by Ito Ichiru (糸一縷)
illustrated by Seiwa Kaiyura
A few shops away from the modpod, the nervousness that had been plaguing Aiden all the way spiked. He could see the shop, the cyan holosign glowing brightly over the entrance; he could see the door that he’d walked past hundreds of times in his life, but the thought of walking through it rather than past it made his palms sweat.
It wasn’t that his mother would kill him if she ever found out. If he’d been that afraid of his mother, he wouldn’t be dating Idris. But it felt as if between the breezy streets of the shopping centre and the inside of that shop was a barrier, made from nothing more than social expectation and his own apprehensions, but as strong as any force field; a barrier constructed to create a precise delineation between what his mother would call “our sort of people” and the “freaks” and to keep those two groups separate.
But Aiden had been crossing a lot of lines lately. This was just one more, he told himself – and besides, it wasn’t though he was committing to anything. He was just booking an appointment. Squaring his shoulders, he walked up to the door of the modpod and stepped inside.
The reception desk was directly in front of the door, crammed a little awkwardly into the space. A wall behind it separated this front area from what had to be the procedure and consultation rooms. Aiden couldn’t help but glance apprehensively at the door as he stepped up to the desk. The receptionist gave him a quick glance up and down and smiled at him warmly. She had to know it was his first time; even if he didn’t look as nervous as he felt, the absence of any modifications would have given it away. “Good morning,” she said, “how can I help you?”
“I’d like to book a consultation, please,” Aiden said, managing to sound relatively casual.
“Of course,” she said, tucking her hair back behind her ear – the tip of which was elongated, curving around her head and striped like a very neat zebra. “We have some appointments available on Wednesday afternoon, if that’s convenient for you?”
“That’ll be fine,” Aiden said, mentally running through his class schedule. “Any time then’s good for me.”
“I’ll write you in for two pm,” she said, though she didn’t appear to be making a note of anything. Aiden was getting oddly used to people doing that; like Idris, she would almost certainly have a computer wired into her brain, with all the memory space and internet access she could want. She probably kept the appointments on a database she could update with a thought. “I’ll try to keep a procedure slot open afterwards – you get the cost of the consultation back if you have one done, of course. Do you know what kind of modification you’re interested in?”
Aiden glanced away, eyes coming to rest on one of the holographic adverts projected from the reception desk, and said, “I was thinking of something to make me stronger.”
“We have plenty of strength mods – would you like to take a catalogue? Something to look through before Wednesday? It might help you get a better…” She trailed off, and Aiden glanced back up at her; her bright salesperson smile had faded, her eyes had widened. “Your, ah, your holoconcealer’s flickering…”
Aiden raised his hand to his face hurriedly, feeling the little bump of the holoconcealer stuck precariously on top of swollen, sore flesh. It was placed in the middle of his cheekbone, where it was supposed to project an image of clear, undamaged skin over the dark bruise that ran across it. It had been the boys at school again. Eighteen years old and there was still no escape from the schoolyard bully; they simply found better things to pick on you for.
“Thanks for telling me,” he muttered, feeling heat rush to the roots of his hair as he peeled the broken holoconcealer off. It seemed to hurt more, now he knew people could see it, as if the receptionist’s gaze was a physical touch pressing against it. He’d have to walk home with everyone staring, and he hated being stared at. Worse, his mum would be home by now, and there was no way she wasn’t going to notice this.
The receptionist’s expression had softened to something almost motherly. “Hang on a minute,” she said, pulling out a drawer in the reception desk and rummaging through it. “I think we’ve still got some… here it is.” She pulled out a few small vials full of clear liquid, and passed one to him with a pleased smile. “I knew we had some of the testers left. Technically I don’t think I’m supposed to give them out – the promotion ended last week – but, well, that’s a nasty bruise,” she said, and from the way she looked at him Aiden knew she’d figured out the connection between the bruise and the type of mod he wanted.
“Thanks,” he said anyway, accepting the vial. “How does it work?”
“Oh! Silly me,” she said, and laughed a little, a laugh quite unlike her normal voice; it sounded like silver bells. Another mod? It had to be – since when had they been able to modify people’s laughs? “Just smooth it on top of the bruise – I’ll find you a mirror. It’s one of our latest mods. Changes colour to copy your own exact skintone, and automatically covers up any flaws. The full mod changes your sweat glands to produce it, so you have a constant cover-up. Never need to use holoconcealers again.”
“Sounds convenient,” Aiden said politely as he dabbed the contents of the vial along his bruise, though it also sounded rather creepy. Still, it worked, and even better than the holoconcealer; he couldn’t see even a hint of bruise by the time he was done.
“Keep the rest,” she told him, “you might need a top up later. There. I’ve deducted ten credits from your account for the consultation and downloaded the catalogue onto your computer,” she added, nodding at the bulky wrist computer Aiden wore on his left arm. He hated how huge and ugly it was – but his mother would have flipped if he’d gotten one of the neat, streamlined ones embedded in his arm like he wanted. He didn’t think the argument that at least he didn’t have one in his head would have worked.
“Thanks,” he said to the receptionist again, tugging the sleeve of his worn top back down over the computer self-consciously, and then she was saying goodbye and he was walking back out into the familiar, safe territory of the shopping centre. He slipped the vial of liquid into his bag, and pushed his sleeve up again just far enough to check the time. He had an hour before he could head over to Idris’s; long enough to go home and change.
He lived in Waterside, the long C-shaped curve of streets and buildings that had been built out onto the estuary of the river a few decades back, when the city had needed more living space and the mountains to the north and east had hemmed it in. Back then it had been the rich, prestigious area of the city, but then it had got tired and tattered, and they’d built better-planned residential areas and bigger skyscrapers. The rich had moved to newer pastures closer to the heart of the city, abandoning the waterbound streets to the middle class.
