Root tugged her collar more tightly around her neck, trying in vain to keep the rain from soaking her back as she dashed the half a block from the subway station to her brownstone. Her feet ached in her boots, and she cursed the fact that she’d forgotten her umbrella that morning. Just a few more steps, and she could shed the wet clothes and uncomfortable boots for a warm bath and brandy. She needed both to put this damn day behind her.
A sudden gush of wind blew a burst of cold rain sideways, and her legs were soaked anew. Damn her, Root silently raged, pinpointing all of her considerable anger on one person and one person only. She could have left work in time to beat the storm if only she hadn’t been sitting at her desk, waiting for a text that had never come. She might have grabbed her umbrella if she hadn’t been so preoccupied that morning with her clothes and make-up. She definitely wouldn’t have worn her killer boots to work.
They had had a date. Or at least plans to meet up. Ever since their “encounter” at the club a few weeks ago, she and Shaw had kept up the pretense of a relationship for Samaritan through texts. The messages had been mundane and exploratory at first, almost like they were getting to know each other, and Root hadn’t been able to tell if Shaw’s seeming shyness had been real or part of the act. In the last few days, however, each of them had begun to push the envelope with the other, doing their damndest to get under each other’s skin, and Root had to admit that Shaw gave as good as she got. The last few messages Shaw had sent had been seductively explicit, followed by the invitation for another rendezvous. It had thrown Root, but it hadn’t kept her from fantasizing about the evening and anticipating which of their texts they would have to act out. For Samaritan’s benefit, of course.
Then Shaw had blown her off.
“Damn her.” Root took the last few steps at a run, sweeping into the foyer with an uttered sound of disgust as she pulled off her leather jacket and spied her umbrella hanging from a hook on the coat rack, silently mocking her. But her anger did not keep her from immediately searching in her purse for her phone to check for new texts, her wet clothes and uncomfortable boots momentarily forgotten.
It had been hours since she had heard from Shaw, Root realized, and she frowned, her hand tightening on her phone. It wasn’t like her. As Harold had said on more than one occasion, Shaw was many things, but she was rarely tardy. Either Shaw knew ignoring her would drive her crazy, or something was wrong.
Her frown deepened, the latter idea taking hold, making her stomach ache. The machine would have told her if something was wrong. Wouldn’t she?
“Where is she?” Root didn’t need to specify who, nor did she need to clarify to whom she was addressing her question. The silence that followed made her anxiety grow. It bothered Root that the machine hadn’t been keeping tabs on Shaw as she’d believed.
Her reach no longer extended as far as it once had. Samaritan had seen to that. Now the machine had to be more careful, her freedom no longer absolute. Root waited impatiently, the ache in her stomach growing more pronounced the longer she waited for an answer.
“Call me a cab.” Root reached for her still-soaked jacket. Even if everything was fine, she decided she would stop by Shaw’s place. It was a Friday evening. They needed to keep up appearances after all.
The cab ride over had been excruciating. The driver had been too slow, too damn chatty, but the machine had been frighteningly quiet. Root only knew Shaw was in her apartment, and the absence of other details made her unease grow with every passing block.
Then she’d found a few drops of blood in the elevator. More in the hallway. Root tried to walk casually for the cameras, to act like nothing was wrong when everything was.
Using a key Shaw didn’t know she had, Root let herself into Shaw’s apartment, hoping like hell the former assassin wasn’t waiting on the other side of the door. While the thought of Shaw getting rough with her was appealing, Root suspected an injured Shaw would shoot first and ask questions later.
Once inside, Root shut the door, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. It was a small studio apartment, sparsely furnished, the bedroom, kitchen, and living room all in one open space. There was a single bath off to the right, and Root realized a light was on beneath the door.
When there was no answer, Root swallowed and slipped her gun out of her pocket, resisting the urge to charge forward. If they weren’t alone, that would get them both killed. She eased up to the door, taking a moment to simply listen.
Running water. It trickled in the sink, but there was no other sound. Root glanced down at the light peeking under the door, noticing for the first time that water was beginning to pool on the polished concrete surface. Water stained red with blood.
