Mission of Gold Filler

A Sixth of a Second

"Mission of Gold" Filler

by Amy Hull AmilynH at comcast dot com


Lee stretched as he got out of the car, relishing the sound of the waves. He smiled at Amanda as she, too, stood. The peaceful sounds helped him further shed the vigilant instincts that kept them alive amongst the dangers of their jobs. Normal. They would, for the week, be normal. Normal newlyweds, normal people. Normal.

"Get down!"

"Amanda! In the car!" Lee's gun was in his hand almost before he could draw breath, his training reasserting itself as if the momentary reprieve were non-existent. He was urged into action as much by the shouted warning as by the high-pitched whir of a gunshot, silent to the general population, but all too familiar to an experienced agent.

He ducked quickly behind the car with Barney and another older man, managing to return a couple of shots. The irony of the moment was not lost on him; he'd come here to spend a normal, quiet vacation and lunch with an old friend, and instead was dodging bullets like it was a normal workday.

The volley of shots was over quickly, and Lee took a deep breath, stepping tentatively to where Amanda was still in the relative safety of the car. As he looked into the car, a band cinched itself tightly around his chest, seeming all the more restrictive to his adrenaline-sped heartbeat. All the air he'd drawn a second earlier seemed to escape with his murmured, "Oh, my God." The breeze quickly carried away the sound of his voice and any perception of the presence of the entity his words invoked.

The moment when he stood paralyzed, staring as the red stain on Amanda's sweater spread wider, lasted but a fraction of a second before he slammed the car door. "Call an ambulance!" he shouted in a ragged, panicked tone.

He felt as if part of him remained on the driver's side, staring, like he was observing someone else in slow motion. That other person was somehow on the other side of the car, jerking the passenger door open. The other him placed one hand firmly over Amanda's wound, and he was terrified it would hurt her. He was more terrified when she remained unresponsive.

Amanda moaned, bringing his attention back to her side, to where his hands were covered with her blood. He looked up to see her eyes wide, pinkish bubbles forming at her lips. She blinked, her expression caught between confusion and pain as she said, "Lee...wha-- ...Hurts..." Her voice was high-pitched, pained, and weak, an unnerving contrast to the amused tones of only moments before. He tried to quiet her, the meaningless words of comfort that he murmured not penetrating even the first layers of the horror that was Amanda's life slipping quite literally through his fingers.

"Shhh. Don't try to talk. It'll be okay. You'll be fine. The ambulance is on its way..."

She whimpered and one of her hands feebly tried to push his away as he pressed futilely against the wound, her chest moving frantically as she struggled for air. He cursed himself for wishing her into consciousness and this kind of pain. "You're going to be fine," he said again, noticing somewhat absently that fear had sharpened rough edges into his voice.

"Can't...breathe," she managed through taut lips, her strained voice unrecognizable, and threatening to rip away what little control he had left.

"I know. Help is on its way. You're going to be fine." His attempt at reassuring them both was born more of desperation than anything; he'd watched colleagues and enemies die of less mortal wounds, and the faces of those he'd been with at the end flashed unbidden to his mind, their wide-eyed surprise and pain far too much like Amanda's. "Hold on. Just...hold on, Amanda."

"Love...you," she gasped, those wide eyes catching his gaze and holding it fiercely.

"Don't talk. Save your strength. Hold on, Amanda. You're going to be fine." As her eyes drifted closed again, fear enveloped him and he began to shake. A chill permeated him to the bone, biting like the freezing rain the news had said was falling on D.C. They had congratulated each other on their mutual choice to spend their honeymoon vacation far from the nastiest weather the nation's capital had to offer. They had traded winter for this and the exchange, Lee thought, was far from even.

Hands pulled him away and he struggled briefly until the word "paramedic" pierced his mental fog. He stood back, watching as they lifted Amanda onto a stretcher. His breath caught as he got a glimpse of the red stain on the back of her white sweater, even larger than the one on her chest.

Time stood still and ran together. Amanda, a still form inside the car... Amanda, using precious energy and air to tell him she loved him... Amanda being loaded onto the ambulance... Amanda, her face obscured by an oxygen mask, pale and fragile as EMTs worked frantically, calling questions ahead to the hospital... Amanda, with blood staining her clothes... Amanda's blood on his hands... Amanda being whisked away amidst half a dozen doctors and nurses.

Then he was standing alone in the lobby of the tiny hospital, promised an answer "when we know something." The artificial light cast eerie shadows as the walls spun around him. The hospital smell merged with the green and orange of the chairs by the emergency entrance, blended with the clatter of carts. Suddenly a hand was on his arm and he shook it off instinctively. He looked and saw Barney's concerned eyes and moving lips. As sight, sound, and smell separated back into their compartments, he heard his name, although still from a distance.

"Lee. Come on. Let's get you cleaned up. Then we'll sit." Barney's quiet, gentle tone was the same one he'd used to coax a young Lee out of a storeroom on base, the one he'd used when he'd suggested Lee help in the mess hall, rather than go to school that day. He'd even effectively run interference with the Colonel.

Lee looked down blankly and saw Amanda's blood still on his hands. This was on his hands. She was in the hospital because he'd brought her here, brought her to sunny California, brought her to where she could get shot.

The hand had gently returned to his elbow and a soft voice urged, "Come on, Lee." Long ago Barney's practicality and kindness had been a welcome change from the Colonel's gruff demands, and for the years they had been stationed at the same base, Lee had always found comfort in Barney's presence. Somehow that familiarity offered no comfort now.

Lee moved mechanically along the hallway and into the bathroom. Prompted, he turned on the water and stared distantly at his shaking hands as the water flowed over them, feeling guilty for removing the visible sign that this was his fault. He dabbed at the few small splatters of blood on his jeans. How could his clothes have remained clean after so much blood?

Like an automaton, he followed Barney back to the waiting room, only vaguely and momentarily wondering how Barney had gotten to the hospital. He barely heard his friend's reassurances that Gus, which was apparently the name of the other man, had stayed with the car and their luggage and would talk to the authorities.

This was not how things were supposed to work out. He and Amanda were supposed to be sitting at Barney's, chatting casually about nothing in particular. This was supposed to be their honeymoon, filled with the joy of a newly-cemented relationship. Amanda was not supposed to be in surgery, not supposed to be shot, not supposed to be dying. He was not supposed to be feeling this all-too-familiar numb emptiness and raw fear.

Or maybe it was supposed to be like this, he suddenly thought. Maybe this was the wake-up call, the other shoe dropping, as it always did, to remind him that he was not allowed closeness, or love, or a comforting relationship. Maybe this was just his latest reminder that, no matter how he might try to pretend otherwise, there had been no three strikes and you're out deal with fate, there had been no reprieve after which he was excused from the table to which tragedy was served. He had deluded himself into believing that he could love someone safely, and Amanda was paying the price.

Her smile sprang to mind--the special smile, reserved only for him, but filled with the warmth and gentle optimism she shared unselfishly with everyone she touched. The image was overlaid, as were all his thoughts, with Amanda, still, ashen, and strained, her blood everywhere. It was going to be his fault when everyone lost that presence. His fault when two young boys lost their mother. His fault that Amanda's life would be cut short.

He stared at his hands, hands with the evidence of his guilt carefully washed away. The light reflected off the new ring he wore, and he twisted the tangible evidence that he had allowed Amanda to get too close, allowed her into the danger zone around him. Amanda's smile and her sympathetic eyes appeared again in his mind's eye, and he realized with surprise he was still hoping. He did not believe with utter cynical certainty that Amanda was going to die.

It was hope she had brought him, after all. And maybe, just maybe, if he still had hope, however tenuous, it also meant that he still had her. Perhaps it even meant that her capacity for hope was greater than his capacity for bringing death to those he loved.

"Lee?" Barney was shaking his arm. "Lee, they want to ask you some questions."

Lee looked up to see a scrub-clad young woman, holding a chart. She smiled nervously, "You came in with Amanda King, right?"

Lee stood quickly. "Yes. How is she?"

"Um, I don't know, sir. I'm sorry, I need to get information to complete her admission forms."

Lee nodded wearily.

"What is your relationship to Mrs. King?"

"I'm..." Lee glanced at Barney, then at his hands, where he saw both his guilt and his wedding ring. In a moment he had made a decision. Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew his Agency ID and said, "I'm her partner." His heart sank as he heard himself utter the words, words that had been long in coming, words that meant so much to them both professionally, but words that denied their new partnership, the one they were supposed to be celebrating here this week.

Pulling together a professional demeanor with practice and desperation alone, Lee pushed his feelings deep within himself, taking advantage of the numbness that shock was still lending him. He explained carefully the discretion with which the hospital needed to treat the reality of his and Amanda's profession.

Eyes wide at this unexpected turn in her day, the clerk nodded. She glanced at her clipboard. "What is Mrs. King's age?"

"Thirty-six," Lee replied automatically, taking brief comfort in the refuge of cold facts, simple information.

"Does she have any drug allergies?"

Lee frowned, trying to focus. "Um, no. I don't think she does. I already explained to the ambulance guys--"

"It's for the official charts, sir. I'm sorry. Any health problems or regular medications?" She waited, pen poised, not making eye contact.

"No." Couldn't this woman show a little concern? Lee was about to explode at the impersonality of the questions and the woman's all-business attitude. This was about Amanda, his wonderful, beautiful, smart, generous wife and partner. He wanted to tell the clerk all of this, and more, wanted to make her understand that Amanda meant far more than the data on an admissions chart, wanted the clerk to care about the person Amanda was, to have a stake in her recovery.

"Does she have insurance?"

Lee fumbled in his pocket and handed her his insurance card. "She's covered under the same provider."

"Any chance Mrs. King could be pregnant?"

Lee ran a hand through his hair as the professional fa├žade crumbled. "I suppose there's, uh, a chance, but I don't think--"

"We'll test just to be sure," the clerk said as she made notes.

Lee blinked rapidly, trying to reclaim his bearings.

"Religious affiliation?"

"Um..." Lee shook his head. "I don't know," he replied slowly, chagrined to find that such a seemingly basic piece of information was a topic on which they'd never touched in nearly four years of friendship, dead time on stakeouts, dating, and into a marriage.

The clerk looked up and nodded briskly. "All right. We just need for you to sign a couple of release forms for her surgery and anesthesia, and to leave permission to continue treatment. When her next of kin is contacted, we'll have them decide on any further releases that we may need."

I am her next of kin! Lee felt the muscle in his jaw clenching rhythmically as he forced himself to bite back the protest.

The clerk flipped pages, handed Lee her pen, and pointed to the line where he was to sign. He glanced at the paper without reading a word and scrawled his name. The clerk initialed as a witness, then flipped the page again. He was already signing when one phrase caught his eye, "and occasional death." His signature trailed off several letters from the end as he gaped at the phrase. He blinked. Blinked harder to ward off the tears that prickled in the corners of his eyes. Occasional death. She might die she might die might die might die...

"And here, sir."

He scribbled his name, barely glancing to see if it was even on the line. She might die. Amanda could die. "Is there..." Lee cleared his throat, attempting in vain to dislodge the lump past which he could barely breathe or speak. "Is there anything...?"

The clerk's efficient manner softened slightly and she touched his arm lightly. "Dr. Neely is operating right now. He's the best thoracic surgeon here." The woman smiled gently, then turned to walk away.

Lee reached toward her, "How long...till we know something?" he asked. He felt his formal mask slipping, felt the desperate pleading that must be visible in his eyes, that was furrowing his brow so deeply that his head ached.

