After the Curtain Fell
Summary: Long years after the events of Monstrous Regiment two bit-part characters bump into each other again. And why wouldn't they - everyone drifts to Ankh-Morpork in the end. There are the obstacles of a difficult past to navigate, not to mention the blasted Undertaking. (Tonker/Lofty)
Warning: Some of the painful events alluded to in Monstrous Regiment regarding the Grey House will crop up here. I have not gone into anything in great detail but this is not one of my sweetness and light fluff fics. This work contains the after effects of a relationship between two women, so there will be potential femslash overtones.
Disclaimer: Terry Pratchett owns the characters and the world they live on. I am grateful for all the brilliant books and make no claims of ownership in any way.
A/N: This stands alone. Complete. However, I should add that there is more. These five chapters make up "Book One" of the lives of Tonker and Lofty with books two and three out there somewhere, floating in the ethos. But I'm not planning on inflicting another WIP on you with all the annoyance of dribs and drabs that such a scenario would entail. When I'm done with the second part it will be posted entire. As will the third. Until then, enjoy this: one persons take on what might have happened. (And yes, I am still working on What Polly Did Next so hopefully once I finish belabouring that with the edit stick it will be presented it all its army tinged glory.)
Prologue: Dinner Without Strings
Autumn came early to Ankh Morpork that year. Chill fogs crept up from the river, filling the streets and loitering around long after they'd outstayed their welcome. This particular evening was an excellent example. The darkness had slunk in towards the end of the afternoon, surprising those working at desks in the city who found themselves squinting at their ledgers earlier and earlier each evening. The streets were full of hunched figures hurrying home, collars turned up against the cold dank miserable air. Swirling up from the Ankh, the mist tapped at the lighted windows along the restaurant mile, the tableau of warm glowing window panes drawing the wistful attention of those scurrying past.
None of the escaping commuters catching a glimpse of the two women sitting so calmly in the window of the curry restaurant on the corner could know that they were struggling to maintain a light conversation whilst gingerly negotiating the great sucking holes of past hurts. Magda reluctantly withdrew her attention from the stallholders making their way home along the darkening streets.
Turning back to that familiar figure across the table she asked "So, where did you go?"
It had taken her this long to finally pluck up courage to broach the four years that lay between them. The question had stalked the table since they'd sat down, hanging heavy over the polite small talk, skulking beneath the forcible light conversation as they examined the menu, ordered, and sat back to wait patiently for the starter to arrive. Neither woman had wanted to be the first to address the past and so they had stuck to neutral topics such as the weather and the latest humorous play on words within the pages of the Times. But by a simple law of averages, one of them would have to break eventually and it was Magda that had succumbed to the gaping silence first.
Tilda looked up from the patterns one long finger was tracing on the cloth and at last met her eyes. "I was," she paused, choosing her words carefully. "I was trained. As an alchemist. The Engineers Guild took me in."
Magda noted distractedly that the restaurant was filling up; couples sliding into small corner tables, groups bustling in, cheeks flushed in the sudden warmth.
"They were interested in things blowing up." Turning to look out of the window she added quietly, "I was good at making things blow up then."
Magda waited patiently. You couldn't push Tilda to talk; you had to wait for the sentences to be ready to come out. It hadn't always been that way, there had been, long ago, a time when words tumbled easily out of that expressive face. The problem then had always been to keep her quiet, to teach her to find caution in her speech. But then a lot of things had been different back then and Magda forced herself to take a series of deep ordered breaths. It was no use thinking on those long ago days, it did no good. One couldn't go around being being angry all the time. She concentrated on the shimmer of her cutlery, relaxing each tense muscles one by one, until the memories were safely back in the box and she could once again raise her eyes. Across the table Tilda was still sat in composed contemplation, unaffected by the bustle around her.
The starters arrived, the waiter efficiently spreading the dishes between them and vanishing back into the hubbub. After an awkward conversation they had decided to order a mixture to share. It looked delicious and, having selected a few tempting items, Magda began her meal, nibbling distractedly at the crisp delicacies while her thoughts remained caught up in the dark haired woman opposite.
She looked just the same…
It had been such an incongruous meeting and the idiocy of the scene had kept playing over and over in Magda's mind while she was waiting at the bar for her companion to arrive, wanting a drink but not having one.
It had started out as such a normal day, the café crowded as usual with the mid morning rush. Magda's mind had been happily blank, her concentration tightly focussed on getting the orders out in time. The morning had been rushing past as usual when she'd looked up in frustration after calling an order twice to find Tilda on the other side of the counter, hand outstretched for the mundane cardboard cup. They'd both stood there frozen in time until Tilda, visibly pulling herself together, had snatched the coffee from her hand and walked out of the door, the little bell jangling in her wake.
Magda had got back to work immediately, pushing aside any reaction to the odd incident for consideration some other time. She was much too busy to allow her thoughts wander. Her attention solely committed to the task before her she had reached for the next order and got back to work, doing her best to lose herself in the rush. But when she allowed her self to look up after the peak of caffeine addicts had passed by she had found Tilda sitting at the corner table. Waiting.
