Note: Pratchett's. This is the last chapter. Which means there will be no more chapters after this one :D I hope you enjoyed reading this story; I certainly had fun writing it.
One reviewer raised the question whether Mal and Otto had something going on, and the answer is, well yeah, they had, back when Mal disappeared for six months. It all ended in ear-burning embarrassment, only handled with bags and bags of style.
Plogviehze, Baby, Chapter 14. Over and Out.
A few days later, a bathtub happened. There was a Polly in it, and the Polly was delighted. Washbowls and watering cans just didn't cut it, really. She loved bathtubs, she'd never really denied that.
It also was a very nice distraction. Deep thinking just didn't happen in bathtubs; at least, it didn't happen to Polly.
Polly dunked her head under water after drawing a deep breath. She did realise this was probably pointless, but she was determined to keep the human thing up and running, else it'd be turning into bats and glowing red eyes next. She couldn't be having with that.
"Polly?" called a voice. Mal's.
Polly came up, and of course she got soap in her eyes, and it burned. She liked that. Not the burning as such, but the fact that the soap burned in her eyes. It was a piece of reality. She'd been missing out on that, lately.
"Here," she said, without thinking.
The door opened. A slim, black-clad figure, framed in the reddening sunlight, was standing in the doorway, and for a moment, Polly wasn't quite sure whether to be embarrassed or - seeing as how she had to face certain issues at some point - excited.
Still. "Um," she said.
"I'm back," said Mal. "Also, whoops. I'll be in the other room."
Mal had been in and out of the flat for days now, showcasing varying degrees of worriedness and generally appearing a little stressed out. Polly supposed she was meeting people, or getting orders (or maybe ordering people around; it just seemed natural, for Mal), or organising, or something, but she also got the distinct impression that Mal wasn't happy with how things were turning out.
Strange. One would have thought that a city that offered thirty-seven different kinds of coffee (with almost free refills) would have agreed with Mal more.
It took all of Polly's willpower to not actually fall asleep here and now, so she decided it was high time to get out the bathtub. Dripping a satisfying amount of water all over the tiled floor, she grabbed a towel off the rack, which, after a half-hearted attempt at drying herself off, she wrapped around her head. She then proceeded to climb into a nice, fresh pair of trousers. Buttoning up a newly acquired and slightly too big, too frilly shirt, she left the bathroom to itself and went to find Mal.
Chance predicted that anyone standing by a window staring wistfully into a sunset would look a little silly, but Mal didn't. Polly wondered if she did that on purpose, and if so, whether one should compliment her on her impeccable use of dramatic effect.
It must be a vampire thing.
With her hair done up like that, though, and her current air of unapproachableness, she did remind Polly a little of Lady Ingrid, and that alone was ground for action. Still dripping a little, Polly sauntered over, positioning herself behind Mal. They weren't touching, but they might as well have been.
"That hairdo makes you look at least ten years older," she murmured.
Mal snorted, but only slightly. Polly began pulling out hairpins, one at a time. Strand after strand fell, until one pin finally dislodged the rest, and there was rather a lot of rest. She even had to step back a little. Mal still didn't move or protest as Polly began feeling through the hair with her fingers to make sure she hadn't missed a pin.
It really was quite nice hair, she thought.
"Better," she said, and let go, which was the exact moment the sheer cheek of it caught up with her. After all this time, she still didn't have a clear idea of how much of what was allowed or even expected. Still, she thought. Nice hair. Very nice. Um.
"If you say so," said Mal, not turning around. It wasn't even as if the sunset was that spectacular, thought Polly.
"Have you spoken to the landlord?" she asked.
"Yes," said Mal. There was something vaguely disconcerting about the way she didn't acknowledge, well, anything. "The post carriage to Zlobenia leaves once a month. I'm afraid there's none that goes further, so -"
"That's okay, I can manage," said Polly, thinking great! A camping trip in the Ramtops! "When does the next coach leave?"
There was the slightest hint of a dramatic pause, but maybe Mal didn't mean it.
"Tomorrow," she said.
A sudden sharp pain in her palm reminded Polly that she was still holding the hairpins she'd collected. "Okay," she said. "Fine. This is rather shorter than I'd hoped, but still, got to get home some day, right?"
"Speaking of which," said Mal, "there's something I've been meaning to tell you."
The coffee engine, Polly noticed, was gurgling again. She'd miss that, she realised, the sounds and scent of coffee and all the things that were Mal without actually being Mal. She could have managed with two weeks' notice, she supposed, maybe even one, but a single day was pushing it a little.
"You sure you aren't coming with me?" she asked softly.
