Fiction: The Pride Conspiracy, Part One

Banner for Rowan Ross's Guide to Aromanticism. Image features dark black handwritten type on a mottled green background. Diagonal rows of arrows with bands, heads and fletching in the colours of the green/light green/white/grey/black aromantic pride flag cross the image above and below the text.

December isn’t the best time of year for a trans aromantic like Rowan Ross, although—unlike his relatives—his co-workers probably won’t give him gift cards to women’s clothing shops. How does he explain to cis people that while golf balls don’t trigger his dysphoria, he wants to be seen as more than a masculine stereotype? Nonetheless, he thinks he has this teeth-gritted endurance thing figured out: cissexism means he needn’t fear his relatives asking him about dating, and he has the perfect idea for Melanie in the office gift exchange. He can survive gifts and kin, right? Isn’t playing along with expectation better than enduring unexpected consequences?

Rowan, however, isn’t the only aromantic in the office planning to surprise a co-worker. To survive the onslaught of ribbon and cellophane, Rowan’s going to have to get comfortable with embracing the unknown.

They’re aromantic. How isn’t he obligated to help decorate her desk in as many pride-related ways as possible?

Contains: A trans allo-frayro trying to grit his teeth through the holidays, scheming aro co-workers, a whole lot of cross-stitch, another moment of aromantic discovery, and many, many mugs.

Content Advisory: A story that focuses on some of the ways Western gift-giving culture enables cissexism and a rigid gender binary, taking place in the context of commercialised, secular-but-with-very-Christian-underpinnings Christmas. Please expect many references to said holiday in an office where Damien hasn’t figured out how to run a gift exchange without subjecting everyone to Santa, along with characters who have work to do in recognising that not everybody celebrates Christmas.

There are no depictions or mentions of sexual attraction beyond the words “allosexual” and “bisexual” and a passing reference to allo-aro antagonism, but there are non-detailed references to Rowan’s previous experiences with and attitudes towards romance and romantic attraction as a frayromantic. Please also expect casual references to amatonormativity and other shapes of cissexism.

Links: PDF, EPUB and MOBI editions are available for download from Patreon.

Length: 4, 914 words (part one of two).

Note the first: You’ll need to have read The Vampire Conspiracy for this to make sense. Available on WordPress or in PDF, EPUB and MOBI formats on Patreon!

Note the second: Rowan should be assumed an Australian character in an Australian city. Our Christmas, therefore, involves hot weather, short sleeves, barbecues and confusion at certain holiday traditions common in the Northern Hemisphere.

“It’s Secret Santa slash December Holiday Gift Exchange!” Damien emerges from the meeting room, shaking a paper-scrap-filled jar with the gleeful attitude of a toddler attacking a pile of presents. In order to give the occasion suitable gravitas, he draped a rope of red tinsel over his shoulders, the fronds glittering in the flicker-prone lighting. “Come gather!”

Rowan looks up from his computer, biting back a groan. This isn’t a surprise, given that Shelby answered his interview questions about “workplace culture” with descriptions of their celebrating capitalist-infused Christian holidays, and the office more than lives up to that promise. A tree sits on the front counter, its branches crammed with baubles. Tinsel hangs on everything from which tinsel can be hung and rests in snake-like coils over the computer towers, screens, desk partitions and the large corkboard. Ribbon-wrapped pencils topped with felt trees, stars and stockings flowered, overnight, from everyone’s pen mugs; Melanie gave Rowan three of them for his frayro mug. Every desk features a red bowl of tree-shaped marshmallows, candy canes or that weird Christmas lolly mix common in dollar shops.

Only the lack of music renders bearable this explosion of festivity. Damien said he drew that line last year after Melanie and Shelby alternated between Michael Bublé and Josh Groban’s Christmas CDs.

Rowan doesn’t want to think about that sublime horror.

Christmas to him means slipping a few TSO tracks into his melodic metal playlists and gritting his teeth until the new year.

