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19: Bones Skin Hair Flesh Blood

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May. 13th, 2009 | 10:53 pm
posted by: latin_doll in dolltime

Also belated.

Title: Bones Skin Hair Flesh Blood

Fandom: Monstrous Regiment, Now Then-verse

Pairings: Polly/Mal, Mal/OC

Warnings: rated M for violence; non-con, suicidal tendencies, cruelty, angst; the jokes aren't very funny and the romance isn't very romantic

Summary: Mal repents, with varying degrees of success. The past is revisited and, in some cases, resurrected. Battles are fought. All in order to find home in the end.

Word count: 9.690


Bones Skin Hair Flesh Blood


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One hundred.


Mal hesitates for just one moment, her eyes scanning the neat little tables of names and dates and places for mistakes - which she wouldn't admit to, in any case - before closing her notebook shut. There are more empty slots than filled slots, but the number is accurate; she's good at counting.

One. Hundred.

It's not bad, really, Mal tells herself, it's not bad at all for a lifetime of vampirism. For others - few others, granted, but (but?) - it'd be one hundred per year. One part of Mal's brain, the one that is detached from things like morals, the one that is obsessed with counting (counting pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, any seeds), is solemnly delighted with the round number it came up with.

Mal isn't. It's too arbitrary, that number, as if she had stopped counting at some point when really it took her all her will power not to.


Maybe if everyone had twelve fingers instead of ten, then it wouldn't be an issue.


Vampires do not generally make a habit out of what some people would call getting the young man's name and address, and thus, when Mal started making the list, she didn't have a lot of names, or addresses, just a few dates to go by, places she's lived. She does have a good memory for the route that a drop of rain takes running down someone's cheek, for the feeling of soft-spun cotton wool under her fingers, for the sound of a window snapping shut; now she wishes she'd kept all her rental agreements instead.


Only a few weeks have passed since she's gone and replaced blood with coffee, a few weeks that have made her feel like a small child. And as she's getting used to solid food, her teeth hurt from it. She should have known.

She's unbuttoning the gloves, drawing aside the veils, until, piece by piece and day by day, dawn ceases to burn her skin. She couldn't stare into the sun at noon for the longest time, which humans can't do either, but they don't turn to dust from it, so she tries again. And again. She succeeds, on a midwinter day in the Borogravian mountains, but there's no-one there to spoil her glee by pointing it out. Something seems to be wrong with her eyes, but that may very well just be the sunlight, and in any case, it isn't her place.

She's supposed to keep away from humans for the first few weeks. Just in case, they say.


There's something else they say. It's a nice gesture, they say. Show some respect, show some sense of responsibility, get back in touch with humans. Never kill again. Mal picks the first flower, a snowdrop, in a field just outside of the capital. She's never been much of a flower girl, not back in the very distant past when hell was known as a place elsewhere, not in her own head, and not now, either. But this is not about her.


The first few visits are surprisingly easy. Maybe it's because the stones are toppled over, sunken into the ground, overgrown with lichen and moss. The names are washed out and hard to read, like secrets, carelessly handled; and what little she can decipher doesn't ring a bell with her. A recently acquired sense of sickness flares up as she vaguely recalls memories half romanticised, half decomposed; the texture of now unfashionable dresses, and of skin that is warmer than hers, and most of all the sudden increase of the weight in her arms, when their bodies go limp and she finds she can't hold them anymore, vampire strength be damned to all hell.

It's not bad, really, Mal tells herself. Only ninety-seven, now.


"It's not hard, really," is what Stella used to say. "I mean, you've got to live off something, now, do you? And don't tell me you don't like it. Everyone does. Humans would if they had the teeth." A chuckle, a monologue about how Stella likes it.

Stella is a total actor, but she only ever acts herself and isn't confused about it in the slightest. The world is her stage. Maladicta is her prop. She ends in rare, helpful advice. "Don't look at their faces, they look too much like us."


Like us.


Mal sleeps slightly uneasy at night, and she tells herself that she's still not used to sleeping when it's dark, and she tells herself that all the coffee she's had during the day warms her skin now, makes her hands shake and her pulse race, makes her pay attention, it keeps her awake because she's not used to it.

She perceives the rain outside, every single drop as it splashes against the window. When the weather picks up intensity, she just perceives faster. The breeze in the room from under the door. She tries to retreat inside her head, but this is where it all happens.

She may just need some time to get used to it all.


She takes her time, and travels. The spring, and then the summer, is spent travelling through Borogravia, she's writing things down in her notebook, filling the empty slots. She gets used to daytime, and coffee, and insomnia.


