Root tried to follow Harold, for days… weeks. He was good, merging into the crowd, never taking the same path, and Root couldn’t figure out his route, or his destination. She considered it a win if she just managed to find and tail him a short distance. But Root was persistent, and eventually… she found her.
The artist was sitting behind her canvas, completely and utterly immersed in her brush strokes, and couldn’t see the longing in the eyes of the man watching her for a moment from behind the fence. Root could.
She changed her target after that. If she couldn’t stalk Harold, this was the next best thing. This was Harold’s good code. She would prove to him how flawed it was, just like the rest of humanity.
But this woman, Grace Hendricks—Root discovered she was called—was the most extraordinary because of how ordinary she was. She stayed at home, ordered takeaways, and every single day, she went out to some place in New York, to stroke and blend and mix paint with her brush and draw the whole world on a small canvas.
Root decided to up the game then, determined to find the bug in the system, the fatal flaw. In the process, she discovered some things about Grace, and one important thing about herself.
- 1-Grace was terrible at subterfuge.
Root stopped hiding. There was no more information to be gained by surveillance. So a bright morning, after Grace was done setting up her canvas and settling down to paint, Root walked right into the area she was going to paint and settled down under a tree with a book in her hand, pretending to read. She didn’t know what she hoped for, to merge into the crowd or to watch Grace frown at her scenery being ruined, but she was both surprised and delighted by the outcome.
Grace kept glancing at her, and out of the corner of her eyes, Root noticed how much Grace’s eyes lingered, more than was appropriate, longer and longer each time. Interesting.
An hour of feigned focus on her book later, she got up, and made her way to the stall in the corner. As she passed by Grace, she noticed that now Grace did frown, squinting at her painting and at the empty place by the tree as if it had personally offended her.
After grabbing a cup of tea, she ambled back, her stride deliberately casual. She stopped behind Grace, a smile tugging at her lips at the sight, full of mischief. But she couldn’t deny a little glowing warmth in her chest either.
After all, nothing was quite as flattering as an artist painting you.
“Well, that’s interesting,” she poured as much sweetness into her tone as she could manage, tilting her head to a side. Her smile widened when the red haired woman jerked in alarm. Slowly, Grace turned around; her eyes were wide with the shock Root had hoped to see on her face when she first saw her. It wasn’t a shock born out of recognition of danger though; it was one of guilt.
Root bit her lip. This was delightful. Much easier than she had anticipated. Slowly, she bent forward and peered at the painting, as if studying it, as if she didn’t already know what she was seeing. “Is that me?” Grace was wringing her hands, but Root was simply having too much fun. “I have to admit this has never happened to me before. Did you just… decide… that painting a random person in park was what you wanted to do today?”
“I’m sorry!” This was the first time she had heard Grace speak this close, at least without the tinny distortion of a mobile service, and her voice was as sweet as Root’s, with none of the forced sugariness. “I didn’t… I can throw it away if you would like. It’s a violation of your privacy… I’m sorry I wasn’t quite thinking.”
She looked positively dejected at the idea of destroying her painting, and yet she reached forward to do exactly that. Root gently stopped Grace’s hand with her own, and studied the red blush on her face that was more than just a shadow of her flaming hair.
“It’s okay,” she soothed, and somehow she found she didn’t have to fake the gentleness. “I just want to know why.”
Grace met her gaze, and then ducked her head again, her blush spreading down her neck. “I don’t know,” she pulled her hand back before looking back at her painting, her finger hovering over the still-wet paint. “I guess I just like immortalizing beautiful things.”
Root laughed. It surprised her by its genuineness. “Really?” she asked, enjoying the way Grace looked when she was embarrassed, loving this absolutely pleasant and unexpected turn of events. She wouldn’t be herself if she let this moment go. It was also so much easier to find a person’s deep dark secrets once you got closer to them. “You know, you could’ve asked me for dinner first.”
Grace’s eyes shot up to meet hers, full of surprise and hope, but she didn’t speak. Root decided to help her a little more. Bending down, she whispered, “Spoiler alert: I would’ve said yes.”
