It's The Thought That Counts
A/N: Sorry it's late, travel chaos, busy Christmas and generally being too drunk between the 25th and New Year ate into my editing time. But it's here now, Happy Hogswatch - enjoy your fluff.
Summary: Presents can be nice. Occasionally they can also be a little inappropriate. Sometimes, if you're lucky, they can be both inappropriate and nice at the same time (Polly/Mal).
Disclaimer: Polly and Mal belong to Sir Terry Pratchett. Author makes no claims of ownership in any way. No profit is being made from this work.
It's The Thought That Counts
Mal was watching the spider navigate the uneven terrain of the guardroom wall. All afternoon she had been monitoring the epic journey, lazy eyes following the intrepid arachnid as it had made its way from the door over the relative miles of rough stone toward the glowing stove that had been struggling to heat the room ever since they had been posted here. The spider had given no reason, no purpose for this arduous quest, but even the most sceptical observer would have had to admire the persistence thus displayed.
Mal threw her pen at it. She missed.
Sitting amongst her reports at the other side of the table, Polly didn't even bother to raise her head to observe the carnage, or lack thereof. She merely dipped her pen into the inkwell that lay between them and began another sentence. Mal huffed her displeasure at illegally gymnastic spiders with their insane ability to dodge missiles and transferred her gaze to the more enjoyable vista opposite. She couldn't help but notice the way her esteemed lieutenant unconsciously stuck the tip of her tongue out when negotiating the difficult spelling of longer words. These pleasant musings may have continued for some time, if they hadn't been rudely interrupted.
"How's that rota coming along?"
Mal returned all four legs of her chair to the floor and sighed. The dead were supposed to be left to rest in peace weren't they?
"It's coming along nicely, thank you." She picked up the tattered piece of paper with its many crossings out and neat, if ineffectual, corrections. "I've managed to get all the grandmother's funerals in, and all but one of the essential family emergencies. I'm just incorporating the last little impossibilities."
"And which poor suckers have been landed with the Hogswatch duty shift?"
Polly lifted her head. An "Ah..." from a sergeant was never a good thing. On the other side of the table Mal was hunting around for her pen and frowning as she traced the various options on the page in front of her.
"That can't be right."
Polly coughed politely and indicated the wall with a jerk of her head. Grumbling under her breath Mal hauled herself to her feet. The hunt took a while. Unluckily the pen had rolled into the detritus at the base of the wall and when the sergeant eventually straightened up the knees of her smart breeches were covered in grey dust. The spider sneered at her from its vantage point on a protruding bit of masonry. She glared back.
"When you've quite finished terrorising the indigenous fauna..."
With one last glare at her mortal enemy, Mal turned on her heel and stalked back to the table. Plumping back down into her chair she traced the various options on the page in front of her before admitting, "There are only two available personnel on Hogswatch Eve."
"And they are?"
"You and I."
"What?" Polly snatched for the paper.
Mal let her. Two pairs of eyes were better than one but in this case there simply was no other solution. They were the only two possibilities left. She waited as her lieutenant followed the various hopeful options that had, one by one, run into dead end alleys of dark shadows and menacing figures. Eventually Polly, coming to the same hard conclusion, sighed and pushed the paper away from her.
"Just you and me."
"I'm sorry Lieutenant." Mal tried to inject a little cheerfulness into the situation. "I could dig up a grandmother from somewhere, but I'm not sure the undead get time off for funerals."
"Only their own." Polly carefully sorted her papers into a neat pile, placed an elbow either side of files and dropped her head into her hands. "So we're here all Hogswatch."
"Not even a two-day pass." Mal used a very bad word that as a well bread vampire she shouldn't even of known. "I really thought I could swing us two days. We could have gone to that Cafe in Bonk where they have 57 Varieties of coffee. Fifty-seven, Pol! I dream of 57 different tastes of coffee. We could have gone dancing, we could have gone anywhere."
"We could have gone home."
They couldn't, not in two days, but Mal knew what she meant.
