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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wench

“Wench!” an angry voice rang out among the cacophony of the glitz and glamour of a riverside tavern. Natalie’s face burned in shame as she made her way through the maze of tables and legs. The “customer” was impaired. Anyone with eyes could tell. Natalie personally knew he’d already had seven tankards of ale. She’d brought each of them to him herself.

She set the refilled tankard in front of him and made as if to leave. The man grabbed her wrist, preventing her escape. He pulled her towards him and smiled down at her. Natalie had to force herself not to gag as his awful breath filled her.

“What do you say we go find ourselves a cozy little room,” he slurred.

She made herself to look him in the face. “I don’t think so,” she responded with forced patience.

He gave a low laugh deep in this throat. “I don’t think you understand, sweetheart,” he rumbled. “I wasn’t askin’ your opinion.” He smiled revealing his toothy grin.

Natalie’s face flushed but she was determined hold her superior attitude. “Let go,” she said slowly, pronouncing each word carefully.

“And what if I don’t?” the man asked jovially.

Natalie’s response was cut off as a newcomer entered the bray, “I believe she said let go.”

Natalie’s heart began to pound even harder than it had previously been pounding. Natalie looked over her shoulder at the speaker, and sure enough, it was Michael; tall blond-haired, green-eyed, perfect in every way, Michael.

Mr. “customer” was angry at this intrusion. He slipped his free arm around Natalie’s waist and held her against him. “This is man’s business boy. Go home and play with your dolls,” he smirked at his own joke.

In an instant, Michael’s sword was out of its scabbard and three centimeters away from the man’s throat. Natalie felt the eyes of the entire tavern resting upon their little threesome.

“Let go!” Michael growled. It was a quiet sound that could be easily heard in every corner of the room.

Natalie felt the man’s grip on her lessen as he was mesmerized by the sword. That was enough for Natalie. She jammed her elbow just above the man’s bulging belly into his rib cage.

She was instantly released as the man doubled over. Unluckily, Michael had seen the plan calculating behind my eyes and had moved the sword so as to not slice the man’s neck. Michael used his free hand to grab my arm and pulled me away from the man who was beginning to stand up straight.

“Now get out!” Michael hissed, replacing the sword on the man’s throat.

Even in his drunken stupor, the man saw the wisdom in this. He backed up and stumbled to the door and out. Michael sheathed his sword and gripped my arm, leading me to a back room while the tavern patrons returned to their drinks and conversation.

Natalie turned on him when they were alone. “I was doing fine without your help,” she glared at him.

“Are you okay?” he asked, ignoring her comment.

Natalie was about to make another retort when the intensity of his green-eyed gaze caught her off guard. She looked down at her feet. “I’m fine,” she whispered softly. She didn’t realize she was crying until he used a gentle finger to wipe them away.

“This can’t keep happening, Natalie,” he began. “This is the third time you’ve been attacked this month.”

“It’s not like I have a choice. I’m stuck here as long as papa owns the tavern,” Natalie sighed and gazed off into the distance.

Michael looked at her long and hard. Finally he spoke, “Natalie, I—.”

“NATALIE!” a new voice called, cutting him off.

Natalie gave him a weak smile, “Papa beckons.” She turned and walked out the door, leaving him by himself in the room as she went back to her work.

Natalie sank into a chair and rested her head on her folded arms as the last of the patrons disappeared out the door.

She hated her life. Working in a riverside tavern with people constantly jeering at her was not enjoyable. What happened today had been a perfect example. But luckily her friend since childhood, Michael, had taught her some self defense moves so she could handle rowdy drunks. While she had told him about every incident, today was the first time he was there when it happened.

A grunt came from behind her. Natalie raised her to see her father staring at her with his signature glare. In one hand he held a sack of horse feed. “Those horses aren’t going to feed themselves,” he grunted, dropping the bag on the ground before returning to the kitchen.

Natalie stood up wearily and hefted the heavy bag over her shoulder. She stumbled across the floor and out the door to the stables. She began her trek to the stables when a hand reached out of the shadows of the tavern and clapped over her mouth.

