The blood is already soaking through his jacket by the time John stumbles out of the factory. Even just putting one foot in front of the other is an effort, but he grits his teeth and drags himself onwards anyway.
"How close?" Harold's voice says in his ear, barely bothering to mask his worry. John tries to not feel guilty and fails miserably.
"Almost there, Harry," Root says. "I can already see the smoke rising." She giggles. "You really did a number on that joint."
"Indeed," Harold says, putting on his best disapproving tone, but the worry shines through underneath anyway. "Rest assured we will have words about this later, Mr. Reese."
John huffs out a laugh and immediately regrets it when agony tears through his abdomen. He tries to contain the soft sound of pain that escapes him, but it slips through and is immediately followed by Harold's scandalized gasp.
"Don't worry," she says, "I'm here."
John hears the car before he sees it, the sounds of a whirring motor gradually coming closer until it's speeding towards him, head lights turned off despite the pitch black night.
It comes to a screeching halt in front of him, spewing gravel in its wake. Root opens the passenger door from the driver's seat and waves at him.
"Come on, slowpoke," she tells him. "We've got places to be, wounds to stitch up."
John gingerly lowers himself into the driver's seat and tugs the car door closed. It's a small two-seater, barely big enough for him to sit upright. He tries to arrange his legs within the tiny confines of the space between the seat and the dashboard. Root notices, of course.
"God, you're so fucking long," she says, rolling her eyes.
"Whose car is this?" John asks, ignoring her attempt at ribbing him.
"No idea," Root answers cheerfully, "didn't get his name. He was really cooperative, though! Mind you, I had to get the gun out first, but after that? Nary a word of complaint. Nice guy, all in all."
John throws her a dubious look. At least he's not the only one who'll be getting lectures from Harold later on.
Speaking of Harold...
"How is he?" the voice in John’s ear crackles to life.
"He can speak for himself," Root says, "even I have to cop to that one."
"I'd prefer he wouldn't, considering he took a knife to the stomach," Harold says, managing to sound so fussy, even over the bad comm line, that John can't help but smile.
"I'm fine, Harold," he says. "It didn't get me in the gut, just grazed me. Grazed me good, though."
He looks down and winces; the blood has seeped between the fingers he has pressed against his stomach and spread all over the nice suit jacket he just got last week.
"Those always bleed worse than they look," Root says. "Nothing a couple of stitches couldn't fix."
"Hear that, Harold?" John adds, "you get to practice again."
"Ah," Harold says apologetically, "unfortunately, I won't be able to meet with you today. I have to assist Sameen on-site. In fact, I was supposed to have already left. I'm glad to hear you're well though. I'll talk to you both later."
He closes the line.
John's face falls. If Harold is busy, and Sameen is busy, then that means...
"Aw, don't look so sad. It's been awhile since we spent some quality time together. No wait, hang on. That wording implies we ever have, in fact, spent quality time together."
John groans softly and sinks backward into his seat. Perfect.
Root hums gaily under her breath throughout the entire car ride while John bleeds into his hands and tries not to pass out. The entire situation would be hysterical if he wasn't the one having to put up with it.
By the time they arrive at the subway, the wound has at least stopped shooting searing pain up his side every few seconds and taken up a dull throbbing instead.
"Come on," Root says, as she clambers out of the car, "let's get you patched up."
She offers him her arm and rolls her eyes at the glare this earns her.
"Oh, come on, Mr. Macho Man, it's alright to accept help from me."
"The help part isn't the problem," John mumbles and stubbornly limps down the stairs by himself instead.
He peels himself out of his blood-encrusted shirt while Root gathers the medical supplies.
"Alright," she says, sauntering into the subway car with an armful of equipment that she dumps unceremoniously onto the seat next to him. "Let's get this party started."
John shoots her a dubious glance from under his eyelashes.
"Don't give me that look," Root says, "I'm being helpful!"
When that does nothing to make the thundercloud over John's head disappear, she pouts at him.
