The problem with success is that it makes you lose focus. While victories are sweet and often well deserved, you need to stay vigilant because you never know when a new threat will emerge.
Slowly the wisps of consciousness began to creep back into Fiona's mind. It took some time to realize that she was not dreaming and that she really was warm and really was lying on something soft that smelled clean and fresh. As she woke up more and more she noticed chickens squabbling outside and felt a particularly warm patch of morning sunlight at her feet. There was pressure on her left side, just above her hip, something sitting on her stomach. She slowly forced her right hand to investigate and her fingertips reported back that it was something round and covered in hair.
She breathed deeply, greedily inhaling the fresh air, and opened her eyes a crack. There, lying next to her, was Michael. He was half sitting in a chair pushed next to the bed and half lying with her on the bed, his head resting on her stomach like a pillow. She ran a finger lightly over the deep creases by his eyes, the heavy furrows on his forehead, and then along his jaw. He stirred and looked up at her, startled by the sensation of her fingers on his skin.
"Fi," he whispered in quiet excitement. He sat up and a chill ran through her body at the loss of physical contact with him.
"Hey," she croaked out, her voice hoarse.
He beamed at her, blissfully happy. "Hey," he returned her greeting.
She opened her mouth to ask any of the million questions buzzing through her mind, but her voice would not cooperate.
"Here," he helped her sit up a little and pressed a glass to her lips. The water was cool and soothing as she swallowed it. She opened her mouth to speak again, but he brushed a gentle finger against her lips to silence her. "We're at your mother's house," he started to explain. "Sam, Lucy, and I have been here a week now. We've been working with your brothers on the plan to get you back. Everyone's here and safe. Our plan worked perfectly," he smiled. "We got you back and O'Neill, his men, and the other people at the auction are all dead. We blew up the ship. You'll never have to worry about them again." Her eyes were getting bright and he really wanted to avoid making her cry again, for both their sakes. It broke little pieces of him every time he saw her cry. "It's okay," he kissed her forehead, letting his lips linger there.
She slowly snaked an arm up and wrapped it around his neck, pulling him back down so she could look him in the eye. She kissed him with as much strength as she could muster. "Good job, Michael," she breathed into the kiss. "It's wonderful to see I'm finally rubbing off on you."
Mrs. Glenanne fussed over Fiona most of the morning. The happy mother helped her daughter with a well-deserved shower and fixed her hair. Fiona was tickled to have her pick of some of her favorite outfits. Her mother threw the jeans and tank top in the laundry basket.
"I'd rather you burned them," Fi mumbled under her breath. Mrs. Glenanne ignored the comment and simply pushed the basket out into the hall.
James drove over on his lunch break with his medical equipment.
"I'm fine," Fiona protested as he shone a light in each of her eyes.
"You've a purple lump the size of a small potato on your forehead, bruises'n'cuts all over your arms, and you've barely been eatin' a meal a day for the last week…you're not fine." He shoved a thermometer under her tongue.
She frowned and rolled her eyes but grudgingly sat on the bed for the rest of the exam.
After receiving a relatively clean bill of health from James, they pulled one of the wing-backed chairs into the kitchen, along with a footstool and Fiona sat with her mother the rest of the day while she cooked and baked every recipe she could think of. There was barely a minute that went by when she was not urging Fiona to either drink more tea or sample the dishes she was preparing.
Michael was avoiding Fiona, avoiding the conversation he knew they needed to have, but he did pass through the kitchen on and off during breaks from packing. He would lift her feet onto his lap so he could sit on the stool and steal sips from her tea. Mrs. Glenanne would cluck at him disapprovingly when she caught him and shoo him back out to the barn so Fiona could get more rest.
