Fusco peeked around the front of the Subaru and recoiled just in time as bullets sprayed the air where his head had just been. His breaths came faster – sharper – as a bead of sweat trickled down his cheek. The shooter rounded the parked cars in an attempt to get a clear line of fire, each shot getting closer and closer to its mark.
With a roar, a black SVU rushed forward and crashed into the shooter’s side, flinging his body onto the pavement, rendering him unconscious. The door swung open and Reese stepped out, submachine gun slung around his shoulders casually.
Scowling, Fusco asked, “Now how are we supposed to explain that? Cops don’t just go around running people down, you know?”
“Well, if you don’t want to get hit by a car you shouldn’t stand in the middle of a parking lot,” Reese said sensibly.
Another man clad in black approached them, pistol raised, ready to fire. Before either Reese or Fusco had a chance to react, a bullet ripped through fabric and flesh, and the would-be assailant collapsed to the concrete clutching his bleeding knee with a shriek.
“You’re welcome,” Shaw’s smug voice filtered over Reese’s earpiece.
“Shaw,” he acknowledged.
“Great,” Fusco said. “Just another thing I’ll need to explain in my report.”
“Everything’s taken care of,” Reese said, two fingers pressing on the device in his ear. “I’m heading back to you now, Finch.”
“Excellent work, Mr. Reese.”
Shaw packed up her sniper rifle and shouldered the case’s strap, the pleather digging into her bone. Pivoting, she checked the room one last time, eyes scanning for any discrepancies that might give her away. Then she headed down the stairs and out the back, nearly crashing into a taller hooded figure.
“Sorry,” Shaw muttered, already turning away, cold night air biting at her skin.
“Don’t be,” they said, side-stepping to block her path, face still obscured from Shaw’s view. “You’re just the person I was looking for.
The faded grey sweatpants and university hoodie revealed nothing, but Shaw recognized the voice. She rolled her eyes, jaw clenching as irritation shot through her.
Root’s painted red lips stretched into a lazy smile as she turned to face Shaw. Leaning one shoulder against the chipped brick wall, Root said, “Tonight’s reminded me why I was such a big fan of yours in the first place.”
Pointedly ignoring the compliment, Shaw asked, “Are you stalking me?”
“What can I say? I’ve missed you,” Root said, stepping closer to her, eyes twinkling. Shaw’s glare didn’t waver. “Don’t tell me you haven’t missed me even a little bit.” Root pouted ridiculously, and Shaw wanted to hit her and bite her all at once.
“If I say ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ will you leave me the hell alone?”
Root’s lips curved into a smirk.
“What’s – uh – what’s with the get-up?” Shaw asked, gesturing at her clothing.
“I’m Vicky Clint, college student,” Root said mockingly, twirling a strand of hair with her finger. “It’s been a bit of a challenge, tricking people into thinking I’m ten years younger.”
Shaw sighed, “So what do you want, Root?”
“I need your help with a number,” and before Shaw could protest, Root continued, “I’m sure Finch and the big lug will somehow manage without your presence. Besides, don’t we always have a lot of fun together?” Her voice dropped low and teasing at the end.
Shaw narrowed her eyes and stalked off. She didn’t expect to out-walk Root, but maybe now she’d get to the fucking point.
“It’ll most likely involve arson and grand larceny,” Root sing-songed, breaking into a slight jog to keep up with her faster strides (much to Shaw’s satisfaction; shorter legs be damned). She continued, “Breaking and entering, a few explosions, the usual.”
It sounded exactly like what they’d both call a good time. With a barely suppressed grin, Shaw stopped and swiveled abruptly, causing Root to collide with her. Shaw pushed Root back and away, palm pressing firmly into Root’s stomach.
“Fine, as long as you stop following me.”
“I have to be on my way anyway,” Root said sweetly.
“Where are you going?”
Root raised an eyebrow like she’d caught Shaw in the act of caring.
