st_aurafina: Sameen Shaw walking in a desert with a hat on (POI: Shaw hat)
[personal profile] st_aurafina
Title: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Chapter Eight
Rating Teen
Notes: CW: In this chapter there's a fire - John suffers a minor burn, a teenager and a dog are briefly in peril, but are rescued.


John could do worse than working a number at a country club. He'd already had the pleasure of watching Harold in his Crane persona deftly avoid being roped into a croquet game by offering to keep score. Their number was sullenly playing tennis with her peers, and it had been easy for John to negotiate his way into the mixed doubles game on the next court.

"How is the game?" Harold's voice was underscored by the gentle click of croquet balls and polite applause. John served and hit an incandescent ace, sending the man on the opposing team into a frantic, racquet-smashing tantrum. John's partner, a woman with a brunette pixie cut, snorted under her breath and gave John a stealthy thumbs up.

"Set!" said the umpire. "Get that language under control, Mr Waggener!"

John slung a towel round his neck, threw his partner a bottle of water, and cracked one open for himself.

"Sydney's dad has quite the temper," he said. "Poor kid looks like she wants to fall through the tennis court."

"I've cloned her phone," said Harold. "She has, in the last half-hour, sent love via Facebook to her mother in the hospital, texted her best friend about a fight with her father, and snapchatted a pug she described as 'adorbs'."

"That sounds like a regular teenager to me," said John. He straightened the strings on his racquet, waiting for the next set to kick off. The umpire had his phone to his ear; they were in for a delay. That gave him time to watch Sydney: when she shook herself out of her sulk, she had a hell of a backhand.

"I think Sydney might have inherited her father's temper. Unfortunately, Ms Waggener has accumulated quite the criminal history for a fifteen year old and she has several sealed juvenile records." Harold said. John could hear him writing with a pencil on his scorecard. Further away, there was the clink of a fine porcelain cup against a saucer. "I'm working on them now, but I can also see that the Potomac School is her third placement in two years."

John watched Mr Waggener posture in front of the umpire, his face red and his thinning hair standing on end. "If she's got homicidal intent towards her father, I think all she'll have to do is wait. He's going to burst a blood vessel. Hang on, Finch…"

The umpire finished his phone call with a grimace and climbed down off his seat. He walked up to Mr Waggener, leaning in for a private conversation. John turned his back and closed his eyes, listening for their voices above the thwack of ball against racquet and the hubbub of chatter around the courts.

"Mr Waggener, the management have asked me to remind you of your precarious position here at the club. The day spa has a vacancy for a massage, I think that might be beneficial for everybody's stress levels."

Mr Waggener's face went from red to magenta. He glowered across to the next court at Sydney, and spun on his heel, stalking towards the main building.

"Well," said John's partner. "I suppose the match is ours." She gave him a considering glance. "You want to go get a drink? We can talk game tactics."

John grinned; she'd been a good partner. "Can we put that on hold for a bit? I have to go check on business first." He gave a wry shrug. "Not everyone gets the weekend off."

She smiled, rueful. "You know, workplace stress takes years off your life. But okay; I'll see you around."

As he walked away, pulling on a jacket, he said softly, "You hear that, Finch? Workplace stress can kill."

Harold's voice was dry. "I did warn you, Mr Reese. In our very first conversation, I believe."

John walked past the knot of teenagers on the other court, all clustered together and whispering. Sydney wasn't there. He scanned the bleachers – nothing – then sat, checking his phone as a disguise, while he listened for her voice, tried to pick up a scent. There were too many people on the courts, though, and without a Guide to bring him back afterwards, John didn't want to risk letting his senses go any further. Fortunately, he had other ways.

He tapped his earpiece. "I've lost Sydney," he said. "She disappeared when her father stormed off to the day spa."

"She received a text seven minutes ago," said Harold. "An invitation to a rendezvous, rendered in as few syllables as possible. Her phone puts her near the large tulip poplar on the west lawn, which I believe is a traditional teenage meet-up point here."

John cut through the day spa to make sure that Sydney's father was behaving himself. Inside, he heard Mr Waggener telling his masseur how to do a better job. He wouldn't be bothering anyone for an hour or so, John reasoned. The reception desk was unattended, so John, still in his tennis whites, took a moment to rifle through the computer. Harold Crane was listed as a lifetime member, though he had only joined the club two years ago. His attendance was minimal but regular: three fundraisers a year. Only one thing on Mr Crane's record stood out, and that was his attendance at something called The Blessing of the Green, which he attended in the first week of his membership, and not again since.

"Are you learning anything from the member's database, Mr Reese?" Harold must have handed off his scoring duties, because John could hear the soft tap-tap of his keyboard. His question was pointed. Despite the time they'd worked together, he still had a particular tone of voice for when he caught John snooping.

"Two things, Finch: Mr Waggener's membership is currently on probation thanks to several code violations by his teenage daughter, and a certain Mr Crane seems to have not enjoyed The Blessing of the Green in 2010."

Harold's reaction was overt enough that John heard his shudder down the phone line as a soft rustle of clothing against the wood of his folding chair. "That was one of the first numbers I worked," he said. "It was a less than pleasant experience. There is a certain amount of public nudity involved. These clubs do have their rituals, unfortunately."

It seemed reasonable that Harold would feel John's intense curiosity as clearly as John had heard his shudder. It wasn't just the idea of Harold and other rich white guys parading in the buff on the Ninth, but of him working numbers before John came along.

