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Toy Soldiers

Alexandria is a warrior on a journey to self discovery


1

The world around me is utterly dark and yet I keep running. I know that I cannot stop or I risk my life as well as the lives of the people who run with me. I don't know how long I've been moving or how long I'll have to continue on my trek. I feel the earth beneath me being bruised by my fast moving feet. Every step I take forward is a step into the completely unknown, a step into the darkness. But it's much better than what's been left behind. All I know is that this is the moment that decides whether I live or die.

Am I strong enough to keep going?

Or will I perish as I have seen so many before me?

I try to listen for familiar sounds as I keep up my frantic pace but all I can hear is the pounding of my heart and my ragged breath. I can feel pieces of my flesh being nipped away by thorns and brush, little stings that keep me aware that after everything we've been through, I can still feel. At the very least I can still feel physical pain.

I finally make my way out of the woods and into the field. The stars in the sky do little to light the expansive space but help me to navigate the final route of my unexpected journey. North out of the field and on to the Safe Zone. If only we'd been more careful. We'd all still be together, safe, and alive. But to err is human and we all make mistakes.

I've almost cleared the field when I hear the rustle of brush and leaves from behind me. Someone must have just entered the field out of the woods, but whether it's friend or foe I can't be sure. I hesitate for a second, wanting to have a companion for the rest of the journey, someone to dispel the darkness, but then I remember that all it takes is one second and I quickly resume running north, choosing life over company.

*

"Alexandria, would you like to explain to the Elite the events that took place on the date of September 2nd prior to your arrival back in the Safe Zone?"

"Our troop was sent to the South Eastern section of the Red Zone under mandate 31C issued by Commander Lewis. We were informed the area was cleared and made available for detox by our team. We arrived on site at noon on the date of September 2nd lead by Lt. Polanski and began the detox at approximately 1 pm. We completed the detox at 4 pm and prepared to return back to the Safe Zone."

I can feel tears begin to form and make their way slowly down my cheeks. I chastise myself although I know this is not weakness. Accepting the loss, and mourning those I loved could never be considered weak. I know I'm strong. Out of a troop of 25 men and women, only 2 have survived and I am 1 of those 2.

I give myself a second to look at him and realize how strong I really am. His eyes are bloodshot and he keeps wobbling in the chair. It's barely 10 in the morning and he's already wasted beyond belief. A man I once believed to be the strongest amongst us and he couldn't stay sober long enough to recount the events of that night. He couldn't bear to be sober since the night we arrived back in the Safe Zone because he doesn't want to have to face the reality of what's happened.

He can't handle the truth.

Now I know that I am the strongest. I made it back alive and I don't try to delude my senses with drink or drug to try and forget. I know I'll never forget, I'll never be able to forget, and trying to disillusion myself would be weak. Like him.

"Please Alexandria, continue."

"After returning to our vehicles, it was noticed that all of the fuel lines were cut. Lt. Polanski called for AF and we made the formation. Polanski, Wicker, and Giles were at the core and quickly began to discuss our options, fight or flight, after Polanski made it clear to the troop that we were indeed about to be ambushed. The decision was unanimous that we would stay and fight, both the Lt. and Captains assumed we had numbers in our favor since the area was reported clear the day before when we received word of our mission."

I knew that this would have to be done and still I hate every second of it. I've recounted the events of that day a thousand times over in my mind since I've returned and every time I can pick out the little details that seemed so minor at the time but caused such an impact that none of us could have been prepared for. If only they had chose flight... Hindsight is a bitch. Knowing now what was done wrong or could have been done differently does nothing to change the fact that 23 of my closest friends and companions are now dead by the hand of our enemy. But by telling our tale, by being alive and sober enough to tell our tale, I may be able to prevent such a massacre from happening again. I couldn't save the lives of my troop but I can possibly help to save the lives of our future soldiers.

Possibly.

"As soon as the decision was made to fight, Polanski gave the order, we readied our weapons, and we switched to the FTF position. Within minutes after we completed formation the ambush came. It was unlike anything any of us had ever seen before. The enemy began their advance with flame throwers, they practically walked right up to us. As soon as they were in range we opened fire but it did nothing to deter or stop them. They were prepared and had on what I can only explain as 'riot gear' which prevented our bullets from killing or even harming them. It looked as if everything we shot at them bounced right off of their suits and they continued with their approach until they were about 10 feet in front of us. They then opened fire on us, literally, with their flame throwers. For this, we were completely unprepared and at least half of the troop became engulfed in flames. As soon as Lt. Polanski became aware we were being obliterated, he immediately called for retreat behind the vehicles."

I've been a soldier and have fought many fights, not all of which were won, but the sights and sounds of my comrades after the fire fight is something that will stay with me until the day that I die. We have the best technology and the most intricate of uniforms and neither did absolutely anything to prevent my friends from being burned alive by one of man's most simple inventions; fire. The ones that were killed immediately were lucky. Too many of the faces of my friends melted away that day like hot wax dripping from a candle. The gold of their helmets melded and mixed into their skin and their bodies became melted into the ground as if we walked on tar that consumed the lower half of a person's body. Not only were there cries and screams, some for help, some for forgiveness, and some just out of fear, but you could hear the singes and snaps of the fire engulfing and defeating its prey. It was the most sickening noise I have ever heard.

