She watched the neon lights flicker and toss her shadow like an unwanted doll, tumbling her shape across the brickwork behind her. I'll be strong, she told herself, waiting and wishing she'd had just one more cigarette to keep her company. I'll show him what I'm made of at the eleventh hour. Headlights rounded the corner, flooded the freakshow alleyway with normalcy, and she tensed. Two agents stepped out of the car, then another two. Despite herself, she ran.
In the end, it didn't matter. The sad part was, she'd known it all along.
# # #
They'd met in the days when she still believed in good, like a high-town girl with a shiny new uniform does. She'd listened to him, been enthralled by him, and quickly fallen in love with him. Here was the voice of The Force, personified - a man whose every movement, breath and smoke-laden exhalation had been the epitome of the law. It was for him that she'd taken up smoking, hoping to impress. The first time he'd seen her on the smoker's terrace, he'd fixed her with a lop-sided smile, like he'd just seen a child crossing the road alone for the first time. She'd been stupidly pleased, even though her lungs had burned for days afterward.
In time, she'd been promoted away from him, competent enough to undertake her own duties, out on the beat, with a partner just a little less green than herself. She'd lost a lot of her veneer in those first weeks, had a lot of chips and dents put in the world that she'd been told existed. God, how she'd wept those first nights, alone in her studio apartment, wept for the beaten women and homeless children and men with guns and knives and no hope. If she'd expected reassurance from him, that was tough luck. He'd watched her once more on the smoker's terrace, but this time there was only an unfathomable stillness to his gaze.
After a particularly clumsy gunfight, she'd been chewed out by the Sargent while he sat and watched in the corner, smoky reflections dancing in his still, dark eyes. She'd been demoted to indefinite desk duty, and as she slouched to her new cubicle, holster light and heart heavy, he'd followed her with two cups of coffee and that same lop-sided smile. For a moment, she'd been able to convince herself that he cared, before dismissing it as childish fantasy. Nevertheless, it was an afternoon she had remembered for years.
Then, one day, he was gone. Transferred, someone said. Moved away, from someone else. She'd tried to find him, come up zip, with offhand comments and downright glares her only answer to her casually crafted questions. They knew why she asked. She pretended they didn't. And she sat in her cubicle, remembering that smile and the scent of cheap filter coffee like it was manna. Months later, cleaning out a stack of files, she'd found her transfer papers, with his signature at the bottom. She'd remembered the smell of gunpowder and the numbness of her hands, the horror of the spreading darkness that had haunted her dreams and her career. She'd known she should thank him, even though she'd been far from pleased at the time. She'd wished that she could thank him, but all she could do was put paper after paper in its proper place and memorise the curve of his surprisingly elegant script. It was only when the last box had been packed away and she'd been moved on to filling out incident reports that she realised she'd probably never see him again.
All that was long past. He'd walked back into the station, back into her life, a little more than three months ago. After seven long years of failed relationships and a nowhere career, she was ready to cling to the last remnants of her youth in a way that both ashamed and astounded her. None of the men she'd met had lived up to his standard, always, in some way, falling short of his ideal as the loveable, the untouchable. She'd greeted him with a smile, turned on the charm, and he'd looked right through her, as if she didn't exist.
She hadn't known then that he'd undergone seven years of cybernetic reconstruction, had barely made it out sane. She hadn't known of the terrors that had overtaken him between streets, of the cruelty of men in respectable positions who didn't appreciate cops who weren't for sale. She only knew that her heart had broken in a way she hadn't felt since she was twelve, when the world had first introduced her to pain. She hadn't known she could still cry like that. She'd wished she couldn't.
Ever since, she'd maintained her distance, kept to herself, and tried not to see his eyes sliding over her like she was the space between two pictures. Sometimes his gaze would linger, looking through her, but since she'd first noticed the subtle red tint behind his pupils, it had been as if he was no longer really alive, no longer there. He was on a big case, one to rival the feds, and he was copping a lot of heat from higher-ups who were becoming uncomfortable with his hard-lined questions. He didn't even try to reassure them. What he'd lost in grace, he'd made up for in efficiency. Even his handwriting was different.
Then that one day, everything had changed. He'd looked at her for the first time in months, eyes widening, red glow gone. He'd stared at her until horror overcame his features, and he'd grabbed her arms with enough strength to make her gasp.
"Sarah," he'd said. "Run."
So she'd run, leaving her apartment, even her cat, hiding away in backstreet hollows and dingy motels, never using her real name, withdrawing money only an increment at a time. That moment of humanity in his red-lined gaze had terrified her, kept her on the move, forever wanting to know more but afraid of what she would find. Somehow, he'd kept in touch, kept her one step ahead of the shadows she would see at the far end of the corridor as she slipped silently down another outdoor fire escape. There was no doubt they were hunting her. All she'd wanted to know was why.
Eventually, her answer had come, in the form of a note slipped under her door at 3am on a rusty morning. She'd learned to sleep lightly, so the whisper of paper warned her. She'd wished anything for a gun, but remembered enough to know better. It was a folded photograph of the last time she'd seen him fully human, of him and her on the smoker's terrace, him with his lop-sided smile, and her, glancing away. In the darkness, all she could see was a circle, drawn around the image of herself. When she took it into the light, she could see the perfectly-captured look on his face. Tenderness and regret.
She'd known then what kind of questions they'd ask. She'd known she didn't have the answers. But she'd also known it wouldn't matter. When he'd told her their next strike point, she'd set up an ambush of her own. The rabbit, setting the snare. He couldn't help her anymore, without jeopardising himself, and his task was important, more vital than she could know. She wouldn't let him die protecting her. She turned back toward the light.
# # #
As the agent pulled his fist back, ready to strike another blow, for a brief moment, she smiled. The mess of her face mocked her from the reflective glass, turning her smile into a nightmare of gore. She didn't know where he was, or how'd he'd acquired his information. She didn't know who his next target was, so she stayed silent, and they took her silence for stubbornness. She smiled at their ignorance.
Eventually they asked the one question she could answer, lips split and bloodied, tongue heavy from catching it between her teeth when they caught her by surprise.
"What do you know of John Sanders?" Her eyes strayed to the corner where a security camera watched, red light unblinking, and her smile was genuine. A silent image played across the nearby screen, the first of a series of corrupt senators being escorted through the surging crowd, microphones like hungry flies converging on a corpse. He was there, on the screen, giving a speech with subtitles like 'dignity' and 'integrity'. The agent stared at the screen in shock, fist half-raised, his mission in tatters. Despite all this, she knew he was watching, tapped into the security system. He'd be her confessor.
"It was the best relationship I never had."
And then it was done.