The drive back to the apartment was silent. They were both wrestling back annoyance over the whole situation, and Iziah stared out the window, not looking Nicolas in the eye. When they finally reached the apartment, it was around ten. The adrenaline rush left Nicolas exhausted, and Iziah looked dead on his feet. Nicolas made a quick search of the apartment and satisfied his paranoia before allowing himself to relax. Iziah waited near the door until he was finished, silent, looking faintly ashamed.
“Are you alright?” Nicolas looked at Iziah over his shoulder.
“Well you look terrible.”
A faint smirk twisted Iziah’s face, and he dropped his head. “That’s the kindest thing I’ve heard all evening.”
Nicolas sighed, leaning against the kitchen counter and folding his arms. “That boy that was chasing you. Was that who you were meeting?”
“No. I stumbled across him. He wanted to turn me over to the Crimson Serpents for money.” There was a hint of bitterness in his voice, “Some friend.”
After a moment of silence, Nicolas said, “Don’t let what he said bother you. You didn’t deserve what happened, okay? No one does. And it doesn’t change anything about you. It doesn’t make you any less a man.”
Iziah frowned, glancing up at him. Nicolas turned, thinking he wouldn’t reply, but then Iziah murmured, “Thanks, Nick.”
A smile touched Nicolas’ face.
The groceries were still on the counter. When Nicolas had realized Iziah wasn’t in the apartment, he’d completely forgotten about them. Luckily, most of it hadn’t been frozen. He started unpacking the groceries, and Iziah began to help without saying a word.
Nicolas looked at him but didn’t speak right away. The boy was wet and muddy, and his damp socks were leaving tracks on the floor. One arm was wrapped around his rib-cage.
“You should have taken an umbrella,” Nicolas grumbled.
Iziah let out a faint, amused snort.
“Go get changed before you make an even bigger mess.”
Iziah shrugged and grabbed his bag, heading into the bathroom. Nicolas continued putting groceries away. He’d tried to get healthier foods for Iziah’s benefit, but he’d also bought some ice cream and Oreo cookies. Micah had always liked the combination of the two. Nicolas pushed back the thought. Even if Iziah was giving him trouble, it was still good to have someone in the house.
But, at some point, he would have to take another contract. Katharine had sent him several, but he’d turned them down, deciding to keep an eye on Iziah. That couldn’t last long though, now that his grocery and water bill had doubled. Usually, his job didn’t bother him, but it felt wrong with Iziah here. Just as it felt wrong when he first started dating Martha. The presence of someone he wanted to keep safe instantly made him reconsider his occupation. Besides, after what Iziah had pulled today, he really didn’t want to leave him alone for any length of time. The whole situation was creating an irritating conundrum.
Somehow, he had to resolve this. To stop the Crimson Serpents from coming after Iziah so they could both live a somewhat normal life. But no solution presented itself.
Iziah emerged from the bathroom as Nicolas put the last few groceries away. He looked less ratty with clean clothes on, but one side of his face was still noticeably red. Not to mention, he was clutching at his side more than usual. “What happened?”
Iziah mumbled, “Took a kick to ribs. It was my own fault.”
That was true. But Nicolas was too angry that someone would beat on him while he was injured to say it out loud. “You want some pain meds?”
Nicolas dug through his medicine cabinet and pulled out a small container.
“I had planned to be back here before you,” Iziah said, staring at him apprehensively. When Nicolas didn’t reply, he continued, “I thought you might kick me out.”
Nicolas didn’t reply. It was sad to think that after everything that happened the kid still didn’t trust him. Then again, it made sense. Iziah didn’t know how to trust. That sentiment had been beaten out of him long ago. He turned and handed Iziah two pills. Iziah took them mechanically, but his eyes were fixed on Nicolas, desperate for an answer.
“If I planned on kicking you out, I wouldn’t have brought you here in the first place,” Nick said. “No one is twisting my arm. Try trusting me, huh?”
Iziah stared at him a moment longer before his gaze drifted; he downed the pills.
Nicolas looked around the kitchen. It was late, but neither of them had eaten dinner. His stomach was beginning to cramp. “I’m gonna make some fried egg sandwiches. You want one?”
“Sure. Do...you need any help?”
“No. Go sit down. You look terrible.”
