DISCLAIMER: The characters herein are used without permission. No infringement intended.
SPOILERS: Vague spoilers for seasons one, two and part of three.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To Tamoline[at]gmail.com

Breathing (Air that Burns like Razorblades)
By Tamoline


Part 1

It starts when Shaw sees Carter across the other side of a hotel lobby, pointing at a woman just about to get on an elevator.

No, it really starts when she thinks that she hears Carter say "Better look at that accountant again."

No, it actually starts when she's staring at Carter's coffin as it's lowered into the ground, and *something* rises in her like a scream, something that she can only assuage by hitting someone until they *bleed*.

Hitting someone until *she* bleeds, the bruised skin of her knuckles splitting then scabbing until she doesn't feel anything again.

It's not the last time it happens - sometimes it's just a stray thought of how Carter would have been useful right about now, sometimes it's nothing at all that she can trace.

Not that it really matters. If there's one thing that working for Finch is good for, it's the range of people who are utterly deserving of a little hurt. Or, as she likes to call it in the privacy of her mind, knuckle-based therapy.

Other than that, she keeps herself occupied.

Eating, sleeping, fucking, shooting. The basic necessities of life.

And it's fine, it's completely *fine* up until she thinks she hears Carter whisper, right in her ear, "Better look at that accountant again."

She jerks spasmodically in what's half a twist, half a jump in the middle of a crowded street, because, no. There's no *way* that was Carter speaking to her. Someone barges into her as she stumbles around and she almost draws the gun she has clutched in her hand, almost begins *shooting* she's so off balance.

But, no. She shoves the impulse down, hard, until she can find a more deserving target and contents herself with a quelling glare. The guy shrinks into his coat and scurries off with a muttered apology.


What the hell had that been?

She feels the scream rise in her again, and clamps down on it ruthlessly.

"Finch," she manages. "Did you hear anything just now?"

Finch hums for a moment, clicking away. "Nothing detectable over the background noise of the street you're in. Would you care to narrow down what you thought I should have heard?" Shaw doesn't have to be great with people to tell that his tone is worried, and she bristles instinctively.

"No," she says shortly. "Don't worry about it."

But the words that she thought she heard niggle at her. So far, they've been focussed on the open acrimony between the business partners as a source of the threat.

But what if there's another angle? Someone using the loud arguments rocking the firm as a cover?

Shaw doesn't usually bother herself with these kinds of thoughts. She likes to think of herself as more a fire and forget kind of girl.

"Finch," she says. "Can you take another look at the accountant, and the firm's financial records? See if there's anything odd?"

"Any particular reason, Ms Shaw?" he asks a little hesitantly.

She shrugs, even if he can't see the motion. "Hunch."

"Very well. I'll have Mr Tao look at them."

And it turns out the info is good. It's not quite as simple as some light skimming - it never is - but her intuition, or whatever the hell it was, gives them enough lead time that they manage to resolve the situation without any further loss of life.

Shaw even manages to work some therapeutic violence in, banishing the scream back to where it came from.

It still leaves her in bed that night, staring up at the ceiling, idly stroking Bear's head. (Finch hadn't complained, hadn't said much of anything, when she'd walked off with him after the mission had been completed.)

She knows what her medical diagnosis would have been if anyone had presented her with these symptoms. These kinds of hallucinations are far from uncommon amongst the bereaved.

But she's *Shaw* - she doesn't *do* grief. It's just not on the spectrum of things she feels. Hearing Carter's voice would be, well, almost too normal for her.

She's really not too sure what to make of it, but she can feel pressure building up inside again. So she stops thinking about it, and forces herself to go to sleep.

When she wakes up in the morning, it's to find the dried tracks of tears running down her face.

She's not too sure what to make of that, either.

It's not the last time it happens. Not every case… but enough. The information always good, too, even if not always directly relevant to the case at hand.

Shaw knows what the logical explanation is and she's never been the religious type, so she accepts it for what it is - her subconscious picking up on background information and presenting it to her in a suitable format. And it isn't exactly as though Finch and Reese are complaining about her new insights.

And if it leaves her with knotted feelings that she can only express through violence?

Well, the opposition had it coming.

And it gets better over time.

It does.

Less like… it's too much whenever she hears Carter whisper into her ear.

More like…

More like it doesn't matter exactly what's happening.

And it's all good - it's her new normal - until the first time she doesn't just hear her, she sees Carter too, armed, dressed in a leather jacket. Across the lobby of the cheap hotel Shaw's renting a room at, pointing at a woman who's just getting on an elevator.

She freezes for a moment, before her legs start moving automatically in the direction of the elevator. Whatever is happening, whatever new symptom of whatever this is that she's exhibiting, the fact remains that she's been given a new direction, something to act on.

Thinking can wait until later.

She manages to get in just before the door closes behind her. The woman she's been pointed at looks up nervously, shopping bag swinging like a pendulum from her arm. She doesn't look like she's armed, doesn't have the air of someone trained to fight, but still. The woman doesn't seem to be able to keep still. Shaw could just be making her worried - she has that effect on some people - but it could be something else.

Shaw looks her solidly in the face for a moment, letting the brand new glasses that Finch gave her recently take a digital recording of her face before she takes out her phone and sends the best photo she has, with a query:

"Who is this?'

And, yeah, maybe she'd been sceptical about the glasses, despite Finch's promises of increased efficiency, but they're growing on her quickly.

She doesn't get a response by the time the elevator stops at 4 and the woman leaves, still casting agitated glances towards her, so Shaw waits until the doors are closing before she nips out, to give the woman as much lead time as she can. She manages to get the number of the room the woman disappears into just before Finch replies through her earpiece.