The restaurant was getting seriously crowded now, the evening crowd filling table after table, calling for the harried waiters and laughing too loudly at poor jokes. Magda calmed her rising discomfort on yet another deep breath as she spooned a little more mango chutney onto her plate. She would much rather be out in the open air, crowds were still not really her thing. But it was too cold to walk the streets and she had adamantly refused to take Tilda to a pub. Not yet, not this time. The waiter came round to refill their water glasses and for a worrying moment it looked like he was going to attempt an attentive hover but catching sight of Magda's expressive scowl he moved off to interrupt one of his other tables instead. Watching him go Magda forced herself to relax back into her chair. She wished she could have a drink.
"We were developing a new method of refining explosives to improve precision." The scent of the food had invaded that far off place that Tilda had retreated to. Reaching for miniature package of spiced vegetables she took a polite nibble and then, as her hunger raised an interested head, she set about loading up her plate. "It was quiet there, out of the city, safer to do that away from people." She paused, the tug of past memories insistent. "I liked being away from people then."
"You were safe?" Magda had no right to ask, but the fear had haunted her for too long for her to stop the words now. "I was afraid, when I couldn't find you, I thought…"
"No." The response was quick and very firm. In a gesture of reassurance, full of echoes from the past, Tilda reached forward and squeezed her hand. "I wouldn't do that. You should have known I wouldn't do that." The contact became awkward and both moved back, allowing the space to open up between them again. "I just went away for a while." Realising she was falling behind in the eating stakes, Tilda lifted her fork and dug in.
They finished the small selection in silence. The waiter fluttered past and removed the plates, leaving them for a few precious quiet minutes before bringing the main course to the table. They had ordered individual dishes for this course and Tilda separated out the thick stews and rice efficiently. Both dug in without further comment. Hunger was a pragmatic need even in the face of deep emotional turmoil and it had been a long day.
"How are you?" Swallowing a piece of bread Tilda had forced out her own question. It fell between them like the ubiquitous stone into a millpond and the ripples of painful silence ran out across the table to jut up against the shore. Magda didn't answer immediately, her eyes hidden as she carefully returned the glass she had been just about to take a drink from to the table. Searching for but finding no help in the slightly soiled tablecloth her gaze wiggled away to the more interesting spectacle of a couple walking arm in arm along the opposite pavement.
"Better than I was" she produced eventually. The admission stuck in her throat. Tracing a food stain on the cloth she took a deep breath of courage and continued. "After you left I... it wasn't great." She halted, fighting a wave of sickening memories and felt a hand lightly cover hers for a moment.
Sitting there, trapped by the table in front, a large gentleman in the chair behind and a waiter with an overly large tray beside her, Magda watched her plans for the evening go up in smoke. She hadn't meant to bring this up now. The idea had been to keep conversation light, impersonal. All she had wanted was to say hi, check that Tilda was okay and maybe catch up a little if it wasn't too much of an effort. And now she had ruined everything.
But that hand was still resting lightly over hers.
Tumbled about in the unexpected rapids of what had been a calm stream of conversation Magda spotted a beautiful overhanging branch that screamed of rescue and pointing her fork at a bowl of steaming vegetables she asked lightly "Are you gonna eat all that?"
Tilda smiled and pushed the bowl across the table and as Magda dug her fork into the potatoes the tension began to wash out of the moment on gentle waves. Having successfully negotiated the unanticipated rough water Magda was able to reply to Tilda's generous gesture by pushing over her own highly spiced dish and they shared the remainder of the assortment between them. Some went together better than others but such exploration was a neutral conversation ground and they managed to pass the rest of the meal in companionable experimentation.
"So, you're back in the wonderful place that is Ankh Morpork?" Magda sopped up the last of the sauce on her plate with some bread. "What brings you back here then?"
"I've only been back a short while, I came down a few months after Alls Fallow. They've been having problems with the Undertaking."
"The Guild dragged you into that mess? Oh dear." Magda sat back in her chair, attempting but failing to hide the look of pity that flashed across her face. "They've really stitched you up, you know that?"
"Hey!" Tilda's annoyance was partly genuine but mostly exaggerated. "It's a good idea in theory."
"In theory yeah. In practice it's a colossal cock-up, half the roads in the city are closed due to massive holes in the pavements, and the rest are clogged solid from sun-up to sun-down with "Undertaking" traffic and dirt movers. The noise of the work is driving the whole population mad, not to mention the dust that gets everywhere in summer and covers the roads inches deep in mud in the winter. It's a damned waste of time."
Across the table Tilda folded her hands delicately before commenting: "I see you hold strong feelings on the matter then."
This would have been the ideal moment for Magda to incline her head graciously and take the higher road as she accepted her companions light censure. As it was, she took the opportunity to vent the last remnants of her irritation by flicking a small remnant of bread over the expanse between them and muttering gracelessly "me and the rest of the city." Tilda laughed, a surprising sound that startled Magda. She hadn't heard that soft chuckle for such a long time and yet as she sat there it still felt like only yesterday, how was that possible? As the bread came back at her at high speed Magda couldn't hide her smile even as she shook her head and warned of terrible consequences to come of getting involved in "that mess."