"We could have been sitting by a roaring fire, drinking punch and eating Shufti's mince pies." Polly dropped her head onto folded arms, her shoulders heaving on a deep sigh.
There was nothing to say. They had always struggled for leave, the wide-ranging life of the Light Infantry didn't make for organised R&R and the Green Devils had it harder than most. But even after four years they hadn't got used to the disappointment. Mal reached over and rested a comforting hand over Polly's. War might be hell, but duty in times of peace could be just as much of a bugger.
"Chin up Perks, a roaring fire and unfettered access to the Major's stash of Rotzgut, it might be fun." Polly groaned. "We might even catch a glimpse of the Hogfather."
"He doesn't exist."
Polly's answer was muffled, but she was at least participating in the conversation. Mal kept her hand where it was, her thumb caressing Polly's knuckles, as she dared the spider to comment.
"He does too. Don't you try to ruin my innocence, Polly Perks. Just because he never dared to break the Nugganite ceasefire line doesn't mean he didn't want visit all the little good Borogravian boys and girls." She paused, struck by a new thought. "Maybe he didn't leave you any presents because you weren't a good girl. Did you ever notice a strange addition to your coal-shed on Hogswatch day?"
Polly's shoulders twitched.
"I'll have you know I was always a well behaved little girl."
Polly had raised her head and two affronted blue eyes were now attempting to pin Mal back into her chair. Mal sat back, crossing her arms and raising the eyebrow of mild disbelief.
"Really? So all those tales weren't true after all? Pity, I liked the one where that bold young lad was introduced to the mill pond with extreme prejudice."
"That was an accident!"
"All those stories, all those tales of villains overcome and honour avenged, all untrue." She shook her head sorrowfully. "Little Mary Margaret Perks, a little goodie-two-shoes. Who would ever have thought it?"
A despairing groan rent the air. Polly, breaking any number of regulations regarding damage to army property, clasped her hands over the back of her head and began to attempt to injure the table by repeatedly striking it with her forehead. Mal grinned, even as she reached out to prevent her lieutenant doing herself any serious harm. She was enormously grateful to Shufti for letting slip exactly why little Daisy had been so named. Of course Polly, poor long-suffering Polly, hadn't yet forgiven her sister-in-law and was unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future if Mal kept taking advantage in this way. Unrepentant, Mal tugged gently on the hands she now held in hers.
"Come on, Pol. It won't be that bad."
"Promise?" Polly didn't raise her head.
"Undead honour." Mal released one of Polly's hands to allow her to cross her heart and, as the lieutenant looked up, followed this with a detailed pantomime of cutting her own head off.
It perhaps didn't bode well for their country that of all the things Mal had tried, this – the imitated murder of her subordinate – was the most effective in cheering up the lieutenant.
 Traditionally Borogravian first names had always been in short supply and were therefore passed down and/or around. Margaret Elizabeth Perks, the light of her parents lives at a cheerfully energetic four years old, had been the recipient of a mother and paternal grandmother. Unfortunately, so had Polly.
"How long did it take you to learn how to turn a heel?"
They were in the guardroom, curled up on a sofa they had "appropriated". The stove had been liberally fed and was doing a champion job of keeping back the cold winter air that persisted in attempting to sneak under the door and through the cracks around the window panes. Warm and comfortable, Polly stretched a leg out to admire her toes and then tucked it back up underneath her.
They were very colourful socks.
Behind her she felt Mal huff a non-verbal protest against her hair and tensed as the vampire shifted just enough to threaten to nudge Polly to the floor. It wasn't a very menacing threat, they were both feeling lazy and unwilling to change the very pleasant circumstances of their current position. However, Polly very sensibly heeded the warning and took the opportunity to once again express her gratitude for such a very thoughtful gift. It occurred to Polly that it was a good thing that they were the only two on duty that wet and dreary Hogswatch Day, and a very good thing that the Major had had the foresight to purchase a large sofa.
