st_aurafina: Root's face, words "Inside that storm behind your eyes" (POI: Root Storm)
[personal profile] st_aurafina
Title: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Chapter Seven
Rating Teen


Even though Harold was no longer employed by IFT, John found himself at the plaza at odd times, usually if he was feeling rattled, or a number had been particularly overwhelming. This was a disturbing realisation that he made one autumn morning, as he made his way towards IFT Plaza after his run. As usual after a difficult number, John's skin was crawling and his vision was over-sharpened, so that every tiny moving thing caught his eye and made him reach for his weapon.

He pushed harder, thumping down the sidewalk and dodging the early pedestrians, forcing his eyes forward and keeping his elbows at his sides. In the CIA, he'd have turned to his Guide to settle this edginess, and, since his Guide had been Mark, the solution would have been to tamp his senses down to uncomfortable dullness, or fuck like maniacs. Or both. After Mark and before Harold, John would have picked up a bottle and settled on the subway to blast his mind into oblivion. Now, for some reason that he could not identify, he sought the grey stones and black glass of the building that housed the tech company Harold secretly owned.

John didn't think it was to do with Harold himself. He liked Harold, trusted him, even, but they spent plenty of time in each other's company. Stalking Harold's old workplace didn't make sense if all he wanted was to be close to Harold; he already had that. It was just a weird and compulsive thing that helped John cope without a Guide, and so he kept doing it.

His feet hit the flagstones of IFT Plaza and the immediate watchfulness settled. The central square had a sunken area lined with low benches, probably treasured by skateboarders from all over the city. In it, a curved bronze sculpture carved like an arched branch offered a little shade and presumably cultural enrichment to the cubicle monkeys who lunched there each weekday. In the early morning it was just John, a security guard and the pigeons.

He stepped up and down on one of the benches, keeping one eye on the guard. John knew his routine by now, so when the guard had turned the south facing corner and was out of sight, John swung up onto the metal arch to do chin-ups. The bronze was cool under his sweating palms, and the rough bark-like texture gave him a good grip. It was perfect.

“You don’t have to wait for Mr Bahari to move away. The sculpture was meant to be climbed.” Harold’s voice came from behind him. John showily hung by one arm as he reversed his position, hanging the opposite way so he could see Harold's face.

Harold went awkwardly down the few steps one at a time, watching the ground ahead carefully.

“Maybe you should have had this plaza built with a little more accessibility?" John said, helpfully.

Harold favoured him with a raised eyebrow. “Perhaps accessibility wasn’t a priority at the time, Mr Reese.” He had a folded newspaper under his arm. “In any case, what would the skaters do? This is a known hotspot for grinds and slides.” He sat on one of the benches and unfolded his paper.

John restarted his count on the chin-ups, and meanwhile, let his senses roll out lazily in Harold’s direction: Harold had showered less than an hour ago, dressed in a room with an open fire, though his suit had not been kept in that room. His shoes were good leather, custom fitted, and polished this morning by him.

“Do I pass inspection?” Harold said, without taking his eyes from his paper.

John laughed, and hoisted himself up above the bronze branch to work his triceps. “Yeah,” he managed to puff out between each crunch. “You’re doing fine.” He was showing off, and he knew it, but Harold’s indifference was too studied, too careful. Harold was watching him; John just hadn’t caught him at it. He switched to one-handed pull-ups, and let his t-shirt climb a little higher over his belly, showing a line of hair, his navel.

“If only you were upside down,” said Harold. “I could say ‘How low will it go?’”

John pulled up and rested his belly on the branch as if to swing upside down, just to see what happened. Harold could hide a lot from John, but he couldn’t cover the physicality of his heartbeat, and John caught the faintest, faintest uptick in his pulse. Then he let himself down to the ground and walked over to sit beside Harold. He didn’t mean to antagonise someone who had continually treated him with respect. Speaking of which, when he raised an arm to stretch, he caught a whiff of himself, and immediately shifted downwind of Harold. He’d been sweating for a couple of hours now, and it was a warm day. Nobody deserved to be subjected to that, least of all a fastidious billionaire in the plaza of his own building.

