Caged -------------------I woke to the sharp smell of antiseptic. Keeping my breathing even and deep, I came fully awake.

I was lying in a narrow bed on my back, sheets pulled to my chest and hands resting uncovered at my sides. I could feel the pinch of an IV in one hand. Beyond the sigh and click of machines I could hear nothing. I waited, straining for the sound of a breath, the scuff of a shoe. A moment later there was the sound of someone shifting in a chair, letting out a sigh. Making my decision, I let myself slowly stretch and made a sleepy sound to accompany the illusion. The sitter rose and after a pause, a click sounded followed by a male voice, "She’s waking up." A second click sounded. I was not restrained in anyway but the feel of sore muscles and dizziness limited my stretch. I tried to sit up slowly; I was not going anywhere. My eyes were assaulted by white lights, walls, sheets, and reflections off steel cabinets. Motion to one side drew my tearing eyes to a male dressed in scrubs. For a hospital orderly, he looked like he could bench press a truck. His pale blue scrubs were pressed and starched and he was clean cut with a standard issue military hair cut. His name tag read J. Burke with no title or rank. The game was to pretend anywhere you woke up was dangerous until you were proven otherwise. I would wait and see what I could learn before reacting. The last thing I remembered was running through the woods with my partner John, trying to get back to the rendezvous point to get air lifted back to base. My head beat with a steady throb of pain accompanying the twang of abused muscles. I felt like I had been trampled but nothing seemed damaged to the point I could not force myself to move if I had to. When Burke turned back to face me after finishing something at a computer, I had managed to get one elbow under me shakily propping me up. Taking this in at a glance, he walked over and opened a locker, removing a pillow and sliding it behind me. I ignored the training that showed every weak spot exposed; I will not maim the man helping me...at least not until he deserved it. "Do you want some water?" he asked. I nodded and went back to watching the door. Whomever he spoke to should be heading this way soon. I have yet to meet a commanding officer, who does not want to talk to you the moment you get back from a mission, head to toe injuries and mud. At least this time I got to be clean and propped up by pillows while I was interrogated. After the questions and paperwork was verified I was left to go back to sleep. Burke was exchanged for Smith, a short blond woman who handed me a cup of pills. I knew at least one of them was to knock me out but the Commander had the correct transfer documents and the code phrase I had worked out in my contract. I could relax a small bit until the next mission at least, Curling up on my side as best I could I let the

drugs drag me down. I never heard the nurse scream. Two days later I walked to my own room in a separate barracks. I always healed quickly and it was there in my files. I did not see Smith for the rest of the time in the ward. Burke had been assigned as my watcher along with another male who came in at night as apparently I had seized during transport to the medical base. I tried to act normal and like a still healing patient even if it meant I could not sleep at night from the need to do something. I am too used to exercising and running everyday to lie in bed too long. I knew there had to be cameras in the room so if I was going to workout I may as well do it in the open. The next morning I got up and waited for Burke to show up, my door open and waiting for him. "Is there a gym anywhere in this place?" I asked as he stood framed by the entryway, hand raised to knock. "You sure you’re up to it?" he asked, eyeing me as I tied my tennis shoes. "Some stretching and a short walk wont kill me. I'm going stir crazy in here." I said trying to look strong enough to walk without showing that I probably bench pressed the same amount he did most days. So it started that I hit the gym twice a day, spending an hour stretching and slowly walking around the track. After a few days of this I started jogging the track with Burke following behind me. I knew I needed to get off of whatever drugs they were giving me so I started hiding tablets one at a time till I saw how I felt without them for a few days. Two weeks later I was off of all the medications except for a small white pill. On the third day of skipping it I felt tired and sluggish, like I was hung-over. I took extra time stretching and warming up hoping that would get my blood flowing before I started jogging. I felt like I was moving at a crawl and tried to ease my legs into the normal stretch they felt at the run only to wind up bolting to the corner to throw up. Burke bundled me back to my room faster then I could blink and ten minutes later a doctor was checking my pulse and pupil reaction. My hearing is a lot better then most people realize and I caught the doctor talking for a moment outside my door after he had pronounced me fine. "We need to back off the dose. If we give her something her body can't handle it could kill her." "I want that girl leashed. Find something to do it or you will be finding another job." A deeper voice rumbled. It sounded like the commander but I could not be certain. There was a shuffle and stamp of feet as one person strode away angrily. "Burke, how has she been acting? No changes?" the deep voice demanded. There was a shuffle of cloth before Burke replied; I hoped it meant that he did not enjoy having to report on my every move. "She's holding back. Before today I think she could have ran the entire day and not been breathing hard."