Natalie swung the bag of feed from her shoulder, attempting to hit the person. The person ducked and maneuvered so her back was pressed against them. “Stop!” he hissed as Natalie fought to escape. “It’s me!”

Natalie stopped fighting. “Michael! Why would you do that? You scared me half to death!”

Michael released her and she spun on her. She opened her mouth to say more, but he silenced her, with a kiss.

He pulled away and Natalie found herself utterly speechless.

“Natalie,” he started hesitantly before rushing on, “seeing what I saw tonight really scared me. It made me realize I wouldn’t be able to bear it if anything bad happened to you.”

Natalie regained herself and nonchalantly shrugged off his concern. She had no idea what to make of this new development. “Nothing is going to happen to me,” she assured him.

“You’re right,” he agreed, “that’s because I’m taking you away from here tonight, forever. Away from this tavern and your father and all those people who want to take advantage of you.”

If Natalie was speechless before, now she was dumbfounded. She had not seen this coming. Running away with Michael was an idea she’d never even considered. Who would ever want a wench? Even though Michael was always there, Natalie had never let herself entertain the idea of somebody actually wanting her. And there was no way she could leave her little brother, Gabriel. He would be left here to deal with father all on his own. Now here was Michael, asking her to run away, and it struck her completely blindsided. He couldn’t be serious.

Natalie became angry. What a mean joke to play on her. “Go away,” she said, her voice trembling and angry tears pooling in her eyes.

Michael stepped back as if he’d been slapped. A look of shock and hurt was written across his face.

“You’re a horrible friend, you know that right?” Natalie turned away from him. She picked up her bag of feed from where it had dropped to the ground and stomped off in the direction of the stable, barely noticing the weight. She saw Gabriel’s silhouette standing in the doorway to the stable. He stood with his mouth hanging open.

When she reached the stable door, she looked over her shoulder to see that Michael hadn’t moved an inch. His face was contorted in hurt and confusion. Why was he still playing? Didn’t he realize he was tearing her heart in two?

Suddenly, Natalie found herself wanting answers. She dropped the bag at Gabe’s feet and stormed back over to Michael. “Stop!” she hissed. Standing only a foot away now, she banged her fist on his chest.

To her surprise, the blow made him fall to the ground. She was too angry to care.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she demanded, standing over him.

“Natalie,” he began, his voice laced with confusion, “I don’t understand.”

“Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about,” she yelled at him, not caring how late it was. “Why play such a cruel joke on me?”

Michael’s confusion cleared and he stood up. “Natalie, I’m not—,” he tried, but she cut him off.

“You know what, Michael? I don’t care. You’re just a jerk. I can’t believe I wasted so many years on you.” Tears began to course down her cheeks and she ran towards the stable.

Michael was able to reach her after only a few steps. He grabbed her arm and spun her so they were face to face. He wrapped her hands up in his. “You know me better than that Natalie. You know I wouldn’t play a joke like that on you. I love you Natalie. I always have. It just took me until today to realize it. And you know what?”

Natalie shook her head.

“If all the love in the world could be contained on a grain of sand, all the beaches of the world would not come close to the amount of love I feel for you,” he begged her with his eyes to believe him. But when he looked at her, he could still see lingering doubt. “Please, Natalie, what can I do to make you believe me?” he asked.

Natalie took a shuddering breath and pulled her hands away from Michael’s. “Go away,” she repeated in a whisper.

Michael’s face fell.

“I . . . I just need some time to think is all,” she explained weakly.

Hope reentered Michael’s bright green eyes. He took he hand and raised it to his lips, planting a small kiss. “I will ever be waiting,” he whispered.

Before Natalie had a chance to reply, Michael was gone.

Natalie hugged her arms around herself in the chilly night air. Her mind was numb and she didn’t know what to think. A hand touched her arm. She spun, her heart beat wildly, but it was only Gabe.

“What’s wrong Nat?” he asked softly.

“Nothing,” she responded, but then felt the desire to tell him the truth. “Michael asked me to run away. Silly, huh?” she added with false levity.

Gabe looked at her for a moment. He was completely serious, “No, it’s not. Why didn’t you go with him?”

