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Follow the Yellow Brick Road

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They called it the Yellow Brick Road. A rather ironic name– you certainly couldn’t skip merrily down it. It was a grueling monstrosity of an obstacle course, a 6.1 mile run featuring 3 walls, 6 ropes and 28 different obstacles.

Every class that entered the FBI’s National Academy had to face down the Yellow Brick Road as part of the Fitness Challenge implemented by the Physical Training Unit. If I wanted to join the VCTF, I had to do the same thing.

Grace, Bailey, Nathan, John and I stood at the foot of the trail below the wooden sign that simply said “Yellow Brick Road begins here.”

John was already jogging in place, raring to go. He’d done this before and he had his own yellow brick to prove it. This was a walk in the park to him... and he hadn’t hesitated to tell us so every chance he got during the last 4 weeks of training.

Bailey was adjusting his digital watch, readying it to keep time as we ran the course. He, too, had already conquered the Yellow Brick Road– as an instructor at the Academy he ran it on a regular basis. He was doing this for our sake, mine and Grace’s, and I felt guilty that he’d trained with us when this was probably as easy to him as walking up to the ATM.

Grace was bent low to the ground, stretching out her calves. In the last four weeks her olive skin had taken on a beautiful bronze cast under the Virginia sun and she looked toned and fit. She’d taken courses at the Forensic Science Research and Training Center after her stint at Columbia and was therefore familiar with the grounds here at the Academy, even though she’d never gone through the physical training the others had.

Nathan was also stretching, chatting easily with Grace as they bent in the same fluid motions. Like Grace and I he hadn’t graduated from the National Academy, though he had come here for a stint at the Investigative Training Unit in the last few years and had been put through the Fitness Challenge with his class.           

I was the only one of the group who hadn’t set foot on the Academy grounds before. I was just a hacker (they politely called me an IT guy, though we all knew what that really meant) who’d graduated early from MIT and, bored out of my mind, fell onto the wrong side of the law. John and Nathan had plucked me out of a line-up after a bust on Cahill O’Connor’s syndicate 5 years prior and had bargained on my behalf to bring me onto the team at APD.   I’d never gone through any kind of law enforcement training– why should I? After all, I wasn’t out busting the perps day in and day out. I sat in the office and shifted data. To say I wasn’t ready for this was possibly the biggest understatement ever made.

“You guys ready?” John asked, continuing to jog in place impatiently. “Let’s do this beast.”

Bailey looked around our group for nods of affirmation. I took a deep breath and nodded. It was now or never.

“All right,” Bailey responded. “John, lead the way.”

And off we went, following the Yellow Brick Road.

***

Four weeks earlier– FBI National Academy, Day 1:

“Welcome to the Academy,” Bailey announced, flinging open the door to the rooms we’d been assigned for the next month.

“Wow, college flashback,” Nathan proclaimed, looking around at the utilitarian room with its twin beds and furniture chosen for functionality rather than aesthetics.

“Come off it,” John chided, dropping onto one of the twin beds. “You went to Harvard Law, Nate, and I know for a fact your dorms didn’t look anything like this.”

Bailey waited for the two of them to finish bickering before announcing, “This is the security floor. Normally, visiting police bunk with the newest class of agents, but in light of some of the material we’ll be discussing as we set up the task force, we’ve been assigned rooms on this floor instead. Key cards and fingerprint scanners get you in and out. Weapons remain secure at the desk downstairs.

“Grace, this’ll be your room. George, you’re next door on the left. John and Nathan your rooms are across the hall, left and right.”

Grace set her luggage on the twin bed John wasn’t lounging on and began prowling the room, taking a good look around.

“Do we have a schedule?” she asked, staring out the window onto the grounds below. Packs of agents were running and climbing ropes, all in DOJ t-shirts and shorts.

“It’ll be a little different every day,” Bailey explained. “John’s signed up for Street Survival with a team from APD since all of his qualifications are up to date. Nathan needs to re-qualify on the arms range and defensive tactics courses and then he’ll join John on Street Survival. Grace, you and George already have your training in academics and operational skills. You’ll work with me going through the remainder of the qualification process– firearms training and defensive tactics. We’ll all meet in the evenings for training for the Fitness Challenge.”

