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Home (Is the Place You Return To)

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                Perhaps this is how it begins:

                She lives in a cell.  She was born in a cell (well: she was born in a petri dish in a cell) and her entire world is comprehended by Floor Three of the lab complex.  There may be a world beyond the white walls, to which the scientists in white lab coats retreat every evening and from which they emerge every morning, but Nimona has never seen it.

                All she knows is white walls and running through a set of routines: the routine of the various physical tests, the routine of their demanding that she morph into a variety of different creatures while they take notes and readings, the routine of them closing her up at night.  She knows what to expect when they walk into the room with heart scanners and she knows what to expect when they walk in with plate armor on.  They exclaim every time she does something new, morphs into something bigger or stronger or faster, but she knows the praise isn’t really for her: it’s about her, sure, but it’s directed at the scientists who created her in the first place.

                One day, she decides, she’s going to see more of the world.  This isn’t a home, not really: it’s a place she’s being kept, but she’s not going to stay much longer.  There hasn’t been a prison ever built that could contain her.  The human beings who made her just don’t know it yet.

*

                Let’s tell a different story:

                She lives in a village.  She was born into a family that loves her very much, and she only dreams some nights about a sterile laboratory and it’s just a nightmare, like falling off a cliff or being chased by a clown or something stupid like that.  She doesn’t even remember it during the day.

                She has friends among the village children.  Even if a lot of the other kids think she’s a bit weird – even if they think her thing for sharks is a little strange or her love for pyrotechnics has a tendency to get others in trouble – she has friends: a best friend, the kind of friend any young girl needs, and a gang to play with in the afternoons.  She and her best friend fight exactly the way you’re supposed to when you’re eight and make up every couple days over the stupidest things and learn how to French braid by practicing on each other’s hair and talk about how they’re going to go be adventuring Knight-Princess-scuba divers someday together.

                There are raiders sometimes, yes; but she has a mother who laughs at her jokes and a father who is twice as tall as she is and lifts her up sometimes so her head brushes against the roof, and so raiders don’t matter that much.  She knows where the trick floorboards that creak are and where the nearest hidden hollow is in the forest beyond their house, and running into the woods and crouching down low behind the trees is just as much a part of being at home as wood smoke and the smell of her father’s cooking are.

*

                Start over:

                She lives in a castle.  But before that, she lived in a cave, and the castle is new to her and confusing.  She’s trying this human thing for the first time, and everyone, of course, expects her to have it down pat because they don’t know she’s really Nimona.  (Of course, she’s not even entirely sure what “really Nimona” means anymore.)  She’s learning to be at home in this new human body just the same as she’s learning to be at home in a castle.

                Living in a castle is very, very different from living in a cave.  She has a massive room and an enormous bed with fluffy pillows and thick sheets. She has a weapons collection and she's supposed to know what the names of each of these cruel, shiny lines of metal are and how to use them. Over the centuries, knights have attacked her with enough of them that she certainly recognizes the swords and maces and morningstars and so forth, but it's a novelty to actually hold them herself. She trips over her own sword the first time she tries to swing it and has to pretend that fighting "the monster" left her with a concussion.

                People are always bustling around the castle, but they actually like her - whenever they see her, they pause and smile and greet her respectfully. No one cries or screams or attacks her. And if the name they use is "Gloreth" and not Nimona, well, that doesn't really matter so much, does it? Maybe she can shapeshift names just the same way she can shapeshift bodies.

                But the stone walls of the castle aren't much different from the stone walls of the cave. And Nimona didn't decide to leave her cave just so she could lie low in a different lair. Maybe it'll be time to move on from this home too, sometime soon.

*

                She tells herself stories about who she is.  Well – she tells other people stories about who she is, but sometimes she wonders whether her audience isn’t really just herself.  Sometimes she was a young girl in a village besieged by raiders, who learned to shapeshift to save her family.  But other times she was a squirrel who learned to turn herself into human shape, or an old woman who was given the gift of infinite variation in appearance for her kindness, or a wizard who learned to shapeshift after selling his own soul to a monster.  (Sometimes, she’s the monster.)

                Most of the time, she lets people come up with whatever stories they want – it’s kind of easier that way, and it’s funny to hear what they think she is.  She’s been a crone and a cursed maiden, a dragon, a poltergeist, a unicorn turned evil, and, once, a mermaid.  (She’s not entirely sure how that one worked – apparently, some villagers had developed a theory that she was wheeled around in a massive glass tank and her changes in appearance were just the result of “refraction,” which, as everyone knew, was complicated and science-y and difficult to explain, but could definitely make someone look like everything from a wolf to a dragon to a human being.)

