Chapter 11: The Debriefing
Sarah had a sense of déjà vu as she stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Memories of quickly covering up the evidence of her basement fight with hastily applied makeup before returning to the formal dinner with Prince Willy in the Perogian Embassy flitted through her mind. This time, it was going to take Sarah quite a bit longer to conceal the remaining marks on her face. And her neck, her arms, her legs.
She chose a wig that was the closest to her shaved-off hair and made sure the wig base was firmly secured in place. Putting the wig itself to one side, she opened the make-up cubes and selected a foundation that was a bit thicker and darker than the one she normally used and dipped her fingers into the container, applying it evenly over all of the skin that would not be covered by the clothes she had chosen, which were also more concealing than usual for the agent.
When she was done, just a faint trace of the deeper scar across her nose and brow was visible, and with the brim of a large hat to cast a shadow over the top half of her face, even that evidence of her recent ordeal would disappear.
Some eye make-up and lipstick, wig and hat on, and Sarah, giving herself a final inspection in the brightly lit mirror, felt that her new Sarah disguise was as good as she could make it.
As she descended the stairs to return to Casey's living room, Sarah reviewed a few possible stories to explain her and Casey's absence over the last little while. Had it really only been eight and a half days? It felt like a lifetime, and Sarah shook her head a bit to clear it of the haunting memories that had begun to swarm into her mind, buzzing low like hundreds of angry wasps suddenly disturbed from their hive.
"Everything okay, Walker?" Casey inquired as Sarah paused for a moment, one hand still on the railing.
"Yes, yes, fine, Casey," she replied. But since the tone of her voice didn't even serve to convince herself, Sarah tried again. Standing up straighter, she looked Casey in the eye and forced a smile long enough so that it relaxed into what would pass for a genuine one before repeating, "Yes, Casey, I'm fine. Where's Chuck?"
"Just across the courtyard," Casey supplied, then added, "which is where we're going right now, so let's get our story straight first."
The two agents debated a couple of Sarah's ideas and settled on the one that, although it was a bit of a stretch, would be a little more difficult for Ellie and Devon and any of the Buy Morons to check out if they decided that was necessary, and by the time Sarah and Casey had agreed on the details, Sarah was once again feeling more like her old self and capable of mixing with civilians on their home turf.
Just before they left the apartment, Casey casually added, almost as though it were an afterthought, "Bartowski's going to want to know what really happened to you. I think it's a good idea if he doesn't find out, at least at this point. It'll be even more difficult to keep him on the sidelines than it already is if he knows just what The Brotherhood is capable of, so don't let him talk you into being alone together. I'll make sure I'm within earshot so I can help you out if you get into trouble."
"Good idea," Sarah responded. "I'm hoping I'll only need a few more hours to get my head together, and it's important that Chuck and his family are kept out of harm's way. I'll have to pull this off somehow, convince Chuck that everything is okay, so I can focus on the mission. We don't have the luxury of any more recovery time with this Brotherhood thing. I want to get back on it as soon as possible."
Casey's reaction was a number eight grunt with a pleased half-grin and, much to Sarah's surprise, this did more to bolster her confidence than some long, drawn-out motivational speech would have. And along with her mounting confidence, she suddenly felt an unexpected pleasant tingle that was beginning somewhere around her solar plexus. Anticipation?
Sarah took a moment to inspect the emotion, and to her surprise, she concluded that it was the anticipation of seeing Chuck again that had caused it. Naturally, she would want to make sure that he was healing all right from his injuries and that the Intersect was still functioning at optimum levels. Yes, that was it.
Sarah smiled to herself now, a secret smile, as Casey unlocked his door and stood aside for her to pass through ahead of him.
Ellie answered the door before Sarah had finished knocking and began gushing as soon as she saw who was there.
"Sarah, John, thank God you're here. Chuck! Guess who's here? Sarah! And John!"
Sarah chanced a quick sideways look at Casey as Ellie negotiated the wide hat brim to deliver a half hug and a kiss to the female agent's cheek. Since he was looking back at her in the same way, eyes full of foreboding, Sarah knew that Casey had also registered Ellie's slightly hysterical, almost manic, tone. And when Ellie released her to turn to Casey for a welcoming peck on the cheek, Sarah could immediately see what was causing Ellie's distress.
Chuck was sitting on the sofa, game controller in hand as he craned his neck around to see the new arrivals. His legs were extended along the cushions, the broken ankle supported by a couple of extra throw pillows to elevate it. There was a large array of snacks and drinks within easy reach, and the wrappers and other packaging that overflowed a small trash bin positioned nearby evidenced the Intersect's hearty appetite for junk foods of any and all description.
