When it's all over, when the last shot is fired, you go back.
Deep underground from where you first emerged, where you lived and died and came back again. Where promises were made and broken. You're breaking one now, a promise you made to yourself the last time you were here. To never return. Not because you still fear this isn't real, though sometimes your mind likes to waver whether or not simulations are to blame. It's far from that. This ending, the one you find yourself alone in, it's very much real. The war, you've won. The blood on your hands will be washed away easily and forgotten. But the sacrifices, you secretly wish everything up until this point was a fabricated illusion. All in your head. If this is what it means to win, then...
You stumble at the last step into the subway, catching your breath and the rail in the same turn. Drawing in another lungful, you wrap your hand around something that isn't a gun, for once. Recently, you've thought about retiring your trigger finger for good. Make a veteran of it at last, let the callouses smooth out, let the blood return to the ends which are numb and worn. Like your head, like the center most part of your chest still thumping for reasons which will always escape you.
The last time, you left this place in a hurry, watched it go to hell from the window of a train car. It's in shambles, just like you remember, but worse. The world outside has changed so much, so drastically. You were a fool to think this place would be exempt from the rules. Somewhere between the chaotic distance between then and now, you think the subway died too. It bears little semblance to it's former glory save for that old resonating sound; your boots kicking the concrete, haunting echos down the same tunnels that once drove you to madness. It still bounces against the walls with that same spring, even though those walls are battered and broken now. Like you, it comes back, in waves of nostalgia impossible or just pointless to reject anymore.
An eternity ago, when Root knew best. When she stuck a needle in your neck and called it caring. When she dragged you down here against your will and called it devotion. She chained you to that bench over there which is just a heap of splinters now.
The train car is as long gone as she is. Rocketed out into the hollowed darkness, leaving behind a layer of char and ash in it's wake. Though you were not around to witness the aftermath, you finally see the finishing touches of what must have been something powerful, a great energy building and bursting, finally going off. An explosion that shook the foundation, weathered the supporting pillars, singed everything in hell fire.
You think it could have been her, Root. Who faulted the bedrock and unearthed all the chaos to save the world and tear yours apart. That it was Root all along, who blasted the roof, crumbling and on the verge of collapsing. Now, like you wish it would. Maybe someday, like you know it will.
Your feet splash and trip before they reach this hole in the wall with a bed inside. Her space, somehow unscathed by the fire that scorched this place into history. Her things, what used to be her things, they're a color you've never given much thought. It kind of makes sense now. The color for the way she smelled now speckled with dust, like lavender with hints of smoke. Root and gunpowder, your engulfed in it. Claimed by it.
It seems wrong to touch her things, but as always, when it comes to Root you've found that you've never really been able to help yourself. Your fingers gently trace over everything, as if your scanning them into a memory bank and saving them to a place reserved only for her. The last part of your brain that held fast during the bombardment, steal partitions holding strong despite everything that still tries to break through them.
Underneath the purple bed, there is a small box. Evidence of her sentiment, you suppose, in the way of photo ID cards. Her face with a stranger's name, dozens of people she used to be. You wonder, as you sit on the bed and sort through them all, if there was a hidden meaning behind every false identity, an inside joke between her and the Machine. You'll never know.
What feels like forever ago, Root took your hand, laced her fingers into yours. She told you that she finally felt like she belonged.
You forgot how often she took off one mask just to put another back on. To you, she was always Root. To you, she always sort of belonged in the world she constantly kept running in and out of. In your world as well, wherever that is, when you stop failing so horribly.
The people in this box, were they just stepping stones leading her towards that lucid peak? Was Root always changing right in front of you? Alternating frequencies, tuning in and out, coming to you in waves and hoping you might feel her one day.
These rectangular pieces of plastic do have one thing in common though. The portraits of smirking lips, eyes playfully shining into the camera that captured them with reckless abandon. Through the laminate, she looks at you in that way you've caught her so many times.
You trace the outline of her face, secretly wishing your fingertips were touching her skin instead. Suddenly, you remember the first time you ever touched her. What should have been a forgettable moment comes back like it happened yesterday. When you patched up this catatonic woman you didn't really know and didn't care to for the matter. You mended her shoulder, wounded from the bullet you put there, all the while waiting for the woman in the hotel with the iron to reappear. But she remained silent and still. She never said a word to try and trip you off your feet like she was more than capable of. And you thought is was odd.