Natalie was shocked at his answer. “I could never leave you Gabe! Why would you even suggest such a thing?”

Gabe rolled his eyes, “Hmmm, maybe because you love him.”

Natalie opened and closed her mouth, but no sound came out.

“Oh please,” Gabe laughed at her, “I’m your little brother. It’s my job to know everything about your love interests. Plus you made it like, not even hard.”

She joined in his laughter. “I guess maybe I do.”

Their gaiety came to an abrupt end as a new, eerily familiar voice reached them. “Well if it ain’t the wench. Looks like we’re gonna have some fun tonight boys.”

The voice sent a shudder through Natalie. A group of riffraff stood a few yards off in the direction of the road. At the forefront of the group was the man who had confronted her earlier. Despite his earlier drinks, right then he appeared completely sober.

Natalie took an involuntary step back, but found herself come to a stop as a giant man grabbed her from behind. She fought against him to no avail.

She had all but forgotten about Gabe until he started swinging his fists at her captor. “Let go of my sister!” he yelled, accenting each word with a punch. His efforts only caused all the men to laugh.

Natalie understood the severity of her situation, and knew that no amount of fighting would get them out of it. So, she did what any normal girl would. She screamed.

Everyone there, including Gabe and the man holding her, were startled by the piercing scream as it split through the still night air like a knife. Natalie’s captor immediately released her. She grabbed Gabriel’s arm and sprinted in the only direction open to them as her assailants regained their senses.

They were through the stable door by the time she heard yelling and pounding feet behind her. She quickly looked around the stable as she ran through it. “Hide Gabe!” she whispered urgently. He took off in the direction of their favorite nook from when they used to play hide-and-seek. The stable had no back door because papa didn’t want thieves to come in the night and steal the tavern residents’ property. She needed a hiding place that would buy her enough time for someone to heed her cry for help.

There! Gabe had yet to unsaddle one of the horses. Without startling the horse, she entered its stall and turned it sideways. On the side facing away from the door, she hooked one leg through a saddlebag and wrapped her fingers through the girth. Then, she raised her other leg off the ground and rested it on her other. In this position, she could not be seen from the door or the walkway separating the two halves of the stable’s stalls.

She was only barely in time pulling her leg up from the ground. Men pounded into the stable.
“Find her!” Tavern Man yelled at his men as he commenced overturning bales of hay. Natalie’s muscle’s strained to hold her up. Tears came to her eyes from pain but she held on tighter.
“There she is!” a voice called. It seemed to come from right above her. She tilted her head back and saw that a man was in the next stall pointing at her. While she couldn’t be seen from the walkway, the stalls to either side of her granted onlookers a perfect view. At least they hadn’t found Gabe.

Natalie tried to drop to the ground so she could avoid capture for as long as possible, but her foot caught on the saddlebag. Her head smashed into the ground. Spots danced across her vision. When they cleared, she saw Tavern Man standing over her, a wicked grin darkening his features.

A man burst into the stable, gasping, “Agar, somebody’s coming!” As if to confirm his words a voice reached them from outside.

“Natalie!” Michael yelled. Everybody in the barn froze.

Agar regained his senses the fastest. “What are you waiting for?” he shouted at the men. “Teach the whelp a lesson he won’t forget about sticking his nose in other people’s business!” The men acted immediately on his orders.

No! Natalie screamed in her head. Out loud she yelled, “Michael, run!”

Before she could get out any more, Agar slapped her face, leaving her stunned. Quickly and efficiently in a practiced move, Agar tied a length of rope around her hands and another around her feet.

To her ultimate horror, she saw Gabe approaching from behind Agar on soft feet. He was holding a length of metal he’d found like one would a baseball bat.

Agar saw Natalie’s eyes widen and spun around, seeing her brother. Before Gabriel had a chance to swing, a knife materialized in Agar’s hand and he stabbed Gabe in the abdomen.

Gabe let go of the metal and cried out in agony. He dropped to his knees and clutched his stomach. Great amounts of his lifeblood slipped over his fingers and he seemed to grow paler by the second.

