“Who is taking first watch?”
At Polly’s bellow, the new recruits scattered like a herd of startled chickens. “Sorry miss – ”
“That’s ‘sergeant’ for you, lad,” Mal roared from beside Polly.
“Or sarge if you’re feeling affectionate,” Polly added, in a slightly calmer voice.
“Yes mi – I mean, sergeant!”
“Well done, Evans! You’ll go far if you keep this up!”
Evans gave her a look that was part pride, part worry, and seemingly part a dire need to go to the bathroom.
“So who’s our volunteer for first watch?” Polly beamed at the kids. The kids fervently attempted not to catch her eyes. “Ah, excellent, Matthews, how nice of you.”
Matthews’ head swung up. “But I didn’t – ”
Polly gave him a look. Matthews’ mouth closed with a snap.
“Alright, find a comfy spot to lounge in and prepare for two hours of boredom. Rest of you, to your sleeping bags. I’ll wake someone up for the second watch, now off you trot.”
Polly turned on her heel and marched into the boat’s cabin, Mal on her heels.
The door closed.
Polly collapsed onto the bed.
“Everything alright?” Mal asked carefully.
“No.” Polly dropped her hands in her hands. “It’s really not,” she said, muffled.
“Okay. What’s the problem?”
Polly raised her head. “I have no sodding clue what I’m doing,” she admitted. “None. I go out and play like I know everything to those lads and I don’t – I’m just a girl, Mal. What the fuck am I thinking?”
“Polly, in my experience nobody has a sodding clue what they’re doing.” Mal sat down next to her and put her hand on Polly’s shoulder. “You think old Jackrum had some kind of masterplan? All he cared about was getting us all safe into tomorrow.”
“Yes, well, so do I, but… How?”
Mal shrugged. “We’ll deal with whatever we find in our path, I suppose. Like now, giving those lads some discipline, some confidence, teaching them how not to get killed. You seem to be doing a pretty good job there already.”
Polly looked up.
Mal’s hand was still on Polly’s shoulder, and Mal was smiling the way she had when she'd showed up two days ago, slightly embarrassed but mostly pleased.
And that’s the first time it happens.
Polly and her squad stared at the equipment laid out in front of them.
“This is it?” Polly asked flatly. On her right, Ellis took a rust-infested helmet. It fell apart in her hands.
“Nine cutlasses,” the quartermaster said stubbornly. “Nine helmets, nine pikes – “”
“Those aren’t pikes, those are just branches! Some of them have still got leaves on them!”
“ – nine tunics, and nine pair of boots,” the quartermaster finished. He turned back to his stockroom, dismissing them.
“This is shite,” Evans said, trying to take one of the rusted-through cutlasses.
“Well, some of them,” Mal said. “Some of them are still quite good, if you give ‘em a brush-up.”
“Yeah, but those aren’t the ones they give to us, do they?” Ellis grumbled.
“Good point.” Mal turned to Polly. “Permission to scavenge, sarge?”
“Scavenge away, corp.”
Mal vaulted lightly over the counter that kept them separated from the stockroom and disappeared into the armoury.
There was an indignant what the hell do you think - followed by something that could, possibly, be a growl, followed by a high squeak and the sudden reappearance of the quartermaster, who limped past them at a speed Polly never would have expected from someone with two wooden legs and headed straight for the door. It banged shut behind him.
Sometimes having a vampire as a corporal really had its benefits.
“Alright,” Mal’s voice came from the darkness of the armoury. “I’ve got a few things.”
Mal emerged, arms full of rusted metal. She dropped it all on the counter and spread it out. “These cutlasses should work well enough, I think. These are spearheads, stick ‘em on a few of the straighter branches and we’re good. The boots seems alright as well, and the helmets…” Mal picked up one up and turned it critically in her hands. “About as stylish as putting a flowerpot on your head, but sturdier than a shako. One for you, sarge?”
And before Polly could react, Mal had leaned over and planted the helmet on Polly’s head.
“There,” Mal said with a grin, “pretty as a picture.”
Polly should have snarked back at Mal. Made some joke about vampires and their natural stylishness and how they can’t all be that blessed, or something about how her corporal should count her stripes and realise there was one less there than on Polly's shoulder and therefore she should watch her bloody cheek – something, anyway.
But Mal was grinning, looking straight at Polly.
And it happens again.
It, as far as Polly was concerned, was something of a mystery.
