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Even though he hadn’t physically hit me, I recoil as if I’d been back-handed. If I hadn’t been so shocked I would have punched him straight in his smug face, but all I do is stumble backward and gape like an idiot.
“Interesting. You reacted exactly like I thought you would.”
Thankful for the athletic training I’d been given, I sprint away. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry.
As I turned a corner, the tears began to fall and I didn’t fight them. I slid down the wall until I was sitting and then hugged my knees close to my chest as if to try to put out the burning pain in my heart. My shoulders began to shake and I tried best as I could to stifle my sobs. One thought ran through my head again and again. “I despise Logan Anders.”
When I finally feel as if it’d be impossible for me cry anymore, I drag myself up to my room and into my warm inviting bed.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
My eyes slowly open as I gingerly sit up; muscles still aching and sore from kickboxing. Sunlight peaks through my curtains signaling the beginning of a new day. I hang my feet over the edge of my bed and rest my elbows on my knees. My mother would have chastised me for not sitting like a lady. I sigh trying to sift through the memories what I’d dreamt the night before and what I had actually experienced the day before. My cheeks flush with embarrassment and anger as I remember what Logan had said. That, sadly, had not been just a dream. My watch vibrates and I looked down at the flashing blue light telling me it’s time for my first class. All the students at the academy call them watches which is funny since we all know their main purpose is to track us. I do some stretches that we’ve been taught that almost completely remove any soreness or tightness. With everything that we do we’d probably die without that knowledge. I then shower, put on my uniform, make a protein shake, and make my way down to first block taking a longer route to make sure that I don’t have to see him on the way.
I copy down the formula's as our physics professor drones on, in French, about the the Casimir Effect. I know I should be paying attention, since for some reason French was the hardest for me out of 10 languages we’ve learned so far. Suddenly, and thankfully, an announcement pulled me out of my nap right as my professor was clearing his throat to no doubt scold me.
“Attention cadets. As you all may know, you must pass your finals in order to be deemed “combat ready” and allowed into the field. We have the finals around the same time each year but on a randomly selected day each time. Today is that day.” A couple gasps were heard and I was just as startled, “The following 20 students have been chosen. Cleo Aaker, Ethan Abner, Logan Anders…” For some strange reason, the announcer’s voice wasn’t filled with disgust when he said Logan’s name. “Avery Canova, Aspen Dagner…” His monotone voice would have put me right back to sleep if I wasn’t listening so intently for my name. I looked around to find everyone’s eyes fixed on the speaker with intense fear written on their faces. Everyone except for Avery. She stared down at her hands with not even a glimpse of emotion crossing her face. Why were we all so scared? “ ...Blake Kaiser, Alex Lanford, Aiko Nakata, Wes Newburn...” This was what we’d been preparing for all these years, wasn’t it? Especially the seniors. They looked most scared of all and their obvious terror made my heartbeat quicken as I tried to quell the rising panic. Of course my last name is at the end of almost every alphabetical list. “...Cara Pavel, Echo Reede, Jack Sader, Sophie Talton, Taylor Valek, Nicholas Yeaman, and Paige Zeller. If your name has been called please make your way to the dome and await further instructions.” Silent isn’t the best word to describe the way the room was. To say you could hear a pin drop would be an understatement. What I heard were the slight rustles as people tried to look at Avery, Nicholas, and me without being obvious about it. Nicholas immediately scooted his chair back and began to leave the room casting a glance back towards Avery. She followed looking back at me. I knew I had to go, but all I could think was that Anders was going to be there and the idea of being in the same room as him fastened me to my seat. The sound of my professor clearing his throat startled me. “Paige, tu dois partir.” I nodded slowly. “Oui, je sais.” I almost grabbed my bag which was foolish. The second I stepped out of that door, I knew I was never coming back.
The dome is what most people would call a gym, but there is a bit more to it then that at the Academy. It’s set up changes every day to fit the different scenarios that we might face in the field. Today, it’s just empty. The curved ceiling emits a dim red glow causing us to just look like twenty 3-D shadows. Just silhouettes walking around. Some of the names I didn’t recognize and I hoped to see their faces, but it was impossible with this lighting. The familiar static before an announcement crackled through the air, but no one spoke. We stood there motionless waiting for our promised instructions and completely on edge. If their goal was frighten us, they were doing an excellent job. “Hello Cadets.” A couple people sighed with relief. “Please make your way through the maze. There are 10 different exits and whoever you leave this maze with will be your partner for the final.” Bright light suddenly switched on and walls appeared isolating each of us. I reach out and touched the one nearest to me and even though it’s a hologram my hand doesn’t go through. I grin. Hard light constructs were invented by my brother but now is not the time to think about him. There’s only one way for me to go, and even though it’s not a race, I keep my left hand on the wall and run.
