Kelly loves Annabelle and Polly. She does not doubt that, not even on their worst days. She loves every inch of them, every single molecule, every fucking atom. She loves the way that Annabelle fusses with her hair for forty minutes every morning. She loves the way that Polly won’t eat cereal after it’s been sitting in milk for more than ten minutes. She loves Annabelle’s obsession with evening talk shows. She loves Polly’s insistence on attending symphonies in London at least once a month. She loves how Annabelle furrows her forehead when going through St. Trinian’s paperwork, and how Polly hums quietly under her breath when she’s really puzzled about something.
They have their strange little quirks, and God help her, she loves them.
But there are hard things. Kelly knows the lives that they’ve lived haven’t exactly made them fit in a comfortable way, but when they started this mess, she’d thought that they could work past all of it and live happily ever after, the end.
It doesn’t work like that, though.
There is an earthquake rumbling beneath their feet.
Kelly is a yeller. When she is angry, she doesn’t bother to bottle it up. She just turns to Annabelle or Polly, or sometimes both, and lets loose. She doesn’t bother to curb her tongue. What is the point? She feels the frustration, the anger, the sheer rage, and knows that if she holds it in, if she counts to ten, it will wash over her like a tidal wave, destroying everything around her. So she shouts, gets up in their faces and screams.
Annabelle doesn’t yell so much as she turns away and takes out her anger on a convenient vase or glass or lamp. They’ve gone through more dishes than anyone else Kelly knows simply because Annabelle needs to break something when upset. She would never raise a hand against either of them, and so the glassware suffers.
Polly goes silent. She closes her mouth, purses her lips, and turns and walks away.
Kelly cooks most of the time. She doesn’t mind, really. Annabelle works all day at St. Trinian’s, and Polly spends most of her day in London doing business. If she isn’t doing business, then she’s with the children and Chloe, which carries its own set of burdens. Kelly doesn’t hold a job anymore, and so it falls upon her to cook meals to keep them from becoming skin and bones.
This shouldn’t be an issue, except for the fact that it is. Polly keeps a very basic kosher, and so Kelly can’t cook anything with pork or shellfish in it, nor can she mix meat and dairy. Annabelle is a finicky eater, with a strong preference for the same meals every day. Kelly herself has some mild allergies to nuts and citrus, and between the three of them, Kelly’s menu options are few.
She does her best, though. She makes sure she’s home by four p.m., pulls out her trusty cookbook (not her St. Trinian’s cookbook, even though the First Years release a new one each year; there isn’t much that’s edible or non-alcoholic in there), and gets to work making meals the women she loves most in the world will eat.
Most days, she does well. Polly is always politely gracious, and Annabelle is enthusiastic about food that she likes. It always makes Kelly smile, seeing the way Annabelle lights up and Polly gives her food a pleased smirk.
But then there are the bad days.
Kelly gets home late one day, having spent her afternoon in Essex with Gerthe, a former Posh-Totty who was giving birth to her third baby. It was a difficult pregnancy. The baby didn’t make it. She’s exhausted, angry, and so, so heartbroken, and she reaches for ingredients without thinking, caught up in her haze of unhappiness. She whips up a quick casserole, desperate to finish before Polly and Annabelle arrive home.
Polly gets home first, as she often does, looking like an absolute mess. Her hair is falling over her face, and her clothes are covered in paint. Kelly raises an eyebrow at her while Polly sets down her briefcase.
“Hannah is angry at me,” Polly says, avoiding Kelly’s eyes. Kelly leaves it alone. Hannah and Hazel are Polly’s daughters, not hers. She’s just the mysterious and intriguing aunt that keeps a guest room ready for them.
Polly automatically starts setting the table, clearly moving on autopilot, and so Kelly goes back to making her fruit salad, the last part of their meal this evening. They work in silence, comfortable in their roles. Twenty minutes pass that way, and then Annabelle blows in, flinging open the door dramatically and tossing her bag on the floor, dropping her coat on the ground.
“Awful day at work,” Annabelle says swiftly, moving over to where they keep the wine. She usually selects the wine for the evening, and goes about it quickly, without bothering to ask Kelly what they’re having. “Play rehearsal is going dreadfully; the all-female interpretation of Julius Caesar is just not working. I may have to speak to Aunt Camilla.”
Polly hums; Kelly makes a sympathetic noise.
This is normal, in their household. Annabelle tells them all about her day; Polly gives scant details; Kelly tells them nothing at all.
Annabelle sits down in her usual place, pouring wine for the three of them. She’s selected a Riesling today. Polly sits down across from her, carefully lighting the candles on the table. Kelly pulls the casserole out of the oven. It’s all so perfectly normal. It’s their routine. She takes comfort in it. She tries to forget sitting by Gerthe’s bedside and doing nothing.
Kelly sets the casserole on the table and takes her own seat at the head of the table. “Eat up,” she says, looking into the middle distance and seeing Gerthe’s face when the doctors announced that it was a boy.
Neither of her wives move for a moment, staring at the casserole. Then Polly gives her a strange look. “I can’t eat this,” she says.
“And I won’t,” Annabelle adds, wrinkling her nose.
Kelly doesn’t look at them for a long moment. She can’t, not without snapping. Gerthe’s wails echo in her ears. She can feel the stillborn child in her arms, his beautiful face quiet and distant.
“Kelly, this isn’t kosher,” Polly says gently. “Ham and asparagus casserole isn’t kosher. I’m sorry.”
“And you know I hate asparagus. I gave you a list, darling,” Annabelle says apologetically. “The fruit salad looks lovely, though.”
Gerthe is burying her third child, and Polly and Annabelle are complaining about the food.
Kelly stands abruptly, barely aware of what she’s doing. She doesn’t care. She can’t care. Gerthe and Benjamin are selecting caskets for their son they never met. She can’t do this right now.
“Fuck you,” she says, and walks away. She walks up the stairs and goes to their bedroom. It isn’t a good hiding place, but then, she isn’t hiding. She lies down and buries her face in the pillows, trying to forget the eerie silence after the baby was born, struggling to forget the lack of screams and tears.
Annabelle is the first to follow her, as Kelly knew she would be. Annabelle always feels the need to alleviate her distress, even if there is nothing to be done. Annabelle was there in the years when her distress was constant, never-ending, and yet she still tries. She’s a sweet, loving woman, far too empathetic for her own good. She sits down next to Kelly, running her fingers through Kelly’s hair.
“You know, you never tell us about your day,” Annabelle says conversationally.
“There isn’t much to say,” Kelly says.
“Somehow, I doubt that. You’re so conscientious about cooking. You’ve stapled our dietary restrictions to the wall.”
Kelly smiles faintly. That had caused a huge row between her and Polly.
Annabelle lies down next to her, tucking her leg between Kelly’s legs. “Do you want to tell me?” Annabelle asks.
Kelly shakes her head. She doesn’t want to talk about little baby Allen, or Gerthe, or even Benjamin, with his optimistic video camera and excited face that collapsed when the doctors called it. Not with Annabelle, who understands death and endings, but didn’t really know Gerthe, and certainly knows nothing about children.
“I’m sorry,” Annabelle says finally. “For complaining. I shouldn’t have.”
“It was my fault,” Kelly says softly, reaching out and touching Annabelle’s face. Annabelle grabs her hand and kisses her fingertips.
“No, it wasn’t. Even if you won’t tell me, I know something happened.” She pauses for a moment, lacing her and Kelly’s fingers together. “I wouldn’t have acted so ridiculous, but work was… hard, today.”
“The play,” Kelly says.