"I haven't got a hit from the criminal databases. The civilian ones will take a bit more time. Might I ask what this is in response to?" he asks as she walks back towards the elevator. No point sticking around here, unless she's planning on doing something right now.

Shaw considers telling him the truth for barely a split second, before defaulting to the double-talk she's started using ever since these hallucinations started.

"Was checking into the room I'm using to keep an eye on our number when I spotted her in the lobby. Something felt off. Thought I'd check it out."

The elevator's doors open, and she steps inside.

"I would say something about not relying on your intuition too much, but you seem to have had a remarkable run of success in that regard recently." He pauses for a moment, then continues, "You haven't been talking to anyone recently, have you?"

If she was with him right now, she'd give him the flattest glare she could. As it is, she settles for giving it to the mirrored wall of the elevator, and contemplates sending it to him anyway. "If you have a point, I'd like to hear it."

She just wants to hit something, all of a sudden.

Someone, preferably.

But there's no one suitable, and wrecking the mirror in front of her would be… unprofessional.

Finch sighs. "Very well, Ms Shaw. Let me be precise. Have you been communicating with Ms Groves? Is she where you've been getting your recent insights?"

The contrast between his suspicions and the truth… Well, it's enough that the urge to commit violence subsides, for however long. The elevator pings, and she steps out onto the floor with her room on it, a room that overlooks the apartment of the latest number nicely.

"No, Finch," she says. "Root hasn't been feeding me information." Which isn't to say that Root hasn't been talking to her, as and when, to Shaw's mingled mild irritation and fascination, but she only doled out hints that suited her. And, so far, anything to do with Finch or the numbers has decidedly not suited her.

"Very well," Finch says, still clearly unsatisfied. "I'll follow up on your hunch, and see if it leads anywhere."

It does, of course, just like the rest of clues she'd been getting. When Shaw had broken into the room the next time the woman left, she'd found a child sedated on the bed - a child that had been recently kidnapped from outside a school in Brooklyn. Not exactly their usual fare, but as it turns out, the police are perfectly able to handle the matter once called. Even better, the matter hardly distracts her at all from her actual job of observing the number across the way.

The fact that it pans out does absolutely nothing to stop the considering and suspicious looks Finch throws Shaw.

It's not the last time it happens. She doesn't encounter Carter - or, more accurately, her hallucination - any more than she did before, but now the incidents vary between visual and auditory. Whatever seems to work best for the given situation.

Shaw can appreciate that much at least - the efficiency of the part of her mind that's doing this, the lack of wasted effort.

But still. The fact that her… condition, far from improving, actively appears to be degenerating isn't exactly comforting. Furtively arranged tests for the obvious things - cancer of the brain or other neural degenerative condition - reveal nothing. Her mind appears to be as normal as it ever is.

And… and there's the fact that she *isn't* getting as used to the visual hallucinations as quickly as she got used to the auditory ones. Each time there is… almost an easing within her, followed by a tearing as she remembers.

Remembers that Carter isn't coming back. She has to tell herself that again and again, carve it into her soul with a knife forged of pure anger.

Carter isn't coming back, and Shaw doesn't grieve. She just moves on. It's what she does.

Still, it gets better, slowly. It *is* getting better when *it* happens.

The opposition this time are well trained. Expert. Not as good as her or Reese, but almost. And there are more of them. Worse, whoever is pulling their strings seems always one step ahead of Team Finch.

They've *just* got their break, she's just sneaking up on the mastermind from one angle whilst Reese handles another, when it happens. Carter blinks into existence in front of her, yelling "Snipers!" and pointing at three different positions on surrounding buildings.

Shaw's reflexes take over, just about carrying her into a safe position before she can be gunned down. And that's where her mind should be.


But while Carter appeared in front of her, that's *not* where her voice came from. No, that sounded like it came from just beside her, like always.

Like it was coming from her earpiece.

Shaw glances over her Finch-issued glasses at Carter, just to check. And yes. Yes. She can see Carter through the glasses, but not with her naked eyes.

She's not hallucinating.

She isn't.

"Whatever you are," she says, her voice flat with anger. "We're talking later. Understand?"

The image's mouth snaps shut, and it actually goes a little greyer, before nodding and disappearing.

Abstractly, Shaw has to admire the artistry.


The rest of her just wants to hurt everything, everyone. She wants to hunt down whoever is responsible for this… *this* and make them pay.

Later, though.

For now, she has some snipers to deal with.

Even with the image's help, Shaw still takes a bullet taking the opposition down. It's possible that she may have gotten a little fixated in making sure that they didn't get away.

The ache helps focus her, though, makes her feel like she's got an extra knife at her side.

"Come on then," she says, once she's in a room rented for the night. "Talk."

The image blinks into existence in front of her. Even this close, even with her critic's eye, even with how well she knows Carter, it still looks disturbingly like her. The only thing out of place, the only thing she can point to and say 'That's not Carter' is the uneasy smile on the image's lips.

She'd never seen Carter nervous, not like this.

Not even…

Not ever.

"Who are you?" Shaw demands bluntly. "What are you?" she corrects. And why do you look like her? She thinks.

The image seems to take a deep breath before replying. "Yeah," it says. "Believe it or not, I am actually Joss Carter. And after I died, I got an offer of a job there was just no way I'd turn down."


Part 2

"Explain," Shaw says flatly.

Carter, no, the Carter-*shape* hesitates. Again. "Mind if I sit down?" it asks.

