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Five Years After the End of the World

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“This would be going a lot faster if you'd tell me what I'm here for.” Root kicked aside the last piece of wood that had been boarding up the door of the abandoned house. “We’re too close to the city to play guessing games.”

She didn't get a response, but she hadn't really been expecting one.

The interior of the house smelled awful, but the last five years had gotten Root accustomed to a lot of awful smells. It was dark inside, but beams of sunlight filtered through the planks of wood that had been nailed across the windows and showed her the ruins of a living room. The couch was moldy and everything was filthy, but there didn't seem to be anything there worth this errand she'd been asked to run.

Of course she wasn't sure this house was what she was actually looking for. She'd only gotten approximate coordinates and this place had been the only nearby structure she'd found.

Something rustled in the back of the room and Root fumbled for her weapon. She half-crouched, staying as still as possible and listening intently for another noise.

There was another loud rustle and something burst out of the debris and flew straight at her. She sprang forward and...found herself pointing a machete at a squirrel who was staring at her suspiciously from the ruins of the couch.

She let out her breath in a nervous laugh and lowered her arm.

“Somehow I doubt you're why I'm here,” she told the squirrel.

The squirrel regarded her warily for another second, and then darted away out a hole in one of the windows. She watched it go a little regretfully; it was the first living creature she'd spoken to in days. Well, face to face, anyway.

“Well, if I'm not here to talk to a squirrel…” She explored the rest of the house as quietly as she could manage, but there was nothing she could find that gave her any clue why She would have sent her here.

A slight noise from outside made her freeze, and she held her breath, listening again. She really needed to stop talking out loud to herself. One of these days it was going to get her killed. Though she liked to think that She could always hear her.

When the noise failed to reoccur, Root sighed and relaxed a little. She’d been on edge all day (more on edge), unable to shake the feeling that something or someone was watching her. It was probably just nerves from being too close to the city walls. Ironic how most humans saw the cities as the last bastions of safety, and she saw them as places to be avoided at all costs.

She looked over the house once more, making sure she hadn't missed anything, and then headed back out into the woods. Nothing seemed to have moved since she'd gone into the house, and there were still birds and insects making a racket, so she shoved the long, straight-bladed machete back through the loop she’d made for it on her belt and jumped off the sagging porch of the house.

She grabbed her pack from where she'd hidden it nearby and paused to look up through the tangle of trees at the sky.

“There's nothing here, so I'm going to move on unless you give me a reason not to,” she said softly.

She waited a long minute and then sighed and set out into the trees. There were only a few hours left before it started getting dark, and she needed to be somewhere safe before then.

Back when gas had still been plentiful enough to steal, she'd used cars as both transportation and shelter, but these days she only stole cars for much longer trips and walked everywhere else. It was slower and far more dangerous, but it wasn't like she had a lot of choices.

The forest came right up to the edge of the highway, and she paused at the edge of the treeline to scan the stretch of rusted out cars that had been abandoned there. The open space of roads instinctively felt safer since she could see much further, but roads meant humans were more likely and she worked very hard to avoid humans. The area looked clear enough, though, so she hopped over the rail onto the asphalt and set off down the road.

Without new instructions from Her, she was at a bit of a loss on what to do next, but it was hardly the first time She'd vanished for days and Root figured that getting away from the city would make it easier for Her to contact her safely.

And being this close to the city was stressing her out. Sure it was almost a two hour drive away and she couldn't even see it from here, but it was still too damn close. She needed to get out in the middle of nowhere again fast.

She'd only gone a few feet when she realized something had changed. She stopped and looked around, but nothing seemed out of place. Except….

The woods, full of the sounds of chirping birds and buzzing insects only seconds before, had gone deathly silent. Root's hand fell to the handle of her machete as she turned around slowly in a circle. Out in the open like this, there were many directions to run in, but just as many to be attacked from. She needed to get away, find high ground, but she couldn't do that until she knew where the threat was coming from.

Movement in the trees on one side of the road drew her attention and she spun to face it, machete drawn.

Two of them lurched out of the trees in tandem. One had been a large man in life, and now its large frame jerked awkwardly when it moved, unable to properly control its own long limbs. The other was of a more average height and build, but nearly as uncoordinated as the first. Both of them were in an advanced state of decay, skin shredded and hanging in ribbons over bone and sinew. The large one was missing an eye, the remains of it smeared down its face.