Annabelle shakes her head. “No. Well, yes, but not just that. St. Trinian’s is taking on another ward, and it’s… it’s hard, to know these girls, and know that their families are so… repugnant. The girl we’re taking on, her name is Kelsey. Her mum is in jail, her father is dead, her grandmother is senile. There’s no one for her, Kel. Except Aunt Camilla and me, and isn’t that just the most tragic thing you’ve ever heard?”
Kelly thinks of the women she knew at St. Trinian’s and sighs. “The story just repeats through the years.”
“You and Polly were all right,” Annabelle says.
“Polly lived with her grandmum, if you’ll recall. And my parents…” Kelly sighs, shutting her eyes. “They loved me, but they didn’t know what to do with me.”
“You should ask Anoushka about her mothers,” Polly says from the doorway, her voice a sudden shock. “Or ask Zoe about her mum. Or Andrea. Ask Georgiana about her parents. Nothing new, Annabelle.”
Annabelle rolls slightly to face Polly. Kelly can see her over the slope of Annabelle’s hip. She looks stern and blank- just like Polly, thinks Kelly bitterly, even as the sound of Gerthe shakily singing a lullaby to her dead child roars through her ears.
“I’m sorry about Gerthe,” Polly says quietly.
Kelly stares at her, but then lets out a hollow laugh. Of course Polly knows where Kelly was. Of course she knows who she was with. Big Sister at her best.
“Fuck you, Polly,” she says, shutting her eyes.
She hears the soft rustle of Polly’s skirt as she steps quietly into the room. The bed doesn’t dip, so she imagines Polly is either standing by the bed or gone to sit in her armchair. Annabelle’s hand slides down onto her shoulder.
“How are they holding up?” Polly asks. Her voice sounds like it’s coming from across the room. Her armchair, then.
“You don’t know?” Kelly sneers. Annabelle’s hand tightens, a warning. Kelly ignores her. Annabelle has never been able to abide fighting between her and Polly, but Kelly likes to get it out in the open.
“I don’t watch you, Kelly,” Polly sighs.
“Then how did you know about Gerthe?”
“Gerthe was friends with Laksha. Laksha called me to let me know.”
Kelly scowls. Laksha is a lovely woman, kind and gentle, sweet, friendly, and she’s also the ex that left Polly in pieces when she was done. She can’t say that she’s fond of her, overall. She’s even less fond of the fact that Polly apparently still talks to Laksha.
“Right,” she says shortly. She hears Polly sigh.
“What happened to Gerthe?” Annabelle asks, confused. Kelly shakes her head. She really can’t talk about it.
“She gave birth to a stillborn son,” Polly says, and Kelly wants to kick her, wants to smack her, wants to kill her for how calm she sounds, how she can talk about Gerthe’s dead little baby without any inflection at all. No sorrow, no rage, just calm. In the end, that’s what sets her off. She’s so sad and so angry, and confronted with Polly’s void, she lashes out.
She sits up in a rush, looking at where Polly is sitting in her chair, legs crossed and arms folded.
“And you can just say that, so easily?” Kelly asks, incredulous. Annabelle tries to put her hand on her arm, but Kelly jerks away from her and stands up, walking toward Polly. “After all, it’s no big deal, right, Polly? It’s not like he was ever alive, so he doesn’t count as a human being. And, well, Gerthe and Benjamin have two other kids, so it’s all right, isn’t it? No grief for you. No sadness for you. Why should I be upset, right? Why should it affect anyone?”
By the end, she’s standing right in front of Polly. She’s shaking, she’s so angry. Polly stares up at her, face blank.
“If that’s how you think I feel, you’re dead wrong,” Polly says softly.
“Fine. So maybe it’s all right to be upset. But I shouldn’t have messed up your food. I should be just as perfect as you, Polly. Able to work through anything. Divorce myself from emotion. Be logical,” she sneers.
Polly gives her a long, measured look, and then stands up and walks away. She just leaves, walks right out the bedroom door. Kelly watches her go, and then dissolves into tears. Annabelle is by her in a second, wrapping her arms around her.
“Why did I say that?” she sobs, pushing her face into Annabelle’s neck. “What the hell is wrong with me?”
Annabelle shushes her, and runs a hand through Kelly’s hair. “You’re upset. She understands.”
Kelly forces herself to calm down. She hates crying. She isn’t the crying sort. Stiff upper lip and all that. She pulls away from Annabelle and lets out a shaky sigh. “Gerthe’s a great mum,” she says. “Her baby was named Allen.”
Annabelle’s sigh is softer, barely audible. “I’m so sorry.”
“His name was Allen,” she repeats. “He was so handsome.”
“Do you remember Pakistan?” Annabelle asks.
Kelly laughs shakily. “I remember a lot about Pakistan,” she replies.
“Do you remember Rashida?” Annabelle’s hands are moving up and down her back, soothing and rhythmic. This is why she’s an excellent deputy headmistress. She is, ultimately, far more comforting than either Kelly or Polly. This is why she always tries, Kelly knows. Because no matter how badly Kelly is feeling, no matter how much she thinks she can’t be comforted, Annabelle always finds a way.
Kelly smiles. “Yeah, I remember her.”
“You remember her little baby girl?”
Rashida was a Pakistani woman in the makeshift village they stayed at. She was a vague woman, always staring off into the middle distance. She didn’t speak any English, and didn’t speak much in Urdu either. From the stories told in the village, her husband had been killed in the war, or perhaps in a skirmish, no one was quite sure. She was pregnant and alone and scared. Kelly had tea with her every day, talking to her about anything and everything that struck her fancy, struggling to piece together Urdu sentences that made sense, knowing that most of what she said was probably nonsense and gibberish. Rashida had stared at her hands and refused to drink her tea.
The day that Rashida went into labor, Kelly had sat by her side and talked nonstop. She’d never been present at childbirth before, let alone one in the middle of the mountains with no doctors or midwives or anyone. She didn’t know what to do. Rashida’s friends had left the village on a mission, and Kelly, Annabelle, and the men were the only ones there. Annabelle delivered the child; Kelly held her hand and soothed her. She’d given birth to a lovely little girl.
Later, Kelly visited her for tea. “I’m sorry,” she’d said, struggling to find the right words in the unfamiliar language. “I know I wasn’t who you wanted. I’m sorry that I didn’t know what to do.”
And for the first time, Rashida looked up from her hands and said, her mouth awkward around the English words, “It was enough that you were there.”
They didn’t become friends, and Rashida never said a thing to her again, but for a moment, they were able to connect. For a brief moment, they understood each other.
Kelly squeezes her eyes shut again. “I remember her daughter.”
“It was enough that you were there, Kelly,” Annabelle reminds her gently. “And yeah, maybe Gerthe’s baby is gone, and sure, she’s devastated, and I know you, and I know you’re angry because you couldn’t save the boy, but Kelly? It’s enough that you were there.”
She thinks about that for a long time. She thinks about the day she spent at the hospital, holding Gerthe’s hand and doing her best to be optimistic and encouraging. She remembers kissing Gerthe’s forehead and telling her stories. She remembers Gerthe’s face when her baby was announced as stillborn.
“I hate that I just sat there, the entire time. I didn’t do anything.”
“It’s enough that you were there,” Annabelle repeats.
“I don’t know what the hell I said to Polly,” she admits. “I don’t know why I said it.”
Annabelle sighs. “I can’t tell you that. I can tell you that Polly has two kids of her own, and that you know she doesn’t express her emotions particularly well.”
Kelly rubs at her eyes and sits down in Polly’s chair. “I was leaking sideways.”
“I need to apologize.”
“Again I say, no shit.”
She finds Polly sitting in her office, her computer playing something soft and instrumental, the lights low. Polly doesn’t appear to be actively doing anything, just staring at the computer screen. Kelly walks over and takes a look. It’s a picture of Polly, Hannah, and Hazel, all snuggled up together on Chloe’s sofa.
