He dreams of snow.
It falls in flurries from a clear sky and the world looks like a Christmas card. When Goldnose walks he leaves no footprints. His laboratory is in flames at his back; part of him longs to stay beside the heat but some other impulse drives him forward. He finds he doesn’t need to look back. Whatever’s in front of him, the dream tells him, will be better.
And so time passes in the strange nature of dreams and Goldnose thinks that he might have been walking for months, or years. He comes across a clearing in the snow and in front of him, the back of a sofa and a familiar head. A television with something on.
“You’re finally here!” says the man on the sofa. James turns, pats the warm cushion beside him as Goldnose approaches. His bow tie is folded neatly on the chair and his shirt buttons are halfway undone.
“Come and sit down,” he says. That familiar warmth puddles in Goldnose's chest.
It’s so nice here, he thinks as they sit on the sofa and his shoes brush the strange, uninterrupted snow. If he could just lie down for a while, things might be all right.
But his lab is still on fire, he realises with a sudden jolt of panic. Everything, his life’s work, burning. He feels a tightness in his chest and the warmth of the flames he thought he had left behind is suddenly closer – how can he just sit here when everything he’s ever created is going up in flames?
James shrugs and wraps an arm around Goldnose’s shoulder.
“That must be the fire alarm,” he says nonchalantly, “Do you mind getting that?” And now that he mentions it there is a distant ringing, sounding almost like -
The alarm clock splits the dreamworld mercilessly open. The softness and warmth are just bed sheets and James still asleep with an arm looped around him.
Goldnose groans and is suddenly, startling awake. The dream fades and outside the sky is grey and dark – no snow.
James rolls in his sleep and presses a lazy kiss into the crux of Goldnose’s shoulder. “Morning,” he mumbles. “S’time to get up, I guess.”
Yes, Goldnose thinks, staring at the ceiling.
The workday beckons.
He’s slipping into a routine now, as the amber leaves shrivel on the ground and the firework smoke fades from the air and tinsel starts appearing in the halls.
James and Goldnose walk to work together. They part at the main doors with a brief kiss before James disappears to offices upstairs and Goldnose makes his way to the lecture rooms.
Goldnose still wears his blue jumpsuit, rolled up at the sleeves, collar wide. He’s not ashamed of who he is. Or, well, was. The agents stride about in their crisp white shirts, clicking away at computer keys. In exchange for a fresh start and a life with James, Goldnose delivers lectures to agents-in-training about how to dismantle supervillain technology. He’s built enough laser beams and filled enough pools with deathly piranhas that… well, here he is. A good-guy-in-training, teaching people how to beat the bad guys.
He shuffles through his notes for the lecture he’s about to deliver. A group of eager faces stare up at him with their laptops and binders, and Christ, when did they all get so young? The headquarters are all sleek metal and glass, interfaces spread across every surface. Goldnose tries to avoid all the glass that reflects his face with its tired eyes and creases at the corners.
He recalls part of last night's dream, tongues of flame wrapping around his lab and twisting it to metal and ash. It still stands, actually, not ash yet but gathering dust. He hasn't been back in... a long time now, now that he thinks about it.
He wonders what happens next in the grand scheme of things, where he’s going.
Goldnose grades papers, fills out assessment forms. Downs coffee in a bid to keep up with the mounting paperwork. Villainy never involved this much bureaucracy, and Goldnose has to clench his fists against the desk to stay the frustration curling in his gut. Thinks of all the things he could be doing with all of this wasted time. All the things he could invent. The urge to conquer the world doesn’t just go away, after all. He draws a deep breath, trying to centre himself in the present where that life is long behind him. Tries to feel less powerless.
But he is powerless, he always has been – right from the moment that damned secret agent broke into his lair and danced a perfect Charleston across his floor, and Goldnose fell in love.
The staff room on the second floor is filled with dancing snowmen statuettes, colourful menorah and Christmas music. A huge poster heralds the upcoming staff party, a festive extravaganza complete with food (acceptable), drink (alcoholic, Goldnose hopes – in which case this organisation would be doing something right), a charity prize raffle and –
Goldnose isn’t even aware he’s said it out loud, but there he is, coffee in hand and staring at the poster with such an incredulous expression on his face that a few nearby agents snicker.
“It’s a tradition. Every year,” says one, who looks a little too amused at Goldnose’s discomfort. It’s been two months and there are still people here who don’t trust him; those who he’s hurt with his schemes before, who he knows cannot forget him even though he doesn’t even know their names.
