Arm wrapped in a clean, makeshift bandage beneath his sweatshirt, Izeri followed Charias into the infirmary, trying to look casual, and not like they were about to rob the place. While they were wrapping his injury in strips of cloth torn from one of his old T-shirts, they had discussed the story they would tell to the receptionist, working out every detail of the elaborate lie, so it was with some disappointment that Izeri regarded the empty desk.
"I wonder where he is," Izeri said, glancing up at Charias. "Should we wait?"
"Well, it is a shame to waste such a good lie," Charias said, walking to the far door and turning the knob. It was unlocked. "However, we should probably just get what we came for and get out of here. I'm exhausted."
"Yeah, you're right," Izeri said, hurrying over as Charias pushed the door open. As he stepped inside, he could hear activity from several directions, hushed voices, the clink of metal instruments, and the rustle of cloth. Luckily, most of the noise was coming from the long hallway that led to the recovery rooms, but he could still hear at least two voices speaking quietly at the end of the row of curtained-off exam cubicles. His heart pounding, Izeri led the way, stepping through the nearest curtain. Beside the wheeled hospital bed with its crisp sheets stood a compact cupboard only a few feet tall. Pulling open the doors, Izeri stared in at dozens of compartmentalized drawers, each one neatly labeled and in alphabetical order. Thank the gods for small favors.
The plastic drawers scraped as he pulled them out, tiny squeals making him cringe and cast guilty looks over his shoulder. He handed Charias a roll of gauze and a small bottle of alcohol, which the shark tucked into the pockets of his jacket. Izeri was just pulling out a jar of antibiotic salve, when Charias nudged him in the back. Closing his fist around the jar, Izeri shoved in the drawer and shut the doors, spinning around as Artis, the young healer who wouldn't leave him alone, stepped through the curtain. He stopped short, looking back and forth between them.
"What are you doing in here?" Artis asked, then he seemed to recognize Izeri. "Oh, are you here to get that arm looked at?"
"No, it's fine, really," Izeri said. "Once I washed off the blood, there was hardly a scratch, but thank you."
"Then...what are you doing here?" Artis asked after a moment. "This area is off limits to students."
"We know, and we're sorry," Charias said. "We were just worried about Sticky and wanted to check on him before we went to bed."
"Oh, are you friends of his?"
"Yes," Izeri answered, at the same moment that Charias said, "No."
Artis crossed his arms over his chest and gave an impatient sigh. "Well, which is it?"
"Sticky is my friend," Izeri said. "We had a class together before he disappeared. And Charias helped me rescue him from Professor Dark."
A shadow passed through Artis' hazel eyes. "I never liked that man; he gave me the creeps, but it's so hard to believe he could do something like this. It's hard to believe anyone could do something like this." He paused for a moment, then gestured toward the other end of the exam area. "Sticky is behind the last curtain. Don't stay long; he needs to rest. We mended his ankle, but he'll need to stay overnight so we can give him fluids and run some more tests. He's very dehydrated."
"Thank you," Charias said, stepping past the healer. Izeri followed, quietly tucking the jar of salve into his front jeans pocket. It made a terrible bulge, but he pulled his sweatshirt down to cover it and hoped no one would take a good look at him. They found Sticky lying on a bed, wearing a pale blue medical gown beneath a thick blanket. Under the bright lights, he looked like hell, his hair dirty and matted, dark circles under his eyes, his lips dry and cracked. He had several charms taped to his arms, but was awake and gave a tired smile as Izeri and Charias stepped into his cubicle.
"Hi, guys," he said, his speech slow and a little slurred, making Izeri think that at least one of those charms was a sedative. "I think I forgot to say thank you for getting me out of that place, so...thank you."
"Don't worry about it," Izeri said.
"Did they find him?" Sticky asked suddenly, trying to sit up.
Izeri reached out, placing a hand on his arm to stop him. "Find who? Professor Xakryn?" He frowned. Where was Xakryn? He wasn't among the people who had rode out with Charias and the dean, but it only made sense that all of the faculty had been alerted. Someone had to make sure Dark didn't sneak back into the university. After their conversation, Izeri would have thought Xakryn would be the first one at Sticky's bedside. Had no one told him?
"No, not him. Dark. Did the drac find him? Did she kill him?"
"I don't know," Izeri confessed instead of trying to come up with a more comforting lie. "I haven't heard anything, but knowing Fehkir, she won't stop looking until she has him."
Sticky let out a heavy sigh and relaxed back onto the bed, looking very small and fragile, his clouded eyes filling with tears. "He's gone. I'll never see him again."
"Who?" Izeri asked, confused. "Dark?"
"No, Emeri," Sticky said, a catch in his voice. "I didn't want him to go, but he said I was just a dumb, horny kid. I was hurt and mad and I didn't stop him from leaving, but what you said is right, Izeri. When you love someone, you forgive them."
The curtain between Sticky's cubicle and the one next to it slid aside and Izeri backed out of the way as Professor Xakryn stepped forward, the blind air mage wiping tears from his face. Izeri held his breath, knowing they should leave and give Sticky and the professor some privacy, but he remained rooted to the spot.
"Emeri?" Sticky whispered. "Is that really you?"
"Yes, it's me," Xakryn said, reaching down and taking Sticky's hand. "Can you really forgive me for the cruel, stupid things that I said? I didn't mean it, any of it. I love you."
"I love you, too."