“I’m curious,” said Harold. “You come here quite often. There have to be more convenient places to exercise. Places with actual gym equipment. Unless you prefer modern art for that purpose.”

John reached over his head to stretch his triceps. “At least it has a purpose,” he said, suddenly tetchy at the personal question, for all he’d been showing off a few moments ago.

“I thought at first that it was part of your strategy to stalk me,” Harold said. “But it seems to have persisted beyond the time of my employment here.”

“There’s something about this place,” said John. He put a leg up on the bench and pulled his toes towards him, bending double, ear to knee. “Is it – is it something to do with Cascade? Or the way the Machine works?” he asked, suddenly.

Harold seemed startled by the question. “Why would it be?”

“Things are a bit smoother here, for my senses,” said John. He stretched his other leg while he though about how to explain it. “They shouldn’t be – they should be just as jangled as over there across the street – but somehow, being close to the plaza… it’s the nearest I can get to the feeling I had with my Guide, back in the agency. When it was good, I mean.”

Harold was watching him, sceptical, and John shrugged. “I don’t have to lie to you, Finch. It’s how it is. It was even better when I was inside, but you had yourself fired, so I have to stay out here."

“Well, if that’s the case,” said Harold, standing and tucking his newspaper under his arm. “Shall we investigate?”

Harold took him to the underground parking garage, and let himself in with the swipe of a card. “It could be problematic, if the desk staff see me come in through the front door,” he said.

“Because nobody knows you own the place,” said John. “Why don’t they know? I mean, who would care?”

“The people who bought the Machine, for one.” Harold swiped his card again at the elevator, and when it swung open, he rested his palm against a glossy black plate below the number pad. It was a palm reader, John knew that, but there was something gentle about the way Harold did it, as if in greeting an old friend. The elevator rose smoothly. John could hear the floors whooshing past; they were travelling rapidly.

“How are you feeling now?” Harold asked.

John leaned against the wood panelled wall; it was cool against the sweat on his back. “Good,” he said. “Satisfied? Yeah, that’s how it feels. Like I’m in the right place now.”

Harold shook his head, and now, inside the walls of black glass John could feel all sorts of things coming off him: wonderment, curiosity, a pinch of grief and bitterness. That was unusual enough that he unspooled his senses to the full extent of his abilities. They were brilliantly clear, acute and focused, able to hear people from the ground floor to the roof garden.

“What is this place?" he asked Harold. "I feel like an antenna that just got tuned."

Harold said nothing, but now his mouth was tense, his jaw clenched. The elevator doors opened on an empty floor, littered with cords and steel racks. It looked very much like someone had moved out in a hurry, and failed to get cleaners in, but John felt his shoulders settle, and his heart rate slow. This was a good place, a childhood place, a place of familiarity, if not necessarily one of safety. He reached out to touch the wall as he passed into the room, and zoomed back in his mind to the first night with the foster parents who would later adopt him: the wallpaper was clean but imperfect, with the blemishes and marks that come from an active family living their lives. He remembered seeing a bike leaning on the wall, yellow streamers hanging from the handles, and longing to ride it though he didn't know how. The place smelled like oranges and clean laundry, and though he didn't know it at the time, he was going to be very happy here for years.

"Mr Reese." Harold's voice broke through, and John slipped easily back to the future. "Are you all right?" He stood a good three feet distant from John, but John had an idea he'd seen most of the zone. Ah well, there was nothing identifiable in it.

John nodded. "You know not to touch me when that happens? We can snap out of those a little edgy." But not this time; John felt oddly tranquil about that little flashback.

Harold's hands were behind his back. "I don't think that's going to be a problem." Indeed, John couldn't remember the last time he and Harold had made physical contact, since that initial moment when John tried to throttle him. He didn't know whether that was just Harold, or his understanding of Sentinels, or both.

He wandered through the large, empty room, stepping over cables, touching everything: fittings, metal shelves, cords dangling from overhead outlets.

"What was this place for?" he asked. "Why do I feel good here?"

"This is where I built the Machine," said Harold. "And I have no idea why you would even recognise it." He was curious, John saw, but so cautious, so careful not to let anything slip past to John's mind.