Casting caution aside, Root yanked the door open. Shaw had collapsed against it at some point, and she tumbled backward, her head striking the floor before Root could move. Blood dripped from the sink, covered the counter, and stained Shaw’s white tank top nearly crimson. It looked like too much, like no one could lose all of that and survive.
Root pocketed her weapon and knelt, heedless of the blood-stained water. Her fingers brushed over Shaw’s neck, pressing more firmly when there was no sign of life. “Sam…” she whispered.
Then Root felt it, weak and too far apart, but the definite beats of Shaw’s heart.
“Did Decima do this?”
Root saw the shape of a light switch in the shadows and she reached up, snapping it on. Her stomach lurched when she saw the full spectrum of gore. Shaw had tried to sew herself up, nearly closing one of the wounds, but she’d lost too much blood.
Shaw couldn’t have gone to a hospital. She couldn’t have gone to any of her allies. She’d only had herself to rely on, no doubt having to walk at a normal clip, pretending like she wasn’t in horrible pain so Samaritan wouldn’t see…
Rage made it easy for Root to tear Shaw’s tank top, further exposing two, inch-long gashes along the left side of her torso.
“She needs a doctor.”
“There has to be someone!” Root shouted, willing to risk Samaritan and Decima if it meant saving one of the only people she’d ever gave a damn about.
Root leaned against the headboard, watching the sun come up through half-open blinds. Beside her, Shaw slept, oblivious to her presence. Root closed her eyes, listening to Shaw breathe, relieved more than she wanted to admit by the sound.
Turning her head, Root looked down at the sleeping woman. Shaw’s skin was unusually pale, but at least it was no longer the ghostly white it had been hours before. “I prefer teasing to triage, just so we’re clear,” she murmured, guiltily taking in Shaw’s features unobserved. She wondered when Shaw had become something more than a target to needle, more than one of Harold’s helpers to tease. She’d always enjoyed their loaded banter, but when Shaw had come to her that last night–the last night before Samaritan went online and changed everything–Root’s impression of the other woman had shifted irrevocably. It was her secret. One she often denied even to herself.
Wincing, Root stood, stretching her left arm. The hastily slapped on band-aid pinched her skin so she peeled it off and cast it aside. The machine had talked her through giving her own blood, but she wasn’t fond of needles since her chat with Control. She suspected she would be even less thrilled with them after what she’d been forced to do to save Shaw’s life, but it had been worth it.
Stepping into the bathroom, Root winced again. She’d turned the water off, but no other attention had been paid to the space. Blood was beginning to dry where the water had evaporated, and she made a note to clean the place up later, but her patient needed a little cleaning up first.
Opening the closet door, Root found a handful of washcloths and hand towels. In the kitchen, she grabbed the biggest pot she could find, filling it with warm water before returning to Shaw’s side.
Setting the pot of water on the nightstand, Root dipped one of the towels in it, before settling next to Shaw on the bed. “I’ve thought about us in bed together,” she admitted, her tone forcibly light. “I’ve even thought about us sharing a bath. This isn’t quite what I had in mind.”
Carefully, Root began to bathe Shaw’s face, hating how pale the other woman’s skin was under the streaks of blood and dirt. Sliding her arm under Shaw’s shoulders to lift her, Root was impressed by the solid bands of muscle along her back and arms. She cleaned as best she could from where blood had smeared and pooled along Shaw’s sides and back.
More blood flaked from the waistband of the black pants Shaw wore, and Root bit her lip, eyeing the other woman’s remaining clothes. “You’d sleep much more comfortably if I got you out of those. Right, Sam?” Root could almost imagine the rejoinder Shaw would fire back. It was strangely upsetting when there was none.
There was nothing sexy about getting Shaw out of her clothes under the circumstances, but Root had to admit there was something intimate about it. She continued to bathe the other woman, avoiding any areas Shaw would punch her for touching if she had been awake. The only curiosity Root satisfied was studying Shaw’s scars. There were more of them than she would have thought. Bullet wounds. Knife wounds. Burns. Some of the scars looked ugly and painful. Others were nearly invisible, having been treated properly. Idly, Root wondered what scars her handiwork would leave behind.