“You said that Hannah’s angry at you?” Kelly asks, putting her hand on the back of the chair. Polly doesn’t look at her, but her hand drifts to touch a paint smear on her blouse.
“She says I can’t be her Aunt Polly anymore,” Polly says. Her voice is stiff, too stiff, even for Polly. Kelly hates herself for lashing out at her. She’s known Polly since they were eleven, been best friends since they were twelve. She knows that Polly is horrible at expressing emotion. She knows that, and she attacked Polly for it anyway.
“Because I only see her two or three times a week nowadays.”
Kelly frowns. “Surely that’s a lot.”
“For you or Annabelle, or Peaches and Chelsea, certainly. But before you came home, I saw them almost every day. I’m their mum, Kelly, even if they call me their aunt.”
Kelly can see Polly’s face in the reflection of her computer. She looks composed and certain, like she always does. She’s so rarely seen Polly lose her cool. She’s seen her furious, which is terrifying, but it’s hard to provoke that fury. It’s hard to provoke tears, too. She’s almost envious, but she can’t really imagine bottling that all up inside her.
“I’m sorry,” Kelly offers.
Polly finally looks at her, her eyebrow tilted up. “For what are you apologizing?”
Kelly flounders. “This. Everything. The entire evening.”
Polly shrugs. “I should know better than to approach you when you’re upset. Our fighting styles are hardly compatible.”
Kelly sighs and brings her hand up to rest on Polly’s shoulder. “You were trying to comfort me.”
“No I wasn’t,” Polly snorts.
Kelly blinks. That’s unexpected. Polly has always comforted her, in her own way. She can’t imagine Polly not wanting to comfort her, if she knew about Gerthe and her baby. But then, maybe she was reserving her sympathy for Gerthe.
“All right, then, what were you doing?”
“I was coming to poke your buttons. I was coming in to piss you off and make you angry,” Polly says. At Kelly’s dumbfounded look, she smirks. “I don’t pretend to be perfect or saintly, Kelly.”
“But… why?” she asks. “After the day I had, why would you do that?”
Polly sighs. “Because I had an awful day, too, and part of me blamed you, which is ridiculous, but there you are. Whatever else you may think, I can’t divorce myself from emotion and be logical all the time. I’m not a robot, for heaven’s sake.”
Kelly thinks about that for a moment. “You blamed me for Hannah being upset with you.”
Polly shrugs one shoulder. “When I’m thinking about it, no. Of course not. My choices are mine and mine alone. But my daughter yelled at me today for never being there for her, when I used to be, and it’s because I left London to live here with you and Annabelle. There’s a correlation, certainly, even if it isn’t causation. I was angry. I lashed out.”
Kelly laughs a little. She can’t help it. “If that’s you lashing out, then what do you call my outburst?”
Polly’s smile is thin, but there. “Hurricane Kelly.”
Kelly bursts into laughter, and Polly smiles at her. She hates it when she and Polly fight. As Polly said, their fighting styles are hardly compatible. The last time they fought, the curtains wound up on fire. (Not on purpose; Polly’s Shabbos candles were burning, and Kelly had accidentally knocked one of them into the curtains while she was stomping about in fury.)
When she calms down, she grins at Polly. “Someday we’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?”
“Perhaps,” Polly admits. Then she sobers and twists to put her hand lightly on Kelly’s. “I am sorry about Gerthe’s son, Kelly. I truly am.”
Kelly smiles sadly down at her, and bends to press a kiss against her temple. “I know, Polly. I know.”
There are stupid things. Too many stupid things, really. Polly goes ballistic (in her own, Polly-ish way) when they forget to mail the electric bill and they live for a week without electricity. Kelly only drinks a particular brand of milk, and Polly keeps forgetting which it is. Annabelle cannot abide clutter, fussing constantly with her workspace, while Kelly’s own junk slowly creeps in until Annabelle snaps.
Annabelle and Polly’s art tastes clash horribly, while Kelly isn’t really particular. Polly snaps Kelly’s favourite album after she plays it for a week straight. None of them can manage to do the dishes to the others’ particularities. Someone makes a cruel comment about Annabelle’s father. Someone else makes a sharp comment about people disappearing in times of trouble.
The toothpaste and towels are never right. Polly prefers soft lighting; Kelly prefers bright. Kelly snores; Annabelle kicks; Polly drools. There is too much technology in the house; there isn’t enough. The books are taking over; the bookshelves aren’t good enough. Someone dresses like a slag; someone else dresses like a nun. And why can no one ever remember to buy the bread?
Annabelle is too passive, Polly is passive-aggressive, and Kelly just plain aggressive.
None of them ever get it right.
There are less ridiculous things.
Kelly is the one with the nightmares, usually. She wakes up nearly every night, gripping Polly close, frantically trying to figure out what country she is, what city, and where is her gun, why can’t she find her gun, why is Polly here- why is Polly here, she can’t be here, not now, she’s doing this to keep Polly safe, this isn’t right, where is she? until Polly or Annabelle notices she’s awake and soothes her, calms her, presses kisses to her temple, to her elbow, to whatever part they can reach. It is usually Kelly, and so they know what to do, how to hold her, how to love her, until she remembers.
It’s a surprise, then, when Kelly struggles out of a deep sleep to find Polly reaching over her, her face pale and desperate in the pale light from the window. She doesn’t know what is happening until she hears a shrill cry, and feels Annabelle’s foot connect with the back of her leg. Polly is muttering under her breath, a constant stream of, it’s all right, it’s just a nightmare, and then Kelly realizes Annabelle is dreaming.
She wants to move, to go to her, but Polly is leaning right over, one knee pinning Kelly’s left arm to the bed. She twists, trying to reach Annabelle, but Polly makes a frustrated sound, so Kelly stops moving.
“Annabelle!” she shouts instead. “Wake up!”
She can see just enough to Annabelle to see her eyes fly open, wild and terrified. Kelly doesn’t get the opportunity to warn Polly. Annabelle snarls in fury and slams her fist into Polly’s face.
Polly yelps and collapses on top of Kelly, clutching her face. Annabelle freezes and stares at Polly in shock. Polly looks at her for a moment, but Kelly can’t see the look on her face. Then Polly flings herself off Kelly and walks swiftly to the loo, slamming the door behind her.
Kelly sits up, rubbing her eyes. She reaches over and switches on the lamp by the bedside and flinches away from the light. “Are you all right?” she asks Annabelle.
Annabelle ignores her, slipping out of bed and walking over to the bathroom. She knocks on the door. “Polly?” she asks softly.
Kelly kicks the sheets off her legs. This is a bad idea, she wants to tell Annabelle.
“Polly, please talk to me,” Annabelle begs, leaning her forehead against the door. “Please. I’m so sorry, I didn’t-”
“Will you give me five fucking minutes to not be in control, Annabelle?” Polly says caustically through the door. Kelly winces. Annabelle looks like Polly had punched her in return. Kelly pulls her back to bed by the arm.
“She’s fine,” Kelly says softly. “Just startled.”
Annabelle gives her a cold look. “How do you know? You’re not in there with her.”
“Because it’s Polly. If she were actually hurt, she’d be efficiently bandaging herself with the first aid kit we keep in the drawer,” she points out.
“I could have broken her nose,” Annabelle says helplessly. “I could have seriously hurt her. What was she thinking, leaning over me like that?”
Kelly pulls Annabelle down onto the bed, wrapping her arms around her and tilting Annabelle’s head until it’s pressed into her shoulder. “She was thinking that you were screaming, and she wanted it to end.”