"Define 'sure'," said Mal. "You know, it's because -"
Polly didn't know, and didn't want to ask, because she figured some thoughts needed longer to be formulated. She stepped next to Mal and let the hairpins trickle onto the windowsill, one by one; they made the faintest of sounds.
"Well," said Mal, "quite apart from the whole having been on their death list business, er -"
"Having been?" asked Polly
"Ha," said Mal. "I'm dead, remember?"
"Er," said Polly. "Not as such. And actually that's a pretty good reason not to go to Uberwald, 'cause they might find out you aren't, and kill you again, and then I will mock you. Promise."
"It's called going incognito, dear child," said Mal. "Meet Lord Atcidalam. From Klatch." Upon seeing the expression on Polly's face, she added, "It's just a working title. And the hairstyle is really very temporary."
"Okay," said Polly. "I see you planned this very thoroughly."
There was an unspoken question behind that sentence, and Polly could see that Mal understood. It might have been Mal's uncomfortable silence that had tipped her off.
"I didn't plan on dying," said Mal, finally. "Not originally. But -"
"But?" asked Polly. "I - you scared me a little." And the understatement of the year award goes to Polly Perks of Munz, Borogravia. Have a potted plant. "I'm not used to people having amazing resurrective powers."
"It was a bit improvised, I admit," said Mal. "The original idea was to get me out before they killed me. But since they were so insistent, we decided to work with that instead."
"Who's we, Mal?"
There was a noncommittal smile.
"Okay, Mal," said Polly. "You're daft. Anyway, apart from the having been on their death list business is how you started your reasoning, so - ?"
"I don't know," said Mal. "It's all so... diffuse now." She cracked a smile. "I guess I'm really daft. I want to have the cake, I want to eat it, and I want to give it away, too."
She went over to where the coffee engine had stopped gurgling and started spitting. She was watching it, Polly noticed, the way she was only ever watching coffee and never anything else. A lost cause, this one. Polly settled for the next best thing, which was going over to the bathroom and collect her socks, on account of having cold feet, and towelling her hair not dry, but drier, and throwing the towel into the laundry bin. And then a feeling in her stomach was telling her that matters, as usual, were entirely unsatisfying.
She couldn't just leave the next day without having resolved anything, she realised. Someone here had to make things happen, and somehow she didn't think Mal was up to the task.
Mal was back at the window, drinking coffee from her tiny espresso cup and looking at a sky that was now rather more indigo than before. Ankh-Morpork might have been a little stinky, Polly thought, but she had to admit it did have pretty sunsets. Must be all the smog.
Mal looked so tired.
Polly stepped behind her, and, carefully as to not disturb her coffee-drinking, placed both hands lightly on her shoulders. A slight turn in Mal's head, towards her, was the only response she got.
"Are you quite all right?" asked Polly. "It's only you seem so -"
"I'm getting better, Polly," said Mal.
So maybe that was the truth. It didn't explain the way Mal wasn't looking at her, though, and the way Mal's hair was in her face without her even bothering to fix it.
"Why don't you just come home?" asked Polly, softly. "Just for a while?"
There was silence, and Polly's hand moved over Mal's shoulders, ever so lightly, awaiting an answer. The sun was still not done setting.
"I don't have a home, Polly," said Mal, finally, when the town outside had become more shadows than anything else.
"Share mine?" asked Polly, suddenly feeling a faint twinge of nervousness. "For a while?"
She stroked Mal's hair again, and, while she was at it, she slid her hands down Mal's arms, to distract herself from potential answers, and she could have sworn she felt a slight shiver under her hands, which maybe, maybe meant something.
"She's still with me, you know," said Mal softly. "And damn, does that hair ever get on my nerves." With that, she untangled herself slightly, slightly, and lifted her hands to her hair, braiding it with quick fingers.
"Maladicta," said Mal. "She's still here, somewhere, and she's haughty and demanding and a general nuisance and I thought you should know. Got a ribbon?"
Polly used her teeth to rip off a length of lace from her impossibly decorated shirt sleeve and handed it to Mal, "You once told me you were, and I quote, actually Maladicta."
"And you told me I was just me," said Mal, knotting the lace around the braid. "I pride myself on being open to new ideas once in a while, you know?" She sort of collapsed against Polly, who was still standing behind her, and Polly caught her, putting her arms around Mal once more.
"You got me thinking that maybe I could get rid of the person if I got rid of the name," added Mal, taking up the coffee cup again and holding on to it for dear life. "I can't."
