Iziah ached all over, and his head was starting to pound. It was ice cold. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and he smelled rain in the air. It had been over an hour – Nick was probably back at the apartment. He was going to be livid, and Iziah was nowhere near city center. At this dragging pace, it would be another hour before he got back.
The anger had faded, leaving Iziah numb and sick. The same words pulsed through his mind over and over: Your fault. Your fault.
He was desperate to blame someone for what happened so he could redirect his hatred, but his attempts were failing. The pain medication he took earlier that day had worn off, and all he wanted to do was sleep. He had left the nicer neighborhood and was passing through the shady end of town – Faceless territory. Shivers ran down his spine as he thought about how close he was to the alley where he was ambushed. The bar he usually visited was nearby too. That same, choking terror was swelling inside him again. He swallowed, trying to force it back as his eyes scanned the surrounding street. It was very quiet.
Just as it had been that night.
It was suddenly hard to breathe. It felt as if his throat was swelling shut, and a weight pressed down on his chest. He swallowed again, trying to wet his dry throat. Maybe...it would be a good idea to get a ride. There was a payphone across the street, and he hurried toward it, shutting himself in the little compartment. It was dry inside and didn’t smell very good. Muddy footprints were dried on the floor. Iziah rifled through his wallet, counting out spare change.
Who should he call? The buses didn’t run this late. He could call a cab, but the cab service in town was run by Gray Hanes, and he didn’t want to risk a run-in with the Crimson Serpents.
That left Nick as the only viable option.
Iziah hesitated, then slipped the coins into the slot one after the other. He felt terribly vulnerable out here. If the wrong person recognized him... Besides, Nick already knew he was gone, and he would be ticked off either way. Calling him wouldn’t hurt anything. The worst thing Nick could do was say no and kick him out of the apartment. Iziah smirked. Recalling the number, he punched the buttons and waited while the phone rang. Nothing moved outside the booth, but he squirmed with unease.
“Come on...” Iziah glanced over his shoulder, tapping his fingers against the glass anxiously. He knew he didn’t deserve to be picked up, but he was afraid to walk through these streets in the dark. He had been stupid to leave. Most likely, the man would tell him to go to hell, and it would be what he deserved. Iziah sighed, leaning forward and pressing his head against the glass. His head ached with exhaustion. “Please...?”
Finally, the line clicked, and a voice on the other end snapped, “Hello?”
Iziah let out a sigh of relief and said, “Hey, Nick.”
The response was instant, like the floodgates had been opened. “WHAT THE HELL, IZIAH?”
Nick wasn’t angry. He was pissed. Iziah could hear that in his voice.
“I have been looking for you everywhere! Where in the hell are you?”
“I went out for a walk.”
“A walk?” Nick seethed. “Are you kidding me? I thought that someone must have broken in and dragged you off, damn it! I thought you were dead! What on earth were you thinking?”
“I had someone that I needed to talk to,” Iziah’s voice was quiet. Suddenly, he was afraid the man would kick him out and never talk to him again. Afraid that he would be alone on the streets with a concussion and broken bones. At least in that apartment he’d felt safe. “I know that was stupid. I’m sorry.”
“You should be sorry!” Nick’s voice was so loud Iziah moved the phone away from his ear. “What if someone out there saw you? If the Crimson Serpents spot you out there, you’re going to be in a world of hurt!”
“I know. I really don’t want to walk all the way back. Will you come pick me up?”
A moment of silence, then an irritated sigh. Tension swelled inside Iziah. Then the man said, “Yeah, but I’m going to kick your ass when I get there. Where?”
“There’s a bus stop on 39th. I’ll wait for you there.”
“Fine.” The man’s voice was a low growl. “Now what was so important that you had to sneak out, huh?”
Iziah was quiet a long moment. He’d left on a stupid, furious impulse, and he wasn’t sure what to say. Any other time, he would have lied, but Nick didn’t deserve that. “My old foster brother...is a member of the Crimson Serpents, and he helped them find me. I went to talk to him.”
“Damn it, Iziah... You’re going to get yourself killed. Get over to that bus station and don’t move until I get there. You understand?”
Iziah nodded, his head ducked, and murmured, “Yeah.”
The line clicked, signaling that Nick had hung up. Iziah put the phone down and sighed, leaning against the booth. Part of him was relieved. The man was going to get him; all he had to do was walk a few blocks. But the other part of him was drowning in unease. Why hadn’t the man kicked him out? Told him to take care of his own problems? It didn’t make sense! He would rather that Nick got it over with rather than drawing it out. Opening the door, Iziah slid out of the booth and started down the road. Rain pattered against the pavement, dripping down the back of his sweater and sticking to his eyelashes. He rubbed his hand against his face. If everyone hated him, then why was Nick treating him so well? Hadn’t he gotten the memo?