Annabelle shudders. “It was just a nightmare.”
“You don’t get nightmares, Annabelle,” Kelly reminds her gently. “Not like me.”
“I have nightmares,” Annabelle says quietly. “But no, not like you.”
Kelly frowns, carefully running her fingers through Annabelle’s hair. She’s always admired her curls, loved the ringlets that appear if Annabelle doesn’t bother to straighten her hair. She’s always wanted curly hair, but has resigned herself to stick straight, boring hair.
“How often?” she finally asks.
“One, maybe two a month. I don’t panic like you, though. I just wake up.”
“Does Polly know?” Kelly asks. She thinks it’s rather obvious that she didn’t.
“God, I hope not.”
“I didn’t know. I- I’m sorry. I should have… I didn’t think that you would get nightmares,” Kelly finishes pathetically. Annabelle tugs away from her, frowning.
“I was there, Kelly. I did things- I saw things- it was a bad time.”
Kelly nods helplessly. She forgets, sometimes, how much of Annabelle’s life she wasn’t privy to in that time, so busy running around and spying on people. She doesn’t know what Annabelle did, but she remembers one too many times returning to their hotel only to find that Annabelle had disappeared, with unconscious bodies left behind. She was careless in that time, frantic to get home, desperate to end their hell, and she left Annabelle vulnerable at times.
She forgets, sometimes, that an operator’s job is to protect their field operative, no matter what the cost to themselves.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“Oh, don’t,” Annabelle says crossly. “I wanted to be there. Stop the martyr act.”
It helps, a bit. Kelly presses her lips to Annabelle’s temple and breathes in her scent. It still soothes her, after all these years.
“Are you all right?” she asks after a moment.
Annabelle lets out a shaky breath. “I was remembering San Ignacio. If it had gone differently. If Hunter had… if she’d pulled faster, if she’d been less curious.”
Kelly winces. It was their first failed mission together. It doesn’t bother her overly much, given how many things went wrong after that, how many other things were so much worse, but she can see how it shook Annabelle. She remembers that moment where neither of them was sure what would happen.
“I’m sorry,” she says. It’s pathetic, but it’s all she has to offer.
They lay there quietly for a long, timeless moment. Kelly listens to Annabelle breathing, feels her heart finally slow down. Then Annabelle pushes herself up on one elbow. “I hit Polly,” she says wretchedly.
“I know,” Kelly says. “She’ll be fine.”
“She wasn’t trained to take a hit,” Annabelle says. She rubs a hand over her face.
Kelly wants to tell Annabelle about all the times that Polly took hits anyway, but she knows that won’t help. She wants to remind Annabelle about when Polly pulled out her gun and used it and survived, but that’s different.
“I punched Polly once,” Kelly offers finally.
Annabelle looks at her, incredulous. “You didn’t.”
“I did. We were… Jesus, thirteen? Fourteen? I don’t remember anymore.”
Annabelle digs a heel into her eyes and sits up all the way. Kelly moves with her, the connection between them as much physical as emotional. “Why did you hit her?”
Kelly smiles. It’s really not funny, not at all, but she can’t help it. She always smiles when she thinks back to her St. Trinian’s days with Polly. “There had been an… incident… with one of girls and a couple of townies. They’d hurt her very badly. Polly was good friends with her, and was devastated, furious, a wreck. I went out and found one of them, brought them back to the school, thinking we could publically shame them, humiliate them, that sort of thing. Let the world know you didn’t fuck with St. Trinian’s girls. The girl, though, she just wanted to let it go. Was ready to pretend it didn’t happen. Polly was angry that I hadn’t bothered to ask.”
Annabelle frowns. “But how did that lead to you hitting her?”
“She called me a fucking ignorant, selfish cow. This was forty minutes into a screaming argument, and I was angry and fed up, so I punched her in the face.”
After a moment, Annabelle says, “What happened?”
“You know Polly. You know how she fights.”
“Yeah. She went down and then kicked me in the knee.”
Annabelle winces. “Ouch. And then?”
Kelly smirks. “This was before I knew what fighting was like. She won. By a considerable margin, she won, and I apologized to N- to the girl. Learned that I couldn’t save everyone, and that some people don’t want saving. And some don’t need it.”
“Quite the lesson to learn at that age,” Annabelle says softly. She isn’t looking at her anymore, instead staring into the middle distance. Kelly understands. It took Annabelle a number of years to learn that lesson.
“Well,” Kelly says, clearly her throat. She takes Annabelle’s hand and laces their fingers together. “We St. Trinian’s girls are ahead of the curve.”
“I should go check on her again,” Annabelle says.
“Why don’t you just wait?” Kelly asks. “She’d probably appreciate it if you wait for her to calm down. She doesn’t like being seen as anything less than perfect.”
“Waiting is something that Polly is good at, not me,” she replies. Kelly lets her go, watching Annabelle unfold herself and straighten her shoulders, looking suddenly like the Annabelle from Belize, from Pakistan, from South Korea. She’s put so much of that away over the years that it hurts Kelly’s heart a bit, to see it again in their own home. To see it when she’s going to talk down Polly, not a drug-crazed, adrenaline-fueled, fear-filled St. Trinian’s criminal.
She wishes she could make things better for them all. But you can’t save everyone, and some people don’t want saving.
And some don’t need it.
There are days when Kelly considers walking away. Days when she looks around their cottage, hears the yelling and the silence (depending on who is fighting), and thinks, If I just left… if I just ended this…
She doesn’t really know how her friends’ relationships work. Chelsea and Yvette are sickeningly devoted to one another, to the point where Kelly just wants to gag at their syrupy sweetness. Taylor and Andrea do foreplay through fighting, and so it’s hard to tell when they’re genuinely annoyed with one another and when they’re flirting. Saffy and Bella have been in love since they were children, and know each other so well that words are unneeded. She wonders, watching them all, if their relationships are simpler because there are only two of them. If things are smoother because there are less people involved.
Chelsea once mentioned that a constant threesome must be heavenly. Kelly thinks she has no idea.
She isn’t sure how Polly became the mother to Chloe’s children, since as far as she can tell, Polly and Chloe never dated and Chloe is ostensibly straight. Nevertheless, Polly goes to their concerts and their games, spends several days a week at Chloe’s cooking supper (which must be a feat, since Kelly knows Polly can only cook five things without burning them) and playing with them, and will drop anything if they need her. Their refrigerator is covered in their childish scribbles, and Polly reads them books over the phone when she isn’t there for bedtime. She’s their mum, and a damn good one, but it boggles her brain at times.
Kelly isn’t great with children, generally. She likes them well enough, but they don’t seem to like her. Hazel and Hannah adore her, call her Aunt Kelly, give her little gifts of lint and crushed flowers, but they seem to be the only ones that accept her. Most children hide behind their parents’ legs and eye her warily. It’s like they know that she’s dangerous, that she’s done bad things.
“That’s ridiculous,” Annabelle says, rolling her eyes and buttering her toast when Kelly mentions it to her over breakfast. Polly is already gone, business in London or some such, so it’s just the two of them. “My girls adore you.”
Kelly rolls her eyes right back. “Your girls are St. Trinian’s girls. They don’t count as children.”
Annabelle shrugs a shoulder, conceding the point, but goes on. “I think you’re very good with children. And frankly, if you think they’re scared of you because of the things you’ve done, then shouldn’t they eye me the same way?”
She snorts. “You didn’t do anything like what I did.”
She realizes the second she says it that it was the wrong thing to say. She and Annabelle had very different paths and duties in those two years, but she knows perfectly well that Annabelle hates what she became in those years. She’s come to terms with it in a way that Kelly hasn’t, not yet, but that doesn’t mean she appreciates being treated like all she did was look at a computer.