Aiden’s mum still thought the area was the best in the city, though – partly because the new upper-class streets were populated by an unusual number of modifiers. She liked to go on about the rich and their desire to be the best and the most privileged with the least work possible, whatever unnatural things they had to do to get there. Since Aiden had been spending time with Idris and his friends, though, he’d found himself noticing that reality didn’t quite match up to his mother’s view. Most of the rich modifiers were new money, often from quite poor backgrounds, and the only reason they’d earned so much was because people wanted the cleverest thinkers, the most gifted academics, the fastest, fittest athletes and sportsmen, and they were unprejudiced enough or greedy enough to take the best regardless of whether their brilliance was natural or technological.
Still, he quite liked their house: the distant humming of the wave-powered turbines underneath that provided the city with power was more than made up for by the cool water that wove its way between the streets, and though the house was a little too big for just himself and his mother, it was light and breezy.
“Aiden, is that you?” his mother called as he opened the door. “I’m in the living room.”
“Hi, mum,” he called back, going to hand up his coat before following his mother’s implicit request and going to say a proper hello. She was sitting on the sofa by the French windows, a book open in her lap currently displaying the pages of one of the better class of women’s magazines.
“You weren’t gone long,” she said, smiling up at him as he sat down on the sofa beside her. “What brought you back so soon?”
He hated lying to her, but he couldn’t tell her what he’d been there to do. “It was really crowded,” he said instead. “There wasn’t anything I actually needed, so I thought I’d come back, get a shower before I went out.”
“You’re still going to that butterfly boy’s house, then?” she asked, turning over a page in her magazine, acting as though the question were quite casual, although he knew her too well not to notice the edge to her tone.
“Yes, I’m still going to Idris’s house,” he said. “I go all the time, mum.”
“I know, I know,” she said, setting the magazine down in her lap and giving him a soft smile. “Forgive me. I just worry about you. Every mother’s right and curse.”
“You don’t have anything to worry about,” Aiden told her; she gave him a sad, loving look, and he glanced away, looking down at her fine-boned hands where they rested on the pages. He’d gotten his hands from her. “I wish you’d give him a chance,” he said. His mother had met him once, for five minutes, and she didn’t know the full story. Aiden had told her they’d met at school, which was technically true – but Idris wasn’t a student there; he went to the Hartnell Academy, set up specifically for students whose modifications put them so far beyond the norm in terms of intelligence and ability that sending them to a regular school would have been like putting a normal teenager in a kindergarten. He’d only been at Aiden’s school because he’d volunteered to tutor the final year advanced mathematics students. Aiden hadn’t been one of them, of course: they’d met at lunch.
His mother had no idea that Idris’s modifications went beyond the cosmetic. If she’d known about the genetic changes, about the computer chips wired into his brain, the dozens of tiny tweaks of technology and biology – if she’d known how deeply different he was, in such fundamental ways that even Aiden sometimes wondered how much of him was human – then her tenuous tolerance would have vanished in a moment.
“I am giving him a chance,” his mother protested. “I’m not stopping you from seeing him, am I? You’re more than old enough to make your own decisions and choose your own friends. Just, don’t let him drag you off to get wires stuck in your body and bits of your face chopped up, okay?” she asked, reaching up to cup his cheek in one hand. “You look so much like your father.”
“I know,” he said, dragging his eyes up to meet hers and making himself smile. It hurt to do that. Not because of her causal discrimination; he was too used to that to feel anything other than regret. Not because of the appointment he’d booked, the endless series of small lies he had to tell – the guilt didn’t help, but it wasn’t the thing that hurt the most.
He couldn’t tell her. They’d always been close, and even more so after his father had died; he wanted to be able to talk about Idris to her, to tell her how happy he was. How he could go through a whole day of people sneering at him for dating a freak and other people sneering at him because he wasn’t good enough for Idris, and just hearing his voice over the computer or seeing him smile made all of it worth it. She’d always been there to celebrate with him when things were going well and support him when they were going badly, and having to stay silent, to hide this from her – that was what hurt the most.
He leaned forwards and pulled her into a tight hug, pressing his lips together to keep from speaking. She hugged him back, and it was a few moment before he had to pull back.
“I think I’ll go over to Idris’s early,” he said, getting up from the sofa, careful not to meet her eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He sent Idris a voicemail before he jumped in the shower, checking that it would be okay if he turned up half an hour early. He only took a couple of minutes to wash himself, but the message waiting icon was flashing on his computer when he stepped out.
Aiden, for you, there’s no thing as being ‘too early’.
It was written, not spoken, which meant Idris had sent it from inside his head. He had a voice reconstruction facility, of course – it was supposed to be able to reconstruct his voice so that emails sent mentally were indistinguishable from those which had actually been spoken and recorded. Aiden could always tell the difference. That was why he’d reconfigured his computer to transform any emails from Idris into plain text; hearing his lover’s voice so neatly aped by a machine, only just different enough for him to tell, was uncanny.
Reading the text he could hear Idris’s voice in his head, though, with all the laughter it always held, and the thought of it made him smile, and kept him smiling as he got dressed, got ready and left.
Modifiers might have half-filled the new upper-class area of town, but not all of them were rich. Idris’s family weren’t poor by any means, but they weren’t well off: most of their money had gone on the genetic modifications for Idris and his older sister Katie, and after that on their schooling.
They lived in a tall, narrow house only ten minutes away from Aiden’s home; if Idris hadn’t gone to his academy they’d have ended up at the same school. The house itself was an old one, built of narrow, dark-red bricks tightly packed together, with a bright green front door and dozens of little windows. It had surprised Aiden when he’d first seen it. Idris’s family were so immersed in modern technology and science that they incorporated it into their own bodies, after all, so he’d expected them to have an equally modern home. It was ironic – but he couldn’t help but feel it suited them, perhaps better than his own house suited him and his mother.
He rang the doorbell, and almost immediately heard the sound of running feet pounding across the floorboards, and then the door opened and the vague shadow behind the frosted glass panel gave way to a grinning Idris.