It meant suddenly sweaty hands and her stomach twisting as if in fear - but not quite - and her heart beating like she was getting ready for a fight – but not quite – and an odd, elated feeling that made it very hard to contain her smile.
It was just the joy of doing this together, sticking it to the High Command, being openly female and proud of it, rebelling. And the fact that Polly had Mal by her shoulder, supporting her, well, it was only natural she was glad about that, right? Mal was a good friend.
Although that was odd, really, when she thought about it. She’d known Mal all in all for, what, a week? Granted, it had been an intense week, but… And Mal had spent a significant part of it either in withdrawal-induced mania or overdose-induced hyperactivity. Or unconscious.
So why did it feel like she’d known Mal for years?
And, more importantly, why were Mal’s smiles suddenly making her slightly queasy?
Polly studied her recruits. They were just done setting up their newly-acquired tents – patched-up, but sturdy, like most of the things they’d scavenged – and were now sort of loitering about, at a loss what to do.
“Time for some self-defense lessons?” Mal suggested from behind her shoulder.
“Good idea.” She strode over to the recruits. “Alright lads,” she bellowed, “let’s get you lined up and make some proper me- proper soldiers out of you.”
They collectively straightened up, expressions ranging from wary to shit-scared. Polly gave them a long look, until all of them were twitching.
“Alright, how many of you have been in a pub brawl?” Polly asked, hands on her hips.
One of her two boys tentatively raised his hand.
“And how many of you have seen a pub brawl?”
Three of the girls and the other boy raised their hands as well.
“Great. I want you to keep that in mind when you’re fighting.”
“But that’s not – that’s dirty fighting, sarge!” Hillocks said, indignant.
“Exactly. You’re not getting a score at the end of a fight when there’s a war on, lad. You don’t all go out for a drink afterwards. It’s kill or be killed, and if that means kicking someone in the knackers you bloody well kick them in the knackers, got that?”
A chorus of yessarges rose up from her squad. Polly nodded.
“Alright then. Now, with the help of my delightful corporal here –“ Polly smirked at Mal “- I’ll demonstrate some moves for you.”
Mal stepped up with a little flourish, which elicited a few sniggers.
"Alright, so. We have your very basic knee-to-the-socks, simple but effective and often unexpected. Corp?"
Mal grabbed Polly's arms, much like Prince Heinrich had done, trying to trap her.
"See?" Polly said. "Oh no my hands are trapped whatever shall I - hold on, I've still got legs." She carefully rose her knee and stopped just short of connecting.
"Careful there, Perks," Mal whispered from the corner of her mouth.
"Trust me," she muttered back, with an accompanying wink. She shook Mal's hands off and stepped back. "Everyone got that? Alright, let's make it a bit more complicated..."
They demonstrated another few moves, all in slow motion, easy to follow. That was, until Evans complained that it looked unrealistic.
Polly let Mal's neck go and frowned. "Unrealistic?"
"It's all easy when it's slow, but..."
"Right, we can give that a go. Mal?"
Mal shrugged and straightened up. Polly swung. Mal dodged Polly’s punch and stepped up behind her, and before Polly could adjust Mal had pulled Polly’s arm behind her back, trapping her.
Mal’s arm was around her neck, her other hand holding Polly’s elbow. She was pressed up close against Polly’s back, and Polly was panting, and –
That’s the third time it happens.
After that, Polly kind of loses count.
Alright, maybe she was in love. This was what everyone talked about, wasn’t it? Wanting to see your sweetheart, just being happy when you were near them, strange fluttery feelings whenever they looked at you…
Maybe they didn’t have girl-girl in mind when they talked about those kind of things, but they hadn't had girl in mind either when they talked about soldiering and going to war, and look how that had turned out.
So yes, maybe this mysterious it she kept feeling was being in love. Not that it helped much, knowing what it was.
It wasn’t like she could do anything about it, was it?
The new rupert was in his early twenties, short, scrawny, with a slight squinty expression in his eyes and the kind of chin that would make Blouse look lantern-jawed in comparison. And he was called ‘Rodney’. Although…
“How much are we willing to bet this one is actually a Bertha?” Mal muttered to Polly.
“Shut up,” Polly hissed back.
Mal winked at her.
Flutter. Flip. Quease.
Damn, Polly thought. This was getting ridiculous.
She straightened her tunic and strode over to the rupert, leaving Mal behind. “Sir!” she said, saluting smartly.