She turned back with a sympathetic look, "I'm sorry, there's no way to tell. I'm sure they'll come and tell you as soon as they know something. No news is good news at this point. But we can only wait. And pray."

Lee nodded, not trusting his voice, and sat again. Amanda might die. Barney patted his arm, but remained silent, allowing Lee space. As he picked at the ugly beige of the chair arm, Lee wondered who had answered these questions when his parents had been brought to the hospital, or if they had been dead when they arrived.

It wasn't until this moment that he realized he didn't know many of the specifics about his parents' deaths. Little 4-year-old Lee Stetson hadn't understood when he was told by a distant, unfamiliar relative that his parents had had to go away, would certainly not have understood had he been told that they had died or how. He had thought for over two years--until he went to live with the Colonel--that if he was just good enough, they'd come back, or be able to come back. The Colonel had, not unkindly, disavowed him of that fantasy, and had expressed pride when his nephew had accepted reality without a tear. Lee remembered with startling clarity that moment shortly thereafter when he had realized that his parents were dead. Dead and not coming back. Gone. He had cried later that night, alone, and for many nights afterwards, as he had remembered large metal boxes, his own uncomfortably scratchy first tie, the cloying smell of too many flowers, a group of well-dressed strangers casting pitying looks at him that he was only beginning to understand nearly three years later.

Lee stood up suddenly, peering into the hallway, then circled the room a couple of times like a caged animal. He raked a hand through his hair and sat down again. It was the first of hundreds of times he would repeat this ritual over the next three and a half hours until even the young boy reading magazines while he waited with his mother started to look at him with irritation. Moments later he stood again and scooped a magazine from its place. He flipped through it, turning page after page, but seeing only the words "and occasional death" on every page. He tossed the magazine aside, and rose abruptly again.

"I'm going for a walk," he said over his shoulder.

Lee stalked out into the hallway, fear feeding his growing anger. It was not supposed to be like this. He was going to find whoever did this, he decided. He was going to make them pay. He shoved the door viciously out of his way and stormed outside, along the sidewalk and past the palm trees and other Southern Californian vegetation that Amanda was missing. The desolation tugged at him, and he punched at the air, growling.

He stopped several minutes later, in spite of the tantrum-strength energy still pushing for escape. He looked back at the hospital, made almost invisible by several blocks of traffic, buildings, and landscaping. He looked again at his wedding ring, twisting it gently. Maybe there was hope. If he could end up married, and married to someone like Amanda, someone so wonderful and so normal, maybe there was a chance that she would be fine. The breeze seemed, for a second, to whisper hope at him. "You're going to be fine," he had told her. He could say it for her, but could he believe it? Could he even pretend to? Could he sit in that wretched hospital without knowing until the doctors came out to talk to him? Just two days before, he'd promised to be with her "in sickness and in health". He'd meant every word, even if "in sickness" had come horribly quickly. He could not fail her, or betray those vows, at the first test.

He started to walk back, moving more quickly the closer he got. He was growing short of breath for reasons having nothing to do with the speed of his movement. What if they needed him for more release forms? What if they came out with news and he wasn't there? What if she was dying? He rushed full tilt back into the waiting room. "Did they...?" he asked breathlessly, almost before he was even across the threshold.

Barney shook his head and Lee joined him, feeling acutely conflicted. As some of the frantic fear that something terrible might have happened abated slightly, his frustration grew in the fact that nothing at all had changed, that there was no news. He tried to hear in his mind, "She's going to be fine," without hearing overlaid, mocking laughter, tried not to listen as another voice whispered, "She might die," like a scratched record, tried not to see the image of her pale and bleeding form as if it were burned into the backs of his eyelids. The minutes seemed interminable, each longer than the last, taunting him like a preview of an empty future stretching to infinite length without her.

He lost count of the number of times he'd lurched to his feet and paced the waiting room, the halls. The nurses learned quickly to look up sympathetically and shake their heads. He tried to let them do their work, tried not to interrogate them, tried to keep it to one question per trip, tried to keep the trips to one every ten minutes. Sometimes ten minutes was too long to sit.

It seemed he had lived several lifetimes of ten-minute intervals when a nurse finally came to say, "Mr. Stetson, Dr. Neely wants to see you."

Lee felt as if his stomach had dropped out of his throat to the floor, but still he bounced out of the chair like it had springs. He brushed his fingertips against his hands and felt them damp. "How is she? Is she all right?"

"Follow me, please," was all she would say.

Lee wanted to curse at the detached, almost bored professionalism with which the woman spoke, but he pursed his lips, too afraid to be angry.

"I'll be right here if you need me," Barney said as Lee followed the nurse.

Already his mind was jumping ahead to the worst case scenario. She's dead. She's dying. They'd answer me if she were okay. The paranoia and tension of the last several hours were culminating in his worst nightmare. He'd been beginning to believe she might, possibly, be all right; if they'd been operating this long without bad news, that must have meant she was holding on. But now...he was convinced there was only bad news, convinced the nurse would tell him if Amanda were all right. He briefly contemplated turning and running the other way, unsure if he could stand and hear someone tell him that Amanda was dead.

A door opened and the nurse slipped through as a man grabbed both of Lee's arms, stopping him before he could even catch a glimpse inside the room. Lee felt as if his heart might explode, and so much of it was lodged in his throat that he didn't trust himself to speak. He'd been so close...almost close enough to see her, and now they wouldn't let him in. Even if it was to see her body, he wanted it, wanted that time to say goodbye. It was a moment before the man's words penetrated the haze of worry that had built up around him like a bad weather front.

"Mr. Stetson, I'm Dr. Neely."

Lee blinked, still only able for a moment to focus on the door just past this man, on the fact that this man was standing between him and Amanda. The name finally broke through his defenses. Dr. Neely. The surgeon who was operating on Amanda. Had operated.

"Look, she's out of surgery, but I'm not going to kid you. We still have a long way to go." The doctor sounded tired but sympathetic.

A way to go. Lee slowly realized that this implied possible improvement. She's alive. She's alive. The doctor's not smiling. "She is going to be all right...isn't she?" he asked tentatively.

"The next forty-eight hours will be crucial. It's a miracle she's alive. The bullet went through her chest. A fraction of an inch either way and she wouldn't have had a chance."

Through her chest. A miracle. She's alive. A miracle she's alive now. But she could still die. "When can I see her?" he asked, hoarsely. He couldn't trust a second miracle. Hell, one was more than he remembered ever getting before.

"It's going to take a while. And there's nothing here for you to do. Get some rest, but leave your phone number. I'll call you. Please, Mr. Stetson." He looked sincere through the weariness that must have resulted from hours of surgery.

Lee wanted to argue, to push through the door and go to Amanda. He couldn't quite find the words to argue through the haze of shock that still surrounded him. He wanted to see her--anything to replace the image of her wide-eyed and bleeding in the car, of her pale and unconscious in the ambulance. He wanted to touch her, to feel for himself with certainty that she was still alive, but words wouldn't come. As much as he disliked doctors, he could only think that if this one was telling him to stay away, perhaps that was what Amanda needed right this minute. Maybe he would compromise her one chance if he didn't carefully follow instructions. Maybe if he just played by the rules, she would be fine.

"All right." He said unsteadily, feeling that his insides were going to shake themselves apart. More waiting. More uncertainty. He could do that somewhere other than this miserable hospital. If he couldn't see Amanda, maybe he could do...something.

Maybe he could pray for one more miracle.

He returned to the waiting room, stunned.

Barney approached him worriedly. "Lee?"

"She's alive. But it's touch and go; the next forty-eight hours will tell." Forty-eight hours. At least forty-eight more hours of this uncertainty. He didn't know if he could be this afraid--more afraid than he ever remembered being in his entire life--for forty-eight more hours. She's alive. She's still alive. A miracle. It was a miracle she was alive. He needed to get someone else to help pray for that second miracle. He barely heard Barney introducing the sheriff, whose presence he had noted just enough to acknowledge the need for a greeting. The sheriff had little to say, and Lee tried to be civil and attentive. He was, however, too preoccupied to attend to anything not directly about Amanda. "Barney, I have to make a phone call."

He stared at the receiver of the hospital pay phone for a long moment before he brushed his fingertips together and picked it up, punching in a number he could dial in his sleep. The phone was snatched up on the second ring.


"Hello, Mrs. West."

"Oh, Lee, is that you? It's so good to hear from you. And it's Dotty, remember?"

Lee smiled involuntarily at the scattered cheer that seemed to be Dotty's ubiquitous tone. Cheer seemed to be the prevailing tone at Amanda's house and amongst her family. He felt a sudden wash of grief at the thought that his chance to be a part of that family, even in the peripheral, voyeuristic manner that had marked the last three years, would end with Amanda's life. The awkward visits of the past few months had held for him the promise, the hope, that someday he might truly belong somewhere with that warmth. As Amanda's life ebbed, so did not only his connection to her, but the tenuous connection he had to her family. "Yeah, it's Lee." He took a deep breath, steeling himself against the pain he was going to cause, knowing that the words he was about to speak would spark a grief as great as his own.

"Oh, Lee, how are you doing? And how's that, um, vacation?"

Lee could see in his mind's eye the mischievous smile his words were about to wipe from his mother-in-law's face. "Well, I'm afraid I'm not doing so well right now." He swallowed hard, not sure how to proceed, hating that he had to be the one to shatter the comfortable security of the King home.

Dotty's tone went flat and dropped in pitch. "What's wrong?"

"It's Amanda. There's been an accident," Lee said, feeling a sharp twinge seize his chest, threatening to choke him.

Dotty's pitch rose again. "What kind of accident? Is she all right?"

Lee drew a deep breath again. "She's been shot," he said, struggling to maintain control as the muscles of his face twisted sharply.

"Oh, my God," she breathed.

"She's ...she's out of surgery, but...but the doctor said the next forty-eight hours are still crucial." Dotty had begun to cry, and he pressed on, listing facts to keep from joining her. "The bullet went straight through her chest. The doctor says if it had been a fraction of an inch either way... It's a miracle she's alive. They haven't caught the shooter...don't know why someone would..."

The fear Lee had known for the last hours seemed able to travel along phone lines, and Lee heard now-familiar strain and shock infused in Dotty's voice. "Oh, God. What am I going to tell the boys?"

They were both silent for a moment, then he said, roughly, "The truth. They deserve to know the truth, no matter how hard it is."

He could almost hear her nod slowly. "They're not little boys anymore, are they? Right. Lee, where can I reach you? I need to call Joe, get him to stay with the boys, get a plane ticket, and get out there. I need to call you with my plans, and I'll need to know where to take the cab," Dotty said, decisiveness audible even through her tears.

Lee was practically reeling; he hadn't had that many rational thoughts in total since Amanda had been shot. He knew better, though, than to even consider telling Dotty to stay home. Amanda certainly came honestly by her levelheaded calm in a crisis and her organized approach to problem solving. Lee cast off those thoughts. He wanted her back, but was afraid to endanger her chances by thinking about how special Amanda was, how important she was to everyone, how much she loved her sons, her mother, life, him--

"Lee?" Dotty's voice broke through his thoughts.

"I'm sorry, Mrs., uh, let me give you those numbers," he said distractedly.

She repeated the numbers for Barney's and the hospital, both of which he had already committed to memory. Her voice sounded strained, and Lee could hear the same tones Amanda used when she was sad or afraid. Odd how he'd never noticed how very many similarities Dotty and Amanda shared. He wondered briefly if he seemed to others like the Colonel, wondered how much he would favor his parents, how he might find he shared their mannerisms.