A long while later a log snapped in the stove with an intruding crack. Polly yawned and Mal, reminded of her surroundings, lifted her head and looked around for the parcel that had been their original purpose for being here.
"Is there anything left in the box?"
Polly reached down and rested the remains of the package from the far away Perks family on her stomach, tilting it up to examine the clutter that rolled down to gather in the bottom corner.
"It looks like we've had the best of it."
She ran her fingers through the treasures there contained and came up with a small paper bag, folded over many times. Mal sniffed, her interest suddenly caught.
"Paul made us some more succade?"
Polly unwrapped the packet and peeked inside. Tilting her head back with a grin she offered the open bag to her lover.
"He did. Do we approve of my brother?"
There was a long moment given over to said appreciation of Paul Perks, barkeep extraordinaire and maker of delicious things. He didn't often get the time to mess about in the kitchen but when he did it was surprising how well he remembered his little sister's sweet tooth.
"Oh, I almost forgot."
Mouth full of candied fruit Polly scrambled up and crossed to the desk provided just in case the Officer of the Watch might need to doodle something to pass the time. Opening the top drawer she produced the small parcel that had arrived only a few days before. It had carried the same return address as the larger box they had been enjoying but its delivery by express post had come as a surprise to both. Examining it now as she stood by the desk Polly frowned. The parcel wasn't as tidily wrapped as that Shufti usually produced. The direction was also somewhat untidy, seemingly this afterthought had been sent in some kind of hurry.
"It's light," she commented, hefting it thoughtfully in one hand.
Mal had turned round, kneeling on the sofa and leaning over the back so that she could see what Polly was doing. She shrugged.
"The Express boys won't take anything too heavy."
"But why the Express? Why would Shufti be sending our Hogswatch presents so late? She's usually so well organised."
Mal shrugged again and sat back down, impatience in her abrupt movements. Polly took the hint and closed the drawer, hurrying back across the room. Arriving back at the warm corner by the stove she indicated with a flick of her head that Mal should move up and allow her back onto the couch. Mal complied most willingly and Polly, settling into her corner, began to tear off the paper. She stopped abruptly.
"I do believe it's your turn."
Mal found the contents of her lap increased by the addition of a small and slightly tatty parcel. She stared at it in some surprise. It didn't move. She poked it cautiously but it just sat there placidly, the one torn edge standing up, bold and unafraid. Mal cast her mind back over the carefully allocated division of labour that had taken up the afternoon. There had been a number of pleasant interludes of distraction but Polly was right, it was the lieutenant who had unwrapped the last item in the larger Hogswatch parcel. Picking up the worryingly small package she delicately unpicked the knot holding the tangle of string in place. As she removed the brown paper she found another wrapping, brightly coloured and tied with ribbon with the usual Shufti care.
Polly's hand prevented any further investigation and though Mal allowed herself a raised eyebrow at her lieutenant's double cross, she handed over the present with good grace. Polly, ever willing to hone her investigative skills, examined it carefully. The card pinned to the small parcel read "To Polly & Mal" in Shufti's careful handwriting.
"Well?" Mal's nudge would have been more effective if Polly hadn't been sitting quite so close and thus trapping her arm. "Aren't you going to open it?"
Polly was reluctant to tear the beautiful paper but Shufti had seemingly thought of this as well, the ribbon falling undone at the first tug.. Folding back one corner Polly took one glimpse at the contents and immediately blushed.
"What is it?"
Mal's curiosity had been immediately sparked by the blush and the quick "nothing" she received in answer to her question did nothing to stifle her interest. As Polly re-folded the corner, making as though to put the package to one side, she made a grab for it. There was a short tussle which the vampire won easily. Settling back into her corner she held Polly off with one hand ignoring her protests.
"Hold hard, lieutenant, it was addressed to me too."
Limited to one hand only, Mal shook the parcel until the item fell out over her knee. There was a silence crammed full of unsaid conversations.
Polly was blushing again.
"That sister-in-law of yours," Mal stumbled, staring at the fabric draped over her thigh, "she's a bit..."
