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: Discussion of the intersectionality between autistic-targeted ableism and amatonormativity and the ways said ableism make more difficult an acceptance of aromantic identity. This section includes ableism/abuse, assault and self-harm and/or wound mentions.
Length: 863 words.
A word isn’t a gift if you can’t discard it. Keep it, or not, as you want.
He arranges the spoon flush across the empty bowl, careful to avoid clunking metal against crockery. “There’s … maybe that explains, but I can’t. I can ask more questions, but that … that might make it real, and I can’t…” Darius shakes his head. If he can’t agree, even when this may be more right-feeling than the word he couldn’t give Harlow, perhaps he can explain why he’s so unable. “Outside here … what I feel and know, it’s … I’m all upside down and sideways, large over things rightly small, small over things rightly large. Upside down and sideways. People tell me I can’t trust what I feel, what I think. But then I’m supposed to do that, sometimes; I’m supposed to trust. Just not most of the time. How…?” He presses his lips together, his eyes burning. “Am I feeling things right or wrong? How do I know when to trust feelings? How do I know?”
He doesn’t know if he talks to himself or Ila. Neither does he care. One ugly thing feels sure and certain: everything—Harlow, asking the Ravens, letting Ila guide him to an answer, accepting hir response—will be so much easier if he sheds his divergence.
Confusion says less about Darius and more about the damage inflicted by the world’s views on what makes the right, valid shape of human. He knows better than to bow to the belief that he shouldn’t exist. He knows better than to lose himself in trying to mimic someone else’s personhood. He should know better than to seek or crave normality, not only from truth of impossibility but also from believing nothing reasonable in such a construct.
He still wishes, sometimes, for freedom from autism’s omnipresent weight.
Ila perches on the edge of the bed before resting one hand on Darius’s shoulder, hir fingers flat and hir touch heavy. “A word isn’t a gift when forced on you. A word isn’t a gift if you can’t discard it. Keep it, or not, as you want.”
Darius heaves a shaking breath and leans into Ila’s chest, breathing in the warm smells of skin, soap and a hint of cinnamon; ze leaves hir hand resting on his arm, hir fingers smooth and soft, and runs the other through his damp curls, finger-combing just hard enough to pull.
“My … my family says that gender, names, are gifts. I can give back femininity. But Oma yells when I won’t wear clothes she gave me. I don’t … decide, what’s right to give back. They do.”
Guilt grabs him as soon as the last word slips from his tongue. If Akash serves as a brash protector, given to amusement and outrage in equal measure, Ila speaks as the priest, patiently honouring Darius’s need for honesty. They’re as kind a people as he ever hoped to find in a world where even the caring seldom voice a compassion free of condescension.
He can’t take this word, aromantic, even when he thinks it may, will or should ring true.
He can’t take Ila’s words as a gift, even when he knows that spirit to be true.
Darius should trust what he feels … except when he can’t, because everything he knows and feels doesn’t fit the shapes of difference become allowably human.
“I know,” Ila murmurs, hir fingers firm. Neither tortures him with the featherlight touches that set his skin afire, however well-intended one’s gentleness. Just the pressure and the weight that lets him relax despite touch’s many complications. “But you can give anything back to me. Anything. You don’t have to explain as if apologising for not accepting. You don’t have to say why.”
The only place better for a divergent man is the College, but how can he go back when he’s no longer a child? Where else can he be so comfortably different that aromantic needn’t feel dangerous?
He exhales, shaking, and looks down at his forearms. The sleeve of his robe rides up far enough on his left forearm that the first of the new cuts shows red-raw. Less shocking, now, than the darker, older scars renting skin above and below. March’s lessons didn’t protect him from bullies in the world outside, and Darius doesn’t regret his sacrifices when he gains something closer to safety—even if Akash won’t pretend acceptance.
Here, he needn’t pretend that his feelings for the people he cares about aren’t uncomplicated.
Here, he needs only ponder the meaning behind a smile.
He breathes out, long and slow. “Can that be enough? For now, tonight? Can we … something else?” Darius hesitates, thinking he should ask Akash and Ila about their lives, but such conversations seldom ring naturally on his tongue, however sincere his intentions. Between everything Darius thinks impolite to mention and the questions people wish him not to ask, not to mention the subjects Darius wants to discuss and the inane things people insist on voicing, he struggles to identify the suitable middle ground for polite small talk. “Can I ask about … the stick insect, maybe…? Can I ask about that?”
Ila snorts and jerks hir elbow at Akash. “You tell him that one!”
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.