"Please do continue."

By actually speaking the words and telling the story out loud it's all become so real again. Everytime I begin to think about that day, my mind takes me back and it's like I'm right in the middle of it all over again. Seeing the sights and hearing the sounds. The man's voice telling me to continue brings me back to the present and I want to be thankful for it but at the same time it pisses me off.

"After retreating behind the vehicles a head count was done and only 10 out of 25 of us were left, including Lt. Polanski, myself, and Sergeant Grimes."

At the mention of his name, he lifts his blood shot eyes to mine and all I can feel is contempt. This should be him on the stand recounting the events of that day. Not only is he a higher rank than I but he's also a man. They attempt to make it very clear here that men are stronger and more capable than women but after today I know it's all been a lie. If he was stronger and more capable than me he would be the one sitting here but instead he sits on the sidelines like a coward and listens to me go through the events while he's too drunk to stand. Even the Elite recognize that I'm stronger than him now. They could have forced him to be the one to tell the tale, they have an advanced medicine called AD that they could have made him take to clear his mind of the alcohol and drugs but they didn't. Instead they asked me (something that they never do) to be the one to sit on the stand and go through the happenings of that horrid day. Although it pains me to have to speak about it and I feel as though small cracks are forming on my icebox of a heart with every word I speak, I strangely feel empowered. No strong person has ever had an easy past. I lived. I have to remember that, have to keep telling myself that. I'm here and I'm still alive.

I'm the strongest now.

"Polanski ordered us to hold behind the vehicles while the enemy extinguished what was left of their flame throwers. As we heard the flame throwers begin to die out, Polanski called for H2HC and we readied ourselves to attack."

Before I can continue one of the Elite raise their hand signaling me to pause so they can comment or question.

"Alexandria, did Lt. Polanski inform the troop as to why he was now calling for H2HC instead of the typical fire arms approach which is more common and practical in such a situation?"

I force myself to bite my tongue and wait a second before I answer.

It is very rare for anyone to come before the Elite. Most people who come before the Elite are high ranking officers brought in to recount the events of their outings and the rest are criminals and are only here because they are allowed one last time to try and plead their case before they are sentenced to their punishment of death. I've never heard of a case where the person was awarded life after their plea. Needless to say the Elite are merciless. They rule our land with an iron fist, doling out severe punishments for even the most menial crimes.

What I want to say is that we were engaged in war like circumstances, something that hasn't happened to any troop in over 25 years. The fact that we were able to regroup after the fire fight is a miracle in itself and I salute Lt. Polanski for any and all of the efforts he made that day because he's one of the main reasons I'm still here. There was no time or need for explanations at that point. Polanski could have told me to start doing cart wheels to make it to the woods and I would have obeyed. But the Elite wouldn't understand that, nor would they care. And if I spoke to them in such a manner I would be immediately punished even though they asked me to be here.

Instead I give them the answer that they want to hear.

"No sir, Lt. Polanski did not inform us of the reason he called for H2HC. I can only assume that because our fire arms did not seem to be able to penetrate the enemy before the fire fight that he believed H2HC was our best option."

I don't even receive a response. The Elite waves his hand to signal me to continue.

"Three troops exited from behind the vehicle at a time as per usual H2HC formation and before I had a chance to join the third wave, Lt. Polaski informed me I was to stay in the rear and act as CP."

A different Elite raises their hand this time and it takes everything in me to not roll my eyes at the interruption. I'm so close to the end, why can't they just allow me to finish? They all seem so cold and heartless sitting up there, like they're so superior to us. Not one of them has seemed bothered in the least by the retelling of the events of that day. How can a group of leaders not shed one tear when 23 of their troops, their people, have been killed so senselessly? It's been so long since anything like this has happened, since we were at a disadvantage and lost so many people, that I can't believe this isn't having any kind of affect on them.

"Was it usual for Lt. Polanski to have you act as CP instead of himself?"

"Yes ma'm, every so often Lt. Polanski would have me act as CP. He once told me it gave him a chance to feel like he was more a part of the troop and not just the Commanding Officer. Every member of the troop had much respect for Polanski because of that. He was more of a comadre than a superior."

I cut my answer short. I know they aren't going to approve of Polanski's method but they have no idea how much respect and love he gained from his troop because of such a simple gesture. They'll see it as pointless or worthy of punishment because it goes against their way of doing things but they can suck it. Polanski was the best Lt. I ever had and any of us would have done anything he asked; not because he was our superior but because of the man he was.

They'll never understand that.

"And what was it about you that made Lt. Polanski have you fill in as CP instead of a higher ranked officer?"