"Look, for reasons I still don't really understand but have decided to stop questioning in the meantime, Harry actually cares about you. So if you don't believe I give a damn about your well-being, you can at least agree I give a damn about his. Now scoot up."
John sighs and makes space for her to sit, then leans back and watches her disinfect her hands with long sweeping motions up to her elbows. Then she picks up a wet cloth, and waits for him to nod his assent.
"Try to keep still," she instructs. John holds his breath and tenses in preparation.
It's not so bad. The water is lukewarm and the fabric is soft. Slowly but surely the dried blood comes off, revealing the gash underneath.
"Yikes," Root says. "Someone was angry."
John grunts noncommittally.
"Hope you at least got him good in return."
"I guess I did set his factory on fire," John mumbles. "That sort of counts."
She gives him a smile. "It made for an entertaining audio drama, at least."
Root grabs the disinfectant from the seat next to her and John can't quite stop the automatic wince in reaction.
"Aw, relax, big boy" she says "You've had worse. It'll be fine."
Her tone is genuinely gentle and it leaves John feeling vaguely confused and uneasy, like a dream which almost but not quite matches up with reality.
It hurts: of course it does. The sting of the disinfectant makes him grit his teeth and clench his fingers into fists. Root is right, though –he's had worse. He thinks back to the time he had to walk five miles with a bullet wound in his leg, for some perspective.
The Lidocaine is a relief. Root smears it around the wound with quick, precise fingers and the cool cream feels like heaven on his overheated skin.
"Ready?" she asks, after having threaded the string through the needle. John gives her a weak nod. "This is going to be over in a second, don't worry," she says and it sounds so kind that John's eyebrows shoot up in surprise.
She's quiet while she works. Her stitches are neat, exact, and her hands don't shake at all. John studies her face, the way her mouth is set into a determined line, as if she were concentrating on nothing more than lines of code on a screen.
Only a year ago he would have gladly shot her in the head if it hadn't been for Harold's insistence otherwise. Now they're sitting close together, as allies instead of enemies, the yellow light of the subway car giving Root an ironic halo that is almost funny in nature.
He realizes he's stopped automatically mentally frisking her whenever she enters the subway, stopped checking on Harold periodically when he knows she's alone with him.
Somewhere along the way he started to trust her.
It's a weird revelation. He's not sure he likes it.
"How the hell do you drive in the dark without headlights, anyway?" he murmurs, and Root guffaws outright, her hands still perfectly steady.
She taps her ear.
"I've got an excellent navigation system."
She ties off the string and drops the needle onto the seat next to her.
"See? That wasn't so bad."
No, John thinks, it really wasn't.
"Thanks," he says out loud.
"Don't mention it," Root says and starts to gather up the medical supplies. "Oh, and try not to immediately rush back into danger, would you? Harold would have my head."
He follows her with his eyes until she's lost somewhere in the shadows of the subway. The stabbing pain in his gut has dulled to a low ache. Part of that is probably the numbing gel, but he'll take what he can get.
He eyes his bloody shirt for a bit but then decides against putting it back on, even if the subway is cold. He shrugs on his marginally less blood-soaked jacket instead and traipses outside. Root is sitting at Harold's second computer station, socked feet propped up on the desk.
She winks at him. "Don't tell Harold."
"Consider it repayment," John says and gestures towards the stitches. Root gives him a smile that looks genuine instead of condescending for once, and John takes a second to consider if he's somehow been transported into an alternate dimension.
Either way, he guesses he can get used to this.
Sameen blows out an annoyed huff of air and watches her breath form misty clouds in front of her face. The person passing her on the sidewalk gives her an alarmed look, so her anger presumably translates onto her face, but she can't bring herself to care about putting people off.
Today had been a complete disaster. Their latest number worked in a complaint department and since the rest of the team were tied up with other obligations, it had fallen to Sameen to shadow her at her job.
