I stared down an overconfident Sherlock Holmes, begging him to so much as twitch. He held his weapon in one hand high over his head, the shaft end pointed at the floor between us.
“Ready?” he asked.
I tilted my chin up in a half nod and made a noncommittal noise. “Mhm.”
I held my weapon up as well, one hand at each end, just high enough to glare at him from under it. The perfect height to shield the overhead blow that had been his opening gambit all afternoon. He was sweaty, and his cheeks were rosy, partially from his efforts, but mostly out of pure joy.
“Don’t forget you’re trying to keep me off balance. Use my strength to bolster yours.” He offered me perhaps the most arrogant smile he was capable of delivering and added, “Not that you’ll get the opportunity.”
He was the happiest I’d seen him in weeks, which probably should’ve concerned me a bit. Was it normal that he seemed to enjoy nothing more than our attacking each other with sticks? Not that I expected much normality from Sherlock
Holmes. But when we’d sneaked out of school before my last class, I hadn’t expected him to bring me to a sparring gym.
He’d caught me clumsily practicing my aikido katas in my attic space the week prior and decided that I needed to learn Bartitsu, which he claimed was “the ultimate self-defense art.” Evidently, Lock liked to use the word “ultimate” when what he really meant was “antiquated.”
True to form, Lock swished his cane in a semicircle through the air above his head and then sliced down toward me with as much power as he could. I released the crook end of my cane just before the crack of the canes’ collision echoed through the room. He actually grinned at the sound, the arrogant ass, watching the released end fall down toward the ground, thinking he’d already won. His amusement faded quickly, however, when he realized what was about to happen next.
I used the power of his hit to boost mine as I flipped the cane around, smashing it against his hand so that he dropped his weapon with a satisfying grimace of pain. I kicked my foot out as the cane clattered against the floor, sliding his weapon out of reach, then brought the crook of my cane up under his chin, pushing just high enough to make him uncomfortable.
“You’re a quick study,” he said, shaking out his hand. His grin had returned, perhaps in response to my own, perhaps in a vain attempt to seem unaffected by the awkward angle of his neck. I pushed my cane slightly higher, forcing him up on his toes.
“You’re predictable.” I twirled my cane down and used the crook to snag his knee, but I must have moved too slowly. He
somehow kept his balance as he hopped toward me. I tried to spin away, but he grasped both of my shoulders, so that my efforts only knocked us off balance, sending us both down into a heap on the practice mats. I should have gotten the worst of it, as he fell on top, but at the last minute, he wrapped his arms around my head to keep me from concussion. Always the gentleman, my Lock—right up until he started shaking with laughter instead of rolling off me apologetically.
I allowed his fun to last exactly ten seconds before I warned, “The very minute you release me, I will kill you.”
“That doesn’t seem like incentive to move.” He pushed up onto his elbows and smiled down at me, so that his cheeks bunched up under his eyes. “Want to go again?”
I focused on his smile rather than the weight of him on me, which set off blaring alarms in my brain. Memories threatened to surface despite my focus, memories of a night two weeks prior, of my father, of me not being able to move, of his cruel eyes staring down. His warm blood on my cheek.
“Must we?” I blurted out with a little too much force. I recovered with a wink.
I saw something like concern flash in Lock’s eyes, but obviously not enough to make him move. Or maybe he was testing me again. We hadn’t spoken about that night or my father—not since it happened. My choice. He said he’d never ask, that he’d wait until I brought it up, if I brought it up. Still, every now and then, it felt like he was deliberately prodding at my brain to see what might spill out.
But I hadn’t only trained to fight with sticks since the
night my father almost killed me. I’d sneaked into the back of the gym on the weekend in the middle of a self-defense class—just to observe, or at least that had been my intention. But when the woman running the training saw the bruises on my face, she’d talked me into staying after class. She’d run scenarios with me until after midnight, one of which was almost exactly like my current Sherlock predicament.
I knew how to get out from under him. I wasn’t truly stuck.
Still, none of that removed the alarm, the cold turn of my sweat, or the rising feeling that I should lash out at Lock until he let me go—all symptoms of the victimized. I didn’t have time to dwell on that, however, because Sherlock looked as though he was about to speak, and if he asked me if I was okay one more time, I was definitely going to turn violent.
I rushed to speak first but kept my voice soft. “You like this Bartitsu stuff a little too much.”
I thought he might still ask the question left unsaid, but he seemed to check himself before offering a simple, “I do.”
“Because it’s ancient?” I know how to get out of this, I repeated to myself, though it was needless. The panic had mostly subsided.
“Because it’s surprising.” He ran his finger down my temple, pushing sweat-plastered hair off my skin and back behind my ear. His expression changed while he did it, and I tried very hard not to let my lips twitch into a grin at how easily he was distracted by me.
“Off.” I pushed against his chest, and still he didn’t move.
“I would, but I don’t want to die.”
“Die quick or die bloody.” I bent one of my legs to rest my knee at his hip and playfully tilted my head to the side to mask the shift of my body in that direction. “It’s up to you.”
His finger traced down my jaw to my chin. “How long do I have to decide?”