“Hey, so where’s Sam?” Nathan asked. “She running late?”

Bailey shook his head and exchanged a glance with John. “Sam’s not coming.”

Grace frowned. “I thought this was team training, Bail.”

“So did I,” I chimed in quietly. “I mean, she is officially on the task force, right?”

“Absolutely,” Bailey responded. “But she’s up to date on her training and she has bigger things to worry about than this. She’ll join up with us back in Atlanta.”

Grace’s eyes met mine and I knew what she was thinking– We all had bigger things to worry about than this, but we were all here, taking a month away from our jobs and families (paid, but still, a month was a month). Why was Sam exempt?

“Go ahead and get settled in,” Bailey said in a voice that clearly said the subject was closed. “You have about 90 minutes to rest up and get unpacked. Then we meet on the track at 4:00 for the first of the group runs for the Fitness Challenge.” He addressed the next statement specifically to Grace and I. “If you don’t know your way around, just knock on any of our doors. We’ll make sure you get where you need to go.”

He turned and left, an unspoken “Dismissed!” hanging in the air. Nathan and John followed hard on Bailey’s heels, swinging the door shut behind them.

“I don’t know about you,” I quipped to Grace’s back as she continued to stare out the window, “but I definitely get the feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”

***

Our little group held up just fine through the first set of obstacles– leaping the bear trap, navigating the barbed wire crawl, fording the muddy creek and climbing the first two hills. John ran at the head of the group, setting the pace as he had the last four weeks. He was much better now about keeping a manageable pace than he was when we started out. Then he’d had a tendency to forget that the rest of us don’t run at his level and had set a pace that left several of us (okay, mostly me) panting with exertion.

I’m not a weakling, not in any sense of the word. I play golf, lift weights 3 times a week, work out on Rich’s Bowflex at home when we’re watching TV. But I’ve never been a runner like John, a boxer like Bailey, or into karate like Nathan. Grace’s yoga has helped her build endurance but she’s not a runner either and both of us were feeling completely inadequate by the end of the first week of training.

“First wall coming up!” John yelled back and I mentally steeled myself for it.

We slowed as the rough hewn wall rose in front of us. Two ropes hung off of it. John turned to us, still jogging in place.

“I’ll go up first, wait at the top in case anyone needs help getting over. Nate, you want to come over too, help everyone off the other side?”

“Works for me,” Nathan replied. He grabbed the second rope, pulled to test its strength, and began to ascend, using his feet to walk up the wall until he could swing over the top and down the opposite side.

“I’m over!” he called and John began his own ascent, but stayed perched at the top of the wall like some giant bird of prey.

“Who’s next?” he called down.

“I’ll go,” I said quickly, not wanting to wait any longer for fear of looking like a real idiot. I grabbed the rope nearest to John, braced my feet on the wall, started to climb.

It was easier than I’d expected. I’d grown used to wall scaling in the last few weeks, apparently, because this wasn’t hard at all. I wanted to wave off John’s hand at the top but figured that would look too ungracious. I let him help me swing over the top and head down the other side, where Nathan met me at the bottom with a high five.

Grace took the wall next. She’d had some trouble over the last weeks, complaining that her upper body strength just wasn’t good enough. But she managed this one with very little problem, using John’s help at the top and landing next to Nathan and I with an audible sigh of relief.

“Girl power,” I teased, giving her a high five. “Nice work, Terminator.”

“Not too bad yourself,” she kidded back. “Still feel like a misfit?”

“Not so much,” I replied as we ran on. “I think I’m holding my own.”

***

FBI National Academy– Day 7.

“Good lord,” Grace groaned, collapsing onto the bed with a prolonged sigh. “I hurt in muscles I didn’t even realize I had.”

“Same here,” I agreed, dropping down into the patch of sunlight on the floor near the window. “How the hell do these guys do it?”

“They’re used to it.” Grace dropped a hand over the side of the bed. “Feel my pulse. Tell me if I’m still alive.”

I grinned and took her wrist in my hand. “Barely. I prescribe an adult beverage at the Boardroom.”

“To hell with the Boardroom. I’m not moving ever again.”

“You have to,” I reminded her. “We’re doing the next group run at five. John told me it’s called The Gates of OZ.”

