Casey's words were clipped but clear as Sarah listened to them through the comm unit.
"This is Blue Team Leader to Pink Team Leader. Pink Team Leader, are you in position?"
Sarah's tone of voice as she answered, however, made her uncertainty so apparent to her partner that she may as well have told him in words about her misgivings.
"This is Pink Team Leader. Pink Team is in position, I repeat, Pink Team is in position."
"Copy that. Pink Team Leader, are you still unclear about the mission objective?"
Sarah bit her lower lip for a moment and looked over her shoulder at her team, waiting in their assigned positions for her "go ahead" signal.
"Negative, Blue Leader," she replied. "It's just that Chuck –"
Casey's forceful admonition was like a controlled shout over the airwaves.
"Eyes and ears, Pink Leader, eyes and ears. Remember the mission protocol."
"Sorry, Blue Leader, it's just that I believe the Target is not ready yet. He needs more time. This could kill him."
"Remember, Pink Leader, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger."
"And if it does kill you?" Sarah asked, wondering where Casey was going with this one.
"You're dead, of course," he replied, following his macabre joke up with an evil chuckle. "Now concentrate on the mission, Pink Leader. Is your team in place?"
Sarah relaxed her shoulders, which had been creeping up towards her ears in her agitation, and smiled. "Everything is ready to go, Blue Leader. And your team?"
"They've never been more ready, Pink Leader, and they're raring to go."
"Well, give them the thumbs-up any time, Blue Leader, so we can wrap this up and go home."
Sarah was just about to rise from her concealed position so she could give the hand signal to the rest of her team when she heard the comm unit spark up again. This time, Casey's voice was a bit softer but no less businesslike.
"Oh, and, Pinkie."
"You've done a great job here. Can't wait to see the finale. Blue out."
Sarah's smile broadened as she replied, "Roger that, Blue. Pink out."
Still concealed behind a large potted plant, Sarah silently stood and raised her right fist into the air where her team, also concealed, could see it clearly. She kept her eyes trained on the dark alley, awaiting an activation signal from the Blue Team and, as she waited, her excitement mounted. After all the planning, all the scheming, all the hard work, the end of this mission was clearly in sight. The Commander was sure to be pleased.
Chuck might not be so pleased, though. In fact, Sarah was sure of it. He definitely wouldn't like being taken the way they had planned and spirited away by the Blue Team. But orders were orders, and this time there was nothing Sarah could do about it.
Once he had adjusted, Chuck would be all right. They usually were. It would just take him a bit of time. And Sarah and Casey would be there to see him through it. He might hate them at first but Sarah was hopeful that he would get over it quickly. In fact, she was counting on Chuck's natural resilience and good nature to get him through the upcoming ordeal.
There it was. Two flashes of red laser. The signal. Sarah tensed again, counting off in her head. Ten. Nine. Blue Team advance personnel in sight. Eight. Seven. The Target, captured and flanked closely by two members of the Blue Team squad. Six. Five. Blue Team Leader, bringing up the rear, nods to Pink Team Leader. Pink Team Leader unclenches her fist and raises her thumb and four fingers into the air, bringing each one back down into her fist as she continues the countdown. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.
If Chuck hadn't been firmly held up by Jeff and Lester, Sarah was sure he would have fainted dead away. It was obvious he hadn't seen any of the Pink Team hiding around the edges of the apartment complex courtyard. Morgan had run ahead of his Blue Team at the reveal and secured a bottle of cold beer from a cooler chest that was out of sight around a corner. Sprinting back, he handed it to Chuck with a big smile on his face. "Happy Birthday, amigo," he said to his friend and laughed when the best Chuck could do in reply was open and close his mouth a few times.
Casey came up from behind and thumped the Intersect on the back, whispering in his ear, "You didn't think your sister would let us get away with only taking you out for a couple of drinks after work, did you?"
Jeff and Lester and Morgan, their part done, crossed the courtyard to wait for the food table to be moved into place by two members of the Pink Team – Captain Awesome and Anna – as Ellie and Sarah approached Chuck and Casey.
"Happy Birthday, little brother," Ellie said, and her embrace finally seemed to loosen Chuck's tongue.
"Ellie, thank you so much. This is fantastic," he said. He closed his eyes for a moment and gave his sister an extra squeeze of affection, but when he opened his eyes again, they were directed straight at Sarah.
After they released each other, Ellie went to stand beside Casey, and Chuck wasn't sure by the looks on their faces which one was acting more smug about the whole thing. But then he felt his attention drawn once more to his fake girlfriend.
She came into his arms like it was the most natural thing in the world and they kissed tenderly. When it was over, Chuck whispered to her, "You know I don't like surprise parties. In fact, I hate them."
"I know. It couldn't be avoided. I was just following orders from above," Sarah whispered back before letting her arms drop from Chuck's waist and, taking his hand, led him to where the rest of the two teams had finished setting up the food and drink, including a big birthday cake with a picture of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa in the classic movie poster pose sprayed in sugary frosting on top. The edge was outlined with 29 birthday candles.
As music started playing, Ellie turned to Casey and said, "Thanks for your help, John. It's difficult to throw a surprise party for Chuck. He's always so suspicious and figures things out so quickly. I couldn't have done it without you and Sarah."
"Nothing to it, ma'am," Casey replied, straightening his spine and essaying a civilian-style salute. "Just following orders, Birthday Commander."