National Security Advisor Laurel Hitchin killed in fiery car wreck. Donald Ressler watched as the breaking news banner scrolled slowly along the bottom of his television screen as images of a burning car on the interstate flashed alongside pictures of Hitchin's face. So that's how Prescott did it, he thought. He reached for the remote and turned off the TV and then walked into the kitchen and dumped his suddenly bitter-tasting cup of coffee into the sink. He hadn't slept much and the caffeine was making his already jangled nerves feel even worse. His stomach was in knots so food was out of the question entirely. So he made it look like an accident. Or tried to anyway. But will it work?
He wiped his sweaty palms against his jeans and glanced at his watch. It was nearly 8 a.m. He shrugged into his jacket and grabbed his keys and his badge from the table by the door when he had tossed them unceremoniously the night before. He fingered the badge for a moment before shoving it into his pocket. Special Agent Donald Ressler. But for how much longer?
He drummed his fingers nervously on the steering wheel as he drove. Part of him had never expected to make it to morning without the cops banging down his door. He'd laid awake most of the night replaying the scene with Hitchin over and over again in his mind, tossing and turning as he'd raced through all the what-ifs. At some point, exhaustion must have taken over because the next thing he knew, he was jolted awake by his alarm. He'd mindlessly forced himself through the routine of showering and shaving and somewhere in the middle of all he'd realized that there was no going back to normal. Not yet, anyway. Maybe not ever. And as he'd stared at his sunken eyes in the mirror, he'd realized exactly what he needed to do.
Twenty minutes later, he strode into the Post Office and took the stairs two at a time up to Cooper's office.
"You hear the news?" Cooper asked, gesturing towards the TV where ongoing coverage of Laurel Hitchin's sudden demise continued to dominate.
"Yeah," Ressler replied brusquely. Cooper stared at him for a moment and Ressler felt his heart rate begin to quicken.
"She give you your badge back? I'm sorry she insisted on returning it to you personally. I really didn't have much choice." Cooper rubbed a hand across his forehead wearily.
"Yeah, she did, last night," Ressler replied, forcing himself to keep his tone even. He glanced up at the TV. "Wish I could say I was sorry to hear about the accident, but I'm not."
Cooper nodded. "That's understandable after everything that happened. Karma has a funny way of working, doesn't it?"
Ressler swallowed hard before responding. "Yeah," he said again.
"Something on your mind, Don?" Cooper asked with a frown.
Ressler exhaled. "Actually yes there is, sir. I know I just got my badge back but I'd like to take some personal leave before I return to active duty. Go home, see my family. My brother had surgery a couple months ago and I couldn't get away then. Seems like now might be a good time before things heat up again."
Cooper leaned back in his chair and pressed his hands together. "Of course, take whatever time you need," he said with a sympathetic smile. "I know you've been through a lot lately and I'm sure things won't be picking up around here just yet with Reddington still recovering from the Kaplan situation."
"Thank you, sir," Ressler replied as he got up to leave.
"You sure there's nothing else on your mind?" Cooper asked. "You seem a little...off."
Ressler paused, his hand on the doorknob. His heart was beginning to hammer in his chest again. "No sir," he replied carefully without meeting Cooper's eyes. "Nothing else."
"Very well," Cooper replied. "Have a good trip."
"Thank you, sir," Ressler replied as he headed quickly for the stairs. He hoped to make it to the elevator without running into anyone else.
Unfortunately, Samar was passing just as he reached the bottom of the stairs.
"You hear about Hitchin?" she asked as she took in his still-casual appearance.
"Yeah," Ressler replied shortly. I'm becoming the king of one-word answers, he thought.
"Well, it sounds like a horrible way to go but the world's probably better off," Samar continued.
Ressler shoved his hands in his pockets and fidgeted nervously. "Yeah," he repeated again. "Look, I just spoke to Cooper. I'm gonna take a few days off while things are quiet. Finally go home and see my family."
"In Michigan?" Samar asked, surprised. Ressler nodded. "That's good," she continued. "Your brother is still doing well after the surgery?"
Ressler nodded again, not fully trusting himself to speak. "Yeah," he managed. "He's doing much better. Look - tell Keen and Aram what's going on, ok? I'll see you guys next week."
"You can tell her yourself - she's right there," Samar replied gesturing towards the elevator where Liz had just stepped off.
"Tell me what?" Liz asked as she approached them.
