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
Signal to Noise
There's no two ways about it.
Root makes me unsettled.
I've never exactly considered myself a people person. In a complex, chaotic world where nothing is truly predictable, people seem to have this fascination with making things even more difficult for themselves, and then having the gall to claim that all they want is a simple life.
No, I think about saying every time this kind of situation crops up. No, you don't. Because if you wanted a simple life, you'd keep the variables down and maintain as much control as possible.
Relationships are the worst kind of trouble. Friendships are bad enough - people start *expecting* things from you. To give even if you're really not in the mood. (Which is pretty much always in my case.)
And romance is worse. There the expectations are even stronger. People expect you to start *feeling* things and get all upset when you don't.
Granted, I'm not exactly the best person to preside as a judge on relationships, but it isn't like other people fare any better in my experience. Hell, they're *worse* - their own feelings blinding them often as not to what the other person is thinking.
But I'm not stupid. I can deal with the average day to day idiocy that other people insist on trying to saddle me with - far more than my fair share, in fact, since I joined up with Finch and Reese - but at least normal people deal with some facsimile of reality.
I can predict them, more or less, though intimidation and other such tactics do help to narrow the range of probabilities.
Zealots are a different matter. Zealots act like their beliefs can control reality in a way I just haven't seen outside of one brief trip to Vegas when I was younger. Luckily, at my previous job, I'd only had to deal with zealots when I was shooting them or, more rarely, when I'd had to take them prisoner.
Violence is simple.
Violence very rarely cares how much someone believes in something.
Violence makes sense out of zealots.
Which brings me back to Root.
Root is a zealot. There's no mistake about that. And that had been fine when she'd been an opponent or even when she'd been working under the strict directions of the Machine. Despite her tendency to humanise it.
Like that would make it any better. The less humanity involved, the better, in my professional opinion.
Now, Finch and Reese are apparently operating a work release program.
So far, I've managed to dodge the particular bullet of working with her. Ever since the first time. I have something that in someone else might be called a fond hope that it's because the others aren't entirely certain as to how safe Root would actually be with me.
I'm a professional. Normally this kind of doubt would irritate me. At best.
But anything that reduces the chances that I have to directly work with Root is fine by me.
Especially because ever since Root came out of the cage, communication with her deity has been distinctly patchy.
If there's one thing that concerns me more than a zealot, it's a zealot who's had their faith shaken.
That's when they get downright unpredictable.
Sadly, from the way that Finch and Reese looked at me when I entered, my luck might be about to run out.
Root's smiling at me too, but that's nothing new. Damned if I can tell if there's anything different about her today, or what it means if there is.
"What?" I ask as I come to a halt, glancing around to make sure the lines of cover and of exit are where I remember them being last time.
"Good morning, Ms Shaw. I'm so glad that you could make it," Finch says in that overly precise way of his. Not that I mind that about him. Precise is good.
I shrug. It's my job, and I have my professional pride. "Why am I here, rather than where the job is?"
Finch glances quickly in Reese's direction, but Reese is busy studying me. "There are two jobs today. The number and the mobile data site that we found traces of a few weeks ago."
Oh yes. I'm fairly sure that there had been far more in the way of explanation attached at the time, but I try not to fill my head with unnecessary clutter.
Enemy group. Spying. Something bad to do with computers. I don't really need much else.
I'm a simple girl, really. Show me where to shoot, and I'm perfectly happy.
I've got a bad feeling I know the answer already, but I ask anyway. "What am I handling?"
"Mr Reese and I can handle the number. We need you to deal with the data site before it moves again."
And by 'you' he means
"We'll be working together again," Root says, looking like she's only a few moments away from clapping her hands. "Won't that be fun?"
"Am I allowed to knock her unconscious after the mission again?"
A slightly constipated expression crosses Finch's face. He should probably do something about that. Good digestion is one of the keys to a healthy body and a healthy mind. "I'm sure that won't be necessary, Ms Shaw."