O come all ye faithful,” Melanie sings, spinning her chair around. Every day this week she’s donned a different Christmas-themed T-shirt; today’s features a screen-printed Rudolph head with an apple-sized nose made from red minky fleece. Rowan doesn’t understand the American “ugly Christmas jumper” thing—why?—but Melanie appears to be replicating the trend via short sleeves and jersey knits.

Damien jerks his elbow at the largest whiteboard, half filled with the Banned Holiday Decorations List—items including “music, carols, hymns and singing”, “all types of fake snow” and “Cadbury Crème Eggs”. “Didn’t we talk about carols?”

Rowan doesn’t want to be accused of being a dreadful, fun-loathing millennial about which too many articles have been written on dislike of office gift exchanges … but he doesn’t know how not to be one, either. Why do people like this? Buying presents for people who aren’t strangers but aren’t friends, hoping that his attempt isn’t too generic only to open something tailored to feminine cliché … followed by the apologetic explanation or justification that Rowan isn’t easy to shop for.

Can’t he save himself fifteen bucks and skip the disaster?

He’s never understood how he presents a difficulty that isn’t cissexism and a lack of imagination: buy him good thread, expensive coffee, dress socks, a nice mug, food storage containers or fancy kitchenware. He’ll even take a cheap box of chocolates, since his housemates will eat anything should they believe it food. Just get him something that isn’t a floral-patterned bath set followed by the hand-wringing apology that the giver just doesn’t know what to get someone as confusing as Rowan!

Why don’t they ask him what he wants?

He’s over spending money and time on gift exchanges only to receive cissexism, dysphoria or stereotype wrapped in paper and tied with a bow.

Rowan draws a breath and slips his fingers under his thighs. He should have sent Damien an email when Melanie started decorating, but Rowan was thinking about pushing their print date back two weeks and not thinking about Mum’s out-of-nowhere request that Rowan attend the family Christmas. “Uh … Damien? Can I … quick word?”

Why did he get himself a new psychologist? One who says terrible words like assertiveness?

“Give us a minute.” Tinsel rustling, Damien crouches beside Rowan’s chair. “Will here do?”

If everyone overhears, Rowan can pretend he’s talking to one person while knowing they all benefit from his explanation. Besides, going into the meeting room makes this a thing. “Yeah. Um. I … I don’t usually get the right presents from people in gift exchanges. By which I mean … presents that aren’t a reminder that they think me female, and if they give me enough nail polish and heart-shaped jewellery and glittery handbags, I’ll admit it. I don’t want that? Really don’t want that?”

Why do his parents want to play at being a happy family? Does Mum want to show off to Uncle Keith and his new wife? Have they forgotten how badly last Christmas went? Or is this just more cissexist assumption that Rowan will discard his masculinity when needed? If they behave as though Rowan should fit their expectations, will he—eventually—surrender to them?

I’m not being difficult because I want my masculinity and transness respected. I’m not…

Melanie leans over to poke Shelby’s shoulder, her bright red lips forming a ring.

Damien blinks, hesitating as if he doesn’t know how best to respond. “That … sounds like my niece’s favourite birthday. Although she took the bag, put one of my sister’s dumbbells inside and swung it at the boy over the road who wouldn’t stop calling her pretty. And then made an army of neighbourhood girls wielding heavy unicorn bags.” He shakes his head. “I mean that … you obviously aren’t a certain kind of eight-year-old or into glitter, so…”

If only Rowan had the nerve to do that to Aunt Laura! “I bet he never did that again.”

“No. I’ll make sure … that the person who has you gets you something appropriate.”

Inappropriately-feminine gifts aren’t his only difficulty. Rowan doesn’t how to voice something so complex (to cis, gender-conforming people) about gender and gift-giving without sounding like he’s complaining for the sake of complaining—the demanding, difficult trans man of his parents’ accusations. Most often he endures a cis female celebrity’s latest perfume, but well-intended “accepting” people give him an Old Spice gift set—acknowledging his masculinity at the cost of his personality. How do cis people not chafe at gift-giving traditions that assume people can be reduced down to one of two categories with narrow behaviours and interests ascribed to each?

