Disclaimer: The SMK characters in this story are the property of Warner Brothers and Shoot the Moon Productions. Mbuto, Sweeney, and Hutchins belong to me, as does the plot of this little excursion. No money is changing hands in transaction, and nothing here is intended to infringe on anyone or anything. Please do not distribute or reproduce this story without the author's permission.
Timeframe: mid - August, 1985, before 3rd season.
Summary: A weekend in close quarters with Amanda makes Lee admit that his life is due for some changes.
Feedback: Absolutely! On-list or off. And the more specific, the better. I really want to know what you think.
Warnings: None required
Archive: At this site and at www.geocities.com/blueboxersandbeyond. Others ask beforehand, please.
Author's notes: I'd originally planned to use this idea in an ABC challenge, but it had other ideas, refusing to let itself be written in a timely manner. Hopefully the end product is worth the wait. Thanks to my circle of beta readers for keeping me honest and for that occasional kick in the rear to keep me going. Thanks also to my readers for letting me indulge in one of my favorite pastimes.
"But Giselle . . ." Lee Stetson paced across the room, telephone in hand. "I'm not exactly standing you up." He pulled the receiver away from his ear and stared at it in frustration as a string of angry words poured forth. Somehow, at this instant, he found her usually charming French accent anything but. He sighed heavily and tried again to get through to the irate redhead. "Just listen, Giselle. Some unexpected complications came up, and I can't get free until Sunday evening at the earliest."
He listened to her angry voice again -- she had switched from English to French of a sort that he'd never expected to hear from a mouth as lovely as hers -- then tried once more to interrupt. "I know you have to leave Monday afternoon, and if there's any way I can get free sooner . . . Believe me, I didn't want this to happen. I was really looking forw--"
He was cut off by the abrupt click of the other phone being slammed down into its cradle. He glared at the receiver and hung it up, also with more force than was necessary.
"Quarantined!" Lee snarled in disgust. "I thought quarantines were a thing of the past." He scowled at the phone once more before turning his back on the offensive instrument. He stood there, mentally replaying the conversation with Giselle. Why did things have to go so wrong *this* weekend?
"The circumstances are so unusual that Dr. Kelford didn't have another choice, Lee. You heard what he said. Until they have a better idea of what's wrong with Mr. Mbuto, they can't let us be in close contact with anyone else." In his irritation, he'd forgotten about Amanda. He looked up with a start and saw her, standing across the room from him. She wasn't looking at him, but instead was busily studying the view from the seventh story window while she worried the edge of the curtain with her fingers.
"I understand that," he snapped. "But I don't have to like it. I had plans for this weekend."
"Well, you weren't the only one," she countered, turning toward him. "The boys' Junior Trailblazer troop is doing a demonstration at the annual exhibition this weekend. Having to tell them and Mother that I was going to miss it was awful." The regret lingered on her face only briefly. "But Dr. Kelford said we have to stay in quarantine for at least two or three days. Hopefully the whole thing will be over then, and we both can go back home . . .."
Lee was only half-listening to her, his mind still on Giselle and the weekend that he'd planned. He'd only seen Gisele a handful of times since he'd heard her singing in a Geneva nightclub four years earlier, but he'd found that a weekend in her company was guaranteed to sizzle. His life had been getting complicated lately. Unwanted thoughts and feelings were at his heels like hounds after a fox, and he needed a break -- a distraction -- before he could start to get things back under control. The best way he knew to do that was in the arms of a willing companion. He hadn't just been looking forward to the weekend with Giselle; he'd been depending on it.
Amanda's words finally caught his attention again. "At least Billy was able to get them to let us stay here. Otherwise, we'd have been cooped up in separate isolation rooms. This way, we can at least keep each other company."
"I guess that's something," Lee conceded, grudgingly, as he looked around the living area of the hospital's luxury suite, their home for the duration, "but I had other activities in mind for this weekend." He examined the room as he spoke, as though he were looking for an escape route. "And my plans didn't include armed guards outside the door. Hell! This is just a fancy prison."
"There's nothing we can do about that now, though, so we'll just have to make the best of it."
"Hmmph." He had started to stalk from one side of the room to the other, suddenly knowing how a surly leopard on a short tether must feel.
He felt her eyes following him. After a moment, she spoke again. "Are you hungry? We could order something for dinner."
Something in the tone of her voice slowed his steps. "Yeah, I guess we should," he agreed reluctantly, finally coming to a stop and looking at her. "We haven't had much to eat since we left Rome Wednesday."
"And I'm starving," Amanda agreed with a tired smile as she found the menus that had been left for them and handed him one. "Now, what do you want?"
It seemed to take forever for dinner to come, and when it did arrive, the agent who brought it refused to enter the suite until they had moved to the far side of the living room, as far from the door as possible. From that corner, they watched as the man shoved the trays onto the table and hurried out, glancing over his shoulder as if afraid they'd rush after him.
Lee looked from the closed door to Amanda's widened eyes. Doc Kelford had told them of the precautions to be taken by anyone coming into the suite, but seeing this fellow agent's evident unease had obviously caught her off guard.
"It's all right, Amanda. The guy's a jerk." He softly cupped her elbow in one hand and guided her to the table.
They ate in silence and remained in their places when they had finished, each lost in private thoughts. After a while, he roughly shoved his plate away and slammed his fist against the table in front of him.