This is why I cut my last answer short. I ball my hands into fists at my sides and keep my focus straight ahead, making sure not to look at any of the Elite or even Sergeant Grimes now. This bitch knows the reason why Polanski chose me over the others, she just wants to force me to say it. I'll always have this issue when having to face the Elite. They'll never allow me to forget my mistakes or move on from my past.

"I was once part of the Assassins ma'm. I believe that to be the reason Polanski chose me over higher ranked officers to fill in as CP."

My experience with the Assassins is also another reason I'm sure I'm sitting here today unlike the majority of my troop.

"Hmmm..."

Even though I was awarded a form of a response I would have preferred a wave of the hand again. Although it was just a sound I know there was much more behind it, mostly disdain.

"And why is it that you were demoted from the Assassins to detox if Lt. Polanski still found you to be the most capable of acting as CP?"

She's really pushing her luck. I wasn't brought here today to attain for my past mistakes and she knows it. This is completely unrelated to what happened on September 2nd and yet she's trying to shove it in my face to cause some kind of reaction. Well fuck you whore! I could easily hop over their silly table and snap her neck in 6 seconds flat. But I've matured since the last time I was in this room. Another thing I can attribute to Polanski. I won't allow this group of superior assholes the satisfaction of seeing me lose my cool. I'll give her the answer she's waiting for even though she already knows what it is.

Just as I open my mouth to reply I'm cut off by Sergeant Grimes.

"What in the hell does that have to do with anything!?" he exclaims as he attempts to stand and slams his fists on the table. Because of his state of drunkeness he quickly collapses back into his chair.

I can't help but grin. They probably couldn't even understand a word he said he's so drunk.

"I'm sorry Sergeant Grimes but would you like to be administered AD and come to the stand to replace Ms. Blake?"

"Ms. Finch, that won't be necessary. Neither will an explanation be needed as to why you were demoted from the Assassins Alexandria. We have the files and if Ms. Finch needs to jog her memory she is more than welcome to peruse them."

Finally! At least the Main Elite, the head of their coalition, has enough sense to put that bitch in her place.

"Please, do finish Ms. Blake," he prompts me.

"As I advanced from behind the vehicles I quickly performed a head count of the enemy. I counted 30 heads to our 10 but we were extremely close to the tree line and I was only able to obtain a head count for the enemies I was able to see."

I didn't feel responsible for any of the events of that day up until this point. Everything that had happened up until then was either approved by a Commander or the Lt. and even though Polanski had appointed me CP instead of himself, I still can't blame him. I can't help but think if he would have stayed at CP that day that the other 7 and himself would have still been alive and here with me right now but I know that's not true. Another case of that bitch hindsight. I blame myself for what happened next even though I know I shouldn't. There's no one to blame but the enemy. Even the most intelligent CP Assassin wouldn't have been able to see what was coming or warn their troop. No one could have been prepared for any of the things that happened to us that day.

"Sergeant Grimes was 1 of 3 in the first wave and was the first to figure out how to penetrate the enemy. Although they were wearing their 'riot gear' Grimes was able to spot an area in which they were unprotected and quickly alerted the rest of the troop of his findings. Just below their helmets, where the neck is located, there was a small space of skin before their uniforms began. Our troop immediately began to slice the throats of the enemy as we held the H2HC formation and we quickly evened out the numbers of enemies to troops."

Although we were still engaged I could tell that my troop was beginning to gain hope at this point. We're never suppossed to let our feelings come into play during a mission but after the fire fight I know we all believed that death was imminent. Grimes finding the enemies weak spot made us all think we had a fighting chance again. We began to fight harder and more forcefully, thinking we'd soon have the advantage, thinking we'd soon be able to go back home. Unfortunately, we were all wrong.

"After an extended period of time fighting, the troop had cleared the 30 enemies that had originally attacked us. Just as we were preparing to sheath our weapons, another 30 enemies came charging at us out of the treeline."

I should have saw them. I should have noticed movement in the treelines while we fought the first 30. I should have stayed on my toes and not let the hope of coming home delude my instincts. This is why I blame myself. The 10 of us were all still alive after a fire fight and H2HC with 30 enemies, we should have all been able to come home. But we let emotions overrule us.

Fear and hope, what a disasterful mix.

"We stayed in formation and began to fight the new 30. But we were beginning to tire, the light of day was beginning to fade, and the new 30 had energy we had lost long before fighting the first wave of enemies."

My tears begin again.

We fought so hard. Even when we knew we were going to lose, we kept fighting. A detox crew of soldiers who mostly had never seen a day of battle, and we fought just as hard as any Assassin. They would have been proud. I was... I AM proud.

"We began to become over powered and soon Sergeant Grimes was the only person left in the first wave."

I look up and see him looking at me again. It looks as though this portion of the story has caused him to sober up a bit. As much as I hate how he's behaved since returning to the Safe Zone, I still respect him as a warrior. Even though I think what he's doing is weak I can understand why he's doing it and if I were a weaker person I'd most likely be doing the same thing. He never stopped fighting out there. And he's still fighting now that we're back. I suppose I'm still fighting as well.