It’s easier to draw the line at gifts that only avoid being the embodiment of the giver’s cissexism and donate everything else, as much as Rowan yearns for one year with a good present he doesn’t buy himself.

Will cis people ever understand that being trans means holding back on responding to cis nonsense?

“Thanks. Yeah, thanks.”

“Secret Santa slash December Holiday Gift Exchange rules!” Damien straightens, shaking the jar; paper rattles against glass. “Twenty-dollar limit, keep it fun, don’t give anything inappropriate for a professional environment. I want to be eating mince pies, not taking people into the meeting room for discussions on adulthood. We exchange on the last day, December 20.” He reaches into the jar, the neck a tight fit for his hands, and tweezers out a folded piece of paper before handing it to Rowan.

Damien shakes the jar again before offering another slip to Melanie and then Shelby.

Don’t people draw names themselves from the bowl or jar? Nobody else seems concerned by this lapse—Melanie starts laughing when she sees her name—so Rowan shrugs and opens his, deciding it must be normal enough.

The Aro Gods must be inclined to a little seasonal kindness, for he sees “Melanie” written in Damien’s handwriting.

No need to struggle through generic alternatives like food or wine; pride pins will make her happy enough. A pen? A mini aro flag? Choosing may be Rowan’s worst problem, but he can get her a few things and give her whatever’s over the limit after the exchange.

They’re aromantic. How isn’t he obligated to help decorate her desk in as many pride-related ways as possible?

“Rowan!” Melanie bustles over; he quickly slides his paper up his sleeve. She makes metallic jangling noises—words like “ringing” or “pealing” don’t apply—as she moves, thanks to a gold chain bracelet decorated with small bells at each link. Matching earrings dangle from her ears, clinking out of tune with the ones at her wrist. “Can I ask you something?”

He nods, hoping she’ll let pass unremarked his description of holiday cissexism.

“Where did you buy your flag patches? I want one. Well, maybe more than one, because there’s the aro flag, and the ace flag, and maybe one of the aro-ace flags, but I haven’t decided which one I like best since there’s several that are nice, and…”

Once-in-a-lifetime inspiration hits Rowan with finger-twitching force. “I don’t know,” he lies once Melanie runs out of steam. “Uh … a friend gave them to me and … I don’t know where they bought them. Online, probably?” He swallows and tries for distraction, gambling his poor ability for falsehood against Melanie’s likely ignorance. “Maybe look on Etsy? I’d look on Etsy.”

“Etsy? What’s that?”

“Handcraft eBay,” he says in relief, thinking through his thread stash. “Where people sell handmade things. I don’t know when I’m seeing my friend next, but I can ask…?”

He’ll need purples, greens, greys, black, white—oh, and blues! A little orange, a little yellow. Has he enough fabric? What about time? Should he do the main ones first and then others as he can squeeze them in?

On the way home tonight, he’ll start by stopping at his local sewing store.

Rowan hits “send” on an email to Damien, ignoring Mum’s latest text, as Shelby bounds up to his desk. Like Melanie, she’s added Christmas T-shirts to her daily ensemble; unlike Melanie, Shelby’s T-shirts appear to come from a department store’s children’s section. Today’s shirt shows a cute-but-scientifically-inaccurate dinosaur in a Santa hat holding a red box. Also unlike Melanie, Shelby hasn’t added earrings, pins, necklaces, bangles or socks in honour of the season. “Yeah?”

Damien added “battery and USB-powered light-up objects” to the List after an office vote provoked by a flashing necklace that resembled miniature string lights.

Shelby whispers, meaning that she speaks in a raspier tone with volume enough that her standing on the other side of a crowded football oval needn’t impede one’s hearing. In fairness, Rowan has heard her speak over a hundred gossiping Year 7 students until they surrendered to the stubbornness of an older woman who doesn’t go to bed caring what they think of her. “Can you go through all the … the identities? Can you show them to me and tell me what colours go with them? Do they all have their own colours?”

Rowan can only sit and gape.

“Please? I need someone to go through them all.”

He lunges for his half-filled mug, hoping his perpetual need for coffee conceals his surprise. “You mean pride flags? Queer pride flags?”