“I thought you’d never get here,” he said, catching Aiden’s wrist and pulling him into the narrow hallway to kiss him, hot and wonderful. Aiden closed his eyes, letting his arm wrap around Idris’s waist to hold him close and thinking that just one kiss had to be enough to justify any lies he had to tell his mother. He felt the brush of Idris’s eyelash against his cheek, right over the bruise, and shivered a little. They weren’t normal eyelashes, of course; his eyelids were like anyone else’s, but about half a centimetre from the end his skin began to fade into blues and purples, and where hairs should have sprouted two fragile, butterfly-wing lashes swept out. The effect was startling and beautiful: it had been the first thing Aiden had noticed about him, the first thing anyone noticed about him – though it wasn’t by any means his only modification. Simply one of the few visible ones. Most of them were on the inside.
Idris pulled back, still smiling, and leant back in for another quick kiss before saying, “My study group’s still here, I’m afraid. They’ll only be here another forty-five minutes at most, mum’s already got dinner in the oven. I could ask them to leave…?”
Aiden shook his head. “It’s okay,” he said. “If I get bored I’ll find a book or something. If you have anything on your reader I can understand,” he joked. Idris’s books tended towards the sort that Aiden had no hope of comprehending the titles of, let alone the contents. The study groups were much the same. But Idris read plenty of fiction, too, and at least some of that was on his level. If Aiden really got bored he’d find something.
Idris frowned a little, long fingers curling up the back of his shoulder. “You could understand any of it,” he told him; then there was a loud burst of laughter from the other room and their attention was drawn to the study group.
There were five people taking up all of the cramped sitting room, most of whom Aiden had met before; they gave him various smiles and nods of greeting as Idris led him across the floor, which was covered in dozens of screens and pieces of paper. Before he quite knew how Idris had managed it, he was sitting on a cushion on the floor, leaning back against the wall, with Idris sitting between his legs, leaning back and using him as a human chair. Aiden couldn’t help but smile into his hair as he wrapped his arms around him; he knew Idris’s secret weakness was cuddling.
His arrival hadn’t interrupted things much, and whatever discussion they’d been in the middle of carried on without much of a pause. He didn’t mind Idris using him as a chair – he’d become quite fond of it, really – but to the rest of the people in the room he might as well have been a chair. The exception was Melanie, who kept throwing him little glares; she’d never made a secret of the fact that she didn’t much like him. He got the feeling she thought Idris deserved someone better. Aiden tried to ignore it.
But everyone else ignored him – apart from Idris, of course, who never stopped running his fingers over Aiden’s knuckles, or wriggling a little closer, or tilting his neck to ask for a kiss on the cheek. They were arguing about something complicated which Aiden couldn’t even begin to figure out, though he thought it was probably to do with maths, and while he got on pretty well with most of them when they’d been out socially, it wasn’t as if he could leap into the conversation with a witty comment.
So Aiden allowed himself to enjoy the gentle pressure of Idris’s back against his chest and let himself get lost in his own thoughts, mind wandering freely until the sound of his own name brought him back to reality with a jolt.
“And what do you think, Aiden?”
It was Melanie – of course – with a fixed kind of smile on her face that didn’t have anything to do with niceness at all. “Sorry,” he said, “I was miles away.”
“Still, you must have an opinion.” She gestured towards the scattered collection of notes. “What do you think?”
Aiden tensed, but before he could even begin to think of something to say Idris leapt in. “Oh, he agrees with me,” he said smoothly. “Unless he wants to sleep on the sofa tonight.”
The rest of the room burst into laughter. “Guess I don’t have much of a choice,” Aiden said, pressing a kiss against Idris’s cheek in thanks. Melanie could hardly carry on demanding an answer; she lapsed into silence, one of the boys taking up the conversation where it had left off.
He tried to at least pay attention to the conversation after that, though it was difficult to feign a vague interest in what was going on when half of the words didn’t make sense, let alone the sentences. His attention soon drifted away from the conversation and back to Idris, a warm and reassuring weight against his chest. He was arguing a point Aiden didn’t have a hope of working out, cheerfully passionate, smiling a little to himself even as they bickered. He loved these kinds of discussions, Aiden knew, and Aiden loved to see him like this, so happy and enthusiastic, glowing with cleverness.
But he’d never be able to put that expression on Idris’s face himself. Oh, he could make Idris smile, make him happy – but he could never do this with him, this debate, all these brilliant, complex ideas being thrown around.
Aiden closed his eyes, feeling suddenly a little dizzy, almost as if the whole room was zooming away from him. He leant back against the wall, holding on to Idris who was rubbing his thumb across the palm of Aiden’s hand, slow and gentle, and Aiden let himself focus on that.
“Aiden!” came a voice, and he opened his eyes. It was Idris’s mother – Rhiannon, as she insisted Aiden call her. Only her head was visible, poking almost comically through the door from the hallway. “Lovely to see you. Sorry I didn’t come say hi sooner, I was busy in the kitchen. Speaking of which, I’m sorry to tear you away from the group, but I need someone to chop vegetables and I don’t trust any of this lot with sharp objects.” There were a couple of light-hearted protests from those whose chopping skills had just been belittled, but Idris’s mother simply laughed. “Would you mind terribly?”
“Of course not,” he said, slipping his way out from between Idris and the wall. It couldn’t really have come at a better time. In fact, he suspected that had been deliberate – it had to have been obvious how much of an outsider he was in this group. “I’d be happy to help.”
Idris caught his hand and pressed a kiss to his cheek before allowing him to go, and the group gave him a couple of goodbyes before carrying on with their conversation. Aiden followed Rhiannon out through the hallway and into the kitchen, which was far hotter than the rest of the house – due, no doubt, to so much cooking going on in such a small space. The little window was steaming up, and the available counters were covered in tools, plates, and food.
“Thanks,” Aiden said, feeling he had to address the obvious fact that she’d only asked him to help in order to rescue him from the study group. “I wasn’t really… I mean, it’s not the sort of-”
“Oh, believe me, I know. Whenever I’m in the room with them I feel like a five-year-old at a Nobel Prize winners’ convention,” Rhiannon said. “And you should be thanking Idris, really, he suggested it. Sit down, sit down – there’s a chair over there, you’ll have to move those trays though.”