John had reached the end of the room now, where the windows would fill the space with light, if they weren't blocked by server racks and cloth-covered partitions. He put a shoulder to one of the metal shelves and shoved it along the ground, experimentally, exposing a wall of glass. A beam of light angled into the room, setting dust motes alive and gleaming on all the sharp edges of the metal shelving.

For the first time this morning, looking down on the city below, John felt fear unfurl in his chest. He hadn't admitted to himself how settled he became when Harold was around, how even without touching John's thoughts, Harold helped John center, keep his senses under control. This morning had been good, and he'd woken with the expectation that there would be more good mornings to follow. That was foolish of him. He'd made a terrible mistake.

Harold, of course, caught all of this sudden doubt and anxiety. "What's happening, Mr Reese?"

John's breath came faster, short and shallow, harsh in his throat, as it had when he came out of surgery. There had been a taste, a medical taste, blood and anaesthetic mixing with every gasp, and it had been over powering. His legs gave out suddenly and he folded downwards, remembering things, remembering the helicopter ride, the leather chair, his eyelids held open, cool oxygen pouring into his lungs. There had been straps on his head, on his arms.

I don't want to remember this. John's mouth was tightly shut, so he knew he hadn't spoken, but the words bounced around inside him, hopeless and desperate. Stop thinking about this, he told himself desperately. I don't want to remember. He wasn't sure if he'd spoken aloud or not, but somebody answered him anyway.

Then you do not need to remember.

The words were a clear, dry voice in his head, the tone that Harold used on the rare occasion that he made a joke. To his relief, the voice immediately pulled him out of the zone. The panic had been so intense that John didn't care if Harold had overstepped their agreement; the memory was folding up, smaller and smaller, and with it went the olfactory signals, the tactile and visual. They weren't gone; he could see exactly where in his mind they sat, which was after his first surgery and before the quiet cell in the military hospital. It had stopped resonating, though, and he could consider it with calmness.

John had the impression that arms were wrapped around him, and he filled in the sensory details himself: his face pressed against Harold's waistcoat, Harold's hands on him, stroking his back through the thin t-shirt he worked out in, keeping him close. Harold's presence was like a blanket, heavy and warm and shielding. When he finally opened his eyes, it was a shock to see Harold still standing distant from him.

"Are you all right, Mr Reese?" Harold's hands hung by his side, which was odd, because John could still feel the impression of them on his shoulder blades.

He hauled himself upright because it was the right thing to do, because he had to be able to defend himself and Harold at any time, regardless of the way his brain was telling his body to behave.

"I'm fine," he said, though he patently wasn't. At Harold's expression of disbelief, John took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I will be fine. How were you doing that, without physical contact?"

Harold was obviously confused. "I haven't done anything, Mr Reese. You, however, seem to be suffering considerably."

"I felt you in my head," said John. "It's okay, I can't blame you; that was a really bad one. I don't know what it is about that window, but my brain is terrified of it."

"I assure you, Mr Reese, when I make a promise I adhere to it. I was nowhere near your mind." Harold's back was stiff, his manner formal and all signs of the easy, sardonic sense of humour had disappeared. John reached out for him mentally, since that was possible inside IFT. He touched ice. Harold had frozen him out, and all he could detect was cold anger.

"I'm sorry," said John, though there was nothing between them to apologise for. "I think I'm a little jumpy."

Harold gestured towards the elevators. "Shall we leave? This place seems to be unsettling on many levels. Perhaps we can revisit the questions we have when you're feeling a little better."

John ran his fingers through his hair, found it stiff with dried sweat. "Maybe when I've cleaned up a bit."

Harold nodded amiably, but John knew there would be carefully constructed distractions to keep him away from the topic. The numbers never stopped coming, after all.


Walking away from John and Harold was both easier and harder than Shaw expected. That quiet, calm room had been wonderful, and she wanted more than she cared to admit to go back there and rest in safety. The innate territoriality towards other Sentinels had become a kind of jealousy, and she could easily have taken John down right now just for having that level of control and protection every day when she and Cole had stumbled along in blinkers and hobbles. That was an irrational feeling, she knew, but the ease with which she crossed the busy street, avoiding taxis and bike couriers was astonishing. She walked three blocks against evening traffic, and didn't even have a headache.