As he passed several bars, the sound of muffled laughter reached his ears. Part of him was tempted to go in and get a drink, yearning for familiarity, but he didn’t want to miss his ride. With the rain drizzling on him and soaking his clothes, he felt very small, the way a cat looked after you’d doused it in water. He tried to summon his usual cheery gait, but he couldn’t. The familiar surroundings made him shiver. If he walked down a side road and continued in the same direction, he’d pass the alley where the men attacked him. Just thinking about it made nausea swell inside him. This was Faceless territory. There was no way they would just...happen upon him.
Of course, they couldn’t. They were all dead, except one. But it still felt like they might crawl out of the shadows at any moment.
You’re quite the pretty one, aren’t you?
Iziah shuddered. Thank goodness Nick was coming to pick him up. The bus stop wasn’t far. Even in the darkness, he could see it beneath the light of a distant streetlight. He quickened his pace. The bar he usually attended was on his left. He wondered if Harley was there tonight, if she was still spending time with Matthias...if she ever thought of him. Not that it mattered. He couldn’t go back now that Kanra had it out for him. A few weeks ago, he would have gone in anyway, and laughed in Kanra’s face, but now he wasn’t feeling quite so cocky.
Two teens sat on the porch, talking in loud tones and drinking from bottles. Iziah didn’t intend to speak to them, moving to the edge of the sidewalk and hoping they wouldn’t notice.
But then, a voice called out to him. “Iziah?”
Iziah pasted a grin on his face and turned. “Hey, Matthias.”
The boy was giving him a strange look, and his companion was tense. Matthias looked like he had put on some weight, and stress lines were carved into his face. His eyes were narrowed.
“Been a long time, huh?”
“Yeah,” Matthias said, reflecting Iziah’s casual tone. “Didn’t think I’d be seeing you any time soon.”
Iziah smirked, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Why is that?”
“You know why.”
Something dark seeped into the pit of Iziah’s stomach. Kanra must have been waiting for his opportunity to capture Iziah and smooth things over with the Crimson Serpents. It didn’t surprise Iziah. Everyone from the Faceless hated him for one reason or another.
Matthias murmured something to his companion, and he stood, hurrying inside.
“Well. I better go.” Iziah started down the street.
“Why?” Matthias stood, raising his eyebrows. “Don’t you want a drink?”
“Not with you I don’t.”
He heard Matthias’ pursuing footsteps behind him. Iziah quickened his pace.
“What are you so afraid of? Someone finally give you what you deserve, you bastard?” The venom in Matthias’ voice surprised Iziah. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Matthias several paces behind him, his eyes dark. Everything, from his stiff posture to clenched fists, screamed aggression.
“Leave me alone,” Iziah said. “Or I’ll hurt you.”
“Yeah? I know you’re injured. I heard all about what happened. Kanra laughed when he told us. Seems your ‘good looks’ didn’t do you much good after all, eh? Did you enjoy it? I bet it was your first time, despite all your bragging.”
Heat rose in Iziah’s face. The Crimson Serpents must have told Kanra what they did in an attempt to destroy Iziah’s reputation. He was shaking with rage as he spat, “And yet, I’m still strong enough and smart enough to destroy you without blinking. Why don’t you go back and chase girls, huh? Do something more suited to your feeble sensibilities.”
Iziah bolted forward to keep Matthias from grabbing him, swerving into a nearby alley. Adrenaline coursed through him. He had to get out of here before more of the Faceless came looking for him. Or worse, they might call people from the Crimson Serpents.
Why couldn’t they just leave him the hell alone?
Iziah wove through the maze of back alleys in an attempt to lose Matthias, but he was already tired, and Matthias was right on his heels. His ribs shrieked with protest. The alleys were very dark, and several times he tripped on stray pieces of garbage and scrabbled over misplaced dumpsters. Iziah tried to shut out thought, to separate himself from the situation.
Get away. Wait for Nick.
Behind him, he heard Matthias’ ragged breathing. “What do you think you’re going to do?” Iziah shouted over his shoulder as his chest heaved. “I’ve always been a better fighter than you!”
Iziah whipped around a corner, and his heart slithered into his shoes. A chain-link fence. He hissed curses under his breath. He knew this area like the back of his hand, but, in the panic of the moment, he’d lost his bearings. Without thinking, he launched himself onto the fence, clawing his way up. His feet scrambled as he hauled himself forward, the fence making loud, clattering sounds. For a moment, he thought he might make it. Then a hand grasped his ankle and yanked on him. “Get off there, you worthless coward!” Matthias roared.
Iziah’s voice came out in a gasp as he struggled to heave himself over. “Go away!”
Matthias suddenly gave an impossible, wrenching jerk, ripping him from the fence. Pain shot through Iziah’s body as he smacked into the ground. He rolled over, scrabbling in the mix of dirt and asphalt, and Matthias leaped on him.
They’d never fought, at least, not physically. Matthias was bigger than he’d thought. Iziah pounded on him with his uninjured fist as he thrashed. It felt as if a white hot knife was being driven into his ribs. “Traitor!” he choked out. His sprained wrist and broken fingers stung. Matthias straddled his body, gripping the front of his sweater and pinning his flailing wrist against the pavement as Iziah struggled and panted. The fight drained out of him as he realized he was trapped.