Grace grabbed a pillow, put it over her face, and screamed into it. “How long?” she asked, voice muffled by the pillowcase.

“3.6 miles.”

Madre de Dios,” she murmured. “I’m never going to live through this.”

“Hey, if I can make it, you can make it. I’m the pasty computer geek, remember?”

Grace rolled onto her stomach and cushioned her head on the pillow. “You’re not a geek,” she corrected. “Nor are you pasty.”

“No, but I’m feeling every inch of being desk bound right about now.” I closed my eyes and let the sunlight warm my face. “Do you think I’m cut out for this, Grace?”

“What do you mean?”

“This. Being an agent. I mean, I know my job won’t change very much ... I’ll still be a desk jockey flying a computer but if I do have to get out there, if the situation ever calls for it, do you think I’d be, you know, good enough?”

The comforter rustled as she sat up, then I felt her move down to the floor to stretch out beside me. Her hand came to rest on my chest, her long fingers moving across the thin fabric of my shirt.

“Hey. Don’t ever think you’re not good enough, George. You’re better than good enough. You’re brilliant, you’re dedicated, you’re fiercely protective of the people who can’t protect themselves. Being able to rappel out of a helicopter or do 100 push-ups in five minutes isn’t what makes someone a good agent. It’s being able to do what’s right, even when it’s hard. And that you can do very easily.”

I opened my eyes, smiled at her, twined my fingers with hers. “I needed to hear that. Thanks.”

“I’ll say it again any time you need to hear it,” she replied. “Going to the Academy has nothing to do with how great an agent you’ll become. It’s the heart and soul of you that matters, not your pecs and deltoids--” She flopped onto her stomach again and groaned. “–All of which hurt like hell right now.”

I laughed and slid my hands across her back, rubbing deeply to work the kinks out. “Massage?”

“I’ll be your best friend,” was the mumbled reply as she lay her head on her arms.

“I'm all ready your best friend,” I reminded her, grinning, working my hands over her shoulders.“Better get some new material.”

“I’ll buy you a beer at the Boardroom.”

“That I can live with.”

***

We passed through the wooded trail marked with yellow rocks that earned the course its name. Littered throughout the trail were simulated windows to jump through, a smaller wall to be scaled by hand, and two sheer rock faces with ropes, where we almost lost Nathan when a charley horse seized him mid-climb.

We left the woods and ran across a stretch of open field, then back again into the forest for the portion of the course known as The Belly of the Beast, hilly, rough terrain studded with natural and man-made obstacles.

“They really make you work for this yellow brick, don’t they?” huffed Nathan, running up beside me. His face was dripping with sweat, his t-shirt damp on the chest and back. “The damn thing better be plated in solid gold.”

I laughed a little. It made me feel better that Nathan was having a hard time, too.

“You’re not in it for the glory?” I asked, eying the terrain up ahead. There was a break in the trees where I could just make out a flash of yellow concrete, the structure that housed drinking fountains, first aid kits, and an emergency phone. “I thought the joy of knowing you beat this beast was what really lit your fire.”

“Maybe for the younger guys. I’m too old for the guts and glory shit. Bailey, man, I’m instituting a water break,” Nathan yelled as we drew up to the structure.

“Fine by me,” Bailey panted, dropping to a walk. “We’re halfway there, guys. You’re doing great.”

Even John, who had been so cavalier all month about the feared Yellow Brick Road endurance test was bent over, breathing heavily, sweat dripping off his face and into the ground.

“They must have– added some– obstacles– or something,” he ground out, rubbing his right knee with a grimace. “Wasn’t this bad– a year and a half– ago.”

“Face it, Peter Pan, you’re getting older,” Grace admonished gently. She bent to examine his knee, rotating it left and right. “You’re the only one who doesn’t want to admit it.” She rose and headed for the concrete building. “Ace wraps in there, Bail?”

“Everything you could want short of sutures and scalpels.”

“I’m not coming off this course wearing a fucking Ace bandage,” John growled. “I’m fine.”

“Preemptive measures,” Grace replied. “You’ll thank me later.”

“Hell, no!” John remained stubborn. “I’m half his age–“ he pointed to Bailey, “and in three times better shape than him–“ he pointed to me, “and I’m not going to be the only one coming off this course with bandages on. Forget it!” He stalked off, limping slightly, fists clenched.