"Er," said Polly. She'd always been Polly beneath the 'Oliver', and she suspected she'd been Polly beneath the batshit crazy vampire, too, and now she was Polly all over again and liked it. Identity issues happened to other people, and now that she thought about it, this seemed to be exactly what was the problem here.
"What I'm really trying to say here, Polly," said Mal, "is that I'm not generally nice. Ha, I'm not generally sane. I'm still the same person who went to thank her father after he did what he did. I'm still the same person who bit you because she was too self-centered to let go. I'm questionable company, Polly."
Polly wasn't going to touch the thanking part of that sentence with a ten foot pole, but she furrowed a brow at the biting. "You're regretting that?" she asked. "After I finally managed to get over, you know, wanting to kill you for that one?"
"The new and improved Mal would have let you die," said Mal. "And incidentally, that's the person I was aspiring to be, and I've come to realise that I'm still confused as hell about it all, 'cause I like you being alive."
"Yeah, thanks," said Polly. "It's happened, and I think I might like the outcome better than the alternative, so let's not go into motives. How well can you differentiate that, anyway?"
There was a pause.
"Er," said Polly. "Most people are only one person. How well can you tell when it's Mal doing the steering, and when it's Maladicta, and when it might be Maladict?"
"I think about it and tell myself that was a very Maladicta thing to do," said Mal. "I'm not actually three people."
"Ah," said Polly. "Good. Less confusion that way. Who does the thinking?"
"Er," said Mal. "I said I wasn't - "
"How do you know, then?"
"I don't," said Mal. "It's all a bit of sophisticated guesswork."
"It breaks my brain," said Polly. "Who did the kissing?"
"Er," said Mal.
This might have been a typical Polly faux pas, thought Polly. Might be a good moment to let go now and just forget about it all, but letting go now would probably mean letting Mal crash to the floor. She'd really never seen her as tired as this.
"You don't have to -," began Polly.
"All of me," said Mal softly. "Except for that little part that keeps nagging that I'm bloody stupid for even thinking about... things. Kissing. It's frequently outvoted, though. You may have noticed."
"Yes," said Polly. "You've got a very democratic personality."
So everyone had that little spoilsport inside, she thought. Maybe they could go from there, and -
"Democratic means everyone gets a vote," said Mal. "Do you really want that?"
"That's not for me to decide, I think," said Polly. Mal stirred, slightly, one hand trailing over the length of Polly's forearm.
"No," she said. "It isn't. You're very nice and empathic, have I told you that?"
She finally drained the coffee cup and placed it carefully on the windowsill, as if readying herself to fight, or to flee. Polly noticed it with half delight and half naked terror.
"We've still got to talk," said Polly, "about things. You know. I can't leave that just hanging about."
"Polly," began Mal, "I don't want to spoil the moment, but I feel someone's got to point out -,"
"If this isn't the time," said Polly, "then -"
She brushed against the side of Mal's face, dropped a light kiss on her cheek, then hesitated. She was a bit unsure of herself, here.
Mal turned slightly to look up at her, lips twisted into a very strange smile. "Great," she said. "The cake of heartbreak really needed some goddamn icing. Thank you so very much."
"The cake of heartbreak," Polly felt she had to point out, "is already hard to swallow and besides, I've always liked the icing best." She took one of Mal's hands into her own, and added a slightly defeated, "Oh." The ghost of a blush.
"... I agree that was a dreadful metaphor," said Mal. There was a hint of a smile.
"Yes," said Polly. "Yes, it was."
"It's a really awful idea, is what I meant," said Mal. She was still holding Polly's hand, raising it to her lips, kissing Polly's fingertips, and Polly thought, if that's the icing, I'll gladly take the cake.
Then she thought, rather more randomly, that was two cake metaphors in the space of five minutes. Is Mal hungry or something?
"Bit like cutting off your hair and joining the army?" she asked.
And that was exactly how Polly felt, anyway. Those few hours between cutting off her hair and enlisting, not being able to go back, not sure where it would all end, but excited all the same. And, to be fair, bloody terrified. Well.
"Bit like that, yeah," said Mal. She let go of Polly's hand and finally turned around to face her. She raised one hand to tousle Polly's hair, and when she did that, Polly had the feeling that this was maybe a step into the right direction.
"Bloody awful idea, then," whispered Polly, and was silenced by a finger on her lips. Mal looked away again, trailing her fingers through Polly's hair, the ghost of a nervous smile on her face, as though she wanted to say something but couldn't work out what order the words went in.
Er, thought Polly. Come on, Polly, other people have managed this before. She gave herself a mental nudge and her arms slipped around Mal, pulling her just that little bit closer, but lightly, lightly. Someone had to do these things.