                She sets herself little goals, because if she didn’t have anything to achieve, where would the fun in that be?  Of course, most things are easy to do as a shapeshifter, but that’s besides the point.  One time, she challenges herself to enter a tournament as eight different knights and make the quarterfinals as all of them, and then disappear mysteriously into the ether.  Another time, she tries to steal every single left shoe in an entire village, and then she hides as a mouse in the grass to watch the humans hop around in confusion.  One rainy day, she even tries to learn how to knit.

                She hears about Ballister Blackheart while she’s trying to steal enough wanted posters from the local guard station to make a collage.  She takes his poster because his goatee looks cool (she tries it on her own face, but decides she’s not a fan of how it looks in red and is too attached to red hair to go brunette), and then she realizes that his bounty is way higher than anyone else’s.  Which seems cool, so she decides to stick around the Kingdom for a while and find out more about this guy who seems to have the whole kingdom living in fear of his (evil) ways.

                On a whim, she decides she wants to meet him.  Maybe get to know him.  Anyone that inventive who can command that much respect must be interesting – and she’s bored and in need of a new self-set goal anyways.  Perhaps finding out how Ballister Blackheart works can be her newest quest.

                So she sneaks into his castle as a beetle in the dead of night and then gets distracted by the cool bubbly fizzing things in his lab and wanders around until the man himself comes in the next morning and demands to know who she is.

                She decides that here, she will be a sidekick.  Later on, she will decide to be a shapeshifter, but she doesn’t know that yet.

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                It’s been officially the day after Christmas for three hours now, but Nimona is pretty sure that Christmas is not technically over until she goes to sleep, and she doesn’t intend to go to sleep for a while yet.  Ballister has fallen asleep on the couch with a mug of hot cocoa slowly cooling over on the table next to him.  His head droops down, cheek smushed against the scarf she knitted him, which he seems to be using as a pillow.  He’s drooling a little bit and he looks dumb and hilarious, and the wrinkle lines on his face have been smoothed away by his dreams, and watching him sleeping on her scarf tugs at something weird in her heart that she hasn’t felt in a while.

                Instead of thinking about that, she looks back at the Beginner’s Laser Kit he got her.  At first, she’d thought it was awesome because lasers, duh, but then she had realized it was just a clever excuse for Ballister to talk to her about science for, like, an hour and does anyone actually care about the difference in wavelength between infrared and ultraviolet light? The point of lasers has nothing to do with “collimating” or “monochromaticity”: the point of lasers is to point them at things and blow them up.  (And maybe a little bit to turn into a cat and chase after them, but Nimona can suggest that one to Ballister later.)

                But even Ballister can’t make lasers uncool, no matter how much he tries.  And it was a pretty nice gift, even if he really only gave it to her so he could use a lot of words that definitely aren’t actually real and talk about refraction for a while.

                Ballister had tried to explain what each of the little fiddly metal bits in the kit were when he first gave it to her, but she had tuned him out after about twenty seconds.  Now, she picks up the instructions and tries to figure out which piece goes where.  The instruction manual in the kit suggests that she try assembling a laser pointer as her first project, but that sounds pretty boring, so she skips to the end, takes a quick glance at the last project (a “Beginner’s Burning Laser”), and decides that sounds good.  Except instead of building a laser intense enough to burn through parchment, she decides she’s going to make a few modifications …

                When Ballister wakes up in the morning, he finds Nimona asleep on the floor, surrounded by more tiny fiddly pieces of metal than could possibly have fit into the laser kit he got her.  Either the box it had come in had been the most deceptively spacious packaging ever, or she must have raided his lab at some point last night.  There’s a line of suspicious singe marks by the fireplace (which itself has begun to blacken with smoke – and did Nimona ensure the fireplace she punched into his wall was properly ventilated?) and a half-completed laser … thing next to Nimona.

                He stands up and winces, stretching to relieve the crick in his back he got from sleeping on the couch.  The muscles in his shoulder where flesh blends into metal ache abominably, but that’s probably exactly what he deserves for being foolish enough to fall asleep without taking care of the metal arm properly.  He regards Nimona, sprawled out on the carpet, limbs flung out at impossible angles, head resting against the box cover from the laser kit.  Against all odds, she looks absolutely comfortable: relaxed and completely at home in the ridiculous living room he had never really decorated when he moved into his Evil Lair.