"So why did all this have to happen on my watch?" he demanded, realizing that there was no answer to such a question. "This assignment should have been a piece of cake. We were already in Rome to deliver the security codes for the new communications system, so it was no big deal to escort an informant back to D.C. It should've been a snap."
"Nobody could have known what would happen, Lee," Amanda reminded him gently. "He only had a headache and a little fever when we boarded the Air Force transport at Aviano. Who'd have guessed that he could get so sick, so quickly? I wasn't even sure that he'd make it all the way to Andrews."
"Neither was I," Lee admitted, digging his fingers into his already tousled hair. "That's why I had a helicopter waiting for us when we landed."
He fell silent again, his thoughts returning to the trip from Rome. Mbuto had grown steadily worse, and, when they were still over three hours out from Andrews, he had begun vomiting blood. It was obvious to everyone that he was a very, very sick man, and Lee had tried everything short of handcuffs to keep Amanda away from him. It hadn't worked, of course. In the end, they'd cared for Mbuto together, trying to keep him as comfortable as they could. Now he felt his stomach knot, just as it had when he'd seen her leaning over the sick man, her clothes and hands liberally spattered with blood.
"Damn!" His fist once again attacked the table, this time with enough force to make the dishes rattle and Amanda jump. "Who told you to play Florence Nightingale? Why did you have to get so close to him?" His voice rose as his frustrations took control. "I didn't need your help. I could've handled it myself! Now we're both stuck here, and it's all because, once again, you couldn't do what you were told!" He was on his feet, his chest heaving and anger blazing in his eyes as he leaned forward on tight-fisted hands and glared at her across the table.
Amanda stared at him with widened eyes, dumbstruck. When she spoke, her voice chilled him with its softness. "That's right. I'm sure you could've handled it without me. And I almost wish that I'd let you. Then I could've been home with my mother and my boys, and you'd have had the whole weekend to yourself, cooped up in here. But if I weren't around, who would you find to blame?" Slowly and deliberately, she put her napkin on the table, pushed her chair back, and walked into her bedroom, firmly closing the door behind her. The click of the lock echoed in the sudden silence.
Tension crackled in the air like static electricity before a spring thunderstorm. He stared at the closed door, the muscles in his jaw working furiously. Then he spun around, kicking the chair out of his way as he stormed across the room to the window. 'How dare she walk out on me like that?'
He took a deep breath and leaned his forehead against the glass, concentrating on the coolness of its surface in his struggle to regain control. `Because you're a jerk, Stetson,' he finally admitted to himself. Her eyes had been defiant, but as she turned away from him, he could see that the defiance was tempered by hurt.
Lee's wrath slipped away as suddenly as it had appeared. Deflated, he righted the chair and slumped into it, holding his head in his hands. 'Why do things always turn out like this between us?' Yes, he was upset, even angry with her for putting herself at risk. 'She should've stayed away from him. If only she had listened . . .' But she hadn't -- she never did -- and now they were here together.
Quarantined. Locked up. And with the very person who was the biggest complication in his life.
A wave of fatigue engulfed him; it had been an extremely long 24 hours, and his plan to spend the weekend with Giselle, to escape from his own thoughts, had been thwarted on a grand scale. Still cursing his inability to do anything about the current situation, he gave up and headed for his own bedroom. Maybe he could sleep away some of his frustrations.
It was nearly 9 o'clock the next morning before he emerged again. Amanda sat quietly in a chair near the window, reading a newspaper. He crossed the room to stand only a few feet away from her, but she didn't acknowledge his presence.
"Good morning, Amanda," he ventured uncertainly, not sure what sort of response he might receive. "Have you been up long?"
Turning a page, she answered without looking up. "Not too long. I thought I'd try to catch up on the outside world while I waited for breakfast . . ."
She was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Come in," she called out as she folded the paper and laid it on a nearby table. "I ordered coffee and toast for you," she told Lee, finally looking at him for the first time since the previous night. The chill in the air ran straight down his spine when he saw the distance in her eyes.
The agent who entered the room was masked, gowned, and gloved, but his demeanor was totally different from that of the man they'd seen the night before. "Good morning, Mr. Stetson, Mrs. King. This sure smells good you'd better eat up while it's hot."
"You're very cheerful this morning, Mr. . . ." Amanda began.
"Hutchins," he supplied, looking at her, puzzled, for a second before he broke into a grin that was visible even through the mask. "That's right! Sweeney was on duty last night, wasn't he?" Agent Hutchins chuckled to himself. "He can leave quite an impression if you don't know what to expect. He suspects the worst in everything, and he has a special 'thing' about germs. No one else thought that he'd volunteer for this assignment, but I wasn't surprised to see his name on the list."
Lee interrupted. "Why not? He looked like he'd rather be just about anywhere else on the face of the earth than in this room with us."
"Most of us on this assignment are just freshman agents," Hutchins answered, crossing the room to set the trays with their breakfast on the table, "like me and Sweeney. This early in our careers, we never expected to have the opportunity to work an assignment involving Scarecrow. We jumped at the chance --" He stopped abruptly, realizing what he was saying, and looked down at his shoes. "We, uh, we just never expected that it would be for something like this."
After a moment made longer by the abrupt stillness, he lifted his head and met Lee's eyes steadily. "But I've heard too many stories about you to believe that this will turn out any way but all right for you, Mr. Stetson, and for Mrs. King, too." He glanced toward Amanda, then turned back to Lee before continuing.
