The Hurting Game

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Chapter 9

Iziah didn’t think he was going to make it to his apartment. He grew more exhausted with every step. It was getting dark, and his bare feet ached. His knees wobbled beneath his pain-wracked body. Sweat streamed down his face. He took every short-cut he could think of, but it still took an eternity. The streets that once seemed so familiar were dark and menacing. Threats lurked behind every shadow, and a thousand eyes bored into him. Iziah shuddered, pulling the huge jacket closer. His legs were cold, mostly uncovered by the hospital gown, and he felt terribly vulnerable.

He took a deep breath. He just had to forget about it and move on. Surely the Crimson Serpents were satisfied. They would leave him alone.

When he finally reached his apartment, it was pitch black. The place was run-down with peeling white paint and rusty, metal stairs. Music boomed in the apartment beneath his, and it sounded like someone was having a party. Iziah limped forward, clutching his ribs, and staggered up the stairs. His vision swirled, and he swayed back and forth. The doctor mentioned a concussion, but he hadn’t thought about it until now.

Iziah stopped several times to rest before reaching his apartment. Faint, muddy footprints stuck to the stairs, and he was shaking all over. Iziah remembered picking up his knife, but he didn’t know what happened to his keys. They were likely at the hospital. No matter. Iziah crouched beside the door and pulled a spare key from between the loose boards, holding the back of the gown with his other hand. He started to stand, but his legs turned to jello.

“Dammit...” Iziah ran a shaking hand over his tender face. Tears welled up in his eyes, but he forced them back. What happened to the knife fighter that didn’t let anyone lay a finger on him?

Iziah leaned against the door and hauled himself to his feet. The pain in his body was becoming more intense as the drugs wore off. His head felt like it might split open as he struggled to put the key in the lock. Finally, the door swung open, and he stumbled inside. It was a small apartment, three rooms in all. The room he stood in functioned as a living room mixed with a kitchen. On one side was an ugly red shag carpet, on the other there was cracked white and black tiles. It was just as he left it – messy, quiet, ice cold. And very dark. He groped until he found the light switch. When the bulb flickered to life, he squinted, raising a hand. Old, broken furniture. Dirty laundry. An open, half-eaten bag of stale tortilla chips on the counter. Iziah limped across toward his bedroom. He wanted to put on some real clothing.

When he reached the door, he put his hand on the knob and twisted. It opened with a loud creak. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His bedroom was pitch black, except for a narrow beam of light coming through the open door.

Iziah swallowed. His throat was dry.

What the hell was this? He’d never been afraid of the dark.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the room and turned on the light. “I’m fine,” he grumbled, stumbling over to his dresser and pulling out some spare clothes. His rib-cage protested with every movement – not to mention his sprained wrist and broken fingers – and it took him several minutes to change. However, the familiarity of his own clothing brought him relief. As he pulled on his shirt, he saw numerous bruises on his arms where the men’s fingers squeezed him. His stomach was bruised black. A cringe spread across his face. After he was dressed, he put on an over-sized hoodie. Iziah wasn’t sure what to do with Nick’s coat, so he tossed it onto his dresser. A mirror hung on the wall, and he caught a glimpse of his reflection. There were stitches on his forehead and across one brow. The swelling on his left cheek had gone down, but his eyes were sunken and rounded by dark circles.

Iziah smirked.

He really did look like shit. Those men had gotten what they wanted. He’d been stripped of his pride and his reputation. A lump lodged itself in Iziah’s throat, and he turned away. The trek to his apartment had sapped his strength, and he just wanted to sleep. Iziah walked back to the switch and turned out the light, then eased himself onto his bed. A wave of relief washed over him as he closed his eyes. The music from the apartment below was muted through the floorboards, leaving him to silence.

After a few seconds, he opened his eyes again, but all he saw was a wall of blackness as his eyes struggled to adjust. It felt like someone was watching him. Every little sound from the surrounding apartments was too loud. Iziah tensed, his eyes widening as he scanned his surroundings.

You stuck something in our friend...how about we give you the same treatment?

The man’s voice had been soft and snake-like. He had talked to Iziah the way one might speak to...a child. But there was no sympathy in his yellowish eyes. Just a faint amusement.

Iziah took a long, shaky breath. His eyes were adjusting, and he saw the dark forms of his furniture. Dirty clothing formed menacing shapes.

You’re quite the pretty one, aren’t you?

The man had laughed at him. Laughed when they stripped him and broke his cell phone, laughed while they hurt him, laughed when they muffled his screams. Shivers ran down Iziah’s spine. He still tasted the cotton of his jacket as they forced it into his mouth. Remembered the feeling of suffocation as he started to choke and gag. Terrified, he tried to tell them that he would keep quiet if they would just stop. But he could hardly make a sound with them shoving the jacket in his face, and his words were a garbled blur. There was just more laughter, filling his senses as he writhed and sobbed in their grips.

How could he be that hated? He knew he acted like an ass sometimes, but... If only he hadn’t killed that man from the Crimson Serpents. This was all his fault. The urge to scream swelled inside him. It had been an accident!

There was movement in the room, then something thudded against the floor.

Iziah cried out in terror, coming bolt upright and scrambling back against the headboard. His heart exploded into action. He looked around through wide eyes, panic coursing through him, his hands clutching the blankets. Finally, his eyes rested on the dresser. Nick’s jacket had slipped off and hit the floor. Iziah let out his breath, shaking.

A dry, humorless laugh rose in his throat but quickly dissipated into silence. He was alone.

“Damn...” He ran a shaking hand through his hair, now damp with sweat. “This is ridiculous... I’m fine.”

Iziah pulled his knees against his chest with trembling arms.

“I—I’m fine...”

