Everything seemed like an easy decision in the hospital. There was none of the moral ambiguity to which Ballister had grown accustomed. It should have been disconcerting to be without the gray area in which he had survived over the past 15 years, but instead, it was beautifully mundane. The only questions that Ballister was now asked had very obvious answers.
Porridge or pudding? (Porridge.) Is there anyone we should call? (No.) Are you in pain? (Yes, obviously, this is a hospital.)
When Dr. Sanjeh entered Ambrosius's room and found Ballister there, the first time, she asked, "What are you doing here?"
That was a more challenging question.
("I want to be here," Ballister said, his arm hurting and ribs hurting and head hurting, and to her credit, Dr. Sanjeh never asked again.)
When Ambrosius woke up — really woke up; could string words into sentences and sit propped upright for more than two minutes at a time — there were more questions, and Ballister answered those too, while Ambrosius sat quiet and surly in bed. He always was a terrible patient.
Sir Goldenloin was right-handed, Ballister told the nurse who asked. He was allergic to a particular strain of witch's potion, he told a doctor. Sir Goldenloin had been hurt, Ballister told a little girl with red hair who watched their first ungainly attempt at lurching around a hallway together, and he kept an eye on her until he saw her run into the arms of her waiting red-haired parents.
Just to be sure.
With all of those questions answered in all of that time spent sitting by Ambrosius's bedside, in retrospect it wasn't surprising that the one question not asked was where Ambrosius would go after he left the hospital.
The entire medical staff didn't ask. They only turned to Ballister, and showed him how to change the dressing over Ambrosius's destroyed left eye. They demonstrated how best to brace his weight when walking together. They told Ballister what Ambrosius could eat and how he should sleep, and on the third day after he'd woken, Ambrosius finally uncurled from his sullen clench and said, "I'm right here, you know."
"Are you?" Ballister said, eyebrows raised. He had had some time, now, to digest the fact that Ambrosius was going to live, and that he wasn't taking his injuries particularly well. "Because you haven't been terribly present, these past few days, apart from terrorizing the nursing staff."
Ambrosius made a sound like an outraged cat, which meant that this was definitely the right tack to take. "I'm terrorizing the staff?" he demanded. "Who's—"
If he said 'Who's the villain here?' Ballister was going to walk out on him and go get a sandwich, throngs of wounded citizens and their relatives be damned.
But instead, Ambrosius said, "Who almost took that nurse's head off last night?"
"She was hurting you," Ballister said, aware that he sounded ridiculous.
"Ballister," said Ambrosius, "everything hurts."
Ballister remembered what that was like, every slight jostle inducing new waves of agony. "I'll try not to frighten the staff, if you'll speak when directly spoken to," he said dryly, because that was easier to acknowledge.
He could almost see Ambrosius weighing the deal, the wheels turning in his head. Ambrosius had always been transparent to Ballister, ever since they were children, but the potions and drugs that were dulling pain and combating infection were also making it particularly easy to track his slow thought process now.
"Your terms are acceptable," Ambrosius said, and he smiled. Ballister hadn't seen that smile since Ballister had flung himself into the hospital room, barefoot and out of breath, to find a loopy Ambrosius finally awake.
Ballister smiled back, small and rusty.
Ballister was not grievously injured, particularly in comparison to the trauma that the entire city had been through and the sheer number of wounded who required care, and thus he was not a high priority patient. He felt like a massive bruise on legs, but slashes were easily stitched up, burns salved, and his sprained wrist set. He suspected that the only reason he hadn't been discharged already was that the harried hospital staff had more patients than they could keep track of, and he wasn't bothering anyone, keeping watch while Ambrosius healed and slept the days away.
That suspicion was vindicated when an orderly eventually turned up at Ambrosius's room with what remained of Ballister's personal effects and unceremoniously informed him that he was discharged.
"Fine," said Ballister dismissively, turning back to the chess board balanced across Ambrosius's knees.
Ambrosius was not so sanguine. "You can leave?" he asked.
"I'm not going to," said Ballister.
Ambrosius was frowning. "But you could."
"But I'm not," Ballister said, with greater emphasis. It felt like the old circular arguments that they used to have purely for the sake of arguing; back when they were foolish boys, and they could resolve the question by sneaking off to make out in the copse of trees outside of Knight School.
Ambrosius now was smiling faintly, looking thin around the edges, and Ballister thought he was probably thinking of those old summer nights too. On impulse, he leaned over and took Ambrosius's hand. Ambrosius glanced down, and then slowly, carefully curled his fingers around Ballister's right hand.
When the nurse on duty came to check the progress of Ambrosius's stitches, Ambrosius kept to the stipulations of their agreement. Nurse Miranda looked startled but pleased to have her questions answered by her patient rather than by Ballister sitting at the side of the bed, and Ballister, in turn, said nothing when she peeled back the edge of the gauze on Ambrosius's face and he grunted in pain. Villains knew how to keep their word, too.
"I think we'll be able to send you home in the next few days, Sir Goldenloin," Miranda said. She was carefully re-wrapping the gauze around his head. From two weeks' worth of experience, Ballister knew she would next move on to the puncture wounds to Ambrosius's chest and stomach.
Ambrosius visibly frowned, the lines of his mouth lowering. Ballister felt the same — Ambrosius's mental acuity had improved in leaps and bounds, but the physical harm was catastrophic and the thought of being solely responsible for his care and well-being was ... alarming.
"The barracks aren't set up for crutches," Ambrosius said, and Miranda grimaced and shot a pleading look over at Ballister. 'Please don't make me explain this to the injured hero of the realm,' her eyes said.
"The barracks were destroyed, Ambrosius," said Ballister. "So was the palace. The Institution is in tatters."
It was difficult to read Ambrosius's face, with all those bandages, but his mouth was hanging half-open and that was easy enough. "What about the king?" he demanded, and Miranda winced again as she lifted the gauze covering the wound that had nearly punctured Ambrosius's left lung, her hands moving quick and light across Ambrosius's chest.
Ballister shook his head. "Dead." He had no damned idea who was leading the recovery, nor who would lead in the future. His world had shrank to the size of a cramped hospital room, and hospital hallways where people waylaid him and tried to shake his hand far more often than he was comfortable with.
Ambrosius did something that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, flawless shining knight of the realm, never did: he muttered, "Shit." He looked utterly overwhelmed, lost and too pale in bandages and blankets.
At his most bitter, Ballister had once thought he wanted to see Ambrosius left with nothing and no one, too, but he'd been wrong. He didn't want it.
"I thought," said Ballister, "that you might come with me."
"With you?" said Ambrosius. "To a villain's lair?"
