Do As The Bristolians Do…
"I see you've not moved then."
George shut the door behind him and sliding the heavy bags into the corner went to remove his coat. Mal and Annie managed to drag their gaze away from the screen for a second to acknowledge his presence but were swiftly reabsorbed into what they were watching. He sighed. He'd left them curled up on the sofa three hours ago, just settling into the second episode of the BBC mini series of Pride and Prejudice and from the looks of it, apart from refreshing their individual beverages, they'd not moved.
"Has he jumped in the lake yet?"
"Shh!" Annie waved a frantic hand at him. "She's just got the other letter from Jane! He's gonna catch her crying."
"So he has jumped in the lake then."
They both studiously ignored him and he left them to it, slipping into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea seeing as Annie was otherwise occupied. He still wasn't sure it was such a good idea leaving the two of them to entertain themselves while he went to work and lied about Mitchell having the stomach flu. Not that explaining in great detail how exactly Mitchell was coping with explosive diarrhoea wasn't funny in itself, but in his absence Annie seemed to have taken it on herself to introduce Mal to British culture through the medium of chick flicks and he wasn't sure the world would be able to cope with the outcome. As he slipped in between them, cradling his steaming mug, Darcy was nowhere to be seen and instead it was the scene of veiled hints by candlelight with associated shawl and disbelieving elder sister. Assuming they would let him talk now, as nothing much plot related was happening, he began to describe the complicated bureaucracy he'd had to fight through at the library to get his borrowers card. Unfortunately they had other ideas, he'd never realised an elbow to the ribs from both sides could be so painful. Nursing his bruises, he sat in silence until Elizabeth blew out the candle and the credits rolled.
"Now can I talk?"
"If you're quick." Annie reached for the DVD remote, discovered it wasn't co-operating for her today and handed it over his head to Mal. The vampire, for all her recent arrival from another world/dimension/universe (they still weren't sure) had quickly become savvy with modern technology. Without prompting she found the buttons to get back to the menu and selected the next episode. He looked at them both in disbelief.
"You're going to keep watching?"
Mal's attention was glued to the episode summary so it was Annie that turned to him with a shrug, perfectly expressing her disappointment in his inability to realise the self evidence of this course of action.
Women! He had to take off his glasses, clean them and put them back on (his version of counting to ten) before he could speak again.
"Yes thank you, I had a lovely time at the library, working my socks off in the few hours of free time I have in this life, being the only person in this house with a job and thus completely responsible for our meagre income stream…" George dispassionately observed the dancing spots at the corners of his vision and dragged in a much-needed breath. "Anyway! The Library. Full of annoying people but I persevered to find some books that might get her out of this mess and Mitchell home again. Mitchell? Who used to be our friend? Does anyone but me remember him?"
"It's the last episode George." Annie put an explanatory hand on his knee. "Let us see them get their happy ending and then we'll be more than willing to hear about your shitty day."
"Fine! I'll get the tea on then shall I? I doubt you've done anything to get it ready while I've been out."
He stormed up out of the comfortable confines of the sofa and vanished into the kitchen.
"There's mince in the fridge" Annie called after him, settling in as the embroidered credits began to weave their way onto the screen.
"And George? Mal looked over and gave him a smile. "Thank you for going to the library."
As he clattered around the kitchen George couldn't help thinking how well she'd slotted into their odd little group in the time she'd been here. It was like having a another Mitchell around, someone to constantly occupy the most comfortable seat in the house, their untidy slapdash debonair attitude messing up George's system, continuingly interrupting conversations with perfectly balanced wit to distract Annie and make her laugh. Curled up on the sofa like she owned it, coffee in one hand, she even managed to make Mitchell's two-t-shirt-with-shirt-combination look somehow chic. He had to admit that wasn't her fault though. They'd had to find her some clothes to wear. Her uniform may have been all the rage where she'd come from, but they couldn't have her walking the streets in those breeches and jacket. People would laugh and then take notice. If there was one thing they didn't need at the moment it was people taking notice.
It had had been a difficult conversation. Annie had handed the task over to him, thinking for some insane reason that he would be able to do it better. After instructing him be tactful (like he was really intending on doing it any other way – their visitor was on edge already and he liked his jugular vein inside his neck) she had left him to it. Climbing those stairs would list most frightening thing in his life if they hadn't already had such an interesting year.
They'd let her sleep in Mitchell's room that first night as she obviously had nowhere to go. Mitchell wouldn't be needing it and it was against everything George was trying to hold onto in terms of his humanity to kick a needy stranger out into the cold streets. Looking at the problem in the cold light of dawn, the caffeine in the steaming mug in front of him only just beginning to weave delicious tendrils through his brain it was clear that she would have to stay with them until they got Mitchell back. She couldn't live rough, the other vampires would quickly find her, and from what she'd said when she got back from the café she had no money and no knowledge of how money worked over here. The concept of paper notes had entertained her for a good fifteen minutes. She would have to stay, and she couldn't sleep in his or Annie's room, Annie was quite clear about that.
