"Michelle, sweetie, be careful!"
Crazy brown curls tossed around in the breeze as a little girl turned toward her mother's voice. "I know!"
"Just don't go too far, okay? Up to your knees is deep enough."
She huffed and took another step into the waves rolling in. The sand felt squishy between her toes. "Mommy, that's not even deep!"
"It's plenty deep, baby; the waves come in fast."
When you're five years old, you're fearless. Everything is black and white. You push your limits because no matter how high you fall from, someone bigger is always there to catch you. So when knee-deep is too safe, little Michelle goes in up to her belly button, and laughs when a new wave comes in and splashes her in the face.
It's been a while since that day, but even now, there's something about the ocean that tends to put things in perspective for her. It seems cliché, but it's the best place she's ever found to clear her head. So when she can't stand to be alone with her own thoughts any longer, she gets in her car and ends up here every time.
For someone who rarely worries about herself, she's exceptionally skilled in the art of worrying in general, something she may very well have picked up from her own mother. She always worries about the people she loves. First she worried about her brother. Then there were her parents. And those days where all she worried about was her husband, especially once the 'ex-' was finalized. Always, she worried about the comrades she had gained in her old line of work.
Now, all she worries about is the baby curled up inside her whom she has officially been carrying for 20 weeks. The baby that has her still trying to wrap her head around the fact that she has a son.
Having worked in counter-terrorism for as long as she had, she knows better than anyone that the world is not a safe place. No one can be trusted. Nothing is definite. One moment everything is fine, the next you're lying on the ground with the wind knocked out of you, wondering what the hell just happened and why you're covered in blood.
Maybe that's why she loves the ocean. Because the seagulls, the fish, the kids making sandcastles, the young lovers walking in the surf, they don't know that. Not the way she does. Not the way her husband does. They're innocent. Like her little boy, all of ten inches long by now.
She knows her past is a minefield, and yet probably mild compared to her husband's. Her 36-year-old eyes have seen things she would never wish on anyone. Nothing about them is safe and ordinary, the way her own parents were. For years they'd cut as many ties as they could when it meant keeping the people they knew safe.
And now they're bringing a new life into the world. Another person to protect from everything they had spent years defending the country from. The fact that danger seems to follow them wherever they go is something she has long since accepted. But what about her and Tony's child? She cradles her little belly that had taken its time coming in but now grows rapidly with each passing day. Soon he'll be out in the world, and then what? She can't ensure his safety any more than she can control the tide, and it terrifies her more the farther along she gets.
She senses more than feels his presence beside her after missing his footsteps up the beach.
"Hey." He's wearing a slightly concerned smile with an arm slung over the back of the wooden bench.
She turns her attention away from the water and smiles at him. "Hi, sweetheart."
"I thought I'd find you here." She merely nods and turns her head back to the waves and the sun that's beginning to set. "How're you doin'? I missed you today."
"I'm fine." To most she'd seem convincing, but he knew better. "I missed you, too."
"Uh-huh... So, do you wanna tell me what's bothering you?"
She gazed down at where her right hand rested over her stomach. "Twenty weeks." She looked back up at him. "That means there's twenty weeks left."
"Until we meet him."
"Until he's not right here anymore. Until I can't make sure he's safe all the time. I... I need to know he's going to be okay."
"Michelle..." He wraps his arm around her shoulders and kisses the top of her head. "He will be. I won't let anything happen to him. I promise you."
She shakes her head. "You can't promise that, Tony."
"Yes, I can." He nods seriously, eyes willing her to believe him. He takes her hand in his and squeezes it gently. "We're in this together."
"I know," she assures him.
"But you're worried about..."
"About the work we've done? Tony, I can't even count the number of people who would want us dead if they knew who we were. If anything should happen to us... That's what I'm afraid of. He'll be caught in the middle."
"Baby... No." He strokes his fingers through his favorite auburn curls in the world. "His parents saved a lot of people. But he's not going to pay the price for that. We've paid it. More than once."
"It could happen again—"
"We left that life. We made a choice, and we left. It's over."
"And what if that life finds us?"
Something in her voice makes him ache in this moment. "You can't think like that; you'll worry yourself sick."