Goldnose just stares down at his coffee cup and watches the steam curl gently upwards.
Line dancing. Not even a lindy hop, or a tasteful foxtrot.
He leaves the room and pulls the door closed forcefully behind him. These people have no sense of culture and he wonders what he’s even doing here at all.
In the evenings he goes down to the basement and works on his latest project, loses himself in the welding of steel and the turning of screws. Creating things makes him feel grounded and safe. Wires here, attach this part there. File down this panel so it fits over this circuit board, just so. A bridge to ease his transition between his old life and now. Make it feel like he’s still achieving something.
James doesn’t mind his tinkering.
When he’s done for the night, Goldnose ticks another day off the calendar that sits on the desk. He will finish it in time. He always does.
An old colleague slips Goldnose a card in the staff room. It takes Goldnose a moment to recoil from the grinning face; he struggles to work words out of his mouth.
"Dr... Why?" It is both a name and a question. For the second time in as many days, Goldnose stares blankly down at his coffee.
"Just Harry, now" he says. "I was where you were, once."
"I spoke at your funeral," says Goldnose, feeling numb. "I saw you fall into a pit of sharks."
Why - Harry - smirks. "Course you did. So did everyone else. Carefully staged and all that. I was like you, once, and I fell in love too." He claps a hand on Goldnose's shoulder and emphasises the press of the the small card into his hand. "There are more of us. Turncoats, I mean. All of us meeting that one person that makes us question everything." Harry smiles a wistful smile. "Makes you think there might be something more, something better, and then... here you are."
Goldnose turns over the card. It is unassuming white with a room number and a date typed on.
That week he turns up to the first support group for reformed supervillains in the secret service HQ.
Soon he’s going once or twice a week. They talk about everything from how righteous the 'good guys' are, to the terrible choreography decisions (everyone knows you can’t pull off a villainous scheme without a solid dance number) and the disappointing paperwork to coffee ratio.
Goldnose looks into the faces of people he once thought dead and feels like he's surrounded by old ghosts. But he notices something else, too.
They are happier than he ever saw them in their other lives.
He works on the machine some more, tinkering in the basement. The sounds of metal clinking are satisfying in the cold and quiet.
"Come to bed," James says at last, a shadow in the bright doorway. Goldnose just about manages to throw a blanket over his work before the main light switch goes on.
"You'll ruin the surprise," he says accusingly.
James smiles at him in that way that makes Goldnose want to forget about everything else in the world in that moment. He puts his screwdriver down and lets himself be drawn to bed and softness, and strong hands smoothing out the knotted muscles in his back. And kisses, and softness, and sounds Goldnose never thought could be drawn from him again, but here he is.
One Wednesday, Z calls them both in for a meeting.
“You seem to have settled in well,” they say, with an appraising look at Goldnose over their round glasses, “and your insights have helped us foil no less than three anti-government schemes in the past few weeks.”
Goldnose bristles with an odd sort of pride.
“However, I’m sure you’re aware that your former… colleagues are out for your blood. Your ex-wife has given us her word that she won’t talk as part of the custody agreements, but if you don’t make an appearance soon, people are going to wonder where you’ve gone.”
“So what do you propose?” James frowns. For the first time he looked worried.
“Don’t worry,” says Z. “We have a procedure for this.”
James and Goldnose look at each other.
They're dancing around one another; a spin here, a dip there. Left twist, right twist, duck, shimmy. James' bowtie askew from the tousle, Goldnose with sweat on his brow. Left, far left, spin and twist. Don't look at the security camera capturing its grainy footage.
They face one another, palms up, knees out to opposite sides like they are one another’s mirror. He knows this routine, knows James well enough to know what he’ll do – he predicts the step and spin, they are spinning away from each other, propel themselves now against the wall and come back.
Goldnose knows what he has to do now – the tank is right there, the eels de-eletrocuted but still lethal to the untrained eye. All he has to do is leap into the final pirouette, but make sure he misses the step. Fall into the tank, let out a convincing cry of pain, and he’ll be gone. Wiped from the world of villainy forever.
Step, tap, spin, raise arms, lift knee, spin. And the leap…
He leaps, lands with the ball of his foot on the plinth. The look of shock on his face his hard to fake; he hasn’t realised quite how the height will cause a lurch in his gut. On pure instinct, he reaches out, arms flailing, and the first thing his desperate fist clutches is the fabric of James' shirt.