"She's going to be fine. Believe that," Dotty said firmly.

He swallowed and said softly, "I'm trying."

"I probably won't be there tonight; it's already after eight here. But you tell her, when you see her, that I love her, and that I'm on my way. Tell her that I know she'll be fine. And you, Mr. Stetson..." She paused, waiting for him to respond.


"You take care of my baby." Dotty's voice was thick with tears again.

"Yes, ma'am," Lee said, barely audible, but nearly smiling at the nurturing behaviors that Amanda and her mother shared. "I'll see you when you get here." He set the receiver into the cradle, staring at it for a long moment. Then he turned and walked back to the waiting room. "Barney, let's get out of here."


Lee set the phone back into its cradle on Barney's counter. He'd known of Billy's affection--older than his own--for Amanda, as well as of his tacit approval of Lee's relationship with her. He hadn't quite realized, though, the extent to which Francine's habitual sniping at Amanda had ceased to be serious until he heard the edge of genuine concern verging on fear in her voice. He leaned his forehead on his hand, then ran the hand through his hair.

"You all right, son?" Barney's voice pulled him out of his momentary reverie.

Lee could not decide if the endearment--not even the Colonel called him "son"--was a comfort, or if the kindness was merely an irritant threatening his composure. The sympathy inherent in Barney's words did not speak well of his belief in Amanda's recovery and seemed to somewhat threaten Lee's precarious hold on both his emotional control and his sliver of hope. He almost laughed at the rest of Barney's words. Was he all right?

"Yeah," he lied, smoothing his hair impatiently and standing back up. Yeah, I'm all right with the fact that my wife has been shot and might die. I'm all right with facing my worst nightmares. I'm all right with the fact that the one person I trusted enough to share her with could be responsible for destroying her.

"I'm sorry you had to walk into this, Lee," Barney said quietly.

"Well, just what did we walk into?" Lee asked, anger creeping into his tone. That anger built as he listened to the unlikely story of Gus Weinstein and gold doubloons. He felt his anger direct itself at Gus for stirring things up, at himself for suggesting even momentarily that someone should let a wrong slide, at Barney for being involved, then back at himself for failing to assess the scene rapidly enough to prevent Amanda from getting hurt. Finally, the majority of his fury began to point at Brockett for his illegal maneuverings, for employing a goon with a gun. His anger focused his mind, helping him don his professional mask more solidly, helping to stem the barrage of images of Amanda that had been haunting him for seven hours.

In his mind, he envisioned an Amanda, smiling and reaching out to help someone. Then he tucked her away, safely distancing her in his mind from the case. He shifted his weight and nerves and muscles too long tensed and stilled protested stiffly, begging for a task. If he had to stand or sit still or wait much longer, he was going to explode.

"Let's go," he said abruptly.

"Huh?" Barney stared incredulously.

"I can sit here and go crazy, Barney, or I can do something. Come on. Let's go!" He gestured for Barney to follow him with a quick jerk of a finger, already moving toward the door.

They found Gus at home, then went to a local restaurant, and the evening--what remained of it--passed in a whirl of information, planning, and organizing. Gus' information about Brockett increasingly convinced Lee that Gus had good cause to be investigating. As that certainty grew, so did his guilt for having wished Gus out of the situation. Lee had to admit that he identified with Gus; he could imagine himself or Amanda, still finding cases in the backyard when they were gray and retired. He ruthlessly cut off the voice in his head that tried to counter his image of him and Amanda old together. Hoping seemed somehow dangerous, as if expressing, even mentally, what he wanted might somehow give fate something else specific to take away. The fear reawakened the thought he had managed to still for a few hours. If...might die...if...might die...she might die... Lee twisted his wedding ring and rejoined the planning, talking over the voices until they were stilled.

As their planning wore on, the tiny kernel of fear that fed the litany in his mind returned with increased strength and volume. At some point Lee had remembered that he hadn't seen Amanda since she'd been wheeled away in a throng of scrubs and shouted orders. The fear gave birth to a frantic, irrational doubt. What if she wasn't all right? What if they'd lied to him? What if she'd taken a turn for the worse since they left Barney's? What if there were new complications and he couldn't be contacted? What if... These questions multiplied in number and frequency until the feeling that he was going to fly apart, such a constant during the wait at the hospital, returned, nearly overwhelming this time. What if they were trying to call?

He realized that his ability to immerse himself in Gus' story had expired; he had missed the last several sentences as they elaborated and plotted. Lee shook his head to clear it, then, without preamble, said, "We've done about all we can for now. I think I'm going to head back to the hospital." He rubbed his hands across his face as though he'd just awakened.

The older men nodded their agreement and exchanged an understanding glance. "Lee, let me drive you back," Barney volunteered.

Lee nodded as he stood. Their rental car had been, understandably, impounded as evidence, and he wouldn't want to drive it anyway. "I'll go to the bank in the morning when it opens, and then we'll see where we go from there," he said.

Once back in the car, Barney handed Lee Amanda's purse. Lee stared at it, hands shaking, then looked a question at his friend.

"We got it out of your rental with the rest of your things. I thought you might want to see if there was anything you needed," he explained briefly.

Lee slowly unzipped the bag, images flashing through his mind. Amanda walking confidently, purse slung over her shoulder. Amanda determinedly swinging a similar purse at a bad guy. Amanda dumping the contents of yet another purse onto the ground, looking for a pin to stop a bomb. He stared at the purse's contents, feeling that he was invading her privacy. Finally he reached for the wallet, looking through the photos of Phillip and Jamie growing up. He pulled out an old photo of Amanda with the boys when they were about three and five, and a copy of the photo of Dotty with the boys that was framed on the bookshelves at Amanda's house.

He fingered the photo of a younger Amanda; none of the recent photos in Amanda's wallet were of her. The faded colors proclaimed this one to be a product of the mid-1970s. She was squatting, with an arm around each boy, her long, straight hair obscuring part of her face as she looked off at whatever Jamie was pointing to out of the frame. Her wide smile and joy in her children and their discoveries was vibrantly clear, and heartbreakingly familiar. If she died, the boys would lose her, just as Lee would. Like he had lost his mother. The thought knocked the air from his lungs.

"Do you want company, son?" Barney asked as they pulled up to the hospital.

Lee looked up, startled to see they had stopped. He shook his head, tucked the photos into his pocket, and said, "No. I just want to sit with her alone." He had a sudden, awful image as he said those words, of sitting with Amanda's body to say goodbye. He immediately banished the thought, but glimpses of it continued to intrude on him. "Thanks, though." He stood, then set Amanda's purse back on the car seat. "You'll take care..."

"Of course. Call if you need anything."

Lee tapped the top of the car in response and headed for the hospital. He felt as if all the liquid his body should have had for saliva was being sweated out his palms. He stood for a moment outside the doors, briefly regretting turning down Barney's offer to accompany him. Apprehension convinced him for the barest second that not knowing was better than learning Amanda was dead. He wiped his hands on his jeans and pushed the doors open. Either way, he knew he wanted to--had to--see her.

A new shift of nurses had arrived in his absence, and he struggled to force words past his dry throat that would explain, without disturbing the web of lies he'd woven, why his relationship to Mrs. King should carry with it the right to visit her in ICU, especially after hours. The shortest and oldest of the nurses frowning suspiciously at him was the first to soften. Her short, graying brown hair and gentle smile as she gestured for Lee to follow her reminded him again of the precariousness and preciousness of his opportunity to grow old with Amanda.

"Now, Mr. Stetson," the nurse said, her voice tinged with the slightest of southern accents, reminding him yet again of Amanda, "you need to understand that Mrs. King is still in critical condition. She's holding her own, but she's barely stable. When we go in, it's going to be hard for you to see her."

He looked a sharp question at the woman.

"She's under an oxygen tent; a respirator would be a bit harsh on that punctured lung."

Lee swallowed hard. Neither the woman's calming tone nor the amusing number of different teddy bear pins decorating her white jacket--including one gripping her stethoscope--were enough to dampen the shock that had returned, shuddering through his body as though no time had passed.

"I want to see her," he said roughly.

"She's hooked up to several monitors and has an IV, but she's still her."

"Please..." He didn't care what condition Amanda was in, or how many machines she was hooked up to. She was alive and she was Amanda.

The nurse pushed the door open, a moment during which Lee automatically memorized Amanda's room number; he'd been chastising himself since he left for not noticing it when he spoke to the doctor earlier. In spite of the warnings, Lee froze at the door, staring. Even through the wrinkled plastic of the oxygen tent, Amanda looked deathly pale. Only the monitors' steady rhythms convinced him that she was, in fact, still alive. He felt a slight sense of relief as he was able to believe, for the first time, that she was still there.

The nurse touched his elbow. "It's all right. You can go in," she encouraged softly.

It's not all right! he thought convulsively. Nothing is all right. But he stepped into the room.

"Now, the IV is in her left hand, but you can hold her right one. You can talk to her; we're finding that people respond to voices--especially the voices of loved ones--even when they're unconscious."

Lee didn't even question the nurse's designation of him as a 'loved one'. He edged closer while the nurse talked until he was at Amanda's bedside. "How is she?" he asked, his voice betraying a depth of emotion he would not have believed himself capable of only three years before, or even a year and a half ago.

"She's holding her own," the nurse said noncommittally as she pushed a chair closer to Amanda's bed. She lifted the edge of the oxygen tent, checked her pulse, then placed Amanda's hand in Lee's.

Amanda's fingers were chilly, but, Lee thought wryly, her hands were always cold. He slowly lowered himself into the chair, staring at Amanda. "The doctor said," he began haltingly, still not looking up, "--the doctor said she was lucky to be alive."

"She is," the nurse agreed, checking and arranging things while she talked quietly.

Lee paused, then pressed on. "How lucky?" He needed to know the specifics--anything to fill the horrible void of information that had been the rest of this day.

"She's very lucky. The bullet went straight through her. It punctured her left lung but only grazed the pericardium--the sack around the heart. A slightly different angle and she could have had that bullet right through her heart, or it could have nicked the pulmonary artery and she would have bled to death before they even got her to the ambulance. She's lucky her tissues weren't turned to mush by the hydrodynamic shock from that type of gunshot injury. She's lucky it was a clean shot; the bullet could have ricocheted in her chest cavity like a pinball and done a great deal more damage." The nurse spoke quietly.

Lee's gentle, two-handed hold on Amanda's fingers tightened to a convulsive grip as the nurse talked. His thumb moved of its own accord, caressing the side of her hand.

The nurse gently straightened Amanda's blanket, stroking her shoulder as she smoothed the covers. "She's lucky to have survived surgery. Her tissues were already in shock from the wound--rifle wounds are bad news--and then her body had to deal with her chest being opened up. The fact that she's still alive means she's strong. She's fighting." Her words and tone were kind, and she seemed to intend to reassure and to remind him how much worse it could have been. He couldn't quite decide if it was a comfort or not.

"She has two little boys, you know." Lee's voice was barely above a whisper, his mind filled with images of his parents' photographs surrounded by flowers atop metal caskets. He had been able to read just enough to know that the ribbon on the flowers said "Mother" and "Father", and, in that strange-smelling room filled with strangers speaking in nervously quiet tones, he'd wanted nothing more than mother and father. The bleak memory of crying inconsolably when they wouldn't come took his breath away as effectively as the litany of ways Amanda could have died. The tightness across his chest, which had not left him since she had been shot, increased as it occurred to him more starkly that he had no power to prevent Phillip and Jamie from experiencing a similar scene.

