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Hand On My Back

Chapter Text

[New York City, May 23, 2016, 23:33:47]

Shaw rushed down the dark alley. Reaching a corner, the compact yet powerful woman halted and carefully peered around it, all coiled energy, ready to release. The Number, Michael Remus, a tall, thin man with stringy brown hair and a chin and neck covered by a scraggly beard, was just visible in the dim light. He was pointing a revolver at a trembling young woman with blonde hair and sharply drawn features, as she pressed herself back against a building, a look of terror building on her face. Remus leered at her, cruel eyes gleaming. “You didn’t really think that you could get away from me, did you, Joanna?”

“Please, Michael. Let me go!” Joanna sobbed, chin trembling.

“Now, now. It’s too dangerous for a beautiful young woman like you to be on her own.” Remus moved in closer and began caressing Joanna’s pale cheek with the snub of his revolver. “You need me,” he crooned. “You know you do. Who’s going to take care of you if I’m not around?”

Joanna closed her eyes in despair—only to jerk them open in surprise a moment later at the sudden report of a gunshot, followed by a sharp scream of pain from Remus. She looked down in surprise to see that her assailant had collapsed to the ground, rolling around while holding his knee and grimacing in pain.

Keeping her weapon trained on Remus, Shaw stepped over to him and kicked away the weapon that he had dropped. “I think she’ll be able to take care of herself just fine, now that you won’t be around any more.” The expressionless look on her face conveyed only an utter lack of concern for any threat the man might still offer.

Joanna gaped at her in shock. “Are you all right?” Shaw asked. Shaken, the blonde woman could only nod dumbly. “Then I think that it’s time for you to leave. Michael and I need to have a little chat.” Joanna frowned in confusion and disbelief. “Go ahead. You don’t have to worry about this scumbag any more. He’s about to have a permanent change of address.”

“Okay,” said the Joanna, hesitantly, taking a few backward steps before turning to leave. As she reached the corner, she looked back at Shaw. “Thank you.” She hurried out of the alley.

Having recovered somewhat from the initial shock of being shot, Remus opted for bravado, turning his head to glare at Shaw. “Interfering bitch!” he spat. “Joanna needs me. She can’t get along without me.”

Shaw stared back at him, unimpressed. “You know what they say. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

Remus snarled. “When I’m through with you, you’re going to wish you’d never been born.” As he began struggling to get to his feet, Shaw stepped over and kicked his injured knee; he sank back to the ground with another scream of pain.

“Now, don’t get testy, Michael,” said Shaw. “I’m afraid you’re going to be too busy to put me in my place. There’s that little matter of your parole violation,” said Shaw. “Indiana wants you.” The sound of an approaching siren gradually increased in volume, until a blue sedan with flashing lights darted into the alley, squealing to a halt. A short, stocky man with light brown, curly hair stepped out of the car. “Nice of you to finally show up, Lionel,” said Shaw.

“Some of us actually work for a living, Sunshine,” replied the detective. “I’ve got my own arrests to take care of. I can’t spend all my time finishing up your jobs for you.” He pulled out his handcuffs and walked over to where Remus was still writhing.

“Sure you can, Lionel. Clean-up is your specialty,”

Fusco frowned. “Yeah, yeah. Get out of here before somebody else shows up and we have to start explaining things.” Smiling sardonically, Shaw pivoted on her heel and strode out of the alley.

“Nice work, sweetie,” a voice said, coyly, in Shaw’s ear. “But don’t you think you cut it a bit close?”

“Don’t start with me,” responded Shaw, impatiently. “If someone hadn’t downloaded every message Remus tweeted over the last six months, I could have been following him when he located the museum where Joanna works two days ago.”

“Didn’t the tweets help you find out that he had been stalking women since he came to the city?”

“Yes, but since I was busy checking out all of those women to make sure they were safe, I missed the fact that Remus used a stolen phone to get Joanna’s schedule from her secretary. It took me too long to figure out that it was Joanna that he was after.”

“Sounds like you could use more help. Shall I recruit another partner for you?”

Shaw bristled at the question, which the Machine had asked her several times over the past few months. She had no interest in adding a new member to the team. Being close to people hadn’t exactly worked out well for her. First, the ISA had killed off the only person she liked, her partner, Cole, leaving her gun shy about the idea of working with other people ever again. But she had been intrigued enough by the mission that Harold Finch and John Reese had offered to her to give it a try. At first, she had stepped back after each case in order to maintain her independence; over time, however, she realized that, whether she had intended to or not, she had formed bonds with her team members.

Then, once again, she found herself dealing with loss—with death—so many deaths. Joss Carter. John Reese. Root. When Finch decided he could no longer continue with the mission, she had been relieved that he had at least agreed to leave Bear with her, so that she wasn’t completely abandoned. Well, there was Fusco. Fusco was all right. He wasn’t one to get all sentimental, and that suited Shaw just fine. They operated at arms’ length, and gave each other as good as they got. Shaw was not going to make the mistake of getting too close to anyone again.

“Don’t bother trying to find me a new partner,” said Shaw, flatly. “Fusco’s back from his vacation with his son. We’ll manage just fine.”