He knew there'd been other men in the library. He could smell them for one thing, and for another, some of them were none too tidy with their gear. He knew they had come after Harold's injury, because they'd cannily stowed their munitions on high shelves or upstairs, in places that Harold found awkward to access. John had taken note of the important things: calibre, the care or lack thereof they'd taken with their weaponry, and any identifying detail, then he'd cleaned and stored properly anything that was salvageable and destroyed the rest. One of them had definitely been Blackwater, from the badges sewn onto a backpack full of frag grenades. John did not like the idea of Harold working with anyone who had come up through Blackwater.

The carpet in the day spa was thick and plushy, gripping at the rubber soles of his tennis shoes in a way that was disturbing and familiar. He realised what it was about the carpet, as well as the thick quiet of the place, where attendants walked silently from room to room. It was like the still, dead atmosphere of the Cascade hospital, where he'd spent a year doped up to stop him going mad. He felt himself start to zone, and put his hand on his pocketknife, but it wasn’t necessary. There was something else drawing his attention, something urgent and dangerous, drifting high through the corridors, seeping out of the vents. He tipped his head up, took a breath, and realised it was smoke. He tapped his earpiece, and Harold picked up the call.

"Mr Reese?"

"Finch, there's a fire. Can you see anything?" John braced himself on the wall, and pulled himself up to a vent. If he listened, if he reached as far down as he could, there was a low crackle, followed by a deep roar. “It’s going to be big,” he said. “It’s pulling in air fast.”

“I can’t see anything on the cameras,” said Harold. “Wait – there’s smoke coming from the main utilities building. There’s a lot of dangerous chemicals in there; it will certainly spread quickly.”

“You’d better pull the…” John felt the wall of sound coming from the emergency sirens and got his hands to his ears before his auditory nerve fried, but the noise was still a gut punch. He tamped that down as best he could, keeping his hearing subdued while ushering people out of the day spa, helping the older clients down stairs and into the care of attendants.

On the west lawn, members and staff of the club congregated in a great milling mass of people, buzzing with gossip and anxiety about the evacuation. John scanned the crowd and spotted Harold moving awkwardly between people with his laptop tucked under his arm.

“You’re clear, good.” John was surprised at how much relief he felt at seeing Harold here; he almost reached out to grip him by the shoulders. “Have you seen Sydney and her father?”

Harold made a discreet gesture with his chin, towards Waggener, posturing again, threatening a waiter and waving his phone around.

"He claims he's going to sue," said Harold. "I'm not sure on what ground, exactly."

"And Sydney?" John turned a circle, scanning the crowd for her face, listening for her voice. “I don't see her, Finch.” He saw the wide tulip poplar at the far edge of the lawn and sprinted in that direction. Harold followed at a slower pace.

Sydney's phone was behind the broad trunk of the tree, but damaged, the screen smashed, and the sim gone. John crouched over it, breathing in gently, tasting the scent of the last person who had touched it. Harold waited at his side, ready to examine the phone for data.

"Her father was here," said John. When Waggener touched the phone, he still reeked of anger and tennis shoes, so he must have gone straight from here to the day spa.

Harold eased a cable into the phone, careful with the broken casing. The screen blinked into life, despite the cracked glass. Meanwhile, John turned back to the fire. A tall pillar of smoke was climbing into the sky, providing a constant irritation niggling at John's throat. He scanned the emergency gathering point; still no sign of Sydney.

"It seems Sydney was expelled from her last school for wilful destruction of property," said Harold, as he worked. "Two of the black marks against Mr Waggener were due to Sydney's behaviour: vandalism, smoking pot on the grounds. She and her father have had some heated text exchanges about the matter."

John watched the fire creeping over the roof of the main building. "You think she started this to get her dad. That's why we got her number?" It didn't sit well with him, though he couldn't say why. Maybe it was the way she'd channelled her anger into a ferocious backhand, instead of frothing at the mouth like her father.

"It's difficult to say, Mr Reese. Sydney has left a trail of damage behind her. Her father, though he demonstrably has anger issues, has never been charged with anything. Not even a noise violation."

"Not even a parking ticket?" said John. "That's too careful." It made his skin crawl, the extent to which Waggener had protected his own reputation, while letting his daughter's disintegrate. "She's still in there, Finch." It was an instinctive statement. He hadn't detected anything; it would be hard for him to let his senses out amid the hubbub of the evacuation, but something had still filtered through. He knew Sydney was in danger, and that she wanted desperately to live. He turned to Harold, his stomach twisting at what he needed to do next.

“I'm afraid the security cameras are down.” Harold had his laptop open, but at John's expression closed it again. "What is it?" he said, warily.

"I can search for her, but if I'm going to pick her up through the noise and smoke, I'm going to be stretched thin," John said, finally. "I might need help coming out again."

He didn't know what he expected from Harold: fear? Resignation? The level of intimacy that Sentinels and Guides operated under had to be anathema to someone as private as Harold. He didn't detect any fear from Harold, no feeling of him backing away, no revulsion. Harold simply set his jaw and stepped closer.

"What do you need from me?" he said.

