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To Serve And Protect

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The mud slogged against Polly’s boots.

There was a certain kind of numb, dogged determination you fell unto after a certain amount of time marching in unpleasant circumstances. As if your brain simply switched off, the discomfort muted, just plodding onwards because the word stop had lost all meaning.

She could march to hell and back like this.

A loud flapping noise made her lift her head. Against the darkened sky, an even deeper cloud of blackness fluttered overhead, veering to the left and diving narrowly over Polly’s head then down, towards the ground.

There was a sound like two slabs of meat being hit together, a scuffing thud, and then a curse.

Polly kept walking.

A few moments later she felt a tug just below her pack, where she kept her rolled-up field blanket. “What?” Polly asked. Her voice croaked like a frog’s.

“’m cold.”

There was a whoosh of fabric, a few wet sploshes and then her corporal was marching at her side.

In the dusk, wrapped in Polly’s old, wet blanket, Maladict was barely distinguishable from the night surrounding them. Only his face danced before her eyes, and his smile, sharp teeth catching the little light still creeping over the horizon.

“You may be interested to know,” he said, “that there’s an abandoned barn only one or two miles from here.”

“Does it still have a roof?” Polly asked. Her teeth were shattering, but she was trying not to pay attention to it, because if she did she would realise how cold she was, how much her back hurt, how miserable and tired and scared she felt... 

Mal’s white teeth flashed again in the dark. “Intact.”

Polly closed her eyes, briefly. It'd been a long time since she’d last thanked a god, but she felt like sending a word of gratitude to at least someone, right now.

Although Mal deserved her gratitude far more than any faceless deity.


***

It had only been their second real battle.

The first one had already been enough warning for Polly. She’d quickly realised that battlefields were messy things. On the tables of majors and generals it might look like two separate sides, neatly advancing on each other, but in a real battle you could consider yourself lucky if you could still tell friend from foe by the colour of their uniform; if a fight went on long enough, everyone involved became a creature of mud and blood.

Even though, she’d never thought she’d get lost.

The brutal wind lashed rain into eyes, obscuring everything, flashes of blue and red fabrics in between the terrified faces and ever-present mud, and Polly had slid and stumbled and a bastard Zlobenian had knocked her into the river. The weather had been foul, and Polly had never been much of a swimmer – another abomination, girls swimming, and not one she’d been able to work around - and the hit across her shoulders had stunned her; by the time she'd resurfaced and managed to get out onto dry land, there'd been nothing around her she recognised.

Other than Mal.

***

"There it is," Mal said, pointing.

Polly squinted. Down in the valley below, she could just about see a squat, dark, shape.

“Are you sure it’s empty?”

Mal tapped his nose. “No human life here in miles. The owners packed up and left long ago.”

Which made the barn something like spoils of war.

They went down, Polly’s boots sliding and skipping in the mud. She was falling more than walking, and she could feel Mal hovering close to her, ready to intervene, but she’d be damned if she let her corporal carry her. No matter how exhausted she felt.

A loud crack made them both look up. As lightning broke through the sky above, the rain intensified, going from mistlike drizzle to sheets of water. If she’d still had the energy, Polly would’ve run. As it was, all she could do was increase her speed just a tad, almost striding.

After what seemed like an eternity, they reached the barn. Polly tried to push one of the big doors open, but it barely budged. Either she was too weak or the doors had been barred from the inside; either way, she almost fell to her knees in sheer exhausted desperation.

Then Mal gently nudged her aside, put her palms flat against the door, and – with a massive creak Polly could hear even over the torrent – the door swung open. Polly ducked inside.

She blinked, rubbed water from her eyes, and looked around. There were masses of hay in one corner of the barn, some old rusty tools in another corner, and firewood piled up against the back wall. The ground was reasonably clean, stamped down dirt. It was still cold, but at least they were dry.

The door behind her fell closed with a loud thud. Mal lifted a thick beam, blocking the doors from the inside.