Another time when Stella had taken it upon her to observe the incredibly obvious, she'd pointed out the following: this country's sons (and fathers, and brothers) die. They are killed, slaughtered, shot at, stabbed, sat on, point in fact is, they die. Borogravia is drowning in women. All she does, Stella has said, is keeping the balance so the rest of the funny humans can pair up nicely and produce more fodder for the fronts. It's neat and clean and they're asking for it, really.

That was, of course, before Mal found out that Stella is slightly battier even than the average vampire. Mal's touring the country now, the barren, deserted country, the abandoned villages. The country that is not drowning in anyone.


One hundred's not bad, really.


Scratch that. One hundred is a small village. Still not bad as the sum of a vampire's life, but Mal's playing around with perspectives, because with reform comes an unexpected lack of knowing what to think. A hundred people could have filled one of those deserted villages, with its empty beds, its empty barley fields, its empty market place. Still mostly women, though.

And besides, it's only one hundred because of Stella's generous leftovers.


It's summer now, she's in Munz, and she nicks three wild roses from someone's garden. It's admittedly dramatic, but drama fits her like an artfully tailored disguise.

The graves are in no position to complain. The roses are delivered with a mere promise of more drama glittering in Mal's thoughts as she considers getting down on her knees, or something, but the feeling isn't genuine and she's wearing velvet. Makes a mental note to maybe buy something pretty in cotton and/ or shiny black leather, it's so much more practical.


And it's only a bunch of fucking flowers, anyway. Flowers cannot bring people back and they'd mostly be dead by now anyway - what's the fucking point? One hundred lightning rods, that'd be the ticket. But she's never been the engineering type.

She places a rose gingerly onto one of the gravestones. It's a nice gesture, they said. It shows that the pledge is not empty, not a most pragmatic way to deal with the pitchfork business. And that's just the problem: it shows. It may mean something to the families, they say, but never expect to be invited for dinner. Which proves that they're aware of dealing with the creatures most devoid of social intelligence on the disc: freshly reformed vampires, thinks Mal, ex-human. Sounds like exhume.

Mal is tempted to grin, but she reminds herself she's standing on a graveyard. This girl's been dead for eighty years. Who cares?


And it's only a bunch of flowers, anyway.


Does anyone in all the combined histories of the multiverse know how really fucking many flowers one hundred flowers are?

Mal, for one, never got a flower from anyone. She daydreams about what could have happened if what had happened hadn't happened the way it had happened, but even then Stella would not be leaving flowers on her grave. Stella would dig up her bones and make a birdcage from her ribs.


On her way down from the hill, where the older graves are, she meets three people in the dim light of dawn. Mal looks away, hides behind the veils and gloves and black velvet, but her personal space seems bigger these days and she knows she's under surveillance. The two children (lambs, says the part of her that speaks with Stella's voice even after all these years, and it laughs, and she wills it away) don't look at her, but their father does, scans Mal for the ribbon. Black on black, it's hard to make out. She turns slightly in the weak sunlight so he stands a chance.

The man nods to himself, briefly, and he still ushers the children on and they hurry past her. Mal understands this. The girl may be young and a bit scrawny, but that's what you get around here.


Coffee is coffee is coffee is coffee and all she wants is blood.


Mal doesn't make the connection until years later, and maybe the girl wasn't Polly. But she might have been.


Not before long, Mal finds herself sitting outside of a bedroom window. Inside, there's an old woman, napping in an armchair. Outside, there's a Mal, who doesn't yet know what to do about this.

Mal watches. She tries to recall a face, a person, personality, but all that comes to mind is a generic womanbody underneath a frilly dress; long hair, face with eyes nose mouth. A doll. They all were dolls, or maybe it's just Mal. Takes a doll to know one.

Wake up, she thinks. Wake up.

She doesn't want it to work, but it does. The woman opens her eyes, flat and empty even though it's been fifty-odd years. Mal hasn't killed this girl, just bitten to still her hunger, feeling very noble about it.

"Come to the window," she says, and the old woman's eyes light up, maybe for the first time in all those years. This is some kind of mental institution, Mal understands, privately operated. Could have been worse, she thinks. Could have been the Grey House.

Good thing she only ever had rich girls.

The woman walks over to the window. There are crutches next to the armchair, she ignores them. Well. Mal should probably have specified her request. But then, it's not her that'll have to deal with those muscles tomorrow. The woman is gliding, almost, staring at Mal, a faint smile of recognition on her lips.

"Open the window," says Mal, and the woman does. She'll do anything Mal wants her to.

Well, fuck.

