The drive was silent. Nicolas kept his eyes on the road, scanning for police cars or the van. There were sirens in the distance when they first pulled out of the parking lot. Someone likely heard the gunshots. The sun was rising high in the sky, casting pale rays through gaps in the cloud cover. The traffic on the road had slowed to twenty miles per hour, but that was okay. Nicolas still hadn’t decided where to go. His thumbs drummed against the steering wheel as he took a long breath, glancing at Iziah.
Iziah sat in the passenger seat, his arms folded and the hood of his sweater pulled up. Though he was no longer shaking, he hadn’t said a word since they got in the car. Nicolas’ brow furrowed. The blank, disconnected look hadn’t left the boy’s eyes. Nicolas was tempted to take him to the hospital. He looked like he’d taken a blow to the head, and that couldn’t be good on top of a prior concussion. But it seemed too risky. Iziah needed to be kept out of sight. If the Crimson Serpents wanted him dead, they wouldn’t stop any time soon. And damn it! Nicolas didn’t want to be mixed up in all of this! It was hard enough keeping a low profile without harboring a practical fugitive.
“How did you know they were coming for me?” Iziah asked quietly without looking at him.
The interruption to the silence almost made him jump. Nicolas glanced at him. “I was keeping an eye on the place.”
“Since last night?”
A moment of silence. Then Iziah said, “Thank you.”
“No problem, kid,” Nicolas mumbled, rubbing his hand against his face. After staying up all night and fighting off those men, he was exhausted, and it was getting hard to keep his eyes open. His cheekbone ached from the punch. Anger swelled inside him as he looked at Iziah again. Had all five men attacked him the first time? How could he have stood a chance?
“I won’t let them anywhere near you,” Nicolas growled. “You understand me? I’m going to keep you safe.”
Iziah’s eyes widened slightly, and he didn’t reply.
Since the hospital and the police station weren’t viable options, the only other option was his apartment. It would be easier to look after him there. Besides, his paternal instincts were acting up, and he didn’t like how thin the kid looked.
Nicolas glanced at him. “Is your head alright? Do we need to go to the doctor?”
Iziah shook his head, and Nicolas wasn’t sure which question he’d answered. But he seemed okay, and it would be better to just get to the apartment. Traffic was slow, but they finally reached the parking lot next to Nicolas’ apartment. Nearby restaurants pumped the smells of breakfast into the air. They were deafened by the sound of traffic. Nicolas pulled into a parking space and turned off the car, looking around. He hoped there weren’t any gang members around to see them. Then again, the Crimson Serpents and the Faceless didn’t seem to spend much time around City center. Nicolas opened the door, and Iziah wakened from his daze, unbuckling and climbing out of the car.
Nicolas led the way to the front doors with Iziah beside him. The main room was quiet and well-furnished. The woman at the front desk appeared busy and didn’t glance their way. Nicolas headed for the elevator and pressed the button. Iziah shifted back and forth with his hands stuffed into his pockets. The bag of scant belongings was slung over his shoulder. He didn’t seem to care where they were going. His head was ducked, but his eyes wandered.
“I’m taking you to my apartment,” Nicolas said as the doors slid open. He stepped inside, and Iziah slipped in next to him. The doors closed, sealing them in with the scent of carpet cleaner. “It’s not a good idea to go to the hospital or the police station right now.”
Still nothing. Nicolas’ brow furrowed, and he rubbed the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes until they reached his floor. It was a relief to be back at the apartment. They walked inside, and he locked the door before glancing around. Everything was just as he left it. Hopefully the Crimson Serpents didn’t know he was involved. Heading down the hall and into the kitchen, he couldn’t help but remember when Iziah broke into his apartment several weeks ago. Iziah wasn’t grinning and taunting anymore. Nicolas looked through the fridge and pulled out a container of leftover spaghetti. He dumped half of it onto a plate, put it in the microwave, and began reheating it.
“Nice place,” Iziah said with the faintest hint of a smile.
Nicolas shrugged. “My job has its benefits.”
There was a moment of silence, and Iziah leaned against the counter, rubbing his hand against his face.
“Let me see your head.”
Iziah gave him a long stare before taking a step forward. Nicolas brushed his hair back for a better look. It was a blunt force wound, the blood clotted and drying. That didn’t seem good on top of a prior concussion.
“Does your head hurt?”
Iziah shrugged, mumbling, “A little.”
“No more than before.”