Polly was fuming and trying not to laugh at same time. Mal took up the handful of material and held it up to the light.
"I mean you can't really get more... than that."
Mal seemed unable to let go of the item of clothing. Even when folding it back up into its original small square her hands couldn't stop caressing the silky material. Eventually those hands came to rest over the package. She seemed to be thinking, a somewhat rare occurrence.
"I have a question."
Having received no answer, Mal turned to her companion and found her looking everywhere except at the vampire with whom she was currently sharing a couch.
"How did it come to pass that your sister-in-law knew about our feelings regarding diaphanous materials? Tell me, what sequence of events occurred that resulted in this delectable item of nightwear?"
"I may have said something." Polly found something very interesting in the fabric covering the arm beside her and picked at it fitfully. Mal gave her a look and, meeting it with guilty eyes, Polly added: "I may or may not have been stinking drunk at the time."
Polly sighed and wiggled around until she was facing her interrogator. This was one of those things that was obviously going to have to be spilled face to face.
"There was a time, if you remember, when a certain Sergeant was called away on urgent business while we were on leave."
"But that was ages ago!"
"My sister-in-law has a good memory." Polly shrugged and, having dealt with the interruption, silently requested permission to continue with her tale. It was given, Mal settling back against the opposite arm of the couch once again.
"We were drinking one night after the kids had gone to bed. I hadn't been sleeping so well and she had persuaded me it would be for medicinal purposes only." Polly realised she was playing with her medallion again and tucked it back inside her shirt, making a conscious effort to keep her hands calmly folded in her lap. "I also may or may not have been slightly worried about what a certain idiot sergeant was up to out there, having fun without anyone to watch her back."
Mal slid closer and reached out to hold Polly's hands in a strong clasp.
"Anyway, we got to talking. About this and that. You know how it is." Unthinkingly her thumb was steadily caressing the hand in hers. "She was asking whether there were any changes she should make to our room, what with you being from a posh family and all."
"But I never even thought, I wouldn't..."
Two minds were cast back to that simple space under the eaves, the small window looking out over the valley to the hills opposite.
"I like our room!"
To be honest wasn't a large room. But it had always been Polly's and now it was theirs, sparsely decorated though it was with a few pictures and an odd ornament here and there. Yet over the years it had become more than just somewhere to sleep. Polly knew a little about Mal's family situation and had guessed a lot more. The Duchess wasn't just a place they visited from time to time, moving around as they did at the army's whim . It was essentially the only home they had.
"She isn't going to change anything is she?"
"Don't worry, I reassured her that despite centuries of breeding you were unfortunately still addicted to cramped rooms of quaint and rustic ambience."
Mal sat in silence digesting that for a long minute. It was true, but: "there are benefits" she said in her defence.
"As I told Shufti. However, then (and I think this was the plum brandy talking) she said was I sure I didn't want even diaphanous curtains?"
"And you said?"
Polly didn't raise her eyes. " I may have replied something along the lines of 'Dear God no, not diaphanous, it's like bloody catnip to vampires. You wouldn't see hide nor hair of us the entire visit."
There was a long silence.
"I didn't think it was that bad."
Mal still hadn't moved.
"You do have a thing with curtains. Remember the Uberwald Embassy? The balcony? The steady south-easterly breeze?. If the captain had come in a few seconds later I don't know where we'd be now!"
Mal quietly withdrew her hands and sat back, but Polly in her turn shuffled over to recapture them again.
"Mal, it's not like I mind." She blushed as the vampire quickly lifted her eyes. "I never said I wanted boring."
"Oh." Mal's exclamation of understanding lengthened, drifting into the salacious. Leaning over she stole a quick kiss and then settled back, slinging an arm around Polly's shoulders to draw her in. "Lack of boring I can always be relied on to provide."
Polly lifted her head to be kissed and Mal moved in to comply, but stopped at the last minute, distracted by a sudden thought.
"Is Shufti not going to get us the curtains then?"