“Please.” Shelby nods, grips his arm and gives a meant-as-comforting nutcracker-like squeeze before lowering her hand to fidget with her phone—a device likely dug up with the fossils from the dinosaur on her shirt. It doesn’t have a cover; he guesses she covered the back with multiple layers of washi tape coated in (yellowing) clear nail polish. He doesn’t ask why. “Maybe you can start with the ones you use, and that one Melanie has, and then tell me the other ones? There aren’t that many, are there?”

Rowan, lukewarm coffee in his mouth and heading down his gullet, chokes.

Several moments of spluttering and coughing, aided by Shelby’s enthusiastic back-pounding, pass before he can answer. “Uh … there’s lots, actually. Lots.” He considers explaining about Tumblr before deciding on the appropriate answer: a thousand kinds of nope. “Do you want gender ones, or sexuality ones, or aromantic ones, or…?”

Shelby’s blank, brow-creased expression shows that, if she read Rowan’s leaflet, his emails and the hand-outs provided by Damien’s trainers, the knowledge hasn’t stuck with her.

(They weren’t better than Rowan’s own and only mentioned aromanticism as a way of being asexual.)

“The ones you and Melanie use…?” She lowers her voice to a point where someone may, in theory, be unable to hear her from the other side of the room. “I want to get Melanie a little extra … something, this year. With a flag, maybe?” She jerks her elbow in the direction of Melanie’s mug, currently filled with something smelling of camomile and dish-water. “But I should know more about the other ones, too. Like yours. Can you show them all to me?”

There’s no way in this tinselled hell that Melanie can’t hear Shelby, yet Melanie appears engrossed in deleting emails.

Last week, Rowan said “aromantic” once to their newest volunteer in a conversation about the pride flags on their website. Seconds later, Melanie materialised from the hallway, passed over one of Rowan’s leaflets and introduced herself as aro-ace before giving a five-point rundown on ways to avoid casual amatonormativity—not that she’s yet comfortable saying the word—in the workplace. There’s no way she’s contemplating the mysteries of her trash folder while Rowan talks to Shelby about aromantic pride flags! Breathing “aro” aloud is now akin to summoning a demon—one revelling in the discovery of the identity that makes belated sense of her life.

“You want me to show you aromantic flags?” Rowan asks to clarify, baffled.

Shelby beams at him. “Yes, please.”

Melanie, frowning, deletes an email.

Did Damien have a word with her? Did the volunteer complain?

Rowan can’t say that he wants to play tour guide through the world of queer vexillology, but Shelby has gone five weeks without saying the phrase “you trans people” and two months without reassuring Rowan on the subject of pronoun-correction. He also knows Melanie and Shelby are friends outside of work, bonding over stage shows and music. If Shelby wants to support Melanie in her aromanticism, how can Rowan refuse?

While Rowan sat there planning the politest way to navigate the glaring error in the trainers’ leaflets, Melanie stood up, exclaimed that aromanticism isn’t the same thing as asexuality and demanded that they do some reading before engaging in “obvious aro denial”. He owes her. She scares him a little, but he owes her.

(Should Rowan master the ability to handle conversations and presentations, he may consider becoming a sensitivity trainer. That two-day workshop, while decent enough on gender and sexuality, left him again concluding that most queer alloros have no idea how to reference and include aromanticism in their conversations about queerness.)

Another Mum-authored text flashes up on his phone, displaying the words “Christmas”, “clothing” and “appropriately”.

No, no and hell no.

“Yeah, okay.” He bends down to grab his satchel, tucked against the left-hand side of his desk. A decent collection of patches and badges now covers the front flap, including his cursed-but-memorable “aro” patch. “That’s the trans pride flag, with the blue, pink and white, and beside it is the bisexual flag. The flag with the greens and black is the aromantic flag, and the allo-aro flag has the greens and gold. It’s pretty much the same as the aro flag, except with yellow and gold instead of grey and black.” He points at each patch as he moves through his explanation. “Allo—allosexual—aromantics are aros who experience sexual attraction.”

