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Take a Step Back and Start Again

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The ruins of building cast shadows across the square. The ruins of hearts cast shadows across stilted half conversations. The ruins of two not so young men prop each other up like the top of a house of cards and endure.

They are something. Not who they were a few years ago, repeating the same old motions and wondering if the other is as tired as they. They are not who they were at seventeen, jealous looks out the corner of the eye and sword strokes that are a little harder than necessary for practice. They are not who they were at fifteen, crawling into the same bed for comfort and finding something more.

It would be easy to say that they only fought because Ambrosius was mislead to the Institution’s true purpose and Ballister was only trying to save the world from itself. That there was no jealousy, no envy, no desperate need to prove themselves on both sides.

But fighting was easy, almost dying was easy, not confronting people on day one with the truth, just some half rhetoric about the way things are done is easy.

Ballister is thrown out of the hospital three times for disturbing the other patients. Ambrosius is finally discharged after two weeks with a, ‘Go home and give us some damn peace.’ He hasn’t mastered the art of walking with two crutches so he ends up limping on one, his other arm solid over Ballister’s shoulders. Keep your friends close, your enemies closer, your uncertain slowly rebuilding relationships tucked in close against your side.

The lair has too many memories; the city centre strongly resembles a quarry. Blitzmeyer finds them reasonable rates on a small house at the edge of town and they take it. The neighbours send them a fruit basket thanking them for saving the words and not quite jokingly pointing out that at least when they used to swordfight to the death it was a little quieter.

The city rebuilds and - slowly - so do they. Knives migrate from under pillows to on top of nightstands to the cupboard at the far end of the room. Ballister’s hand stops going straight to plate armour in the morning, he spends a few months in toughened leather before one day tugging it off over his head and throwing it into the corner so it stops digging into his back when he’s slumped on the sofa.

Ambrosius turns his head to look, then slides a knife out of his shoe and tosses it in solidarity. It’s one of five, but it works as a gesture.

The new head of the Institution stops by for tea. Lady Amier is short, round and smiles like she knows all the answers and will kill you if she thinks you know them too. She brings the greetings of the new Democratically Elected Council and their gratitude for saving the world and removing the vile dictatorship of the monarchy, etc etc.

No one is quite sure who elected the Democratically Elected Council, but their insistence on the name suggests someone must have had a say. Lady Amier would like them to know that the council very much appreciates their decision to stay away from politics and stresses heavily that it would be for everyone’s benefit for this arrangement to continue. The world needs stable governance, not heroes.

They could object. Ballister plotted a thousand ways to become king before he gained the goodwill of the common people, and now his nemesis walks with a limp and has to turn his head to look left there would be no one to stop him.

But he doesn’t. He says a polite goodbye at the door then returns to the sofa and they watch a documentary on nature, and change the channel when it starts talking about sharks.

They are not forgotten, but they are glossed over. The ‘unfortunate incident’ that claimed half the city is something to be ‘put behind us’ as we ‘enter a new period of peace and prosperity.’

Blitzenmeyer calls to offer shares in a new lab built up from the rubble. Ballister sells the old fortress - to the institution, for scientific research - and finds a physical therapist to get Ambrosius off the sofa.

Is it rebuilding, when the new structure is in the same place, but has little resemblance to what came before? Ambrosius’s fingers are soft on the tender skin of Balister’s stump when he takes the arm off to sleep. Ballister can’t stop touching the patch of cropped hair beside Ambrosius’s ear which is soft beneath his fingers like a baby bird. It grew up patchy around the scars so he keeps shaving it back and complaining about the cold.

The statue of Sir Goldenloin in the city centre comes down. The world is past the need to idolise heroes, they’re told. Amier calls on them and eats grapes out of the neighbor’s latest fruit basket (this one with the note: “we heard about the statue and we want to thank you again for what you both did, although perhaps Sir Goldenloin could work on his knife throwing away from open windows in future?”). Amber brings the Council’s regards and asks if they’d like any part of it to keep. Ballister asks if she thinks the codpiece would fit through their front door.

After she leaves, Ambrosius throws an apple at him.