Root didn't take her eyes off of them, but she felt a little better. Two slow ones like this weren't going to pose much of a threat to her. She could take care of them quickly and then be on her….

She didn't hear the third one until it was almost too late, and spun at the last moment at the sound of bare feet slapping on the pavement. This one wasn't slow at all, and it charged straight at her, its arms dangling uselessly at its sides.

She jumped back and tried to get far enough away to keep all three in her line of vision.

The fast one had overshot and run past her, crashing into a rusted car, but now it regained its balance and turned its head to look at her. Its eyes were milky white and she could see bits and pieces of its teeth and skull through the strips of missing flesh on its face.

And it reeked. The smell of rotten meat was thick in the air, and even though she was no stranger to it, she still almost gagged.

She was ready when it ran at her this time, and dropped down when it was almost on her to sweep its legs out from under it. The second it fell forward, she was on her feet again and smashing its skull with her blade. She stabbed it until it stopped twitching and then a few extra times for good measure before she turned her attention back to the slower two.

One of them had made it onto the road by falling forward over the highway guardrail and was now trying to crawl towards her. The other was bumping into the guardrail endlessly, stuck. She redoubled her grip on her machete and moved in to finish them off when she heard an unnerving sound. Shoes and bare feet on pavement.

There were more of the fast ones on the road now, at least five, approaching quickly. Too many for her to fight out here with only a machete. She sighed in disgust. She really fucking hated zombies.

She turned and ran.


 

“This is your fault,” Root hissed under her breath. Why had She sent Root out here if this was the only result? Root glared at nothing and readjusted herself on the tree branch.

Years of surviving out here had turned her into an excellent climber. Some zombies might be fast and vicious, but none of them were coordinated enough to climb a tree, which was a good thing because at the moment there were four of them clawing ineffectually at the base of the large tree she'd scurried up.

Getting stuck like this was a bit of a problem since there was no way to escape and she'd run out of food and water long before her unwanted friends got bored, but she'd gotten out of similar situations before relatively unscathed. Of course, in those cases she'd always had some help from Her, and She was being very quiet at the moment.

Root had resigned herself to spending the night in a tree since it was starting to get dark and trying to climb down and dodge past four of the more alert type of the plague of undead seemed like a bad idea. She'd pulled crazier stunts before, but the long hike today had worn her out and if she had to sleep through the groaning and rasping coming from the ground then oh well.

She'd pulled a coil of rope out of her bag to lash herself to the branch, when she heard the sound of a car engine approaching.

“Friends of yours?” she asked the shambling monsters scratching at her tree. “Don't suppose you boys would help a girl out and tell them to come back later?”

She wasn't that far into the woods, so she could still mostly see the road through the trees, and she could definitely see the SUV pull up to the side of the road and four people get out.

What a world they lived in that she preferred the company of a pack of flesh-eating corpses to any interactions with her own kind.

Well, she was out of options now for sure which meant she was going to have to take her chances and make a run for it.

She was halfway down the trunk of the tree when the people from the SUV got close enough for her to get a good look at. Gas masks and blue jackets. Samaritan. She snarled at them and sped up her descent, feet slipping on the branches.

There was one thing working in her favor, though. The zombies at the bottom of the tree had all turned their attention to the newcomers and her path was clear.

“Don't move!” one of the Samaritan agents shouted.

She wasn't sure if the command was meant for her or the creatures, but she was pretty damn sure no one was going to pay attention and she didn't stop to find out.

A whoosh and the smell of burning flesh made her look up. Two of the agents carried flamethrowers, and the flames licked out over the shambling creatures. They fell, screeching in an inhuman way that sent a shiver down her spine.

She was never going to get a better chance than this, she figured, and dropped the last few feet from the tree to the ground. She landed badly and her ankle twisted and sent a shock of pain up her leg, but she ignored it and took off through the trees.

She only made it a few steps before she heard gunfire and a bullet zipped past her and took a chunk out of a tree. She gritted her teeth and kept running. Better to die from a clean shot than any of the alternatives. And once guns started going off it was only a matter of time before this area was swarming. Gunfire drew the attention of zombies like blood in the water.