“Just stop anyone from touching me,” John said. “I’ll scan for a heartbeat.” Harold nodded and held his laptop like a weapon, ready to bat anyone away who approached too closely. John closed his eyes and shut down input as best he could from everything but hearing. Though all his senses were enhanced, hearing was John's strongest. Kara's had been sight; there was nobody who could out-snipe Kara Stanton, but John at full extension could pick one voice out of ten thousand in a stadium. It had been a long time since he had unfurled it to this degree but the routine was as familiar as breathing. First came his own body awareness: the sound of his own muscles shifting microscopically, blood flowing under his skin, all the bones of his inner ear moving. Once acknowledged, those sounds fell into the background and he caught the immediate periphery: Harold's breathing, the valves of his heart like a friendly, familiar clock, the slow compression of the soft lawn beneath his leather soles. John told his mind to ignore those things, as well as the burr of conversation from the crowd and the clatter of fire-engines unravelling their gear. That left the crackle and snap of the fire consuming the club. He floated above that, and hunted instead for the lub-dup of a heartbeat.

He found five. In the kitchens, there were three clustered close together behind thick walls. In an office upstairs was a tiny pulse, too fast to be an adult, even a small one. The fifth, unnaturally calm, was stationary in the day spa. John took note of the sounds, then braced himself for the unpleasant slide back into his body and the inevitable rawness that came with having made himself so vulnerable.

He put up his hand, the Cascade sign asking for a Guide’s help to pull his senses back in. It was instinctive at this level of extension, a habit drilled into him early. There was a moment of hesitation, then Harold took his hand and John slammed back into awareness with a gasp. He opened his eyes to stare at Harold, shocked. He heard echoes from the contact, melodic and distant, like wind-chimes from a neighbour's house.

“I’m sorry,” said Harold, immediately releasing John’s hand. “I know we have an agreement, but you seemed to be asking for help."

"It's fine," John said, slightly dazed. Fine wasn't really the right word for the order in his head. Everything was clear and focused, and all the detritus of the day had settled: the tooth-rattling edginess from the echo of the tennis balls, the blue-tinged chemical taste of the pool, and, oddest of all, the crawling memory of the thick carpet in the Cascade hospital. Then, overlaid on this calm came the five heartbeats, all different, all differentiated, shown on a map of the club. John suffered no interference from the milling crowd or the flashing lights of the fire engines, no pain and rawness, no heaviness or oppression, and everything in his mind was settled, ready for the next challenge. Harold had done all of this in seconds. John spared himself a moment to wonder what his time in the CIA would have been like with this kind of support, then around them, people began to shout and point. The fire had reached the roof of the main building. Four of the heartbeats had been in there.

"Go," said Harold, and John was moving before he realised it, running towards the smoke filled building with a path plotted out for him, the fastest way to reach all five. His earpiece activated, though at a lower volume now that Harold had seen how on edge his hearing was. "I'll send fire fighters after you, but you'll be much faster on your own. And John?"

John stopped halfway towards the fire and glanced back at Harold, inquiring. Harold's voice was still soft, but he heard it in stereo, from the earpiece and from his mouth. "Please be careful," he said. His concern lingered in John's mind, an artefact of the contact they'd made. John's instinct was to push it down, but instead, he let it sit. He wondered why as he ran towards the kitchens, then he was inside the smoky corridors, and his thoughts were otherwise occupied.

The fire was highest in the maintenance shed attached to the indoor pool complex. The kitchens were close by, and smoke had filled them from the ceiling to the countertops, but John moved quick and low towards the cool-room, where he could hear the heartbeats of three people, all beginning to escalate in panic. He threw open the door, and found three kitchen workers, huddled together. They shrunk back, trying to hide behind cartons and shelves.

"I'm not Immigration," said John. "You need to go, now."

Harold had been true to his word; a crew of fire fighters met John outside the kitchen, and ushered them to safety. John slipped away from their group, scaled a drainpipe to the second floor, hissing at the heat, shaking his hands. He was much closer to the fire here, he could hear the crackle of it in the roof, and all around him the plaster ceiling was turning black and bubbling. John tracked the fast, faint heartbeat, which he suddenly realised could be an infant, left to sleep in one of the guest suites upstairs. He dodged falling plaster, following the pulse to a suite, and burst through to find a small dog, a Yorkshire terrier, frantically scratching at the window. It was terrified; its heart thumped so hard John could see its chest shake. He scooped it up by the belly – it was really only a handful of hair and eyes – and it buried itself gratefully between his blazer and his tennis polo. John measured the distance between here and the day spa, decided there was no time to drop the dog off, and ran.

The walls surrounding the maintenance shed were beginning to collapse; John could hear snapping timbers and breaking glass, as well as muted screams from the people watching. If Sydney had set this fire, the consequences were going to be a lot larger than getting expelled from school. He wondered if she had enjoyed lighting that flame, watching her father's place of safety start to burn.

Hurry. The words were cool in his mind, though they didn't come from the earpiece, or from John's extended hearing. He tapped the line. "Did you say something?"

"No." Harold sounded preoccupied, and down the line, John heard a police radio crackle and beneath that, the click-click of the flashing lights. "No, I know I saw somebody at the window, over there. You need to send a crew in." He stepped away from those sounds. "Mr Reese, I was directing rescue services in your direction. It's a little more convoluted when I can't say that my hyper-sensory friend is homing in on heartbeats inside the structure currently on fire." The edge of worry in Harold's voice was underscored by the desperate chant in John's head to get this done, get her safe, run.