The light was bad and Polly could only see Mal as a vague grey shape – except, that was, for Mal’s bare, pale feet and calves, peeking out from underneath the blanket-slash-cloak.

“Mal? Where have your boots gone?”

“The same place the rest of my uniform has gone, I imagine.” Mal turned, blanket somehow whirling dramatically about their calves, and gave Polly a smile. “Somewhere on the bank of the Kneck, quite some miles away from here, by now."

"What?"

“It's a vampire thing.” Mal came over to her, keeping his makeshift cloak closed with one pale slim hand. “When I transform, only my body transforms, not whatever I happen to be wearing at the moment.”

"But, you’ve scouted for us before, you didn’t come back – " Polly waved her hand- "in the nudd."

Mal gave her another one of those unpleasant smiles. "You may not have noticed, but I did actually land a bit away from you. At exactly the same place I took off from." He sauntered over to the hay. "Thanks for letting me borrow your blanket, by the way."

“You’re welcome,” Polly said, quite bewildered. “But why didn’t you just say?”

“Because…” Mal seemed to hesitate.

Polly tilted her head, curiously. It was so dark in the barn that Mal was little more than a creature made entirely of shadows and darkness, but she could still catch a glimpse of his face, and the expression on it was quite unlike anything she’d seen on him before.

“Because it’s not just a vampire thing. It is, specifically, a boy vampire versus girl vampire thing.” Mal turned to face her, expression smoothed into something that looked like Mal’s usual sneer of superiority – except it cracked at the edges. “The whole underwired nightdress business again. Male vampires keep their clothes when they turn back.” Mal shrugged. “I don't."

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Polly said.

Mal shrugged again, his face – no, her face, she should remember that – still a careful mask. “Neither does the silver and the wooden stakes, when you think about it. It doesn’t have to make any particular sense, it just is. Them’s the brea- are you all right, there, Poll?” she added.

“Of course I am,” Polly said impatiently. “I’m perfectly fine, don’t be silly. It’s you who – ” She took a step forward, then blinked as the room seemed to swerve.

“Polly?”

“I’m fine,” she said again, “but you’re – stop changing.”

“What?”

“You’re going all – all blurry…”

"Blu-? Oh damn, Pol –"

“And what's that beeping noise?" Polly added, before everything turned black.


***

The rain lashes against her face whenever she resurfaces, like it’s trying to force her down again. Water beneath her and water above, the entire world made of water and punishing currents slamming her against the pointy rock of the river banks  and this is it, she’s drowning and it’s not fair, she barely even started –

And then a hand like a vice clamps around her forearm, a formidable pull even stronger than the damned current. Polly gets one glimpse of Mal’s face, pale and determined, and then she’s on dry land, gaping like a fish, vision blurred and heart pumping blood at a furious rate, alive alive alive -

She woke up.

There was a fire crackling somewhere near. And she was warm.

She blinked, memory slowly returning.

"We’re sitting on piles of dry hay," she said. “Is a fire really a good idea?”

“Barely awake and already criticising,” Mal’s voice said somewhere above her.

Polly rubbed her eyes. “I don’t want to escape drowning just to die in a fire. That would be…”

“Unforgivably ironic, yes.”

Mal’s face swam into focus. Polly blinked again.

Mal gave her a smile. “Not to worry, though. It's a fire pit, I dug it in, and I'm keeping an eye on it. Besides, it was either that or watching you die from hypothermia. It's not like I can share my body heat with you, is it?” she added, her smile turning a bit sour.

At the word body heat, something nudged Polly’s brain. She looked down at herself.

Covering her was her cloak, only slightly damp anymore. Beneath it, there was nothing.

"Relax, sergeant," Mal said lazily, “As you may recall, you've got nothing there I haven't seen before."

Polly sat up, clutching the cloak around her. “I fainted?” she asked, crinkling her nose.