“Really?” Grace echoed her words, making Root let out another tinkering laugh, more fascinated by a human being than she had been since she was a child. She wanted to break her open and learn how she worked; find what kind of darkness she carried under her sunny facade.
“Let’s start over, shall we?” She extended her hand in greeting. “I’m Root.”
Grace’s hands were soft and delicate. “Grace Hendricks.”
- 2- Grace was horrible at nail-paint. (Despite being, you know, a painter)
They were sitting at the dinner table—candle light, flowers and the whole deal—when Root noticed it. Grace raised her hand to pick up her champagne glass, her red nail polish glinting in the dim light. It was…uneven and horribly smudged.
Grace noticed Root staring because she pulled her hand away again, hiding it under the table. “Um.” She picked up the glass with her left hand then, the candlelight making her blush look even more adorable. “You might be able to tell that I haven’t done this in a while.”
“Eaten?” Root teased.
“Dated.” Grace twirled her red hair between her fingers, a nervous tell, and chuckled self-deprecatingly. “A while might be an understatement. It’s been almost two years, since… well…” She trailed off. Root was curious, but she didn’t push. Grace didn’t look like someone who keep secrets, and soon enough she would tell her herself.
“Doesn’t explain why you suddenly forgot how to paint.” Root bent forward and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “You are a painter right? Or did I get that wrong.”
Grace laughed, and this time it didn’t have any bitter edge to it. Somehow that made Root relax. It was always better to have one’s mark be at ease, she told herself.
“I never claimed to be ambidextrous, you know?” Grace shook her head, fond. She gave her affection so quickly it should make Root feel distaste. But somehow, her warmth was catching, and not at all disagreeable. “I just, I suppose I just wanted to look pretty. And then I was in too much of a hurry to take this off.” She waved her hand with messed up nail paint, smiling a little sheepishly.
“You do look pretty,” Root said, automatic, without a hint of a lie. Grace was dangerous like that. She made her speak truths without any agenda behind them. But when Grace grinned, Root couldn’t bring herself to mind.
Later, when Root walked Grace to her apartment, Grace’s hand warm and soft in hers, she lingered at the doorway. Her fingers found the rough edges of Grace’s nail, rubbing thoughtfully.
“You’re not ambidextrous.” Root turned to her, plan already formed in her head.
“I did say that, yes. But in my defense, not a lot of people are.”
Root smirked. “So how are you going to put the nail paint on your right hand?”
“I am just going to remove it? That’s the plan anyway.”
Root used her other hand to gently pull Grace’s left hand up, looking at the imperfect polish on it and smiling sweetly. “But it looks so pretty.”
Grace shrugged, mimicking her smile. “If you think so. But it really can’t be helped. I can go to a salon next time.”
Root’s heart skipped a stupid beat at the next time. But she brought it under control and twirled a hair strand. “I have a better idea.”
And that’s how they ended up in Grace’s home, different shades of nail-paint spread over a table as they painted each other’s nails. Grace’s strokes were artistic, and she liked to use multiple colors, creating a piece art on the tiny two centimeter square area. Root’s application was precise and calculated, the paint smooth and even, perfectly symmetrical.
When she was painting the final pinky of Grace’s hands she noticed her squirming, her hand trying to ball up.
“Stay still,” Root admonished. “The paint is still wet.”
She finished her work and looked up at Grace, who was staring at her with pupils blown wide and lips slightly parted. “I know,” she whispered, and Root felt her throat go dry. “But I really want to kiss you right now.”
Root looked at the perfect red nail polish on Grace’s fingers, and the shades of blue, green, and black on her own, and then back at Grace. It wasn’t even a decision. Her body moved without her volition, and her lips pressed against Grace’s for the first time, soft and sweet and hard and rough all at once.
Their hands went up to grab at each other’s hairs, caress each other’s cheeks, stroke down each other’s back, wanting to explore the other, and memorize them. When they pulled back, there were streaks of paint on Grace’s neck, and their nails were a mess.
