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let's be strangers

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***

 

Sam Groves is a gangly mess of a kid. Her hair catches the Texas sun and turns almost blonde in summers, her teeth dart out unevenly when she smiles, and her hands shake when she feels nervous. She feels misplaced in awkward in so many ways. But if there is one thing - she is not ashamed.

The girl is unfazed and happy to show the markings on her wrist. She hardly has any friends and a part of her, a part that is still young and not disillusioned, hopes that maybe someone will be more eager to approach her if they see the still scrambled ink on her skin, if they see she is just like everyone else.

She has thought about the symbols on her wrist. Her mind is set to analyze, to decipher anything but she has had no luck with the strange lines and dots that wrap around her just under her palm. It’s not a rebus she has mastered. She’s made small progress in deciding it’s not an English name. No, the lines are too soft and too short, even if they are jambled, crossing and blocking each other. Sam thinks it might be a Slavic name, something written in the curled, quieted Cyrillic script. On different nights, when she is left alone to herself and her mind rushes all over the maps and cities she has memorized, she changes theories, starts from scratch, thinks it Latin all the same, perhaps simply written in cursive, with smaller lines appearing to mark pronunciation.

She gets machines better than people. Machines are infallible, logical. Humans are anything but. She finds solace in Hanna Fray, a girl with an easy smile and warm brown locks. Hanna is nice enough, tolerant and kind. She doesn’t make fun of Sam when she goes silent and prefers to write lines and lines of code instead of grabbing coffee or going through the magazines or shopping at the mall or doing whatever girls in Middle of Nowhere, Texas do.

“Where would you go, if you could go anywhere?” Hanna asks her once, voice casual and eyes wandering around.

Sam begins to understand this girl. Begins to see that it’s not just kindness that she has offered, but friendship, a sincere interest.

Sam thinks about that question, too. It sits in her mind more and more as the days after Hanna’s abduction roll on by. She feels progressively more disconnected from everything, like a signal that doesn’t reach.

Her last solace is her mom. When she dies, something in Sam breaks. It breaks so bad that the world falls colorless and flat. For days, she lays in bed, not moving, piling numbers in her head, then discarding them in favor of a new plan, only to be dropped an hour later.

When she leaves her home, she has a laptop in her backpack, some pocketed cash, and a stolen Glock 17.

The time on the Greyhound to whichever city she ends up next is spent with her eyes glued to the screen, tweaking stuff in Unix. She’s had to type “/root” so many times that by the end of the ride, when she’s thrown out in the dirty streets of Chicago and some drunk guy is hollering after her, asking for her name, she only manages a quiet murmur.

"Root.” The second it falls from her lips she is filled with peace.

Of course, breaking the guy’s nose helps with that as well.

 

***

 

Root establishes a few safe houses here in there, she skips towns more often than not, and never cares to find anything more permanent. Permanence is for people who want to be tied, she reasons to herself. It wouldn’t fit her bill. And her bill these days is assassin-for-hire and hacker extraordinaire. She’s crashed a few banks and sometimes when she eats yogurt, unable to fall asleep in the early hours of the morning, she pranks government websites and leaves lolcats and memes on every page.

It’s not fulfilling. The cash is good and she get her kicks out of outsmarting another dumb system, another stupid client, another trashy mobster. The pain is what’s new to her. It doesn’t give her pleasure, nor does it bother her. It’s like a blanket of ambivalence that covers her slowly, fully, freezing her all over.

And she starts sleeping with people. She can’t she enjoys that much either. She likes the thrill of seduction, sure enough, but she doesn’t know where to place the longing gazes in the morning or the soft laughter that men or women sometimes give her.

Part of her does it to forget. To be erased. To let herself not think of Texas, of a mother and a friend she lost.

Part of her is much much more destructive. There’s that piece of her that hasn’t shredded hope, that imagines lips touching lips and that script on her wrist rearranging to form a name.

It never does. She’s tasted so many mouths and felt so little.

 

 

***

 

Root spends enough time in the deep web and around the right sort of people to catch wind of it, so she’s not surprised when she hears about a new artificial intelligence system.

It’s when she really finds out about The Machine that her plan is hatched.

Something about her changes that day, too. Something feels fuller.

