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: Fantasy violence, sexual attraction and sex mentions, along with a discussion of amatonormativity.
Length: 1, 054 words.
Yes, voiced to romance’s expectation, doesn’t feel as dangerous as assenting to Ila’s alternative.
Darius rests his head on his knees, fighting giddiness and overwhelm alike. Four hundred and fifty, four hundred and forty-one, four hundred and thirty-two…
Once he reaches two hundred and seven, he looks up. Akash flashes Darius a warm smile—definitely a grin—before twisting about in his armchair: he hangs his head over the edge of the seat, his hair falling in a tangled river of black, his legs propped against the backrest. The shift rucks up to bare plain linen drawers, but Darius has never known Akash to bother over such niceties in familial company.
Ila glances at Darius, both eyebrows raised, before sighing at Akash. “How do you do that?”
Akash swishes his hair across the floor, heedless of knots and dust alike. “Why not?”
“Because we both know I’ll be brushing that out?” Ila sighs and looks back over Darius’s head. “Since I have a chance of reason with you, how about … well, why do you keep coming back to us?”
Why? Maybe he should have returned to Malvade, to a monastery where Darius can trade personal relationships for serving the Sojourner and consistent, comprehendible things like books. Eschewing the Ravens for the priesthood, though, means leaving Mair, almost a mother to him, and his friends … and his life. While he loathes his fellow mercenaries and his employers, Darius enjoys the work itself: the peaceful stretches of desert and mountain, the days spent riding, the usefulness of his eldritch arts, the time away from city chaos. Even simple defiance—his ability to do the job, despite loud opinions on his being small and clumsy—keeps him going, a determination crafted from sheer, stubborn spite.
The bullies didn’t run him off; people live today because of it. Even if loosed from his debts, returning to the West sometimes feels more like abandonment or surrender than freedom.
He just wants an employer who doesn’t value property over humanity or fawn at the boots of those who do. Someone worth his blood and history. Someone kind enough that his life has meaning when he isn’t with the Ravens. Someone not Arvel and the merchants who preceded him. Someone good.
“You’re my friends.” Darius breaks the last of the bubbles by smacking his hand against the water. “You don’t … you don’t mess up things. You don’t want more than something that’s already good.” He draws a breath, hoping that he can voice truth without destroying its wondrousness. “You listen to me. You try to speak so I can understand. I can go and come back. I can trust you. And I don’t feel like you’re looking, expecting, wanting, if we’re playing cards or talking or sleeping together. I mean … I want with you, and I know you want with me, but not so much that you care when I can’t, and I like that. Who else has that? You’re not … looking, like Harlow was. Like what was, already, wasn’t enough.” He nods and glances at Ila, just long enough to catch hir eyes. “It isn’t messed—”
Akash’s gasping laughter echoes around the once-quiet room.
“Asexual? Sometimes, maybe, but mostly not, I think.” Akash, wincing, rests a hand against his ribs, rolls so he faces the floor and drags himself down off the chair, sitting with his legs tucked under his shift and much of his hair. “Ooof! I don’t know why we never figured it before, because aromantic?” Mirth darkens his cheeks to a vivid scarlet. “So much.”
Ila glances at Akash, sighs and shakes hir head. “I wouldn’t have said it like that … but I don’t think he’s wrong, Dari.” Ze breathes out, long and slow; Ila holds hir feelings too close for Darius to read them, much of the time, beyond the absence of bolder emotions like rage or hurt. “And we didn’t figure it before because we assumed your distance from people is your divergence and their hatred, and we didn’t look past that.”
Akash stares at Ila, his lips parted, before grimacing and nodding.
For the life of him, Darius doesn’t know what to think, never mind speak.
“I know people are difficult, and that can’t be neatly cut out or ignored. But do you think this, what we have, ideal for you?” Ila flicks hir fingers towards hirself and Akash, hir long, neat nails shining in the witchlight. “Close friends, people who can talk with you, and take to bed when you can bear the touching? But you can come and go as you like? And it’s casual?”
After a moment, Darius flaps his right hand. He thought he said as much, albeit with a greater indirectness—a revelation that didn’t feel this hazardous a minute earlier.
If names are meant to bring clarity, why does he feel so uneasy?
“And Harlow wants something else, something you don’t have to give her?”
Can he step back into yesterday? Can he return to whisper that one-word answer, however false it rings? Yes, voiced to romance’s expectation, doesn’t feel as dangerous as assenting to Ila’s alternative … but Darius twitches his right thumb and pointer finger. If he struggles with the little shades of deception the world seems necessary and even polite, how can he lie to Harlow about something of such consequence?
Akash’s thick eyebrows creep higher up his forehead. “See?”
Ila’s smile holds a patient gentleness, as though ze fears scaring Darius into scrambling out of the bath and running down the hall to somewhere less complicated. “When I was younger, unknowing, most people I thought I was attracted to—romantically—were people I’d never have a chance of a relationship with. They were safe to want because nothing could happen. It’s more like I latched onto anything to fit in; the world didn’t tell me that I could be anything else.”
Seven years gave Darius ample opportunity to mention, however offhandedly, the reason he crossed the Straits: to find an eldritch sword, an expression of love, for the man who was once his teacher.
March, who was kind, present and didn’t show any sign of acknowledging, never mind returning, a schoolboy’s crush.
“It feels, feels … too real, then, to be … pretend. Then.”
Ila nods. “I know. Does it now feel real?”
Darius’s left hand speaks answer enough.
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.