Necessary, possibly not.
This mission is going to suck.
"How much longer are you going to need?" I ask in a brief pause between gunfire. I try to be as quiet as I can, but it's hard to judge when you're half deafened by the sound of semi-automatic fire occurring at best at arm's length away from your head.
Seriously, the stats on hearing loss for people in my line of work are anything but encouraging.
Root takes a pause from humming what sounds suspiciously like a Spice Girls tune to say, "Should only need a few more minutes, sweetie." She doesn't look up from her laptop, though.
Yes, sweetie. Either through luck or intuition, Root has discovered another way to get under my skin, and is using it with gleeful abandon.
Yet another problem with Root - she's apparently immune to intimations of violence. I think they might actually turn her on. Either way, my normal methods for dissuading people don't seem to work on her, and I'm not allowed to actually hurt her.
I fire a few more shots - hit one person, help keep three heads down. "Need more precision than that, Root."
*This* data site - the fifth one we've hit in quick succession - apparently came equipped with a bomb - now armed and counting down. A few minutes is a bit more uncertainty than I'm really happy with at the moment.
She looks up suddenly, with a smile on her lips. "We need to stay within this truck for the next thirty seconds," she says, laying her computer on the ground gently. "Other than that," she says, picking up her machine pistol. "I'm all yours."
Great, I think.
But it's, well, not as bad as it could be. On my signal, she pops up, spraying the entrance with bullets. There's a click as she runs out - two guys pop their heads out to take advantage, and I plug them neatly.
She seems to get me in a way that even Reese doesn't.
Not that I have an interest in Reese, or anyone else, getting me, but
Well, the collaboration could suck more, is what I'm saying. Best of all, she hasn't gone all glitchy yet.
That leaves one guy left - assuming that a second wave of reinforcements hasn't decided to make an appearance. I like those odds.
I toss a smoke grenade out as Root reloads.
Two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
I roll forwards into a better position, and manage to catch the last guy.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see an expression of joy cross Root's face, and she scoops the laptop up.
My watch tells me we've got less than a minute to either get to as safe a distance as possible or (preferably) some nice solid cover.
No one shoots us as we emerge, and run as hard as we can towards the car we came in. We just about manage to get behind it when the bomb goes off with a deafening crump.
These guys really weren't messing around. Also, our targets seem to be getting harder.
I count to twenty before sticking my head up, just to reduce the chance that the path of some shrapnel tossed inconveniently high would intersect me when I emerge.
Well, the good news is that the bomb did an excellent job of covering up any traces we may have left behind.
Bad news, cops are going to be all over this if we don't haul ass sometime soon.
Worse news, the car may have stopped us getting damaged, but there are a couple of really nasty gashes in the side. Probably still motile, but driving it's going to attract all the wrong sort of attention.
Pity. I'd liked this one. Still, easy come, easy go. And cars really don't seem to have an overly long lifespan around us. Just as well I'm not the sort to get attached.
"Tell me this is the last site we have to hit," I say to Root.
"Yes," she says brightly. "I should have everything we need now."
Thank god for small mercies, I think, as I get into the car. Working with Root may not be as painful as I'd thought. But I still can't wait to get back to working with someone else. Anyone else... Maybe even by myself, if I'm lucky.
"She was right," Root says as we drive away from the cloud of rising black smoke. "We *do* make great partners."
I can't help shooting her a brief look of disbelief.
Nope, she's dead serious as far as I can tell.
Great, because that's just what the world needs. The equivalent of an electronic dating site for ops teams.
Though I guess at least it would explain Finch and Reese.
Lonely billionaire seeks black ops agent for random acts of heroism. Must be non-smoker.
"Have you told Finch about this?"
"Of course," she says, still sounding far too perky given the last few days we've had. "Why do you think he assigned you to me?"
"The only reason I haven't already shot you is because it'd affect my mission appraisal," I tell her levelly. It may not be precisely true, but the threat makes me feel better.
