It’s a perfectly wretched Tuesday in August when Ballister accidentally acquires the world’s worst teaching assistant.
“The light down here is sort of terrible, isn’t it?”
Ballister startles, sending his wireless mouse skidding across the stack of red penned journals he’s been using as a mouse pad since he set his last one on fire. He reassures himself he didn’t accidentally delete any of his work before looking up.
“Who are you?” Ballister rises to his feet. “What are you doing down here?” Ballister winces a bit at his own tone, but really. It’s not as if anyone usually comes down to his office in the ‘dungeon’ lab before the start of term and he’s never claimed to be particularly adept at human interaction. It’s not usually required in his field unless one wants to go into administration, which. No.
The intruder is a young woman with a violently pink undercut and an amused smirk on her square face. “Hey, boss. The name’s Nimona.” She lifts one pierced brow at his startled expression before stepping forward and extending a hand.
Ballister reaches across the desk and shakes on instinct. Nimona's other brow rises and she studies his prosthetic with wide, appreciative eyes.
“Oh, wow, nice arm. Brilliant work. Is this one of yours?” Nimona asks, turning his arm over for further examination by her own small, pale hands.
“It, uh, yes, it’s one of mine.” Ballister looks down at her with, he’s sure, an unflatteringly surprised expression. Most people determinedly ignore his arm or stare at it like they’re worried it’s going to reach out and strangle them of its own accord. “I usually test out new developments on, um, sorry. Miss -- ”
“Nimona,” she reminds him, lifting his forearm to her eye line to get a better look in the low light of his office.
“Miss Nimona.” Ballister carefully extricates his arm from her -- quite surprisingly strong, good grief, is she on the wrestling team? -- grip with a frown. “Not to be rude, but classes don’t start until next Monday and I’m afraid if you’re hoping to take one of my upper level courses, I don’t allow freshman. No exceptions.”
Nimona snorts and puts her hands on her hips. The fascinated, childlike smile her mouth had curled into at the sight of Ballister’s prosthetic is replaced with the earlier, irritating smirk.
“I'm not a freshman. The department head sent me. I’m your new TA.”
“That makes no sense. I don’t know you and I don't need a teaching assistant. I've never had one. I don’t want one, either.”
“Maybe they’re worried about your image.” Nimona sounds less sure about this, crossing her arms and avoiding eye contact. “They want you to appeal to today’s youth.”
“Did the Director really send you?” Ballister asks.
“Where’s the letter?”
"I've never had one, but I know how this works. TA assignments go out by interdepartmental memo and the student has to have a letter from the department head. So. Where's the letter?"
Ballister can see the moment when she realizes her ruse has failed, but it takes a few mutters of ‘uh’ and ‘I left it in the’ before she throws up her arms in exasperation.
“Fine, so the Director didn’t send me.”
“I knew it!” Ballister drops back into his desk chair with a squeak of old springs.
“Well, she didn’t specifically send me to work with you, but I’m a huge fan of your work! You’re Ballister Blackheart, the biggest name in Biomechatronics! You’re an inspiration!”
“Yes, well, be that as it may, I still don’t need a teaching assistant.”
“Oh come on. Everyone has a teaching assistant these days! If nothing else, you can give me your scut work. You’ve got to hate grading freshman essays, everybody hates that shit.”
“It’s very nice to know you appreciate my work, but -- ”
“Look, she didn’t specifically send me to you, but the Director said I could have my pick of professors since I’m bringing all that, you know,” Nimona waves a hand vaguely, “grant money in with me.”
“Grant money?” And damn, now Ballister’s grudgingly interested, again.
“Yeah, I’m the new fellow. Do you never check your email?” Nimona studies him with narrowed eyes, taking in his disheveled professor not-so-chic ensemble of slacks, a rumpled button down, and a white lab coat thrown over the whole thing for some semblance of order. “You kind of have that look.”
“What kind of look?"
"You know, like you don’t check your email, lurk in your dungeon of a lab conducting mad experiments, don’t get enough sunlight, and live off vending machine snacks.”
"Ah. That look." Which, well. It’s a little on the nose, actually.