"On my invitation, yes," said Ballister, and he felt he showed great restraint in not grinding his teeth. Miranda looked like she wanted to be anywhere else in the kingdom right now, dabbing antiseptic on Ambrosius's stitches.
Ambrosius himself wasn't paying any attention to the ministrations that had to sting. He was shaking his head, even though, Ballister knew, the movement caused him pain. He reached out and caught Ballister's arm with a clank — they both started, and then Ambrosius's knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip. "I'm sorry, Ballister," he said. "That was unworthy."
"Two apologies in as many weeks," Ballister said, and immediately regretted the instinctive jibe when Ambrosius's face fell with guilt. "No," he said, "no, it's all right, Ambrosius."
"It's not, really," said Ambrosius, "but I'd love to see your lair."
Ballister woke to a hand on his shoulder. He bolted upright and nearly struck out on instinct, but he managed to pull the blow, and found himself facing a deeply unimpressed-looking Dr. Sanjeh. Ballister had apparently fallen asleep in his chair beside Ambrosius's hospital bed. His neck felt like the time he'd been flung across a tavern by a self-styled warlock who'd wanted to challenge Ballister for the kingdom's public enemy #1 status. Luckily that village idiot's physical strength had far outweighed his magical prowess, but Ballister's neck had ached for weeks.
The hospital room was dark now; the hallway outside was quiet. "Lord Blackheart, it's well past visiting hours." The doctor's voice was low, but there was a look of steel in her eyes.
Ballister drew himself up in his chair. He was still fogged with sleep and didn't know what was about to come out of his mouth, apart from the fact that it was almost certainly going to break his promise not to bite the staffs' heads off, but then Ambrosius said, "Bally?"
Ballister had hated that ridiculous nickname, especially when the other children got wind of it and picked it up as a mocking refrain, but Ambrosius had been an obnoxious little shit and had gleefully stuck with it for months.
That was a long time ago.
He glanced over at the bed. Ambrosius was squinting at the two of them. He looked dull-eyed and half-asleep, the way he had the first week in the hospital, when Ballister had wondered if the light would ever come back into his face.
"Lord Blackheart is going to go home for the night," Dr. Sanjeh said firmly, "and come back tomorrow."
Ballister frowned at her, and she did not seem appropriately cowed. What was the use of all those years spent cultivating a reputation as a dreadful villain if such a short period of good (or at least morally ambiguous) deeds could undo them?
"Ballister," said Ambrosius, sounding more alert even if his voice was still thick with sleep, "go home. Don't sleep in that chair."
"It's fine," Ballister said.
From the look on Ambrosius's face, he'd be throwing something at Ballister if he was physically able to. "No, I'm fine," he said. "Go sleep."
Dr. Sanjeh took Ballister's good arm. He couldn't feel her hands, but he could feel the pressure when she gave a no-nonsense tug to convince him to stand up. "Come on, you heard Sir Goldenloin; we'll still be here in the morning."
He was discomfited and tired enough to ask, "Do you ever sleep?" as he rose out of his chair. He towered over her — not that you would know it from the way she was looking at him. He was fairly sure that, at this point, if she had the ability to step on him, like a giant facing a stupid rookie knight, she would do it in a heartbeat.
"I would sleep more if my patients' loved ones didn't sit here intimidating my staff," she told him tartly, and there was a noise from the bed that Ballister was fairly sure was an amused snort. "Go, Lord Blackheart. He's in good hands, I promise you."
Ballister turned to the bed. Ambrosius was smiling a little, his hair loose around him on the pillows and his eyes already at half-mast again. Ballister was struck by the overpowering urge to lean over and kiss the small strip of his forehead not covered by bandages. Instead, he rested his hand on Ambrosius's near knee, and he said, "I'll be back tomorrow."
"I know," said Ambrosius, with total trust, and Ballister left.
The city was a wreck. Ballister knew it academically, and of course he'd seen most of the damage happen firsthand, but it was very different to look at it two weeks later. Somehow it was starker now that people had begun to sweep up the piles of stone and brick and glass, the hulks of ruined buildings looming over the streets and the markets. The fires, he knew, must have been out for at least a week, but there was still an acrid tang of smoke on the wind.
Ballister pulled up the hood of his cloak — which, it turned out, was thoroughly crusted with dried blood, courtesy of both himself and Ambrosius — and managed to hail a cart without attracting undue attention only thanks to the late hour. The city was dark, all the good citizens home asleep in their beds. The full moon cast an unearthly silvery light across the destruction. He turned his face away from the driver and tried not to hiss at every pothole struck by the cart's wheels, each sharp bump reverberating up into his injured wrist. He asked to be dropped off some distance from the entrance to his fortress, for reasons of secrecy, and slipped the driver a few extra coins to reward her silence.
His fortress, on the far outskirts of the city, looked as he'd left it. Desolate, rising dark and imposing into the sky, with no near neighbors. Exactly the way that Ballister had always wanted it.
When the front door rolled aside and he stepped inside, he paused in the doorway. The fortress smelled like rotten garbage — almost certainly old pizza and discarded rats, courtesy of Nimona. Even as he stood there, it was silent and still. There was no thudding of boots; no rude, cheerful shout to greet him.
Ballister switched on the lights and moved deeper inside his headquarters.
The first thing he did was strip down, toss his clothes in the industrial incinerator that was normally reserved for the disposal of failed toxic experiments, and take the longest, hottest shower of his life. Soap and water stung the healing wounds on his side and smaller cuts across his face and hands, but it woke him up enough to escape the ignoble end of falling asleep and drowning in his own bathroom. Afterward, he re-dressed the wounds, the way he'd been taught. It was damnably awkward with only his right metal hand, and he wound up with a less than ideal seal on the tape across his side, but, too tired to care, he let it be.
He slowed down in front of the door to what he'd come to think of as Nimona's room. She hadn't always spent much time in it, seeming to prefer to be underfoot annoying him, or napping in cat form on top of the refrigerator. Ignoring the stupid impulse to knock, he laid his hand on the keypad and pressed the button.
The door slid open. Aside from a half-eaten pizza, a half-eaten rat, and some scattered, probably-stolen knickknacks, the room was empty. Ballister looked at it, leaning heavily against the doorframe, and then he turned off the lights and shut the door.
In the light of day the next morning, Ballister realized just how unsuitable his fortress was for the road ahead. Ambrosius was certainly improving, but he spent all of his out-of-bed time either being pushed in a wheelchair, or leaning heavily on someone else and a crutch. Ballister's home had many things — noxious smells, a top-notch lab, a delightful air of foreboding no matter the time of day — but it did not have a surfeit of furniture. There were very few places for a man with limited mobility to sit or to lean, and certainly none of them were comfortable. And while Ballister had a suite of extra rooms, they'd been designed as essentially a minimalist space in which to house henchmen, and they'd been empty for years, ever since said henchmen promptly turned around and sold Ballister's grand plans down the river.
