I found you in my darkest hour
I found you in the pouring rain
I found you when I was on my knees
And your light brought me back again
Ben woke up about midmorning. He didn’t feel Alex in the bed next to him, but he didn’t think anything of it. She was probably just already up and in the bathroom or something.
He lay there for a couple minutes, eyes still closed, waiting for her to come back, but he didn’t hear anything anywhere in the hotel room. He opened his eyes and looked around.
Alex was nowhere. Her backpack was also gone. Ben started to panic. He sat up in a hurry and heard something rustle on the bed beside him.
On top of the covers, where Alex had been when he had fallen asleep, was a folded piece of paper and a rainbow baseball cap with a helicopter wheel on the top. He slowly picked up the hat. It was the hat he had tried on one day with Alex in a little antique store. That was one of the first times they both really knew they would spend the rest of their lives together.
He picked up the piece of paper. It was a note written in Alex’s handwriting.
“Ben,” it read. “Things were getting too dangerous for you. I had to keep you safe; I would never be able to live with myself if something happened to you again. Everything I do now is for the sole purpose of protecting you. I hope you understand that this is not what I want to do, but what I have to do.
“I have left you the rest of the money and everything you need to start over somewhere. Pick somewhere nice for me, okay? I really enjoyed our time together. Thank you for my little taste of freedom. Love always, Alex.”
Alex took a deep breath and pushed open the door to the dining hall at the institution. The tables had been cleared out and the chairs moved into rows occupied by the teachers and members of her training.
She smoothed out the skirt of her simple, strapless, silk wedding dress and started walking by herself down the aisle marked by chairs. She could feel everyone looking at her, but no gaze was worse than the burning stare of James waiting for her with the founder that sat in the middle at the end of the aisle.
James smiled as she stepped up next to him. “You look beautiful,” he said quietly. He wore a simple black tux. They were the only two not in their regular clothes. Alex flashed him a small smile.
The middle founder held a bible solemnly under his arm as he performed a version of the wedding vows. James said, “I do,” and Alex followed because she didn’t have much of an option. After everything was said about sickness and health and death doing them part, the founder said, “I now pronounce you husband and wife. James, you may kiss the bride.”
James turned to her, again smiling. He lifted her veil and kissed her.
Ben just stared at the paper. He felt the room closing in around him, drawing all the air from his lungs. He braced himself, the first tear falling down his cheek, and tried to catch his breath all the while not really wanting to because suffocating would be less pain than coming to terms with the fact Alex had left him.
“No. . .” He shook his head, trying to wake up from this nightmare. He tried to read the note again, but tears kept blurring his vision.
He refused to believe this. Maybe something had happened and they were trying to throw him off. Slowly, he got up and checked his backpack. Sure enough, right on top was a fat pile of cash, all 20s and 10s, a forged high school diploma, and the gun she had given him was gone.
Alex had really left him. After all they had been through together, she just left in a single night. She didn’t even give him any warning signs. They had run away from the institution, raemen, and James for weeks, moving from town to town every couple days. They had been kidnapped together multiple times and saved each other from spies wanting to kill them. After all they had talked about, he just didn’t think leaving was something she could do.
Yet she was gone. As much as he didn’t want to believe it was of her free will, it was. She had chosen to leave him and that hurt more than how she actually left. She said she did it to keep him safe, but he had told her so many times he didn’t care about being safe if it meant he was with her. He thought she had finally understood that.
She was going to marry James; he just knew it. She was giving the institution what they wanted so they would stop hunting him. She was throwing her life away, and that was her idea of protecting him? Her life ended when she said, “I do,” and so did his. There was a hole in his chest that would never be filled again. She had to have known what she was doing to him. She was causing him more pain than any spy ever could.
Ben was still crying when he finally got up and changed out of his pajamas. He had to get back. Maybe if he could find her, he could stop her. He paid for the room with the money she had left and ran to the train station.
He had to wait 20 minutes for the next train. He anxiously paced the platform. If anything, he was angry at her. He didn’t understand why she would do this to him. After everything, how could she think this was saving him? He was too in love with her to ever turn back.
The train ride was too long. Ben kept checking his watch, even though he didn’t know what time the wedding was. He just knew that every minute he was on that train was another minute closer to losing her forever.
As he sat there, he pulled a bullet out of his pocket. It was the bullet that had been shot into Alex’s arm when she came to save him from institution spies. He still had some marks from that, but they were very close to healed. He had asked to keep the bullet as a symbol of the lengths they would go for each other. Now it was all he had left of her.
Finally, in the early afternoon, the train arrived in the city that was too familiar to him. He had to find the institution, only problem was he didn’t know where to start. Alex had always kept its location very secret. He didn’t even know what side of town it was on.
Ben ran all over the city, but he didn’t know what he was looking for. The institution could be in an old abandoned building, or it could look perfectly new. He didn’t even see anyone he recognized as a spy, although that was only about five boys.
