Zolf didn’t expect there to be anything remotely unpredictable in his future. Just like everyone he knew, he’d go to work in the mines as soon as he was old enough. Just like everyone he knew, he’d get married one day. Just like everyone he knew, he’d have children at some point.
Absolutely nothing in Zolf Smith’s future was unpredictable, and he hated it. The expectations were just as suffocating as the mines he loathed. Every time he complained about it to Feryn, he just told Zolf to find someone to “make the evenings less dull with” with a wink.
Zolf hadn’t yet told him that he no longer wanted to hang out with his old friends. These days, they only seemed to want to talk about the very future that he was trying to distract himself from. It only took one time of the other teens asking him which girl he thought was hottest before Zolf cut ties.
Zolf couldn’t stick around after
he killed his brother the accident. He ran to the opposite of those cursed mines: the sea. More precisely, the Meritocratic Navy.
It was aboard this ship that a puzzle piece of normal behavior Zolf didn’t know he was missing was slotted into place. See, ships are very cramped places with not even the illusion of privacy. Ships are also boring places when you’re off shift, the sea is still, and you’ve re-re-reread the one book you managed to cram in your kit.
The other sailors weren’t pairing off in a way that Zolf expected; mainly they weren’t pairing into couples. Zolf was no idiot, he knew how sex worked. He just didn’t realize it could be so...impersonal. Back home, it had seemed to him like the teens going for a romp in the hay had genuine, if wildly fluctuating feelings for each other.
Zolf soundly ignored the voice at the back of his brain that reminded him that while he too had not been immune to the highs and lows of teenage crushes, he’d never had any urge to screw around with any of his peers. Now was not a good time to deal with his emotions. He had a job to do.
Ignoring what was going on only worked for so long. And his poor book was nearly ruined from the number of times Zolf had thumbed through it.
Curiosity and boredom won out eventually, and he accepted a proposition from a crewmate.
Zolf stumbled back to his own hammock afterwards and fell asleep quickly. Reflecting on the experience the next day, he still didn’t really get what the huge fuss was about, but it was a decent way to stave off boredom when there was nothing else to do.
And that was all he thought of that for a while. On the Meritocratic ship and later, on the pirate ship, sex was simply relief from the monotony of navel life.
Zolf didn't try for a relationship with anyone on either crew - although that was mostly due to the fact that ships are smaller than they seem and very importantly, he would’ve had to continue working with whomever he had inevitably made a fool of himself in front of. Feryn had told Zolf that his social skills would get better, but it hadn’t happened yet.
Not doing anything about it, alas, hadn’t stopped the feelings from forming. There were a couple people in particular that he probably would have been less awkward around if Zolf had just fessed up about the crush to the person in question. But he clung to his self-imposed rule of No Dating Crewmates like a lifeline - besides, they always seemed to want sex as part of the relationship and most of the time he simply wasn’t in the mood.
By the time Zolf got off ships and started up his own mercenary company, he’d had a handful of short, semi-serious relationships and acquired the belief that he was missing something. If only he could figure out what that something was.
But that was something to be tabled for another day. Right now he had a twitchy knife enthusiast, a squeamish rich kid, and a gilded idiot to look after.
But that day did come. Turns out, there are only so many things you can do while locked up, and reading romance novels while in a self-reflective mindset really enlightens some things.
In most of the books, Zolf could tell exactly who would end up with who. There would be lingering glances, hands brushing hands, blushes, stuff he could really sink his teeth into. But sometimes, it just seemed to come out of nowhere.
At first, he brushed it off as ‘even a fabulous writer like this Harrison Campbell fellow was turning out to be had to have missed gold a few times’. But while it came out of nowhere to him, the other characters seemed to see the relationships coming.
That made Zolf think back to his days back on board ships, and the first times he’d seen people pairing off with no real regard for emotions. They too had all seemed to be in some loop he was excluded from.
It wasn’t right then, but the beginnings of a realization followed him on his travels as Zolf split from both his god and the London Rangers (We’re Still Working On The Name). It was delayed by the start of the end of the world, but quarantining had the unexpected advantage (similar to his brief imprisonment) of forcing him to do nothing for a week but read Campbells and self-reflect.
Zolf would never ever tell the man, but it ended up being Carter who provided the last bit of context he needed to connect the dots. Or rather, it was Carter’s drunken advance on Wilde that did it. Because Zolf knew for a fact that Carter didn’t have anything resembling romantic feelings towards Wilde.
So there had to be a different force at play. If Carter was just bored, he would have gone to Barnes (he’d turned out to be a decent fellow, if lacking in taste in things other than literature). Everyone at the inn knew that Wilde no longer took bed partners, not after the horrible incident that left him a physical reminder and a shadow of his former self. Frankly, it hadn’t been too common before that either, but that wasn’t any of Zolf’s business.