 

***

 

Admittedly, Harold Finch is a smart man. A genius.

But his mind is set on restrictions, protocols, fail-safes, plan Bs, Cs. And Root’s mind is unhinged in the face of the next frontier. At the end of the day, Harold Finch is one limited human being, and The Machine deserves so much more than the confines set by her maker.

Her Caroline Turing stun doesn’t get her far. But it gets her intel on the team, on what’s she to face. She pours hours, and nights, and all her money for bribes, documents, access to anything that aid her further.

Maybe she should realize the irony of how she’s going to play agent Shaw. Pretending to be Veronica Sinclair, the last woman who had contact with her best and only friend  Michael Cole, should remind her of Hanna, should remind her of loyalty, of those kind eyes that never left her, of the warm hand on her back in the library…

But Root is not Sam Groves. Root will play dirty. She’ll use Shaw’s weakness, the ghost of a man who took a bullet for her, and get what she wants.

She’s done her research. Sameen Shaw. Former marine. Former doctor. Psychopath with a moral compass. A toy to entertain her.

It’s hours later, when she’s got Sameen tied and fooled, that she finds a twisted sense of joy. A little torture can go a long way. Not with civilians, no. She’s read up on her psychology. But the unrelenting woman before her who won’t give up the name of her contact, she’s different. Root sees the ruthlessness in her eyes, the cunning.

“I kind of enjoy this sort of thing.” Shaw’s voice sounds like a snake, slithering between tall grass, ready to enjoy the sun or jump out in a murderous bite at the change of a second.

“I am so glad you said that.” Comes out of Root’s mouth on automatic, lips curving high. “I do too.” She’s now sitting in Shaw’s lap, one hand curved around her shoulders, the other holding the hot iron mere centimeters away from the other woman’s face.

Root has known the touch of others, has seen lust, has tasted many sinful, wanton lips. She sees something small, perhaps like a tiny flicker of a candle in a deep, deep cave. And it’s unmistakable desire.

“Do I have to hurt you for you to feel a thing?” Root ponders to herself or maybe even says out loud.

She’s mesmerized.

For a second Root just eyes Shaw, her happy victim, her twisted prisoner, her demented counterpart in this game. She studies the lines of her cheeks, the slope of her nose. She moves her gaze to a slender wrist and sees her odd markings. Shaw’s don’t look like normal English letters either, they’re series of sharp lines and soft curves, seemingly repeating in patterns that look familiar yet so unknowable. Mandarin, maybe. She leans the iron closer as her phone rings. She has to cut their little date short and make her exit.

The next hours seem endless. She gets to Finch and they head to Hanford, Washington. She’d gotten too caught up in the plan, hadn’t updated her priors and really -- she should have seen it. But there’s a part of herself she hates, a part that’s so very human, that amounts to little else but bad code. Of course Finch betrays her. She’s ready to shoot him, thirsty for a vengeance that won’t lead to much in the long run but then there’s the bullet.

There’s the bullet tearing her skin apart and there’s that short dangerous woman with eyes made of fire.

Blackness slips around her, thick and all consuming. Root swears she hears a whisper pressing in her ear.

“Nothing you could do can hurt me . But if you ever lay a finger on my friends…”

 The words dissolve into nothingness, a rich rich nothingness that fills her head up.

 

***

She knows where she is as soon as her eyes open. Well, she doesn’t know this specific place, but she understands what a psychiatric facility looks like. Her body seems to be filled with led, her arms don’t want to move, her head is dizzy and damn. Her fucking shoulder has been wrapped neatly but aches. Whatever they’ve pumped into her has made her a lumpy sack of zombie bones but has definitely not been painkillers.

It’s the unexpected turns in her life that have propelled her ever forward. When that phone rings, Root doesn’t question it.

Hearing Her voice puts everything else on mute.

The world crumbles. Breaks into subroutines that drift apart and are discarded swiftly. The buzzing stops. Root’s eyes clear and she forgets the heaviness of her body. She forgets her body, period.

“Can you hear me?”

Later she will wonder if that’s what Noah felt when he spoke to God and learned his faith was always justified, that he had a greater purpose. Awe in the face of inconceivable grandeur. Fear of what simple, human hands can build. Part of her feels this might have been what Abraham felt when God told him to sacrifice his son. Recklessness. Fear. A blind jump into darkness with only the hope that some unnamed grace will catch you. She dreams that night of fire, of fleeing lambs.