Ballister said, "Grrruuugghhhhhhh," into his hand, and then he went to order furniture.
He had always had a strict "no deliveries to the fortress" policy, but Nimona's insatiable hunger had put something of an end to that, and there was no question here: Ballister could not lift heavy items, and there was no time to hire yet another set of backstabbing henchmen or to build an automaton. So he rang a tradesman's furniture shop in the west of the city.
The looks on the delivery team's faces when they showed up at the fortress and were greeted by Ballister would have probably been funny, if he were in a better mood.
"Lord Blackheart?" one of the men finally managed, while the other two movers still gaped like fish. Ballister was mildly impressed that they'd managed to drive a cart so far down the rutted unmarked trail that led to his fortress.
"Yes," he said curtly. "Do you have the chairs?"
They did. They also had the side tables, the dining table and two chairs, the armoire, and the bed, as the only beds otherwise available in the lair were (a) metal and (b) bolted to walls, which seemed less than conducive to healing for someone with a back injury. Ballister hated every second in which the four strangers were inside his home, tromping all over creation, and he hated it even more when they tried to refuse his payment after they'd finished.
"Sir," said their leader, a burly woman with a face that only a mother could love, "your money's no good here."
"What," said Ballister. Clearly he hadn't earned these funds via the most ethical or, indeed, strictly legal of methods, but he'd never had anyone turn down a sack full of gold coins before, regardless of their provenance.
"My boy had the jaderoot poisoning, and he's better now because of you."
Ballister, thankfully, did manage to shut his mouth on his immediate response, which was that the boy was also sick in the first place because of him. "Ah," he said, at an utter loss for words. "I, uh. What."
"You're a regular hero, Lord Blackheart," said another mover. Oh, no. God, no. Why was this happening. "What you did, that is, saving the city — we're all real grateful. I heard they want to name a square downtown after you."
"I think they should build a statue," piped up the third mover. "I like statues."
"No," said Ballister, utterly appalled. "Take the money, don't tell anyone I live here, goodbye." He shoved the sack of coins into the nearest mover's hands and shut the door on their earnest faces.
Fear wasn't what it used to be, in this kingdom.
The first thing that Ambrosius said, upon being ushered into the lair, was, "Charming."
"I could say the same to you," Ballister said, rolling his eyes, but Ambrosius apparently wasn't finished.
"What happened to your doors?" he said, and when Ballister fell silent rather than answering, Ambrosius went on. "It smells like chemicals—"
"I make chemicals," Ballister pointed out, but Ambrosius kept talking over him.
"And—" He sniffs. "Is that pizza?"
Ballister sighed, still standing just inside the front door with his arm slung around Ambrosius's waist. One side of his torso was covered in healing burns and the other was bandaged due to sharp claws, and it was all beginning to burn from the effort of supporting Ambrosius's weight. "I cleaned it all up, I swear. Couch?"
"Is it where the pizza smell is coming from?" Ambrosius asked dubiously, his lip curled, but he let Ballister help him over to the couch. It was difficult to ease him down to the cushions while trying to avoid aggravating two sets of injuries, and Ballister narrowly avoided toppling over on top of him.
"Right," said Ballister, leaning over Ambrosius with his arm still on the back of the couch where he'd caught himself. He realized, after a moment, that he had grasped the sofa so hard with his metal hand that the sofa back was in danger of buckling under his grip.
He hurriedly loosened his fist and pushed himself back upright. Ambrosius tried to help with a hand on his hip, which did not, in fact, help at all.
"Cart driver," Ballister said, and, with great dignity, he fled to pay the man and fetch Ambrosius's wheelchair.
When he came back, he felt more of an equilibrium, though the fortress suddenly felt uncharacteristically small and close when he closed the door and it was just the two of them. It was ridiculous. The fortress was enormous. Ballister had an excellent grasp of physics; he knew it was not possible for the structure to be any smaller simply because there was one extra person in it.
Ambrosius turned to look over at him. "You live here?" he said. It was not a complimentary assessment.
Ballister rolled his eyes. "Do you want the tour or not?" he snapped, bringing the wheelchair over.
Ambrosius glared at first the wheelchair, then Ballister, but he deigned to be helped into it. He hated the wheelchair, the crutches, the bandages — all of it. Ballister knew there were days ahead when he'd stubbornly over-extend himself. He knew Ambrosius, and he remembered doing it himself. But for now, Ambrosius recognized his limitations, even if he treated them like a hissing snake.
Ballister wheeled him around the lair, pushing the right handle with his good hand while Ambrosius spun the wheel on the left side. It felt like an out-of-body experience: Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, in his lair, making snide remarks.
"What's that?" Ambrosius said, pointing to the closed door of Ballister's lab.
"My office," said Ballister.
"So — your evil lab," Ambrosius assessed, not incorrectly. He shot a narrow-eyed look up at Ballister. "Are you still making nefarious plots to take over the kingdom?"
"Not particularly," said Ballister. "I never wanted the kingdom, anyway. What would I do with it?"
Ambrosius blinked like the thought had never occurred to him, and that bought Ballister several precious seconds of silence. Ballister was going to have to install stronger security measures on his lab door, maybe a retinal scanner; he strongly suspected that, the first chance he was given, Ambrosius would try to stick his nose in there, and there were experiments that an untrained hand shouldn't touch.
Ambrosius pointed down the hall, where there are several closed doors. "What's down there?"
"I had henchmen," Ballister said shortly. "It didn't work out."
He laughed. "I remember. They—" He pulled himself up short. Betrayed you to me, he didn't say, but they were surely both thinking it.
It had been one of Ballister's more humiliating defeats. "And Nimona," Ballister snapped, more savagely than he was strictly proud of. "Her room was down that hall, too."
Ambrosius's shoulders stiffened, and Ballister turned away from that wing of the fortress and pushed him into the room across the hall from his own.
Coming in after touring the rest of the austere fortress, the disconnect in this room was even more jarring. There was a rug, because Ambrosius had once constantly complained about cold floors on winter mornings. There was a full bed, made up with pillows and piles of soft blankets, and an armoire with a mirror, a table easily reachable from the bed, and an armchair. It was all in shades of cream and sage green.
Ambrosius didn't say anything for so long that Ballister thought he may have misstepped. It had been so long since he had spent any kind of time around Ambrosius that wasn't utterly toxic — maybe his tastes had changed. Maybe the gesture was too much. But just as Ballister opened his mouth, Ambrosius blindly reached back over his own shoulder. He barked his knuckles on Ballister's metal hand, but he didn't recoil; he laid his own hand over it, and he squeezed.