So if Carter, with his inhibitions lowered and small amount of common sense gone, had propositioned Wilde, who was known to say no, it meant that Carter had a drive to seek out sex with specific people. People who weren’t chosen by logic.
That all matched up with Zolf’s memories of shipboard life and the confusing plot points in Campbells. So if this was a feeling that everybody shared except for him…
Great. He was broken in the head too, not just physically.
It was, some would say unsurprisingly, Wilde who set him straight. The two of them had grown close over the long months, to the point where Zolf considered the other man the most important person in his life. And not just because anyone else who could possibly claim the title was dead.
One night in the cell, after a mission that had gone shockingly well (one where the post-mission quarantine was simply protocol and neither of them were truly worried), Zolf and Wilde shared a drink from the stash Carter thought no one else knew about and told each other stories to pass the time. Zolf stuck to stories from his shipboard days. He didn’t want to somber the for once almost joyful mood with reminders of the friends he’d left behind and let down.
Wilde’s tended to revolve around his various past high-society escapades. How he snuck into this party, how he evaded that angry wife, and so on. Normally, Zolf usually didn’t find stories of that caliber to be interesting, but he suspected that it was the storyteller rather than the stories he was listening to.
But there was one thing that Zolf noticed about the stories. A number of them involved having sex with someone he really shouldn’t have, but not once did Wilde mention having feelings for anyone. Lots of sex stories, not one mention of so much as a crush.
Feeling loosened by the alcohol, Zolf asked if Wilde had ever had romantic feelings for someone he seduced, and if that was the reason he always went after the difficult ones. Wilde chuckled. “No, not once, not for anyone. I just liked the challenge, I guess.”
And just like that, there was another person in the world like Zolf. Well, technically inverted from him, but it was close enough. If Wilde didn’t feel romantic attraction and he wasn’t bothered by it, then maybe Zolf’s own lack of sexual attraction wasn’t unique.
He shared those thoughts with Wilde. The man knew a lot of people and was very observant, and Zolf was hoping that he’d run into some else with a similar lack of sexual attraction and could share some insights.
Wilde laughed again at that. Zolf privately thought that if all he had to do to get Wilde to cheer up was be ignorant about interpersonal connections, he would have cheer-up material for a long time. Zolf didn’t miss the old frivolous Wilde, but he wished the man was able to smile more often (not that he was one to talk).
Wilde’s laughter drew to a close, and he fixed Zolf with a look as serious as he could manage through his mirth. “Zolf,” he said. “Sasha. I’d wager she felt no more attraction than you. Additionally, I don’t think she felt any romantic urges either, much like myself.”
Zolf pushed down the automatic swelling of guilt (his fault, he left) at her name and focused on his memories. With a start, he realized that Wilde was right.
She had always reacted the same way as him, often sharing a look with him whenever Bertie made inopportune comments and other similar scenarios.
If there were at least two other people in the world like him, then maybe he wasn’t broken.
Sasha, as a fact of life, never expected to make it to the 14 years she was now. As such, she thought it was rather reasonable that she’d never had a sit-down with herself and considered sex beyond the practical uses. Sex was for making money and making people, and that’s about where Sasha stopped thinking about it.
Romance looked even less useful, given the number of times she’d seen Barret use people’s loved ones against them. The most personal connection she had with someone was Brock, and even then, she only admitted that he was her friend in moments of weakness.
So it was understandable that sex and crushes were concepts that Sasha had never bothered to think about. At least, until Brock started bringing it up. It began slowly, with a few offhand comments about this guy’s swoopy hair or that one’s muscles. Sasha thought she got what he was talking about and eagerly joined in, ranting about this one person she saw that did a perfect flip with a twist off a roof ending in a smooth roll to get away from that other guy.
This happened a few times before Sasha started realizing that the two of them weren’t talking about the same thing. If she ever pushed him to go talk to his crushes, Brock went bright red and turned into a mess. Sasha, on the other hand, on the rare occasions she was able to track down whichever acrobat had caught her eye, marched straight up to them and asked for them to teach her how to do that really cool move.
She didn’t say anything when she realized the disconnect. It didn’t really matter, did it? So Brock kept on gushing about the cute guy that caught his eye this week, and Sasha kept appreciating aerial tricks. At least, until he disappeared and she was alone again.
It was fine. She was fine.
Just surviving was too hectic for Sasha to think about all that relationship stuff again for some time. Until Eldarion.
It's not even that she was thinking about it, really. It’s just that Eldarion insisted on always bringing up marriage. Everything was always, “I’ll make a marriageable young lady out of you yet.” Those words felt like a bucket of ice water upended over Sasha’s head for reasons she couldn’t identify.
She didn’t need more reasons to loathe the place. But the implication that she’d be married off as soon as she was ‘proper’ filled Sasha with fear, and she redoubled her efforts to escape.