"Well, uh . . . I guess I'd better go on and let you two enjoy your breakfast." He paused at the door. "I don't think Sweeney will have any objections if I volunteer to bring your meals in to you," the young agent added with a wink. "And you just let me know if you need anything, okay?" He slipped through the door and quietly pulled it shut behind him.
With Hutchins' exit, the room became quiet again. Amanda sat at the table, nibbling on a blueberry muffin. Lee watched her, wondering if she was going to let last night's incident pass without comment. She seemed ready to just forget about the whole thing, which should have been fine with him. But, for reasons he seemed unable to identify, it wasn't. He glanced at Amanda uneasily. She was looking out the window, and he was relieved not to have to meet her eyes. He wished that she'd just say something. If she were to lash out at him, to react in some way other than silence, he could find a way to respond, but the longer she ignored him, the more uncomfortable he became.
She finished breakfast, then returned to her chair and her newspaper, leaving him alone at the table. He stared at the three slices of toast lying untouched on his plate.
"I should never have let you anywhere near Mbuto. You shouldn't be here, waiting for Doc Kelford to say when and if you can go home."
"But I *am* here, Lee." Amanda's soft reply made him realize that he'd spoken his thoughts aloud. "If there's a chance that either one of us could pass on whatever Mr. Mbuto has to other people . . ."
She paused, and he knew she was thinking of her family. "You were right last night. If I hadn't tried to play nurse . . ." She hesitated, frustration written across her features. "But don't you see that I just couldn't let him suffer like that without at least trying to help him?"
"Amanda . . . about last night . . ." She looked at him uncertainly as he plunged into the Stetson version of an apology. "Yeah, I was mad at you. But I shouldn't have yelled at you the way I did. It's your nature to take care of people. If you hadn't tried to help Mbuto, I think I'd have been even more worried about you than I am now."
"Lee, I --" She stood and started to take a step towards him.
"No." He cut her off, gently but firmly, with an upheld hand. "Please don't say anything. Just me finish." He looked at her intently, his eyes entreating her, until, with a slight nod, she acquiesced and settled back into the chair.
"I couldn't have expected you to react any differently," he reiterated. "I just wish you hadn't been in that position in the first place."
He hesitated, looking across to her. "Do you remember that I had told you we'd do something special after we'd delivered the security codes?"
She nodded her head slowly, her eyes never leaving his.
"We were invited to an Embassy ball that last night in Rome. The biggest risk you should have faced was that I'd have kept you out dancing all night." She cocked her head skeptically, and he looked down at the floor, shaking his head ruefully. "I thought you would've had fun. I was going to tell you about it Wednesday morning, so that I'd have time to take you shopping for a gown." He snuck a glance at her from beneath his lowered lashes and was relieved to see the warmth and acceptance in her eyes. Encouraged, he continued. "I know that I can be, well, a little rough on you, a lot more often than I like to think about, and I thought that the ball would be . . . well, sorta like a way to make it up to you." He paused, taking a deep breath before continuing. "But then Billy called, and we had to leave Wednesday evening instead of Thursday afternoon like we were supposed to."
He paused again, clenching his jaw so tightly that every muscle was clearly defined. "At least you know now why I didn't want you to have to take the Air Force transport back to DC. Under the best of circumstances, they're pretty rough. And this time, with Mbuto . . . I should have insisted that you stay in Rome the extra day, but I didn't. And now, here we are . . .." He stood, jammed his hands into his pockets, and started to move about the small space between the table and her chair beside the window, momentarily distracted. One of the reasons he'd not objected more to her coming with him was that he hadn't wanted to leave without her, that he'd wanted her company. How was it that he could simultaneously want to her to be close, even while he was thinking of ways to keep her at a distance? That was a question that was guaranteed to bring on a headache.
After a short pause, he continued. "Kelford thinks this might be one of those new viruses from Africa. Just how the hell do I fight something I can't even see?" He stopped, his back to her, and sighed heavily. "I should have had you wait and take the commercial flight back the next day."
Amanda rose and put her hand on his shoulder. "We each had to do what we thought was best. Mr. Melrose wanted me to go with you and Mr. Mbuto." She walked around to face him. "I know you wanted do the escort duty alone, but that wasn't your decision to make. I guess I could've asked to get out of it, but I didn't; I wanted to come with you. I'm a grown woman, and I take responsibility for the choices that I make," she paused and looked directly into his eyes, "even when things don't work out quite the way I'd hoped."
She smiled at him gently. Lee recognized the trace of regret that touched her eyes, but there was more some almost-hidden emotion that his mind was unwilling or unable to identify. For a split second, he thought that there was something else she wanted to say, but then she turned her face away.
He thought it best to let the matter drop, at least for the time being. He wasn't at all sure he was ready to face whatever it was that he'd seen in her eyes. But he had another, totally unrelated, concern. "Amanda," he said, "what do we do now?"
She looked back at him with surprise. "What do you mean?"
"Just what I said," he replied, a little surprised to hear uncertainty coloring his voice despite his best efforts to control it. "What are we going to do? We spend lots of time together, Amanda, but we're usually working, or talking about work. There's always something to do figuring out a case, tracking down a KGB agent, defusing a bomb, getting you out of trou--"
He caught the look in her eye and realized that he had, once again, spoken without thinking first. Not wanting to head back into dangerous territory, he backtracked slightly. "We're going to be cooped up together for at least the next couple of days." He paused and looked back at her with a concerned frown. "I'll go crazy if I have to just sit around here and do nothing. So what are we going to do?"