She wakes with the same word she’d given earlier.

 “Absolutely.”

  

***

 

It’s three nights later when Root’s body finally feels like hers again. She’s managed to make a nice little system to persuade the doctors that she’s taking her medication. She is not.

It’s three nights later when Root remembers the physicality of her existence, inhales sharply, as if surprised by there mere factuality of her presence, and turns her head instantly to her wrist.

The crossed out puzzly symbols still stand in their place. The woman’s chest is filled with disappointment. She thinks herself stupid, to wish for a simple question from The Machine to be enough for this mess on her skin to sort itself out.

It’s the first time Root ever wishes to be rid of her mark. She holds to that feeling for a moment, tossing it around and analyzing it.

And when she makes it out of the psychiatry ward - because of course she does - she no longer feels the inclination to find another willing body for a night of sweat and quickened beat. She doesn’t yearn for an eager mouth, doesn’t dream of the lips that will match against hers.

Root has found, she thinks, something that is already so much more.

 

***

The Machine gives her a mission. Save Jason Greenfield.

They talk more and more each day and Root’s mind begins to alter. Begins to lose words, think in numbers. Hell, Root even has dreams in Malbolge, Befunge, programming languages that don’t yet exist outside of her conversations with The Machine. In many ways she wonders if she is becoming less human.

Sometimes she wonders if she’s becoming more.

  

***

 

So maybe she gets a thrill out of watching Shaw sleep, out of tasering and watching her body go limp, as she drags her to the car and zip-ties her to the wheel. Maybe she wants to finish her job or maybe it’s something else.

For all her very visible ability to kill Root on the spot, Shaw is quick to consider the situation. Root almost smirks to herself, pleased with the level of intelligence the other woman displays even when drugged, tasered, and abducted.

When it’s all set and done, when Jason is rescued, Root grins wildly, listening to her God detailing probabilities and next steps.

She’s not entirely shocked when Shaw’s first connects with her face and propels her into unconsciousness. Before she blacks out, Root wonders if this is how it will be with the two of them. Always one upping the other, never holding back or staying behind.

 

***

The library isn’t the worst place to be confined in. It reminds her of her days in Texas and how much Hanna liked the smell of old inked paper. Root doesn’t hate being her and knows what The Machine has assured her of. The team will need a lot of time and pampering.

“Mom still loves us both, Harold” drips out from Root’s lips. She’s actually starting to appreciate Harold, regimented manners and everything.

Frankly, she is getting bored by the time they let her out to help save Reese. The Machine gives her GPS coordinates immediately and the groups fires off on the second.

“How did Finch persuade you two monkeys to set my dear old self free?” Root wonders out loud.

“You’ll have to blame Shaw for that one,” Fusco answers her.

And isn’t that a funny thing.

 

 

***

“But Sameen,” Root murmurs one late night when they’re both hiding and waiting for another target.

“Don’t call me that.” The Persian woman scoffs and keeps her eyes focused on the darkened alley. Shaw doesn’t let anyone else call her by her first name, but somehow lets it slide with Root.

Enough time has passed for the team to not think the Texan completely deranged, perhaps, even, to trust her a bit. Or at least accept Root - that is, the necessity of Root. If the crazed hacker drenches every response with sarcasm and cynicism, they’ll just have to deal. Something tells her they mind less and less with each passing day.

Root takes to Harold quickly. She appreciates their conversations, mostly few and in between running to finish another task that could kill them all. They test their ideas about the future, about philosophy, about The Machine. And Harold doesn’t see Her like Root does, no one does.

Because Root is obsessed, Root sees her God and would throw herself in front of anything for Her.

Shaw comes around slowly, mostly ignores Root but doesn’t seem to mind her. She engages in some quick-witted back and forth with her when she has little better to do but the former doctor usually sticks to hanging around Bear and disappearing as she pleases.

It’s when Root looks at Shaw that night, cheap electric light from the corner shop falling over Shaw’s face, that she realizes something.

Sameen has always called Root by the name she’s chosen. Sure, Root will tease her partner and droll out her Arabic name to test and provoke her but even in spite or anger, Shaw always calls her Root. Shaw always sees her.

