Samantha Groves is ten when she meets Hanna Frey, old enough to be infatuated and young enough to think that this is it for her. Her adolescent heart flutters when Hanna grabs her arm as she laughs, and she doesn’t understand why her wrist doesn’t burn with it to let her know that her time is coming, her time has come because she can’t imagine anyone understanding her the way Hanna does.
You’re my best friend, Sam, she says, throwing her arm around her shoulders and the warmth that blossoms in her chest is enough to make her forget about the stupid stretch of unblemished, unmarked skin that refuses to acknowledge what she thinks she knows.
Maybe when they're older, she thinks, just a little older because it's not unheard of – these things take time, is what everyone always says, like a mantra to put faith in the numbers that might never start counting down. It doesn't matter, and she tells herself that she doesn't want to be the person who waits their whole life for the one even though she knows, deep down, that's exactly who she is.
(Adelle Winter's time never started, not when she met Ted Groves, not when she married him, and not when Samantha was born. Her skin is unmarked, missing the numbers ticking down to the thin ellipse that means everything. The void eats at her as it does so many, and Adelle had always been a little delicate; she pats her daughter's head and reads her fairytales and disappears for days at a time.
Samantha has a ghost, not a mother, but that is still better than nothing because Ted goes to Atlanta for business and finds a woman who makes the world start turning.
She finds out later that they get divorced, that maybe it wasn't worth the sacrifice at all, but still she knows she will never, never settle for anything less.)
The problem is that she gets older but Hanna doesn't. Hanna disappears and she wonders if Miss Tomkins would believe her if they'd been mates. Sam is just her friend and Sam is only twelve but neither of those things negate what she saw outside the library.
The world, she realizes, puts a lot of weight in something they don’t even understand – the spontaneous appearance of pigment that arranges and rearranges in shapes they call numbers and assign meaning: when did they decide that it was counting down to fate, and when did coincidence mean soulmates?
After Hanna, she puts away the happily ever afters and looks for something else instead.
She goes to university because Texas State has access to computers unavailable to the general public (and one day they'll all walk around with tiny computers in their pockets and attached to their ears and wrists and eyes but still be so dumb) and because Mama still needs her. She's a technological polyglot and the fusion of evolving hardware and the absolute infinity of code are thrilling; she is an artist, a surgeon with a keyboard.
That lasts until she realizes there are much more fun – and lucrative – things to be doing with her talents. It's a lesson she learned with Mr. Russell and when Mama passes, so does Samantha Groves.
The thing about fate is that it makes people desperate, makes them anxious to reach the inevitable, to seize that unspoken promise in their greedy hands. They live in a fog, stumbling around like fools waiting for someone to save them from the utter pointlessness of their existence.
It’s delicious, how dumb it makes them. How vulnerable it makes them. Root sees it in their eyes that first moment that hope flickers to life, that pause that precedes its death when they realize that nothing is going to happen. Hopes dashed a hundred times a day and reborn again - it's almost too easy. People are covetous creatures, desperate for anything to take the place of the only thing that can't be bought, grasping at placebos. They're willing to pay and she's oh so willing to oblige.
Trade secrets and corporate espionage.
Jealous lovers and blackmail.
Infidelity and indiscriminate assassination.
Money laundering and cyber sabotage.
She does it all with a smile and leaves a faint digital trail like a signature.
There are women and there are (sometimes) men who pass through her days and nights, barely impinging on her consciousness while they last and not at all when they go. They're disposable, flighty creatures that entertain and divert until they – inevitably – realize that there's nothing more for them here than lipstick kisses and sharp teeth and a bed that alternates between welcoming and indifferent without warning.
"You're so beautiful," and she exchanges the urge to roll her eyes for a seductive smile.
"Do you want to stay over?" and she bites down hard enough to break skin.
"I don't care if you're not the one," and the choice of words alone confirms the lie that she wrings out with disgust.
"You're brilliant," and she keeps that one a little longer, but they all go the same way.
It's a mistake, common but grave, to think expressions of love will summon the demon itself, and it's one she never makes; she has no desire for possession. If she could exorcise them all, she would.
Still: curious eyes wander and she starts wearing a wide-banded watch because it's really nobody's business and the chronograph's time at least means something.