Ballister supposed that meant it was okay, probably.
Ballister tried to hide his face when he went out, but people on the street still tried to give him things and thank him. It was unsettling, not least because he didn't want to be thanked for nearly killing his friend.
He was in the middle of a rant about the fishmonger who had loudly tried to convince him that the kingdom was going to become a republic and he ought to be its first president, when the door buzzed.
"Did she follow you home?" Ambrosius demanded, laughing even harder.
"Absolutely not." Ballister was going to put an immediate end to this, even if it meant genetically engineering some fire-breathing dragons. He marched to the door and flung it open without checking the camera.
"Gregor!" cheered Dr. Blitzmeyer, and she came right inside as if they were old friends. Maybe they were now. "I had the most exciting idea, I came right over to— Oh, hello, who's this— to tell you!" She paused for about a half a second to give an absent-minded greeting to Ambrosius sitting daintily on the couch, before returning her attention to Ballister.
'Gregor??' Ambrosius mouthed to Ballister, looking all too delighted. He needed to stop laughing. It was bad for his injuries. And also for Ballister's dignity. (Ballister didn't want him to stop laughing. It had been so long since he'd heard Ambrosius's real, genuine laugh.)
"Dr. Blitzmeyer," Ballister said, still standing at the front door. He didn't know how she'd even gotten past his first three layers of security. "What?"
But she was already off on another subject again. "My neighbor tells me I need to do a better job of introducing myself," she said, looking to Ambrosius. "Hello — what's your name?"
"Do you not know who he is?" Ballister asked. He shouldn't have been surprised; she hadn't recognized him, either, and he and Ambrosius both had eminently recognizable faces.
"Your young man," Dr. Blitzmeyer said matter-of-factly, as if it was obvious. She turned to Ambrosius. "You're looking very much better these days; I'm Dr. Meredith Blitzmeyer."
"Sir—" Ambrosius started, and then he stopped, his face going tight. Dr. Blitzmeyer waited patiently. Ambrosius smiled at her again, then, but it was dimmer than before. "Ambrosius. Hi."
"It's a pleasure!" She vigorously pumped his hand, then turned on Ballister again. "Gregor, I'm working on a new anomalous energy enhancer and I'm close to a breakthrough. Where's your lab?"
Given Dr. Blitzmeyer's obliviousness to the world around her, Ballister was impressed that she had managed to figure out where he lived and that he would have a lab. Also, presumably, his real name. "Uh, that way," he managed, and she sailed right past him.
"Was she at the hospital?" Ambrosius asked, in her wake. "I kind of remember her."
"She shouldn't— Dr. Blitzmeyer!" Ballister called, and he hurried after her.
They spent what felt like ten minutes furiously conferencing in the lab over Dr. Blitzmeyer's anomalous energy theory, which, it turned out, wasn't so crackpot after all. Ballister only realized how long it had really been when Ambrosius appeared with a plate of sloppily-made sandwiches, lurching on his crutches and peering around the lab with interest. He came and leaned over the lab bench where Ballister and Dr. Blitzmeyer were politely arguing over the constraints of magic, setting the plate down at the edge of the table.
Ballister looked up, startled, and found that the light streaming in through the arrow slit had lengthened dramatically. It had to be getting on in the evening; the sun was nearly setting.
Dr. Blitzmeyer apparently reached the same conclusion. "Oh!" she yelped, and she started quickly grabbing up her things. Ballister didn't even know how she'd managed to scatter so many blueprints, scrolls, and pens across his work table in such a relatively short time. He picked up her field notebook, and he would swear that, as he handed it back to her, the front cover snapped at his fingers. "I'm going to be late; I'll have to call for a driver—"
She stuffed the last of her things into her satchel, and then she snatched a sandwich off Ambrosius's plate as she scurried for the door. "Thank you, Ambrosius; very kind," she said. "Gregor, you need a bigger lab! Call me!" And then she was gone, in as fast of a whirlwind as she had arrived.
Ballister stared after her. "She remembers your name," he said.
"It's a better name," said Ambrosius, around a mouthful of sandwich. "Did you know there are things with tentacles and four eyes in your refrigerator."
Now that he thought about it, Ballister had a dim memory of hearing something that may have been a stifled, outraged screech in the kitchen, a while ago.
"A failed genetic experiment," he said, waving Ambrosius off.
"What were you trying to make, sushi that could strangle you?" Ambrosius persisted, unimpressed, though it sounded like an absent comment. He was more absorbed in peering at a table of empty beakers.
"There's nothing in those to look at," said Ballister, and then he realized that Ambrosius was eyeing his own reflection in the glass of the nearest beaker. Specifically, he had tilted his head so that he could get a look at his left side. In order to treat the deep lacerations that ran all the way across his face and up into his hairline, the medical staff at the hospital had shaved most of that side of Ambrosius's head.
Unfairly — and unsurprisingly, given that Ambrosius had been the most handsome man in the room ever since he emerged from awkward adolescence with a defiant flip of his hair — it looked quite stylish.
Not that he needed to be told.
"It's dashing, isn't it?" Ambrosius said, clearly pleased, as he turned his head and watched his reflection flash in the beaker.
"Yes," said Ballister, "it's very nice."
Ambrosius either didn't hear or chose to not hear Ballister's dry tone. Likely the latter. "I look like a pirate," Ambrosius said, still studying his reflection. "From one of those ridiculous stories you used to tell me; do you remember those?"
With the angry red scars slashed across his face and his missing eye, he did have something of the swashbuckling look.
"I remember," said Ballister. "You wouldn't sleep without your stories; you were a real pest."
Ambrosius laughed, a little bit, and he turned back toward Ballister.
"You always wanted the pirates to turn out to be honorable men, who would turn around and rescue the damsel in distress at the drop of a hat," said Ballister. "An interesting breed of pirate."
Ambrosius's smile dropped at the edges, and not in the involuntary way that it sometimes did now, after that blow to the head. "Yeah," he said. "Well. I thought every knight was a chivalrous hero, for a long time. I guess I've disproved that."
Ballister honestly couldn't think of anyone less well-equipped than himself to convince a person to hold onto their belief in the inherent goodness of humanity and, especially, of himself. He certainly didn't feel prepared to tell someone how to deal with the emotional consequences of a life-changing injury. But he was what Ambrosius had, so he would try.
"Come on," he said, "you've been on your feet a long time," and he took Ambrosius's arm and helped him back to the blanket nest he'd built on the couch.
Emotional avoidance was Ballister's preferred tactic.
"I'm not helpless," Ambrosius had furiously insisted, and so Ballister had stepped back and watched him limp away into the morning market crowds, alone, his hair standing out like a beacon.
