Ambrosius hobbled down the street as fast as he could, ignoring the ache in his ribs. It was Christmas Eve, and Ballister had promised he would be home for dinner. Ambrosius had believed him, this time; Doctor Blitzmeyer was off looking for dryads or something, so she wasn’t around to distract him. So that could only mean–
“He’s just lost track of time,” Ambrosius muttered, stabbing the concrete with his cane. Ballister’s paranoia was rubbing off on him, that was all. There was no reason to jump to conclusions.
He’d almost convinced himself everything was fine when he turned the corner and saw the lab doors were blackened, the windows above them cracked.
Ambrosius stopped. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe, like he’d been knocked off his horse in a joust and was choking on his own failure.
“No!” Ambrosius rushed forwards. The doors jerked open when he pressed the button, then got stuck halfway, but Ambrosius was already stepping inside. At the end of the corridor he stumbled, and realised he’d lifted his cane in front of him like a sword.
Idiot. He lowered the cane and pulled out a pistol from his coat pocket. It only held enough charge for a few shots, but the weight of a weapon in his hand was reassuring.
Ambrosius entered the first room he found, pulling a face at the heavy tang of antiseptic. Hospitals, labs, they both made him uncomfortable; give him the smell of rich earth and horsehair any day.
“Ballister?” He wasn’t really expecting a response, but he still felt a nauseating surge of dread when nobody replied.
The lab was filled with vats of fluid, half-finished machines and spare parts scattered all over the benches. Ambrosius gave everything a wide berth as he hurried around, looking for clues.
There was no sign of Ballister, and nothing seemed to have exploded. Ambrosius was just about to turn around and search another room when an almost-empty bench caught his eye.
He walked up to it slowly, gaze skipping between the roll of sealed parchment and the pair of goggles with a snapped band. Ballister was meticulous to the point of pedantry about lab safety; he wouldn’t leave broken goggles or flammable paper lying around.
Ambrosius leaned his cane against the bench, braced himself, and opened the parchment.
IF YOU WISH TO SEE LORD BLACKHEART AGAIN–
Tears stung his good eye, blurring his vision, making the rest of the ransom hard to read. He skipped to the bottom, and found the villain had left a signature.
Ambrosius clenched his fists. His old childhood tormentor: there was no way Garamond was going to ruin his adult happiness as well.
“Hang on, Ballister,” he told the parchment. “I’m coming for you.”
“Dude, you can barely walk.”
Ambrosius gasped. “You!” He turned around too fast, and had to grab hold of the bench behind him. His other hand shook as he raised the pistol.
Nimona was slouching against the doorway, arms folded. She looked as young as ever, though goodness only knew how old she really was. Ambrosius gripped the gun tighter as he gazed at the face that haunted his–
No, that wasn’t right. This form wasn’t the one that woke him in the small hours of the night, heart slamming into his damaged ribs. This was the girl; the visions he dreaded were of the gigantic monster, wreathed in flame …
Which was her true form? Ballister would say it didn’t matter, but Ballister wasn’t here right now.
“He’s been taken.” Focus on the mission, Ambrosius. Emotions are a distraction. “I have to save him.” He didn’t lower the gun.
“Your heroing days are over, Goldilocks.” Nimona tilted her head. “I doubt you can even aim that thing.”
“And whose fault is that?” Ambrosius snapped.
Nimona scowled. “Move aside, cripple. I’ll save him.”
“I won’t–” Ambrosius cut himself off. Arguing wasn’t going to help Ballister. She was right; he wasn’t a hero any more. He had to compromise.
Ambrosius sighed and put his gun away, despite all his instincts screaming against it. “Let me help. Please.” He forced the word out.
Nimona laughed. “What makes you think I need your help?”
“I know the man who’s got him,” said Ambrosius, reaching for the parchment. “I can find them.”
“Gimme that.” Nimona came forward and snatched the parchment from him, eyes flicking over it. “Who’s this Garamond guy, then?”
“He trained with us at the Institution, until he was kicked out for breaking the Code.”
“What, he started to think for himself?”
“No.” Ambrosius bristled at her tone. “He killed someone.”
Nimona shrugged. “Whatever. Do you know what this accelerator thing is he’s asking for?”