For a moment, Aiden was confused – his boyfriend had been sitting with him the whole time; how could he have suggested anything to someone in another room – but then remembered, as he so often had to, that Idris and his family weren’t as limited as most people. “He… emailed you?” he asked, sitting down as directed.
Rhiannon tapped her head. “Direct. So much easier – I don’t know how I lived without it. Idris takes it for granted, he’s had it since he was seven, but I’m old enough to appreciate these things.”
It was like telepathy, Aiden realised. The ability to have computers in one’s head, interfaced directly with the brain – to send emails from one brain to another – it had given the human race telepathy. He couldn’t help but shiver at the thought, even in the roasting hot kitchen. Thankfully Idris’s mum didn’t notice. “What can I chop for you?” he asked instead.
“Oh, you don’t have to chop anything,” Rhiannon said. “That was just an excuse.”
“Still, I might as well make myself useful while I’m here.”
It was a few minutes later, armed with a bag of carrots and a knife, that Aiden plucked up the courage to return to something Rhiannon had said. “When you said – excuse me for asking, but when you were talking about Idris and his study group, you said you didn’t understand any of it?”
“Not a word.” Rhiannon stirred a little more stock into her gravy and shook her head. “They could be jabbering on about gobbledygook and I’d never know.”
“I thought… well, I thought you had modifications too. For cleverness.”
“Oh, I do,” Rhiannon said. “Biological ones, and technological ones – I’ve got neurons working at maximum speed and I could work out square roots of ten-digit numbers in my head – but they’re just nowhere near as good as genetic mods, and they have to be done at the single-cell stage, of course. Which is why we saved up for Katie and Idris. One of the priciest mods, though it’s cheaper now, but we figured it had to be worth it.”
“Do you… I mean, do you ever feel like…” Aiden couldn’t frame the words; he fell silent, focussing on the carrots, but Rhiannon was looking over at him with a soft smile.
“Stupid?” she asked, and Aiden nodded. “Of course I do. Next to him, I am. But that doesn’t mean he loves me any less, and that goes the same for you,” she said, straightforward and gentle, the Welsh lilt that was the only thing left of her original accent strengthening. Then she grinned, winked at him, and said, “I’m sure he’ll be happy to prove that to you later on tonight.”
Aiden almost cut his finger on the knife; he’d never quite gotten used to Rhiannon’s… well, to her liberality on the topic of sex. His own mother would have refused to believe her darling son was anything but innocent and virgin if she’d walked in on him holding an orgy in the middle of her sitting room. He didn’t know if it would be more embarrassing if Rhiannon was right: they were boyfriends who slept in the same bed when he was staying over, which meant the conclusion was obvious. It was also wrong.
It wasn’t that Aiden didn’t want it, because he did, and he was pretty confident in saying that Idris did too. It was more that whenever they were lying in bed together, shirtless and kissing, Aiden thought about his butterfly eyelashes and the piercings in his ear which were actually living skin and cartilage and all the other modifications he had and started to wonder what alterations were lurking lower down. So he’d never quite dared to go there, and Idris had never pushed him, and so they’d remained in a state of what, for two teenage boys, had to be an almost miraculous chastity.
Of course, he wasn’t about to discuss this with his boyfriend’s mother. “Yeah,” he muttered, vaguely, and Rhiannon laughed.
“Here,” she said, “come give me a second opinion on this gravy.”
The gravy was delicious, of course, just like the rest of the dinner, and sitting around the dining table in the brightly-painted room, with good food and good company, Aiden forgot about the bullies at school, about his appointment at the modpod, about his mother, and about Melanie.
But he couldn’t forget forever. They’d gone up to Idris’s room after the meal, as they usually did. They were supposedly going to play virt games, though Idris’s mother was convinced they were playing games of a quite different kind. What they usually spent most of their time doing was talking and kissing and laughing until they eventually curled up in Idris’s bed and drifted off.
Tonight was no different. They’d been lying together in bed, in one of the lulls in conversation which were so awkward with people Aiden didn’t know but so paradoxically soothing with Idris; just quiet and warmth and togetherness. He’d been lying with his eyes closed, enjoying the feeling of Idris’s skin warm against his own – they were both shirtless – when Idris spoke.
“I’m sorry about Melanie,” he said, bringing one hand up to curl itself into Aiden’s hair. “She’s an idiot.”
“Clever enough to do all that maths stuff,” Aiden pointed out, opening his eyes. Idris was lying on his side, facing him with a thoughtful expression, one hand tucked under the pillow.
Idris scoffed. “Doesn’t make her any less of an idiot,” he said. “I’m going to talk to her about it next time I see her. I’m not letting her treat you like that again.”
“Don’t,” Aiden said.
He shrugged, squashing the pillow a little. “Don’t fight with her about it. It’s really not that big a deal.”
Idris frowned, the skin of his forehead crumpling. “Yes it is,” he said, but didn’t go on. Instead, he pressed his lips to Aiden’s, but drew back again before Aiden could open his mouth to invite him to deepen the kiss. “It’s a very big deal,” he said, and Aiden didn’t argue because Idris was shifting closer and pressing firm little kisses at the corner of his mouth, straying down onto his cheek, those beautiful butterfly eyelashes brushing against Aiden’s face…
He winced as Idris’s lips strayed onto the bruise he’d forgotten about, and Idris pulled back, frowning. “What’s wrong?” he asked, running his fingers over the spot gently and then rubbing them together as though he could feel the concealer on them. Aiden hesitated a moment before explaining, trying to figure out what he could say that wouldn’t be a lie – he lied too much lately – and equally wouldn’t have his boyfriend fretting over him, when Idris’s face darkened with worry. What he said, though, wasn’t what Aiden had expected to hear.
“Don’t do it,” he said, the words falling precise and urgent. “Don’t get a mod – not if you’re only doing it is because you think you need it to fit in, because you don’t – not with my friends, and definitely not with me. And you don’t need it to scare off whoever did this to you either. Aiden…”
How could he know? Aiden started, pulling away from him; how could Idris possibly have known that? He hadn’t told anyone, hadn’t so much as hinted. His mind went back to that conversation with Idris’s mother, when he’d thought about their ability to email mind-to-mind, when he’d compared it to telepathy. But that was sending emails; this was impossible. But what if he could read minds? “How…?” he managed to gasp out.