They were all part of Shaw, though, testaments to her survival, to her grit and sheer cussedness. To Root, every single one of them was a work of art.
Jerking awake, Root stared at an unfamiliar ceiling in confusion. The sun was setting, casting slashes of amber across the plaster surface, and she tried to remember where she was, what had brought her there.
When she turned her head, she found Shaw quietly watching her. She smiled before she could think better of it.
“Hey there, sleepy head.” Root’s tone was teasing, but there was genuine warmth if Shaw chose to notice it.
“Why am I naked?” Shaw’s voice was weak, but there was no denying her pique.
Root continued to grin, unabashed. “I just couldn’t help myself.”
Shaw’s eyes narrowed. She moved only to wince, sucking a sharp breath in between her teeth.
Root’s smile vanished. “What’s wrong?”
Shaw lifted her head and glared at her.
“Other than the obvious, that is.”
Pain medications are in the medicine cabinet.
The machine’s voice made Root flinch. She hadn’t heard her in hours. Hadn’t even missed her. Root licked her lips. “Let me get you something.” Rolling out of bed, she wobbled a little on unsteady legs. They would both need to eat something and soon. Setting aside her own needs for the moment, Root rifled through the medicine cabinet, finding several choices.
“You’re a regular pharmacy.”
“Do what I do and you need one.”
“You want morphine or…” Root lapsed into silence, snatching the bottle, tourniquet, and a syringe as Shaw made a gimme motion with one hand. “Girl knows what she likes.”
“Girl knows what she needs.”
Root was happy to hand over the supplies, keen not to have to use another needle any time soon. She looked away as Shaw tied off the tourniquet and injected herself. Considering her high tolerance for pain, Root was surprised Shaw even needed it. When the other woman started to fade again, the lines of pain in her body easing, Root took the now empty syringe and slipped the loose tourniquet from her bicep. “Better?”
Shaw nodded sleepily. “I lost a lot of blood.”
“You gave me yours?”
“Wasn’t a lot of other options.”
Shaw considered that. “Better not make me crazy.”
Root smiled again, taking no offense, too happy to have her bantering pet back. “No more so than you already are.”
They sat in surprisingly easy silence for a few minutes.
“What happened?” Root finally asked, just as Shaw was about to doze off again.
“Your machine didn’t tell you?” When Root shook her head, Shaw sighed. “Another number. So many are victims. You almost forget there is occasionally a perp in the mix.”
“He got the jump on you?” Root found that hard to believe. She also found it hard to believe that the machine was communicating directly with Shaw and keeping her out of the loop. They would talk about this later, along with the machine’s failure to keep Shaw safe.
For a moment, Shaw didn’t answer. “I was distracted.”
Shaw’s eyes tracked to her and held her gaze briefly before glancing away. Root swallowed hard as her stomach fluttered. She thought about those heated messages they’d exchanged, wondering if her latest response had nearly gotten Shaw killed. “I’m flattered,” she managed, a confusing mixture of emotions causing her to choose her words carefully.
“Don’t assume I’m talking about what happened the last time we were together.” Shaw’s words were starting to slur. “Or your little sexy messages.”
A tiny, wicked grin twitched at Root’s lips. “Of course not.”
“For all you know I was thinking about strangling you.”
Shaw snorted and shook her head before closing her eyes. “Can’t stay awake much longer.”
“Then don’t try.”
Nodding, Shaw let her head sink into the pillow. Root was just about to leave her be when the other woman reached out for her, grabbing her weakly by the wrist. Tingles traveled all the way up Root’s arm. She knew she should pull away, that Shaw was only seeking comfort in her drug-induced slumber, but the reasons didn’t matter. All that mattered was that touch.
Shifting, Root laid down beside her, holding Shaw’s hand and watching her sleep until the night closed over them both.
The Philadelphia Eagles jersey she had managed to scrounge up probably hung around Shaw’s knees, but on Root, the hem was barely low enough to keep her decent. Root hadn’t figured Shaw for a big sports fan, but the more she considered it, the more it made sense. The hockey jerseys she’d discovered in the same drawer had been less of a surprise.