“I killed people, Kelly,” Annabelle says frostily.
“You didn’t lie to them first. You didn’t get them to trust you,” Kelly replies. She doesn’t sound bitter. That’s amazing.
Annabelle puts down her toast and knife, giving her a hard look. “I get rather tired of the self pity, Kelly. We both did horrible things in order to protect people. We need to accept this. It’s in the past. We don’t do it anymore. It influenced who we’ve become, but it’s not who we are.”
Kelly looks at the table. Annabelle is right, of course. She usually is. She’s lucky to be married to two women who are far more rational than she’ll ever be. “What if it is?”
“Are you a serial killer?” Annabelle counters.
“No, of course not,” Kelly says, appalled. Even in her darkest moments, she hates the very idea of taking lives. She’s done it before. It was never worth it.
“Then don’t worry about it,” Annabelle replies.
“I do, though,” Kelly says softly. “It would be easy.” It’s something she doesn’t talk about often, her fear that one day she’ll wake up and realize that all she was ever good for was spying on people and killing them. That the best work she ever did in her life involved ruining lives and bringing people to their lowest point. St. Trinian’s girls are criminals, it’s what they are, but they generally have some sort of moral code that they follow. It would be easy, really, to be the other kind of criminal. The kind that turns its back on even the rather skewed justice model St. Trinian’s women believe in. The evil kind.
There is a darkness, deep inside her, and it would be easy to embrace it.
“Do you know what I admire about you, Kelly Jones?” Annabelle asks, dragging Kelly from her thoughts.
“The fact that, unlike you and Polly, I can actually cook?”
Annabelle huffs out a laugh but shakes her head. “The fact that you never take the easy path. It would have been easy to just do what MI7 wanted, but you didn’t. It would have been easy to kill Beth Hardwick, but you didn’t. It would have been easy- it would have been easy to let me go, when I fucked up with Roxy, but you didn’t. Kelly, you look at the easiest path, decide that it isn’t the right one, and choose the other one.”
She looks at Kelly, her eyes soft and kind and sad, and says, “I don’t think you ever have to worry about going bad, Kelly. It’s too easy. You don’t like easy.” She looks back down at her toast and picks up her knife, dipping it into the marmalade.
“But what if-” Kelly begins, but Annabelle stops her, looking back up, and now her eyes are hard.
“And if you ever decide the easy path is best after all,” she says conversationally, “then Polly and I are here to drag you back.”
It’s as good as a promise.
Their friends look at Kelly and Annabelle, and it’s always been rather obvious what their issues are. Kelly has PTSD, diagnosed by a professional St. Trinian’s psychiatrist, and she’s always been rather open about it. She doesn’t think hiding it would do a bit of good, and her friends should know. She’s done hiding things from them. She occasionally goes to St. Trinian’s and helps some of the girls out there, lets them know that you can have PTSD and still live. That trauma isn’t the end of feeling joy and happiness and love.
And everyone just makes the assumption that Annabelle is a little messed up, since when she left she couldn’t defend herself in a fight and when she came back she was trained in a variety of martial arts and able to shoot several different firearms.
People think Polly is the stable one, and in general, Kelly agrees. Polly is the one that doesn’t have meltdowns every week; she’s the one that doesn’t jump at shadows, or insist on creating redundancies in their security system just in case. She doesn’t sleep with a gun on the nightstand. She doesn’t memorize escape routes. She goes to work, comes home, works on puzzles, reads, and does it every day without any real variation in her routine.
Kelly and Annabelle rely on Polly to be predictable, and so they both forget sometimes how very unpredictable she is, that her routine is simply a façade, an act.
“I’m going to Singapore,” Polly says one afternoon while they’re watching telly. Her knitting is in her hands, the ragged disaster of a scarf sprawled across her lap along with Kelly’s feet. Annabelle looks up from where she is laying on the floor.
“What?” she asks, sounding confused.
Kelly doesn’t blame her. This is news to her as well. She pulls her feet out of Polly’s lap and swings them down to rest on the floor. She has a bad feeling that this is going to turn into an argument. She’s come to recognize the trembling under her skin.
“I have some business I need to take care of. I’ll be gone for about a month. Maybe longer, though not much,” Polly says. She still hasn’t stopped knitting. Kelly doesn’t know why she keeps trying it. She’s awful, always will be. No amount of practice can make it better.
“I’m sorry, say that again?” Annabelle says, rolling up to a sitting position. Her eyes are dark, crackling with thunder.
Kelly thinks she’s in shock. Usually she would be angrily interrogating Polly, but her insides feel cold.
Polly sighs and finally sets down her damned knitting. “You heard me. I’m going to Singapore. I leave in three days.”
That finally breaks through the cold. Kelly stares at her, disbelief and rage rising in her throat. “Three days?” she asks, shocked. “How long have you known that you would be leaving?”
Polly shrugs. “Maybe a month.”
“Were you intending to tell us beforehand?” Annabelle asks, getting up and standing so that she is staring down at them.
Polly raises an eyebrow coolly, looking supremely unimpressed. “I believe I just did.”
“Were you going to talk to us? This is a big decision, Polly, you can’t just make it without asking for our input,” Kelly says, and she’s starting to shout, she can feel it, but she doesn’t care. She’s angry and shocked and she doesn’t even know why Polly is going to Singapore. She doesn’t know what Polly does for a living.
They’ve been together for five years, and she doesn’t know what Polly does for a living.
“You didn’t ask for my input when you left,” Polly says coldly. She stands up and shoulders past Annabelle, walking swiftly out of the room. Annabelle watches her go, but Kelly won’t have any of that. She flings herself up and follows Polly, glaring.
“That was different and you know it!” she shouts. “Don’t you even dare make them out to be the same thing.”
“You had work to do; so do I. It is the same thing,” Polly says. She reaches the stairs and starts going up them. Kelly runs, pushes past her, and swings around to stop her. She’s on the step above Polly, giving her maybe an inch on her, the first time she’s ever been taller than Polly in her life.
“What work?” she asks. She can see Annabelle walk over and stand at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at both of them.
“That’s none of your business.”
“Polly, if you’re leaving for a month, maybe more, it’s my business. What work is this?”
Polly narrows her eyes, and for a moment, Kelly thinks maybe this is the time when Polly takes a swing at her. When angry, Polly doesn’t attack with her fists or her feet. She goes quiet and sharp at the edges, her words more than enough to destroy someone. They haven’t had a fist fight, the two of them, since they were fourteen. She wonders if they’re about to break that record. But then she watches as Polly very visibly reins herself in, takes a deep breath, and says, “It’s Kaluwitharana business.”
It takes Kelly a moment to understand that, but Annabelle is faster. “You work for Peaches?” Annabelle asks, sounding surprised. She didn’t know what Polly’s job was either.
Polly half turns. “I do. And I’m going. It’s non-negotiable.” She turns back, gives Kelly a stern look, and then ducks underneath her arm, heading up to their bedroom and leaving Kelly standing there, feeling shattered.
Annabelle steps up, standing on the first stair, looking how Kelly feels. “Did I miss something?” she asks.
Kelly shuts her eyes, just for a moment, tamping the anger back down. “I think we both did.”
She opens her eyes, and she and Annabelle look at each other for a while. Finally, Annabelle puts her hands on the pocket of her jeans and says, “I’m going to call Peaches. Talk to her?”
Kelly nods and goes up the stairs.
The bedroom door isn’t shut all the way, a sure sign that Polly isn’t actually trying to push her out. Polly’s cues are very simple, and if she really wanted Kelly to leave her alone, the door would be locked and barricaded. She pushes the door open. Polly is sitting on the bed, her head in her hands, breathing slowly and steadily.