Idris’s expression shifted to concern of a quite different kind. His hand came up to Aiden’s shoulder, soothing. “Aiden…”
“How did you know? You can’t have… How?”
Idris didn’t answer immediately; instead he pulled Aiden close, wrapping his arms around him tightly, and despite himself Aiden started to relax, though his head was still whirling. “Don’t freak out,” he said, his voice soft, close by Aiden’s ear, and he thought Idris sounded younger. “Please. Not over me, I couldn’t…”
He trailed off. “I’m sorry,” Aiden said, immediately realising how badly he’d just reacted. Guilt began to layer itself in his chest as he said, “Really. I didn’t mean to, you just took me by surprise.”
“I know,” he said, pulling back far enough to give Aiden a smile. It didn’t quite have its usual brilliance. “And I’m sorry for startling you.”
“Don’t,” Aiden began, but Idris was shaking his head.
“It’s okay,” he said, and leant in to kiss Aiden again. “It was my own fault for leaping straight to the conclusion. I guess it was a bit freaky. You just… I was just worried,” he said, running his thumb very lightly across the bruise. Aiden reached for his other hand, took hold of it, and squeezed.
“Not your fault,” he said, and since he knew the two of them could get into endless rounds of apologising, asked, “How did you work it out?” They were going to have to talk about it, he realised, about the bullies and his appointment at the modpod and everything – though he wouldn’t have thought Idris would have been upset that he was booked in for a modification of his own. With the number Idris and his friends had, Aiden would have thought he’d be delighted that his boyfriend was joining in.
“It wasn’t anything you couldn’t have worked out,” Idris said. Aiden gave him a disbelieving look. “No, really. I just got there a little faster. The bruise was the obvious bit – there aren’t many people who’d want to attack you. And I know this has to make things… difficult. I’ve met plenty of people who don’t like modifiers and aren’t shy about showing it. You aren’t hurt anywhere else?” he asked.
“No. That was all,” Aiden said. “And don’t get all… mother hen on me-”
“Mother hen?” Idris interrupted, incredulous.
“You know what I mean. And yeah, I can see how you figured that part out, but the rest of it? How did you even know I’d been to the modpod?”
“You don’t wear that kind of stuff normally,” he said. “You use those holoconcealers if you’ve got something to hide. I kept knocking the one on your neck off by accident when you had that, ah…”
“When you gave me that huge hickey,” Aiden finished, unable to help smiling.
“You weren’t protesting at the time,” Idris reminded him. “And this stuff doesn’t feel like normal concealer – yes, I’ve borrowed some off Katie before in dire emergencies, don’t laugh. But the modpod’s been giving away free samples of that new sweat gland mod for a fortnight, and I tried some, and it felt very much like this. And from there, well. There’s only one reason to go to a modpod – to get mods – and it’s obvious why, right after you got that bruise. And I know you feel left out, and I swear next time I see Melanie I’m going to-”
“It’s not her fault,” Aiden said. “Really, she doesn’t bother me.”
Idris nodded, his head sinking a little further into the pillow. The room was only gently lit, but it was light enough to see the creases around his eyes soften, looking over at him a little sadly. “Do I bother you? That I’m so… well,” he said, closing his eyes, the delicate patterns of his butterfly eyelashes vivid against his pale skin. He brushed his hair to one side – he probably didn’t even realise it, but he’d brushed it so that it half-hid one of his mods: the ear with what looked like brightly-coloured hoops piercing its edge. Aiden knew that they were actually living flesh, coloured skin and cartilage. The reflex to hide them made him wonder, for the first time, if Idris felt the difficulty of their differences just as keenly as he did.
“Of course not,” Aiden said.
Idris smiled, soft and sad. “It does, though.”
“You always say it doesn’t bother you that I’m nowhere near as intelligent as you.”
“That’s different. Ninety-nine percent of the population isn’t as intelligent as me, I’m used to it.” Coming from anyone else, that would have been arrogance; from Idris, he knew, it was simple fact. “And besides, I keep telling you, you’re cleverer than a lot of people. But for you, with me – it’s different. You’ve never really been around modifiers until you met me. And your mother hates us.”
“I wouldn’t say hates,” Aiden said. “I mean, she wouldn’t punch someone in the street for dating one, for example.”
“But you haven’t told her you’re dating me,” Idris said. “Not that I mind that, I know how mad she’d be at you – but that’s the point, isn’t it? It is different for you, and it has to bother you a bit. I know it bothers you,” he said, sliding his hand down Aiden’s spine to rest in the small of his back.
Aiden immediately knew exactly what he meant; there was one very specific area in which Idris’s modifications did bother him, quite a bit, and the gentle touch of Idris’s hand just there was a wordless comment on that. “Do you mind?” he asked after a few moments, uncomfortably.
“Mind? Of course I don’t mind,” Idris said, as though that was the last thing he’d expected Aiden to ask. “I’d never ask you to do anything you weren’t happy with doing. You know that, right?”
“Of course,” Aiden said. “It’s just, well. It can’t be your ideal situation. I’m trying, I promise. It’s just… you’re right, I guess. It’s all just so different, and it is hard to get used to, and when I think I’m fine with everything something I really didn’t expect happens. And there’re so many mods that are just so… well, creepy.”
“It’s okay. Everyone takes time to adjust to new things. It’s human nature,” Idris said, pulling Aiden closer, and it was the hug more than the words which made him feel better. “And just for future reference,” he added, a note of mischief in his voice, “I promise it doesn’t bite.”
Aiden had to laugh. “What does it do?” he managed to ask, though he was trying very hard not to think of the possible answers.
“All the usual, ah, functions,” Idris said, trying not to laugh. “Nothing creepy.”
“Depends on your definition of creepy,” Aiden said. “I’ve seen some really, really weird things posted on the internet.”
“Well, biting would definitely be creepy,” Idris said. “And yeah, some people’s mods creep me out too. To each their own. You know,” he went on, voice suddenly thoughtful, “if you wanted to know, you could have a look.”