Hunger had finally driven Root from the bed a few hours earlier even as Shaw continued to sleep. A peek inside the refrigerator had been illuminating, revealing a bevy of weapons and a half gallon of sour milk. Shaw’s pantry was as sparse as her wardrobe, but Root had managed to find enough to tide her over for now. She sipped her coffee, the one staple Shaw had stocked in decent supply. It was an expensive brand, and Root found it charming that Shaw was willing to splurge on her vices. The former operative’s coffee maker was the nicest thing in her apartment.
Her own clothes were in the stacked washer and dryer she’d found in a closet. They’d already been through two cycles in an effort to get all the blood out. Her leather jacket had been easier, just requiring a little soap and water by the kitchen sink. Root had showered and put on as much makeup as she carried with her in her purse. As soon as her clothes were clean, it would be time to go.
Shaw moved suddenly and Root’s gaze jerked in her direction in time to see the shorter woman stand, the sheets slipping from her nude frame. Root’s mouth went dry and she averted her gaze, more to keep what was left of her sanity than to allow Shaw any illusion of privacy. “Need any help?” Root managed to make the suggestion sound lewd. She wasn’t sure if she wanted Shaw to say yes or no.
The other woman just grunted and walked toward the bathroom on unsteady legs. Root was glad she’d cleaned it, a chore she wouldn’t have done for anyone else - even Harold.
While Shaw was indisposed, Root quickly stripped the bed and replaced the sheets and blanket. When Shaw emerged a few minutes later, clad only in a short white robe, Root was back on the couch, sipping her coffee quietly.
“You cleaned.” The observation sounded like an accusation.
“Somebody needed to. Ever consider a maid service?”
Shaw shook her head, unwilling to take the bait. Still unsteady, she nevertheless moved toward the kitchen, her face an unreadable mask. Root watched her curiously, resisting the urge to help. Shaw went straight for the coffee, fetching a mug and pouring a healthy cup. She barely waited for it to cool before taking a sip of it black.
“You didn’t have to stay.” Shaw’s voice was gruff, but Root didn’t miss the undercurrent of gratitude.
“I had nowhere else to be.” It was a total lie and they both knew it. Root stood. “Can I make you something? She can order out.”
“Food… doesn’t sound so good.” Shaw glanced toward the windows, the blinds open just enough to let a little light in.
“That’s a first,” Root teased, knowing the other woman’s healthy appetite. “You need to eat.”
“Did she tell you that?”
“You lost a lot of blood, Shaw. You’re a doctor. You know that you need food… water.” Root drew closer as Shaw leaned against the counter.
“Fine,” Shaw said begrudgingly. “There’s a place just down the street…” She trailed off as Root’s hand drifted to her ear. “Let me guess. She knows my usual.”
Root smiled. “If she didn’t like you, she wouldn’t pay attention.”
“Lucky me. Too bad she couldn’t bother to tell me that guy had a knife.”
Shaw continued to sip her coffee as Root watched her, not sure what to say.
“What happened? To the one who stabbed you?” Root leaned against the counter as well, openly curious.
“He might float back up in a day or two.”
“That’s my girl.”
Shaw gave her a sideways glance at the term but didn’t object to it. She set her coffee down. “Bastard got his licks in, though.” Without another word, Shaw shuffled back toward the bed. She eased down on it, her left hand pressed tight over her wounds.
“Do you need something more for the pain?” Root hated to ask, but the tension in Shaw’s body was making her own ache.
“Already took something when I was in the bathroom. On an empty stomach, it won’t take long to kick in.” Shaw sighed. “Why did you come? How did you know?” she asked abruptly. “That I’d been…?”
Root glanced up, wincing a little at Shaw’s bloodshot eyes. “You stood me up on our date.” Shaw’s expression tightened until Root feigned a teasing smile. “Kidding. What do you think? She told me.”
Shaw’s gaze shifted toward Root’s right ear before tracking back to the hacker’s gaze. “Stupid. Your cover coulda been blown. Mine might already be.”
“If your cover had been blown, we’d both be dead right now,” Root answered pragmatically.