Harold sent her away and you thought that was the last of her. Physically, at least. She consumed your thoughts even more after you completed your hobby. You used to wonder why and it used to drive you insane that you couldn't explain. Root was something lying dormant in your mind. Little did you know, she was something adding and adding up. Waiting.
She burst free and you found another reason to hate her. For zapping you in your sleep, zip tying you to a steering wheel, for refusing to close her mouth. The second time you touched her, there was a knife involved. Your knuckles tickled her throat as you pressed a blade there. She gulped and for a moment, you thought she was finally taking you and your threats seriously, for once. If you reached far enough, maybe that gleam in her eyes then could have been regret.
She smiled, just as she did in your dreams, and swallowed you down like an easy pill. God, you hated her more for that. Later on, when your knuckles kissed her jaw, you thought you turned this dangerous grinning obstacle into that silent woman of the past, yet again. You thought.
When it came to Root, you were always so wrong.
And so was she, so very wrong. You knew this and yet you kept coming back, kept following her. Letting her lead the way while you pushed and pulled, as you fought with every last ounce of willpower in your stubborn and fickle body. Denial was just as addictive as she was. You ignored the effect that only she had on you; her words and how they made your cheeks burn red, her eyes and how your pulse quickened, her grin and how it made your mind run rampant with every possibility. It's like Root meticulously etched herself into you, whatever she could to leave a long lasting impression, to make you want more. To make you believe.
Though you've never been able to admit it before, you accept it now. The truth hidden underneath the guise of your own ignorance.
The truth is, you believed in Root the very moment she said Sundown Ottawa. The moment you unknowingly began to unravel the loose thread of the veil always blinding you.
What covered your eyes once is gone, and you can't help but dive back into the past with a new perspective. To forever ago, when you pulled the hood away from her and saw this fearlessness in her eyes. A wild woman who could have taken your fingers off as you reached out to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
For the mission; to access the comm piece stuck there. What should have been insignificant was more intimate than you cared to notice, to a level that shouldn't exist. You never realized, but you often repeated that same action, pushing her hair away for reasons ever evolving into something that still mystifies you.
To ensure her wound was healing correctly. Root was always getting herself hurt. You'd tell yourself, she's no good to the cause if she's dead.
To better reach her lips, because kissing her was the only way to shut her up sometimes.
Simply because you could.
The nights you shared a bed, often times you would trail your fingers over the shell of her ear, the one that couldn't hear you. While she slept, while all the things you didn't understand kept you awake. Root, the only person in this world who'd bare everything and let you. Even after you came back from captivity with pieces missing, she trusted you.
When she was still here and warm to the touch, lively even in the face of death. A bullet whizzed past her head and she called you a shape. Part of this cathartic speech she wanted to make in the middle of a lethal shootout. The woman really does pick the worst times to talk metaphysics. Awkwardly enough, she managed to throw a line your way. She hooks you every time.
Her smile was angelic and wry, and she tied everything together in her infamously eloquent way. Every word she's ever said to you, they might as well be the symphony she encouraged you to be that day. Her voice is a gift that fills you with jealously and awe. How she could use her lips and convey everything you ever needed to know, in more ways than one.
That was the last song she'd ever sing to you.
You wonder, if she knew it would be all along. If when she culminated you down to a tiny finger tracing a line in the infinite, if she did so under the belief of dying last words wishing for long lasting impressions. You'll never know.
When you told her to take Harold and go, you thought it was like any other day. Split up now, regroup later.
It wasn't. You never saw her again.
You could have... and you should have. But you didn't.
There was always an excuse, a lie to keep perpetuating. That you were too busy trying to destroy what destroyed everything you knew. Or that she wouldn't want you to see her like that. Looking back, you know what it really was. Fear. You were afraid of what would happen if you saw her lying lifeless on a gurney. If you reached out to touch her one last time, would the feeling of her cold skin replace every warm memory you have left in your misguided mind. If it would bring with it everything you've ever feared all at once.
So you avoided. Because, when it came to Root, you always run away.