Sean also joined them in the kitchen for much of the day. The safety of his sister had been good medicine for him and he felt well enough to walk around and even help a little with the cooking. Granted, he helped more with the eating, but he did manage to stir a few pots. Ryan had invited Sam and Lucy to Dublin to see his club and Sam had happily obliged. Lucy agreed to tag along only after Michael convinced her that now he really owed her and wouldn't mind doing all the packing himself. Rory took the motorcycle back to his apartment, vowing to return in a few days after checking in at work.
It was still light out after everyone had eaten dinner and Fiona was too excited from the conversation to go to sleep early as James suggested. She pointedly asked Michael if he would join her out in the garden. He agreed to go, knowing it might be one of his last chances to talk to her. She wrapped her arms around one of his to lean on him and they walked out away from the house.
"We used to have a big swing back here," she told him. "I don't know if it's still there."
"I think I saw it the other day," he said. "That one?"
She smiled broadly and he led her over to the bench swing nestled under an oak tree surrounded by rose bushes. They sat for a while in silence, just enjoying the fresh air and the sounds of the evening. Her head rested on his shoulder. He held one of her hands in his lap as the swing gently rocked back and forth.
"Fi," he finally spoke, "I…" he wasn't sure how to broach the question he needed to ask. "I was packing earlier, and I wasn't sure if you wanted me to put your boxes with our things from Lucy's company or just bring them into the house for you."
She looked up at him puzzled. "My boxes?"
"Yeah…you know, the things that you shipped from Miami before…before all this… They got here while we were waiting for the ship to arrive."
"Oh," she said quietly, looking back down at her lap.
When she didn't respond further he asked again. "I just didn't know if you were still planning to stay here or if you wanted to come back with us."
"I know," she said. "I just haven't had a chance to think about that yet…not since…" She glanced over at him.
She sat quietly for a few minutes, just thinking. "Michael, I…I think you know how I feel about the work you're doing with Strickler. I just…I know I can't stop you from doing what you want to do, but I just think it would be better if…"
He couldn't listen to her any longer with out blurting it out. "Strickler's dead." He looked at her, trying to gauge her reaction.
She leaned away from him and narrowed her eyes, her face asking the question before her mind could even process it. "What?"
Michael looked down at his hands and then back up at her again. "He's dead. I shot him." He reached behind his back to pull out her gun and set it in her lap. "I shot him because he was the one who helped O'Neill find you. Strickler set it up because he didn't think you fit into his plan for my future. After they took you, I figured it out. I went to him, but he wouldn't tell me where you were…so I..." She was fingering the long, lost weapon like it was an old stuffed animal from her childhood. "I shot him with your gun and then Sam and I went to get you."
"But you were too late," she finished for him.
He pressed his lips together and nodded his head in affirmation.
"So what are you going to do now?" she asked him. "Strickler was your ticket back in."
He shook his head. "I don't know what I'm going to do, Fi. I guess I'm back at square one."
She was quiet for a moment, then quietly and sincerely she said, "I'm sorry. I know how much you wanted your old job back."
The empathy in her voice brought pangs of regret to his heart. No matter how much it diverged from what she wanted, Fiona always did her best to support him. It was something he'd never been able to understand about her, her unwavering loyalty towards him. He always wondered what he'd ever done to deserve it.
"Fi, I…I do want my job back. I do want to clear my name. But…I realized, when I was standing there listening to Strickler…what I want more than any of that is to be with you." Her gaze locked onto him and held him, gently but powerfully, until they were the only two living beings in the universe, there on that swing, surrounded by nothing but the darkening sky and more and more twinkling stars. "I realized…I can survive without my job, I can survive without my reputation, but…if I lost you…"
She knew better than to press him to finish that statement. The way his chest was rising and falling in rapid little puffs, the way his eyes were blinking too quickly. She already knew what he was trying to say. She could feel his sentiments radiating off of him so strongly that there was no need for them to be spoken.
"Well, I guess I can't let you go home alone then, can I?" she shifted over to fit into the crook of his arm. He pulled her legs across his lap. "Look at you," she laughed. "You'd be a mess without me."