Shaw tilts her head - ghosts, or whatever the hell it is, not exactly being known for getting tired - but gestures at the obligatory chair that even cheap hotel rooms seem to come equipped with anyway.

The Carter-shape mimes pulling it out, and then sits down seemingly on mid-air… which, okay, whatever.

"So?" Shaw demands, her patience expiring suddenly.

"Yeah, well. So I remember lying on the ground, bleeding out. Next thing I knew I was in this place that seemed to be mainly composed of gently glowing white light. Not in a painful way, or anything, but, well, it was very Hollywood Heaven." Carter shifts a little in her invisible seat before continuing. "The only person around, the only thing really, was a woman at a desk in front of me, working away on a computer. After I managed to halfway convince myself this *wasn't* some kind of coma dream," she says, rolling her eyes. "She looked up and introduced herself as the Machine. Yeah, that took a bit of explanation. Long story short, she offered me the opportunity to continue my old job."

"Ghost detective?" Shaw asks expressionlessly. "Mandate to pursue criminals from beyond the grave?"

"Yeah, yeah, very funny. What I mean is-"

"Don't tell me," Shaw smoothly interrupts. "Some souls have escaped from the afterlife and you have to hunt them down."

"Do you want me to tell you this or not?' Carter- and Shaw's more or less given up on thinking of her as anything else - says with an edge of real irritation to her voice. It probably shouldn't amuse Shaw as much as it does, but she's never claimed not to be petty.

Besides an irritated Carter is a Carter who doesn't look like she's sitting on the edge of an invisible chair.

"Be my guest," she says laconically.

"I'm doing the same kind of thing that Finch employs you to do - trying to stop things before they go bad. Only civilisation *does* exist outside of New York, and crimes *do* exist apart from homicide."


If Shaw had any remaining doubts about whether that's Carter in front of her, the glare she receives in return for that comment dispels them.

"I'm well aware that your favourite form of meeting and greeting people involves shooting them," Carter says acidly.

"It is the best," Shaw confirms.

"So I'm not really surprised about your attitude to outcomes less severe than death-"

"To people who don't have it coming," Shaw finds it necessary to interject.

She can almost hear Carter grinding her teeth. "And this is why I wouldn't tap you for a lot of the cases I handle. Collateral damage."

"Didn't seem to have a problem finding me today. Or all those other times." Shaw finds it surprisingly easy to smirk. "Want to tell me something, Carter?"

Carter's too-blank face is almost as good a tell as a flush would be on Finch, to someone who knows her as well as Shaw has come to.

Shaw doesn't *do* people. But it seems that there are exceptions.

"Perk of the job," Carter says. "I get a kinda sixth sense about things that are important, either to a case, or to me, personally. *Apparently* you count. If Taylor was the sort to get himself in danger to life and limb, I'd imagine I'd turn up there fairly often too."

"What about the others?" No one has said anything - at least to her - but then it isn't as though she's said anything to them either.

"I've been asked to keep away from Finch." Carter returns Shaw's smirk. "Apparently you're fair game, though." She pauses a beat, then continues with, "Maybe the Machine thinks you need the help"

Shaw glares at her, then gropes around for a suitable rejoinder. They continue like that for a while before Carter suddenly looks off into middle distance.

"And that's my signal to go," she says, and gets to her feet. "Wrongs to right, people to save. See you around," she adds, then disappears.

Shaw tips backwards onto the bed and stares up at the ceiling. For the first time… for the first time in a while, she actually feels almost light, relaxed. Because, yeah, maybe recreational Carter baiting is the best.

It hasn't been the same since she's been gone.

Her mood dims, suddenly. Shaw doesn't *do* grief. She doesn't miss people once they've gone.

Telling herself this does nothing to relieve the sudden pressure in her chest.

This kind of thing doesn't happen.

There is no afterlife.

People don't get given another chance, no matter how much she…

They just don't.

There's got to be another explanation behind this.

No matter how much she may not want one.

"It's impossible," Finch says flatly. "The Machine is just a computer program. It doesn't have the power to bring people back from the dead, not even in electronic format." He gives Shaw's electronic glasses a glare, as if they've betrayed him. "Obviously our communications aren't as secure as they should be. I'll sort that out first thing."

Shaw doesn't say 'Good', even though OpSec should probably be her highest priority. She doesn't even stay silent, because she shouldn't really care, one way or the other. Instead the words, "She seemed just like Carter," are almost forced out of her lips.

"I created the Machine to analyse and predict human behavioural patterns," he says testily. "I'm sure it's quite capable of creating a subroutine that can imitate them, even those of a specific person." He looks over at Shaw, eyes piercing behind his glasses. "But make no mistake; it would be no more aware than a Chinese room, or Eliza."

"Eliza?" Reese interjects. "That an old girlfriend of yours, Harold?" Up until now, he's remained quiet since Shaw brought up her visitation last night - if not the previous ones - an odd expression on his face, that Shaw doesn't quite know how to interpret.

It isn't any of her business, but she can't help wondering if he's been visited by Carter as well. What she might have said to him.

"Very funny, Mr Reese. Eliza was a computer program designed to give a humanlike response based off a sentence a user entered on a keyboard. What this…" he gestures at Shaw sharply, "Is nothing more than an advanced version of that."

Shaw is quietly regretting bringing up the subject. It'd seemed important to know what was going on - despite the seeming lack of operational importance - but whatever she'd wanted, it hadn't been this.

"There isn't another option?" Reese presses. "Nothing else the Machine could have pulled out of its bag of tricks?"

"Nothing that the current level of technology would permit, no," Finch says.