“Ah, yes, Sergeant.” Rodney gave her a slightly shaky smile. “Such a p- pleasure to be working with – I mean, to have you, erm, serving under me.”
“Yessir. Was wondering if you’d chosen a batman yet, sir?”
“A… b-beg your pardon?”
Polly caught and held a sigh. “Batman, sir. Someone to take care of your clothing, your shaving, your food.”
“Oh, you mean like a maid?” Rodney said brightly, obviously grasping at what little familiarity he'd found in this new and bewildering environment.
Maid. Not manservant. Definitely a Bertha, then.
“Yessir. I’d recommend Ellis, sir, used to work in a pub, knows her way around a frying pan and a bedpan; that’s the sort of thing you want in a batman.”
“Er, she, sergeant?”
“Yessir. She's a girl soldier, sir, that's allowed these days, whatever will they think of next,” Polly deadpanned.
“Ah.” The tips of Rodney’s ears turned red. “Yes, of course, that’s… I’m sure we’ll manage, sergeant. We are a modern army now, after all, aren’t we?”
“Aren't we just, sir. I’ll let her know. If there’s anything else, just give us a shout.”
“Right you are, sergeant.”
Polly saluted and went back to where Mal was lounging against a tree, ostensibly holding look-out.
“You’re right,” Polly said. “Definitely a Bertha.”
“Told you so.”
“Stammered a lot, though. He seemed almost intimidated.”
“Well, you are something of a celebrity, Pol,” Mal said mildly. “First openly female soldier. There at the peace treaty. Single-handedly broke the siege at Marmaduke. Kicked prince Heinrich in the – ”
“Yes, yes, I get it.”
“Are you blushing, sarge?” Mal said, with obvious delight.
“Shut it, Corporal,” Polly snapped.
“Just making sure you realise the full extent of your wonderfulness, sergeant.”
“I said – ”
“It’s an honour to serve with you.”
“Go see to the horse instead of blathering nonsense, corporal,” Polly snapped.
Mal gave her a lazy salute. “Pleasure, sergeant.” And she sauntered off.
Polly kicked a stray rock. “Dammit,” she muttered, her cheeks still aflame. “Dammit, blast it, bugger it all to hell and back.”
Polly had always prided herself on her sharp, always-ready tongue. Several years of bartending had given her loads of practice at shooting back witty replies to any kind of remarks, always guaranteed to elicit a laugh from the lewd old buggers. Even if it did get her the reputation of hard and sharp and catty, at least it was better than being a pushover. And she’d enjoyed it, never being shy for a reply.
So the way she now almost continuously got tongue-tied around Mal was unnerving. She’d even thought she was simply losing her wits for a bit, but no, she still managed to talk back to the rupert, to her lads.
It was just around Mal that she lost all intelligence. She either blushed and stammered, or grew cross and strict, like she was a bleeding superior officer. She didn’t like it. She could hear herself saying things that were decidedly unlike her, and still she couldn’t stop, couldn’t manage anything else. All because Mal, and the way she looked at Polly, amusement and fondness dancing in those dark eyes, and whoops, all Polly’s hard-found wit went through the window.
It was deeply annoying.
A whoop of laughter pulled Polly from her brooding. "Keep it quiet for once, can't you?" she snapped.
The lads fell quiet, sheepish, slightly worried expressions appearing on their faces. Polly immediately felt guilty. They deserved their moment of happiness around the campfire, didn't they? She shouldn't take her feelings - whatever they are - out on them.
“Alright,” Mal said firmly. “Sarge? A word?”
Polly hopped to her feet. Mal grabbed Polly’s arm and pulled her along to the edge of the forest. Polly stumbled behind her, her stomach doing a set of unpleasant gymnastic exercises. Mal's face was set, determined. It wasn't a look she'd seen in Mal a lot.
“Well?” Polly said, ignoring the gentle tingling that seemed to come from where Mal’s fingers were gently pressing into her arm.
“You’re being weird.”
“Excuse me?” Polly pulled her arm from Mal’s fingers.
“Oh, come on, Polly. Don’t pretend.” Mal ran her hand through her hair, making it stand up at surprisingly stylish angles.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Polly lied.
“No?” Mal gave her a cold look. “I thought we got along. That we - fine, that we were friends. But you’ve been acting like… Half of the time you don’t even react when I say something to you, like you're ignoring me.”
