After lunch, Korin came home to do more reading. Healing Shaiera had given him another look at the blight, more clues and hints he could hopefully tie to a disease—magical or mundane—that someone else had studied and written about.
He barely noticed the passing of time, until a tap on his shutters pulled him out of a fascinating account of influenza that had spread through Triome a few hundred years ago. That disease had definitely been magic-driven, although this particular journal didn’t get into the history of the wizard who had created it or why. And while the flu was nothing like the blight, Korin was learning a lot from the very detailed descriptions of the studies and experiments and eventually treatments this Staff wizard had gone through, picking apart the magical elements from the mundane virus.
More tapping on his shutters. Korin set the book down and went to the window, but the alley outside was empty.
As Korin stepped back, Ádan swung in through the open window, coming down off the roof. “You know, there is a door,” Korin said, although he couldn’t keep the smile off his face.
“What fun would that be?” Ádan closed the shutters behind him, blocking the sounds of the late evening street.
The room felt suddenly very small. Korin returned to the chair he’d pulled up next to the dresser for a makeshift desk. Ádan sat down on Korin’s narrow bed without waiting for an invitation. It made sense—there weren’t any other chairs—but Ádan on his bed was distractingly suggestive. And very close. The room was tiny. All Korin would have to do was lean forward and reach out and…
“I’ve been reading diaries,” Korin said, turning his attention back to the books on his desk and not to Ádan's long, beautiful fingers spread wide on his sheets. “Other Staff wizards who lived in Triome. Staff and Wing wizards both. I’ve found some good stuff that may help me figure out easier treatments, but no hint of anything like the blight being seen before.”
Ádan scooted back so he could lean against the wall, making himself far too comfortable. “It’s magic, right? We know that.”
“There’s absolutely magic involved, but creating a disease from scratch is hard. And there’s no point to it. Nature does a better job of coming up with invasive, scary sickness than we ever could. Magical diseases, they’re rare, but when they happen, there’s always a base of something familiar to them. Except this one.”
Korin pushed the books away from him in frustration. “If there’s anything natural about this, it’s no disease I’ve ever seen, or heard of, or read about.”
Ádan was listening, nodding along. “Could it be something new? Can that happen? Can diseases just spring into being?”
“Sure. New diseases happen. Old diseases evolve.”
Something in his voice made Ádan tilt his head. Out of the corner of Korin’s eye, he saw the edge of Ádan's smile. “But you don’t think that’s what’s happening here.”
“No. The more I read, the more I actually touch the blight…” All afternoon, Korin’s suspicion had been growing. Until he was sure—almost sure. But that didn’t make it any easier to say out loud. “I think someone made this. Constructed it. Which is bad enough. And it’s unusual. But there’s more.”
Korin was too aware of the omnipresent sticky heat, of the closeness of the room, of the closeness of Ádan. Handsome, helpful Ádan, whose intelligent brown eyes were locked on Korin, waiting for Korin to continue. Korin felt the warmth of a blush blooming, but a flicker of magic pushed it down before his body could embarrass him.
Focus on the magic, on the blight. Focus on what’s important. “The blight—I think it was crafted to kill wizards.”
“Wizards like you,” Ádan said, the same conclusion Korin had come to.
It thrilled Korin that he hadn’t had to spell it out. That Ádan really was smart. And brave. Helping Korin solve this problem—contributing. A partner.
Jonathan had never…
But no, Korin didn’t want to think about Jonathan.
Ádan, seemingly oblivious to Korin’s whirling thoughts, asked the next logical question about the blight. “Who could create something like that?”
“I don’t know.” Which was true, sort of.
Ádan didn’t let him off the hook. “You have a theory.”
The knights were dead, their leaders executed, their order broken. But Korin had seen this same tainted energy in them. And who else would have means and motive to craft a magical disease that was the most dangerous to the wizards who tried to cure it?