So she had Mitchell's room and by extension it was easier to conceive of offering her Mitchell's clothes. The solution was, after all, only for the interim. He'd not been overly keen, an illogical disgust creeping over him at the mere thought, as though one were wearing the clothes of the dead, but Annie had said "it's not like she's going to stretch them anyway" and it was decided.
He'd hovered in the doorway for a good five minutes that next morning, the courage he'd gathered to climb the stairs having left him the minute he raised his hand to knock. Mal had gazed out of the window and refused to turn to face him though he knew she'd heard the door. Eventually he'd had to say something, the minutes were ticking past and if he were late for work again Nina would kill him (possibly for real considering what had happened last month). He'd stuttered something about how she was welcome to stay, as long as it took. How he was sure there would be some books in the library that could help them, but he couldn't get time off to look for a couple of days and maybe she should just hang about till then. That Annie would show her the sights; take her shopping so she could get decent coffee. And then taking a deep breath he'd ventured at last to cross the boundary and enter the room. She'd felt him enter, he saw her shoulders tense and as he reached the chest of drawers she'd finally turned to face him. Her face was perfectly calm and he would have believed the façade she was presented had he not had to fight down the werewolf instincts warning him to run and run now. Not wanting to look into her eyes and have to admit that everything wasn't a-ok he'd kept opening drawers at random until he found where Mitchell stored his t-shirts and indicated in more of a muttered undertone than a clear statement that she should help herself and Mitchell probably wouldn't mind. He'd then legged it, leaving Annie to explain the bathroom rules and other personal matters. Cowardice? Yes it probably was, but being alone in a room with an emotionally unstable vampire made his skin crawl and hair break out in places he really didn't like to think about. Knowing that being around him probably made her teeth ache didn't make it any better.
Jolting back to the present he finished browning the meat and, his tired back opting for the path of least resistance, threw in a jar of bolognaise sauce, clapping the lid on the pan and leaving it to simmer. He was perfectly capable of producing a beautiful spag-bol from scratch, but not tonight. Looking over to the great viewing public he noted they were still glued to the TV. If he slid in between them now he was optimistic he would be able catch the visit from the old hag, he'd always liked that part. Gathering up his cuppa he crept in and without looking up Mal swung round, lowering her feet to the floor to make room for him. Annie snuggled into him on the other side with a whispered thank you, whether for starting the tea or not forcing them to miss the weepy ending he didn't know.
That night, once Mr Bingley had got his Jane, Mr Darcy had got his just deserts, Mrs Bennet had been pushed into the village-well somewhere behind the scenes and the two girls had eaten and then complimented George's cooking, they all went to the pub. This was something Mal was good at. She didn't seem to ever get overly drunk and though she'd never touch beer, preferring to stick to some Polish brandy she'd discovered hidden behind the bar, she wasn't that expensive a guest. The main reason for this was her skill at darts. She swore she'd never played before, but the first night they'd taken her she'd ended up beating the entire pub, winning them free drinks for the night. Since then she'd become something of a local attraction and though she didn't win all the time now (a little talk with George about fitting in had put paid to that) she still won enough drinks that they generally came out on top at the end of the night.
She didn't play much that night, preferring instead to nurse her glass and pump George for as much information as he could remember about wormholes and parallel universes. Being as he'd not had long enough in the library to do anything much more than gather all the suitable books up, and any documentary he'd caught on the subject had generally put him to sleep, he wasn't much use to her. The fact he'd been drinking steadily all night didn't help either. Eventually she gave up on him, grumbling that she'd read the dratted books instead as they'd be more help. After this the conversation turned to a lighter path as she and Annie deconstructed the idiocy of men as revealed in the persons of Bingley, Darcy, and Collins, whilst reminding the company present that though Wickham was a jolly bad sort they'd do him in a whisker. George did his best to keep up, as usual not mentioning that he thought Lizzie quite a frightening character and had never understood why every woman he met identified with her so strongly – even the obvious Janes.
"What's your friend like?"
They'd been travelling for three days now in this silence and Mitchell had passed through boredom over 24 hours ago. They hadn't stopped; even to sleep, only halting when necessary to change the horses. He'd nodded off from time to time despite his bonds, but it didn't make the time pass any quicker. Lieutenant Perks had fallen asleep late each night curled up on the seat opposite him and though he'd noted that at times her dreams distressed her she'd not actually said anything to him since that first day. She spent all the daylight hours lost in her paperwork and once the sun set she retreated into her thoughts leaving him to stare out of the window and the dark countryside. He repeated his question.