Somehow, Root thought it was prettier than any nail art she had ever seen, because it was colored with passion, and came with Grace with flaming hair, and flaming face, and her lips swollen red.
- 3- Grace was an absolute disaster at fire-range.
Root cocked her hip against the pillar and watched Grace scowl at the target in front of her. It was a rare expression on her face and Root couldn’t help but find it adorable. Grace glanced at her, saw her smile, and directed her glare at Root instead.
“Focus, sweetie,” Root gestured towards the target range. “Aim for the head.”
“Why are we doing this again?” Grace grumbled, but obediently turned back, raising her pistol, and taking aim.
“Because it’s always good to be able to defend oneself, especially in the times we live in. There really is no shortage of bad guys.”
“Nobody is going to be interested in a harmless artist.” Grace shook her head, but Root felt a chill run down her spine.
“You would be surprised,” she said, her expressions grim. “Now, focus and take aim.”
Grace heard the seriousness in her voice and followed her suggestion. A moment later there was a click of a silenced pistol, and Grace jerked back slightly at the rebound. In front of her, the bullet missed the target completely.
“I am horrible at this,” Grace groaned, holding out her pistol towards Root, safety back on. At least she had learned something.
Root didn’t say anything. Just smiled and took the offered pistol. Then she picked up her own and took aim, shooting from both the hands until the clips clicked empty. She didn’t have to look to know that the bullets had hit dead center of the target.
Biting her lip, she turned around, wondering whether Grace would be awed or afraid. To her delight—and relief that she wouldn’t admit—Grace’s eyes were wide in awe. She didn’t speak, but her mouth was open, the question unspoken.
“Requirements of the job,” Root explained, taking out the clip from Grace’s gun and putting a new one in.
“What kind of job requires that?” Grace never pried, but she couldn’t help the question.
Root twisted her lips into something that she hoped resembled amusement. “I could tell you,” she said, and walked behind Grace. “But then, I’ll have to kill you.”
Grace huffed out a laugh, and let it go. Root felt herself relax, not even realizing how stiff she had been. She took Grace’s hand, turning it palm up and stroking her fingers before putting the gun back in it.
“Now, let’s try that again.”
“I’ll give you an incentive.” Root stepped closer, plastering her front to Grace’s back, and stroking down her shoulder and arm to support her hand.
“Hmmm… That’s a good incentive,” Grace hummed happily, melting into her.
“See, what you do wrong is, you use the gun like a paint brush, waving it around.” She breathed against her ear and felt her shiver.
“Requirements of the job,” Grace shot back.
Root chuckled, enjoying her warmth and her plaint body, but she did have an objective for this. She made Grace take aim, knowing she was touching her more than was appropriate for improving her aim, but neither of them seemed to mind. Grace’s breaths were getting deeper, and Root herself felt warm and flushed too, guiding Grace, supporting her arm, and then asking her to pull the trigger.
“Yes!” Grace whooped. “I did it.”
The bullet hit the target, a few inches left to the dead center of the chest. It wouldn’t be so bad, but they had been aiming for the head.
“Yes you did.” Root looked at the cardboard man, with a hole where a person’s heart would be. It was telling her something she didn’t yet want to admit. “I guess it means you’ve earned a reward.”
She bent down and kissed the laughter on Grace’s lips, tasting exhilaration.
- 4- Grace was terrible at asking for what she deserved.
Sometimes old acquaintances called with a new job, and Root forgot to eat, drink, or sleep. Sometimes, she got hint of the exquisite code that only one person could ever write and she traced it until her eyes were bleary and her body ached. It had never been a problem before, because she didn’t have anyone else who required her time, but then Grace fell into her life—or maybe she slowly crept into hers—and things changed.
Or, Root thought, they should’ve changed.
Root didn’t call or text for days—weeks—and the next time she met Grace, she never had a frown on her forehead or a complaint on her lips. Sometimes Root would open her laptop while in Grace’s home and forget where she was, but when she looked up she always found Grace smiling, with an empty cup of coffee on Root’s table that she knew she didn’t put there herself.
