Past Tense

Lee Stetson was not the sort of man to whistle while he worked. He'd always taken his job – and frankly everything else in his life – very seriously. Yet the notion of the intense, handsome operative suddenly breaking out into a sprightly tune was not quite as absurd now as it would once have been.

He was in a particularly good mood as he guided the 'vette into its accustomed place in the parking lot at IFF. He'd been uncertain about the recent move to the Q Bureau, but quickly discovered the new role fit him like a glove. True, it didn't entirely excuse him from the more mundane aspects of the agency's work – he'd just spent two hours in a typically tedious security briefing at the Capitol – but the cases he was working now were challenging and rewarding.

On his way out of the briefing, the director of the president's security detail had pulled him aside to commend him on the success of a recent case, a particularly tricky operation that had accomplished the defection of an important Kremlin official. Lee was proud of how he and his partner had thwarted the KGB's best efforts to retrieve their man. He looked forward to sharing the director's praise Amanda over lunch.

Amanda. The thought of her brought a smile to his lips and lightened his steps as he hurried into the building. She'd been a whirlwind over the past weeks, organizing the cluttered Q Bureau into a workable, almost cozy, office. This morning she was tackling the last of the stuff carried up from his old desk space, a box full of old file folders he'd been tripping over for God knows how long.

"Hello, Mrs. Marsden!" He greeted the stern gatekeeper brightly as he headed toward the closet-elevator.

"Ahem," the ever-vigilant woman responded, even more dourly than usual.

Lee paused in mid-stride and glanced back over his shoulder. "Wallflower."

Mrs. Marsden nodded curtly and pressed a button under her desk. Lee heard the click of the closet door unlocking. He opened the door, pushed aside the motley collection of hanging garments that disguised the elevator and glanced at his watch as the car began to move. 11:15. He'd just stop by Billy's office to report on the security briefing, then head to the Q to pick up Amanda. Perhaps they'd forgo their customary chili cheese dogs and take a leisurely lunch at a nice restaurant today, his treat. They were entitled to celebrate, Lee decided. After an admittedly rocky start, he and Amanda had evolved into a seamless team. Now, after more than two years together, he honestly couldn't remember how he'd gotten along without her.

Sauntering into the bullpen, Lee was immediately aware of faces behind desks swinging toward him – and their expressions ranged from grim to downright hostile. Puzzled, he scanned the room and locked eyes with Francine. She scowled and shook her head slightly before turning back to her work. Just then Billy stepped out of his office, a file folder in his hand. He caught sight of Lee and his expression darkened.

"Scarecrow. My office. Now!"

Lee Stetson, who had faced down more merciless killers than he cared to remember, felt his guts tighten at Billy's tone. He didn't know what he'd done … but he knew it wasn't good.

Lee pushed Billy's office door closed and sat down in the chair opposite a clearly seething Mr. Melrose.

"What's going on, Billy?" Lee was genuinely bewildered by his boss's steely demeanor.

Billy picked up a letter from his desk and shoved it toward Lee. "Care to tell me what you did to provoke this?"

Lee leaned forward and picked up the letter. It was typed on agency stationery and its message was brief and pointed:

"Mr. Melrose:

Please accept this as my formal resignation from the Agency, effective immediately. I would ordinarily provide two weeks' notice, but under the circumstances I hope you will understand that I would prefer to make a clean break today. I have very much enjoyed my time with the agency and hope that I have contributed something of value to this important work.

Thank you for the opportunity and your belief in me."

Lee stared at the signature, written in his partner's neat script:

Amanda King
Apprentice Agent

The color drained from Lee's face and he felt like he'd just received a sucker punch to the gut. He looked at Billy with wide eyes. "Amanda quit? What – why?"

"You tell me," Billy responded gruffly. "Obviously something upset her. And frankly, Scarecrow, that something is usually you."

Lee bristled slightly. It was true that his natural impatience occasionally created friction between him and Amanda. He'd been known to fly off the handle, bark at her out of reflex when he got frustrated or, as was more often the case, when she did something that put herself in danger and scared the hell out of him. But he always apologized afterward. And every time, Amanda would always duck her head shyly and say, "It's all right, Lee. I understand."