"We kept to protocol and 2 from the second wave joined Grimes in the first forcing us to become a wave short with the 3 from the third wave joining the 1 left in the second while I remained in the rear as the CP. We had killed atleast 10 of the new 30 at this point but when we were forced to lose a wave, we became overpowered. Our 8 against their 20. Polanski soon called for Full Retreat after we shortened to two waves and we all split up and began to run."

2

"Alexandria!"

I could give two shits what this drunk asshole has to say right now.

"Alexandria, wait! I need to speak with you."

I quicken my steps attempting to make it back to my room before he can catch up to me. Just as I reach the door and pull out my swipe card, he throws his body in front of me, making me unable to swipe the card to open the door. It looks as though he's about to pass out from the energy he exerted doing such a simple task.

"I told you to wait!" he exclaims through ragged breathe.

"You're no longer a superior to me. I don't have to award you any compliance," I reply, growing more irritated with every word he speaks.

"You're right Alexandria, you don't have to do anything I say and I can understand you're frustration with me, but it would be in your best interest to hear what I have to say."

I roll my eyes.

Total red flag. A completely intoxicated man telling me something's in my best interest. Like I've never heard that one before.

"Say what you have to say and get out of my face, Grimes."

He warily looks around like he's expecting someone to jump out from around one of the corners. He then looks directly into my eyes, as if searching for something that only he can see and not just an answer he can find from asking.

"Not here."

"You're really going to do this right now? After we just left the Elite? Give me a break, Grimes. Go sleep off your buzz and maybe we can talk later," I respond as I try to force my body in between him and the swipe card register.

"This is important Alexandria. Or else I wouldn't be here."

I've reached my wits end with this man.

"It's important?!" I ask, exasperated.

He nods his drunken head in reply.

"Important like giving testimony to the Elite about all of our friends who were massacred? Is it as important as that? Because that really was something IMPORTANT that you should have allotted the proper time and energy for, but you didn't! So tell me Grimes, how important could this really be?"

He casts his eyes upon the floor visibly affected by my words. All I can do is stare at this shell of a man standing before me. Never would I have imagined that one day the infamous Sergeant Grimes would be blocking me from entering my room, completely intoxicated, going on about something important that was in my 'best interest'. After a few seconds he shakes his head no, as if coming to a decision.

"This is more important than anything. Meet me at the Wishing Tree exactly 5 minutes before lights out. Wear your old Assassin gear."

He doesn't even give me a chance to respond. He looks both ways as if he's about to cross a busy road, even though we're standing in a hallway, pulls a flask out of his pocket, takes a swig, and quickly moves his drunken body around one of the corners.

Screwball, I can't help but think as I swipe my card, open my door, and fall straight into my bed.

*

I'm standing in a room of all red.

"It is your destiny."

I look around the entire room trying to find the source from which the voice comes but I see nothing but walls. No person, no speaker system, just the red walls.

Odd ...

"It is your fate."

Are you talking to me? I wonder.

The voice must be referring to me, there's no one else in this red room.

"You must find the truth."

I begin moving my hands over the red walls, searching for something, but what exactly I'm not sure.

"You are the only one, Alexandria."

I gasp at the sound of my name.

A door suddenly appears on the wall furthest from me. I walk across the room of all red and slowly turn the golden door knob. As I tentatively push the door open, a stark white light comes flooding into the room, forcing me to close my eyes from the brightness.

I open my eyes and I'm staring at the ceiling above my bed.

My eyes still sting from the brightness coming from the opening of the door in my dream. I rub my hands over them a few times to try and get them to adjust to the lighting in my room. How strange that my eyes would be affected in such a way from a dream. I sit up in my bed and can't help but stay there for a few minutes trying to decipher the meaning of my strange dream. I know I dream often but I'm never able to remember anything that happens and I especially don't remember specific details like red walls and golden door knobs.

After about 10 minutes of sitting in my bed contemplating the dream, I decide to attribute it to the stressful day I had and all of the emotions recounting the day of the massacre evoked from me. I don't believe in destiny or fate anyway, I remind myself. I make my own choices and decide my own destiny. So what's the point of trying to decipher some silly dream?

I finally get off of my bed and see that I've missed the dinner meal in the mess hall. If I do decide to meet Grimes at the Wishing Tree I'll have to grab something small to eat on the way.

What is wrong with me?

Why am I even entertaining the idea of meeting Grimes tonight?

The man is clearly out of his mind and there's nothing anyone can do to snap him out of it. He did used to be one of the strongest amongst us but that shouldn't sway my decision, he hasn't been completely sober in years. I wage a war with myself, in my mind, as I unknowingly move to my closet and pull out my old Assassin uniform.

As soon as my hands touch the material I realize what I'm doing and I immediately throw the uniform to the ground. Tears unconsciously come flooding from my eyes and I wonder how much more I can handle today before I end up like Grimes. I am not an emotional person and very rarely cry, but today seems to be testing my emotions as well as my sanity for some reason.

Just gazing at my old uniform lying there on the floor brings back so many memories, good and bad, that I've tried to force out of my mind without much luck. I bring my hand a few inches away from the uniform and lightly stroke my fingertips over the material as the tears fall from my face to absorb into the fabric.