“No! Gabe!” Natalie screamed, attempting tenfold to break away from Agar as he raised her to her feet.

Agar quickly formulated a plan and tossed her over the saddle like one would a dead animal. No matter how much she squirmed, she couldn’t make herself fall off. She continued screaming Gabe’s name as Agar took the horse’s reins and led it outside. Despite the Agar’s earlier behavior in the tavern, his recent actions had proved him to be a truly dangerous adversary.

What she saw outside lifted her spirits. Michael had used his sword to a great advantage. The ground around him was littered with unconscious men and still he fought on, trying to reach her. She truly did love him. She knew he’d be able to save Gabe.

“Michael!” Natalie screamed, trying to get his attention. He looked up as he collapsed the final man. “Go help Gabe!”

Michael didn’t listen, but started running toward her as Agar expertly mounted the mare. A hand from a man pretending to be unconscious reached out and grabbed Michael’s ankle, causing him to nose dive into the grass. The man was on him in an instant. He brought his club down on Michael’s head with a thunk. Michael’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and he didn’t move.
Agar urged the horse to greater speeds, taking Natalie farther and farther away from Michael and Gabe.

Gabriel managed to crawl out of the stable. He saw Michael lying in the grass. He stumbled over to him and collapsed at his side, taking in huge gulps of air. Giant tears were running from his eyes. He did his best to wipe the blood off from one of his hands onto the grass before reaching out and shaking Michael’s shoulder.

“You have to wake up Michael,” he cried. “Please, Natalie needs you. She needs you! Wake up!”
Michael groaned and brought the heel of his hand up to rub his temple. He blinked his eyes open and looked at Gabriel, not comprehending. “Gabriel, what are you doing in my room?”

Gabe shook his head violently and grimaced in pain. “Focus, Michael! We’re not in your room. We’re at the tavern. That man just rode off with Natalie. He kidnapped my sister!”

Michael sat up with a jerk and looked frantically around him at the scene. Images of what had happened flashed across his mind’s eye. He saw Natalie’s captor riding away into the night. She really was gone.

The man who’d hit him must have run off into the night. Michael looked frantically at the faces of the unconscious, searching for any more fakers. From the looks of it, none of them were. But one of the men began groaning.

Michael crossed over to him and held a knife against his throat. The man’s eyes wearily opened. When he saw his precarious position, he froze and tried not to swallow as the knife pressed against his Adam’s apple. “Where is she?” Michael hissed.

Michael could see an eye forming in the man’s eyes.

He pressed the knife harder until it broke skin and a trickle of blood emerged.

Michael released pressure on the knife so the man could answer.

“Agar is taking her to the warehouse by the river,” he gasped. Michael could tell this was the truth.

“Which warehouse?” Michael asked curtly.

“The big one.” When he saw Michael’s expression he added in a rush, “The one with the horse on the front.”

Michael shoved the man to the ground and sheathed his knife. He set off toward the road then stopped. “You coming, Gabe?” he called over his shoulder.

There was no answer.

Michal spun around. “Gabriel?” He saw him kneeling on the ground with his arms wrapped around his middle.

He had a pure expression of pain etched on his pale face. He looked up at Michael and slowly took his hands from his stomach.

Michael gasped in shock as he saw the blood staining his arms and soaking his shirt. Gabe collapsed unconscious to the ground.

In an instant, Michael was at his side, tearing open his shirt. Only now, as he tried to staunch the flow of blood from the ugly wound, did Natalie’s plea process in his mind. Tying off a strip of fabric, Michael ransacked the stable until he was able to find a small first aid kit.

Quickly, he returned to Gabriel’s side. “Sorry Gabe,” he whispered as he took a needle and thread and quickly stitched the lips of the wound together. Using strips of fabric, he tied off the vicious cut.

“Sorry again, bud,” he grunted as he picked up Gabe and began running down the street through the night in the direction of his own house.

* * * * *

Natalie’s sides were killing her from bouncing up and down on the horse. Her throat had gone dry from screaming. Agar kept a tight hold on her so she couldn’t slide off the horse. Agar jerked back on the reins and the horse ambled to a stop.