“Yes.” Mal sobered. “You took quite a blow, and then the river, and the walk afterwards… I’m impressed, I didn’t think an ordinary human could keep going for that long.”

“Thanks,” Polly said sarcastically. She ran her hand over her face, then looked around again, trying to get a grip on the situation.

Next to the firepit, her uniform was drying. Mal was still wrapped in her blanket. Unlike her cloak, which was supposed to be at least a little bit water-resistant, the blanket was still dripping wet, and streaked with mud. Even Mal couldn’t turn that into one of her stylishly dishevelled Looks; she looked more like a drowned cat that anything else.

“Has the rain stopped?”

“Not really. Lessened, yes, but it’s still a downpour.”

“Hm.” Polly eyed her damp uniform. The idea of putting it on again was about as appealing as jumping straight into the river. But every minute they stayed here, their army could be marching further away…

“I know that look,” Mal said. “And I’d advise against it. You haven’t been out that long, you know. And your heart rate is still a bit too high.”

Polly pulled a face. “Do you have to do that?”

“I can’t switch off my ears, Sergeant,” Mal said. “You need rest.”

“I’m fine.”

“You almost broke your arm.”

“Did I?” Polly rubbed her shoulder experimentally, then winced, She pulled back her hand.

There were streaks of blood on it.

She stared at it. Her brain was still sluggish, but blood, that meant something, right? She was bleeding. Not that badly, but it still was a bit worrying. And –

Oh. Right.

That’s why blood was important.

“Did you…” Polly cleared her throat; “You didn’t manage to take your coffee set along with you when you, er, when you were scouting?”

“No,” Mal said. “No, I did not. Believe it or not, but bats aren’t actually that good at carrying two pounds of metal and bag full of beans.”

“Right. That’s what I thought.”

Polly rubbed her eyes. Mal didn’t even have the emergency bean necklace left. And that hurt a bit, actually; Paul had spent a lot of time painstakingly crafting one, after she’d told him about Mal and her coffee problem. And now all his hard work was lost, sinking slowly into a muddy bank miles away.

Still. It wasn’t that much of a problem, right? Mal drank a morning coffee and an evening one and sometimes one inbetween, but it hadn’t been that long? Right?

She glanced at Mal. Mal was looking rather fixedly at a point in the corner of the barn, which was, as far as Polly could see, entirely devoid of anything interesting. Mal looked tense too, as if ready to bolt. And was that a red glow overlaying the brown of Mal’s eyes?

Polly chewed her lip. It wasn’t like she didn’t trust Mal. They’d only been on the road together for a few weeks, but already Polly had started relying on Mal a lot more than most sergeants relied on their corporal. It was handy, having a vampire in your squad. Nothing got people’s attention like a flash of fang, and having someone strong enough to deadlift an entire bull without batting an eyelash also had its benefits.

But apart from all that, Polly relied on Mal because she was, well, Mal. In a world full of irrationality and stupidity, Mal’s cool sarcasm was a breath of fresh air. There was no way Polly could have done as well as she’d done so far without her corporal by her side.

And it wasn’t like she’d forgotten that Mal was a vampire, it just had never been an issue. They took precautions. Spare packs of beans, the necklace… They’d thought they’d had it covered. No chance of another little incident happening again.

Up until now, of course. An no chance of bags of beans falling from the sky this time.

 “All right,” Polly said, trying to be sensible about it. “When did you have your last cup of coffee?”

“Two days ago.”

“What? Why?”

“Saving up for the battle. Bloodthirstiness, and all that.” Mal’s lip curled. “I thought it was a good idea.”

“You didn’t mention anything!”

“Well, no. Didn’t want you to worry about yet another loose cannon. Besides, that necklace worked a treat.”

“Up until you lost it.”

“Yes, well.”

“How long can a vampire go without blood?”

“Quite long. The question you actually want to ask, is how long can a vampire stay sane without bl-“ Mal’s voice croaked. “Well. We know from experience, don’t we? How long was it last time, two days? Three?”