Ballister had spent the next two hours haggling with merchants. In a pleasant change, most of the haggling was over prices rather than over convincing them that he needed to pay for his goods. He was only stopped by grateful citizenry four times, so perhaps the peasants who frequented this particular market were finally growing accustomed to his occasional presence. One of the fruit sellers even started an argument with Ballister over the quality of his wares vs. those of his nearest competitor. It had been far too long since anyone aside from Ambrosius was disagreeable in his presence.
When he had a bag full of perishable foodstuffs and a bag full of mechanical components for the portable heat source that he wanted to try to build, Ballister finally went in search of Ambrosius.
Ambrosius wasn't at the stall selling textiles nor with the tailor, though both had seen him earlier. Ballister traced him through a steady stream of merchants and commoners who lit up at the mention of Ambrosius's name, and who clucked their tongues over what they had seen of his injuries. Ballister got the impression that any one of them would have gladly taken Ambrosius home and adopted him for their own. The news of a Sir Goldenloin sighting — the first since he'd left the hospital — had apparently traveled fast.
Not fast enough to give Ballister an accurate idea of where he was now, though. He leaned against the stall of the merchant selling roasted chestnuts, as the woman went on and on about Sir Goldenloin's brave heart, and tried to come up with where else he might have gone.
"Lord Blackheart?" said a little voice, and it took Ballister a long moment to locate its source: a small child looking up at him. She had brown skin and a cloud of thick black hair, tied back in a purple sash. He was fairly certain she was not Nimona, though for just a moment, her fearless little face made him wonder.
"Yes?" he asked, and in response, she held out her hand until he warily took it. She immediately tugged him down the street, yanking on his arm with enough force that a sack of oranges nearly rolled out of one of his bags. His arm was only recently out of its sling and his wrist protested the rough treatment, so he tried to keep up — not an easy task, given that his guide was weaving in and out of the market day crowds with no regard for the much taller person following her.
They went past the textiles, the farmers' stalls, the jewelry, and the furniture maker who'd supplied Ambrosius's room; the latter waved furiously as Ballister passed. The girl pulled him down one smaller side street, then another, then took a left down an alley, and they left the market day crush behind. They'd made such a circuitous route that Ballister didn't recognize where they were going until they stepped out of the last alley into the wide, open square, and he saw the statue.
Ballister had always thought the statue was ludicrous. In a time when people had been dying in droves due to famine, the Institution had devoted resources to erecting an enormous white sandstone statue of Sir Goldenloin. Sick as it was, Ballister had had to admit (if only to himself) that aesthetically, it was beautiful. It was a tremendous likeness of the man, and the white stone had almost glowed under the moonlight when Ballister had first come across it. He'd always thought about finding some way to topple it over, but he'd never had the heart to do it.
Ambrosius himself was sitting there now, lit by the last rays of the sun and wrapped in the borrowed red cloak that didn't suit him at all, dwarfed by the statue above him. He was perched on the bench at its base, just below the letters spelling out 'OUR HERO.' Subtle.
Ballister's little guide led him over. The square was deserted, apart from the three of them. Nimona's rampage hadn't reached this far into the city. It was one of the few areas downtown where Ballister could almost pretend that nothing had changed, if he wanted to.
"Sir Goldenloin," the girl said to Ballister, and she pointed at Ambrosius.
Ambrosius raised his head, looking startled, and then his gaze fell upon the little girl. His eye narrowed. "Traitor," he told her. "I bought you an apple, and this is how you repay me?"
The girl giggled. "He was looking for you," she told him, and then she dropped Ballister's hand and peeled away, running back into the shadows of the alleys surrounding the square.
"I never took you for a masochist," Ballister said. He set down his bags.
"I needed a place to think."
Ballister sat down beside him. The trip had been precipitated by Ambrosius's insistence that he wouldn't wear Ballister's "drab" cast-offs any longer, and Ambrosius did have several bags sitting at his feet.
"They all talked to me like I'm a hero," Ambrosius said, as if in response to unspoken words. His eyebrows were furrowed and he was hunched forward over his knees. It was an awkward position; he was likely in pain.
"Well," said Ballister, and he pointed up at the enormous letters which Ambrosius had chosen to sit beneath.
Ambrosius glared at him. "You know what I mean! I don't feel like a hero." He still sounded a little bewildered, like it was a new concept to him, but mostly — he sounded angry, and sad. "I toed the Institution line for years, and what did I really do?"
Ballister didn't, to be honest, have an answer to that question that would be even remotely helpful.
"And what I did to you—" His voice cracked alarmingly. "That's not the mark of a hero."
Ballister rested his hands on his own knees. They sat in silence for a moment, before Ballister said, "You can't change what's already happened, Ambrosius."
"You've made that very clear," said Ambrosius, angrily swiping his sleeve under his eye.
"Yes, because it's true," said Ballister, not particularly gently. "But you have the opportunity for new choices." If someone had told Ballister even four months ago that he would sit beneath the Sir Goldenloin statue in Center Square and fumblingly try to reassure the real man, he would have laughed them straight out of the kingdom.
"I wouldn't do it all over again," Ambrosius told him earnestly, and, looking at him, Ballister believed that he believed it. He hunched his shoulders under his borrowed cloak. "But I don't know what kind of choices I can make now. I've never been anything but a knight."
"So ... you figure it out," Ballister said, and probably deserved the poisonous look that Ambrosius shot him. "You have time."
"I have nothing but time," muttered Ambrosius, glancing down again. His hair fell across his face in a curtain, but just before it did, Ballister saw that he was reluctantly, gratefully smiling, just a little bit.
In the moment after Ballister's experiment literally blew up in his face, he had time to regret not doing a better job of soundproofing the lab. Then the outraged shout that he was expecting came: "Ballister!"
Ballister was very good at what he did, but it was Science, after all. Things didn't always go according to plan. More specifically: sometimes they exploded, a little bit. He took it in stride. So had Nimona. Ambrosius, though, was a different story. The first few times that there had been a loud reaction in the lab, Ambrosius had come barreling in, ready to save Ballister.
Now that he knew better, he just shouted.
It was difficult to say which reaction Ballister liked the least.
He sighed and pressed the button to allow Ambrosius entry.
This was new: Ambrosius had apparently been in the middle of changing his clothes. He was shirtless, and only wearing trousers and one boot. "What are you doing?" he demanded. He hadn't bothered to put down his boot; instead, he waved it in Ballister's face.
Ballister reached out, took Ambrosius's hand, and lowered the boot before he could get hit in the nose. "I'm," he said, and then he coughed and leaned over to crank up the ventilation system; the remaining smoke was acrid. "I'm testing the elastic properties of a new polymer. Gloves and goggles." He thought about it for a second, and then he added, "And a shirt, too." That was a lab rule he'd never had to enforce before.