It misses. Depth perception is complicated. They don’t attend the ceremony, but they do go by later as the pieces are being carted away. Ambrosius presses four fingers against the stone face, dragging them down across the stone eye that could never see anyway. That doesn’t know what it’s missing.

The ruined city becomes a new city. The ruined hearts find solace in each other, in something new. There is a kind of peace.

They acquire a child. Largely in the usual way, almost entirely planned, and yes Ambrosius you will get your figure back eventually so please stop fussing. She is small and impossibly fragile, somehow more delicate than the most sensitive nuclear bomb Ballister ever manufactured, and they call her Noma. Not after anyone.

Not quite after anyone.

She has a giggle that they never get tired of chasing, a pair of eyes that make her parents forget themselves enough to smile and a set of lungs that could power emergency sirens. Dr Blitzenmeyer insists that they only ever meet at the lab and that ‘your tiny banshee stays far away from my delicate equipment and delicate-er eardrums.’

The neighbours send a small fruit bowl with the note: “Your child really is the sweetest thing, just what I’d expect from two such amazing heroes, but could you maybe try a little harder at keeping her quiet?”

They take her to every doctor in town and read seemingly all the parenting books in the world, Ambrosius reads a book on colic with one hand and holds Noma in the other but all anyone can say is that there are really no answers and she’ll probably stop eventually. They take it in turns to stay home, take it in turns to roll out of bed in the middle of the night, take it in turns to hold her until morning sitting on the floor of the nursery whispering, “shh, shh now, it’s okay, I’ve got you,” until their throats are hoarse.

They acquire a cat.

It’s more of a mystery than the baby. Neither of them noticed it arrive, but it’s there at dinner time on the floor beside Noma, scratching at the cupboards for food. Noma laughs and claps her hands as Ballister chases it halfway around the house before it jumps out a window and out of sight.

He collapses exhausted into a chair and a moment later Ambrosius enters holding a black cat by the scruff of it’s neck and demanding why Ballister let a cat into the nursery with their daughter. He tosses it out the front door and slams it shut, then stalks into the kitchen to start preparing dinner.

They return to cutting carrots and slicing meat and when the stew is on the stove and the house has been quiet for an almost miraculous amount of time they turn around to see Noma lying half on top of the cat where it’s sprawled in the one circle of sunlight coming into the lounge.

They share a single look, then both move as one. Ambrosius snatches up their daughter and Ballister pulls open the door to the pantry, swinging in after them and slamming it shut on heavy breathing and a black cat which might not have even moved (or might have moved too fast for any of them to see).

It’s pitch black. Ballister can feel Ambrosius’s breath on his cheek, Noma’s tiny sticky fingers reaching for him curiously, trying to figure out if she should be scared or not. “Do you think it’s -?”

Ambrosius has never said her name. Ballister would be lying if he said he hadn’t thought - but, “It’s a black cat,” Ballister says. “She was never black.”

Ambrosius’s voice is low and dark, and Ballister is painfully glad there's not enough light to see his face. “I saw her black.”

There is a plaintive miaow from their feet, something soft brushes past Ballister’s legs and he jolts, knocking Noma out of her calm curiosity and into a screaming fit.

They stumble out of the pantry, a tangle of limbs and scars, black fur, shrieking child. Ambrosius starts bouncing Noma in his arms so it’s Ballister who turns to see the black cat sitting calmly on the floor in the middle of the pantry. It looks at him for a second, then turns it’s back to nose around the floor after forgotten scraps. Ballister turns down the heat on dinner before it burns, Ambrosius goes on a hunt for a baby blanket and the issue is dropped, temporarily.

They do fight. Later, after dinner when Noma is asleep in her crib and the cat is asleep underneath and Ambrosius has to be dragged out of the room, “I do not want that thing near my daughter.”

Ballister goes on the defensive, Ambrosius is too worked up to listen. They're too accustomed to fighting to stop before they've hit every nerve and stormed off in opposite directions. Ballister gets the bed by virtue of being the one closest to the stairs when they split, so he’s the one lying alone, unable to sleep. He's staring at the ceiling and listening to the baby monitor hum when the door opens.

Ambrosius would have made a terrible spy. Even in the dark with the curtains drawn, his hair shines against the hallway. He’s silhouetted for a moment, before stepping inside their bedroom and letting the door swing shut.