"What's that?" She looked up from the file she was attempting to read, though he knew for a fact she'd not turned a page for at least a quarter of an hour.
"What's your friend like, you know, the one I swapped with. Mal wasn't it?"
She shot him a shielded look over the file.
"How do you know you were swapped?"
"I've been thinking." He saw her brow rise and spoke quickly before she could butt in. "You don't ever talk to me and I had to entertain myself somehow. I think that something reached out between dimensions and changed us around. Him and me. Two vampires in two different worlds. That's why we're going to Ankh Morpork isn't it? To find someone who knows about this kind of thing and can change us back?
"You're a clever lad."
"We're going to Ankh Morpork to get you some help with this problem you seem to have with regard to snacking on the general population. While you're there I may have a small chat to some people I know and some people I've only heard about and see if I can't work out what's going on."
"And kick some butts."
"And possibly kick some butts," she agreed with a tired smile.
They travelled in silence for a moment before he said "so what was he like?"
Polly gave him a Look.
"Underworld" George shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.
"And she's meant to be a vampire?"
"Why does she wear that? It's not exactly the most comfortable attire for sitting around on cold stone in the rain."
"Cos then people like George will spend good money on the DVD widescreen version with special features." Annie popped her head around from the kitchen and then disappeared again.
"Ah." Mal went back to her book. She was slowly getting the hang of this wormhole theory, the pad next to her covered in scribbled notes and diagrams. But understanding the maths and working out how to reverse the procedure were two very different things. According to the best (and also craziest) mathematicians on this planet such things were just not possible with the resources available to the human species. There must have been magic involved; it was the only way she could see that certain unbreakable equations could be balanced. She turned a page, sighing as she realised she would have to ask George to go back to the Library again.
Polly stood in front of the gates of the Unseen University and like anyone else standing in that spot felt extremely small and insignificant. In the past the High Wizards had paid someone a great deal of gold to put a complicated spell onto the gateway to do just that and would have been pleased at this evidence that they were still getting their moneys worth. She rubbed at the bridge of her nose, tired suddenly. The headache she'd been avoiding for the past week popped up again and, as if in sympathy, aches spoke up all over her body. Obviously with carriages you could either have speed or comfort, not both. Something else to chalk up against whoever was currently playing silly buggers with her personal vampire.
Her plan had been to get here, and here she was. She'd got Mitchell to the city without him eating anyone and deposited him thankfully in the tender hands of the League. After filling out a pile of paperwork, including more insurance forms than she wanted to remember, they'd eventually accepted his skinny person and promised to take good care of him, on pain of extremely detailed scenarios should any harm come his way. She sent a swift thank you to Mal, wherever she was, for those scenarios. People should remember that sometimes other people knew more things than people thought they did. Or something like that. Now she was alone and though she didn't miss Mitchell or his persistent curiosity he had been a link to the world that had taken Mal and as such she felt somewhat lost without him. Ankh Morpork was a big place, with important people and when it came down to it, she was only a low level Lieutenant in the scrappy army of a small and not very powerful country. It looked like the world was going to have to be reminded what Borogravian women were capable of.
Sighing she drew the remnants of her energy together, put on her army face and knocked on the small door within the main gate.
It took a lot of explaining, some badgering and at one point an in depth conversation - once side of which consisted only of variations on the word Oook, but eventually she found herself talking to a tall thin wizard in glasses who introduced himself as Ponder Stibbons. He, like the others, made the mistake of talking down to the mere woman he saw in front of him, only to be forcibly reminded that the Borogravian Army didn't promote prime idiots to officer status out of the ranks and a good point is a good point however or wherever it is made.
Once he had ascertained that she wasn't the one playing silly buggers he condescended to take her to his laboratory and set about talking gobbledegook to the minions that gathered around him like ants to a sugar source.
She looked down to see the Librarian had slipped a hand into hers. He tugged gently. She tried to explain that she had to stay, she needed to get them to understand… but he merely tugged again.
"Oook" he said in explanation and she thought she understood most of what he was implying.
Besides he was right, they did have access to the largest library on the disc and she might as well make use of that information whilst the others were arguing over precedence and departmental reach.
Later, munching steadily through a banana she ran a hand over the spines as she made her way down the shelving, gliding past volume after volume as her mind flittered from possibility to possibility. What they really needed was something more specific. Something more explicit to their needs. Ah yes, here it was. "Weirdness, plot holes and how to resolve your crack!fic when you run out of steam". She cracked open the heavy tome and began to read.