I remember the first time I ever saw an Assassians uniform and I smile in between the tears.

I was so young at the time, maybe 5 or 6 years old, and was being punished for fighting with one of the boys. I never feared the punishments like the rest of the children, they never bothered me, and never worked in changing my behavior. I strangely liked the Elite's form of punishing children and thinking back, I probably acted up way more often than necessary because I enjoyed being outside of the walls. Although I wasn't too keen on being placed inside of a cage intended for an animal, if it meant I was able to be outside of their walls, it was something I could handle. Outside of the walls all on my own I felt free, even though I was in a small cage. It was slightly bizarre how I was much more confined, but felt more free than when I was inside of the walls.

It was midday just after lunch and I had spent an hour in the cage with at least an hour left. That's when I spotted them. It was the most intimidating thing I had ever seen. Twelve warriors dressed in sleek, all black uniforms, walking in complete unison toward the gates. We had all heard the stories of the Assassins, they were the back bone of our community and without them we would surely be taken over by the barbarians living outside of our precious walls. That way of thinking was drilled into our minds from a very young age. Even though we had all heard numerous stories of the Assassins in all of their glory, none of us had ever seen them before. They were like ninjas, moving in the shadows, spoken of often, but very rarely seen.

Until that day, I never believed the Assassins were real, I thought they were fictional figures made up by the Elite to maintain order and help us feel safe from the scary, heathens living in the wilderness. I was completely stunned and in awe of the figures making their way toward the gates. As they were closing in on the gates the one leading their pack pointed in my direction and yelled a command to the others. I was scared out of my mind. Would the Assassins really care about some little girl misbehaving? They had much more important things to worry about, right? I was sick to my stomach as one of them made their way over to me in my cage. Could this be the real punishment? Perhaps I pushed my luck one too many times with the stiff Elite. As the man was about to reach me, I closed my eyes tightly, too afraid to see what was about to happen. I heard the cage being opened and clenched my fists awaiting the worst. The man pulled me out of the cage and put me on his shoulders like a father would do with their child, making sure to keep his hands on my knees to prevent me from falling. I opened my eyes and saw the world in a whole new way. I knew this man knew nothing about me and had never seen me before, but I felt overwhelmed with love. It was the first time I ever felt love before, whether it was my feelings for the man, or the Assassins, or maybe I felt as though there was love being shown to me. I began to giggle uncontrollably, releasing the pent up fear and anxiety that I had felt within the cage. My laughter caused the rest of the Assassins to turn in confusion, but after seeing me upon the big man's shoulders they themselves broke out into laughter. In that moment, outside of the walls with the most fierce warriors all laughing like loons, I knew I would have to work as hard as possible to someday become a part of this group.

The smile remains on my face and most of the tears are dried from my cheeks as I continue to stroke the material of the uniform with my fingertips. Finally my fingertips brush the hard edges of the hole. I clench my eyes shut just like I did the first time I met the Assassins and I know I can be hurt more by this memory than any person.

3

Grimes stands near one of the walls a few feet away from the Wishing Tree, almost completely enveloped in darkness except for the occasional flicker of light coming from the strands of illuminators that hang from the branches. I walk towards him but stop a few feet short and stand directly under the tree knowing that half of me is shadowed while the other half is lightened.

I'm close enough to smell him and can tell that he's no longer under the influence. This must be as important as he said if he's completely sober which causes me to be a bit more concerned than I originally was.

"I didn't think you would come."

"You said it was important."

"You actually wore it," he says as he moves closer to me and touches the crusted edges of the hole in the shoulder portion of my uniform.

"I'm good at following instructions," I dryly reply as my body stiffens from his gentle touch and I'm forced to turn my head away from his intense gaze.

He stares at me like he did in the hallway when he requested that I come meet him here. I can't help but feel like he's looking for something in my eyes again, but I am still unsure of what it is he thinks he's going to find. I decide to give him time to find the right words to say what seems to be so important to him. Since I'm giving him his time, I decide to stare back at him in return, patiently waiting for him to reveal the reason for this secret meeting without verbally drawing it out of him. I gaze into his eyes, allowing him to stare deep into my own without shrinking away from shyness.

The man has a gorgeous set of hazel eyes, I have to admit. They're almost as green as my own but they have an outer ring of dark brown and flecks of the same color throughout them. His eyes remind me of a swampy marsh, dark green murky water, surrounded by soil and dirt, and topped with deep brown lily pads, lazily floating across the dank water. Not that I've ever seen a swamp or marsh but I've read about them and when I imagine what they look like, I picture Grime's hazel eyes.

A sly smile forms on his face and it causes my gaze to be drawn away from his eyes to land on his lips. I only allow myself to take notice of them for a second before I bring my eyes back to his own, only to see a humorous and knowing look. I crinkle my nose in disgust and turn my body away from his and towards the tree.

"There's no need to be ashamed Alexandria. We do have history."

