It was the heat that woke Bran Davies his first night at the Institute. His mouth was dry, but his bed clothes were soaked with sweat. Less than six months earlier, when his family had first clambered off the Fairsky at Newcastle, the heat had been its own thrill. It was like all the Welsh summers he’d lived through in Dolgellau had been poorly staged recreations of the ones they put on down here.
Now, though, he was getting sick of it. It was supposed to get cold at night, damn it. Why else would they have invented blankets?
Bran reached for the already drained glass on his bedside table. Dipping his fingertip into the thin skin of water still coating the bottom, he stirred up its past, feeling the cool wet rise over his knuckle.
The boy gulped down the new-old water greedily. He needed air—and to get rid of the first glass of water. He glanced around Wallaby dormitory. Nobody else seemed to be awake, and the only sounds were gentle breathing, the conversation of crickets, and the water-witch’s son’s quiet whimpers. For everyone else, the nightmares Bran had been warned of had either passed or not yet come. To his relief, moonlight had bleached the darkness from the dorm like a painting left in the sun. He had never coped well in the dark.
When he wrenched himself from his hammock, Bran realized he wasn’t the only child out of bed. One of the hammocks was empty, and the door was ajar. He hoped this meant they had license to wander after bedtime. None of the teachers had said they didn’t. But then again, it wouldn’t be the first time in recent memory Bran had got it for breaking some unexplained, grown up rule.
His bladder left him no choice. He stepped out into the night.
That business soon sorted, Bran took a moment to survey the New Human Institute. His new home, Dr. Lawrence had promised him.
It was funny, really, seeing it this way. Deserted, lit only by the cold, silvered light of a thousand distant, indifferent suns; their only competition the few lights still glowing in the windows of the great, manoral farmhouse and the cottage of that trembly science teacher.
Not even the same sky, he realized.
He was searching for the fabled Southern Cross when he heard the girl’s voice. “New boy?”
Bran startled, turning to find a girl standing behind him, a book held folded around her hand. She was a couple years older than him, blonde; he remembered her shooting him a smile a few times at dinner. It had helped, a little—made him feel more at home.
“Ah, yeah. You’re…”
“Artume,” she finished, frowning slightly. “Not Atrume, Artume.”
She shook her head. “Sorry, sorry, lotta people get it wrong for some reason.”
The boy extended a hand. “I’m Bran.”
Artume laughed. “Don’t bother telling me your name. You’re not going to be using it long.”
“Oh, yeah, that. Not sure what I’m going to pick.”
“We don’t get to pick.” The girl sat down in the grass. “Care to join me?”
Bran took the suggestion. “Good book?” he asked. By the starlight, he could just make out its title: Children of the Atom. On its dust jacket, a boy and a girl stood huddled together with their backs to a baying, greyscale mob, their shadowed eyes empty of everything except hate and fear. The girl looked like she rather thought the boy ought to tear his attention away from whatever he was looking at and pay some mind to the crowd behind them.
Artume glanced at the hardback as though she had forgotten she was holding it. “Hmm? Yeah, I guess. Lawrence told me to read it. Said it was ‘prophetic’.”
“What’s it about?”
“Buncha radioactive scientists have super-babies—boring ones, though, they’re all just really smart—and an old bloke gathers them all together at a special school because people don’t like them much.”
Bran snickered, raising a grin from Artume. “Yeah, I know, right? I think I liked More Than Human better. Least those kids had real powers.” She tilted her head. “You from England or something? You don’t sound Aussie.”
The boy scowled. “Wales.”
The girl’s smile brightened. “My grandmother was from Wales. Couldn’t sleep?”
“Too hot. What about you?”
She shrugged. “I don’t really sleep. Well, one night a week, but only a couple hours, tops. One of my powers, I think.”
“Isn’t that just insomnia?”
A giggle. “Maybe. Still, the grown-ups let me walk around at night when it’s warm.” She puffed out her chest. “Call me the night-watch. Want to see what else can I do?”
Beside Artume, the darkness pooled and thickened, flowing into itself like tar, until it had formed a ring of sorts, like a hole opening all the way to the centre of the Earth, lightless. Bran felt that if he dropped a coin into that abyss, he wouldn’t hear it hit the bottom; even if it had a bottom.
Artume plunged her hand into the rent, rifling through as if it was a purse, until she appeared to find whatever it was she was looking for. Some of the darkness came away as she pulled her hand out, spiralling and dispersing into the night air like unsettled fog. In her hand was a bottle of Coke, plated with frost.
“Lawrence says my power generates an other-dimensional pocket filled with a dense, non-refractive gas analogue that I manipulate via charged electromagnetic fields, accessible via localized temporal-spatial distortions.”
“…What does that even mean?”
“No one knows. What I do know is that this bottle’s been in there for weeks and it’s still frosty. Maybe time goes slower in the dark or something.” She offered the cool drink to her new acquaintance.
Bran took the bottle gratefully, pulling off the cap with his teeth, only to jerk back as the liquid within frothed out the neck and flooded his nostrils, Artume laughing as he sputtered. Clever girl. Clever, evil girl.