Charias cleared his throat, making Izeri jump. "We better go. See you later, Sticky."
"Bye, guys," Sticky said, but he didn't take eyes off of Xakryn, as if he feared Xakryn would disappear if he looked away. Izeri cast a last glance over his shoulder as they left, as Xakryn leaned over Sticky's bed and placed a kiss on his forehead. Smiling to himself, he followed Charias toward the exit. At the door, they ran into Artis coming out of the recovery wing.
"Oh, good," the healer said. "I was just coming to suggest you let Sticky get some rest. He should be discharged tomorrow."
"Thanks," Izeri said. "How's Moonsinger?"
The bleakness in Artis' expression said everything. "I really can't discuss his condition. Confidentiality. I shouldn't have even told you about Sticky." He seemed to hesitate. "It's my first year working here."
"And you're doing a fine job," Charias said. "We won't tell anyone about the little slip." He opened the door, but Izeri wasn't quite ready to leave.
"Can you at least tell me if he's going to be okay? Is he going to live?"
Again, Artis didn't need to answer; his face said it all. "We don't know. We're keeping him unconscious while we run tests. I...I've never seen anything like that. He was bent over that barrel for so long...his bones were broken and allowed to heal wrong...He may never walk again. And the sores on his chest and abdomen...clear to the bone, and the infection..." Artis closed his eyes and took a bracing breath. "I'm sorry, I really can't discuss it any further."
"Thank you," Izeri said, part of him sorry for asking. Details were just fuel for the nightmares he was sure to have. But then he felt guilty. His nightmares would pale before the horror that Moonsinger had survived. If he survived. Izeri couldn't help but wonder if maybe it would better if he didn't.
They were skirting the commons, hands shoved in their pockets and their shoulders hunched against the cold night air, when Charias glanced at him. "How long do you think Xakryn was standing behind that curtain?" he asked. "Was he waiting for us to leave?"
"I don't know," Izeri said. "I didn't hear him come into the infirmary, so either he was real quiet, or he was there before us. Maybe...maybe he didn't know if Sticky would want to see him. Maybe he was afraid Sticky would tell him to go away. Take it from a certified coward, not knowing may be torture, but you always think the answer is going to be worse."
"I would hardly call you a coward," Charias said, gently draping his arm across Izeri's shoulders. "You fought off a psychotic, sadistic werewolf. You're a hero."
"Yeah, well, let's keep that between you and me," Izeri said, snuggling closer to Charias' side. "The last thing I want is to become some school celebrity, followed around by a fawning entourage like Maika." Just the thought made him shudder.
The dormitory halls were empty and quiet as Izeri headed for their room, his feet dragging across the tile floor with every step. Exhaustion throbbed through every muscle in his body. He couldn't even feel the gnawing hunger anymore. All he wanted was sleep. He groaned out loud as Charias pulled him past their room and toward the bathroom again.
"Can't it wait?" Izeri asked, aware that he was whining but beyond caring. "I'm tired."
"So am I," Charias said.
"Yeah, but you didn't shift six times." Just saying it made him feel heavier, more lethargic.
"I know." Charias stopped, turned back, and scooped Izeri up into his arms. For an instant, Izeri tensed, holding his injured arm out so it wouldn't get bumped, then he relaxed against Charias' broad chest, resting his head against his lover's shoulder. "We need to clean that wound properly, though. An infection could kill you."
"I know," Izeri said with a sigh, resisting the urge to close his eyes; he wasn't sure if he'd be able to open them again. Charias shouldered through the bathroom door and set Izeri on the counter between two of the sinks. Leaning back against the mirror, Izeri gritted his teeth and let Charias roll back the sleeve of his sweatshirt, revealing the new bandage, already showing dark blotches of blood. Silently, Charias unwound the strip of material and threw it into the trash, the took the bottle of alcohol out of his jacket pocket. His gaze met Izeri's.
"This is going to hurt," he warned.
Izeri nodded, taking a bracing breath as Charias broke the safety seal and took the lid off. Holding his arm over the sink, he watched, fists clenched, as Charias tipped the bottle. The first drops burned like fire and Izeri let out a strangled yelp before biting back his cries. Drawing a hissing breath between his teeth, he closed his eyes, fighting tears and nausea. Getting the wounds hadn't hurt as much.
Charias poured half the bottle over his injuries before setting the alcohol aside. Izeri was shaking as he glanced back, taking shallow breaths. Grabbing a handful of paper towels, Charias gently patted the wounds dry. Izeri expected it to hurt, but after the agony of the alcohol, he felt almost numb.
"You okay?" Charias asked, pulling the gauze out of his pocket. "You look a little gray."
"It really hurt," Izeri replied, unable to keep a slight quaver out of his voice.
Charias leaned over and gave him a soft kiss, one hand cupping his cheek. "I'm sorry. We're almost done." As he drew back, he patted his pockets. "Where's the salve?"
"Here, I've got it," Izeri said, leaning to the side as he dug into his jeans pocket and worked the jar free. Charias took it, gently dabbing the thick, antibiotic salve onto the wounds. It stung, burning with a cold fire, but nothing like the alcohol. Even with the pain, Izeri found it hard to keep his eyes open, his head nodding forward. He felt himself floating, drifting...
The next thing he knew, Charias was lifting him again, cradling him in strong arms. Izeri forced his eyes open and peered down at the clean, white gauze wrapped around his forearm. With a sigh, he gave himself over to sleep.