“Some last minute preparations,” Root said as evasively as ever, “but I’m touched you asked.”
“I’ll swing by to pick you up after your shift tomorrow. See you then, Sameen.”
After this was all over, Shaw planned on getting at least one good punch in.
Shaw entered the musty abandoned subway station with quiet footsteps, but Reese managed to sense her anyway.
“What took you so long?” he asked.
Finch looked up, light flashing off his glasses, similarly expecting an answer.
“Got held up by our friend, the reformed psychopath.”
“Is everything alright?” Finch asked, a little alarmed.
“She needs my help with something,” Shaw said with a hard exhale. “You boys gonna be okay without my help for a day or two?”
“Quite,” Finch said, returning his attention to the screens in front of him. “Though if you could keep us up to date throughout the mission, it’d be very much appreciated, Ms. Shaw.”
“If I shoot her you’ll be the first to know,” Shaw promised.
“Have fun,” Reese said with a slight smile.
“Oh, I will,” Shaw said. One way or another, she thought.
The next morning, Reese got comfortable behind his desk and set about filling out the never-ending stack of paperwork. After an hour or so he moved on to reading the other reports on his desk – mentions of possible Triad activity, the Brotherhood, vandalism, robbery, and so on. It was hard knowing that even with the Machine’s numbers, it would never really be enough.
His phone buzzed insistently, breaking his reverie.
“Detective Riley speaking.”
“We’ve got a new number, Mr. Reese,” Finch said.
“I’m on my way.”
Good, he felt like he had real purpose again.
“Marc Miller,” Finch said, taping their number’s picture to the window of the subway car. “Twenty-one and currently a student at NYU.”
“Any other insights as to why the Machine gave us his number?” Reese asked, bending to take a closer look at Marc’s profile.
“Mr. Miller’s tuition and other expenses are being paid for by his moderately affluent parents,” Finch said stiffly. “So presumably it’s not a matter of money.”
“Any enemies then?”
“The rival fraternity perhaps?” Finch suggested. “He and a few other boys got into a little trouble during initiation hazing.”
Reese’s brow furrowed. “I’ll get eyes on him.”
“And I’ll use my position as ‘Professor Whistler’ to see if I can find more information on the incident,” Finch said.
Shaw stood outside, pulling at the hem of her tight dress as she waited for Root. Hopefully, there would be time for her to change into something more comfortable. No way was she going to do this mission in heels.
“Sam,” she heard as Root’s arm hooked through hers, dragging her into walking with Root. Shaw made to pull apart, but Root gripped Shaw’s bicep with her free hand, stilling the movement.
“What are you doing?” Shaw asked through gritted teeth.
“We’re on a date,” Root said cheerfully. She was enjoying this, and that made Shaw hate her all the more.
Still, she rolled her eyes rather than waste time arguing and asked, “So, who’s our number?”
“Dr. Melinda Cordero,” Root said, tilting her mouth down towards Shaw’s ear as they walked. “Tenured accounting professor. Single, but she recently adopted a baby girl.”
Shaw took in Root’s attire – jeans and a loose-fitting periwinkle sweatshirt – and asked, “New cover?”
“Josephine Mauchly,” Root said. And then more reluctantly, “Nanny.”
Shaw’s eyebrows jumped up as she realized, “So you’re gonna be looking after her kid?”
“So it seems.”
“The baby’s probably the one who’s in danger then,” Shaw snickered.
Root looked unimpressed and said, “Make fun all you want, but at least my crappy job only lasts till the end of the mission.”
Shaw frowned at the reminder of the hours behind the make-up counter she’d spent and would continue to spend. Feeling a little less smug, she asked, “Where are we going?”
“Dr. Cordero’s apartment,” Root said. “I’m on the clock soon.”
“Why do you need me then?”
Cryptic Root was by far her least favorite Root.
Shaw glared, purposefully slowing down.
“You’ll be tailing the professor,” Root relented.