 An odd looking stone, polished to a dull sheen by the hot hands of young Daisy. A balanced counterpoint to Jack's treasured collection of chestnuts with worryingly human faces.
Despite all the detailed planning and running of scenarios, the rest of their Hogswatch didn't run anything like as smoothly as hoped. Thus it was three days later that Mal, mellow from her after-dinner cup of coffee, entered the room she shared with Polly to find the room seemingly empty, a silhouette at the open window, framed by gently waving curtains.
The silhouette spoke.
The ever thoughtful Sergeant Maladict very carefully closed the door behind her and made absolutely sure it was locked.
"Five long years."
The cut-out seemed to be talking to the open air beyond the window, the thin curtains shifting in the faint breeze to envelope the figure in a delicately woven embrace.
"Five interesting, occasionally uncomfortable but never regretted, years." Polly turned at last, leaning back against the window embrasure to send a smile across the room. "It's not quite a balcony but it was the best I could do. Happy Anniversary, Mal."
Mal was just standing there, saying nothing. Polly shifted impatiently.
"Well? Are you going to stand there all night? This abominable delicacy may be diaphanous to hell but it's hopeless for keeping out draughts."
A silent shadow swept across the room almost faster than the eye could follow. Polly, abruptly nose to nose with a faintly glowing vampire, fought to catch her breath and determinedly resisted the instinctive urge to step back a little.
"Shit, Mal. That was fast."
"Oh, I don't believe in wasting any time."
The promises woven through those low tones raced along Polly's veins like molten lava. She found her eyes drifting closed as Mal, having captured her hand, now bowed over it in a gentlemanly fashion. Soft lips touched waiting knuckles and from that small contact, warmth spread, banishing the cold from the window.
The whisper drifted out into the silence and Polly watched her own hand linger over dark locks, a single finger crooking under a sharp chin to lift Mal's eyes to her own.
"Do you approve?"
"I most certainly do."
And Mal closed the last of the distance between them, perfect lips meeting the more prosaically chapped human versions and finding the effect good. One long moment later, resting forehead to forehead, Polly remembered what she had been pondering whilst waiting for her delightful interruption.
"Where is Shufti doing her shopping these days?"
It was a valid question, the garment was well beyond anything available in Munz and probably banned throughout the whole of Borogravia as beyond abominable. Not that Polly would have blamed anyone for taking umbrage against it, the item was surprisingly short. And really rather low cut. Mal, it seemed, had discovered this already.
"Mal, my eyes are up here."
Her lover made some kind of noise indicating that thought this may have, in fact, been incontrovertible truth, there were other things of attraction at other levels. Light fingers traced the chain holding an engraved medallion, visible now where it would usually be hidden behind Polly's high shirt-collars. It lay, glinting in the moonlight against pale skin, in contrast to the fading tan above. A secret talisman, now exposed to the faint light coming in through the window, visible to anyone who wished to see.
Mal lifted it aside and kissed the skin beneath.
Her breath danced across Polly's skin, all the fair hairs standing to attention at its passing.
"Five unbelievable years..."
The path of goosebumps drifted lower, Mal seemingly following the boundary of fabric as it navigated uneven terrain. She stopped, her cheek resting comfortably against Polly's chest, heartbeat a steady drumming against her ear.
"Five years of you being unfortunately irresistibly attracted to my breasts and forced to take the rest of me as a package deal." Polly smiled down at the untidy mop of dark hair that was all she could see.
Mal straightened. "Five years of you. All other considerations aside."
Polly, heartbeat to heartbeat with that truth, the slow basedrum to her increasing fast flutter, met the promise in those eyes with one of her own.
"To five more?"
"To five more."
And the vow was sealed, as all good vows should be, with a kiss.
Later Mal, thinking back to the original unwrapping, three long days ago, frowned.
"This present seems slightly lopsided in its purpose."
"Well," Polly thought deeply for a moment and then raised her most serious eyebrow. "I put it on for you. I suppose you get to take it off, for me."
"Your wish is, as ever, my command."
And Mal smiled with delicious purpose.