The crazy thing was, there had been a lot fewer of those moments lately. They'd been getting along great. He still worried – now more than ever, as a matter of fact – but he channeled that anxiety into an even fiercer determination to protect her.

"I swear to God, Billy, I don't have any idea what this is about," Lee protested, running a hand through his hair. "I saw her this morning before I left for the security briefing, and everything was fine." He studied the resignation letter again, irrationally hoping the words there would suddenly rearrange themselves to say something else – anything that might explain this. "We were going to lunch," he murmured quietly.

When he looked up again, he saw that Billy's expression had softened. "Well, obviously something happened between then and now," he said. "I didn't see Amanda before she left – she just dropped the letter in my inbox – but Francine said she seemed very upset."

"Upset?" Lee repeated the word numbly. "What does that mean?"

Billy hesitated in the face of Lee's evident concern. "She was crying, Lee."

Lee felt sick. Amanda crying? He had hardly ever seen her shed tears. There was the day he found her in her family room, grieving because she thought he'd been killed. And when he'd gotten her back in the exchange for Rostov. Then, more recently, he had seen her eyes brighten with moisture after he had slapped her while pretending to be a burn out. It had been inadvertent on his part – he'd meant to tap her cheek lightly, but had had just enough booze to affect his reflexes and his palm connected with unintended force. He'd seen the shock, the hurt in her eyes … and had been haunted by the memory ever since. Lee vowed then that he would never do anything to cause her to look at him that way again.

Yet here he was in Billy's office, hearing his boss tell him Amanda had been weeping over something everyone assumed he had done. But he hadn't! He scoured his brain for anything that might explain it … and came up empty. He got to his feet, clutching the letter in his fist, and headed for the door.

"Lee, where are you going?" Billy called after him.

His best agent didn't pause. "To find out what the hell is going on."

Lee fairly bolted upstairs to the Q Bureau. Apart from the fact that Amanda wasn't there, the place looked pretty much like he'd left it that morning. The box from the bullpen sat on the floor, though Amanda had removed a short stack of folders to sort for filing. One of them was open on the desk, its contents fanned out on the desktop. Lee rounded the desk and looked down at what she'd been working on .. and his already taut innards experienced another sharp twist.

"Aw, damn," he muttered, sinking into his desk chair. Well, now he knew what had upset Amanda. And it was his fault. His own stupid, thoughtless fault.

The memo was dated October 6, 1983. The typed letters were dark, as if the typist had pounded them out with force. There were plenty of typos, whole words x'd out. Everything about the document spoke to the author's anger and frustration. Lee recognized the memo, and remembered the emotions that prompted it. Though he knew perfectly well what it said, he couldn't stop his eyes from scanning the page, reliving the moment it was created.

DATE: October 6, 1983

TO: Dirk Fredericks, Internal Affairs

FROM: Lee Stat Stetson

SUBJECT: Amanda King

I wish to place into the official record my strong objections to being forced to work with a civilian non-operative, namely Amanda King. I believe this assigmnment is a punitive measure on the part of my supervisor, William Melrose. Mr. Melrose has taken issue with my somewhat unorthodox methods, and assigning me to babysit deal with Mrs. King is clearly an attempt to embarrass me and "teach me a lesson."

My reasons for not wanting to work with Mrs. King should be obvious. However, I will state them for the record:

1.She is an untrained scivillian with no experience in espionage. Although I understand that we often make use of civilians for low security operations, my caseload is clearly not of that type and Mrs. King's participation is inappropriate and stu ill-advised.

2.Mrs. King lacks the focous, skills and intellectual acuity required of an operative. She tends to ramble incessantly about inconsequential matters unrelated to the situation at hand. Her chatter is a distraction that compromises the safety and security of herself, other agents and the public.

3. Like many housewives, Mrs. King appears to have an active fantasy life. She has a romanticized, unrealistic view of intelligence work. I suspect she may suffer from damsel-in-distress syndrome and might put herself in hazardous situations in order to be "rescued" by myself.

4.Mrs. King's mind is illogical. Her personality is flightly. And while I have no doubt of her patriotism and personal integrity, she lacks the mental and physical toughness critical to intelligence work. In short, while I'm sure she is a highly competent Cub Scout leader and PTA bake sale organizer, Amanda King has no business in our business.