"And today?" "Sluggish, like she was forcing herself to move." He said slowly. "And you have seen no evidence of her abilities?" "No, sir, beyond being fitter then she should be for her injuries she has not done anything out of the ordinary." "Good. Keep an eye on her and let me know if anything changes." “Yes, Sir.” Burke said in a rescind tone. With that one set of feet walked away, while another walked to a chair and sat down. I curled up in bed and reached one hand under my shirt to grip the necklace that hung there. No one noticed the small key that hung next to my dog tags. When I was found by the marines I was the only one left alive. We were locked in cages meant for animals and left to die. Later I was told it was a failed military experiment that ran out of funding. What I remember is loud voices and pain. When my door opened I expected to be given more injections and to be left alone again. Instead I was gently lifted out and carried outside into the light and breeze. I remember the smell of the man who carried me, oil, metal and cloth. Later I found out his name was Captain O'Connell and that he was not supposed to carry me that far. He carried me to the medics outside and sat holding me as they checked me over. When I did not want to let him go he gave me the key to my cage promising that I would never be caged again. I held him to that promise; I held myself to that promise. It was a long time before I could stand to be in small spaces. I was given to a foster family but was removed and bounced around military boarding schools once my abilities were discovered. I got lucky when one of the instructors saw how messed up I was mentally and started having me come to his office to talk. We talked about random things, military strategy, the woods, running, how to track. Staff Sergeant Ryan was the one who showed me how to track and hunt; how to accept my abilities and learn how to dampen them down enough that I was seen as an odd child and not a feral animal that could not learn control. He was the one who took me to a pound and had me watch as a vicious dog was being put down. People did not tolerate animals that bite them. I learned how to act around others and to behave as I was expected to, I knew the consequences now. I learned all I could and managed to get a contract with the military when I finished college. I don't think they expected me to show up with forged birth records, social security number, and a lawyer to meet with the enlistment officers. I would not be collared again. I made sure I had them in my teeth when we finished and they knew it. It meant that I could opt out of any contract I did not wish to continue with and I could not be court marshaled for any errors since I was a civilian in every legal way. I also had people out in the world who if they did not hear from me once a month would start law suits and other annoyances that would force the military to produce me or have all my training and missions posted on the front page of every national paper they could reach.

I made lots of friends over the years whose lives I saved or whom owed me favors. I also knew secrets that the military and government would not want the public to know. I could make a lot of people very unhappy. I just had to make sure that this Commander understood this. That or I could always run. But if they had me hooked on some drug I would not get very far. I needed a plan and for that I needed information. Lucky for me they gave me someone who did nothing beyond follow me around. If I could get Burke talking I might be able get a message out before they caught up with me at the least. A month of good behavior earned me the privilege to run the trails that crisscrossed the woods surrounding the base in my off time. My days were full of tests and needle sticks but my afternoons at least now could be full of trees and sky as I pounded down the trails followed by my watcher, Burke. For another month I lulled them as much as I could, doing as they asked, taking the treatments and tests as they came with no complaint. Only Burke seemed to regret putting me through all of it. The one night I rebelled resulted in my being tranquilized and waking up in a cell. I decided to see how far my luck ran and managed to lose Burke for an hour. Running into town and sending a message to a friend before bolting back full tilt. I was gone an hour but guards were posted at the trail heads when I neared them. As soon as I slowed to a walk I was hit with three tranquilizer darts. I woke up in a cage… a cell barely big enough to hold the hard bed and tiny toilet. I was left there for three days and ignored except for rounds of questions and random meals.