Grace never asked for more. She never nagged for more of Root’s time, more of her focus, more of her affection. And every time Root came out of her zone, remembering where she was, she felt the crushing terror of this being the last time, this time being the one where Grace will ask for something Root couldn’t give her.
It never happened.
One night, she finally shut the lid of her laptop, after coding for more hours than she could imagine, and by the cups spread next to her she realized she was in Grace’s home… again. It seemed to happen more and more often these days. That’s why she probably managed to finish her work as fast as she did, because she didn’t have to take breaks to eat and drink… Grace unobtrusively providing her with nourishment.
She cracked her spine, feeling her entire body aching, and her heart heavy with guilt of ignoring her girlfriend for so long. They had a date planned: a museum visit where some famous painter Root didn’t care about was displaying his works, and then a club of Root’s choice. And she had botched it… again.
Grace wasn’t around, but she saw an easel in the room and curiously walked up to it. When her vision got blurry, she blamed it on staring at screen for too long. On the canvas, in vivid colors, was Root… surrounded by coffee cups and focused on her laptop. Grace had made her obsession look beautiful.
She felt arms wrap around her mid-section, warm breath on her neck. “Hey, you. Done with the work?”
It wasn’t a censure. Root knew it wasn’t. And yet her shoulders stiffened in defense. “I’m sorry.”
“What for?” Grace mumbled into her skin, pressing soft kiss on her shoulder.
Root turned around to look at her. “For always doing this. Forgetting about our plans. Getting immersed in my laptop. Ignoring you.” She looked at the far wall, hating the way she felt small and insecure. “You deserve better.”
“Hey.” Grace slapped her on her shoulder lightly. “You don’t get to decide that. I spend hours immersed in painting on daily basis… or are you saying you mind that?”
“How is that different?”
Root just shook her head, but Grace grabbed her face and made her meet her eyes. “It’s not very different at all. You wouldn’t be you without your math and codes and what not, will you?”
Slowly, Root shook her head. “I thought so. I don’t understand what you find so fascinating in numbers, but you don’t understand what paints and colors mean to me. You still appreciate the beauty in them, or at least you try. You can’t successfully hide your bewilderment most of the time. I can try doing the same.”
Root swallowed around the lump in her throat. “You painted me.”
Grace blushed, and no perfect code was ever as beautiful as the color on her cheeks. “You made a pretty picture. So you see… we both got something out of your coding frenzy. No need for ridiculous apologies! Understood?”
Root nodded, unable to form any words, too drained from the hours of working, too overwhelmed by Grace’s pathological selflessness. Grace seemed to understand, because she gently pulled Root towards their room—they had shared it enough times now to be called theirs—, stripped her out of her layers, and then pushed her into the soft sheets.
Sleep pulled at Root’s consciousness, but she tried to cling to it, until she felt Grace’s soft and warm body press behind her, engulfing her in feeling of safety and love. She had always thought both of them were mere figment of imagination, there was no place that was safe, and no such thing as love. But then Grace had never really agreed to conform with Root’s idea of humanity anyway.
Grace was just too horrible at being human. That was Root’s last thought before she fell asleep.
- 5- Grace was a horrible tease.
Root had been busy, so she hadn’t seen Grace for a couple of weeks. When she finally got free, the first thing she did was call Grace and tell her she’s coming home.
She hadn’t even realized she had called it that, until she ended the call and got into a cab.
Grace had obviously made an effort, in the small time she had between Root calling and Root arriving at her house. Grace’s hair were done up in a messy bun, her eyeliner was shaky, but it brought out her eyes, and there was a blood red lipstick on her lips.
Root wanted to taste it.
It had been too long.
But when she bent down to kiss her, Grace only pecked her lightly and backed away, her cold shoulder blouse giving a tantalizing glimpse of the skin whose warmth and taste Root had missed dearly.
“Look at the circles under your eyes,” Grace chided, leading them to kitchen. “I know you forget to eat when you’re working, so I got food.”
