The Hurting Game

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Chapter 14

That evening, another fight took place between the Faceless and the Crimson Serpents. By that time, Nick had left the apartment to speak with his secretary. The man took a bag of Iziah’s dirty clothes to the laundromat. For that, Iziah was grateful. He didn’t feel like walking to City center to wash his own clothes.

That night, as it started to get dark, he headed to the bar and signed up for a fight. He knew it was a bad idea. With the concussion and broken bones, he was in no condition to fight. His mental capabilities were hampered too. Several times, he found himself staring at nothing, his brain shutting down to keep from reliving the trauma over and over. His sleep was disturbed, leaving him more exhausted than before. All that aside, he didn’t know how the Crimson Serpents would react when they saw him. Would they be triumphant? Or...did they want him dead?

He almost stayed home...but a pressure was building inside him, one that only released itself after a good fight. He needed to remind himself that he wasn’t defenseless.

Iziah took the bus to spare his legs the walk. The biggest problem was the fact that he’d lost his switchblade. Someone at the hospital had taken it, and he couldn’t go back there. After searching his apartment, he found a pocketknife stolen from another gang member years back.

By the time he got there, the fights had started, and he hurriedly put his name on the list before heading outside. Dread and anxiety twisted his stomach, but he told himself that the Crimson Serpents couldn’t hurt him here. They wouldn’t dare try with members of the Faceless nearby. A fight had started between two girls from the rivaling gangs. Shouts and cheers filled the evening air, people shoving into each other, their faces shadowed. Iziah slipped into the crowd quietly, feeling disconnected. Yet, at the same time, he was tingling with the anticipation. It would feel good to slash one of those bastards, even if he lost.

Iziah sat on the dumpster next to Matthias, but the boy didn’t acknowledge him, watching the fight through amused eyes. Holding his ribs, Iziah looked at his sprained wrist. A layer of gauze was wrapped around it, and then there was the matter of his splinted fingers. He would be limited to one hand.

Something dark and hateful coiled up inside him as he watched the Crimson Serpents cheer.

Even if he got hurt, it would be worth it to grasp a single moment of control.

As the hour slipped past, there were a dozen fights. Matthias fought and won, hollering and cheering as he paraded around the circle.

Finally, Iziah’s name was called. He stiffened and, for a moment, thought about backing down. What if one of the men were here? Then he slipped from the dumpster, eyes narrowed, white hot rage coursing through him. Let them come. He’d stick a knife in the first one that came close, and then they’d be sorry. There was no way in hell he would let them think they’d beaten him. Even if he was afraid to be home alone and started shaking when he heard an unexpected noise, he couldn’t let them see that.

He could wear a mask long enough to prove that he was unbroken.

Iziah pushed through the crowd and into the circle, opening his pocketknife. So many shouts surrounded him that he couldn’t distinguish any particular voices. He waited for a competitor to step forward, swallowing back his unease, telling himself he had to stitch up the remaining scraps of his pride. All eyes were fixed on him, and he wondered if they had been told. If they knew he had shrieked and bawled and writhed on the pavement, naked, trapped beneath men twice as big as him.

The way their bodies were silhouetted against the street lamps made his heart pound fast. He scowled. Weak! Weak! Everything inside him screamed.

He couldn’t be weak! They couldn’t see him broken!

Someone stepped quietly into the circle, holding a large knife, watching him through uneasy eyes. A smirk spread across Iziah’s face.

Shawn.

He wanted to fight two weeks in a row? That seemed a little daring for Shawn. Then it hit Iziah. Shawn was a member of the Crimson Serpents; he knew what happened. He wanted to fight Iziah while he was injured and humiliate him for good.

Iziah’s lips curled into a hate-filled snarl as he crouched, his arm wrapped tight around his rib-cage. One hand was useless, but no matter. He would kick Shawn’s ass, and then he would be sorry. Before Shawn could get ready, Iziah threw himself forward, swinging the knife like a maniac, his face contorted. Shawn dodged, his eyes wide, and he counter-attacked halfheartedly. Iziah frowned. Last time, Shawn had been the one chasing him around the circle, wearing himself out. A new strategy? It didn’t matter. Iziah was going to beat him. He lunged again, and the tip of the knife scratched Shawn across the shoulder. Shawn winced but said nothing.