Chuck was supported in a sitting posture by another cushion behind his back and, from his vantage point in the middle of the living room, he was able to easily survey his domain like some petty potentate in a remote and minor kingdom. And it was obvious to Sarah that since Ellie had been conscripted as his personal servant, expected to cater to his every whim, Chuck's sister was well on the way to losing the medical objectivity she normally displayed for her patients.
Sarah stepped gingerly around the end of the sofa, carefully avoiding the pair of crutches that were propped there at an awkward angle, and leaned down to kiss Chuck when he was within reach.
"Hi, honey," he exclaimed brightly after a brief pucker. "Where have you been?"
Sarah straightened up again to standing height so Chuck wouldn't have an opportunity to study her face too closely. Luckily, he probably couldn't make out any details at this distance, since the curtains were drawn and the lights were low, probably to put as little strain as possible on Chuck's injured eye, now unbandaged and peering keenly, along with its twin, at the CIA agent and her overlarge head gear.
"Hello, sweetie," Sarah replied, smiling winsomely. "I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to tell you, but I went to my aunt's funeral in Vermont. You know, Aunt Veronica. I think I mentioned to you that she was sick."
Chuck screwed up his face a bit but, aware that Ellie was listening to the conversation, he made sure that his tone of voice didn't give away his suspicious attitude.
"No, darling, you didn't. Died, you say? That's really very sad." Turning in Casey's direction, Chuck continued. "And what about you, John, where have you been all this time?"
Casey glared impatiently at Chuck as he answered, arms folded over his chest, "I went with Sarah to keep her company. She didn't want to travel alone, what with the death and all."
When Chuck heard the emphasis the tall agent put on the word "death", he took the hint right away and backed down. Sarah quickly stepped into the breach.
"Yes, and he was a lifesaver. It was pretty awful, but I'm sure it would have been much worse if John hadn't been there to help me out."
Now Chuck's expression changed from one of distrust to relief as he caught the words that Sarah had emphasized and understood the double meaning they implied, and his face softened and his tone became gentle as he said, "Well, then, in that case, thank you, John, and I'm glad you're both back."
Sarah, aware that Ellie's eyes were still on the three of them, supplied, "Yes, Chuck, I'm glad that's over too. There's nothing more stressful, which is why I didn't let you know before we left. I didn't want to worry you while you were still in the hospital."
Ellie moved forwards at this, approval in her voice as she said, "Yes, Sarah, it is good to have you back, but I think Chuck needs to lie down and rest in his room for a while. For someone who's not supposed to have too much stimulation, he sure can play a lot of video games."
Chuck jumped at the opportunity his sister had given him and immediately suggested, "Why don't you help me into my room, Sarah? That way, we can have a few more minutes together."
After two heartbeats, Chuck shot a stern glance at Casey before adding pointedly, "Alone."
But before Chuck could even shift himself on the couch to swing his legs from the cushions to the floor, Casey was by his side and had shoved his hands and arms behind Chuck's shoulders and knees, lifting him easily into the air and turning to head towards the bedroom.
"I'll help," the big man sang out cheerfully, and he trotted along the corridor, making sure that Chuck's injured head and leg didn't hit any walls or door frames on the way as he directed an evil grin towards Chuck's angry glare.
Chuck, for his part, sputtered out, "Casey, Casey, put me –" which ended in a stifled scream of frustration when the patient realized that he wasn't going to be allowed to talk to Sarah alone once they reached his room. And when they did arrive, Casey dumped Chuck onto his bed from just enough of a height to jar the nerd into silence without further aggravating his injuries.
Sarah entered and quickly sat down on the edge of the bed, sparing a moment to glower at her partner for his rough treatment of the Intersect before turning back to Chuck, who looked like he was setting up for a long sulk.
"Chuck," she began, taking his hands in hers, "I'm sorry this is such a short visit, but there have been some new developments in the mission and we don't have time right now for anything longer. Not a moment to spare, in fact. I just wanted to check in and see how you were doing, and I'm glad to find that you're better. As soon as I can, I'll bring you up to date on what's going on, but now is not the time. I hope you'll trust me on this."
Chuck looked down at his and Sarah's hands as she delivered her news, his lower lip jutting out just a tiny bit, but by the time she had finished speaking and he had taken a moment to absorb what she was saying, the face he raised to hers was wearing a sheepish grin and he was chuckling quietly to himself.
