Title: No Butterflies Here, Except Maybe One
Warnings: violence, references to torture, angst angst angst
Note: I am quite aware that There'll Be Children has been marked complete. But what can I say? I have been, shall we say, persuaded, nay, pestered into writing this. It's meant to be complete now. (We'll see how that one works out.)
No Butterflies Here, Except Maybe One
It wasn't when Polly fed a shaking Mal the last of the coffee beans that she broke down, even though she thought the time felt quite right.
It wasn't when Mal finally lowered her head to Polly's neck - to bite her - and that was certainly not helped by the fact that this moment had all the marks of finality; the whimper, the whispered apology, the lingering thought of oh I'm dying - it felt as though this was the inevitable result of their time together, and all lines were finally converging.
"Please," Polly'd whispered, "it's going to be all right". Not all right, never all right, and her consent didn't do a thing for her; she was scared like never before in her life. Time, she'd said; they needed more time. But for what price? she thought, now, made acutely aware by sharp pain that it was her who was paying, her and not -
- not Mal. "Just go on," Polly added, in a moment of desperate lucidity. It was all so clear to her, then. "Go on and finish, if that's what you want." If that was what Polly wanted. Maybe?
"Oh, fuck you," came the reply, and Polly imagined forming those words in her own mouth, made wet and idle by the blood. They'd stick around for a while.
It wasn't when Mal pulled back after what must have been days, her expression obscured by black hair and the evening's dark shadows, and Polly lifted her hands to hit her, or brush aside the lanky strands. She put them down after a moment. Mal'd never cried before. And Polly couldn't make herself touch her after that, because it was her own blood that stained Mal's lips, that she was licking off now, her face averted; age-old instincts were telling Polly to keep the hell away.
It wasn't when they shaved Polly's head that she broke down, though Polly had rather liked her hair before all of this. So what if Mal had teased her about it, Mal wasn't one who should rightfully be strutting around calling other people vain -
It wasn't when they'd shaved Mal's head, either, it had only made Polly angry, because that hair was hers, to run through her fingers, to tangle and untangle at will. - Or would be, if she could ever bring herself to touch Mal again.
(She wondered, briefly, what that meant. In Borogravia, they gave you a shave before they referred you to in-country prisons. Almost as if they were worried about lice.
They'd never get back then, she thought, ha, almost as if that was still an option.)
It wasn't at that moment just before the last few jet-black strands fell, when Mal looked up to lock eyes with her; a tiny acknowledgment of the brave and heroic plan that they'd come up with in the small hours of the morning. Now, in the daylight, it looked feeble, foolish, and also slightly hysterical, and Polly wanted to say something to stop it in time, only -
Beware of famous last stands, Polly thought, and that was when Mal shook off the hands holding her head in place, ducked away from the razor and got to her feet, turning, blurring, scanning, swiftly kicking one of the guards in the stomach. All in all, it couldn't have taken more than a second until the man lay groaning with pain and, seeing Mal looking at the next one, calculating, every fluid move that of the born predator, Polly felt a little twinge of envy that made her wonder if maybe she wasn't entirely human anymore. She looked down.
It wasn't when Polly listened, unmoving for the moment and watching her own knees, to three guards wrestling Mal to the ground, and then, she imagined, keeping her on the ground, kicking - and their boots sounded so heavy - her bare head, her slender limbs, her burned wrists, shackled in silver.
Mal was so eerily silent through all of this against the busy background of shouts and movement, still resisting, while Polly thought she could hear her bird bones cracking, her breath hissing between her teeth. She'd heal, Polly told herself, Mal'd heal. Had it not been vitally important not to draw attention to herself, Polly should have liked to laugh when the pain in her still sore neck reminded her that it was because of her that the guards weren't dead yet.
Ten seconds, she prayed, and then, five, just five more, and then the noise started to die down and Polly dared looking up.
It had taken some time until the panicking guards finally remembered themselves and where they'd put their stakes that morning. Only when one was produced and pressed against Mal's chest that she stopped kicking out, stopped defending herself and went very very still, and by then Polly was already back on her place, trying to control the inexplicable shaking that had come over her.
How dared they, she thought, how dared they not behave according to plan. Certainly they wouldn't -
"Beg," said one of them, and Mal did. Clever girl.
It shouldn't have worked, all this moving invisibly, silently, slipping whatever big sharp implement presented itself to her into her sleeve, and after it had, inexplicably, worked, she shouldn't have got away with it, but no-one searched her, no-one.
It was when she was back in the cell that she broke down, after they'd taken Mal away from her. It was awkward enough, holding the scissors so she could try and cut her bound hands free; her eyes being all leaky certainly wasn't helping. In the end she'd taken to just rubbing the sharp edge over the coarse material of the rope, over and over again. It took a long time, and yet it was too monotonous to keep her suitably distracted.
It wasn't that big of a break-down, either; more like a butterfly flapping its wings just once. The hurricane'd come later.
Drip. Drip. Polly coughed a little, and it sounded like hollow thunder in the tiny cell, so she stopped. She'd heard they had doctors here.
The rope was thinning, fibre for fibre. Every now and then, Polly paused to stretch her aching fingers, and to listen for the sound of approaching steps in the corridor outside. There were none, and with every second that passed in silence, Polly felt her love draw itself together and shrink until, she thought, there was only one infinitely small point inside her, and after that, nothing. Huh.
