Chapter 64: Debriefing

Flint studied Allie and Duke as they came to a stop at the other side of General Hawk's desk and saluted.

"At ease," he said kindly, and they both relaxed. They both looked like they'd been through hell, even though he'd saved the debriefing until after they'd both gotten a day's sleep; Allie was a little pale, and Duke looked downright haggard. Understandable, once you knew that Conrad and Shana had had a fling in the past—Flint had never asked for details, had never wanted them; it was their business, and as long as it didn't interfere with the current working partnerships he really didn't care—but there had been close calls in the past when, like now, he wondered just how deep their affection had run.

And now this. "Report," he said crisply, his matter-of-fact tone telling them he wanted facts now, reactions later.

And they, as good soldiers did, pushed their personal feelings aside and gave him the reports he needed. "We met up with the Columbia in Fiji, came aboard only a few hours before Snake Charlie, and the med team. We briefed the captain on what was going on—we figured it was okay because none of this has been classified. The humanitarian mission into the DRC when Scarlett was captured wasn't common knowledge but it wasn't classified so I thought it was okay." There was a very slight hint of a questioning note in Duke's voice.

Flint answered it with a wave of his hand. "Go on." The fact that he didn't make it an issue was a signal that it was okay, and he saw Duke's shoulders slump slightly in relief.

Allie took up the thread of their story. "We told the captain everything; about Shana's capture and that Cam went deep cover to try and find her with an implanted tracer, and we showed him the footage our drones brought back. He was appalled and horrified, and when time came to assault the island, he gave us a helicopter, put practically all the troops he had on a second one, then packed the Homeland Security guy and the two FBI witnesses in a third helicopter with extra gear he claimed might be needed." A tiny smile curved her lips. "Even though the drone flyover showed there'd be just barely enough room for two of the larger military helicopters on that landing pad. The helicopter holding the Naval assault troopers landed first, then our helicopter, and then the troopers helicopter had to take off to allow the third helicopter with the 'extra gear' and the one DHS suit and the two FBI guys to land. And by the time they landed we were already spreading out around the island and all they could do was follow along."

Flint had to smile. "I'll bet they weren't happy about that."

"No. They weren't. But we didn't really care." Allie took a deep breath. "The drone flyovers showed a large lagoon in the center of the top of the island—an old volcanic crater, I assume—and there was a small boathouse near that lagoon. That's where we found Cam." Her voice broke, and she took a deep breath to steady herself. Flint felt his heart twist in his chest; she was a soldier, and it was her responsibility to debrief him, but she was also a woman, and Cam was her friend. He had a feeling he was going to spend the evening holding her as she cried.

But she was a consummate professional and she would carry out her responsibilities first. "They …they tied her wrists together and…hung her…from a beam in the boathouse…and then tied weights to her ankles and just…let her hang. By the time we got to her she'd been hanging for a couple of days and her arms dislocated from the strain. I—she screamed—while Charlie and Snake Eyes got her down." She closed her eyes, shook her head as if to dispel the image behind her eyes. "But she did manage to tell us of 'torture chambers' under the island's mansion where we could find Shana just before Stretcher gave her a shot to put her in a medically-induced coma just to take away her pain so he could treat her. I stayed with her, Duke went with Snake Eyes to get Shana."

Flint turned to Duke, and saw the younger man take a deep breath before he spoke. "The son of a bitch we saw in the video throwing Cam off the fishing platform had Shana crucified," he said flatly, holding in strong emotion. Beside him, Allie took a sobbing breath, close to breaking down herself at the hideous memory, and Flint felt his own jaw dropping open at the callous cruelty such an action implied. "She was whipped—not as badly as Cam was whipped, but enough to make her bleed—and then crucified. They placed the nails very carefully so as to miss the major blood vessels and muscles and nerves in her arms, so I guess we can argue that that means they didn't intend to let her die, but what they did was bad enough they placed bees against her skin, let the bees sting her."

Flint felt bile rise in his throat. Bee stings were painful, horrible things, and thank god Shana wasn't allergic to them. "Jesus," and he heard his voice crack.

"The cross had a wooden piece that stuck out of it. And that piece..." Allie couldn't do it. Couldn't say it. Couldn't talk about her fellow soldier and friend's body that way. "I'm sorry. You'll have to read the medical report."

"I'll do that." Just to spare his lover and his friend from having to endure this horrible debriefing. "Lieutenant General Johnson gave me the details of your return, so I'd say this debriefing is over. Get some rest, Conrad." His use of the other man's name told Conrad he was no longer on duty, and Conrad's shoulders slumped as he nodded wearily and trudged out of the room, each step leaden and heavy.