Polly shook her head, desperately trying to think of something to say. But, as it had been for the last few weeks, her mind drew a complete blank.
“Don’t worry,” Mal said, something tired and angry in her voice. “I know why.”
Polly’s stomach executed a perfect somersault. “You do?” she asked, throat dry.
“Yeah, of course. It’s obvious. I should’ve known, really.”
“Oh,” Polly said. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s fine, it’s not your fault, is it?” Mal gave a bitter laugh. “It’s only human.”
“I… suppose?” It didn’t make sense. Mal sounded so angry, and fine, Polly had suspected she wouldn’t exactly be thrilled, but still. This was worse than she had been fearing.
“Look, I get it, I really do. If I were in your position, I’d probably feel the same.”
And despite the fear and worry gnawing at her insides, Polly couldn’t help but snort at that display of vampiric arrogance. “Yeah, right, because you’re Mister Irresistible Vampire, right? Honestly Mal, you can be so full of yourself sometimes.”
“I’m – wait.” Mal narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about?”
Polly’s stomach sunk to her knees. “What are you talking about?” she asked, defensively.
“The vampire thing. That’s what this was all about, right? You being afraid me, thinking I might pounce and kill you, that I…” Mal trailed off. “That wasn’t it, was it?” she said slowly.
“No. No, Mal, I don’t – I’m not afraid of you. I never was.” Polly gave her a half-smile. “Remember me threatening to hit you with a stick when you were getting the no-coffee jitters?”
“Vividly,” Mal said. “I don’t think anyone would have dared to do that but you, you know. But…” She frowned. “Polly, if that wasn’t the reason, then why are you being so odd around me?”
Polly opened her mouth, closed it again. “It’s only human,” she said, flatly. “It’s alright, it’s not my fault, is it? It’s obvious. You should’ve known.”
“Polly, I don’t – ”
“I fancy you.”
Mal stared at Polly.
Polly stared at Mal.
Mal opened her mouth.
“Sarge,” a voice came squeaking from the shadows.
Polly’s head whipped around. “What?”
“Think a saw an enemy, sarge?”
“Where?” she said calmly, walking over to Matthews and grabbing his shoulder.
She let the boy lead her into the night and told herself very firmly that what she was feeling was not relief.
She managed to avoid Mal for the next few days.
It hurt, though, avoiding Mal. Mal had a point in that Polly hadn’t really been doing much talking to Mal lately – mostly because she was afraid she’d blurt out something unforgivable – but she’d still been around Mal, drinking in her presence, watching her.
But not anymore. Polly made sure Mal had plenty to do, usually somewhere away from Polly. And whenever she was near - they were in the same squad, after all, there was only so much avoiding a soldier can do - Polly forced herself not to look at Mal, to ignore her as much as she could. Polly had her lads to look after, right? They needed her attention. Mal was doing fine.
And it sort of worked. Three days passed without hardly a shared word between them.
But then they picked up three new recruits.
“Right,” Polly said, looking down at the tents. “The lieutenant will have to take my tent – it’s a bit smaller than the one you have now, but you’ll keep your privacy. That alright, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Rodney said, blushing again. Polly resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
“Okay. Then, Evans, Matthews, Ellis, Hillocks, and Gammidge, you can take that tent. The rest take the other big one, I’ll take the Lieutenant’s old tent, and corporal Maladict can sleep with m- I mean, can share my tent.”
“Yessarge!” the chorus came.
Polly had a sneaking suspicion Mal was looking at her, but she refused to give into the temptation of looking back.
Polly was dithering.
It was very unlike her, and she saw herself doing it and hated herself for it, but she just couldn’t…
She bit her lip and stared at the tent, as if it would combust in flames if she just looked hard enough. Combustion would be preferable to awkward stilted conversations. She could barely even look Mal straight in the eye without blushing these days, so how would she ever survive sharing a tent with her?
Maybe she could rearrange the watch shifts, make sure they never had to be in the tent at the same time, but that would mean very long night shifts. Could she explain that away to -
Was she really considering giving up a night’s sleep just to avoid being with someone she – someone she fancied?
She stared at the tent flap.
She was being stupid. Childish. For fuck’s sake, she was an adult now, she’d tackled far worse things. If she could stand up to the High Command, if she could face Jackrum, she could deal with one fanciable vampire, couldn't she?
Fuck this, she thought.