                But, well, no matter how comfortable she looks: he can’t just leave her there, can he?  It takes some doing, but he manages to hoist her up into his arms and then carry her – carefully, although from past experience with Nimona’s uncanny ability to sleep through anything short of the apocalypse, he’s fairly sure she wouldn’t even wake up even if he dropped her, let alone if he jostled her – down the hallway to the room she’s more or less colonized.  He returns to the living room, packs up as many of the laser components as he can into the box they came in (and OK, some of them are definitely from his lab; there’s no way a kit for beginners would have anything that intense), and leaves that in her room as well.

                Much, much later, Nimona wakes up in a room she’s claimed as her own and rolls over to see a gift someone who cared deeply about her gave her.  She’s not entirely sure who she is here, she thinks, but it’s no one else she’s been before.

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                The first night after she leaves the hospital and the capital city for good, she sleeps out in the open, in a hollow just off the main road she’s been following.  She shifts into a large, shaggy dog and settles herself on her stomach to sleep.  Her curly red fur is thick enough to keep her warm against the chill that’s just beginning to creep into the weather these days.  She’s the kind of big, silly dog that humans won’t find threatening if one of them comes to see her by the side of the road: she’s had enough of being the monster over the last few days, and she’s tired and wants to rest.  Maybe a part of her remembers what it was like to live with Ballister, to be considered a sort of stray, endearing and not all that dangerous.  But she’s not stupid – even if any human to come across her thinks she’s harmless, a tame stray, she knows that her teeth are long and her jaws are powerful and her claws are sharp.

                It’s been a long time since she slept under the stars, she realizes.  She had stayed with Ballister for so long that she'd gotten used to sleeping indoors, in a room - and not just any room, but in the bedroom she'd made her own.  She'd spent so long sleeping rough before she ever met Ballister that she'd thought she'd always be used to the sight of the stars up above her - in fact, she'd considered it the closest thing she'd ever had to the roof of her own personal bedroom. The stars up above her, fresh night air around her - that's what home meant.

                But it feels now as if she had gone out for a just few hours and someone had come in and rummaged through her home and shuffled all the furniture around and put new wallpaper up and it's not really hers anymore.  The sky looks unfamiliar and the night air is cold and she finds herself craving - something else. Maybe she's the one who's changed, not the outdoors.

                The thought makes her frown to herself, because she hadn't been supposed to become soft or sentimental or something stupid like that while staying with Ballister.  That's now how her adventures work.

                She frowns and her tail swishes unhappily.  Whatever, she thinks.  The road has been a fine home for her in the past and she's not about to start questioning that now.  It just feels weird because it's her first day back. She closes her eyes and wills herself to sleep.

*

                Here are some goals Nimona sets for herself:

                She is going to travel the world.  She’s always itched to find out what lies beyond the horizon, and now she’s going to find out what lies beyond every horizon, until she circles all the way back around.  And then maybe she’ll do it again.

                She is going to learn how to figure skate, and then she’s going to learn how to morph just the bottoms of her feet into blades, so she can skate entirely on her own, because being entirely self-reliant and having knives as feet both seem pretty cool.

                She’s going to master at least six languages, because six is a good arbitrary number.

                She’s going to learn how to build a laser death weapon.  This is a must.

                She’s going to turn into a blue whale and figure out for once and for all whether the kraken really is real.  And whether he wants company, because she imagines a kraken would be pretty awesome and she’s found that she doesn’t enjoy solitude quite as much anymore.

                Her list is ninety-seven items long, and she loses her physical copy within three weeks and still manages to achieve half of it within a year.  (The laser death weapon eludes her, but she decides she’ll return to that one later.  Lasers are hard.)

*

                One week, she accidentally rescues three princesses in a row and finds herself with far more offers of marriage on her hands than she'd ever expected.  It's very uncomfortable and she has to slip out of a castle in the dead of night three times, which is far more frequently than she likes sneaking out of nice warm beds with eiderdown quilts.  Just to make up for it, she turns into a griffin for two weeks and makes off with all the cows in one patch of countryside - but she feels like all the joy's gone out of it, because when they send knights after her, she remembers what happens the last time they sent knights after her, and that's no fun at all.  After that, she mostly sticks to being about as mischievous as the average puckish sprite, but she's far more judicious about whom she helps: no more attractive young women in tiaras, for one thing.  Still, the middle-aged woman trying to fight off a hell-hound on her own seemed like she could use a hand, and hell-hounds are always fun beasts to fight.  Also, a woman wearing a sensible skirt and apron seems unlikely to be a princess.

