Heavy knocking broke through Thorn’s dreams, and it took him a moment in pitch darkness to remember the events of last night. The sensation of his lover’s warm arms around him made him smile, and he almost closed his eyes and succumbed to sleep again when the knock came back.
“Kenneth?” Thorn mumbled, and he rolled over, fumbling in the dark. Kenneth muttered something Thorn didn’t understand, and a steady glow filled the room, making Thorn wince.
“I didn’t mean…never mind.” Thorn blinked hard, his eyes watering at the sudden light. Outside the heavy curtains that blocked the windows, the sun barely peeked over the horizon. “One moment!” he called. “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Saul,” his friend called. “Sorry to bother you, but I…I need a bit of help with my leg. Can I come in?”
Fires. “Sure, I’ll be ready in a few. Just wait.” Thorn blinked again, the pain dulling as he got used to the light. “Kenneth…” he trailed off.
His blond lover sighed. “Saul is afraid of mages, right?”
Thorn frowned. “I’m sorry. I…I’m not sure what to do. I don’t think he knows you’re here.”
Kenneth sat up in bed, swinging his legs out of the covers and standing. He was so beautiful. He muttered to the aether again, his hair suddenly less mussed. “Not a shower, but at least I look well enough to be seen,” he said. “I do wish you had a mirror.” Thorn had to roll his eyes, but he smiled anyway. Leave it to a mage to be fussy. “Let me put on some clothes, and I can give him some privacy while you work.”
Thorn nodded. He wished Kenneth could see him work. He was proud of the talents he had, of his knowledge of clockwork and anatomy that allowed him to construct replacement limbs. He knew so much about engineering, but repairing was so much more satisfying than anything else.
And he wanted to know that what he did didn’t disturb Kenneth. Kenneth had said he didn’t mind, so many times. But that first time he had seen his hand, and called it monstrous…pain at the memory still twinged.
But he wasn’t about to ask Saul, a man terrified of mages like Kenneth, to have a mage watch while Thorn fixed his leg. He was already vulnerable enough. That wasn’t fair.
“Alright, Saul,” Thorn called once both he and Kenneth were presentable. “Come in. Kenneth’s here too, but he’ll be leaving.”
The door swung open, revealing a wide-eyed Saul. “I…hello,” he said. Of course he stared straight at Kenneth. “I didn’t expect…you.”
“Don’t fret,” Thorn said. “Kenneth will give us some privacy. Is it the kneecap again? I told you we should just get rid of that piece.” He met Kenneth’s eyes while he spoke, and Kenneth nodded to Saul before leaving the room. Disappointment at Kenneth’s absence wound in Thorn’s stomach. He liked having Kenneth near, and the whole goal of this week was to help Kenneth get over his strange magical issue by staying nearby.
“Can Kenneth wait outside?” Thorn blurted. Maybe if he didn’t go far, that magical issue wouldn’t come up again. “He’s not exactly ready to go wandering the college by himself.”
“Um…sure,” Saul said, taking a careful step inside the room. “I guess so.”
Kenneth smiled as he shut the door quietly behind him. That was one problem averted.
“Alright then,” Thorn said. “So what happened?”
“I was jogging this morning and now…” Saul stepped further into the room, Thorn noting immediately how stiffly he moved. “It’s not the kneecap, but something is locking up.” He sat down on the floor, the sound of metal grinding against metal meeting Thorn’s ears as he bent his leg. “I think the problem is behind the knee.”
“Fair enough. Roll up the pant leg.” Saul’s clockwork leg was a wonderful piece of engineering, but it could use so many improvements. Once Thorn mastered his own project on his hand, he hoped Saul would let him work on his leg further, or make a new one.
Of course, if he was going to be an Enforcer, he might not have the time.
“So,” Saul said, his voice quiet as Thorn peered at his leg. “Um. Kenneth. He’s a noble mage?”
“That’s right.” Thorn spotted a piece of bent metal, mentally comparing it to his memory of the other times he had fixed Saul’s leg. There was something bent out of place. An easy fix, for a man with a metal hand like him.
“And you’re…dating him?”
“Yes.” Thorn met Saul’s eyes, the memory of the comments of his classmates fresh.
“Is he…paying you?”
Something twisted in Thorn’s chest, and he shoved down his anger before he could snap at his friend. “No.”
“I didn’t mean like that!” Saul put up a hand. “I just meant…like a patron, or…”
“Noble magi are never patrons,” Thorn said, his teeth clenched. “They have powerful magic. They don’t need us that way.” He had never, even after years of working at the inventor’s college and making money selling his inventions, sold anything to a noble. Only weaker non-noble mages made use of talentless’ work. Not every mage could do the things Kenneth was capable of.
“They’re so different,” Saul said. He let out a breath as Thorn twisted the gear in his leg. Saul stretched out the prosthetic, flexing the toes.
“There,” Thorn said. “Fixed, for now."
Saul didn’t get up. “Do you truly care about him?”
“You know me, Saul,” Thorn said through clenched teeth. “Would I be with him if I didn’t?”
“But how can you?” Saul blurted. “How can you love a mage?”
The words hung in the air between them, and it took Thorn a moment to realize the only light in the room was still Kenneth’s glowing orb. In his mind, in seconds, Thorn thought over the sparse few memories he had of his parents, of the fire that had killed them, and of his life, fighting to develop the intelligence and skills to survive.
He used to think mages never needed any of that. Spoiled, rich, ignorant. But maybe mages thought equally bad things about him when they didn’t know him. Like reacting to a prosthetic hand without truly knowing about how it was made or why it was needed.
Both sides needed time.
“I guess I can love him the same way he can love someone like me,” Thorn answered. “Maybe that’s not the best answer, but it’s all I can really say.”