Her day had consisted of sitting through one stream of verbal abuse after another with absolutely no way for her to retaliate. Fortunately for the number in question, Sameen happened to feel some amount of sympathy for her, so the amount of bullshit she was willing to put up with was therefore raised quite a bit. That she got to literally smack sense into the creepy co-worker who was stalking the number in question (the perpetrator, as it turns out) did help take the edge off somewhat.
Not entirely, though. Her fingers are still shaking slightly with rage by the time she gets to her apartment. It takes her two tries to jab her key into the slot and she groans out loud in frustration.
As soon as the door slams closed behind her, she throws her jacket and scarf in the vague direction of the couch and makes a beeline for the fridge. At least there's always food and alcohol.
Or there would be, if she had had time to buy any. Instead there's only half a carton of milk and leftover Chinese that smells too dubious for even Sameen to touch again.
She slams the fridge door closed and sinks down into a chair. It's absolutely freezing outside; feeling still hasn't entirely returned to her fingers. There's literally nothing she wants to do less than leave the warmth of her apartment again.
Her phone buzzes from somewhere across the room. Sameen ignores it at first, but when it keeps buzzing she figures it's probably Root and gets up with a sigh. She tends to get cranky if Sameen ignores her for too long.
She makes her way over to her jacket, fishes her phone out of her pocket and answers it without looking.
It's John's voice that replies, not Root's: "Do you want mayo or ketchup with your cheeseburger? I can never remember."
"God, I love you," she says. "Both."
"Be there in 20 minutes," John replies and hangs up.
Sameen passes the time by playing Candy Crush on her phone – it’s a nice excuse to angrily jab at her phone and work off some steam. She can hear John arrive even before he knocks; the walls are paper thin and she'd recognize the sound of that long-legged gait anywhere. She throws open the door and nearly hits him in the face with it.
"Gimme," she says in lieu of an apology and John wordlessly hands her the greasy takeout bag. Bear chooses that moment to appear from behind the door and happily pants up at her. Sameen lets out a delighted little noise and bends down to scratch him behind the ears.
"Hello, big boy," she croons and smiles at the way he leans into her petting hand, tongue lolling in pleasure.
"I'm here too, by the way," John says and she smirks up at him.
"If you wanted to be fawned over, you should have paid Harold a visit instead."
This is when she notices that he's holding a six pack of beer in his other hand and for a few seconds she seriously considers hugging him.
"Come in," she says instead and gestures vaguely to the couch. John takes a few steps into her apartment, closing the door behind him, and looks around curiously. Bear trots towards the couch and hops onto it, settling down with a soft sniffle.
"Harold is really going to freak if he hears that you let him on the furniture," John says, but he sounds amused.
"Whatever," Sameen stuffs an entire handful of fries into her mouth. "I caught him feeding Bear treats even though he's on a diet the other day, so he doesn't get to complain."
"Some of those are mine," John says as she reaches for another handful of fries.
"Should have eaten them before you got here, then," she replies and plops down on the couch next to Bear. She pats the empty space next to her. "Come on. The television does work even if it doesn't look like it."
John gingerly lowers himself onto the seat next to her and flails a bit when he immediately sinks so deep into the couch cushions that he's not much taller than Sameen.
"Yeah, that side's a bit busted from when Root and I–" she says around a mouthful of burger and then catches the look on John's face and trails off. "Uh, anyway."
She wrestles two bottles of beer out of the carton packaging and opens them with her teeth, hands one to John and then points at the TV remote.
"Put on Animal Planet."
John gives her an amused smile.
"Really? Animal documentaries?"
"You watch CSI: New York on a regular basis, you don't get to make fun of my TV watching habits," Sameen says. "Animal Planet, now."
"The cases are interesting sometimes," John mumbles under his breath and flips through the channels until he has found the right one, then settles back into the couch cushions. Bear's ears pop up at the sound of bird cries, but he stays quiet. She gently strokes his head with the hand that isn't shoveling food into her mouth at rapid speed.
John holds his hand out and she begrudgingly deposits some fries into it. They watch the television in silence for a while, sipping their beers, the only sound in the room the gentle narration coming from the television and Bear's occasional snuffling.