Dropping the Coke, the boy glared at her, before snatching the cap off the ground. The unopened glass bottle coalesced beneath it, and—giving it a good shake for luck’s sake—he shoved it Artume’s face and opened it.
Bran was already up and running by the time his new friend gave chase.
“It’s going to be alright, Metonymy,” Basil said, resting a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “It’s only Artume. You’re friends. You’ll do fine.”
Bran took a deep breath, and genuinely tried to believe what the older man was saying. But he knew, somewhere deep down inside, that he was going to mess it all up. Why did it have to be Artume? Why couldn’t it be Reverb, or Ex? Someone who didn’t give him the time of day, who he could be pathetic with and not have it matter. Why’d it have to be Artume? He liked Artume! Heck, a little bit of him had been hoping he’d get to do one with her and he hated that bit of him right now.
“Hey, Met,” Basil said. “I appreciate you replacing my clothes, but you don’t have to do it five times.” Metonymy flinched, suddenly aware of the leather shirts strewn around his feet. Had he been doing it again? Damn it.
“Don’t be,” his teacher said, his voice low and gentle. “Listen. You just go in there, you listen to what she tells you, and you’ll be fine. You’re not gonna hurt her, and she won’t think any less of you when it’s done.”
“… She’ll tell me?” Bran asked. “W-what to do?”
“If you ask her to,” Basil murmured. “Let her take the reins. Makes it easier to stay friends afterwards, okay? Trust me. I’ve talked a lot of kids through this.”
“… T-thanks. Thanks, Basil.”
“Don’t mention it. Now, go on. You’ve got this, kiddo.”
He turned towards the door, and felt a leather clad hand slap him lightly on the back. He didn’t look back, couldn’t bring himself to. He opened the door and stepped inside, his heart thumping in his chest like a brass drum.
“H-hey Artu-” Oh, God. She was naked. Why was she naked already? Metonymy considered turning out the lights, but that would be unfair. Darkness hid nothing from Artume, and surely she had worse to look at. And the part of him he hated wanted to keep looking. The part that was a mammal and not a boy. Or maybe it was nothing but boy.
“Kept me waiting, pal,” The girl said, smiling across the bedroom at him, a trace of sadness tugging at her cheek. “… You okay?”
“I… I think so.” Oh God. Oh God. No. She was so pretty and this was so wrong and God, why was it so hot all of a sudden? He felt a heat rushing to his face, a tightness in his chest… and his pants.
“Ah, there we go” Artume sighed, glancing down, her smile growing melancholy as she saw. “… So, you do like me, huh?” She laughed half-heartedly. “It probably sounds silly, but I was almost hoping you wouldn’t, you know?”
“… I’m sorry.” He mumbled, looking down towards the floor, ashamed. “… Y-you’re my friend—big sister, really, but… You’re still… still pretty… I’m sorry.”
For the longest time, she didn’t answer; then, finally:
“Yeah,” she muttered bitterly. “I’m sorry, too. Take your pants off. Let’s just do this.”
He hesitated for a moment, then reached down and began fumbling with the button of his shorts. He felt like scum. Why had he wanted this? Why had he wanted anything like this, and why was the awful, traitorous little thing between his legs still so damn ready?
The shorts fell to the floor around his ankles, his underpants following a moment later. He looked up at her, gazing across at his crotch dispassionately, and, in the weakest voice he’d ever heard, asked:
“Are—are we still gonna be friends a-after?” He felt his voice crack a little towards the end, the last words coming out a little choked. “I… I wanna still be friends… Please?”
He wasn’t sure how he’d been expecting her to respond to that, really, but it certainly wasn’t with tears.
“… I hope so,” she whispered. “I-I really do.” She lifted an arm to her face, and wiped the tears away with her wrist. “Heh,” She laughed wetly. “I’ve made this awful already, haven’t I?”
Bran laughed too at that. He didn’t know what else to do. He felt something wet on his cheeks.
“… Well,” she smiled. “We should fix that. C’mere.” She extended her hands, beckoning.
Hesitantly, the boy stepped forwards towards her, crossing the few short feet between them in just three or four strides. He found himself wishing he’d taken shorter steps. Then he was in front of her, and it was even harder not to look. Why’d she have to be so pretty?
“It’s okay, Met,” she whispered, her hands resting lightly on his shoulders. “It’s okay. Don’t be sad. Smile. You’re cute when you smile.” Then, she leaned in, and gave him a kiss.
It was confusing. All of it. What sort of cute did she mean? She was bigger than him. Why was he so sad, when was his body so excited? Why was he so excited? Her lips were so soft and warm. Why didn’t that help?
She pulled away, and gave him another smile, small and sad.
“Hey, wanna make a deal?” she asked.
“… What kinda deal?” He mumbled, forcing himself not to look away.
“… A way to stay friends, I think,” she replied. “You’re a boy. I’m a girl. We’ve both got… stuff. A-and… we both have… well, you’ve had dreams about girls, right?”
Bran nodded, a touch less ashamed. He’d had his first one a few months ago. Melusine. He wasn’t even original in his lust. He hadn’t been able to look Maelstrom in the eye for almost a week, and the boy had noticed; not that he wasn’t used to it.