The nurse laid a hand softly on his shoulder. "How old are they?"

His gaze had fallen from Amanda's face to the hand he held as if her life depended on it. It was really his life that depended on that connection, he realized. Blinking as the world blurred slightly, he fumbled in his pocket with his right hand, pulling out the photos of the boys. "Twelve and fourteen." He offered the pictures to the nurse, who looked at them with interest either genuine or well-feigned. "Too young."

"What are their names?"

"That's Phillip. He plays basketball and wants to know about cars. That's Jamie. He's serious and quieter, harder to get to know," he said, pointing to each boy in turn.

The nurse smiled warmly, then looked from the long-haired Amanda in the older photo to the patient in the bed. "She has a good chance. And a lot to live for." She handed the snapshots back to Lee, who stared at them for a moment, then looked back at Amanda. "I've prayed for her every time I've been in here tonight. If you don't think she'd mind, I'll keep praying."

Lee nodded slightly, then looked up. "Yeah. Yeah. I think she'd like that," he said, his voice rough again.

The nurse squeezed his shoulder slightly, then quietly left. Before she was out the door, Lee's gaze had returned to Amanda's face.

She looked wrong. It wasn't the paleness, or the lack of makeup. Lee stared for a long moment before realizing that he'd never before seen Amanda expressionless. Even when she slept, there seemed to be a slight tug at the corners of her mouth, an unconscious reflection of the joy and hope that were such an integral part of who she was and of what she'd brought to his life, to the lives of everyone around her. His breath caught and his fear escalated again with the thought that those traits could have been destroyed, terrified that the blankness in her face might mean that Amanda was gone already, waiting only for her body to catch up to her. He clenched a fist, realizing that he could happily pummel to death the man who had done this to her.

"Amanda, please don't leave me," Lee said, almost before realizing he was speaking aloud. Feeling self-conscious for speaking, and all the more so for the tears he heard in his voice, he reminded himself that the nurse had said to talk to her, and that this was, after all, Amanda. Amanda wouldn't be embarrassed by talking to him if he were the one in that bed, as he should be. And she wouldn't think it was silly--or, if she did, she wouldn't mind--if he were to talk to her.


The last words she'd spoken that morning--years ago, it seemed--had haunted him all day.

"I love you, Amanda," he said softly, stroking her hand and looking back at her face again, imagining it lit with her infectious smile instead of eerily inert. "I'm sorry I didn't say that today. It was the first thing on your mind...you've got to come back so I can say it to you again. I was so afraid. I thought I was going to lose you. I love you so much, and I would have taken that bullet myself if I could have. I'm sorry I told you to stay in the car. I really thought you'd be safe." He smiled for the first time in hours as some of the tensions of the day flowed out of him in a stream of words. "Who'd have thought that the one time you actually stay in the car..." He shook his head at the irony. "You stayed in the car when we went in for Birol, too, didn't you? I promise you, Amanda, I'll never tell you to stay in the car again if you'll just make it through this."

Lee laughed softly, shaking his head slightly. "I'm starting to sound like you now. I used to think that I couldn't stand one more of your rambling stories, but I miss them already." His voice trailed off and he stared at her drawn face, longing to touch more than her hand. He wanted to smooth her hair away from her forehead. He wanted to climb in the bed with her and hold her. He wanted to take back the last days, replay it somehow and keep her safe. His voice roughened as he spoke again, barely above a whisper, "Please, Amanda, don't leave me. I want to listen to you tell me something in ten minutes that could have been said in two."

The door opened and the nurse returned carrying a large bag.

"Mr. Stetson? We checked Mrs. King's records more closely, and there's a note from Dr. Neely that you're to be treated as next of kin."

Lee was surprised that the vindication did not please him more, but all he could do was look at the nurse impassively, waiting for her to tell him why she was there so she could go and leave him alone with Amanda.

"We have Mrs. King's belongings, and thought you'd want to hold onto them." She set the bag on a table. "I wanted to let you know that we'll be coming in about every thirty minutes to check on Mrs. King," she explained. "You can talk to us or not, as you need to."

Lee started. Was his resentment of her interruption that obvious, or was she just used to explaining everything to the people she worked with?

Lee sat for at least a quarter of an hour more, just holding Amanda's hand and looking at her before he could face letting go long enough to open the lumpy package. It seemed morbid, like reviewing her effects, and he nearly destroyed the plastic bag with its self-stick adhesive as he tore it open. The first thing to fall into his hands was the blood-soaked sweater they had cut off of her, and his heartbeat shot up, the panic of the moment when she was shot returning as if no time had passed. He pushed the pieces of the sweater aside with shaking hands, and pulled out the remains of similarly stained pants and shirt. The smell of her blood almost overwhelmed him again and he looked up, breath catching, to stare at the slight rise and fall of her chest to reassure himself that she was still alive, in spite of the horrifying amount of her blood that was on the clothing in his hands. He quickly gathered the clothing and rushed out of the room with it. He was making a beeline for the nearest trashcan, when a nurse stopped him.

"Can I help you?"

"I need to throw these away," he said breathlessly, hoping he would not be sick.

"Let's get you a biohazard bag," the nurse said, eyeing the blood-covered clothes.

Lee followed the nurse back to the station, where she retrieved a plastic bag, and held it open for him while he stuffed the ruined clothing into it with shaking hands.

"I'll take this and dispose of it in our biohazard bin, if you'd like," the nurse said.

"Please," Lee managed.

In Amanda's room again, he picked up the packet that had held Amanda's clothes. As he sat down again, a smaller envelope fell from the bag, slipping through Lee's numbed, still-shaking fingers, and dropping to the floor with a clink. He reached for it mechanically, and frowned at the small lumps he felt. Ripping open the end, he poured the contents into his right palm. The muscles in his face twitched slightly and he fingered the objects with their matching diamonds and contrasting gold and platinum. Swallowing hard against the lump that rose in his throat, he picked up the necklace by its chain. She had explained once that the boys had given it to her. She'd confided that, although they had wanted her to believe they'd paid for it entirely with their allowances, lemonade stand, and car washing money, she knew that both Joe and Dotty had subsidized the gift. This in no way lessened her pride or the degree to which she was touched by her sons' first grown-up gift to her, and she wore it more often than not.

Lee slipped her wedding rings over the tip of his left pinky finger, and fingered the matching band he was wearing. These were symbols of their love, symbols of the ongoing nature of their relationship, without beginning and without end. But there had been a beginning--three and a half years ago at a train station when he'd handed her a package, not quite a year ago when he'd first kissed her, and just over six months ago when he'd said "I love you" and she'd said it back--so many beginnings. There most certainly would be an end. The promise of the rings was a lie. A tiny bit of hope reflected back at him in the form of light flickering in the gold and diamonds, reminding him that there was still a chance that the end would not come yet.

She was, after all, still alive. The flicker of hope was not enough to prevent Lee from hanging on her every breath, afraid that any moment could be her last. His fear gnawed mercilessly at his very bones, deeper and more intense than any other fear he remembered. He slipped a hand back under hers, holding it tightly. Her fingers had grown chilly again, and he quickly slipped her necklace into his pocket and laid his other hand on hers. It was disconcerting to hold her hand and not have her return the gesture.

"Your mother is coming," he said at length. "She told me to tell you that she loves you." He tightened his grip on her hand, his lifeline to her. He stroked it absently, worrying for a moment that he would irritate the thin, fragile skin on the back of her hand, then realizing that he could not stop himself from touching her.

"I told her..." Lee paused and swallowed hard again. "I told her to tell the boys what had happened; they're old enough to know. And I can't imagine you keeping secrets from them." He smiled sadly at her, moving his gaze again from her hand to her pale face. "Funny, isn't that? You keep secrets from them all the time--our work, our marriage, and yet I don't see you as being anything less than honest with them whenever it's possible. And they deserve to know this. If they're going to face losing you--" His voice caught, and he stopped, re-gathering his composure and trying to shut down his thoughts as his mind returned to its earlier mantra. He wasn't ready to accept that he was also facing losing her. The insidious nature of the fear that kept washing over him in waves was such that, even as he thought he'd mastered it, it would sneak up on him again, attacking from a different angle. "Well, they need to be prepared, and they need not to have been lied to. Not about this." He pushed aside the reminder that he might need to prepare himself, and wondered idly how he expected that adolescent boys would be able to face and prepare for the loss of their mother when he could not face the loss of his wife.

Lee was unnerved by the degree to which he was identifying with the boys. Their mother had not died. Not yet. He could not afford, for Amanda's sake, to believe that they would be left motherless as he had been. And yet, if they lost her, at least they would be supported, while no one would know what he was losing. He couldn't tell them. Not now. Not so that they lost Amanda and their illusions about her simultaneously. If they lost her, he would lose her alone, just as he had lost everyone else.

He gripped Amanda's hand tighter, still stroking the back of it, and he sat, alone with his thoughts and fears.


Lee woke to a rustle of plastic, and leapt to his feet, reaching for his gun, still half caught in a dream where Amanda needed him and he could not protect her. His quick survey of the room revealed only a startled young nurse holding an edge of Amanda's oxygen tent, wide eyes focused on him nervously.

"I'm sorry," Lee said. "You startled me."

"I'm sorry, too. I didn't mean to wake you. We've got to check Mrs. King and change her bandages."

"Oh." Lee sat slowly, and stared at Amanda, unable to take his eyes off of her now that the plastic wasn't obscuring her face. "How is she?"

"That's part of what I'll be checking. And Dr. Neely will be in later this morning to evaluate her condition." The nurse seemed sympathetic enough.

"Why isn't she awake? Shouldn't she have regained consciousness by now?" Lee wondered if he shouldn't wish her awake, if it would just bring her to an awareness of the pain, but feared that the longer she remained unconscious, the more dire the situation was. He was torn between wishing her the blissful unawareness of the worst of this and wanting an indication--any indication--that she was recovering.

The nurse checked Amanda's monitors and gathered her supplies to the bedside as she talked. "Well, this is a very serious injury. She's still in critical condition. Remaining unconscious means that her body is focusing all of its stores on healing; it's a way of protecting her from what she's going through."

She's avoiding me, Lee thought. She won't look at me. This is worse than they're telling me. She might die she might die she might die... He cut the frantic refrain ruthlessly short, afraid his thinking it would make it more real. "Give it to me straight," he said, brushing a hand across his unshaven face, and looking tentatively at the nurse.

She looked back at him, eyes filled with compassion and concern. "She's doing as well as can be expected. She's not out of danger by any means, but she's still holding her own. You have to believe she'll keep doing so."

Lee pursed his lips, nodded slowly, and returned his gaze to Amanda.

After a moment the nurse interrupted again. "Sir?"

"Yeah?" Lee didn't look up.

"Sir, I think you should probably wait in the hall; I'll be done in a few minutes."

He sighed, then gently set Amanda's hand back on the bed as he stood. He stepped forward, ducking under the folded back oxygen tent, and took her face in his hands. He kissed her gently, trying to ignore the clench in his stomach when she didn't kiss back, then leaned his forehead to hers for a long moment. He drew an uneven breath, then said softly, "I love you, Amanda. Now, you wait right here for me. I'll be back later."


Lee took a cab back to Barney's and knocked on the door. He was surprised when the older man showed up, long minutes later, in a robe with disheveled hair.

"Lee? Is she...?"

"She's still holding her own."

"Then why... Lee, it's barely 5:30 in the morning."

