Sounds came from nearby. As Iziah drifted back to consciousness, his eyes snapped open, and he sat bolt upright. For a moment, he thought he was still in his apartment, that he’d blacked out from the blow to his head, and they were... But then he recognized Nick’s apartment. As the panic faded, he relaxed into the couch. The television across the room was turned on with the volume down. A clatter came from the side, and Iziah’s eyes wandered to the kitchen. From where he lay, he could see Nick’s back as he leaned over the oven. There was a sizzling sound, and Iziah’s stomach grumbled.
Nick was cooking? How long had he been asleep? Iziah’s eyes wandered to the clock on the wall. It was after five. He’d managed to sleep through half the day.
A sense of shame washed through him. Nick stayed up all night, and he hadn’t slept that long. Iziah sat up again, and a wave of nausea washed over him. His head ached, and there was a sting in his rib-cage. Gritting his teeth with frustration, Iziah stood and limped into the kitchen. Nick hadn’t noticed him and was stirring something on the stove. Succulent smells met Iziah, and his mouth filled with saliva. The spaghetti from earlier had awakened his hunger. Iziah walked to the freezer and opened it, fishing around.
Nick looked over his shoulder. “Hey, kid.”
“I’m not a kid,” Iziah mumbled. “I’ve been eighteen for like six months.”
Nick smirked before turning back to the stove. “How do you feel?”
“Okay.” He pulled an ice pack out of the freezer and pressed it against his throbbing head, letting out a sigh of relief. A wave of dizziness washed through him. He watched Nick, who was making some sort of stir fry. “So you cook, huh?”
“Yeah. I have to if I don’t want to eat out every day.”
“Heh...” Iziah smirked, leaning back against the counter and pressing the ice pack harder against his head. From where he stood, he saw a bruise puffing Nick’s cheek. A pang of guilt struck Iziah. “Sorry about that.”
“What?” Nick frowned, looking at him, and Iziah pointed. “Oh. What are you sorry for? You’re not the one that hit me.”
“You told me I should leave, and I didn’t.”
“Don’t worry about it, kid.” The man flipped off the burner and turned toward Iziah, folding his arms, his brow furrowed. “I know you don’t want to talk about it, but why did those men come after you in the first place?”
Iziah’s gaze drifted to the floor. He felt sick every time he thought about it. But Nick was helping him, so he deserved an explanation. “I was running an errand with a couple...friends. We had to pick up some drugs for the Faceless, and the spot was close to Crimson Serpent territory. When we got there, some guys spotted us.” Iziah rubbed his hand against his face. “They were obviously itching for a fight, and I was afraid they were going to hurt my friends, so... When one of them attacked me, I killed him.”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “You killed him?”
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to. It just...happened.”
“That would explain why the Crimson Serpents are ticked off at you.”
Iziah nodded. “We didn’t tell anyone, but they found out it was me... And I think Kanra told them...where to find me...” Every word became fainter as fear and adrenaline twinged at the back of his mind.
“Were they the same people that came to the apartment today?”
The man stared at him as if he had something to say but stayed silent.
Iziah felt himself sinking away, swallowed whole as he relived the terror and humiliation of the incident. His heart-beat accelerated, and the color drained from his face. He hated the fact that Nick knew what happened. If only he’d been able to keep it a secret and bear his shame in silence. Tears welled up in his eyes. Nick frowned and reached forward as if to put his hand on Iziah’s shoulder. Iziah pulled back, whispering, “D—don’t touch me. Please.”
Nick pulled back and nodded, rubbing his hand against his face, unsure of what to do. He suddenly asked, “Are you hungry?”
Iziah looked at him and choked out, “What?”
“I made food. Do you want to eat?” The man pulled a plate out of the cupboard and loaded it with stir fry and rice, handing it to him. Iziah felt sick, but he took it gratefully, putting down the ice pack. Confusion washed through him. He couldn’t meet the man’s gaze. “Why are you helping me?”
Nick was silent a moment, and Iziah didn’t dare look up to read his expression. “Why wouldn’t I help you? I don’t hate you.”