Mal holds out her hand with the chrysanthemum. "Take it," she said. "Just take it. It's for you. Please?"

Gingerly, the flower is picked from her hand.

"If you wish it," says the woman, her voice rough from not being used. She's standing there, flower in hand and a strange light in her eyes. It will fade as soon as Mal turns her back on her.

What can she do? She can give her some blood of her own, give her her free will back. The free will to hunt and kill, Mal knows it too well. So what can she do? Tell her to go to the window and lean out and lose balance and not live this life between armchair and bed.

It's not her right to decide. Never was and never will and she doesn't know what to do.

It's her fault, though.

She wills the woman to shut the window on her, and lets herself fall into the rose garden five storeys below, where she gets on her knees at last and stays like this for a while, fighting the need to vomit and then feeling silly about it. There's three more addresses like this in her notebook.


That night, Mal empties a pot of coffee the way Polly, much later, would empty a bottle of vodka: methodically, joylessly. After months of insomnia, one tends to readjust one's attitude towards vast quantities of caffeine.

She doesn't even make it to the rafter, but curls up on the narrow bed of the inn's guestroom, untouched in two days. She's clutching the blanket, twisting, turning, still not crying, still not sleeping. Her mind is tired, so tired, but her body's wide awake.

She bites down into the soft skin of her wrist, for comfort more than anything, her teeth tug at the skin, though not drawing blood. She'd probably go blind if she did that. Or crazy. Crazier.

She's breathing. Just breathing, for one, two, ten minutes, and then she stops. It's easy, after she gets over the initial panic because secretly she's still convinced she needs to breathe, even after all these years.

In the sudden silence, her heart stops beating almost on it's own accord, and everything gets cold and calm. Playing dead is so fucking scary, but it works. This time, it works.


Mal opens her eyes to bright sunshine, and the shock nearly dusts her. She tries to remember how to breathe, and draws a deep breath, and warms her body in the light, while her back hurts from her lying down for so long. Vampire.

That is, as it were, the problem.


Mal's death would set these women free.


Would set Mal free.


That's exactly the kind of thought she won't be having with. They even warned her about it. A twitchy vampire in a checkered woollen vest warned her about it. Don't give in to natural dramatics. Ahaha.


Last day's entry in her notebook, in elaborate, outdated handwriting:

When in capital, buy iconograph w. flash. As if she could possibly forget that.

Today, she glues a piece of paper onto the next page, it's part of an informative pamphlet:

Pictures of living creatures have been Abominated.

If there's a black market for iconographs, she can't find it. People seem to be more concerned with butter, and cigarettes, and parsnips. There's a black market for parsnips. Iconographs and parsnips and flashes and ribbons are dancing in her mind as she tries to sleep, a danse macabre from which she is excluded, she may only watch. So many years age, a friend jumped into a lake and it was so easy; an age of possibilities but now -


Mal is not a living creature.


Tough out of luck, eh? Bit hard to die when you're not alive.

This is the day Mal starts to smoke. Turns out she likes smoking. And since she's already in the capital, there's twenty-two graves to visit. They're quite old, so it's almost okay, and sheer quantity dulls the not-quite-guilt.

Her attempt at alcoholism goes badly; it takes too long until she finally falls down and even though she falls asleep very shortly afterwards, she wakes to more back pain, to the sharp taste of her own blood in her mouth. Rinses her mouth out with water, then with coffee, spits into the sink, and doesn't leave her room all day. Smokes until she's out of cigarettes, and then she chews on parsnips, and ruminates.


It takes the world's worst alcoholic the hangover from hell to figure something out.


This is not really about respect. This is not about the families and not about taking responsibility and especially not about fucking flowers and whatever feeble attempt at repentance they are supposed to represent.

This is about guilt. It's supposed to make Mal feel small and helpless and crush every rest of aggression that may be hiding inside. It's supposed to make her direct all her hatred and disgust and lofty indifference to herself.


It works.


She's supposed to report to the League office in the capital every three months, and she does. They give her pep talks and cocoa and they check her progress on the flower front. She hates their smug faces when she admits to the insomnia and refuses to admit to anything else, but she goes, every three months.


Time passes and it doesn't get easier. They promised it'd get easier. The bastard in the checkered vest, he'd promised!

It does get a bit repetitive, she has to admit. Graveyards don't vary spectacularly over Borogravia. She ruins one of the good days (there's birdsong, and cool wind, and it's fairly overcast all day and she's almost slept the night before) by visiting the other three sort-of-alive-girls, all in one afternoon, and that, at least, is over and done with.

She notices a lot of fresh graves, though, and they aren't her fault for once. Makes her breathe a little easier.


