To say Nicolas was angry when he came home to an empty apartment was an understatement. The apartment had been just as Nicolas left it, with all the lights on and the door locked. The television had been turned off, and an eerie silence had settled over the place. Thinking that Iziah had taken up residence in his bedroom, Nicolas carried the grocery bags into the kitchen and put them on the counter. “Iziah?”
Maybe he was asleep. The quiet needled into him, and he felt something sour coil up in the pit of his stomach. Dropping his keys, he walked out of the kitchen and opened the bedroom door. It was empty, the covers on his bed pulled up as they had been that morning. Nicolas blinked. Something was wrong. Had Iziah passed out somewhere? Maybe the kid’s concussion was worse than he thought.
“Iziah!” he called.
After searching the apartment and finding no sign of him, he started checking for signs of a break in. Dread swirled in his head as he imagined someone dragging Iziah out of the apartment, kicking and screaming. Or worse, maybe they’d drugged him to make sure no one heard. If they gave him the right sedative, they could lead him out by the hand, and no one would suspect a thing.
It would be easy right now, with the kid so out of commission.
But there were no signs of forced entry. Nicolas was sick with worry. He’d walked through the halls of the complex, thinking the kid had gone for a walk. When there was still no sign of him, he went down to the reception desk and asked if the woman had seen Iziah go by. She said she hadn’t.
That didn’t soothe his fears. Maybe someone had managed to copy his keys to get into the apartment. Maybe they’d sneaked up on Iziah while he slept and bound him, carrying him out a back door where no one would notice. Nicolas – who had seen more violence than he ever could have asked for – couldn’t stop his imagination from running wild, scenario after scenario. He hurried back up to the apartment to check again, nausea boiling inside his stomach.
That was when Iziah called.
The nonchalance in the boy’s voice upgraded his anger to fury. A walk? He’d been attacked twice and raped by gang members, and he left the apartment to go for a walk? It was pitch black and raining, and all he wanted to do was kick the boy’s ass. Not to mention Iziah was in the middle of gang territory, where someone could easily recognize him. He had to wonder if Iziah somehow wanted to get caught!
Nicolas drove down as fast as he could. There was very little traffic, since most people had gotten off of work hours ago. Part of him wanted to make Iziah wait, as if that would punish him, but he felt the need to hurry. The idea of the kid wandering around, alone, made Nicolas uneasy. Over the phone, he’d sounded too quiet, and he hadn’t expected to wring an apology out of him so quickly. Maybe he realized how stupid it was. But why had he gone in the first place? Was this some sort of power trip? Or was he just getting a bit of cabin fever? Either way, it didn’t excuse the stupidity of the whole situation.
When he first reached the bus stop, no one was there. Nicolas cursed under his breath, turning off the car and climbing out. If he had to go looking for the kid, he had no idea where to start. He let out an agitated sigh, trying to push back his unease.
Then, two minutes later, the kid crashed into him at full speed, white as a sheet with sweat streaming down his face. The impact nearly knocked him over, and he was getting ready to chew him out when he saw the red marks on his face. Hurried footsteps came from the alley he’d just exited. Nicolas pushed Iziah behind him, his body tensed for a fight. Seconds later, another boy whirled around the corner with Iziah’s pocket knife in his hand. He looked Iziah’s age, though taller and more bulky, dark clothes hanging off his broad frame. There was no red scarf around his neck, so Nicolas guessed he wasn’t a Crimson Serpent. The boy had a big, crooked nose and short brown hair. His face was twisted with hatred. He stopped when he saw Nicolas, confusion spreading across his face.
There was a moment of silence between them. Nicolas didn’t hear anyone else approaching, so the boy was alone for now. He was suddenly very aware of the pistol underneath his arm. However, he didn’t think he’d need it for this situation.
“Who the hell are you?” the boy demanded.
“I could ask you the same question.”
The boy’s lips curled into a sneer, and he looked past to Iziah, who was sitting with his back against the car, obviously exhausted. “You coward!” the boy hissed. “Why don’t you come face me instead of cowering back there? Oh wait, I forgot that you gave up your manhood.”
Iziah scowled, color flooding his cheeks. He started to stand, but Nicolas shot him a withering look, snarling, “Stay down. I’ll take care of this.”
Iziah glowered at the pavement but obeyed.
Nicolas turned back to the boy, enraged. What sort of ass would talk about what happened like that? He had the sudden urge to knock the kid’s teeth out. “Listen to me, worm. You better get out of here or I’m going to hurt you.”