“She’s not a monster,” Ballister says.

Ambrosius reaches over to take the baby monitor, placing it on the pillow between them and turning the volume up on the static. “She’s at least a little bit monster.”

The curtains are closed, but a bit of light filters in from the street. It gleams off of blond hair and throws shadows onto the lines scored across his face. “It probably isn’t her.”

It’s a black cat. It’s black and it ate scraps off the floor instead of demanding pizza and while they ate dinner it gave itself a bath and he'd like to think she would have higher standards of hygiene than licking all over.

Ambrosius keeps a hand curled around the baby monitor but the other one snakes around to find Ballister’s hip and rest on it.

Noma sleeps through the night. In the morning, Ballister carries her downstairs for breakfast. As soon as she is done eating, she wriggles to be put down and crawls over to bury her hands in the cat’s fur. Ambrosius’s hands tighten momentarily on the counter when Noma tips onto her back, but then she giggles and and waves her arms and he can breathe again.

They keep it. Ambrosius calls it Monster and it snaps at him. Ballister calls it Nimona and it scratches his arm. It ignores them completely for Rosie and Fluffy and Sir Mousalot.

Noma calls it 'Cat' with the pride of someone who’s picked up their first word from overhearing endless shouts of ‘grab that damn cat’ and ‘it’s your sodding cat you deal with it’ and it purrs.

They stick with it because it’s simple. Cat makes Noma happy, which by default makes them happy and incidentally also appeases the neighbours (they get a fruit basket for the first time in two years).

Ballister adds the cheapest brand of cat food to the weekly shopping list. Ambrosius sleeps with the monitor in his hand, then on the pillow between them, then back on the bedside table so he can curl fully into Ballister’s side.

The cat stays a cat. It eats pureed chicken in jelly and scratches when they try to get it into the bath. It has fleas for one horrible week and Noma cries and hits her tiny toddler fists over and over against Ballister’s recovered leather breastplate. “Want Catcat.” It’s no more selfish, self aware, or human than any other cat they’ve ever met.

It is, however a bit more wild. As time passes and Noma figures out crawling outside behind it, then, as she gets better at walking, running with it keeping pace to catch her if she stumbles, the notes from next door start to veer away from the congratulations again. “We were rather fond of that prize winning flower bed, if you wouldn't mind giving us a hand fixing it up again. Ps thanks for the world saving.”

Ambrosius fixes the flowers, Ballister sits Noma down for a discussion on personal property but Noma is desperate to run and their small town paving slab sized back garden isn't turning out to be ideal for a family. Especially not now Ambrosius is talking about growing beans.

When the neighbours send, "So you haven't exactly saved the world recently, and your daughter went tramping through our vegetables again." They go back to the institute and arrange to be relocated to a nice little ex witness protection cottage located firmly in the middle of nowhere. With Ambrosius's physical therapy over and Blitzenmeyer perfecting science via videoconference, there's not a lot of reasons to stick around.

Ambrosius reads up on moving with pets but when the van comes, Cat hops in and curls up next to Noma’s booster seat without any complaint. Ambrosius gives it one of the sideways looks he has largely abandoned. “It’s not a normal cat.”

Ballister rolls his eyes and shoves another box of test tubes at him.

The new house is surrounded by fields. The nearest village is close enough to walk to, but far enough away to be forgotten. The locals come out to greet the new arrivals, their eyes lingering on Ballister’s prosthetic, on the scars across Ambrosius’s face. They’re far enough from the city and long enough from the incident that these people might recognise their names but wouldn’t know their faces.

They don't give their names. Instead they smile, mutter platitudes, wait until they’re alone to unpack old trinkets and scars. The new house has no armour cases, no childproof sword shelves. They look at each other, then out the window to Noma chasing Cat around the overgrown garden.

The armour boxes go up in the attic, swords shoved unceremoniously in after them. Ambrosius ties his hair back and starts clearing the garden, pulling up weeds, moving wildflowers out of pathways and into flowerbeds. Ballister sets up a small lab in the back paddock with a videolink to Blitzenmeyer. Noma finds the straightest, sturdiest stick in the garden, takes her Cat, and goes on Adventures.