Lee glanced at his watch, surprised, as he'd thought it was considerably later in the morning. It took him a full minute to remember that he'd not yet adjusted to the three hour time difference.

"I'm sorry, Barney," he faltered.

"It's all right, son. Come on in; you need a good, hot shower, and a hot breakfast."

Lee went inside, brushing a hand across his eyes. "You're right about the shower, but I'm not so sure about the breakfast; I don't know if I could face food."

"When was the last time you ate?"

Lee thought, frowning. They'd been going to have lunch with Barney when they arrived, and so had had a light breakfast at their hotel before packing up. Lee couldn't remember a meal after that in the whirlwind events after Amanda was shot. Amanda's voice echoed in his memory, "You've got to keep your strength up..." He smiled wryly. "Almost twenty-four hours ago. I guess I could use something."

"Well, you go and take care of getting washed up, and I'll treat you. It's been too long since I cooked for you anyway."

Lee smiled as much as the tension and exhaustion would let him. "Thanks, Barney."

Lee had to admit that, once he'd started eating, he realized he was terribly hungry. He felt much better upon finishing food so reminiscent of childhood meals eaten in mess halls--some of the only pleasant memories he'd encountered in over a day. The shower had helped as well. Even though he still felt guilty, he no longer felt quite so strongly that he had the smell of death and of Amanda's blood in his hair and in every pore of his skin.

He dressed in the only suit he'd brought, wanting to leave right away to go to the bank following clues. Barney gently reminded him that it was not yet even 7:00, and that the bank wouldn't be open until after nine at the earliest. He paced desperately for ten minutes before he couldn't stand it, rifled through his suitcase once again, and stalked back off to the bathroom, returning in sweats and a t-shirt.

"Barney, I'm going out running. I'll be back in a while."

He ran down to the ocean and then along the beach, ignoring the sand that slipped into his tennis shoes. He ran until his clothes were soaked with sweat, until his lungs were burning, until his legs felt like jelly. He ran until his feet hitting the ground no longer set the rhythm in his mind for the constant repetitions of she might die she might die, until the steady roar of the ocean made his mind a blank. Only then did he turn back, without the slightest belief that the numbness he'd created would last even an hour.


Lee ignored the California landscape flashing past his cab window. He'd hoped that keeping busy would keep his mind off Amanda, would keep him from remembering with every step, every heartbeat, the tenuousness of her life. But the day had stretched long, even filled as it had been with frantic activity, none of which had silenced the echoing fear that she might die, she might die... The sickeningly false joviality of his persona at the bank had, he'd noted with detached interest, failed to raise his spirits. His work on the case had failed to yield any clues, and had failed to distract him.

Worse, he felt he'd failed Amanda. She'd have stayed by his side at the hospital, accepting nothing less than her own assessment of his condition, nothing less than the most immediate and firsthand observations of any improvements or declines. He raked a hand roughly through his hair, wondering for the millionth time how he could possibly live up to the awesome responsibility he'd assumed. No matter how much longer it now seemed, three short days ago, he'd promised to take her "in sickness and in health". He was determined not to fail at this first test, even if it meant sitting endlessly in that damned hospital. At least there he would be with her.

His conversation with Dotty that morning, just after his run, had done nothing to assuage his guilt or lower his desperation. Dotty had reported that the boys were staying home from school, that Jamie hadn't left his room since she'd told them, that even Phillip had barely spoken a word. Lee had had to shove aside mental images of a little Lee Stetson curled up in his parents' closet, covered with laundry he had pulled from the hamper. What a desperate game of hide-and-seek he had played, lying amongst things that smelled of his parents, waiting for them to come and find him while ignoring the increasingly frantic calls from strange relatives. He'd tried to banish images of Phillip and Jamie, dressed awkwardly in ill-fitting suits, standing in a cemetery.

"Give them space," he'd advised, remembering the sound whipping he'd gotten after the relatives had found him, long after he'd fallen asleep in that closet.

"I know," Dotty had sighed. "Joe's going to stay here with them." She'd gone on to explain that she'd been unable to get a flight until late afternoon, and that she'd meet him at the hospital that night.

Lee's cab dropped him at the hospital. He could still smell the acrid smoke from Gus Weinstein's cabin fire on his suit, but he didn't care, and going back to Barney's to change was too much more time away from Amanda. He'd already been away for too long anyway. His anxious beeline for the nurses' station was met by a sympathetic smile. "No change, Mr. Stetson," was their only response to his unspoken question.

He felt his shoulders slump. He berated himself for once again rushing toward no news. What had he expected anyway? He'd called every hour all day. He'd had to buy snacks he hadn't been able to choke down just to get change for the pay phones.

In spite of his ever-present fear that they'd answer the phone and tell him that she'd died and he hadn't have been there, he couldn't help holding onto the hope that she'd have awakened or improved. That hope made his heart lurch, made him even more terrified, afraid that by hoping for the best he was somehow tempting fate, defying the will of whatever gods had deemed for so long that fate would work against him. And yet, still surprised each time he made the realization, he found he couldn't help hoping. Perhaps it was simply because he couldn't face, even hypothetically, life without her. The fact that Amanda had brought this hope into his life made his mental war fear even more poignant, as if the fear was a kind of betrayal, the hope a sort of expression of his devotion to her that could misguidedly bring about her downfall. He twisted his wedding ring again, reflecting with the same certainty with which he breathed that, if she died, his hope would die with her.

"Mr. Stetson?"

The young voice called him back and he turned, vaguely, still caught in his thoughts.

"Mr. Stetson, Mrs. King's mother left this message for you." The young nurse smiled, holding a slip of paper out to him.

Lee took the two steps back to the nurses' station and took the paper absently. "Thanks." He read it three times before he processed the information. Lee walked across the hall and pushed the door to Amanda's room open. He stood at the entrance for a long moment as the door clicked shut behind him.

No change. The reality of what "no change" looked like squeezed at Lee's heart. She was still pale, unmoving, small looking. The dark circles under her eyes had deepened. She was still connected to half a dozen monitors and tubes. She wasn't getting better. She could still die.

Lee twisted his wedding ring again, then slowly moved to sit down. He reached under the oxygen tent for her hand. It was cold again, and he held it between his hands as if warming her fingers would improve her condition.

"Your mother will be here soon, Amanda. She left me a message and her flight should have already landed. She's going to take a cab here." He was surprised at how quickly he'd gotten used to talking to her. Of course, it shouldn't be surprising; this was Amanda, after all, and he'd spent most of the time he'd known her talking to her. Well, kind of.

"You know, it just occurred to me," he said with a wry laugh, "you've done most of the talking when we're together. I mean, sure, I've talked, and we've talked, but I'm used to you setting the pace and the tone. You always keep the conversation going." He drew a deep breath. "And you always make me laugh...make me smile..." Lee paused, rubbing her hand gently. "I know it sounds corny, but I don't know how I'd smile if you weren't here. I don't know if I could anymore."

Lee sat silently for a few moments, regulating his breathing by force of will in an attempt to keep his emotions in check. "The worst thing is that I know that's not what you'd want. I know you'd want me to go on, to be happy." He rushed on, words tumbling over one another as he tried to talk quickly enough to finish without having the breakdown that was tightening his throat and pricking the corners of his eyes. "I know it would in no way honor you or your memory, or what we have or had. But I don't think I can do this without you. I need you to keep showing me how."

He sat and stared at her for a long time. At length, when he thought he could speak again, he returned to stroking her hand. "Your mother should be here any time now." He sat silently again, tracing around her hand with one finger before adjusting his grip. As he did so, the gold of his wedding band caught his attention again and he twisted it, hoping. "Any time now," he murmured, echoing his earlier promise. "Any time." He wasn't sure why he kept saying it; he had no belief that it was reassuring Amanda, no real belief that she could even hear him. "You know, I'm not sure how I'm going to explain to her how they called me bef--" Lee stopped abruptly. Explain. He was going to have a lot of explaining to do.

He released Amanda's hand and tugged at his ring. He stared at it between his thumb and finger, looked at how it caught the light. He reached into his pocket and retrieved Amanda's necklace. Her rings were dangling next to her pendant on the slightly-tangled chain. Lee gently undid the clasp and added his ring to the bunch. The rings looked good together, like a family representing him, Amanda, and the boys. Maybe the pendant represented both of the boys, and the extra ring was for Dotty, from whom he was hiding them. He wondered absently what the chain would represent in this strange little analogy. He gripped the rings tightly for a moment, then returned them reluctantly to his pocket. His hand felt light and naked, even though he'd worn the ring for only three days.

The same impassive nurse who'd come to get him after Amanda came out of surgery slipped in and checked Amanda over. "Everything is still looking promising," she offered.

"How long..." Lee stopped and cleared his throat. "How long before we can expect to see some improvement?"

"It really varies," she responded, not stopping her work. "She could suddenly improve right now, or it could take her until tomorrow or the next day."

That was noncommittal, Lee thought. It sounds like it means she could change for the better or the worse any time. He nodded absently, turning his attention back to Amanda.

"Mrs. King needs her rest. Five more minutes, Mr. Stetson."

Lee nodded again. Stickler for hospital rules. Why couldn't the nurse from last night be here? he wondered. He didn't want to have to fight for his right to sit with Amanda, to spend time with her when it might be the last time he'd have. He fiddled with the bare fingers on his left hand, lost in thought as the nurse left.

"Oh, my God..."

Lee turned to see Dotty standing in the doorway, her face displaying every bit of the shock he'd felt every time he'd walked in and seen Amanda like this. He stood and stepped toward her, wanting to apologize, knowing that no apology could ever atone for his role in bringing Amanda to this.

"She's...stable but in critical condition. All we can do is wait," he said gently, still looking at Amanda.

Dotty took a deep breath, then looked at him. "She's going to be fine. She's going to be absolutely fine," she declared. "Lee, I have never seen her give up--on anything that's important. And she...she's not going to give up now." Her optimism, so like Amanda's, faltered slightly as she looked back at her daughter. "Oh, my God, what happened? Who did this? Why? I mean, it doesn't make any sense."

"I'll tell you everything, all right?" Lee moved to escort Dotty out of the hospital room, pausing briefly in the doorway to stare at Amanda for a long moment before closing the door gently behind him.

"I'm just glad I left an itinerary with IFF so they could find me," he began, brushing a hand across his forehead and looking past Dotty.

"Lee," she interrupted firmly, raising a hand to stop him, "you were here with her on vacation. Let's not try to pretend otherwise. This isn't the time."

Lee stared at Dotty, his mouth hanging open. Then he smiled sheepishly. "You're right. I'm sorry. At least I know where Amanda gets it; I can't slip anything by either of you."

"Well, I let her pretend, but she rarely fools me. I haven't read Agatha Christie for thirty years for nothing, you know." Dotty's nervous laugh betrayed the fear beneath the light statement even before her expression grew grave again.

If you only knew, Lee thought.

They regarded each other in the brief silence that followed. Dotty was the first to speak. "She looks so pale and helpless. I don't know if I can bear to watch her like this. What are they saying?"

"Um, they're saying," Lee looked away, running his hand through his hair. "They're saying she has as good a chance as she could under the circumstances."

After he remained silent for a long moment, Dotty laid a hand on his arm, eyes wide, and squeezed. "I'm serious. I want you to be straight with me." She looked at him intently until Lee met her gaze.

He took a deep breath, then placed his hand over Dotty's. "Let's sit down, okay?"

She nodded.

"Could I take your coat?"

"No. I can't keep warm."

"Do you want a cup of coffee?"

Dotty laughed humorlessly. "I'm already shaking enough, don't you think?"