He shoved Natalie off the horse. She hit the ground hard, and her vision swam. Stars twirled above her and the picture of a horse on a hanging sign swam in and out of focus to the left. Agar yanked her off the ground so hard that her momentum carried her until she was resting over his shoulder. From her position, she could only see the sweaty back of Agar’s shirt.

She heard laughter coming from down the lane. She tried screaming again. The laughter became louder.

“Whad’ve ya got there, Agar?” One of the voices slurred. Natalie realized they were drunk.

“I’ looks like a neuw trea’!” a different voice hooted.

Drunken laughter bounced off the walls. “Can we ‘ave it when yur finnershed?” A man yelled.

Natalie heard Agar muttering unkind things under his breath as stepped inside the horse building she’d seen before. The door slammed shut, and Natalie knew she was alone with him. She felt her skin break out in a cold sweat as he marched across the room. He plopped her down in the corner on top of a pile of flour sacks. All her breath left her in a grunt. She struggled to regain it as she examined her surroundings.

She was in a large warehouse. From what she could see, it appeared as though it was actually situated over part of the river. Boats bobbed gently in the water that consisted of at least one third of the floor. Other areas of the floor included various other piles of food sacks, barrels of fresh water, tools for boat repairs, a pile of dirty clothes, and a row of cots for sleeping. None of them was currently occupied. A giant door hanging over the river could be lowered by a hand crank that probably took five men to work. Her view was blocked off as Agar stood over her. He wrapped his meaty fingers around her upper arm, and dragged her close to him.

The smell of his breath was beyond words. It made Natalie want to throw up. “You’re mine,” he whispered. His free hand rested on her hip.

Natalie was too shocked and scared to do anything.

Suddenly, the main door creaked open and a man stumbled in, panting. Agar released her angrily and stomped in the direction of the newcomer. “Is the situation neutralized? And before you answer, know that the answer had better be yes.”

The man swallowed and looked down. “Yes, sir.”

Agar frowned. “You don’t seem confident in that answer.”

“I knocked him unconscious, sir¬─”

“Unconscious?” His eyes, already dark, seemed to darken further. “You didn’t kill him?”

“No, sir.” The answer was quieter than a whisper.

Natalie sensed the pending disaster. She turned her head away just as the gurgling sound erupted, followed by a thump as the man hit the ground. Natalie took a deep, shuddering breath. She looked up to see Agar standing over her. “You will be mine soon enough, but for now we must set the bait. Your little friend will come for you, and when he does, we’ll be ready and waiting. She looked to his hand to see him holding a rope.

* * * * *

Michael shouldered open the door to his small cottage. He laid Gabe down on his bed. The bright red had transformed into dark crimson. Carefully, Michael pealed away the crude bandages. Gabe flinched slightly, but remained in his sleep. Michael released a sigh of relief. The blood flow was now only a trickle. The stitches weren’t pretty, but they would hold. Gabe would be okay.

Gabriel blinked his eyes open. “Michael?” He looked around with his eyes. “Where’s Natalie?”

Michael’s expression told him everything he needed to know.

“You have to save her, Michael.”

Michael nodded and looked into his eyes. “Will you be all right here?” He wanted to go after Natalie, but he felt reluctant to leave Gabriel here alone with such a grievous injury.

Gabe’s eyes pierced him. “Go.”

An instant later, Michael was running through the cold, dark streets toward the warehouse district. Buildings flashed by. Michael didn’t take time to notice them. He was looking for a specific feature. The horse. He almost missed it.

The horse was painted directly onto the warehouse, and it was huge. The painting job was amateurish, and it only looked like a horse if one tilted their head to the side and squinted slightly. But it was a horse nonetheless.

He took a few giant steps in the direction of the building when something brought him up short. It was too quiet. Michael felt the wrongness of the situation, but couldn’t pinpoint the source. Michael stepped back from the door, and walked over to examine the horse from closer. He touched it lightly with his hand, and his fingers came away wet. The paint was fresh. Very fresh. Natalie’s captor was trying to trick him.

