted to steal the taser, so I went down to the subway, pinned her to a chair and…”
“Jesus Christ. Can I stick my fingers in my ears? Is there a way I can make you have this conversation with somebody else?”
“ Prude ,” Sameen mutters under her breath. “Anyway, that pissed her off too and now she’s not talking to me.”
“Why?” she asks. “It’s a game; that’s how it works. She kicked John in the face and nobody’s complaining about that. At least my thing was fun.”
“Maybe so, but…”
“I told her she could do the same to me if she wanted.”
“ Jesus Christ. OK. Just, up front, this is only a guess and I got no clue what goes on in Coco Puffs’ head as a rule. Got that?”
“When you say it’s just a game, you’re right. It’s just a dumb game; it doesn’t matter. But that...could be the problem. Like maybe she doesn’t like you using your relationship…”
“Don’t call it that,” Sameen interrupts, disgusted. Not that he’s wrong it just...sounds wrong. Official when it should be subversive. Not that she can think of a better word for what Lionel’s trying to say.
“...to win a stupid game. Like, maybe she’d rather you just stole it.”
“That’s the easiest way to steal from Root, though.”
“Or,” Lionel interrupts, now barreling along with a kind of grim determination, “or maybe she thinks this is like a little thing that symbolizes a bigger, worse thing.”
He thinks for a long moment. “Like maybe you’re using sex to get out of doing your part in the relationship?”
“I’m never opening up to you again.”
“Well, I don’t know!” he protests. “I don’t know anything about what goes on with you two. And I’m fine with that, by the way.”
“Get used to being fine with that.”
“I’m just saying it could be...not that. But something like that. Probably ask her about it; she’ll know. I’m just making shit up.”
“Really? ‘Ask her about it?’ That’s your advice? You’re supposed to be the feelings guy.”
“When’d I land that job and how do I quit? Listen, ask her about it, don’t ask her about it: that’s up to you. If that’s not the advice you wanted, well…you get what you pay for.”
Sameen slouches in the passenger seat, props her boots up on Lionel’s messy dashboard.
“For the record,” he adds, a little gentler, “she’s crazy about you. She’s crazy about everything, that’s kinda how she...you get it. She likes you. She wants whatever thing you guys have going on to work out. If you tell her you want to talk about things, she’ll talk.”
“Hey, no problem,” he says, patting her on the wrist.
When he lifts his hand, the taser is gone.
“How the hell…” She pauses as Lionel pushes the taser into his suit pocket, a smug smile playing across his face. “You did all that just to distract me?”
“I mean, kinda. Hey, imagine how she feels,” he adds, turning fake-sanctimonious.
“You think you’re teaching me a lesson right now?”
“Nah, I was gonna do that anyway. Funny how it worked out, though, right?”
As she stalks into the safehouse, Shaw’s phone rattles with text after text.
Heard you lost the taser, sweetie. So sad :(
My gift is the last one in play.
Definitely don’t go back to the safehouse. You don’t know what’s left over on that table.
Plus, everyone needs battery packs. Our phones are always dying at work.
Want to come steal it from me? :)
Shaw may have gotten some pretty solid advice from Lionel about dealing with Root, and she might even follow some of it. But just because she’s maybe OK with making a few concessions, that doesn’t mean she’s here to get outright scammed.
She crams her phone into her back pocket and picks up the last gift on the table. She tears the paper away with brusque indifference and reveals a mug: ceramic, soft lavender, clean-lined and faintly unusual due to the influence of some designer she didn’t catch the name of. She’s embarrassed by it now. She thought you were supposed to bring normal shit to this kind of thing. There’s a bunch of grenades she’s been hanging onto, watching over like they’re a clutch of eggs, and there’s no way they wouldn’t have killed in this thing. But no. Mug.
She fires off a text to the group. Just picked the last thing. Game over?
Root’s the first to respond: You’re the worst.
A few seconds later, Root adds:
It’s not over yet.
It takes scheduling to get everyone back in the safehouse once again, but they manage it before the 25th. They file in one by one, Fusco swinging the taser lazily by the wrist-strap, John shuffling under the weight of the double-magnum of wine, Root moving purposefully with the battery packs in one hand and a laptop case in the other, Shaw holding her mug with distaste, and, there and seated before the rest of them, Finch with the hatchet laid primly across his knees.
“What’s this about us not being done?” Harold asks as the others drag chairs into a circle.
“There’s the last round,” John says softly as he sets the massive bottle of wine beside his chair.
