After seven years in Rajad, Darius has fallen out of love with the unattainable and avoided falling in love with the companionate. If he lives at arm’s length from passion, isn’t that better than risking the abuse his fellow mercenaries so eagerly deliver to an autistic who can’t quite fit in? But when the right person suggests a romantic relationship, “yes” still won’t grace his tongue, and Darius hasn’t the least idea why. He likes Harlow. Shouldn’t he want to love her?
The only thing he can do is turn to his old friends and rescuers, the Ravens. They have an answer if he can stumble his way through asking the question … but it may upend every truth Darius thinks he knows about himself.
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: 935 words.
You never give a family heirloom to a romantic partner before you’ve formalised 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, however, don’t match the searching quality to his gaze—as if Darius looks weary enough that Akash can’t help but disregard Darius’s discomfort with staring. “Is this what you want, first? Maybe it would be better—”
He jerks his left hand, flapping hard enough to jar his wrist. Even that much movement, after a moment’s stillness, leaves him giddy.
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 return the necklace you gave her!” Ze shakes hir head and leans against the bath, hir lips twitching. “If we go by Akash, the first rule is that you never give a family heirloom to a romantic partner before you’ve formalised 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 their card games rhapsodising over his brown-haired, laughing merchant beauty.
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, winks at Darius and shakes his head, slowly enough that Darius takes the gesture as play; Ila shapes hir long fingers into a crude gesture behind hir partner’s back. “Let’s not let the water cool. 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 possessed of a space free of judgement and disregard, how does he keep himself from falling apart? Not even the Master acknowledges the full effort of his work—how often he struggles to speak and move against a body yearning to succumb to feelings the world abhors. 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 enter his temporary sanctuary.
Akash and Ila accept if not understand, but this still marks him as what he’s spent seven years fighting: different.
The warming spells painted on the inside of the bath will hold for long enough, but Darius, yearning for release from his blood-stiffened clothing, twitches his right thumb and fingers.
“Easy.” Akash grins. “Any place more than usual where you don’t want touch?”
Darius sits, considering. He’ll need to spell his wound, but he doesn’t feel as though he’ll object to their handling—at least not yet. He taps his right leg above the bandage pillowing his knee before shrugging, his fingers splayed with the palms facing upwards. In Khaloun and Rajad, Westerners nearly as common as the localborn, the gestures of Darius’s childhood are readable if people care to acknowledge their meaning.
Too many don’t.
Silence still feels babyish: the impact of summers in Malvade and seven years in the Eastern Confederacy aren’t lessened by his attending a school accepting of all communication. Childhood meant a family who demanded that he use his proper words whenever gesturing, signing or slurring, despite their knowing his labours in learning and relearning speech. Adulthood means people who disregard communication that doesn’t fit their preconceptions of appropriateness. Both bequeath shame felt even in this room, and he exhales, wishing for words he shouldn’t need.
“Are you okay everywhere else?” Ila asks, hir voice quiet and undemanding.
Darius repeats the right-handed finger-twitch. “I need…” He purses his lips, struggling to find the term present his mind but a heartbeat earlier. “I need … drawing, writing, magic. Not ink. The other one.”
“Pencil? For 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 wound. Perhaps the musician has a point, given the size of the drying stain. When he needs must ignore his senses, how can he know which pains to regard 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 Darius’s loose sleeves without touching his forearms, wriggles the shirt up over his arms; Darius raises his hands to help. “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—to Akash, laundry baskets own no comprehendible purpose—and sighs 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 big, dangerous jobs crossing the Kara.
Today, he just blinks.
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.