The next shot didn't go wide and the force of it hitting her back sent her sprawling forwards into the leaves and dirt on the forest floor. She tried to get up, but between her ankle and the new throbbing pain in the back of her shoulder, she fell back down.

“She's down,” she heard one of the men say, and then there were hands trying to turn her over. She lashed out, kicking and clawing. One of them got their hand too close to her face and she bit down, allowing herself a momentary thrill of satisfaction at the pained shriek that got.

But then there was the prick of a needle in her arm and she could feel the fight going out of her as everything swum in a haze of pain and drugs. Why in the hell had She sent her here if this was how it was going to end?

Her eyes were drooping shut when she heard more gunfire and one of the men near her let out a yell of pain. She forced her eyes back open just long enough to see someone new coming through the trees towards her, gun raised and expression focused.

There were a few more shots and the hands restraining her were gone.

The newcomer was close enough now that their face momentarily popped into focus for Root and the shock of it held off the drugs long enough for her to say aloud the name she'd seen in a file what felt like a lifetime ago.

“Who the hell are you?” her rescuer asked, but Root was too far gone to answer.

The last thing she heard as she drifted off was a woman's voice yelling, “Reese, get your ass over here. We have a problem.”

Yes, Root thought, we definitely do.


 

She woke up slowly, her mind wrapped in a heavy grey fog. It was warm here, and soft. Definitely not a Samaritan laboratory then, which meant….

She peeled open one eye and scanned her surroundings. She was lying on her stomach in a bed along the wall of a cramped, windowless room. It was evidently someone's bedroom, but even though it was quite small, there was very little in the way of furnishing or decorations. Maybe it was a spare room, if such a thing still existed.

But wherever this was, she must have been brought here by humans which meant it was time for her to leave as quickly and quietly as….

She let out a strangled whimper when she tried to push herself up and fell back into the sheets. Her back felt like it was on fire, a throbbing pain that spread out from her left shoulder.

“Knock it off.”

The voice startled her and made her heart hammer in her chest, her mind frozen somewhere between fight and flight. She didn't think she wanted to test getting up again, so she settled for turning her head far enough to see the speaker.

There was a woman standing by the door, short, dark-haired, definitely attractive, and strangely familiar.

Oh, right. She'd been the one who’d rescued Root out in the woods. Possibly rescued anyway; that remained to be seen. But she knew this woman–knew of her, anyway.

“You're Shaw, right?”

The woman, Shaw, didn't react at all to Root naming her and instead moved away from the door to stand next to the bed. Cool fingers touched Root's shoulder, far too close to the bullet wound on her back, and she barely swallowed another whimper.

“You need to stay still or it'll start bleeding again. Took the bullet out while you were still out cold, but it's going to take a little while to heal up.” Shaw's voice was even and professional, no hint of what she thought about Root or any of this.

“You're a doctor,” Root said. “Or almost. You were in medical school, but you never finished your residency. Then you spent some time in the marines and later–” Root smiled to herself. “–you had a very special job, didn't you? From someone who always knew what was going to happen before it did and was always right.” She knew she was probably talking too much, giving too much away, but she was injured and stuck in unfamiliar territory and her instincts told her to throw Shaw off balance as well, level out the playing field.

Shaw’s fingers withdrew from her back and she finally looked down at Root and met her gaze.

“If you know all that, then you know why I was out in the woods yesterday.” There was a challenge in her eyes, one which Root unfortunately couldn't meet right now.

She decided to go with honesty–not her favorite tactic, but she was in too much pain to come up with a better one.

“Honestly? Not a clue.” Not with Her still silent.

The ghost of a smile flickered across Shaw's face. “Guess you don't know everything after all.”

She turned away to get something off the table behind her, just out of Root's view, and came back a second later holding a syringe. Root tensed involuntarily, remembering what had happened in the woods.

“It's morphine,” Shaw explained. “For the pain. Make you a little drowsy, but it's better if you stay still for now.” She moved forward to take Root's arm, but Root pulled away.

“Wait. Where am I?”

Shaw raised an eyebrow in what Root thought must have been surprise. “You're in the city. You know, New York. Or what's left of it.”