"Something you wanted to say?" she asked.
"Not really," said Mal, and then she leaned into this and kissed Polly.
If there was one word to describe that, Polly thought weakly, it was probably 'tired'. Even after putting both of her arms around Polly's neck, Mal was clearly having some slight balance issues, or would be having them if she hadn't, well, had her arms around Polly, and -
The kiss was tired, yes. A little sloppy, maybe, and all kinds of breathtaking. Tired Mal didn't watch herself all the time; she leaned in and let things happen and Polly felt she was opening up, like a window, or wait, she didn't have good experience with windows. Like a door, then. Her heart fluttered in the wind.
It made her sway a little, and Mal shifted, and broke the kiss, and said, "Ha!"
"Don't say a word," said Polly. "Please? Just for a moment?"
Mal complied, holding Polly tight for a while. Polly realised she'd missed this for months; being held without all the distrust, without the need to hurt, without the occasional lack of need to hurt and hurting anyway. It had gone so badly the first time. She wondered if it might go better now.
"Polly," said Mal, "I really, really ought to tell you something."
Polly breathed in, scent of skin, and snow, and ever-present coffee. "Come with me to Borogravia?" she said.
"Polly," said Mal, taking Polly's hands into her own, "there is no Borogravia."
Polly didn't exactly want to let go, and so she didn't, but the sudden cognitive distance alone came as a bit of a shock. "Explain," she said.
"The battle we lost was the last," said Mal. "They've divided the country. Belongs to everyone else now. The command's been arrested."
Still not letting go. "How long have you known?" asked Polly. She felt a little colder. Not unusual. After all, it was still winter.
"I should have told you," said Mal, which probably translated to 'Quite a while', Polly thought. She felt Mal burying her head into her shoulder, thought she'd heard something like, forgive me?
She could have asked why Mal hadn't told her about that, but what did it matter when her home lay in pieces? They said Borogravia couldn't eat its national pride, but could it swallow it?
"Do you think this could be peace?" she asked.
Polly imagined her neighbors, the farmers and merchants of Munz, how they'd react to having their children in prison, instead of snowed-in army camps (but did they know about these? Did anyone know? ), paying taxes to former enemies, and yet, having the chance to see a summer go by in peace and collecting the harvest, for once. Could there be hope?
"There's a treaty," said Mal. "It's well-meant. There's worse things than well-meant."
"I guess," said Polly, and then said nothing for a while, watching flickering lights outside. "I'm still going home, you know?" she said. "Somebody will have to -," look after them? Tell them what to do? "Organise things," she finished. "You know."
"Yes," said Mal.
Polly breathed in, a smile, a careful sort of hope. A kiss to Mal's neck, softly, just lips, because she wouldn't be going there ever again, and Mal's hands trailed down her back, over to her sides, her hands. Polly took her by her wrists, drawing her thumbs over faint pulse, thought, and froze.
No struggle, no wince, but Mal stepped back, keeping her hands, her wrists to herself, almost protectively. Polly looked at them; they were reasonably unscarred, not like she remembered, and she wondered whether Mal would ever feel safe again.
"This hasn't happened, Polly," she said.
Polly looked down. "I'm sorry," she said. "Didn't want to remind -"
"I said it hasn't happened," said Mal. "Not a mark, see?"
"No," said Polly, carefully holding up her hands. An apology, more or less. "Hasn't happened."
She wasn't going to understand Mal, ever. Not in this life, as long as it might be, considering recent developments.
"Reminds me, though -," said Mal, and quite suddenly slipped past Polly, vanishing into the other room.
Polly turned around, not really daring to follow, but she wanted to. She waited for a minute, listening to the sound of rustling, before she finally dared making her way over.
She found Mal kneeling next to her pack, holding a long slim object wrapped in cloth, and for one short moment, Polly's heart seemed to stand still.
"I really thought we were over the killing each other," she said.
"I'm just trying to prove a point," said Mal, and unwrapped the arrow. There was an absence of gleam. Before Polly could say something, Mal'd closed her hand around the silver, eyes screwed shut, breath held.
"You're daft. Mal!" said Polly. "Let go of - "
"Look," whispered Mal, opening her fist again. In the faint moonlight, Polly could only see unmarred skin on her palm. Maybe, maybe the faintest hint of a reddish tinge, but she wasn't going to destroy the spirit of the moment.
"Look at this," said Mal. She grinned, reminding Polly a bit of the very tiny vampire twins at the ball, only Mal had all her teeth, and they were gleaming. "I guess this expositional therapy really works, then."
