Nicolas wakened in the middle of the night, sweaty, with a sour taste in his mouth. At first, he wasn’t sure how he’d ended up in his bed. His head still ached, and he was sore. The laptop sat in bed next to him. Taking a long breath and grunting, he lifted his head to look around. His door was open, and all the lights were turned off. His clock read 1:54.
Nicolas hadn’t planned on falling asleep. Dressed in full clothing, he was too warm, and he hadn’t brushed his teeth. The apartment was silent. He rolled out of bed and stumbled toward the bathroom, making quick working of brushing his teeth. All that aside, he hadn’t wanted to leave Iziah to his thoughts all evening. No doubt, the kid was scared. Too late now. After Nick had changed into something more comfortable, he sat in bed, letting out his breath. His mind was still in chaos after receiving the email from Gray. He was tempted to ignore it and leave.
But...something about this seemed strange. Nicolas had been careful to register under a different apartment on all his files so no one could find him. At least, not easily. Assuming that had worked, the Crimson Serpents didn’t know where he lived. They only knew he was involved because the yellow-eyed man had gotten a good look at him during the struggle at Iziah’s apartment. That would explain why they emailed instead of barging in here. They didn’t know where to find Nicolas and Iziah, so they had the advantage.
If they didn’t know this address, the apartment was relatively safe. Iziah could stay here during the meeting without fearing discovery. This fact also provided Nicolas with protection. The Crimson Serpents couldn’t shoot him because they didn’t know where to find Iziah. Nicolas was their only link to the kid.
Nicolas’ brow furrowed as he pulled off his socks and put the laptop on the dresser. He hoped his plan would work. If the Crimson Serpents weren’t such a wide-spread group, he would have packed up and left with Iziah. As it was, Gray had contacts all over the state and would find them no matter where they fled. That was why Nicolas had to kill them. That was the only way to end this. He had to protect Iziah. The kid knew just as well as Nicolas that this wasn’t a game anymore.
Nicolas’ head ached, likely from a combination of stress and exhaustion. He was considering taking some Ibuprofen when he heard a faint sound come from the living room.
It was so soft that he thought it might have been his imagination.
Nicolas froze, trying to silence his breathing as he strained to hear any sound. It came again, a faint whimper. Nicolas stood and walked to the doorway, looking out. Everything was just as he’d left it. The television was off, and the chess board sat out on the table. Iziah was curled underneath a blanket, tossing and turning with labored, heaving motions as he hauled air into his lungs. Nicolas’ eyes squinted through the darkness. Iziah’s features were scrunched, and he let out another whimper.
A wave of pity washed through Nicolas. He had assumed that Iziah struggled with nightmares, but he hadn’t known they were this extreme.
Nicolas stood there a long moment, conflict tearing back and forth inside him. He didn’t want to wake the kid, but he couldn’t leave him to suffer. The meeting with Gray had likely just made things worse.
Taking a long breath, Nicolas walked over to the couch, stooping down and giving the boy a shake. “Iziah. Wake up.”
The moment Nicolas’ hand touched his shoulder, Iziah’s eyes snapped open. An expression of terror and confusion spread across his face. He took a wild swing at Nicolas, bellowing, “GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME!”
Surprised, Nicolas recoiled. The punch caught him in the stomach. It was a glancing blow, making him take a step back. His legs tangled on the coffee table, and he crashed to the floor, letting out a pained grunt. Iziah leaped on him, swinging frantically with his balled-up fists. One quick blow caught Nicolas in the teeth, and he tasted blood. Confused and irritated, he shouted, “What the hell?” giving Iziah a shove that sent him sprawling.
Nicolas scrambled into a sitting position, swinging his head around. Iziah was panting, his eyes wild, like he hadn’t made the adjustment from nightmare to reality. He looked over at Nicolas and started swinging again, howling with rage.
Trying to avoid the writhing tangle of limbs, Nicolas leaped on the boy, straddling his thin body and pinning his wrists against the floor. He tried to be gentle, remembering Iziah’s injuries, but it was hard with him thrashing around.
“Iziah!” Nicolas shouted. “Cut it out! It’s me!”
Iziah struggled harder, bucking and twisting beneath him. His face was contorted. “Get off! Let me go!”
“Not until you calm down! Stop it!”
Iziah let out a thin wail, pitching his head against the floor as his spine twisted. It was impossible to tell whether or not he was asleep. “I hate you! I hate you, damn it! Just leave me alone! Get off!”
“Iziah!” Nicolas bellowed in his face. “That’s enough!”
Iziah flinched. He continued wriggling for a long moment before shudders began to wrack his body. Iziah squeezed his eyes shut, turning his head away as if to hide his face from Nicolas. His chest rose and fell rhythmically as he let out faint, choked sobs. “I’m sorry...” The words were quieter now, strangled by tears. “I’m sorry... Please... I’m sorry...”
Nicolas didn’t know what to do, loosening his grip on the boy’s wrists. He was afraid to let go, lest the boy might try to hurt himself.
“Why...? I don’t understand... Why don’t...you hate me? Why won’t you...just hate me?”
The agony in the boy’s voice twisted Nicolas’ heart. “Iziah...”