Given these facts, I trust you will take the soonest opportunity to countermand Mr. Melrose's decision. I should alert you that Billy has just ordered me to recruit Mrs. King for another mission involving a weapons smuggling operation. I hope you will take immediate steps to prevent the necessity of further association with Mrs. King.

LS

Lee snatched up the old memo and tore it in half, then tore those pieces in half again. Next he wadded the whole thing up and hurled it into the wastebasket. Then he gave the wastebasket the swift kick he would have liked to have administered to himself. Finally, he sat back in his chair and ran his hands over his face. He'd really done it this time. Now how was he going to make it right?

Lee Stetson steered his prized corvette around the corner of Maplewood Drive for the 15th time. He told himself he was waiting until it was late enough that Philip and Jaime would be in bed and Dotty would be in the tub – Amanda had told him of her mother's nightly bubble bath ritual – but deep down he knew he was stalling. He'd spent the whole afternoon and into the evening trying to figure out how to face his partner. What would he do if she started to cry again?

She'd once noted that he was more afraid of tears than bullets, and he had to admit it was true. Especially Amanda's. The sight – hell, even the thought – of her in any kind of pain knotted him up inside. He sighed as he turned down Amanda's street yet again. When had his mission to keep her safe transformed into an equally strong need to make her happy? How had the promise of her warm smile, the sight of her beautiful brown eyes shining up at him, become the most important part of every day? And what would he do if he never saw her look at him that way again?

It had grown quite dark, and Lee reluctantly pulled the 'vette to the curb halfway up the block from 4247 Maplewood. His heart was doing flipflops as he made the familiar, stealthy approach to the house, skirting the garage to get to the backyard. Stepping into the shadow of the shrubbery outside the kitchen window, he peeked over the sill. As expected, neither the boys nor Dotty were to be seen. Amanda was on the couch in the family room. A novel lay open on her lap, but she wasn't reading it. Instead, she was staring into space with an expression of such bleakness that Lee almost turned tail and ran. He knew he was the reason for her anguish, and he would rather have faced a KBG firing squad than see those sad eyes turned on him. But he knew what he had to do. Taking a deep, trembling breath, he rapped gently on the window.

Instantly she snapped her head in his direction. The sadness he'd expected was there … for a second. Then it was replaced by an icy glare that startled him so that he reared back from the window, nearly tripping over the rhododendrums. Regaining his balance, he looked in the window again and saw her staring determinedly into her book. He tapped again. She ignored him. He tapped a little louder. He saw one shoulder twitch slightly, but she didn't look his way.

Feeling slightly desperate, he grabbed hold of the casement of the window and, to his astonishment, found it was unlocked. He pushed up slightly, opening a two-inch crack into which he inserted the lower part of his face.

"Amanda! Psst! Amanda!"

She turned then, a look of disbelief and anger on her face. Dropping the book next to her on the couch, she jumped to her feet and headed for the window, gesturing vehemently for him to leave. He stood his ground as she reached the sink and leaned in close to the window.

"Are you crazy? Get out of here!" she hissed.

"You really should keep these ground floor windows locked," Lee whispered back, trying to sound genial. "I could be a dangerous prowler."

"Frankly, I'd rather you were a prowler. Go away, Lee. I don't want to talk to you."

He shook his head. "Nuh uh. I want – I need – to talk to you, Amanda." He fixed her with his most charming smile. "So either you come out here, or I'm coming in through this window."

Lee felt a sudden glimmer of hope as she leaned in even closer. Then she grabbed the window frame and pushed heavily downward. He barely had a chance to pull his fingers away as the window slammed shut. She reached up and quickly turned the latch. Then, giving him a triumphant look, she turned on her heel and stalked back to the couch.

Lee was flummoxed. He had no idea what to do next. Of course he could break in, or pick the lock on the back door. But both he and Amanda knew he would never disrespect her in that way. He was stuck. So he did the only thing he could think of: he just stood there, looking in at her.

Minutes passed. Lee could tell Amanda knew he was still there by the increasing tension in her shoulders. He saw her sneak a quick glance once or twice. Finally, with an exaggerated show of exasperation, she tossed her book aside again and got up. This time she didn't head for the window, but rather the back door. He was waiting for her when she stepped outside.