“Hey,” Kelly says.
“Hey,” Polly replies, her voice muffled.
“I think I missed something, somewhere,” Kelly says softly, sitting down next to Polly. She makes sure there is plenty of room between them. Polly is practically vibrating with tension, and Kelly doesn’t want to push her. They sit in silence for a long while, Kelly staring at the walls. There are cobwebs in one corner of the ceiling, and suddenly she realizes that she should have seen this coming. Those cobwebs are as good as a neon sign. Polly keeps their room immaculate. If she’s been too distracted to dust, then there is something important going on in her head.
“Fuck,” Polly says finally, and there’s another clue. Polly rarely swears.
“Yeah,” she agrees, not knowing what else to say.
“This is- I’m not leaving you,” Polly says, taking her hands away from her face. Her eyes are red-rimmed, but she isn’t crying. Yet.
Kelly looks at her, alarmed. “I didn’t assume you were. Should I be assuming you were? I just thought- I thought you had work. You said you had work.”
“I had a choice,” Polly admits. “Peaches mentioned the trip, and I asked to go.”
Kelly twists around and draws her legs up on the bed. She reaches out and puts her hand on Polly’s knee. “Why?”
“Because I’ve never been anywhere,” Polly says finally. “Because while you and Annabelle were off in the world, and Chelsea was in the United States, and Peaches jetted out to wherever she needed to go, I was here. Holding down the fort. Keeping the home fires burning. All the clichés.”
“It wasn’t like we were having a having a fun little jaunt, Polly,” Kelly says.
“I know,” Polly says, sounding even more distressed. “I know it wasn’t fun for you, and Chelsea was in school, and Peaches was working, but it doesn’t matter. I felt trapped, Kelly. I’ve felt trapped for years.”
“I trapped you,” Kelly says, suddenly numb. She feels ill.
“No!” Polly says. She turns and pulls her legs up as well, reaching out and grabbing Kelly’s hand. “You couldn’t- you never-”
“You always wanted to travel, even when we were young. And I made you stay still in order to take care of my mess. I trapped you,” Kelly says, thinking quickly. She remembers when they went to Germany together. Polly had been busy studying, but whenever she’d had a free moment she had wanted to go exploring, eager to go wherever the trains could take her. Kelly should have realized.
“You didn’t trap me,” Polly says softly. “I made a choice.”
“Is it really a choice when you’re forced into it?” Kelly asks, equally soft.
They stare at each other for a long while, not speaking. Kelly can feel herself tearing up, but she chokes them back as best as she can. Crying won’t help anything.
“Do you know,” Polly says suddenly, “that I fell in love with you when we were twelve? When you pretended to care about my destroyed project on ocean currents.”
“I wasn’t pretending,” Kelly protests automatically, and then actually hears what Polly said. “When we were twelve?”
“You were my hero, my best friend, you were everything to me. Of course I fell in love with you.”
Kelly falls back on the bed. “You’ve loved me for-”
“For fourteen years. And I have never wavered or faltered in that love, and I never, ever will. I love Annabelle just as much. I’m not leaving you.”
“But you are leaving,” Kelly says, knowing that she lost this conversation the moment she walked into the room. Everything feels like it’s spinning out of control, and for a second, just a second, she feels like she can see her entire future in front of her. Her and Annabelle, happy together, but feeling like they’re missing a limb. Her chest feels tight. She feels like she can’t breathe.
Polly tugs Kelly back up and holds her hands. Kelly knows Polly’s hands as well as she knows her own. She knows where all the little scars came from, and how she got the calluses. “For a month. Everyone else- they graduated and got to find out who they were. Even you and Annabelle, despite what you went through. You found out what you were willing to do, how far you were willing to go. You discovered all your strengths and weaknesses. I sat by a computer and cultivated a carefully dull routine in order to slip beneath the radar. I became a mother without warning, but that was the only thing about my life that wasn’t calculated. Kel. I need to do this.”
Kelly stares at Polly, trying to think. Polly has loved her for fourteen years, has never wavered, never faltered, never left her and insists she never will. Kelly trusts her.
“You’ll come back?” she asks, her voice cracking. She loses what little control she had over her tears. Polly tugs her forward into her arms.
“I’ll always come back,” she whispers into Kelly’s hair, kissing her temple. Her hand spasms briefly against Kelly’s back. “Always.”
They take her to the airport, kiss her goodbye, wave fruitlessly at the plane, and then stand there, helplessly.
“She’ll come back,” Annabelle says. She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself.
“She’ll always come back,” Kelly replies. She reaches out and grabs Annabelle’s hand. It’s comforting, despite everything else.
She and Annabelle go through a sort of routine while Polly is gone. Kelly cooks too much food at supper every night, and Annabelle keeps going to London to wait for Polly, only to remember when Celia gives her a strange look. They both will make a joke and then turn to smile at Polly, waiting for her small smile or dry laugh only to see nothing and be greeted with silence.
Kelly wonders, sometimes, how they ever managed without Polly. For seven years, it’s been the three of them, even if for three of them it was only Annabelle and Kelly together, with the idea of Polly sustaining them. It really is like missing a limb. They don’t know how to function without her.
“Do a puzzle with me?” Kelly asks Annabelle helplessly. It isn’t the same, though.
“Use your nails,” Annabelle pleads, and Kelly tries, she does, but she doesn’t even have to ask to know that Annabelle misses Polly more than ever afterwards.
At breakfast one morning, Annabelle looks up from her eggs and asks, “Was it like this, when I- when I left?”
Kelly sighs and prods at her omelet. “Yes. And no. I was so angry at you, Annabelle, and I missed you, and it hurt, but I was too angry to think about all the ways that I needed you.”
“What about Polly?”
“Polly… you know Polly. She was quieter than normal. She… went for long bicycle rides, and didn’t want me to come. She called St. Trinian’s a few times, I think. Talked to your aunt.”
Annabelle sets her fork to the side. She puts her elbows up on the table and runs her hands through her hair. “I’m sorry. If it hurt half as much as this does, I am so sorry.”
Kelly shrugs, because that was years ago. “I forgave you a while ago.”
Annabelle sits there for a while, staring down at her food, and Kelly doesn’t know what to say. She just keeps poking her breakfast, trying to pretend that she actually wants to eat it. If Polly were there, she would be lecturing Kelly about the importance of breakfast, and she’d be rattling off the nutritional information about omelets, trying to convince Kelly to drink some of that awful homemade grapefruit juice that she insists on making each morning, and everything would be normal, and right, and not this awful, gaping silence.
“Do you ever think,” Annabelle says, her voice soft and low, “that we’re just moving from one crisis to the next?”
Kelly rubs her eyes. “We were always bound to be a natural disaster.”
Annabelle gets letters from Polly, lengthy ones. Kelly is rather impressed that Polly can write ten page letters, actually, because of the three of them, Polly has always been the most reserved. Kelly knows she has always had plenty to say, of course- she grew up with Polly, she has heard her opinion on just about every subject ever- but she often chooses not to say a thing.
“What is she writing about?” Kelly asks, sipping her tea and making a face. They really need to clean the kettle.
“The state of Singapore’s physics program,” Annabelle says. She looks up. “Does Singapore have a physics program?”
“I think Polly would point out how incredibly narrow minded that makes you,” Kelly says idly, and sits down next to Annabelle, looping her foot around Annabelle’s ankle. “I, on the other hand, have no idea.” She pulls out her phone and Googles it. “Yes. Apparently.”
“Well, it doesn’t meet Polly’s exacting standards. Or something. I don’t really understand half of what she’s talking about.”
“At least it’s only half. If she’s talking about physics, I really only pick up on about a quarter of it.”