He smiled happily into her hair. "So you'll come back then?" he mumbled into her scalp.
She leaned back to smile up at him and he thought to himself that she'd never looked more beautiful. "Don't think I have much of a choice now, do I?" She squeezed him, straightened up a bit, and kissed him.
After a few more days of relaxation and a few days to let the heat from the international police die down they were almost ready to say goodbye. The day before the plane was scheduled to pick them up and take them back to Miami, the entire Glenanne family gathered at the house to celebrate and see them off. Joseph and James brought their families so the children could meet their mysterious Aunt Fiona who lived in the United States. Sean and Ryan had their girlfriends and Rory brought his furry, canine roommates. Neighbors came by too, and old family friends. Before long it seemed like the whole town was wandering around the old Glenanne farm.
The kitchen was bustling with activity and the barn quickly filled with long tables and a random assortment of chairs cobbled together from various households. The younger nieces and nephews chased the dogs in winding circles around the clusters of adults who stood around exchanging old stories and new stories with equal amounts of enthusiasm. A few of them had brought instruments and started to play around with their favorite songs.
Fiona floated through the crowd all afternoon, receiving more hugs and kisses than she'd ever thought possible. While he tried to stay out of the conversations and at the fringes of the crowd, Michael never let Fiona wander out of sight. Now that he had her back, there was no way he was letting her slip away again.
He was watching her intently while she exchanged fashion advice with Joseph's teenage daughters. The waning sunlight sparkled off her hair and she radiated happiness. She looked younger than she had in years…lighthearted and carefree. If Michael didn't know better, he would have sworn that this Fiona had just walked out of their favorite pub…the one beneath her rundown apartment in Dublin, the one where they used to plan all their operations, the one where they used to eat all of their meals, and the one where they fell in love dancing all night to the jaunty Irish music after any relatively successful mission.
He jumped as Rory came up behind him and punched his shoulder by way of greeting. Michael nodded to him and glanced back at Fiona. Rory's eyes followed Michael's through the crowd. Fiona must have sensed stares because she sent Michael a small smile before turning back to her nieces.
"So," Rory said. "You two really are in love then, aren't ya?"
Michael blushed and stumbled for words. "I…well…"
Rory threw his head back and laughed. "I know, I know. You don't have to explain." They stood quietly for a moment. "I just wanted to tell you thanks, for all you've done for us. It's hard enough livin' everyday with the idea of Fi being off on her own across the pond, but knowing she was in trouble and not being able to do anything…" his voice trailed off.
"Yeah," Michael nodded. "I know."
"I wanted to tell you," Rory continued. "We were talkin' earlier, my brothers'n'me, and we agreed…Da would've liked you. He would've been proud to have you as part of the family."
Michael turned to thank him, but Rory had already been pulled off across the way to preside over a drinking contest between Sam and Ryan. He chuckled to himself quietly and turned back to watch Fiona, but she had disappeared among the constantly shifting groups. As he wandered around looking for her, he ran into her mother instead.
"Michael!" she exclaimed happily. "Have you eaten? Please, please, come, I'll make you a plate…"
He assured her he was fine and asked if she'd seen Fiona.
"No," Mrs. Glenanne replied. "But that reminds me…" she patted the pockets of her apron looking for something, then pulled out a small card. "For you," she handed it to him.
He took it from her and looked it over. An angel with a spear, a shield, and an unwavering stoic gaze graced one side. He flipped it over and found the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel on the other.
Mrs. Glenanne reached up and pulled him down by the shoulders until she could reach to plant a kiss on his forehead. "That's just in case," she told him and patted his cheek before wandering off.
He looked again at the painting on the front of the card then glanced up at the rosy evening sky. He smiled upwards in silent thanks and slipped the card into the pocket over his heart.
Turning around he found himself face to face with Sam and Fiona.
"Mike! Here you are," Sam's face was slightly red from all the alcohol he'd just consumed.