Running feet sounded from the direction he’d just come. Michael leaped into the small alley between two of the warehouses and pressed himself to the wall. He peered out carefully and saw a man run passed. He looked vaguely familiar. With a jolt, Michael realized it was the man from the yard he had interrogated.

On silent feet, Michael followed him along the warehouse district. The man came to a sudden halt in front of a large building. Michael ducked behind a barrel as the man checked to make sure he hadn’t been followed before disappearing inside the building.

Michael waited a minute, then two. When the man didn’t emerge, Michael approached the door. A sudden flurry of activity in a pile of wood next to the building brought him up short. A car leaped out from behind the wood, but Michael paid it no mind. Glancing around, he stepped towards the pile to confirm his suspicions. Indeed it was the remnants of a newly torn down sign. The pieces rearranged themselves in his mind, and he blatantly saw the horse. Michael knew that this was his building. He also knew that the man was inside, probably waiting for him in the off chance that he hadn’t taken the bait laid out for him at the other building. He wouldn’t be expected, and Michael would use that to his full advantage.

With a quiet hiss, he unsheathed his blade. He threw open the door to the warehouse and positioned his sword at the ready. The man jumped up in shock from his position on the ground. He fumbled awkwardly at his side for his own blade. From his viewpoint, Michael could see Natalie bound to one of the posts on the far side of the room. A gag was in her mouth muffling her words. When she saw him, she began screaming at him and desperately trying to break free from her bonds.

“Get out now,” Michael hissed at the man, “and I’ll pretend that I never saw your ugly face here.”

The man was still for a second. He then sheathed his sword in a hurried fashion and fled by Michael into the night.

Michael sheathed his own sword and ran across the room to Natalie. He dropped to her side, and pulled a smaller knife from his belt. With a quick but controlled sawing motion he began cutting at her bounds. Natalie continued to struggle just as hard, if not harder, than she had been before.

“Calm down, Natalie,” he ordered as he attempted not to cut her wrists. “We have to go now before they figure out I didn’t fall for their ruse.”

Natalie stopped struggling, but glared at him until he removed her gag. “No Michael! You don’t understand! They led you here! This is the trap! You have to leave!”

Michael absorbed that for a second. Had they really led him here? Had it all been part of the plan? Now that Natalie had stopped moving, Michael commenced hacking at the ropes with his knife. “I’m not leaving without you!”

Her bonds fell away and Michael raised her to her feet. Right before they reached the door, it slammed shut and a bellowing laughter filled the air around them.

“You didn’t really think I’d let you get away that easy did you?” the voice laughed. The voice seemed to come from everywhere so that Michael couldn’t locate the source.

He felt Natalie press herself up against him. Glancing at her face he noticed how pale it was. “He’s here,” she whispered, her voice shaking with fear.

Michael looked at the room at large. “Show yourself, coward!” he shouted.

Instantly, a sharp pain flared through his left side, and he found himself falling forward to the ground. Natalie cried out as she was torn away from him.

Michael attempted to push himself up, but his hand shot to his side as the sharp pain reached him. Warm blood ran over his fingers, and Michael found that his sword in it’s sheath had been cut away. Natalie’s scream cut off abruptly. A foot pressed down in the small of Michael’s back. Michael gritted his teeth as his face met with the cold stone ground.

He turned his head as far as it would twist from that position. The man who had started this all was standing above him, his foot still pressing down on Michael’s back. He had one hand clamped over Natalie’s mouth. The sword he’d used to down Michael was replaced nicely in its scabbard. His other hand was holding Michael’s sword, sheath and all, into the air. The man smiled down at Michael with a look of irritation pasted on his face.

“You really are making this too easy, boy,” the man commented lightly. With a quick flick of his wrist, Michael’s sword clanged against one of the boats before disappearing into the depths of the river.¬¬ “How disappointing,” he sneered. Without another word, he turned on his heel, and, dragging Natalie along, made his way toward the boats.