Aiden glanced up at him sharply. “Have a look?” he asked. “At your cock?”
“Only if you want to,” Idris said. “I just thought, if you’re scared of the unknown… well, if it’s not unknown any more, it might help. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, you know,” he added, frowning at Aiden’s expression. “Forget about it.”
Aiden didn’t answer; instead he shuffled closer, leaning his head into Idris’s shoulder, and Idris took the suggestion and pulled him closer. He knew quite well he could say nothing and Idris would ignore the whole idea and never mention anything of the kind again unless Aiden brought it up first. On the other hand… Yes, it was sort of scary, and he’d seen some truly freakish pictures on the internet, and the thought that Idris might be hiding something like that under his trousers made him feel a little queasy. On the other hand, he definitely didn’t want a sexless relationship. Which meant he’d have to see what was under Idris’s clothes sometime. And now was as good a time as any.
“Actually,” Aiden said, in a surge of courage, “it might be a good idea.”
“Seriously?” Idris asked.
Aiden nodded. “If you don’t mind.”
“I suggested it,” Idris pointed out. He hesitated, one hand resting gently on Aiden’s upper arm. “Are you sure?”
“No,” Aiden said, laughing a little, but the room was dark, and in the safe, warm, enclosed little world which was just the bed and the pillows and Idris, he felt daring enough to try.
“Well, as long as you’re certain,” Idris said, amusement in his eyes. He shifted up the bed a little when Aiden pushed the blankets back, watching. Aiden sat back a little and reached downwards, then found himself hesitating. It wasn’t out of nerves, he realised – although he was a little anxious about exactly what he’d find – but because doing like this, just straightforwardly undoing his flies and having a peek… well, it felt more than a little awkward.
So Aiden let his hand come to rest on Idris’s waist, fingers unable to help stroking over the smooth skin, and leant back in to kiss him. Idris kissed back instantly, warm and enthusiastic, tongue reaching out to draw Aiden into a slow, lazy kiss. He found himself wondering, not for the first time, if there was a mod to make you a better kisser, or whether Idris was just naturally this good. Did it matter?
He almost forgot what he was supposed to be doing, but the hand resting on Idris’s waist slowly found its way lower, fingertips dipping under the fabric to find equally soft skin below, then shifting around to the front until his hand was on the button of Idris’s trousers.
It was undone in a few long, fumbling seconds, and then the kiss faltered. Idris pulled back a little, enough for Aiden to see how dark his eyes were under his colourful lashes. “You don’t have to-” he began, and somehow, hearing that silenced the nagging whispers of doubt.
“I know,” Aiden said, pressing one more kiss to his lips before sitting back on his heels and shifting down the bed, keeping his hand on Idris’s zip. As he shifted he could feel the bulge underneath, just nudging at his fingers, and he caught his breath, realising that his own cock was making a spirited attempt at breaking out of his trousers itself.
He settled lower down the bed, where he could see properly, able to feel the blood beating in his ears. He was nervous, yes, but he was excited, and with one last glance up to Idris’s face, to see his own desire matched in those eyes, he unzipped him and started to slowly edge the fabric down.
The first thing he found was hair, a shade darker than that on Idris’s head, just the same as anyone else’s; then he moved an inch lower and saw something else, weaving its way through the short curls; a curving line of raised skin, flushed red. For a moment he thought it was a scar from some procedure – but they didn’t leave scars, hadn’t for decades, and if one had gone wrong Idris would surely have gotten the damage removed. That meant it wasn’t a scar. It was something else.
He glanced up at Idris, suddenly uncertain; Idris was looking back at him with an amused quirk to his lips but his eyes dark and heavy and wanting in a way that made Aiden’s mouth dry. Curious, uncertain, he reached out with one fingertip and traced the little raised line all the way down to where it vanished into Idris’s underwear. Idris groaned, his head falling back on the pillow.
“Good, then?” Aiden asked, and Idris only managed an emphatic nod. Aiden ran a finger over the raised line again, more deliberately, and decided that if this mod, whatever it was, could make Idris react like that, he was all for it.
He tugged down the fabric a little further, following the line with his eyes and then with a fingertip. It curled down Idris’s skin, twisting and branching like the flow of a river. And then Aiden pulled Idris’s trousers down a little further and Idris lifted his hips up to let him and suddenly the trousers were halfway down his thighs and Aiden could see everything.
He was big, but not horrifically so – not like some of the really alarming mods he’d heard of, or even porn-star huge; just nicely thick and nicely long. It looked almost like any other cock he’d ever seen, except for those curling strands winding their way around the base and up the thick shaft, right to the head. The pattern looked oddly organic; like vines, Aiden thought, but vines flushed red and aching with blood. There was one he couldn’t quite take his eyes off, curling right around the head, already glistening with pre-come. He flicked a glance up to Idris, just to make sure, before reaching out with one fingertip and gently running it along that raised ridge.
The reaction was immediate and intense; Idris gasped, hips bucking as though he’d been electrocuted before sinking back into the mattress. His eyes were closed, two flushed spots high on his cheeks, mouth a little way open. He looked beautiful like this, and knowing that this was all his doing made Aiden’s breath come a little quicker. He shifted, suddenly very aware of just how tight his own clothes were, but he didn’t want to take his attention away from Idris.
Slowly he trailed his fingers along those raised, sensitive ridges, making sure to trace every one, up and down, pressing and stroking and teasing. Idris twitched at every touch, his breathing getting increasingly harsh and ragged, and when he eventually managed to groan out an, “Aiden,” it was a plea.
Eyes on his face, the blood pounding down the back of his neck, Aiden wrapped his fingers around Idris’s cock and stroked. Idris let out a long, low groan; Aiden felt him twitch in his hand as he moved his palm along the shaft, feeling the difference in texture that those raised ridges gave. He thought about having that inside him and the thought of begging for some lube was on the tip of his tongue before his eyes refocused on Idris and he realised that, enticing as that idea was, it wasn’t what he wanted right now. What he wanted was this, that long, pale body stretched out before him, eyelashes fluttering as if they actually were butterflies, breath coming ragged, every line and muscle of his body tensing and shaking in pleasure. He wanted this. He wanted to see Idris like this, to make Idris feel like this, and it was completely different from any other time. With other people it had always enjoyable, always been about pleasure and fun and having a mutually good time, but this, this was different. And he liked it.
