The gift was perfect.
George had put a lot of doubts into Thorn’s mind. He wasn’t betraying his people. He wasn’t selling himself out. Becoming an Enforcer didn’t mean those things, not logically. But when faced with George’s anger, it was hard to remember that.
But the little automata—sure, it wasn’t perfectly made. It was a toy meant for children, an experiment into a steam engine that had clearly not panned out. But it was perfect. Kenneth had meant it as a gift to remember their first meeting, and it was that. But it was more, too.
The talentless had dreams. There were many ways to achieve them, many roads to take. The gift just made Thorn feel more sure about the one he had chosen.
Kenneth may not understand everything about talentless life. But his heart was in the right place, and that was good enough. He was far from the noble mage who had recoiled in fear from the sigh of an artificial hand.
If only others could see it too.
Thorn clenched his jaw. Others would see it. He had been hiding Kenneth, in a way, afraid of what others would think. He had acted like being with Kenneth was something to be ashamed of. That was a mistake.
Kenneth was here to fix his magic, sure, but he was also here to learn about Thorn and his life. It was time to help with that by introducing him to others. George could go to the fires. Thorn wasn’t ashamed.
“Thorn?” Kenneth asked. “You alright?”
“I’m fine,” Thorn said, placing the automata carefully back in the bag. “I’m just fine. Making plans for tonight.” He met his lover’s sky blue eyes. “How would you feel about seeing the mess halls where students typically eat?”
Thorn hadn’t been here in a while. Between Kenneth paying for meals and the money he made selling things, he had been able to afford better fare. But plenty of people still ate at the mess, and it had saved him often enough his first few years when he hadn’t a penny to his name and had gotten by washing dishes and forging utensils.
And it was a great way for people to meet Kenneth.
“Does the collegium have a place like this?” Thorn asked as they entered, after having safely stowed his gift in his dorm room. His lover was surveying the mess, which looked smaller than Thorn remembered. Long tables and benches stretched across the room, and the ceiling was low, with beams criss-crossing the corners that would probably force Kenneth to duck if he walked near them. It wasn’t as crowded as Thorn remembered either, with only about a dozen people eating at various locations along the long tables.
“No,” Kenneth said. “Not quite like this.” Someone looked up at his voice, her eyes widening. She turned back to her book.
Thorn sighed. “C’mon, lets grab some food.”
Compared to the near-rotten fare at the orphanage where he had grown up, the meals here had been heaven. Now they were simply bland in comparison to the restaurant fare Thorn usually procured for himself, but still as filling as he remembered. Kenneth, for all his culture, ate heartily.
“I’m surprised,” he said. “This is good.”
Thorn raised an eyebrow. “What, expecting weevils in the grain and mold on the bread?”
Kenneth paused, glancing at his food.
Thorn chuckled. “That was what food was like when I was a child. Not here. We trade with local merchants, fixing their gear and such. We get good ingredients.”
“It’s not so different than quick meals grabbed nearby, you know,” Kenneth said. “I suppose…some people think talentless eat rotten food or dogs or somesuch, but really, its similar. I happen to like plainer things now and then.”
“I do hope you’re not calling me plain,” Thorn said, his voice dry, and he laughed again when Kenneth shook his head. “Food is a fact of life. It unites everyone, rich and poor, talentless and mage.” He leaned back, looking over the few people in the mess. The woman reading a book had left, but others remained. No one made eye contact with him, or looked at Kenneth.
It was fine. He didn’t need them to react. He just wanted to feel safe among his own people with his lover. He wanted to be accepted.
A door banged, and Kenneth looked up from a bite of his bread. The woman who had been reading a book stood in the doorway, along with George.
Thorn’s meal squirmed in his mouth as though there really were weevils in it. He swallowed hard.
He wasn’t going to let George push him around.
“What is it?” Kenneth asked. Thorn tensed, expecting George to come over to them, to begin his abuses again.
Instead, the other man merely met his eyes, then turned away.
Thorn let out a breath, his appetite gone. Somehow, he doubted very much that his leaving meant George had given up.