This was Grace’s agenda, she concurred as they settled to eat, to drive Root to insanity. She watched Grace’s red lips wrap around her fork and swallowed heavily. She was hungry… just not for food. Not when Grace sat right in front of her, looking as delectable as she did.
Root tried to eat while Grace’s eyes twinkled, her hand brushing Root’s every few moments. Her sly smile told Root that it was intentional. Grace had found her weakness and was exploiting it. Root thought she should be more annoyed at it than she was, but all she felt was an itch under her fingers to feel Grace’s teeth press into pads of her fingers than into the bite of fish, felt a gnawing inside her that made her want to gorge herself on Grace’s moans, felt warmth seep between her legs, aching to be sated.
She wondered if that’s what a program infiltrated by a Trojan felt like, erratic and faulty, deleting its own source code while accommodating the virus. Root gave a moment of thought to anti-viruses and code rewrites, but she discarded the idea just as quickly. Her source code was changed enough that there was no going back to it anymore… and she found she didn’t want to.
When Root had swallowed enough food for Grace’s satisfaction, and the hunger in her belly had grown until she thought it would eat her, Grace picked up the plates and cleared the table. Then she came to join Root at the table again.
Root looked at her and tried to smile, getting to her feet. “What’s for dessert,” she asked, and her voice trembled.
Grace smirked. She backed away until her back touched the table, and then raised her hands to the buttons of her blouse, unbuttoning the first two. “Me.”
The sight of her pink lacy bra, just peeking from under her shirt broke the last of Root’s firewalls, and she was on her in a second. Grace laughed in delight when Root’s hand found her breast, squeezing it, and Root drank her laughter from her lips, pushing aside fabric so she could feel the pebbled nipple on her palm—a proof that Grace was as affected as Root was.
It became a mess of lips and tongue and teeth after that, Grace proving herself to be as needy as Root felt, pulling at Root’s shirt, unbuttoning her jeans as Root did the same with her skirt. When Root’s hand found its way inside Grace’s panties, she groaned at how wet she was, how hot. When she brought the hand out, putting the fingers coated in Grace’s juices in her mouth as Grace watched with her pupils dilated. It tasted better than any delicacy she had ever tasted, and she desperately wanted more.
She pushed Grace up on the table, pulling at her clothes until they were strewn across the floor. She pushed Grace’s legs apart and then buried her face to eat the only thing she had been craving the past few weeks, when food and water had become insignificant, but somehow, without her knowing, something else had become even more essential than basic nutrition for survival. Grace’s hand in her hair, clenching and unclenching urged her on, and she licked and sucked to her heart’s content, gorging on Grace’s taste as much as she did on her moans. When she stiffened in climax, Root pulled away, and pushed two fingers inside her, feeling her contract around her fingers and moaning at the sensation.
She pushed Grace until she lay back on the table and then climbed up on it, wishing there was more room. For a moment she wondered how Grace would look spread over the pool table, but then she looked down at Grace, with her eyes squeezed shut and her mouth open, panting, and forgot all about it.
She kissed every inch available, learning and relearning Grace’s curves, the shape of her collarbone and the swell of her breast, the dip of her belly and the flare of her hips, her fingers stroking and caressing and grabbing. She worried about the bruises she was surely leaving, with her mouth and her fingers, but then she squeezed Grace’s thigh too hard and Grace’s moan was all pleasure. After that, Root didn’t even try to gentle her hunger. Grace’s desperate whimpers and grasping hands told her she didn’t mind.
Root lost track of time, rubbing herself against Grace’s thigh until Grace blindly reached for her, finding her clit, and she watched Grace throw her head back, panting against her own climbing orgasm while helping Root find hers. Root watched Grace’s skin flush red, her hair a vivid flame against the cream table, and changed her mind. Grace wasn’t a Trojan, she was a short circuit frying the motherboard and starting a fire that melts the whole system, leaving behind a mess of molten lead and copper.
It was utter demolition, and Root hadn’t thought of building any fire-escapes.
Then Grace arched her back, crying out, and Root let herself be consumed by the fire, willingly.
- +1- Root was horribly, terribly, in love with her.