Iziah let out a bitter laugh. “Well that’s a first.” He walked out of the kitchen and sat on the couch, holding his ribs. A thought flashed through his mind. What if Nicolas planned to turn him over to the Crimson Serpents? They were likely offering a reward. His limbs tensed, but he forced himself to relax. That wouldn’t make sense. If that was the case, Nick wouldn’t have rescued him in the first place.
Nick stayed in the kitchen another moment, then walked out and sat in a lounge chair with his plate in hand. The television showed the news. Nick picked up the remote, changing the channel to the weather station. He looked strangely casual, except for the fact that he glanced over at Iziah every few seconds. Iziah felt sick to his stomach, but he ate anyway. The food soothed his twisting, grinding stomach. Restlessness seeped through him, the same restlessness that plagued him for years and drove him to join the gang in the first place. Always seeking a distraction. Always trying to stay busy so he didn’t have time to really stop and think.
Normally when he felt this way, he would go to the bar or get work from Kanra. But neither of those were options right now. As much as he hated to admit it, he had no desire to set foot outside this apartment by himself.
Iziah had never been scared of something going wrong because he thought the gang would have his back. Sure, he had plenty of enemies, but he had friends too. Or so he thought. Matthias had looked at his stitched, bruised face and laughed. I can see why you got beat up, you asshole. Matthias practically stated that he deserved it. And he supposed that was true. He had caused trouble and acted like a jerk for too long not to deserve it. Maybe that’s why he didn’t have any friends when it came down to it. Would Matthias have come if he heard Iziah crying for help? Would he have left with a shrug of the shoulders or egged them on?
He shook himself. That didn’t matter right now. All he knew was that he wanted this to be over.
“I want to be done,” Iziah said.
“I want to be done. I don’t want to play their games anymore. I don’t want to be involved in the gangs. I just want...normal.”
Nick stared at him, the plate of food resting on his knees. “Seems like you should have decided that before now.”
A scowl spread across Iziah’s face, and he swallowed, heat rising inside him. “Look, I get it. I got what was coming to me. But I want to stop now. I don’t want to play.”
“Wait, wait, wait. You got what was coming to you? What the hell do you mean by that? Iziah, you didn’t deserve what happened.”
“You know I did,” Iziah snarled. “I’m a murderer.”
“You’re not a murderer.” Nick put his plate aside and leaned forward, looking Iziah straight in the eye, his brows furrowed. “You were just defending yourself. What they did to you was wrong. You understand?”
Iziah stared at the carpet as a lump lodged itself in his throat.
“You don’t have to be involved in that stuff anymore, you know. They can’t force you to come back.”
“You don’t get it. Being in the gang was the only thing that paid for my apartment and food and water. I can’t just leech off of you.”
“Yeah? Why not?” Nick folded his arms. “Look at this place. It’s so big I can hardly fill it, and I never know what to do with the excess. If I didn’t want you here, I would have left you at the police station.”
Iziah fell silent. No one ever wanted him around unless they had an ulterior motive. After a long moment, he whispered, “They want me dead, Nick. What am I supposed to do? I can’t just stop being involved. They’re going to keep on hunting me until I’m dead. If I let my guard down, they’ll kill me. What do I do?” He looked at the man, hoping for an answer. Desperate for one.
“I...don’t know. Not yet, at least. For now, we just need to wait for things to settle down. If you stay under wraps, they might get distracted from the issue.”
That didn’t seem likely, but what else could he do? The only other option was to leave town, and if he did that he’d be homeless and alone, not to mention broke. Plus there was a chance that people would look for him there too. The Crimson Serpents were affiliated with other gangs and drug dealers state-wide.
Iziah sighed, rubbing his hand against his face. He didn’t want to depend on Nicolas. Hell, he hated the idea of being dependent on anyone. However, it was a better prospect than being alone. Finally, he said, “Okay.”
The man nodded, leaning back. He glanced at the door as if to make sure it was locked, then picked up his plate again. “Eat your food before you waste away in front of me.”
Iziah couldn’t help but smirk, taking another bite of stir fry. If the thought of not being alone hadn’t sold him on staying, the food had.
They ate in silence, and the terror of what happened earlier that day began to wear off.