“It was careless. I was going to give you an update on the latest number at the club.”
The truth hit Root like a gut shot, and she looked away to mask her disappointment. For Shaw, everything they were doing was a game to fool Samaritan, but Root wasn’t so sure she was playing one anymore. Needing to move, she stood and strode to the kitchen, finally turning to face Shaw again. “And if you hadn’t gotten stabbed, it would have worked out just fine.”
Shaw leaned back against the headboard, those dark eyes quietly assessing. “You shouldn’t have come.”
“I was supposed to let you bleed out and die on your bathroom floor?” Root lifted one eyebrow in a mocking expression Shaw should know well.
“Yes.” Shaw watched her. “If it meant keeping your cover intact. If it meant protecting John and Harold so you three could have a shot at stopping Samaritan.”
“She told me to save you.” Root thought that would end the conversation, even if it wasn’t the whole truth.
“She always puts people first. You don’t.”
“I do what she tells me.” Root’s voice dipped, an edge of anger turning it sharper, but she wasn’t sure if she was mad at Shaw or herself. “Apparently she needs you alive.”
“So if it had been up to you, you would have let me bleed out and die on my bathroom floor?” Shaw was as insistent as Root had ever seen her.
It would be so easy to lie. It was what she always did – with everyone, but Shaw made it damn hard when she looked at her like that, when Root could still remember the other woman’s blood on her hands. “Maybe I need you, too.” She tried to keep her tone light, but her voice broke, betraying far more than she wanted.
Shaw’s eyes widened slightly, but Root didn’t dare linger to see more. She turned away, her hands shaking as she tried to pour another cup of coffee. “Can I get you something else? More coffee? Water?” The machine offered a suggestion in her ear, but Root ignored her, not sure why she was suddenly taking an interest.
A knock on the door surprised them both, and Root saw Shaw’s hand dive beneath the mattress. “It’s just the food delivery,” Root assured her, echoing the assurance from the machine.
Shaw didn’t answer. Even injured, she moved quietly and swiftly to stand behind the door, the gun steady in her hands. She gave a slight nod for Root to open the door.
If they hadn’t had to keep their cover, Root might have let Shaw shoot the guy for his overt ogling of her legs and his crude leer as he asked, “You sure you don’t need anything else, sweetheart?” She slammed the door in his face before he could grab his crotch and found Shaw similarly appraising her legs, her gaze lingering on the hem of the jersey before rising to meet Root’s gaze.
“Can’t blame a guy for trying.” Shaw smirked before easing on the bed and tucking the gun back where it belonged.
Rolling her eyes, Root headed to the kitchen, plating the meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and peas for Shaw but leaving her salad in the delivery bowl. Deciding it was worth the risk, she sat down next to Shaw on the bed. It wasn’t like there was much other furniture anyway. Shaw accepted the plate gratefully, noting the amused quirk of Root’s lips at her order. She shrugged. “Comfort food,” she said before diving in.
Root picked at her salad, her earlier hunger gone. The urge to protect the other woman, to bundle her up and hold her until she was safe was distracting. Root didn’t know what to do with it, and she suspected if she figured it out, Shaw would strenuously object. The thought made her lips curve into a smile, just a little, and she caught Shaw staring at her mouth. The heat that ignited low in her stomach warmed her, and Root wallowed in it. She loved this game. Loved driving Shaw to feel despite her nature. Pain, pleasure… it didn’t matter. “See something you like?”
“Recognize the lipstick.” Shaw reached up, her thumb easing over the edge of Root’s lower lip as the hacker watched her.
Root couldn’t deny that she wanted the other woman. Shaw would match her in bed, maybe even best her if the way she kissed was any indication. Sex between them would be amazing, but she also found herself oddly frightened of what would happen if they gave in. She’d never had such reservations before.
Shaw’s thumb lingered, as did her gaze, and Root swallowed against the rise of desire and a sudden flood of panic that engulfed her. “Your food is going to get cold.”
“Yeah.” Shaw let her hand drop, looking strangely confused before she returned to eating, more slowly than before. Root looked down at her salad and speared a spinach leaf. After a few minutes of eating in silence, Shaw stood abruptly. “I’m going to take a shower.”