“John, that’s not–“ Bailey started but Nathan laid a hand on his arm.

“Trust me, Bailey, now’s not the time with him. He’s all flash in a pan ... give him ten minutes to sulk and he’ll be cool.”

“We can’t be a team if one of us so obviously looks down on the others,” Bailey said. “That remark to George was totally uncalled for.”

I shrugged, trying to ignore the burning in my cheeks. Coming from John it was a low blow. He knew how insecure I was about my place on the team, how hard I’d been working to improve over the last weeks.

Nathan clapped me on the back. “Not to mention totally off base. Crash Override here is kicking ass and taking names.”

I laughed at hearing Nathan’s reference to one of my favorite movies. “Since when have you been a fan of ‘Hackers’?”

“Since I found out it had that Angelina chick in it. Makes you guys look like a pretty sexy group. Do you roller-blade through Brookwood Station in your spare time?”

We all laughed and the tension eased. Nathan kept up a line of banter about ‘Hackers’ while Grace and Bailey chatted easily and we all waited for John to return.

***

FBI National Academy– Day 14.

Grace and Bailey walked into the Boardroom, laughing. Both were dressed in jeans, DOJ t-shirts and combat boots, the standard wear for anyone not on the Academy exercise course. Grace’s cheeks were flushed, her eyes sparkling as she responded to Bailey’s comment with a cheeky grin. She looked happier than I’d seen her during our entire two week stay so far; I was glad to see her bonding so well with Bailey.

“George!” Bailey called, raising a hand in greeting. They walked over to the booth where I was lounging with my laptop, checking my email and messaging back and forth to Rich.

“Hey,” I responded, quickly typing out a goodbye. “How was the range?”

“God, it was amazing!” Grace exclaimed, sliding onto the bench opposite me. “What a rush! I had no idea shooting could be so ... exhilarating! It’s so powerful, it’s almost sexy–“ She looked up at Bailey, their eyes met, and they both burst out laughing again.

“She’s a natural, George,” Bailey confirmed. “She was plugging head shots into body targets from 50 feet back. Better not make her angry ... Drinks are on me. What are you having?”

Bailey sidled up to the bar and Grace turned the full force of her warm smile on me. “He’s a great teacher.”

“Well, he is the guy who wrote the book.” I smirked at her, amused. “Is someone developing a little crush on a certain FBI agent?”

“Oh, god, George, no! I’m married! I mean–“ She trailed off, grinning shyly. “Well, maybe a little one.”

“It’s okay,” I assured her, then leaned over and whispered, jokingly, “I’ve got one, too.”

She laughed again, eyes lighting up. I loved watching Grace smile, especially because she seemed be doing it less and less often.

“I’m glad you’re so happy,” I told her. “You’ve seemed a little– off lately.”

The smile faded from her face and I was sorry I’d said anything. “It’s just– Morgan’s not terribly happy about the task force or my move to the FBI. He definitely didn’t want me coming out here for a month to train.

“It’s completely ridiculous– it’s tax season so he’s always at the office till at least midnight; we never spend time together anymore unless it’s to walk the dog, I mean–“ She trailed off, frowning.

“I think it’s the principle of the thing-- it just burns him up that I got the promotion instead of him. You know he’s been angling for partner for a while.”

I nodded. Grace’s husband was ambitious, to say the least, and rather competitive with his wife. Things had been tense around their house for the past year. Late dinners together, especially when Rich had dinner meetings or a building opening, had once been the norm for us. Now they were few and far between.

“You shouldn’t let Morgan quash your happiness,” I told her. “I know you’ve been dying to get out in the field, get back to your days with bomb-blast forensics. If this is what you want, he should be happy for you, not standing in your way.”

Grace smiled again, though wistfully this time. “You’re so sweet, George. There are probably women everywhere who hate the fact that you bat for the other team.”

“Are you kidding? Rich is the one who has women trying to pick him up left, right, and center. He’s the talented, sensitive artist. I’m just a nerd who crunches binary in his spare time.”

Grace slid her hand over mine and squeezed. “You know, doll, you really don’t give yourself enough credit. Work on that, will you?”

“I will if you will.”