He’s there above him, dark eyes staring into dark eyes, his hair flopping just into his eyes in that way that Goldnose always thinks is so endearing. James says nothing, just stares at him with a level gaze and clasps his hand over the one on his shirt just lightly. Goldnose is aware that all that is between him and falling is this hand and this shirt, and that pair of dark staring eyes and a grim lined lip.
And Goldnose sees nothing, nothing reflected there, and he’s really going to fall, he thinks, he’s really going to die, and James will release him and watch him go without so much as a flicker of anything, no feeling whatsoever.
He squeezes his eyes shut. Feels the hand prize his fist away.
He is falling, falling, falling-
And lands on soft cushion, there is a cry of ‘Cut!’ and he opens his eyes to stare at the corrugated iron ceiling.
"Great work," says Z as they step from the shadows. "As convincing a fake as we've ever done. Our agents will make sure the footage is leaked appropriately. For all intents and purposes, Goldnose is dead - and under the protection of the secret service, of course. That's a wrap, everyone!" they call over their shoulder to the other figures lurking.
Z turns to Goldnose and James, shakes both men's hands and smiles.
"Good work, gentlemen. Goldnose, may I extend an official welcome to the team."
That night, in the dark, they wrap their arms around one another.
"I thought you would let me fall," Goldnose whispers. "I thought, for a moment... It was almost too real."
James' breath is warm on his face. "You forget, I've been taking acting lessons since I was two. It's done now. It was convincing enough. You're free."
"To start again," Goldnose agrees.
He wonders why it's so easy to fall asleep, until he realises a weight he's been carrying in his chest just isn't there any more.
Two days before the staff party, Goldnose puts the finishing touches to his creation. He’s just putting the last panel in place when James knocks on the basement door.
“It’s almost time to go! Are you ready?”
Goldnose calls back, tucking the device into his coat.
They arrive to the party in full swing, streamers everywhere and the food and alcohol supply looking surprisingly decent. Goldnose nods approvingly, meets the eyes of a few of his support group members. Admits that a holiday party is a bit of a step-up from the annual supervillains conference that happened every year.
A young agent – one of his students, Goldnose realises – runs up to him. Her face is a little flushed but she’s genuinely happy to see him.
“Mr G, it's so good to see you! I’ve been meaning to say thank you. Your shrinking technology blueprints worked!” She's practically bouncing on the balls of her feet as she pulls out her phone and shows Goldnose pictures of her latest successful project, gushing about how his tuition has been invaluable. When she finally pulls away to dance with a nearby girl, Goldnose is reeling. He scowls at the grin on James' face, but can't pretend his irritation for long.
James grins. “Bet you didn’t get praise like that in your old job, huh?”
“No, actually.” Just henchmen ruled by fear but ultimately looking out for themselves.
He feels.. pride? That strange thing again. Like he's doing something right.
Maybe it’s the wine or how nice James looks in his suit or some strange kind of festive magic, but Goldnose finds that he doesn’t have as a terrible a time as he was expecting.
He even manages to take over the line-dancing group and teach them a decent Charleston.
They stumble out into the biting cold with their heads spinning, some time past 2AM. The alcohol has been good, Goldnose has to admit. He's so with giddy food and wine that he almost forgets the final touch but his hand fumbles against the small box in his pocket and he presses down. There's just one button this time; he doesn't need to make a choice.
James’s lips curl into a smile like a slow dawn breaking. Suddenly he laughs, spins around with head turned to the sky. Snowflakes fall lightly on his tongue and dissolve into mist.
“The first snowfall of the year! A festive miracle!”
Goldnose smirks. “Maybe Santa thought you'd been extra good this year.”
The snow machine that he’s fixed to the roof, the product of a month’s hard work, is sending spirals of snowflakes cascading down towards the ground. James follows Goldnose's eyeline, spots the small device affixed to the roof and follows the trail of snow it spits out in flurries. James grin breaks even further as he puts two and two together in a moment and clasps his husband into a hug. He laughs again, a loud sound of sheer delight, and Goldnose feels indescribably warm.
He thinks about how he could have made something so much more powerful than that tiny machine. All of that snow piling up, hardening into ice, layer by treacherous layer.
He could have controlled the world with it.
And then a snowball hits him, cold and soft, on the back of the head and he stumbles in the snow. Before he even thinks about it, Goldnose is responding in kind, packing snow together in between his gloves and hurling it into James' grinning face. Goldnose thinks about reformed friends, appreciative students and the lightweight feeling of freedom.