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: Assault mention, discussions of romantic attraction and amatonormativity.
Length: 1, 104 words.
The world doesn’t have common language for what it feels like not to feel.
Ila shoots Akash a brow-raised, warning look and then nods at Darius, hir lips forming the slightest of upwards curves: warmth more than meaning. “You’re talking around it, but I hear a sense of not wanting, yes?”
Darius gulps and curls the fingers of his right hand.
“I’ve a few questions. I’m asking for you, not me, but if you think this prying, or you don’t want to say anything, hand.” Ila jerks hir left hand: no. “Okay?”
Ze observed early in their acquaintance that ze doesn’t know the difference between Darius’s nodding to acknowledge someone speaking and his nodding to consent or approve. Is there another non-verbal way we can communicate agreement? It still amazes him that Ila thought to ask, but hir respect of the difference allowed Darius to trust Akash’s often-pushy overtures of friendship.
“It’s usually a phrasal verb with another word.” Darius waves his right hand through the cooling water, the small waves lapping against his skin. “Hand doesn’t work said alone like that. At least not in a spell.”
“I’m glad I’m not a magician, then!” Ila rolls hir shoulders, stretching one leg as far across the floor as hir bare foot can reach. “Have you ever desired a romantic relationship with someone?”
Darius rests his right hand on the rim of the tub, fingers twitching. What has this to do with Harlow? He did, but that want long-ago faded to something vague and dreamlike: trying to grasp hold of such feeling seems as pointless as recollecting the date of the day the Bully broke his arm. Want became nothing more than the warp supporting the weft threads of his travels through Tierre or the conversation that led to the belt’s directing him to the Master’s school, only important in its creation of everything else—the visible, appreciable pattern of a lifetime.
Once, he loved his teacher. Or he thought he did.
Why March? Perhaps only that he was there? Only that he was kind?
“Have you ever wanted one with a peer? Someone not, say, a priest or an employer?” Ila halts; Darius, despite the risk of being looked at in return, can’t keep himself from staring. How does Ila know to ask that? “Have you wanted one with someone you can have one with? A student, a mercenary, a pretty witch you met at the market?”
“I’m here,” Darius says, fighting to keep his words slow and clear, “because I can’t just always … ask someone. And you know…”
They understand the ways such attempts go wrong. The Ravens can pry secrets even from his hesitant tongue and, with a bit of wine and a lot of talk, render them ordinary through sharing their own.
“It isn’t about doing.” Ila heaves a slow sigh, but hir shoulders aren’t stiff and hir words are soft; Darius guesses ze isn’t too annoyed. Ze promised to tell him when ze is. “Have you ever wanted to ask someone out to eat or dance or go walking—anything that builds a connection based on romantic interest for someone you can ask? Just the want?”
Romantic interest? Darius crooks his head, not sure what ze means. “I don’t know?”
“Try this way,” Akash says, grinning. “If you wanted to go out with someone, why would you? What would you want to do with them?”
“You’re supposed to be explaining,” Darius mutters, smacking his left palm against the water. Splashed droplets run down his forearm and the sides of the bath. “Because they’re pretty? If there were somewhere I could go that wasn’t—”
“Here.” Akash waves his hand toward the bed. “Pretend that Ila and I are going out and Mair said you can bring someone up here. Pretend that they’re also divergent, maybe? What would you want to do with them?”
Why are they talking about something entirely theoretical? He can’t bring strangers up to Akash and Ila’s room! Darius threads his fingers around his knees and leans forwards, rocking despite the pain above his knee; counting, even by his favourite nines, does nothing to ease his bewilderment. “I don’t know! Cards? Sewing or magic or reading? Sex if I feel like I want that and they do? I don’t know what you’re doing.”
Even Darius hears the whine edging his voice.
He draws a breath, trying to calm himself. Akash and Ila don’t twist him up for amusement or cruelty. They’re not doing this to upset him. Why, then? “I’m sorry. You’re, you’re confusing. I can’t…”
Akash’s lips twitch as though he fights to keep from smiling, but he nods at Ila. “It isn’t you, Dari. I fall in love with people, I feel that want, and I can’t say what it is, not simply or logically. Not the way you talk about magic. Just that it’s a different sort of want than this. A bit of hoping for forever, a bit of obsession, a lot of excitement … passion, I suppose. Romance.” He waves his hand at Ila. “You’ll know if you have it, and everyone acts like you should, but…”
He shrugs, palms up, as if he doesn’t know what else to say.
“If you don’t have that kind of attraction, it’s hard to recognise.” Ila exhales, hir fine brows knit into a deep, creased frown. “How do you know you’re a man? When your body doesn’t have to mean anything about your gender, how do you know?”
Even after a moment of thinking, Darius has no good answer. He suspects he doesn’t feel masculinity as deeply or as strongly as other shift men, but it fits more comfortably than other options of gender or its absence. He feels content enough as man to accept ownership, if he allows that gender, most of the time, seems a concept vaguely at odds with his divergence. Good enough, close enough for communality … but different.
“I just know. Me. It fits, feels better. That’s not … clear, but…”
Ila surprises him by nodding. “That’s what I’d say about not having one. I just know.” Ze pauses, flicking hir right hand at him. “But if you met someone who’s never heard of gender, how would you explain being a man? Wouldn’t you have to first ask how they know who they are, how they categorise types of people and why?” Hir lips creep upwards, almost grinning; Darius wonders what ze sees on his face. What amuses hir if not Darius himself? “That’s like what I’m trying to ask you, because the world doesn’t have common language for what it feels like not to feel. It only assumes that we do.”
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.