“That too,” Root says. She’s kneeling on the floor, arranging a laptop on the seat of the extra chair. The screen comes subtly to life, a dark screen glowing faintly. “But we have a sixth player.”
She stands, takes the seat next to the laptop as white text appears on the screen.
HELLO, it reads.
A hush falls over the room.
“Can she...do that?” Sameen asks, frozen in the act of pouring a little of Finch’s good whiskey into her mug.
Root shrugs. “We’ll have to act on her behalf, but we’re all used to that.”
That’s true, they all suppose.
“She wants to play,” Root adds.
So, they suppose as they take their seats, that settles it.
I GO FIRST, the text reads, and it’s true, although no one would argue if it weren’t.
Harold clears his throat. “What would you like?”
THE HATCHET, PLEASE, she replies.
Lionel leans over to John, whispers in his ear, “What’s she going to do with that?”
IT’S A POPULAR ITEM, the Machine replies as Harold places the hatchet in front of the chair, as there’s no one to hand it to. STRATEGICALLY, IT MAKES THE MOST SENSE.
“Fair enough, I guess,” Fusco murmurs. “Glasses, what do you want?”
Harold stands in the middle of the room, fixing each gift with a critical eye. “The taser, I suppose,” he says, holding his hand out to Lionel. “If you would, Detective.”
Fusco gives up the taser without a fight. Maybe this is the kind of thing it was supposed to be at first, he thinks. Just all of them in a room together, drinking and eyeing each other, a fire roaring in the fireplace, Bear hustling them all for tidbits of food. That would’ve been nice too, he thinks. But different.
It’s not too bad a spread, glancing around the room. The two best things are gone, but there’s still stuff for the taking. The wine’s still in play. He almost takes it off John’s hands.
But instead, he goes to Root sitting forlornly with her battery pack on her knees. “Hand it over, Coco Puffs.”
She does, eyes wide with disbelief.
“I hope you know,” Reese whispers as Fusco takes his seat beside him again, “that you’re going home with that.”
Fusco just grins beatifically as Root stalks the circle, eyeing the remaining items carefully. Pretty much anything’s a step up from where she was before, but nothing’s the step she needs.
“Root,” Shaw hisses, holding up the mug.
Root considers, skeptically.
“It’s purple,” Shaw says, as if that means something.
Very deliberately, Root takes the wine from John. She has to use both hands to lift it.
Now John stands, looks around the room and realizes, quietly, that there’s only one thing left. There’s just Shaw, just the mug in her hands. He asks, “Shouldn’t there be one more?”
THERE IS MY GIFT, she says.
“You brought a gift?” Harold asks.
A SMALL ONE. NO ONE SAW.
“Where is it?” John asks.
ON THE TABLE.
It takes some looking. The envelope is small, matte, dark like the wood it’s lying on. It’s about the size of a business card. If John had noticed it, he would have thought it was a scrap of wrapping paper, a tag from another gift. He holds it up to the light, brow furrowed, and lifts up the flap on the envelope.
“Or you could take the mug?” Shaw suggests.
“He touched it,” Lionel murmurs. “He bought it.”
John pulls the card from the envelope, squints at the printed text.
“What is it, John?” Harold asks.
“An answer,” he says. “That’s all it says, just ‘an answer’.” He turns to the laptop. “Answer to what?”
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW? she asks.
“OK,” John murmurs softly. He takes a deep breath. “OK.”
“You’re #1,” Root says. “If you keep it, the game’s over.”
John sets the answer down in the middle of the table.
He approaches the Machine. “May I take the hatchet, please?
So he takes it, sits down beside Fusco again.
“You sure?” Lionel asks him.
“Lionel?” Root says from across the room, voice high with disgust and alarm.
On the screen, white text flashes for a second time. LIONEL. THE BATTERY PACK, PLEASE.
He blinks slow. “I can’t believe that worked.”
WHAT ELSE COULD I HAVE USED? she asks as he brings her the battery.
“You know, that’s exactly what I was thinking,” Lionel says.
He turns to face the room: the taser he could use as a backup weapon, the wine he could use to get in good with some of the guys at the precinct, the envelope sitting temptingly, invitingly, terrifyingly on the floor in front of him.
“You’re a lousy salesman,” he says to Shaw as he takes the mug from her hands. “It’s a good thing I like you.”
Shaw’s choice seems easy at first. The taser rests in Harold’s hands, dark and inviting, just a few steps away. There’s the envelope on the floor, of course, but Shaw has all the answers she needs. Still, she can think of someone else who might want one.