"This is ridiculous," she said, folding her arms and staring him down. "I want you to get out of my backyard, Lee. I have nothing to say to you."

"Please, Amanda," he pleaded, his eyes taking on the familiar puppy look that had never failed to melt her in the past. "I know you saw the memo, and I want to explain. Just hear me out."

"Not this time, buster," she retorted. "And don't even bother with your patented charming act. I'm really mad at you."

"I know." His voice was soft. Regretful.

"And I have a right to be angry, Lee." Her voice continued firm, but had lost just a bit of its edge.

"Yes, you do." His tone was even lower, and oddly thick. He had prepared himself for her tears, but this coldness shocked him. Scared him.

"Fine. Say what you came here to say, then go."

Having gained this new ground, Lee suddenly quailed. He looked down at his shoes. "Um … could we maybe … sit?" He gestured feebly toward the picnic table.

Amanda sighed, but walked to the table and sat down. He took a seat across from her.

"Amanda …" he began, then stopped. He found he couldn't look into her gaze, so sharp now with resentment. Instead, he fixed his eyes on his own hands moving restlessly on the table.

"I know what you are going to say, so let me save you the trouble," Amanda said suddenly. "I'm so sorry, Amanda. I didn't mean it, Amanda."

"I did mean it," he murmured, not looking up.

Amanda didn't respond immediately, but he heard her breath catch in her throat. After a moment she placed her palms on the table and pushed herself up from her seat. "Well, I guess nothing more needs to be said, then," she stated flatly. "I was right to submit my resignation this morning. Obviously we can't work together any more ... now that I know what you really think of me." She started to turn, but Lee's hand snaked out and covered her right hand on the table.

"Please don't go," he said, raising his eyes at last to meet hers. The hurt he saw there now, the pain that she had masked with anger, caused the fingers he curled around her palm to tremble slightly. "I need you to know why I wrote that memo, Amanda. What it meant back then. What it means now."

She sank down again, and now it was her turn to avoid his gaze. "I understood you didn't want to work with me back then, Lee. And I knew you thought I wasn't cut out for agency work. But I had no idea you thought I was so … so …. stupid and useless." She looked up again suddenly, a blaze of defiance returning to her eyes. "I'm not stupid, by the way. I had a 3.94 GPA in college, and aced Advanced Calculus my senior year." She tilted her chin slightly. "And maybe I do ramble sometimes, especially when I'm nervous. But it's just my way of thinking things through. And as for fantasizing about being rescued by some sexy secret agent-" Lee observed a flush rise on her cheeks at this – "Well, maybe I did have some wrong ideas about spies and agents and all that stuff in the beginning. But you cured me of those notions pretty quickly, Mr. Stetson."

Lee waited a moment. Then he said, "Are you finished?"

Amanda hesitated a minute, seemingly playing over the contents of the memo in her mind. "I guess I … wait. No! I'm not finished! I also want to say that you might snicker at leading a cub scout troop or managing a bake sale, but those things take a lot of hard work and organizational skills, and judging by the mess your apartment and filing system are in, I'm pretty sure you couldn't handle either one." She paused to allow her breathing to return to normal. "There," she said finally. "Now I'm finished."

Lee looked at her, the slightest hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. But his eyes were sad. "Amanda, I do know all those things about you. I know how incredibly smart and insightful you are. I know that at the end of every ramble something important it likely to come out of your mouth, probably something that's going to break a case wide open. I know that you're able to juggle a hundred different things at once - running a household, raising your boys and somehow keeping me in line, too."

His smile widened a little, assumed a tenderness as he studied her delicate features. "I also know some other things that weren't in that memo. Like how brave you are. How loyal, and caring and strong. And the crazy part is-" He reached across the table to gently lift her chin with his index finger, bringing her gaze to meet his. "I already knew all those things when I wrote that memo, even though I'd only met you a few days before."

"Then why-" Her eyes were misted now, and he ached to see her hurt and confusion.

Lee used his free hand to rake through his hair. "Ah, Amanda. Back then I was … well, I guess I was a pretty angry guy. Mad at myself. Mad at Billy. Mad at the world."

"Because of what happened to your partner." Amanda stated it as a fact, not a question.

