Ambrosius quite likes his new job.
There is less televised swashbuckling than in his previous line of work, but still a lot of slaying: for every weed he pulls out of the soil, eventually two more rise up, multiplying like hydra heads.
Unlike the hydras, fortunately, the weeds do not breathe fire. They only strain his knees, if he squats too long by the flowerbeds.
The rose bushes are a bigger challenge. Even armed with shears, he hardly ever emerges unscathed: the thorns find their way to his skin even through the thickest sweater. Pity about that sweater, actually — he had really liked it. Ballister had sighed a lot when he’d seen Ambrosius pick at the loose thread by his right sleeve, which had grown longer the more he pulled at it, unlike the sleeve itself.
Ambrosius steps back to admire his day’s work. The thicket definitely looks less thick now, if a little lopsided. Maybe it will grow into its intended shape by spring, if he leaves it alone.
It is no topiary yet, but Ambrosius is learning. He has even borrowed several books on hedge gardening from the library and is slowly making his way through them, bookmarking the most interesting designs. He had never had much time for reading, before. But now he is beginning to understand how Ballister can sometimes forget to eat, his nose in a book. Ballister has always been a step ahead of him like that.
He takes off his weeding gloves and goes to check up on a tree he’d planted at the very corner of the garden, early in the spring. The tree-seller at the market, who’d sold him the sapling in a wooden crate, had promised that should it grow tall enough to reach his shoulders by autumn, it would bear fruit by the new year.
It is still the middle of summer, and the tree already stands as tall as Ambrosius. If the tree-seller was right, they might have their own oranges for Christmas.
Satisfied, Ambrosius picks up his tools and slowly walks back to the house. It is nearing the time when Ballister usually comes home from the labs.
Autumn is a busy season for gardening: it is time to reap the first harvests, and Ambrosius spends most of his days helping old ladies in his neighbourhood shake apple trees in their orchards, or building simple supports for branches too heavy with ripening fruit. He does not have much time for the hedge in their own garden, and often returns home late.
Ballister is coming home even later, but not because of the harvest.
“There is going to be a Grand Expo opening in January,” Ballister had told him a few weeks ago over dinner, rubbing a hand over his tired eyes. There were tiny lines impressed on the bridge of his nose and under his eyes, where the protective goggles usually rested. “All the brightest scientists of our age will be there, presenting their discoveries on compact renewable energy engines. The academic scene is buzzing, and even the media are on it. Sniffing for exclusive previews instead of letting us work in peace. Dr. Blitzmeyer and I are building a prototype, too. Might mean a few late nights.”
Ambrosius, who knows Ballister to be one of the brightest scientists of our age, had said that he didn’t mind.
“He deserves to be on that stage,” he tells a grumpy calico that comes to sniff at their porch one such late evening. “Waiting is no big deal. Anyone can manage a little vigil.”
Unimpressed, the calico turns her back to him and saunters away.
“You’re supposed to bear fruit soon,” Ambrosius tells his orange tree. The tree listens, glossy leaves turned to catch the last of the sunlight, but doesn’t respond.
Ambrosius sighs and turns to the cat. “It’s supposed to bear fruit,” he repeats plaintively. “It’s October already — do you think it can manage in time for the holidays? I wanted to put some oranges in the stocking for Ballister — it’s traditional, you know.”
The calico cat by now is no stranger to the garden, or Ambrosius’s complaints. She makes a point of not listening to him as she shows up to their door step almost every evening.
Ambrosius doesn’t think the cat is Nimona. First of all, she hasn’t destroyed anything yet, and secondly, she refuses to enter their house, or eat anything he offers her.
But just in case the cat is Nimona, he sometimes talks to her about Ballister, thinking she might like to hear about him.
“Back when we were kids, he always shared oranges with me on Christmas,” he says, side-eyeing the cat in case she starts showing any interest. The calico twitches an ear and yawns. “Now I’m wondering where he got them, actually — the orphanage didn’t really give out any, around Christmas or any other time.”
But if the tree cooperates, Ambrosius will be the one to share, this year.
In November, the calico cat stops coming.
Ambrosius tells himself it is probably the cold that chased her away to warmer places. He wouldn’t have minded letting her inside, but the stubborn cat had refused the invitation of an open door and had violently protested any attempts to carry her in.