He jumped down a carpeted staircase from landing to landing, until he was back down to ground level, where the smoke rolled across the ceiling. Then it was a flat sprint across a courtyard to the low brick buildings that made up the day spa. The smoke had permeated here but only just: a constant ashy taste on John's tongue. The fire crawled along the rooftops of the main building but had not leapt the courtyard to the day spa yet.

The heartbeat had been unnaturally steady when he'd first scouted it out, but now it was rising in sharp bursts of acceleration. He found his way through the warren, feet thumping hard into the muffling carpet, to the suite where the last person was trapped. Someone was in there, breathing rapidly through their nose, kicking hard at solid metal. He wondered, as he kicked the door in, why the person inside hadn't just left when the area was evacuated. When he saw Sydney Waggener handcuffed to a heavy massage table, he understood. Sydney was fighting hard, her foot braced against the central plinth in an attempt to snap the chain between the cuffs. Blood trickled down her forehead, her left eye was swollen shut, and from the way her vision tracked, John thought she must have been unconscious until a few minutes ago, when her heart started to accelerate. Duct tape over her mouth explained the lack of sound from the room, apart from her racing heart. She started when John appeared, struggled awkwardly around the table so that it was between the two of them.

"Sydney," John said, his hand outstretched. "I'm here to help you."

Above the duct tape, Sydney's eyes narrowed in suspicion. Then she saw the pointed snout of the little dog in John's blazer, and she stared, confused. John pulled his jacket aside a little to show the Yorkie's face.

"I'm on rescue duty," he said. "Someone left this guy behind."

Sydney's jaw clenched, and she made the decision that John was hoping for: that a murderer probably wouldn't take the time to rescue a dog, nor would the dog trust him. She drew back from the massage table, and John bobbed down to examine the cuffs. In struggling, Sydney had managed to dislocate one thumb, but the cuffs had been put on so tight that they cut into the flesh of her wrists, so she couldn't escape them. John took a chance they were law enforcement, and tried a couple of standard keys, then, when those failed, went for the picks. The whole time, Sydney stood still with amazing composure for her age. She trembled slightly, but when John glanced up to see how she was going, he read rage in her expression rather than fear. The cuffs sprang open, and she pulled free then tore off the duct tape with a wince.

"Who are you?" she demanded. "Who sent you?"

"Come on," said John. "We need to move quickly." Smoke was already threading into the room under the door. He touched it: the wood was still cool, so the fire hadn't spread into the corridor yet, but it wasn't far away.

Instead of following him, Sydney grabbed the wastepaper basket and upended it on the floor. She scrabbled for pieces of hot pink plastic, gathering them up in her uninjured hand.

John crouched down beside her. "We have to go, Sydney," he said, urgently.

"Not without this," she said. "Dad smashed it, but there might still be data on it." She showed him the fragments of a broken flash drive. The casing was broken, and the circuit board too, but she scrabbled for every piece.

John scanned the counters for a container to hold the pieces. "Is this really the only copy you have?" He didn't know what was on the drive, but it was obviously precious, and if working with Harold had taught him anything about technology, it was that you should back up your work.

"This isn't something I want hundreds of copies of, okay?" Sydney's anger and fear bubbled up, and she scrubbed defiantly at the tears that welled. John silently passed her a Ziploc bag, and she put all the pieces in, sealed it and stuffed it in a pocket.

John's earpiece woke. "Mr Reese, I hope you're no longer in there." Harold sounded worryingly calm. People around him were gasping and shouting, and then a great rumbling crash rippled through the walls. One of the main buildings had subsided.

"I'm almost out," said John. He held out a hand for Sydney, put his other on the bulge of the terrier tucked in his blazer, and opened the door. A wave of heat rolled up the corridor, and he could hear crackling, smell carpet burning and paint peeling off the walls. "Come on," he said to the girl, and put her in front of him, away from the fire. As they ran, he spoke softly to Finch. "I have Sydney with me. She's going to need a medic, but we need to keep it quiet. I don't want her father to see her."

Harold picked up on John's decision not to use Waggener's name where Sydney could hear it. "Very well, but please don't dawdle."

The smoke was thick and in every breath, but John had the layout of the place in his memory, thanks to that brief contact with Harold. When the lights finally gave out, he guided Sydney with touches to her shoulder, all the way to the other end of the day spa complex. Then he put his elbow through one of the windows, picked Sydney up bodily, and lowered her out onto the ground. He passed her the little dog, stepped out himself, and hurried her towards a copse of pine trees. Harold waited there for them, in a golf cart, of all things, with a paramedic by his side.

"Bribed," he mouthed at John, while the paramedic got to work on Sydney's injuries. The Yorkie pranced around at her feet yipping, until John gave it a look and it shut its mouth with an audible snap. Harold took a water bottle from the ice-chest in the golf cart, bent awkwardly, and let the little dog drink, tilting the bottle gently so that it wasn't overwhelmed.

"How are you?" he asked John, as if they had met at golf. Behind them, the day spa was collapsing inwards, crackling and popping like the biggest of bonfires.

John shrugged. His eyes stung and his throat was raw, and it was going to take a while for the smell of smoke to leave him. He reached down to pat the dog and winced; there was a row of blisters across his palm. Harold noticed, reached for John then hesitated and proffered the water bottle instead.

"The drainpipe, I believe," he said, standing upright with a hiss, while John poured the water over the burn.

