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Once bitten, twice spy

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The Blitzmeyer Blackheart Labs were a thing of beauty. The building was wide and sleek and much lighter than Ballister's stronghold had been. Even with his and Dr Blitzmeyer's papers, prototypes, knick-knacks, tools, and assorted gadgetry strewn about, the place had an air of calm about it. Right now, it was the best kind of organised chaos, and the only place he felt even remotely comfortable in the aftermath of everything.

Even the new house the Crown had provided for his and Ambrosius' use felt awkward. To be in such close quarters with Ambrosius, to have to confront the heavy thing that hovered between them, after so long... It wasn't exactly painful, but it ached like a pulled muscle, like the chafing of his mechanical arm against his shoulder when the metal contracted in winter. It was not pleasant.

"Your tea isn't going to drink itself, you know," said Dr Blitzmeyer, in a tone much gentler than her usual.

"Wh- Yes, of course," said Ballister, shaking his head to pull himself out of his thoughts.

He forced himself to smile and sip a bit of his tea. Today's brew was Lapsang Souchong, he noted distractedly. He didn't remember asking for the strong, smoky brew, but he was glad of it.

He was no good at change, that was the problem. But it wasn't like change was going to stop occurring just because he was rubbish at it, so he'd better get on with things.

"So, Doctor Blitzmeyer, now we are done moving in, what would you like to work on first?"

"Excellent question, Gregor!"

She beamed at him and swiftly started listing her research projects. Whether she hadn't noticed his stilted tone or was choosing to ignore it, he wasn't sure, but he was grateful for it all the same. Her research, as ever, sounded fascinating, and soon he found himself eagerly writing down notes, his tea once again going unnoticed.

Meredith gesticulated as she described her plans, the wild motions of her hand somehow never upsetting the mug of tea she was still holding.

"And of course," she finished, "I will need to rebuild my Anomalous Energy Enhancer. I have some ideas to improve on the original prototype."

Ballister's heart jumped into his throat. There it was, the one thing he dreaded discussing even more than his love life. The weapon he had used to turn against his friend. And the Doctor's life's work.

"Of course, Doctor, you must work on the Enhancer." He took a deep breath. "But I would very much like to make the new prototype safer for- well, if she-"

"If your friend the shapeshifter comes back, you mean? Yes, I've thought of that. Just a moment!"

And she dove under a table, with only her feet poking out. After a few minutes, the sounds of a magical scientist rummaging through a crate resolved into Meredith's form, emerging victorious from her search, brandishing a rolled up piece of graph paper.

"See here, I've drafted plans for a surge protector, to keep the Enhancer from absorbing too much power at once. My current working theory is that it would always draw low levels of energy from the surrounding air, and not from any person who may have a surplus of Anomalous Energy themselves. It's safer for the Enhancer and safer for shapeshifters. How about it? Will you work on these with me?"

Ballister smiled broadly, his throat constricting so much that he could only nod.

*

Far above the lab's kitchen where Ballister and that Doctor person drank tea and discussed their boring science plans, Nimona lounged on a rafter beam. It was warm and comfortable up there, a perfect spot for a large, dark purple rat to eavesdrop on an ex-boss-slash-maybe-friend.

He did not sound like a threat now, all sad and regretful and looking over plans to make sure the doctor person's device couldn't hurt Nimona again.

But he hadn't sounded like a threat before, and look what had happened.

She needed to do some more observing for sure. She couldn't talk to Ballister, or even show herself to him, because he was expecting her, he was always on his guard, hoping she would appear out of nowhere one day.

But Goldilocks... It was so easy to spy on Goldilocks, because he wasn't expecting her around every corner like Ballister. Maybe he thought she was gone? Or maybe he didn't realise she could turn into any living being, even without pink hair? It was possible. Goldilocks was pretty enough for a human but he wasn't the brightest.

Even now with his face covered in claw marks, his smiles did funny things to Ballister - Nimona still didn't get what the big deal was with those. She hadn't decided if Ballister was still a friend or not, but she knew for sure that she didn't trust Goldilocks, or his intentions.

She had to make sure he didn't use his weird smiles to hurt Ballister, because Ballister would be too much of an idiot to make sure of that himself.

