st_aurafina: Root's face smiling (POI: Root smile)
[personal profile] st_aurafina
Title: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Chapter Ten
Rating Teen
Notes: References to S1 ep23: Firewall


Standing beside Alicia Corwin’s body, John experienced one single moment of whiteout panic before focus came back to him, hung on the framework of Harold’s architecture and the strength of their bond. He would find Harold and bring him home. And if Harold had been harmed, John would make Root pay.

Harold had driven with the windows down, so John could smell the gunpowder and Harold's brief spike of fear when Corwin was killed. Before that, John knew he had been angry, that particular cold anger that Harold reserved for people who abused their power. Then Caroline Turing had stepped up to the rear passenger window, shot Alicia Corwin point blank in the back of the head, then rolled her body out of the car like a bag of trash.

Turing's scent was everywhere, except that it was now exuberant and sickly-sweet, quite different to the measured calm she had shown during their pursuit and escape. It was unusual for someone’s body chemistry to change so entirely between one persona and another, and John hunted for a few minutes longer, trying to determine if it was something she had done deliberately (indicating a knowledge of Sentinels and Guides) or just the strength of her personality at work. It was inconclusive, so, instead, he followed the car as far as he could, losing it in traffic as soon as they’d left the treatment plant. Then he took a few deep breaths, let the sound of waves clear his thoughts, and called Carter.

Sitting crouched forward in the passenger seat, John struggled to keep his senses capped while Carter briefed him. He itched with agitation and a need to move, but Carter's voice, as always, was a solid grounding point for him.

"Fusco's pulled a couple of favours with some buddies on highway patrol; they've got Harold's car on an unofficial bolo. That means they won't intercept. They'll just give Fusco a call." She glanced sideways at John's dubious expression. "It's the best I can do, John. I don't have Harold's resources, and the two of us can't canvass every exit off the island on our own."

"We don't need to," said John, and directed her towards IFT Plaza.

At the parking garage, Carter stopped at the closed door and held out her hand for a card to swipe. John ducked low to look at the camera monitoring the check-in bay, thinking hard about getting out and punching the door, if the building or the Machine refused to co-operate with his search. After a minute, the door rolled open and the boom gate lifted.

"Okay," said Carter. "Where do we park in here?"

The last time John had been in the building, he and Harold had been on foot. He directed Carter towards the CEO parking, figuring Harold would have something worked out. The executive elevator opened at their approach.

"Thanks," said John, as they entered.

Carter gave him a sideways glance. "You ready to tell me who you're talking to? Or is this whole thing still one big tap dance around the truth?"

John gazed up at the camera. "It's complicated," he said. He put his palm on the black glass panel, heard it activate and scan. The elevator doors closed and then they were moving up.

"Complicated like, 'I magically know when people's lives are in danger' or complicated like 'Carter, I know you saw inside my head but you're only getting the vaguest explanation for that and then never mention it again'?"

He smiled a little at that, despite the situation. "You mean the time you got me shot?"

Carter let her breath out with a hiss. "You can't hold that over me forever. But I'll say it again: I am sorry. I'm law enforcement; I have to trust official channels first."

"You used to be Army," John said. "I bet you wouldn't have said that back then."

"Hah, no," said Carter. "Past me would kick my ass. And your ass, too."

John couldn't stop a short huff of laughter from escaping. Here in the building, where he could focus better, he was already feeling more hopeful. The elevator skimmed past floors: cafeteria, legal offices, computer labs, cubicle floors, more cubicles. "I was part of a program," he said. "I don't want to give you names and titles, but it works like this: I've got enhanced senses, but using them messes me up. My – what did you call them, when we first met? Sidekick. My sidekick helps me stay level, helps me sort out the information I've gathered, figures out what to do with it."

Carter leaned against the elevator wall. "And that's Finch?"

John nodded. Then he shrugged. "That and more." Despite the influence of the building, he ached for Harold, and hoped he wasn't in pain or afraid. That was a stupid thing to think about, even here where he felt calmest. Before he started to zone, he reached out, took Carter's hand, and concentrated on her voice, staring at the grey-carpeted floor of the elevator.

To Carter's credit, she didn't flinch or pull back. Instead, she kept talking, low and steady. "This means I'm what? Like Finch? I mean, that's what happened in the stairwell when you got shot, isn't it? It was intense, like I had to find a path through a fog to where you were."

