Nicolas didn’t get home until two in the morning. It had been a difficult job, but, luckily, Katharine had things ready for him. His target was an elderly man involved in the drug trade, and he nailed him from a building across the street. No one had been around – considering they were near the old, abandoned warehouses – but the difficulty came in the fact that he had to dispose of the body. He hated that part of the job. It was one thing to do his job from a distance, but it was quite another to haul his handiwork in the trunk of his car.
His drive took him out of the city to a nearby lake, and by the time he was finished it was very late.
When he finally reached his apartment, he felt ready to collapse, his limbs dragging and eyelids drooping. He dropped his pack on the floor, headed into the bedroom, and collapsed into bed. Relief washed over him. He had planned to check on Iziah, but he was too tired now. Hopefully the kid would be fine on his own tonight. Nicolas sighed, running his hand across the face.
Iziah had always been good at sorting out his own problems, but he doubted the boy would ask for help even if he wanted it. He was too proud for that.
He thought back over the day when he’d first found him on the street. Nicolas had been crouched on the roof of a one-story building, waiting to snipe his target when he showed up at the club across the road. They were on the dingy end of town, so it was very quiet. Everything was going according to plan until he heard noise in the alley to his right. A group of boys were down there fighting, and, since he heard another scuffle down the street, Nicolas assumed it was gang related. However, he had been sure that he heard a familiar voice in the mix.
After he shot his target, Nicolas climbed down from the roof only to find himself entangled in an all-out gang war. There were shouts and screams as groups chased each other through the alleys, clashing with fists and the occasional blunt weapon. He moved through the chaos easily, a mere shadow, until he heard the familiar voice again and turned. There were three boys beating on Iziah, making the chain-link fence behind him rattle. Nicolas recognized him immediately and extracted the boy from the situation. Though Iziah didn’t seem scared, he was more than happy to follow Nicolas deeper into the alleys and away from the violence.
Iziah had been the first to speak, looking at the bag slung over Nicolas’ shoulder. “What’s that?”
“None of your concern.” Once they were a safe distance from the street, Nicolas stopped. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” The boy wore an exhilarated grin, despite a bloody nose and black eye. He had been sixteen at the time. “What are you doing out here? I never thought I’d see you again.”
Nicolas hadn’t been sure what to say, so instead he demanded, “What on earth are you doing out here? Where is your family?”
Iziah stared at him a moment before shrugging. “I left.”
“What do you mean, you left?”
“I mean, I left! A few months ago, I ran away.”
Nicolas fell silent, trying to fit the pieces together.
“Thanks for the help back there,” Iziah said. “I don’t know what happened, but the Crimson Serpents are ticked.”
“You’re not involved in all this gang crap, are you?”
Iziah shrugged, stuffing his hands into his pockets.
Nicolas grabbed his arm and turned, heading down the alley again.
“Hey! Hey, what are you doing?” Iziah pried at the man’s hand, his brow furrowing. “Let go!”
“You can’t be out here by yourself. I’m going to take you to the police station so they can—”
“NO! I’m not going back! You can’t make me!” Iziah wrenched against him, and Nicolas turned, trying to keep his grip on the boy’s skinny wrist. Finally, Iziah lunged forward and bit his hand.
Nicolas recoiled, pulling away. “What the hell, kid?”
Iziah’s fists were clenched, his face contorted in rage. “You can’t take me back! I like it out here just fine!If you take me to the police station, I’ll tell them that you kidnapped me!”
There was a long moment of silence between them. “You wouldn’t,” Nicolas growled.
Nicolas pinched the bridge of his nose, taking a long breath. “Look, it’s not safe out here. Not with all the gangs and the...”
“I know that. But I’m fine! I have a place to sleep and friends and food...” He folded his arms. “I even have a paper route. It’s better out here than back at home.”
“Where are you staying?”
“At an empty house with a few friends.”
Nicolas let out an exasperated sigh. He was tempted to take the kid to the police station anyway, but he couldn’t risk him pulling through on his promise.
“I’m not going back. Besides...” Iziah said, changing the subject, “what are you doing out here?”
When Nicolas didn’t reply, Iziah continued, “How is Martha doing? And Micah? Did he save up enough money for that PlayStation he wanted?”
Something sharp jabbed into Nicolas’ chest. All the blood had drained from his hands, leaving his fingertips numb and cold. “No,” he said quietly. “Micah died of leukemia last year.”
A stricken look spread across Iziah’s face but was replaced by a blank expression. “He... But... He was fine when I saw him...”
Nicolas shoved his hands into his pockets. “Do you want me to take you for something to eat, kid?” It was an unenthusiastic question.
Iziah stared down at the ground, a look of suspicion in his eyes. “No. Thanks. I should go find my friends before they think I’ve been shot. It was good to see you, mister.”
And that was that. The boy walked away without another word. Nicolas had seen him from time to time since then and attempted to offer his help, but Iziah never accepted. And because he never seemed to need it, Nicolas had backed off.
He cursed himself for the stupid mistake. If it had been Micah, he would have tried harder, but, whatever the reason, he hadn’t been able to muster up the same care for Iziah.
Rolling over, he grabbed his laptop off the desk and pulled it onto his lap. It was getting hard to keep his eyes open, but he needed to let Katharine know he was finished. If all was well, he planned to visit Iziah in the morning. He opened the laptop, and it blinked to life, blinding him. Squinting, he pulled up the internet and signed into his email, typing out a confirmation and sending it to Katharine.
Nicolas closed his laptop and returned it to his desk, closing his eyes and trying to shut out the echoes of the past.
