Meredith opened her eyes to find the apartment flooded with early-morning light.
She lifted her head. She was on the couch, her body curled against Tyler. His arms were wrapped around her, his jacket between them to prevent the wards burning into her back. Her body was stiff and cramped, her head and wrist ached, and her skin where she had accidentally or intentionally brushed against the wards last night was sore and sensitive. But she felt happy, almost content, for the first time in a long time.
It was a happiness which vanished the moment she twisted to look at Tyler’s sleeping face. Slowly, she sat up and the jacket slipped a little to reveal the mess of ink and scarification below, causing her to inhale sharply. She wondered if she would ever get used to the sight of him.
Meredith sat for a moment or two in contemplation of the sleeping magician. Then she squared her shoulders and reached for her clothes.
She took off the moment she hit the pavement. What few people were out at this hour turned to stare at the sight of her, bare of foot, with her dress wrinkled and out of shape, hair a mess, face and wrist cut and bandaged. She didn’t pay them any attention.
East Angel Square wasn’t too far from the house she had inherited from her uncle, though it was in a decidedly better class of neighbourhood. Meredith brushed her teeth and took a quick shower, scrubbing the bloodstains off her skin. She threw on a T-shirt and shorts, tied on her sneakers, and tossed a few things into a backpack. Pausing only to snatch a gulp of water from the kitchen sink, she left the house and she ran.
She ran through the old laundry district of Black Moore and past the Saturday brunch-takers sitting under the pastel canopies of Quince Row’s cafes. Pigeons scattered out of her way as she raced across the Artists’ Square in Curruvane; her footsteps echoed through Gasoline Centre, now deserted except for one or two all-nighters clinging to the walls and looking rather worse for wear. She crossed Sky Kelp Bridge and kept going down the highway until billboards, gas stations, and diners gave way to open countryside. By mid-afternoon, she was running down a rough trail, over rolling green slopes and under trees heavy with late-summer blossoms, pausing intermittently to catch her breath, to rest a moment, for a quick drink of water or to eat an apple, but other than that she did not stop running.
Sometime during the afternoon, she grew aware of her knees and ankles screaming at her, of her body stiff and starting to cramp up, but she sucked in huge gulps of air through her mouth and forced herself on, not stopping until she was beside the wide blue-grey waters of the Nenya River where, without breaking stride, she kicked off her shoes and shrugged off her backpack and threw herself into the water with a yell.
She spent the rest of the afternoon swimming, allowing the current to take hold of her and drift her along until at last she pulled herself onto the bank and collapsed under the cherry blossom trees. She turned her head and watched the waters swirl by, the crests of the gentle waves highlighted in gold and pink and violet in the evening light.
The river breeze cooled her face and dried her hair and clothes as she looked up at the sky. At sunset and sunrise, the sky took on so many startling hues. Once, when she was little, Meredith had tried describing the colours in her mind, but there were so many shades, some of which she swore were colours no one had ever named. There was a drift of cloud, a pale pink-coral with a tinge of lavender mixed in its palette. Over there, closer to the setting sun, the sky was a burnished orange-gold with touches of creamy yellow. The river reeds were olive-brown with a hint of dull gold where they caught the setting light.
At last, with a sigh, she stood and pulled on her shoes. She turned back the way she had come.
She did not run all the way back to town. Instead, she hitched a lift from a passing friend who demanded to know what she was doing running down the side of the highway, but failing that, began to talk at her about the parties lined up for next weekend. Meredith joined in with her usual animation – anything to keep busy, to keep her mind off her thoughts – but she was relieved when they got back to Berninski in record time. She said goodbye and sped silently through the dark streets, her feet slowing only when she reached East Angel Square and recognised the figure sitting on the steps outside number 183.
He raised his head and she saw the light leap into his eyes. At the same time, his body tensed, as if he was afraid she might take off once more. “I thought you’d run away again.”
Meredith sighed and looked at her feet, which were most likely going to kill her the next day. “I did run away. But – I guess there’s really nowhere else left to go.”
She came to sit beside him. Heat rose off her cooling skin; sweat ran down her face and caused her eyes to sting.
The moon was rising. Somewhere nearby, a lone cricket chirped a light, melodious song.
He said softly, “I’m happy you came back.”
“What are we doing, Tyler?” she asked. “Where are we gonna go from here?”
He hesitated. “Well, I do have a kind-of plan for what happens next …”
She looked at him as if he were crazy. “You have a kind-of plan? One which doesn’t involve my killing you, or vice versa?”
“More or less,” he said lightly. “Really, I think you should appreciate me just a little bit more. There aren’t too many guys willing to risk their lives to stick with the woman they love.”
She snorted. “There aren’t too many idiots in the world, that’s why.”
He laughed softly and put his hand over hers. She didn’t pull away.
“So,” she finally said, “what’s this brilliant plan of yours?”