Annabelle sighs and squints at the letter. “Now she’s talking about her own ideas about string theory. I always want to play cat’s cradle when she starts babbling about that.”
Kelly snorts. “I tried to play cat’s cradle with Polly when we were thirteen. I couldn’t figure out why her Eiffel Tower always went wonky, until I realized she was trying to create a representation of eleven-dimensional space.”
Kelly doesn’t get letters. She and Polly have never been the letter writing sort. Admittedly, Kelly doesn’t think they’ve ever been apart long enough to justify writing letters, except for those three years when Kelly sent her encrypted information. Which doesn’t count, because all three of them have a silent pact to speak of those years as rarely as possible.
What Kelly does get, though, are postcards.
She doesn’t know how Polly found out about her postcard collection. She suspects Peaches told her, since Peaches gives her a new postcard every time she leaves the country. But it isn’t something she’s ever actually told Polly about. She’s never told her that she started buying postcards three months into working for MI7, in order to remind herself where she’d been. In order to remind herself that she was just visiting, that this wasn’t home, that this wasn’t going to be her life forever. She’s never shown Polly the stacks and stacks of cheap paper cards with their ugly pictures and cheap sentiment, nothing written on the back. A wall of silence, those years. A pool of emptiness.
Polly’s postcards all have something written on the back of them, in her tiny, crabbed handwriting. Every inch of available space is filled, and sometimes even the picture on the front has words crawling all over it. Rants about Peaches’ organizational talents, diatribes on the criminal underworld, a review of a restaurant that Polly ate at. Mostly, it’s meaningless. It’s silly things, like Polly ruminating on whether or not she can wear orange (the final verdict: no) or about if Chloe would let her get a cat for the girls (also a no, but if Kelly knows Polly, she’s going to do it anyway), or just a postcard full of equations that Kelly thinks were sent to her because Polly couldn’t sleep, and then wanted someone to safeguard her thoughts.
She keeps all of them, of course, noting that some of them come from the Philippines, and China, and Thailand; others from India and Sri Lanka, still more from Japan. Polly is apparently traveling while she is traveling.
One arrives at the same time as a letter for Annabelle. They sit at the table, their base of operations, the site of their disaster control, and Kelly watches as Annabelle pulls out a wad of sheets, covered in Polly’s familiar scrawl. She watches Annabelle settle in to read every single word that Polly has given her, and she thinks she would be envious that Polly graces Annabelle with speeches while she gets scattershot, but then she reads her postcard.
It’s one word, but it communicates everything that Kelly needs to know, and she can’t feel envious of Annabelle at all.
It’s only a month, but it feels like a decade. Kelly gets a text in the middle of the night, her arm thrown around Annabelle’s waist, her face tucked into her neck, and she reaches blindly for her glowing mobile.
Coming home. Be there soon.
Kelly feels sleep fall away from her like an avalanche, and shakes Annabelle. “Wake up,” she hisses, her voice soft no matter what her intent.
Annabelle blinks blearily, squinting in a desperate attempt to focus. Annabelle is never any good upon first waking up, too wrapped up in the wisps of dreams to ever come to attention immediately. She doesn’t tend toward hyper vigilance, unlike Kelly.
“What?” she groans, and tries to tuck her face back into her pillow, but Kelly squeezes her arm. “What?” she says again, sounding more awake and more annoyed.
“Polly’s coming home,” she says.
Annabelle rolls her eyes. “I know, Kelly. She reminds me in every letter.”
Kelly sits up, shaking her head. “No, she just texted me. She’s coming home now.”
Annabelle stares up at her, her face pale in the darkness. Her eyes are big and don’t waver from Kelly for a moment. Kelly fell in love with that look, years ago. That unswerving devotion and trust that Annabelle gave her without question. It’s been a while since she’s seen it. She considers leaning down and kissing Annabelle, of reminding her, but then Annabelle bolts up right.
“Shit, we haven’t cleaned in, like, two weeks! She’s going to be furious.”
An hour later, Polly walks through the door of their little cottage, and instead of finding them ready to greet her with open arms, she finds them frantically trying to figure out how to get the wine stain out of the carpet. Kelly braces herself.
As homecomings go, at least it’s memorable.
Later, Kelly will recognize that what swept through her when Polly walked through door wasn’t love or happiness or excitement or forgiveness or relief, but anger, bright and hot and swiftly buried again underneath her smile and Annabelle’s half hysterical laughter.
Polly tells them stories about Singapore and the multitude of other countries she happened to find herself in over the next few days. Annabelle listens and nods enthusiastically, asking Polly if she visited this café, this bar, this landmark. Annabelle has always been better at remembering the individual details of each country they visited, which Kelly imagines as a sort of side effect of being an operator. Certainly Polly has the same eye for such things- even describing to Annabelle how the sofa at a particular café had faded since Annabelle visited it last- but for Kelly, most of the countries ended up bleeding together as a sort of faded watercolor in her head. She remembers the women. She remembers the missions. She doesn’t remember how a particular restaurant prepared its curry.
Kelly can’t help but keep her distance in those days. She isn’t angry at Polly, not like she was in the first few days after she left. She doesn’t understand the need to go, the need to walk away, because for her the need was to stay, to come home, to walk towards, but she recognizes that it was a need in Polly, not just a selfish desire. She isn’t angry. She isn’t. But she isn’t ready to trust the Polly has decided to stay, not yet.
Annabelle is swifter to forgive, always has been. She thinks she is particularly eager to forgive Polly this, if only because then perhaps she can be forgiven for her own leaving, though she has already been forgiven many times over. Kelly sometimes catches Polly giving Annabelle a sad, desperate look out of the corner of her eye, and she sees that Polly is careful to hold her hand for longer, to press her thigh to Annabelle’s, to smile more noticeably and to laugh more loudly. If Annabelle is eager to forgive in order to earn her already-granted forgiveness, then Polly is just as eager to give that forgiveness, to demonstrate that they are all right.
Kelly sometimes catches the looks that Polly gives her out of the corner of her eye, too, but she ignores them. She’ll get there, in her own time.
“She came back,” Annabelle whispers into her collarbone, sweating and shuddering above Kelly.
“But she left,” Kelly replies, surging upwards to catch Annabelle’s mouth with hers, stealing whatever response she comes up with from her lips.
Kelly gets called into London by Celia, something about needing some extra help in the teashop. Annabelle kisses her goodbye distractedly, staring down at the pile of essays she’s been meaning to grade and ignored entirely, and Polly has been gone for an hour already, summoned by Peaches. Kelly takes the car- Annabelle can ride Polly’s bicycle to the school.
When she walks into Celia’s shop, it’s completely empty except for Celia, Peaches, and Polly. Polly looks mutinous; Celia and Peaches look determined.
“No,” Kelly says immediately, not budging from the doorway. She can see an intervention from a mile off.
“I said we were fine,” Polly sighs, waving one hand in the air. “Nobody listens to me anymore.”
Celia and Peaches roll their eyes in unison, which is a terrifying sight to behold. Kelly didn’t think they were particularly close, beyond the demands of their social circles, but apparently they found something to bond over, even if that something was the disaster that is Kelly’s marriage. Celia walks over to Kelly.
“It may not seem like it sometimes,” Celia says softly, her voice so low that Kelly doubts that Polly can hear her, “but Polly is my closest friend. And you are, like, killing her. If you kill her, I won’t ever forgive you, not ever, Kelly. So fix it, because I only have so much tea to make things better.” She gives Kelly a swift glare, and stomps away into the back of the store, where Kelly knows her shadier activities go on. Peaches looks at her from across the room, raises an elegant and startlingly eloquent eyebrow, and follows her.