"Like Finch, like Mark," said John. "You're one of the ones that can help me sort things." Even in talking about it, with skin contact Carter was instinctively reaching for John's mind. He tried to make way for her. He was getting good at working with different minds, apparently, though he wished this were under different circumstances. They should have practiced, he realised, before a crisis. Carter should have known what he was and how to work with him.

The elevator doors opened, on the same space he'd seen that day with Harold. A little tidier, this time, with cables neatly looped and server racks pushed together against the windows. John let go of Carter's hand and stepped out, careful to keep his back to the ominous north-facing window.

"What do you need me to do?" asked Carter. "Why do we need to do it up here?"

John sat down with his back to a shelf. "I'm going to search for Finch," he said. "That means I'll be stretched out thin, so I need you to be an anchor, help me find my way back." He waved an arm across the room. "This was Harold's place. It means something, to the way I am, the way it all works. I don't know why, but it gives me the best chance to find him."

Carter sat cross-legged opposite him. "Okay. Let's do this."

John nodded. "When I need you, I'll put my hand out," he said. "You take it, and I'll do the rest."

"Got it," said Carter. "You go find him."

John closed his eyes and let the room settle around him. This was where the Machine was born, where Harold had poured so much of himself into creating it, thinking all the time about protecting the world.

No birth is perfect. No birth is easy.

The words were so quiet and so integrated with John's mind that if the context hadn't been so alien, he would have thought that they were his own. Or Harold's, if Harold wasn't in Root's dubious company. So, this must be the Machine, he decided, this voice that threw words into his mind from time to time. It had happened at the country club, and several times since, whenever John was in a heightened emotional state, in pain or overwhelmed. It rarely made sense; it was always abstract concepts, whispered softly in the back of his mind. It was contact, though, and John needed it desperately now.

"I need to find him," he said. "Help me."

There were no more words, but he had an immediate longing for Harold's presence, for the sound of his voice and the feeling of his fingers on the back of John's neck. He reached for Harold mentally, the way he would if he were in the other room or coming up the stairs in the library. This was his bond; this sensation was the connection between him and Harold, and Harold was out there somewhere. If John and Harold were to change places, if it were Harold here waiting to receive information from John, he'd see… he'd see…

The smell of rental car in every breath: plastic air vents and upholstery shampoo. Passenger seat, upright and awkward. Someone driving, long brunette curls, a rose perfume; it was difficult to see them, painful to turn in that direction. Pain in Harold's back, familiar and aching, different to the sharp sting in his palm. John clenched his fists, and anger tinted everything a dark red.

"Hey," Carter said, from far, far away. "There's no time for that now, John. You need a cool head. Think like a sniper, take a breath, find your shot." Her voice was distant, but calming in exactly the right way: soldier to soldier, no sympathy for the loss he had experienced, but a cold expectation that he would do the job right. He let his shoulders fall, waited for the vision to stabilise again, and like a sniper seeking a target, sunk himself into it.

"Look out the window, Harold, give me something," John willed, and Harold, knowing or not, obliged. It was an interstate, four lanes, traffic was light. A sign flashed past, they were on I-95, and as the turn-offs flew past, Harold crossed options off a long list of possible destinations. They were pointed towards DC, though. John watched a little longer to confirm they were veering onto the Turnpike, then a little longer again for the reassurance of seeing Harold's hands crossed in his lap.

"I'm coming to help you," he told Harold, and hoped that the essence of it came through, even if the words themselves couldn't. Then, when he felt the images thinning out like fog in sun, he put up his hand. Carter took it, wrapped her fingers around it, and, with the mental resilience of a cop and a single mother, she simply refused to let go. John hauled hard against her, felt her take the weight of his mind, shift to accommodate it, and hold still. John came back to his body with the feeling of having climbed a dozen flights of stairs: exhausted but triumphant. He sagged against the shelving, and grinned at Carter.

"Tell Fusco to take the Jersey Turnpike," he said. "I know where they're going."

Carter's expression was one of wonder and determination. "Let's go get him back," she said, and squeezed his hand.



Leon and Fusco pushed the stretcher into the ambulance, and closed the doors. John watched from the opposite corner, listening as Doctor Madani ordered them around like scrub nurses, resuscitating Shaw. Then, over the top of all the noise came a steady thump-thump, a strong heartbeat that could only be Shaw. Nobody would claw their way back to life with such certain determination. Leon bolted from the ambulance to barf against the wall, then, at Fusco's sharp bark, climbed unwillingly behind the wheel and turned over the engine.

John tapped his earpiece. "She's fine. They're on the road, Finch," he said, and smiled at Harold's sigh of relief.