I smiled to hide the sudden uptick in my breathing. “Ten seconds. Starting now.”
At ten, I pushed off with my foot just like I’d trained and twisted my body until I could get my feet under his chest to replace my hands. His eyes went wide just before I kicked out, easily tossing him aside. There was no one there to shield his head, though. I might have felt remorse over the hard thudding sound it made against the practice mat, but it wasn’t like I hadn’t warned him.
He held the side of his head as he sat up. “Not quite bloody. I suppose I should show gratitude for your mercy.”
“The very definition of magnanimous, really.” I held out my hand in a peace offering, and he stood so easily that I unintentionally pulled him too close. I had to tilt my head back to see his face, and before I could do more than note his amusement, he leaned closer still. Soon, his lips hovered not more than six inches from mine. I cleared my throat and added, “How will you ever show your thanks?”
“I’m going to make it up to you.”
“With a groveling apology and gifts?”
He seemed amused, but resigned to my suggestion. “Evidently, but first . . .”
I knew he was going to kiss me. He’d been looking for an
opportunity since the last of the other sparring couples had left the practice room, leaving us alone with our canes. I also knew how I would respond, and I felt heartache scrub away every happiness I’d felt while being with him that day.
I stepped back. “First what?”
He smiled, moving in sync with me. “You have exactly two more steps before you run out of space to ask stupid questions.”
I stepped back again. “Don’t you think kneeling and begging for forgiveness should come before anything else?”
He didn’t answer and didn’t look anywhere but at my lips, which I pursed subconsciously. I then somehow managed to affect a bored expression as I took my final step away from Sherlock that, as predicted, would be my last. My back hit the wall and my mind scrambled for something to say—anything that might distract him away from what he was about to do. A question. I still had one more question.
He didn’t let me ask it, however. He braced himself against the wall, laying one hand and forearm flat against the concrete by my head. His other arm looped around my waist, pulling me into him. When his lips were almost to mine, my heart sank even further, despite the tease in my voice when I said, “That’s not begging.”
“It’s a form of begging.”
He was right. The way he paused before he kissed me, the pleading look in his eyes for this to be the day that I forgave him—for this kiss to be the one that turned everything back to normal. Lock was begging. And it should have worked.
Even without our lips touching, just the closeness of him set my heart fluttering, changed my breathing. He affected me, my Lock, in a way he shouldn’t have been able. Not anymore.
Because it was all so temporary.
That was the reminder I gave myself when I turned my face away so that his lips brushed my cheek. “Temporary.” The word that I’d kept with me whenever I was with Lock. Ever since the night two weeks ago when Lock had brought the police to my house to save me from my father, I knew we were on our way to being done. We were on separate paths, parallel for now, but still separate, our arms stretched across the gap to keep us connected. But the gap was still there, widening every day that I saw the innocent glint in Sherlock’s eyes and felt the black ash of rage staining mine.
I have rescued you, he seemed to say with his every look.
You have only prolonged the inevitable, I countered with mine. Sherlock had stopped my father from killing me. He obviously wasn’t sorry for doing that. But he’d made the call to send police my way, not even knowing if I needed rescue. He’d done it because he didn’t trust me. He didn’t care what would be best for my life or for my brothers’. He just didn’t want me to change. That’s what he’d said. He’d kept me from killing my father in some vain attempt at preserving what little innocence I still possessed.
And it might have worked. Those first hours after my father’s arrest were filled with so many details to recount, detectives to placate, and reporters to dodge, I’d almost forgotten the cold, dark creature I’d become that night. I’d distracted myself
with practicalities and left what had happened in a mental drawer to deal with in some distant future, when my world wasn’t falling apart.
But I’d had to relive that night over and over in the past two weeks, making statements to this officer and that, my story checked and double-checked before the police would even consider keeping him away from us. My father locked up wasn’t the freedom Sherlock had thought it would be. Even though the police had finally hidden him away from me, my father was always with me in my memory, filtering into my day-to-day thoughts in unexpected ways.
That day in the sparring gym with Lock wasn’t the first time a memory had exploded from the drawer and taken my composure with it. It wasn’t the first time my anger had crawled back, waiting in the shadows to remind me that I couldn’t trust Sherlock Holmes anymore. That he’d never trusted me in the first place. That he’d betrayed me when he could have helped, leaving my father lingering out there like a blinking red warning light in the distance—a promise of trouble to come.
But even with all the anger and memory pounding in my head, even though I turned away from his kiss, I couldn’t push Sherlock away. I won’t let my father take anything else away from me. That’s how I rationalized it, but I knew better. Things weren’t right between us. They might never be right. But he was still my Lock and I still wanted him. It wasn’t fair of me, but I did.
So when Sherlock’s head bent and I felt his heavy sigh
against my neck, I lifted a hand to cup his cheek. It wouldn’t quell his frustration, but maybe, if I could focus only on today, if I could forget his betrayal and my father’s violence, maybe then I could keep Lock by my side—before I fell to pieces, locked away my emotions for good, or did something that would guarantee he’d leave me forever. I pressed my cheek to his and held him close. Temporary, I knew. I just wasn’t ready to let go yet.