After she succeeded, Sasha met Bi Ming, which was the single best thing that happened to her yet. He taught her appraising and gave her a place without prying into her life or expecting more than hard work in return. She would never admit it out loud, but as time went by, Bi Ming knew Sasha considered him the closest thing she’d ever had to a father figure.
More time passed. Sasha accidentally joined a mercenary group, and felt herself begin to open up for the first time. Over the first couple of months, her lack of interest in relationships was delightfully irrelevant (other than the few times Bertie or Hamid made a comment and she and Zolf exchanged a Look).
But then a friend left, a friend joined, and Bertie died. And a paladin of the goddess of everything Sasha avoided like the plague was the group’s new fourth.
Look, Azu was nice and all even if she was about as subtle as a glowing pink spotlight. Sasha didn’t resent her, hell, Sasha didn’t resent Aphrodite. She was just sort of annoyed at the big deal that people made it out to be, and Aphrodite happened to be the godly representation.
Whatever Sasha’s feelings on the goddess and her paladin were, Azu was determined to make LOLOMG her new best friends, and that included her. At the start, Sasha was too tired and in too much pain from her whole somewhat-but-entirely-dead situation to either push Azu away or accept her.
And then, less than a week later, Sasha’s feelings towards Aphrodite grew even more confusing. After all, it was the Heart of Aphrodite that made her properly alive again. Not only that, but the paladin’s efforts were working and Sasha, much to her bewilderment, found she trusted Azu.
In only a couple months, she had gone from trusting a grand total of two people over the whole course of her life to having a group of people who she relied on and who relied on her in return.
Love was a very heavy word to Sasha.
She wasn’t sure if she’d use the word to describe her friendship with Brock. Yes, he’d been the only person in Other London she’d trusted, her friend and confidant; a person she could rely on in the day-to-day survival of Other London. But Sasha didn’t think that love was the right word for their friendship.
Bi Ming, maybe. He’d saved her life in a way more important than literally. But still, she was hesitant. She cared deeply for him, yes, but the word still felt not quite right in her mouth when she tried it out on him.
But now, now Sasha had friends. Multiple friends. And despite all the heartbreak, all the pain, all the despair, she wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Sasha's thoughts turned back to Azu. She didn’t wield the word love like a weapon, like Barrett and even Eldarion. In fact, she seemed very unconcerned about typical usages of love. To Azu, everything was a gesture filled to bursting with love. Every helping hand, every axe stroke, every smile.
Sasha didn't know there were so many forms of love until she met Azu. She’d thought that love was for couples and those lucky enough to have good families. As it turned out, love was also for friends, so maybe it didn’t matter that Sasha had never so much as understood the pull of romantic or sexual relationships.
Sasha thought maybe she could say she loved these people, her friends.
Questions and rumors about who fancied who and slept with who were less common at the Temple of Artemis than other places, but still they persisted. Particularly among the teenaged inhabitants. And every time, Grizzop gave the same answer. “I’ll get back to you on that!” By the time the curious inquirer had come up with a response to the odd answer, he was always long gone.
See, Grizzop had a plan. On the day he hit his majority, he planned to sit down in one place for a full 15 minutes and figure out what he would want from any hypothetical future relationships.
He was very proud of this plan. At his majority, because that would be the age at which he’d have the option of all that (ignoring the fact that the equivalently aged others at the temple had been at all that for years already), soon enough that he’d have time if he decided that’s what he wanted.
The day came sooner than he almost would have liked (
things always come sooner when you age three times as fast as humans), but there was no point whingeing about it.
There was no party, no celebration. Grizzop didn’t care. Even the slice of cake with a single, solitary candle that Eva gave him, along with a hug, felt like a bit much. He didn’t complain. Grizzop loved his adoptive parent too much to ruin it for her.
He did set aside the cake after blowing out the candle for the time being, though. Grizzop needed to be able to focus if he was going to go through with his plan, and he couldn’t do that if he ate sugar beforehand.
He made his way to his favorite hidey-hole. Turns out, being small does have some advantages. Grizzop was able to squeeze past the tight opening into a space where no one could interrupt him.
He plopped onto the ground into the meditative pose he used when praying, closed his eyes, and pulled up his mental checklist. Checklist was maybe a generous word for the list in Grizzop’s head, as it only had three items, three Adult Things to consider. Romantic relationships, sexual relationships, and kids.
He turned each item over and over, thinking through pros, cons, and desire. He sat in heavy thought for the full fifteen minutes, making doubly sure that he was reading his own feelings right.
About halfway through, Grizzop had a realization. He didn’t want any of those things. All he wanted was to faithfully serve his Lady, and he’d never felt any pull for anything other than purely platonic relationships anyway, so it’s not like he was repressing himself.
Grizzop nodded once to himself. Yes. That sounded right. And if it made him feel a little closer to Artemis, that was his business.
He shook his head lightly, trying to clear the meditative fuzz from his head. Well, that was all sorted. Time to go find Vesseek and share that slice of cake.