 

***

The whole debacle with Control is rather unpleasant. The Machine tells her how to save Finch, Shaw, and Claypool, and Root doesn’t begrudge her or challenge her even if the proposed plan seems very haphazard, especially for an all-seeing artificial intelligence deity.

The torture is disgusting. Control shoots her up with barbiturates, she shoves the needle straight up her vein, moves it around, and Root knows she will bruise all over, her skin will turn blue and purple, will ache, will burn. She’s halfway to unconscious when her captor fires up speed down her other arm. It’s like her mind has been zapped awake. She’s buzzed and delirious, locked between half dead and fully insane. Root is pretty sure she is at least three quarters on the way out of her mind.

Control is taking out her tools, placing them neatly on the table, touching them and adjusting their position as if she’s playing with her beloved Barbie dolls. There are knives, scalpels, a small hammer, syringes, things Root can’t name because her vision is blurring, she’s coming in and out, twisting away from the grips of reality. She swears she sees the Moon reflecting in one of the blades, silver and resplendent, out of this world.

“Your little girlfriend isn’t here to save you,” the foul creature in front of her teases.

“The Machine hasn’t left me, you bitch.” Root all but howls at her, bearing teeth and pulling at her restraints.

“But then again, who would want you anyways?” Control flips her wrist, marking facing upward, and she spits at the symbols. “You’re nothing but a secondhand toy.”

“She chose ME, SHE. CHOOSE . ME.” Root cries and screams and screams.

So she tells Control she’s the analog interface. 

But that’s the rub.

There’s no predetermined path, no great reveal, no magic moment. The Machine had freely chosen her. That’s not a thing any soulmate can offer. That’s why when Control mocks her further, that Root is just a slave to an artificial intelligence master, it’s so easy for the hacker to laugh.

“You don’t understand a thing, do you?”

And Control doesn’t. She grabs the small hammer and pounds it into Root’s right ear, the whole universe caving in on itself, exploding with sound and then immediately falling to tense silence. There’s blood dripping down Root’s face but she’s so high on the adrenaline, the shock, the amphetamines, that the pain hasn’t fully kicked in, hasn’t made her body catatonic.

Root takes that chance to grab Control’s hidden knife, the one The Machine had told her about in quiet Morse code beeps just minutes before.

 

***

 

She comes to that night to see Shaw perched close to her bed, reading something and murmuring to herself.

“Miss me so much already, sweetie?”

“Shut up, Root. Go to sleep.”

She does. 

***

 

Root takes a lot of numbers handed to her by The Machine. Sometimes she doubles up with someone from the team but mostly she tries to keep to herself. She has began to find an eerie sense of belonging with the group and she tries to fight it. To stick to her own tasks.

Yet somehow more often than not, Root will end her nights, her mornings by breaking into Shaw’s place. It’s not a cozy crib by any means. The place is mostly empty, bare a fridge full of guns, a small bed with books thrown all around it, and a few canvases littering the floor. Shaw never paints around her, if she does so at all. She’s refused to answer to any of Root’s prodding and pestering. 

And somewhere along the ride, Root’s dark cutting sarcasm has shifted into coy teasing, into layered flirting -- frankly, she doesn’t know if she means it. It feels, for the first time in ever, safe to joke about love, about feelings in front of someone with a personality disorder. A psychopath with no emotions to share is the first person who lets her think of something other than running. It’s safe, too, because Root has seen Shaw’s soulmate mark. She’s thought about it and there is no way it can be hers. For one, almost all of Shaw’s arm is wrapped in the symbols, it’s probably the biggest soulmate mark she’s ever seen. For another, Root is still convinced the symbols are Pinyin and will spell out a long, beautiful name in Mandarin. Shaw’s always pushed those conversations aside, hiding behind her callous mask.

Root knows there’s another side to that mask. She’s seen Shaw’s face morph to something resembling tenderness when she’s had to remove a bullet that’s grazed Root’s arm, she thinks there’s a thing that may sound akin to worry under the layers of annoyed and bothered that come out in their conversations.

And then there’s the kiss.

