st_aurafina: Shaw in Relevance, with golden lights (POI: Shaw fancy)
[personal profile] st_aurafina
Title: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Chapter Nine
Rating Teen
Notes: References to S1 Ep10: Number Crunch


2011

John should have realised something was up when the camera on the roof of the parking structure died. He was stupidly relaxed: two of the four numbers had survived, their mother's house would be saved, and he was on his way back to Finch, so when he heard the servo in the camera housing shut down, he gave it a single glance and moved on. Maintenance issues.

Mark's heartbeat, though, that was recognisable even through the roar of the SUV's engine. He'd brought Carter along, which was smart. He'd likely need a hostage, if he couldn't rope John back under his control.

John turned to face them both. There was no cover here, none, he was totally exposed. It wasn't going to end well. He took a breath and assessed his options: get Carter out alive, and don't lead them to Harold. That would be the best he could hope for now. He let the breath go, at peace with the idea that he'd probably be dead soon. He'd had longer than he expected, and some truly happy moments. And now he had a job to do.

He watched the car pull up, not really sure what would happen now. Would Mark be able to reassert power over him? Push his balance out of kilter and drop John on the asphalt? Or would the bond he'd made with Harold keep his mind safe? He hoped Carter realised the danger she was in, because if she witnessed anything Cascade, she was dead.

The first mental lasso came before Mark had opened his mouth. It was a tentative attempt to sound out John's Sentinel status, and it slid off easily, giving nothing away. Mark wasn't pleased with the result, John could tell. He waited, let Mark scope out the fact that John was clearly functional and that his senses were under control, without medication, without booze. Beside Mark, Carter glanced from one to the other, and John could see her instincts prickling. Good, he thought, get the hell out of here.

"Hello John," said Mark, affable, open. Another mental lasso came, this time a direct attempt to overload his inner ear, trigger vertigo and send John flat to the ground. John felt it land and slide away. He was sure Mark felt it too, because he narrowed his gaze.

"Mark," said John. They were keeping things normal on the surface, then, which was good for Carter, because it meant that Mark believed she still could be useful.

Mark put a hand in his pocket, and John tensed to act, but his pocket was empty. He heard Mark's fingers brush the silk lining before he spoke. "I'm glad to see you're still alive," said Mark, and that wasn't a lie at all. John was a precious resource, and getting him back under control would be Mark's main priority.

"I'll bet you are." John waited for the inevitable attack. Carter was up on the tips of her toes, ready to run. She obviously knew there was another conversation between the two men, inaudible to her. If she survived, she'd have questions, and now it would be Finch who had to deal with them.

A lot of things weren't right here, though: Mark's mental volleys were coming constantly, attacks on John's sight, on hearing, on muscle control. None of them took, but Mark kept trying instead of switching to weapons designed to incapacitate a Sentinel: flares, infrasound, butyric acid. Why would he rely solely on mental attacks?

"I'm surprised to see you in New York City." Mark could still talk up a storm while he hacked away at John's control. "I thought you'd get yourself a cabin in the woods. Somewhere quiet. Montana, maybe."

"What do you want, Mark?"

John realised why the attacks had to be targeted: the sound of Mark's fingers in his pocket, that brush of skin on silk, it was a signal for a Sentinel, and not for John. Mark couldn't use a flare, or anything with an area effect, because it would put his Sentinel out of action.

His Sentinel. John fought a flare of irrational jealousy, straight from the hindbrain, the urge to tear his own replacement to pieces. He had to think straight, he had to be better than animal instinct. What wouldn't Mark expect? Vulnerability.

Despite the risk, John threw out feelers: sound, scent, and the snarling awareness that one Sentinel feels for another. When he located the other, (far left, up on a wall, poised behind a high-powered rifle) he stood up straight, and visualised holding that kid down on the ground, standing over him, making him bare his throat. Pheromones would take care of the rest. He was rewarded a moment later with a low snarl, sub-vocal but perfectly audible to him, drifting down from the sniper's nest on the next roof. Mark heard it too, over his comms, and he gave John a vile glare.

"It's time to come in," said Mark. "The slate's been wiped clean."

"You know that'll never happen." John coiled his senses in, and reached deep into himself. He knew how to hurt Mark; he'd always known. He took the next assault Mark hurled and lobbed right back at him, with a nasty twist of his own. It had been a while but the pathways were still there, and John felt the attack land with a visceral thud.

