Off to See
by Amy L. Hull ( amilynh at comcast dot net )
written for fresne in the Yuletide 2007 Challenge
Notes: Many thanks to the many who listened to me brainstorm and betaed as well: Tammy, Merlin Missy, Eilonwy, Finabair, and others I cornered on IM.
Lee turned blearily toward the voice calling from downstairs. It was accompanied by doors clattering open and closed and rapid-patter footsteps.
There was a muffled moan from the other side of the bed and he felt a bump as the head next to him hit the mattress and heard a pillow plop unceremoniously on top of it.
The voice came again, louder and nearer. "Amanda! I need to check some things with you!"
The footsteps sounded on the stairs. Lee rolled slightly, nudging the woman beside him. "Hey, 'manda, your mother wants you."
"Too early," came the barely audible mumble.
Lee nudged her again and peered sleepily at his wife. She was hugging the pillow to her face and he almost laughed out loud. "You're s'posed to be the morning person. And she's your mother."
Amanda pulled the pillow down from her face and blinked several times.
"She's not going to give up till you answer. Anyway, if she can have this kind of energy at nearly eighty--"
Amanda snorted. "Don't let her hear you say that. And she hasn't been working 70-hour weeks training her replacement, so she can still afford to be a little perky."
"Amanda!!" Dotty's voice was insistent. "I need to talk to you about arrangements."
"If I didn't know you both, I'd question the 'a little' part of that."
Amanda tried to scowl at him, but her eyes were wide and clear by now, and morning good spirits took precedence. She chuckled and kissed him quickly before rolling out of bed, letting the sheet drift off slowly. He smiled appreciatively, watching the robe he'd bought her for last year's anniversary swirl and settle around her, setting off her figure.
"You know, I think I miss your old nightgowns," he teased, staring openly as he rested his head back on his hands.
"Hmm...and here I thought you preferred the sleepwear you buy me." She flashed him, grinning, then closed her robe and opened the door, where Dotty was standing, knuckles poised. "Good morning, Mother."
"Good morning, Amanda." Dotty glanced past her daughter, adding a perfunctory, "Good morning, Lee."
He waggled fingers from behind his head. "Morning, Dotty."
"I've started coffee already--" Amanda pushed her mother's shoulder slightly so she could step through the door, then closed it behind her. Dotty never stopped talking and Lee thought he heard something about "floating candles as centerpieces" before he rolled over, pushed himself up and started toward the shower.
"Ten more days," he murmured to himself.
Amanda plunked a stack of files down onto her desk then leaned on her hands, letting her head hang between her arms and arching her back up. Lee watched from his own desk, knowing she was going to be stiff for weeks after she was done with this job. He took in the details of the drape of her hair, the set of her shoulders, the confidence in her stance, the knick-knacks with which she had filled their shared office at the Agency, the feeling of them, together in their workspace. At last she sat down then leaned back so the office chair squeaked, and dangled her arms over the armrests.
"How was your day?" He tossed her the bottle of water he'd had ready for the past twenty minutes.
"Thanks," she said, taking a drink. "It was good. These recruits are starting to work with one another's strengths. I think there may be as many as half a dozen really good agents come out of this group." She smiled at him, then her expression turned curious. "What?"
"Oh, just you," he smiled. "I love how you love your job. I love how good you are at it." He stood, moved to stand behind her, and kissed the top of her head, breathing in the familiar, somewhat fruity shampoo scent. His hands fell automatically onto her shoulders and he squeezed the taut muscles gently, his left thumb moving along the cool skin of her neck. She was never not a little chilled, it seemed. "I love watching you, a week from retirement, still going strong, still inspiring young agents to do what they'll never do as well as you did on pure instinct."
Amanda's laugh was practically a snort. "Well, that instinct is always fun to test, that's for sure."
"You ran the Amanda King Creative Problem Solving Test today, didn't you?"
"Yep. Last time for me to run it." A layer of regret tinged the pride and nostalgia in her voice. They'd been noting the many things over the past months that they were doing "for the last time." Still, all the endings felt a bit unreal.
"How'd they do?"
"Well, of the twenty in this training group, four blew up the plane, six crashed heroically," she grinned at that, shaking her head slightly, then continued ticking off on her fingers, "four tried a few options but ran out of ideas and gave up, two found a workable solution but never would have had time to implement it, three found the normal answer, and one had something I never would have thought of." Amusement overtook the wistful note in her voice.