“Deal.” Her face broke into the real smile again when Bailey came back over with a tray of drinks. “Cheers, guys. Happy second week at the Academy.”

***

John apologized as we were running down the original 1.5 mile stretch of the Yellow Brick Road that crossed the Academy grounds near Hogan’s Alley. From the Alley we could hear the whelp of sirens as police cars slid on pavement, tires squealing, and agents jumped out, paint-ball guns at the ready. John winced at the sound, shaking his head in disgust.

“You okay?” I asked, watching his face, hoping he wouldn’t snap again.

“Nasty memories,” he replied. “Brings up shit I don’t really want to remember right now.”

The First National job, more than likely, the debacle a year and a half ago that left three officers dead and John taking the fall for someone else’s idiotic mistake. He’d been sent to Quantico for two months of “field training” while Handelman and the rest of APD did damage control. John had come back from Virginia more pissed off than ever and completely unwilling to talk about it. Remembering that now, it suddenly made sense why John had been in such a foul mood ever since we’d arrived.

“Look, John, you’ve got to let it go. It’s behind you, we’re all getting a fresh start. You’re not with APD anymore– you’re FBI, elite FBI, and you’re starting with a clean slate.”

John shot me a Look. “You know better than anyone there’s no such thing as a clean slate, George.”

“Well, there is amnesty, and that’s good enough.” We skirted a concrete fire hydrant that someone had painted yellow and left in the middle of the trail. Ahead of us Grace, Nathan, and Bailey were dodging the minefield of obstacles left in the pathway to trip up the agents running the course.

“Look, John, I know you don’t think that what I do is ‘real’ intelligence work and you may be right. But I’m busting my ass trying to learn the skills to be an agent, to put guys like O’Connor in jail. I can’t do that when you’re knocking me down because you feel insecure about yourself.”

John shot me a confused look. “I’m not knocking you down, George. At least I’m not trying to. I know you’re good. Hell, you’re better than I was starting out.”

“So what was up with that crack before? About you being in three times better shape than me?”

John had the good grace to look ashamed. “I was pissed off, man. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone there. It’s just– I hate being back here, for a lot of reasons I don’t even want to go in to, reasons way beyond the First National bullshit. I feel like a pissed off teenager every time I set foot on this fucking place. It’s no reason to bust on you, though, and I’m sorry for it. I just get frustrated and kick into survival mode– and for me that’s always meant throwing punches before someone else can throw one at me.”

I nodded. “It’s okay. Just know that we’ve got your back. All of us do. And we’re not here to stab you in it. We’re just trying to be a team.”

“Yeah,” John nodded. “Yeah, I, uh, I tend to forget that sometimes.”

“Best start remembering,” I mock threatened. “Or I’ll make Bailey hold you down and have Grace tattoo it on your forehead.”

John laughed. “I can think of better places to have Dr. Sex Appeal tattoo me.”

The remark took me by such surprise that I stumbled over a concrete lion. “Dr. Sex Appeal?! What the hell, John?”

John grinned at me. “What? She’s got a nice ass.” He elbowed me gently in the ribs. “Not that you’d have noticed.” Smirking, he put on speed and ran ahead, leaving me following hard on his heels, laughing.

***

FBI National Academy– Day 21.

“C’mon Grace, put some muscle into it! You’re hitting like my 85-year-old grandmother! You’re a liberated woman– kick my ass! Hit me! Let’s go! Let me feel it!”

“Jesus, Nathan, I’m hitting as hard as I can!” Grace snapped, frustrated. “I’m not going to be out there leaping through windows and kick-boxing with perps. I work in the damn morgue!”

“Still got to pass your DT test, babe. Come on, hit it like you mean it.”

Nathan, in DOJ track pants and shirt, held the oversized padded striking bag as Grace lashed out at it. Apparently he thought yelling encouragement would work for Grace, a tactic that I knew would do exactly the opposite.

Bailey and I had already had our go on the practice floor and were sitting with bottles of water, cooling down. Grace and Nathan’s turn wasn’t going well. Nate was in a relentlessly savage mood, having argued with his wife on the phone all morning ... at least according to John whose room was next door. He was baiting Grace, trying to work her up and all it was doing was frustrating her more.