"Chapter 1: Adventures through the wardrobe and other domestic furniture wormholes. No… not really.
Chapter 2: Falling down the rabbit hole, fairy rings and other freaks of nature. Again, not really.
Chapter 3:… No.
Chapter 4:… Ew No. What is that anyway?
Switching tactics she opened the book to the index and ran her finger down the list of choices. This looked more like it. Inter-dimensional switches, temporal resonance, rift through time causing connecting bridges between narrative paths, there might be something here they could use. She hurried back to the issue desk gathering up the string as she went.
Looking through the book Ponder got so excited his glasses steamed up. Taking them off and wiping them with shaking hands he pointed at a page in the book his assistant was now holding for him.
"I think Hex can formulate something based on this idea here, and if we can get him to do these sums here we might, just might, be able to get something." He slipped the glasses back on his nose. "Where did you say you were again?"
"Just out on patrol."
"Going about normal business, yes, here it is. Wonderful. And what colour was the light?"
"Blue light… blue light. Not red?" He looked up to see Polly's emphatic shake of the head. "Ok, blue light it is then." He turned a few pages, muttering to himself. "Aha! Adrian come and look at this. D'you reckon if we back flush the BTG we'll be able to get these numbers?"
The spotty faced youth shrugged.
"Well let's give it a go anyway. I think we could really push back the boundaries of knowledge here!"
"I'll make a note to get a cartographer in then Mr Stibbons, we should have records if you're going to be discoverin' new lands in the realm of knowledge."
They all spun round to see a large Wizard who seemed to think himself important, and from the way they all behaved around him, maybe actually was. Ponder Stibbons introduced Polly to the Archchancellor and on sight of her his eyes brightened.
"Would ye do me the honour of dinner m'dear? Been a while since I had dinner with a gel, would be a great service you'd be doing me." He noticed she was about to refuse and continued reassuringly. "The lads will take forever getting the thing set up. There's nothing we can do here, lots of high falutin' nonsense. We'd be getting in the way most likely."
Behind him she saw Ponder Stibbons making gestures of encouragement, his version of a baboon finding its bottom with both hands much less clearer than The Librarian's. Producing a polite smile she indicated that she would, of course, be pleased to accept such a delightful offer, seeing the younger wizard breathe a sigh of relief at her words.
"Ye can come back later and check on progress I'm sure." Ridcully raised an enquiring eyebrow in Ponder's direction and at his nod she let the Archancellor lead her away.
It was much later that Polly knocked quietly on the door to the High Energy Magic building. Dinner had been fun, the Archchancellor was nothing if not a generous conversationalist and having been out in the field for a while there wasn't much she wouldn't be willing to put up with for the spread of food on offer. When they'd finally risen from the table she'd excused herself with the idea of going for a short walk to aid digestion. The university never went to sleep it seemed and she'd found the Bursar awake when she snuck into his department in a quest for paper. He'd been most helpful, letting her use the university clacks system and advising her who in town might be able to assist her in some of her other needs. All that done, it was now time to deal with the last item on her list.
Opening the door, Adrian looked confused that someone as normal as her would be awake at this time and reminded her in a whisper that Hex would take another 6 hours at least to finish working through all the calculations.
"I know, I just thought I could come in and watch?"
He shrugged, leaving other people's complicated motives to those said other people and stepped back to allow her in.
"I've got to update the Glouper  so I'll have to leave you to it. You won't touch anything will you?"
He left her to it, vanishing around the back of another piece of machinery, almost but not quite as complicated as HEX. Looking around to check she was unobserved she crossed quietly to the thinking machine humming quietly to itself.
"HEX? Are you awake?" The quill stuttered its way to the inkpot and returned to the parchment board.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Does it, er, matter, if the subject of your search is male or female? I mean in regard to the potential of finding them?"
+++GENDER IS ESSENTIAL+++
+++INTRODUCE NEW INFORMATION AND RECALCULATE. QUERY?+++
"Er, yes. I think so." She looked at the complex of wires, twisted metal and other things surrounding the thinking machine.
"HEX? How do I tell you stuff? I mean, Introduce New Information?"
+++AUDIO INPUT ONLINE+++
"Does that mean I can just say it?"
"Right. Ok. Here we go. Hex. This person you're looking for. Mal. Well, he is. I mean she is… Damnit, Mal's A Girl. Ok?"
+++NEW INFORMATION RECEIVED. RECALCULATING+++
"But if you tell anyone else this I will personally disconnect your Input from your Output without taking your sensors offline. Do you understand me?"
+++I WILL COMPLY+++
"Thanks. I owe you one. If a machine can need favours that is."