A cold spike of horror ran through Root and she struggled to sit up again, the pain lancing through her entire back. Shaw pressed a hand to the center of her back and forced her back down.

“Stay still. You're going to open the wound again.” She paused for a second as if considering her words. “No one saw us bring you in, okay? You're safe here for now.”

Root chuckled without humor. “Safe? I doubt that.”

Shaw's hand was still on her back, and Root tried to remember the last time she'd touched another human that wasn't for violence. Years at this point. Some part of her wanted to press up into the contact.

“Safer than you'd have been with those Samaritan agents,” Shaw pointed out and withdrew her hand.

Root couldn't argue with that, and this time when Shaw went to inject her she didn't struggle.

Shaw put the syringe in a plastic bag and went back towards the door. “Get some sleep. And when you wake up we're going to discuss how you knew my name.”

Root smiled at the closing door. She had gotten to her after all. Good to know.

The drugs kicked in, blissfully chasing the pain away, and Root slept.


 

It felt like morning when she next woke. There were no windows in the room, so she couldn't be sure, but some internal clock that she'd developed as a survival instinct over the years was telling her the sun had risen.

Her shoulder still throbbed, but it felt more bearable now and she managed to pull herself up into a sitting position. Someone, Shaw presumably, had stripped her shirt and bra off before putting her in bed, in order to deal with the bullet in her back, no doubt.

She didn't see her missing clothes anywhere in the room. She also didn't see her pack or any of her weapons. Her shoes and socks were gone as well along with the small knife she kept hidden in her boot.

All of which meant she was stuck for the moment. She couldn't survive out there without some very basic gear.

Through the closed door she could hear muffled voices. It sounded like an argument, but she couldn't pick out any of the words from this side of the door.

She’d forgotten about twisting her ankle out in the woods and almost fell over when she tried to put weight on it. She gingerly rolled her pants leg up enough to get a look at the damage: red and a little swollen, but it could have been much worse.

Her second attempt to get to the door went better, though she was definitely hobbling around ungracefully. She opened the door a tiny crack (slightly surprised to find it unlocked) and peered into the next room.

“There were four of them after her. Four.” The tall man sitting at the table in the middle of the room wasn't talking loudly, but he did sound very intense. “And that other van we passed on the way was definitely headed for her as well.”

“We've been over this already, Reese. Don't have a lot of options here.” Shaw was perched on the edge of a different table, her legs dangling. “Can chuck her out on her ass, but seems like a waste after all the trouble we went through to save her.”

“We can't do that.” Reese sounded annoyed by the suggestion. “But we need to know what we're dealing with here. Samaritan must want her pretty badly to send that many agents after her.”

“Why don't we just ask her then? I'm sure she'd be willing to cough up some information considering we saved her ass.” Shaw turned to look directly at the door Root was hiding behind. “Isn't that right?”

The man, Reese, cursed and half rose from his chair.

Root was impressed that Shaw had spotted her, and even more impressed that she hadn't let on. Since there was no point in hiding now, Root pushed the door all the way open. Reese stared at her for half a second with a panicked look and then practically fled the room. Root watched his departing back, a bit puzzled.

From across the room, Shaw laughed, a throaty chuckle that lit up her whole face and made Root stare in fascination.

“I feel like I'm missing something,” Root said, limping a little further out into the room.

“Yeah, your shirt.” Shaw jumped off the table and stalked towards her, stopping just short to glance her over.

She'd forgotten about the no-shirt thing, spent too much time on her own in the middle of nowhere, but her brief assessment of Shaw earlier had been correct–she was really attractive–and if she wanted to look….

“See something you like?”

“You look like you haven't had a shower in a year,” Shaw said disdainfully. She moved around Root to poke at the bandage on her shoulder. “Surprised this didn't get infected already.”

“Maybe you're just good at your job, doctor Shaw.” She added a teasing lilt to her voice and glanced over her shoulder to see if it got a reaction.

Shaw frowned a tiny bit and then stepped back. “If you're feeling well enough to walk around, you're well enough to answer some questions.” She gestured at the table. “Sit.”

By the time Root eased herself down into a chair, Shaw had found an oversized shirt that she tossed in Root's lap.

“Not enjoying the view?” Root asked as she did her best to get the shirt on without jarring her injury.