"Aren't we dealing with a program that can predict, with a great deal of accuracy, the fate of millions of people? And now that it's off your leash, it's adapting, evolving? Are you really that confident about what it can and can't do?" Reese asks.

There's a tension in the air between the two of them that even Shaw can pick up, and she shifts, uncomfortably.

Finch may be her employer, but she'd kind of hate to have to shoot Reese.

Wouldn't *stop* her doing that, of course.

But she doesn't want to.

Finch slams down the tools he was using to take apart what had been Shaw's pair of glasses, and turns around so he can face Reese. "In theory, it would be possible to map the neural network of a human brain onto a software system, and transfer the personality that way," he says, thin-lipped, voice snapping across the library. "But last I checked, medical technology was decades, maybe centuries away from being able to do that." He moderates his tone with a visible effort. "I'm sorry, Mr Reese, but whatever was communicating with Ms Shaw, it was *not* Detective Carter."

Yeah, this is definitely not getting anywhere useful anytime quickly. "Call me when you have something useful on the new number," she says, then turns and leaves.

Reese catches up with her later. "If you talk to Carter again, could you let her know that I'd like to catch up with her sometime as well?"

Shaw looks at him for a moment. Finch isn't going to be pleased if she does, but this isn't a job thing. "Sure."

"How did she seem?"


"Emotionally, I mean."

Shaw stares at him in disbelief until he seems to get the message.

"Wrong person to ask?" he says.

"Wrong person," she confirms.

"Just let her know I was asking after her."

This little chat has done absolutely nothing to damp down the urge that Shaw's been feeling all morning to seek out some more knuckle-based therapy, so she decides to cut it short before she adjusts her criterion of 'acceptable target' any further, "If we're done talking about feelings," she says acidly. "Can we actually get back to the job?"

Something in her tone must convince him, because Reese holds up his hands in surrender and backs away a little.

Good. Now maybe if the mission involves a dozen or so armed opposition, she can really start to put this day behind her.

Questions. All these questions. Never did anyone any good.

Root looks up from doing something unspeakable with the cherry in her drink and gives Shaw one of her too-bright smiles. "Is there any particular reason you're asking about whether She can bring people back from the dead?"

Shaw stares levelly back at her. Root, unsurprisingly, has glasses not dissimilar to the ones that Finch gave them.

Doubtless she's in favour of anything that could bring her closer to her deity.

"Don't you already know?" she asks eventually.

Root tilts her head to one side, apparently listening to something. "Oh, of course. The late Detective Carter. How is she doing, by the way?"

Shaw ignores the question. "So?"

"I'm sure that Harold has already laid out the possibilities as he sees them. But have you considered the possibility that if anyone would be able to breach the barrier to any afterlife, it would be her?"

"Because the Machine's a giant computer?"

"She is far more intelligent than us, yes. But she also died and was reborn every day for a decade. If anyone is familiar with the pathways between life and death, it would be her."

"Mysticism? Really?'

And yet, despite her words, despite *herself* Shaw can see the appeal.

Root shrugs. "I'm only offering suggestions. I don't know - She doesn't involve me in that side of things. But even taking into account Harold's undoubtedly mechanistic explanations, would that really be so bad? We are none of us the people we were seven years ago."

Shaw rolls her eyes. "Cell replacement, yes. Not the same. No continuity of consciousness."

"Like, for instance, if you're rendered unconscious? Have *you* ever been unconscious, Agent Shaw?" Root asks, smirking.

"Still not the same."

"I imagine it depends on how the people involved feel about the end result. How do *you* feel about it?"

Shaw stiffens. "I'm not involved. I don't feel anything about it."

Root hums to herself for a moment. "Then why are you asking all these questions about Detective Carter?"

There's an answer there, a good one, a logical one.

If Shaw just has the patience, she's sure that she can find it.

"Finch thinks that you're a program designed to make me think it's you. Reese wants you to phone him sometime. Root is full of useless half-baked philosophy, like always."

Carter blinks. "Good evening to you, too."

Shaw looks down to find her hands involuntarily clenched and looks back up again. She doesn't care about this. She doesn't. It's not what she *does*

"So?" she demands.

"How did John take the news?"

Why do people persist in asking her about *feelings*? Shaw would think that at some point they'd learn. She shrugs. "He was arguing with Finch about whether or not you're just a program. Finch was pro. Reese not so much."

Carter relaxes a little. "Tell him I'll think about catching up."

"And about the program thing?"

It shouldn't matter. It really shouldn't. It isn't as though Shaw would get people much less if they were all programs, creating a simulation of life around her.

But it does.

Completely irrationally, it does.

Carter slumps on the bed next to Shaw. "It's been mooted that we're all just simulations," she says in a whisper. "Apparently it would make the most sense, unless you believe that the Machine is literally god."

That scream rises again within Shaw, the same one that she hasn't been able to get rid of, not totally, ever since Carter died.

The one that makes *no* sense.

The one that persists regardless.

"Is that what you are now?" Shaw asks.

It shouldn't matter.

Not as long as the intel Carter provides is good.

But it does.

"I don't know," Carter confesses, slumping a little further until she's leaning against Shaw. For a moment, it feels as though she leaves a ghostly, almost imperceptible, touch against Shaw's skin. Then nothing. Nothing at all. "Most of the time," she continues, "I manage to convince myself that I'm just the same, only not. Most of the time, it's good enough. But no, I don't know." She looks up at Shaw to reveal a damp smile, tears staining her face. "I guess that's the point, really. What's the point about making a simulation who knows that she isn't right."

