Sarge, Actually

K. Ryan, 2005

Between the arse-end of the world and the middle of nowhere, there are great stretches of generally uninteresting landscape. This is, essentially, the forests of Borogravia—or, in this case, its caves. In one of them, there hung a corporal.

There isn't much anyone can really say about caves: the qualities that make them essentially cave-like include darkness, dankness, and sometimes an inside that ends up being considerably larger than its entrance. This was that sort of cave. There were stalactites, and mites, too, and ledges to hang off. One of these was being used to that almost-stylish effect. There weren't any bats, but there were glow-worms.

The sergeant used their grimy light to negotiate her way over rocks and faintly luminous patches of slime until she was standing in front of her corporal's face, which was obviously a vampire's even when upside down. She was the sergeant because, while there was a war on, it was a war that was on some hundreds of miles in the opposite direction, and hers was the only party to go recruiting the other way (i), and so there weren't any other sergeants about.

"I need you out there," said the sergeant.

The corporal, eyes closed, said, "Yes, sarge."

"Needed a moment to remember home or similar, did you?"

"Something like, Poll."

A drop of water dripped from Polly's hair. She was holding her shako under one arm. "Doesn't seem so homey to me," she said.

The corporal's eyes opened. "I'm a vampire. Vampires are weird, remember?"

Polly noticed that, even though the corporal was definitely hanging, and certainly doing it in the upside down sense of the word, (ii) not an article of clothing looked out of place, even though they were wearing a long cloak over the uniform. "Not likely to forget," she said.

"Good…good. Sarge?"

Polly sighed. "Corporal?"

"Got a question, sarge."

Polly groaned. "What is it, Mal?"

"See, that's the question."

Sergeant Perks stepped closer; about to invade the space inside Mal's personal space, but it was Polly who spoke. "Out with it."

Even vampires can look anguished. "What am I, to you?"

Polly hadn't expected this question, but what she really hadn't been expecting was the blush. Oliver still gave good blush. "What—"

"Am I Maladict," asked Maladict, "or am I…" there was a slight wince, "Maladicta?" Maladicta asked. "Because you're so tense all the time—I know, Ozzer, don't even try denying it—and I don't know why. But if it's because you think I'm all set to start going crazy…" a pause "Crazier, and start eyeing taffeta, then…"

"Shut up, Mal."

"No, Poll."

Polly didn't know what to say, not properly, and definitely not how to start, but she had to say something. "Listen," she said. "I've told you this before, before you went off and disappeared for six months—"

"—See, Polly, about that—"

"—tell me later. For now, I'm just being boring and reiterating that you, Mal, are Mal. Also, Maladicta, because that's your name, like mine's Polly. But just because I like my name pretty well doesn't mean you have to like yours if you…well, don't—and I do think you don't."

"Very observant of you," said Mal, in a tone that made Polly's hands itch to throttle even though she knew that the vampire could tear her head off with the spine still attached. "But I'm afraid you haven't actually managed to answer my question."

"You actually use the word actually far too much," said Polly, sweetly. "Did you know?"

"I did and do, actually. Now, please."

"You're Mal, Mal!" The words echoed. Glow-worms pulsed. "Only…a woman. That doesn't mean you have to be Maladicta."

"Awww," Mal drawled, though she drawled rather faintly. "You mean, I can be Delores?"

"This is going nowhere." Polly leaned in closer, eyes narrowed. "If you want the answer, stop interrupting."

"Ah, but do I want the answer?"

Closer still. I will not scream. Upon my oath, I'm not a screaming woman, but….

"I am your sergeant, and you, you are my-my…chosen man, if that satisfies you."

It wasn't a scream, but it wasloud. The silence that followed was much louder. Mal nearly bit her lip, but didn't. A lip that was level with Polly's, something neither of them had noticed until…well, until they noticed, really.

Still, silence; silence still. Hesitant, Polly reached out to touch the vampire's cool cheek, which wasn't, actually, that cool at all. The shock of it had Mal starting forward, Polly catching her shoulder before she rocked back.

It was a good kiss. It took a long time before noses got in the way.

"Whatever…whatever you say, sarge," said the corporal.

"…good," said the sergeant.

Since their noses had gotten in the way (iii), they decided by mutual, silent consent to have another go.

"Why," this came from Polly, in the end, "do I feel like there should be a spider in here, now?"

Mal's upside down shoulders shrugged up, and the day was a great big fish.

(i) Which, when you think about it, makes sense? It's always good to recruit people who will probably at least start things off being alive.

(ii) Things could have been a little uncomfortable, otherwise.

(iii) This happens to everyone. Even upside down.