"Not that I don't appreciate it," Sameen says eventually, "but is there a reason why you decided to show up?"
"Bear seemed like he was missing you." He scratches the back of his neck awkwardly and adds, "figured you probably had a bad day, too, I guess. Mine wasn't great, either."
If Sameen were at all into that sort of thing, she'd probably describe the feeling spreading in her chest as fondness. She's not though, so she just lets him have the pickle off her burger instead.
Harold is panting by the time he reaches the twelfth floor. The muscles in his legs are cramping and every step is agony but he drags himself forward anyway, one arm braced on the wall for support. Just a few more steps, just a little longer.
He can still hear the gunshot ringing in his ears, repeating over and over like a scratched record. He remembers the blood splattering the wall and feels bile rise in his throat. None of this was supposed to happen.
He fishes his phone out of his jacket pocket with trembling hands and checks the time.
Five minutes and forty-two seconds until the bomb goes off.
His vision blurs and he only registers that his phone has slipped from his fingers when he hears it clatter to the ground. He takes another step.
"How is it going on your end, Harold?" Sameen asks through the comm line.
Harold would like to answer her, but finds that his mouth won't let him form the words. His breath is coming out in great, wheezing gasps and he puts his hand over his mouth to stop it.
"I'm on my way," Sameen says, curt as ever, and closes the line.
Harold tries to focus his eyes on the tiles in front of him but the pattern won't stop swimming and twisting. Every breath burns in his throat. He takes another step.
The mental image of blood on white tiles won't leave him alone. He can't help but replay it over and over: the young man's trembling hands on the gun, the barrel pressed against the skin so tightly that it left a white ring of pressure around it, the gunshot, the blood, the gunshot, the blood, the gunshot, so much blood.
Harold's legs give out from under him. He slides down the wall and lands on the floor in a crumpled heap, glasses pressed against the marble tiles. No matter how many desperate breaths he gulps in, his head won't stop swimming.
He hears the door at the end of the corridor open and the sound of heavy boots coming towards him at running speed. Then Sameen is kneeling in front of him, hefting him up into a sitting position and steadying him against the wall.
"Harold," she says, her voice calm, "look at me."
Harold tries to, he really does, but her face just won't come into focus. Two disparate halves float in front of him, merging and breaking apart over and over. It's quite upsetting. Harold decides to look at the blood stain on her shirt instead. He belatedly registers that there are tears running down his face.
"You need to calm down," Sameen says. "You're having a panic attack."
Oh, Harold thinks. He probably should have realized that earlier. The gun is still firing in his ears. Less than five minutes before the bomb goes off, his brain helpfully reminds him.
Sameen's hands cup around his face and she gently directs his gaze up.
"Listen to me. You need to focus. Breathe with me, okay? Slowly."
Harold takes a wheezing breath and releases it after Sameen's allotted four seconds. It happens five more times, and by the sixth her face slowly swims into focus, dark eyes intent.
"Good," she says. "Keep going. What happened to our number?"
Harold's fingers clench into the wool of his trousers involuntarily. Blood on white tiles. He swallows around air. This time he manages to speak.
"He killed himself," he says. "Shot himself in the head. I was too late."
Sameen doesn't answer right away. Nothing in her expression indicates that she even heard him, her mouth set into a firm, straight line. Then she releases his face, and gently puts a hand on his shoulder instead.
"It's not your fault."
"I was too late," Harold repeats, wiping ineffectually at the tears running down his cheeks. "If I had realized what he was planning earlier, I could have–"
"Maybe," Sameen interrupts, "but you didn't, and there's no use crying over spilled milk."
Harold flinches underneath her hand, and her expression gentles.
"Look, you did your best. That's what matters. You gave a damn when other people didn't, and because of that you saved the lives of people who would have died otherwise, even if his wasn't one of them, okay?"
She gives him one of her half smiles, and squeezes his shoulder.
"While we're on the topic of saving lives, there's still a bomb to defuse. Do you think you can stand up?"
