The Hurting Game

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Chapter 26

Iziah’s nightmares were getting steadily worse. He didn’t understand it. After all, now that he was in Nick’s apartment, he felt safer, and he knew someone couldn’t just...barge in. Yet every night, he wakened over and over in cold sweats, feeling like he might be sick. Some nights, it was so bad that he actually ran into the bathroom to vomit. Nick didn’t know. If he had noticed, he would have said something. Nick was already doing so much for him, staying up with him until he was ready to sleep and feeding him... Iziah couldn’t add to that burden. All he wanted was to get better.

Every morning, he wakened more exhausted than before. Especially this morning, when the night was spent running around town and picking fights.

Each time he closed his eyes, all he saw were yellow eyes boring into his, the pavement as it pressed against his aching cheek, the hands that violated his cold, pain-wracked, bruised body. The humiliation replayed in his mind, making him shudder. He wanted to sink deep beneath the earth where no one would look for him.

He was very sore, and it took several minutes before he came to himself. Nick was still in bed, and Iziah lay in a wild tangle of blankets. Usually, he found the couch comfortable, but right now everything felt kinked. His ribs hurt so badly that it was hard to breathe, and he felt like he’d screwed up his sprained wrist all over again. He rolled his eyes in annoyance. It was his own fault...but he was glad he’d spoken with Shawn. Even if the conversation left him feeling sick, now he knew how the men found him in the first place.

Then there was the confrontation with Matthias. Iziah shifted, running his good hand over his face. There was no swelling, but a few spots felt tender. He’d never trusted Matthias. Hell, he didn’t know why they’d become friends in the first place. But he hadn’t thought Matthias hated him enough to turn him over to the Crimson Serpents. Especially since he knew what they’d done to him.

An icy shiver ran down his spine, and, suddenly, he felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude toward Nick. Everyone had betrayed him, but Nick hadn’t left, even when Iziah did all the wrong things. It didn’t make sense.

His heart throbbed. After everything he had done...how could he possibly deserve this treatment?

Mustering himself, Iziah lifted his head and twisted around, searching for the time. It couldn’t be very late because the sun was just rising outside the window. Besides, Nick rarely slept past seven. The clock on the DVD player flashed 6:03. Iziah took a long breath, relaxing. His stomach grumbled with hunger. Usually Nick got up and made breakfast for the two of them, but Iziah thought he should to take initiative this morning. After all, if Nick hadn’t picked him up last night, he would have been caught. He wanted to do something in the way of thanks.

Iziah hauled himself off the couch, grunting faintly as he clutched his ribs. He was tempted to take a pain killer, but he knew he needed to begin weaning himself off the stuff. His legs were numb, and he staggered into the kitchen. There was plenty to work with since Nick had bought groceries. He paused in front of a mirror and grinned. His hair stuck out in every direction like he’d been hit by a taser. Plus he had a large welt on his face from the night before.

The smile slid from his lips.

Did you enjoy it? I bet it was your first time, despite all your bragging.

Why don’t you come face me instead of cowering back there, huh? Oh wait, I forgot that you gave up your manhood.

If it wasn’t for the fact that he couldn’t show his face down there again, he would have been tempted to pursue Harley. Just to try to set the record straight.

He turned away, shaking himself. The words had stung him, and he didn’t want to think about it.

Iziah opened the fridge and began digging around. He wasn’t a very good cook since no one had taught him. But he’d been cooking for himself for over a year and hadn’t once given himself food poisoning. That had to count for something.

Being upright exhausted him, so he decided to do something simple – bacon and fried eggs. After watching Nick cook, Iziah had a general idea of the layout, and soon he was making a mess on the counter and filling the air with the succulent smells of bacon. His stomach rumbled, but he was trying not to get impatient and burn it. He couldn’t find any pepper, so he just salted the eggs, hoping they would turn out okay.

He rolled his eyes. Since when did he work so hard to impress?

Iziah was almost finished when Nick slipped through the bedroom door. The man looked more put-together than Iziah, but he still wore a T-shirt and flannel pants. He was glaze with sweat, as if he’d slept too warm, and he needed a shave. Goosebumps crept up Iziah’s arms. His bare feet were cold against the tiled floors.