Shaw dropped into the other chair at the table. “Maybe if you didn't look like you'd been rolling around in the dirt.”

“That wasn't a no.” It had kind of been a no, but oh well. Root gave up on getting her hurt arm through the sleeve and instead batted her eyelashes at Shaw.

Shaw looked at her incredulously and then rolled her eyes. “Want to tell me how you ended up in the woods with two cars full of Samaritan agents hunting you down? They don't roll out the red carpet for just anyone.”

Root tapped her fingernails against the tabletop, and considered her fairly limited options. “Are you sure you wouldn't rather hear about how I know your name?”

“I'm figuring those two things are related.”

Shaw was certainly clever; Root was going to have to watch what she said around her.

“You haven't asked my name yet.”

Shaw shrugged. “Habit. No point learning names if they're going to be dead soon anyway.”

“How delightfully morbid of you.” Though not inaccurate; life expectancy was measured in days and hours rather than years now.

“And I figure with how much you like running your mouth off, you'll tell me on your own soon enough.”

“No need to be rude, Sameen.”

Something in Shaw’s expression flickered at the name, but it was gone too fast for Root to make sense of.

They stared at each other silently for a few seconds. Root slowly and deliberately licked her lips and then bit her bottom lip. Shaw’s eyes flicked down, and then back up, and then she turned away entirely to look across the room.

“So what were you–” Shaw started.

“It's Root.”

Shaw turned back to her. “What?”

“Root. It's my name.”

Shaw just stared at her blankly.

“And I'm not entirely sure what I was doing out in the woods. Looking for something, I think.”

“Looking for what?”

“No idea.” She tapped one finger against her lips and noted how Shaw's eyes followed the movement. “Why were you there?”

Shaw got up from the table and walked over to a counter that ran along one wall. She opened a drawer and pulled out a sheet of paper.

“Because of this,” she said, dropping it onto the table.

Root was startled to see her own face staring up at her from the page. It was an old picture, and poorly reproduced in greyscale from what was probably a very cheap printer, but it was definitely her. It was a little shocking to see herself the way she'd been before all this started. Her face in the picture was a lot fuller, her hair was styled, and she was missing the scar that ran along the edge of her jaw now.

Next to her picture on the page were a series of coordinates. She was willing to bet they were where Shaw had found her yesterday.

“Where did you get this?” she asked quietly. There were only two possibilities, and if it had been Samaritan she didn't think she'd be sitting here right now.

“Uh-uh. You first.” Shaw sat back in her chair and crossed her arms.

“I already told you, I don't know what I was looking for out there.” She couldn't help but stare a little at Shaw's arms, which were...just ridiculously nice arms, especially when she shifted a little and flexed them and now was not the time to get distracted by things like that but still.

“But you had a reason for going there in the first place. Someone told you there was something there to find. Who?”

“Maybe it came to me in a dream.”

“Bullshit.”

“Can I get some water, please?”

Shaw froze, momentarily thrown off by the sudden change of topic. She scowled as if she suspected that Root was using the request to get out of answering (which she absolutely was), but she got up anyway, pulled a bottle of water out of a cupboard, and set it on the table in front of Root.

Root took her time drinking, both to stall and because she was really damn thirsty. She'd been rationing out her water before this whole mess and she wasn't sure exactly how long it'd been since she’d had anything to drink.

She drank about half the bottle and then made a show of licking her lips as she put the cap back on, noting Shaw's expression as she did so. Anything she could use to distract Shaw and keep her off balance was a useful tool to have right now. Her main goal here was to recover her possessions and get out of this place and back into the wild, but she couldn't do that quite yet. Especially not with how closely Shaw watched her.

“Where do you get your water from?” she asked.

“No.”

Root raised an eyebrow. “No? You don't get your water from anywhere?”

“No, I'm not answering any more questions until you do.”

Since Shaw wasn't going to let her get out of it, she decided to answer a different question instead. “I got ahold of a copy of your file. Had your whole history in it, from your childhood, through med school, and your military record. And your time working for the ISA, of course.”

Shaw’s forehead creased. “The ISA isn't big on keeping records. Hard to believe you found much.”

“Oh, they kept them alright, in what they thought was a completely secure location, but the thing with digital data is that security is just a deterrent. It might slow someone down, but it won't stop them.”

