I am 16 and he is 23.
He is surprised at how I managed to find his place, explaining that he particularly chose that AC cooling tower to be out of reach, so that only Runners could access it. Runners are illegal underground messengers who operate independently from the city's legal security and surveillance. They are a popular option to transport private and confidential documents across the city without the intrusion of the government. He says his name is Mercury, and he used to be a Runner for 5 years, but that changed a year ago when a bad fall took him out of active duty. He's a Tracker now, which means he recruits and trains Runners and helps them on their missions; he compliments my skills after I tell him how I climbed up to his hideout, but says that I still need a lot of improvement ("Like getting in and out without getting busted.").
I'm sitting on the couch behind his computers. He is intimidating, tall and solid with bulky muscle. I cry and beg him not to report me to the CPF. I explain to him that I ran away from home, away from my alcoholic father and controlling sister, and have been living on the streets, resorting to petty thievery and robbery to survive. He sighs and shakes his shaved head. He calls me "kiddo." He offers me food, a place to stay- he tells me I can live with him, and he'll train to me to become a Runner.
I am 18 and he is 25.
I've fallen in with another Runner named Jacknife. He has long, brown hair that is irresistible to touch. I watch him as he stands on the ledge of a building, looking over the city as though it is his kingdom; the wind blowing his wild mane around, the bright white of the sun creating exotic highlights on every silky strand. He is lanky and slender. He smells like musk and sweat and leather when he holds me close. He calls me Faithy and whispers it in my ear; the tickle of his hot, airy breath makes me laugh. I meet him whenever and wherever I can. The rooftops are our playground. In broad daylight, above the city, we are still hidden from view. I moan his name, Jack, over and over into his neck. I am clumsy, and awkward; my balance is off and I can't do many of the positions he tries to shift me to do. His stubble is rough and scrapes my face when he smashes his lips against mine. But it's exciting, and I am too young. I think Merc knows; he doesn't ask me what I've been up to when I miss training or come home late at night and slink to my bedroom without a word. I feel as though I'm betraying him.
I am 19 and he is 26.
Jacknife is gone. Merc recruits a new Runner named Celeste. I'm immediately jealous of her; she's blonde with a perfect body, fleshy thighs and a full chest. She's a far better learner than I, too. She's not a better Runner yet, but I know she'll catch up with me in no time at all. She claims to be a "born survivor" and is proud of the fact. She's also older than me by 3 years. Closer to Merc's age. I wonder if he would want me the same way he wants her if I was older.
I see the way he looks at her. Like a stray dog eyeing a fresh steak in a dark, conspicuous alley. I know about them. Merc tells me that the grunting and groaning I hear at night is him benching weights. I don't believe him, but I don't say anything. It hurts. I miss when it used to be just us. She also gives me attitude. I know it's because she knows that I know what she does with Merc when they believe I am asleep.
We become friends soon enough. I'll never forget the night on the roof when her and Merc had a falling out. I know it was about me. She stands with me on the roof in the moonlight and looks at me with these sad blue eyes and tells me, "It isn't enough to survive; you've got to live as well," before leaping off into the night.
I am 22 and he is 29.
Celeste works for Drake now, and has for about 8 months. She stops by every now and again, but her and Merc stopped being intimate long ago. Things have been quiet; business is slow and we fall into a comfortable routine of work and leisure time. Most of our free time is spent around the hideout.
One night, Merc surprises me by buying make up to cover our tattoos and scars. We dress in regular civilian clothes and go out to a bar downtown. This is a first for me, and I get so giddy and plastered that Merc has to carry me to a hotel for the night. We pass out atop each other on the feather down, queen-sized bed; a luxury we've never had. We wake up contentedly to the sun rising the next morning; we laugh together at his crumpled white dress shirt, my wrinkled red cocktail dress, his ripped pant leg, my tousled hair, his missing tie and my missing left heel. We stop laughing when my stomach rises up in my throat and I rush to the bathroom.
He tells me we celebrated. He tells me my training is complete. I'm finally a Runner.
I am 23 and he is 30.
Merc and I make love for the first time. It was easy with him, like it had always been between us.
