A thousand times, a thousand ways, Ballister has imagined how it will go.
It might go like this:
"Ballister!" she cries, slamming the door open with youthful exuberance.
"Nimona!" he gasps, and she bounds over his lab bench, ragged tails of hair flying. She looks just as she always did, as if she hasn't changed a day since she walked out of his life. She flings herself into his arms, and he holds her, and it's as if nothing is different, nothing at all.
"So, Ballister," his enemy scoffs. (Which enemy, exactly, changes from time to time; sometimes it's an Institute scientist, sometimes a troublesome highwayman of the sort that Ballister might once have apprehended, back when he thought being a knight was something to aspire to.) "Care to acknowledge my mastery of the situation yet?"
"You'll never defeat me," Ballister retorts, and stretches in an attempt to reach Ambrosius's lance. Tied as he is, he can't quite reach far enough, and Ambrosius lies limp and unconscious (but breathing, definitely breathing) at his feet.
"So, it's going to be that way, is it --" his captor begins, and then the door flies apart in a cloud of splinters. Meredith, wielding some sort of small glowing hand cannon, is riding what appears to be an extremely large and belligerent rhinoceros.
A very brief and exciting time later, Meredith is tying up the villain, while Nimona (girl-shaped again, still with a few door splinters stuck in her) is cheerfully untying Ballister. "You can't do a thing without me, can you?"
"Next time," he says, flexing his good hand, "it'll be my turn to rescue you."
She laughs and hops up on a table, swinging her legs just like she used to. "How have you been, boss?"
"Good," he says. At his feet, Ambrosius is stirring. Ballister kneels to tuck a fold of his cloak gently under the fallen knight's head. "I've been good."
Or maybe this:
He's been out -- with Ambrosius, maybe, or looking at Meredith's latest invention. He opens the door to his workshop and it's brightly lit, and a few things are bubbling that probably shouldn't be, and she's lying on a workbench, stretched out, hands tucked behind her head. She looks older, this time, and maybe a little more tired, as if time has passed for her just the same as it has for him.
"Hi," she says. "It's been awhile, hasn't it?"
"Not so long," he says casually, as if he never missed her at all. "You're lying on my best set of tongs, by the way."
Those are some of the good ones, those and a hundred more: the fantasies he wraps around himself like a warm blanket. But there are others, of course. Darker thoughts come to him unbidden, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes startling him in the bright sunshine of a crowded marketplace. For there are many ways in which Nimona could run afoul of the world, and many ways the world could run afoul of her.
He is afraid he'd get her back and she wouldn't be ... her.
He is even more afraid that he never knew who she was in the first place.
"You're brooding again," Ambrosius says.
"No I'm not," he answers automatically, and wrenches his thoughts in a new direction.
But in the end, it goes like this.
The house stands alone in a forest, at the foot of sharp, ragged peaks of black stone. It is a strange stone house, tall and towering and just ever so slightly not quite right. The windows are in the wrong places. It leans strangely, especially when the wind blows. It seems unlikely that it stays up at all, that stone can quite support itself at those peculiar angles.
It looks like a house that belongs in a fairy tale, Ambrosius thinks, looking up at it from the back of his horse.
He dismounts and loops the reins around the stubby branch of one of the dark, spiky trees that cling to the windswept slopes around the house. This kind of thing is never as elegant in real life as it is in the media. He's sweaty, tired, hasn't had a proper bath or slept in a decent bed in three days, and he's got twigs snarled in his hair.
If there were likely to be cameras around, he would discreetly duck behind a bush or boulder to have a quality five minutes with a hairbrush and a can of armor polish. This routine was ingrained in him in childhood (beaten into him, really) until it became habit and finally a compulsion bordering on neurosis. Never appear in public except when neatly coifed and perfectly put together; it lets the image down.
But somehow, he thinks walking into this particular house with his armor polished to gleaming perfection and every hair in place would be less likely to do him any favors than walking in tired, sweaty, and smelling of horse.
So he does.
The door opens before he gets there.