The local wildlife quickly learns that the tiny blonde thing with the black cat is a force to be reckoned with and should be left alone where possible.

They settle, lay down roots. Noma goes to school for the first time and discovers the existence of Children Her Own Age. She comes home on day one waving her arms and stumbling over what she wants to shout about first. Did they know that Danny doesn’t have any cat at home? Rachael has a cat but it’s orange. Issk has something called a dog and she doesn’t know what it is but she wants one.

Ambrosius sits back in his potato patch so she can jump over his shoulder and get mud all over her school uniform and says that he doesn’t think a dog would get on so well with Cat but maybe they can invite Issk over for dinner some time.

Noma enjoys school, if not every day then at least the majority of them. There are the usual skinned knees, temporary fights with kids who are best friends again half an hour later but she loves all her classmates and her teachers say she's a joy, if a little over enthusiastic about anything to do with getting covered in mud. She's a bouncing little tiger in the back seat every drive home talking about everything she learned about science and animals until one day when she's six. Ballister waits at the gates as usual but she's still at the doors, holding hands with her teacher and barely even looks at him.

"It's been an emotional day," Miss Summer tells him, and leaves another teacher to find Noma a biscuit so she can take him aside and explain that Noma had a strange reaction to a recent history lesson on the Knights of the kingdom, specifically Sir Goldenloin and his many victories over his arch nemesis.

Ballister’s heart drops. They hadn't thought - they'd been looking for a place to disappear, a place where no one knew their names. Ballister's beard had grown out, Ambrosius's scars had never been publicised and he looks smaller in real life. When they enrolled her in school, they put their names down as Mr and Mr Goldenheart. Apparently that was subtle enough that no one realised they should be contacted about certain elements of the curriculum ahead of time.

Ballister says that's not unexpected, it hits close to home. He doesn't offer any details, but she looks closely at his face as though to confirm a theory and promises to call before they study the subject again. Ballister goes outside to find his daughter and take her home. If she's heard about them fighting, best to present a united front.

Hot chocolate is made, Ambrosius is called in from the garden and they sit on the soft carpet in the front room. Noma grabs at Cat the moment she's across the threshold, clutching the animal against her chest so tightly in must be uncomfortable. But maybe Cat has some idea what's going on, because she doesn't wriggle or scratch, just purrs gently against Noma's cheek.

How do you explain to a six year old that the people in charge are not always right? That Daddy was a freedom fighter but Poppa wanted freedom too and yet they were still on different sides.

Ballister should have asked for a copy of the lesson. They're fumbling, trying to figure out what she's been told. They've told her before that Ballister's arm was blown off in an accident, that Ambrosius hurt his face protecting them from an animal, did her teacher contradict that? She wouldn't remember living in a house where swords and armour were commonplace. They try to explain that they were best friends, then they both believed they were right and fought a little, only a little, until they had to team up to protect a whole city full of people.

It is a difficult conversation, and they don’t get it right. How could they when every word digs back at old wounds that are scarred but not gone. Ballister can say the institution was clearly evil and Ambrosius was naive and Ambrosius snaps back that it’s lucky Ballister was so high and mighty to know that convoluted schemes to kidnap the king were absolutely going to save everyone.

“The important thing is that we love each other now,” says Ambrosius to a man who won’t meet his eyes and a girl still clutching onto her cat and not looking at either of them. "And we're never going to fight again, and we'll always be with you."

But it's hard to reclaim lost faith. Noma starts going down to the stream after school. Cat waits for her to come, then leaves of her own accord to track her down somewhere out in the fields. Ballister digs up potatoes, nudges Ambrosius out of the way with one foot and says, “We should have found something better to say to her.”

She’s too young for the horrors of the world, too old to keep from seeking out secrets. They have tried to raise her in a world with no darkness, but they can’t keep that up forever. She picks at her food, shouts and runs to her room when they try to talk to her.

Her teacher calls from school to say Noma isn’t playing so well with the other children, to ask if there are any problems at home. She says they haven't touched the subject again but the other children occasionally ask about it and she can't stop them all being curious. Ballister hangs up and sits at the kitchen counter, looking at the playmat where Cat is pacing up and down past the windows. Waiting.