I hang my head and focus on the ground to try and maintain my cool. I bite my tongue to keep back the vile words I'm ready to accost him with. If I would have known that he asked me to meet him out here so that he could try and seduce me again, I never would have come.

What a despicable man!

How could he even be thinking about such a thing at a time like this? After the week we've just been through and he's trying to get into my bed? I should have expected no less from a honor-less, addicted loser.

But he did say it was important.

Of course he would say that. He knows me too well for my own good. He knew how to draw me out here, but I won't give him the satisfaction of completing his own personal mission.

As if he can hear the thoughts rattling around in my mind, Grimes reaches out his hand and attempts to intertwine his fingers with my own.

"I'm sorry, Alexandria."

Just as our fingers are about to be linked, I harshly pull my hand away and quickly turn to face him.

"Stop calling me that!" I demand as I point my finger in his face and begin to wag it like a mother reprimanding their child.

"It is your name," he sarcastically replies beginning to reach his hand out to mine again.

I slap his hand away and move closer to him to position myself inches away from his face with our bodies touching, still keeping my finger pointed in his face.

"I feel like I'm about to vomit when I hear my name come from your mouth. From now on you will refer to me only as Ms. Blake or not at all. How can you have the gall to trick me into meeting you out here, in this uniform, only to try and get me to sleep with you again? Are you insane? Has your mind been warped by all of the drugs and alcohol you've consumed? Couldn't you have atleast given me a few days to mourn and accept the losses we've just incurred? I suppose a man like you is too selfish to even consider such an idea."

I push against his chest with both of my hands to put an end to my tirade as well as this stupid meeting. Pushing him away also works in giving me enough space to attempt to turn around and head back to the dorms. Before I have a chance to get past the tree, Grimes forcefully grabs my elbow and draws me back to my previous position, inches from his face.

"I didn't ask you to meet me here so that I could try and sleep with you," he explains with his face as red as a rose in full bloom.

I can't help but picture steam whistling out from his ears and it lightens my mood a bit. Knowing now that he didn't bring me all the way out here just to try and get into my pants again and also that my words effectively upset him.

Now that we're back to step one I raise my eyebrow in question. At this point I have given him sufficient time to explain the reason for this meeting and instead he used it to rile my emotions. Now that we're both equally uncomfortable I'd rather just have him tell me what's so important to him and let this day finally come to an end.

"I have information."

He looks into my eyes one last time and then directs his attention to the strands of lights on the branches of the tree while I silently wait for more.

"It's about the 2nd of September."

If he draws this out any longer I'll either scream or walk away. Patience is not one of my strong points.

"I trust you but you have to promise me that you will not share this information with anyone, Alex.. Ms. Blake," he sheepishly says as he stops fiddling with the lights to give me a serious look.

Please, does he think this is my first rodeo. I nod my head to let him know I'll keep his secret.

"Promise me," he implores.

"I promise," I say.

It's strange that he's asking for a verbal response of a promise. As much as I loathe him there's still a part of me that cares for him and I would never sell him out under any circumstance, we both know that.

"Promise me that this will not go past our ears. You can't tell anyone. Not Bear, Karyn, not even Luke," he reiterates as if I need him to list the people closest to me that I can't tell.
Obviously no one means no one. I nod my head again.

"Say it," he demands.

"Honestly Grimes is this really necessary? Would you like a blood oath as well?" I quip.

He looks at my finger as if he's considering it.

"I promise with all of my heart that I will not tell anyone your secret. Not Karyn, not Luke, and not even Bear," I say.

"It's not exactly my secret. And the only reason I'm even telling you is because I care about you deeply and your safety is more important to me than anything," Grimes keeps eye contact with me and I know his words are true.

This is not at all what I expected.

"The people that had the riot gear on that day, they weren't Outsiders Alexandria. Well, not exactly. They're from the outside but it wasn't the Outsiders who sent them. It was the Elite," he grabs my hands as he finishes and holds on tightly. I'm too dumbfounded to even correct him about saying my first name again.

I shake my head no, completely confused, and try to pull my hand away but he holds onto me.

"You know I would never lie to you. You know what I'm saying is true."

"It doesn't make any sense," I reply still shaking my head no in disbelief, "How? Why?"

I can't wrap my head around the information Grimes has just passed on to me but I know without a doubt that it is the truth even if I don't understand it.

"It was an assassination attempt."

"Our Assassins? There were no Officials with us or Elite for them to try and assassinate. It doesn't make any sense."

"They weren't our Assassins, no. But the way they moved, their uniforms, and weapons. Even how they knew our exact coordinates and bypassed the check, those are all things our Assassins are taught."

It still doesn't make any sense to me. Why would the Elite train enemy Outsiders to become Assassins? Who would be worth taking such a risk?

"They were there for you Alexandria. They want you dead. And it's pretty obvious they're willing to do any and everything in their power to make it happen."

4

"I don't understand."

"I've already wasted too much time out here with you, there's no time left to explain. I have a backpack of supplies. It should be enough to last you a week. You need to take it and leave immediately," Grimes commands me as he throws the heavy backpack into my arms.