“Hit it, Grace– kick my ass– burn up the bag!”

“You want me to kick your ass, Nathan?”

“Hell, yeah! Hit me! Let’s go!”

“Oh, you want it, you got it!” Grace snarled. She threw her entire body into a savage one-two punch that sent the unprepared and unbraced Nathan reeling backward. He hit the mat with a thud and a wheeze as the air rushed out of his lungs.

“Oh God!” Grace was at his side in an instant, all the anger gone from her face. “Nate, I’m so sorry! Are you okay?” She tried to touch him but he reflexively jerked away.

Bailey was already bending down to Nathan, gently pushing Grace aside.

“Dammit, Bailey, let me–“

”Look, I’m okay,” Nathan wheezed, voice hoarse. “Just– back off, all right? I don’t need any damn mothering. I wasn’t braced and you knocked me over. You’d never have done it if I hadn’t been preoccupied.”

Grace’s face washed shades of red and white as Nathan continued trying to gather the tattered shreds of his pride. She squared her shoulders and walked out of the practice gym at a fast clip.

I caught up to her as she was heading down J. Edgar Hoover Road toward one of the walking trails off Academy property and near the accompanying Marine base.

“I didn’t know you had it in you,” I said, trying to keep it light. “That was a hell of a punch, Grace.”

She didn’t answer, just lengthened her stride and kept walking.

“He’s fine. He’s just embarrassed.”

“Why? Because he got knocked over by a woman?”

“Aw, Grace, you know Nathan. He was showing off for Bailey. It’s not a big deal.”

“Yes, it is a big deal,” she snapped, turning on me. “I’m sick of this goddam boys-only club. I’m sick of being the only fucking woman in this group and having to work twice as hard to prove myself. I hate being goaded about my strength, my size, my endurance and then hear excuses made for my performance when I actually do well.

“I hate the fact that I was counting on Sam to be here to keep me from feeling so alone and that when I needed some real sisterhood, she’s got a fucking note out of gym class because the boys play too rough for her!”

I gaped at her. I knew she’d been feeling the pressure the last three weeks but I hadn’t known it was because she was feeling lost in the middle of an all-male club.

“Grace, none of us look at you like that.”

“No, George, you don’t look at me like that. And you’re the only one. You know as well as I do that Nathan and John are always looking for ways to prove that I’m not so tough in between cracks about what a nice ass I’ve got and how they wouldn’t mind getting a piece of that.

“You think I don’t know what goes on behind locker room doors? My med school class was 80 percent male. The ambulance crew at Miami-Dade was 90% male. The Forensic Science Center here was 75% male. I’m used to fighting against a sea of testosterone– but I’ve got to work harder and longer than any of the men just to prove that being here isn’t some kind of damn fluke. And on this team I’m doing the same thing. Just when I think I’ve won their respect, I get the same kind of crap that I’ve gotten everywhere else– ‘it’s affirmative action, man, what do you expect?’; ‘that was a lucky shot, babe, you won’t be so good next time.’”

Grace finally looked me in the eye and her expression was pained. “Do you know how much it hurts when people don’t consider you important enough to take seriously?”

***

“Cargo net– at the top– of the hill,” Bailey panted next to me. “It's the--last leg–of this beast.”

“I thought– this looked– familiar,” I gasped back, using the rope to haul myself hand over hand up the hill. “This is– from the first scene– in– ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’”

“They shot it– here– six years ago.” Bailey and I gained the top of the hill and leaned over, hands on knees, sucking in air. “Demme– got permission– from the Director. Shot this part– of the course– with Jodie Foster. Interviewed me– for some– background on– transsexuals and– deviant behavior.” He grinned and pushed his hair out of his eyes. “I got to buy Jodie a drink. Sweet girl. Real cute.”

He watched Grace use the ropes to haul herself up the hill. “Come on, Gracie, you can make it! You’re doing great. Almost home!” He extended a hand and she grabbed it as she came over the crest of the hill. “Good job.”

“What’s left?” she panted, wiping sweat from her forehead. “This thing is killing me, Bail.”

“Cargo net, three quarters of a mile, and the barbed wire crawl, then we’re home free.”