"And what was that?" Lee grinned, kneading a knot at the base of her neck and feeling the warmth of pride. "I can't believe someone came up with a more creative solution than something you'd think of. Did they actually beat the Bombers-badge-to-stop-a-nuclear-warhead tactic?"
"I think this one did..." She trailed off and moaned softly, leaning into his hands. "That feels so good."
"What was this session's variation?"
"This version had them in pairs on a simulated airplane. The plane was rigged with an altimeter-triggered bomb; if the plane dropped below 32,000 feet, it would explode. The ones who crashed all ran out of ideas right away and decided to crash deliberately in an unpopulated area to minimize casualties--I think too many of them have seen too many movies. Only four of them thought to go through the carry-on luggage for tools. Two of those didn't recognize anything as useful."
"So what was this clever solution?"
"One of them jury-rigged the wiring so the altimeter reading didn't register as they landed."
"Got it in one." Amanda rose from her chair and turned to kiss him.
"Still doesn't compare to your solution. It's like cheating; she already had a computer science degree and a hacking reputation that would fuel nerd squads' wet dreams for months."
Amanda rolled her eyes at him but grinned anyway.
"I am going to miss this," he said softly, leaning his forehead to hers and stroking her upper arms. He felt her relax slightly.
"I know. Me too."
"It's time. I know it's time. But are you sure you're ready to let it go?"
"Lee, we've been over this a dozen times. I've been here twenty years, and you know I've loved my work, loved knowing what I do is important. I've loved the time working with you, serving my country--as trite as that sounds--and I wouldn't trade the past eight years of training agents for anything. But I want real time with you now."
Lee locked his arms around her waist and Amanda followed suit. "And in eight more days we'll have our time. Just...us."
"Just us. That sounds...wait." She frowned at him. "Seven more days."
"Nope. Eight till you're all mine, most of the time."
Amanda chuckled. "But our last day is in sev-- Oh. You're counting up through mother's big party, aren't you?"
"You'd better believe it." Lee grinned broadly and kissed her.
Lee had to admit to himself that for a retirement party Dotty had organized, it was small--even reasonable--compared to what it could have been. There were certainly advantages to having half the people at work unable to associate freely in public.
Dotty was mingling with the fifty or sixty-odd guests, smiling widely at everyone, holding a glass of wine in one hand, gesturing with the other, and talking nonstop. Light reflected and sparkled off her sequined dress with every movement. She'd pointed out the swishy fringe at the bottom and the fact that she'd bought it extra fancy since they'd cheated her out of wearing one when they hadn't had a big wedding. As Lee watched her flutter around the room, he couldn't help chuckling softly at the fact that his mother-in-law's nervous energy seemed not to have diminished in the least since he'd first met her. Lee leaned on his elbows against the bar, a half-full glass dangling from one hand. He found Amanda in the crowd, caught her eye, and winked at her. She smiled warmly back, that bright, just-for-him smile that still sent thrill skittering through his chest.
Lee was still admiring the flow of dark blue silk around Amanda's hips when she turned to him again and nodded in the direction of the door. Just arriving was Billy, leaning heavily on a cane but dressed to the nines and holding onto the arm of an attractive young woman Lee barely recognized as Billy's older daughter. Behind her was a tall man with a tiny girl on his shoulder and two identical little boys in miniature tuxedos.
In three strides, Lee was at the door, shaking hands. "Thank you so much for coming, Jennie." He nodded to her husband. "Leo." Taking Billy's hand while simultaneously offering his arm, he grinned. "Billy, it's great to see you!"
"Wouldn't have missed this for the world."
"Your family is gorgeous, as always. I thought this one was just born last year," he said, pointing to layers of pink, lace, and frills of the little girl's dress as her father set her on her perfect little white dress shoes.
"Little Jean is almost two. The boys are four and a half. Why, thank you, sweetheart," Billy said as Jean hugged his entire leg.
"Leo, if the boys are interested, my granddaughter Annie is over there in the white dress. I'm sure among them they can find ways of destroying their clothes."
The family headed across the room toward the hors d'oeuvres and the few other children present. Billy smiled after them.
"I thought you'd want to know that Francine hasn't annihilated any small countries or lost any departments," Lee said. "She's doing really well in your chair. But I am sorry it's been so long, old friend."
"I think it's been since you and Amanda had me over to dinner in the months after Jeannie died."
"I still can't believe she's gone. This was supposed to be your time with her."
"At least she got to see her first granddaughter be named for her." Billy's voice was gruff, but his smile as he looked at his grandchildren was only a bit sad.