Well, the almost kiss. Root is drunk after another mission that came too close to death than she would have liked, and a shot or ten later, she’s slurring her words into Sameen’s collarbone, gripping at her waist.

“Not like this, don’t make a mess of us, Root.” Shaw’s voice is both resolute and fragile, begging to be convinced otherwise and infallible at the same time.

“Come on, Sameen. Let’s play a game tonight.” She misses her mouth and her lips land on the shorter woman’s cheek. “Come on. You’ve seen me at my best, you’ve seen me at my worst, pick which one you like. We can have so much fun.” Root tries to sound seductive, tries to rid herself of years of hiding, of running, of pretending. She feels Sameen tremble just slightly but then there are strong arms enclosing her in a warm embrace and slowly picking her up.

She’s placed in a warm bed and actually - fucking actually - tucked in. Root tries to make a joke about a stone hearted assassin tucking her in but sleep lulls her in before she can find the words.

She swears she hears  Sameen’s voice pronounce “I choose both” in her dream.

 

***

 

Even now, Sameen is more background noise, more an afterthought. Root has tied herself to The Machine’s existence and feels her life filled with purpose. Samaritan is becoming a bigger and bigger problem.

But distractions can be a welcomed change from a life of treason and murder.

So what if she, and not The Machine, is the one to decide to place Sameen as a mall employee? They all have go into hiding, assume different identities, shapeshift into other lives.

Sameen in a tight black dress as a uniform? Sign Root up.

 

***

 

It’s another night, another indecent hour when Shaw texts her.

“Am I a monster?” flashes on the screen of Root’s smartphone.

Root wonders sometime if Shaw really does understand emotions, if she can see them for what they are, even if she can’t touch them. She imagines Shaw living in a glass cage that twists the world for her, that distances her from empathy. 

But maybe not that much. She could have chosen to be anything with her skills and smarts, but the woman was a doctor, a soldier. A protector.

Root thinks of the irony. Of having to take on a second life and having to be a petty thief, a killer, even in that disguise.

So the hacker says what she knows. That she sees Shaw for who she is, too. All of it.

“If you were so far gone and irredeemable, why would I call you by such a lovely name?”

 

***

Hell breaks loose after Samaritan hits the financial system.

They’re trapped inside that wretched building and Sameen is off dealing with a lunatic with a bomb on the subway. Root just needs to hear her voice.

“Hey sweetie,” she says trying to hide her fear once the line connects. She clings on to every syllable, every rise and fall of Sameen’s breath. She wants to memorize the sound of that hesitant “Maybe someday” and keep it with her forever.

But forever might just end really soon. Root hears the Machine buzzing more probabilities, testing more exit strategies.

They’ve managed to fight off Samaritan’s agents and give themselves a few more minutes which wouldn’t amount to much had it not been just enough for Shaw to make an appearance bearing an explosive gift.

They make a run for it, firing shots and ducking around corners. All of them make it to the elevator. The device doesn’t budge. Shaw eyes the red enabler button.

“If you think I’m going to let you --” Root begins but is cut off but Sameen pressing against her, grabbing her by her coat and pulling her in.

There are tears - and they might be her own - drip down on her lips before she feels Sameen’s mouth, so tender in such a cruel moment, join hers.

Root is pushed back suddenly before she can savor the moment. She opens her eyes and tries to run and reach out, but Shaw has already locked the elevator door and is pushing the red button.

The elevator begins its slow descent. Root is screaming wildly, thrashing like a crazed animal. She sees Shaw lift her hand and aim, gunning a few agents down.

It’s when Root notices the wild symbols on Sameen’s outstretched arm. They’re distorting, rearranging, falling into place. There are no letters, and certainly no Pinyin. The mark on Shaw’s arm is indeed very long but Root finally understands why. It’s binary. She only scans the repeating zeros and ones - zero, one, zero, one, zero, zero, one, zero - she doesn’t need to finish the sequence. She knows it for what it is.

Her mind has stopped. Her eyes are focused on Shaw’s body, shivering like an ocean at night, as it collapses to the ground.

Root doesn’t know where she is when she stops screaming. It must be somewhere far away. She sees Finch eyeing her from a distance, trying to give her space.

Root looks down to the freshly arranged arabic script on her own hand. It spells a word that only she was allowed to taste. Precious.