She laughs, as if I've said something amusing, and I revise my estimate to 'mostly not true.' "That's why I like you, sweetie," she says fondly. Okay, 'somewhat not true.' "You always have your eyes firmly fixed on your part of the big picture."
Okay. I can roll with that. I glower for a few minutes, anyway. just for form's sake.
"Oh," she says suddenly as we approach the entrance to a side street "Turn here.'
I shoot her another look, but do as she says. In the last few days, she's earned at least that much.
"Stop here, and open that," she says pointing to a garage.
Well, it's not like we don't need a new car, anyway.
No alarm system and the lock isn't *that* hard to work.
"I thought that the Machine hasn't been talking to you recently" I say, studying Root suspiciously.
Because there's no way that stumbling across a car *this* nice is just a coincidence.
She shrugs. "If I'm going to be in New York for a while, it only makes sense to lay in contingency plans. And Finch isn't the only one with access to resources."
"This is yours?"
She nods. "Do you like it?" she asks eagerly.
"I'm forgiving you for that time you tasered me."
"Good," she says. "We're going to be *such* good friends."
I stop. "I don't do friends."
She studies me for a moment, and, just for once, I don't get any broken vibes off her at all. "Okay," she says seriously. "I'll take you anyway I can have you."
"Is 'as far away as possible' an option?" I ask as I climb into the driver's seat.
She gets in, then rests her head briefly against my shoulder, before I scowl and shrug her off. "Oh, you," she says.
On that note, I decide to get this monkey back to her cage at the zoo as fast as I can.
A beep from my alarm wakes me.
Ever since Root visited me in the night, I've redoubled my security efforts. People used to think that I was being paranoid about this side of things.
Joke's on them. Turns out I wasn't paranoid enough.
In my new apartment - chosen for being the last one on its corridor - there's an infrared beam on the approach to my door that triggers a beep every time someone breaks it.
Like someone had just done.
I grab the gun from beneath my pillow, load it, and move to the side, waiting for someone to break the line of light filtering in from the corridor.
Soon as someone does, I fling the door open to reveal Root.
She jumps a little, then her face lights up, apparently deciding to ignore the gun I'm not exactly hiding. "Sweetie," she says.
It's entirely far too early for this.
I resist the urge to grind my teeth. "I thought that you were supposed to have been locked up again in your cage," I say.
Hang on a sec.
I raise the gun to cover her, even though I can see both her hands. "What have you done to Finch and Reese?"
"They're perfectly fine," she says, smiling, and I can almost hear her add 'silly'. "They decided that I've been rehabilitated enough to have my own place." There's a slight grimace as she says the words 'they decided' as though the words taste sour.
It's oddly relieving. Apparently everything isn't all sunshine in the land of bunnies and computers.
And, oh great.
Apparently the last few days off the reservation had been something of a graduating exam.
Just typical no one had asked me what my grade would have been.
"Doesn't explain why you're here." And, even as I say the words, I can feel anger growing within me.
I don't like to be followed, tagged, tracked, whatever.
And I don't exactly have rosy memories of her last visit.
She smiles. "Being visited by a friend is a nice, normal bonding activity."
I snap, feeling the anger race through me, making me feel alive. I shove her into the opposite wall, and press an arm into her throat. "We're not friends," I tell her. "Find your nice, normal bonding activity somewhere else."
She just looks at me, eyes wide, breathing ragged and it takes me a moment to realise that her pupils have dilated wide, wide, wide.
She grabs me, not to push me away, but to pull me closer.
"Sweetie," she breathes before she kisses me, all lips and tongue and *teeth*.
And I kiss her back the same way, the anger bleeding into lust.
And the lust bleeding into anger.
How *dare* she come here. How *dare* she invade my privacy.
Her top is ripped almost before I realise, and then my hands are on her, hard, bruising.
She's still not pulling away. If anything, she's encouraging me.
This is not who am I am.
That's the thought that goes through my head.
This is not who I am. Not anymore.
