Shaw stopped and looked around, scanning the area for any sign of trouble. Nothing seemed amiss.
“You mind telling me what I’m looking for?” Shaw mumbled to the Machine.
Wait. Number is approaching from east.
Shaw’s eyes darted up towards the direction indicated by the Machine. She spotted a familiar figure walking towards her.
“You,” Shaw growled, trying to hide the surprise in her voice.
“Me,” The figure replied, not at all hiding the smugness in her voice.
“Root, what are you doing he-“ Shaw was cut off unexpectedly when the hacker’s lips connected with her own.
Root’s lips were soft and warm. Shaw’s hands automatically reached out to pull her closer by the lapels of her pea coat so that she could deepen the kiss. Shaw silently cursed herself for being so weak - one kiss from Root and she’d lost all control. But it had been weeks since she had seen the hacker, and well...the body wants what the body wants.
As if she could read Shaw’s thoughts, Root grinned smugly into the kiss. “I knew you missed me,” she whispered when they moved apart.
Shaw huffed indignantly. “Why are you here, Root?” she asked, changing the subject.
“The Machine wanted me here,” Root replied, “in this exact spot, actually.” She glanced above Shaw’s head and grinned.
Shaw looked up, following Root’s line of sight. She looked back at Root, unimpressed.
“You got the Machine to send me on this wild goose chase just so you can kiss me under the mistletoe? Isn’t that misappropriation of company resources?”
“Of course not, Sameen. I can’t get the Machine to do anything that she doesn’t want to do. Actually, I didn’t expect to see you here, either. But now that we’re here...” she leaned in for another kiss.
Shaw leaned backwards, out of Root’s reach, causing the hacker to pout.
“Wait wait wait. So you’re saying that the Machine is playing Cupid now? The all-seeing Machine - the ASI that was built to save lives - is now a glorified matchmaker?”
“Oh come on, Sam. You know just as much as I do that this match was already made long ago in that hotel room with me kneeling between your legs holding that hot iron above your skin. I’d be happy to perform a re-enactment of that day if it would help jog your memory...”
“And here I thought I’d actually get to shoot someone,” Shaw grumbled. She had been a bit on edge recently; her apartment building burned down because some idiot on the third floor left the stove on all night, so she had been sleeping at the subway for the last two weeks.
Root chuckled, but then stopped to listen intently as the Machine whispered in her implant.
“I understand,” Root nodded, confirming her instructions from the Machine. She turned to Shaw. “We have a new number.”
“An actual number, or is this more of the Machine trying to help you get in my pants?”
“Oh, Sameen. We both know I don’t need the Machine to get into your pants,” Root winked at Shaw. “She says this is a real number.”
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Shaw asked. “Lead the way.”
“I hate this time of year,” Shaw growled as she narrowly avoided being elbowed in the face by yet another last minute Christmas shopper. The hand tucked into her coat pocket tightened around the handle of her pistol. “Our number just had to be working at the mall around the busiest time of year, huh?”
Root smiled. “It’s not that bad, Sameen.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re a hundred feet taller than half the people here and you have the Machine in your ear telling you how to navigate around the crowd.”
Root beamed. “You could always take my hand. I’ll lead you through the crowd so you won’t get stepped on.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Shaw grumbled, stepping sideways to avoid getting shoulder checked by a man whizzing by.
“She says our number should be around the corner,” Root said, grabbing Shaw by the elbow and pulling her back as another frenzied Christmas shopper nearly barreled into her.
“What are we looking for here?” Shaw asked, yanking her elbow back with a frown.
“See that crowd of children up ahead?”
“Kinda hard to miss the screaming mass of mini humans.”
“Well, our number is right there, in the middle of that crowd. White beard, red suit, jolly laugh.”
Shaw looked at the target and then slowly turned her head to face Root, a scowl fixed on her face.
“You have got to be kidding me - our number is Santa Claus?”
Root grinned. “He sure is. Word is that he’s the most authentic Santa Claus out there.”