Finally, as the sun was going down and he had searched every inch of the city, he had to give up and face the truth. He had lost her and there was no way of getting her back. He leaned against the side of a building and cried.
After a few minutes, Ben gathered himself and started walking. He didn’t know where else to go, so he went to the one place he could think of.
He walked up the couple cement steps and rang the doorbell. A woman opened the door and nearly fainted from surprise.
“Ben!” his mother exclaimed, engulfing him in a hug so tight he thought she would never let go.
His father came running and joined the hug.
His mom started crying. “Where did you go?” she asked.
“I just had to get away for a summer,” Ben lied. It was a weak lie, but he couldn’t tell them about Alex. They were going to tell them everything together, but without her there, it would just sound like a story. “I’m sorry,” he added.
His mother hugged him again. “At least you’re back now. And you’re safe.”
Ben forced a smile even though he was dead on the inside.
Alex and James had changed out of their wedding attire and were driven to the airport by one of the founders. They sat in the backseat of the car together, James holding her hand.
Alex just looked out the car window. This was her life now. She had made the tough choice and now there was no turning back. She had a simple gold band over the tattoo on her left hand and James wore a matching ring. All she could do now was hope Ben was somewhere far away.
James gently squeezed her hand. She looked at him. “I’m so happy you came back,” he said.
All she could do was force a small smile.
“I always knew you would come back, though,” James went on. “That’s the thing about the institution – it’s home. You’ll always come back to it. It’s in you and always will be.”
They got dropped off at the airport and waited for their flight. The founders were sending them on a short honeymoon in hopes she would come back pregnant, but she was done with traveling. There was nothing she could run away from anymore.
One month later, Alex and James were walking through the city. Ever since the wedding, they had been on joint missions together and never spent much time apart. They instantly worked well with each other and James had gotten what he always wished for.
Alex still thought about Ben constantly. She didn’t know where he had ended up, but she prayed every day that he was safe. When she was finally alone at night, she liked to picture him in medical school, maybe interning in a hospital somewhere, and finding a new girl. The last part always hurt to think about, but she knew it would happen, and she wanted it to happen. She wanted him to move on and be happy again.
James knelt down at the entrance to an alleyway. Alex stood in front of him and kept guard.
“Is this really going to work?” she asked, scanning the crowd of people.
“It will. It has to,” James replied, shielding his work with his backpack.
The streets weren’t overly crowded, but there were more people out than normal.
“Forty seconds,” James said, standing back up. He slung his backpack over his shoulder and they hurriedly walked away. Suddenly, Alex stopped and turned around.
Through the crowd, she could see someone pushing his way through. “Oh no,” she breathed.
Ben was shouting her name and trying to get to her.
James saw him too. He grabbed Alex by the arm and pulled her away. “We need to get out of here,” he said harshly. He checked his watch. “Ten seconds.”
Alex couldn’t do anything but watch as Ben still tried to make his way towards them. He was getting too close to the alley. She counted down the seconds in her head.
She saw it before she heard it. The entrance to the alleyway was suddenly blocked by shooting flames and the earsplitting boom that followed temporarily deafened everyone around. Alex and James were thrown to the ground from the force of the explosion and James had to let go of her arm.
As soon as they could, they were back up and running in different directions. People were wailing and screaming and trying to figure out what happened. Alex heard sirens a couple streets away, but she just kept running.
A couple hours later, instead of returning to the institution, Alex was still walking around town. She had been doing that a lot since she came back – just wandering around thinking.
Slowly, she made her way to the hospital. Instead of entering through the front doors and checking in at the front desk, she found the delivery entrance at the back and picked the lock.
They were still trying to recover from the afternoon. Alex hadn’t heard any numbers yet, but she knew emergency responders always sent more people to the hospital than needed. Most people they had sent in would be released by morning.
She searched the rooms until she found the one she was looking for. There was a nurse in there so she casually took a drink from the water fountain and waited for her to leave. Then she slipped in and closed the door behind her.
Ben was asleep in the bed. He had a couple burns on one arm, but nothing that would permanently scar. Alex quickly scanned his chart. He was mainly being treated for a head injury.
He had also been diagnosed with amnesia. She didn’t know how she felt about that. She wanted him to remember her and remember their time together, but at the same time, this would make moving on less painful for them both. If she could keep things like it had never happened, they could just part ways then and never see each other again.
Alex sat down in the chair in the corner and looked at him. “Oh Ben,” she wondered aloud. “Why did you come back? You always used to do what I told you without question. Why not this too? Just one last thing you had to do for me.”
She didn’t know what she had been expecting, but Ben continued to lie there unresponsive.
The door opened then as the nurse came back to check his levels. Alex slipped out the door without her noticing and left the hospital.
Alex found James in their room, the room that used to be her room. The only change made to it really was when they came back from their honeymoon the founders had replaced her cot with a queen sized bed.