“Yeah.” Nimona shrugs. “Look, I’d really prefer to be your minion than TA for anyone else. I respect your work and I think we could do good work together. I’m most interested in your specialty, but Professor Goldenloin over in the Field and Space Robotics Lab has been following me around like a golden retriever in hopes of getting his hands on my grant money, so it’s not like I’m hard up for opportunities.”
Ballister’s jaw clenches, Nimona’s smirk curls, and oh this is a terrible idea, but those have been Ballister Blackheart’s specialty for years.
“Goldenloin.” Nimona nods.
“Fine, you’re hired.” Ballister stands and extends his hand across the desk once more. “Welcome aboard.”
Nimona tilts her head back with a laugh and shakes his hand. “Yessss.”
It’s the third Monday of October and Ballister regrets all of his life choices. Seriously. All of them. At this precise moment he regrets melting the lock on his office door last term. None of the building handymen answer his service requests, not since that thing with Goldenloin and the pumpkin drop their first year as associate professors, but before Nimona it really hadn’t been that much of a problem.
Nimona, who had whirled into his office twenty minutes ago chattering a mile a minute and possibly hasn't taken a breath since her arrival. Today it's something about the Intro to Robotics students she’s been cheerfully browbeating into learning since she took starting doing the heavy lifting for his 101 sections. Her boots -- the ones he'd tried to insist weren't appropriate lab wear, to which he'd been informed 'they're my favorite ass-kicking boots, boss, respect the boots' -- are caked in mud and her lumpy, obviously homemade purple scarf is dripping slush onto Ballister’s recently Swiffered tile floor.
“Nimona,” he sighs, interrupting Nimona midway through an anecdote about a student improbably named Dionysus -- honestly, who’d name their child after the god of partying? -- attempting to pass off a Kawasaki design as one of his own, “I’m trying to work.”
“Aw, yeah, let’s make some plans! Are these them?” Nimona skips around the side of his desk and bends over the blueprints taking up the better part of the desk’s surface. “Oh, man!” She gasps, picking up the top sheet and spinning around. “This is so cool! Is it for the fair next month?”
“Stop it. Give me those.” Ballister snatches the plans back and smooths them across the desktop. He drops back into his chair, which no longer squeaks after Nimona spent an hour tinkering with it last week. “And yes, it’s for the fair. It’s an updated design of one of the exoskeletons I was working on prior to my brief and self-centered foray into neural controlled prosthetics. It should make it easier for users with limited lower body mobility to run and jump, or it can be modified for able bodied users as an enhancement for endurance tasks.”
“Hmm.” Nimona studies the plans, leaning one elbow on his shoulder as she bends down to get a closer look. “Not bad. Nice touch with the external elastic element at the knee. However, I do have a few suggestions. Here,” she snags a drafting pencil from the cup of assorted writing utensils holding down one edge of the plans, “I’ll show you.”
Ballister’s seen Nimona’s drafting skills at work a number of times, but it never ceases to impress him. She has a natural gift for organic design that most engineers would kill for. He watches as her hand glides across the pages for a few minutes before he realizes precisely what she’s doing.
“No. That is not how I work.”
“Aw, come on, boss,” and Ballister has yet to convince her to call him Professor or even just Blackheart, it’s always, somewhat affectionately, boss , “don’t be like that. You want to beat that Goldenloin guy just as much as I do.”
“You can’t just go around stealing from other people’s labs.” Ballister plucks the drafting pencil from Nimona’s fingers and carefully places it back in the pencil cup. He rolls up the plans that Nimona had crafted her ingenious idea upon, his flesh hand trembling slightly. “That’s...it’s happened to me before and it set my work back a great deal. It almost cost me the tenure track. There are rules, Nimona.”
“What do you mean, there are rules?” Nimona throws her hands up in exasperation. Her face is twisted into it’s ‘I do not understand these morals of which you speak’ scowl. “If it’s already happened to you, why would you follow the rules? And besides, isn’t that the whole point of tenure? That you don’t have to follow the rules, anymore?”
“No, Nimona, the point of tenure is not that I can do whatever I want without consequences. The point is that I now have the opportunity to work on my own areas of interests without worrying about my funding being cut.” Ballister places the plans back in their cardboard tube and secures the lid with a decisive snap. “It means that I have my own lab, away from the members of the department who have." He hesitates, looking down at where his hand rests on top of the cardboard tube, synthetic skin ever so slightly apparent as he flex his fingers. "Who have not been as honorable as they should have been, and perhaps took advantage of me in the past.”