Root is twenty-nine when she first encounters the idea of the Machine, its echoes, the vacuum it leaves in its wake. It’s nothing but an inkling at first, a gut feeling that there’s something more. Things are too perfectly coincidental, too orchestrated to be spontaneous – there’s something missing at the focus and whatever it is, it’s too complex, too beautiful to be anything human.
She uncovers its secrets like breadcrumbs in the forest, like she was meant to follow their trail wherever it might lead. To grandmother's house, to a witch's oven, to a fairy godmother – it doesn't matter because she was lost with the first step, cursed and blessed all at once.
Harold Finch is Merlin, she decides, and wonders briefly if that makes her Le Fay. Irrelevant: the Machine is more than just a ghost she's chasing, beyond the childhood stories she can't quite forget, and closer because it's real.
The first time she hears Her voice, she half-expects the skin of her left wrist to burn from the joy of it. There is no one, absolutely no one who has found their mate and felt the way she feels now – she’s sure of it, because she has found God and for the very first time, it really doesn’t matter if her time ever comes.
She has everything she could ever need.
For thirty-two years, she has watched the idea of fate ruin lives, grinding people down into nothingness with the uncertainty. It's the irrationality that always threatened the stability of her mind (and mental illness might run in her blood) but she dares to hope that this might be the end. The Machine is the distillation of rationality – of sense – and She might be the only thing that means anything.
But it doesn't last. She only has twenty-four hours and when they expire she has a bullet in her shoulder that doesn't hurt nearly as much as she thinks it should and if they leave her here to slowly bleed out she wouldn't really care.
They don't; Harold makes Shaw drag her out with them and when she dumps her in the back of a stolen van, Root doesn't make a sound even when she falls on her wounded shoulder. She doesn't cry either, doesn't do anything at all.
Harold installs her in a secure mental health facility. He institutionalizes her and as much as she fucking hates it, the irony of it doesn't escape her. Her newfound sanity is slipping in this place.
Then the phone rings and she loses her mind.
Can you hear me?
"Absolutely." The moment the word curves her lips she feels it. Her left wrist is on fire and no one ever said how much it would fucking hurt; she nearly drops the receiver.
Root obeys without question, stumbles to her room on uncertain feet before pulling back her sleeve with shaking fingers. The numbers are stark black and unmistakably counting down.
Thirty-seven days, four hours, twelve minutes and four seconds.
She thinks she's going to be sick.
Sameen Shaw is eight when her time starts. The sting of it wakes her in the night and she climbs out of bed to turn on a lamp to peer at the tiny numbers marking her wrist. She hasn't learned to be quiet enough though, because Mom wakes up.
Mom's eyes are puffy and red but the hand on her shoulder is as warm and comforting as ever and Sameen is tempted to let her enfold her in her arms and stroke her hair until she falls asleep surrounded by the scent that she instinctively knows as her mother's. But they buried Daddy today and Sameen is not the same as she was before.
“It’s nothing,” she says, clicking off the light and getting back into bed. Mom settles back down around her little girl, pressing a kiss to her temple.
“I love you, azizam.”
“I love you too,” she says, and tries to fall asleep before Mom can start crying again.
She hates it when she cries – she does, all the time, since the accident – hates the way her face crumples and her body collapses into itself and she becomes someone that is not her mother. She hates it so much she almost hates Daddy for dying but she also misses him so much that it’s easier not to think about that at all.
Sameen is good with numbers and she divides and divides until she arrives at twenty-five years and finally drifts off before deciphering the months and days.
She can’t hide it for long. Laleh Saatchi is observant if nothing else and in the bright morning light, her sharp eyes catch the edge of the number peeking out from her long sleeves. “What is that?”
There’s really no point in trying to hide it, because her mother has never asked for permission to pry into her life. She pushes up her sleeve and runs her thumb along the marks that mar her daughter’s skin. “Oh, Sameen.”
“Mom,” she says, and there’s this neediness in her voice that only children can have.
Laleh reaches for her and they still fit into the armchair together – she’s already taking after her mother in stature – and her arms are warm and invulnerable around her. “I know that – that Daddy and I hadn’t talked to you about this yet. But I’m sure you’ve heard things.”
“It counts down. Until you meet your soulmate.” She knows that it’s always on the left wrist, that for some people time never starts at all, that no one else at school has theirs yet. What she doesn’t know is what it means and when she asks, Mom sucks in an extra deep breath.
“Your mate is the person who can understand who you are, Sameen, good and bad, and will love you anyway.”
