Taylor, you're driving me nuts!
You keep bouncing around from chapter to chapter, and I can't tell if you're putting them up out of order, or if I'm just receiving them out of the temporal stream!
And I STILL don't know your heroine's name!
The peace of the morning was broken. I heard muffled shouting, glass shattering, and a door slamming. When the basement door opened, Avan and I were out of bed and on our feet. We still hadn't slept.
"Stay behind me.' Avan ordered.
I retreated, my eyes peeking over his shoulder. I saw the flash of the knife before I saw the men. Our captor gestured towards the floor with the blade.
"Get down, dog!"
I jumped. Avan obeyed.
"Not you," said our captor, looking at me.
Avan lay with his chest against the floor, his hands braced as if preparing to do a push-up. A cruel smile spread across our captor's face. He was pleased, and I was frightened for Avan.
"Get on his back." he said, gesturing towards me with the knife.
I did so. Avan lifted himself just enough for me to wrap my arms around his chest, just underneath his pectoral muscles, my cheek resting on his shoulder. I felt him raise his head, no doubt looking up at our captor and his henchmen. I didn't look.
"Push-ups," our captor said. "Until I say stop."
Avan inhaled as he pushed, his sharp shoulder blade becoming smooth, then exhaled, lowering himself to the floor. I felt a sudden rush of affection toward him, a closeness I'd never felt before as he repeated the action over and over. He wasn't only carrying himself. He was carrying me as he always had. His breathing was rhythmic and controlled, just as it was during my many anxiety attacks. His back supported me even with the weight of the world was on his shoulders. I never loved someone so deeply in my entire life. I squeezed my arms tighter around him. I pressed my cheek into his shoulder and closed my eyes, soaking in the soothing heat radiating from his back, his chest, his legs. If I didn't let him go, I'd be alright.
"Hey, Short Stuff!"
I climbed out of bed and followed the sound of my brother's voice to the living room. He looked at me, his pale eyes welcoming. I smiled at him, a scrawny child still in her pajamas.
"Wanna help me work out?" he asked, getting up from the couch.
I giggled. I was too small to be a spotter, and all his weights were in the garage.
He lay on the carpet with his chest against the floor.
"Climb on," he said.
I took a few steps towards him.
"On your back?"
"Are ya scared?" He didn’t say it meanly, more challengingly, so I shot him a dark look and climbed on, my little arms around his neck. He pushed off the ground so fast that I bounced against him, giggling and laughing.
"Better hold on!" he said.
I squeezed him tighter. He went down as fast. My stomach rose and fell, making me laugh again. He repeated the action once, twice, three times before finally slowing to a regular pace. I closed my eyes, so full of joy I got to see him before football season started up again. I didn't want him to leave.
After about fifty pushups, my brother's body stilled, waiting for me to get off. But I didn't want to. I held on, my eyes still closed, not ready to let him go.
I missed my brother. I missed the way he smelled. I missed his laugh, his smile, his hugs. I missed the way he teased and tricked me even in my teens. But that was before the concussions, before his hallucinations, before he started hearing voices, before I found him hanging from the beam in our basement.
Avan grunted as he lowered us to the basement floor. He stayed there, breathing heavily. I'd been so wrapped in my own memories that I lost count of the number of pushups he'd completed. Our captor snorted and the other men laughed.
"Did I tell you to stop?"
Avan's muscles trembled beneath me. Sweat soaked through both of our shirts. His heartbeat was hard and fast above my hands. His breathing, so soothing before, was choppy and ragged. He was exhausted.
I knew he would go on. I knew he would go however far our captor pushed. He would push through it so I wouldn't face the wrath. With a sharp intake of breath, he rose very slowly, dropped, then rose, then dropped again, straining with every movement.
"Avan," I whispered. "Stop."
He gasped, his arms quaking, his skin searing mine through his shirt, before collapsing under our weight. I climbed off of him. He rolled onto his back, his eyes closed, hands behind his head, panting hard.
"Fifty pushups," our captor praised, clapping. "Well done!"
I knelt above Avan.
"You did good," I whispered, brushing his hair from his cheek. "You did so good, babe."
With a wince, he rose up onto his elbows, raising one knee, and I ran my fingers through his hair. His smile, a Crescent moon, washed away my pain, my grief, my sadness. The swelling in his cheek was gone, leaving a dark yellowish bruise in its wake. This was a good thing. Avan was healing.
I rubbed Avan's back the night before his next fight, kneeling behind him when he sat down on the end of the bed. His hair was still wet from his shower, his skin damp. I felt it as I ran my hands up the length of his back. My nostrils flared, breathing in the scent of steam and sweat and heat. A weird, misplaced rush of longing tore through my stomach. He leaned forward and rested his mouth against his clasped hands. His shoulders shuddered under my fingers. Although I couldn't see them, I knew his eyes were closed.
"What are you thinking?" I asked, curling my fingers around his ears and neck.
When he didn't say anything, I let my fingers slide down to his shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze. This caught his attention. His words were soft.
"Did you really mean it?"
Now it was my turn to stay quiet. I'd stayed like that for so long that Avan spoke up before I had the chance to respond.
"When you said you wanted to have children with me."
I moved the wet tufts of hair behind his ear. I leaned my chin on his shoulder, my smooth cheek against his stubbled one, and I wrapped my arms around his neck.
"Of course I did." I whispered.
I felt his fingers on my wrist.
I repositioned my legs and leaned back, taking him with me. We fell onto the worn blankets behind us. Together, we sighed, as if seeing each other's thoughts. I kept my voice gentle.
"Why is it so hard to believe that someone could love you, Avan?"
Avan stayed quiet. I hated these new-found lapses of thoughtfulness he seemed to fall into. Why did he need to think so hard about this? I was suddenly furious with him. But now was not the time to show it. He had enough to worry about. I swallowed my anger.
"Go to sleep," I whispered.
He turned his head onto my breast, closed his eyes, and fell asleep almost instantly. I watched him, my fingers drawing pointless patterns across the bridge of his nose, the line of his jaw, the curve of his ear. His lips parted ever so slightly to expose his teeth, stained by time and coffee, a little chipped from a cage fight that ended with his opponent hitting him hard enough to send his mouth guard flying out of the octagon. I traced his eyebrows. I played with his hair. I watched him sleep. His features, so delicate, seemed even more precious when I thought of our circumstances. His next fight was tomorrow and we had no idea who his opponent would be. A strong enough jab could fracture a cheekbone, knock out a tooth, shatter an eye socket. A strong enough kick could do even worse. Not for the first time, it struck me that MMA fighters were like modern day gladiators, and Avan was one of them. He was skilled and he was strong. But would strength and skill be enough to win?