Ambrosius is glad that he hadn’t told Ballister about the cat and his own suspicions that maybe the cat was Nimona after all. His conviction had grown after she’d bitten his hand and had nearly gave him matching scars on the other half of his face. That was when he had learned the lesson that she would not be taken anywhere she didn’t want to go.
If Ballister had believed him, he would have been very disappointed when the cat didn’t return.
The tree still shows no sign of oranges. The only thing on its thin branches are sparrows, who sometimes retreat there in twos and threes, like unattractive fruit, ready to take flight at his every move.
But his rose hedge suddenly sprouts a few small, pale blossoms. Out of season, they are the most beautiful flowers in their garden.
One crisp evening in December, Ambrosius returns from work — a full day spent wrapping burlap sheets around pomegranate trees in the gardens behind the central hospital, to keep them safe in winter frost — to find Ballister already home.
It is not a happy occasion.
“Someone stole our prototype,” Ballister says, his voice tight with anger. The bags under his eyes are purple like bruises, and his shoulders are hunched miserably. “The device wasn’t fully functional yet, and Dr. Blitzmeyer had taken out the core accelerator to try a set of improvements on it. But it was almost three months of work.”
Ambrosius can’t think of anything to offer — these days, he isn’t much help, if it isn’t around garden plants — so he just puts his hands on Ballister’s shoulders, willing the tension to draw back its claws for a moment.
“What will you do now?” he asks. In his experience, Ballister always knows what to do, especially when most people only know how to panic.
Ballister takes a long breath. “Try to build another one. Tackle the same goal with less resources, try to approach it from a new angle. The expo is our lab’s chance to make it big. Dr. Blitzmeyer is staking a lot on a breakthrough and I can’t let her down.” He looks at Ambrosius over his shoulder. “It will mean coming back even later. Will you be alright?”
“Do you know who could have stolen it?” Ambrosius asks, because thinking about solving crime is more fun than thinking about long nights. If he had a team — if his legs were fast — if he knew which way to run —
“Ambrosius,” Ballister says, turning around and putting his own hand over Ambrosius’s, which is still resting on his shoulder. “It doesn’t matter who stole it. With a crucial component missing, it won’t work in anyone else’s hands.”
“You mean it’s useless without your science?” Ambrosius asks.
Ballister blinks and smiles. “I meant without Dr. Blitzmeyer’s improved accelerator, but your version works, too.”
Just in case, Ambrosius files a missing prototype complaint with the police — the city’s replacement for the Agency — and spends the next weekend at the local library, looking for anything that might help Ballister. He finds nothing, and checks out a book on bonsai trees instead.
“I’m going to grow a bonsai,” he explains to the birds perched on his orange tree, which still refuses to produce any oranges. “Maybe a little healthy competition will do this lazy tree some good.”
The tree doesn’t appear moved by the goading in the least, probably happy to procrastinate until the next spring. The birds fluff out their feathers for warmth, which doesn’t make them any cuter, only rounder.
There is one week left till Christmas.
The last two nights before the holiday Ballister doesn’t come home at all.
“He told me they still have a lot to finish, but he and Dr. Blitzmeyer have decided they will close the lab for a short Christmas break. They are pushing themselves hard to make up for it in advance,” Ambrosius tells a mouse with glinting beady black eyes. He is back at the hospital gardens, wrapping twine around young cedars: the weather reports promise a white Christmas, and he doesn’t want a heavy snowfall bending the cedar branches towards the ground and out of shape. The mouse stares at him from a hole in the ground, where it must have hidden until Ambrosius had started stomping around, and anxiously observes his work. “I don’t understand everything he tells me, but it seems their device isn’t working as it should.”
He secures the rope around the last tree in the garden and leaves, making sure not to disturb the mouse or its burrow. “Well, I’ll be going then. Need to put up the decorations before Ballister gets home. Merry Christmas to you.”
Ballister will be back early today, and they will have a good meal together, and a bristly little cedar in a porcelain pot the size of a teacup — an early present from Ballister — will serve as their Christmas tree, right there in the middle of their dinner table. It is a very good Christmas to be looking forward to.
Ambrosius had been expecting to receive one or two gifts on Christmas.
