"What do you mean, you don't know? Either you fancy him or you don't, what's confusing about it?" Caiara seemed shocked to hear that the guy she was currently drooling over wasn't the pinnacle of hotness for everyone else.
Enkarini shrugged. She'd never really understood what people were talking about when they said they fancied someone, or they wanted to 'sleep with' them. Her brother and sister, that much older than her, had always told her she'd understand when she grew up, but here she was, an adult even by Oakshire's measure of twenty-one years old, and still the idea of liking someone that way was a mystery to her.
"Look at it this way, if nobody else wants him, there's less competition for you," said Josie. "Rini probably has her own secret crush she doesn't want to tell us about yet."
Caiara's eyes gleamed at that. "I bet it's Soris," she fake whispered.
"What? No," Enkarini said, shuddering at the idea. "I mean, he's a friend but I don't want to... I don't think of him like that. Or anyone, really." She tried to explain, but didn't know the words to get her feelings across to the other two.
Josie's eyes widened, and she lifted a hand to her mouth. "Oh, are you one of those girls who likes girls? That's fine, nobody judges that sort of thing here, it's just I've never met someone who's like that, at least not openly," she gushed.
Caiara rolled her eyes. "Rini doesn't fancy girls," she said. "If she did I'd know, people are really open about that stuff back in Slokos. Go on, we won't tell," she wheedled, clasping her hands together and putting on her most exaggerated pleading look.
"I really haven't got a secret crush, I just don't think about people that way. What someone looks like isn't a big deal," Enkarini tried again.
Josie frowned slightly. "You mean you can't tell whether someone's good looking? How does that even work? Can you just, like, not see what they look like?"
Enkarini fidgeted. Talking about this always made her uncomfortable, since she didn't understand what others meant and couldn't seem to explain herself to them properly. "No, I can see when someone looks good, I just don't feel any urge to do anything about it. I'd rather get to know someone and then decide whether I want to be friends with them."
"Aww, you're waiting for the right person!" Caiara squealed. "That's so romantic! It's like something out of a storybook, you're waiting for your one true soulmate so you can't even think about other people that way." She flung her arms around Enkarini, so caught up in her own interpretation that Enkarini didn't bother to correct her.
Thankfully, the conversation moved on soon after that, and she was able to push aside the feelings of confusion and displacement that particular topic always brought up. As she walked back to Ustin's place later on, she couldn't help thinking it over again though. Was there something wrong with her, was she somehow failing to mature properly like everyone else had?
Last time she'd tried to talk about it with her sister, Kandrina had said she hadn't understood it right away herself, and had been a little bemused by the idea of attraction until she'd found herself falling for Remlik. The whole discussion had amounted to the oh-so-unhelpful platitude of 'you'll understand when you meet someone of your own'. Other well-meant but useless bits of advice Enkarini had received included 'you just need more experience' and 'nobody really knows what to expect before their first time'.
She paused at Ustin's front gate, before walking past the house. He wasn't expecting her back for another half hour anyway, and she needed a bit of time to herself. He could always tell when she was feeling out-of-sorts, probably because he could read her magic, and she didn't feel up to explaining why just yet. She carried on along the path, out towards the sparse pine woods and gentle hills on the eastern side of the small bowl-like valley. There was a particularly tall tree that was excellent for climbing, and she liked to go and sit up there whenever she had something on her mind.
At the highest branch she could reach before they started bending too much, she settled herself with her back against the trunk and gazed out at the moons. Both were full and bright tonight, surprisingly close together. Apparently it happened more often on this side of the world than it did at home, for some cosmic reason she hadn't followed the Hexaril siblings' explanation of. The cold autumn wind blew around her, and she cast a minor warming spell around herself. Ember was better at that sort of thing, but she could manage an okay cast.
For a while, she just sat there feeling not quite cold, disjointed thoughts about being broken and weird swirling around her mind, accompanied by all the things she'd heard people saying over the last few years. Oddly enough, the only one who had never seemed to judge her or think less of her for being totally uninterested in relationships was Soris, and considering his general attitude that was saying something. She breathed a soft, hopeless sort of sigh, and closed her eyes. Maybe she was destined to be snubbed, looked at askance because of her lack of physical attraction to anyone.
"Thought I'd find you up here," came a quiet voice from her left. Enkarini jumped, and looked to see Fiona Gates hovering beside her branch. "Mind if I join you? There should be enough space on that branch for two."
"Sure." Enkarini shifted over, and Fiona floated herself into position. "How come you were looking for me?"
Fiona leant forwards, her elbows resting on her knees. "Ustin called, said you were late getting back and thought you might still be with the girls. They said you'd left, so I figured I'd come check your favourite spots before assembling a search party." She tilted her head almost horizontally, giving Enkarini a strange look. "Not that I was deliberately eavesdropping, but I couldn't help hearing a few bits of your chat while you were upstairs. Jo and Cai didn't seem to quite get what you were trying to tell them, did they?"
Enkarini shook her head slowly. "No, but it's okay. Nobody else ever gets it either, so I'm kind of used to it."
"I get it." The short sentence caught Enkarini's attention. "I'm like you, I think. Probably not exactly the same, since everyone's a little different, but I don't find people physically attractive either. I can see when someone looks good, and appreciate their aesthetic appeal, but that's as far as it ever goes for me. I've never felt an overwhelming need to take someone to bed, or anything. I'm guessing you feel something along those lines?"
"Yeah, that's kind of it," said Enkarini quietly. "I didn't think anyone else was like that."
Fiona nodded, looking back towards the moons. "Neither did I, for a long time. I used to push myself into relationships with people, hoping something would click and I'd become normal, but it never worked. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I did it because one of them gave me Josie, but it would've been nice not to have to go through all those years of feeling broken and inadequate." She sat quietly for a while, watching a hazy cloud cover up the moons. "You've got to figure out your own path, in the end, and I can't tell you who or what you are. All I'll say now is, don't let anyone make you do something you're not comfortable with. Maybe you want to give it a try, see what all the fuss is about, and that's fine, or if you don't want to, that's fine as well. Nobody has the right to pressure you either way, or stick a label on you for their own convenience."
Enkarini smiled faintly, feeling understood and accepted for the first time since all her friends became obsessed with dating and kissing. "Thanks Fiona. I guess I need to stop worrying about how everyone else might react and just be myself."
"Wish I'd worked that out at your age," the older woman replied. "Come on, let's get you back to Ustin's before it rains."
Enkarini climbed down, with Fiona slowly floating down beside her. "Can I come talk to you again sometime, if I need to?"
"Sure you can. You know where to find me, any time you need a friendly ear. Sometimes it's just enough to know there are others out there who feel similar to you." They walked back to Ustin's house in companionable silence, and Fiona bade Enkarini goodnight before leaving her at the gate.
Enkarini waved at her, and headed inside just in time to escape the drizzle. Even if nothing came of tonight's little tree chat, Fiona was right; maybe she just needed to know she wasn't alone, and that sometimes other people were just as confused as she was. She greeted Ustin with a smile, and headed up to her attic room, feeling much lighter than she had in a long while.