Polly looked at her stained fingers.

“I can have a look outside,” Mal said. She sounded far away, suddenly.

Polly swallowed. The blood had gone brown on her fingers.

“- find a cow somewhere, or a some stray goats, a pig if I’m lucky – ”

She had a duty, right? To her men? And in the end, this wasn’t so different than sharing her rations or helping to catch a hare. Right?

“- or a lost enemy soldier, you never know if – ”

“Why bother,” Polly said, “when there’s me?”

Mal’s head snapped up. “What?”

“Well, you said it yourself,” Polly said, trying to sound sensible. “You’re of no use to anyone if you’re going into full withdrawal.”

“I know they play up the die for your comrades thing, Poll,” Mal said sarcastically, “but I thought you would be sensible enough to see that for the nonsense it is.”

“I don’t actually have any intention of dying, thank you very much. I mean, I have, what, six litres of blood? Five? I reckon I can easily go with maybe a pint less without fainting or something.”

Mal stared at her. “You’re serious.”

“Of course I am.”

“Polly, I can’t just – ”

“Bite me? Why not?”

“I’ll – I’ve been going without bl- bloo- ” Mal exhaled explosively. “See? I can’t even say the word. You really trust me near your jugular?”

“Well, yes.” And before Mal could reply again, she added, “Can't you just, like, take a nibble? A small one?"

“It doesn’t work that way.” Mal glanced at the empty corner again. “It can’t work, Polly. I’ll be fine, I’ll just…”

“Are you hearing the noises again?”

Mal froze.

“You are, aren’t you?” Polly narrowed her eyes. “You’re having flashsides. Be honest, corporal, and that’s an order.”

Mal looked up, slowly.

“Your eyes are glowing,” Polly said flatly. “You’ve got another solution? I’m dying to hear that.”

Mal’s face twisted. “Polly…”

“We can make it work. Look.” Polly reached into a side pocket of her pack and pulled up a silver necklace.

Mal reared back. “You kept that in your bag?”

“Igorina sent it to me, as a present. Nice, isn’t it?” Polly twisted the necklace around her palm, then made a fist.  “If you lose control, I can stop you. See?”

“You’re playing with your life, Polly.”

“Oh, and staying locked inside with a ravenous vampire is safe, is it?”

Mal’s face twisted. “Maybe if you ran…”

“Into the night, with no idea where I’m going? Alone?”

Mal flopped down and groaned. “Polly…”

“What?”

“Please don’t make me do thi-is.”

Polly relented a little. She scooted over to Mal. “I’m not much looking forward to the prospect of being a light yet nourishing snack either, Mal.” She gently touched Mal’s thin shoulder. “But I’m not sure how else we can solve this.”

Mal looked up at her, eyes dark.

Then she jumped up. She strode over to the corner of the  barn, pulled a stray hayfork from the heap of instruments and snapped it in two like it was a toothpick. Then she held it out to Polly.

“Mal…”

“My turn to make demands. I’m not even going to consider going along with this insane plan unless you’re ready to use this.” Mal gave her a smile. “Don’t worry, it won’t actually permanently kill me. Just drip a bit of bl- blood on the pile of ashes and I’ll woosh up again, good as new. Er.” Mal looked down at the stake. “I think.”

“You mean you haven’t actually done this before?”

“Not as such, no.”

“But…”

“Polly. It’s this or nothing.”

“Fine. Fine, gimme that…” She yanked the stake from Mal’s hand. “Right through the heart, right?”

“Yeah. The easiest would be tricking me to charge into it, or something. It takes quite a bit of force to break through a ribcage. Or, you know, under the ribs and up, that works too.”

“Yes, I know.”

They looked at each other for a moment.

“So,” Polly said, awkwardly. “Er. Where do you…” She started reaching up to her neck but a gesture of Mal stopped her.