Lee squeezed Dotty's fingers, and they sat. He cast about for words, looking at the worn spot on the carpet that had become so familiar the day before. It offered no more answers today than it had then.

"Amanda's in critical condition. She's stable for now, but they said that, until tomorrow, it could go either way." A quiet sob escaped Dotty's control and the tightness in Lee's chest moved up into his throat, causing his voice to catch. "She was shot by what the authorities believe was a .308 or 30-06 rifle round. The bullet hit her in the chest and went straight through her." Dotty was crying openly now, and Lee's voice was rough and raw. "Are you sure..." he began.

"I want to know exactly what my daughter is up against--exactly what they did to her," she said through her tears.

Lee swallowed hard, trying to report this information with the same clinical detachment he would have used at a briefing. He'd reported information like this countless times, and that familiarity, he knew, was all that was keeping him going. "The bullet, um, punctured her lung, and grazed her heart." Dotty gasped but Lee continued doggedly, not sure that if he stopped, he could start the litany again. "It cracked a few ribs, but managed to miss any major arteries. The doctors still aren't sure how she didn't bleed to death. They've given her...lots of blood. She was in surgery for about eight hours. She was lucky; they said a fraction of an inch difference and she..." Lee's voice, which had weakened to a husky whisper, broke utterly.

Dotty's voice was a mere squeak and barely audible. "Lee, I'm so scared." She looked at her hands, empty and shaking in front of her.

Lee pulled her into a desperately tight hug and felt a shuddering breath quiver through his mother-in-law as she clutched him in return. He felt himself shaking with her, felt the muscles in his chin contract, felt his throat close further. He was never sure afterward how long they held on, each other's only tactile link to the woman they both loved and feared for.

When they pulled apart, they looked awkwardly away from one another. Dotty dug in her purse for tissue and, without looking up, held one toward Lee. He accepted it gingerly, surprised to find that some of the tears that had threatened for two days had actually fallen. The Colonel's oft-repeated admonition that it was a waste of time to cry sprang automatically to mind. It would take forever for enough tears to fall to mourn Amanda, and they could not wash away the pain. And even if they could, she would still be gone.

"Well, I guess I should freshen up," Dotty said, blowing her nose.

"Yeah," Lee said quietly. "I'll be right here." He didn't look up as she set a hand on his shoulder for a moment before she walked away.

Lee sat rigidly, trying to maintain the tenuous control he'd regained. He fished in his pocket for his ring, and pulled it out, stroking it gently with his thumb as he stared blankly at it. He had to get hold of himself; he didn't want to jinx Amanda's recovery by doubting it any more than he wanted to jinx it by believing in it. He slipped the rings and necklace into his jacket pocket, where he could reach them more easily.

When Dotty returned, he stood. "Want to go see her?" he offered.

She nodded.

They sat in silence together with Amanda and the steady beep of her monitors, Dotty in Lee's chair, Lee on the other side of the bed in a chair he'd hijacked from down the hall.

"Lee?" Dotty's voice penetrated as though through a fog. "Lee?"

"I'm sorry. What?"

"Lee, you're falling asleep. When was the last time you slept?"

"I slept last night," he said with a smile.

"When was the last time you slept in a bed?" Dotty countered.

Lee's mind was immediately awash with images of his and Amanda's night in their California hotel before meeting Barney. Before everything went wrong. He slipped his hand into his pocket to touch the ring again and admitted, "Saturday night."

"Why don't you go back to your hotel and get some sleep?"

"I'm fine," Lee insisted. "And I can't believe you got any more sleep last night."

Dotty raised her eyebrows, clearly refusing to be drawn into that debate. "You're nodding off."

Lee smiled then looked down and rubbed his palm. "I'm afraid to leave," he admitted slowly. "I want to be here so I know she's still alive, and I want to be here when she wakes up, and I want to be here in case she... I want to be here," he repeated, finally looking up.

Dotty had tears in her eyes again. "You're a good man, Lee Stetson. And I can tell from the way you look at her that you simply adore my daughter." She nodded, smiling slightly through pursed lips as she sniffed. "And Amanda knows that. She just lights up when she talks about you, or when you call or show up at the house."

"She's very special," Lee said, staring at Amanda. He had folded back the edge of the oxygen tent on this side and was again caressing her fingers, being careful not to touch or disturb the IV taped to her hand. Even if she couldn't return his gesture, he couldn't stand to be near her and not touch her. After a few moments, he looked up again. "How are Phillip and Jamie?" he asked quietly.

"Not good. They're afraid but at that age where they don't want to admit it. Jamie is angry and confused; he's especially close to his mom. Phillip was still in shock when I left. I hated to leave them behind, you know? But when my baby is out here alone..." Dotty stared at Amanda for a long moment. "It's frustrating, though. I can't stand not to be here, but I know that my grandchildren need me too. I guess the hardest part is that I can't be there for everyone right now, that we're separated. These boys aren't ready to face losing their mother, and as much as they love Joe, he's not a constant in their lives. Or hasn't been, rather."

"I'm sure he'll do fine with them."

"Oh, he will. He was really good with them when you two were missing last fall. Knew all the right things to say. You know, I thought then that the not knowing was the worst thing. I think this not knowing is worse. It was easier to believe then that she would come back safe than it is to believe she'll be just fine now." Dotty looked fearfully again at Amanda.

"It was just a fraction of a second, you know." Lee glanced up at Dotty's perplexed frown. "Probably about a sixth. The shooter was about two hundred feet away, and this kind of bullet travels at about eighteen hundred feet per second. I was talking to her less than a second before, and then she was dying, and there was nothing I could do. So fast." Lee looked down at his hands, no longer covered with Amanda's blood, but just as empty of answers as they had been all week.

"She'll be all right," Dotty reassured. "You did all you could."

"Yeah," Lee said, remembering the morning of the shooting. She had been so beautiful, so alluring, and their lovemaking the night before had been both tender and passionate, unique to them as a pair. It went beyond just the physical in ways Lee had never known existed. If only he'd let her seduce him once more before they had left that hotel to see Barney on Sunday. "Yeah."

They both regarded each other briefly, then fell silent.

"Lee, you know, I don't know all that much about you," Dotty said after a long while. "Somehow Amanda never gets around to telling me much. I mean, I know you work for IFF with her...what do you do there?"

"I'm mostly a director," Lee said, distractedly. "I occasionally work in development and research, especially on new projects." He frowned and looked away from Dotty. As habitual as the use of this cover was, it felt wrong to be playing this game with his mother-in-law, and felt even more wrong that she didn't know she was his mother-in-law. He automatically thought of her as such, and yet she had no idea he was anything more than Amanda's boyfriend.

Lee was startled by the strength of the connection he felt to Amanda's family, by the realization that he regarded Billy as family. Lying to Dotty, like lying to Billy, was leaving a bad taste in his mouth. He was beginning to understand the guilt and heartbreak that came with continually lying to those you care about. Realization began to dawn that he owed Amanda an apology for taking the burden she'd borne for granted. Living a lie didn't make a big difference when there weren't people with whom one wanted to share the truths of one's life, and a life which one wanted to share. He wanted to be a full part of this family. The choice to perpetrate this deception seemed increasingly ill-considered and frustrating in ways Lee could never have imagined. He fingered the rings in his pocket again.

"Lee, tell me about your family."

He blinked, blindsided. "What?"

"Amanda's never told me about where you're from, or about your family. I have a feeling you're going to be around for a while, and I want to get to know you better." Dotty smiled at him, absently stroking Amanda's hand just as Lee was doing.

Lee just stared for a moment, the last two days' fresh memories of his parents' deaths and funeral assaulting his memory. "What...what did you want to know?"

Dotty shrugged. "Where did you grow up? Do you have any siblings? What do your parents do?"

"My, um... I was an only child. My parents, um, died when I was just nearly five--"

She gasped. "Lee, I'm so sorry."

"I keep seeing Phillip and Jamie in my head, going to their mother's funeral, as shell-shocked as I was." These images distracted Lee again; it was, for a moment, as if Dotty barely existed.

"Lee, you don't have to...I just wanted to pass the time, get to know my possible future son-in-law a little better...I had no idea."

He glanced up to see that she looked several shades paler, the dark circles under her eyes standing out in stark relief. He smiled reassuringly at her. "It's all right. I've actually been thinking about them a lot the past two days. My mom was British. My folks met when my dad was serving in England just after the war. After they died I went from relative to relative for a few years; none of them were really equipped to take on another child. My dad's brother--half brother, really--took me in when I was seven. He's in the Air Force--a Colonel now--and I think that a five-year-old was just an impossibility. A seven-year-old was manageable, though; I could stay alone, you know. I stayed with him after that, and grew up on bases all over the world." Lee suddenly felt even more tired.

"Sounds like a lonely way to grow up. Lots of interesting opportunities to see new things, but it sounds pretty hard."

Lee opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it. What was the point? "It was hard in a lot of ways," he admitted. "But I got to do so many things that most kids can only dream of doing. And my uncle was very good to me. I miss my folks mostly over things like not being able to introduce Amanda to them."

"That's always the hardest part--those big moments they'd have wanted to be there for." Dotty looked at Amanda again. "I wanted my mother today more than I have in years. It's one of the reasons I had to be here. I decided that if I couldn't have my mother with me, then at least Amanda would have hers with her...even if she doesn't know I'm here."

They fell silent again, a more comfortable silence as they both held Amanda's hands, sharing their hopes and fears for her recovery.


Lee sat in yet another cab headed toward the hospital. An exhaustion he didn't want to admit to was gnawing at his muscles. He'd left Dotty sleeping in Amanda's room that morning. As soon as he'd gone around the corner of the hallway, he'd paused to slip his wedding ring back on. It made him feel a bit more connected to Amanda, although it did not assuage his guilt over being away from her side.

The investigation had managed to distract him at least partially. Even so, throughout the day, he'd gone through a pocketful of change calling every hour to check on Amanda. Dotty had seemed understanding of his absence, his claim that he had business to attend to. It was certainly true enough, whatever the sheriff thought. "If somebody I loved were in the hospital close to death, I'd want simple answers too... If I were you, I'd let the law take care of justice, and I'd take care of the woman I love." Lee laughed lightly at the irony of the hospital knowing he was an Agent while local law enforcement thought of him as the husband of the victim. Lee realized a bit abstractly that he wasn't sure if the sheriff knew he and Amanda were married or not. The man certainly recognized their relationship. It occurred to him to wonder who else they weren't fooling at all, especially at work amongst people whose livelihood and lives depended on their observation skills.

The last time he'd checked in, Dotty had sounded nervous, had said something looked odd or felt wrong. Lee had reminded her, as he reminded himself while shifting his weight in the car, that the doctors and nurses hadn't downgraded Amanda's condition, that it was still good news until it wasn't. No matter his reassurances, he was feeling increasingly anxious to be back at the hospital where he could touch Amanda and hope she'd wake while he was there. He twisted yet again at his wedding band, then reluctantly pulled it off and strung it back on Amanda's necklace chain. The shower he'd taken at Barney's had not relaxed him at all, nor had the discipline and exercise of diving earlier. He was glad he'd changed, though. If Amanda woke up tonight, he wanted to be wearing something nicer than the old sweatshirt he'd brought along for sailing in case it was chilly or windy out on the water.

Sailing. He'd brought the sweatshirt for sailing. Their only time sailing together had brought them closer, and he'd wanted to rent a boat while they were in California and take her sailing in the Pacific, which she'd said she'd never done. Lee wrapped his fingers around Amanda's necklace, gripping her rings and pendant tightly. This was just one more thing she had to get well to do.