“So, why is he in trouble?” Shaw asked, “The other mall Santas are jealous and want to knock him off?”
“There’s been a hit put out on him by three guys who are notorious gangsters in the city. We need to find out why these guys want him dead. This one’s a team effort, Sam. The Machine arranged for Lionel to assist with extracting the number. Santa will be going on his break in ten minutes - we need to intercept him when he gets to the break room and replace him with Lionel while we get him to a safe place.”
“Great, so it’s Christmas Eve and we’re going to try and extract the most popular guy in the city and replace him with Fusco. I feel sorry for the kids who expected to see ‘the real Santa’ but are getting Fusco instead.”
“You know I can hear you right, Shaw?” Fusco’s voice came through the comms.
Shaw smirked. “Oops. Welcome to the party, Lionel. I hear you have some pretty big boots to fill.”
“The only reason I agreed to help out with this is because Lee is at his mother’s tonight...and I hear that this Santa Claus is the real thing. I gotta see for myself.”
“Why do people keep saying that? Santa doesn’t exist.” Shaw heard a loud gasp and looked down to see a little girl looking at her in wide-eyed horror. Her mother, who stood beside her, frowned at Shaw.
“She’s just kidding,” Root jumped in, “Santa really does exists, and he’s sitting right there,” she gestured to their number.
The girl slowly walked away, led by her mother, but not before shooting one last disappointed look at Shaw.
Root tried to stifle her chuckle.
“Alright, Dynamic Duo - it’s almost time for the switch,” Lionel said. “I’m headed to the break room now.”
“Roger that,” Shaw confirmed as she and Root made their way to the break room.
“Lionel, you need to stop adjusting your beard, or your cover will be blown before you even talk to the first kid,” Shaw said as Fusco fidgeted with the white piece of fluff on his face.
“Can’t help it; the thing is itchy as hell,” Fusco complained.
“He’s coming,” Root announced, relaying the message from the Machine.
Fusco gave one last exasperated tug at the fake beard before giving up.
The door to the break room opened, and their number stepped in. He really did look like Santa, with his white beard, rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes peering over tiny spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose. He paused when he spotted the three strangers in the break room - one of whom was wearing a cheap department store Santa suit.
“Don’t worry, Santa. We’re here to help. There are three men who are after you for some reason - the Flynn brothers - any idea why they might be targeting you?” Root asked.
“Oh, the Flynn brothers - Colin, Conor and Sean? It must be because I put them on the naughty list.”
“Ha ha,” Shaw deadpanned, “Very funny, gramps - what’s the real reason why you’re being targeted by these three?”
“It’s true, I’ve put them on my naughty list,” the jolly old man said, pulling out a notebook from his pocket. “Let’s see here,” he murmured, flipping the pages and scanning the contents. “Ah, here it is - Colin, Conor and Sean Flynn - all on the naughty list this year for smuggling the guns into the city on the evening of November 24th to be sold on the black market.”
“Wait - let me see that,” Shaw said, gesturing for Santa to hand over the notebook. He passed the notebook to her and she read over the notes scrawled across the page.
“Looks like they’re after you because you witnessed their shady business deal,” Shaw said, handing the notebook back to the number.
“These three are known arms dealers, but they’ve never been arrested because there has never been a witness around to testify on their crimes. At least none that lived to rat on them,” Root added.
Shaw turned to the number. “So, how is it that you happened to be around when they were selling the weapons?”
“Well I was dropping off presents at the nearby shelter in Hell’s Kitchen when I saw them. I went straight away to the police to report what I saw, but it appears that these three boys have informants within the precinct.”
“Dirty cops,” Fusco muttered, “I used to be one of ‘em. But that was a lifetime ago.”
“Oh, I know, Lionel. I’m glad you’ve chosen a better path for yourself now,” the old man said.
“Me too,” Fusco agreed, then paused. “Wait a minute, how do you know this? And how do you know my name?”