-I knew McCray was testing the limits of what was allowed, making us run farther and stay gone later and later. I let her because even I was not sure how the commander would react with her. I had been advised to watch for any change in her but all I saw was a growing restlessness and a need to be doing something. Considering it sounded like she was always working, seven days a week, except for the one month off every year that she took to visit her adoptive mother. We had started talking as we exercised or helped each other with weights. Chatting about random events in the news or funny stories we knew over lunch and dinner. Like me McCray tended to skip breakfast and use the time to work out instead. The main problem seemed to be that no one knew what to do with McCray. She plowed through any work they gave her with a single minded focus. Work that might have taken one soldier a week to do was done in one focused day and turned in so that she could go run. Tracking exercises and obstacle courses were taken in stride and finished at a reasonable pace that never wavered. Watching her track was amazing. She ran the trails, head up and moving as if she tracked by scent. The courses kept getting harder and harder, moving through rock cliffs or swamps in loops and backtracks that added hours to the search. McCray took it all in stride, up to her waist in pond scum or head to toe mud and scrapes from having to crawl up and down ravines and valley sides. She occasionally would glance back at me with a look of apology before she turned and plunged down the next mud slick hill, for wherever she went I had to follow. I think she would have been running the path at a run if she was not limited by how fast I could keep up. “What is the worst tracking job you had to take?” I asked one day at dinner. I tried to ignore the soldiers that leaned just a bit closer around our table to hear. McCray was as much an enigma to me as to them, but stories had been flying since her arrival and everyone was eager to add to the gossip. “The worst?” she frowned, toying with her bread, “That would have to be about three years ago. I sometimes got loaned out to civilian police when there was a high profile missing person or prisoner on the loose. I was tracking a family. The father was crazy, had kidnapped his children at gun point and shot the wife. He herded them into the woods. They had been missing three days when I got pulled into it.” She set the bread down and pushed her tray away. Crossing her arms, she plucked at one sleeve as she stared into space, remembering. “I tracked them from the house easily. The kids left big scuff marks and tracks. The father however knew better so I would lose him occasionally. On the second day of tracking we found the boy. He had been shot in the chest. He was eight. I found the father’s tracks but not the girls. We did not know if she was dead or if the father was just carrying her. She was five. I tracked him for three days though the mountains before we

caught up with him. He had the girl bound and gagged, tied to his back. If we shot we could hit her, so the negotiations began.” She trailed off brushing at something on the table. At this point the entire table was listening rapt and waiting for the rest. “So you got the girl?” another soldier demanded. She looked up at him with a grim smile. “Yes, we got the girl, but not before she had been raped and beaten several times. Not before she got to see her mother shot, her brother killed for defending her, and her father arrested.” McCray stood up, stepping over the bench. “So, yes, we won. We caught the bad guy.” She said before dumping her tray and heading out the door. --I glanced behind me again. He ran a few steps behind me, his feet tapping out a steady pace. No matter what trail I picked or pace I pushed he always ran the same distance behind me. He had been assigned to follow me since I arrive here at the hospital. Now that I was recovering from my injuries, he came with me to workout in the gym or to run the trails. He was my shadow. I was all but healed except for a few lingering pink scars. I had caught him watching me several times while we lifted weights or ran. We started talking as we cooled down after a run and I learned he was a soldier who had been discharged because of an injury and became a nurse who worked at a military hospital. I told him about my adopted mother Alice who lived in Montana and about running the mountain trails there. Over the past weeks the tension between us climbed steadily... Most people might not find James handsome but his black hair, blunt features and broken nose balanced against a body honed till it was a work of art. He was not bulky like some men who tried to get as big as possible lifting weights. His was a lean strength that spoke of endurance and power. As I slowed to a walk he surprised me by jogging past to lean against a large sycamore tree. I followed, standing before him waiting for him to speak. Instead he reached out and pulled a tendril of hair away from my face. You could not say I was a beauty either. My brown hair and eyes sat in a plain face that was good at blending into the woodwork. I was thin no matter what I ate since I ran so much. My hair was pulled back into a long ponytail as always. Considering James's first look at me had been one with a black eye and busted lip, I probably had cleaned up a fair bit, even if I never was going to win a beauty contest. I stepped up next to him, leaning on the tree with one shoulder, watching to see how he would react. I try to keep my relationships away from the military but none had managed to last so far. Few men were willing to deal with the constant missions and