Ressler groaned inwardly. He'd hoped to make his escape without having to face Liz. Of all of them, she was the one most likely to pick up that something was wrong and he wasn't quite ready to tell her yet. He wasn't sure he ever would be.
"Ressler's taking some time off, going home for a few days," Samar answered for him.
Liz raised an eyebrow. "Good for you," she said. "Before you go, though - do you have a minute?"
Ressler clenched his hands inside his pockets. So much for a quick escape, he thought miserably. He glanced at his watch. "Sure, I don't have long, though. I gotta go home and get squared away for my flight." The flight I haven't even booked yet, he reminded himself.
Liz nodded. "Walk with me," she said as she gestured towards their shared office.
"Have a good trip!" Samar called after him as she headed over to confer with Aram at his workstation.
Ressler followed Liz silently into their office and watched, arms folded, as she removed her jacket, closed the door, and sat down in her chair. He opted to remain standing and lean against a file cabinet in lieu of settling in at his own desk.
"You ok?" she asked. Her eyes scanned him up and down.
Ressler's heart began to hammer in his chest again. Dammit, he thought. Does she know? How would she know? He shifted uncomfortably and looked away.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Why?" he replied carefully, staring intently at a spot on her desk.
"I saw the news about Hitchin. Wondered how you were feeling about that," Liz said quietly.
Ressler snorted. "How I feel? How am I supposed to feel, Liz. You tell me," he snapped.
Liz sighed. "Look, I don't mean to make you uncomfortable I just know how...difficult it was for you to give up on bringing her in. Now she's dead and the world's never going to know the truth about what she was. You must feel something about that."
Ressler clenched his jaw and stood up straight. Damn straight I feel something, he thought. If you only knew. "Yeah, I'm angry things happened as they did. Am I relieved she's gone? Is that what you want me to say? Sure part of me is glad she'll never walk this earth again. But I'd still rather have seen her rot in a jail cell than end up in the morgue." He started to move towards the door.
"Ressler, wait," Liz said softly as she grabbed his sleeve. He flinched at her touch and then froze, terrified his face would give him away. He forced himself to remain still and not to shake her off.
"I'm not trying to pry," Liz said gently. "I just want you to know that I'm sorry things happened as they did and if you want to talk about it, I'm here. I hope you have a good trip home to see your family."
Ressler couldn't meet her gaze. "Thanks," he replied tightly. She let go of his sleeve and he strode out of their office without a backwards glance.
Back in the car, he closed his eyes and tried to breathe deeply until the hammering in his chest subsided somewhat. He'd known it would be difficult to face his colleagues. Hell, he could hardly face himself. He shuddered at the memory of Hitchin's fingers gripping his arm. Liz's well-meaning touch had brought it all flooding back. Part of him had wanted to confess to her, or to Cooper, or to Samar even. He'd wrestled with the idea of it all night. But he couldn't put that burden on them and expect them not to report him. No, this was something he was going to have to manage on his own. He clenched the wheel tightly and pulled out of the parking garage and headed back home to pack his things.
Two hours later, Ressler sat at the gate at Dulles Airport, tapping his foot anxiously as he waited to board his flight to Detroit. He'd paid an exorbitant amount for the last-minute ticket, but he'd been unwilling to lie and pretend it was for a funeral or some other sympathetic purpose. His mother had been surprised but pleased to hear from him when he'd called to let her know he was coming. A break between cases, he'd told her. Unexpected down time. He hadn't been home in a long time. Too long. But better late than never. He couldn't help but feel like he was a fugitive on the run.
He cast a grim eye at the TV in the corner of the airport lounge which seemed to carry an endless parade of talking heads speculating over who would replace Laurel Hitchin as National Security Advisor. He'd wondered if Prescott would simply make her disappear, but upon reflection, of course it made more sense to make it look like her death happened some other way. It was bad enough for someone like Diane Fowler or Reven Wright to just up and disappear but Hitchin was a member of the President's Cabinet and her absence had to explained. Ressler wondered how Prescott had gotten Laurel and her car to the interstate, much less staged an accident with a fuel tanker outside the view of all of the traffic cameras. Better not to know, he thought. Maybe the medical examiner would discover the truth, despite the force of the accident and resulting inferno, but so far none of the coverage had hinted at foul play.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," a pleasant voice floated over the intercom, "at this time we are ready to begin boarding Flight 276 to Detroit." With a final look at the TV, Ressler glanced at the row number on his boarding pass and made his way to the ramp.