Liked it so much, in fact, that he slowed the movements of his hand, eyes fixed on the glistening skin at the head of his cock, on that small, delicate curl of skin that surrounded it, shifting his position so that he could reach out and run his tongue over it.
Idris groaned something; Aiden couldn’t make sense of most of it, although he caught his own name and he definitely caught the intent. He did it again, to see the way Idris’s shoulders tensed and relaxed as he did, then opened his mouth and wrapped his lips around the head of his cock.
He was guessing that Idris wouldn’t be too long now, so he didn’t hold back, giving it the best he could do. He kept one hand at the base, stroking and supporting, but let the other one trail down, following the rest of the vine patterns, over his balls and down onto the inside of his thighs. And then the line he was tracing led backwards and between Idris’s legs, and Aiden – feeling his lips attempting to curve mischievously, even stretched as they were around Idris’s cock – followed it as far as it went, was delighted to realise it led inside, and carefully, gently, slipped a finger inside to follow it – where he made another surprising discovery.
He was distracted by Idris groaning something that might have been a warning before coming, with a long, drawn-out cry as his hips arched off the bed. Caught by surprise, too entranced by watching him to really care about it, Aiden swallowed quickly.
When it was over – when Idris lay still on the bed, eyes still screwed tightly closed and breathing heavily, and the fact that Aiden was still very, very hard making itself known to him quite urgently – Aiden frowned a little and asked, “Was that supposed to taste sort of lemony?”
Idris’s lips quirked into a small smile; it was a while before he managed to breathe out a “Yes. Mind?”
“I quite like lemons,” Aiden told him.
Idris gave a breathless little laugh, then his eyes opened and he looked down at Aiden, messy and flushed and gorgeous. Then his lips curved into a wicked smile, and he reached down and tugged Aiden up by his shoulder to pull him into a searing kiss.
“And your, ah,” Aiden said, when they managed to break it. “Is it supposed to be…?”
“Self-lubricating?” Idris asked, with such an expression on his face that Aiden couldn’t help but burst into laughter.
“Oh, god, I’m living in a bad porn virt,” he managed to gasp out.
Idris put on an expression of mock offence. “Well,” he said, “I doubt you’ll be complaining in, oh, thirty seconds?”
Aiden’s mouth had barely had time to open and frame the first syllable of the word why before Idris’s lips were on his, enthusiastic and messy, and then his hands were pushing Aiden’s own trousers down and he was vaguely aware that somewhere in all this Idris had kicked his own trousers all the way off, and they were finally naked together and it was very nearly perfect.
It took a little more than thirty seconds, although it may have taken less if Aiden had listened to Idris’s protests that he was also very stretchy and not taken a little time to prepare; then he was sliding in, all warm and tight and very wet, and Aiden thought he could have died, right then and there, and done so very, very happily, except that he was so hard it almost hurt and he really, really wanted to come.
He wasn’t the only one, he realised. “Tell me you don’t have some kind of incredible powers of recovery,” he gasped out in between thrusts, feeling quite impressed with his ability to form complete sentences. “I’ll never keep up with you.”
“No mods,” Idris managed in return. “Just you. More,” he begged, thrusting his hips upwards to meet him, and from then on there was nothing outside this bed, the whole world concentrated down to just himself and Idris and the pleasure building and building until it crashed down upon him like a summer storm.
Afterwards, they lay in silence, pressed together despite the atmosphere under the blanket being somewhat damp and a little too hot, as the warm post-coital fuzz of Aiden’s mind slowly gave way to the haze of sleep. Before he could actually drift off, however, Idris nudged him. “Hey. You. We still haven’t finished talking.”
Blinking heavily, Aiden opened his eyes. “What?”
Idris was lying very close, so close that Aiden wondered if, when he blinked, he might actually catch Aiden’s face with those eyelashes. He didn’t, of course, but Aiden kept half-expecting to feel that barely-there touch. “Why are you doing it? Getting a mod, I mean?”
Aiden buried his head back in the pillows. “Thought we did this already? Those boys from school. I need something to get them to stop. I was thinking just something to make me stronger would work. They’re kind of scared of people with mods – that’s why they never went after you when you were there. They know that any one of you might have the ability to rip their skin off in one go. So if they knew I’d had a mod to make me stronger…”
“But that’s not the only reason, is it?” Idris asked.
Aiden shrugged. “I couldn’t think of anything else to do,” he said. “I told the teachers. They didn’t do anything.”
“There’s plenty of other things. You could have learnt self-defence, or lied and said you had a mod, or told them your big scary modifier boyfriend would come and beat them up. Or got a big scary modifier to actually go and threaten to beat them up. You could have your pick from most of my friends, you know.”
“They don’t even like me,” Aiden said.
“Do you really think that?” Idris asked, and he looked oddly sad. “Melanie doesn’t like you. The rest of them do. True, most of them don’t know you that well, but they all like what they’ve seen of you so far. And what they’ve heard from me, and how, quote, ‘completely daft you keep acting over that boyfriend of yours, Idris.’ Any one of them would be happy to help you out.”
“Really?” Aiden asked.
“Did you think they wouldn’t just because you don’t have any mods?” he asked, and Aiden closed his eyes again as he felt Idris’s hand come up to stroke over the back of his hair. “I know you feel… left out, sometimes. Probably more than just sometimes. And with us being so different, and things being so complicated-”
“Did I just want a mod to fit in?” Aiden asked, and felt the pillow move as Idris nodded. He didn’t need to have his eyes open, he was realising; they were too close, and between the sound of Idris’s voice and the feel of his body Aiden didn’t need to see his expressions; he knew what would be there already. “I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking of that. Not consciously, at least.”
“But that doesn’t mean wanting to fit in wasn’t a part of it.”