He must have missed that part. Ambrosius glanced around the lab, but didn’t see any gadgets helpfully labelled ‘Ransom-worthy Accelerator’. “Uh, no.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Nimona turned into a fox and sniffed at the parchment. “I’ll track them down and take him out.”
Ambrosius used the tip of his cane to drag the parchment away. “And what if Ballister gets hurt while you’re setting fire to everything?”
Nimona turned human again and glared at him. “I’ll be careful. They won’t be expecting me.”
“Actually, they might be. There’s plenty of conspiracy theorists who think you’re still alive, and Garamond was always superstitious.”
“What’s your point? I’m very good at disguises.”
“But you can’t disguise yourself as two people, can you?” Ambrosius took a deep breath. “Take me with you.” He couldn’t believe he was begging favours off the creature that had nearly killed him. But he wanted Ballister back, and pride was a luxury only a Champion could afford. “They’d never expect us to be working together.”
“Huh.” Nimona crossed her arms and frowned at her feet.
“I can distract him, while you sneak around and get Ballister.” Ambrosius rubbed the carvings at the top of his cane, thinking. “Can you turn into an animal that isn’t pink? Like a nice white horse, or–”
“I am not carrying you on my back, Goldenloin.” Nimona exhaled sharply. “But I’ll let you tag along.”
It didn’t take Nimona long to find Garamond and his men. They’d gone into the forest, and then given away their position by lighting several campfires.
“They’re really not very well hidden,” said Ambrosius. “What if it’s a trap?”
“More fool them.” Nimona shook herself and transformed. “Just don’t screw up.”
Ambrosius bit back a retort. Soon Ballister would be safe at home, Nimona would leave, and things could go back to normal.
Ambrosius rode slowly towards the camp, keeping one hand raised so the lookouts wouldn’t shoot him on sight. For a moment, he thought Garamond hadn’t posted any, but then someone whistled on his left.
“Going somewhere, pretty boy?”
Ambrosius turned his head and saw a man holding a familiar green-glowing gun. “I’ve come to negotiate.”
“That so? You were meant to meet the boss tomorrow, at the–”
“I got impatient.” Ambrosius lifted his chin and put on his best imperious face. “And a child could have followed your trail.”
The man scowled, and then waved him forward. “Go on, then. Boss won’t be pleased.”
“Tough.” Ambrosius glanced behind to see the lookout following him, gun raised. This was part of the plan, he told himself. He shouldn’t get goosebumps just because some thug was pointing a weapon at him. He was a knight! A half-blind knight with no armour to protect him…
“Well, what do you know.” Garamond was standing by a fire, wearing a self-satisfied grin that made Ambrosius’ fists itch. “Hey, Ambrosius,” Garamond drawled. “I heard you and Ballister were together again. What, he’d only take you back once you were the ugly one?”
“Shut up!” His palms hurt from squeezing the reins too hard, but Ambrosius couldn’t help it. Garamond always knew exactly where his sore spots were. “Where is he?”
“I do like the new haircut, though. It’s edgy.”
“Get off the horse,” said Garamond, abruptly serious. He gestured, and Ambrosius realised there were now even more men pointing guns at him.
The horse shifted its weight, making Ambrosius sway in the saddle. “What? Why?”
“Just do it.”
Ambrosius dismounted awkwardly, biting his tongue to stop any sounds escaping. He just had time to grab a rod from the saddlebags before Garamond pulled him away and started searching his pockets.
“Ha.” Garamond found his pistol and threw it away. “What’s that?”
Ambrosius shook him off and leaned on the metal rod in what he hoped was a dignified manner. “My walking stick,” he said. “Ballister made it for me.”
Garamond snorted. “How pathetic.”
Ambrosius looked over and saw the chestnut horse was now surrounded by Garamond’s men, and one of them was wrapping a chain around its neck. “What are you doing?” he asked, trying to keep his voice even.
“Taking precautions,” said Garamond. “In case it’s the monster.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. That thing died years ago.” Ambrosius sniffed. “I thought I recognised those guns. Kept yourself busy, then, chasing after Institution leftovers?”
“Yeah.” Garamond crossed his arms and smirked. “There’s quite a lot of good stuff if you know where to look.”
“And yet you still need Ballister’s invention.” Ambrosius shook his head. “You were never good at improvising. Always had to steal someone else’s idea.”
