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: Assault mention, discussions of romantic attraction and amatonormativity.
Length: 1, 002 words.
The world doesn’t have language for what it feels like not to feel.
Ila shoots Akash a warning look and then nods at Darius, hir lips forming the slightest of upwards curves: warmth more than an expression with meaning. “You’re talking around it, but I hear a sense of not wanting, yes?”
Darius gulps, hesitates and curls the fingers of his right hand.
“I’ve a few questions. I’m asking for you, not me, but if you think it’s prying, or you don’t want to say anything, hand.” Ila jerks hir left hand: no. 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? “Okay?”
It still amazes him that Ila thought to ask, but knowing that the difference matters to them allowed Darius to trust Akash’s 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 smiles; Darius nods, thinking that nobody else outside the College gives his observation such graceful patience. “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? The want has long faded now, vague and dreamlike: trying to grasp hold of it feels like trying to remember the date of the day the Bully broke his arm. It’s the warp supporting the weft threads of his travels through Tierre or the conversation that lead to the belt’s directing him to the Master’s school, only important in its creation of everything else—a want too distant to return to. Why should he, when he has something better here?
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. “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…”
“It isn’t about doing it.” Ila heaves a slow sigh, but hir shoulders aren’t stiff and hir words are soft; Darius guesses ze isn’t too annoyed. “Have you ever wanted to ask someone out to eat or drink or dance or go walking—anything that builds a connection on the basis of romantic attraction with someone you can ask out? Just the want?”
Romantic attraction? 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. What would you want to do with them?”
Why are they talking about theoretical situations that have no bearing on his actual life? 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? 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? “You’re, you’re confusing. I can’t…”
Akash’s lips twitch as though he’s fighting to keep from smiling, but he nods at Ila. “It isn’t you, Dari. I fall in love with people, I feel that romantic want, and I can’t tell anyone what it even is, not simply. Just that it’s a different sort of want than this.” He waves his hand at Ila. “You’ll know if you have it and everyone acts like you should have it, 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. “It’s like—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. “I just know. Me. It fits better, feels better. That’s not…”
“That’s what I’d say about not having one. I just know.” Ila nods, flicking hir right hand at him. “But if you met someone who’s never heard of gender, how would you explain your being a man? Wouldn’t you have to first ask how they know who they are?” Ze pauses, almost grinning; Darius wonders what ze sees on his face. “That’s what I’m trying to ask you, because the world doesn’t have language for what it feels like not to feel.”
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.