Fighting Shadows (On the Ropes #2)(3) by Aly Martinez

“I said, ‘Shut the fuck up,’” he seethed.

“Stop cussing,” I mumbled from behind his hand.

He looked to Eliza. “Can you press that button again? Maybe see if he’ll pass out.”

“What the hell is going on?” Till snapped from behind us, losing his cool with being in the dark.

Nothing. He’s acting like a bitch. Just doing my job as his little brother to protect his manhood . . . or something like that, Quarry signed then flashed Till a tight grin.

“No, I—” I started, and his hand once again landed over my mouth.

Quarry gave Eliza an impatient glare.

“He has a few more minutes before the pain pump will give him any more meds,” she answered, frazzled by my confession.

And just that small reaction to my admission hurt more than whatever the hell was happening on my back.

“Well, I’ll just keep my hand right here until it’s time,” Quarry hissed at Eliza.

“Um, I’m gonna step out and get some water,” she announced uncomfortably.

“Eliza, wait,” I tried to shout, but Quarry wasn’t lying about not removing his hand. “Get off me.” I weakly swatted it away.

Glancing back at Till, he lifted a finger in the air to signal one second. Then he turned back to me. “Shut up. Shut up. Shut. Up. You’re in love with her, fine. Now, shut up.”

“Not until he knows,” I replied.

“Go to sleep, Flint. If you still want to make this mistake when you wake up, I’ll sign it out to him myself.” He urged me with a hard stare.

I was tired. Sleep didn’t exactly sound like torture. I’d been sitting on my feelings for Eliza since I was twelve. What was one more night?

“I would take her from him,” I declared as my lids began to droop.

Quarry busted out laughing. “Then, when you wake up, I’ll sign out your warning. Oh, look! Time’s up.” He grabbed the red button and gave it a push.

I moaned as the glorious burn of the medication hit my vein.

“Thank God,” he breathed as I drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke some hours later, my determination to tell Till had fortunately disappeared.

Unfortunately, so had my desire for Eliza to know.

But the truth was out.

As the embarrassment set in, I tried to convince myself that maybe it was for the best that she knew how I felt.

It wasn’t.

It was a hell of a lot worse.

THE DAY I FOUND OUT that I might never walk again was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life. And that’s saying a lot for someone who had seen more heartbreak in eighteen years than most people experience in a lifetime.

Hell, I was a fucking pro at heartbreak. I lived with the knowledge that my mother had abandoned me. And the fun fact that my father had spent years in prison after he’d almost gotten my brother killed. I’d witnessed firsthand the night Till had suddenly gone deaf. And I’d had a front-row seat the day Quarry had found out he shared the same silent fate. Most recently, I had spent hours reeling as I’d watched my family fall apart while we had frantically tried to find the man who had taken Eliza at gunpoint.

Heartbreak was nothing compared to the road I had ahead of me.

I was paralyzed after having taken a bullet in the back to protect her. At least, that was the way other people saw it. Till especially hailed me as a hero. It was a lie though. I had taken that bullet to protect myself. I wouldn’t have been able to survive a single moment without her. My actions that day had been so selfish that I couldn’t even be devastated.

I made the choice.

“We have high hopes that you’ll walk again¸ but until your body starts healing, we just don’t have any clear idea of when that will be.”

“Have you had other people with similar injuries walk again?” Till asked when Eliza finished signing the information for him.

“Of course!” the doctor answered enthusiastically.

But I felt like I had been punched in the gut. “You’ve also had some not though, right? I asked, bitterly.

“Well, yes. Every patient has a different recovery.”

“So, it’s basically a coin toss, huh?”

He didn’t respond as he exchanged a knowing glance with Till.

“Right. Well, you should know, Doc. The coin fucking hates the Page brothers.” I laughed without humor. Pointing at Till, I announced, “Deaf.” Then I waved my arm at Quarry. “Going deaf.” Then I stabbed my finger at myself. “Paralyzed.” I shook my head, looking down at my worthless legs, cursing them for failing me.

“It’s not permanent, Flint. We’re gonna fight this. We’ll get you back on your feet. I swear to God we will,” Till vowed, barely able to contain his emotions.

I wanted to scream and yell that he couldn’t possibly make that promise. But it would have only added to my mounting guilt.

I know, I signed back to him with a forced smile. “Really. It’s okay,” I whispered as Eliza, who was securely wrapped in Till’s arms, broke down.

My attention was drawn away by a knock at the door.

“You up for some company?” Slate asked as he walked in, his wife, Erica, in tow.

Slate Andrews was the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world. But to me and my brothers, he and Erica were the parents we’d never had. Slate owned a boxing gym for underprivileged kids, and considering that the three of us had never fit into a category more, we’d spent most of our time at On The Ropes. He was tight with a lot of the kids at the gym, but it was obvious to everyone that he had formed a special bond with us—or, more accurately, with Till. Like so often in our lives, Quarry and I were just part of the package.

A few years earlier, Slate had given Till the opportunity of a lifetime by bankrolling his efforts to become a professional boxer. A fated chance that had ultimately led us to a moment where I lay paralyzed in a bed and my brother sat across from me as the current heavyweight champion of the entire fucking world, holding the woman I loved.

It didn’t exactly seem fair, but not much in my life was.

“Yeah. Come on in,” I replied, looking around the room at the solemn faces.

My eyes landed on Quarry, who was in the corner, peering out the window. If it weren’t for the softest shake of his shoulders, I wouldn’t have thought much of it.

“Hey, Q,” I called.

He didn’t turn to face me as he answered, “Yeah.”

“You crying over there?” Yep. I went right for it. He was my little brother. Even in a moment that, by all means, should have been emotional, it was still my job to give him absolute hell.

“Fuck you,” he barked at the window.

My lip twitched at his response. “Hey, you can’t be a man and a baby. Either cuss or cry,” I teased, making sure to sign as I spoke so Till could join in the fun.

Slate groaned beside me, and Till shook his head before kissing Eliza’s temple.

“Leave him alone,” Erica urged.

I couldn’t do that at all though. I needed that interaction to keep my mind from spiraling out of control.

In an exaggerated baby voice, I mocked, “Q, you want me to ask the nurse if she has a lollipop?”

“I hate you,” he mumbled, pushing to his feet and storming toward the door.

“I’m just kidding, Quarry. Christ, don’t be so sensitive,” I yelled after him.

When he reached the doorway, he looked up and flipped me off. Tears painted his face, and it would have been a lie if I didn’t admit that it fucking killed me to see him like that, but at least the attention was on him.

“Seriously, Flint? He’s worried about you. Cut the kid some slack, ” Erica huffed as she went after him.

Cut him some slack.

Cut him some slack?

What exactly that meant, I would never understand. We were the Page brothers. Slack was not something we would ever receive—and truth be told, we couldn’t afford to. You know what slack did to a person? It made you soft. Slack left you unprepared and gave you a false sense of safety, all the while slowly working its way around your neck, leaving you a tangled mess and fighting for your next breath. Fuck that. I was doing Quarry a favor by keeping him on his toes. The world didn’t hand out slack.

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