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You've Seen the Difference and It's Getting Better all the Time

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Root remembers being seven-years-old and combing the Goodwill for sun dresses and skirts that flared out when she twirled and white knee socks. She’d seen a film at school, she doesn't remember which one, but it had felt like solving the final equation in the high school math textbook when she connected the clothes and the mannerism of the little girls on screen to the easy way they seemed to glide through life, charmed and happy and safe.

*

"I just got fucking lynched by a flock of death birds," Jason says, coming inside and letting the door bang shut behind him, the bell clattering, distressed, in his wake. "Fuck your long-term health, Root, I'm not going for a smoke alone out there, I've seen this movie."

Root doesn't look up from where she's trying to coax the wavering free wireless to stabilize long enough to connect her VPN. She has very important pictures to send to Shaw. "They're grackles. They're mostly harmless."

"That's what you said about those college footballers," Daizo says.

"Thank you," Jason throws his hands up. "Relatedly, I'm not calling the car rental agency."

"I already deactivated that credit card," Daizo says, shrugging. Root nods approvingly.

Daniel chews his mouthful of strawberries frantically. "Really? Can't we at least *try* to be law-abiding citizens?"

"Technically I'm not a citizen," Daizo says. Jason makes finger guns and grins.

Root says, "They were assholes, anyway."

Daniel bangs his head back against the window gently. "I take it back, this is, in fact, worse than the Walmart vs. Target shoplifting competition."

"Which I won," Root says.

"Because we're in your home territory," Jason objects. "Fucking try that shit at a Walmart in New York and you'll get fucked over in a second."

Root shakes her head. "Somebody's projecting bad childhood experiences."

"Nah, the really bad ones were when my dad was the one getting arrested. I could run fast enough that I didn't have to worry."

"Uh huh?" Root clicks the touchpad on her laptop furiously, holding her plastic spoon between her teeth while sour apple frozen yogurt melts over her tongue.

"You're distracting her sexting," Daizo says. Root kicks him. Hard.

"I'm sending her mission-related documents."

"Is that what they're calling it?" Daniel hasn't lifted his head from the window, so his words are directed mostly towards the florescent lights in the ceiling.

"That doesn't even make sense," she says, at the same time Daizo says

"Who are "they"?"

Daniel waves his spoon expansively, somehow not sending chocolate chips flying. "You know. The kids."

Jason tugs out a chair and throws himself down, making the cheap orange plastic creak alarmingly. Root assumes he's contemplating his froyo choices (and fuck Daizo and Google both for teaching her the word froyo), but when she finally looks up he's working on the Disney princess jigsaw puzzle sitting on their table which the rest of them have been ignoring aggressively.

"We're not stopping until we hit the airport," she says. "So if you want to eat now is your only chance."

"I'll pass," he says. Daniel reaches over and pulls the plastic spoon out of Root's mouth. She hadn't even realized she still been holding it in the corner of her mouth like a bright pink cigar.

The teenager working the cash register comes out from behind the counter with a mop, and Root automatically curls her body protectively over her computer screen. They're the only people in the shop, so for a few minutes the only sounds are the painfully upbeat pop music blaring from the speakers and the clatter slosh of the mop.

"Y'all from around here?" the kid asks when she comes in range of their table.

"No," Jason says, immediately. "Thank Christ."

"She is," Daniel says, cheerfully traitorous. Root glares as best she can from behind her paper cup where she's tipped it up to drink the remainder of her melted yogurt.

The kid smiles. It's friendly enough, but still clearly a customer service smile. "Have you taken them for barbeque yet?"

"Not yet," Root says. This persona is easy, generic and well-worn. "My folks are loyal to Rudy's but I'm thinking about being adventurous."

She's glad the kid's accent is almost non-existent. It makes it easier to avoid sliding too far into her own. "Hmm. Well, I guess it depends how long they're in town for."

"Oh, I don't live around here, either," she says.

"Damn, road tripping with three boys?" the kid makes an over-exaggerated face of sympathy. "I've got two brothers, and I swear our house got ten times cleaner after they left for college. You’re brave."

"Mmhm," Root says, and stares pointedly down at her computer.

"How long are you in town?"

"Oh... a few days," Root lies, and starts typing nonsense into a notepad document so she looks busy. The kid thankfully takes the hint, this time.

Once she's out of earshot Daniel says "That was a lie, right? She didn't suddenly decide we need to stay here?"

"No," Root says. "Of course not. She's actually going to start setting up a team based in the Southern US, so we probably won't have to come back here ever again."

"She is?" Daniel asks.

At the same time The Machine says, "I am?"

"Yes," Root answers them both.

*

Root remembers being twelve-years-old, and stealing cheap cologne from Walmart to pair with the oversized flannel shirts and baggy blue jeans that she spent twenty minutes adjusting in front of the mirror each morning because Hanna smiled at those kind of boys in the cafeteria and carpooled with them to church youth group on Wednesdays and Root could already see where things were going.

