After seven years in Rajad, Darius has fallen out of love with the unattainable and failed to fall in love with the companionate. When the right person offers a romantic relationship and he doesn’t understand why yes won’t grace his tongue, the only thing an autistic man can do is ask the Ravens–and hope he can survive the word they give him in return.
Content Advisory: Descriptions of wounds and blood, bullying and the ableism targeted at people who can’t conform to neuronormative modes of speech. This chapter begins increasing romance mentions and discussions between alloromantic (Akash) and aromantic (Ila, Darius) characters.
Length: 1, 002 words.
You never give a family heirloom to a romantic partner before you’ve legalised the relationship.
“Good thing, then, that you’re talking to the House’s expert on romance.” Akash slides into a cross-legged pose on the floor, his smile loose and warm. His lips don’t match the searching quality to his gaze, the feeling that Akash knowingly disregards Darius’s dislike of being stared at. “Is this what you want, first? Maybe it would be better—”
Darius jerks his left hand, flapping so hard his wrist aches. Even that much movement, after sitting for a moment, leaves him unsteady.
Akash glances at Ila before he nods. “Romance, then. Are we talking seduction, gifts, dating, building a relationship, keeping a relationship—”
“Keeping!” Ila breaks into a snorting laugh. “You want to talk to Dari about keeping someone? What happened to the last girl you insisted was ‘the one’? She still won’t give back the necklace you gave her!” Ze shakes hir head and leans against the bath, hir lips twitching. “If Akash is anything to go by, the first rule is that you never give a family heirloom to a romantic partner before you’ve legalised the relationship. It also helps if they don’t insult your other paramour…”
“I thought…” Akash sighs and rises, pouting. “She was nice until she made that crack about the stick insect! Anyway, lover, how many romances have you had? Ever?”
Stick insect? Before Darius left for Khaloun, Akash spent card games joyfully rhapsodising over his brown-haired, laughing merchant beauty. What happened?
Ila holds up both palms. “I surrender to your … experience. Such as it is.”
“It’s more than yours, which makes me the expert.” Akash sighs, looks at Darius and shakes his head, slow and dramatic enough that Darius takes the gesture as play; Ila shapes hir long fingers into a crude gesture behind hir partner’s back. “I don’t think you should let the water get cold. Need help? No fun, just hands that don’t fumble?”
In some ways, Darius felt better in the hallway, still moving and talking, caught in the obligation to pretend. When he possesses a safe space free of judgement and disregard, how does he keep himself from falling apart on his return? Not even the Master acknowledges the effort of his work—how often he struggles to speak and move against a body yearning to succumb to feelings the world would rather deny. He fights to make shaking hands buckle a bridle or stiff lips frame spells and an observation about the weather, but the cost shows itself here, when that door closes and nobody but Mair or the house staff will enter this sanctuary.
Akash and Ila accept if not understand, but this still marks him as something he’s spent seven years trying not to be.
The warming spells painted on the inside of the bath will hold long enough, but Darius, yearning to be free of blood-stiffened clothing chafing his skin, twitches the fingers on his right hand.
“Easy.” Akash grins. “Any place more than usual where you don’t want touch?”
Darius sits, considering. He’ll need to witch his wound, but he doesn’t feel as though he’ll object to their handling—at least not yet. So he taps his right leg above the wad of bandage pillowing his knee before shrugging, his fingers splayed with the palms facing upwards. In Khaloun and Rajad, Westerners near as common as the locals in some quarters, the gestures of Darius’s childhood are read well enough if people are willing to acknowledge the meaning they possess.
Too many don’t.
Silence still feels babyish: the impact of summers spent with his blood kin and the last seven years in the Eastern Confederacy aren’t lessened by his spending the best part of nine years at a school accepting of all communication. Childhood with a family who asked him to use his proper words whenever Darius gestured, signed or let the suggestion of a slur touch his voice, even knowing how he laboured to learn and relearn speech. Adulthood with people who ignore any communication that doesn’t fit their preconceptions of appropriateness. Both bequeath shame even in this house, and he exhales for as long as he can, trying to push it away.
“Are you okay everywhere else?” Ila asks, hir words quiet and undemanding.
Darius repeats the right-handed finger-twitch. “I need…” He purses his lips, struggling to find the word in his mind but a second earlier. “I need … drawing, for writing, magic. Not ink. The other one.”
“Pencil? Paper, skin or cloth?” Akash stands and rests a hand on Darius’s bicep, waiting to be sure that he doesn’t flinch before reaching for his topmost shirt button.
Darius pinches his trousers just above his knee. Perhaps the musician has a point, given the size of the drying stain. When he needs must ignore his senses, he never knows when he should instead regard pain with seriousness or urgency. “Cloth.”
“I’ll get it,” Ila says, turning towards the taller partition. “Was that today? Is it stitched?”
“Stitched. Not today.”
“Let Mair look, if you’re still bleeding.” Akash, clasping the hems of his loose sleeves without touching Darius’s hands or forearms, wriggles the shirt up over his arms; Darius raises his hands. “Your arm! How much they making you bleed this time? You remember you’re actually a pen hag, don’t you?” He tosses the shirt on the floor—Akash finds laundry baskets bafflingly mysterious—and looks at Ila as ze returns from behind the partition. “No. That’s bad. You could be doing anything but that kind of work!”
A few weeks ago, Darius would have shrugged in his best attempt to convey casualness before reminding Akash that he owes a debt to the school for his instruction as a swordsman and as a blood witch—not to mention the inordinate, additional sum the Master paid to the Grey Mages for him. A debt paid by his taking the big, dangerous jobs crossing the Kara.
Now, he isn’t so sure.
Shades, he’s tired—and they still haven’t begun to talk about Harlow.
K. A. Cook is an abrosexual, aromantic, genderless, autistic, queer adult who experiences chronic pain and mental illness. Ze writes creative non-fiction, personal essays and novels about the above on the philosophy that if the universe is going to make life interesting, ze may as well make interesting art. Ze can be found online at Queer Without Gender and @aroworlds.