Nimona shook her head, took one last look at Ballister's work table, where a framed drawing of a shark on a hospital chart gave her heart a little twinge, then she scuttled away.

*

Ambrosius' least favourite part of the recovery plan the doctors had prescribed before releasing him from hospital was his daily walk. It wasn't just that walking on his crutches was difficult or embarrassing. He did often feel himself redden when he couldn't manage a simple walk across the market square, and the people's encouragements and goodwill made him feel, if anything, even more useless. He could have dealt with that, if it weren't for the fact that they all still saw him as Sir Goldenloin, a knight in shining gold armour, a defender of the people, a beacon of goodness.

They only ever spoke to him as if he were this hero they imagined him to be, for his years as Champion, for the way he had fought the Institution and apparently, and for the way he'd supposedly 'turned erstwhile villain, Lord Ballister Blackheart, to the path of righteousness'. He still couldn't quite believe that the gazette had printed those words, nor that the people seemed to take them to heart. He hadn't dared look Ballister in the eye for two full days after that headline.

Not that he wasn't any good at looking Ballister in the eye anyway, these days.

He usually spent these walks gritting his teeth and repressing the urge to shake his admirers until they realised that he wasn't a hero, that he wasn't even a good person. He was just a kid from the orphanage who'd wanted so badly to be good, and to belong, that he'd let himself slowly become rotten to the core, that he'd pushed away the only family he'd ever had, the only person who'd ever known him and accepted him and loved him for exactly who he was.

He almost cried in relief when a sweet-looking old lady accosted him at market.

"Well, m'lad," she said in a matter-of-fact voice, "You've made a right mess of things, haven't you?"

He wasn't quite sure how this one remark had led into a pot of tea, a slice of cake and a discussion of his inner turmoil, but he couldn't bring himself to care. None of this was secret, even if the Institution had once tried to keep it so. He reminisced about the orphanage, the first time he'd met Ballister, the Christmases of years past, the future he'd dreamed of for them, his own foolishness, and their awkward present situation. He really had made a right mess of things.

"Aye my lad," she said, shaking her head, "that does sound like the kind of mess you hum- young people get yourselves into."

"Oh no, I got us into this mess, not Ballister. He- It's only because of him that it isn't worse. He was always the better of the two of us."

"So you've not, what was it-" A strange sort of smile twisted her face, not altogether pleasantly, "ah yes… 'turned him onto the path of righteousness-'"

"Goodness no!" Ambrosius protested, a jerk of his hand upsetting the tea things. "You can't believe those lies. None of it is true! He was always good, always the best- best friend- that-"

Ambrosius hid his face into his hands, willing away the burn of tears behind his eyes.

"I just wish-" he started, the words coming out thick and jumbled until he could steady his breath. "I ruined everything. I don't know how to fix it."

"You hero-types are so dramatic. I'm not so good at stupid goopy feelings either, Goldil- Goldenloin, but- well. How about you try just talking to him?"

"You think talking about it will ever be enough?"

He was glad that his hands muffled the whinging quality of his voice, though he could tell it hadn't quite gone unnoticed.

There was a forceful sigh, and when he looked back up, the old lady was standing, not looking so frail as she'd done before. Her hands rested on the chair across from his, her knuckles very white.

"I'm only an old lady," she said, "I don't know what'll be enough, but if you want anything good to happen, you'd better at least try to fix your messes is all I'm sayin'."

And with that, she was gone, but the steely, slightly menacing quality of her last words rang in his head all the way back to the house.

*

When Ballister walked into the house that evening, he was greeted by the smell of slightly burned food. He shrugged off his coat and rushed to the kitchen to find Ambrosius, in a checkered apron, attempting to close the oven door with his foot while balancing a roasting tray of sizzling sausages in one hand, a large bowl of mashed potatoes in the other, while still leaning heavily on his crutch at the elbow.

"You're going to hurt yourself, Ambrosius! Give me that," Ballister snapped, reaching for the hot roasting tin with his mechanical hand.

"No I won't!" Ambrosius cried, blushing deeply, "I had everything under control!"

"Sure, you did," Ballister said, fighting to keep a fond smile off his face. Sometimes he could still see the little boy he'd known in this Ambrosius. He had loved to make grand gestures of sweeping gallantry.