No stupid comebacks?

No curses?

“Come on!” Iziah shouted. “Cut me, you stupid fat-ass!”

Shawn’s brow furrowed, and he attacked, but there was no hate in the movement. A pang of horrible rage ran through Iziah. Shawn wasn’t fighting in an attempt to humiliate him. He was fighting Iziah out of pity, so that another teen from the Crimson Serpents didn’t destroy him.

Heat rose inside him, and everything was bathed in red. Iziah gritted his teeth, hissing, and threw himself forward, heedless of Shawn’s knife. If he was going to play that game, Iziah was going to shred him. Shawn dodged and took a weak swing at Iziah, catching him across the collar. The pain was muted by the agony pounding at Iziah’s ribs. Shawn’s hand tangled in Iziah’s scruffy hair and jerked him forward against his chest, the knife needling Iziah’s abdomen. Confused, Iziah winced as his chin knocked against the boy’s shoulder. Before he could pull away, he felt Shawn’s breath against his ear. “They’re coming after you. Hide.”

What?

A warning? Iziah scowled as loathing built up inside him. Since when did Shawn give a damn what happened to him?

Iziah sliced Shawn across the chest, wrenching free. Shawn cried out in pain, stumbling back, and Iziah’s knife caught Shawn’s shoulder. There were cheers, some excited, most displeased. Perhaps due to Shawn’s indifference but more likely because Iziah won despite his impediments.

Shawn didn’t look at Iziah, holding his chest.

Iziah shook with fury, and he could hardly breathe, his head splitting. He closed his knife, shoving it into his pocket, and stomped forward, swinging at Shawn with his good fist. Shawn was unprepared for the attack, and it caught him square in the nose. A hush fell over the crowd, amplifying Shawn’s pained yelp. Blood spurted from his nose. He gave Iziah a look as if he’d been betrayed, but Iziah beat on him with his fist.

There were furious shouts around them, and several people converged, ripping Iziah away from Shawn.

“What the hell are you doing?” Matthias shouted.

Hands tangled in his hoodie and clamped onto his bruised arms. For a moment, panic coursed through him. He wrenched away. “Get off!”

Several Crimson Serpents stepped behind Shawn, watching the proceedings with narrowed eyes. Shawn looked angry, pinching his nose in an attempt to stop the stream of blood.

Iziah pulled away as they tried to grab him again. “Fine, fine! I’m done, okay?” He pushed through the crowd, hoping to get away before Kanra showed up. The rage coursing through him was beyond rational. Beyond thought.

They were coming again, were they? And Shawn felt the need to help?

“Bastard...” Iziah hissed under his breath. His eyes wandered the crowd as he pulled free and hurried toward the back door of the bar. Maybe Shawn was messing with him. Hell, Shawn was probably glad it had happened. Iziah slammed the door behind him. He wanted to get a drink, but he knew he should leave. There was nothing for him here. No congratulations, no friends. Besides, whatever his intentions, Shawn’s warning had rattled something inside him. The thought of that savage attack happening again...

He winced with every step. The effort of fighting had agitated his ribs, and a splitting headache pounded between his eyes. Obviously, he wasn’t as recovered as he’d thought. He wanted to scream with frustration. Why couldn’t things go back to normal?

His legs shook as Shawn’s warning repeated again and again in his mind, drowning every other thought. They’re coming after you. They’re...coming. Coming. After you. Coming. You.

Coming.

Coming.

The rhythm accelerated with his heartbeat, pounding in his skull as hard as the headache. It was no use trying to go back to the way things were before. This wasn’t a game, and there were no rules. This wasn’t fun.

Iziah shivered, hurrying out the front door in the direction of the bus stop.

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