Mark gasped and staggered back, and on the roof, the rifle cocked. John's rage flared, and he irrationally turned for the Sentinel on the roof, so the shot meant for his chest caught him above the hip, and the one following it hit his thigh. In front of him, Mark folded with a grunt, feeling the same pain through the brief link from John's attack. Mark wouldn't bleed, not like the warm pulse where John pressed his palm against his guts, but he hoped it hurt at Mark least half as much as it hurt him.

Running was instinctive; John didn't even really need to think, his legs had him standing as best he could, and moving out of range of the sniper's scope. He heard Carter's boots pelting for cover. Good. Then he was in the stairwell, and his brain started to catch up with his body.

The bleeding was bad. The bullet had probably nicked something big in his abdomen. The one in his leg was mechanically annoying and would slow him down, but the one in his gut would kill him. He tapped his earpiece and Harold's voice was right there with him. He sighed into the relief this gave him, let it soothe a little of the pain, but only the pain. Better to leave the adrenaline flooding until John was done running.

"I've been trying to call, you've been compromised… Are you hurt?" Harold's voice became high-pitched towards the end of his sentence; John could hear rising panic in his voice in Sentinel-enhanced multi-coloured nauseating detail.

John hobbled down step after step. "Am I broadcasting? That's bad. Things are a mess, here, Harold, I'm sorry." The wheels of the SUV were screaming down ramp after ramp. He wondered if Mark had stopped to pick up his Sentinel sniper, or if the kid had to find his own way back to base.

"Carter sold you out. Your former employees got to her." Harold was driving. Too fast, John worried, he could hear the suspension springs complaining, the high-pitched note of the car. They'd made out in that car, more than once. That made him smile. It had been so good, with Harold, with a real Guide.

"Tell her it's not her fault, will you? She'll want to blame herself, but they're clever. They know how to manipulate someone." He was getting very cold.

"You can tell her, John. I'm not far away. I want you to get to the ground floor."

The idea of Harold under Mark's care energised him. "No, Harold, you stay away. They can't know about you. They can't." His voice was doing odd things, dropping out, trembling, like the shaking he felt inside. The stairs were endless, and he kept turning corners, kept moving his feet though they were heavy as lead. He stopped midway between floors to check: the SUV was still howling down towards ground level. Carter was a floor above him: her boots were easy to identify, as was the ground-covering way she ran.

The other Sentinel was near, John could smell his sweat mixing with gunpowder residue on his fingertips. He was one floor down, still and quiet, listening just as John was. John was suddenly very aware of his blood falling onto the concrete stairs from between his fingers, how each splash echoed around the stairwell. He started to zone, back to previous shootings, blood soaking through his fatigues into the sand, blood pooling in an expensive Italian loafer while Kara laughed. He tried to shake out of it, because the door below him was opening, slowly and quietly, though he could hear the high-pitched whine of the hinge. Needs oil, he told himself, sliding to the floor. His legs folded so neatly. His gun was incredibly heavy as he lifted it. He bared his teeth at the Sentinel out of instinct, but now, as death approached him, he only felt sad for him.

"Don't let him fuck you," he said, still trying to get his gun high enough to sight. "He's got a thing for the new kids."

The man hesitated, confusion and guilt showing on his face, then looked upwards, raising his gun. John heard boots approaching the door above him. Carter.

"Stay back!" He closed his eyes and telegraphed as hard as he could their relative positions, so hard that Finch, still driving, give a soft hiss of discomfort. The door opened a crack, then there was an object, dark and spinning, flying towards the two of them. Carter's voice was loud through the closed door, perfectly clear to two Sentinels. "Grenade!"

Someone tentatively pulled at John's mind, like a tug on a guide rope through fog. John reached for the contact, confused but unafraid. This wasn't Mark's heavy hand, nor was it Harold. Harold would never be as literal as to send him an image of a cell phone tumbling end over end.

Below him, the Sentinel acted on reflex, throwing an arm up to protect his face and turning away from the moving object. Knowing it wasn't a grenade, John ignored it, and raised his gun those last few millimetres to put a shot into the Sentinel's gun arm.