“Maybe the forearm, or something. Easier for you to get away from me.”

“Right.”

Polly pulled the cloak back from her arm. The firelight gave it a golden shine, blue veins tinged greenish.

She swallowed.

“You don’t have to do this,” Mal said, seriously.

“No, I’ve got to.” Polly glanced up at Mal and managed a faint smile. “You’re my little lad and I will take care of you.”

Mal gave a sick laugh. Then she scooted closer, eyes fixed on Polly’s wrist. “You’re sure?” she asked, then licked her lips.

Polly gritted her teeth. “Yes.”

Mal lunged.

Polly reared back in surprise, but not quickly enough; Mal had already caught her arm in an iron grip, and the next moment there was a sharp, stabbing pain.

Once again Polly pulled back instinctively. Mal just went with her, not relinquishing her – her bite on Polly’s forearm.

Polly squeezed her eyes shut. It hurt, quite a bit; not as much as getting conked on the shoulder with the back of a sabre, and not as much as being knocked about by the river against all the pointy rocks the Kneck was rich in – but it still hurt. And, even worse, every instinct was screaming out at her to get away from the predator, while she still could. There was something obscene about sitting here, letting it happen, not fighting back while a vampire was…

But it was not just a vampire. It was one of her lads. In need of help.

She squeezed her eyes shut. If she concentrated ,she could just about hear tiny suckling noises.

How much was a pint? How quickly was Mal drinking? Should she wait until she went woozy, or would it be too late by then?

Polly clutched her silver necklace. It seemed a laughable kind of protection now, but it was all she had. Any second now...

Then Mal wrenched herself away from Polly. She was swaying, her eyes glazed, and her mouth smeared red. She absently ran her arm across her mouth.

“Mal?”

Mal’s eyes focused on Polly. She opened her mouth, closed it again. Swallowed.

Then she snarled.

Polly scooted away quickly, but nothing else happened. Just Mal, staring at her wide-eyed, still swaying a bit.

“Mal?”

No response.

“Maladict?”

Nothing.

Polly edged closer, and when Mal still didn’t move, she slowly reached out “Mala-”

Mal lunged again, but this time, in a very different way.

Panic squeezed Polly’s throat as she was pushed against the ground, Mal pinning her down, but before she could even think about fighting back Mal had mashed her mouth against Polly’s.

She was who she was, and while most of her brain was still mostly just going ohgodsohgodskissingkissingishappening, another, cooler part of her mind was running through a few realisations. That Mal’s grip was quite loose on her arms, for example, unlike the vice-like hold she’d had on Polly’s wrist. And that most of Polly’s cloak had slid off her, and there were places where she could feel the rough fabric of Mal’s cloak brush against her bare skin and others where something cool and smooth was touching, which had to be Mal. And – interrupting the other thoughts – that Mal was actually quite a good kisser. And this was a bit of a revelation in and of itself. Polly had never been much interested in kissing, beyond what you’d call an academic interest. She’d never really felt the urge to kiss anyone, certainly none of the few remaining boys at Munz. But she was interested in this. Kissing Mal was… nice.

Really nice.

All this went through her head in only a few seconds. She pulled away from the kiss, trying to catch her breath, trying to be sensible about this, but this only bared her neck to Mal and Polly had a few exciting moments where she considered what she’d just done.

But Mal just kissed. No sharpness grazed her skin this time, even though her pulse must be visibly, noticeably racing there.

Polly took a deep breath. Mal was still holding her loosely. That was good. The silver necklace was still in Polly’s hand; that was good as well. The logical thing right now, would be to take that silver hand and put it against Mal’s bare throat, or something, or her waist, which  was actually bared as well, and gosh, that was…

And a tiny bit at the back of Polly’s mind went sod this and took control.

She grabbed Mal’s arms and twisted her around. Mal could easily overpower her, but she didn’t struggle, rolling obediently onto her back, with Polly on top and yeah, okay, this was good. This, she could work with.