+++ANTS LIKE HONEY+++
She stared at the parchment in surprise before smiling and promising that she'd see what she could do. Hex produced something approximating a beep and she left him to his calculations.
Six hours later Polly wasn't feeling quiet as optimistic. HEX, as Ponder kept emphasising, had cut down the number of potential dimensions massively, but they were still left with a long list of potential planets Mal could be stranded on.
Polly had shouted and stormed out, slamming the door.
Resting on her forearms on the railing set up to prevent portly Wizards stumbling down the shallow five steps outside the High Energy Magic building, Polly watched the sun rise over the city. The university grounds were quiet at this time of the morning. All the students not already abed would be crawling in by various back entrances in a hurry to get out of the dawn sunlight. Kind of like vampires in a way. She cursed again dropping her head into her hands. Someone slipped through the door behind her but she didn't look up. Ponder spoke quietly to that miserable back, explaining that they were running a reduction algorithm, trying to cut down the list based on more precise parameters.
"It won't get rid of many, but it might help. Shouldn't take long this time, half an hour max we think. Then we'll need to talk about what we do next."
"What do you suggest?" Her voice sounded odd even to her ears but he didn't comment.
"We can sniff around in the ones we've got, see if we get any kind of response. Hex suggested we put the two of you together, he thinks you'll be some help in sensing whether Mal's there or not."
Polly almost smiled but couldn't quite remember how. Clever HEX. The machine had been able to see what a gaggle of humans were completely oblivious to. Mind you, these humans were walking around with Wizard brains so perhaps it wasn't as surprising as all that. Behind her she realised Ponder was still talking.
"Lieutenant, I think you need to consider, what if we can't make it work? What if we don't find him?"
Polly knuckles whitened on the railing but she said nothing. In the quiet morning the sound of Modo chasing down a rogue compost heap drifted over the perfect lawns.
"We will find her. We have to." She straightened up and went back inside.
** ** **
 BTG: Big Tank of Goo – basically does what it says on the tin.
 Not currently working as well as the original (Making Money). This depressing state of affairs worried Ponder somewhat but made a certain Mr Lipwig extremely thankful.
The light from the TV flickered over the sleeping form of a vampire uncomfortably lying half curled up on the sofa. Mal hadn't meant to go to sleep, she'd been trying to get to the end of "100 Greatest Adverts!" as part of her scheme to learn as much as possible about this weird planet, but the quiet of the house and the banality of the viewing material had been too much.
That voice didn't come from the TV. Mal moved in her sleep, the voice entering her dreams, bringing her a host of images and memories.
She sat up with a start, eyes darting about the room to find the source of the sound. Apart from the TV encouraging her to "Shake and Vac-to put the freshness back" there was nothing. She swung her feet to the floor and rubbed her face with a tired hand. After sitting there for a long moment, considering, she appeared to come to a decision and rising to her feet made her way quietly upstairs.
George was asleep when the quiet knock came at his door. He was asleep when the door creaked open and a slim figure slipped through. He was still asleep as the figure silently crossed the floor to his bed and perched on the edge. He was no longer asleep however, when it leaned over and poked him urgently in the shoulder.
"Shhhhhh. It's only me." He looked up into dark eyes. "Mal" she added in explanation.
"What are you doing here? In my room? In the middle of the night? When I'm not dressed?"
"I came to ask you something." She got up off the bed and walked to his window, turning her back to him as she pulled aside the curtains and stared out into the street.
"What is it? Is Annie ok? Are we in trouble again? Are the evil vampires here?"
"That's a matter of opinion" she turned and flashed him her grin, but it didn't stay, her face falling into something more serious.
"Then what is it?"
He reached for the shirt he'd dropped on the floor the night before. At the time he'd worried about the untidiness, but he was grateful now. Slipping his arms into the sleeves and buttoning it up tight he felt dressed enough to sit up and shuffle back until he was leaning against the headboard, the covers pulled up to his chest. She still hadn't said anything and looking over he could see the tension in her posture. He couldn't see her face, backlit as it was by the window. He waited.
"George, do you believe in ESP?"
"I don't know what I believe in anymore."
"Yeah." He could hear the tiredness in her voice. "But do you think if someone was thinking of you, across the dimensions, you could hear them?"
"What's all this about?"
She turned away from him to examine the street again. "I think I heard something, I heard her call my name."
"Are you sure? It was likely just a dream."
At his easy dismissal she spun round from the window and though he couldn't see her face he suddenly felt the hair itch on the back of his hands.
"George, don't be more of an idiot than you need to be."
Protesting that it could be possible, it could be just a dream, he scrambled back in bed as she pushed away from the window, crossed the room in quick steps and loomed over him out of the shadows.