John nodded. "It's not bad," he said. Words were hard to find now that he was away from the crisis, so he concentrated on keeping watch. He wanted to explain about Sydney and the flash drive, but it was hard to pull the sentences together. He took a breath, let his shoulders settle and put his good hand over Harold's. He felt Harold's thoughts swoop close to his, with only a paper-thin barrier between them.

Harold started at the contact, then turned John's hand over in his as if to read it like a circuit diagram. "I suppose this is a bad time to say that I've never actually done this before. Not deliberately, anyway."

That was surprising to John, and, he thought, not the complete truth. "You did it just before," he said. "With the map?" God, he was so tired, he had to be, to let Harold do this. Harold, who had said he would never lie to John, but had a habit of evading the truth when he felt challenged by it.

Now Harold was surprised. "I only meant to help you back from wherever you'd gone," he said. "The transmission of information was not intentional. I apologise."

John was too tired to argue over the details, not after everything he'd done today. Sydney Waggener needed help, and he didn't want his fatigue to endanger her further. "Here," he said, and opened his mind in the way Mark had taught him. All the interactions, from leaving Harold at the croquet game to helping Sydney out of the window, were there for him to sort. "I trust you not to overstep boundaries. We need to help her."

"All right," said Harold. John felt him lower his barriers, felt the rest of the world go quiet like it had in the hotel the day they met. He closed his eyes and braced himself for the oppressive sensation of a Guide's presence; presumably it would be much worse with someone of Harold's abilities than it was with Mark.

There was a drift of notes, that melodic sound he'd heard before. "I see," said Harold, and John realised he was already there, already working. He laughed, disbelieving, turning from left to right. There was no pain, no dulling of his senses, and no fear that he was about to lose part of himself to an intruder.

Harold's voice came from within as well as outside his head. "You're surprised. Have I done something wrong?" All the jumbled information, the events of the day that lay scrambled at his feet threatening to trip him, was coming to order. Left behind was a feeling of fulfilment and success, as well as a glowing awe and pride that was most definitely not his own.

"No," he managed to say. "No, it's good." So good.

When he opened his eyes, his hand was wrapped around Harold's. His throat was still raw from the smoke but his ears were no longer buzzing, and his fatigue had settled. Still holding John's hand, Harold glanced towards Sydney Waggener, who sat on the golf cart with the dog in her lap. "I'd better examine that flash drive," he said. "From what you showed me, there's a good chance I can recover the data. I suspect that what's on there is going to be fairly reprehensible." John took a breath, and when he let it out, he let Harold's hand go. He felt his body sing with the fading contact, like a great bell in a temple.

Some minutes (hours?) later, he heard video playing on Harold's laptop: Mr Waggener's voice raised in hysterical rage and a woman screaming, in chorus with Sydney's furious shouts and her sisters' shrill cries. He didn't need to hear the thump of wood against skull to put the pieces together. When Sydney's father had put Mrs Waggener in the hospital, Sydney had stepped up as the protector of the family and nearly paid for it with her life.

That evening, John dozed while Harold drove back to the city. Mr Waggener was in custody under charges of attempted murder and domestic violence, Sydney's footage would stop him ever having access to his family again, and the Yorkie had been rehomed with the Waggener daughters after Harold bought the little dog from the woman who had abandoned it. John watched, half-asleep as Harold negotiated country roads and highways with capable ease. The Bentley had a pleasant, low purr, and the sound rumbled comfortably in John's chest.

A thought occurred to him. "You said you'd never done this before, but you weren't telling the whole truth." He watched Harold through his eyelashes. Harold frowned as he drove, and John could tell he didn't want to talk about this.

"Were any of the others – were they like me?" The idea of Harold working with another Sentinel pulled John upright in his seat. His hair was prickling, the way it had when he first met Kara. His good mood, that sleepy, languid feeling that was left over from letting Harold into his head, it was all gone, evaporated in rage.

Harold's knuckles were white on the wheel, whether from anger or fear, John was afraid to find out. Kara would say 'Oh, John, you moron, you're lucky you're so pretty,' then laugh or maybe stab him. He'd deserve it for walking so stupidly into this trap again when he had been free.

The car had stopped moving, and John, lost in rage, hadn't even noticed. He realised, when Harold took both his hands, that he probably wasn't driving anymore.

"Yes, John, there were others, but they were not like you. How could they be like you?" That ringing awe and amazement poured over John like sunlight. "There is nobody like you."

The car was quiet – everything was quiet, except the thump of his own heart and Harold's, slowly synchronising. John felt his barriers fall around him, so easily and so gently. His mind was open and vulnerable, his senses alight and aware, and all the time he felt safe and valued and needed. He had been wrong to defend against this, he had been wrong to fear it, because nothing this honest and undefended could hurt him. Harold's mind was beautiful and gentle and vast, and it was there only for John. He was kissing Harold now, leaning across, and Harold was kissing him with care and wonder. John felt a bubbling of happiness between the two of them, a shared sensation of joy. I'm glad to be alive, one of them thought, and John couldn't tell where the thought started but he agreed.


There was no floor number on the elevator display, Shaw noticed, as the doors slid open. The corridor was dark, with only the palest bar of orange light a long distance away indicating a space with windows watching the sky fade into the never-dark of a big city. It smelled of dust and still air.