She got up, wrapped the cloth around the arrow once more. "I'm not afraid anymore," she said, a statement of fact.
"No?" asked Polly.
"Not much, anyway," said Mal. "I might try doing heights next. Or lemons. Or you." Her enthusiasm was almost worrying.
"Er," said Polly. She looked down on Mal's face, and could feel her face soften. "Sometimes," she said, "I really really wish you could blush."
Mal laughed, that deranged bar chanteuse laugh that Polly had grown so used to.
"You could teach me," she said. "I mean, it can't be hard if humans can do it, and you're really, really good at blushing, and -"
"Can I ask you something?" asked Polly. "It has practical relevance, even. Unlike blushing, or wearing all the occult jewellery you want."
"Ask away," said Mal.
"It's quite possibly a very dumb question," said Polly.
"In which case you'll get a very dumb answer, and life will go on," said Mal. "C'mon."
"So, does this transference business work automatically, or do I have to do something?" said Polly. "'cause frankly, I don't feel like I'm lusting after anything. Er. Much. Oh dear."
Where were those holes in the ground when you needed them?
"Nah," said Mal. "I recommend you take up a hobby. Something you want to get really, really good at. Like juggling? You could go join a circus."
Polly frowned. "What is this, career counselling?"
"Well, your employers are, you know, sort of behind bars," said Mal, only slightly apologetically. "You could be the Amazing Pollyanna. Looks good in trousers, can juggle, has shiny teeth. Why not?"
Well, the idea had a certain -
"I think," said Polly, and thought, "I think I just want to be Polly for a while. Boring, I know."
Dancing dust in moonlight, a stretch of silence.
"You're going to be very, very good at being Polly, then," said Mal, slowly. A sly grin. "I don't know if I should be afraid for our lovely home zone or excited."
"Go with excited," said Polly. "Stroke my ego, it likes that."
"I guess," said Mal. "As long as you're not trying to mother me -"
Polly raised an eyebrow at her. She really, really loved this height difference. "Sometimes," she said, "I think you haven't been mothered enough in your life." It was only half a joke.
Mal cocked her head to one side, grinned the nastiest grin Polly had ever seen on any living person, ever, paused for dramatic effect, and said, "Kiss me, Mum."
Polly couldn't help it. She burst out laughing. It was that or being horrified beyond what she thought she was capable of. Mums burned birds, or had people shot (but not all of the time, never all of the time, which is why these kinds of jokes weren't funny at all, but -)
Mal watched this with amused silence. "So?" she said.
"Don't ever say that again," said Polly, slowy slipping her arms around Mal again, "it really isn't very funny. It is my duty to tell you that, seeing as you don't seem to possess any shame at all."
"Vampire," pointed Mal out, pulling her closer. "I think that a lot of things are really very funny if you think about them good and hard," and kissed Polly again, softly this time, fully concentrated, which was more than Polly had thought her capable of. Polly leaned into this, noticing how she could see in this darkness, feeling that she, too, wasn't afraid anymore. It was spring, and neither of them was dead.
She stopped at some point, had to, not for air; just because of a spiritual need for a pause. To think, or to not think at all. She lay her head on Mal's shoulder.
This wasn't a fairy tale ending on a silver platter, she realised, only a second chance, which was all anyone ever got. She could still fuck things up like she had last time, just by opening her mouth to reassure herself and Mal that, really, this couldn't mean anything, not a few months ago, when Polly could have died any given day, from cold or other people's swords, nor now, when they were just a day away from being separated again.
Part of her was still tempted to do just that.
"Hey, Polly -"
Polly lifted her head, slightly. "Yeah?"
Mal seemed intent to not let her fuck things up, this time. "Want to go out grab a bite?" she asked, with a slight grin. "I'm sorta hungry." Maybe she knew exactly what Polly was thinking.
Fighting the impulse to shoot Mal for aggravating use of puns, she said, "Suggest something."
"The place next door has nice vegetarian curry," said Mal. Her expression was positively playful when she added, "but I think they also serve rats. Wanna come along?"
Polly let go of her. "I hate you," she said, realising too late that she'd probably blasted that flimsy second chance into a million pieces. "Er -," she added.
"That's okay," said Mal. "I hate you, too, dear." She took Polly's hand again, dragged her towards the door, into a night that was, for once, actually warm, even inviting. Spring, after all.
"You know," Mal said, off-handedly, as if Polly wasn't noticing the sidewards glance, that mere hint of nervousness, "if you think about it, Munz is really sort of on my way."
Polly sorted out a few possible answers and finally decided to go with simplicity. "Good," she said.
And it was, thought Polly. This was probably as good as it could get.