A minute later, the sound of water joined the dull hum of the dryer. Root sighed, setting aside what was left of her salad, wishing her damn clothes would dry as fast as Shaw had fled.
“Leaving without saying goodbye?”
Root twitched, startled by Shaw’s voice behind her. The machine might not have eyes in the room, but she had an ear, and Root was faintly miffed that she hadn’t been warned. She finished sliding on her leather jacket and picked up her purse. “You obviously no longer require my services.” Her gaze traveled over the shorter woman’s frame, her eyes lingering on Shaw’s muscular legs. A little leering was expected, so Root fulfilled her role guilt-free. “And I know you like your space.”
Shaw drew closer. “So… what?” she asked. “Samaritan will simply think you stayed for a long weekend?”
“Why wouldn’t it? It thinks we’re…” Root found she couldn’t say the word so she let her voice trail off suggestively, hoping she hid the slip. She took a deep breath, inhaling the familiar scent of Shaw’s soap and shampoo. Her hair hung loose and wet about her face. With the late morning sun peering in the window behind her, Root found Shaw a potent distraction that she needed to get away from sooner rather than later.
“I guess we got lucky.”
“Samaritan will certainly think so.” Root smiled at her own joke, relishing Shaw’s eye roll in reaction. “You’re up and about, Sameen. You don’t need my help, and I’m quite certain you don’t want my company.”
Shaw shrugged. “Maybe you’re growing on me.”
Root paused in surprise. The machine started making suggestions in her ear, suggestions that Root didn’t find to be in the least bit helpful. “Stop it.”
“And here I thought I was being kind of nice.” Shaw shook her head, looking like she regretted bothering.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Root admitted.
“Ah.” Shaw cocked her head, her eyes glazed from the drugs but still intent. “What was she telling you to do?”
Root swallowed. “Something… dangerous.”
“I thought you liked dangerous.” Shaw’s gaze searched hers, and Root almost wondered if the shorter woman could hear what the machine was urging her to do.
“I… I should go.” Staying wasn’t an option, Root decided. If Shaw kept looking at her like that, her resistance would crumble. Whatever was happening between them had been fun and stimulating, but she couldn’t let it be more. It would just get them both killed.
“I can’t.” Root adjusted her bag and made for the door, getting it unlocked before Shaw caught up with her. She’d barely stepped into the hallway before she was thrust against the opposite wall. A protest died on her lips as Shaw’s right hand fisted in her jacket and yanked her down, her mouth crashing hungrily against Root’s.
The kiss nearly buckled Root’s knees. She clutched at the shorter woman, drawing her closer, her body singing as Shaw brushed up against her. Shaw’s left hand raked through Root’s hair before cupping the back of her neck, urging her closer still and Root gave in, unable to resist the taste of her.
They kissed like that for several minutes, to the point where Root thought she might spontaneously combust if Shaw didn’t take her back inside. She was about to make the suggestion when Shaw suddenly pulled away.
“I think that will do.” Shaw looked smug, her tone vaguely taunting.
“Do?” Root asked, confused.
“Can’t send my girlfriend off without a proper kiss, now can I?” Shaw winked at her before spinning on her bare heel and sauntering back inside. “Thanks, by the way. For… everything.”
Root flinched as the door slammed shut. On shaking legs, she moved toward it, her hand resting on the wood. Shaw was still playing their game, the one she’d started, but Root knew if she could make herself knock that the games would be over.
It was both exhilarating and terrifying to think what would happen, of how good it would feel. Root put her head against the door, her hand balling into a fist.
The machine wanted her to be happy. She wanted both of them to be happy. It was both sweet and heartbreaking.
“Until next time,” Root spoke just loud enough to be heard through the door, but her efforts to have the last word, to maintain control, fell flat. It was almost painful to turn and walk away, but she did. Shaw had won this round and perhaps even more than either of them had bargained for.
Glancing toward the elevators, Root noticed the camera tracking her movements. She wasn’t sure if it was the machine or Samaritan interested in her romantic activities. It didn’t really matter.
It wasn’t going to happen again.