As soon as the door was closed Allie was in Dash's arms, crying as if she would never stop, and Dash leaned back against the desk and just held her. He couldn't imagine what she'd gone through, as a woman, seeing the brutality done to two other women who were also close friends and fellow soldiers. "It was horrible. Oh God, Dash, this has been the hardest—Cam's lessons, the slave market, and then getting to the island and seeing just how brutal one human being can be to another—the whole thing just makes me so sick!"

"I do too, sweetheart. I do too." He patted her back in soothing circles, trying to empathize, but away down in the back of his mind, a selfish little voice whispered, if you hadn't forbidden Allie from coming it could have been her. Be glad it wasn't her. And while he felt guilty, he couldn't deny that he was, indeed, glad that it wasn't her.

"I need some good news. How have things been here? Has Liv woken up yet? Is Auggie doing okay?"

Flint shook his head regretfully. "No, Liv hasn't woken up yet. Doc's keeping an eye on her but he says she was horribly traumatized and he's not too concerned. When Auggie came out he pretty much ripped her open—some of the scar tissue gave and once that tear was there everything just tore open. She hemorrhaged out half her blood before he managed to get the bleeding stopped, and he had to give her massive transfusions. Clayton even donated blood—he has the same blood type she does. Doc says if she comes out of it naturally before he takes the stitches out of her body, he'll deal, but he's hoping she stays asleep until after the stitches come out. If she reinjures anything at this point it could be fatal."

Allie was now sniffling quietly in his arms; good, he'd gotten her distracted. "And Auggie?"

Flint grinned; this was going to distract Allie completely. "Doc swears he will never ever allow babies in his infirmary again. Clayton's been sitting by Liv's bedside almost constantly, so when Auggie wakes up in the middle of the night Clayton's there to hold him and soothe him and give him a bottle and rock him back to sleep. But when he's exhausted and sleeping, Alex and Courtney are taking turns trying to babysit the little guy and both women swear that they must have no motherly instinct whatsoever because nothing they do works. The bottle only works for a little bit; once he's full he just starts howling, and it's virtually impossible to hush him up. The only good thing about it is that Doc's been seeing a radical drop in the number of non-emergency cases among the guys—none of them want to be responsible for waking the little guy up and setting him off again."

That got a weak laugh out of Allie, as he'd known it would. "So I guess I'm going to be drafted into a round of baby-sitting?" she chuckled. "Hey, be good practice when we have one."

"We?" Flint's brain skidded to a stop at that last declaration. "We're going to what?"

"We're eventually going to have one of those. You know. A baby. Little pink and white thing, cries, poops a lot, half you and half me. Yes, we are eventually going to have one." Allie grinned cheerfully at his stunned look. "So I guess I might as well get some practice, right?" She dropped a kiss on his cheek. "I'll see you later."

Auggie regarded this new face with suspicion, but the introduction of a bottle distracted him. By the time he was full, changed, wrapped snugly in a blanket (correctly—the 'instructions' Courtney had found on the internet consisted of a homemade video and a plastic doll, and had little to do whatsoever with trying to comfortably support a real baby's arms and legs. Courtney stared at Allie in awe as Auggie decided he was much happier with this new babysitter and hiccupped, then settled down to do some serious thinking—awake and quiet.

"There, you see? It's not that hard." Allie grinned as she lifted Auggie to her shoulder and bounced gently on the balls of her feet. Auggie gurgled and settled deeper into Allie's shoulder. "Gosh, he's like what, just under two weeks old now? He feels like he weighs a ton!"

"Doc said he was a big baby. After all the fuss was over and Liv was stabilized and out of emergency surgery and Doc had a chance to weigh him, turned out he was a little over eight pounds. Like eight pounds and some ounces. And he's been gaining weight rapidly." Courtney shook her head as she stared at Auggie. "He's quiet. He's never quiet unless it's Clayton holding him. Wow." She looked at Allie hopefully. "You wouldn't…want to take over all the babysitting duties permanently would you? Just until Liv wakes up?"

"Oh no. Absolutely not. Hey, you and Wayne might someday have kids of your own, think of this as practice—"

Courtney shook her head so hard her blond locks flew around her head. "Nuh-uh. No. Not happening. I'm not having kids. The world's overpopulated enough as it is."

Allie grinned. "That might change as you get older. Wait and see, okay?" She took Auggie off her shoulder, looked at him affectionately. "You know, I see some of his Mama in him, but overall he looks so much like Clayton—look at those blue eyes!" She ruffled the short brown curls. "The hair he gets from his Mom, I'll bet."

"He was born with a full head of hair. I was surprised; I thought all babies were born bald." Courtney grinned. "Doc said his eyes are probably going to change to brown later, but I'm kind of hoping they'll stay blue. He's so absolutely adorable with blue eyes—" She broke off and winced as Auggie decided he didn't like being talked about and protested—vociferously.

