Nick snapped out of his thoughts and back to the here and now when Todd pushed a knife into his hand. Todd stepped away and waved one hand at a target.
“Okay, Nicky. Let me see what you can do.”
“I like knives the best,” Nick announced while he hit the target with every weapon Todd handed him. “They’re quiet and stealthy.”
Jimmy’s grin got wider and brighter. While Nick saw the pride in Todd’s eyes, he sensed other emotions lurking below the surface. It was as if Todd had been hoping Nick wouldn’t be so good. Although Nick wanted very much to please Todd, he couldn’t shake the feeling, by pleasing Todd, he was also letting Todd down somehow. Nick liked the glint of pride in Todd’s eyes when he watched Nick use the weapons, and Nick wanted to see it more often.
While Jimmy gathered up the weapons and set them to one side, Todd stood facing Nick. He dipped his head side to side and shook his arms out, then did a little running in place before he reached out, tapped Nick’s arm and completely caught Nick off guard by saying, “Hit me, Nicky.” He bounced on the balls of his feet and held his fists up. “C’mon, give me your best.”
“Huh?” Nick couldn’t help it; his reaction was immediate and surprising. His skin turned to ice, his chest constricted, tears appeared unbidden in his eyes and spilled out, and he started to shake. “You want me to…but why? I thought…You don’t want me anymore? Want to kill me?” Could he have been so wrong about Todd?
Todd stopped moving and blinked at him. “What? Why?”
“You’re a moron, Todd.” Jimmy stepped up next to Nick, resting a hand on his shoulder.
“Why would you think that?” Todd asked Nick, clearly stunned. He turned to Jimmy, his voice rising. “Why would he think that?”
“You fool. Why wouldn’t he? A slave hitting his master is punishable by death.”
Todd opened his mouth, closed it, turned to Nick, and drew in a breath. Then he let his chin drop to his chest for a few beats. “No, Nicky. I don’t want to get rid of you. I just need to know how wel they taught you to fight.” He shrugged, lifted one hand into the air, then let it drop to hit his hip. His chin jerked at Jimmy. “Hit him, then.”
“I can’t hit him.” Nick pointed to Jimmy. “He’s old.”
Jimmy barked, “Hey!”
Nick cringed and Todd laughed.
“Nick, you’re gonna have to hit one of us,” Todd pointed out.
“Why don’t ya two just wrestle instead?” Jimmy grumbled.
“Uh, no, Jimmy. I don’t think that’d be a good idea.”
Rubbing his neck, Todd’s gaze dropped to the ground. Nick felt the heat rising in his cheeks.
Todd turned his head to one side and gave Nick a wink, making the younger man laugh softly. “Okay. Come on, Nick. Hit me.” He started hopping around again, this time jabbing at the air.
Nick flinched, jumped, and punched Todd, sending him stumbling backward a few steps before landing on his rear in the sand with a thud.
“Oh…I didn’t… Todd…”
Rubbing his chin, Todd shook his head, cracked his neck, and climbed to his feet, grinning like a loon. “That was perfect, Nicky!” Nick blinked at him, not sure what to do, until he found himself landing hard on his back in the sand, pain blooming along his shoulders. Todd grinned down at him, held out one hand, and when Nick grasped it, hoisted Nick to his feet.
Then Todd flipped him over onto his back again. “It’s on.”
Nick rolled to his feet, smirked and a few minutes later, he and Todd were in a mock battle.
Unlike the training matches in the village, where slaves were punished for missed moves, cuts and even broken bones were unattended and ignored, and whips were used for corrections, this was fun. Sparring with Todd wasn’t a competition and Todd wasn’t trying to hurt him or beat him to win bonus points with tutors. Todd wasn’t a competitor, jealous that Nick’s future master sent him gifts, extra food, and letters. Each time Nick managed to take Todd down—and he had the feeling Todd let him—his master’s smile was broad and pleased.
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