injuries or the fact that I may only be in town for a few weeks before disappearing on another run that might last months. James was quickly becoming a friend, I was not sure if it should be more then that. I felt attracted to him and maybe him to me but I had no guarantee that he would not stray like all the others when I had to leave. I had never run with a man that was not determined to dominate and prove that he was the stronger runner. They all blazed past and picked a pace that drove me ragged. John never once tried to pass me. He let me pick the pace, the trails, and the times we went out. Once or twice when the trail was wide enough we ran side by side, matching strides till our feet sounded like one hitting the trail. This was the kind of man I could grow to like, more then like, but I was not sure if I wanted to risk the pain that always seemed inevitable. With a sigh I made to move away. John reached out and stopped me with a touch on the shoulder. With a muttered curse he lunged and kissed me awkwardly. I froze for a moment before kissing him back. After we broke apart he stepped back and watched me, waiting. With a crooked grin I leaned in and gave him another kiss. We walked back to the hospital ground with matching silly grins. I knew half the base would know about us by the end of the day but for once that did not bother me. -----I ran behind McCray watching as she pounded down the trail. I had been assigned to watch her after she had suffered seizures from one of the medications she was on. No one seemed to believe that she would be doing more then lying in a bed for several weeks so they discharged her to the barracks with me as a daytime companion. I am sure no one thought she would be at the gym two days later doing light stretches and walking. Now almost three months later everyone had forgotten that I had been assigned to her and I was perfectly fine with it. No one expected a soldier that had shown up at the hospital in a coma to be running trails in the woods a month later. Well not a soldier. She was contracted to the military in some convoluted way. She was technically a civilian and had no rank but I had seen her take several officers and doctors down several grades when they got in her way. I always enjoyed running and having to follow someone who likes to spend half a day running trails was all but a godsend. It only helped that she was cute. For a short woman she was all muscle and sleek lines. She did not run as much as float along the trail, more a deer then a woman. For all her fire and determination she had a knack for sliding into the woodwork. I watched her slide out of lunch rooms and dining halls without attracting a single eye. She would disappear for an hour or two and then turn back up at her room. I realized with a jolt that we were almost back to the trail head. Running with her I never wanted to stop. When she broke into a walk to start cooling down I jogged past her and leaned against a tree a few feet away. I had a problem. I did not want to stop talking to her, to not see her everyday. I had gotten used to the way she laughed at some