The sudden movement left him aching, and sobs began to wrack his body. He squeezed his eyes shut, tears trickling down his cheeks. He didn’t know why he was crying, but he was glad no one saw him. As he sobbed into his knees, he remembered Matthias and Harley. They would be at the bar around this time, Matthias flirting, Harley disinterested. Or maybe she’d given in. Did they miss him?

Probably not. Matthias hated everything about him, from his skills with a knife to his good looks. Not that either of those things were helping him now.

What happened to his measure of control? In the foster home, he had learned how to control people. Inciting their hatred, taking the beatings...it all left him with a sensation of control. It was love he couldn’t control, and that was why Micah’s family scared him. Out here, he was strong enough to fight, and that had given him more control. Not only could he manipulate people, he could also defend himself.

So what the hell had happened to his control?

There was another sound – knocking, this time. Iziah froze, shaking with sobs. For a moment, he thought it was someone outside another apartment. But, when the knock came again, he knew there was someone outside his door. The Crimson Serpents? Had they come back to kill him?

The thought made his insides go sour with terror.

But then a voice came through the door. “Iziah? Are you in there? It’s Nicolas.”

Something akin to relief streamed through Iziah. It was just Nick. Iziah didn’t want the man to see him like this...but he also didn’t want to be alone. He climbed out of bed and made his way out of the bedroom. The living room light blinded him for several seconds. He wiped at his eyes before opening the door just wide enough to peer through.

Nick looked more haggard than usual, and there were grim lines on his face. The man stared at him for a long moment. Heat rose in Iziah’s cheeks as he realized how obvious it was that he had been crying. Even after drying his cheeks, his eyes were red and puffy.

“Hey, kid,” the man said, his gaze drifting to the floor. “I wanted to make sure you got back here alright.” When Iziah said nothing, he continued, “You shouldn’t have left the hospital.”

Iziah shrugged numbly. “I didn’t want to stay.”

“Are you okay?”

It was a pointless question. Nick knew that.

“I’m fine,” Iziah said, opening the door farther and trying not to look as small and pathetic as he felt.

Nicolas stared at him a moment, then his eyes drifted past him and into the apartment. “Did you search the place in case someone was waiting for you?”

Iziah paled. He hadn’t thought of that.

What if the Crimson Serpents left him to die but found out he pulled through? What if they had been waiting for him to show up? A wave of nausea washed over him.

Nicolas slipped past Iziah and began searching the apartment. The bedroom, the bathroom, the closet. Iziah stood there and watched, something like gratitude swelling inside him. And, simultaneously, a sense of shame. He shouldn’t let the man help him. He should be enraged he just...barged in.

When the man was satisfied, he headed back toward the door and slipped out, mumbling, “I’ll let you be, just thought I should check.”

Iziah stood there a moment in confusion, the door partially open. He expected Nick’s footsteps to recede, but instead, they stopped. The man stood by the railing, looking across the parking lot, and he pulled out a cigarette. Iziah took a step forward. The sleeves of his hoodie were so long they fell over his fingers. One hand on the door, he whispered, “Why are you here?”

Nick glanced at him, the cigarette hanging from his lip. He pulled out a lighter. “I was going to stay and keep an eye on things, if you don’t mind.”

Iziah frowned. Since when did Nick care what he minded? Uncontrollable rage coursed through Iziah as he realized why Nick was here. The man pitied him. He thought he was frail and wounded. “I can take care of myself,” Iziah snapped.

“I know you can.”

More and more heat built up in Iziah’s head, and he was shaking with fury. “I don’t need you, okay? I’m fine! Just because I was friends with your son doesn’t mean you’re responsible for me! Just leave me the hell alone!”

Iziah turned and slammed the door, tears welling up in his eyes and streaking his face.

Yes, it was obvious he could take care of himself. Left alone, he would be a corpse in the street by now. After being attacked, he wouldn’t have made it to his apartment or the hospital. Nick knew it. That’s why he wore that sorry, piteous look on his face. Iziah leaned his head against the door, shaking, his fists clenched. Why did Nick have to find him? It would have been easier if it was someone he never had to face again. This wasn’t fair!

But he knew it was wrong to lash out. Especially after Nick saved his life. Hell, he should be thanking him. But he knew his lips were chained with pride. They just didn’t move that way.

There was no sound outside the door, and Iziah wondered if Nick had left.

Iziah’s hand rested on the door a long moment before he opened it again, peering out, his cheeks damp and eyes glassy. Nick was still there, smoking, leaning against the railing. He glanced back at Iziah.

“Sorry,” Iziah said.

“It’s fine.”

There was another long moment of silence. Nick’s eyes wandered, resting on everything but him. “I’ll leave if you want me to.”

Iziah shrugged, his voice bitter, “You can do what you want. I don’t care.” He didn’t want to be alone, but he wouldn’t ask Nick to stay. “I’m going to sleep.”

Iziah turned without closing the door and walked over to the couch. An old snack pack wrapper sat on one of the cushions, and he brushed it aside, collapsing. His head pounded, but it felt better to have his eyes closed. Silence. Iziah wondered if Nick would stay or if he would get bored and leave. Cool air drifted in through the open door. The light was on, and since Iziah had no intention of getting up and turning it off, he nestled his head into the couch cushions, blocking out the light.

He heard Nick moving around, and, after a moment, the door closed.

Iziah’s stomach twisted with fear. Was he leaving? There was no sound for a long moment, and he took a deep breath, trying to swallow down the lump in his throat. Then, he heard more footsteps as the man walked across the ugly shag carpet. Relief flooded his body. Iziah wasn’t sure what Nick was doing, but it didn’t matter as long as he didn’t have to be alone. He relaxed into the cushions and drifted to sleep.

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