He’ll stick to simple definitions with Shelby, even if they lack ideal expansiveness.

Shelby nods, smiling.

“For me, it means I’m aromantic and bisexual. Aro-aces, like Melanie, are aromantic and asexual, meaning she doesn’t experience sexual attraction.” He almost asks her if she remembers what “aromanticism” means before realising that he’ll sound like a condescending primary-school teacher. “This flag with the blues, white and grey is the frayromantic flag, which designates the specific way I’m aro. The flag on Melanie’s mug—”

Shelby leans against his desk, her grey braid trailing over one arm. “So you have an aromantic flag and an allosexual aromantic flag? A special aromantic flag?”

Are they heading towards the sort of conversation that involves anger over “making up” identities outside the speaker’s reckoning of acceptable? Or does she mean “distinct”? “Ah … kind of? The green and black flag represents all aros—Melanie and me. The green and gold one’s just for me, and I don’t use her blue and orange one.”

For the first time in living memory, Melanie pays Rowan and Shelby no attention.

“I see! You want to reflect different types of aro.” Shelby almost says the word without unusual stress; Rowan considers applauding her but decides he won’t risk undermining his point on avoiding excessive overreaction to queer terminology. “Do you ever put the flags together? Like if you want to be both things at once?”

When isn’t he the state of multiple identities at once? Rowan decides she means “represent” instead of “be” and nods. “Yeah? Some people put a heart with the stripes of the aro flag in the middle of the trans or bi flags, but I don’t like that because using a heart to represent us all is a bit … eh. You know, heart, love, love hearts? Lots of people don’t care, though. I’ve also seen folks split them in an image, or have the stripes fade into each other. Like trans stripes fading into aro stripes.”

“And you like that better?” Shelby blinks, her blunt nails tracing the edge of the case. “Would Melanie like that? The aromantic flag fading into another one?”

There’s no way Melanie didn’t hear that—and no reason for her to say silent! Last month she told Rowan and Shelby to get mint chocolate cake for her birthday after walking in on them debating sponge versus cheesecake in the meeting room!

(Sponge, in Rowan’s opinion, is the classic cake format.)

“Yeah. It shows my identities together without using symbolism I find awkward.” Rowan lowers his voice, leaning closer to Shelby. “Melanie will probably go for the aromantic flag fading into or combined with the asexual flag, if you’re doing something with two flags. I don’t think she’d be into hearts, but a split image or fading? That’d work.”

Shelby straightens, beaming, and gives Rowan another firm arm-squeeze. “That’s great! Thank you so much for helping, Rowan!”

“Don’t you want to know more about aro-ace flags…?”

“No, that’s great!” Shelby, heading towards her own desk, no longer attempts to speak at anything not normal volume. “Aromantic into asexual! I’ll remember that!”

As Shelby turns, he catches a glimpse of the cracked screen on her phone—or, more specifically, the movement of her hand as she presses stop on her recording app.

Is that legal? It surely isn’t normal? Or is she an auditory learner, meaning she’ll learn best by playing the recording over … but in that case, why not say so? He could have directed her to YouTube videos and podcasts! Perhaps, though, she only shows her ignorance in digital etiquette, in the same way Rowan took Melanie aside to explain that the use of caps lock for the body of a promotional email violates good manners as much as—more than!—she thinks signing a form in red ballpoint? Should he complain about something suggestive of her willingness to understand him?

Rowan stares, shrugs and shakes his head as a third text pops up.

Sometimes it’s easier to just not ask.

Too bad that can’t apply as easily to family.

Rowan stands, yawns and stretches. His lunch half-hour beckons: sunshine spent with food, cross-stitch and a flock of pigeons tame enough to perch on the far end of his bench. Since today involved apologetic emails followed by a contrite phone call to his goddess amongst printers, time free of people feels like looming perfection. Just him, the pigeons, a sewing needle and the homemade pasty he hid from Matt inside a bag of frozen peas.

Any day in which he gets to enjoy his own cooking can’t be too terrible.

Perhaps he should do as his psychologist says: put a chest freezer in his bedroom and a lock on his door.