"I'm so glad – that was an extremely risky procedure," Harold said. "Shall I collect you on the way to the cemetery?"

John tilted his head to one side: someone was gasping and sobbing in the dark corner of the alley behind him. A familiar scent drifted down towards him, and he stepped off the street and into the darkness. "Give me a few minutes, Finch," he said.

He found Root leaning against a filthy brick wall, bent double and gasping for breath, her long arms wrapped around herself. John heard her heart, skipping and thumping against her chest.

He walked closer, and stood, watching her. She looked like hell: hair in her mouth, snot and tears blurring her careful make-up, pale and nauseous. He took a delicate breath in: Leon wasn't the only one who had hurled their guts out tonight.

"I'll bet you're enjoying this!" Root gasped at him, angry and terrified. "Karma coming back to kick my ass, and you get to see it all. What could be better?" More sobs wracked her, and she pressed her fists to her temples with a moan. Pain and confusion wiped away her sarcasm, and she stared up in agony. "Will it stop?"

"It'll stop," said John. "It's just biofeedback. You can probably think your way through it."

Root crouched over, hugging her knees, crying now, rather than those whooping, breathless sobs.

John remembered finding Alicia's body, Harold's car gone, and Root's glee hanging in the air like overblown roses. How he had felt the world drop out from under him when Root had taken Harold from him, threatened him. Hurt him. Then he thought of Root crouching beside Shaw, stroking her face while the aconitine raged through her body.

"That was a good thing you did for Shaw, staying with her," he said, finally.

"Much good it does me, now," said Root, between hiccupping sobs. "I don't understand; I knew her for maybe five hours. Why do I care?"

It was a good question, especially for Root, who seemed to have problems identifying anyone other than herself as an individual deserving of respect and care. How had she been able to connect so completely with Shaw? Even as a natural talent Guide, it shouldn't have this effect on her. Carter had never been so overwhelmed, not any of the times she'd stepped in to help him.

The weird irony of it struck him, and he tilted his head. "Oh, you're in trouble now," he said to Root. "You've made a bond. It must be strong, if you're reacting like this after only a few hours."

Root stood upright and flung herself at John, hitting him on the chest with futile fury. "What can I do about that, if she's dead?" she said. She swiped angrily at the fresh fall of tears.

John took her by the wrists and held her away. "Listen to me," he said. "I'm telling you this for Shaw, because she'll need someone, and I've already figured she doesn't take help easily."

Root swallowed and stared up at him, too terrified to hope. "You're speaking in present tense, John."

"Because Shaw is alive," said John.

Root took a great, shuddering breath. "I saw her die," she said, and John could see in the angle of her shoulders and the desperate beat of her heart that anger was balanced with desperate hope. "Her heart stopped. They put her in a body bag."

"You saw, and so did her former employers," said John. "It seemed like the best way to get them off her tail."

Root laughed, a hysterical, gasping, delighted sound. "She's alive," she said. "She's alive."

"I don't know how much it'll help to know that," said John. "I don't know where she's planning to go now. You'll have to have to find her on your own."

Root pushed her fingers through her hair, straightening it, then swiped her coat sleeve over her face. "Oh, I have a feeling that we'll cross paths before too long," she said. "We're meant to be together, she and I." Somehow, even with her make-up smeared and her face pale, she was dauntingly confident about this. She stepped away from John and walked down the alley, increasingly steady on her feet.

"Are you sure that was wise?" Harold said, in John's ear. He could hear the car; Harold was coming to take him to the cemetery to meet Shaw. "Can you imagine the havoc that could entail if Miss Groves has access to a Sentinel?"

John followed Root's footsteps towards the street, until her rose perfume had mingled so completely with the foot traffic that her trail was lost.

"I doubt there's any keeping them apart, Finch. And who knows? Maybe they'll be good for each other." He caught the red LED of a camera swiveling to follow him. He didn't say anything to Harold, but maybe another Sentinel and Guide investigating Project Cascade would turn up some answers.

Harold's car pulled up at the curb, and John slid into the passenger seat. He leaned right over to Harold, kissed him at the corner of his jaw, gently so as not to hurt him where the muscles were tight and sore. Harold couldn't easily turn to look beside him, but his mind flooded into John's at the physical contact: surprise at the unusual show of affection in public, delight and a little arousal. He put his hand over John's and pulled back onto the street, leaning a little on John's senses to find a gap in the traffic, then took the turn-off towards the cemetery, where Shaw would be waiting for them.

Chapter Nine /Chapter Ten/ Epilogue


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September 2017


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