I come home from a mission that took up the bulk of the day. The sun is setting, dusky and blood red like runner vision. Merc's hideout is glowing. He's at his computers, as always, and seems to avoid looking in my direction. I begin to tell him how it went and place a hand on his shoulder. He immediately jumps up and grabs it, twisting my arm around my back- not painfully, but enough to ensnare me. I realize this is a test. I duck down, bending at the knees, and spin out of his grip, grabbing his ankle and yanking it upward to topple him; he tucks into a ball and rolls away from me, jumping up in time to guard against my blows. He catches my fist and grips it tightly, holding it above my head. I go for his stomach with my free hand; he grabs that too and raises it up by my wrist before slamming me against the wall. We are still now and panting as the golden city slips into darkness. He hesitantly presses his body up against mine as he holds my hands above me, and we stand there, slowly and tentatively closing the gap between us.
Merc is hairless. His face is soft against mine and the shaved hairs on his head are fine, almost smooth. He takes me on the couch. There are no words, only movements; we see the flow. He doesn't chuckle at my inexperience like Jacknife did. He doesn't call me Faithy, or "kiddo." Just Faith. The one he's loved all along.
We eventually decide that a physical relationship isn't feasible; it would only complicate things if I were to end up with a child. Abortions are illegal, and dangerous. I would be forced to go through with the pregnancy. Not only would I be put out of commission forever, but we don't have the means to raise a family properly. No stable income. No real job. No real home. Even if we were safe, there's no guarantee. An orphanage is another option, but we don't discuss it. That's something we would never do to a child of ours- not in this city. Things cool down and eventually fizzle out between us.
I am 24 and he is dead.
I get there too late. I run in to find the hideout- our home- destroyed beyond recognition. Merc's computers are bashed in and they spit angry sparks at me as I survey the damage. My heart races and sinks as I look for Kate. I don't see her. I don't see Merc, either. I idly pick up the headset I had given to my sister earlier and stare at it as if it's some foreign object. As if I'm waiting for it to tell me what happened. And then-
I hear a groan from the other side of the room. I rush over and pull back the tipped-over couch, once a clean beige, now riddled with bullets and blood. Behind it is Merc. And he's hurt bad; his abdomen is full of holes. He has a gun. He's holding on to it with all the strength he can muster, his muscles being useless to him now. He drops his guard when he realizes it's me.
I cry out and drop next to him, cradling his head and locking my fingers with his over his wounds. My lip starts to tremble and my eyes blur. I stroke his head, the way I did so many nights before when he would collapse atop me, naked and heavy and breathing hard. "I couldn't stop them," he tells me apologetically, and I shush him, looking into his eyes. I gently push him down. He lifts his head back up.
"They took Kate. I got some of those bastards, though."
I ask him where they went. He tells me, with difficulty, that the officers who took my sister away mentioned the Shard, the mayor's place. Merc begins coughing violently and I feel tiny splatters of blood on my neck. I realize that this may be the last time I see Merc alive. Unless I do something, quick. I panic.
"Shit, Merc! Let me get someone- a doctor-" I say, and I start to pull away from him to run and get help. He tightens his hold on my hand and pulls me back to him.
"Ain't gonna happen, Faith," he whispers hoarsely. I don't take my eyes off of his; I feel like if I do, when I look back he'll be gone. A single tear trails down my cheek but I don't care to wipe it away. It falls off my jaw and lands in silence on his bloodied chest. I apologize, repeatedly, quietly, for everything. He shakes his head and inhales sharply. He cups my face with his hand and I lean into his touch, instinctively, the way I always did right before he kissed me. "No sorries. Just don't let them win."
I promise him and clench my eyes shut as he takes his last breath. He calls me "kiddo." As his head falls back I feel the roughness of his scalp and decide right then and there that I'll never cut my own hair again. Anything to make me unrecognizable, anything to take me farther away from the Runner who loved a Tracker. My Tracker. My savior, employer, and mentor; friend, comrade, and lover.
I tenderly lay him down and grip the strong hands that once gripped me; I brush my fingers over the bulge of his muscles, tracing the veins and tattoos of the arms that once held me so close.
I won't let them win. I'll never let them win.