She yanked the tent flap open and got inside. Mal started at her entrance. “Polly, what’s – “”
“Shut up,” Polly said, sitting down. “I need to get this out before I lose my nerve.”
“Okay,” Mal said, looking at Polly with an uncharacteristically surprised face.
“I’ve had enough of this.”
“Us being awkward and quiet around each other. I want my mate back.”
“Just your mate?” Mal asked softly.
“It’s…” Polly ran her hand through her hair. “Look, if I’m selfish and don’t think of anything but what I want, then no, I’d want more than just a mate. But I know well enough that isn’t possible, so…”
“Isn’t it?” Mal asked, with a strangely intent look on her face.
Polly dropped her hand to her knee. “Well, no?” she said, confused. “You’re…”
“You didn’t consider…”
Polly stared at Mal, and her still oddly focused expression – and promptly had to stop her train of thought before she got too carried away, lost her common sense, started getting her hopes up. “I’m pretty sure an entire new passage of the book of Nuggan would show up just to condemn that, for one thing,” she said firmly.
“What about Tonker and Lofty?” Mal asked.
“Everybody thought Tonker was a boy – ” Polly said, uneasily.
“People think I am a boy – ”
“And they’re on the run now. Mal, it’s…” Polly stopped. She had to stop. It was like there was a very small but insistent Mal-shaped thought in her head, jumping up and down and shouting insistently.
“Polly,” Mal said urgently, “we can stay quiet about this, can’t we? Nobody would think twice about us sharing a tent, and we’re – I mean, we can be discreet, if that’s what it takes, right? Hell, Perks, we pretended to be boys for a whole week and nobody suspected, surely we can do this? Can’t we? Polly? Say something?”
Several things were happening inside Polly’s head.
She was thinking about Tonker and Lofty, and how everyone had seemed to notice what was going on between them but had carefully ignored it, never mentioned it.
She was thinking about all those women in the army, about Jackrum, hiding himself for the most part of his life.
She was thinking of when she had decided to join up the first time, her fiery determination.
But most importantly, there was one line of thought that kept repeating itself over and over again, shouting in excitement: Mal fancied her back.
Somehow, Polly had never really considered that possibility. Just thinking about it now brought whole new levels of stomach-flipping and sweaty-handedness, and an absurd urge to burst out in laughter and…
And everything sort of covalesced into sod it.
She leaned forward and grabbed Mal’s neck to pull her into a kiss. Mal flailed in surprise before she dropped her hands on Polly’s shoulders. Mal’s lips were cold, and a bit dry, but they fit against Polly’s in a way that sent strange – but nice, very nice – tingles all over her. Mal's fingers stroked the back of Polly's neck - another whole flight of tingles - and her mouth curved, smiling against her.
Polly leaned back. “Well.”
“Well.” Mal licked her lips. “I suppose that’s settled then?”
“Yes.” Polly nodded. “I mean, we’ll have to talk about this, right? How we’ll, and, you know…”
“Yes. But not now?”
Polly shook her head. Mal smiled.
And she leaned in for another kiss.
Next morning, Polly came out of her tent grinning.
It was still early, and no one was up yet. No one, that was, except for the lieutenant, sitting at the dying fire and staring broodily in the distance.
"Morning, sir," Polly said, sitting down next to him.
"Morning, sergeant. You're looking cheerful."
"Beautiful day, sir."
Rodney looked up at the grey skies and the hint of thunder clouds in the distance. "Yes," he said, somewhat dubiously. "Quite."
Polly poked at the fire, still smiling slightly.
"I... suppose this is as good a time as any. I have something to t-tell you, something which might b-be a considerable surprise to you."
"Sir?" Polly asked, poking the fire again.
"Yes. You see, Sergeant Perks, I am, in fact, a -" he hushed his voice "-a woman."
There was an expectant silence.
"Really sir?" Polly said dutifully.
"Yes. I know, I know, you're surprised. I, erm, put quite some work in the disguise, perfected my male appearance."
"Very well done sir, I would never have guessed."
"Yes." Rodney cleared his - her throat. "I... think it's better if you wait before telling any of the others, sergeant. Just to be on the safe side."
"Not that I expect to hide for the rest of my career, of course." Rodney smiled. "It's a brave new world."
Polly looked over Rodney's shoulder at her tent. Mal was just coming out, yawning, her hair ruffled and messy.
"Yes," Polly said, smiling. "It is."