He hadn’t expected them to be delivered by someone who falls out of the chimney in a cloud of ashes, coughing and shaking the soot off a voluminous red coat.
Ambrosius’s first reaction is to grab for a sword by his bedside — but his hand only finds a library copy of Green Fingers, this month’s issue, splayed page-down on the couch where they had fallen asleep.
The intruder finishes straightening his red coat, turns back to the fireplace and and puts one arm up the flue, rummaging for something that is still stuck inside. With a dull thump and a muffled metallic clang, an oversized canvas bag falls out, raising another sooty cloud. At that, the stranger looks straight at Ambrosius with vague disapproval, puts a finger to his mouth, whispers “Shhh!” and hauls the bag onto his shoulder.
Ambrosius really doesn’t want to wake Ballister up if this is just a strange dream.
On the other hand, if it isn’t, Ballister probably would like to know that a Santa has just broken into their house.
A ray of moonlight streaming into the room catches on a strip of fur along the Santa’s collar and glints off what Ambrosius has no trouble recognizing as chainmail, peeking through the V-neck of the coat, and a fierce collection of piercings along one ear.
Every system flares red in Ambrosius’s mind.
“Ballister! Ballister!” Ambrosius clamps onto his shoulder, shaking him violently. “Ballister, wake up! Nimona is here! ”
The shaking would have woken up a dead man, and Ballister is usually a very light sleeper — it is only because of his recent exhaustion that the noisy arrival hadn’t woken him up already. In a moment, he too is sitting up on the bed, wide-eyed.
“I am not Nimona, you fool,” says Nimona, full of contempt. “Can’t you see the costume? I’m Santa . Where’s the Christmas tree in this house? I have a job to do.”
They are seated around their dinner table, at 4 a.m., still in their pajamas — and in one case, a Santa costume. Ballister is making them tea.
“How can you expect to get any presents when your Christmas tree is the size of a hairbrush?” Nimona says critically, poking at the bonsai pot. “Nothing would ever fit underneath it.”
“Nimona, we didn’t —” Ambrosius loses the other end of his sentence when he catches her glaring at him over a bushy fake beard.
“If our Santa says she isn’t Nimona, we have to believe her,” Ballister says calmly. “Ginger biscuits, anyone?”
Nimona drags the full plate towards herself and covers it protectively with one arm. Ambrosius feels the fight leave him like air leaves a punctured balloon.
For a moment the only sound is the crunching of ginger biscuits as they disappear into Nimona.
“So,” she says, eventually. “No tree, no presents. Do I have to do everything myself?” She looks at them dubiously. “You do know what Christmas is about, right?”
“Why don’t you tell us,” Ballister suggests diplomatically, offering her a second plate of biscuits.
“Reward and punishment!” she exclaims around another crunching mouthful. “Good kids get rewarded, bad kids get punished.” She turns to Ballister. “You — have you been naughty this year?”
“I’m afraid not,” he says, cautiously.
“That means you are one of them good kids and should be rewarded! So now you get to punish the baddies!” Nimona says, and clangs her teeth triumphantly. They are now sharp shark teeth, framed by the bristly fake beard.
“I don’t know if that’s how Santa’s reward system works —” Ambrosius says, unsure about the etiquette for arguing with a shark.
“Do you see any other Santas around?” she says reasonably. “No? Then this is how it works. Follow me.”
Not stopping to wait for an answer, she stands up and walks out of the door.
“What, in pajamas?” asks Ambrosius. Ballister throws him a coat, muttering something that sounds like ‘better than to leave her to it’ , and rushes out.
“Trick or treat,” yells Nimona, banging against the door of some house she has marched them to.
“That’s Thanksgiving,” wheezes Ambrosius, struggling to catch his breath. The ribs on his bad side don’t take too well to speed marches, these days.
Nimona gives him the stink-eye, scratches her head, and shouts again. “Sing us a carol or look down my barrel!” She accompanies her ultimatum with a kick to the door.
“You don’t have a gun,” Ambrosius points out.
“Huh, you’re right, I don’t.” Nimona looks at her empty hand and shrugs. “Sing us a carol or EAT FIST!” Bang, bang.