"Nobody's been here for a long time," Shaw said. "Cameras are still rolling though." It was easy, with the calm that Harold had given her, and now Root's presence to gather the flow of data, to pinpoint gentle electronic buzz at various points close to the ceiling of the corridor. The cameras had no LEDs to indicate their presence.

"You have them under control?" she asked Root, before she let them step out of the elevator.

"All happily looping footage," Root said at her shoulder. "Ready to go?"

Shaw drew her gun, and moved a few steps down the corridor, then stopped abruptly. She reached out behind her to prevent Root walking into her in the dim light, and heard or felt her formulate a question.

"The floor is weird," she said, before Root could ask. "Spongy, or something. I can barely hear my footsteps. Even yours are muffled."

Root crouched beside the wall, and pulled back the carpet. "There's a layer of thick foam under here. Why? For stealth?"

Shaw poked the foam, surprised. "For Sentinels," she said. "There was a room like this on base where you'd go when things were too much. We called it the nursery; you only really needed it in the first week of activation." She took in the length of the corridor. "I have no idea why you'd put it here."

"So that you guys can't hear anyone coming." Root stood and strode to the end of the corridor with surprising speed, enough that Shaw had to run to get in front of her again.

"I go first," she said, pushing Root behind her. "That's how it goes: I dodge bullets and get data, you stay back and keep everything together, got it?"

Root let her fingers trail over Shaw's knuckles. "Well, it's not my usual MO, but if you really want to be in charge, I can be flexible." She smirked. "Very flexible."

Shaw scowled and moved down the corridor with her gun ready. "Not everything is an innuendo, you know."

"But where's the fun in that?" Root stopped moving. "What's bothering you so much about the walls? You're all tense, like you expect someone to jump out from one."

Shaw was about to retort that this was a normal state of affairs for an agent planning on making it through the mission intact, when she realised there was something odd about the walls. She stopped too, and thought about it. The sense trace was metallic, a kind of acrid tang on her tongue, like touching it to a battery.

"There's more to it," said Root. "You're thinking of birthday cake, why?"

God, she could get deep inside Shaw's mind without Shaw feeling anything, and that was a little terrifying, but she was right. Shaw could see the two mnemonic images coming together: silver acrid metal, and the bright candy colours of birthday cake. It meant something, but there were so many substances she'd been trained to identify, and without someone to decode the memories she couldn't pull this name to the forefront.

In the very dim light, she could see Root watching her with that analytic expression, as if Shaw were a program to crack. "It's like playing Mahjong," she said, eventually. "I can match the tiles, but I don't know what the images mean."

"It's a mnemonic dictionary," said Shaw. "We're supposed to be able to identify scents and patterns and sounds, like, nitrates and radio emissions and light frequencies and blood, but a human brain can't hold all that specific information. I've got abbreviations, and then you're supposed help me put it together." It was just that Root didn't know her yet, hadn't learned the symbolic memory triggers.

"We'll figure it out, Shaw." Root ran her fingers over the wall. "But for now, it feels normal to me."

Shaw switched on the Maglite and ran it over the painted wall. The texture was carefully obscured but she could see the light scattering in different directions across the wall. "It's inlayed under the paint in a grid."

"Like a circuit?" asked Root. "I don't know why you'd need to lay physical circuitry into a wall."

Shaw's skin was crawling; she hated this place already. "At least we know Aquino did more than just pad the floor," she said. She pushed on towards the door. She needed to know more about this freaky place tucked away in the middle of the city.

Root took care of the second retinal scanner with her adapted card skimmer and a photo display on her phone, while Shaw put her ear to the metal of the door and tapped her fingers on it.

"This is airtight," she said. "Can't hear anything – there's a hollow core of vacuum between the layers, and sound won't travel past that." Her skin was prickling; between their nearly-silent footsteps, the weird metal inlay, and the whole thing hidden between two floors of an apartment building, she understood a little better why Cole had to poke around in this. It felt bad. It felt rotten to the core, an evil that had to be purged.

The retinal scanner gave a cheerful beep, and Root started typing a sequence into the keypad. Shaw caught her fingers and held them still. "Are you sure you want to open it? We could just blow the whole thing to pieces and walk away."

She expected Root to crack some joke, or flirt, any of those things that she used to deflect serious discussion, but instead, she just shook her head. "Run away if you want, Shaw, but I'm getting some answers."

Shaw rolled her eyes, but the insult stung, however predictable Root's tactic was. She let go and stepped back, weapon up ready to meet whatever was on the other side of that door.

Disappointingly for Shaw, who was all primed with adrenaline, it slid to the side with a hiss and revealed a change room: low benches, clothes hooks hung with white garments, the kind of sealable closets you see on submarines, and a second door with a frosted glass porthole. She stepped cautiously through, felt rubber matting under her feet, spongy and silent like the carpet in the corridor. "Smells like Christmas," she said. "Christmas in the hospital. I don't know what that is."

Root pointed up, and when Shaw checked the ceiling, she saw aerosol fittings, designed to spray the area with liquid.

Shaw stepped up on a bench, hissing as the movement tugged at the bullet hole in her gut, but she still couldn't reach the ceiling. "Come here," she said to Root, with one foot out. Root's expression was dubious, but she moved forward and Shaw stepped up onto her shoulders. Root gave an oomph of surprise, but held onto each boot to stabilise Shaw as she found her balance.

