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: Mentions of neuronormative expectations and language, with depictions of some of the casual ways they’re used against autistics and/or the neurodiverse.
Length: 839 words.
Do you feel like you should want her?
Darius counts to two hundred by fours, swishing his fingers through the water, before opening his eyes. “There was, on the job back, a woman.” He breathes out, trying to keep his words slow and unrushed. The belt can’t translate for him and he isn’t sure he’ll survive saying this twice. “She’s … nice. I do like her.”
Akash settles himself across the vacated armchair, both legs hanging over the armrest. Cat-like, he makes himself comfortable in a score of circumstances and positions that can’t be bearable for any normal human; Darius has never understood how. “Nice? Even for you, that’s…”
Ila, hir shift spotted with bathwater, props hir elbows against the rim. “Underwhelming?”
“She’s nice! That’s what that word means!”
“She’s nice,” Ila says quietly, “and that’s the word people use when they’re looking to say something … well, nice, before voicing a refusal or a negative. Or this way: if someone says that you’re a ‘good’ magician without specifying what or why, what do they often mean?”
Darius blinks and groans. Most people don’t hesitate to tell him that his skills with bladed weapons are barely competent on his best days, but that unspecified good has still reached his ears from people who recognise him as both divergent and magician. They underestimate his ability by praising him for his simplest spells; his family attempts to balance out their endless stream of criticism and despair with pleasant commentary on his new boots. That’s a good lighting spell. You’re wearing a nice shirt today.
“Nice shirt”, Darius guesses, means “no trailing buttonholes” and “not wearing a brown shirt with black trousers”, based on Oma’s other objections, but never has she taken the time to state it. If his clothes are clean, comfortable and cover all the body parts the circumstance requires, why do they need to match someone else’s arbitrary notion of what colours go together? Do they think he doesn’t know that they’re reaching for the bare minimum of encouragement?
“I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t twist words up, not like you all.”
“No.” Ila’s lips curl into a slight smile; ze rinses the end of Darius’s hair in the soapy water. “But there’s something about her, isn’t there?”
People and all their unnecessarily complicated rules and exchanges! Darius shakes his head and reaches for the soap with his right hand; Ila lets him take it. He ducks his head under the water, sits up, soaps his hands and works them over his face, hating the trickle of water running down his cheeks and neck. The hair rises on his shoulders and forearms, sensation thrumming through his skin like the twang of a tuning fork. He doesn’t mind someone touching his scalp or hair, if they’re slow and put some pressure into their touch, but Darius can think of few intimate acts he likes less than kissing.
“She’s kind. I could…” He drops the soap, not minding the few fumbling attempts he needs to grasp it; delay gives him time to think. “Before, before it went … wrong, it was the first time, on the … crossing the Kara, it was the first time I wasn’t alone. I had someone to talk to that wasn’t … an employer.”
He has no simple words to describe how that feels, but Ila and Akash both nod, and the people who made their room a place of refuge for Darius will understand better that most what he means. Maybe they haven’t left their own footsteps on this specific road, but Akash grabbed Darius by the hand and pulled him in off the street, horrified enough by his bruises and cuts to want to know what he can do to prevent them.
Ila rinses hir hands in the greyish water and rests them in hir lap, hir eyes distant, voice soft: ze looks away from Darius for his comfort, not hirs. “Do you feel like you should want her?”
“She asked me. Last night.” He stops, draws another breath. He can get through this. He can say what happened and then let Akash and Ila give him comprehension enough that he won’t hurt anyone else the way he hurt Harlow. “Two things—if I were asexual like her and if I wanted to be with her. She wants a romantic partner. I don’t … understand, but I don’t…” He trails off, poking at some of the larger bubbles with the tip of his smallest finger, and then, eyes closed, ducks his head under the water, rubbing his hands through his hair—now limp and dark enough to appear a true black, the curl almost flattened out. Only when he’s wiped soap and water from his face, blinking, does he try to put words to the most uncomfortable of corollaries: “You … know some of the reasons why I don’t … people. But I do want them. But when she said … is that…?”
Akash straightens, rests his feet on the floor and bows towards Ila. “Oh, lover, this one’s you!”
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.