The idea had been very gradual in forming, growing slowly. The realization was just as sudden. One moment Root was reclining on the couch, half naked, and the next moment she bolted upright.
“Hey!” Grace peeked from behind the canvas. “Why did you move?”
Root looked at her, her eyes wide and her mouth wide open. She could see the way Grace’s expressions turned from slightly exasperated to concerned, and realized that was part of the problem. Grace had no concept of shielding her emotions; she was a program build without firewalls, deficient and easily corruptible.
It had almost been a year since the first time she had approached Grace, looking for humanity’s fatal flaw. Something to exploit and use. She had found it, and more.
Grace was human, and for Root she represented the entire species. Grace was clumsy, dropping things and tripping over objects because she was too focused on something else, in a way a robot would never be. She was always groggy and grumpy in the mornings, something a quick processor and an auto-reboot would fix. She frequently burnt food despite the timer, where a machine would cook a meal to perfection. Grace was a collection was all the tiny flaws—too trusting, too careless, too selfless—and yet…
“I love you,” Root said, when Grace stood up and walked towards her, alarmed.
“… yes?” Grace stopped short, confused.
“I do. I love you.” Root shook her head, disbelief in her voice she couldn’t even mask into something less insulting. She was too shocked at the way her own heart had betrayed her.
Instead of being offended though, Grace started to smile, a beautiful up tilt of her lips that Root wanted to kiss. “Did the numbers finally add up for you? I was waiting you will put the math together.”
“Huh…” Root was lost, the way she had never quite found herself to be.
Grace walked closer, cupping Root’s face in her palms. “I saw it in your eyes months ago, earlier still. It was really quite obvious if you know what you’re looking for… but your mind works differently than mine. You needed something more concrete. I am guessing you found it.”
“Grace,” Root swallowed around the lump, overwhelmed by emotions she had always considered insignificant; the zeroes at the end of a number; useless in the equation of life.
“Root,” Grace murmured, bending down to kiss her. “I love you too, if that wasn’t obvious.”
Grace shouldn’t. She shouldn’t trust Root, let alone love her. The Root she knew was a lie, a façade Root had decided to create in order to get exactly where she was… under Grace’s skin and into her life from where she could demolish it to prove her point. But somehow, along the way, Root was the one who had been deconstructed and remade, and she didn’t know how to handle it.
She just knew what she knew: that hurting Grace was the very last thing she wanted to do.
Because she had proven it, proven that humanity was bad code, flawed in its base, and yet she wanted to eat Grace’s burnt turkey, and hold her hand while she stumbled and kiss her forehead when she frowned in early mornings. No computer, no perfectly made entity, could replace that.
This is what she got for trying to play a prophet and a God. An epiphany she wasn’t prepared for: that flaws was what made humanity beautiful.
“Now, will you please settle back down so I can accurately paint your breasts? They’re too beautiful to mess up.” Grace pressed her lips to Root’s hair. “You can have your existential crisis while staying still.”
Root laughed. It was wet, and dislodged something in her throat, making her breathe easier. “They aren’t even my best feature.”
“I agree,” Grace pulled away and walked towards her aisle.
“You do?” Root raised her eyebrows.
“Yep. Your best feature is your nose, but I’ve already drawn it.”
Root settled back down, moving at Grace’s directions until she was lying exactly to her satisfaction. “I thought you would say my best feature is my heart.” She pouted once Grace started mixing paint again.
“You mean my heart. You just admitted you’ve given it to me.”
“Yes,” Root huffed fondly. “Your heart.”
“It is quite beautiful, I agree. I have to say I prefer your brain. But…” Grace tilted her head and flipped her hair. “Your breasts I can draw.”
Root bit her lip against the surge of affection she felt. She tried to stay absolutely still, letting Grace paint over her flaws and create a picture that was all colors and emotions, her brush strokes emphasizing all the errors rather than erasing them, and in the process showing the exquisite beauty of the fractures in titanium, the sheer of joy of the glitches in the system, and the wonder that was humanity’s badly written code.