“Hmm.” Nicolas stared at him another moment. His pupils weren’t dilated, so he was probably okay. “Why don’t you go sit down.”
Iziah gave him a blank look before turning and wandering out of the kitchen, dropping his bag on the floor and collapsing on the couch. The microwave beeped, and Nicolas mechanically pulled out the plate of spaghetti. It had been a long time since he’d taken care of someone, and it made him think of Martha. Not that she needed him. Her leaving said that much. But he wished things could have been different. Nicolas grabbed a fork and walked into the living room. Iziah lay on the couch, staring toward the window, a beam of sunlight coming across his pale face.
“Here.” Nicolas offered the plate and fork. “Eat.”
“I’m not hungry...”
“That’s what you said last time I brought you food, and you don’t look like you’ve eaten since then. Eat a little. Maybe your appetite will come back.”
Iziah was quite a moment, then took the plate, poking at the noodles. “Thanks...”
Nicolas looked around. Everything seemed to be secure. He didn’t want to leave Iziah alone out here, but he was tired after staying up all night. Besides, Iziah seemed to deal with things on his own, so maybe he would appreciate the solitude.
“I’m going to sleep for an hour. You can help yourself to anything in the fridge. Come get me if you need something.”
Nicolas walked into the other room without closing the door, pulled off his shoes, and laid in bed. Exhaustion washed through him, and he was asleep minutes after he’d closed his eyes.
Nick’s apartment was spacious, with a large kitchen and bathroom. A window overlooked the street far below and the building opposite. The couch was made of a soft material that seemed to envelop Iziah. He leaned into it as he picked at his food, letting it cradle his frail body. A panel TV sat across the room with a cabinet underneath. There was another couch near the window with a large chair. Through the open door, he could see into Nick’s room where there was another bathroom. Other than furniture, nothing filled the space, and it was very clean.
Iziah’s eyes flitted about. He was more shaken by what happened than he wanted to admit. His stomach writhed inside him, and he couldn’t stop the rush of adrenaline. If Nick hadn’t been there...
Thinking about it made him nauseous. His arms throbbed from fresh bruises, and – opposite to what he told Nick – his head was splitting. The blow hadn’t done his concussion any good, and his vision was still wobbly. His ribs ached from being restrained, and he was lucky his fingers were in splints or they might have snapped from the pistol-whipping.
Still, it felt far safer here than anywhere else.
You should be flattered. I don’t usually come back for seconds.
A shudder ran down his spine and chilled him to the bone. He pulled his hoodie closer, snuggling into the couch cushions and looking down at his food. Why was Nick helping him? It wasn’t like Iziah had been all that pleasant to him over the years. This last week he’d acted like a total ass. Besides, he had nothing to offer. Little money – especially to someone that owned a place like this – no influence, nothing. So why would Nick stay in his car all night just to make sure he was safe after Iziah shouted and kicked him out?
He ducked his head. Tears welled up in his eyes again, and he wiped at them, rasping, “Cut it out...” Sobbing in front of Nick was bad enough, he didn’t want to start all over again.
Iziah began twisting the spaghetti around his fork. It smelled like tomato and rosemary. He felt sick, but he knew he needed to eat sooner or later. After starving himself for a week, the tomato sauce tasted very strong, and his stomach quivered uncertainly. But it tasted good, and having something in his stomach helped with the nausea. He ate every scrap on the plate and stood on unsteady legs, walking into the kitchen and placing the plate in the sink.
It was silent in the apartment. Iziah looked around anxiously, making sure it was empty. Nothing moved. All he heard was the sound of Nick’s faint breathing in the next room.
Those men had found his apartment. Would they be able to find him here?
Not that it would be the same men. Nick had taken care of that, and Iziah couldn’t help but feel glad. But the yellow-eyed man had gotten away, and the Crimson Serpents never let go of a grudge. If anything, the fact that he’d escaped a second time would make things worse.
Iziah shook himself. Those sort of thoughts weren’t doing any good. He walked back to the couch and lay down, letting the cushions envelop him. The “fight” had left him feeling exhausted and drained. He let out a bitter laugh. It could hardly be called a fight, since all he’d done was scream and struggle, blinded by panic. He was damn lucky Nick cared enough to rescue him, because otherwise he would still be in that apartment, enduring horrors that didn’t even begin to compare to last time.
Iziah curled up, pulling his arms close around his chest and closing his eyes.
No thoughts. Just sleep.