"I suppose," she said, her lack of comprehension clear in her face, "that we'll just spend a normal weekend together."
"That's just it," he blurted out. "The last time I had a free weekend, I went to St. Croix. Somehow, I don't think that's what you have in mind, and even if it is, our friends out there in the hall wouldn't like it much."
"You've got one thing right, Scarecrow. Going to the Caribbean never crossed my mind." She looked at him with amusement. "But there are lots of other ways we can pass the time."
"Such as?" he asked doubtfully. With any other woman, he'd have known exactly what to do, but he couldn't let himself think of her in that way. But hadn't his thoughts already begun to turn that way? Sure, his plans for the weekend had been turned upside down. That couldn't be helped, but how could he forget about his attraction to Amanda if they were going to be in the same room all weekend? Just thinking of the next couple of days made him as nervous as a night alone in an unlit room.
"Well, look at the shelves there." Her voice caught his wandering attention, and he looked up to see her nodding at the bookcases on the opposite wall. "They've given us quite an assortment of games, and there are videocassettes, too. Today's Saturday, and that means movie night at the King house."
He smiled, thinking of the times he'd watched through the window as she and her family, unaware of his presence, had spent just such an evening together. "You almost make it sound exciting," he admitted.
"Well, it's probably no comparison to the entertainment you're used to," she replied, "but I think we'll be able to keep you from going totally stir crazy." She crossed to the shelf and pulled down a game box. "I know just how to start."
They were well into their second game of Trivial Pursuit when Hutchins arrived with lunch.
"Boy, I envy you," he told them as he set their trays on the table, away from the game board and pieces that littered one end. "What I wouldn't give for a nice, quiet weekend. That's one of the drawbacks of this job, isn't it, Mr. Stetson? It's so easy to get caught up in all the suspicion and intrigue that you can lose track of what's really important in life."
Lee wasn't sure how to answer. His job *was* his life, or at least a large part of it. He smiled back and changed the subject. "Why don't you just call me Lee?" he offered. "Or at least Scarecrow. I have a feeling that we'll be seeing way too much of each other this weekend to stand on formality."
"I'd like that, Mr. Stet . . . Scarecrow." The young man beamed his pleasure. "Oh, I was supposed to tell you. Dr. Kelford will be by in an hour or so to see how you're doing. Well . . . see you at dinnertime."
They finished the uninspiring lunch of sandwiches, potato salad, Jell- O, and iced tea quickly and returned to their game. A short time later, Amanda broke into a smile as her piece landed in the center of the playing board. "Aha! This is it, Stetson. One more question and I'll win again. What's the category going to be?"
Lee scowled at her in mock disgust. "Science and Nature," he proclaimed as he reached for the next card in the question box. He looked at it and began to smile. "Don't count your victories before they're won, Amanda," he said, a smirk on his face. "There's no way you're going to get this one."
"Lee, please. Just read the question so I can claim my win, okay?"
Before he could oblige, there was a knock at the door and Dr. Kelford entered the suite.
Nearly an hour later, Lee stared at the door as it shut with a soft 'click'. "I hate doctors," he said with quiet resignation.
"He's just trying to work this out," Amanda replied. "But he did have a lot of questions, didn't he?"
"It wasn't the questions that I minded so much," he responded somewhat sullenly. "It was everything else. He must have spent half an hour poking and prodding me. And all those samples why is it that doctors seem the happiest when they're coming at their patients with a needle in one hand?"
"Just part of the training, I suppose," she answered. "But at least it's good to hear that Mr. Mbuto isn't getting any worse. Whatever's making him sick seems to be under control for now."
"But they still don't have any idea what that is. We have no better idea than before what's happening, and Kelford still doesn't know if and when we'll be able to go home."
"We just have to have faith in him," Amanda said, laying a hand on his arm. He's the expert here. There's nothing you or I can do."
Lee suppressed the shiver that her touch summoned. "You're right," he agreed after a long silence. Determined to take her mind, and his, off the mixed news they had just received, he gave her his best smile. "So let's get back to the game, okay?" He put a hand on her back and guided her back to her seat at the table before taking his own. He picked up the game card, the smirk returning to his face as he looked again at her question. "Okay. Here you are: 'What did the ancient Hindus most often cut off of those who committed adultery?'" He sat back, watching with delight the parade of emotions that passed across her face: puzzlement, then concentration, and finally rosy pink embarrassment as the question finally sank in.
"Lee Stetson! How dare you make up a ridiculous question like that? They'd never put something like that into a family game. I don't believe you for a minute."
"Then read it for yourself," he gloated, turning the question side of the card to her so that she could do so.
"Oh, my gosh -- that is the question . . .. But I can't answer that," she cried. "There's no way I'm going to answer that!"
"If you don't answer it, you'll lose your turn," he teased. "And I'm only one question away from a win, too." He relented a little. "C'mon, Amanda. It's just a game."
She looked at him and blushed even more deeply. "All right, but you have to promise not to laugh, all right?"
"Cross my heart," he returned with a confident grin.
"Okay, then. There's only one thing I can think of, so here goes . . ." She paused, and he thought he saw something twinkle in her eyes. "It's gotta be their noses."