The Sentinel sagged against the wall, fired in John's direction but missed. John began the interminable journey to raise his arm again for another shot, but the man clawed the door open and disappeared back into the main part of the building.

As soon as the door had closed behind him, Carter clattered down the stairs, her boots crunching over the broken glass of her phone. She picked up the sim card, and kicked the remains of the casing over the edge of the stairs. They scattered at the bottom of the stairwell, lost amidst leaves and garbage.

"If they catch you helping me, they'll kill you," he said. "You need to get out of here." She stood above him, unthreading her silk scarf from around her neck.

"Planning on it." She pressed the scarf to the bullet wound in his abdomen, mercilessly hard. "I knew where you were, clear as on a map. I knew you understood what I was doing with my phone," she said, and heaved him to his feet, putting his arm over her shoulder. "We're going to talk about that later, somewhere people aren't shooting at you."

"No such place." John hobbled along beside her. His vision greyed out; the air was too thin and too cold. He thought he heard rotors nearby, a chopper pulling away from a drop site, felt his pack heavy on his back dragging him down. "Fucking air support dropped us too high. Now we gotta hike down," he said. "Probably get eaten by a bear."

Carter's footsteps were level and brisk. "After what I've seen tonight, bears wouldn't surprise me, but it's not happening on my watch, mister. Now, get moving. Last man home's got KP for a week."

They burst through a door and John stared in confusion, wondering where his unit had gone, where the mountains were. Then Finch was there, his hands on John's body, his mind enveloping John, and John gave a gasp of relief.

"We'll talk," said Carter. "Tell John I'm sorry."

"I'm right here," said John, though nobody seemed to be listening to him. Maybe he had imagined the words. He wasn't sure at this point, so he rested his head on Harold's shoulder, breathed in the smell of him, the warmth of him.

"Thank you," said Harold. "Please be careful."

Then John was in the car, and it was quiet. Harold's mind was all around him, the smell of old books and clean shirts was in every breath, and he didn't care if he died now, because Harold was safe and the car was moving.

"We're going to find help," Harold told him as the car flew over speed bumps and past the boom gate.

John lay in the back seat, wrapped in Harold's presence, and let the darkness take him. It was all right. Harold was here.


2013

Shaw worried that Harold's good work had been undone by whatever amateur hour rummaging Root had done while she was out of it, but the moment she stepped out of the apartment building she realised she was fine. More than fine: Harold's fine-tuning had left Shaw's senses calm and calibrated, sharp and focused. The trip across town was effortless, and when she entered the fundraiser, she immediately identified her target. It was as if he were the only one in colour, or she and he were two magnets pulling her across the room to him.

She walked with purpose and the crowd parted around her, which was right, because she was a knife flying through the air, towards a well-dressed and portly man with an intelligent face and soft pink hands. The only time she paused was when she crossed a line of scent that was Wilson's weird cinnamon gum. Good. I'm coming for you, Wilson. Hope you're enjoying the hors d'oeuvres, because that's the last thing going in your gut that isn't a hollow point.

The man smiled and raised his martini glass to her. "Straight to my table, I see. I'd ask how that was possible, but I know Cascade. I guess now Cascade knows me, too."

God, thanks to Harold's help, she could read him like a fucking roadmap: she caught Wilson's scent (gunpowder and cinnamon), a score of confident white paper pushers in nice suits, his driver was using cocaine, he had brushed a waitress's arm. A tall woman, someone who scared him, with basic but expensive cosmetics and old-fashioned hairspray had put her hand right on his shoulder, pressed hard enough that he could still feel the marks. And the person who had helped him into his coat had cool, long fingers and smelled of rose petals and the sea. Oh, he was in trouble, and in more ways than one.

"You're not Control," she said. He was a facilitator – a good one, maybe, but never destined to be the top of the food chain.

He smiled, one of those gentle smiles they give you as the firing squad is lining up. "Sadly not, but I'm as close as you'll get tonight. Now what? Do I get the usual treatment?"

There was movement behind her, but she didn't even need to turn her head. Cinnamon and gunpowder to the left, low-level thug to the right. "No, I think we should all go somewhere and have a chat. I've got some questions; I'm sure you do too."

They had cleared a private atrium for this, overlooking a balcony to the party below. Wilson's choice, she was willing to bet, designed to set her on edge, presuming that without a Guide to help her filter, her concentration would be constantly divided. Shaw glanced once over the balcony, and then, with deliberate calm, turned her back on it. Wilson's fucking smug expression faltered a little, and she smiled.