Left, right, right, left. Even though everything looks the same, this method means that I’ll make it out in no time. I’m not sure if this is even a challenge for any of us. What were we so worried about again? It can’t be this simple can it? Of course it’s not that simple, Logan Anders is in here. Logan could be my partner. That fact alone makes me stop in my tracks. No, I’ve wanted to go into the field and fought for it for years. There’s only a 5.263% chance that it’ll be him, unless girls have to be partnered with guys. Then it’s an even 10% chance. Well, I can’t change those odds, and they’re in my favor. I start to run again because the only thing left to do is get to the end and-
“What took you so long.”
I turn the corner and find myself at one of the exits. And there he is looking so incredibly bored. I try not glare at him. I should try to get along with the person I’m going to be working with right? Suddenly the walls disappear. Ten pairs stand in a circle. I look across the huge circular space to see Ivy and James standing together and avoiding eye contact. They’ve been not so secretly dating for months so that worked out well for them. My hair stands up on end as I feel Logan walk up behind me. “I knew it’d be you, I’ve figured out how they’ve paired people.” “Fascinating,” I say with as much cynicism as I can. The familiar static starts back up again. “Once the final begins, you’ll receive an assignment on your watches. The rules are simple. Survive for as long as you can, and please, try not to kill each other. Also, the person you have been paired with today will be your partner in the field if you succeed. Succeed by completing all of the tasks in the order they’re given. Good luck.” A door over on the far end of the room slides open. A door that leads outside. We look around at each other in disbelief. It’s been years since we’ve actually been out in the real world so after a beat of hesitation we dash out the door into the authentic and vibrant sunlight.
As we run, our watches vibrate and glow. We stop to read the holographic message that appears when we tap them. “Break into the Federal Reserve Bank. Obtain five gold bars. Steal a car from Parksafe Car Parks. Details on this assignment will be given you arrive in England. Obtain the Cullinan Diamond. After these tasks are completed, return to the Academy. Before you begin, survive the night and make a plan before running headlong into danger.” As soon the message flickers away, the other pairs head straight for the city. I go to follow them when I feel someone yank me to the right. My foot catches a rock and I taste dirt and grass as I face plant. For a second the I’m so surprised that I can’t even move. I then rise up and butterfly kick Logan in the face. He staggers backward holding his nose. His eyes convey his exasperation. “We can’t go with them. This is a competition remember?” His voice sounds strange and nasally and it’s hard for me to take him seriously. “Stop holding your nose. You’re not bleeding you drama queen.” I say as I step past him. I can feel him glaring at the back of my head.
We start walking deeper into the dense emerald green forest. Each step takes us further from the bustling city that I’d been anticipating being able to explore and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy towards the other teams. Especially the other girls who got to have anyone other than Logan as their partner. I accidentally let out an annoyed sigh. He stopped and turned. “What?” He hisses tersely. “ Oh, it’s nothing. I’m fine. Don’t worry your pretty little head about m-LOOK!” “What is it!?” He immediately jumps into stance 12. “It’s a butterfly! I’ve never seen one in real life.” I walk over to the flower it rests on as quickly as I can without startling it. Cautiously sit down I extend an index finger coaxing it to climb on. It’s tiny feet tickle and I smile down at it’s beautiful midnight to baby blue wings. I hear Logan start to walk away “Paige, we can’t waste time we have to move” He calls back over his shoulder.
“Gosh, Logan, It’s so lovely. Just come over here and look at the colors.” His footstep stop and then I hear them approach from behind. He crouches “Ah, yes, what a pretty shade of green.” I turned and looked at him about to either insult him or yell at him for making fun of something I cared so much about, but something in his eyes tells me he’s dead serious. “Um, right. Let’s keep moving. It’ll be dark soon.” He looks up at the sky and nods in agreement.