The boy stared at him a moment, as if trying to calculate his odds of winning. Then he grinned, revealing several broken teeth. “Oh yeah? You look like you’ve never set foot out of an office building.” Then his eyes drifted to Iziah. “Where’d you find this guy, huh? Don’t tell me, is he one of your—”
Nicolas took a step forward, red pressing at the edges of his vision. The boy tensed, falling silent. “I’m only going to say this once. Get the hell out of here.”
The boy offered a nasty smile, though a flicker of unease and desperation played across his face, and said, “You can’t do anything to me. I’m a member of the Faceless!”
“Whatever, kid. You’re obviously crapping yourself.”
“I’m not afraid of you! Get out of the way!” The boy lunged forward, swinging the knife, but Nicolas was ready for him. Like these boys, he’d spent plenty of times with gangs in his younger years, trying to find his identity at the bottom of every beer bottle and gaining status through violence. He dodged the boy’s attack and grabbed his wrist, twisting it behind his back. The boy doubled over, letting out a yelp.”Ow! Ow! Cut it out, you bastard! Stop it!”
Nicolas twisted harder, putting his hand on the back of the boy’s head and forcing his face against the hood of his car. Iziah watched through round eyes, a hand-print shaped welt forming on his cheek. “Maybe I’ll consider it,” Nicolas said smoothly, “if you drop the knife.”
“You’re gonna break my arm! Stop!”
“Then drop the knife!” Nicolas roared.
The boy peeled his fingers open and dropped the knife. It bounced on the cement at his feet. The boy was quiet a moment, squirming as he gasped for air, grunting in pain. Then Nicolas pulled him upright and gave him a shove. “Get out of here,” he growled.
The boy glowered, rubbing his arm, and ran back into the alley. Nicolas listened to his footsteps recede before letting out his breath and turning to Iziah. Iziah hadn’t moved a muscle. By now, he’d caught his breath, but he was shaking. “Damn it, Iziah!” Nicolas said, his fists clenched as he folded his arms. “Who the hell was that?”
Iziah managed a smirk, fixing his eyes on the pavement. “A ‘friend’. I ran into him on the way to the bus stop.”
“That’s what you get for sneaking off. You scared me to death! You’re lucky I don’t kick your ass! What if I hadn’t showed up, huh?” The man took a step forward, and Iziah tensed, his eyes widening. Nicolas stopped, not wanting to pose a threat.
“I’m sorry,” Iziah said. “I had someone I wanted to talk to, and I’m used to coming and going on my own.”
“Well, guess what? You live in my apartment, you’re going to live under my rules. You understand? If you’re going to sneak out when you’re clearly in danger, then obviously you’re not capable of handling yourself.”
Iziah stared at him a long moment, shaking with fury. “Is that what you think?” He hauled himself to his feet, a hand on his rib-cage, his face red and walked several paces away before turning to face the man again. “I have been taking care of myself my whole life without your interference! I can handle myself just fine!”
“Really? Because it looks like you just about got your ass kicked by that boy.”
Rage flooded the boy’s eyes, and his fists clenched. “I could have handled that!” Iziah bellowed. “I had everything under control! What is it with everyone? I got attacked, and now everyone thinks I’m suddenly helpless? That I ‘gave up my manhood’? Well, I’m not helpless, damn it! I’m not! I can take care of myself just fine!”
Nicolas sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. That other boy had obviously hit a nerve. He knew he wasn’t helping the kid by being mad, but he was tired of this constant power struggle between them. Nicolas just wanted the kid to hand over the reins so he could take care of him. He couldn’t do that if Iziah was on a different wavelength. “That’s not what I said, Iziah.”
“Yes it was!” Iziah spat. “I don’t understand why no one will just let me forget and move on! I don’t need you or anyone else, okay?”
Nicolas rolled his eyes in exasperation. “It’s not bad to need help!”
“That’s rich, coming from you!”
Just then, he heard voices coming down the alley in their direction. Iziah paled. His legs shook beneath him, and his hands started to tremble.
“What?” Nicolas looked over his shoulder. Then he began to wonder if that boy from before had called for backup.
Iziah looked like he wanted to run, frozen, his eyes flitting about. Nicolas raised an eyebrow at him, his arms folded.
Iziah stared at him a long moment in defiance before ducking his head and choking out, “I—I’m sorry, okay? Please don’t let them find me.”
That was all Nicolas needed. “Get in the car, kid.” He picked up the knife and closed it before exchanging the weapon for his keys. Iziah limped forward, fear carving across his face as the voices neared. Nicolas hurried around the car and slid into the driver’s seat. Iziah was just closing the door, fumbling with the seat belt. “Hurry!” he urged.
“Easy,” Nicolas grumbled as he started up the car. Part of him was tempted to wait and run the lot of them over once they rounded the corner. But he resisted, pulling forward. Iziah shrank down in his seat, and, to anyone watching from the outside, it looked like any other passing car.