"Yeah, you're good and tall," Shaw said. She pried one of the ceiling panels off, threw it down with a clatter and followed the aerosol line to a labelled tank. Under the panel, the Christmas smell was even stronger, enough that Root picked up on it.

"It smells like breath mints," she said, struggling under Shaw's weight. "How are you so small and yet so heavy?"

"Shut up and hold steady," said Shaw. She heaved herself up, halfway into the open ceiling, feet dangling in air above Root. The text on the tank was clearer now.

"Fucking peppermint oil," she said. She pointed out the misters designed to disperse the oil. "That would definitely put me out of action long enough for someone put me down." Angry, she put a hand over her injury, and jumped down from Root's shoulders and went to the door with the panel of frosted glass. "The hell have they been doing in there?"

Root cracked open the panel of a second retinal scanner and got to work. "Let's find out," she said. Shaw was right behind her this time when she held up her phone: it was a magnified image of an Asian man's right eye. She wondered if it was Daniel Aquino's eye, and how Root had gotten hold of a high res image that could fool a retinal scanner. Then the door slid open, and a wave of stale air washed over her.

"There's been blood in here," Shaw said immediately, and moved in to check for danger. The area was walled with glass that gave a wide view of the city. "Lots of blood. Three years old, easy." She puffed out a breath. "Smells like ER on a Friday night." She nodded for Root to come in. The door slid closed behind them, and Shaw wheeled on it with her gun up, but Root touched her shoulder, unworried.

"It's on automatic," she said. "They have them in clean rooms where they manufacture computer components. They don't stay open for very long, so there's less chance of contamination." She pointed to a number pad beside the door. "Those are easy to crack. Won't take me a second when we go."

Shaw saw oil residue around four of the numbers on the pad, and relaxed. She'd be able to figure a four-digit code by herself, and that was comforting. She holstered her gun and went back to the centre of the area, where there were three long examination chairs.

They were padded, leather-covered and fitted with restraints. Shaw put her face close to a headrest: sweat, some panic, some boredom. She didn't know the man who had last been cuffed to this chair, but he'd been there long enough for his scent to have sunk into the leather and stayed there for some years. Twenty-four hours, Shaw estimated, a day and a night of constant contact with that surface. The same for the second chair: this one had been a woman, again, nobody that Shaw knew. The third chair she did know: John Reese. He'd been one of the last people here before this facility had been shuttered. She wondered whether he'd told Harold about it.

That made her want to check the supervisor's booth, a walled off area with a glass observation window. Root was already there, scooting on a desk chair from terminal to terminal with a frustrated expression and a fistful of thumb drives.

"They've done a clean wipe," said Root. "Competently. I'm only getting fragments of data."

Shaw shut the door behind her to stop the air mixing, and closed her eyes, reaching for the remaining scent trails that had been left behind when they closed this place down.

"Hersh," she said. "That's not a surprise. He's a good clean-up man."

"They've certainly sent him to clean up after you," said Root, her fingers flying over a keyboard.

Shaw laughed. "Well, if they've brought Hersh in, Wilson's fucked," she said. "Hersh doesn't tolerate idiots well." She ran her fingers down a wall, pausing where there was a tiny divot.

"Bullet hole?" said Root. She had one of the CPUs open on the desk now, manually pulling out parts and stowing them in her many pockets.

"Tranq dart," said Shaw. "Why are they tranquilising Sentinels? And where are the Guides? All I'm getting here are scientists, military and the Sentinels."

Root shrugged. "It doesn't sound like it was a great program, from what I've read. Let's face it, there aren't many military medical programs that are good."

That irked Shaw, because Cascade was good, at least by the time she'd come to it. She knew that was because they'd built it on top of earlier generations, and that those early Sentinels had had it rough. Maybe this was part of what made the project better? She left Root to her dissection of the computers, and went into the main area to figure what kind of procedures they were carrying out here.

She switched on a patient monitor, but it was fairly standard: BP, pulse, oxygen saturation. There were extra leads hanging from the monitor, though: this thing had been connected to an EEG. That made sense; she'd had a fair few EEGs when her abilities had been activated. There was nothing suspicious about that.

Root tapped on the glass, and Shaw looked up. "Are they wi-fi enabled?" she said. The glass was thick enough that her voice shouldn't have been audible, but Shaw had no problems. She checked the display and nodded.

"Yeah," she said. "They all are, these days, so you can download data to tablets or whatever."

Root gave her a wide and mad smile, and left the booth. "I'll bet they didn't clear the cache on those things," she said.

Shaw sat herself down on the examination chair, despite the crawling of her skin, and tried to imagine what kind of data they were collecting. The chair was unusually solid, even when she wriggled around to get comfortable. She flipped over onto her belly with a wince, and hung her head down to see if it had a hydraulic lift, then stopped, surprised. The damn thing was fixed in place; there was no way to adjust height or angle or position at all.

"What's so vital about this setup that you have to bolt the chairs into position?" Shaw waved her arms to indicate the chairs, the observation booth and the window.

Root stopped with her fingers on a thumb drive and stared at Shaw, then at the cityscape. Shaw heard her heart accelerate as she stepped forward and put her palms on the glass.

"What?" said Shaw. She couldn't see anything significant, but there must be something because exhilaration poured from Root's skin, that rose and sea salt arousal, amped up by adrenaline and exultation.