"How do you not?"
"I know how you're feeling, believe me. It's how I've always felt about you."
She raises her eyebrows. "What?"
"Sweetheart, when I met you, you were an analyst. I was... baggage. I had Nina Myers, I had... I'd done a lot of things. But Michelle, we're home free. No one's gonna hurt us. Especially not him."
She remains unconvinced, but holds his eyes.
"You just gotta let it go, a'right? Just... Name one person in our past with reason to hurt us."
He looks at her quizzically, almost laughing. "She's the first person you think of."
"She's the first person who had a reason."
He scratches pensively at his cheek. "You never forget your first enemy, I guess. Anyways..." He clenches his hand up in a fist and raises his arm, dramatically pretending to toss her words into the endless blue of the ocean. He cocks a grin at her which she mirrors instantly. "Next?"
She thinks for a minute. "The man I shot in the hotel. His family."
Tony repeats the action. "Gone."
She giggles softly. "All right, your turn."
It takes him a moment. "Mandy."
The wince is instinctive, and she crosses her arms over her chest to watch him throw the name out of their lives for good. "Next."
He chews the inside of his cheek. "Sweetheart, I think most of our enemies are dead." A sly grin forms on his face at this realization. "That's what happens when you're the good guys, right?"
"The people who wanted Jack dead."
The light in his eyes fades. "That's what this is really about, isn't it?"
She doesn't answer, but with him she doesn't have to.
"Even if they found out Jack is alive, they're not gonna come after us. It wouldn't make sense."
"Does it ever?"
"Michelle, we're gonna be fine..." He pauses, searching her eyes. "Do you ever wonder if we did the right thing?"
"No." Her knit brows convey her conflicted emotions on the issue. "No, of course not. We couldn't just feed Jack to the wolves."
"But if it's between Jack and..." Her eyes fall to her stomach. "I couldn't live with myself if something happened to this baby because of a choice we made."
"I know that." His hand rests on the smooth skin of her thigh that isn't covered by denim shorts. "But we've been done sacrificing our own security for a while. We did what we had to do, and now... We're having a baby. And we're safe. And you're beautiful." He brushes his thumb across her colored cheek. "And everything's going to be okay, a'right?"
She nods despite the lingering fears gnawing at her heart. "Will we ever tell him? About what we used to do?"
"Sure we will, when he's old enough. I mean, not everything, but... the important stuff. I have a feeling he won't scare too easy."
"Nah," she agrees more lightheartedly. "He'll be brave like his daddy."
He's grinning now. "And smart like his mama."
"He'll be able to handle it."
"Oh, yeah." He brushes his hand over her abdomen and pecks her cheek. "Until then, try not to worry so much, a'right? You'll stress yourself out."
"You make it sound so easy for someone who asks how I'm feeling twenty times a day."
His smirk turns sheepish. "That's different."
"Right." She rolls her eyes as she stands up and smooths out her navy blue tank top.
"Where ya goin'?"
"We're going for a walk on the beach; what about you?"
He's too enticed by that playful look on her face not to follow.
"Look at you, big boy. Was that fun?"
She and Tony each have one of their baby's hands as the little one toddles along the unfamiliar terrain between them.
"One..." she begins in the pattern they'd just recently established.
"Two..." her husband continues.
They swing him up in the air so his little feet are just a foot or so off the ground and melt at the sound of his fit of nearly breathless giggles. After a second he's back on the ground where Michelle picks him up and blows raspberries on his belly, beaming as he laughs his little lungs out, fingers clinging to her white sundress. "You like that, sweetie?" she coos, rubbing her nose against his. "Yeah?"
Tony leans down to kiss his son's curly head and tickles his sand-speckled foot, mimicking their little munchkin when he sticks out his tongue. Soon they're laughing at each other until the little guy's red in the face and Michelle's patting his back to calm him down. "Someone will be sleeping well tonight."
"If we're that lucky," Tony answers, taking baby Anthony off his wife's hands as they make their way back to their car. "You remember the last time we were here?"
She stops walking. "Mhmm."
She pulls the baseball cap off his head and kisses him, every word he'd said to her on this same beach a year ago flooding back. "And you were right."