horrible joke I told her or shot me that quick quirk of her lips when we were running that said catch me if you can. I wanted to catch her. Catch her and keep her. She stepped up in front of me, waiting for me to break the silence. Instead I reached up and pulled a tendril of brown hair that had stuck to her cheek. We stood just looking at each other for a moment before she shifted closer and leaned sideways against the tree next to me, barely a breathe away from touching. I turned till we were face to face again. With a sigh, she made to move away. With a muttered curse I reached out to stop her and gathering my courage, all but lunged in to kiss her. She made a sound of surprise before kissing me back. We both had to look like love struck idiots walking back to base with matching mile wide grins, but I don't think either of us cared. --I was waiting to hear from one of my contacts and had yet to see any reaction from the higher ups. I needed to get out of here before the commander decided I needed to be “leashed” further. No matter how calm and willing I acted I was not taken off of any of the medications. I was still taking the white pills that made me so sick before. I weaned myself off of them till I only took one every other day and horded the rest of the tablets for my escape. What worried me was Burke. I was not sure if he was loyal to me or to the commander. If I told him I was leaving he might turn me in just to keep me here. I had been trying to drop hints but he had yet to say anything about it. Today I had pushed both of us running till even I could barely see the trail and we had to walk back in darkness to the base. Burke had taken it all in stride, stopping me with a touch on our way back. “What’s going on, McCray? What are you running from?” I looked at him. My eyesight tends to bleed things out to grey in the dark, turning his facing into a reverse negative of light and dark. I listened to the crickets and the soft sounds of the forest at night. “I don’t like cages.” I told him, watching his reaction. “Is this a cage to you? You’ve worked on bases before.” “Yes, but there they understood me, knew my history. I feel like I am a lab animal here, with all the tests and questions.” “…and there?” he asks, reaching out and pulling me to his side, to hold me cradled against his broad chest for a moment. I breathe in his scent and listen to his heartbeat, the smell of sweat and warm cotton. “My nickname is Wolf. Everyone knows I prefer to be outside running so they let me arrange my work around it. I don’t feel that everyone is afraid of me like they are here.” At this he laughs softly. “I don’t think they are afraid of you.” “The commander is; he’s seen my file.” I said running one hand along his back.

“You’ve told me about your contract, if you wanted to leave that bad you could.” He said softly. “Do you know I asked to meet with my lawyer when I first got here?” I asked, twisting to watch his expression. “You did? I don’t remember one coming.” “They didn’t. There were all kinds of excuses, all completely logical and rational, as to why he could not make it that day. After two weeks I stopped asking.” “And the day you ran?” he asked, running his hand in small circles on my shoulder. “I went into town and sent a message to a friend of mine. They should have started moving to get me out of here immediately. Since I have not heard anything it means that there is some serious red tape keeping me here.” “You’re the one thing I am not sure about.” I whisper. “Will you let me go if I run? Will you wait for me to get out and find me or come with me?” “McCray…” “I know this is your job but you are not a soldier any more. You could leave if you wanted to.” I press. “James.” He said firmly. I pulled away slightly to look at him. “My name is James.” With a small sigh I lean back into him. “Good name.” I murmur, “I’m Lorna.” He gripped me harder for a moment, resting his head on the top of mine and tucking me firmer against his chest. “I have a feeling I would slow you down if I came.” He rumbled, “How would I find you?” “I have friends who would get in contact with you once everything dies down.” “Friends on the wrong side of the law I take it?” he asked with a chuckle. “No, just to the edge of it,” I say with a grin watching his teeth flash white as he smiles, “ancient history.” “Am I ever going to learn any of this history?” he asks, ducking his head to kiss my hair. “Are you planning to stay after I tell you?” “Would I let you go now if I knew I would never see you again?” “That’s the question isn’t it?” I say softly pulling away. “Lorna.” He growls softly in exasperation. I keep just out of his reach. “I don’t like cages.” I remind him. “Are you willing to let me go?” “If I know you are going to come back to me,” he said softly, “Yes.” We spent the next twelve days repeating a pattern. I would work as hard as I could to finish and then we would run till dark, using the dark walk back to talk or hold each other. On the thirteenth day I finished my work and went to my room to change. When I ran this time I would carry a thin packet of supplies taped to my stomach. An hour later we had passed the last set of guards and were heading off the trail and deeper into the woods. ---

I watched Lorna disappear into the woods, clutching a small key in one hand. I forced myself to turn and continue up the trail. I would run the same route that we had been taking every day for the last two weeks returning to base well after dark. If we were lucky no one would notice that she was gone till in the morning. If we were really lucky, no one would notice until she did not head to her office or to do the mornings tests in the lab just before lunch. Hopefully no one would notice the key I wore next to my dog tags. I would wait till the questions died down and everyone forgot I was with her when she left. Then I would quietly quit my job saying I wanted to move closer to my family. I did have an uncle in Montana if any one got curious. I just had to wait to spring the lock on my own cage.

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