The blight wasn’t spreading on its own. So far, it hadn’t shown any signs of being contagious. But how far was Korin willing to sink into the realm of paranoid conspiracy to blame these cases on a bunch of dead men?
“Korin?” Ádan's voice, soft, interrupted Korin’s thoughts. “You didn’t answer.”
Because he didn’t want to. Because his mind kept skittering away from the idea that there might still be knights alive. That they might be here, in the city. That they might be hunting wizards like him.
“I need some more time to think.”
It was an evasion, but Ádan took it in stride. “Tell me how I can help.”
Unbidden came all sorts of ideas of things Ádan could do to help, except they weren’t about helping solve the blight at all. Korin had to summon a spark of magic to keep himself from blushing as his mind conjured images of him on the bed with Ádan, skin against skin, bodies entwined.
Which led to other thoughts, painful and sharp like a sudden slap of cold water. Jon’s lips against his, Jon’s fingers running through his hair…
Jonathan whose death was Korin’s fault. How could Korin sit here and think about…
The touch of Ádan’s fingers stroking his palm. Earlier, the way Ádan had traced a finger lightly along his jaw. Had watched him, just like he was doing now, his beautiful dark eyes locked on Korin’s. Like he would never tire of what he saw.
Ádan leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, and Korin found himself mirroring the movement. They were so close now, their faces only inches apart.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” Ádan whispered. “Tell me what’s going through your head to make you look so lost.”
“I feel lost,” Korin whispered back, then shook his head. “No, that’s not right. I’m not lost. I’m here. But everyone else—I can’t stop thinking about them. Everyone who’s gone.”
Ádan’s hands found Korin’s, wrapping them in warmth. “I know what that’s like. And I wish I had words to make it better. But I think—I hope—the people we’ve lost would want their memories to bring us strength. To prop us up rather than dragging us down.”
Korin squeezed Ádan’s fingers, clinging to them like an anchor. “It just feels like a betrayal. To be happy. Like I’m forgetting them.”
“You’re not.” Ádan squeezed back, his thumbs stroking, slipping under the edge of Korin’s gloves to touch bare skin. “You still get to be happy. You still get to live. The world goes on, and we can miss the people who aren’t with us anymore, but we can’t stop being who we are.”
Korin was hyper-aware of the fact that he and Ádan were alone together. Privacy like he’d never known before. Not as a child, sharing a tiny bedroom with an older brother and younger sister. Not at school, in the cramped underground where all the students were constantly on top of each other. On the road with Teriad, Korin had never had a place that was only his, and he and Jonathan had to steal every moment together.
This was Korin’s own room, with a door that closed to keep the world out, and Ádan was no more than a breath away, watching Korin with melting compassion. Light forgive, but Korin wanted this. Wanted…
Korin tilted his head, leaning in just a little more. Ádan moved with him, closing the space between. His lips brushed Korin’s, a phantom touch, and Korin sighed.
“You deserve to be happy,” Ádan whispered against Korin’s lips. “You deserve to have everything you want.”
“I don’t know what I want.” The words were true and not true, spoken without thought. It was hard to will away the guilt, and as much as Korin’s body was awake, desperate for Ádan’s touch, he couldn’t get past this aching feeling of betrayal.
Ádan pulled back, gently. He disentangled one of his hands to lift it to Korin’s cheek, cradling Korin’s face in a warm touch. “You’ll figure it out. And I’ll be here when you do.” He stood up, sliding his hand down to Korin’s shoulder and giving a squeeze. “For now, though, you should probably get some sleep. It’s been a long couple days.”
It was true. Korin hadn’t slept at all last night, which probably had a lot to do with why he couldn’t figure out how to work through this. “You’re leaving?”
Ádan leaned down and brushed another kiss across Korin’s forehead. “I’ll see you tomorrow. That’s a promise.”
He swung out through the window, the same way he’d come in, pulled himself up onto the roof, and then was gone.