Lee nodded. "That ... and other things. The point is, here I was – this angry, prickly guy, and I just wanted to be left alone, you know? Just do my job without having to worry about anybody else's feelings or being responsible for them. But good 'ol Billy just kept pushing my buttons, trying to shape me up." He shook his head ruefully. "Did you know that he tried to pair me up with three different agents before we met? None of them lasted a week. Fred Felder even threatened to quit the agency if he had to work with me one more day."

"Three? Oh, my gosh!" There was a hint of amusement in Amanda's voice and Lee felt a glow of warmth spreading in his chest at her tone.

"Yeah, well," he shrugged. "Let's just say I wasn't in the running for Co-Worker of the Year. Then, just when I thought I'd got it through Billy's thick skull that I worked best alone, he goes and saddles me with this nice little housewife from Virginia. Man, I thought I was the most put-upon guy in the world."

Seeing Amanda's face begin to fall again, he gave her fingers a squeeze. "I didn't realize it then, Amanda, but I do now. The real reason I was bitching and moaning about working with you is because … well … somehow I knew you were going to get under my skin. Break down all those defenses I spent years putting in place, and … it scared me. I guess I thought if I chased you off, too, I could just keep on hiding, playing the Lone Wolf."

"Oh, Lee." Amanda turned her palm and entwined her fingers in his. Then, wonder of wonders, her eyes softened with that light that always stopped his heart. "You can be such a big dummy sometimes," she laughed, shaking her head.

He joined in her laughter, feeling slightly giddy with relief. "I guess I deserved that," he conceded. Then he grew serious again. "I want you to know that I never turned in that memo."

"You didn't?"

"Nah. I didn't get a chance to before we went on that assignment where we pretended to be married to flush out those weapons smugglers, remember?"

She nodded. "You mixed some really lousy daiquiris and made me sleep on the couch."

"Yeah." He grinned at the memory. "Anyway, by the time the smoke cleared, well … you were pretty good on that case-"

"Pretty good?"

"Okay, damned good. I guess I just forgot about the memo and it got shoved into a file, only to be-"

"-resurrected by me. Honestly, Lee! You see what happens when you don't take the time to deal with your paperwork?" she admonished.

And all at once she was smiling and he was smiling and all was right with the world again.

Lee fished into his jacket pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. "Unlike that sterling piece of prose, THIS memo really is going into the record." He handed it over to her, feeling a pang of loss when she pulled her hand out from under his to take it from him. She unfolded the paper and started to read:

TO: Billy Melrose

FROM: Lee Stetson

SUBJECT: Amanda King

I wish to place into the official record my sincere appreciation for the opportunity to work with Mrs. Amanda King as my partner over the past two years. As you know, her remarkable skills, insights and dedication have contributed to the desired outcome in many difficult cases, and I can honestly say I've also become a more effective agent through my association with her. I look forward to continuing that partnership in our new assignment to the Q Bureau. In fact, I don't believe I can be successful in this new role without her assistance and support.

LS

"I mean every word, Amanda," Lee said quietly when she finished. "You really have made me a better agent ... and, I think ... maybe ... a better man."

Amanda looked up at him, smiling in her shy way. "Aw, Lee. This is really very sweet." She reached over and poked him in the chest with her index finger. "Completely accurate and long overdue, but sweet."

They laughed together again, then hushed suddenly when a light snapped on above them. "Amanda, is that you?" Dotty's voice came from an upstairs window. "What are you doing in the backyard at this hour of the night?"

"Sorry, mother," Amanda called back. "I'll be right in. I was just chasing off a stray dog."

Lee looked at her with feigned indignation, then got to his feet. "Guess that's my cue to hit the road," he whispered. "See you tomorrow?"

She nodded. "I'll be in about nine to finish that filing." As he started to leave, she caught his sleeve. "By the way, Mr. Smart Guy, just what was your GPA in college?"

He looked sheepish. "Um … 2.25. And I flunked basic algebra. Twice."

As he sidled into the shadows at the back of the yard, he heard her call softly after him.

"You're darned lucky to have me, Stetson."

He paused and looked back at her, hoping she could see his trademark wink. "Don't I know it."

Moments later, as he strolled toward the waiting 'vette, Lee Stetson was astonished to discover he was whistling.