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Growing Pains

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Rubedo's breath rasped, not so much from exertion--he had carried, many times, burdens heavier than Nigredo--but from sheer panic. My brother, my brother, I don’t want him to die, he’s my brother….

Albedo, where was Albedo? Was he all right? Dead? Crazy? What?

Nigredo shifted in his arms, made a noise that wasn’t quite a moan and wasn’t quite a whimper.

“You’re going to be all right,” Rubedo said, as much to himself (a promise, a pact, an oath) as to Nigredo. “You’re going to be all right. I’m not going to let you die.”

His voice cracked on the last word, all promise, no price. What will I pay for your safety, brother, brother…?

Nigredo and Rubedo shared rented rooms in the months after Miltia, not out of necessity but because neither of them had ever spent much time alone. Rubedo could face U-DO without shaming himself, but somehow a room of his own was a far more frightening.

Perhaps if they’d been away from one another more often, it would have taken longer to realize quite what was happening. As it was, it was Nigredo who discovered it first.

Rubedo knew something was up, because they’d never been able to keep secrets from one another. Telepathy will do that for you. But he didn’t know what until Nigredo said, out of nowhere, “Have you noticed something—weird?”

“You’re going to have to be more specific than that,” Rubedo said, deadpan.

Nigredo made an impatient noise. “Something—here, look, it’s easier to show you.” He grabbed Rubedo by the upper arm—Nigredo was possibly the only person in the universe who could do that without Rubedo taking his head off out of sheer reflex—and tugged him into the eye-squintingly bright hotel bathroom, then spun him around until they were back to back, shoulder to… no, not quite.

“Look,” Nigredo said, and Rubedo turned his head just a little so he could see in the bathroom mirror.

Nigredo was just a little bit, just three or four centimeters, taller than he was.

“Well,” he said slowly, “we never were exact duplicates, there’s the hair and eye color and, and of course we have different abilities.”

Nigredo stepped away. “That’s what I’ve been thinking, though,” he said. “Different abilities. Tell me yours.”

Rubedo rolled his eyes. “You know mine.”

“Humor me.”

“Besides the Red Dragon?” Rubedo’s mouth ticked up at one corner. “Cellular resistance. On a microscopic level, my body doesn’t change unless I let it, and it’s not easy to let it. The opposite of Albedo’s, his changes so easily.” Albedo, he thought, suddenly—Albedo, I didn’t mean to leave you—

“So you resist poison,” Nigredo said, “teratogens, mutagens, disease, it’s harder to do major damage to your body, and….” He put his hand on the top of Rubedo’s head and drew it, flat and level, across the space between Rubedo and himself. It bumped against his forehead. Just three centimeters…. “I’m growing. You’re not.”

“S’a little early to come to a conclusion, don’t you think?”

“Maybe.” Nigredo rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re right, it might just be… model variation. But maybe I’m starting to go through puberty and you aren’t.”

“That hardly seems fair,” Rubedo said, taking the three steps back to the bedroom and flopping down on his bed, arms folded behind his head.

Nigredo sat down on the other bed. “Well, you already have all the best abilities, maybe the universe is trying to even things up a little.”

Rubedo laughed. “I mean unfair to you. Growth spurts, hormonal insanity, hair in weird places? No thank you,” he said.

Nigredo stretched out his leg far enough to kick Rubedo in the ankle.

Growth spurts, hormonal insanity, hair in weird places… Had the URTVs been designed to go through puberty naturally? Nigredo wondered, studying his face which had, for the first time in his memory, sprouted a pimple right on the forehead. No other element of their development had happened normally, after all. If they’d been expected to survive this long at all, would their development into adulthood have been monitored as carefully as their fetal development had been? Probably he would have been given physical therapy to keep him from falling over things all the time, at least.

He’d grown eight centimeters since he’d first noticed the difference between himself and Rubedo. Eight centimeters that seemed all to be in his legs and arms, or at least that was the only explanation he could come up with for why he kept banging into things and tripping over things. He felt like he had to shampoo his hair about three times more frequently, and now the pimple, glaring angrily from the middle of his forehead.

“You almost ready?” Rubedo bellowed from outside the bathroom.

“Just a minute,” he bellowed back, and then grinned at his reflection. He was painfully aware that neither he nor Rubedo would know ‘normal’ if it bit them in the ankle, but he had a feeling that siblings shouting at one another through a bathroom door was actually so normal as to approach cliche.

He finally brushed his hair back (nothing to be done about the pimple) and shouldered his way out of the bathroom. Rubedo waited in front of the door, bouncing on his heels. Absent the uniforms and lab-issue clothing they’d worn all their lives, he was developing a truly weird fashion sense. Today it was all black clothing, an enormous belt, and a duster that almost but not quite trailed on the floor.

In the hotel elevator, a woman smiled at the pair of them. Nigredo smiled back—free, after a bit more than a year of paranoia, of the persistent feeling that everyone could tell that he was a designed human rather than a natural human. Apparently it just wasn’t that easy to tell by looking.

“You and your younger brother going to dinner?” she asked.

He managed to bite down on the polite correction, “My older brother, actually,” because what would that accomplish? But it made him stumble a bit for an explanation. “Ah, yes,” he managed.

She nodded. “How nice. A lot of teenage boys wouldn’t want to be seen with their younger siblings, you know.” And then the elevator dinged and she got off, leaving him to chew on that.

Rubedo was giving him the most evil smile imaginable. “How nice,” he said, “you taking your little brother out for dinner and all.”

“That’s hardly my fault,” Nigredo said, suddenly seeing a long future of teasing ahead of him.

Rubedo waved his hand airily. “Of course, you can treat your little brother to ice cream, that’ll be nice too,” he said.

As they exited the elevator on their own floor, Nigredo wondered: had they remained in the lab, would their keepers have triggered Rubedo’s growth? Would he have kept his development on pause there as he did now?

Were they meant to grow in parallel, as they always had?

Or was this the way it has always been meant to be, Nigredo striking out into the unexplored darkness of adulthood as Rubedo mastered already-mapped territory, his perfect control of his prepubescent body and psyche?

It was ironic, Rubedo thought, gazing up at the dome-roof of the Foundation arcology…. It was ironic, because Nigredo’s abilities had always been considered the least useful of the triad. Sure, he was more skilled than a standard-issue group-mind URTV, but compared to Rubedo’s Red Dragon or Albedo’s infinite mutability, Nigredo had lagged. Against U-DO he was the most vulnerable of the special models.

But here in the outside world, the “real” world, Nigredo’s powers were infinitely more useful than accelerating or stopping cell growth, or even creating tremendous anti-U-DO waveforms.

A few tables away, Nigredo sipped a drink as he negotiated a noncompetition pact with Apollo Industries. Though they were blocking one another, Rubedo could still feel the ebb and flow of Nigredo’s (Gaignun, he reminded himself, Gaignun Kukai, just as he would have to get used to answering to “Junior”) power. Just a hint here, a push there… nothing so crude as mind control, just the slightest press of influence….

Of course, it had taken influence to even get this far, because in all honestly Nigredo-Gaignun still looked the seventeen that he was, not the twenty-odd that he claimed to be for negotiation purposes. But somehow, in his presence, no one noticed how young he looked. Certainly no one commented that he didn’t look half young enough to be Rubedo-Junior’s adoptive father.

The negotiation was going well. Rubedo could tell because he could feel Gaignun’s hypnotic suggestions slacking off. For his own part, he queued up another favorite gangster movie on his handheld vidplayer. Better you than me, little brother, he thought to Gaignun. Seal the deal.