"Do you know what that is over there?" Root pointed out a particular building, tall and crystal-faceted, lit with soft yellow light and feathered with an array of satellite dishes and antennae. It was dead centre in the middle of the vista. If Shaw had the right rifle, if the wind was with her, she could have planted a bullet through one of those glossy black-tinted windows.

She tried to orient herself with the city, gazing from the Hudson to the East River. The building wasn't one of the famous landmarks, nor one of the high security ones she knew as potential targets for terrorism. She couldn’t imagine why it would have been a target for any agency, let alone Cascade.

Root's voice sang with triumph, though her answer didn't make any sense to Shaw. "That's IFT Plaza," she said. "That's where they built it."

“Built what?” Shaw said. Root had that expression, the one that meant there would be no straight answers without elaborate games, and Shaw didn’t have time to play riddles with her. She had a meeting to make and revenge to mete out. She reached over to her, made a grab for her collar and reeled her in close.

“Tell me what’s going on,” she said, her face so close to Root’s that their foreheads brushed. That same frisson she’d felt in the lobby bubbled up inside: a heightened awareness of Root’s elation, a sweet/salt longing. She felt goose pimples shiver along her arms.

Root’s breath came fast and shallow; Shaw watched her lips move, aware of every tiny crease and fold of Root’s mouth. She blinked and reason shifted, so that the obvious thing to do was to press their mouths together. She knew this was stupid – was dangerous, was a thing of madness mid-mission – but the kiss existed in some other place, somewhere Shaw had never been, where emotion broke in waves against her body. She only stopped when one of Root’s phones chimed softly in her pocket.

Root was gratifyingly rattled by the intensity of that kiss: her hands trembled as she scrolled through a number of incomprehensible menus on the screen. “We have to go,” she said. “They’re here, in the lobby.” She showed Shaw a screen grab from the cameras, Wilson had the security guard bent over the desk with an arm twisted up behind him. Other goons, heavily armed, rushed past him towards the elevator bank.

Shaw grabbed Root’s wrist and dragged her towards the exit. The four numbers most commonly used on the keypad gleamed with oil. There were 24 possible combinations, and she started with the first one.

“Wait!” said Root, alarmed.

It was too late, though. Shaw knew the moment she touched the keypad that she’d been tricked; the oil was too viscous to have come from fingertips. She’d been set up, and in a way that only a Sentinel would fall for.

“Shit,” she said, and drew her weapon. The door slid open, and the aerosol misters activated. Before the wave of volatile oil could reach her, she shot the misters out. The oil still fell, but instead of a fine mist that would coat everything, it rained straight down from the outlets. Then the peppermint was in her throat, and she gagged.

“Come on,” said Root. “If you’re fast, you can get through and out to the other side. We don’t have to worry about subtlety now. Can you get the lock?”

Shaw’s eyes were starting to water, but she brought up her weapon and sought a target. Suddenly her vision cleared, and she had the layout of the change room down in her mind, accurate to millimetres, as if it had been digitally mapped. This was coming from Root, she realised, as she took the lock off with two shots. They were through and into the silent, padded corridor, running towards the elevator bank, feet sinking into the soft flooring.

“The elevator…” Shaw started to say, when the walls came alight. The mnemonic came together, hilariously late: birthday cake and acrid metal meant sparklers, sparklers meant magnesium. Aquino had inlayed magnesium into the walls in a close-patterned grid that now burned green/red/white through Shaw’s eyelids. It was bright even for Root – there was time for Shaw to see Root throw her arm up against her face – but to Shaw, it was alive on her nerves: fire, colour, sound, just like the explosion in Berlin except back then she had courted the sensory oblivion, and now it was going to get her killed.

Then there were warm hands on hers, leading her somewhere. Shaw followed, somehow able to discern sea salt and rose through the sensory turmoil. She had the sensation of moving upwards in an elevator, all the while leaning against the rough wool of Root’s coat, breathing rose and calm and safety.

She woke with a start, in the musty embrace of an aged armchair upholstered in faded green velvet. The room was quiet, save for the purring of a moth-eaten black cat on the sofa opposite, and the gentle snores of the elderly woman on whose lap the cat sat. Root was nowhere to be seen, and there was only the faintest trace of rose in the air.

She moved quietly, checking doors, to find this was an apartment in the building across the street – how Root had gotten them there in one piece was now a mystery for another day. The woman whose place it seemed to be was elderly, and everywhere was cluttered with books piled upon books, tea-cups and teapots. In the hall, Shaw could smell pot roast, so she looked for a kitchen. There, she found a note, scrawled on the back of a yellow-edged recipe card for cornbread.

Hey you, it said, in spiky capitals.

That was fun! We should do it again some time. I have places to be now, though, and sadly, they're places you probably shouldn't go right now.

Mrs Cardona's granddaughter is around your size, by the way. She keeps a few things in the closet in the spare bedroom; I thought they'd be handy for your big night.

(I gave Mrs Cardona fifteen miligrams of diazepam in her tea; she was a bit irrationally upset about us bothering her. She should be fine, but I guess you'll know better than me.)

Kisses! R.

Shaw screwed the card up, then thought the better of it, and tucked it away in her jacket. She went to take Mrs Cardona's pulse. When she was sure that the poor woman was only asleep and not in a sedative coma, she turned off the oven, and went to the spare room. She had a gala to dress for.

Chapter Seven /Chapter Eight/ Chapter Nine
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September 2017


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