There was a switch you flipped in your brain, one that tunes out anything that doesn't fall under the mission objective. You hit it too hard though. Pulled your trigger in excess, aimed with the intention of keeping her out. Let the only emotion you're supposed to know boil over and spill out and burn everything that came close to reminding. The worst part was, even as you threw yourself into greater danger for the greater good, underneath it all, you knew you were still a coward.
The day they put her in the ground, again, you weren't there. You were somewhere else entirely and in your head. On a roundabout spinning in circles and trying to provoke something inside of you, courage, you think. All that came from it though was more nausea, more head aches. More Root. The vision of her blurred across from you as you spun faster and faster, as your mind inched closer to the edge of reality's cliff. Alarming that you actually considered leaping off of it.
You think of the thousands of times you were actually brave. When you opened your mouth and said so much and so little. When you told Root she was your safe place.
Like Samaritan did, you could have tricked yourself and pretended that everything you said to her was real. But that would have been a lie even you couldn't master. You, the real you... never actually told her. The real you has to live with that.
A part of you thinks it doesn't matter anyway. You think Root knew it all along, she must have. Though she never expected anything of you, it doesn't make it better. You could have given her more.
They buried her under an anonymous grave and all you could do was spin inside your head. Here lies the unknown. Here lies all the words you've never said. Here lies too little too late, covered up with dirt and denial.
Somewhere in you, there is a song. One you've been composing since crashing into Root, the day she first smiled at you with that damn iron in her hand. It became more known to you as time went on. But it's as if you wrote a little more only to quickly scratch it out, before what little there was just ended up crumpled and discarded.
You thought you finally made it loud and clear, when you kissed her in a basement and ran thick head first into gunfire.
Still buried in your gut, there's some bullet fragments, some scare tissue, but mostly there's just this pulling ache. Root and the feeling that it's not enough, it tugs harder, now that you can never really do anything about it.
The box falls from your grasp, emptying it's contents on the floor by your feet. You bend over to pick everything up, thinking you might just leave after doing so. Put everything back where it's supposed to go and make another promise you'll actually keep this time.
But you freeze when you see it, that something you thought to have lost a long time ago, laying distinct among the many shapes of Root scattered all over the floor. Your fingers close around it, delicately as if it were something fragile. The order of Lenin, Root had it all along.
She never knew Gen, or maybe she could have. One thing's for sure, you've never told her about the medal or where it came from. You kept it in your nightstand drawer next to your gun, along with other items that held no value. After the stock exchange, you figured your apartment was ransacked, that it was lost forever.
You think Root had done the same thing you're doing now, went into your space. You wonder if she lingered longer than she should have, sat on your bed with that medal in her hands, thought of you and tried to keep breathing. If she missed you half as much.
While you were gone, she found a piece of you and saved it, put it with all the things that meant the most to her. Inside a box with hundreds of people that all boiled down to her anyway. You think she added you to everything she is, was, and wanted to be. When she said she felt like she belonged in the world, you think maybe she was speaking of the one with you in it.
You pin the medal to the inside of your jacket, ironically next to your heart, knowing it holds twice the meaning, and then pack up the little box of Root to take with you.
As you reach the stairs, there comes a ringing. Muffled and faint, barely anything and you wonder if you actually heard it. You're frozen at the exit, one foot at the first step, the other still planted in the station, listening to the sound just as persistent as Root was. You could ignore it and leave, wrap up this chapter of your life and move on.
For some reason, you can't. For some reason you find yourself lifting up rock and throwing fallen debris to chase that noise. Sorting through all the rubble at a pace that grows more frantic as the ringing becomes louder and louder.
In the fallen subway, in another hole in the wall, there is a payphone calling out to you.
You wrap you fingers around the receiver, but keep it resting on the hook in a last hesitation. Wondering what will be heard if you pick it up; the robotic alpha numeric code sounding off another number or the Machine's new voice... her voice. You wonder if you even want to hear either, if you'll be brave enough.
This time, you think you are. This time, you think you could be the better information floating in the universe, a much bolder noise in the system, all that Root thought you were. A beautiful symphony.
At least for a little while longer. For yourself, for her, for what she believed in as much as she believed in you.
You press the phone to your ear and openly listen to the static crackling on the other end. Where the white noise drifts up in the air, through space and time, the line she's now tracing in the infinite... somehow, you know it will guide you...
If the real world is just a simulation anyway, then... somewhere else, there's you and Root... A song and you're singing it for her.