Ambrosius sighed sharply. "Fine; I was just re-doing the bandages, anyway. Would you stop blowing things up??"
Now that Ballister took a closer look at him, he saw that he did have bandages flapping uselessly around his chest and back.
Fixing fresh bandages was a task that Ballister had done for the first several weeks after Ambrosius first came to the fortress, when he still struggled to lift his arms. Ambrosius had always shivered at the touch of Ballister's right hand on his bare skin, no matter how Ballister tried to warm the metal first.
Ambrosius had taken over the job for himself some weeks earlier, and it looked like he was making a hash of it. Ballister gave a sharp exhale. "If you come this way, I can fix those."
Ambrosius eyed him. "Do I have to wear gloves and those goggles?"
"No, Ambrosius," said Ballister, exasperated; "come on," and Ambrosius allowed himself to be herded over to the exam table, where he could sit while Ballister rooted around through his drawers of medical supplies.
From the way that Ambrosius was looking around the lab, Ballister could tell he wasn't going to appreciate whatever was about to come out of his mouth. "I still can't believe you lived here, all these years," said Ambrosius, proving Ballister's intuition right.
"Oh good; this again," said Ballister acerbically.
"You tried to rob enough banks — I thought you'd be living in the lap of luxury."
Ballister judiciously didn't point out just how few of his bank robbery plans actually panned out. "Have I ever been the kind of person who would enjoy living in a castle with a moat made out of molten silver, and a gold-plated toilet?"
"No, but I didn't picture this," Ambrosius insisted. "You have to admit it's sad, Ballister. You bought most of the furniture because I was coming to stay—"
Ballister thought he'd gotten away with that one. Apparently not.
"—And you were here. In this place, alone. For all that time." Ambrosius meant it, Ballister realized. There was thick sadness in his voice, and he caught Ballister's arm (on his second try — he missed on the first, as he was still adjusting to his lack of depth perception) to make him stop fiddling with the bandages and look at him. "I didn't know."
And so, instead of snapping at him the way he wanted to, Ballister said, "I wasn't alone, after Nimona came."
Ambrosius nodded slowly, and he let go of Ballister's forearm. Ballister tapped his elbow lightly to get him to raise his arm enough that he could tuck the bandage around his back. Ambrosius chose that moment, with Ballister's arms wrapped around him and his face nearly pressed up against his shoulder, to say, "You miss her, don't you?"
Ballister recognized the question for the olive branch that it was. He rested his forehead against Ambrosius's bare shoulder, for a moment, and felt the ghost of a hand in his hair. "I do," he said. He finally stepped around to Ambrosius's other side, so he could tape new gauze over Ambrosius's back, and the hand that may or may not have been on his head fell away. "She was a good friend."
Ambrosius nodded. "She was very loyal to you," he said, which was probably the only positive thing that he could think to say about Nimona.
Ambrosius was trying. Ballister realized that.
"You know I'm not good at science," Ambrosius warned. "It's all...." He had his arm hooked around the back of Ballister's neck as they walked together, and he wiggled his fingers right in Ballister's face. "Science-y." They were walking side by side, which made it hard to gauge facial expressions, but Ballister would bet his best chemistry set that Ambrosius was wrinkling his nose.
"There's no need to be rude," said Ballister.
"Yes," said Ambrosius, "there definitely is." Zaneb the blacksmith and his apprentice, a gawky girl whose name Ballister hadn't picked up yet (but Ambrosius almost certainly knew, because, of all things, he was tremendous with kids of all ages), were opening up their market stall in the thin morning light. Zaneb waved and Ballister waved back, while Ambrosius had warmed to his subject and was too busy enjoying the sound of his own voice to notice the apprentice's face lighting up at the sight of them. Ballister waved at her, too, to make up for it.
"When you talk about science, I fall asleep," Ambrosius said. "I only understand every fifth or sixth word."
"You're not giving yourself enough credit," he argued. Two months removed from the hospital, they'd perfected their walking and talking — Ambrosius leaned on Ballister while Ballister supported his weight and carried his crutch. It worked; it was a good, efficient system. It was also a system that often left Ambrosius tucked neatly against Ballister's side. "We had that interesting idea the other night, because of you."
"Because I was sleeping and you were trying to throw popcorn into my mouth, and Meredith thought up something about throwing arcs. I didn't even get it," said Ambrosius, which was, granted, true.
"You'll like the labs," Ballister said, and he swept Ambrosius along the streets a little faster.
"You're like a little kid," Ambrosius complained, though Ballister knew he didn't really mind. "You weren't even like this when you were a little kid; you were always so responsible."
"This," said Ballister, stopping in front of the freshly rehabilitated building, "is it. The sign is going up next week." Sign or not, the building was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
Ambrosius tilted his head back to survey the building. "Blackheart and Blitzmeyer?"
"Blitzmeyer and Blackheart," he corrected. "Meredith is the more senior scientist; it only seemed fair."
"Of course," agreed Ambrosius. Ballister had the feeling he was being mocked, but he was too happy to care. "All right, let's see this."
Ambrosius very ably accompanied Ballister on his tour of the entire facility. There was an elevator running on an advanced pulley system to take visitors across three floors of labs — an innovation installed at Ballister's insistence. Ambrosius came through the chemistry lab, the alchemy workshop, the genetics lab, and the smallest space, where Ballister and Meredith could work on their own private projects before they were ready to be shared with the teams that could eventually share the facility. He asked several sharp questions, but mostly, he listened to Ballister wax poetic on the energy system, the refrigerated supplies, and the potential for pathogen research.
Where his face really lit up, though, was the greenhouse. "This is good science," Ambrosius said, his face turned up to the glass-paneled ceiling, nearly blocked entirely by the thick canopy of green leaves. The air was thick and steamy — perfect for Ambrosius, who lived for heat. It smelled like jasmine and honeysuckle and any number of exotic flowers, all blooming in bursts of color.
"I thought you might like it," Ballister said. "And you should see the work that one of Meredith's colleagues is theorizing, it's incredible; Dr. Hildebrand thinks he may be able to come up with a natural cure for the frog curse that won't require any princesses—" He realized, finally, that Ambrosius was looking at him strangely. "What?"
Ambrosius shook his head and stepped straight into Ballister's personal space, gravel crunching unevenly under his feet and his crutch.
Warmth spread through Ballister. "Ambrosius," he said, low, and Ambrosius smiled right at him from only a few inches away, and he lifted his hand and cupped the side of Ballister's face. His hand was light and warm.
"I like the beard," he said. He stroked his thumb across the fuller beard starting to grow in across Ballister's jawline.