"George, dear stupid George. I will tell you this once and once only. Yes I dream of Polly, I miss her more than any of your stupid words could ever express, it's killing me. I'm going insane at the thought that I may be stuck here in your shitty world separated from her forever, it's tearing my heart apart and there are some days I don't think I'll be able to bear it. But if you dare to insinuate again that I would ever allow my emotional state to affect my decision making I will put you through that wall without a moments thought. Do I make myself clear?"
"Good. And if you ever tell anyone that I said any of that mushy stuff I will ensure that the contents of your sock drawer become so untidy you will never be able to sort them into pairs though you work from here to eternity."
She chucked him under the chin, easing the tension in the room and stepped back. He thought hard, trying to kick start his brain out of its sleep befuddled state. Taking off his glasses, polishing them and putting them back on again he felt his synapses begin to fire again. They'd gone over what she'd gleaned from the books together, at times him explaining it to her and vice versa. He thought back to those long conversations, struggling to apply the knowledge to this new information she'd brought him.
"It could be a different wave length. If they're trying to open the portal from their side, they might only be able to get it open enough to send through a short burst or a really thin signal – voice only for example. Did you reply?"
"No." She looked down. "I only just woke up – there wasn't time."
"What? What is it?"
He'd tried to wipe the look of worry from his face but like all vampires she had that ability to see in the dark thing and she was starting to loom again.
"It's just we assumed that there are shed-loads of dimensions, thousands, maybe millions. If they're out there sweeping, trying to find a response, hunting the right dimension as it were…"
"Then I've just scuppered my chances of getting home."
She stumbled back, falling away from him like she'd just been sucker punched in the stomach. George tried to protest, to say that it was only an idea and he'd been wrong before. But he knew he couldn't lie, had never been able to lie really. His eyes always revealed the truth, even when he'd give anything to hide it so as to avoid hurting someone like today.
"I'm going out."
That was all she said. She walked away from him, closing the door quietly behind her and he heard her moving down the stairs and across the floor, pausing only to pick up Mitchell's jacket that she'd worn so often they were starting to refer to it as hers. He heard the door open and close behind her and in the quiet followed her footsteps down the street until they faded into the silence. He sat there for a moment, thinking about Mitchell on the other side of nowhere, waiting for George to work it out and bring him home. That was how they worked, Mitchell came up with the ideas and George worked out a way to make them happen. But however many books they read, however many scenarios they calculated he hadn't been able to come up with anything and sitting there he hugged his knees up to his chest as reached out with his mind into the aching emptiness, hoping against hope that somewhere someone would hear him. Then he got up and knocked on the door to Annie's room.
They were waiting for her when she came back. George had fallen back to sleep against the arm of the sofa but woke at the scratch of her key in the lock. She walked in with the remains of a takeaway coffee in her hand and stopped, surprised to see them sat there.
"I am so sorry" and Annie was there without crossing the floor, enveloping her in a hug.
The woman stood unresisting but unresponsive in her arms and eventually Annie was forced to release her and step back. Dredging up a smile that couldn't lie any better than George Mal indicated with a tilt of her head that she was going to sit in the kitchen for a bit and they could do as they pleased. Left alone in the sitting room they exchanged glances for a moment before following her in and settling around the table. The vampire was turning the paper cup in her hands and couldn't or wouldn't look up.
"It's not the end of the world." George immediately thought there were so many ways he could have phrased that better.
She raised her gaze to pin him to the wall with one elevated eyebrow before returning her attention to the revolving cup. It was empty and Annie began to brew some more, grinding the beans carefully in the way Mal had taught her what seemed like so long ago now. The familiar sound of the grinder that usually caused those tensely held shoulders to relax did nothing tonight. George began to burble as he laid before her the fruit of his thinking while she'd been out. He'd done the maths and he thought he could offer her some hope. He began to expand on his theory, explaining that bearing in mind how long they transmitted for, the number of dimensions they could probe in 24 hours and how eventually they'll go all the way round and start again he really thought they were in with at least one more chance.
"So I only have to wait however many years it takes to knock on every door in the universe and find nobody's home?"
"You are immortal." He'd thought she'd look happier than this at the news.
Her face twisted. "Yeah – but she isn't."
Mitchell knocked at the gates of the Unseen University and presented the chitty they'd given him as he left the League building that morning. As he waited nervously for the little hatch to slide back he reached into his pocket for his packer of mints, his other hand fingering his brand new ribbon, wanting to make sure it was properly displayed.
"Oh you want Stibbons?" The unfriendly face in the gap disappeared and he heard a number of bolts slide back before the face returned in the small gap created by the opening wicker gate. "He'll be in the High Energy Building. Round the back. Follow the signs and you can't miss it, big ugly new building it is. Keep off the grass please sir."