“Can I at least change into something less…?” Shaw gestured at her inconvenient attire.
“No time,” Root said with a patronizing smile. “Besides, I really like the new look.”
Shaw ripped her arm out from Root’s grasp.
Finch limped into his office, cane steady in his hand, and got set up at the desk. Going through the school’s records proved an easy enough hack, and he read through the incident reports filed on Marc Miller.
“It looks like the incident with the rival fraternity was resolved amicably,” Finch said.
Reese responded, “No chance anyone’s holding a grudge then?”
“The report says it was settled through mediation and that no further action is necessary.”
“A cushy word for bribery, I’m assuming. How is finding Mr. Miller?”
“Still haven’t gotten close enough to bluejack his phone, but otherwise it’s been quiet.”
“Alright, I’ll keep digging around in the meantime.”
“Professor Cordero will be down soon enough,” Root said, adjusting her navy blue purse strap. “Good luck.”
The apartment complex that loomed overhead was modern and simplistic with far too many windows for Shaw’s liking. Still, there were worse places to try to defend.
“Here’s hoping the baby loses its lunch all over you,” Shaw said, mood improving a little at the imagery alone.
Root wrinkled her nose but didn’t deign to reply.
About five minutes later, a middle-aged Hispanic woman (Shaw hazarded a guess of late 40s) emerged from the building and headed towards the nearby bus station. She was taller than Shaw by quite a good bit – making it easier to keep eyes on her – with hair just a shade darker than Root’s.
Shaw followed after, force pairing her phone with the number’s. She switched her earpiece on and asked, “You there, Finch?”
“Yes, I am, Ms. Shaw. How is your mission with Ms. Groves?”
“No one’s died yet.”
“Well, that is a positive sign considering.”
“Our number is some professor,” Shaw said, “and Root’s looking after her baby.”
“Baby? Oh dear. You left Ms. Groves alone with the child?”
“Didn’t really have a choice,” Shaw said. “Today, she’s Josephine Mauchly, distinguished nanny, or something.”
“Where does this professor teach?”
“NYU, I think.”
“I’ll contact Detective Fusco to take over tailing duties.”
Shaw snorted, “There’s really no need, Finch. Besides, I kind of like the idea of Root having to handle a baby by herself for an entire day.”
“As amusing as it is in theory, it would also be incredibly irresponsible for us to leave an infant in her care-“
“Fine,” Shaw interjected. “Call Fusco. Whatever.”
Finch just had to go and ruin her day.
“Have you found Mr. Miller?”
“Yes,” Reese said. “He just slipped into Advanced International Political Theory, ten minutes late.”
“I assume Mr. Miller’s been a perfect citizen otherwise,” Finch said.
“Perfect? Maybe not. But ordinary, sure,” Reese said.
“Keep me updated.”
Shaw switched off with Fusco halfway to the university and spent most of the bus ride back to Dr. Cordero’s apartment with her head against the window, soothed rather than irritated by the bumps along the way. As she got off at the station, Shaw connected a call from Root.
“So,” Root’s voice was higher than usual – poorly hidden panic if Shaw had to guess, “short of murdering someone, how do you get a baby to stop crying?” The unmistakable sound of a baby wailing in the background pierced Shaw’s eardrums unpleasantly.
Despite that, Shaw smirked. “You were right, Root. I am having a lot of fun.”
“Shaw,” Root said warningly (pleadingly). “It’s been screaming its head off for three and a half minutes straight.”
“Did you check her diaper?”
“Yes.” Root sounded utterly disgusted and that delighted Shaw all the more.
“Uhm…” Root moved around and the source of the screaming got louder.
Shaw flicked her earpiece on so that she had both streams connected – Root and Finch.
“Good lord, what is that noise?”
“Root and the baby.”
Finally a loud belch could be heard. As if miraculously, the crying stopped.
“Oh, thank God,” Root exhaled.
“I see things are going well, Ms. Groves,” Finch said disapprovingly.