Ambrosius rests his chin on Ballister’s shoulder, his arms around his waist so Ballister can feel the sigh all the way down. “We could tell her we teamed up to fight a monster, put aside our differences.”

The black cat doesn’t turn around. “She wasn’t a monster,” Ballister says, anyway.

“Would you rather tell our daughter we teamed up to kill a friend?” Ambrosius pulls away, shakes his head, then ties his hair up and heads outside. Cat follows.

In the end, they agree to take it in turns. Ambrosius sits at the foot of her bed, head turned to see her. “We both thought we were doing the right thing,” he says.

Noma fixes her gaze on the wall. “You always said I shouldn't fight ever because I could hurt someone and that's bad, but the TV said you and daddy used to fight all the time and what if you'd hurt each other? What if you start fighting again?”

Ambrosius hesitates, half shakes his head. “We’re not - I thought I was doing good, and he was doing bad but it turned out neither of us knew enough to make that call. Now we know to talk to each other and work things out that way.”

She turns away again. “What if you can't? What if you think he's evil again and you don't listen.”

Two days later, they get another call from the school to say Noma fought with another child in the playground. “You have to understand, I can see there’s something going on with her but we really can’t tolerate violence against other children.”

Ballister keeps a hand on her shoulder the whole walk home, and then keeps walking. Noma squirms, turning her head back to try and see the house. “Where are we going? I need Cat!”

They only go a little further, to the bench around the back of his little lab shed. “Do you know why Miss Summer called me in today?”

Noma hesitates, kicking the grass at her feet. “No.”

Ballister sighs, sitting heavily down on the bench. His metal arm aches under the glove, but they are not knights or heroes or legends to the village people here and it’s easier to explain two arms. “You were fighting.”

“You and Pop fought,” she hit back. “I saw a picture of you fighting him. You had swords and Rachael said there was no way they were my parents but they were I saw them and they looked like you and Miss Summer said we can't study that anymore but I still remember it.”

Ballister reaches out for her, with his flesh and blood arm. She’s warm and shaking and still far too small to have to face this much of the world. But they can’t hold her back from it. “We were on different sides,” he says, trying to find the right kind of truth. “Pop was tricked by some bad people, but he thought he was doing the right thing. We both thought we were doing the right thing.” He pulls her up on his lap so he can look into her eyes. “Did you think pushing that boy was the right thing?”

She squirms in his lap. “He was hogging the swing and I wanted to play. Maybe he was a monster,” she kicks at his leg. “Miss Summer said you and Pop bonded together to kill a monster.” Her eyes was caught by something over his shoulder. “Cat!”

“She wasn’t a monster,” Ballister says, but Noma is already halfway across the garden in chase. He leans against the charred remains of the wall to push himself upright, already trying to think of a way to start the next conversation.

At dinner, Noma says nothing about monsters or bad people. She pouts when Ambrosius asks her about school and promises sullenly that she won’t hit anyone again. Ambrosius puts her to bed while Ballister finishes reading Blitzenmeyer’s latest article in Science Weekly. He’s distracted by another paper on anomalous energy and then an article on the science of shapeshifting and by the time he looks up, it’s long past dark.

He heads down the hall to kiss his daughter goodnight, when he hears a voice from her room. He has has a moment of panic, wishing for his sword in the attic or one of Ambrosius’s knives, when he realises it’s familiar.

Not recent familiar, but familiar. He hesitates in the hallway, leaning just to the side of the doorframe where they won’t be able to see.

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl and a monster. They lived in a forest many miles away from here in a little cave full of dirt and moss. Every morning they woke up and they fought. Some days the monster would win.”

There was his daughter’s voice, sullen and reciting like she’d done this many times before. “Because monsters are bigger than little girls.”

“And some days the little girl would win.”

Noma, again, “Because little girls are braver than monsters.”

“When the monster won, it would go roaring into town claiming that it was the greatest and the fiercest beast in the land. The people were very afraid of it, because it had mighty claws and sharp teeth and terrible fiery breath.”