“Well… what if we… we just explore?” Artume asked, her cheeks scarlet. “As friends. No judging.”
“… Promise?” He asked, not quite able to believe her.
“Yeah,” she whispered. “Honestly… I was… thinking of doing that with you anyway. Letting it be our thing, instead of theirs. I guess we lost that chance… But… you know… we could still make it ours?” She gave him another smile, shy and nervous; excited.
He’d have given anything to be able to believe it.
Metonymy sat waiting on Basilisk’s plastic wrapped bed, draped in a spare dressing gown, staring at the floor through the gap in his knees. Żywie was tending to Artume first, of course. Had to make sure that, well, he took. Metonymy was glad to be spared the possibility of a repeat performance, but that made him feel like even more of a monster.
He felt a gloved clad hand come to rest on his back, another holding a disposable cup in front of him, a wisp of steam rising from it. The boy didn’t move.
“Come on, boy,” Basil said, giving the boy a pat. “I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you think. You’re not the sort to hurt he—”
“It was awful,” Metonymy muttered, staring at the cup without raising a hand to it. “Not just for her. For me. I-I know she still likes me—and I still like her—but is it meant to be so… weird?” He glanced up at his teacher for a moment, saw the stony look in his eye, and quickly averted his gaze. “I mean, it felt… okay, I guess. But it was just so gross! Why is that supposed to be fun?”
Basilisk sighed. “First times are always a little disappointing, Met. And a lot of fun things kind of get spoiled when you make it into a job. You build this sort of thing up in your mind, and nothing’s going to live up to your expectations. Especially when you’re young.”
“Then why do we have to do it when we’re young?”
Before Basil could answer—if he even was going to answer—Lawrence stepped into the room, beaming proudly. He strode over and slapped Metonymy on the back “There’s the man of the hour!”
Funny, after all that, Metonymy felt younger than he had in years.
Despite the lack of reply, Lawrence kept going. “I have to say, you’re handling this with a lot more dignity than many others boys would, I expect.” He chuckled. “More than many have, in fact.” When Bran refused to look at him, he sighed. “Metonymy, you do understand the beauty of what we’re creating here, yes? Children who may grow to change the whole world some day. Can you imagine it, young man? A new human with Artume’s control of space, combined with your mastery over states and time? My boy, this is a great day. I think you’ll see that, when you meet your child.”
It was everything Bran could manage in that moment to sit still. He wondered, in the back of his mind, if he could push his power a little. Revert the old man to his own infancy. He pushed the thought from his mind.
“…Can you leave me alone, please?”
Artume, Metonymy, and Ēōs lay spread out under the evening stars, Artume mapping out the constellations for her younger sister. She’d performed this nighttime ritual many times over, to the point where Ēōs probably knew each constellation’s story better than the god who had placed it in the sky, but Artume still did it whenever the little girl asked—each time swearing it would be the last.
Personally, Metonymy always thought the matter of which stars connected which seemed fairly arbitrary. “You can make any shape you want with whatever stars you like,” he’d said more than a few times over the years. Oftentimes, he’d go on to prove his point by weaving the stars into absurd, vulgar arrangements: The Three Fleeing Idiots, or the Weeping Mealy, and almost every part of the human body.
At that point Ēōs, with her earnest brown eyes obscured by her sister’s golden hair, would glare at Metonymy and—without taking her reproachful gaze off the boy—tell her big sister to keep telling her about the real constellations.
“…So Orion was this big old giant hunter that Linus’ auntie had a big crush on. Did you know that his name just means “piss” in Greek? No, really.”
Ēōs did, in fact, know that, but she still giggled. “And he walked on water, didn’t he? Mealy got off so lucky…”
That first night at the Institute, when the chase had died down and Artume had mentioned having a sister at the Institute, Metonymy had incorrectly pictured twins. The five year age gap had taken him by surprise, though not so much as the fact that only Ēōs had been born with her powers.
“How’d you get yours?” he’d asked.
“There was a man.”
Metonymy had soon gotten used to that answer. Aside from a few outliers like Stratogale and Elsewhere, it was either that, or born blessed and cursing the dark. Dozens of books, all opened to the same page.
“So, Linus’ dad got jealous—gods are weird, don’t ask—so he sent this scorpion…”
Metonymy was pretty sure Artume didn’t hate him, not yet at least. Why would she still wake him up for this sorta thing if she did?
“Sheilah,” Ēōs rarely kept to the Namings after dark, “did Żywie tell you what the baby was going to be?”
In the dark, Sheilah blinked. It was still so easy to forget the married day had even happened. Her belly hadn’t started swelling, and the loathing for Metonymy she feared would rise in her had not come. She wasn’t even feeling sick yet. God knew she liked it that way.
But why shouldn’t Dawn be excited? She was going to be an auntie, and their friend was going to be the daddy. And one day, she would give the baby a cousin. Or a little brother or sister, she thought, remembering Stratogale.
“Yeah,” she said, “a boy.”
Dawn nuzzled against her side. “What do you think you’ll call it?”
Artume sighed. “We don’t get to pick.”