“It probably was part of the reason,” Aiden said. “Though I didn’t think you’d mind. I mean, it’s all about improving the human body, isn’t it? Overcoming limitations and all that kind of thing. Why would you mind if that’s what I was doing?”
“Because it’s not an improvement if it doesn’t make you happy,” Idris said. Aiden could feel the warmth of his breath against his forehead, imagined that he could feel the actual words. “Someone like your mother, who hates mods – who’d be horrified and disgusted if she woke up one morning with a couple of them done – that wouldn’t be an improvement, not for her. Improving your life doesn’t just mean becoming happier, of course, but how can anything be an improvement if it leaves you unhappy? And if you got a mod that you didn’t really want, just to fit in…”
“I don’t think I’d be unhappy, exactly,” Aiden said.
“But you’d still be doing it for the wrong reasons. To make other people happy, not to make yourself happy,” Idris said. “What I think about you getting a mod doesn’t matter – or what my friends think, or what your mum thinks, in an ideal world where she wouldn’t go completely crazy at you for getting one. All that matters is what you think. And whether you get one or not, I don’t care – as long as you’re happy.”
Aiden could feel himself slipping off into sleep, however hard he tried to fight it. “I don’t think I’d be happy being really strong,” he said. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind. But it doesn’t really feel…”
“Right?” Idris asked. “No, it doesn’t really suit you. There’s plenty of other things, though. Just promise me that if you do get something, whatever it is – promise me it’ll be something you want. No matter what anyone else thinks. Something you want.”
“I promise,” Aiden said, smiling to himself, because he could hear the warmth and concern in Idris’s voice, and it was wrapping itself around him like an extra layer of blanket. His mind immediately slipped off onto the inevitability of that appointment at the modpod, now looming in his future without any clear knowledge of whether he wanted to keep it. Promising to only get something he wanted was one thing, but how was he supposed to know what he wanted, what would make him happy? He couldn’t guess in advance whether any mod would make his life brilliant or freak him out the minute it altered his own body. How was he supposed to know? He was about to ask Idris this, but realised the other boy had already fallen asleep, and that he himself was heading the same way.
The last thing he thought of, as his mind drifted randomly towards sleep, was an old myth Idris had once told him about when Aiden had asked where his name come from. It had been his grandfather’s name, but Idris had told him it was also the name of a mountain somewhere in Wales, Cadair Idris. There were half a dozen myths and legends about the place, but one of them had been that if you slept for a night on its slopes, you’d wake up either a madman or a poet. Half-asleep as he was, it was the same thing, the same question; you took a chance and it could make you worse, send you mad or leave you uncomfortable in your own body – or it could make you, in some way, better. He’d always thought of this as something new, but on the edge of sleep, he realised that it wasn’t: people had always wanted to take this chance, to break out of their own limitations.
And he was sleeping with Idris. Did that count? A madman or a poet. Aiden wondered, as he fell finally into a restful sleep, which one he’d wake up as in the morning.
Wednesday came sooner than he’d anticipated, but he’d already made his choice long before the appointment arrived.
He didn’t see Idris till the day after, and it wasn’t quite the first thing he said: he couldn’t just blurt it out the moment he walked through the door, not with Idris’s enthusiastic hello kisses, and saying hello to his parents and exchanging the usual pleasantries. But once they were up in his room – Aiden lounging on the bed, Idris in his desk chair – and the conversation fell into one of its natural lulls, Aiden told him.
“Don’t laugh,” he began, “but when I was little I always wanted to be a superhero.”
“Aiden, everybody wanted to be a superhero when they were little,” Idris told him, very seriously. “Or at least have superpowers. I always wanted to be able to fly.”
“Really?” Aiden asked. “Is that why the butterfly wings?”
“Nope, those are just because I like butterflies,” said Idris, grinning and fluttering them at him. “Now if they found a way to give you wings that actually worked, I’d be very tempted. Except that they’d probably have to be massive to carry the weight, so it wouldn’t work. What about you?”
“Well, I always wanted telekinesis. Or some kind of control over the elements.” Aiden knew Idris had figured out where this conversation was going, so he didn’t bother to explain. “Obviously there’s no mods that let you create tidal waves or rain down fireballs, but…”
He pulled a little bulb out of his pocket, one of the tiny ones that came in desklamps, and held the end of it between the tips of his finger and thumb, concentrating. The bulb flickered, then flared into life.
“I like it,” Idris said, beaming as he slipped off the chair and came closer to examine it, kneeling on the floor. “Something implanted in your fingertips?”
“I don’t have a clue how it all works,” Aiden said, “but basically, yes. It’s not really a superpower, it’s not that strong or anything. You couldn’t fight masked villains off with it, though I do think it would give the boys at school second thoughts,” he added, slipping the bulb away and concentrating on the other little trick he’d learnt to do. It was difficult, but he’d been practicing; after a moment, little arcs of electricity were humming between his fingers.
“Oh, that’ll scare them off,” Idris said, his eyes dancing with delight as he reached out cautiously towards Aiden’s hand, jerking back a little when the electricity caught him. It wasn’t enough to hurt anyone; it made his own skin tingle, but it was no worse than a static shock.
“And mum’ll never know,” Aiden added.
“And it’s what you wanted,” Idris said. He phrased it as a statement, but Aiden knew it was really meant to be a question.
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, it’s not much good for anything practical, except looking cool and scaring bullies, but it’s pretty fun. And I like it.”
“I love it,” Idris said, and Aiden could feel the smile still stretching his lips as Idris leant up and kissed him hard.
“There’s only one problem,” Idris said, some time later, as they lay messily sprawled on the bed.
Idris lifted his head, leaning on his elbows, his voice very serious as he said, “What’s your superhero name going to be? Lightning Man? Electroboy? I really think-”
Aiden cut him off with a punch to his shoulder; Idris grabbed him back, and who whole thing quickly devolved into a wrestling match which ended up with the two of them falling on the floor and an anxious Rhiannon knocking on the door to make sure they were okay – but by that time, of course, they were both laughing too much to really mind.