She took a deep breath, assessing the situation. Her cloak was only covering her back now. Mal wasn’t covered either. Mal wasn’t looking anywhere but Polly’s face, though, and her hands were resting almost chastely on Polly’s waist.

And she was most definitely naked.

Another set of revelations rolled through Polly’s fevered mind. It had to do with boys, and not liking them, and never knowing that liking girls was an option until Tonker and Lofty and she’d disliked Mal when she was still being a boy, but she was a girl now, right? A girl unlike any she’d ever met, still quite boyish in some ways, but it…

It didn’t matter. Not really. As the thoughts slowed down, they seemed to crystallize into one single, clear, undeniable truth:

She really, really wanted to kiss Mal again.

And Mal, it seemed, wanted to kiss her, too. She was still not moving but she was tense, like a coiled spring, much like she’d been just before she went murderous.

Polly blinked. She should be scared, shouldn’t she? Starving vampire. Out of control. Her arm still stung, although the bleeding seemed to have stopped. She still had the necklace, but…

Once again, a small part at the back of her mind huffed in impatience and pushed all those things away, and, well, she’d gotten as far as this, right? Might as well.

She bent down again.

Mal’s hand flew up to Polly’s face, fingers resting on her neck as her teeth nipped at Polly’s bottom lip – blunt teeth, nothing to be afraid of here. It was just good old Mal. Good old Mal, whose hand had gone around her waist to her back, resting at the base of her spine for second or two and then tugging her a little closer, and, oh, good, yes.

Polly dropped onto her elbows. She was starting to get the hang of this kissing thing. Once you got past the newness of it all, it felt almost instinctual, to just tilt her head a little, try to feel with the tip of her tongue, running her fingers through Mal’s fine hair…

And then, just as she was starting to feel a bit more in control again, she jumped.

Mal’s hand was on her thigh.

“Mal – ”

Mal didn’t reply. She just hooked her hand around the back of Polly’s neck and pulled her down. There was an urgency about her, something almost like panic, as if she was afraid what would happen if she let go of Polly for too long.

Mal’s hand went higher. Polly’s breath caught.

It wasn’t like she was that innocent. There were certain things a curious, determined young girl was bound to find out sooner or later, but that – the quick pleasure beneath the sheets before bedtime, the hesitant exploring hand quickly turning into something more rough and sure as she found out what worked – had been always something like stress relief, a little treat when she’d felt tired or down, something secret and hers. She’d never thought to associate it with other people.

But it was different, with other people. With Mal. The sensations were a bit similar but she wasn’t taking the lead here, everything was unexpected and unpredictable and all the more delicious because of it.

Polly moaned against Mal’s mouth as Mal pressed her palm against her, hard. Her hips pushed forward, wanting more. Mal’s other arm was around Polly’s waist, holding her close, iron grip almost crushing her ribs and Mal’s kissing grew even more frantic.

Polly pulled away, catching her breath. Mal, without a hitch, went to Polly’s throat. She wasn’t being gentle, not in the least, but there were no fangs in her neck and honestly, at this point she didn’t really care, as long as Mal’s hand kept doing that

Pleasure crested. Polly squeezed her eyes shut, arched her back, fingers going tight in Mal’s hair, no thoughts left other than yesgoodplease.

And then, just as it was almost becoming too much to bear, Mal’s hand stilled.

Polly dropped down, panting, shivering with aftershocks, covering Mal from knee to chest. Mal still felt cold, although right now it was more pleasantly cool against Polly’s sweaty skin.

And Mal was shaking.

“Mal?” Polly tried, carefully, once she’d caught her breath again.

The trembling intensified.

After a moment, Polly gently eased herself off Mal.

Mal looked deeply, utterly horrified.

Polly caught a sigh, then nudged Mal in the side. “Stop it. I’m fine.”