Nimona stands with her hands on her hips, staring at Ballister for a long, silent moment.
“That fancy man Goldenloin totally stole your shit, didn’t he?”
Ballister blinks, startled at that very succinct summary of what was a drawn out and torturous deterioration of a yearslong partnership that ended in tears and screaming and offices as far separated as possible in a department of this size.
“It was slightly more complex than -- ” Nimona cuts him off with a sharp shake of her head, her pink bangs, now grown shaggy enough to cover her eyebrows, flopping back and forth. “Well. Yes. He did.”
“And he broke your heart.”
“He most certainly did n -- ”
Nimona makes a low almost growl of a sound at the back of her throat and crosses her arms over her chest.
“Yes, fine. He did that, too.”
“And you’re just gonna let him win the fair because you don’t want to beat him at his own game?” Nimona stamps her foot, a few clods of drying mud dropping from her boots onto his no longer pristine floor.
Ballister sighs, shoulders drooping. “It’s a demonstration to draw potential students and donors and to showcase our work. The fair is not about winning.”
“Of course it’s about winning! You should destroy him!”
“As I said, Nimona,” Ballister looks away from her, powering up his computer and ignoring the hollow feeling in his chest he’s gotten so good at suppressing whenever the subject of Goldenloin or his work arises, “I go by the rules. Not anyone else’s, but mine.”
“Yeah.” Ballister doesn’t look away from his login screen, the cursor blinking in time with the rapid beat of his heart, but he can hear the squeaky shuffling sound of Nimona’s boots on the floor as she heads for the door. “Yeah, okay. If it makes you feel better, I think your designs are way cooler than Goldenloin’s, anyway.”
“Nimona.” He looks up and Nimona hesitates in the doorway, looking back at him with a very young, vulnerable epxression on her face. “Thank you.”
Nimona’s smile is very small and very bright, and she nods before leaving and closing the door behind her.
It’s Halloween and Ballister doesn’t know how Nimona tricked him into making the midday coffee run, but here he is, six back from the counter at the crowded campus cafe when Ambrosius strolls in.
He’s unbearably handsome and perfectly turned out, like always. Today he's wearing a black wool peacoat and a pair of his dark grey hipster trousers, the kind that make his legs look about a million miles long and his ass look amazing. Ballister hasn’t seen more than a passing glimpse of Ambrosius since the convocation in June, and hadn’t realized he’s started to grow his hair out again. It’s back in one of those ridiculous man buns and it shouldn’t work at all, but it does, drawing attention to the sharp lines of his jaw and cheekbones, to his changeable eyes and strong brows.
Ballister really needs to stop staring before Ambrosius notices -- shit.
“Ballister.” Ambrosius steps into line behind Ballister and he sounds almost...uncertain. Which is patently ridiculous. The problem with Ambrosius has always been the way he’s always positive he’s right and knows exactly what he’s doing and -- but he does, he sounds uncertain, maybe even nervous. “It’s good to see you. I loved your paper in last month’s IJRR.” He tucks a stray lock of golden hair behind his left ear. “I made copies for all of my 203 students and had them write about the importance of biofeedback in design.”
Ballister stares blankly at Ambrosius, whose quietly hopeful expression starts to crumble, full lips tipping down at the corners. That little wrinkle he always gets when he’s worried or working too hard forms between his brows and Ballister clutches at the insides of his coat pockets to keep himself from reaching out and smoothing it away.
Before Ballister formulates anything to say, the student in massive headphones who’d gotten in line behind Ambrosius loudly clears her throat. Ballister and Ambrosius both startle and look at her. She rolls her eyes and points up towards the counter, and Ballister blushes when he realizes it’s his turn to order and they’ve left a huge gap in the line.
Ballister murmurs an apology to the student and then gives his order, which is written on a torn piece of paper in Nimona’s near-illegible scrawl, to the barista. He gives his name and pays, stepping aside to wait for his order. Ballister half-listens as Ambrosius orders a large black coffee, and wonders when he grew out of his love for sugary abominations.
“I understand if you don’t want to speak to me.”