Cole's bond was completely gone, she could tell that: she'd had enough bonds in her career to be able to tell one Guide's work from another, and while Harold's fastidious precision was very clear, Cole's more relaxed efficiency had faded to nothing. Shaw ignored the twist of grief in her gut at that realisation. She'd be making Control pay for Cole's murder soon enough.

The meeting with Wilson and his boss was at a gala event, and for that she'd need clothes, make-up, shoes. There were three ISA safe houses within walking distance that would have all of those things, but Shaw didn't like her chances of accessing those and walking out in one piece. She stopped at a ticket office, where a line of people jostled and needled each other. She sidled up to the most annoying person; a man in an oversized suit jacket, vaping and bad mouthing everyone in the line and indeed, in the entire city into his expensive, jewel-caked phone case.

"Hey," he said to Shaw, who stood innocently next to him. "No line jumping." Through his teeth, he blew a cloud of banana-scented smoke as he jabbed his finger in her direction.

Shaw took a couple of wobbly steps towards him, and slurred drunkenly, patting him on the chest and shoulder. "Can't you do me a favour, handsome?"

The man seemed torn between flattery and irritation, then settled for anger. He pushed Shaw away with a sneer and put his phone to his ear again. "I swear to god, Ramon, the drunk bitches in this town are getting really low-brow."

Shaw walked away with his wallet, a set of keys, and a strong urge to puke up fake banana, despite Harold's good work. Even the garbage in the next alley was preferable to that reek. She moved away from the street lights and opened the wallet, grabbing the cash and cards, then flinging the banana-scented pleather into a dumpster.

A waft of sea-salt rose drifted down from a fire escape, and Shaw turned, weapon drawn.

"That was pretty smooth, Shaw." It was the woman from the Suffolk Hotel, not-Veronica, or what did John call her? Root. She'd changed out of her not-Veronica costume, and now wore a long red woollen coat. It made a good target. Shaw slipped her finger against the trigger, ready to put a bullet into the woman the moment she tried anything.

"What do you want?" She didn't use Root's name; Root didn't seem like the kind of person you want to be giving intelligence to for free.

Root leaned on the railing with a coquettish smile. "I've been a good girl, and done my homework," she said. "Your friend Cole was right; Daniel Aquino was in New York on Cascade's dollar." She ducked under the railing and climbed down to street level.

Shaw tracked her all the way with the Glock; there was no way she was letting Root get the drop on her again. Still, Root obviously had ways of getting intel, and intel was important. "What was he doing with Cascade?"

"It's a medical procedure, isn't it? Whatever they do that makes you a Sentinel." Root's expression was less playful now and in her face, Shaw could see the wheels of a hungry intelligence turning. "Did they do it here in the city?"

"Why do you say that?" Shaw kept Root in front of her at all times. It hadn't actually; the procedure, which to be honest, had been only a little worse than a dental extraction, had taken place in a base hospital in Virginia.

"Daniel Aquino was paid to design and build a secure facility here in the city. For Cascade."

"A facility for what?" asked Shaw. "When? Where?"

Root walked a slow circle around Shaw, and Shaw turned with her, never letting Root step out of her shot.

"You seem different," Root said eventually. "This morning, I could practically hear the static coming off you."

Shaw shrugged one shoulder, so it didn't throw off her aim. "It was a long night," she said. "I got over it. You know, after you left me to die in that hotel room." She didn't like the way that Root was looking at her, as if Shaw were a treasure chest, with a lock to be picked, and gold to be stolen.

"Oh, I could see that Harold's tall, dark and simian friend was on the tail of those goons." Root plunged her fists in her pockets, then at Shaw's head gesture, pulled them out and waggled her empty fingers at her to show she was unarmed. "I told you I read your file. I knew you'd be all right. Now, are you coming to the Cascade facility, or do I get to go through all that data by myself?"

She had a point; Shaw wasn't ready to let anyone have control of intel that had gotten Cole killed.

"Turn around, put your hands on the wall," she said, and holstered her gun.

Root gave a girlish giggle that didn't fool Shaw for a moment, but she obeyed. "There was nothing in your file about this, either," she said. When Shaw started to pat her down, Root sighed happily and leaned into the touch. "Not that I'm complaining."