Mal groaned. “I pounced on you. Like some kind of – of – ”

“Some kind of soldier with a life-threatening need?” Polly said sharply.

“If anyone’s life was threatened it was yours, Polly,” Mal said, unusually angry. “If the League would find out…”

“How would they find out?” Polly asked. “You think I’m gonna tell ‘em?”

Mal’s dark eyes focused on Polly’s face. Not a trace of glowing red left, but that didn’t make them any less forbidding.

“I could have stopped you,” Polly said, softly. “If I wanted to.”

“Really? A slip of a girl against a funyaargh!” Mal sprang away, holding her silver-scorched hand.

Polly put the necklace down and raised her eyebrows.

“Yes, fine, point taken,” Mal said impatiently. “That doesn’t make it right, though. I joined the League precisely to get away from things like – that.”

“Pouncing on innocent virgins?” Polly sneered. “Violating young maidens? Don’t give me that. What do you take me for, some wet-behind-the-ears farm girl?”

“Polly – ”

“And in case you didn’t notice,” Polly said, feeling herself blush and hating herself for it, “I wasn’t exactly unwilling here.”

Mal opened her mouth as if she were going to protest, then sighed and sort of deflated. She sat down, leaning back against the hay, eyes on the fire.

Polly sat down next to her.

“This wasn’t how I wanted it,” Mal said, quietly.

“How you wanted what?”

Mal turned her head to look at Polly, and –

Oh.

Polly smiled a little. “Then how would you have wanted it?”

“Not sure.” Mal ran her hand over her face. “It’s not like I had this grand seduction planned out, you know. I just thought – I mean, we get along, and you’re…” Mal trailed off, shaking her head. “I just would’ve liked me actually asking something before we got into anything. Discussing things. Not – forcing you.”

“I could’ve stopped you, Mal,” Polly said again.

“Still doesn’t make it right.”

There was a moment of silence. Polly pulled her cloak a little closer around her. The fire crackled in the background.

“I don’t mind,” Polly tried.

I mind. I don’t like the way it makes me – I don’t like the kind of person I seem to be, now.”

“Mal, the situation was extreme. You were in pain. You’d never have done anything like that if you were in your right mind, would you?”

“No-o,” Mal said slowly. “No. I don’t – I don’t want to be that person, Polly.”

“You’re not,” she said.

“I’ve known that kind of person. That kind of vampire, I suppose.” Mal frowned at the barn’s ceiling. “In a way, it was them I thought of when I was pretending to be a boy. Well, a boy vampire. That’s what they acted like, that’s what they said and did…”

“Arrogant bastards.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, it’s different now. You can pick what you want to be like, really. Can’t you?” A thought struck her, and she sniggered.

Mal gave her an amused look. “What?”

“I just thought – well, the only other vampire I met was the photographer from Ankh-Morpork – what’s his name again?”

“Otto?”

“He definitely wasn’t the evil arrogant ravishing type, was he?”

Mal smiled. “No. Not like that, anyway.”

“So I thought, well, if you’re looking for new role models…”

Mal snorted with laughter. “I don’t think that would work for me, no.”

Polly grinned. “You would sound adorable with the accent.”

“Piss off, Sarge.”

“Language, Corp.”

They grinned at each other.

Then Mal’s smile faded a little bit. “It’s odd, you know,” she said. “I don’t really know… I mean, I don’t want to be the kind of male vampire I used to know, posing and superior and condescending. But I don’t want to be what’s expected of being a female vampire either. You know, the hair, the cackling, the corsets – the bleedin’ things never fit that well, anyway!” Mal sat back, arms crossed over her admittedly rather flat chest. “When I put on that new uniform, skirt and all, I thought, all right, I can make something new. But it’s difficult.”

“You just… pick the bits you like. Cherry-pick.” Polly shrugged. “That’s what I did.”

“Did you?”

“Don’t much like all the farting and belching boys do, for example. But I kept the – er, the sockiness. Not always, but, you know. Meek can’t get you very far.”