Lee looked up, frowning.

"We're here." The cabbie gestured to the lit hospital sign. It had gotten late--and dark--very quickly.

"Uh, thanks." Lee paid the man and hurried inside. Dotty's concerns were worrying at him and he moved quickly, wanting to see Amanda as quickly as possible even if he was going to be met with the disturbing face of "no change". At least "no change" wasn't worse.

The loudspeaker greeted him as he exited the elevator. "Code Blue, Room 346C, Code Blue."

Lee broke into a run, heading around the corner to Amanda's room quickly enough that he almost crashed into Dotty, who'd just stepped into the hallway as a nurse rushed past with a crash cart.

"Lee, it's Amanda," she said unnecessarily, reaching for him.

Lee set a hand on Dotty's shoulder, barely registering the tightness around her mouth and eyes, signs he usually looked for to see if someone was lying or preparing to shoot. He held her shoulders, "You'd better wait out here."

"No. No," she insisted, eyes wide as she held up a hand and stepped with him into the room where two nurses were arranging equipment and Dr. Neely was checking Amanda.

The doctor stepped away from the bed and placed himself squarely in front of Lee. "Mr. Stetson, you can't help us save her life, but if you get in the way you will help us lose it. Now get out of here, please. Now!" he ordered sternly.

Lee reluctantly moved back out the door, catching one last glimpse of Amanda, free of the oxygen tent, with one nurse squeezing air into her lungs with a hand-held bag device, another handing paddles to Dr. Neely and setting the dials, still another pressing on her chest right over the bandage that was visible where they'd moved her hospital gown aside.

Lee felt a hand on his arm and looked down, startled for a moment. Dotty, tears moistening her eyes, was pulling gently at his elbow.

"Let's sit down," she said, almost inaudibly.

He nodded and felt both hands tremble and his jaw tense as Dr. Neely called, "All right. Clear!" from inside Amanda's room.

And we're back to the damned waiting room, Lee thought, fingering the ring in his pocket. Dotty fidgeted next to him on the couch.

"It's times like this that make me wish I were Catholic or Buddhist or something!"

Lee looked at Dotty, nonplussed. "What?"

She looked up at him. "I've watched people with their rosaries, saying the same thing over and over, and the Buddhists have chants sort of like that, don't they? You know, Richard Gere is a Buddhist."

Lee blinked. "Is he?" he said distractedly. He'd have thought he'd be used to non-sequiturs after all these years around Amanda, but they still took him by surprise.

Dotty nodded. "They say the same thing over and over, words they've known and said all of their lives. It must be so comforting, not to have to think about words, to get past these moments by letting your mind go blank and relying on familiar words that have been with you in every crisis all your life, to be praying and have a break from the panic at the same time."

Lee stared at her, as the words slowly seeped into his consciousness. "Yeah," he said, at length. The single word almost choked him, so full was his throat already. This was the moment he'd been preparing for, avoiding, dreading, trying not to think into existence, hoping against, for two and a half days. For over three years, really, since she was poisoned at James Delano's and he was confronted first hand with the possible consequences to her of associating with him. Amanda was dying. There was nothing he could do, nowhere he could go, no way he could prevent it. He could only sit there, uncomprehending.

He felt that he would be swallowed up by the enormity of the emptiness he faced, contemplating life without her. He felt an eerie sense of unreality, as if soon his alarm would ring and it would turn out that the surrealism was dream-induced. It seemed he could feel nothing as strongly as he felt that fear-induced hollowness that ricocheted about inside his chest, empty as it was of his heart. Amanda was dying. He was both convinced he could not live without her and that he'd be punished by being forced to do just that.

Dotty squeezed his hand. When had she taken his hand? He looked at her blankly.

"Lee, she's going to be all right." Dotty's firm tone was somewhat undermined by the slight quaver that slipped into her voice, but her conviction was absolute. Her silence apart from this comment betrayed her fear.

He nodded slowly and squeezed her hand slightly in return. Dotty's hand was his only link to the present, to the world, and he was certain that he would fly apart were his skin not preventing it. He felt he had never waited this much in his entire life altogether.

Lee looked at the clock. Twenty minutes. He released her hand and ran his fingers through his hair. It would be over soon, whichever way it went. Soon. This awful waiting would be over.

A long few moments later, Dr. Neely walked through the door, shoulders slumped. Lee stood, feeling Dotty slowly stand next to him. Trepidation filled him as though he were awaiting the verdict at a trial.

He extended his fingers and yet again ran them through his hair. He held his breath, suddenly not wanting that doctor to speak, not wanting to hear the words, "We lost her." The panicked limbo of not knowing suddenly seemed preferable to the finality of the statement he was sure he'd hear.

A slight smile creased Dr. Neely's weary face. "We almost lost her--"

Almost. She's alive, Lee thought with relief.

"--but she didn't give up, not for a second." He shook his head slightly, surprise showing.

Lee put an arm around Dotty and held her tightly as she reeled from the news, looking at the floor in relief. The doctor hadn't expected her to make it, Lee thought. But she had.

"She's holding on, so we're back where we started, but we've got a long ways to go. That woman's a fighter. That's good." Dr. Neely smiled warmly at them.

Lee took what felt like his first full breath in the past half hour. "Thank you," he said softly, nodding slightly in farewell and thanks as the doctor turned to leave.

Lee led Dotty back to the couch. He pulled a tissue from a stash in the side pocket of her purse and handed it to her. Funny how these tears didn't unnerve him as they'd always done in the past.

"You were right, you know," he said as Dotty dabbed at her eyes and nose with the rapidly disintegrating tissue.


"Even the doc noticed. She never gives up. Not on anyone," he paused, "...anything," he amended.

"I think she gets that stubbornness honestly from her Daddy. She's like a terrier sometimes--tenacious. She holds on tight." Dotty smiled proudly from behind the tissue.

Lee nodded, reminded of Amanda bringing him job listings both times he'd pretended to quit the Agency, reminded of her delivering a poppyseed cake to a princess, of her absolute conviction, repeated so often, that he was the best at what he did, that he was a good person. He looked at his hands, and at the finger, naked of a ring. The doctor's words, "a long ways to go" rang in his head and, for the first time, he allowed himself to think past the immediacy of her survival to her recovery. A long way. And she could still die. More waiting. But for now, she was with them. It had to be enough.

"I want to see her," Dotty declared. She stood up, sniffed once more, and adjusted her purse over her shoulder.

Lee followed her mechanically and they quietly slipped into Amanda's room. Two nurses were still there, one packing equipment, the other monitoring Amanda. In case she crashes again, Lee thought morbidly. He put an arm around Dotty again and pulled her tightly to him. As they stood, silently, he felt minute tremors shuddering through Dotty. He could barely breathe. Amanda looked paler, frailer, worse even than in the shock of the aftermath of the shooting, worse than post-op, worse than she had looked yet. There was blood showing through the hospital gown in the middle of her chest, and Lee saw in his mind the red stain on her sweater in the car, the blood on his hands as he'd tried to stem the bleeding. He shook his head and looked back at her, fear chilling him to his bones. Something about her body seemed paper-thin, fragile like tissue paper, like she might fade away at any moment. He feared, irrationally, that even breathing on her could tear her tenuous hold on life, could sever permanently the slender ties between her body and a spirit that was too large and indomitable to be held for long by so weak a vessel.

One of the nurses came over to them, and Lee recognized her as the sympathetic teddy bear nurse from the first night. She smiled warmly and squeezed both his hand and Dotty's. "She's holding on," she said reassuringly. "I know you want to stay, but for tonight, while she's critical, we're going to have to ask you to go."

Lee opened his mouth to protest.

"You can leave your phone numbers at the desk, and we'll call you both if anything changes." She laid her hands gently on their arms. "You won't help her by running yourselves ragged. Get some sleep, eat something, and come back in the morning." She looked at them hopefully. "Okay?"

Lee exhaled slowly. "Yeah," he said tiredly. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Come on, Dotty. Let's go."

"I'm still praying for her," the nurse said softly before turning back to her work.

"Thank you," Dotty replied with a small smile. She and Lee headed down the hallway. "That nurse is very nice. She's been just lovely to me every time I've seen her."

Lee barely noticed as they walked out of the hospital, as Dotty hailed a cab, as they got in and it started to move. He closed his eyes, trying to steady his shaky breathing. He would not trade Amanda alive for anything and yet he wanted this over. He wanted to feel that he could draw breath without it catching, without fighting the unnatural tightness in his chest that felt for all the world like fate had broken ribs when it had sucker-punched him in the gut. He wanted to sit with Amanda knowing that, even if they were silent, she would answer when he spoke to her, rather than that she couldn't. He wanted to know with greater certainty that she would still be here tomorrow, that tomorrow would be worth waking up to. He had to admit that he didn't want it over at any cost though; as long as she was alive, there was a chance he'd be able to breathe again, a chance she'd be here tomorrow. If she died, there would be no more chances.


"What?" He turned to see concern for him etched in Dotty's face over the worry for Amanda that had been ever present since she'd arrived.

"Lee, it's going to be okay."

He looked away again, opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again after emitting only a brief sigh. He shook his head slightly as he rubbed his right palm with the other thumb.


He turned toward the clearly commanding tone in Dotty's voice.

"It will be all right," she said firmly, gripping his upper arm. "She pulled through this one. She'll be okay. She's going to get better and come home with us. Believe it." Dotty held his gaze fiercely in spite of the tears she was holding back. In a thicker, quieter voice, she added, "She's fighting. She'll come back to us. Believe in her."

Lee clenched his teeth, feeling the muscles in his jaw twitch rhythmically, keeping time with the unbidden mantra echoing through his head she could die, she could die... Believe in Amanda. He could do that. She had never let him down yet. He could believe in her, even if everything else seemed bleak. He nodded slowly, and Dotty followed suit, then hugged him tightly as the cab stopped.

"Believe it, Lee Stetson," she said as she got out of the cab.

Mechanically he waved to Dotty and rode back to the hotel he had planed to share with Amanda. He checked in, now two days late, walked to his room, stripped to his boxers and t-shirt, lay down on the bed, and tucked his fingers behind his neck. The haze through which he'd been watching the world had not abated. The ceiling seemed far away. The bed, his feet, and his hands seemed far away. A happy ending for him and Amanda seemed like the prize at the end of a long tunnel, a tunnel which seemed to stretch out like an expanding accordion; every time he blinked the end seemed to have moved further away.

Believe in Amanda. He did believe in her, and trust her. However, he wasn't sure, lying alone in the dark, if he believed even Amanda could beat these odds. He was certain that, if it was possible, she'd do it, but he knew that not all things were possible, knew that sometimes one's very best could still yield failure, especially if fate had stacked the deck, as it so often did, against him.

His eyes would not close. He could not force them, no matter how he tried. After half an hour of the ever-present raw fear for Amanda combined with the monotony of the ceiling's non-pattern, he swung his feet over the edge of the bed, sitting up and grabbing the phone receiver in one fluid motion.

"Barney?" he asked as a slightly confused voice answered the line. "No. She's holding her own for now." He listened for a moment, running a hand through his hair, vaguely aware that Barney was trying to be reassuring. "Barney? Let's go check out Brockett's computers--see if we can scare up anything."

In moments they had a plan. Lee dressed quickly, pausing only to smile at his wedding band as he slid it onto his finger. Then he pulled his fingers into a tight fist and headed out to meet Barney.