James was sitting on the bed writing something. He looked up when she came in. “Alex. I’ve been wondering where-”
“We had a deal,” she said harshly, standing right inside the door. It was very clear she was upset.
“I know,” James said. “But I couldn’t control this. I didn’t know he would be there. You said he was somewhere else.”
Alex gave up and sat down next to him. “I know. I thought he was,” she said sadly.
James took her face in his hands and looked into her eyes. “Remember you made this choice,” he said. “He doesn’t matter now.”
All she could do was nod.
He kissed her forehead. “Let’s go out to dinner tonight.”
She looked at him. “Can we do that?”
“Sure. We haven’t had a ‘date night’ since we got back and we have nothing to work on tonight now that we finished our mission.”
“So you got it then?”
James smiled proudly. “I got it and the founders now have it. We’re done. Another great mission accomplished by the greatest spy duo the institution has ever had. So let’s go out to dinner to celebrate.”
James took her to a small restaurant in the heart of town. Neither of them had eaten there before, but it was one of those places that served almost anything. He ordered a chicken sandwich and she got the fettuccini alfredo.
All meal, he kept trying to engage her in conversation, but Alex just couldn’t bring herself to be fully present. Her mind kept wandering back to Ben in the hospital. She wondered how long he had been back and if he was living with his parents again. He probably was since it made no sense for him to live on his own in this town. What had he told them then about why he left? They were going to have lots of questions and she didn’t know if he was prepared to answer all of them. The police would also bring him in for questioning because he had been a missing person.
“Hey,” James said, leaning across the table. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she lied, forcing a smile.
“Alex. We are married. You can’t fool me. What’s bothering you? Is it him?”
There was no way out. She nodded.
James reached across and took her hands. “He’ll be fine. It was not high level explosives.”
“I know,” she said quietly.
“Just put him out of your mind. We will probably get a new mission tomorrow. What do you think the dynamic duo will be asked to do next?” he asked to distract her.
Alex made a conscious effort to be more present for the rest of dinner so she didn’t worry him. They talked about possible missions for them and how they were being asked to help more with the younger trainings.
“I like being a teacher,” James said. “It’s an opportunity to share all that we have learned.”
She agreed. “But there’s still so much that can only be learned through experience.”
“True, yet I feel like we are helping them be better prepared. We didn’t have that advantage.”
“And we turned out just fine,” she pointed out.
James shrugged. “I still like training them. One of the best parts of my day, apart from when I get to spend time with you.”
Alex couldn’t help but smile. “You’re so nice to me.”
He smiled back. “Of course. I love you.”
The next morning at breakfast, James handed Alex the newspaper. “They’re dismissing it as obnoxious teenagers just trying to cause trouble,” he said.
She quickly scanned the article. “There’s nothing else?”
“Nope. Two people seriously injured and about ten were taken to the hospital. All except one old lady has been released.”
She nodded and tucked the paper under her tray. For the rest of breakfast, she sat and ate with James and a couple other spies their age. Eating by herself wasn’t really an option anymore and people actually wanted to sit with her now.
Ever since she came back, she had earned a lot of respect, especially from the older trainings that had mainly been searching for her. Only about a dozen spies out of the hundreds they had looking for her had been able to find her. She had managed to avoid them and because of that, they knew she was not to be messed with.
Alex liked the new level of respect she had. It was what she had always been fighting to have, and she knew a certain degree of it came from her marriage to James, but she finally had it.
After breakfast, James went to talk to the founders and Alex used the opportunity to slip away. She hijacked a car in town and drove until she reached dirt roads.
She hadn’t been back to the raemen headquarters since she delivered the book to Keaton. She knew going there was dangerous – an unknown portion of the men wanted to kill her and would do so even if it directly went against Keaton’s orders – but she had a favor to ask.
Alex walked right in to Keaton’s office. He stood and drew his gun out of habit, but she just ignored it and sat down.
“Alex,” he said with mild surprise. “It’s been a while.”
“I need something from you.”
Keaton sat down. “Of course. That’s the only reason you come here. Where is your loyal puppy?”
“He’s not here right now.”
He eyed her suspiciously. “Show me your hand.”
Alex held up her right hand.
“You know what I mean.”
She let him see the ring on her left hand. His rage was uncontrollable. “You think you have the right to come in here and ask for my help when you have fulfilled everything the institution wanted?” he almost yelled. “You think you can insult me like this? Why would I help you now that you are their queen bee? Your only purpose to them now is reproducing!”
“It was the only way to keep Ben safe,” she defended. “I had to do it.”
“My men would protect you.”
“Your men want me dead!” she shouted.
Keaton sat there stunned for a moment. “Well that is news to me.”
Alex was also angry. “Don’t pretend like you don’t know.” She stood.
“If you walk out that door,” he said as calmly as he could, “you will no longer deserve to call yourself a raemen. Not only that, but you will be starting a war between the raemen and the institution.”
Alex looked down at him sternly. “This moment has been many years in the making.” She stormed out of his office, not bothering to close the door behind her.