A flash of anger crossed Garamond’s face, and then he shrugged. “Worked well enough for me so far.”
A woman came up to Garamond and spread her hands. “It’s not in the saddlebags, sir.”
“So you did think it through before leaping to the rescue,” said Garamond. “Where is it?”
“The accelerator? Nearby.” Ambrosius held Garamond’s gaze. “Give me proof Ballister’s alive, and I’ll tell you where to–”
The explosion shook the air, hard enough make Ambrosius fall to his knees. Looking up, he saw a pink dragon rising from the flames, clutching a dark shape in its front claws. For the first time, the sight filled him with relief.
Garamond was looking from the dragon to the horse, mouth open. “But…”
Ambrosius smiled, running his hands along the metal rod. “I told you it was just a horse.”
Nimona roared, fire gushing from her mouth and incinerating half the camp. Most of Garamond’s men fled into the forest, screaming. Ambrosius found the button he was searching for, and the rod opened out into a bright green shield.
Garamond staggered as Nimona flew over them, and then snatched a gun from one of his remaining men. He raised it, but hesitated when he saw Ambrosius crouching behind his shield. “Wait–”
Then the world vanished into yellow fire.
Ambrosius didn’t realise he’d been holding his breath until Ballister stirred, and his head began throbbing in time with his chest. “Ah–”
“Sit down, cripple.” Nimona pushed him into his chair and walked around the bed. “I’m not bandaging you as well.” She set a mug down on the dresser and bent over Ballister with a strange, almost tender expression on her face. “Boss?”
Ballister groaned, opening his eyes. “Nimona?” He blinked a few times, then frowned. “Your hair is … blue now?”
“Yep.” Nimona patted her fringe and sat down. “I’m not sure about it, though. Might go back to pink.” She leaned forwards, grinning. “I reckon blue’s more your colour, Boss.”
“Something dark, like a navy, maybe just in streaks on one side…”
Ballister’s eyes went wide with horror. “Don’t you dare!”
Nimona laughed, lounging back in her chair. “You’re still so easy to tease.”
Ballister glared at her for a moment, and then his face softened into a rueful smile that made Ambrosius’ heart twist. He should be pleased to see Ballister happy, but part of him resented that someone other than himself was responsible. He’d never been very good at sharing.
“What about Goldenloin, then?” Nimona stared at him, mouth tweaked in a challenging smirk. “I’m thinking a nice bright red, like tomatoes.”
Ballister actually had the nerve to look thoughtful.
“Absolutely not!” said Ambrosius, slamming a fist into his thigh. “I hate tomatoes.”
Nimona cackled. Ballister reached out, wincing, and covered Ambrosius’ fist with his metal hand. “Don’t worry, dear. I’ll protect you.”
Ambrosius could feel his pout melting into a smile, and turned his wrist so their fingers intertwined. “I know.”
“Oh, well. I guess ‘Scarletloin’ wouldn’t really catch on, anyway.” Nimona stood up, ignoring Ambrosius’ indignant gasp. “Drink your tea. I’ll go check on the food.”
“Tea? Oh.” Ballister picked up the mug in his left hand, the movement exposing his bandaged torso, and sipped from it carefully.
Ambrosius pulled the blankets back into place, his throat suddenly hot and tight. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” he said quietly.
“Besides having had the shit kicked out of me, you mean?” Ballister put down the mug and poked at his chest, grimacing.
“Don’t,” said Ambrosius, grabbing his wrist. “It was hard enough not punching Garamond as it was. If I knew what he’d done to you…”
“Wait.” Ballister pulled his hand away. “You came to the camp too?”
“Of course. I was the distraction.” Ambrosius saw Ballister’s frown deepen, and raised his voice. “Don’t say it, Ballister. You really think I could have stayed behind while you were in trouble?”
“But–” Ballister sighed. “No. I’m sorry.” He looked away. “I just couldn’t bear it if you got hurt because of me.”
Ambrosius caught his breath, remembering the moment after the blast when he’d looked up at an empty night sky, and thought Nimona had abandoned him. But then the dragon had swooped down, hind feet outstretched, and hope had ignited within him again.
“Hey.” Ambrosius cupped Ballister’s cheek and gazed into those beautiful dark eyes. “It’s alright now. We’re safe.”