“Sorry, Lionel - no time for a Q&A,” Root interrupted. “We have to get Santa out of here before the perpetrators realize that he’s left.”
Fusco pulled on his Christmas cap and headed toward the door. He opened the door and turned around. “This isn’t over yet; I still got a lotta questions,” he said before leaving.
“Alright, Root - where are we taking jolly old Saint Nick now?”
Root turned to the man. “We’ll be escorting you to the 8th precinct and handing you over to our good friend Detective Joss Carter. You can file a report with her, and she’ll take care of you until you can testify against the Flynns.”
“Ah yes, Detective Carter is one of the good ones.”
Shaw raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Right. Okay, Kris Kringle - let’s go,” she said, heading towards the exit.
“I’ll just have to get my bag,” the man said.
Shaw rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me you have a sack full of gifts.”
“Close - but it’s only a satchel,” the man responded, holding up the bag. “It is full of gifts, though.”
“Whatever,” Shaw said, opening the door and leading the way out.
“He’s all yours, Joss,” Root said after they’ve escorted their number to the precinct.
“Ah, Detective Carter. It’s so nice to finally meet you in person!” the man exclaimed. “You are truly one of New York’s finest.”
“I’m sorry - do I know you?” Carter asked, perplexed.
“No, but I know you,” he said with a wide grin.
“Okay, that’s kinda creepy,” Shaw murmured to Root.
The bearded man pulled out two packages and an envelope from his satchel and turned to Shaw. “Sameen, this is for you,” he said, handing her one of the packages.
Shaw gingerly accepted the package when Root nodded to confirm that it was safe.
“And Root, this one is yours,” the man handed the other package and the envelope to Root. “I would have gotten you some ammo as well, but space is limited,” he shrugged apologetically, gesturing to his satchel.
Root and Shaw exchanged puzzled looks.
“Oh, I almost forgot - one more thing,” he pulled out his phone and started typing. “I’ve sent you coordinates for your next gift. Be sure to get there before midnight!”
“Okay, weirdo,” Shaw said.
“Wait wait wait,” Carter interrupted, “Did you just give guns to these two? In the presence of a police officer? Who are you?”
“Apparently he’s Santa Claus,” Shaw said sarcastically.
“That’s not gonna cut it. I’m gonna have to see some ID,” Carter prompted.
“Jocelyn, if you can believe that there is a Machine out there that can monitor everyday human interactions and predict imminent violence, then it’s not so farfetched to think that there’s someone out there watching and keeping checks and balances on good and bad deeds, is it?”
“Well I guess if you put it that way...” Carter mused.
The old man chuckled. “Now, Root and Sameen - I think you better follow those coordinates.”
Root shrugged. “Well, Joss, if we’re all done here, I guess Shaw and I have to get going.”
Carter smiled. “You ladies take care, I’ll take care of our jolly guest here.”
“Here we are,” Root said as they approached the coordinates that their number had provided.
They both looked up at the brownstone in front of them.
“What are we supposed to do now?” Shaw asked.
“She says to check the envelope,” Root said, reaching into her pocket and pulling out the envelope that the old man gave her earlier. She opened the letter and plucked out a set of keys.
Both of their phones buzzed; Shaw looked down at the screen on hers.
New apartment. You’ll have to share.
Shaw rolled her eyes.
Root looked at Shaw and smiled. “Shall we?” she asked, jingling the keys in her hand.
Shaw shrugged and gestured for Root to go ahead.
They entered the brown stone and Shaw was pleased to find that it wasn’t decorated from floor to ceiling with cheesy Christmas decorations. The echo of their footsteps bounced off the empty walls and floors as they explored the new space.
They walked a bit further into the apartment and Root suddenly grabbed Shaw by the shoulders, spinning her around to face her.
“What the-“ Shaw looked up.
Turned out there was a piece of Christmas decoration in the house.
“Mistletoe,” Shaw muttered, rolling her eyes.
“Mistletoe,” Root repeated; a big grin on her face as she leaned in for a kiss.