She crosses the room, takes the wine from Root. “Get whatever you want,” she hisses as she lifts the heavy bottle.
Root makes a beeline for the envelope, steps right over it on her way to Harold and the taser in his hand. She picks up the envelope for him while she’s at it, to save his knees the trouble.
“Goodness,” Harold says, in the sudden quiet as he takes the envelope in shivering fingers. “That goes very quickly when we’re all in the same room.”
John hefts the hatchet reverently in his hands. “What now?”
“Dinner,” Harold says, rising to his feet. “And drinks. I won’t make you choose.”
Dinner is exquisite in a catered kind of way, lively in a quiet kind of way. It’s peculiar to be all in the same room together, all eating at the same table. Suddenly, they’re realizing that they’ve never sat in the same room all together for so long at a stretch, that there are people around the table who they’ve never seen eat anything before, or never heard laugh. It feels dangerous and strange at first, like in the first seconds when you sink into a hot bath and you feel like you’ll boil alive, you think to yourself I can’t possibly withstand this , but in just a few seconds, you have and you’re not sure what you were afraid of. They pass dishes, bump elbows, sneak the dog scraps under the table. They’re…
They’re not a family. None of them would cop to that.
But they’re not so far off.
Fusco leaves first. After the plates are clear, dessert is gone, and coffee is cooling in mugs, Fusco can’t stop himself from glancing at his watch again and again, nervously tracking the ticking of the clock. The time, the babysitter. They know it’s more that he doesn’t like to leave his son alone longer than he has to, and he’s the only one of them with a child. He takes his mug, wraps it up in paper so it won’t break on the way home. He says goodnight.
A little later, Shaw leans into Root and murmurs under her breath, “So...a taser and some wine, huh?”
“Yeah,” Root says. “We did alright.”
Shaw says, “Sure. Sounds like a good Friday night.”
They slip away together.
That leaves just Reese, just Finch, just Bear snuggled up on the couch, just the laptop still humming away on the chair.
“That was nice,” John says, very softly, turning the hatchet in his hands.
“Was it?” Finch asks, eyes puffy and tired.
“A little low stakes competition isn’t the worst thing in the world, Finch.”
“I suppose not,” he concedes. “And you all did seem to enjoy it.”
His mouth curls faintly at the corner. “A little bit. But I only came in at the end.” Finch gestures to the hatchet. “You seem to have had your heart set on that thing the entire time. What will you do with it now that it’s yours?”
Reese tosses the hatchet in the air, lets it rotate once before catching it casually. “Not sure,” he admits. “Use it to...chop wood? Threaten muggers? Throwing practice?”
“Please not that.”
“Axe-throwing is actually pretty relaxing. You should try it sometime,” Reese says. “I guess I just didn’t want to bring anything here that I wouldn’t be happy to take home myself.”
“That’s a strategy, I suppose.”
“Picking #1 is also a strategy.”
“The best strategy, I might argue.”
“What about you?” Reese asks. “Are you happy with what you ended up with?”
“I’m not certain that’s the word. I’m satisfied.” Finch clears his throat. “I’m looking forward to a moment of clarity.”
“Clarity’s good,” John says, but he’s thinking about how they all passed it up, every single one of them, until it came down to Finch and there was no other choice.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Finch says. “Would you mind taking Bear with you when you go? I think he could use a walk.”
Bear, who goes from snoring in front of the fire to on his feet, tail wagging, in seconds, seems to agree. So Reese stays only as long as it takes for the last plate to go into the dishwasher, the last crumb to be swept from the table, the last scrap of wrapping paper to be thrown in the trash and then he makes his excuses too and vanishes into the night, Bear trotting at his heels.
It’s quiet now. Quiet but for the crackle of the fire, the hum of the laptop.
“Alright,” Finch says, bending gingerly before it. “That’s quite enough out of you for one night.”
WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR ANSWER NOW? flashes the text on the screen.
With Finch, there are questions, always. He cultivates them. He imagines them like a deep, uncharted sea, thrashing in the tides of his troubles, the breezes of his whims. There are the mechanicals, the problem-solvers. The mysteries, the truth-seekers. The questions of trickery, of treachery, of guilt, of blame. Mysteries of the heart, if you’re given to poetry.
“Let me sleep on it,” Finch says.
He untwists the cord of the external battery, plugs it into the laptop, watches its screen brighten with new life.
“This ought to keep you running,” he says, as he closes the laptop and lifts it into his arms, “until tomorrow.”