"You've got to be joking. I'm supposed to just leave? Where will I go? How will I survive? If the Elite want me dead, what's me going out there going to do except speed up the process?"

I'm so confused. I can't wrap my head around what's going on right now. As soon as I try to understand why the Elite would massacre my whole troop trying to assassinate me, Grimes throws a backpack at me and tells me I have to leave the only home I've ever known and go beyond our walls into the Wilderness, where the Outsiders live.

This is completely insane.

"Just head South. There's a trail beyond the woods with stones on either side. Follow it until you get to the river and then follow that East. It will lead you where you need to go," he grabs my hand as he finishes and gives it a squeeze.

"It will lead me where...? This is happening much too fast. What about Bear and Karyn? And Luke? What will they think if I just go missing? I need to at least tell Bear," I say as I try to pull away from the hold Grimes has on me.

"You made me a promise Miss Blake and you're not the type to break them. You also don't have any time left. They don't know about any of this but I'll inform Bear and Karyn of the situation. That's my promise to you. I'll take care of it," Grimes assures me still clinging to my hand as if it's the last time he'll ever be able to do so.

"And Luke?"

Grimes breaks eye contact with me and I know how uncomfortable this makes him, but I'm in love with Luke now. What Grimes and I had was a fling and a very long time ago. I can't leave here without knowing Grimes will explain to Luke what really happened instead of him thinking I went AWOL.

"And I'll tell Luke too," he assures me, "Time to go."

He intertwines his fingers with mine one last time and pulls me toward him by our linked hands. Before I have a chance to react, Jonathon Grimes has his lips on mine. Instead of throwing a fit as I would normally do in such a situation, I give in to the moment and close my eyes.

Fuck it, is my last thought as I throw caution to the wind.

His lips are so soft and it surprises me just as it did the first time they touched my own. I feel a whirlwind of emotions ranging from lust to regret in mere seconds. The kiss is fast and passionate but I have enough time to taste his minty toothpaste mixed with the remains of the rum. Even though I'm in love with another man, this may possibly be my last kiss and so I embrace the moment. Our tongues perform a quick lover's dance with each other, rusty from lack of practice but not forgotten from the time in between. As my mind begins to drift and I forget about everything but myself and the man making my knees go weak, he nips my bottom lip with his teeth and pulls away from me. Ending our kiss and unwinding our fingers, ceasing the touch that I now so hungrily crave.

"Go," Grimes tells me as he rips the bag from my arms and throws it over the top of the wall.

I am frozen in place so he drags me over to the wall and crouches down for me to put my foot in his hand in order for me to reach to the top and jump over. I place my foot in his waiting hand and make the leap onto the top of the wall. I sit there for a second and give myself a chance to look across the acres of the Safe Zone that I've called home for as long as I can remember. I try to take a mental picture because I know this will more than likely be the last time my eyes will ever gaze upon this place, my home.

"I'm not ready for this," I feel dizzy and off balance. Too many emotions and bizarre things are happening all at once. I can't collect myself and I'm not exactly sure I want to.

"You were born ready for this Alexandria, now GO!"

Grimes taps me on the foot and I give him one last good look. I salute him and hop over to the other side of the wall where my bag awaits.

"Be safe, Alexandria. I love you," he whispers to himself as he stares at the empty wall.

*

The rush of emotions and adrenaline I felt before making my escape have slowly slipped away and all I am left with is intense paranoia. I can't help but feeling like this day is forcing me to complete a full circle. Just a few hours ago I retold the story of the massacre and thought of how this field was once a beacon of hope for me, the last stretch of land before I made it safely back to my home after a day full of nightmares. And now I'm crossing it in the same way, as fast as I possibly can, fleeing from a nightmare that I can't quite believe to be true. But unlike the 2nd of September, this is no longer the last leg of my journey but merely the first small step in the opposite direction. I quickly and easily clear the field just South of the Safe Zone and as I do I can't decide what I'm more nervous about now, a run in with the Outsiders who call the Woods their home or being found by someone sent by the Elite. As I carefully and ever so slowly make my way into the forest I weigh the pros and cons of each situation. Even though it helps me to pass the time it ends up depressing me even further because I know no matter how long the list of pros or cons are on either side, every list ends with the death of me.

My last thought gives me the chills. I stop for a moment in the middle of the pitch black Woods and wait for the goosebumps on my arms to disappear. I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck still standing. I realize that every moment of training and battle has led me here. Every sore muscle and aching limb has been a step on the road leading me to this final destination. I know it's time to clear my mind and focus on my mission. The most important mission I've ever embarked on... Surviving.

5

My goosebumps have faded and the hairs on the back of my neck have stood down (for the time being). I've made my way to the edge of the Woods and have accepted the fate of my impending doom.