*

They get back from the Texas road trip of 'fuck literally everything ever' mid-afternoon. Daniel and Jason share a taxi after they've appropriately disposed of their liberated rental car, but Root decides to walk the twenty-five blocks back to the apartment she's kind of sharing with Shaw.

Shaw says, "I made oatmeal," when Root picks the lock. All of the keys are at the bottom of the river and neither of them can be bothered to call a locksmith.

"My hands hurt," Root says, staring down at them in fascination.

"It's winter," Shaw says. "Wear some gloves."

"They really hurt. I'm offended. It's far colder than predicted by the proverbial weatherman."

Shaw is doing pushups in the middle of the living room. A strand of hair is plastered to her cheek and Root wants to lick her. "Why is the weatherman proverbial?" Shaw asks.

Root slaps her hands together, trying to make them stop hurting. "Well they don't really... exist anymore, do they?"

Shaw holds herself poised, a perfect plank, so she can stare bemused at Root. "They're called meteorologists. Do you watch the news?"

"No."

Shaw lowers herself. Root goes over to the stove to poke at the cold remains of the oatmeal. Shaw's used steel cut oats, so it's at least mush with a bit of texture.

"We were in Texas," Root says. "I didn't pack my winter wardrobe."

"What were you doing in Texas?" Shaw asks, and Root's facing away from her but she can imagine the exact twist of her lips. Shaw's no more a fan of the south than Root is.

"Definitely not killing anybody," Root says. Shaw's been doing irrelevants long enough now that she's gotten uncomfortable with that sort of thing.

Root stands in front of the stove for a long time. Shaw comes up beside her and says "Are you going to eat that or just keep staring? It's not going to look back."

"I was Sam Groves a lot this week," Root says, turning toward Shaw but not looking at her. "I haven't had to do that in a long time and I didn't like it."

This is primarily obfuscation. While true, the entire experience isn't actually one that really bothers her-- she spent years playing Samantha Groves, and the identity fits uncomfortable and stiff with age, a reassurance that it holds no relation to who she is at this point in her life.

"Ok," says Shaw. "Do you want this oatmeal or not?"

Root sits on the milk crate coffee table to eat. She puts the oatmeal in a mason jar to complete the aesthetic, but she doesn't know what to do with her legs.

"I hate everything about this," Shaw says, staring at her from the other side of the counter. "I'm buying us real dishes tomorrow."

Root wishes she had her really thick glasses. Possibly something plaid. Two birds with one stone. Performance art. A new person to slip into so she doesn't have to deal with the static under her skin and in her head. The oatmeal mashes between her teeth and sticks to the roof of her mouth but she forces herself, ruthlessly, to keep eating.

Shaw comes and sits across from her on the sofa. She's wearing black exercise pants and a soft blue tee-shirt and the ease with which she sprawls back into the cushions makes Root painfully glad for her. Sameen, who is at home in her body in a way that even ten months of torture couldn't take away.

"Your other other half told me some things, a few months ago," Shaw says. On someone else, the tone might be called brusque.

"I asked Her to," Root says. She forgets, sometimes, that Shaw knows her so well.

"I figured. So, you know, if you ever want to talk or whatever."

Root hits the spoon against the side of the jar. "I don't," she says. In the moment, this is not a lie.

*

Root remembers being twenty-seven-years-old and a man in an expensive suit tripping over himself to pull her chair out even as he flipped out his jacket so she could get a glimpse of the gun he would try to shoot her with three hours later. She'd used his own gun against him in the end, and his hired security had failed to stop her because they both hesitated to hit her.

*

Shaw leaves an unopened package on Root's pillow a few days later. It's too squishy to be a sex toy or a gun,.

"It's not even my birthday," she says, automatically, shaking out what at first looks kind of like a tank top.

"You don't even know when your birthday is," Shaw says.

"Harold suggested the day Hanna disappeared," Root says. "Which tells you a lot, really. We're not all defined by our childhood traumas, Harry."

"I figured it might help," Shaw mutters, jerking her head towards the now-empty packaging. "I wasn't sure what you've used before."

"It might," Root says. "Around other people. It's not so much a physical thing as it is a perception thing. Having a body is shitty no matter what it looks like, but I'm usually pretty good at ignoring it."

Shaw coughs out something like a laugh. "No shit."

Root ignores her. "It didn't bother me so much before I met you --I mean, the pleural, not just you, Sameen-- because I rarely spent time with other people as myself. It was inconvenient, sometimes, to be under-estimated by my potential employers or other associates, but I'm very good and I had the money and weaponry to prove it. Also, you know, I was a goddamn professional, and you hit a certain level where that's all that really matters. And sometimes being under-estimated is useful."

"But then..." Shaw lets the sentence trail, waiting for Root to fill in the blank. Root wonders if this is easier for Shaw to understand, the implications of psychological medicalization lapping ominously at the edges of Root's life calling to something familiar and grounding for Shaw.