"Here's the thing that's bugging me," she said. "Apart from the obvious, of course. Why the hell do you hold us all back? You have to know that we'd be better operators without the suppressants and those weak bonds."

The man gave a gentle shrug. "It's fairly obvious: never make a weapon that you can't control," he said. "If we let you express your abilities to the maximum, sooner or later you start asking questions. That is outside the remit of a weapon. Or a soldier, for that matter."

She shook her head. "Yeah, well, unlike you, I am a soldier. I'll admit freely that I didn't give a fuck what you asked me to do or why, not until you did something so stupid not even I can ignore it. Cole was loyal, not because he was a soldier but because he believed in the project. He was proud of making the world safer, he could have done anything you asked. But you never asked, you didn't negotiate. You just sent in the hit squad, and you need to be better than that."

The man conceded with a nod. "In all fairness, you weren't supposed to be here to argue the point."

"Cole broke the rules," said Wilson. "You're on the hook for that as much as him."

Shaw considered him, up and down, with an expression of disgust. "How's that going for you, Wilson? How many more teams do you think they'll let you get killed?" she said.

"So, you're here for revenge, then?" the man asked, mildly. "I could understand that."

"No, I came here to help finish Cole's job," she said, and reached for her purse. She paused as the goons drew their weapons, and showed her hands were empty. "Someone upstairs is experimenting on Sentinels, and you need to know. Cole loved the project. He'd want you to have his data on the Aquino case." She took out the thumb drive, a tiny silver spanner, ridiculous amidst all this splendour.

"Why all this set-up?" the man said. "Why not give that to Wilson?"

Shaw's lip curled. "After watching him screw up over and over on this thing, I doubt Wilson could find his way out of a paper bag."

"Fair enough," he said, and took the thumb drive. "Hersh was right. You are a good soldier. This wasn't about getting revenge after all."

Shaw moved with Sentinel speed, faster than any of them could track. Her gun slapped into her palm with a satisfying sound. "A good soldier does both," she said, and Wilson went down with two red holes in his forehead.

She didn't expect to feel better, and she didn't, but things fell into place and were finished. Shaw strode out of the building with all the loose ends tied and no obligations to anyone. She didn't know what came next. She hadn't expected there to be a next, honestly.

She waited to cross, standing amongst a whole bunch of people who had no idea what kind people were driving the world they lived in. Okay, maybe it was cliché but the city really did feel alive right now: breathing a million breaths at once, all those heartbeats clustered around her, and the gentle hum of voices, all of it cresting and falling without overwhelming her. It would fade, this control that Harold had given her, but while it lasted it was wonderful. The lady to her right had been holding a newborn. The guy beside her had his fingertips on the crisp cellophane of a new box of condoms. People weren't so bad.

The only warning she had was the slick noise of a syringe uncapping. Hersh knew her well, and had her pinned while the needle jammed into her side. She tasted resin and smoke and saw visions of inked paper burning before she even picked up Hersh's scent: plain soap, shoe polish, hire car.

"I'm sorry, Shaw. You were a good operative."

Aconitine moved like an arrow: Shaw couldn't do anything but totter a few steps forward while her heart went into overdrive. Then crushing pain in her chest blossomed over her whole body and she fell. All the while, Harold's gift kept everything sorted and carefully in place: Italian leather shoes stepped over her; a woman with flour in her clothes screamed; someone dialled 911 on an iPhone, they'd bought the silicone case in Hong Kong; she was rolled into the recovery position by a woman with more books than friends. Or maybe the books were her friends, Shaw thought, hysterically. Harold's work was unravelling, and with it her grip on reality. Surprisingly, that was the most painful thing of all. Dying in a scramble of sounds, scents and textures was horrifying to a Sentinel.

Then there was rose and saltwater in the back of her throat. Her open eyes met those of Root, crouched in front of her.

"Shh," she said, and reached out to touch Shaw's cheek with two fingers. "I've got you." Shaw felt her this time, gentle and deft, sliding around Shaw's mind and holding it still.