Everyone dies, I rationalize with myself. I've seen so many of my friends and comrades reach the end of their life span right before my own eyes. Why should I be fearful of the end? I've lived a good and honest life, I've followed the laws thrust upon me, and have fought hard for the people and things I love. So what is there to be afraid of? I should be grateful that I've been able to love and be loved in return, grateful that I've had the opportunity to form a family that I'm so proud of and that are equally as proud of me. There have been many moments in my life that I thought were the end and I was able to cheat them, to prevail, and to live another day. I've had Outsider Assassins sent to kill me and I was somehow able to escape unharmed. Everyday forward is a gift and I won't allow myself to fear what comes next, I'll embrace whatever it may be and be thankful.

My thoughts are enough to calm my nerves and ease my anxiety of what's to come, even if death is the only sure thing that awaits me.

I exit the Woods and find myself in the spot in which the massacre occurred. There is nothing here to show any signs of that grievous day except the still blood soaked soil. Trusting Grimes' words that the Elite were the cause of the massacre I know in my heart that somehow I need to make it right. I don't know how or when, all I know is they must pay. I'm honestly not offended or angry that they want me dead even though the reason still alludes me, but to send a full troop of your own people out in order to kill just one is an unjust and deplorable act and anyone able to make such a decision does not deserve to live, much less rule over an entire society.

I drop to my knees, plunge my hands into the blood soaked dirt, and tilt my tear streaked face to the sky. The moon is just a quarter full but the stars are bright and plentiful. As the dirt slowly slips through my fingers, I vow to myself and to the souls of my friends that I will bring them justice, even if it's the last thing I ever do. The Elite will pay for their crimes against their own people.

I hear a far off noise, a rabbit or some other woodland critter darting through the Woods I exited, and it's enough to bring me to my feet to resume my journey. I wipe the tears from my cheeks with my soiled fingers and continue on. I keep heading South as Grimes has instructed and I reach another wooded area. I turn back and look at the space of land that has been the cause of this new chapter in my life and I know I will come back some day, on my final journey to right the wrongs of the Elite.

This new wooded area is completely new and unknown to me. I've never traveled so far from the Safe Zone before and I now wonder how Grimes was able to attain a route of travel for me in such short notice. I also let myself ponder for a moment where my travels are to lead me. I move ever so slowly, not being able to see a foot in front of me. It's the dead of night and the tops of the trees form a canopy of darkness to keep out any light the sliver of moon or bright stars may exude. I hear the crunch of branches and twigs under my boots and reach each of my arms out to feel my surroundings, much like a person without sight would do. I end up closing my eyes all together and let my other senses slowly guide me through this new terrain.

The trees are wide and their bark is rough, I can hear no movements but my own, and I assume all of the animals are now fast asleep, waiting for the chirp of the birds and the light of dawn to awaken. I've traveled through these woods for at least 3 miles so far and I open my eyes to check and see if I can find a spectrum of light in the distance to guide me into a clearing but I have no such luck. I glance towards the sky, hoping a small ray of light from the dawn somehow found its way through the canopy of leaves but only darkness remains. I shrug my shoulders not caring much about waiting a bit longer for the day to come, the woods are peaceful enough, and I close my eyes to resume my journey.

After another 3 miles of trekking along with my eyes closed I begin to hear the chatter of birds and if I listen very closely, I can make out the sound of running water. I open my eyes and allow a smile to cross my face. The woods are still dark from being enclosed but I can see the glow of a new day a mile off into the distance. I want nothing more than to run to the light, I yearn to feel the cold water rushing over my tired and filthy body, but my time as a soldier will not allow me to be so hasty. I must take my time and eventually I will make it to the place I so wish to be. I keep my arms outstretched but leave my eyes open to gaze upon the light. It helps me to have something to work toward and I allow my mind to wander with thoughts of having cool, fresh water upon my dry lips and a bite of food that hopefully is packed into my bag (that I haven't yet had time to check). My stomach begins to grumble as if just by the thought, it remembered it hasn't had anything substantial to eat for hours. I make my way to the end of the woods and step into the light. It warms me instantly and I feel as though I've been in the dark much too long. I can see the river and I wiggle my toes in excitement. The soldier in me demands I survey the landscape before fully clearing the woods and I'm glad because though it's done out of necessity, it allows me a chance to admire this completely picturesque place.

I can't help but feel like I've stepped out of the woods into a whole new world.

The sky is a magnificent blue, with no clouds to spot it, only the bright, warm sun engaging me with it's rays, the grass is the most pure green, as if it were painted to be the exact match of the most majestic emeralds, and the river runs steadily, almost clear in it's color with wild flowers blooming sporadically in bunches of pink, yellow, and white. I sigh, a romantic sigh, but the voice in my head reminds me this is no holiday. Even with the light of day and utterly gorgeous surroundings I am not safe and should not dwaddle in one place for too long.

I decide I can allow myself a wash in the river, refill my canteen with fresh water, hopefully have a bite to eat (permitting Grimes packed me food), and then I'll be on my way by midday, although I would love to indulge myself and spend a full day here. I make my way to the side of the river, take the heavy pack off of my back, and sit down next to it cross legged ready to examine the contents, praying the whole time that I don't have to go for a hunt in order to eat.

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