“You're a hacker,” Shaw said as if she'd figured something out. “You hacked the ISA?”

“Several times, but that's not how I got your file. Well, it is, but it's not why it got my attention.” She paused to take another sip of water (and to drag out the suspense). “Someone told me, that out of all the personnel files I acquired, yours was worth a closer look.” And She'd been right.

“Someone.” Shaw shook her head. “And if I ask who that someone is, you're just going to keep talking in circles, right?”

“You catch on fast.”

“You know, I could still kick you out.”

“This water–” Root held up the almost empty bottle. “–do you get it rationed out to you here?”

“A bit.” If Shaw was put off by her rapidly changing the topic yet again, she didn't show it.

“Running water, though?”

“Most of Manhattan still has some form of plumbing working if that's what you're asking. Why?”

Root smiled. “Well, as you so nicely pointed out, I could use a shower.”

She honestly thought Shaw would refuse her, but Shaw just sighed. “Fine. But only because you stink.”


 

The bathroom was tiny, barely large enough for the toilet and shower stall, but it was extremely clean. Root wasn't sure if she'd seen a cleaner room in years. Or ever, for that matter.

“Here.” Shaw shoved a towel at her. “There's some shampoo on the ledge, but don't use much, okay? Some soap in there, too.”

The towel was a bit threadbare, but it was soft and clean.

“What about the bandage?”

“Gonna have to change it soon anyway. Leave it on and I'll put a new one on after.” Shaw looked her up and down. “And I'll try to find you something to wear, I guess.”

Shaw's gaze didn't linger on her, but was almost too brief, as if she was purposefully looking away almost immediately.

“I have clothes.”

“Not letting you use all my water just to get back in filthy clothes.”

“In my pack…” Which she still hadn't located.

“Everything in there was gross, too. I can get it all washed, but until then….” She shrugged.

“Why?” She asked the question before she'd thought it through, but it kept nagging her. Because there was no reason for Shaw to have killed Samaritan agents to rescue her, or smuggled her back into the city. And definitely no reason for her to patch her up, let her use her shower, and get her clean clothes. It didn't make sense.

“I told you, your clothes are gross and if you're going to steal all the clean water then…” She trailed off as if she'd sensed what Root had really been asking. “Most people we, uh, try to help, they don't make it. Odds are stacked against us. Been a while since we had a success. Being too late all the time gets old fast.” Shaw scowled at the floor. “Now take a shower and I'll go find you some clothes,” she said again, firmly.

“Thanks, Sameen.” She touched Shaw's arm when she said it, felt her twitch slightly in response to the contact, but Shaw didn't pull away. She stared at where Root's hand rested on her upper arm like she couldn't figure out how it had gotten there.

Shaw cleared her throat and stepped back, Root's fingers trailing over her arm before falling away. “Yeah, whatever,” she muttered.

And then she was gone, leaving Root to puzzle out everything she'd just heard.

“You're giving her numbers, aren't you?” she asked softly. She knew She couldn't answer her here, but She probably wouldn't have answered that particular question even if She could have.

The water in the shower was lukewarm at best, but it felt amazing to Root. Shaw had warned her that she couldn't take more than ten minutes, so she fought down the urge to just stand under the spray and got to work trying to clean off as much of herself as she could. Her wound burned painfully when the water soaked through the bandage, but getting clean felt so good that she managed to ignore it.

The water running down the drain was stained with a mix of dirt and blood and she scrubbed herself until it ran clear. The shampoo was fairly diluted, and she did her best to use only a little. Shampoo was one of those luxuries that she really did miss.

She felt almost human again when she turned the water off. She wrapped herself in the towel and peaked her head out the door cautiously. Earlier she'd been wandering around shirtless without a care in the world, but now, after her shower and with nothing left of her own near her, she felt a bit vulnerable.

Fortunately, Shaw had left a pile of clothes right outside the door for her. The pants were a little too large, but the belt provided made them manageable. There wasn't a shirt, but there was a hoodie that it was much easier for her to get over her injured arm. She wondered if that had been intentional on Shaw's part. She also wondered if the underwear in the pile were actually Shaw’s. It'd be fun to ask about that later.