There was a dead silence. Lee looked at Amanda, then at the card, then back up at her again. His mouth hung open as he tried to form a coherent sentence.
"Gotcha!" she cried in delight. "You can't fool an old pro like me. Mother and I have spent many an evening at this game. I win again."
"I didn't know that I was playing with a hustler," he grumbled good- naturedly. "What's next?"
The afternoon passed in comfortable companionship. Soon it was evening, and Hutchins was entering the room dramatically, pushing the cart with their dinner.
He managed to make as big a production of laying out their meal as a waiter going for a big tip. He seated Amanda, then set their plates in front of them. "Grilled salmon, salad, and rice pilaf," he announced, removing the entr้es' covers with a flourish of his gloved hands and setting them to one side. "And, for dessert, apple cobbler."
"Mr. Hutchins," Amanda stammered, "there wasn't anything like this on the hospital menu."
"Let's just say that I had a little talk with the chef this afternoon," he admitted with a grin. "I thought it was bad enough that the two of you are cooped up in here, without having to eat the same old hospital fare every day. I hoped that you wouldn't mind the change." As he spoke, he walked back to the delivery cart, sneaking a quick glance toward the door as if he expected someone to be watching.
"I know that Dr. Kelford might not approve, so I didn't ask. But my grandma is of the opinion that a little wine can cure whatever ails a person, and she's one of the smartest people I've ever known. And the oldest." Hutchins produced a bottle of Beaujolais, two glasses, and a corkscrew from a box on the cart's lower shelf. "I hope you agree. It seemed to be the least that I could do." He paused and checked the table again. "Now, I'll be going off duty in a couple of hours, but I'll be back in the morning. Remember, if there's anything you want or need, you just let me handle it for you. I'll be right outside the door."
"I like that kid," Lee admitted after the door had closed behind Hutchins. "Remind me to buy him a drink when we get out of here, will you?"
"I'll do that," she responded, with a warm smile. "Now how about some of that wine?"
After dinner, they switched from games to the video collection. It was now late evening, and a smile flitted across Lee's face as he remembered how, each time Amanda had leaned forward to retrieve her wine glass or to urge Cary Grant on as the plot unraveled, she seemed to settle back just a little closer to him. Now, with Grant and Eva Marie Saint making their way across Abraham Lincoln's immense forehead, she was snuggled up against his side, her head leaning back against his shoulder. Forgetting to be nervous about her proximity, Lee closed his eyes in contentment.
Finally the credits began to scroll down the screen. "That was great," Amanda said, "but I think it's time for me to get to bed." She rose and turned to face him. "Thanks for a wonderful day, Lee. I'll see you in the morning."
He stood with her. "No, the thanks all go to you," he replied as he reached to take her hand in his. For all his original plans to get away from his partner for the weekend, he now was surprisingly reluctant for the evening to be over. He had a disconcerting urge to take her into his arms and hold her close. Instead, he ran his thumb across her knuckles. When he looked up at her, he saw the same enigmatic look that was on her face during their brief conversation after breakfast. Suddenly unsettled, he didn't know whether to back away or to come up with some excuse to keep her with him a little longer. Nervously, he let go of her hand and took a step back. "Well, uh . . . good night, Amanda. Sleep well."
He watched her cross the room and disappear behind the bedroom door. He found himself listening for the click of the lock, and when it didn't come, he was oddly reassured. He returned to the sofa and flipped the TV off.
He sat there for a long time, alone in the near-darkness, unconsciously shifting the remote control back and forth from one hand to the other. He knew that something was happening to him, but it seemed that his conscious mind refused to let him even try to make any sense of what it was. And it wasn't just this weekend, he admitted to himself. He'd felt the same way more and more often over the past few months. And now he'd begun to find his thoughts interrupted by the unexpected memory of a conversation . . . a smile . . . a touch . . . from his partner, always in association with that unsettling feeling. He felt defenseless and unwilling to take on this particular problem, and he wondered why that didn't bother him more. Finally, he gave up, returned the remote to its spot on the table, and went to bed.
Lee was up before Amanda the next morning. He approached her door, wanting to check on her, relaxing when he heard the running water; she was in the shower. He walked to the nearby window and looked out over the now-familiar view of the parking lot.
It had been a strange weekend so far, at least by his standards. If this quarantine hadn't shattered his plans, he'd have passed the time much differently. But of course, he wasn't with Giselle, and, if their earlier conversation was any indication, it seemed unlikely that he ever would be again. He shook his head, realizing that he didn't really care.
He supposed he shouldn't be surprised, considering some of the other changes that had been working their way into his life of late. Most obvious was the diminishing frequency with which he turned to his black books. He hadn't become a total hermit, but the appeal of his flamboyant social life seemed to be fading. He'd heard that his absence had become a topic of conversation among regulars at some of the D.C. nightspots he'd once frequented. He'd also heard that their general conclusion was that his absence was due to a new woman in his life, and that she must really be something, if she'd managed to keep Stetson grounded for this long.
He shook his head and leaned against the window with a frown. They couldn't have been more wrong. The recent lull in his social life wasn't because of any new woman. He'd just been too busy lately to pursue his normal activities. Sure, over the past couple of years he'd somehow developed the habit of driving by Amanda's house after a case, just to be sure she was okay. And yes, in the past few months, other evenings just might find him in that Arlington neighborhood, sometimes knocking on the kitchen window, more often just sitting in his car, watching.