"Lee, how can you make this wonderful man stand here?" Dotty flurried, taking Billy's arm and leading him to a chair at one of the white-clothed tables. "Mr. Melrose, it's good to see you again, especially under such better circumstances. My son-in-law's manners are always...well, here, have a seat." She pointed to the white-haired man with prominently dark eyebrows standing near her and offering Billy a glass of wine. "Do you remember my suitor Andrei, Mr. Melrose? His arrival was the first time we met."
Lee stared, blinked several times, then managed, "Dr. Zernov? You and--"
"Andrei. Please," the scientist replied, shaking hands with them both.
"It's good to see you again, Andrei," Billy said warmly.
"But...when...?" Lee stopped before he could sound even more foolish.
"Oh, Andrei has been back in the area for over five months, but we've only been having our delightful little affair for about three." Dotty giggled, kissed Andrei's cheek, then brushed away the lipstick. She raised her wine glass for a toast. "We didn't feel any need to share it with you yet. I mean, you've been so busy. Anyway, I think we should just be glad that no one is in danger this time."
"Hear, hear," Billy said, toasting with both of them.
Amanda stepped into the group and hugged Billy tightly then kissed his cheek. "It is so good to see you, sir," she said, squeezing his hand. "Have you seen my sons?" She gestured to the young men who had arrived just behind her.
"Well, I remember Jamie from meeting him a few years ago when he started in Forensics before I retired. But I haven't seen Phillip in a long--"
"Probably not since you were keeping our house under surveillance when Lee and Amanda were missing," Dotty interrupted, then, indicating the pair as if they were not clearly in earshot, continued blithely, "Do you think they're ready to leave your...business, Mr. Melrose?"
"Billy, please, Mrs. West. We're not on business terms here. And about retirement, well, I wondered a few times if Lee here might have stayed too long. But Amanda'd only just started, just settled in, and he wouldn't leave without her or leave her behind."
"I know. It's one of the things I love most about my son-in-law. He may have dragged Amanda into your crazy world, but he would never leave her alone in it."
"So, Lee, what are you going to do now?" Billy asked as Amanda slipped her hand into Lee's.
"Well, I thought I'd grow a beard." Lee grinned as Amanda swatted him on the arm. "Maybe buy some land out in Virginia, get a few horses to ride."
"He just wants to cater to Annie's horse obsession," Phillip said, glancing over to where his daughter and the twins were rolling along the floor.
"There's nothing wrong with that," Lee insisted. "Annie's worth it. And away from the city it'll be safer to teach her to shoot."
"Just don't tell her mother," Phillip said. "It's funny. Both my exes are totally gun-phobic, and Annie's mom is paranoid about any law enforcement stuff. She thinks it's all corrupt and rigged, especially you guys' branch."
"Will you can it, Phillip?" Jamie muttered.
"I'm just messing around," he countered.
"So am I," Lee interjected. "Well, mostly. I think the horseback riding would be a big hit. You know, in a year or so, when she's six, I'll bet she would enjoy learning to track a target in wooded terrain. I could set up a mock drill--"
"Is this before or after you take her on guided tours of East Berlin, Moscow, and Tokyo?" Dotty asked wryly.
"You know," Dotty said thoughtfully, "he wouldn't be so bad if there were more grandkids for him to dote on. What do you think, Phillip? Shouldn't Annie have a brother or sister?"
"Whoa! Sophia and I have only been dating for three and a half months." Phillip smiled, draping an arm over the shoulders of the stunning woman joining them with a small plate of finger foods. "I think this is a little soon to have this discussion. Anyway, it's Jamie's turn."
"Oh, no, you don't--"
"That's true!" Dotty turned a huge grin on Jamie and lifted her wine glass. "I don't even remember your last girlfriend's name. You're not getting any younger, you know, and I can tell you, speaking from experience, the older you get, the harder it is to keep up with kids. When are you going to bring someone home to us?"
"Grandma, it's too hard." Jamie averted his gaze, not looking at Amanda after a brief glance. "It's just, with my work...the secrecy...it's too much like lying. Maybe if there were someone at work, but...I just can't do it. We've talked about this. Tell her, Mom."
Amanda avoided the pointed stare that Dotty aimed at her. That conversation had been had a dozen times, and the hurt feelings had never been erased, though the worst of the sting was finally gone. "Mother, I think Jamie will do what is best for him. He has a promising career and is very good at it. I'm proud of him. If he meets someone he wants to share that with, I'm sure he'll tell us.