“You’re the traitor!” Matthias retorted. “I can’t believe you’d show your face around here again after all the problems you caused with the Crimson Serpents! How conceited are you?”
A snarl twisted Iziah’s features. He thrashed but was in too much pain to dislodge his grip.
“Guess I win.” Matthias forced a grin, looking uneasy. “What good does a pretty face do you now, you stupid bastard?” He released Iziah’s wrist and lashed out, backhanding Iziah.
Stinging pain flooded his cheek.
“Kanra’s offering quite the reward for you. Dead or alive. Bet that would pay my mom’s rent for several months.”
Before he could stop him, Matthias slapped him again, seeming to gain more confidence as he realized he had the upper hand. The skin on the side of Iziah’s face felt burning hot. Matthias began to beat on him with closed fists, a look of hatred twisting his expression. Iziah threw his arms in front of his face, writhing beneath the boy. He let out a snarl as rage and fear filled his mind. Everything hurt. His head was splitting. Twisting desperately beneath his assailant, Iziah jerked a knee up and rammed it into Matthias’ groin. Matthias cried out, jolting, and Iziah shoved him with all his might. Blood trickled from his lips, and he was hurting, but now the fury was beginning to take over his body. Matthias toppled to the side, doubling over. Iziah leaped on him, scrabbling against the tangle of limbs until he was on top, pulling the knife out of his pocket.
Matthias shrieked curses and punched him in the stomach. It was a glancing blow, since Matthias couldn’t get much leverage, but it knocked the wind out of Iziah. Gasping, he flicked open his knife and pressed it against Matthias’ throat, his injured hand tangling in the collar of the boy’s shirt.
Matthias struggled until he felt the cold bite of the knife digging into his skin. Then he froze, looking up at Iziah with loathing. Slowly, he went limp, a laugh bubbling up in his throat.
“Really? You’re going to kill me?” Matthias chuckled. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Iziah hauled ragged breaths into his lungs, the world spinning, glaring at the boy. No matter what he did, he couldn’t let Matthias know how exhausted he was. “What the hell? I thought you were...my friend,” Iziah managed, trying to push down the sense of hurt and betrayal. Of all the people in the Faceless, Matthias was the one Iziah liked.
Matthias looked away, refusing to meet his gaze. “When did you ever act like a friend, you bastard? You wanna know why everyone out there hates you? It’s because you’re a total ass, and you’re proud of it! The only person you care about is yourself!”
“Shut up!” Iziah balled up his free fist and punched Matthias. The blow caught him in the teeth, making his head snap back. Horrible agony shot through Iziah’s hand, and he groaned through his teeth, pulling it back against his chest. He’d somehow forgotten his sprained wrist and broken fingers.
Iziah hated Matthias because he knew he was this sort of person all along, but he hated him even more because he was right. Iziah knew he acted like a jerk. It started in foster care as a sort of emotional insulation. He wanted to reject them before they had a chance to reject him. And perhaps that mindset had never really faded.
Matthias grunted, then snarled through teeth that were tinted red. “You’re not going to kill me. I know you’re not.”
“You don’t know that,” Iziah hissed, pressing the knife down harder and drawing a trickle of blood. His hands shook.
“Yes I do.” Matthias suddenly gripped the arm holding the knife, shoving it away before Iziah could react. The boy threw Iziah to the ground and pried at the knife. Iziah wrenched to free his arm. His other hand hurt too badly to be of any use. Matthias’ teeth were gritted as he ripped fiendishly at Iziah’s fingers. Desperate to escape the alley, Iziah dropped the knife, and, in Matthias’ effort to pick it up, jerked his arm free. His head spun. Iziah scrambled to his feet and bolted away from the chain-link fence. Everything hurt. Matthias yelled after him, his footsteps pursuing. Iziah didn’t know how long he could keep this up. His throat was dry, and he felt like he might vomit.
Iziah ran back toward the street, trying to reach the only hope he had of escaping this situation. The bus stop was close. Maybe Nick would be there by now.
“Get back here, you coward!” Matthias screamed, a couple yards behind him. “I’ll kill you!”
And to think half an hour ago Iziah had been the one doing the chasing. He swerved around the corner and ran into a tall figure. The man stumbled as Iziah careened into him, his hand clamping onto his shoulder. Terror coursed through Iziah. Kanra? A Crimson Serpent? Iziah looked up fearfully and let out a sigh of relief when he realized it was Nick. The man looked down at him through furious, confused eyes. His face was shadowed by a nearby streetlight. The car was parked behind him, silent. Nick’s eyes twitched to the alley, hearing Matthias’ approach, and the man pushed Iziah protectively behind him. Unable to hold back a grin, Iziah slid to the ground, leaning against Nick’s car, and waited.