“No,” Michael hissed. Even if he were able to make it to his feet, they would still be too far out of reach for him to save her. Michael climbed to his knees and looked around for something to use to his advantage. Before him he saw the crank used to raise and lower the door. He wouldn’t even be able to operate it without a second man due to the nature of the machine. Even if he had the second man, they would not be enough to control the massive door. But maybe Michael didn’t need to be able to control the door. Maybe he simply needed to set it free. Michael pulled a small knife from his boot and began cutting the ropes.

Natalie was tossed into the small skiff as if she were a rag doll. Agar plopped down next to her. Using yet another rope, he tied her wrists together, and looped the rope around his foot a few times. Natalie was left with no choice but to lie on the floor of the skiff. Agar picked up the paddles and began rowing toward the opening. Natalie shed a few tears as she thought about poor Michael bleeding to death as well as her own bleak fate.

They had almost reached the river beyond when the door suddenly fell down from above. The door splintered and broke at the force of its fall. Agar didn’t have time to react as shrapnel rained down on them. A large beam landed on the Agar and smashed their boat. Natalie, her hands still tied uselessly around Agar’s ankle, found herself sinking under the water, burdened by the weight of the dead man.


“Michael!” she managed to scream one final time as her head slipped under the water.

Michael scrambled to his feet in a rush of adrenaline. The injury didn’t matter right then. It was something to be dealt with later. Taking a hard run, he dove into the water in the direction of the wreckage.

Everything was silent under the water. Silent and pitch black. Michael had to rely on his initial direction and stick with it. His hands met with the ground. He used it as a guide and followed it toward the door. His head with what was left of the door, and he had to make a decision of which way to follow it. Michael could feel his breath burning inside him. He released a few precious bubbles, knowing it would help him last longer in the end. He went left. In seconds his hands bumped against the body of the man.

Michael desperately followed along his body until his hands met Natalie’s own. They were limp. Michael cut away her ropes with one vicious swipe that cleaved them apart. He wrapped his arms around her waist and launched himself toward the surface.

It was closer than he had expected, only 15 or so feet. When they hit the air, Natalie became reanimated, and sucked in great amounts of air. Michael gently swam them toward solid ground. They both collapsed on it in relief and rested quietly as they got their breath back.

Natalie glanced over at him at the sound of tearing fabric. She saw Michael propped up on one elbow, awkwardly trying to wrap the crude bandage around his cut.

Natalie sat up and knelt next to him. She placed a hand on his shoulder, pushing him down, and took the cloth from his hands. “Let me,” she said quietly. She pushed the bottom of his shirt up so she could have full access to the wound. Her fingers danced lightly over his skin as she wrapped the fabric under and around him, finally tying a knot at his right side.

Taking a deep calming breath, she went to lift her hands away. Before she could, though, Michael reached up and snatched her wrist, holding her in place. An intense look of pain was on his face, and Natalie somehow knew it wasn’t from the cut.

“Natalie,” he moaned. “Natalie, I can’t¬―” he cut off abruptly. With a rough jerk on her wrist that Natalie realized she didn’t mind in the slightest, he brought her face to a point where it was only inches above his. Natalie gasped as his intense green eyes bore into her. “I can’t live without you, Natalie. Will you marry me?”

“Michael . . .” She wanted to say yes. Her whole heart screamed at her to say yes. Being as close as she was to him made it hard to think, but one thought blared through the fog. “Michael, I can’t. I can’t leave Gabriel here alone. I’m sorry.” Saying his name reminded her of his dire situation the last time she’d seen him. “Oh my gosh! Gabe! Is he alright?!” Natalie moved to sit up, but Michael held her tight.

“Gabriel is fine. He’s at my house recovering.” Michael’s eyes were unreadable. “I never said anything about leaving Gabriel here, Natalie. Of course we can’t leave him here to deal with your father alone. Plus, it’s never a bad thing to have a babysitter hanging around to your beck and call.”

Natalie’s eyes glistened. “Do you really mean that, Michael?”

His eyes never broke contact with his as he nodded.

“Yes! I would love to be your wife!”

In a single move, Michael had laid Natalie out on the ground and was leaning over her, plastering her face with kisses. “You’ve just made me the happiest man that ever existed.”

Outside the sun was just rising over the horizon.

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