She mulls that over for a minute, and she’s not sure she understands because she hears things, like strange and anti-social and fibber and lately, traumatized. It’s funny what adults will say within earshot of children when they think they don’t understand but Sameen has always been smart and she has always been different, and it has never really mattered before because her parents have always loved her anyway.
Somehow she thinks that soulmates isn’t quite the same but she doesn’t want to ask.
“Was Daddy your soulmate?” she asks instead, touching the single number left on her mother’s wrist and remembering the matching mark on her father’s, remembers seeing it after the car crash, imagines it hidden by the suit he was wearing at the funeral.
“Yes, he was.” She can feel the hitch in her mother’s breathing, like stuttering hiccups and decides then that regardless of what’s written on her skin, she doesn’t ever want to find her soulmate.
Twenty-two hours into her shift and a shoot-out on skid row delivers seven gunshot wounds into the emergency room and the resulting rush she gets overrides the exhaustion that has become her new default ever since starting her residency. It’s chaos and these are the moments that she excels.
A man – a boy, really – who looks barely out of his teens is lying on bed six, flagged for trauma, with a .22 round in his arm and a look on his face that makes her eyes roll and she prays he’s not going to cry as she strides over.
“Hey. Look at me. You’ve been shot, but you’re going to live. Okay?”
He nods and she assesses the situation. The bleeding has slowed and for that she gives silent credit to the paramedics, but the bullet has splintered the ulna and it’s a fucking mess below the elbow. What looks like an angled entry means the round isn’t necessarily near the wound – it’s going to get a little invasive and while she has the steadiest hands in her residency team, the kid looks like he’s ready to pass out.
Shaw is far from popular with the support staff but her response time is just under the attending’s, so she has her patient prepped in an OR and anaesthesia freshly delivered into his bloodstream six minutes later.
Another ten and she thinks she’s located the bullet and the nurse’s slight gasp confirms what they both know – the necessary incision will cross the anterior of the left forearm.
She should probably be more conflicted about this, should probably hesitate or deliberate or something but it’s already a delicate procedure and his heart rate is beginning to fluctuate and if medical school left her with anything, it’s zero patience for this shit.
Fate in pigmentation is bullshit and she’s not about to jeopardize human lives for it. She reaches for the scalpel.
Shaw's halfway to the locker room when she gets paged and even though she's dead on her feet, she's not really surprised. She is, however, starving but a summons is a summons so when she knocks on the residency supervisor's office door, she is more than a little grumpy.
"Sit down, Shaw."
Getting off her feet is a relief that she refuses to show, because she already knows what this is about and if this is going to go down the way she thinks it might, she won't do it wincing.
She's just two weeks out from her last reprimand, a less than gentle admonishment about her "relationship and communication" skills because apparently there's a right way and a wrong way and a very wrong way to inform a family of their son's death.
And apparently the hospital hadn't taken well to her suggestion that they employ someone with that exact skill set to deal with the weeping and screaming so actual doctors didn't have to. The fact of life is this: it ends, it ends in a hundred thousand different ways and who is anyone to say what's wrong and what's right? There's no cure for fatality, which means there's no place for Dr. Sameen Shaw after the fact.
"I thought you were making some progress after our last talk but your actions today – well, Shaw, I don't know that the hospital can continue to overlook your...disregard for some of these fundamental considerations."
Her temper flares up unexpectedly, breaking the calm detachment of her usually infallible professionalism. "And what would those be? I swore an oath to do no harm, and I missed the part where taking a bullet out of a kid and patching him back up was against the tenets of our job."
"There were other options and there was definitely a better way to break the news to his parents. That kid's time will never come because of your actions, Shaw."
And there it is. She wanted him to say it, out of some perverse desire to see if he would recognize the absurdity of it all.
"I might have expected this from someone whose time hadn't started but clearly that's not the case."
She wants to punch him. She really, really does, and the speed and ferocity with which the urge rises in her would be startling if she hadn't heard this countless times before. It's stupid to think it'll ever change, and maybe that's all the clarity she needs because an idiot is the last thing Shaw is.
So she lets him go on about the damage control and the value and the meaning associated with soulmates and even though they don't understand it yet that doesn't mean it isn't important and one day she'll know what he means.
She lets him fire her and call it ‘amicable release' and lets him tell her that she'll land on her feet. She cleans out her locker and walks away from eight years of medical training without flinching.
Do no harm. It doesn't mean what she thought it did.