The dishes between them were empty. Tilda chased the last grains of rice around her plate before sitting back in her chair with a sigh of enjoyment.
"My work isn't really anything to do with the tunnels you know. I'm more… specialised."
"Are they really going to blow up the Patricians Palace so that they can put a track down to the river? I thought that was just a rumour."
Tilda had to hide a smile behind her hand. "I can't really say. It's sort of classified."
Magda couldn't quite stifle her frustrated sigh but the conversation was interrupted by the hovering waiter and his desert menus. Unanimously deciding to drop the subject of civil engineering and public transport for the moment they turned their attention to the choices available for the discerning diner in the way of desert. Magda tried to return to the topic after they had handed the menus back, but Tilda, unable to discuss anything about her work and not really wiling to defend the project as a whole in the face of an irate citizen, danced around the subject until her questioner gave up in despair.
Digging into her ice-cream it was Tilda who switched the conversation back into the lines Magda had so artfully been avoiding.
"It was odd to bump into you again. I thought perhaps you'd moved on."
"Surprising, no? In a city this big." Magda carefully sidestepped the moving on comment. "I didn't think you drank coffee."
"All engineers drink coffee," Tilda smiled again and this time it stayed. "It's where we get our best ideas, and our craziest! You've seen those new Clacks towers, right? Born out of an all-night coffee buffet at Joe's."
Ah coffee. Magda could talk that about for hours. Four months as a Barista had provided her with a detailed introduction to the world of caffeination. She settled more comfortably into her seat and prepared for a discussion on the benefits of double filtered and the problems associated with the new steam driven system found in the most expensive coffee houses. The conversation drifted amicably from random topic to random topic as they finished up their meal.
Later, walking through the streets with that dark head keeping pace at her shoulder Magda realised she was waiting for a small hand to creep into hers. Still. Even after all these years. She sighed and put the idea from her mind. Wasn't it enough to know that Tilda was alive and well? Couldn't she just be satisfied that they were able to walk through the city without too many awkward silences? As they turned into a quieter side street Magda stopped suddenly.
"Tilly. Wait a minute."
Her companion drifted to a halt in the middle of the pavement just a few steps ahead and looked back at her curiously.
"Did you know I tried to find you? Not then. After." Tilda was still waiting, a faint look of incomprehension drifting across her face and Magda felt again the old frustration of that damn inability to ever find the right words. Oh, she remembered this situation well. "I wanted to apologise." Faced with Tilda's persisting expression of confusion Magda broke into a wry smile. "It's part of the programme. Step Nine: Make Amends. Though I still don't know what I would have said. There aren't really any words…" Her voice tailed off again.
"You found me now."
Standing there on that dismal street listening to those calm words spoken so easily Magda felt a weight drop away. Somewhere out there Tilda was still talking, but all Magda could grasp was that, despite everything, she was Tilly again. The old Tilda, whom Magda had feared lost to the fire those long years ago, lived again. She had grieved for that beautiful girl, grieved despite the successful struggle the remnants of her friend had made to claw her way back into the light. As Tilda had made those first fragile steps out of darkness Magda had welcomed her shaky shadow back with desperate relief and kept her own grief hidden, only able to mourn in secret for the loss of that hopeful little girl she had once known. Her every effort had been concentrated on helping Til with her difficult climb and so she'd vowed to put away all the burning rage against those who had so easily taken away everything from them. But unfortunately, as they'd found out only too soon in those terrible days before Tilda left, Magda wasn't that good at pushing away things she didn't want to think about...
Shaking her head Magda pulled her attention back to the present, focusing instead on the woman before her who had done more than recover her strength but had gone on to grow and blossom. In the rapid chatter and fluttering hands she could see again the Tilda she'd first met as a child. That child who had contained mountains of potential, who was sure of what she knew and unafraid to speak it aloud. The original Tilda who was smart and intelligent and could explain anything given enough of a run up and some dust to write in. She was…
"…those words will do to start with."
Magda abruptly realised she'd missed an important part of the conversation.
"I said:'an apology will do to start with." As Tilda repeated her calm statement Magda's heart rejoiced to see the return of the emphatic eyebrows. Tilda went on to add, "I hereby officially accept yours." A small smile crept onto her face for a moment before slipping away as she shivered in the chill. "I should go. I have a busy day tomorrow. Thanks for dinner."
She held out her hand, boundaries obvious. Magda took it gently and held it in both of hers like the precious thing it was.
"Don't disappear on me again, ok?" It slipped out before she could swallow back the pleading words.
But Tilda didn't react, merely smiling and smoothly disengaging her hand. "You make good coffee, I'm sure I'll pop in sometime."
And then she was gone.
 Lying in the middle of the second summer (due to the intrinsic difficulties of a flat world the disc has eight seasons instead of the more customary four), Alls Fallow is the switch side of our Halloween, when witches stay abed and enjoy a night snuggled up under the covers rather than having to be out-and-about freezing certain appendages off. In Earth terms, Tilda came down to Ankh Morpork at the end of the summer, toward the early autumn.