                Afterwards, the woman - a miner's wife - insists on bringing her home to dinner in her house.  Nimona accepts, because she's never gotten especially good at cooking for herself, not even during her time on the road.  Being a carnivorous beast half the time is a great excuse for eating most things raw but a poor way to incentivize yourself to learn to prepare food.

                "So, where are you from, dear?" the woman asks her, after the stew, but before the promised pie.  It's the kind of question people ask her more and more these days - maybe because she's taken to helping people out sometimes as she passes through towns on the grand adventure that is her life now.  Instead of shrieking at her, people seem far more inclined to offer her dinner and ask her about herself.

                She looks like an elf right now: a cute, tiny lady with pointy ears and a redheaded buzz cut.  So she knows what she's supposed to say: the Forests of the North, or, barring that, maybe the islands to the East.  (No one really knows what lives there: Nimona had made it one of her goals during this journey to find out, but even she - after two years of traveling through all the lands she'd ever wanted to visit - has to admit those islands are probably unmappable and unnavigable.)  But instead she says, "The Kingdom."

                "Oh? I didn't know any elves lived there."  The miner's wife pauses and considers.  "Maybe things have changed now that poor maligned knight's in charge."

                "Oh, yeah," Nimona says easily.  "Things are very different. We elves used to live hidden underground - in warrens, like bunnies - but now we get to go out on the surface all the time!" She really has lived underground in rabbit warrens before, so she warms to the tale. "I didn't see daylight the first time until I was six!  But that just means my night vision is super good."  And then her brain catches up with what her ears heard and instead of spinning out a story, she says, "Wait - what knight?"

                "Why, Lord Ballister Blackheart, of course," the lady says. "President of the Kingdom during its recent transition out from under the authority of the Institution."

                On the one hand, Nimona can barely believe that Ballister would put up with all the committees and delegates and frustrating bureaucracy that goes with being a leader, but on the other hand, she's fairly sure that conscience of his wouldn't let him avoid it.  He probably really means it too - he's not just using his position of authority to facilitate some nefarious scheme.  Ballister never really had been very good at being a villain.

                Suddenly, an uncomfortable though occurs to her: maybe he's not very good at being a hero either.  Maybe he's a terrible leader - all gullible and soft and trapped by his ridiculous need to do the Right Thing.  He'd always been too inclined to see her and that dumb blond knight of his as good guys when they weren't, exactly, after all.  Maybe he's going to get his stupid self and his kingdom in trouble and then where will he be?  What he needs, she decides, is a sidekick.  And what she needs is a new adventure - the kind of adventure that's better than rescuing miner's wives from hell-hounds or visiting the Eastern Islands or stealing fishermen's gold from mermaids or traveling with a unicorn herd for a month.  She needs the kind of adventure that lasts, that lets her use all her skills, that promises rewards she actually wants, and, most importantly, that can be carried out with other people.

                It’s time, Nimona decides at last, to go home.

Chapter Text

                The road to the capital is long and dusty, but Nimona treks steadfastly down it, the city walls within eyesight.  It’s a hot afternoon, and the sky is eggshell blue, and she’s currently a small red cat. This form both seems unlikely to attract suspicion - she's a little unsure how welcome she's going to be in a kingdom whose last monarch she killed - and likely to attract free food and scritches.  The dirt of the road is cool against her paws.  With each step, she feels like she’s bringing herself closer to something she’s been avoiding for a very long time.

                Ballister no longer lives in his Evil Lair, and there’s a part of her that misses the building – or, rather, misses a bedroom decorated with shark wallpaper, with a bookshelf that contained no books but on which a single Beginner’s Laser Kit rested, and a living room with the world’s least safe fireplace.  But it’s not as though the rooms were what really mattered about that home, she reminds herself, and then without even realizing it she’s made it through the city gates.

                She considers about sneaking into the Presidential palace – that was how she’d gotten into Ballister’s Evil Lair in the first place, after all.  But she thinks – maybe she doesn’t have to.  So she shifts back into the version of herself that Ballister knew, which causes the guard who had been guarding the doorway to faint, and knocks.

                And then she thinks – perhaps not this body.  She’s a different person now than she had been when last she’d seen him, after all.  So she makes a few tweaks – longer nose, shorter hair, dimples, thicker thighs – and has just finished up when Ballister opens the door.

                “It’s me,” she says, which might be the only real answer to a question a lot of people have been asking about her for a very long time.  “Nimona.”

                And Ballister looks at her and smiles and says, “Well, come on in, then.”