Somehow, I manage to find the will to pull away. Root pursues me, all grasping mouth and hands.
For a moment, boiling anger grasps me, that she's clearly ignoring what *I* want, and I almost turn back towards her.
I can't get any words out - I don't know what I'd say even if I could - so I just retreat. Tactically. I manage to get back inside in apartment and slam the door behind me.
I prop myself against it, hard.
This is not who I am. Sex and anger are *not* the same things.
It's not like I'm going to start trembling, but I'm *way* too tense.
And I *want*. I want way too much as well.
Root knocks and calls through the door for a while, before falling ominously quiet. A few minutes later, I crack the door and check cautiously.
Root's apparently disappeared.
If only she'd stay gone.
"So," Carter says slowly.
I give her a sideways glance. In my experience, nothing good ever comes from someone starting that way.
I've managed to pull observation duty of the latest number with her tonight.
There are far worse people to work with, even apart from the obvious, who I've managed to avoid more or less completely over the last week. Even if he hasn't said anything, I'm fairly sure that Reese knows *something*. Finch is worse - every time I see him, I half expect him to order me to talk things out with Root.
Luckily, Carter's been available for ops over the last few days, and I've managed to continuously pull her as a partner.
Carter's enough out of the clubhouse that I can at least hope she isn't up on the latest gossip.
Gossip. That's another thing I hate about social groups.
Why do people even *care* about things that don't concern them?
"What?" I ask suspiciously.
"Do you have any idea why Root is asking me for relationship advice?"
"No," I answer instantly. "Why would I?"
Carter hums to herself. "Just wondering. Since you apparently have the best rapport with her."
I can feel my mouth thinning rapidly. "Being tasered by her doesn't mean that I know how she thinks."
And just because neither of us is exactly normal, it doesn't mean that we have any kind of insight into each other.
"Hey, no offence," she says, raising her hands in a gesture of surrender. "I just meant that I figured she would have gone to you first."
"Well, she didn't," I say sourly, resolutely staring out of the window. "Maybe she already knew what I have to say on the matter."
"Yeah, what's that?" Carter asks.
"Anything apart from a one-time encounter is a mistake."
"Is that generally, or just in your specific case?"
"Generally. People start expecting things. The whole thing becomes unbalanced, then explodes. And not in the fun way. Unless you're really lucky. Or proactive."
"Uhuh," Carter says. "I might not have had the best luck myself - what with deaths making for fairly final breakups - but I don't regret trying. Those were some of the best years of my life."
"So nostalgia combined with the triumph of hope over experience."
Carter laughs long and loud. "Yeah, I'm beginning to see why Root didn't come to see you for advice."
I scowl. "I don't know. Maybe it would have been for the best."
"Yeah, let me know when you start that agony aunt column. Wait, what's that?"
What look like armed men are moving towards the number.
"Finally," you murmur as you slide out of the car to engage with the hostiles.
Finally, the evening is looking up.
Bear's waiting for me as I enter Finch's hideout, tail wagging and looking eagerly up at me.
Someone who actually makes sense, unlike all these messy humans. A guilt free relationship, where the demands on me consist only of attention, toys, food and walks.
At least I always know where I stand with you, I think, as I bend over and dispense fuss.
Finch approaches, the awkwardness of his steps unmistakable, but I double down and concentrate on Bear that much more.
If Root's been talking to Carter, it only makes sense that she's also been talking to Finch who is probably the most on her wavelength of anyone in the group.
"Here," he says after a moment. "Apparently I'm supposed to give you this."
I reluctantly drag my attention upwards to see Finch brandishing an envelope.
I scowl at it. "What's that?"
"I believe that it's a card. Root asked me to pass it onto you."
I take hold of it suspiciously, as though it might explode.
No such luck.
"Have you opened this?"
Finch purses his lips. "Our agreement stands, Ms Shaw. I will not violate your privacy unless the need is truly dire. I do not believe that Root writing you a card constitutes such a threat."
