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, non-explicit sexual experience mentions. This chapter includes discussions of the way sexual experiences are shaped by autism, autistic modes of communication and the infantilising of allosexual autistic adults by allistics (non-autistics).
Length: 884 words.
He ruined everything by freezing: unable to say yes, unable to say no, unable to keep from hurting her in his speechless confusion
Akash helps Darius with sword, ordinary belt and boots before slowly peeling his trousers down over the thick linen wrappings. The bloodstain’s edges—a large splotch over one side of the bandage—show brown, contrasting abominably with the centre’s fresh, livid scarlet. He presses his fingertips to the bandage, scowls and wipes them dry, ignoring Akash’s raised eyebrows and whispered cursing.
Ila hands over a stubby grease pencil. “Maybe Mair should look at that first?”
Darius settles himself back on the edge of the chair, the pain worth being freed of his clothes. “No. No. Later. Please.”
They don’t disturb him as he scribbles a waterproofing spell designed to both keep water from bandage and the spell-words from washing away. The bandage will be unusable after, but that’s better than his forgoing a bath—and he’s used this spell so often that his writing need not be perfectly legible.
Repetition, in magic, often matters as much as precision.
A soft six-tap knock sounds from the door; Ila admits someone bearing a third bucket and a rattling food tray. Darius breathes in sesame oil and a gamy, roasted meat. Goat. Did Sash remember to give him plenty of plain rice?
“Anything else you want?”
Ila looks to Darius; he flaps his left hand while scribbling the last word of the spell with his right.
“We’ll ring if so. Thank you, Lia.” Ila closes the door with a soft click.
Darius leans over, dizzy, as the drag hits him. Breakfast—flatbread, sultanas and a shred of dried goat—seems like a week ago. Now, Arvel will be home, preparing to deliver the seed to his noble employers; Harlow will be eating in the school’s dining hall, seeking work for the return crossing. She won’t talk to the others about him, will she? Won’t mention his name only to find many mercenaries more than willing to dish the dirt?
The fastest route to insanity lies in dwelling on what other people may say, but how can he stop wondering?
He stands, balancing on Akash’s shoulder while trying to lessen the weight on his stiffening leg and, at the same time, drop his drawers and the pencil. Ila takes his free arm for the awful bit of getting his leg over the rim of the bath, something that makes Darius reconsider the horrors of a public bathhouse, but the warm water feels wonderful after three weeks over the Kara. He hisses, digging his teeth into his lip, as his left forearm burns and his right leg throbs with dizzying intensity, but both ease off as his limbs loosen.
“That’s better.” He slumps down into the water, head tipped back, eyes closed. “Thank. That’s better.”
Ila takes up a bar of soap, clasps Darius’s hair in hir fist and starts washing the end of the tail, working hir way up to his scalp. Lavender smells better to Darius as dried flower heads—sweeter, woodier, deeper—but he doesn’t mind this fragrance if not overused, and Ila knows to press with hir hands and nails as ze works.
“Ask Akash what you want when you’re ready.”
Harlow tried to rub his shoulder after her stitching the gash, likely thinking to relax him: the pull of the thread through the edges of a wound stands high even on Darius’s lengthy list of teeth-gritting sensations. She was sweet, kind, patient. For the first time, Darius thought he’d avoided the usual judgement and rejection. Her company didn’t seem so different from this, the wonder of comradely friends who permit casual, assumption-free intimacy.
For nearly two months, back and forth across the Kara, he thought he’d found another true companion. He felt safe with her—until she whispered in his ear as they lay under the sparkling stars, only a few sleepy snores and shifting horses breaking the silence. Are you like me, the way you never look at the others? You’re like me, aren’t you? Asexual?
If she knew of Darius’s life at the school it was only by hearsay, and he doubts anyone there understands the mess of observation and calculation that goes into his risking connection. Akash and Ila respect his adulthood, but finding such rarity necessitates the same anxieties when Darius dares look at someone: will they understand what he says with hands and gesture? Will they accept the retraction of consent when he can’t pronounce no and he’s too far into overwhelm?
Or will they rage at the lack of an affection he can’t give? Will they brand him broken, cold or childish? Will they take advantage?
Harlow’s overture, after she told him what she does and doesn’t seek from a romantic relationship, strips away one cursed complication. He won’t have to rely on her patience with his sudden and disconcerting halts when what was desired a moment before becomes too much to endure. He won’t have to navigate the expectations of someone else’s need when his own wanes. A partnership offers him some protection against others’ interest if they work together the Kara—and he likes her. How can it not be wonderful to have a partner on the road?
She asked the question, but he ruined everything by freezing: unable to say yes, unable to say no, unable to keep from hurting her in his speechless confusion.
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.