Allie sighed. "Come on, let's find somewhere to put you down for a nap," she said quietly, and the two women left Courtney's quarters. They quickly carried Auggie past Shana's door, worried that she could be sleeping and they didn't want him to start howling suddenly and wake her.

It was well into the base's 'night' and a lot of the Joes were asleep, so they headed for a quieter, less-inhabited spot. Duke was in the gym, working out; Allie gave him a quick nod, knowing that he had gone through just as much on this trip as she had, but unlike her, he didn't have anyone to go to for comfort. Usually when Duke was feeling bad he went to talk to Shana, but with Shana currently unavailable, Allie and Court guessed that he was taking refuge in sheer physical activity. Allie was going to talk to him, but she wanted to give him some time to decompress before she did.

"Let's hit the dojo. It's going to be quiet now; Snake Eyes is wrapped up with Shana and it'll be empty." She put her hand on the doorknob, opened the door.

And they stared.

The normally excruciatingly neat dojo was a shambles. Pieces of wooden practice swords were snapped and splintered, kicked aside and another one used until it snapped. While most of the weapons were functional, there were a few that weren't, courtesy of Shana, who had taken to collecting beautiful and unusual decorative swords. A lot of those were now dented, bent, blades nicked, hilts broken. Those swords had never been designed to handle the fury of a ninja whose world had been turned upside down, a man whose soulmate had been horribly tortured, in the worst ways a woman could be hurt. Those swords that had been designed for practical use lay on the floor in the corners of the dojo, blades dulled, carelessly dropped and not cleaned and re-sheathed. Since Snake Eyes was usually such a stickler for taking care of weapons after practice or use, the fact that he hadn't told Allie and Courtney all too well what his state of mind had been.

And the fact that none of the four practice dummies was still standing anymore was another clue. It seemed like there wasn't a piece of those dummies left that was any bigger than a grain of rice; each one had been systematically cut down to a pile of nearly-unidentifiable rubble.

"Snake Eyes," Courtney said after their first shocked look. "He's the only one who's been in here since—since we all came back from the Congo."

Duke had noticed them standing in the doorway to the dojo and not going in, and he came loping across the gym floor now. Allie heard a hiss of indrawn breath as he stopped next to them and saw the wreckage of the dojo. "Snake Eyes," he said quietly. "He's the only one who would have been able to do this."

Ignoring Courtney's 'no, really?' eyeroll, Allie stepped into the dojo after Duke, who bent almost mechanically and picked up the first sword he saw. "See if you can find the saya to match this," he said quietly to her.

"What's a saya?" Courtney asked, and Allie had to suppress an eyeroll of her own. Early on, Shana had gotten frustrated by Courtney's seeming inability to handle a sword and had never bothered trying to teach the blond tank jockey after that. Courtney's instruction from Shana had concentrated on physical fitness and basic hand-to-hand unarmed combat moves; in another few months she was looking at a promotion from Corporal Krieger to Specialist Krieger, which was going to pretty much take her off the infantry mission roster (the list of those who could go out when sheer numbers mattered, which didn't happen often anyway) and let her focus on her darlings; the Joes' vehicles. It was clearly where her talents lay and where she was happiest, and it was certainly a needed, important, valuable skill; some of the improvements she'd designed for the Joes last year had been picked up during their annual review by Lieutenant General Johnson and had been implemented as a test on several active combat fronts elsewhere in the military. Those tests had been completely successful in the last year, and it was a near-certainty that those improvements would be integrated into future vehicle designs—which meant she'd get that promotion to Specialist.

And meant that chances for her to need to get into unarmed combat were going to be few and far between, so Shana, realizing that, hadn't really pushed her into learning more than the basics. Which meant she was clueless to swordwork. Not that Allie was all that good, herself; her specialty weapon was the javelin, and while it had given her the upper-body strength needed for swordwork, swords simply weren't her thing. She tried to learn, sensing that Shana would like a friend who liked some of the same things she had, but when Cam had come along and Shana had said she wanted to focus on practice with Cam, Allie had breathed a sigh of relief and quietly bowed out of the whole sword-wielding business. When Shana finally said, somewhat guiltily, that she was sorry she'd been neglecting Allie's sword practice, Allie had laughed at her and assured her that she hadn't missed a bit. And that was the last Allie had heard of that.

"A saya is a scabbard. The sheath that the sword blade sits in."

"Oh." Courtney looked at the littler of swords and sword pieces on the floor of the room and said, "But how do you know which one goes to what sword?"

Allie rolled her eyes and handed the now-sleeping Auggie to Courtney. "I'll handle this. You take him back to his crib and put him to sleep."