Harold still isn't entirely sure he can believe Sameen's version of events, but she's right, there's no time for this argument right now. Even just sitting upright is agony on Harold's muscles, but he grits his teeth and nods anyway. Sameen stands up and offers him her hand, and pulls him effortlessly to his feet when he takes it.
She immediately slings an arm around his middle to keep him stable, and he gratefully leans against her.
"Ready?" she asks and waits for him to nod before taking a careful step forward. It's easier with Sameen to guide him; he feels less like his legs are going to give out on him every second now.
"Right," Sameen says, "time to be heroes."
She flashes him a grin, and Harold manages to give her a shaky smile in reply, even though the fog of panic still hasn't entirely lifted.
It takes three more hours for the entire nightmare to finally end. By the time they have truly wrapped this case up and made their way back to the subway, Harold feels like he wants to sleep for at least two weeks. Unfortunately, there's still work to do, traces of their meddling to erase.
Sameen usually leaves after having taken the time to play with Bear for a bit, but this time she quietly sets up her arsenal on the rickety table next to Harold's computer station and begins methodically cleaning it.
Harold doesn't know why, but he's grateful either way. He still feels rattled, and would prefer not to be alone.
They work in comfortable silence for a while.
Finally, Harold turns to her, fingers awkwardly fiddling with a button on his waist coat, and quietly says, "thank you."
Sameen doesn't look up.
"Don't mention it."
"I shouldn't have let myself go like that," Harold says, his neck hot with shame for how much he had lost control. "If you hadn't been there, it would have had disastrous consequences."
"But I was there, Harold," she responds, matter of fact.
Indeed, Harold thinks. 'I always will be' remains unspoken, but Harold can read her pretty well by now, so he's quietly grateful anyway.
Root wakes up to sunshine and a cloudless sky. It's the first day of the entire year where the weather has climbed over 70 degrees and according to the weather app on her phone, it's apparently going to last the entire day, too.
Root feels like the weather is mocking her personally.
She goes through her normal morning routine (tea, granola, stretches, shower), performing the steps without really paying attention to them. Her limbs move on auto-pilot, seemingly unaffected by the fog in her mind.
The Machine sends her the first message while she's toweling her hair dry. It's a television schedule for today; apparently AMC is showing Terminator 2 in the evening. She takes a few seconds to wonder about the significance of that, but ultimately figures the Machine must know about the big poster of Sarah Connor that had adorned her bedroom wall for the longest time. Of course she does.
There's no number, or Harold would have contacted her by now. She feels only a little guilty for how disappointed she is by that; she shouldn't wish for people to be in mortal danger but she could have really used the distraction today.
She briefly considers calling Sameen, her fingers already hovering over her number in the call list, but eventually dismisses the idea. Even though seeing her face would cheer Root up, she doesn't want to mope all over her; Sameen isn't really one for comfort and knowing that she's being bad company would just make Root feel worse.
She sighs and tries to find something else to occupy her time with instead.
The second message from The Machine comes while she's trawling the darknet for gossip. It's a recipe for vegetarian lasagna. Root blinks at that, confused. It's not that she doesn't appreciate it, she's just not really sure why the Machine picked today of all times to expand her culinary repertoire.
"What are you trying to tell me?" Root asks the empty air, but predictably, there's no answer.
The third message comes halfway through Root's first crying fit of the day. It's a set of coordinates. She wipes determinedly at her eyes and rummages in her closet for comfortable shoes; if the Machine needs her, her personal feelings need to be put on hold for the time being.
The location the coordinates point to is not an emergency situation. In fact, it's a café. She blinks at it for a few seconds, confused, before spotting Harold at one of the tables, apparently enjoying some cake and a book.
"Did you send me to see him?" she asks the Machine. "Does he need my help?"
The Machine says nothing.
She wanders over anyway, plopping herself in the seat across from Harold. He's so engrossed in his book that he doesn't even notice her at first, only looking up when she taps her nails on the glass top of the table. He breaks out into a smile when he recognizes her, and she twists her face into what she hopes is a passing replica of an answering smile.