The sound of crickets begins to pick up and the gentle humming song sings the sun to sleep. It dips low into the paint bucket that is the horizon splashing pinks and oranges against the sky. As we come to a cliff side, this magnificent sunset can be clearly seen with more and more trees splayed out against it. The serene scene was interrupted by Logan cracking a branch of a tree. “Logan this is the first time we’ve been out in years and you’re going to just go out and take an ax to nature?” “Do you want to sleep on the ground and out in the open tonight?” “No I actually wanted to sleep in a hotel, but someone decided-” “A hotel. Oh, I see,” Logan says with a smirk as he begins walking towards me. “Paige, do I have to remind you that this is a strictly professional relationship.” I punch him in the gut and he drops the branch he’s holding with a groan. I catch my new weapon and swing it straight towards his temple. He catches it mid swing and yanks it from my hand causing me to stumble forward. While I’m off balance he swiftly steps behind me grabbing both of my arms. Next thing I know, I’m in hammerlock hold that causes my right shoulder to burn. “Stop. Stop fighting me,” Logan growls in my ear. I wrench myself from his grasp with a huff and pace away. I start to break branches off for my own shelter that will be far far away from his.
The crackling pop as a log shifts in the fire startles me out of my daydream involving me, Logan, and the edge of a cliff. I look across the fire at him to find his gaze fixated on the dancing flames. He suddenly makes eye contact with me causing me to jump for the second time in two minutes. “Got it.”
“The plan. We need to go to sleep now. It’ll be very early when we wake up.” He begins tapping his watch to set and alarm. He turns towards me and flicks his watch screen syncing my alarm with his. “Okay. Mind telling me what the plan is?”
“That can wait until morning,” he says with a smirk. I roll my eyes at him and turn to crawl into my hut. After adjusting a bit of the leafy bedding to make it as comfortable as leafy bedding can be, I lay down. A bit of starlight and moonlight beams through the cracks of the “ceiling” and I watch it twinkle. Strangely the last thing I think about before I close my eyes is the way that the light of the fire sparkled in Logan’s.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Gentle hum from my watch wakes me up. I sit up for a moment and even though I know I should be moving urgently I just stay there, blinking slowly, and groggily, trying to remember why I’m sleeping under a shelter made of branches. I crawl out of the little hut after a minute of trying to collect my memories and the first thing I see is Logan sitting on the edge of the cliff with his feet dangling over the abyss. I guess he’s not afraid of heights. He’s squinting at the sunrise and is so focused and determined that you’d be convinced he was trying to solve the world’s problems. the sight of him reminds me of all the events that occurred yesterday, but despite a number of times we fought, I sit down next to him resolving to be civil today. “Beautiful isn't it?” I say after two minutes of silence. He jumps and looks at me realizing I've been sitting next to him this whole time. *Yeah…” he mumbles seeming almost ashamed that he’s enjoying nature. He rolls backward out of danger and stands up all business again. “We have to move you slept through your first two alarms and our window is closing.” “Alright,” I say stomping out the remaining embers from last night's fire. Logan looks pleasantly surprised that I'm not fighting him. Once we’re certain we won't start a forest fire we begin heading for the city.
After pickpocketing a couple people, we have enough money for a room and to buy some clothes. The desk clerk doesn't even bat an eye at our academy issued ID’ s and before we know it we’re in a room where we’ll get to sleep in actual beds.
After a much-needed shower, I change into a black sweatshirt and jeans. It's generic which means it's perfect. I walk over to the window and look down and across the street at the very bank, we’re supposed. I remember that Logan, who's currently in the shower, still hasn't told me the plan yet. He comes out dressed in all black. “Why are you wearing that?” He says this like I’ve broken a law. I look down at my outfit. “Umm it’s-” “I thought I told you to wear black we’re supposed to be inconspicuous.”
“Logan. It is black.”
“What color did you think it was?”
“I don’t know I guess I thought it was blue.” I walk over to one of the beds and point to the red floral print.
“What color is this?”
“Paige we don’t have time to mess around.
“Logan. Are you colorblind?”
“What? No, do you think number one ranked student is colorblind I-”
“Well, then what color is this?”
“It’s obviously purple. Anyway the plan-”
“This is red,” I almost whisper completely stunned. The great Logan Anders isn’t as perfect as I thought he was.
“It’s red? Oh,” He says defeated. He sighs and looks so vulnerable that it’s hard for me to remember why I dislike him so much.
“Okay, you got me. Congratulations.”
“So… you can’t see certain colors? Or can’t distinguish between them?”
“I have monochromacy or total color blindness. I, I actually can’t see colors at all. I've never been able to”
I feel as if my mind has been blown apart and then I hear the sound of an actual explosion behind me, coming from the bank. We both rush to the window and see the fires, a plume of smoke, and people running out of the building we were supposed to break into.
“Well, there goes the plan”
To be continued….