Fighting Solitude (On the Ropes #3)(4) by Aly Martinez

The next day went much like the first—until that afternoon when I was finally alone in the On The Ropes locker room, getting ready to spar with one of the fourteen-year-old boys who fought in my weight class. I was so lost in my own misery that I never even heard the door open. Suddenly, two small arms wrapped around my waist from behind.

“What the hell!” I jumped, but the small body clinging to me followed me forward.

Thankfully, before I threw an elbow, I glanced back and recognized Liv’s long, brown hair. Her face was crushed, nose first, against my back and her hands were knotted painfully tight at my stomach.

I was crazy about Liv, but we were young. Touching was still super weird. Our relationship, up until that point, had consisted of cracking jokes and getting in trouble together. With the exception of when we were huddled together in a dark corner, waiting for Derrick Bailey to pick his super-glued jock strap up, I wasn’t sure we had ever touched at all.

“Uh…Liv,” I said, contorting my body to see her.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered into my back.

“For what?”

“That you’re going to lose your hearing.”

“What?!” I yelled jumping forward, but once again, she followed. “Who told you that?”

“I overheard my mom and dad talking. He made me swear not to mention it. So, of course, I came straight to you.”

Fan-fucking-tastic.

I dropped my chin in defeat. “Would you let me go?” I bit out roughly, attempting to pry her hands away.

She was miniscule; I shouldn’t have had any trouble getting her off me. But this was Liv. Even wearing a hot-pink, frilly dress and glittery boots, she still could have taken half the guys in the gym—or, at least, she wouldn’t have hesitated in trying.

“No,” she murmured into my back.

I groaned, dropping my hands to my sides, giving up on trying to shake her off. “I need to be in the ring. And this is the boy’s locker room. You’re gonna get in trouble if Slate catches you in here.”

She continued to talk into my back. “Whatever. I’ll just tell them you forced me in here.”

“Awesome,” I deadpanned.

“Are you scared?” she asked.

“Nah. I’ve gotten used to running laps whenever you’re around.”

“No. I mean…about going…deaf.” She squeezed me tighter as she finished on a whisper.

“Nah. I’m fine,” I lied. God, did I fucking lie. I hadn’t been able to breathe properly for two full days.

Deep breath in.

Hold it until the room spins, forcing me to concentrate on anything but the uncertainty that consumes me.

Fast exhale out, crushing me in its wake.

“Well, I’m scared enough for both of us,” she said softly.

I barked a laugh. “What the hell are you scared of? I’m the one going deaf.”

“The silence.”

I tried to step out of her hold again, but I made no more progress than I had the first time. “What?”

Keeping her face buried in my back, she whispered, “You’re my best friend, Quarry.”

She was more than that for me.

I just didn’t know it yet.

“What the hell are you rambling about, Liv?”

“I was stuck in the apartment after my mom died for a whole day before the cops showed up. I don’t remember a lot. But it was so quiet, Q.” Her body began to tremble.

I wasn’t sure what to do, but instinctively, I shifted back a step, pressing her even closer to me.

“That’s why I wear my headphones all the time. I can’t even sleep without them.” Her voice broke as she nuzzled her face against the back of my T-shirt.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

I opened my mouth to respond three different times, but not a single sound came out. What the hell was I supposed to say to that? Sorry your life is even shittier than mine?

After a sniffle that revealed her tears, she spared me from having to figure it out. “I don’t want you to have to live like that. It’s gonna be so scary, Q.”

I had no response.

I didn’t want to live like that, either.

But I’d survive.

What I wouldn’t do was allow her to worry about me. Don’t get me wrong. I fucking loved that she cared enough about me to be scared. A small part of me was actually reborn with that knowledge, but I didn’t need her sympathy.

No one had ever coddled me before. No need to start now.

“I kinda like when it’s quiet,” I admitted.

“I hate it.”

“News flash, Liv. You don’t have to deal with it. I do. You’re in the clear,” I smarted and immediately felt guilty when her body stiffened behind me.

“If it happens to you, then I have to deal with it too. You watch my back, and I watch yours. It’s the most important rule of being best friends.”

A warmth I’d never felt before washed over me.

I was important to her.

I swallowed around the newly formed lump in my throat. “Okay, what if I promise to be really, really loud when I go deaf? Then you won’t ever have to worry about it again.”

“What if you just promise not to go deaf?”

Fuck, I wished I could do that. For both of us.

“I’ll try.”

“Okay, and while you work on that, I’ll learn sign language. That way, we can still hang out if it happens. I bought a book about it on my iPad last night.”

Another blast of warmth filled my chest.

I had brothers—warmth wasn’t exactly their specialty.

I liked Liv. It was no secret.

But, with an overwhelming rush, I suddenly more than liked her.

In that moment, with her arms wrapped around me and her tears staining the back of my shirt, I never wanted her to let go.

And, for that reason alone, I folded my hand over hers and made a silent vow that, no matter what, I’d never let go, either.

If that meant protecting her from the silence, I was more than up for the fight. No matter how impossible it might be.

“You watch my back, and I watch yours.”

I’d do whatever it took to keep her from being afraid.

Not for me.

Not from her past.

And definitely not because of anyone else.

Never.

Finally, she released her vise grip on my waist. An unwelcome chill slid over my skin in the absence of her warmth.

Suddenly, touching wasn’t so weird anymore.

It was a necessity.

I took a step away and turned to face her. Reaching out, I caught her small hand in mine, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

“I’m good. I swear.” And, for the first time since Till had dropped the bomb, it wasn’t a lie.

I now had a purpose.

And her name was Liv James.

She craned her head back, and her big, brown eyes bored into my soul unlike anything I’d ever felt before. They were puffy and red from her crying, but they were still mesmerizing.

And comforting.

And exactly why I had to look away.

“What the hell!” Slate boomed.

I released her hand seconds before her fist landed on my chest.

“You jerk!” she yelled at me, but her eyes never turned angry. If anything, they softened.

My gaze flashed to Slate, who looked murderous.

“This is the boys’ locker room, Liv!” he barked, clearly mad to have found her in there. But probably angrier that she was in there alone—with me.

A devilish grin formed on her pink-glossed lips before she spun to face him. “Sorry, Uncle Slate. Quarry pushed me in the hall. I couldn’t let him get away with it. You taught me better than to let a boy hurt me.”

Son of a bitch!

I couldn’t see her face, but I was positive she was batting her lashes. And, as she sniffled and wiped her hands under her tear-stained eyes, I knew she was milking it.

Dropping my head back, I cursed at the ceiling.

“Quarry!” he snapped, but I didn’t need him to finish.

I walked toward the door. “Yeah. I got it. Six laps. I’ll meet you in the ring when I’m done.”

Just as I got to the door, her angelic voice called out, “Later, Q!”

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