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Evolution

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Ambrosius comes to the clinic after training to talk to Ballister. Ballister has been ordered not to leave bed if he can help it, which is an annoying precaution given that he's barely coughing.

Ambrosius sits next to him and starts with, “They gave us real swords today! Real swords, Ballister, made of metal and everything, can you believe it?”

“The teacher said we would,” Ballister says, closing his book. “Did you get to use one?”

“No, but I touched it! It was really metal,” Ambrosius emphasizes, “and the teacher took out the one in the display case that you keep looking at, you know the one? The dragon on the hilt has real rubies for eyes."

“That’s cool.”

“Yeah,” Ambrosius says. He could probably go on, but Ballister needs to make sure other things happen first.

“Is there still a test in history next class?” Ballister asks.

“Oh, yeah, right,” Ambrosius says, reaching into his book bag. “I took those notes you asked for. I mean, it was all really boring, but I tried to stay awake for you.” He finds his notebook, one of the cheap spiral-bound ones that are all the Institution will spend on orphans, and gives it to Ballister. “The lecture was about, like, some war in another country. It was a long time ago, so I’m not sure it really matters anymore, so maybe it won’t be on the test.”

Ballister puts the notebook on his bedstand, knowing that Ambrosius will probably want to leave soon. Friendship can only do so much to keep Ambrosius from the dining hall after knight training. “What else happened today?”

Ambrosius forgets the real, actual, metal swords for a while and starts talking about the real, actual, annoying science teacher. Ballister tries to glean what information he can about the material, but mostly he tries to get Ambrosius to keep talking without admitting that the science teacher is one of Ballister’s favorites.

Eventually, the nurse kicks Ambrosius out, and Ballister is left alone with his food and his reading materials.

Ambrosius’s notebook is almost useless. Everything he wrote down was already in the textbook, and he still missed some crucial details. The only things of interest were the margins, filled with names that Ballister didn’t recognize, most crossed out with varying intensity.

It is only when the last name starts repeating that Ballister realizes the significance of the knight’s names: Ambrosius is picking one.

Ballister asks about it when he returns to the dormitories the next night. They take an early supper, and afterwards Ballister asks, “Are you thinking about knight names already?”

“What? Already?” Ambrosius looks confused. “Ballister, the annual joust was just last week. We’re going to be knighted after the next one. I mean, who knows about the tests, but we’re the top of our class, right? There’s no way we’ll fail. Now is the time to decide our names, so we can make sure we pick good ones. I don’t want to be stuck with something stupid because I didn’t think it through.” He flops onto his bed and asks, “I’m thinking about Goldenloin. Only I can’t decide between Ragnar and Garland.”

Shrugging, Ballister sits on his own bed. “I didn't think we had to change our first names.”

“No, but Ambrosius is...” Ambrosius gestures vaguely and shrugs. “I mean, this is the best chance I’ll have to change it. I should at least consider it.”

Ballister sits on his bed and rests his chin on his hands. “It’ll be weird talking to you when you have a new name,” he says.

Ambrosius hesitates. “So, what are you thinking about?”

“What? I’m thinking about how to get used to your new name.”

“No, I mean for <em>your</em> name.” Ambrosius glances at Ballister meaningfully. “Didn’t you have some ideas when we were kids, at least?”

Ballister snorts. “I’m not going to be Ballister Goodknight.”

Ambrosius laughs, leaning forward on his knees, until the act is so funny that Ballister laughs with him. As he catches his breath Ambrosius asks, “Was that really it? I thought it was cooler than that. I totally forgot.”

“I asked you to call me that for eight months,” Ballister says. “Maybe you should be Sir Forgets-A-Lot.”

“Oh my god,” Ambrosius says, laughing again. “No. No way.” Leaning back, he goes on, “Didn’t you have a first name, though?”

Ballister sighs, leaning back against his headboard. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“I think it is,” Ambrosius says. “It’s a good way to mark how much you’ve changed, isn’t it?”

Closing his eyes, Ballister says, “I don’t want to change. Especially not from the end of my education.” He sighs again and looks at Ambrosius. “I don’t want to forget this. Training wasn’t always fun, but it was satisfying, and I learned a lot. I want to remember everything, not cover it up like something to be forgotten.”

Ambrosius says nothing for a while. But eventually, he leans back and says, “Do you think I want to forget?”

Ballister shrugs. “I think that changing your name means to you what it means to you. It might not mean forgetting to you.”

There is some silence, and then Ballister says, “I like Ambrosius.”

There is more silence, and then Ambrosius says, “I’ll keep that in mind, when I’m deciding.”

*

The joust leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Ballister, in the heat of his frustrations, chooses the name Blackheart. Ambrosius, in a token apology, picks the name he would have picked anyway.

***

There is an astounding number of spare rooms in Blackheart castle home. Nimona is given one to sleep in, but it’s part of an entire suite that hasn’t been touched in years. She’s not one for settling down, but on the first night, she knocks down the cobwebs and rearranges the furniture in her room.