Mitchell stepped through the gap, straightened his jacket once more (they'd given him some useful tips on style during his stay with the League) and flicking another mint into his mouth wandered off in the direction the porter had pointed. As he approached the building he could make out a figure standing at the top of the stairs by the entrance. It resolved into Lieutenant Perks and he found himself smiling to see a familiar face.
"How's it going?" He took the steps lightly, shooting a quick glance through the open door at the confusion within before coming to a rest on the railing beside her. Now he was close enough he could see the frustration coming off her in waves and his heart sank.
"Well if it was going anywhere, which it's not cos some IDIOT can't put his hand to 2 bloody cc of mouse blood, it would be going to hell in a hand basket."
"I said it would probably work ok with an egg" came a muffled cry from the depths of some complicated machinery.
She ignored the comment, merely rubbing a hand over tired eyes as she dragged her mind back to more sociable territory. "How was the league?"
"Oh so-so. I survived."
"I noticed." She reached up and flicked at his Ribbon. "Well done. Now let's see if we can't get you home."
"How's it going? Really."
She sighed and leant on the railing. "It's not so good. They're having to write the equations as they go along. Sometimes it looks like its working and then pfft, black smoke and we have to put all the ants back into the machine again. Do you know how hard it is to pick up an ant that doesn't want to be picked up?" She grimaced. "Try that with 280."
"But you can do it right?"
She dropped her head into her hands for a moment. Straightening up again he could see the lie forming in her eyes and put his hand on her sleeve to stop her from speaking.
"You can do it. I know you can." He gave her his best reassuring smile and was pleased to see it worked as well on her as on Annie when she was miserable and struggling. "I heard some things about you Ms Perks, when I was with the League, you've got quite a reputation. Apparently when you put your mind to something getting done, it gets done. And I've always been known as a lucky one. It'll be alright you'll see."
He offered her a mint.
A depressed vampire is not a pretty thing. George and Annie thought they'd seen something of what the breed was capable of when Mitchell got his low spells but this was worse. Mal had spent the two days since the incident in the night slumped on the sofa watching daytime TV and working her way through their DVD collection. That was all well and good until she ran out of anything decent to watch and reaching the back of the cupboard began to run through Annie's Disney videos. George had been forced to stage an intervention, hiding the worst ones but she was still left with enough to be annoying. Tonight she was watching Beauty and the Beast, with the sound turned down so as not to disturb the others sleeping upstairs.
"Tale as old as time
True as it can be
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends… Unexpectedly
Just a little change,
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared…"
She started as a miniature lightning storm appeared before her, earthing itself in the TV. The screen went dark. George came down the stairs at a run and appeared in the living room tying his dressing gown.
"I don't know. I was just sat here and then that…" She broke off as the lighting storm re-appeared.
The intensity of light got brighter, a ball of glowing blue and for some reason a strange smell of wet washing. Behind George, Annie's head popped round the bottom of the stairs her eyes wide with fright. The tiny focussed light spread out into a full lightning ball and then shrank again to a shiny glowing hole about the size of a tennis ball with a 3ft halo of lightning rim.
"Well that is definitely going to put our rent up."
George heard the quaver in his voice and tried to stand straighter. After all, Annie was hiding behind him and he had to at least pretend to be manly. Sliding off the sofa Mal warily approached the glowing ball, ignoring the pleas for sense from the more sensible occupants of the house who were backing into the kitchen.
A voice was heard, presumably coming from the light, though it had a strange acoustic to it.
"Mal? Mal are you in there? Mal honey?"
"Polly? Polly is that really you?" Her voice shaking, Mal crawled over to the light, putting her hand out to touch.
"Mal!" Polly put everything into that cry.
"I'm ok. Pol, it's ok." She paused but nothing came through. "Polly, what the hell happened?"
"Gods it's a long story." The relief was still evident in her voice. "I'll tell you when we get you over here. We've just got to set up some stuff this end. Hold on ok?"
"I'm not going anywhere lieutenant." There was a smile George had never seen before twitching at the edges of her mouth.
"You mind you don't sergeant." Silence fell, interrupted only by the crackling of the tiny hole. "Oh and Mal?"
"You owe me two dollars; it was a TreeCat, confirmed by clacks this morning.
"A mere technicality. TreeCat / WoodsTiger. They're the same thing. I'll appeal to the board in the morning."
A voice broke in. "We need to clear the area Miss Perks"
Mal smile got wider as sound of her partner explaining the finer points of how to properly address a Lieutenant of the Borogravian light infantry faded into the distance.
"That's your Polly?" George found himself wondering how Mitchell had got on with this dragon and whether they would be getting him back in pieces or even at all.
