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Coffee and Kindness

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Cheery has always felt alright around vampires. Maybe it's because dwarves are minedwellers, so she can relate to living in the darkness. Maybe it's because she used to be terrified of werewolves, and vampires are their natural antidote. This is probably why, when Cheery sees the new recruit, who looks dead on their feet and just about ready to pass out after their first patrol with the commander, she introduces herself and invites them out for coffee. Their name is Mal, it turns out, and they are a new resident of Ankh-Morpork, having recently moved here from Borogravia.

As soon as she mentions coffee, Mal's eyes light up. Cheery tries her best not to laugh at this. She takes Mal by the hand and begins walking towards a nearby coffeehouse that has the best klatchian roast in the city, or at least the best you can afford on a watchman's salary. Cheery practically has to drag along Mal, who groans with effort every time they lift their foot. They are wearing expensive, black leather boots, Cheery notices, that have already been covered in a thin layer of Ankh-Morpork grime.

“It gets better, you know,” Cheery says. “You'll get the hang of everything soon enough.”

“I thought I knew how to walk at least,” Mal answers. “Right, Left! Right, Left! Now he wants me to feel the cobblestones and what not.”

“If it makes you feel any better, it's only Mr. Vimes who knows how to do that,” Cheery says.

They turn left and take a shortcut through a narrow alley. It's criss-crossed with clotheslines. Cheery walks under them as always, while Mal ducks and narrowly avoids a mouthful of wet laundry. Cheery stifles a giggle. Better not take any more shortcuts, she thinks. They manage to reach the coffeehouse soon enough after that, with no further incidents.

Mal orders for both of them and pays too. Cheery insists that it's not necessary, she was the one who did the inviting after all. Mal insists that it is. Cheery accepts with a smile. She isn't going to say no to free coffee. They find a table in the back corner. Mal collapses into the chair, lying more than sitting. Then, after about thirty seconds, some old manners kick in, and they force themself to sit ramrod straight. It almost looks painful.

“You can slouch if you want,” Cheery says, laughing.

“If you say so,” Mal says, leaning back in their seat and sighing in relief.

The waitress brings them their drinks, and Cheery fumbles in her wallet for a couple of dollars to tip her with. Mal grabs for their coffee with supernatural speed, reminding Cheery that there's more to being a vampire than just the fangs. Mal cradles the coffee in their hands and inhales its scent, then takes a big gulp. Cheery takes a careful sip and wonders if resistance to burning one's tongue on hot beverages is another vampire thing.

“Perhaps you can help me with something,” Mal says, hesitantly. “Because I don't think the commander likes me very much.”

“Oh, Vimes doesn't like anyone,” Cheery says. “Especially not soldiers. Or vampires.”

Mal looks morosely into their coffee and doesn't answer. Cheery fiddles with the fabric of her skirt, already regretting what she said. She takes a sip of coffee to get a second more to think of what to say.

“Actually, I think he's gotten used to vampires,” Cheery says. “Now he's mostly annoyed because it takes half an hour to swear you in, what with the names that take up several pages in a book.”

That, at least, gets Mal to crack a half-smile. Cheery reaches out and pats Mal encouragingly on their hand. It's cold and a little too smooth, but Cheery doesn't let that bother her.

“I have another question, actually. Your lipstick, is that alright?” Mal asks. “Because I've noticed that most of the guards don't wear anything like or care very much about personal grooming.”

“As long as you keep the standard platemail and dented helmet, you can wear whatever you want. You use lipstick, normally?” Cheery says.

“No, but I wear a bit of rouge sometimes. It makes me look a little less like I just rose from the grave,” Mal jokes.

“That's one of the reasons I like lipstick. Makes my lips stand out from my beard,” Cheery says.

“What's the other reason?” Mal asks.

“It looks nice,” Cheery says with a laugh.

“On you, maybe. When I still lived at home, my mother made me wear a full face of powder, plus lipstick and kohl, all done in the fashion of her youth, which was 400 years ago. I looked like a haunted doll. It's one of the reasons I left,” Mal says, bitterness obvious in their voice.

Cheery nods sympathetically. She remembers her own childhood all too well, when there was only one way to be a dwarf, and female was a dirty word. At the time, she felt like someone had written a rulebook and handed it out to everyone but her. It's better now, and Cheery is happy about that, but sometimes she catches herself feeling a little jealous of the young dwarves, who gets to do all the things she couldn't.

“I'm glad I asked you,” Mal says, pulling Cheery back to the conversation. “I was half-worried I'd have to throw out all my shirts without holes or tears in and stop combing my hair, just to fit in.”

Mal is smiling their crooked smile, but Cheery picks up the note of seriousness in their words. She laughs reassuringly, and there's a warm feeling in her belly. She's just so happy that finally somebody in the watch other than her cares just a little about appearances.

“Honestly, you are so right. Based on how the majority looks, you would think it's mandatory to look like shit. I mean just because we're in uniform, it's no reason to look shabby, but apparently I'm the only one who thinks that. Commander Vimes has practically made a sport out of looking like he just rolled out of bed, and don't get me started on Nobby. Have you met him yet?” Cheery says.

Mal nods at her question, with a vague look of horror in their eyes that most people get when remembering exactly how Nobby looks.

“To be fair, Carrot's breastplate always shines, and Detritus keeps his lichen very neat, but other than that it's not much effort people put in their appearance. Except me, of course. I've got my lipstick, and sometimes mascara too, and I try to braid my beard a bit different every day, add a new ribbon or something. So please, don't feel like you have to dress down, just to conform,” Cheery says, blushing a little.

Cheery looks down at her hands, nervously. She really hopes Mal isn't too put off by her rant. She didn't mean to talk that much, but something about fashion just gets her fired up, and not a lot of her friends care. Mal seems to pick up on her nerves because they shoot her a smile and begin complaining about their old army uniform, which leads to some war stories and then a general reflection on their time in the army.

“Like, it was a terrible time and a great time all at once, but mostly it was just plain ridiculous. I mean, what does it matter what's in your pants? That's your business, and your business alone,” Mal says, then adds, “Well, maybe the business of whoever you let in them.”

Cheery nods. Her approval of Mal grows even bigger. She is becoming increasingly glad that she invited them out for a cup of coffee. She can feel a resolve forming. She is going to make damn sure nobody in the watch messes with Mal. It's not that the guards are bad people, just not very good at first with people who are different. Cheery remembers her own first weeks with perfect clarity. Mal can probably handle anything thrown at them, but they shouldn't have to.

“Um, I really need to head home, but thanks again… for inviting me. I was beginning to worry I wouldn't fit in very well,” Mal says.

“It was my pleasure,” Cheery says and means it. “Thanks for the coffee. Oh, and where are you staying? Maybe I can walk you there?”

Mal gives her the address, and it's a bit of a detour for Cheery, but she decides she doesn't mind the extra walk. Cheery drains the last drops of her coffee and nods goodbye at the employee behind the counter. Mal gallantly holds open the door for Cheery, then leaves after her. They walk quietly side by side.

“You know, I used to think I didn't fit in anywhere. Too female for the dwarves, too quiet and well-groomed for the Watch. Too much chainmail for polite society,” Cheery says.

“So what did you do?” Mal asks.

“I decided that I fit in everywhere,” Cheery says with a smile, like it had been that easy. It hadn't really, but that's not what Mal needs to hear.