She lets her fists clench in reaction to the burst of resentment she feels, but otherwise partitions it off. "She was doing a lot of exploring of Her own, at the time. And I started spending a lot of time with Daniel and Jason and Daizo, and I realized how much it bothered me when people pointed out the ratio for no reason other than they thought it was relevant. Also, I wasn't much help when she had questions for me. It made me... aware of that aspect of myself with a frequency I wasn't used to."

Shaw is silent. She's never sure what to say when people are in the midst of talking about their feelings, and usually it doesn't bother Root. If not for her time spent as a psychologist, Root would be in the same boat. But now the lack of response makes Root feel like she's not translating herself to words well enough, like Shaw's still waiting for that point where it all clicks together into something she can understand.

The Machine had given her a list of words when they'd first started talking about this stuff, but Root had bristled under the possibility of classification in the same way she disdained any mental health diagnosis. She has moved beyond the traditional safety blankets of categorization, to allow herself to fall back into them, even a different set, would be voluntarily reversing evolution.

"It's fine, Sameen," she says after the silence has gone on for almost a minute. "Thank you for this." She makes sure to touch Shaw's arm when she passes her to leave the bedroom because root's own issues aside she wants to acknowledge that she appreciates what Shaw was trying to do.

*

Root remembers being thirty-four-years-old and standing at the sink in a motel washroom that smelled too much like bleach, holding a pair of scissors up to her hair until The Machine had said "There is an 88.4 percent chance you will regret this."

*

Root hasn't actually ever worn a proper binder. She's used sports bras when she's needed to go under cover as someone coded masculine, in the same way she's used push-up bras when she's needed to appeal to a certain type of person. Most of her under-cover costumes are cobbled together from whatever resources she or The Machine has at hand in the moment, and before The Machine she had rarely played a role for more than minutes or hours at a time. Caroline Turing had been an exception to the rule.

The first time she tries it on it makes her chest ache. She'd gotten pretty used to that sort of pain in her months and months of recovery, but it still drags up unpleasant memories of painkiller fogginess and unfamiliar European medical facilities and trying to fit herself back between Shaw and The Machine in a gap that felt too small.

She breathes through it.

She puts on jeans and an over-sized sweatshirt and tucks her hair into a beany and it feels like a costume, it feels like she is trying to be something she isn't. She switches the sweatshirt out for a burgundy sweater and her leather jacket. The bullet holes land on a different place on her torso now, and she spends a minute poking a finger through them, caught by the novelty.

She leaves the outfit on when she and Shaw take bear for a walk. It's the first real spring day, and Root wants to take her hat off and doesn't at the same time.

They don't talk to anyone. Bear manages to get himself covered in mud, and Shaw glares at Root's jacket like it's personally offended her, and Root kicks melted snow at her just to watch her dance out of the way and doesn't crow about the fact that Shaw had worn Root's jackets when she thought she was dead. It fucking delights Root whenever she thinks about it, but it makes Shaw get all quiet and irritable and snappish, so she doesn't bring it up. The same way she doesn't bring up the way The machine was using her voice.

Even now, the idea that there are people who missed Root when she was gone enough to hold on to her memory is simultaneously one of the best feelings she's ever experienced and fucking terrifying if she thinks about it too long. It's always easier when she's the one doing the caring, because she can handle any resultant emotional fallout. But to always be at risk of causing any sort of emotional distress to people she cares about is more responsibility than she really knows what to do with.

They stop for coffee, and the blue-haired barista smiles brightly at Root when she hands over her cup. She's drawn a little tree in the foam on her latte. Probably she thinks she's clever. The Machine tells Root that she’s the president of the Queer Straight Alliance at her community college and Root looks back at her and Root wants to comment on the limited, banal lives of most people but she knows The Machine will disagree.

No one else pays Root any mind. She comes back out to where Shaw has perched herself on a stack of metal chairs propped against the side of the building awaiting warmer weather. Root bounces from foot to foot while Shaw takes the first few sips. She feels like she does just before a firefight, on edge and impatient. The Machine is flooding her with information about everyone who walks past, interspersed by math questions or philosophical quotations. She's trying to fill Root's mind up enough that she'll calm down. Root appreciates it, even as she downs half of her coffee in a few gulps.

When they get back to the apartment Root throws her beany across the room, leaving it where it lands in the hallway. She immediately feels better. She leaves her boots under a chair, and goes to hang over Shaw shoulder to watch her texting about brunch plans. Pressing up against Shaw feels different. Closer. Root's surprised how much she likes it.

The Machine asks, "Did it help?" and Root doesn't know what to say.

"It's made it different," she says, finally, not just meaning the binder. she's thinking about potentials, about the construct of reality, about a wave function collapsing, impossibly slowly until everything is made strangely real.

Shaw leans back against her, and Root's ribs twinge sharply. The bullet holes in her jacket don't match up with her scars. She says, "Actually, yes. I think it has helped."