I slide it into a pocket.
"You don't intend to look at it now?" Finch asks.
"Later, maybe. When you can't spy on me with your security system."
"I assure you-"
"Didn't you have a mission for me?" I interrupt, because I can't see this going anywhere apart from pointless.
He blinks. "Of course. Please, this way, Ms Shaw."
I give Bear a final ruffle around the ears, then follow Finch.
Gossip. Isn't there *any* place free from it?
The card, when I open it later in comfort of my own home, and after a *thorough* degaussing, is apparently an apology card from Root.
It's a disconcerting mix of middle school and corporate manual.
'I'm sorry I invaded your privacy,' it reads. 'Also I apologise if I engaged in sexual harassment."
It's very Root, I have to admit.
I manage to find her the next day. "Just don't do it again," I say.
Her face lights up like it's Christmas, so I stalk off before she can do anything to spoil it.
And, apparently, just like that, we're better again.
I prefer not to hold grudges, anyway.
This is, apparently, enough of a licence for Finch to start up the Shaw and Root show again. It's by no means all of the time - if nothing else, the body count Root and I sometimes rack up has amusing way of making Finch frown during the after-mission debriefing sessions. And certainly not every number has an angle that would be best solved by the two of us working together.
But, still, the advantage of having a mobile and combat capable hacker cannot be underestimated. And it allows Finch to do more of what he's best at.
It makes the whole thing more efficient.
And, well, the hell of it is that I actually work well with Root, as we proved on those first missions. And practise has just made that connection so much better.
We're onsite in a bratva owned dock, and she's already inside their security.
"Two guys just about to round the corner," she whispers over the comms, and I can slide up and wait. A few moments later, a flash of my knife and a strategic application of my pistol's butt, and they're both laid out on the ground, one bleeding out, one just unconscious.
I could have handled them by myself, regardless. But not as cleanly, not as quietly.
With Root handling the security system, we can see them, and they can't see us.
They're all dead men walking, and they don't even know it.
"Five men in the room ahead," she says. "They've got our target hostage."
I don't even need to be able to see her to know that she's smiling, and what that means.
There's a surprise that she's got planned, and the goons in there aren't going to like it one bit.
She's like an open book to me. And the thing is, she doesn't have to be. I've seen her slide into persona before, and she can infiltrate with the best of them.
She's an open book to me because she chooses to be, and it's a gift I'm not quite sure how to handle.
So I do what I do best - ignore it and get on with business.
There's a muffled explosion, and she whispers, "Go," and I'm gone.
The goons are half choked by smoke, confused.
I grab the target, and start to exfiltrate.
"Bad code has just pulled up out front," she says.
"I don't think so. They look more like Elias' men."
Great. But even when things go south - as they so often do - still she gives me more time to react, to plan.
"There's a boat tied up out here," I tell her. "Get here and get the target to safety. I'll keep things contained here."
Because it's not just her saving me, or me saving her.
It's both of us saving each other.
"Okay, sweetie," she murmurs even as I can hear her start to scramble and run.
"Have a fun night. Remember to lock up after yourself," she says as she disappears past me, target in tow.
And, okay, sure, she may still have her fair share of irritating habits.
But it's nothing I can't deal with.
Nothing I can't deal with at all.
"Certainly intend to," I say as the chorus of gunfire starts up once more.
"So this is really the kind of place you actually like?" Root asks with a quirk to her lips.
I scowl at my drink. "What exactly were you expecting?"
"I really didn't know. But maybe somewhere with clean glasses," she says, examining the grimy shot glass in front of her.
"Don't say that too loudly. You'll hurt the barman's feelings."
"Doesn't Finch pay you enough to go somewhere a little better?"
"The grime here adds flavour to the liquor."
Root finishes eying the glass, then downs the shot and makes a face. "Oh. I can see how that could be an advantage."
"You're the one who wanted to socialise outside of missions."
"So why did you take me to those other places, then?"
I shrug. "Thought you'd like those kinds of places more."
