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: Mentions of neuronormative expectations and language, with depictions of some of the casual ways they’re used against autistics and/or the neurodiverse.
Length: 728 words.
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Do you feel like you should want her?
Darius counts to two hundred by fours, swishing his fingers through the water, before opening his eyes. “There was, on this last job, a woman.” He breathes out, trying to keep his words slow and unrushed. “She’s … nice. I do like her.”
Akash settles himself across the vacated armchair, both legs dangling over the armrest. Cat-like, he makes himself comfortable in circumstances and positions that can’t be bearable for any normal human. Darius has never understood how. “Nice? Like? Even for you, that’s…”
Ila, hir shift spotted with bathwater, props hir elbows against the rim. “Underwhelming?”
“She’s nice! That’s what that word means!”
“She’s nice,” Ila says quietly, “and that’s the word people use when they’re looking to say something … well, nice, before voicing a refusal or a negative. Or this way: if someone says that you’re a ‘good’ magician without specifying what or why, what do they mean?”
Darius groans. Most don’t hesitate in declaring that his skills with bladed weapons are barely competent at best, but that unspecified good reaches his ears from people who recognise him as divergent and magician. The ignorant underestimate his ability by praising him only for his simplest spells, incurious about his further skills; his family balances out their endless stream of criticism and despair with pleased commentary on the insignificant. That’s a good lighting spell. You’re wearing a nice shirt today.
Do they think he doesn’t know that they see him as undeserving of more than perfunctory, ultimately condescending encouragement or recognition?
“I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t twist words up, not like you all.”
“No.” Ila’s lips curl into a slight smile as ze rinses soap from Darius’s hair. “But there’s something about her, isn’t there?”
Curse people and their unnecessarily complicated rules! Darius shakes his head and reaches for the soap with his right hand. He ducks his head under the water, sits up, lathers his hands and works them over his face, hating the droplets running down his cheeks and neck. Hair rises on his forearms, sensation thrumming through his skin like the twang of a tuning fork. He doesn’t mind someone touching his scalp or hair, if they’re slow and put pressure into their touch, but Darius can think of few intimate acts he likes less than kissing.
At least on his face.
“She’s kind. I could…” He drops the soap, not minding his fumbling to grasp it; delay gives him time to think. “Before, before everything went … wrong, it was the first time, on the … crossing the Kara, it was the first time I wasn’t alone. I had someone kind to talk to that wasn’t … an employer. Wasn’t people who mocked or pressed.”
He has no simple words to describe how that feels, but Ila and Akash nod: the people who made their room a place of refuge for Darius understand this better than most. They haven’t left footsteps on this specific road, perhaps, but they know what it feels like to be bound by others’ expectations.
They know what it feels like to be harmed by them.
Ila rinses hir hands in the greyish water and rests them in hir lap, hir eyes distant and voice soft. Ze looks away from Darius for his comfort, not hirs. “Do you feel like you should want her?”
“She asked me. Last night.” He stops, draws another breath. He can get through this. He can say what happened and then let Akash and Ila provide comprehension enough that he won’t hurt anyone else the way he hurt Harlow. “Two things—if I were asexual like her and if I wanted to be with her. She wants a romantic partner and said what that is to her. I don’t … understand, but I don’t … what was wrong with before?” He trails off, poking the larger bubbles with his smallest fingertip before closing his eyes and ducking his head, rubbing his hands through his water-limp hair. Only after he wipes soap and water from his face, blinking, does he try to voice the most uncomfortable of corollaries: “You know some of the reasons why I don’t … people. But I do want them. But when she said, and I couldn’t answer … is that…?”
Akash straightens, rests his feet on the floor and bows towards Ila. “Oh, lover, this one’s you!”
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.