Lee picked up Amanda's hand and held it against his cheek, trying to ignore the protesting crinkle of the oxygen tent as his movement shifted the device.

"We couldn't find anything in Brockett's computer last night. He knows we're after him and he's destroying evidence. I swear to you, Amanda, I'll get him." He sat, staring at her face for several minutes. "You look better today than yesterday. Yesterday was rough. I don't think you're back to where you were before you crashed, but you're getting more color. And you're beautiful, no matter what." He smiled at her still face. It was still terribly wrong, but it was Amanda, and she was still alive. It was ironic; she looked worse today than she had the night after she was shot, and he was happy she'd improved. What an odd thing perspective was.

"Amanda, I've got to go and meet Gus and Barney. We've a few some things to investigate. I'll be careful, I promise." It was a long moment later when he took a deep breath and made a move to stand. "Your mother should be here soon. I miss you," he whispered. He kissed her hand, holding it to his lips with his eyes closed. Finally he stood, set her hand gently on the bed, and smoothed the edge of the oxygen tent. He lingered a long moment, looking at her, then turned to go, almost getting hit with the door as it flew open.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Dotty bustled, jumping slightly as Lee held the door tightly for a moment an inch from his face, before slowly opening it further. "Lee! What are you dong here so early? I was hoping you'd sleep this morning."

"I couldn't sleep," Lee said, shoving his left hand into a pocket. "So I came over here. I've got to be gone for part of the day again, so I thought I'd come by here first."

Dotty squeezed his arm, then glanced toward Amanda. "She's looking better. Not back to where she was, but better."

They fell silent, looking at her. "Well, I'd...I guess I'd better get going. Call me at Gus's number if there's any change," Lee said quietly, hugging Dotty briefly to his side.

Dotty leaned against him for a moment, putting her left hand over his hand on her arm. She nodded. "Go," she said, turning a wavering smile to him. "I'll see you later."

He slipped out of the room, casting one last look over his shoulder at Amanda and at Dotty, who was settling in beside her and laying a hand on Amanda's knee.

As he walked down the hallway and out into the sun he pulled his hand out of his pocket and looked at his ring, wishing like one wished on a star that his return to the hospital would be better today than yesterday.


"Community Hospital!"

"You in some sort of hurry, fella?" the cabbie asked, peeling away from the curb without waiting to hear his answer.

"Yeah," Lee said shortly, fidgeting with his jacket.

"Having a baby?" He cast a toothy grin at Lee.

Lee looked up blankly.

"You've got that look," he explained. "Panicked, rushed, a little green around the gills..."

"No. I'm not having a baby." Lee looked down at his ring..

"Sorry to hear that. Kids are great." The cabbie regarded Lee in the rear view mirror while Lee tried to avoid his gaze. "Bad news, huh?"

Lee glanced up, then down again, and twisted his ring with its hollow promises. "My wife is dying," he said roughly, sliding against the door as they turned a corner, moving inexorably toward Lee's nightmare become real.

"Aw, man, that's rough. I'm sorry to hear it." The man looked sincere.

"I'd rather--" Lee began to protest, but the other man held up a hand and turned back to the road, leaving him alone as his insides quaked and shrank. This was what he had feared for days, what he'd poured every bit of his energy into circumventing. Maybe he hadn't believed strongly enough. Maybe he had done some small thing wrong, or not done just the right thing. Maybe he'd had his one miracle when she hadn't died yesterday. Maybe he should have prayed too. He had no idea, but a wordless, heartfelt plea to whatever deity or deities might hear echoed through his soul. For a miracle, for a moment, for something. At this point for anything beyond nothing

Lee stood on the walk to the hospital for several minutes, staring in trepidation at the building. He wasn't sure how he could simultaneously feel utterly numb and wholly terrified. He wanted to walk away, to run for an hour or so, then get blindingly drunk before hearing this news. He wanted to go in and know, once and for all, and have it be over. He wanted never to know, to believe forever she was still with him. It certainly couldn't be good news; they'd have told him if it were. It was always bad news they felt a need to break in person.

He would never forgive himself if he could have had a few more minutes, or even seconds, with her before she died and he'd stood on the sidewalk, afraid to face it. He started moving toward the door. Let me sit with her just a moment longer before she's gone. If that's all there is left, let me have at least that. Maybe she'll at least know I was there to say goodbye. By the time he'd reached it, inertia was overcome and he was accelerating, running down the hallway and taking the stairs in the stairwell by twos, not bothering to wait for the typically slow hospital elevators. He swung around the corner of Amanda's hallway striding up to Dr. Neely as he made a beeline for Amanda's room.

"I wanted you here; you made good time." Dr. Neely stood square in front of the door to Amanda's room.

Lee tried to push past the excited doctor; he was tired of waiting, of being barred from the room. He didn't care about being prepared for what he was going to see. There was no way to be prepared, and he knew that. But he wanted to be with her. "Get out of my way, I'm going in there."

"Of course you are." He seemed altogether too enthused. "Lots of T.L.C. is just what the doctor ordered for quick recovery."

Recovery? Lee thought, frowning. He's smiling?

Dotty burst through Amanda's door, a radiant ball of bubbling happiness. "She's going to be all right!" she exclaimed jubilantly. "I told you so! Oh, Lee, you ought to see her; she looks beautiful." She flung her arms around Dr. Neely, giving Lee the barest space to push into the room.

All right. She's going to be all right. Lee nodded at Dotty, smiling slightly as he slipped behind her. He couldn't quite process this as an idea, couldn't believe what he was hearing. He heard Dotty's enthusiastic claims, "After a few weeks, I'm going to have her hopping!" as he closed the door carefully behind him.

Lee walked gingerly to Amanda's bedside, smiling. The oxygen tent was gone, and her color was improved, even if her eyes were still closed. She moved her mouth slightly and he heard a tiny sound. He sat next to the bed and leaned closer to her. Her eyes fluttered open and she turned to him.

"Hi," he said softly.

"Mm. Hi. What happened?" Her voice was slurred and weak, her pain all too evident as she closed her eyes with the effort of speaking. She sounded nothing at all like herself, but it seemed musical to Lee.

"I'll tell you all about it when you get better," he promised, able only to drink in the image of her, alive, awake.

"Did you get the number of that truck?" she squeaked out with a smile that was more a grimace.

"You bet I did." His face was tiring quickly from smiling; it had forgotten how in the last few days.

She stretched her neck toward him for a kiss, her eyes drooping closed again. He leaned forward, touching his lips to hers, and she relaxed again, satisfied.

"Mm. No honeymoon tonight, pal."

"Aw, shucks," he joked back. It was miraculous. Moments ago, he'd been convinced she was dying, and now she was making jokes, in spite of her pain.

"If I go to sleep," she said, straining to talk as her eyes drifted closed again, "will you sit with me for a minute?"

Lee smiled gently at her. There was nothing else he would do as long as she was there. "I love you, Mrs. Stetson," he whispered.

"Mm," Amanda responded as exhaustion and the drugs claimed her consciousness again. He kissed her gently once more, then settled back to stare at her.

She fell almost instantly asleep again, and Lee gently brushed a finger through the hair at the edge of her bangs. She truly was beautiful. And she was alive. And she was stable. And she was going to be with him.

It seemed awkward now not to talk, and after a moment, Lee said, "You know, it's funny. I was talking to Billy this afternoon, and commented, out of habit, that 'we' would do something. He asked me about it, and I said that it's always been me and you. I didn't even realize until later that 'always' isn't quite accurate. But, you know, I can't imagine my life anymore without you. I guess that's why it feels, in a way, as if you've always been here; before you, my life was so different that the life I have now has always included you."

He picked up her hand. "I caught Brockett's goon this afternoon. We fought, and I told him he was dead, and I meant it, Amanda. I would have killed him right there. I wanted him to hurt as much as he hurt you. I just wanted to hit him and hit him until he was in as much pain as he'd put you in. I think the only reason I didn't was because we got the call from the hospital. I was so afraid the call was because you were dying...or already dead. I don't think I'd have been at all sorry if I had killed him."

He pulled her necklace back out of his pocket, looking at the rings and pendant hanging there. As he stared at the chain again, he realized it represented Amanda. She was the one who bound them all together, who held them each individually, and who connected them to one another. And she was going to remain with them to continue doing so.

Lee sighed happily and lay his head down next to hers on the bed.

"I love you, Mrs. Stetson," he whispered again, kissing her cheek. He placed a hand on her shoulder and closed his eyes, slipping into the first peaceful sleep he'd had since Sunday, certain in the knowledge that when he woke up, Amanda would still be there, and that life would be worth waking up to.



Disclaimer: These characters were created by Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming. They belong, lock, stock, and barrel, to Warner Brothers and Shoot the Moon, Inc. I'm just playing with them, and will return them in the condition in which I found them. No infringement is intended, and no one's getting rich, or even making money; please don't sue me. The basic story's plot and structure, as well as some dialogue, have been taken from "Mission of Gold", written by Lynne Kelsey and directed by Dennis C. Duckwall. They have complete ownership of the lines and storyline they created. The remainder of the story is entirely mine and should not be reproduced, archived, reposted, or forwarded without my explicit permission.

Author's Notes

I envisioned as early as first season how freaked out Lee would be by Amanda getting shot, and was excited to see the show exploring that possibility. I was terribly disappointed to see the A-plot in "Mission of Gold" take over to the exclusion of the personal and deeply emotional core issues of the B-plot, about which we all cared far more. This story is my attempt to add back in the bits that, had they been included, even in part, might have made for the episode I wanted to see. This was intended to be a short episode filler...it grew beyond that rather without my permission.

I tried to stick as closely as I could to the medical information that I had or could obtain. Unfortunately, I didn't have a single medically appropriate way around that damned oxygen tent being used in 1987. I'm sorry...she would have been intubated and on a ventilator, or would have at least had a nasal cannula for the oxygen; it's 1987! But since it's in the show, I can't change or fix it to be right, so it's medically wrong (as is my lame excuse), but canonical.

The explanation I've included for Amanda's heart necklace is from an unused line in the script of "Night Crawler". It is no more canonical than any other explanation, as we do not have an aired history of where she got the necklace.

I created a timeline for "Mission of Gold" to use in writing this story that would fit with both the dates and the days of the week involved starting at Friday, February 13, 1987. Unfortunately, no matter how I played it, Billy and Francine end up at the Agency at some ludicrous hour of the night on either Saturday or Sunday. I decided that they just had, um, extra work to do with Lee and Amanda gone, yeah...that's it...

My mom, unbeknownst to her, even gets to make a brief cameo in the story, which was fun for me.

Story begun: mid-July 2000. Story finished: December 2000

Many thanks to my team of beta-readers: Marni, a paragon of patience who let me send this to her piecemeal since I started it in July and who remained in limbo during the 2-4 week periods when nothing new was added; Cyndi, who made funny comments, was typo-catcher extraordinaire, and noticed glitches that I'd never have caught; Jennie, who asked, "Do you want the typos or the gushing first?" and who told me what rang wrong stylistically as well as where my fingers went astray; Ann, who spoke glowingly, then went back to look for stuff for me to fix and teased me for sending the story with an "assignment" of "things to read for"--teachers are, indeed, incurable; Lori, who read the first two-thirds, then waited semi-patiently for the rest, and encouraged me to get it done; Robin, who found little mistakes no one else had noticed, and send notes on them without being asked; Jill, who doesn't pull her punches and found things for me to actually work on as I revised; and Tara, who likewise ripped things apart so that I could put them back together better