“What’s this?” Nick asked, leaning against the kitchen counter.

Iziah glanced back at the man, shrugging. “Bored.”

Nick issued a faint chuckle. “You should get bored more often. Smells good.”

There was a moment of silence between them. Iziah moved to one of the cabinets, digging around and producing two plates.

“How did you sleep?” Nick inquired.

“Okay.” Iziah mumbled, though he felt sunken beneath the eyes. “You?”

“Fine.”

Another lie. Nicolas had just as many nightmares as Iziah. While Iziah lay awake in the middle of the night, staring at the ceiling, he heard the man shifting around and grunting.

“You look like you got struck by lightning.” Nick reached forward, ruffling his hand in Iziah’s messy hair.

Iziah laughed, pulling away.

Nick leaned back again, letting out a faint chuckle. The tension that filled the room last night had, thankfully, dissipated.

“So,” Iziah said as he split the bacon and eggs between the two plates. “I’m curious. Martha left after what happened to Micah, right? She headed to Seattle for work?”

“That’s right.” Nick’s eyes drifted from his. Iziah knew this was a touchy subject, but he was filled with desperate curiosity. Nick’s family had been so...perfect. It felt so wrong to see it in pieces.

“But you guys are still married? You never got a divorce?”

“Yeah.”

“Has it ever come up? Did either of you want one?”

Nick shook his head. “No. We never talked about it. I don’t know what she wants. And... Frankly, I’ve been afraid to ask because I don’t think I’ll like the answer.”

You think she’ll want one?” Iziah asked, handing the man a plate.

“Thanks.” Nick smirked, walking into the living room. They assumed their usual positions, Iziah cross-legged on the couch and Nick lounging in the easy chair. Iziah used his right hand, resting his sprained wrist on the couch beside him. His hand throbbed after the effort of cooking. “I’m not sure.”

“Seems like she would have called you if she wanted one. Like she’d be making an effort.”

“I have no idea. I just think I married a woman too much like me. Neither of us were ever very good at communicating.” Nick’s eyes looked distant. He took a bite of bacon and chewed it thoughtfully.

“Do you want a divorce?” Iziah asked. He didn’t know why it mattered to him. He was just glad to have the subject focused on someone else for a change. He was tired of being scrutinized.

Nick was quiet for so long that Iziah wasn’t sure the man would answer. Then he said, “I don’t know. I mean...it seems pointless being married, since we haven’t talked in so long. But I wouldn’t turn her down if she came back.”

Iziah nodded slowly, leaning back. He considered the next question for several minutes before verbalizing it. “You think she’s staying with another man?”

Nick stiffened.

“I mean...did you guys lay out any rules or anything?”

“We didn’t. So I don’t know.” He looked sick.

“Well, what about you?” Iziah probed. “Have you been with anyone else?”

“No.”

That seemed to be all Nick was willing to share, so Iziah fell silent. Usually the man snapped at him when he asked questions; they seemed to be making progress.

“This is pretty good, kid,” Nick said suddenly as he polished off his plate.

Iziah ducked his head as heat rose in his cheeks. “I just... I wanted to say thank you... You know, for coming for me last night.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

The man walked into the kitchen, putting his plate in the sink. Iziah watched him a long moment before speaking. “You haven’t taken a job in a while, have you?”

“No. I need to.”

Iziah laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back, sighing. “I just want this to be over. I just want to get back to normal.”

“Ha!” Nick snorted. “As if you even know what normal is.”

“You’re one to talk!”

Nick walked out of the kitchen. “Well, frankly, I want a bit of normal around here too.” He stared at Iziah a moment before cocking his head. “Are you okay? You don’t look like you slept very well.”

Iziah shrugged, fixing his gaze on the floor. “I’ve never had much luck sleeping. I’m used to it.”

The man frowned at him before heading toward the bathroom. “I’m going to go shower. Try not to set the place on fire, will you?”

Iziah chuckled, standing and clearing his plate. He’d been afraid the man would be angry with him this morning, that he would waken in a bad mood after what happened. He became weak with relief when he realized the man didn’t plan on holding a grudge. As he rinsed his plate, hope flickered inside him. Maybe...just maybe...things would turn out alright after all.

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