It’s been almost eight years, but if Ballister closes his eyes he can still see it, the head reaching up to the roof of the lab, it’s claws pinning Ambrosius down.

“They sent many strong knights up to the cave to defeat the monster, but every time they pulled apart the ivy to hunt down the beast, all they saw was a little girl. The knights raced back to their kingdoms crowing about the tiny village in the mountains that was terrified of a little girl living in the trees all alone and everybody laughed at the thought.”

“Not everybody,” Noma says.

The familiar voice laughs. “Not everybody. One person heard these stories and said, what did he say?”

“He said ‘there’s a little girl up there all alone. We should help her.’” It’s a passable imitation of Ballister’s voice. Ballister can picture her sitting up straighter, leaning in the way she always does sat between them for stories.

“And he rode through the mountains and around the rivers. He rode over the hills and under the bridges. He rode past the village and up to the wood and what did he find?”

She sounds excited by the thought. “A monster.”

“He found a great black beast with mighty claws and sharp teeth and terrible fiery breath.” Ballister leans forward very slightly around the doorframe so he can see the person sitting on the end of his daughter’s bed, shaking her head slowly. “But he didn’t find a monster. He walked up to the great black beast and can you guess what he said to it?”

“He said ‘you're brave.’” Noma says.

“He said ‘Hello little girl. You must be very brave, to share your cave with a monster.’ And the little girl replied, ‘all caves have a monster. But they don't always win.’ And the man realised that if one little girl could defeat the monster sometimes, maybe two of them could defeat the monster every time.”

“Most times,” Noma says, fidgeting with the edge of her blanket. “Every time is a lot.”

“A lot for a little girl. But a little girl, two knights and a cat.” She reaches out to touch Noma’s hair gently. “We could try for every time.”

Noma makes another noise of protest, but she's already lying down with the air of a familiar ritual, closing her eyes to sleep.

Ballister steps away from the doorframe and a little down the hall. It only takes a moment before she follows him out.

She has black hair, dark skin and a black shift dress, but to be fair she has been a black cat for a very long time. “I thought you were asleep.”

“And I thought you were dead.” He sits on the edge of the sofa. “Lost. A million miles away from my family.” Her face is the same, if anything a little younger.

Nimona runs a hand down the wall as she walks down the hallway. “I wasn't planning to stay. But she was so tiny and I know you're pretty clumsy, Boss. I thought you might break her so I stuck around.” She pauses at the photos on the wall. Noma as a tiny baby tugging Ambrosius’s hair. Noma the toddler balanced on Ballister’s golden arm. Noma swinging between them all bright red boots and golden hair. “But she's a monster slayer,” she turns back to him, face half caught in the moonlight. “She gets that from you.”

Ballister shakes his head. “I think she gets it from you.”

The moon lights up a small smile. “Noma Goldenheart.”

“It seemed a bit too presumptuous to name her Nimona.”

“Lucky, I wouldn't want to have to fight her for it.” Her smile softens as her eyes move back to the nursery. “Little girls are brave.”

Ballister nods. “Braver than monsters.” He takes half a step forward. “You could stay.”

Nimona’s eyes linger for a long moment on the picture of Ambrosius on the wall, she lifts a hand to touch the side of his face. Then she turns away and she's Cat again, dropping onto four paws. Ballister sighs as she twists between his ankles and bends down to scratch behind her ears.

When he steps into the bedroom, Ambrosius is half awake, blinking sleepily under heavy eyelids. “Did I hear talking?”

Ballister shrugs off his jacket, then glances at the cat between his feet and elects to leave his shirt on. “Just Noma and me.”

Ambrosius yawns and rolls up against him the moment he lies down. Ballister has delivered many scathing rebukes about how some people will press up to anyone for comfort, both when they were enemies and when they were supposed to be friends. He's never admitted that he likes it, that he's reaching out before Ambrosius even starts to move. “Any progress?”

Cat jumps on the bed after him, curling up beside their feet. Ballister looks over golden hair to meet sharp cat eyes. “We're going to help her be brave.”

Ambrosius nods into his neck, hair brushing against his skin. “She's always been brave,” he says. “She's your daughter.”

Ballister wraps an arm around his waist and smiles down at his partner and their cat. “She’s our family.”