Ballister leaned into his touch and smiled. “I just hope I haven’t ruined Christmas.”
“You did almost ruin dinner,” said Nimona as she came in. “Good thing Goldilocks here knows to turn off the stove when he leaves the porridge unattended.”
Ambrosius took his hand away from Ballister’s cheek, scowling at the intrusion. “It’s casserole, not porridge.”
Ballister cleared his throat. “Thank you for preparing the food, Nimona.”
She shrugged. “I was hungry. And I doubt anything’s open at this time of night.” Nimona peered into the mug and frowned. “Hey, you’re meant to drink all of this, Boss! It’s got willow bark in it.”
“I’m not–” Ballister looked uncomfortable. “You don’t have to call me that any more, you know.”
Nimona turned her head aside, hunching her shoulders. “Old habits.”
Ambrosius watched Ballister open his mouth, hesitate, and regretted his earlier jealousy. Of course things were complicated between Nimona and Ballister, too.
“I only meant– I don’t want you to feel–” Ballister flexed his hand like he was grasping for words. “We’re equals now, alright? Call me what you like.”
Nimona stayed where she was for a moment, then raised her head and looked at him sidelong. “What about Ballie?”
Ballister recoiled. “Not that.”
“Picky, picky.” Nimona tapped her chin. “What does that crazy scientist woman call you?”
“Meredith?” Ballister sighed. “She still calls me Gregor.”
“Ha! It must suit you.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” said Ballister. “There’s a plain white box, under the tree. Could you fetch it for me?”
Nimona’s eyebrows lifted. “Sure,” she said, and left.
Ambrosius knew which box he meant. It had appeared a few years ago, and had been brought out with the decorations each year since. Ballister had never talked about it, so Ambrosius had never asked. Some things were better off left unsaid. Still, Ballister seemed worried, so Ambrosius squeezed his metal hand in encouragement.
“Got it.” Nimona stopped next to the bed and held the box out to Ballister.
“It’s for you.” Ballister gestured at the empty chair. “Open it.”
Nimona sat down, staring at the box warily. “You said you didn’t do jolly.”
“This is … more of an apology.”
Nimona frowned, but eventually opened the lid. A yellow-green glow lit up her face, and she pulled out a globe of glass and metal tubes twisted around each other. The light pulsed inside the glass pipes, soft and flickering like a candle flame.
Nimona’s mouth was open, but she didn’t say anything. Ambrosius couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
“It’s similar to Meredith’s first Anomalous Energy Enhancer,” said Ballister. “But it’s designed so that it only takes in a tiny amount of energy at a time. It can’t store anything, so it … it should be safe.”
Nimona tilted her head, and little white spikes started to grow on her forearms. Ambrosius leaned back, heart pounding, but the next moment Nimona’s arms were smooth again. She turned the globe over in her hands, and finally looked up at Ballister.
“It’s really nice, Boss,” she said.
Ballister exhaled, the tension easing from his shoulders, and smiled. “I hoped you’d like it.”
Nimona gently put the globe back in the box, and cradled it in her lap. “I don’t have anything for you, though. Unless you let me dye your hair.”
Ballister touched his hair protectively. “No thanks. I–” He paused, seeming lost in thought. “I would consider it a gift,” he said slowly, “if you would stay and celebrate Christmas with us.”
A noise must have escaped Ambrosius’ lips, because they both turned to look at him.
Nimona lifted her chin. “Got a problem, Goldenloin?”
Ambrosius knew, somehow, that only the truth would satisfy her. “I don’t like you, Nimona,” he said bluntly. “It’s your fault that I’m in pain all the time.” Ballister drew breath, and Ambrosius raised his hand, not taking his eyes off Nimona’s face. “But … it would be fair to say we’re together now because of you, too. So if you want to stay a while, I can live with that.”
Christmas was about being generous, after all; putting aside petty concerns and doing your best to get along. Ambrosius saw the relief wash over Ballister’s face, and knew the effort would be worth it.
Nimona glanced at the box in her lap. “Alright,” she said, and then glared at Ballister. “As long as you let me order the pizza.”
Ballister looked hurt. “What are you trying to say?”
“No sardines!” said Nimona and Ambrosius, in unison.
Ballister grinned, and Nimona shook her head. Ambrosius smiled. Maybe this Christmas would be fun, after all.