“I followed my strengths for a reason, Harold,” Root said flatly.
“Anyway,” Shaw interrupted, cutting communication with Root off now that her baby issues were resolved, “I left Dr. Cordero in Fusco’s care. You sure you want me back with Root?”
“More than ever,” Finch said. “And Ms. Shaw? Please hurry.”
Several hours of tailing Marc from one end of the campus to the other had Reese a little restless. The kid went to classes, went to lunch, went to the library, back to classes – it was almost worse than doing paperwork, he mused.
“Nothing so far, Finch.”
“Well, keep on him. In other news, Detective Fusco is currently tailing Ms. Groves and Ms. Shaw’s number.”
Reese raised an eyebrow and asked, “Then where are they exactly?”
“Looking after the number’s baby.”
That gave him pause.
“Is that really the best idea?”
“That is yet to be determined. Anyway, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both numbers are from this university. I’m thinking there's a link.”
“Let me know what you find," Reese said and listened to Marc's professor drone on about the justice cascade.
As Shaw approached the apartment building she was lucky enough to pass by another one of the building’s residents who held the door for her (thought it did little to ease her security concerns). Dr. Cordero’s apartment door was propped open marginally to allow Shaw to slip inside and lock it behind her. It was quiet – suspiciously so – and Shaw drew her gun.
“Shhh,” Root said, emerging from the hallway and hurrying over to Shaw. “I just got it to sleep.”
“Her,” Shaw said anyway, albeit a little quieter. She tucked her gun away inside her purse.
“Right,” Root said in her usual manner, but the nervous fiddling of her sleeve gave away her true emotions.
Dark amusement twisted Shaw’s lips into a grin, and she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this nervous before, Root. Think I’ve found your Achilles’ heel.”
Annoyance flickered in Root’s eyes briefly before she smoothed it over quickly with an innuendo and a smirk, “If you poke and prod around some more, maybe you’ll find another one.” She gave Shaw a flirtatious once-over.
As always, Root managed to find a way to turn the tables on Shaw, to needle and simper and irritate. And Christ, did it ever irritate.
“I could just leave, you know,” Shaw threatened.
“No,” Root said too quickly, fingers latching onto Shaw’s wrist. And to deflect from her desperation, Root asked, “Where’s Dr. Cordero?”
“Lionel’s watching her,” Shaw said, shaking Root’s hold off. “For some reason Finch thought you’d need a little help.”
“And you came running to my aid?” Root asked in that self-assured tone of hers.
“The baby’s aid,” Shaw corrected, reveling in the way Root’s face dropped slightly in disappointment.
“Oh dear,” Finch said. “Mr. Miller is a student in one of Dr. Cordero’s classes. It looks as if he’s currently failing the class.”
“People do take grades pretty seriously.”
“Mr. Miller also spoke with the Dean of Students concerning the matter a few weeks back, but no action was taken against Dr. Cordero.”
“So we got his number and Root and Shaw got hers? This can’t be good.”
“Indeed. Keep a close eye on him, Mr. Reese. I have a bad feeling about all of this.”
While the baby slept, Shaw took a seat at the dining table and cleaned her guns, keeping an eye out for movement in the street below. Root paced for a bit before Shaw snapped at her, and instead Root took a look at Dr. Cordero’s computer.
“There’s not very much,” Root said, absorbed in the details on the screen, nails tapping erratically against the laminated surface of the table. “A complaint or two from students, but nothing serious.”
Shaw took a break from cleaning and slapped her palm on top of Root’s hyperactive left hand, squashing her fingers down.
Root jolted a little but tilted her head to apologize with a slow smile.
A cry interrupted her words, and Root and Shaw groaned in tandem.
Shaw figured it would be prudent to follow Root to the baby’s bedroom this time – in case Root ‘accidentally’ developed butterfingers or something. Root bit her lip as she lifted the baby from the crib like she was made of the most delicate glass. Awkwardly, Root rubbed the baby’s back with her free hand and made shushing noises.