She's crying, Shaw thinks numbly. She's upset. Shaw's never… Dealing with people in this kind of condition has never exactly been one of her specialities. She's managed to learn that some people appreciate being hugged. But she can't even do *that* to Carter.

Though apparently Carter can touch her.

She awkwardly attempts to curve her arm around the space that Carter appears to occupy, but she's not sure how effective - if at all - it is.

"'We'," she says, casting around for a change of subject. "You said 'we'. Does that mean that there's more than one of you…" she motions jerkily with her other hand.

"Yeah," Carter nods. "Yeah, there's a few dozen I'm aware of. Not all of them are helping people the way I am. There are a few heavy duty theory people in there, for a start. But yeah, between us we've got something approaching our own little post life support group."

"That's got to be a good thing?" Shaw guesses.

Carter rubs her eyes "Yeah, most times it helps a lot." She sits up straighter and moves a little away from Shaw. "Sorry about that," she mutters. "Didn't mean to lay that all on you. Guess it's still bothering me more than I realised."

A bizarre impulse to shrug, to say that she didn't mind, rises within Shaw, but she squashes it. Because she really doesn't do this kind of thing. Instead she contents herself with saying, "It isn't as though you actually got my shoulder wet."

Carter takes a breath, and Shaw can see the hesitation in her eyes as she asks, "So? What's your verdict? Still want me coming around?"

Shaw takes a moment to think, to look within herself. It isn't exactly her speciality, but Carter deserves at least that much.

None of her questions have been answered. Carter's still an unknown. *She* doesn't even know what she is.

Shaw's in exactly the same position as she was before.

And these questions mattered then, have been putting her off balance ever since.

Logically, all she needs is the intel. She never needs to see Carter ever again.

And it matters what Carter is and isn't, doesn't it?

Wasn't that the whole point of this?

So Shaw's almost surprised to find herself shrugging and saying to Carter. "Sure. As long as it doesn't interfere with business."

Because somehow, for some reason she can't articulate, it honestly doesn't matter anymore.

Carter *is* in the form that she is, and anything else, the whys and the wherefores…

It just doesn't matter anymore.

Carter studies her face for long moments, then cracks a cautious smile. "I guess I'll see you around, then," she says and disappears.

And the thing is, the completely incoherent thing is, this doesn't feel like the indifference Shaw'd expect.

This kind of feels like the opposite of that.

It doesn't make the least scrap of sense.

But then, Carter always did have a way of doing that to her.


Part 3

Shaw starts taking down the bottle of vodka the way she would any other opponent - quickly, cleanly, efficiently, and with a clear objective in sight.

She's alone with it in her room. There are days - nights - when a little alcohol can be a useful lubricant to fulfilling her actual objective, usually getting laid with an anonymous someone she never has any intention of seeing again.

That isn't the case tonight. Not after the last few days, the revelations and the… the *feelings*. Tonight she just wants to stop thinking, stop feeling.

And enough alcohol seems to be the best way to get there.

Her phone goes, and she snatches it up automatically. It's a text. From Carter. Not that she has a number for her, but apparently that doesn't matter.

'Mind some company?'

She glowers at the phone before replying, 'I'm drinking'.

'Sounds good,' comes the immediate reply and before Shaw can even reach the phone again, Carter's there, in front of her.

And suddenly Shaw feels like she needs that bottle a hell of a lot more.

"I'm drinking," she repasts, hoping this time Carter will get the damn message. Shaw may be iffy on company in this kind of mood at the best of times, but there's no way she's going to tolerate someone *sober.*

Carter's mouth quirks a little. "I hear you," she says, and pulls out what seems to be an invisible chair and proceeds to sit down on it. What *isn't* invisible is the bottle of wine accompanied by a glass that materialises in front of her. "Trust me, at the moment I need this just as much as you do."

"That actually going to do anything?" Shaw asks sceptically.

"Apparently functional alcohol was one of the first things my little community of post-lifes started looking into," Carter says wryly. "Solved before my time, thank god. I would *not* have been able to face this whole experience without it."

"Drinking and sex. The two rational things humans have found to occupy their down time."

Carter opens her mouth for a moment, before shutting it again. "Yeah," she says finally. "Not surprised to hear that you feel that way."

"At least you're still good for one of them," Shaw says, and Carter chokes. Shaw waits her out with a slightly raised eyebrow.

"Not going to touch that with a barge pole," Carter eventually manages.

Shaw shrugs and turns her attention back to her glass.

The rest of the evening passes in silence. A good silence, not a bad one, at least as far as Shaw can figure out.

*She's* certainly comfortable enough with it. And Carter seems to slowly sink into that invisible chair of hers, tension leaving her face.

She even looks over at Shaw a few times, as if she's going to say something, but she never does.

Just as well. Shaw doesn't need anyone talking at her tonight, on top of everything else.

At the end of a bottle and a half, Carter gets to her feet with an exaggerated caution, throws Shaw a salute and disappears.

Well that was a thing, Shaw thinks.

But it hadn't been awful. Not that bad at all.

"Was that level of violence truly necessary, Ms Shaw?" Finch's voice asks over the comm.

She shrugs off Reese's restraining hand and moves away from the bleeding body on the floor.

"He had it coming."

Her foot crunches on something. A tooth, she thinks, as she examines her palm, cut and bleeding, probably from the strike that had knocked it out.

Maybe some of those blows had been a little… surplus to requirements. But, despite how last night had gone, she'd still woken up with a bone deep need to hit something. And it hadn't been helped when Reese had come up to her and said, "Thanks for passing my message on to Carter."

"Have you had any other unauthorised communications from the Machine?" Finch asks.

