As Nimona had the attention span of a sugared-up four year old, her initial flare of interest in her Beginner’s Laser Kit flagged quickly, and eventually she knelt on the couch beside Ballister and tugged at his mechanical arm until she succeeded in dragging him out into the courtyard.
“Let’s have a snowball fight!”
Ballister, full of peppermint mocha and and something suspiciously like contentment, was willing to humor her, but the weather was against them.
“We’d need snow first,” he pointed out.
Nimona promptly metamorphosed into an Ice Dragon.
An Ice Dragon! Ballister supposed it wasn’t any more unlikely to occur in nature than the fire-breathing kind, but somehow the physics of it seemed less… sciency, he supposed Nimona would say.
Soon the courtyard was garlanded with frost: the massive beast (Nimona’s current form was white, many-legged and almost neckless, with a blunt face, an icicle beard, hot-pink eyes and long, barbed spines tipped in deep blue along her back) had exhaled a winter’s worth of ice and gale, and in a blink Ballister’s fortress was drifted with towering hills of snow. Another blink and Nimona was a girl again, gliding across the surface of a mirror-smooth ice pond and beckoning impatiently.
“Skaaaaaaaaaaaaating!!!” She called as she slid past him, her cheeks rosy with the sudden chill.
Although Ballister had no idea what an ankylosaurus smelled like, he was certain that it wasn’t anything like how Nimona smelled when she chose to take that particular form. He knew a fox should smell musky and rank, that sheep smelled like old grass and mud. Nimona could slink from lioness to a leopard seal in the blink of an eye, but she never smelled of the veldt or “zebra-guts” or “chomped-up penguins” or anything like the sea. Sometimes, when she was very tired, and she’d been fighting, she had a reassuringly human scent: a weary girl in leather and mail with sweaty hair. Most days, though, Nimona smelled like the air just before a snowfall. He supposed that’s just what magic smelled like: dry and sweet and fresh; a little metallic.
He re-settled his scarf around his neck (“I turned into a sheep and knitted it from my own wool!”), and idly juggled a snowball in his mechanical hand.
It had been nine years since Nimona had stayed more than a few days in one place (of her own free will). She figured a fortress would be drafty, but it was pretty snug (“Or it would be, if you would stop bashing holes in my walls.”). It’s a little empty, maybe - except for the lab, which was crammed wall to wall with all kinds of glowing, neato chemical weapons and gnarly man-eating plants and a rainbow of goos that melt metal or harden into crossbow-proof glass upon contact with the air. She guessed the rest of the place is more in keeping with Ballister’s real style, though: practical, organized, with little details that brought it all together.
He pegged her right in the bangs with the snowball. He’d already rolled a heap of them, and had a rapidfire shot with his cybernetic arm and all. She morphed into a polar bear and charged him; he dodged her and sprang onto her back.
“Let’s go sledding!” Nimona yelled, and galpumphed to the top of the steepest snowbank. Ballister had her dense fur balled up in his fists, and he almost fell off when she went penguin sleek.
“You are a penguin the size of a polar bear. Why is that not terrifying?”
“Hang on, Boss!” She hurled herself down the slope, and she slalomed like she’d been waxed. Ballister clung to her neck for dear life (his metallic arm pinched a little), but let out a whoop when they cleared the jump over the courtyard fountain and skidded to a stop on the other side of the new skating pond.
“Wanna go again?”
“Only if you feel up to it,” he said, but he was panting and grinning like a tiger, so she turned into one (“A tiger the size of a polar bear is terrifying!”) and bounded back up the hill.
The Institute outfitted every agent with nightvision, heatvision and satellite-relay binoculars, but Ambrosius knew for a fact that every feed went directly to the Director, just in case she wanted to check in. Besides, it was still light enough to see Ballister training (well, roughhousing -- frolicking?) with his new ward.
He wasn’t sure what he’d actually report to the Director, or if he’d report anything at all. If she asked, he could describe it as reconnaissance, but he wasn’t sure she’d believe him. This Nimona person was shapeshifter to be sure, and an exceptionally gifted one. He’d never seen anything like it: she’d been half a dozen animals in the past twenty minutes, and it didn’t seem to sap any of her apparently boundless energy, or require any rest or re-setting -- she didn’t return to human form before becoming something else, and could hold a form for as long as she felt like it. She’d been annoying Ballister by trotting around as a sheep for hours at a time.
Seeing Ballister bright-eyed and smiling made something tighten in Ambrosius’ chest, and he wasn’t sure how to interpret it. Was he… glad to see Ballister happy? That seemed an odd emotion to experience while spying on an enemy of the state. THE Enemy of the State, really. No one else in the kingdom gave The Institute any real trouble. That distinction belonged solely to Blackheart.
Ambrosius decided he was just confusing his emotions with memories of days long past - the summers they were as close as brothers, when they fought for the same side, when Ballister was at his back, instead of at his throat.
In the courtyard below, a little white goat butted Ballister into a Director that had been shaped out of snow, and then she was suddenly a girl again, helping Ballister to his feet and dusting the snow off the shoulders of his cape. For a moment, Ballister rested a hand on the top of her head, and he said something Ambrosius didn’t try to lipread. Nimona nodded eagerly and leapt into the air as a purple falcon, playfully divebombing Ballister’s hair before hopping back down to the snow as a girl again.
Walking back into the stronghold, the failing light flattened into shadows and they became silhouettes, rarified and elemental: a tall man with regal bearing, a sturdy girl with a raucous, exuberant laugh.