“Hmm.” Mal frowned again. “But that’s just surface things. Underneath all that, you’re still who you are. Me… It’s different. I’m a vampire. But I can’t be, because being a vampire means killing people, and that’s not what I want to be. So what’s left?”

Polly chewed her lip. She felt deeply out of her depth. Not that Mal wasn’t making sense, but how to reply to that, how to get across that Mal was always Mal to her, not matter the uniform or the manners or anything…

“And just now…” Mal’s eyes went to Polly’s arm. “I hate to admit it, but I’m frightened, Poll. What if I can’t keep this up? What if in the end, I’ll always end up going full vampire again?”

“Mal…”

“I mean, I’d like to say, I’ll never do this again, but I can’t, can I? Next time we run out of beans...”

“Well, I can stop you.”

“I can’t always rely on you to be there, Polly,” Mal said irritably.

“Why not? I do.”

Mal went very still.

“Look, if we want this to work, we need to trust each other, right? And I do. I mean – ” Polly gestured at the rumbled hay – “I just proved that, didn’t I? So, do you trust me?”

“Yes,” Mal said. “Of course I do. But it’s not just – ”

“I know, I know. It’s never that easy. But if we at least haven’t got that…”

“You do.” Mal gave her a wan smile. “Honestly. I can’t think of anyone else I’d want near when I go cold bat.”

“Thanks.” Polly bumped her shoulder into Mal’s. “Corp.”

“You’re welcome, sarge.”

They leaned against each other. Through the cracks in the far wall of the barn, they could see the sun start to rise.

“So,” Polly said, after a moment. “Er.”

“Yes?”

“This… sort of thing. You know, the… thing.”

Mal pulled away a little to look at Polly. She raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I do know, actually.”

“The… canoodling,” Polly said. This time, she didn’t blush. “Is it going to happen again?”

“I don’t know. Are you going to deliberately hide my coffee supply in order to get some?”

“You mean you’re only interested when you’re delirious with withdrawal?”

“No.” Mal smiled, then leaned in, her hand reaching for the back of Polly’s neck. Polly briefly considered leaning away, just to swipe that smug look off Mal’s face, but, well. Kissing Mal was still nice.

“Right,” Polly said when they broke off. “Nice to know.”

“Happy we’ve got a tent to our own these days?”

“First we’ve got to find that tent again, Corporal.” Polly stood up and went to the other side of firepit. She gave her uniform an experimental poke. “Looks dry to me. What do you think, try to find our way back to the nearest encampment?”

“Suppose so. We should probably look out to find some clothes somewhere, or at least some boots.”

“Ah, right.” Polly pulled on her shirt, then glanced over her shoulder. “Not fancying marching naked across the hills, Corporal?”

“It can get rather chilly, yes.” Mal took her cloak off, shook it out, and examined it with a fastidious expression. “Oh well, one stain more won’t make the difference.”

A blush flashed over Polly’s face again – luckily she had her back to Mal, otherwise she’d never hear the end of it.

She pulled on her boots, then took her cloak and threw it around her shoulders. Her shako and sword were long lost in the Kneck, but at least she still had the uniform coat and matching sergeant stripes.

Mal had put out the fire. The faint light of dawn illuminated her face, the dark circles under her eyes. She still looked drawn. But at least her eyes weren’t lighting up red. And if they did again, well, they had a solution for that now, didn’t they?

She grinned.

Mal saw her watching and raised her eyebrows. “You’d better wipe that smirk off your face, Pol, or they’ll know straight away you’ve been up to something Abominable.”

We’ve been up to something Abominable. And I intend to abominate some more as soon as we’re somewhere safe and dry again.”

“Oh really?” Mal smiled.

“Come on,” Polly said, holding out her hand.

Mal blinked up art her.

Then she took Polly’s hand, and together they marched back out onto the hills.