She tenses. "Carter isn't the Machine, Finch," she grates out, and the anger only grows when Reese gives her a careful look.

None of this should matter to her, and the fact that it obviously does and, worse, the others obviously know that it does, leaves her feeling knotted up inside in ways she can't even describe.

Finch sighs. "Misguided attempt to help or experiment in consciousness simulation or whatever this is, Ms Shaw, I would repeat my suggestion that you simply not engage with it. I can only imagine the temptation to hang on to some scrap of hope, but you need to move on. As sorry as I am about this state of affairs, Detective Carter is dead, and we all need to deal with that fact."

"Thanks for the advice, Finch," she snaps, before destroying her phone. "You've got wrap-up, right?" she says to Reese.

"You've not really left much for me to do," he says mildly as she leaves.

"I haven't even managed to bring myself to talk to Taylor yet," Carter says morosely.

She'd texted and turned up about half an hour ago, shortly after Shaw had gotten home. Apparently they've now reached the talking part of the evening.


That's always Shaw's favourite part of the evening. It's why she enjoys company so much.

Shaw looks at her for a moment, groping for an appropriate response. Normally, she'd just take another swig of whatever is in her hand at the time, but…

But this is Carter, and the rules around her never have felt as solid as Shaw is used to.

"Why?" she tries.

Why would Carter think *she'd* be a good person to talk about this might be a better question. But something - maybe some vestigial sense of tact - stops her from saying that out loud.

Carter grimaces. "How can I? *I* don't even know what I am. How can I lay that kind of thing on my kid?" She sighs. "I dunno. Maybe when he's older." She drains her glass, and pours herself another drink.

Something tight rises within Shaw, something dark and angry, but she forces it down with an effort, asks the first question that pops into her head. "How has Reese taken it?"

Carter pauses, gives her a long, slow, considering look. "Far as I can tell, he wanted a confessional. Someone to absolve him of my death."

"Okay." Shaw doesn't exactly get the impulse, but not getting other people's impulse isn't exactly new for her.

"Just hope I gave him what he was looking for. Not sure what else I can do if I didn't."

"You're not going to turn up around his and get drunk with him as well?" Shaw asks acidly. Possibly more acidly than the question actually warrants.

Carter's looking at her again, but this time her mouth is crinkling in an amused way that makes Shaw unsettled just looking at it. "Nah," she says, and if she were material, she'd be knocking into Shaw right about now. "Thought I'd save that just for you."

She's not sure exactly why this is a relief to her, but something untenses in Shaw just the same.

When things have wrapped up on the latest number, when Reese is already disappearing off with Finch, The pressure that's been building inside Shaw since… since she woke up this morning abruptly shifts and suddenly it seems the only thing to do is grab Fusco by the forearm and start unceremoniously dragging him along.

She actually manages make a good ten yards before the spluttering from behind her resolves into actual words.

"Hey, lady! Jobs over, and I've got places to be."

She turns around and gives him a steady glare. "Yes. And tonight that place is in a bar. At my side. We're getting drunk together." She stretches her mouth in what might be considered a smile. "Team building, Fusco. Team building."

He starts back, possibly at her sudden spurt of words, possibly at something else, and smiles uncertainly. "You know me. Ordinarily, I'd love to, but you know what? I've got to get home to the kid, put in some face time. It's not like I'm not honoured - I know this was your thing with Car-" He stops mid-sentence, frozen, eyes focussed on *something* on Shaw's face.

"Team building, Fusco," she reminds him, voice grating harshly, her face feeling like it's carved out of wood.

'Uh, okay," he stammers. "Yeah, that sounds like a great idea."

They're about five drinks in - well, Fusco's on his second and she's on her eighth, so it averages out to five - when she loses interest in his attempts to fill up the space in the conversation by talking about his own life.

It's not quite that she minds hearing about his kid - it's actually a little worrying how much she doesn't mind hearing about children these days. Doubtless there are people who would suggest that it's her biological clock, or some such nonsense, but Shaw thinks it's far more likely due to the preadolescent goddess whose instincts determine their jobs and whose apparent whims are increasingly shaping her life outside of them.


"Fancy finding a room for some sex tonight?" she asks.

Fusco judders to a halt mid-flow and stares at her wide-eyed, as if he's suddenly stumbled across a trap. "What?"

Honestly, she's a little surprised at the words herself. She doesn't normally shit where she eats.

But he's here and he's…

But he's here. And that's reason enough.

So she tilts her head and gives him a look. "You. Me. Sex. It's a simple concept."

He cracks an uneasy smile. "Is this one of those propositions that ends…" he says and makes awkward snapping motions with his hands. "Because it sure kind of sounds like it."

"It ends with us both getting laid and never speaking about it again."

He laughs; a short, sharp sound. "Christ," he says, rubbing the back of his head. "I bet none of the bar crawls you had with Car-" He freezes on the word again, and then his eyes widen for a completely different reason. "Really?" he asks in a strangled voice.

Shaw feels the violence rise in her as his expression starts to dissolve into one of sympathy. "Get out," she snaps. "Get out of here or agree to fuck me. These are your only two options."

"Aw, Jesus, Shaw…" he says. He's staying where he is, keeping his gaze fixed on here as though she's a wild animal. It's the only thing stopping her from hitting him for that of *empathy* on his face. "Have you even talked to any-"

"I know how to perform a surgical castration," she snaps, "And I'll demonstrate how if you complete that sentence." She stands up sharply, and starts walking away. If he isn't going to leave, she is. "And if you tell anyone about whatever it is you think you know," she tosses over a shoulder just before she exits the bar. 'I'll do it with a blunt spoon instead."