"Then I'll grow it," Ballister said, resting his hands on Ambrosius's waist. He was, to be perfectly honest with himself, prepared to promise Ambrosius anything.
Ambrosius laughed, and he tipped Ballister's face down and kissed him.
It was electric to hold Ambrosius in his arms again; to feel his arms wind around his neck, and to know he was still as greedy and insistent a kisser as Ballister remembered. Ballister drew him in.
Ambrosius's left knee began to knock against Ballister's — the left was his bad side, which tended to shake when he'd been on his feet too long. Ballister wrapped his arms tighter around his waist to support more of his weight, and he slowly backed him up into a roof support pillar wreathed in vines, pinning Ambrosius between himself and the pillar. Ambrosius groaned softly and tipped his head up, and Ballister kissed his chin, his jaw, his neck, and then buried his face in his shoulder. Ambrosius clung to him fiercely. The greenhouse was quiet apart from their breathing.
Finally, Ballister said, "If only I'd known all I had to do was grow out my beard and talk about botany," and Ambrosius burst out laughing, his voice ringing clear and strong, and held him close.
Ambrosius was like the Pied Piper of children who lived in and around the market. He cut a distinctive figure in trim trousers and his favorite off-the-shoulder filmy tunics, with his hair still shaved away over his scars, and wherever he appeared, children seemed to follow. He had always been good with the younger kids at Knight School, when he could be bothered to make time for them, and he made time for the merchants' children now. It was sweet, if somewhat unnerving the first several times that Ballister stepped into the courtyard beside the lab to find him telling tall tales to a veritable herd of curious kids.
Kids were guileless and they didn't pity, which was, Ballister suspected, why Ambrosius preferred their company to their parents.
There were no children today. When Ballister stepped out of the labs' front doors to find Ambrosius pinned in conversation between the blacksmith and the jeweler, he contemplated easing back inside before anyone saw him. Ambrosius spotted him, though, and shot him a black look that said he'd be extremely put out by such treachery, and so Ballister went over to rescue him.
He understood that look once he walked closer to the conversation, and heard what was being discussed.
"Oh, but Sir Goldenloin, who would know better than you?" Alaya the jeweler was asking. "I'm sure the new king will need your input!"
Zaneb the blacksmith nodded.
Ambrosius was smiling politely, with a slight hint of hysteria. "Ah, that's very kind, thank you; politics were never my specialty, though," he said. "Ballister! There you are." While Alaya and Zaneb turned to look at Ballister, Ambrosius mouthed, 'HELP' behind them.
A week ago, Ambrosius had been called to the summer palace to meet with the coalition that would eventually rule on the kingdom's new order of succession, and somehow the entire city seemed to know about it.
("Why are they asking me?" Ambrosius had all but wailed when he received the summons. "You have the head for politics and foreign policy, not me!"
"You were never a supervillain," Ballister pointed out. "Also I don't want anything to do with this." But he had talked with Ambrosius long into the night after he returned.)
Ballister took his cue, if awkwardly. He was aware that, for a reformed villain, he wasn't much good at everyday subterfuge. "There I am? I thought we were meeting, uh, 20 minutes ago; we'll be late. Zaneb, Alaya."
"Oh, m'lord; we won't keep you," said Zaneb, though Alaya looked like she did, in fact, want to keep them.
Eventually, Ballister thought, he would manage to convince people not to use that title. For now, he only smiled — from the way that Ambrosius immediately grimaced, it must have looked strained — and offered his arm to Ambrosius.
"We have to teach you how to fake-smile," Ambrosius muttered as they walked away together.
"Is that really a necessary skill?" asked Ballister, frowning.
"Yes," he said emphatically. "You looked like a corpse."
"I did not."
"I'm going to make you do it in front of a mirror, you'll see."
Ballister glanced back over his shoulder. Zaneb had returned to his shop, but Alaya was still standing in the street and she waved. He waved back. "I take it people are still asking you about the summons."
"I don't have anything to tell them," he moaned.
"You could tell them that they invited you to be on the committee to choose the next king," said Ballister. "Since that's the truth."
"I don't want to be on that committee." It wasn't the first time that Ambrosius had said it. Privately, Ballister agreed that it wasn't the right place for Ambrosius. He would be a better candidate for the position now than he would have been even a year ago, but he still didn't have the cynicism and eye for political backstabbing that it would require, and Ballister didn't particularly want him to acquire those skills. He liked him just as he was.
"Well," said Ballister, drawing open the vine-covered door to the small garden courtyard that Ambrosius had stumbled upon several months back. It was wild and overgrown and, unless Ambrosius had gathered a captive audience for his silly stories, it was very quiet. "What committee would you want to be on?"
Ballister was personally in favor of telling them all to go hang, but Ambrosius, it turned out, felt something of a sense of duty, even if his days as a knight of the realm were gone. The group of nobles that had extended the invitation were no fools — they knew that Sir Goldenloin, who'd been allowed to keep his title as an honorific, was tremendously popular amongst the citizenry, and that including him would lend an air of legitimacy to their decision.
Ambrosius was quiet in response to the question, as the two of them walked over to the bench beneath the flowering cherry tree together. "Do you have something in mind?" Ballister asked, surprised. He took Ambrosius's crutch from him, and held his shoulder steady so that Ambrosius could brace himself against both Ballister and against the arm of the bench as he sat down.
"I thought," Ambrosius said, uncharacteristically hesitant. "Maybe; it's just that— I haven't seen anyone talk about what the kids will do, now, who would have gone to Knight School."
Ballister sat down beside him.
"It's for the best, obviously," he continued, knowing that Ballister would understand (and he did); "the Institution isn't here to take children from their families anymore. But the kids who don't have anywhere else to go—" The children like Ambrosius, Ballister thought, and like him, "—nobody's planning for them. And I thought there should be a committee for that."
"Ambrosius," he said warmly. "That's brilliant."
"Yeah?" he asked, wary.
"A very worthy cause, and it also happens to be one that no one can question your commitment to without being a huge dick," Ballister said. "Genius politicking."
Ambrosius laughed, looking a little more sure of himself. "I didn't think about it that way," he said. "But I guess that's true. I just hope I can convince them it needs doing."
Ballister was fairly certain that the patchwork of nobles temporarily ruling the kingdom was (correctly) terrified of the influence that both Ambrosius and Ballister had with the people, and that they could make it happen. "You can," he said, because if push came to shove, he'd step in behind the scenes and twist some arms into it.
"Don't do that," said Ambrosius.
"Whatever you're thinking about doing; don't. I have to do this myself," he insisted. "I want to do something good."
"You've done plenty of good."