Iziah had a hard time sleeping. He’d left all the lights on, the radio as well, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. His sleep was riddled by nightmares and confusing dreams. Then he would waken in a cold sweat, unable to breathe, and all the thrashing made his ribs and head hurt even more. Several times, he woke up screaming and shaking. He stopped trying around six.
His normal means of entertainment had been hampered. He usually took jobs with the gang to occupy himself. But now he was hurt, and the Faceless weren’t on his side. There was an old message on his phone asking why he’d been absent from his paper route. He called back and reluctantly quit, knowing he couldn’t work right now.
Iziah sat on the couch, pulling a blanket around his shoulders and closing his eyes. If he wanted to keep his apartment, he needed to find another job, but he didn’t want to think.
There was a knock on the door, and he opened his eyes, snapping upright. Tension coiled up inside him but dissipated when Nick said, “Hey. Iziah.”
Iziah stood and walked across the room, his brow furrowed. Nick came back? After everything he’d said? Iziah felt the urge to try to put himself together, but it sounded exhausting. He still wore that baggy hoodie, his hair tangled and his eyes sunken. Iziah opened the door. Nick looked tired, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He had two fast food bags in his hands. Iziah stared at the man. He hadn’t eaten since the incident, but his stomach felt shrunken, and food didn’t appeal.
Nicolas walked past him into the kitchen. “You hungry?”
Iziah blinked, then closed the door, too exhausted to protest.
“I got you a breakfast sandwich. Ought to be better than the crap you’ve got in those cupboards.”
A smirk spread across Iziah’s face. He walked to the kitchen counter, and Nick turned, handing him a bag. Iziah looked at it, his stomach recoiling. “I’m not hungry,” he mumbled.
Nicolas shrugged, walking to the springy chair in the corner and sitting down, pulling out his sandwich. “You should try to eat. You look like you’ve lost weight.”
Iziah scowled but didn’t reply, sitting on the couch. There was a long silence between them, but Nick seemed comfortable. Iziah pulled his legs up, sighing, and glanced inside the bag. Nausea washed over him.
“Listen, kid.” Nick looked at him. “We need to talk.”
Iziah leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Here it comes.
“You shouldn’t stay here.” When Iziah didn’t reply, the man continued, “It’s not safe here, after what happened.”
Iziah glared at him. He didn’t want to think about it. Didn’t want to consider the possibility that they might come back. This apartment was his only safe place, and they couldn’t take that from him.
“Iziah, who did it?”
He froze. It was the question he had been dreading. Iziah dropped his gaze, shivering. His heart quivered. The man was staring at him as he waited for an answer, and Iziah was sure he could see right through him. Finally, he whispered, “I don’t know who they were...”
Agonizing blows to his head every time he tried to twist around. His cheek crushed against the pavement. The jacket blocking his vision and stifling his agonized screams.
“They were...wearing red scarves...”
“Members of the Crimson Serpents?”
Iziah nodded, his cheeks heated.
Nicolas looked like he wanted to ask more questions, but he leaned back, rubbing his hand against his chin. “The Crimson Serpents don’t mess around. If they meant to kill you, they might come back. You need to get out of this apartment and find another place.”
Iziah didn’t reply. He didn’t want to think.
“Iziah. This is serious.”
“You don’t think I know that?” Iziah hissed. “You don’t think I understand what’s going on?”
Nick sighed. “You can’t just stick around here if you’re in danger.”
“Why do you care? I can do whatever the hell I want.”
Nick suddenly stood, and Iziah flinched, staring at him through wide eyes. Had he pushed too far? Sent him over the edge? A frown worked across Nick’s face. “Easy, kid.” He moved over and sat on the couch next to him.
Iziah leaned back, shoving his hands into the pockets of his hoodie and staring at the wall. The man didn’t speak for a long moment, rubbing his hands against the front of his trousers. “Look. I’m really sorry. I just want to help, okay?”
Iziah didn’t look at him, a lump in his throat. “Why? Don’t you hate me like the rest of them?”
“Trust me, if I hated you, you’d know it.”
Iziah glanced at the man with bitterness in his eyes. If he didn’t hate him, why didn’t he ever want to talk? Why did he act too good for Iziah? But then, he was here now, even though Iziah being a jerk. That was more than he could say for any of his “friends”. If they knew what happened, they’d probably be glad. Someone had managed to take the rat down a notch! Matthias had said as much.
You must have got your ass kicked, huh? About time.
I can see why you got beat up, you asshole.
“You look tired,” Nick said, watching him through steady eyes.
Iziah didn’t reply.
“You should try to sleep. I don’t have anything to do, so I might as well stick around for a while.”
Iziah was quiet a moment, glancing at him, then nodded. Gratitude swelled inside him. “Okay...”
Nick stood, picking up Iziah’s unopened sandwich and putting it on the counter. Iziah lay on the couch, one hand on his rib-cage, and pulled a blanket over him. Lying down soothed his head, and he didn’t feel quite so anxious when Nick was here. Iziah closed his eyes, curling up under the blanket.
“I talked to Martha yesterday,” he murmured.
“What?” Nick stopped.
There was a moment of silence, then the man ventured, “How was she?”
“She seemed okay...”
“Hmm. Get some sleep, kid.”
“You’re not my dad,” Iziah snickered.
Nick let out a faint snort.
Iziah didn’t feel like sleeping right now, but it felt good to relax. Nick moved about, throwing away the wrapper to his breakfast sandwich, reminding him he wasn’t alone in the apartment. He took a long breath and let it out, quieting his thoughts.