Ballister turns to see Ambrosius is inches away, looking at him with that unfairly open and needy expression that’s always been able to turn Ballister to absolute mush.
“I understand if you don’t want to speak to me,” Ambrosius repeats. “But your teaching assistant came to speak to me yesterday and -- ”
“Whatever Nimona said, I’m very sorry. I’ve been trying, but she’s still a bit -- ”
“Oh, no! No, it was fine.” Ambrosius shakes his head, that same lock of hair escaping from behind his ear to hang in a tantalizing wave against the side of his face. “She was wonderful. Very, um, spunky.”
“She grows on you.” Ballister bites back a smile. “Like a fungus.”
“Yes, I could easily imagine that happening.” Ambrosius fiddles with the fringe of his scarf and Ballister frowns at it. That can’t possibly be -- “Oh.” Ambrosius looks down at the scarf and back at Ballister. “I’m sorry. I know I never returned it after everything, but I wanted something of yo -- something to remember.” His face contorts in what Ballister can only interpret as profound agony. It’s the same look Ambrosius had when he fell out of their second floor dorm window and broke his tibia in three places their junior year. “I can. I’m so sorry. Here.” Ambrosius starts unwinding the scarf from around his long, pale neck, his hands shaking. “I told Nimona that you couldn’t possibly still. That you wouldn’t be able to forgive me, because what I did was unforgivable, it was, and I know that, now. And I was stupid to ever listen to the Director when she said it was the only way she’d recommend me to the board, but -- ”
“Ambrosius.” Ballister’s hand -- the flesh and blood one, the one that’s felt Ambrosius’ ridiculously smooth skin a million times -- lands on Ambrosius’ trembling fingers. “Do you mean to tell me that the Director blackmailed you into stealing my design?”
“Well, I mean, I suppose it was blackmail, yes.” Ambrosius is staring down at Ballister’s hand with wide, disbelieving eyes, but he’s not pulling back, so that’s something. “But that doesn’t excuse what I did! It was wrong and it could’ve cost you your career, Bally. I mean. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t.”
“Blackheart!” the barista calls, holding up a drink carrier. “And Goldenloin!”
“Yes, thank you.” Ballister drops his hands from Ambrosius and quickly takes both his and Ambrosius’ drinks. “Outside, Ambrosius?”
Ambrosius nods, meekly, and trails after Ballister into the crisp October air. He walks over to a nearby bench and sits down, passing Ambrosius the large black coffee and setting down the cardboard carrier with his and Nimona’s drinks.
The afternoon quiet is broken only by the honking of a few late migrating geese and the laughter of a gaggle of undergrads crowded around a tablet two benches down, and by Ambrosius taking a long, shuddering breath.
“Bally, I’m so sorry. I am so sorry for what I did and how things ended and I know you’ve no reason to believe me or forgive me,” and a single perfect tear falls from his perfect eye and traces down his perfect face, damn him, “but Nimona thought that maybe you might, well. You might.”
Ballister puts his hand -- the one he made, the one he designed and spent hundreds of hours creating and perfecting, the one that’s never touched Ambrosius before -- on Ambrosius’ cheek and it’s like the world freezes for a moment. Ballister doesn’t think either of them breathes as he wipes the tear away and then Ambrosius is leaning into his touch like no time has passed, like Ballister is the same man he met at freshman orientation a million years ago, like they’re still --
“You’re the only person who ever called me Bally,” Ballister says, simply.
“Oh.” Ambrosius lifts a hand and covers Ballister’s with it, turns his head and places a soft, reverent kiss to the palm of the prosthetic and Ballister gasps. “Do you hate it when I call you Bally?”
“No.” Ballister shakes his head. “No, I’ve always rather liked it.”
Ambrosius face breaks into a brilliant smile, the one known to fell undergrads at fifty paces, the one that’s always made Ballister’s heart beat double time and his palms sweat. “Really?”
“Yes. Really.” And then Ballister kisses that smile, familiar as breathing.
Unnoticed by Ballister and Ambrosius, a certain teaching assistant looks up from her tablet and her crowd of adoring undergrads, and smiles. She’ll call that a job well done. Next up, deposing the evil department head. She nods, passing the tablet off and heading back to the lab. The boss’s input on The Plan can wait until tomorrow.