"You spying on me, Carter?" Shaw asks as she appears in front of her.

It seems a reasonable enough question. Carter has a consistent habit of texting her when it'd be convenient for her to turn up - just when Shaw's settled after getting for the day, or when she's just finished shoving what passes for her cooking in her mouth, on the days she doesn't just have takeout.

And even more suspiciously it's on the nights when she wouldn't *mind* company.

As long as it's the right company, that is.

Company from a very short list.

Maybe even just a list of one, for whatever that means.

And, well, maybe there's another reason she's wondering if Carter has been spying on her.

A twisted, knotted reason that's been lying deep within her ever since that night with Fusco.

A reason that she's left well enough alone.

No good comes from poking at reasons like that.

All the same, though, she can't helping wondering what the answer is.

Carter twists her mouth. "It's more of a sense. You're free, and I'm in the mood for company, and I'll just *know*." She snorts. "So, yes, no, hell if I know. Take your pick." She drains her glass, and sets it down on the table, the clunk echoing in Shaw's ear. "If you don't like that answer, I'll go."

"Nah," Shaw says before she can think about it. And then: "Where else am I going to find someone who can keep up with me?"

It's a reason. May even be the correct one.

Certainly good enough for now.

"If your 'sense' is that good," she offers up after a while. "You might as well not bother texting in the future."

Because, though it always comes when she wouldn't *mind* company, there's always a moment, a slippery sharp moment, when she's really not certain how she should answer.

A moment that leaves breathless, feeling exposed.

It always goes the one way, of course.

But still…

It wouldn't be *awful* not to have that moment, just dive into the certainty that occurs when Carter actually turns up.

Carter, of course, seems to take this a different way. "Really?" she asks, smiling, as if she's just been given a gift. "You sure?"

That probably means something as well. Something that Shaw has no intent of poking at, either.

"Wouldn't say it if I wasn't."

And, yeah, she may not have ever offered that to anyone else, rarely even offered up entrance to wherever her home might be at the time except on a strict emergency basis.

But it's not as though she can actually keep Carter out, short of destroying every microphone and camera in the place.

It's more an acceptance of fact than anything else.

There's certainly no need for Carter to look almost… almost *giddy* for want of a better word.

No need at all.

"So, how is it going with your Detective Carter?" Root asks, as Shaw neatly stitches up a gash in her arm.

Root had found her a few minutes ago, smiling in that cracked way of hers before revealing an arm with thick, dark venous blood dribbling down it.

A nicked vein, Shaw had assessed. Not immediately life-threatening, but certainly something she'd prefer to treat rather than trusting Root, or whoever else she could find, to deal with it.

It's not the first favour that's been exchanged between them. Doubtless it won't be the last. She's almost become used to Root materialising in semi-stochastic fashion, needing something, or offering help in return.

It's a thing that's come to rest between them, however uncomfortably. Shaw isn't exactly sure how often Root is in the city - she doesn't have a need to know, so she doesn't ask.

Finch doesn't approve, but, frankly, as long it happens in her off-hours, Finch can bite her. Far as she can see, they're all on the same side, more or less.

Still, asking about Carter… Shaw narrows her eyes a little, pulls on the needle perhaps a little harder than necessary and says not a thing in response.

Root yelps a little in response - but doesn't move away, Shaw notes approvingly. "I'm not the one into pain-play," she murmurs, breath hitching in a fashion Shaw can't help finding pleasing.

"Never thought you were."

Root giggles a little, then tilts her head, studying Shaw. "It isn't always easy, talking with them, is it?"

Shaw successfully clamps down on the urge to rise to the bait, and instead asks, "You've had your own ghostly encounters?"

Root's almost ever-present smile twists, changes, becomes bittersweet. "Oh yes. In Her infinite wisdom, She has granted me visitors of my own."

Shaw waits her out, not saying anything whilst she finishes cleaning up the injury, then stepping back.

"Hanna visits sometimes," Root eventually says, strangely muted.

Shaw raises an eyebrow in question.

"A childhood friend. My best friend. My only real friend. She died when I was twelve."

"How does that work out for you?"

Root's expression is pained. "She doesn't exactly approve of my life choices."

"I don't think anyone at my school would have been shocked by mine," Shaw says dryly. "I was voted 'Most likely to become a serial killer'."

Root giggles a little before becoming sombre again. "I know that She wants only the best, but sometimes I can't help wondering if she brought Hanna back as a gift or a lesson."

"Why pick just one?"

Root lays one hand on Shaw's arm, who even permits it for a few seconds before shrugging it off. "I just thought I'd say," she says. "That it does get better."

It doesn't.

Sure, when Carter's there, it's easy. Sometimes it even approaches being as easy as it was when she was alive.

But the mornings afterwards, when she wakes up, and she just wants to hit something. Or to be hit.

The mornings when it feels like there's a nameless *something* itching deep inside.

The mornings that she just wants to *bleed*, to let the pressure inside her out.

Those don't get easier at all.

If anything, they seem to slowly get worse.

She's on top of the man, pinning his wrists with one hand, grinding away, slowly approaching something that might become an acceptable orgasm, when she hears it.

A choked gasp, coming from the earpiece discarded on the bedside cabinet.

Glancing over, she sees a light from her glasses, what might be, if she squints, a tiny image of Carter reflected in the glass.

And then it disappears.

And then a whole body shudder hits her, an almost painful, almost dry thing, scraping her inside and out.

It leaves her feeling empty, it leaves her feeling dirty, it leaves her feeling cleaned out.

All at once.

She rolls off the man and stares up into the darkness.