"Here I am," Michael greeted them with mock excitement.
"What did my mother want?" Fiona asked.
"Nothing. Just wanted to make sure I'd eaten," he half lied.
"Have you?" she questioned, waving a hand across to the other side of the barn. "There's more food over there than in all of Miami, I think."
"I'm fine," he assured her.
His phone started vibrating in his back pocket. He looked at the ID and answered, "Diego?"
"Michael?" Diego's voice came over the line. "Listen Michael, what the hell is going on? Where are you? What the hell were you doing working with Tom Strickler?"
"Yeah, it's complicated…" Michael started, but was interrupted by Diego's frantic ranting.
"Do you know the kind of people he was in bed with? The kind of stuff he was involved in?"
Michael could hear the panic in his voice. "Diego, calm down," he tried to settle the man who should have known better than to let fear and panic control him. Sam and Fiona watched Michael with concern.
Diego continued his rant, "Do you have any idea what's been going on here? Strickler's dead. He was shot to death. Now someone's in town cleaning up the mess he left behind. I don't know who I can trust. Even at the agency."
"Wait, who's in town?" Michael pressed him for information.
"I don't know," Diego replied. "But I'm being followed, Michael. Someone's coming for me and they're coming for you too. We're not safe. We need to meet…now."
"I can't meet. I'm not…I'm not available," Michael tried to avoid letting him in on the details of his location.
"Damn it, Michael. This is your fault. Why'd you bring me into this?"
"Diego, I…Diego?" Michael listened for a response but the line went dead.
"Mike?" Sam spoke cautiously.
Michael pressed the phone to his temple in frustration. "They found Strickler," he told them. "They know he's dead. Now someone's in Miami trying to clean up after him."
"Do they you were the one who killed him?" Fiona asked.
He looked at her gravely. "I don't know. Diego didn't say. He was panicked, and then the line went dead."
The three friends looked at each other silently, each fully aware of what the others were thinking, knowing full well what would have to happen once they returned to Miami. The party continued to pulse around them, completely unaware of the trouble that was brewing.
"Well, Mikey," Sam tried to keep the worry out of his voice. "Tomorrow we'll fly back, but there's not much we can do for now except enjoy the good food, the good drink, and the good company."
"Yeah, Sam, but my mom…" his voice trailed off.
Sam clapped him on the back, "Let me go talk to Lucy, she can get someone from her company to watch the house until we get back. It'll be fine."
Michael narrowed his eyes and looked back and forth between Sam and Fiona.
"He's right, Michael," she said, slipping under one of his arms and wrapping one of her own around his waist. "There's not much else we can do right now."
"Fine," he nodded. Sam made a beeline for Lucy who was in the middle of the crowd dancing with Rory.
Fiona ran her hand up Michael's back and he pulled her in tightly to his side. "Come on, Michael," she grabbed his hands and pulled him into the crowd of dancers. "Dance with me like you used to when we were in Dublin." He rolled his head from side to side in exasperation so she batted her eyelashes at him. "Please?" she cooed.
He yanked her arms gently and pulled her in to hold her against his chest, their feet began to move slowly but rhythmically to their own music. "We're not in Dublin anymore, Fi," he whispered in her ear.
"No," she grinned up at him, "but it's close enough."
They made slow circles at the edge of the crowd, her head resting lightly against him. One of his hands settled at the small of her back, the fingers of the other hand played tenderly with the hair at the nape of her neck.
"Michael?" she looked up at him.
"Yeah, Fi?" he continued to lead her around absentmindedly in gentle circles.
"Michael, I just…before we go back I wanted you to know that I…" They continued to circle.
He grinned to himself as he realized what she was trying to say. He took one of her hands and held it over her head while he twirled her around without warning.
"Michael!" She gasped at the sudden movement.
He pulled her back in and laid a hand on the side of her face, tracing her hairline with his fingertips. "It's okay," he smiled down at her. "We're no good at this."