"I know you will, Sarah," he said just above a whisper, "and thanks. It's just that I was worried about you when you didn't show up after a few days. You get on with whatever it is you guys have to do and I guess you'll know where to find me when you need me."
Sarah, mindful of Casey's presence nearby, squeezed Chuck's hands before replying, "Of course, Chuck, and don't worry about us. This is the kind of thing we were trained for."
Chuck looked deeply into Sarah's eyes for a moment before saying, "I know, Sarah, but I never trained not to worry, and when you care about someone, it's what you do."
Well, that was short and sweet, Sarah thought as she left the debriefing area of Casey's apartment after being summarily dismissed by the general. Might as well get ready to go home now.
Sarah stopped halfway up the stairs on her way to Casey's washroom. Funny, she mused, I've never thought of that hotel room as "home" before.
Casey stood patiently waiting for his superior officer's instructions after Sarah was on her way upstairs and out of earshot. He figured he had just been a party to the shortest debriefing on record and he was about to find out why.
They had only spent a few minutes discussing Walker's capture, how she had been spirited away, Casey's rescue and his medical treatment of her and their recent visit to the Intersect. The general was sensitive enough, at least, to let Sarah give a brief and very undetailed description of the torture she had been put through while being held in the warehouse, and it was at this point that Casey's agent's intuition kicked in full force. It wasn't like the general to tiptoe around issues, and it certainly wasn't normal field practice for any agent to walk away with undisclosed information after a debriefing. Especially not one concerning this mission. Something unusual was going on.
Then Walker had been dismissed with a curt, "Thank you, Agent Walker, that's all," as the general continued to look down at the papers spread on the desktop in front of her.
When Sarah swiveled her head around from the screen to Casey and back again to the screen signaling her confusion, the general looked up and repeated, "That's all," adding, "Major, please remain for a moment," before looking back at Sarah and delivering a steady stare as she waited for the agent to leave.
It's so boring always being right.
After Sarah had left, the general pulled out a different file and opened it, shuffled through the contents for a minute or so, then looked up and removed her reading glasses, furrowing her brow as she did so. Casey couldn't tell whether this expression was the result of concern or annoyance. His boss seemed to use the two emotions interchangeably so it was better not to second-guess, and Casey continued to wait, soldier-ready.
"Major," she began, still sounding businesslike and very focused, "what is your assessment of Agent Walker's current condition? I want you to be brutally frank with me. You know how much is riding on this mission and I can't afford – we all can't afford – to have an agent in a weakened mental state at the helm. Just say the word and I will hand the whole thing over to you."
Casey didn't even blink.
"General," he said, straightening his spine as he did so, "in my opinion, Agent Walker is more than capable of re-assuming her duties as coordinator and leader of this mission. Or she will be in a day or so. I had planned to have us work out of my apartment, in familiar surroundings, to give her a chance to complete her adjustment. We can be fully operational again by Thursday."
The general now directed her piercing stare at the man who had spoken so clearly and confidently about his partner before softening her features ever so slightly and replying tersely, "Very good, Major. Dismissed."
"Can I sleep here tonight?"
Casey stopped typing the report he had been working on and turned in his chair, draping an elbow over the back so he could pull himself right around and look more squarely at his partner.
Sarah was perched on the couch, her feet tucked underneath herself, giving the impression she was trying to appear as small as possible. She had wrapped an afghan around her shoulders, and even though the weather was a bit on the warm side, Casey could see that she was shivering slightly.
"If I didn't know you better, Walker, I'd think you're propositioning me," Casey commented, smiling a bit at the end so Sarah would know he was joking, and even though she tried her best to smile back, the corners of her mouth trembled and turned down as she tugged the blanket around herself even more tightly.
"I don't know why I'm being such a baby," Sarah explained. "I just don't want to be alone at my place tonight."
Casey turned back towards the computer before voicing his decision. "No need to apologize, Walker. The couch okay?"
He nodded once to himself when he heard Sarah say, "The couch is fine, Casey, thanks," then picked up typing where he had left off.
After five more minutes, the report was finished and Casey sent it on its way to NSA headquarters in D.C. along with a copy to the CIA at Langley before powering down the unit. When he spun his chair around, he was surprised to see that Sarah had already taken him up on his invitation and was fast asleep on the couch, stretched out underneath the afghan, her expression completely peaceful in repose without the aid of drugs for the first time since her kidnapping.
Casey watched the even rise and fall of Sarah's chest under the blanket for a couple of minutes before getting up and walking over to stand beside the couch. After pulling the cover up and tucking it under her chin, he stood over her for another couple of moments just to make sure she was really okay before turning away and going upstairs to his own room to sleep.