He turned away from the window with an uneasy feeling and began again to justify his recent actions to himself. Yes, he had been checking up on Amanda more and more often. But that was only because of how much more they'd been working together. There were simply more occasions for him to be concerned about his partner, the same way he would be concerned about any other relative newcomer to this crazy business. And if he felt a little more solicitous about Amanda, he had a right, didn't he? After all, it was because of him that she'd gotten involved in all of this. It had been a long time since he'd admitted that she was more than 'just' a housewife, but he still felt responsible for her. It was nothing more.
His conscience wouldn't let him off that easily, and an unwanted thought came into his awareness. 'She intrigues you, Stetson.' With a resigned sigh, he had to admit that it was true. He was attracted to Amanda King, unintentionally but undeniably. He'd lately been focusing on her far more intensely than he cared to admit, and he couldn't seem to take the needed step back. Sure, the weekend he'd planned was supposed to get him back into the mood to return to his former circle of friends. But he hadn't really expected it to work. Things were changing rapidly, and he had the disquieting impression that it might already be too late for him to distance himself from Amanda.
His thoughts were interrupted when Amanda breezed into the room.
"Good morning, Lee. You're up early," she said with a smile. "How did you sleep last night?"
"It was one of the best night's sleep I've had in ages," he said, realizing that, for the first time in recent memory, he'd felt alert and refreshed when he'd first awakened. "Maybe this forced 'down time' is doing me some good, after all. How about you?"
"I'm great," she replied. "But I'm starving. Any sign of Hutchins yet?"
"Not yet. But since we ordered breakfast yesterday afternoon, he should be here shortly."
As if on cue, a knock sounded at the door and the young agent appeared, tray in hand. "Good morning! I hope you two are ready for breakfast."
The morning passed quickly, with conversation flowing easily as they returned to the games that they'd found the day before. They were interrupted only by lunch and Dr. Kelford's visit for their daily checkup. Again they endured the sample collections, vital sign readings, and general poking and prodding. There was no change in the state of their health, nor was there any real progress in the medical investigation -- Mbuto had begun to improve, but the medical mystery remained unsolved. So the quarantine continued.
After Kelford left they returned to their games, and before they knew it, it was early evening. "Dinner should be here soon," Lee said as he rose from the table. "With any luck, this will be our last night in this place. Let's try to do it up right, okay?"
They'd just finished putting the game away when the expected knock sounded. Hutchins breezed in, pushing a cart laden with dishes and tableware and began to set out their dinner.
He quickly retrieved the wine and glasses, then reached to the cart's second shelf and produced a small bag, which he handed to Lee with a wink. "That should finish it up," he said. With a nod to Amanda, he took his leave.
"Lee, what's going on?" Amanda asked as she surveyed the table. "This looks even better than last night's dinner."
"Amanda, you've been a lifesaver this weekend," Lee explained, standing close enough to take both her hands in his. "Even when I lost my temper the other night, you kept your cool. I don't know what I'd have done, locked up like this all weekend, if it hadn't been for you."
"What are you talking about?" she asked. "I didn't do anything."
"You may not think so," he replied. "But you showed me a whole new way to unwind, and I wanted to find a way to say thank you." He gave her a smile and gently squeezed her hands, allowing himself to drift for a while in the warm brown depths of her eyes.
"So that's what you were talking with Hutchins about earlier," Amanda said, nodding her head thoughtfully.
"I couldn't do it alone from here," he admitted, "so I asked him to help me out. I gave him some general guidelines, like telling him that dinner was to come from Spencer's, but the specifics were all up to him."
Her eyes lit up. "And what about the bag he handed you?" she asked. She reminded him of a small child at Christmas, and he wondered why he'd never before done anything like this. She was so easy to please, and the return -- that smile could light up the darkest night.
"Just a little something for later on." He smiled at her obvious curiosity as he let go of one hand and guided her to the table. "Now, are you ready for dinner?"
He watched her as they ate, studying her until her eyes dropped and her cheeks glowed. For all the time they'd spent together over the past two years, they'd had little opportunity to just be together, without the distractions of work or family. If anything, he'd been avoiding just such a situation. Now, forced into close proximity to the woman he'd been avoiding, he found it increasingly hard to keep his guard up. And increasingly hard to remember why he needed to.
After they had finished, Lee escorted her to the couch. "All right," he said, reaching for the small bag that Hutchins had given him earlier and smiling to himself as she eyed it curiously. "Let's see what else we have for the evening. This was the hard part of his 'assignment'," Lee confessed. "There wasn't anything else in the hospital's tape collection that seemed right, so I told him what we watched last night and asked him to find something in the same vein."
"And what did he come up with?"
Lee pulled the tape from the bag and smiled. "I'd say that Hutchins has a pretty good sense of humor. Tonight we're going to see 'Charade'."
Amanda leaned in to see the box. "Oh, look! Cary Grant again," she said with delight. "And Audrey Hepburn."
"One of the classic mysteries of the 60's," he confirmed, slipping the tape into the player as she brought their glasses and the remainder of the wine to the coffee table in front of the couch. He sat next to her, picking up the remote as he asked, "Mystery, intrigue, spies, romance . . . Have you ever seen it?"
"Once, I think, but it's been years," she said, refilling their wine glasses. "I don't think I remember the plot line at all . . ."
"Well, then, you're in for a lot of surprises," he promised. He hit the play button, then settled back into the couch cushions and accepted the offered glass.