"Get out," she says.

He protests. It might be something about him not being satisfied just yet. It might be about feelings.

She's not sure, and, at the moment, she just doesn't care.

She half turns so she can look at him, and repeats, louder. "Get out."

Something - maybe her tone, maybe her expression - convinces him to shut the hell up and just leave.

As soon as he's gone, as soon as she's made sure the door has been locked behind him, she gets back into bed, closes her eyes and goes to sleep.

It's the best rest she's had in weeks, maybe months.

And for the first time in… in a while, she doesn't wake up with the impulse to do violence to the world.

She doesn't see Carter the next day. It's not that she doesn't want to. It's not that she does. It's a place in between, a place of peace, of just not caring that she hasn't felt since before Carter died.

By the end of the next day, though, a subtle ache has set in. She returns home promptly after the finishing with the number, but nothing.

By the time a week has passed - still nothing - she just aches in her off hours. But she still can't quite bring herself to phone Carter's number, to take that first step.

By the time a text finally arrives - 'I think we need to talk' - she's eager enough to agree to anything.

Even talking.

Carter appears, dressed formally, hair tied back, made-up, but still biting her lip.

Shaw stands to meet her, starts to stretch out her hand, then draws it back again and sits down.

They look at each other for what seems like forever.

And, finally, Carter cracks up whilst Shaw continues to stare at her. "So," she says, after recovering. "Talking."

"What did you want me to say?" Shaw asks bluntly.

Carter shakes her head. "Nothing, really. It's just…" she sighs. "I dunno. I had just built up expectations, y'know. And then to pop into your place and find you screwing someone… I just needed some space."

Shaw tenses. "I never agreed to be exclusive. Even before."

Carter stiffens in return, and then very deliberately relaxes. "Yeah, I know we never agreed anything. But I thought we clicked, that we got one another." She shrugs. "Just needed time to get my head in order, y'know. So… who is he?"

"Mark? Mat?" Shaw tries, then shrugs, a sharp motion. "Just some guy I found in a bar."

Carter leans away a bit, narrowing her eyes. "Just some guy," she repeats sceptically. "Here? At *your* place? Rather than some cheap hotel room?" She raises an eyebrow. "It took us a few months before you'd let me anywhere near this place, and I was under the impression that I'd gotten a hell of a lot farther than pretty much anyone else."

Shaw shrugs again, her gaze falling to the floor.

"Hey," Carter repeats, softer. "You don't have to tell me. It's just - my mistaken thoughts about where we were at aside - you could talk to me about this kind of thing. Y'know. Girl talk."

Shaw takes a deep breath, and lets it out.

Takes a breath, and lets it out again.

"He wasn't anyone," she says. "Honestly." She pauses for a moment, then continues. "I just needed… Nothing else was working. Sex did, a bit. The more vulnerable it made me feel, the better. So I thought…" se trails off.

"Did it work?" Carter asks gently.

Another shrug. "Nah. Not until you turned up."

"Me?" Carter says, a clear note of hurt in her voice.

Shaw sighs. "Suddenly I didn't feel so angry at everything anymore." Her lip quirks. "Even for me."

Silence reigns for a time. Then Carter asks, "How long have you been angry?"

"Since you came back," Shaw says and suddenly words are flooding from her, words that she didn't even know that she had locked inside. 'It wasn't too bad when I could just hear you. I thought I was just grieving. Somehow. Then I started seeing you, and I didn't know what to think. Was I going insane? Did I have a tumour? I didn't know," she says, and takes a deep breath. "I didn't know. And then you came back, you actually came back. And I couldn't be angry with you for that. So… And so."

She can hear Carter make a distressed noise, and then she can see Carter wrapping herself around her. And for a moment, for a moment, she can almost pretend that she can feel her.

Shaw's never been one for physical comfort - never seen the need for it - but, in this moment, it feels almost right.

"I didn't know," Carter repeats, over and over. "I'm so sorry, I really didn't know." Tears start trickling down her cheeks, thin rivulets at first, then rivers. Unable to do anything else, not sure what to do even if she could, Shaw waits until the flood is past. Finally, Carter looks up at her, all red eyes and scratchy voice. "The common consensus is that it's a bad idea to contact people from out past lives. But I thought - we're already in the same business. And if anyone could handle information without needing to know more, I thought it'd be you," and she smiles wetly. "And I can't deny that I wanted to see you again."

And, somehow, that manages to unknot the last remnant of the anger within Shaw, and she can't help smiling a bit. "I'd have probably said the same thing."

Carter wipes her face, then looks back up at Shaw. "I did spend the last week wondering why the *hell* the Machine had thought I'd needed to walk in on you doing that. But I guess now I know."

Shaw shrugs.

"I know we're not there yet," Carter says. "But I want you to know that I'm going to do my darndest to make sure that we're good again, as soon as I can manage it."

Shaw shrugs again, but this time can't help the trace of a smile.

"Yeah, you better believe it," Carter says. Her smile isn't everything, not yet.

But it's getting there.

They're both getting there.

"Too many words," Shaw decides. "We need more alcohol."

Carter gets to her feet, and waves a finger at her. "Don't think you're getting away without talking. A large part of this mess happened because we didn't."

Shaw grabs a bottle from under her bed. "Drinking now. Maybe words later." Because there has definitely been far too much emotion on far too little a blood-alcohol level.

"Definitely words later."

"Okay," Shaw says, conceding defeat. "I guess I can drink to that."

And maybe it's the so far unsuspected optimist within her, but at the moment - just at the moment - she can almost believe that things will get to be okay.

The End

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