The boy didn’t respond, sobbing wretchedly, limp in the man’s grip. After a moment, Nicolas shifted, climbing off the boy, confused. Iziah rolled to his side so that his back was to Nicolas as he shuddered and shook. The apartment was silent beyond Iziah’s choked gasps. Nicolas sat there a long moment, rubbing his hand against his face, unsure of what to do. After a long moment, he turned, grabbing a discarded blanket off the couch and spreading it across the shivering body. Iziah didn’t notice right away, but, when he did, he pulled it around his shoulders, curling up even tighter. Then he sat next to the boy, putting his hand on his arm.
“What did you dream, Iziah?” Nicolas asked quietly.
Iziah didn’t reply right away, sniffling and wiping at his damp cheeks with shaking hands. “I—I dreamed...that those men came after me again... I was with...my friends in the bar...and they just...barged in and grabbed me. They didn’t even bother to drag me out of sight, they just pushed me down on the floor, and...and no one cared!” His voice became more strained and venomous with each word, hands gripping his scalp. “They just...let them have at me all over again! No one cared! They just sat there and watched!”
“That would never happen.”
“You don’t know that!” Iziah retorted, his voice cracking. “You don’t know them! I thought they had my back, b—but... They would turn me in if I showed my face down there again. M—Matthias even said that...I deserved it...”
Nicolas sighed, unsure of what to say. Unsure of how to bind this wounded heart.
“I—I don’t understand... I don’t understand why I’m this way... Why I’m...” His lips trembled, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
“There’s nothing wrong with you.” After a moment of hesitation, he reached down toward the quivering bundle and pulled him into a tight embrace. Iziah stiffened, then seemed to relax, going slack in his grip. The damp face buried itself in Nicolas’ T-shirt.
“I—I don’t understand...why I’m so unlovable... Why I...couldn’t ever fit in...”
“Iziah, you’ve had a terrible life. You’ve been treated unfairly, and you didn’t deserve that. But none of that matters now. Just because people treated you poorly doesn’t mean that you’re unlovable.”
Iziah shook his head.
“I wouldn’t lie to you.” Nicolas glanced toward the couch. It would be more comfortable there, but he didn’t want to break this moment. Didn’t want Iziah to hide inside himself again. “I ran away from home when I was fifteen. Went to live with an old friend. My family didn’t know where I’d gone, and I didn’t hear anything from them. They were so strung out on drugs all the time that I’m sure they didn’t notice.” Nicolas looked down at Iziah. It was too dark to see his expression, but, despite his shuddering breaths, he seemed to be listening. He stroked the boy’s hair the way he had when he was comforting Micah. Held him the way he’d held his dying boy. This situation wasn’t so different. Something in Iziah was dying right now. Something in him was giving up on this world.
“I hated them,” Nicolas continued. “I didn’t have a reason for it except that they didn’t care. We’ve made a lot of the same mistakes, you and I. You know I was the best fighter in the gang I joined? We didn’t use knives though. It was fist to fist.”
The faintest smile twisted Iziah’s features, and he let out a weak chuckle.
“One thing led to another, and I got into...my current line of work. It didn’t make me happy, it just cut through the boredom. And then Martha came along and tipped my world upside-down. I didn’t think I could be loved, but that woman proved me wrong. She made me believe there was something worthwhile inside me, no matter what anyone else said.” A moment of silence, then he said, “I want you to understand that you’re not worthless. The reason you’ve been mistreated is because you haven’t given anyone the opportunity to care about you. You found your identity in a gang. That’s not a place to find real acceptance. That’s what family is for.”
Iziah sniffled, curled deep in the blanket and locked tight into Nicolas’ embrace. “I don’t have a family.”
“That’s not true.” Nicolas issued a soft chuckle. “You have me. You have Martha too.”
There was a moment of silence. Iziah pulled back and wiped his eyes, his head ducked. His thin body was still quivering as he whispered, “I won’t have you if you get shot during that meeting.”
“Leave that to me.”
Once again, Nicolas felt a twinge of doubt about the meeting. Before, he hadn’t been worried because he was used to this sort of thing. But now it struck him that he had to make sure he didn’t die. Because if he died, no one would be left to take care of Iziah.
“I’ve dealt with these sort of people before, Iziah. I know what I’m doing. There are risks, but I have a plan. After the meeting, you and I can leave the city. Start a new life somewhere out of reach. Things will get better after that.”
Iziah looked doubtful, but he nodded. It felt as if they’d gotten tangled in a spider’s web. The more they struggled, the more danger that pressed in on them.
“We’re going to get through this,” Nicolas said. “You just have to trust me.”
Iziah nodded again.
Nicolas took a long breath, his eyes scanning the room. It looked so empty, even in the darkness. When they left, he would get a smaller, more comfortable apartment. Except it would have two bedrooms instead of one so that Iziah wouldn’t have to sleep on the couch.
“Do you want to try to go back to sleep?” Nicolas asked.
There was a long moment of silence, then Iziah shook his head.
“We can stay awake.” He struggled to his feet and grabbed Iziah’s arm gently, helping him up and guiding him to the couch. Nicolas sat down, and Iziah collapsed beside him, closing his eyes and pulling the blanket around his trembling shoulders. He leaned his head against the back of the couch and murmured, “Thanks, Nick.”
Nicolas smiled. When he put his arm around Iziah’s shoulders, he expected the uneasy boy to struggle away, but he didn’t, remaining silent and motionless. Nicolas wasn’t sure what to do, if he should say something or remain silent. If he should take the kid to the police or the hospital, where they knew what they were doing. It was the same with Micah. Except this time, he wasn’t going to lose.
After about an hour, Iziah was asleep, and Nicolas settled back, content to sit there for the night.