“This is the life,” she says to thin air, flopping onto the couch. “My own castle would just be too much, but this corner of it is great.”

*

Blackheart extinguishes the Monopoly board, provides pizza, and when Nimona goes off to bed, she trails the smell of smoke and tomato sauce. Nimona snugs herself into bed and wonders why Blackheart is nice to her. When she was nice to people, she wanted something, usually food or entertainment or an alibi. So what does Blackheart need? If he’s not going to let her help him kill Goldenloin, what does he get from Nimona? And why should she stay with him if his goals are different from hers?

*

After Blackheart returns late, smelling of beer and Goldenloin's cologne, Nimona sits up and counts the bricks in the wall. Nimona stands up and paces back and forth, back and forth. Nimona finds a spiral notebook in a dusty cupboard in the back of a closet written over in a handwriting different Blackheart's. It looks like school notes, written over with Goldenloin's signature again and again.

*

Nimona escapes the destruction of the Institute and lives in the woods until it hurts to be alone. She trades manual labor for warm food as the weeks pass, until she sees Blackheart with Goldenloin in a crowd. She remembers that emotions hurt too, and she runs back to the forest.

***

It’s a cold winter, and the snow is beginning to pile in the streets, guaranteeing a white Christmas. Meredith is alone of the lab’s residents to take the day off, drinking tea in the kitchen on the first floor. Ballister works in the lab, but this year he takes a break to see Ambrosius off.

He brings his faded red scarf to the door and wraps it around Ambrosius's neck. “It’s too cold out,” Ballister says when Ambrosius complains. “I don't have time for you to get sick.”

“You sure you don’t want to take a walk with me?” Ambrosius asks.

“I would, but you're working tonight,” Ballister says. “Besides, your present isn’t done yet.”

In the cold, Ambrosius decides that he won’t volunteer over Christmas next year. It’d be too good if he could convince Ballister to move out of the lab, but any dent that could be made in this unhealthy workaholic mentality is an improvement. Ballister used to be a villain, but now that he can help people directly, he doesn’t want to do anything else. When he's not improving the kingdom with science, he supports homes and schools and career programs that allow wards of the state to shape their own destinies. The old system can no longer train them to be knights, the publicity tools of an oppressive regime. Ambrosius has finally come to recognize the exploitation of his own childhood in the Institute’s custody.

Ambrosius has learned a lot since the Institute was shut down, things that Ballister knew since the joust. Ambrosius is only now catching up, enough to know he's got another kind of catching up to do. Now that he's recovered, he's found a way to atone for his association with the Institute.

At first, working at the soup kitchen felt useless. He used to help so many more people with so little effort before. He still feels useless when he compares dipping soup with a ladle with vanquishing villains with a sword, but it's not the Institute's hand on the ladle. He's no longer a two-edged sword, as likely to hurt any given citizen as to help them.

There is a line into the building today. It’s busy, full of enough people that two of them recognize him behind his scarred face. He used to give his gallant smile at anyone who recognized him, pretend that he was just doing his job to help the people, but too many people seemed confused by this. Only children would buy it. Adults would tell him to stop acting like everything’s perfect. “That’s how we got into this mess, you know,” a sharp-tongued young man once told him. “You jerks just acted like there was nothing suspicious, no jaderoot and no conspiracies. You said you loved the city even as you poisoned us and stepped over our bodies to help the rich. It wasn’t fine, and it’s not fine, and I don’t know who you’re trying to fool with that act, but I’m here for actual food to stay alive, not more of the Institute’s lies.”

Now Ambrosius settles for a timid smile and a quiet, “A lot has changed.”

After his shift, he carries food on the way back to the lab. The first person he meets is an old woman shivering outside of the kitchen. She's snaggle-toothed and balding, but she retains a thatch of faded red bangs under her thin old rag of a hood. She glares at him. Ambrosius hands her a piece of bread and she looks confused for a split second before she spits at him.

"Your bread sucks," she says. "Look, it's got a worm. And it's lumpy. And the crust is so hard I'll break my last tooth."

Nonplussed, Ambrosius fiddles with his scarf, wondering what Balister would do.

She takes him in, glaring, and says sharply: “Where’d you get that scarf?”

Ambrosius shrugs, touching the faded red wool. “It’s my boyfriend’s.” He looks her over and says, “He likes it a lot, but I can get him a new one if you need it. He'd want you to be warm.”

The old crone shakes her head. “No. No, I’m fine. Merry Christmas.” She waves him off, and when Ambrosius glances back she is gone.

If the incident is unusual, he brushes it off; nobody really seems to know how to talk to him anymore, so this isn’t much stranger than he expects anymore.

*

On Christmas morning there is a box on the doorstep. It contains a red wool scarf, more skillfully knit than the old one and less worn by time.

There is a note.

For a friend.