Without protesting, Iziah limped across the room and slumped onto the couch, dropping an arm over his eyes. Nicolas watched him massage his sprained wrist and hoped for the hundredth time that he made the right decision in not taking him to the doctor. It took ten minutes to make two sandwiches, and he carried them into the living room, putting one on the table next to Iziah and sitting down. He was tempted to turn on the television in order to break the silence, but he felt that they needed to talk. Iziah sat up and took the plate, murmuring a thanks before taking a large bite out of the sandwich.
They ate in silence for several minutes until Iziah murmured, “I wish I had never joined the Faceless.”
Nicolas looked at him a moment, holding back a comment about the fact that he’d told him that a year ago, and shrugged. “That certainly would have caused less trouble.”
“It was stupid. I mean, I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, but...the Faceless were never a good fit for me. And I knew it.”
Iziah studied his sandwich as he spoke. There was a seriousness to his tone that he didn’t often hear, and Nicolas was glad he hadn’t said something stupid. He was afraid the boy might shut down again.
“I never wanted to be faceless. I wanted people to see me and...to think I was better than I really was... It was stupid and selfish, but...I just...wanted those things after being ignored for so long. You know?” He looked to Nicolas with anxiety and vulnerability carved across his face.
Nicolas nodded slowly.
“That’s why they hate me. They were there to have a good time, but I was there to prove myself. They wanted to be invisible. They wanted to unite against a common enemy, not squabble amongst themselves. But...I never wanted peace. I wanted to play games. I wanted to be entertained. I would have been better off with the Crimson Serpents.”
“The Crimson Serpents are criminals,” Nicolas stated.
Iziah’s voice held a wry tone. “So are we.”
“Maybe, but they’re worse. You wouldn’t have liked them either.”
“Do you see my problem?” Iziah let out a small laugh. “I don’t belong anywhere.”
Nicolas frowned. “Just because you don’t fit into those gangs doesn’t mean you don’t belong anywhere.”
“Yeah? Well how about all those stupid foster homes? Those places were just as bad. I just... I don’t understand.”
Nicolas rubbed his hand against his chin for a long moment, putting down his plate. “Do you think that maybe you’re using your past as an excuse for living the way you do? You could have fit in with the Faceless, but you didn’t, and I don’t think it’s because you didn’t want to. I think it’s because you’re afraid of belonging, and you’re excusing that fear by referencing to all your bad experiences in foster care.”
Silence. Iziah frowned, staring at his lap, his shoulders hunched. He didn’t seem to have an answer. “I...don’t know...”
“Well, do you like doing bad things? Delivering drugs and getting into fights?”
“Why?” Nicolas asked.
“Because that way I’m not bored.”
“You could have gotten a job to avoid boredom. You could have done a hundred other things.”
“You’re one to talk,” Iziah snapped, still not meeting his gaze. “You kill people for a living. And don’t tell me that you enjoy it, because I know you don’t. If you enjoyed it, you would have been doing it when Martha and Micah were around.”
Nicolas opened his mouth, then closed it again, anger stirring inside his chest. What right did the kid have to judge him? After watching his family fall apart, he was lucky he hadn’t done something even more stupid, like commit suicide or drink himself to death. But his anger made realization run through him. Maybe he and Iziah weren’t so different. Maybe they were both making excuses for themselves based on their past.
“You’re right,” Nicolas conceded. “I don’t like it. I do it because it pays well and it’s familiar to me.”
Iziah frowned, as if not expecting honesty in his response.
“And maybe I am making excuses because of what happened to me. But you have to admit that’s what you’ve been doing too.”
Iziah stuffed his hands into his pockets, looking uncomfortable. “Maybe. Either way...I want to be done. I’m tired of being afraid. I just don’t know how to live a normal life. I’m so bored all the time, and I have no idea what to do with myself. I don’t even have a high school diploma. What am I supposed to do with my life?”
Nicolas rubbed his hands against his trousers as he thought. “We can’t figure this out until we know you’re safe. But once we’ve got this whole mess resolved, I’ll pay for you to finish high school. That way, you can get a job or start college or something.”
Iziah gave him a wary stare. “But...why would you help me?”
“Gawd, kid, what else do I have to spend my money on? I’m just as bored as you.” There was a moment of quiet, then he continued. “How about we make a deal? When this is all straightened out, we both stop making excuses and clean up our lives. I’ll find a legitimate job and you’ll disentangle yourself from all this gang activity. All I ask is that you try to trust me. That sounds fair, right?”
Iziah thought about that for a moment, then smiled. “More than fair.”
“Good. Then is it a deal?” He extended his hand.
Iziah nodded and shook his hand. “Deal.”