"Hello, Root," he says, "I see the weather lured you out, too."
"Actually, the Machine did," Root says. "Not sure why though. Did you need me for anything?"
Harold looks genuinely confused.
"No, not that I know of. We haven't received a number today and there's no other pressing issues I can think of that would require your help."
"Huh," Root says. "Weird."
She peers at the cover of the book he's reading.
"Is that Russian?"
"I was told by a reliable source that the English translations of Nabokov don't hold a candle to the original," Harold says.
"Nerd," she says, but it's fond.
Harold marks the page he was on with his napkin and puts the book aside.
"Did you have any plans for today?" he asks, and looks at her with genuine, gentle curiosity.
Root feels bad for already being exhausted with this conversation. It's not his fault, he's just being friendly, and any other day she would have loved to spend time with him, but today human contact is draining. Having to pretend to be alright is exhausting. Every single fake smile is taxing in a way that makes her physically tired.
"Not really," she says, and makes herself smile anyway, even though it feels brittle on her face.
He must have noticed, because the corners of his mouth turn downwards just the slightest bit.
"Everything alright?" he asks quietly, and gently puts his palm atop hers.
She wants to lie, to laugh it off like she always does, but instead the truth stumbles out of her mouth and into the air between them: "It's April 15th."
It takes a few seconds for him to make the connection. She can tell the exact moment he understands by the way his hand tightens around hers on the tabletop, eyes going soft.
"Oh, Root," he says, quietly, and kinder than she can really take at the moment, "I am so sorry."
She really wanted to avoid crying in public today, but apparently it's happening anyway going by the way her eyes are burning. Whatever. This day is toast already, and now that it's out in the open, she might as well just talk about this nightmare.
Root attempts a laugh that sounds fake even to her own ears.
"I know it's been 20 years and I should have gotten over it by now, but it's just–"
She breaks off and stares at the tabletop, the crumbs, the various rings that all the glasses and mugs have left behind. Harold doesn't say anything, just patiently waits for her to finish.
"Every time I wake up and see that date I'm twelve years old again and powerless to stop it," she finishes.
She very carefully doesn't look at Harold, doesn't think she could stand the pity in his gaze if she did. His hand is warm atop hers though, and for the moment that's comfort enough.
"I just feel like if I had done more– been more persistent–"
Tears are threatening to spill out so she stops speaking and concentrates on not making a fool of herself instead. Her mouth is trembling and she blinks aggressively, willing her body to hand control back to her.
"I know what you mean," Harold says. "Obviously, I can't claim to understand exactly how you feel, but I have been in a... similar situation before. Always having to wonder if things would be different if you had made different decisions, better decisions. It haunts you."
Root’s mouth twists into a bitter grimace.
"She was my best friend," she says, her voice shaking. "She was my best friend, and I loved her, and she could be alive now if I had just told the police the truth instead of letting myself be intimidated into silence."
She realizes with sudden, startling clarity that she has never said any of this out loud. She takes a sharp, shuddering breath.
"It wasn't your fault," Harold says. "You were just a child."
Root doesn't believe him, but she appreciates that he said it anyway.
Harold waits patiently until she's finished angrily dabbing at her eyes and has rearranged her face into a semblance of normalcy. His hand doesn't leave hers the entire time.
"What would you like to do today?" he asks eventually, after she feels a little more put together. "I know you don't have any plans; but it might help to make some."
He smiles at her.
"We could have no plans together."
Root suddenly remembers the Machine's cryptic messages from this morning: the television schedule, the recipe, the coordinates. She can't help but smile fondly.
"You meddler," she whispers.
Harold gives her a quizzical look.
"Nothing," she says cheerfully. "How do you feel about veggie lasagna and iconic sci-fi films of the 80s?"
"Very positive, I'd say."
She smiles at him, and tugs him upwards by his hand.
"Pay up then. We have ingredients to buy."