Ambrosius tilted his face away, his hair swinging with the movement, and he quirked up his mouth in a wry smile. He shrugged with one shoulder. He wanted, Ballister knew, to make up for years of following the Institution without question; for the way he'd happily benefited from a tremendously corrupt system and helped it succeed.
"You know," said Ballister, and he rested his arm along the back of the bench, behind Ambrosius. "I've been doing some research."
Ambrosius immediately groaned. "Not more science."
"No," said Ballister. "On pirates."
Sufficiently distracted now, Ambrosius turned to face him fully. "Pirates?" he asked incredulously.
"I know I always laughed when you wanted the pirates in your stories to be chivalrous gentlemen, but it turns out that a surprising number of them were actually known for their senses of honor."
Ambrosius stared at him.
"Renwick the Redbeard was basically Robin Hood as a pirate," Ballister told him. "And Saria the Wicked's name was meant to be ironic — she was only captured because a naval ship raised a fake distress flag and she went to the rescue."
"I know you're trying to make me feel better, but you're still so bad at metaphors," Ambrosius said, clearly charmed. "This is like that time you tried to write me a sonnet."
"I was 17," Ballister protested.
"You had no grasp of meter," Ambrosius continued ruthlessly, and Ballister laughed despite himself. "You tried to rhyme 'co—' "
"Okay, okay, I remember," said Ballister hastily. "I'm only saying, you can do this."
"It's a weird way to say it," he laughed, but he tipped his head sideways and rested it on Ballister's shoulder. This was the first time Ambrosius had expressed any kind of a plan for the future, and it was a deeply altruistic one. Ballister would see it happen, by hook or by crook.
By comparison, the news that he was bringing didn't seem quite so monumental.
"I have something for you to consider," he said, and Ambrosius groaned theatrically.
"I've already done enough considering for the next year of my life," he complained. "What?"
"One of the scientists on the genetics team has been living in that flat," Ballister said, lifting his free hand to point at the second-story window in one of the adjacent buildings, overlooking the courtyard, "above the florist's, with his family, and they're moving out next month."
Ambrosius sat bolt upright, flinging Ballister's arm off his shoulders.
"Yes," Ambrosius interrupted emphatically.
"You don't know what I'm asking!"
Ambrosius ignored him. "Let's move, yes."
"You haven't even seen it yet," Ballister grumped. "It might not be as nice as the fortress."
Ambrosius laughed in his face.
Ballister turned away from him, but Ambrosius followed; Ambrosius was never one to let anything go. "Sorry," he said, not sounding sorry, "I know that place means a lot to you, Ballister, and it's not as bad as I thought it would be, but I hate it," Ambrosius raised his fist and shook it, because he was nothing if not dramatic, "so much."
"I know," Ballister admitted. "I held onto it for sentimental reasons, but a fortress that distance from the city, with my work and now potentially your work here, is impractical."
Ambrosius swooped in with so much force that he nearly knocked them both off the bench. "That's the most romantic thing you've ever said to me," he crowed, his arms thrown around Ballister's neck.
"I've said plenty of romantic things to you," Ballister objected.
Ambrosius shook his head. "This is the best," he said. "By far."
Ambrosius took up as little space in bed as he always used to, preferring to curl up neatly with Ballister. When they were boys, his catlike grace sometimes made Ballister feel ungainly — now it only made him press a smile into Ambrosius's hair.
Ambrosius had tucked up against his side, head on Ballister's right shoulder. He claimed that the cool, smooth metal felt good on his hot face, though Ballister suspected that he was really just too lazy to move to his other side. He was still smiling, though, his hand resting on Ballister's bare chest, so Ballister kept his prosthetic arm curled around him.
"Not bad for two old men," Ballister said, grinning back at him.
Affronted, Ambrosius shoved at his chest. "Old? Speak for yourself!"
"I'm five months older than you," Ballister said.
"I'm young at heart," Ambrosius said smugly.
Ballister shot him a dubious look.
It hadn't all gone smoothly. Ballister had wound up with more than one mouthful of long blond hair. There was a point when Ambrosius had pressed his lips to the thin line bisecting Ballister's right eyebrow, then to the join where metal shoulder met flesh, then to the individual scars slashed across his chest and ribs, until Ballister had finally said, "Ambrosius, if you're trying to kiss every scar I have, we're going to be here all night," and, after a startled second, Ambrosius had ruefully laughed.
Ballister wouldn't have traded it for anything.
"Rude," Ambrosius said petulantly, but he was more than happy to scoot up to share the pillow and trade lazy kisses, still tucked under Ballister's arm with their legs tangled under the covers.
Eventually, Ambrosius seemed to be ready to start drowsing, his mouth going sleepy and slow on Ballister's, and Ballister pressed a final kiss to the corner of his lips and leaned back, running his hand through Ambrosius's soft hair.
It startled him when Ambrosius spoke. He was even more startled when he realized what Ambrosius had said. "Do you think Nimona survived?" Ambrosius asked.
Ballister groaned and covered his face with his hand. "Why are we talking about Nimona right now," he said, muffled by the palm of his hand. He wanted to talk about Nimona while naked about as much as he wanted a power-hungry warlock to take over the flower shop downstairs.
Ambrosius was apparently not to be deterred. He peeled Ballister's hand off his face, rolling onto his elbows and leaning over him. "Do you?" he asked.
"Yes," Ballister finally said, wary. "Why are you asking?"
"Why do you think she survived?" he challenged.
"Because I saw her. Once, just before you woke up in the hospital," Ballister said. "She drew a shark on your chart and she smiled at me."
Ambrosius looked mildly alarmed. "A shark?"
"It was a joke," Ballister assured him. "Never mind, the point is — I haven't seen her since." Though he watched for her, all the time; wondered if he saw her in a knowing alley cat or a fearless little girl. Wondered if she saw him.
Ambrosius was silent for so long that Ballister began to feel alarmed himself. Finally, Ambrosius asked, "Do you want to go look for her?"
Ballister couldn't have been more surprised if the (undead) king had shown up and started tap-dancing on the kitchen table.
He must have been gaping at Ambrosius, because Ambrosius went on. "We could go on a quest."
Ballister found his tongue. "Do you want to go on a quest to find Nimona?"
"Not really," Ambrosius readily admitted. "But I would if it was important to you."
He closed his eyes on the hot rush that that sent through him. When he opened them again, Ambrosius was still watching him, the look in his eye wary but painfully earnest.
"No," Ballister told him, and he reached up and took Ambrosius's handsome face in his hand. "I don't want to go look for her. She wouldn't want that. If she isn't here, she doesn't want to be found right now."
Ambrosius shut his eyes and exhaled, leaning into Ballister's touch. "Okay. If you're sure."
"I'm sure," Ballister told him, stroking his cheek, and he was.