"That's my girl." Mal sat back on her heels, the smile now stretching from ear to ear.
On the other side of the glowing swirling magical cat-flap Polly, having dealt with the rudeness of wizards was attempting to get Mitchell to stop hiding behind the potions cabinet.
"Are you sure this will work? I may be immortal but I don't want to find my self in pieces scattered to the four winds."
"The chances of discombobulation are really quite low in calculated scenarios."
"That's not helping Mr Stibbons." Polly pushed Mitchell toward the portal. "Stop blithering, it will be fine. Just stand there and when we say go you step through. Ok?"
"I you please Miss, I mean Lieutenant, we don't have long."
Polly's voice came through into the Bristolian living room.
"Mal? Mal, we don't have long. You have to step through on three. Ok?"
"That's an Affirmative Lieutenant."
"Will Mitchell come back?" As George stepped forward to call through the glowing hole, he struggled with feeling not unlike a bit of an idiot.
"Well we aint planning on keeping him!"
Polly stepped back waving Mitchell to move forward. In Bristol Annie was trying to hug Mal goodbye as the vampire disentangled herself carefully. She stood up, offering a hand to George with thanks for the coffee and clothes and food and everything they didn't say but her eyes said for her. Looking over to where the beautiful leather jacket hung she shrugged and waved it a sad goodbye.
"Have you got everything?"
Mal reached inside her pockets and pulled out the lighter. Around her George had heaped the spoils of his mad rush through the house collecting everything he could remember that she'd arrived with. Annie helped her gather up the uniform, sword and crossbow and wondered if now might be the moment to ask what was engraved in the metal of that little trophy she wouldn't be parted from. Her thoughts were interrupted by a shout from the sparkles.
"Yep! We're ready!" Mal took on the stance of a runner waiting for the off and then straightened up, laughing at the absurdity of it.
"3… 2… 1…"
She grinned, saluted them and walked through the light. The glow folded around her, carrying her away in a rush as the circle shrank. They held their breath and then saw it grow again, fizzling and sparkling as before until it spat out a figure they recognised with joy.
They fell on him with cries of glee, closely followed by cries of un-glee as they realised he was as naked as the day he'd been born.
"You're Ne… ne… ne…" George stuttered.
"Fine!" Annie completed the sentence for him admiringly.
On the other side, back in Ankh Morpork, Mal fell through the light and noise to collapse in a dazed heap onto chill stones. She felt the impact as Polly dived forward and gathered her close in what seemed to be an attempt to squeeze the life out of her.
"You damn stupid vampire! I thought I'd lost you!"
Mal held on, rejoicing in the rough uniform under her fingers, the heartbeat beneath her ear telling her over and over that she was home.
"I'm sorry, I heard you, when you were calling, I heard you." Polly's hand was gentle on her back, gliding in soothing little circles. "I tried to tell you, I tried to call out, but I couldn't wake up in time."
"When honey?" The low voice meant the endearment was audible only to her, as per their longstanding agreement on pet names. "Two nights ago? I heard you. I heard you, but we couldn't get it stable enough to send anything but voice through. We've been working since then to boost the signal."
"You heard me?"
Ridcully coughed behind them the noise bringing them back to their surroundings.
Mal didn't blush because vampires were not prone to that sort of thing, and besides Polly was blushing enough for the both of them. Recollecting suddenly she opened her hand and heaved a sigh of relief to find the lighter still there. One thing at least had come back with her. Looking up again she saw the wizards to a man had turned their backs and her lips twitched as warm pride blossomed at another example of how kick ass her woman was.
"Your cloak please, Mr Stibbons?"
Polly had stood, and was walking over to one of the wizards. He shrugged out of the cloak and handed it over without question, and without turning round. Returning Polly wrapped Mal delicately in the warm folds and crouched beside her again. She smoothed down an errant lock of hair that had been disturbed in the trans-dimensional leap (the only time Mal would ever have hair that wasn't perfectly coiffured) and smiled.
"Shall we go and get you some clothes then sergeant? You appear to be not attired in the manner befitting your rank and I, as a superior officer, would be remiss in my duty if I allowed that situation to continue."
I do believe we could find someone in Ankh Morpork who could brew you a cup of coffee, yes."
She leant in and pressed her lips for a moment to her forehead, eyes promising future contact of a more desperate nature once they were out of sight of nosy wizards.
"Welcome home Mal."
Meanwhile, back in Bristol…
"George? Do you think you could stop screaming for a moment and hand me my jeans and then take Annie and pop down to the Londis to get me a pack of SMints?"
Lyrics taken from the Disney Film Beauty and the Beast (1991). From the song "Beauty and the Beast" heard within the film.