“Wouldn’t you like to take a vacation sometime?”

“I don’t do vacations,” replied Shaw acerbically. “Now let me grab some dinner in peace.”

“Of course, sweetie.” The Machine cut the connection.

Eleven minutes later, the lights turned on automatically as Shaw entered the subway base, eating a slice of pizza. With a short bark of greeting, Bear loped over to her. “Hello, handsome,” she said, reaching down to scratch the dog behind his ears. “Sorry I couldn’t take you with me this time. Next time, I promise. Are you hungry?” Bear quietly woofed in approval as Shaw refilled his food bowl, and began eating with a vengeance the moment she stepped back.

Shaw moved over to the chair sitting in front of the Machine, the only open place to sit amid the rubble that took up most of the space in the station. Frankly, she hadn’t seen any point in wasting time or effort cleaning up the destruction wrought by the combination of the weapons fired by Samaritan’s agents and the explosives that she and Fusco had detonated so the subway car could travel out of the abandoned station, removing the Machine from Samaritan’s grasp. In truth, since the Machine could contact her anywhere, there really was no practical reason to maintain the space at all. Given how much she had lost as a result of the final battle with Samaritan, however, Shaw had found herself surprisingly reluctant to abandon this last remaining physical connection to the past.

She had had to work out a new set of logistics for handling the Numbers. The Machine had rebooted itself as an open system, which meant that it frequently provided sufficient information to make it easier to determine whether a Number was a victim or a perpetrator. However, the system also had a drawback—the Machine had a tendency to provide such massive amounts of information that Shaw sometimes found it a challenge to ferret out the most pertinent details. This challenge had resulted in frustration more than once in the past few months, with Shaw frozen into momentary inaction as she struggled to sort through the flood of details being poured into her ear.

Gradually, the Machine was learning how to sort and prioritize the information, thus lessening Shaw’s information overload. But that was not the only part of the Numbers process that had changed from the original operation. Since Harold had decided he was no longer willing to continue on the team, the Machine now performed the handler duties that had previously been his province. And, for Shaw, that meant listening to Root’s voice, morning, noon, and night—in fact, much more frequently than she had ever listened to the woman while she was still alive.

For a long time, Shaw had found herself continually brought up short by the sound of the Machine speaking in her ear. It had taken months, but, for the most part, she had adjusted to the familiar voice coming from a new source. Still, there were times when hearing Root’s voice rubbed her nerves a bit raw. The Machine might have mastered the woman’s flirtatious banter, but in some ways, having a version of Root present in such an insubstantial form was worse than having her gone entirely; it served as a constant reminder of what was missing, much as it had felt when Shaw, as a child, had explored with her tongue the empty space left by a missing tooth.

All of her life, Shaw had been a creature who operated by practicality, not sentiment. She managed sexual intimacy the same way that she did meals: she ate when she was hungry, sated her appetite, then moved on, never planning to return or worrying where the next meal would come from. But Root had begun to change that, by challenging Shaw at every turn, constantly knocking her off her balance, and refusing to accept her rejections as a final answer. Over time, the infuriatingly persistent woman had somehow managed to worm her way to Shaw’s very core.

That was why Root could serve as the anchor that enabled Shaw to hold on to a scrap of her sanity while being held captive and subjected to Samaritan’s ministrations. When Shaw had actually managed to free herself and return to New York, she had resolved to remain separate from the team, no longer trusting her own perception of reality, uncertain whether she still carried Samaritan’s chip in her head. But Root had found her, and refused to let her go. Only when Root had shown she was willing to put a bullet in her own brain did Shaw finally begin to believe that she might indeed be free.

Then, suddenly, before Shaw even had a chance to re-establish her bearings, Root was gone, felled by a Samaritan assassin. There had been little opportunity for Shaw to deal with her loss at the time, given the rising pitch of the final battle between Samaritan and the Machine. Even now, when Shaw opened her eyes some mornings, it still took a few moments before she truly believed that she wasn’t operating inside one of Samaritan’s nightmare simulations.

The routine of handling the Numbers was all that grounded Shaw’s current existence. But the constant presence of Root’s voice, coming into her ear from the Machine, also made it impossible for her to avoid thinking about all of the “what ifs” and “might have beens” between her and Root. Shaw supposed that the Machine would change its voice if she requested it. But how could she even consider making such a request when she knew that Root would have considered the Machine’s selection of her voice as the highest possible honor?

“No sleep for you tonight, sweetie,” the Machine announced unexpectedly, shaking Shaw out of her reverie.

Shaw sighed. “Who’s the new Number?”

“Peter Hutchins.” The Machine flashed an image of a driver’s license on the monitor; Shaw looked up to see the face of a middle-aged African American man, graying hair closely cropped to his head. “An arson investigator for the fire department since 2007. He’s been making some rather substantial purchases with cash over the last two months.” The monitor view switched to surveillance camera footage of the man counting out a large stack of bills at a counter.

“All right. Show me everything you’ve got,” said Shaw, leaning back in her chair in preparation for a late-night research session.