John and Nathan came up next, pulling themselves along on the ropes. John’s limp was more pronounced from his wrenched knee and Nathan was nursing rope burns on his hands. Grace was clutching her ribs on her left side, leaning into a stretch to try to undo the aching spasm. My calves were killing me and I felt as though every muscle in my body was crying out in agony. We were all sporting cuts on our arms and legs from tree branches. All in all, we were a pretty sorry sight.

“Almost home, guys. Can we make it?”

“Hell, yes, we can make it,” Nathan replied, wiping his face on his shirt sleeve. “Let’s go.”

We continued down the path, not speaking, breathing ragged, focused only on finishing the course. Soon the cargo net was looming in front of us. For once I didn’t wait for John to go first. I was at the front of the pack and I grabbed the opportunity to seize the knotted fibers and start climbing.

At the top I grabbed the other side of the net, hung on tight, and flipped my legs over so that the net cushioned my body with a soft flump. I let go and turned to help Bailey off the net as he made it over. He, in turn, waited for Grace, who waited for John, who waited for Nathan. When we were all in a pack again, we continued running.

The last three-quarters of a mile flashed by as if in a dream. We were all running in step, a single entity, hearts beating, blood singing, breath moving in and out as one. We all seemed to have attained the same runner’s high at the same time, the adrenaline surge that kept us going long beyond exhaustion.

We took the final barbed wire crawl in the same order as the cargo net. John wasn’t trying to be the leader of the pack now– he seemed to realize he wasn’t in shape for it. I was the one leading us through the last bit of the course, setting the pace, yelling encouragement. I was the one holding us together.

The end of the course was coming up. The trees broke and gave way to a patch of carefully manicured Academy lawn. We all crossed the boundary between forest and field at the same time, barely acknowledging the white signs that said “Hurt, agony, pain, love it. Yellow Brick Road ends here.”

An agent with a stopwatch and a two-way radio was waiting for us with a cooler of water– the Academy carefully monitored the participants in the Fitness Challenge while they were on the course. He checked off our names on the clipboard he was carrying.

“Alvarez, Brubaker, Fraley, Grant, Malone?”

“That’s us,” John replied, bent over and dripping sweat onto the ground.

“Congratulations. You mastered the Yellow Brick Road.” He made some notations on the clipboard.

He said more but I didn’t hear it. I flopped onto the grass, knowing I should walk to slow my heart rate but too far beyond caring to make the effort. The others were all doing the same thing, though, so I felt okay.          

John dropped down next to me, massaging his knee. “Great job, George. You really kicked ass out there.”

“Yeah?”

“Man, I’ve seen guys with more training than you wimp out on this course. You hung in there and worked hard over the last month.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “I should have known you’d come through.”

I knew the smile on my face was beyond the acceptable level of cool and well into dorkdom. I couldn’t help it, though– it felt good to be vindicated.

Grace sank onto the grass next to John and passed bottles of water to each of us. We began gulping. Nathan and Bailey joined us with their own bottles and for a few minutes we all sat, amiably silent, listening to our breathing slow down.

“So,” Bailey finally asked, smiling over at Grace and I. “Do you feel any different?”

“What, like enlightened?” Grace asked with a smirk. “Or do you just mean something like tougher, better, faster, stronger?”

Bailey laughed and gave her an affectionate squeeze. “How about accomplished?. This is one hell of a course. You’ve joined elite ranks here.”

Grace looked around at all of us and smiled. “I didn’t need to run an obstacle course to figure that out.”

John exchanged an “aww shucks” look with Nathan. “Aww, gee, does that mean you’re gonna keep us?”

“It means I might continue to grace you with my presence, yes.”

“George, how about you? Feel any different?”

I smiled around at all of them, the friends and colleagues with whom I’d bunked and battled, sweat and bled, and worked and played for the last four weeks. Nathan, who embodied both the yin and yang of serious lawyer and trash-talking frat boy. John, who challenged and bullied as fiercely as anyone I’d ever met, but who loved and protected those who mattered with a passion few could match. Bailey, both tender and tough, sardonic and sensual, a man of opposites who warred for the greater good. And Grace, who fought for every inch of ground she gained in a man’s world dominated by man’s games, who embodied her name better than anyone I’d ever met.

“Yeah,” I said, smiling at Bailey, “tougher, better, faster, stronger says it best.”