"Well, that's not creepy at all," he says wearily, and with his tarnished armor creaking, and one boot wearing a blister, he walks into the hallway.
The door slams behind him, plunging him into near-total darkness.
"I'm unarmed," he says, spreading his hands to prove it. "I left all my weapons with the horse. I'm not here to hurt you. I'm just here to talk." After a moment's thought, he adds, "Please don't eat the horse. Her name is Mabel and she's a good horse."
No answer, but now that his eyes have adjusted, he can see there's light coming from somewhere down the hallway. Red and flickering: firelight. He goes toward it, because what else is he going to do?
He emerges into a room that is oddly ... cozy, at least for a certain kind of taste. He can't help thinking Ballister would probably like it. There are overstuffed, squashy chairs and sofas, some with afghans thrown over them, and a fire burning low in the wide stone fireplace.
Nimona is sitting, not on a chair, but on the broad mantel above the fireplace. It means he has to squint into the light to look at her, while she can see him just fine, and he has learned too much about battle strategy not to recognize that it's probably intentional. Her bare legs dangle down, and she looks just like a little girl, but he knows she isn't.
Or ... maybe she is. He's not sure. But if so, it's never been all she is.
"May I sit?" he asks politely.
She's still as a carved decoration, the firelight flickering on her skin, and then she swings a leg carelessly and says, "That's what chairs are normally used for."
He sits on the nearest available seat, moving an afghan carefully to one side so he won't stain it with his dirty travel clothes. The sofa is just as comfortable as it looks. The afghan is very soft.
"Made that myself," she remarks.
"I'm not going to ask what you made it out of."
She huffs a little laugh, and then goes sober. They look at each other for a moment before he says, "You were hard to find."
"That was the idea. I'm surprised you managed to."
She looks down; it makes her look younger and older, both at once. "Does he know you're here?"
"No," Ambrosius says. "He thinks I've been out heroing, these past months. I come and go, and he's perfectly happy in the lab. Neither of us wants to live in each other's pocket all the time. We have our own lives."
"And yet," she says, "you've been looking for me."
Ambrosius shrugs. It's pretty obvious.
"I thought you wanted to kill me," she says, and in that instant, she sounds even younger than she looks.
"We didn't exactly get off on the right foot. But," he adds, "I almost killed Ballister, and we seem to be getting along okay these days." He realizes as soon as the words are out of his mouth that he's doing it again, that thing where he sticks his foot into his mouth up to the knee, and flounders hastily into a level of honesty he hadn't quite meant to plumb. "He loves you. And I love him. So I've come to bring you home, if you want to come."
"Home," she says, tasting the word.
"It is your home." He puts back his head -- unconsciously trying to toss his hair, he realizes; it's a half-struck pose, something that was trained into him so thoroughly that he can't not do it anymore. Except his hair is tangled and full of twigs, and he probably looks ridiculous, trying to pose while sitting down on an overstuffed sofa. "I mean, it was yours before it was mine. It still is, I guess, if you want it to be."
"I have absolutely no idea," she says, and he's pretty sure he startled her into unexpected honesty herself.
They look at each other for a long time. Finally she says, a little plaintively, "So, are we enemies, or not?"
This makes him laugh, and he's not even sure why. "I'm not sure," he admits.
"I don't trust you."
"I don't trust you either." Honesty has been working for him so far. May as well keep going with it. "Maybe we can try a truce, and see how things go from there?"
Somehow, all the times Ballister imagined this, in all the infinite permutations of this reunion that floated up from his subconscious, he never even once thought of this: Nimona walking into his house with Ambrosius. They both have a scruffy, well-traveled look to them.
He's just taken a tray of cookies out of the oven, and he's standing holding it in oven-mitted hands. He is so thoroughly baffled that he stands deadwood-still, staring at them until well past the point of awkwardness, until he grasps that he needs to say something.
He blushes when he realizes that, for reasons he is not willing to ponder too deeply, the entire batch of cookies are shaped like sheep.
Nimona takes six.