Polly sighs and drops her chin into her hand. “I apologize. We’re fine.”
Kelly thinks about it for a moment, and five years ago, she would have left it at that. It would be easy to let it drop even now. But Kelly thinks about walking away sometimes, and Kelly can feel tremors beneath her skin, and Kelly thinks that if the storm is coming, she’d best stack the sandbags and brace herself in the doorway and find the room without windows, and she cannot leave this alone. Their relationship was always bound to be a natural disaster, but that doesn’t mean she has to be unprepared for the storm. “No, we’re not,” she says finally, walking over to sit in the chair across from Polly. “And Polly? I don’t think we ever were.”
Polly looks startled and hurt and terrified all at once, and Kelly aches. Putting that look on Polly’s face is an impressive feat, and one that she never wanted to accomplish.
“Oh,” she says finally, nodding. “I see. I’ll- yes. Very well, that’s- all right. I can- Chloe will let me stay for a bit, I suppose, and Peaches of course. Celia. May I have a few weeks, get my things together?” Polly babbles, looking sick underneath her outward calm. But Kelly knows Polly, has known Polly since they were small, and always will know Polly, and if she can make her stammer and start over, she’s basically ripped her entire world away.
“Do you remember when we were fourteen?” Kelly asks, reaching out and wrapping a hand around Polly’s wrist.
Polly frowns. “A lot happened when we were fourteen, Kel.”
“When we got into that fight. I hit you, and you kicked in my knee, and I gave you that scar on your neck when I tried to scratch you open, and you bit my hand,” she says.
“I- yes, of course,” Polly says, sounding more flustered and more confused, which isn’t what Kelly wants at all.
“I caught you off guard, and you fought dirty,” Kelly sums up.
Polly looks down at Kelly’s hand, still wrapped around her wrist, and nods once, sharp. “I know.”
“Pol, don’t you ever think about it?”
“I try hard not to think about the fact that I just about dislocated your knee, Kelly.”
Kelly sighs. “Don’t you ever think about how we’ve been reliving the same fight, over and over again, for years and years, and we keep using the same tactics?”
She looks at Polly, and she can see all the pieces falling to place, because Polly has always been frighteningly good at puzzles. She’s faster than anyone else Kelly knows. Kelly can practically see the picture being formed by all those disparate, misshapen memories. Of the first real fight, when Kelly stared at Polly, shocked by those ugly words, and hadn’t known how to respond but to punch her as hard as she could. How, years later, when confronted with the very real possibility that Polly would be killed by MI7, she had done what she could to keep Polly safe- by shoving her away, fast and hard and without any real warning at all. How she left. How she disappeared in the night. How she lied and lied and lied for years afterwards, and Kelly has always been the only person who could lie to Polly, the only person good enough not to get caught, so that when she does tell the truth, she always catches Polly flat footed.
And Polly, who always fights dirty, who lay on the ground and kicked out a foot into her vulnerable knee cap and brought her down low and bit and scratched and used a book, a chair, a rubbish bin to keep her down, snarling and feral and terrified out of her mind even while she was furious. And years later, how she appeared with a gun when she shouldn’t have been there, leveling the playing field when negotiations had been settled, hands shaken, because she didn’t like the deal being made and Polly’s justice has always been very Old Testament, full of vengeance and wrath. And how, even later, she left, too, because turnabout isn’t actually fair play, and an eye for an eye is only worth it if you can rip something else away, too.
Kelly keeps catching Polly off guard. Polly keeps fighting dirty. Around and around they go.
“You left,” Polly says finally, her voice soft, breaking like a crack of thunder in the distance. She tugs her wrist out of Kelly’s hand, folding her hands tightly together and setting them on the table.
“I did,” Kelly agrees, wondering how they’ve managed to go five years without actually talking about this. Because they have gone five years with only brief mentions, sharp comments, and tight frowns, despite this yawning chasm between them. Annabelle told her, once, whispering into Kelly’s sternum when she came back, that perhaps Polly understood her better than she had realized, because Polly had said something about knowing what it was to be left, to feel left behind. And Kelly still didn’t speak to her. She still let it be.
She wonders if all adults are like this, just fumbling from one bad decision to the next until they finally find the right one, faking competence and maturity.
“You left, Kelly, you left me, you were my best friend and suddenly you weren’t there, and my entire world went with you. You destroyed everything, and you expected me to be fine with it, and I just- I try to understand, I do, but you left, and then Annabelle left, and I was alone,” Polly says, swift and angry and looking sick, so sick with sadness. Kelly reaches out to touch her clenched hands, but Polly yanks them away.
“We came back,” Kelly says softly, and instantly regrets it. Polly jumps to her feet, looking down her nose at Kelly, her mouth pinched.
“And then you tried to leave again. Making that deal with Beth Hardwick, going back to her like you belonged to her. You belong to me, Kelly. Me and Annabelle. You don’t get to leave to protect us. That isn’t your decision to make. And Annabelle! Annabelle left, too! Roxy- I don’t- she left. She left, and she wanted to leave, and-”
“And she came back,” Kelly says insistently. “And I came back, and we both came back, Polly. We will always come back. Always, Polly.”
Polly glares at her. “Perhaps I don’t want you to come back, if all you’re going to do is leave me again and again and again.”
“Maybe,” Polly interrupts, her voice harsh and broken, “Maybe I have never wavered or faltered, and maybe I’ll always come back, but- but maybe that’s because you’re always leaving me. You always leave. Always.”
Kelly looks up at Polly. She’s pale and the corners of her mouth are drawn in. Her hands are in fists at her side. She’s seen Polly at this precipice before, perhaps twice. Teetering between rage and despair, and desperately clinging to her control, because Polly values control. Polly values the ability to hold oneself still in spite of everything, and Kelly understands, now, in a flash of clarity that took her five years too long to find. She thinks, you told me, and I didn’t hear you. Because always was as much a promise as it was a threat.
“I don’t need to leave anymore,” she says, as honestly as she can. “I’ve run away enough for an entire lifetime. I’m ready to stand still, now.” She waits a moment, staring at Polly and the tension humming through her entire body. She thinks she would snap in half, if she stood and walked and lived the way Polly does. “I can stand still for you, now, if you need to go.”
And Polly may leave because she was left first, and she may value the ability to hold still because she has always been the one who had to hold still, and she may fight dirty, ruthless and cruel and terrifyingly practical in ways that always shock people, but she’s still the Polly that fell in love with Kelly when she was twelve years old, and given the permission to fall apart, she does.
Kelly is there to catch her.
Things are not miraculously better after that. They have a long talk, and they both cry far too much, and Celia manages to bring them tea without it being invasive. Peaches drives them back to their cottage, whereupon Polly brushes by Annabelle with a brief nod, disappearing upstairs and probably locking herself in their bedroom.
Kelly marches straight up to Annabelle and puts her hands on Annabelle’s face, pulling her in for a kiss.
“I’m sorry,” she says when she breaks away. She rests her forehead against Annabelle’s and takes deep, steady breaths, trying to make her heart slow down. “I’m so sorry, and I love you so much.”
Annabelle doesn’t pretend to understand, just wraps her arms around Kelly and nods. “I love you, too.”
Kelly stills yells, and Annabelle still breaks things. Polly still goes silent. The milk is never right, the music is too loud, the lights are too low. There are nightmares, and guns are drawn, and airline tickets are bought.
But the nightmares are soothed, the guns are put back on the nightstand, and the airline tickets are never used.
Kelly stands still, because she can, and Polly stays, because she finally has a choice, and Annabelle binds them together, fits in the spaces they can’t fill.
When Kelly walks, the ground feels steady beneath her feet.