"Get some cold water on your hand, will you? That pan was too hot to hold with just a towel."

Ambrosius grumbled only a little as he complied, letting out a small sigh of relief as the water touched his skin.

It took a moment for Ballister to process the fact that Ambrosius had made dinner for the both of them.

Ambrosius had cooked. Ambrosius never cooked. He was - had always been - a bit rubbish at it. He'd never liked cooking and always prefered to do without it. For weeks, Ambrosius had been making do with cold sandwiches or soups from the market, small, easy things he could put together without asking for help.

But tonight, he had made dinner and laid out the table for the two of them to eat. Together. There were plain cloth napkins folded into birds, wine goblets besides the water cups, proper cutlery for them to use instead of their belt knives. The whole thing felt cosy and a bit fancier than usual, without looking outright romantic.

"This is… very nice, Ambrosius," Ballister said, cautious not to let himself jump to conclusions.

Ambrosius shut off the tap, dried his hands and took a deep breath before looking Ballister dead in the eye. And his eyes were still very, very blue. Now, Ballister could see the young man he'd loved in front of him, a bit greyer around the edges, but fundamentally just as dangerous to his system now as he had been then.

"Things can't be like before, but I still-" Ambrosius stalled, his eyes darting to his feet. "You wouldn't let me say it, before but I-" He twisted his hand together, and took a deep breath. "I didn't die and you didn't die and we're both here. And if things can't be like before, I'd like to find out how things can be- now- in the future. Maybe you would care to, uh, discuss that? Over dinner?"

Ballister nodded, too flabbergasted to do anything but take a seat across from Ambrosius. He wasn't sure quite what had just happened. It wasn't like Ambrosius to be so unsure, to want to talk through things before taking rash action.

When Ballister had envisioned the moment Ambrosius would inevitably bring up the not-quite-a-relationship between them, he'd never expected something like this. Maybe a grand declaration of Ambrosius' feelings, or perhaps a shy kiss in a darkened hallway. But something rash and impulsive, something to deflect attention from the awkwardness of their situation, something that would let pure emotion take over possible objections.

Ambrosius set a full plate in front of him, then served himself. "I have things I want to say, but I think you should go first. Please?"

"I'm not sure- I'm not sure what I want anymore, Ambrosius," Ballister said with a small sigh, "I- I'm really, very, very glad you're not dead, but I- I'm worried."

He didn't want to get hurt again. He wasn't sure he could trust Ambrosius, but then again he'd not expected him to actually get this right, this dinner, this negotiation, whatever it was.

It wasn't perfect. The conversation was a little stilted, the sausages were a little charred, the mashed potatoes were a little lumpy, and the gravy was a little runny but they were only little things.

What mattered was, they were talking, and Ambrosius with smiling at him, bright and brittle, in a way that made Ballister want desperately to hope. He had always been powerless to Ambrosius' smiles.

*

The kettle had just gone when Gregor walked into the lab, and Meredith poured hima cuppa as he walked over.

"Lady Grey today," she announced, handing him his cup and breathing in the delicate citrus scent.

Gregor thanked her and took a sip of his tea, but he had a look to him, as if he were a million miles away.

"You look distracted, are you pondering a possible experiment?"

"Something like that," he snorted, but he did not look quite amused.

"Well, tell me about it!"

He must not be doing so well, if she had to prompt him on such a subject.

"Oh, it isn't a science experiment. Not really an experiment at all. It's just Ambrosius wants to try again with him and me. But it didn't work before, and now- so much has changed…"

"But that is an experiment!" Meredith clapped her hands, pulling a notebook from her pocket. "You and Ambrosius have ran the experiment before, with a negative result-"

"Not negative!" cried Gregor. "I'm sorry to interrupt you, Doctor, but I can't- it was not a success in retrospect, but I wouldn't call it negative."

"A false positive, then?"

He looked even more distressed at her suggestion.

"Not quite, I see. So you ran the experiment before, with an inconclusive result?" He nodded and she scribbled down the first result. "When was this?"

"Many years ago, but really Doctor, I shouldn't be bothering you with this, when we have work to do."

"Nonsense, Gregor! An old experiment, originally inconclusive, but whose parameters have changed now, correct? Is the methodology the same?"