Shaw searched her all over, thoroughly, ignoring her squeals when Shaw's finger moved past the top of her thighs. She stowed the results – a wallet thick with cards in many names, three handguns, a Maglite, the Taser, four phones, a collection of wire and plastic that she couldn't identify, and the smallest card skimmer she'd ever seen – in her pockets, and pulled Root away from the wall.

"The hell you need three guns for? Can you even fire one accurately?"

Root fluttered her eyelashes. "Go ahead and try me, Shaw. You'll find out." Sea-salt and rose was in every breath Shaw took.

"Tell me where we're going, and for God's sake, dial that down if you want me to be any use." Shaw took her by the arm, and walked her briskly to the curb to hail a cab. She kept the handgun pressed to Root's ribs as they wove through theatregoers.

The cab reeked of old smoke and a really nasty blue cheese dressing that had dripped down one of the doors. Harold's control still held, though, and Shaw weathered the trip with relative ease. Root's questions, though, were rapid and unending.

"Cole was your Guide, wasn't he? I'm guessing they're not going to assign you another one, since they're sending teams of people to hunt you down." Root somehow had gotten hold of the taxi driver's phone and scrolled through lines of code while the questions bubbled out of her. "I've done my research, and there's two things I really don't understand: what Cascade has to do with Northern Lights, and how it is that I'm a Guide."

Shaw leaned her head against the seat, despite the layered stories of odour drifting up from the leather. "You're not a Guide," she said. "You're some kind of freak natural talent." She closed her eyes, trusting in her other senses to tell her if Root was doing anything obnoxious. Root sat perfectly still, though, and that was weird enough that Shaw opened her eyes again after a while to see what she was doing. She met Root's gaze; it was steady, analytical, and fixed on Shaw's face.

"Who sorted your head out, Shaw? It's all tidy in there."

Shaw sat up straight; she hadn't felt a thing, not a single thread of intrusion. She jabbed the gun into Root's side. "You stay the hell out of my head, or I'll push back so hard your retinas float off." She locked down her mind, which, unfortunately meant that her abilities were dimmed as well.

"Mm, you do say the sweetest things," said Root, and Shaw remembered that flush of arousal she'd caught the last time they'd been together.

"Look," she said, finally. "We both want to know what's going on at this facility, and I can't do my best work if I'm constantly watching my back. You need my best work, and I'm guessing from all that intel you scraped up in a few hours, I'm going to need your best work too. So…" She poked Root in the arm to punctuate. "Don't. Mess. With. Me."

Root rolled her eyes. "Messing with you is so much fun, though! But you do have a point, I suppose. All right. If you want to see my best work, give me back my stuff."

Shaw gave her everything but the guns. And the Taser – there was no way she was letting Root have that thing without close supervision.

Root had the taxi drop them at a corner in Midtown, and walked them to a perfectly normal apartment building with good security but nothing exceptional. A doorman waited to open doors for residents, and there was a security guard behind a desk where visitors were expected to sign in.

"Distract the guard," said Root, standing still and tapping on her phone as if she were just checking her messages.

Shaw shrugged a shoulder and walked past the doorman who held open the door. Inside, the guard raised his eyebrows at her and gestured for her to sign in. Shaw leaned on the desk with a sigh of frustration and launched into a long running sentence. "I'm so sorry – I don't know if this is the right building or not. I'm looking for Alex Taylor; if he lives here, you'll know him, because he's really tall, like, I'm talking six eight, maybe six nine and he's got red hair, I mean really red, he doesn't touch it up at all, the bastard, it's completely natural, but you know what I mean, it's kind of eye catching, and even though I'm pretty sure I've got the right address, you need to tell me if you don't know him because if this is his place you're going to recognise him…"

Shaw caught movement behind the man and forced herself not to look, but to keep words rolling out of her mouth as Root slipped a cable from the security cameras to one of her phones. The screens glitched briefly, then settled again, this time with an image of an empty lobby.

The security guard was right at the end of his tether when Root took Shaw's arm with a wide smile. She pressed her lips to Shaw's and held the embrace for a little longer than was necessary for a normal greeting. Shaw couldn't help herself; her hands came up behind Root, caught in her hair, and for a moment she was lost in the sensory overload: the texture of Root's hair, the way her body responded and Shaw's body answered that response, a wash of smell and taste and touch…

They pulled apart, and Root's eyes were wide, her chest rising a little faster. She recovered quickly, though.