As the movie played, Lee found it hard to concentrate on the plot. His mind kept wandering to his partner, sitting enticingly close beside him. From the beginning, he'd never intended to think about Amanda as anything other than partner and friend. Why did it now seem that she was so much more?
He was still pondering that mystery when the movie ended. Looking down at her, sitting within the protective circle of his arm, he was caught between the desire to stay where he was and the familiar need to move away from her quickly, as though the moments of closeness had never happened. He compromised by leaning forward to shut off the TV, easing back from her a few inches when he returned to the sofa. Amanda, looking as confused as he felt, also took advantage of the break to shift toward her own end of the couch.
There was an awkward silence, finally broken by Amanda's, "At least you didn't use a different name every time we met." She laughed. "And you did tell me that you were an 'intelligence operative' that first day we 'officially' met. At the costume party, I mean. Other than that, I'd have to say that the movie was pretty believable."
"You're right," Lee agreed, relieved that she had found a neutral topic. He didn't care to dwell on the romantic subplot. Such a thing couldn't happen, right? Not in 'real life'. Certainly not in his life.
"For the most part anyway." He hesitated. He hadn't intended to start down this path but was now unable to keep himself from continuing, despite the warnings his brain was telegraphing throughout his body. "But I don't really buy the romance stuff. Things just don't happen like that except in the movies."
"You might be right," Amanda replied. "But you never can tell."
He realized, not for the first time, that he was on a very treacherous slope. He'd hoped that Amanda would give him a lifeline - - something, anything to help convince himself that this growing attraction toward her was nothing to worry about. Instead, he had the novel impression that she might even reciprocate the feeling and the nearly unbelievable feeling that he hoped that she did. What was he supposed to do now?
He was staring, but she didn't seem to notice. "I'm afraid I'm going to be a party pooper," she said, hiding a yawn behind her hand. "All this relaxing is making me tired. I'll see you in the morning, all right?"
"Wha . . . ? Oh, uh, yeah. Sure thing," he said, rising and extending a hand to help her up. "Sleep well. Maybe tomorrow we'll get to go home." Without thinking, he surrendered, at least in part, to his fantasy and gave her a quick good night hug.
She returned the hug, holding him close for a few brief seconds before pulling back to wish him a good night. "I sure hope so; I miss my family. Good night." The bedroom door closed quietly behind her, and Lee was alone again. No late night musings tonight, though. This evening was one to be savored, not analyzed. It was time to just enjoy the feelings for a change. He turned out the lights and entered his bedroom, still smiling to himself.
He'd not been asleep for long before the ringing of the telephone awakened him. It was Kelford, with good news for a change. They had confirmed that Mbuto was suffering from a new strain of dengue fever, dangerous in its own right, but not one of the more deadly viruses also endemic to his part of the world. He would recover, and since the disease could only be transmitted by an insect bite, Lee and Amanda were in the clear. They could go home anytime they wanted.
He shrugged into his robe and crossed the dark living room to stand at Amanda's door. He listened for a moment, then softly knocked, but there was no answer. Without thinking about what he was doing, he quietly opened the door and peeked in. A faint light from outside partially illuminated the room, and he could see her sleeping, curled up around a pillow, with a serene smile on her face. He caught his breath at the sight. He knew all too well that his partner was attractive, but sometimes, when he least expected it, her beauty overwhelmed him.
He let his eyes linger on her for several long minutes before slowly and quietly closing the door. It was late, and she looked utterly contented in her sleep. He wouldn't wake her tonight; Doc Kelford's news could wait until morning.
Lee awakened early the next morning, eager to share the good news with Amanda but sad to see the weekend come to a close. He knocked on her closed door and waited a few moments until it opened partway and she stuck her head out.
"What is it, Lee?" she wanted to know. "I was just getting up." She opened the door a little wider, tightening the belt of her blue terrycloth robe. The lace collar of her nightgown peeked at him from between the robe's lapels, and Lee couldn't help but smile.
"It's over, Amanda," he told her. "It's safe for us to go home. Doc Kelford called last night with the news. I suppose I should have told you then, but it was really late, and you were already sound asleep."
"Oh, that's okay," she replied with a look of delight. "Just knowing that we can leave is the important thing. The boys will be leaving for school soon, and Mother's bridge group meets on Monday morning, so I wouldn't have been able to see them until later today in any case." She broke into a grin. "Give me a minute to call Mother and get dressed, and then I'll be right out."
Breakfast was a festive event that morning. Hutchins, now dressed only in street clothes, appeared a short time later, whistling as he rolled the cart into the room. "Good morning," he greeted them cheerfully. "How does it feel to be free?"
"Better than you could imagine," Amanda answered. "It'll be a relief for things to get back to normal." She looked at the eager young agent with a smile. "And it's nice to finally see what you look like."
"I'm just glad that it's all over now," Hutchins replied. "Listen, I've gotta go to the Agency for a couple of hours, but I'll be back after that to take you both home. That should give you plenty of time to enjoy breakfast before you get packed and ready to go. Okay?" At their nods, he continued. "Then I'll see you around 11." With a final wink at Amanda and a nod to Lee, he left them on their own.
An hour later, Lee sat alone in the living room, waiting for Amanda to finish her preparations. He stared through the window, watching the clouds drift by overhead and found himself pensively replaying scenes from the weekend in his mind.