"I- Well-" Gregor spluttered, gone red all of a sudden. "Most of them, yes. Though Ambrosius showed remarkable thoughtfulness last night. I wouldn't have thought that he-"

"So it IS a new experiment. You have to run through it, and see if the result are positive this time, using the new methodology and adjusted parameters."

"I- It's not that simple, Doctor," Gregor sounded almost scared, now, which seemed strange. She hasn't realised the experiment would be dangerous. "I don't think it'll work. I want it to work, I really do, but it's not that easy. What if it doesn't work? I just can't trust it'll work."

"Well, of course you can't trust the theory will work. That is why we set up an experiment. But you can't tell if something will work without trying it."

"I suppose not," Gregor mumbled, frowning.

"You have heard of Shrodinger's automaton, of course?"

"Of course. The principle states that if one makes an automaton, or any device-" he started.

"Or in our case a theory," she added.

"Indeed. Once placed in a locked box and never looked at again, there is no way to know if the automaton is functional or not at any given time."

"Precisely! It is the same for your theory, don't you see? You have to test it, otherwise it will remain, like the automaton, both functional and non-functional at the same time, and no one wants another inconclusive result."

Gregor said nothing more to that but he did refill his tea cup and ask after her own work. Meredith beamed and drafted his help for work on the surge protector schematics.

*

As he walked into town that afternoon, Ballister was still not quite sure what to make of his dinner with Ambrosius or his conversation with Doctor Blitzmeyer.

Ambrosius had done everything that mattered right this time around, but was that enough? The question turned itself over and over in his head as he made his way through the colourful stalls of the market. He waved to the townsfolk, and wondered if his and Ambrosius' relationship, such as it was, would be worth another try. He wanted to believe it, but the risk of losing his heart again loomed large as he paid for a loaf of bread big enough for the two of them to share.

The dinner had been a lovely touch, but he was not planning on reciprocating, not tonight anyway. If he tried to cook, as distracted as he was, he would probably burn the house down. He almost bought the wrong cold meats, unable to focus on the task at hand when the thought of Ambrosius filled his mind. He shook the memory of the joy they'd once taken in each other long enough to make sure he bought slices of pepper-crusted ham (his favourite) and honey roasted ham (Ambrosius' favourite).

At the fruit stall, he barely paid any attention to the woman handing him a basket of apples and oranges. The Doctor's words kept coming back to him too, he couldn't pretend she didn't have a very good point, all misunderstanding aside. If he didn't give Ambrosius another chance, he would never know what could have been. And yet, there was a part of him that worried still, as he turned back towards home, that he might be opening himself up to a world of hurt again.

The pain of Ambrosius' betrayal all those years ago was still there, only a dull ache in the back of his mind now, but he could remember all of it. The searing pain of his mechanical arm being molded onto his injured shoulder, the dreams of Ambrosius apologising and begging for forgiveness, the nightmares in which he'd enacted his revenge, the wish that he'd stop feeling, repeated like a mantra.

He was no closer to a decision when he put down the bag of bread and meat and the basket of fruit on the kitchen table. But he was back to himself enough that he noticed a piece of paper, tucked snugly between two apples.

Ballister almost dropped the note when he saw the writing on it.

his hair is still stupid but i guess he's okay

He didn't need the small drawing of a roaring shark underneath the scribbled line to tell him who it was from.

He couldn't help smiling, even as he cursed himself for not paying any attention whatsoever to the people around him earlier. There was no point running out and going after her now, he supposed. She'd come to find him when she wanted to. Clearly, she was looking out for him still.

Now, where would Ambrosius be, at this time of day?

*

Far above the garden where Ballister found Goldilocks reading a book, Nimona perched on a tree branch. The air was brisk and fresh up there, a perfect spot for a small pink-breasted robin to snoop on a friend and his probably-soon-to-be-boyfriend.

Down below, Ballister called to Goldilocks. The two of them spoke low for some time, until Ballister reached out a hand to touch Goldilocks' cheek. All of a sudden they were much closer together and it didn't look like they were doing much talking.

Uh, BO-RING. Nimona huffed a small chirp and took her flight.

That did it. Next time she visited, she'd have to come as herself to make sure they didn't do that weird human smooching thing, and paid proper attention to her.