The bathroom had been off the room she'd been talking to Shaw in earlier, but that room was empty now except for a large dog, curled up on a dog bed on the corner. She watched it, suspicious, but it only lifted its head and wagged its tail a couple times when she entered the room.

Well, if they were going to leave her guarded only by a friendly dog, then it was their own fault if she looked around for herself.

A quick inspection of the room led her to believe it was mostly used for storage. There were bottles of water and packaged food in the drawers and cabinets, but none of her stuff was there.

The next room down was another bedroom, more cluttered than the one she'd woken up in, but also currently unoccupied. The last door led to a small hallway, but it was impossible to determine much about it due to the fact Reese was looming in the middle of it.

“Going somewhere?” he asked.

She did the math: she was barefoot, unarmed, and hurt, and he was very definitely none of those things. She put on her best frightened innocent look.

“I...I'm sorry, I just...I'm a little confused about everything that's happened.”

Reese’s expression softened slightly and Root held back a smirk.

“Come back to your room and lie down,” Reese said, gesturing back the way she'd come. “Shaw will be back in a second.”

“Did you...did you happen to see where my things ended up?” She hunched her shoulders in and twisted her hands together. “I don't have a lot left in the world and I'd hate to lose what little I have left.”

“Your things are safe. Shaw will give them back to you soon.” Reese’s voice was gentle, but firm.

“I'm just...so scared.” Root sniffed loudly and hugged her arms across her chest.

“There's no reason to be scared.” Reese moved a little closer. “You're safe here.”

She kept sniffling until he was just close enough, his guard dropped, and then she moved, quick as lightning and snatched the gun shoved in the waistband of his pants.

Reese grimaced at her, but begrudgingly put his hands up when she motioned. She glanced at the dog on the other side of the room to see if it had reacted, and while its head was up and it was alert, it looked like it was waiting for further instructions. She turned back to Reese.

“My things?” she asked again in a much colder voice.

He glared at her, sulking.

“Wow, Reese. I leave you alone for two minutes and you let her get your gun. That's impressively bad, even for you.” Shaw stepped through the door behind Reese, ignoring the gun Root held. The big dog finally got up off its bed and came trotting over to greet Shaw, its tail wagging.

“Good boy, Bear,” Shaw said, in a voice that Root was absolutely positive was reserved only for the dog. “You're the only one here with any sense, aren't you?”

She turned to Root. “And where did you think you were running off to? Out into the city? I have a hunch that's not high on your to-do list which means you're going to need some help getting out of here.”

“I'm good at improvising,” Root said. She lowered the gun, because Shaw was right and running out into the city on her own wasn't a great plan. It was unfortunate, but she probably needed one of them to get her out as secretly as they'd gotten her in.

“I think Reese just found that out.” Shaw looked amused. Reese glowered.

“I'm surprised you keep someone with his trusting nature around,” Root said and smiled sweetly at the glare Reese shot her. “Kindness is so easy to take advantage of. Especially now.”

“Yeah, he's an idiot for falling for your little act, but that doesn't mean you're not an asshole for doing it,” Shaw said easily. She held out her hand and Root found herself handing over the gun, much to her own bewildered amusement.

“Good, now that's settled.” Shaw handed the gun back to Reese who looked like he was thinking about pointing it at Root, but tucked it away instead.

“What now?” Root asked. “Going to release me back into the wild?”

Shaw snorted. “Not quite yet. Still got a few questions. But first, let's make sure your arm doesn't rot off.”


 

Shaw didn't get to patch people up much these days. She didn't do basic first aid for people in the city as a rule, and anyone who got hurt outside the city walls usually wasn't going to make it. But here she was patching up some crazy woman that their benevolently possessed printer had spit out the location of.

She wanted a refund on that printer.

“Stop squirming.”

Root continued to squirm until Shaw put her hand down on her uninjured shoulder and pressed her down more firmly into the mattress.

That definitely got a response, though the little hitch in Root's breath and the way her eyelashes fluttered weren't really helping Shaw concentrate. She resolutely put that out of her mind and went back to replacing the bandage on Root's shoulder.

“If you won't tell me why you were out in the woods, can you at least tell me how those Samaritan agents knew where to find you?”

“It's not safe for me near cities,” Root said. Her fingers gripped the sheets hard against the pain which...was also kind of distracting.