With a creak, the door slowly opens — or possibly just falls in. Slowly, a head crowned with a nightcap emerges into the black hole of the doorway.
“Finally, he comes out! Show us your face, miscreant!” Nimona yells.
“Hello, George,” Ballister says quietly.
Ambrosius looks at Ballister. George looks at Ballister. Nimona doesn’t look at anyone — she has already invited himself in, shoving George aside to make way. With a shrug, Ambrosius and Ballister follow her inside.
“I will call the police,” threatens George, closing the door behind them. It is not a very convincing threat, because he is missing one bunny slipper, and wobbles dangerously on one foot because he keeps trying to hide the bunny-less foot behind him.
“By all means, do,” offers Nimona generously. She is already seated at his kitchen table, inspecting the contents of a cookie jar. “And while you are at it, don’t forget to confess you have been naughty, stealing science devices and hiding them in your house!”
“I so have not!” George says gleefully. “It has been missing — I mean, it has never been in my house, ever, and you can search it if you don’t believe me.”
“What, not even in the secret vault behind the big ugly painting in your sitting room?” Nimona asks.
George gasps. Ballister pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Go and look if you don’t believe me!”
“Let’s have a look,” says Nimona, and produces a giant looking glass and a smoking pipe from her coat pocket. “Show us the way.”
The vault, as George demonstrates with relish once they are all in his sitting room, is empty.
“When you have eliminated the impossible,” says Nimona, drawing on the pipe thoughtfully, “the only place left to look is clearly under the sofa.”
George looks like he wants to question Nimona’s logic, but he must want to go back to sleep even more, Ambrosius guesses, because George just shrugs and starts to move the sofa.
With every shove, the heavy sofa moves only a few inches at a time, and soon enough, Nimona loses patience. She shooes George away with an imperious hand and easily lifts the sofa, balancing it one-handedly like an oversized tray.
There, right on the floor among the dust bunnies, is something metallic and shiny and definitely science-like.
“Impossible!” gasps George.
“Elementary,” says Nimona, smug.
George falls to his knees and starts weeping softly into his hands.
Ballister picks up his stolen science, wipes the dust off it with his sleeve, and turns to Nimona. “Shall we go home now? Santa’s work here is done.”
“You go home,” Nimona waves him off, eyeing the sofa, which is now tilted dangerously in her hand. “Santa’s job is never done. You didn’t think your house is the only one visited on Christmas, did you?”
Ballister looks at Nimona for a long moment, the fingers of his good hand clenched hard around the device.
“Take care, then,” he says, in his softest, bravest voice, and motions Ambrosius to leave with him.
“Ballister,” Ambrosius says eventually. They are back at home, curled by the fireplace, and sleep slinks at the edge of his vision but refuses to come properly. Ballister is staring into his teacup with a faraway gaze. “Did you know it was George who stole your device?”
“Mine and Dr. Blitzmeyer’s,” Ballister corrects him absentmindedly. “And yes, I suspected that he had something to do with it. He was often snooping around our lab, pretending to take interviews.”
“Because I definitely saw Nimona plant that device under the sofa, before she made him move it,” Ambrosius says.
Ballister smiles, eyes sharpening. “Did she, now.”
“It was in her bag,” Ambrosius says. Truth be told, he finds Nimona’s idea of administering justice confusing, but Ballister is smiling, so it must make sense to him. “But he didn’t deny he had stolen it.”
Ballister shrugs. “Maybe she wanted the reveal to be more dramatic.”
“But if you knew he stole it, why didn’t you call him out on it earlier?”
“I didn’t have any proof, and decided it would be faster and easier to rebuild the model than to wait for the authorities to investigate and settle the case. Turns out, it wasn’t a bad decision at all! Loss of sleep aside, I think that the prototype’s loss made us revisit a few design choices and re-work them into a more compact body without sacrificing output or efficiency.”
Ambrosius mulls over the words, and then looks at the shiny, sleek device that now serves as a paperweight on Ballister’s table. “So you’re saying — you didn’t really need to recover the stolen prototype?”
“Not at this stage, no,” he says. “But don’t tell the Santa.”
The next day, they have oranges for breakfast. Ambrosius picks them from his own orange tree, cutting with scissors the festive green ribbon that ties each ripe, round citrus fruit to its branches.