"There you are, honey! We thought you'd never make it – Alex is going to be late, if he makes it all." Root turned to the bewildered security guard. "We're heading up to Gerard Santos' place, he's having some kind of do. As usual." She rolled her eyes dramatically, and apparently she'd done her research, because the guard did too.

"You head on up, ladies," he said. "And if you can keep Mr Santos from setting any fires this time, I'd be really grateful."

"Tell me about it," said Root, and led Shaw to the elevator.

Once the doors shut behind them, Shaw grabbed Root with both hands and slammed her against the wall. The air rushed out of Root's lungs with a sigh, and she wrapped her legs around Shaw's hips.

"This is exciting," Root said, as Shaw put her fingers around Root's slim neck. "How does asphyxiation work, reciprocally? Do you choke yourself while you're choking me?" Her voice tailed off as Shaw closed her fingers, enough to make breathing a little dicey.

Shaw was feeling dizzy, but she didn't know if it was the rose and sea salt pouring off Root in waves, or the backwash down the mental link between them. She wheezed in a good, long breath, and concentrated on calm, slow thoughts to bring her heart rate down. "I can hold mine for six minutes. You think you'll outlast me?" She stared unblinking at Root, and tightened her grip a little more.

Root's pulse, under Shaw's fingertips, started to race, fast and shallow like a rabbit. Shaw tensed the muscles she'd need to push Root further up the elevator wall, and let Root read the body language via their connection: Shaw's calculations of how high she'd have to push to get good compression on the trachea, the friction of that wool coat on the stainless steel wall, her clear awareness of how Root's blood oxygen was starting to fall.

"We don't have to fight!" Root said, desperately, her voice hoarse. "We don't… We want the same thing… You need me…Please, Shaw!"

Shaw loosened her grip. "Tell me one true thing," she said. "Why is this so important to you?" She let her senses unfurl, in the quiet of the elevator, aware of Root's heartbeat, her perspiration, the way her pupils were getting bigger and darker. There was vulnerability to letting her guard down, but Shaw would hear lies and truths as clearly as if they were rung on a bell.

Root's expression changed like storm clouds racing across the sky: apprehension, jealousy, fear, and finally resignation. She looked down at the ground. "I'm here for Northern Lights," she said. "They're keeping a prisoner at the centre of the project, and I want to set them free."

She was telling the truth. It might not be the complete truth, but from the waver in her voice and the clammy texture of her pale skin, truth wasn't a thing Root gave up easily.

"Who is the prisoner?" asked Shaw. "Someone you know?"

Root shivered under her grip. "I think so. I've been waiting all my life to meet them."

Hearing her speak, voice soft and awestruck, made Shaw remember her surgical rotation and the first time she touched a beating heart, with nothing but thin latex between her skin and the essential organ of life. She was breathing in time with Root now, their shoulders rising and falling together. There was nothing to say, so she nodded and let go of Root's throat.

The elevator came to a gentle stop, and with her senses extended, Shaw was suddenly aware of all the other people in the building. Root had been right; there was a party going on somewhere around the fourth floor, all loud shouting and pulsing bass. Shaw tried to reel her mind in, so that she didn't feel as though she was right down there, tasting liquor and cigarette smoke, trapped by the press of hot, over-stimulated bodies. She didn't panic easily, but she had unwrapped her defences so completely that it was hard to bring them back up around her again.

"Sameen," said Root, standing well clear of Shaw's body. "Come back to me now. We have work to do." Her voice was calm, and she gathered Shaw together with the deftness of someone who had been a Guide for years. Shaw slid easily along the line of her voice, until she felt her own body solid around her.

She stamped her feet and shook her head to make certain that she could trust what she was seeing and hearing, then stuck her chin out at Root. "So, what do we do now?"

Root smiled, and slid one of her blank credit cards through the security reader on the elevator panel. "Now we go and find out what Daniel Aquino built here for Project Cascade."

Chapter Six /Chapter Seven/ Chapter Eight
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