“Rowan!” Damien, his hair tousled enough to make Rowan think of a woolly mammoth in a sharp suit, carries a plate of something smelling like honey and chicken into the office. “While Melanie’s out, can you show me your mug shop? You said there’s a lot of aro-ace flags, right? Or would she want one like yours, the green one? I don’t get her something like your blue and green shield one, though?” He shrugs and sets the plate down on Rowan’s desk. “My wife’s friends with her sister and we got invited out, but there’s another swap. I don’t want to get her the wrong thing. Do you mind?”

At least Damien does the sensible thing of asking while Melanie’s out on lunch. Maybe this won’t take too long: Damien’s a terrible photographer with unreasonable expectations of Photoshop, but he does know how to buy things online.

“Yeah. Hold on.” Rowan opens up his browser just as his phone beeps. Nope, ignoring that. “I’ll show you what mugs I think she’d want.”

He hadn’t realised how many people here are friends with Melanie outside of work. It must be nice to have a regular social life that isn’t “being at work” and “sighing at housemates”, but there’s advantages in possessing the short holiday shopping list of family, a work gift exchange and a couple of friends. Besides, does anyone want one’s co-workers to know what happens at an outside party?

“Don’t ignore your phone because of me.”

“It’s Dad.” Since Rowan can’t find a pithy or amusing way to explain that Dad’s text message will be a guilt-trip ordering Rowan to come to Christmas for the sake of the family’s happiness followed by a second guilt-trip explaining how much his refusal to confirm has upset Mum, he just shakes his head.

You talked about this with the psychologist. Guilt. Trip.

He made an appointment for the second week of January; he should have made one in December as well.

“That bad?”

He can’t remember the specifics of his rant that day atop the desk, but he must have suggested at an interesting relationship with his parents. “Yeah.”

Did they forget telling Rowan that if he doesn’t like how they treat him, he can leave? They told Rowan that he isn’t welcome while he remains intolerant of them—while I expect them to treat me as I deserve. He left. Now they want him back to smile for the family photos?

What’s worse? Enduring a day of misgendering, deadnaming and cissexism, which shouldn’t result in unknown voyages of horror if he bites his tongue? Or avoiding short-term discomfort while gaining the long-term torment of the family’s schooling Rowan in appropriate Ross respect for blood and holidays? What chance is there of avoiding harassment if he doesn’t go?

Maybe he can leave off shaving for a week before Christmas and turn up with his new, albeit patchy, facial hair while wearing an op-shop debutante gown, so he “dresses appropriately” and “doesn’t confuse the relatives” as requested.

How many truckloads of Valium will he need for that?

“Rowan? Are you okay?” Damien, now sitting on an office chair, peers at him as though waiting for Rowan to do anything more than stare at the computer screen.

“Ugh. Sorry. Just thinking.” Rowan sighs and types in the shop’s name, bringing up their website, and then opens a second tab to another archiving different pride flags.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Damien asks in that gruffly-gentle voice, one that makes Rowan want to smash his fist through a window.

“Yeah, no.” Rowan draws a breath and points at the screen with a hand a too trembly for his liking. “So you’re going to want to know what flags represent what, because there’s a drop-down menu where you can choose from different flags…”

It’s easier to talk, easier to run through all the different flags in a depth of explanation Damien doesn’t request, easier to think about something that isn’t family—a subject with complexity enough to distract but without provocation enough to distress.

He doesn’t know if Damien asks questions from curiosity or kindness, but Rowan’s pasty becomes pastry crumbs scattered over his desk and keyboard; Damien’s chicken, half-eaten, sits cooling on its plate.

“So cupioromantic is the one where you want the relationship but you don’t feel romance?” Damien frowns and runs both oversized hands through his hair, now resembling a befuddled bear emerging after a long hibernation. “Why have a word for that? I mean, everyone feels like it isn’t one of those movies and dates anyway, so why specify that?”