She gives me a look. Not the kind of look she gave me on those first few missions, but still
It makes me uneasy.
And then she smiles. "Oh, sweetie," she breaths, and definitely *not* in the way she uses during missions.
I almost back away, but manage to hold my ground instead. "Don't make me regret taking you here."
She backs away instead. "Sorry," she says, and her smile turns self-deprecating. "I didn't mean to push."
For some reason, I feel like that needs some kind of explanation. "Relationships aren't my thing."
"But one night stands are?"
My face hardens. "You've been talking to Reese."
"Finch, actually. Information spreads."
Gossip, damned gossip. I catch the barman's attention, and order five more shots, then glower down into their surface.
This isn't anything I want to deal with.
"Hey," Root says, in a tone of voice that even I can tell is overly bright and cheerful. Forcedly, so. I look over to see her sketching diagrams in the moisture on the bar.
She looks up and smiles. But it's not any of the kinds of smiles that I'm used to. It's almost shy?
"So, one night stands are your thing?"
I don't like where this is going.
Not one bit.
"I know it's silly, but when she told me that we'd make good partners, I thought that " she says quickly, almost babbling. "I haven't felt like that about anyone since I know it's silly, but I really just want you." By this point, she's flushing bright red and her eyes are fixed on the bar in front of us. "One night would be better than nothing at all," she says, then shuts her mouth with a snap.
It's so completely unlike her, the way she's been projecting, that a part of me just can't believe she said that.
It's so completely like her, like the spaces in between the cracks, that another part of me is only surprised that she actually managed to say it out loud.
"That's possibly the least suave manner in which I've ever been propositioned," I can't help noting, almost on autopilot.
It's damn confusing, is what it is.
"Oh," she says quietly, drawing ever smaller circles on the bar.
This is a bad idea.
This is a *horrible* idea.
This is the very definition of making things more complicated for no good outcome.
"That wasn't a no," I say.
But she's my partner.
She's made everything better since she turned up.
And and I may have problems understanding *people*, but I understand trade, and my *partner* just offered up her heart to me, nothing asked in return.
"Really?" Her face instantly brightens and she spins around to look at me, to search my face for confirmation.
I tilt my head to one side, and just look at her.
"Really," she confirms, and she gets a glint in her eye that I haven't fully seen since
Since that day at my apartment du jour.
I can feel it ignite a heat inside me, a flame that I recognise all too well.
I am not that person.
"No," I say.
There's a moment when I think Root's going to push, that this is going to end in violence after all.
Then that spark doesn't exactly subside so much as is kept in abeyance.
It's Root's turn to tilt her head. "No?" she echoes, slowly. "You're going to have to give me some help here, sweetie. There seems to be some severe noise in the signal."
"I mean, no. I don't mix anger and sex."
There's still that bright, challenging spark in her eyes. But she doesn't push.
Somehow, she doesn't push.
"Want to talk to me about it?"
I shrug. "Nothing to tell. When I was a dumb teenager - when I was still figuring things out, trying to figure out if relationships were for me - I looked for bad ones. Because I thought I should feel something in a relationship. And anger I feel. Things went bad. I'm not that person. And I don't mix anger and sex."
"Sweetie," breaths Root, leaning forward, and her eyes are almost all black, all over again. "I'm sure we can find a way to mix them therapeutically."
"No," I reiterate, and she draws back.
And then she smiles. "No," she agrees. She rises to her feet and offers me her hand. "If I've only got one night, I don't want to waste any more of it here."
I don't need the hand, but I take it anyway. She's my partner. We help each other, and we don't count coup.
"And maybe those hang-ups of yours are something you should work on. At a later date." Her smile sharpens. "I could always offer my help. I've worked as a therapist, after all."
I glare at her, but it fails to have much effect.
"Let's just get through this night first," I mutter.
Relationships - any kind of relationship - increase complexity unnecessarily.
But sometimes, just sometimes...
They're worth it all the same.
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