Instead of helping Root, Shaw observed the interaction with mirth.
“You look scared,” Shaw commented lazily over the screams.
“Scared of what I’ll do if she doesn’t stop screeching.”
“Threatening babies now? Tsk tsk,” Shaw admonished light-heartedly. She was enjoying Root out of her element, maybe a little too much. Sighing, Shaw said, “Give her here.”
Gratefully, Root handed the baby over to Shaw, and Shaw debated pretending to fumble and drop the baby half-way but decided against it in the end. If Root had a heart attack, she’d probably be expected to deal with that too.
“What’s her name?” Shaw asked.
“Okay,” Shaw said and rummaged through the blankets in the crib to grab a pacifier. She walked the wailing infant to the bathroom where she ran the pacifier under warm water before offering it to Ana. “There, there, Ana. There, there.”
Ana wrapped her lips around the pacifier, and her cries died down.
“Hand me a tissue,” Shaw directed at Root.
Root obeyed, and Shaw wiped up the snot and tears from Ana’s face. As Shaw carried the baby into the living room, she caught sight of Root’s expression, eyes wide and lips pressed together tightly.
“What?” she grumbled.
Root blinked, and the look was gone, replaced by a familiar easygoing grin. “Such maternal instincts, Shaw. Who would’ve guessed?”
“Didn’t you ever babysit when you were younger?”
Root gave her a look. An excuse-me-I-stole-$100,000-from-a-drug-lord-when-I-was-14-why-would-I-want-$5-an-hour kind of look.
“Like your cousins or your cousins’ children? I don’t know.” Shaw rocked Ana back and forth gently, allowing her to become accustomed to Root and Shaw’s presence.
“It was mostly just my mom and me,” Root said with a shrug.
“I thought you were good with kids,” Shaw said.
“Only when I can reason with them,” Root said, running a hand absently through her hair.
“Only when you can manipulate them,” Shaw corrected.
At around six in the evening, Marc finally broke his routine and headed off campus. Reese watched as Marc looked around nervously (suspiciously) before ducking behind a building.
“Something’s happening, Finch.”
Marc’s bluejacked phone allowed both Finch and Reese to hear the conversation that followed.
“Is it done?” Marc asked in a rough whisper.
“Patience, man. We’ve got people on it right now. There’s still the matter of payment,” a deep voice said. The sound of rustling paper was followed by, “I’ll be back for the second half tomorrow.”
Marc reappeared from behind the building, and Reese broke into a brisk jog past him to spot the man that Marc had been conversing with. “Bad news. The guy Miller was just talking to is definitely Brotherhood. Pretty sure Miller’s the perpetrator.”
“Can you pick up Mr. Miller? I’ve contacted Detective Fusco about escorting Dr. Cordero somewhere safer already.”
“Ms. Shaw,” Finch’s voice came over clear and urgent in her earpiece.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“My number hired a member of the Brotherhood to threaten and possibly harm your number,” he informed her. “Detective Fusco will protect Dr. Cordero for the time being, but I’d recommend staying on guard in case they come around the apartment to look for her.”
“Too late,” Shaw said, looking down at the street below and spotting a member of the Brotherhood in a beat-up Cadillac down below.
“Root,” Shaw called out, drawing her attention. “Take Ana, we’ve got incoming. One down there in a car, one coming up.”
“It’s probably for the best if you keep a hold on her,” Root said breezily, withdrawing a Taser from her purse.
“Root,” Shaw hissed. Ana gurgled unhappily at the decision as well.
“Ms. Groves, Ms. Shaw,” Finch said sternly.
“Go,” Root tilted her head toward the bedroom and got in position next to the doorway of the entrance.
“You'll pay later,” Shaw promised and adjusted her grip on Ana who had decided to take an interest in Shaw’s hair.