“Where you don’t feel romantic attraction but desire a romantic relationship,” Rowan says, telling himself that Damien unknowingly regurgitates the tired “demiromanticism is normal” argument. Isn’t this better than looking at the fifth text message? “Some people need it to be a word. Movies aren’t that divorced from reality. They’re … too easy, too glossy, too perfect, too unrealistic, but…”

He sighs. Not dating brings many benefits, but Rowan has to admit that he misses the fun of falling in love, even if trouble always follows. Misses the fun of dreaming, hoping and fantasising; misses the bright, happy glow of being caught up in someone else. At risk of being considered a bad aro, he likes that glorious limerence pushing him to navigate people despite his gibbering anxiety! In some ways, knowing he’s capable of falling in love over and over feels heady and powerful; amatonormativity more than the nature of Rowan’s frayromanticism bestows difficulty on its aftermath.

I want to fall in love with you … and after getting to know you, do it again with someone else, all the best bits of romance’s beginning on eternal repeat.

Instead, he avoids dating and the inevitable development of his partner’s hurt, surrendering to a world where his shape of attraction isn’t acceptable or reasonable. Albeit with a trace of bitterness that frayromanticism will be easier to navigate should Rowan not be an anxiety-plagued, bisexual trans man!

Of course, discarding romance makes pursuing his shape of sexual attraction unacceptable and unreasonable…

“How are they real? Nobody just sees someone and falls in love like that—”

“Dude, dude, I’ve fallen in love like that.” Rowan shakes his head and launches into the speech that’s the spiritual duty of any card-carrying aromantic: “Do you fall in love after you get to know someone? After they love you back? Do you know what ‘fall in love’ means to you? Because it’s easy to name all sorts of feelings ‘love’ and think they’re romantic when the world says you have to be alloromantic. It’s even easier to not be romantically attracted and not know! Have you thought about it?”

Damien, his eyes so wide that he reminds Rowan of a zebrafish with a brown wig, shakes his head.

“I swear, alloros like romance movies because while they’re a … a simplified, idealistic version of romance, they’re close enough to what people feel—or think they’re supposed to feel—that they … ring, resonate. They wouldn’t do that if it were complete invention. Just like science fiction isn’t real but talks enough about human experiences to have meaning to human audiences. Unreal, in so many ways, but just real enough. So—”

Damien holds up both hands, palms facing Rowan. “Stop. Stop.”

Now the anxious part of Rowan’s brain realises he’s lecturing at his supervisor in a way no need to avoid thinking of his family justifies; he gulps, fingers trembling. While the office code of conduct doesn’t specify things like unwanted speeches questioning another person’s belief in their romantic attraction, he doubts this acceptable behaviour. “I … shit. I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I just…”

Will he ever stop causing a mess at work?

“You’re talking so fast,” Damien says, slow and careful in the way of a man talking to a panicked horse, “that I can’t keep up.” He sighs and runs one hand through his hair. “This isn’t something I thought we’d be talking about! I just wanted to check that everything was right…” He shakes his head, but he doesn’t sound annoyed or outraged. Just bewildered. “Okay. Right. What about all those sorts of things that we think are love? What do you mean by that?”

At some point during the resulting afternoon, Rowan sends an email thanking his printer for her willingness to amend the job queue, ignores his brother’s entry in the competition to provoke the most seasonally-appropriate guilt, and scribbles a note to ask the higher-ups if they’ll spring for a basket of expensive coffee and chocolates sent to said printer.

Damien nods several times, takes dot points on a flyer print-out and the back of the report draft for last week’s holiday event, asks more questions and promises that he’ll remind the higher-ups of their involvement in submitting January’s flyers two weeks late. After eating the rest of his re-heated honey chicken at Rowan’s desk and narrating the story of how his future wife followed him from pub to pub during a crawl for his brother’s buck’s night, Damien concludes that he only experiences attraction for someone after they express attraction for him.

Melanie, having rested her arms on the back of Damien’s chair to overhear the last half of the conversation, gives him a smothering hug and welcomes him to “the quiver” before cackling at Damien’s blank look.

Find a recipro mug, Rowan later scribbles on the bottom of his to-do-list.

At least that job doesn’t involve relatives.

Keep reading: The Pride Conspiracy, Part Two.

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