Who would have thought that the Scarecrow could find such contentment in a weekend spent playing games and watching old movies? And with his partner, not one of the buxom bombshells with whom he previously had been inclined to spend his nights and weekends. He pursed his lips and gave a humorless chuckle. He couldn't imagine many, if any, of his former lady friends enjoying such pastimes. He knew that they were after him for the same reason that he pursued them, and it wasn't for their intellectual or conversational abilities.
What was it that Hutchins had said? Something about getting so caught up in the job that you forget what's really important. Two days ago, Lee would have strenuously disagreed with him; now he wasn't quite as sure of himself. The real difference between this weekend and any other, he finally determined, was that his companion had been a person, not just a body to satisfy his libido.
He had thought he knew Amanda King pretty well. After all, they'd been working together for nearly two years. And she was his best friend. But the time spent with her this weekend had made him realize that there was far more that he wanted to know. For so long he'd fought to keep himself emotionally distanced from her, and he'd succeed, at least in part. His brain was still fighting the battle, more or less. But while he'd worked so hard to stay intellectually detached, something unexpected had happened: totally without his knowledge or permission, she had found her way into his heart. There was no point in trying to go back now, even if he'd wanted to. It just might be time to drop some of the barriers, to explore the attraction, to really get to know her.
"Lee? Lee, is anything wrong?" Amanda's voice broke into his reverie.
"Hmm? No, everything's fine," he answered, a little embarrassed. From the look on her face, it wasn't the first time Amanda had called his name. "I was just thinking."
"Must've been something important," she opined. "You were a million miles away."
Opting not to respond to that comment, he turned to face her. "All ready to go home?" he asked.
"You bet," she replied happily. "And I suppose you're ready to get back to your version of a normal life, too. I'll bet you were bored to death all weekend."
She looked surprised when, before answering, he took both her hands in his and smiled down at her. "Not by a long shot," came his soft reply. "Thank you again, Amanda," he continued a moment later. "You turned a potential disaster into a weekend that was more enjoyable than it had any right to be." He gave her hands a gentle squeeze as she looked up at him, her expression an endearing mixture of wonder and hope.
She dropped her eyes. "I had fun, too," she admitted sheepishly, working her eyes slowly upward until she was looking at him again. He felt his heart speed up when her eyes met his; it was all he could do to keep from leaning in to her. "And I " She was interrupted by a knock at the door.
Lee reluctantly let go of her hands. "Come on in, Hutchins," he called with a heavy sigh. "We're ready to go."
The young man stepped into the room and, spotting Amanda's bags, picked them up and gestured her out the door. Lee followed close behind them as they walked to the elevators. Amanda looked back once and gave Lee an apologetic shrug, then turned her full attention back to Hutchins.
'What was she going to say?' he wondered. 'She almost seemed relieved to be interrupted.' He watched her lively conversation with Hutchins. He wasn't the only one who knew how to pull away when things started getting uncomfortable. He had to smile at the irony of the situation. Usually, *he* was the one putting obstacles in *her* way.
So they wouldn't talk today. The thought hit him like a glass of cold water to his face. He didn't want to talk. Did he? No, of course he didn't. And even if he did . . .
He had slowed his steps and now watched as she and Hutchins entered the elevator. So maybe they would talk; how else was he supposed to find out just *who* his partner really was? But it was still too soon. He needed a chance to get a little more comfortable to this radical idea. "Not yet, Amanda King," he whispered, "but soon." The corners of his lips edged up in a smile that projected more confidence than he felt. "Soon."
Several weeks later
He turned onto Lee Highway after what may have been the best evening of his life his first dinner with Amanda, alone, just the two of them, without any shop talk. He thanked his lucky stars that he'd finally found a way to take that next important step in their relationship. After they were released from their quarantine, he'd had every intention of finding an opportunity to speak with her. But, once they were back among familiar people and places, it had been all too easy for him to slip back into old habits. His habitual self-protection instincts had come back to life, and he'd found one reason after another not to act on his earlier resolve to get to know his partner better.
As he crossed the Key Bridge, he thought about the worst part of it -- the whole Leslie fiasco. At first, he hadn't even known what he'd been doing. It wasn't until he'd seen them side-by-side, until he'd called her by Amanda's name, that he had finally realized that he'd been trying to create a surrogate Amanda. He shook his head now, still not really believing that he'd been so foolish.
At least it had given him the kick in the pants that he needed to approach Amanda. Asking her out this afternoon at the marina had been one of the hardest and most important things he'd ever done. And thank God she had been as forgiving as ever. After the last few days, he'd not been at all certain that she'd be interested in spending any more time with him. He needn't have worried, he now knew. The look in her eyes had told him everything he'd needed to know.
Pulling into an empty space down the block from his apartment, he let his thoughts return to Leslie one last time. He'd almost felt guilty when he'd told her this morning that he'd not be seeing her again, but she'd acted as though she'd been expecting it. On her way out of the apartment, she'd said that she'd known that he'd only be around for a little while; men like him never put down roots. Then she'd stopped and looked at him appraisingly before continuing, "Well . . . hardly ever."
Putting down roots not an image that his friends and co-workers would associate with the Lee Stetson they knew. But tonight he felt like a whole new person, and it seemed that the only one who knew him was Amanda. Putting down roots? Not him, at least not just now.
He exited the car and headed for his front door, a grin across his face. "But maybe someday . . ."