“Hello, Dr. Cordero,” Fusco said, stepping into her office. “NYPD, Detective Lionel Fusco. You might be in a bit of danger, I’m going to need to escort you to somewhere safer.”
Dr. Cordero gaped a little, frozen with confusion.
Fusco shoved his hands in pockets and sighed, “We’re on a bit of a schedule, Professor.”
She snapped to, shoving her belongings into the briefcase on her desk. “What kind of danger? What’s going on?”
“If you’ll follow me, I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Professor Whistler,” Fusco acknowledged as he guided Dr. Cordero into the back of the black SUV with Finch.
“Detective Fusco,” Finch replied, laptop open across his lap. “And Dr. Cordero, I presume.”
“Do you teach here? Are you in danger too? What’s going on?” she asked rapidly.
“Yes, possibly, and I think it has something to with a disgruntled student of yours,” Finch said. “I’m just here as a consultant.”
“Oh no,” Dr. Cordero said, face ashen. “My daughter?”
Finch looked at Fusco and hesitated, “She’s in… capable hands.”
“Yeah, the best,” Fusco said, catching on. “Very... sensitive ladies.”
A knock resounded against the wooden door.
“Come in,” Root said lightly.
The handle turned and the moment Root saw the man’s face, she pressed the Taser into his neck. His body convulsed and fell to the floor with a thump. Nonchalant as ever, Root dragged his body inside and kicked the door shut behind her.
“Now,” Root said, squatting down so that she wasn’t towering over him quite so much, “how about calling off that hit?” She set about thinking of how best to get him to comply.
“Josephine,” Shaw’s voice interrupted her thought process. “We should go. Before anyone else shows up.”
The name didn’t sit quite right, but it was probably for the best that the Brotherhood remained unaware of her for now.
“Right,” Root said, setting down the sharp steak knife that Shaw hadn’t even noticed her pick up. “Pity, I was looking forward to having a little fun.”
“Not in front of Ana,” Shaw said disapprovingly.
“She can’t even understand,” Root complained as they grabbed a few diapers and wipes before heading out.
“It’s the… principle of the matter, or something,” Shaw sniped, careful not to jostle Ana as they took the stairs down to the garage. “Got it,” Shaw said as they arrived. “Reese says we need to head to the precinct.”
Root withdrew a set of keys from her purse and pressed the unlock button twice on the fob, following the honking sound the corresponding car made.
“You had a car this whole time?”
Root shrugged, “I wasn’t sure what it was for until now.”
“Car keys,” Shaw said incredulously. “What else could they be for?”
“Sorry, Sameen,” Root said, pushing her towards the passenger side. “I’m driving.”
To make things worse, Ana took it upon herself to smear drool all over Shaw’s arm at that moment.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Though Reese intended to apprehend the number, he found that he was a few steps too late. Two officers dressed in NYPD black had gotten there before him.
“Marc Miller? We have a few questions for you if you’re willing to come down to the station to talk with us.”
“To the station? Why not here?” Marc stammered. “I don’t have to go with you.”
“It’s in your best interest.” One of the officers stepped forward, jabbing something into his neck.
From the way Marc stiffened, Reese realized-
“Finch, there’s something very wrong.”
He strode forward, hand flying to his gun.
Marc’s eyes widened and his knees buckled, the other officer barely catching him. They pushed Marc into the back of the police car before Reese could draw his firearm. Reese broke into a run, but even as he sped up, he knew he was too late to catch up. The two officers slipped into the vehicle and sped off, leaving Reese in the dust.
Reese bent over, hands braced on his knees as he regained control of his breathing.
“They took him.”
“Two cops. This reminds me too much of the HR days, Harold. I think our number is both the perp and the victim.”
“Kidnapping a baby is not how I imagined this mission would go,” Shaw said irritably as Root steered the car out of the garage.
“No kidding,” Root said.
A bang exploded into the air and reflexively Shaw curled around Ana to protect her. The passenger side window shattered as another shot sounded out loud, shards battering against Shaw’s face and side.