Lee clapped a hand on Jamie's shoulder and said conspiratorially, "I hear Lisa in pathology, Edgar in crypto, and Quentin in evidence are all interested, so you can certainly have your pick."
"Lee!" Amanda swatted at his arm. "That is enough embarrassing my son! Go...pour drinks for someone. Mingle. Make daiquiris."
He tried to glare at her but grinned, murmuring to Jamie as he left, "Just let me know if you want me to green light any of them, okay?"
Behind him, Billy asked, "So, Dr. Zernov, are you still teaching and doing research?" Lee tried to remember if he'd ever been to this kind of party--almost a cocktail party--when all the guests were friends or where he wasn't on assignment. This one was the only one he could recall where he felt like he belonged. As much as he'd complained about the hoop-la, this was turning out to be a very enjoyable, even relaxing, evening, and he felt somehow lighter.
He shook his head in amazement. He'd been married for twenty years--to one woman--and now he had retirement, a party he didn't need to have dreaded and then vacation and time with that woman. It was a lovely start to the new part of their lives together, he thought, looking around the room at the joy on so many people's faces.
Amanda woke and stretched, turning slowly to see if her husband was still sleeping.
Lee was gone and on his pillow there was a note. Amanda felt her heart rate soar. They couldn't have retired only to have one of them vanish the next day. The world wouldn't do that. Couldn't do that. But twenty years had taught her better and she was already on her feet and ripping open the note with little care. She would let Lee or Jamie complain about evidence after she was sure they were safe.
The card inside was plain and with block printing saying, "Don't pack. Don't do anything. Pick up the box you'll find on the kitchen counter. Lock the house and come to the Arlington train station. Be there by 8:30 sharp. Find train number eighty-eight. Get on the fourth passenger car and give the package to the man in the red hat. Come alone. And don't be late."
She glanced at the clock as she pulled on the nearest clothes. Twenty-five minutes. She was out the door--purse over shoulder, package in hand, and sidearm concealed under her jacket--four minutes later. She knew the writing was familiar, was Lee's, but she didn't have time to wait and study if that was coincidence, if it was forged, or if there was a hidden message coded into it.
When she pushed the button to open the community's gate a minute later, she had already plotted the fastest route to the train station that would let her arrive at the best vantage point. For a Monday morning, traffic favored her, and she arrived eighteen minutes after she had first checked the time.
Nothing looked overtly amiss so she parked and moved with the discretion and grace of years of practice along the perimeter and toward the designated train car. Her heart was keeping its usual even pace with her deliberate footsteps as she scanned the parking lot, the cars, the road, the train, the tracks, all the while advancing steadily.
She moved along the tracks from the rear of the train, keeping its underside as well as its windows in clear view. The fourth car was third from the end and she scanned the wider area as she stepped sideways onto the car's rear stairs. Taking a deep breath, she looked cautiously around the corner into the commuter compartment, hand inside her jacket on the grip of her pistol. After a moment, a newspaper folded down about two thirds of the way back to reveal a grinning Lee wearing a red baseball cap with the word "Bombers" emblazoned across it. He waved cheerfully.
She felt the prickle on the backs of her arms fade and was suddenly aware that she was breathing hard in the adrenaline letdown. She tried to relax but her shoulders and neck tensed up with frustration as she strode down the aisle, mentally counting to ten. At six she stopped next to his seat. "You! That was... You are just...awful!" she growled at him, snatching the cap off his head and swatting him with it.
"Welcome to retirement," Lee beamed, tugging on her sleeve. That plus the jolt of the train beginning to move landed her in the seat next to him. He took the hat out of her hand and put it back on, then pulled out another from next to him and placed it on her so the bill covered her face. "And before you ask, your mother is picking up your car."
She pushed the hat back so she could glower at him properly. "Lee Stetson, what on earth do you think you are doing?"
"I," Lee paused dramatically, picking up a two plastic wine glasses and champagne from an ice bucket on the floor near the wall, "am taking my wonderful, brilliant, retired wife on a real honeymoon." He poured the champagne and handed her a glass, then held his up to toast. "We are going somewhere beautiful, warm, a bit exotic, with no trouble chasing us. No one getting shot or spied on, no spying on anyone or running for our lives, just excellent food, good wine, and excellent company." He took a sip from his cup and kissed her.
She took a sip as well, trying to stifle the amused smile that was tugging at her determined scowl. She regarded him carefully. "You sure you can live up to that, Scarecrow?"
"Oh, I'm pretty sure." He grinned, eyes twinkling, and kissed her again. This time she kissed him back.
ooo end ooo