She got up, took a carefully measured walk around the cell, sat down again and shook her head experimentally. Still nothing.
If only they hadn't hurt them so much. If only she hadn't been so shamefully glad when it was Mal getting hurt and not herself, and if only she could be sure that Mal didn't feel like that when if was the other way around, that Mal wouldn't at some point be ready to administer any fate to Polly, just to survive herself. As Polly would do.
If only Mal were here.
She could move her hands more freely now; another half hour with the scissors should do it. Funny, she thought, how the last half-hour was the hardest -
In the heavy silence, she heard the foot steps from far away, at least two pairs of hard-soled boots and, a minute later, a third, softer and quite out of sync with the others and also, though that may have been her imagination, rather dragging, or being dragged. Polly lay down on the cold stone floor, the scissors and the sorry remains of the rope underneath her, and her quite un-bound hands so that they couldn't easily be seen from the door. It was all that she could do in the time.
It was much too dark to see anything, she told herself; her pounding heart of course didn't believe her. Certainly they must hear it; certainly Mal did.
Breathe normally, she thought as the door opened, which of course prompted the question of what counted as normal around here. So she just breathed. Nothing out of the ordinary.
A shove, a stagger, the turning of a key; and then silence again, but of course that small moment of mercy had to be broken, and so soon.
"Polly?" whispered Mal.
Polly considered not answering at all, just to pretend no-one was here, because then there wouldn't be a problem -
Wait, she thought. This was just her overexcited brain talking. Still not escaped. "No, I think I'm Nuggan for a while, thanks," she said.
"Oh. Good," said Mal, and when Polly finally turned around to look at her, she saw that Mal had been leaning against the wall - a faint trace of her former elegance amongst all the entropy - and was now slowly easing herself downwards, tucking her feet in, folding her hands neatly so that the silver only touched the already burned parts. Waiting. Polly had expected a bit more impatience.
She could have crawled over, the cell was small enough, but something that resembled human dignity - and in a place like this! - made her get up and walk what little distance there was before she knelt down next to Mal.
"Hands out," she said.
"Jawohl, sarge," murmured Mal, not being very funny at all, but she obeyed, mustering Polly and the implement in her hands. An eyebrow was lifted in appraisal. "Scissors?" she said, but if there was any resentment on her side, any soul-crushing despair, Polly couldn't detect it.
"All I could get," said Polly. "The long swords just wouldn't fit into my sleeve." She narrowed her eyes. The scissors were pretty pointy towards the ends of the blades, and Mal's handcuffs did have locks with keyholes, but still they didn't look as if they belonged together in any way, shape or form.
"Oh, the imagery," she murmured, although that appeared to be Mal's line. It'd be like trying to get through a barred window with a can opener.
"We were at the hairdresser's," said Mal. "You could have nicked a hair pin. It's a classic."
She seemed awfully changed, thought Polly, as she was holding up Mal's cuffed wrist (icy metal, Mal's feverish skin, and the awful stickiness that she was trying to ignore) and poking around in the lock. She thought she could detect the mechanism, sliding, snapping back, doing nothing.
"How come you're so cheerful?" Polly asked after a while, after she'd thought again and again, there!, now she had it -
There was no answer, which made Polly look up when she realised it. There was a smirk instead, and she couldn't quite decide whether that was the old Mal or... or the very old Mal.
"Mal?" she said, still working on the lock, but not looking or even concentrating now. "Mal, what'd they do?"
Too blunt, she thought, and for a moment she couldn't tell whether she meant herself or the scissors. The latter especially were quite inappropriate, which only fed into her frustration, and Mal was tense, but then again, Polly didn't really think that was a recent development.
The silence stretched for a longer time than what was usual or even polite.
"It's a bit of a game, really," said Mal finally. "Good warden, bad warden." Her smile was rather worryingly wide. "One hits you over the head, the other offers you a cup of coffee. One stomps on your hands, so the other holds the cup for you. One promises to take your handcuffs off soon, and the other -"
Her voice trailed off, and for a moment Mal seemed to fade while her gleaming smile stayed where it was, but Polly couldn't read that. "Mal," she said, and then didn't find a way to continue.
"One is a bastard, and the other is also a bastard," said Mal. "Funny, that. And then there's me, who's basically Genua, now with added colours."
Mal's fingers, Polly noticed, were rather swollen and bruised. Of course.
"They gave you coffee," she said, because she'd once read about the benefits of positive thinking. Then the lock clicked, she held her breath, was it open?, and Mal let her hand drop into her lap, quite limp. But surely she'd heal nicely, now?
"It was my own," said Mal. "It was the coffee I brought. I think I may have to kill them all."
It would have been idle talk up until now, what with them being locked up and constrained and everything, but now the thought of - Polly shut her eyes, briefly - of attacking wardens with scissors was becoming frighteningly concrete.
"Yes," she said. "But are you going to kill me?"
Careful, she thought. Can't have that smile fade, there'll be nothing left -
- but of course there was. There always was. For example, there was all this tension, there was Mal's wrist in Polly's hand, and the weight of the scissors in her other, and the everlasting silence. Polly wondered if they'd have words left, when this was all over.
"'m sorry," she murmured. It was as close to the truth as anything else she might have said.
There was more silence, then, and Polly set to work on freeing Mal's other hand. She was clumsier than before, and it took a lot longer for the lock to even catch. Something was stuck, she thought, and then it wasn't.