It wasn't that Root had been unattractive to start with, even covered in grime, but showered and cleaned up Shaw got a look at who she might have been before the world had gone to hell.

She wasn't completely sure what to make of this stray they'd picked up. Root swerved back and forth between fear and contempt and still hadn't let slip any indication of why she was here in the first place. And then there was the flirting. Shaw couldn't remember the last time someone had tried to flirt with her (not with the way the whole world had gone to hell), and while Root lacked finesse, it was a bit flattering.

She shook the stray thoughts from her head and tried to refocus on the topic at hand.

“They plant a tracker on you or something?” Though she felt like Root would have cut a tracker out of herself without batting an eye.

“No, but there's...things that can make me easier to find when I'm this close to it.”

“This close to what?”

“Samaritan.”

“You believe that stuff about Samaritan actually being some kind of evil AI?”

“You don't?”

The problem was, she did, but she didn't want to. An evil organization with humans at the head, she could fight. An evil computer that could be everywhere at once? A bit trickier.

“Dunno.” Seemed like a safe answer.

Root turned her head enough so that she could look up over her shoulder at her. “Shaw, there's been a literal zombie apocalypse happening across the globe for the last five years and it's AI you have a hard time believing in?”

Shaw frowned. “Don't call them that.”

“Call who what?” Root looked confused. “Zombies?”

Shaw made a face.

Root stared at her in disbelief. “They're...walking corpses come back from the dead. What else would you call them?”

“Don't know. Something else. Zombies are lame, okay?”

Root gaped at her for another second and then threw back her head and laughed. It only lasted a second before she got ahold of herself. She looked startled, as if she hadn't known she could still laugh.

Shaw felt strangely proud for having been the cause of that.

“How long?” she asked.

“Pardon?”

“How long have you been living out in the wild? Most folks don't last a week out there. Even criminals gang up, build strongholds. Going solo gets you dead.”

Root shrugged and then winced when it pulled at her shoulder. “It's been...quite a while, I guess. Cities aren't safe for me either. They're actually less safe.”

“Samaritan wants you pretty badly, huh?” She finished patting the bandage into place.

“It certainly has tried its best to find me. I made it a bit angry right before...before everything.”

Realization dawned on Shaw. “You've been on the run since this all started.” It sounded impossible, but Root's expression confirmed it. But no one could survive out there that long. Not without help.

She felt like she had almost all the pieces of some huge puzzle here, but hadn't quite managed to put them all together. If Samaritan really was an AI, and it wasn't the source of the numbers she'd gotten in the ISA or the rescue missions their printer kept spitting out, and that last mission had dumped Root right in their laps then….

“There's a second AI, isn't there?”

Root’s face went carefully blank, but that was an answer in itself.

“And you, what? Report to it? It kept you safe out there all these years.” The pieces were all snapping together now. “The ISA used to work with it–” She’d known something was up with his the ISA got their data, but she'd never quite suspected this. “–and then Samaritan happened and, I don't know, they got in a fight? And your AI is in hiding? Why does it keep sending us the numbers then?”

Back in the ISA, they'd gotten missions in the form of social security numbers, but now, with social security numbers being useless and impossible to trace, they got missions on printouts from an old printer that they'd found in the hideout they lived in, a huge basement under an abandoned building in what had once been the west village. The pages they got had a picture, sometimes a name, a time and date, and gps coordinates on them, and all they had to do was show up at the right time and place.

Except between Samaritan and the flesh-eating not-zombies, their success rate was beyond low.

“She just wants to help people,” Root said softly.

She. This was rapidly getting more complicated rather than less. Shaw switched back to what she knew.

“Listen, we got a new...number about half an hour ago. It's outside the city. We can take you back out with us when we leave tonight. We saved your life so technically our job is done, but, uh, I don't think you're gonna last much longer out there on your own. If we hadn't been there last time….”

“Are you asking me to move in?” Root was teasing again and Shaw found herself strangely annoyed by that, because this was serious.

“We saved your life. Be a waste if you went and died right after.”

Root was silent for a few seconds, considering.

“I'd like to come along on your mission, Shaw. I can't stay here.”

“Yeah, okay.” Shaw ignored the small twinge of disappointment she felt at Root's words.