The discordant panic settled into quiet. Then something odd happened, maybe because her brain was dying, maybe because so many people had been in Shaw's head over the last day. The connection flipped and she saw into Root's mind: a convoluted lattice of thinking, lit with data streams that leapt all over the place unpredictably. Underpinning the whole thing was passion, ruby red and intense, and it was to that intensity that Shaw held her final seconds of consciousness.

In Shaw's mnemonic library, atropine was tart purple plums and candle wax. Dog slobber stood on its own merits. Shaw woke inside a half-zipped body bag, with a dog's tongue washing her face, and honestly, she'd had worse mornings.

She was in a stationary ambulance. She had some vague memory of strangling a paramedic, so she peered over the side of the gurney to see if there was a body, but there was no sign of him except for the faint trace of the perfume his Russian girlfriend wore. She flopped back, took a few deep breaths and relished how good breathing was.

The cemetery was a surprise, but the air was crisp and cool, even if the sky was overhung with clouds. John and Harold waited for her a little distant from the ambulance, and she stomped in their direction with a scowl. She was far enough from the city that the sirens and bustle and reek were remnants only, hanging about her clothes and her memory, already dissipating on the breeze.

All of that calm and gratitude melted away into rage once she was in range of the two of them. They were so pleased with themselves. Shaw wanted irrationally to shoot them. A little bit.

John silently offered her a bottle of water, which she ignored. It was ungraceful, but they were so damn smug that all her anger and frustration crystallised there. She drew on them, slowly and calmly so that John would know this wasn't the irrational anger that came from being close to another Sentinel. Now that she was thinking about it, that territorial reaction was as calm and settled as she'd ever experienced. That was probably Harold's influence, and that made her even angrier. That and the fact that John didn't react to her weapon, didn't even push Harold behind him. So infuriatingly smug, the two of them.

John shrugged, and put the bottle in his pocket. "You're not going to shoot us, Shaw."

"It was the best way," said Harold, a little apologetically. "You know they wanted you dead, and now, essentially, you are. And before you start to bristle at the idea that you owe us anything, please understand we don't expect anything in return. You're under no obligation, Ms Shaw. We're merely pleased that you're alive and well."

John didn't bother to hide a wry smile, and she wheeled on him, glaring. How dare he be so pleased about this? How dare he be proprietary about her being alive!

Harold continued. "I know, and I'm sorry, but I won't apologise for saving your life, Ms Shaw, when I believe that the world is a better place for having you in it." He was doing that thing she hated in Guides, when they skipped ahead in the conversation because they could read your next thought before you'd voiced it. Somehow, despite rummaging in her brain, they never figured out that Shaw did not appreciate people doing that sort of thing.

John obviously felt the same way, because he gave Harold a quick glance, one of those silent messages she'd seen between them before. "Shaw, you'll need someone to help with the Cascade stuff," he said. "That'll be to be hard to do on the run."

Shaw considered that Washington paper pusher, and the long fingered woman who had slipped his coat over his shoulders, smoothed it into position. DC was probably the last place they'd be searching for Shaw, if they even knew to search. And Root had information she needed, about Cascade, about Northern Lights.

"I'll make it work," she said. "I don't like being tied to other people."

John's expression was dubious. "Might have signed up to the wrong project, then," he said.

"Yeah, well, some of us managed fine without putting on a collar and leash," she said. Look at you, she said to John, silently. Less than a foot from your Guide, watching his every move. You and the slobber monster there, you're both owned. "Like I said, I'm not chaining myself to anyone."

"That's as may be," said Harold. "And I agree that Project Cascade has definitely encouraged a greater reliance on Guides than is strictly necessary. But we are necessary. Your senses won't return to normal just because you will it so."

"It's still my decision," she said. "My decision and my baggage to deal with." She glanced over her shoulder at the ambulance, already planning how far she could get in that before she had to dump it.

"Before you go," Harold said, proffering his card again. "You never know, it might be useful."

Shaw considered it, remembered the linen texture of it under her fingertips in that quiet room at the top of the city. They had helped her through the worst of things, when all she wanted was a bloody revenge and a quick death. She reached out and took the card, gave Harold a nod, and tucked it in her pocket.

As she drove away, she heard John speak, finally. "You don't want me to wear a leash, do you?" She snorted, knowing full well that John could hear it, and turned the ambulance towards the interstate.

Chapter Eight /Chapter Nine/ Chapter Ten
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