That which does not kill her makes her stronger.


That which does not kill her does, in fact, make her kind of testy.


Fucking insomnia.


She manages to knock herself out, head against the wall, for the sake of something resembling sleep. It works surprisingly well and she never does it again, because she's getting just that little bit scared. They said it'd get better in time.


What if it never gets better?


Well, what then? Huh?

The graves she visits get newer as she goes vaguely forward in time. Some of them are still cared for, harked or covered with wilted flowers. The newest is one and a half years old, and she just closes her eyes and drops a sprig of cherry blossoms. Tries not to remember, because there's nothing blurred about this memory.

She's back in the capital, for her quarterly bun and cocoa, and there's a parade of some sorts. People are celebrating and the country's at war again, and all Mal sees is humans, strange and fragile humans that look too much like her. They keep away, don't see the ribbon, or don't care. She's a monster with fourteen flowers left.


Well, so much for that.


If there's something she's learned from the Stella fiasco, it's this. If she knows she's being hurt, and if she knows what's hurting her, than she needs to get the hell away from it. Come to think of it, she


spent forty-four years with that woman. Figures.


So if the Maladicta is cracking, then the model will be discontinued. It's not desperation, it's business, and the Maladicta was artificial from the start. She's grown so thin that it doesn't really make a difference what she calls herself now.

It's the change in diet; despite everything they say, bread and assorted root vegetables don't cut it most of the time, and anyway her stomach has strange reactions to anything that hasn't been sliced off an animal. Meat is hard to get by in this country. Cigarettes kill her appetite. And that's that, she's thinner than ever.


Mal finds that she can drink milk. It's enough like blood (in that way liquids have, being liquid), eerily, and, at the same time, it's entirely unlike blood, because it's milk. Drinking milk makes her feel about five, though.

She. Does. Not. Miss. Being. Human.

For fuck's sake.


Words that Stella has used to describe Mal:

Pretty. (So maybe she's right. Mal wouldn't know, on account of the mirror situation. She used to have a woodcut of herself, she'd kept the poster from the market place as a souvenir. Missing: young Maddie, left only her engagement ring behind.)

(She'd have taken the ring, but the damn thing was silver. Silver burns her, now, but she wishes she'd taken it, because Stella had burned the woodcut when she'd found it, and there's something about roots that Mal can't quite dismiss as silly just yet, but maybe that comes with not having any.)

Precious. (Why, the hell, ever.)


Useless. (Affectionately, that one, when Stella fed her from her wrist because Mal couldn't bring herself to bite the pretty humans. She certainly got over that.)

But, most of the time, mine. All mine. (Hers.)


Maladict, on the other hand, isn't Stella's and he has never been. She sits in a window, having a smoke and thinking up a nice, clean biography for Maladict. It's wish fulfillment of the purest and most indulgent form. Maladict has not been turned. She supposes that means he must have emerged from someone's womb, then, but technically, the same can be said for herself. It's not that she can't handle the whole business of having been turned, because she can and has done so for years and years, but it just screams dark and troubled past and she wants things a little smooth for once.

And classy. Hello, my name is Madeleine and I used to do accounting for my father's business.

Maladict will have it easier, she thinks, blowing grey toxic smoke into the nice, clean-ish spring air. Maladict doesn't visit graves and he doesn't go to the orientational meetings since he does quite well by himself, thank you. He will be able to sleep. There's nothing hindering him.

She fills the next three and a half pages of her notebooks with elaborate names and proceeds to learn them by heart.

It turns out that some of the women watch Maladict openly, but she doesn't know what to do about it, he isn't fleshed out that well. On the whole, she's disappointed; she's used to getting around more than she is, though not all that recently. But meanwhile, he looks good in a suit and certainly enjoys the attention.

A few months of this pass and it turns out there's only so much boredom Mal can take.


It's Maladict who has the privilege to watch the world from the sidelines, and from that safe distance he points out that, really, humans outdo Maladicta in cruelty. Easily. And that's when she joins the army, because she wants to find out how Maladict looks in a uniform. and what he knows about cruelty.


And really? Maladict'd had no idea.

But first of all, that journey starts with laughter. It threatens to spill out of her even when she's still signing her name (... Xylitian, Yuri, Zero, done), and later she barely makes it to the ladies' room (cleaner than the gents', and who's going to doubt her anyway) when it breaks free. This is pure comedy. So she's not the only one who's heard that the army is going to make a man out of her. There are girls! In trousers! Some are so screamingly obvious that she wonders while the sergeant hasn't commented on that, which makes her think about the sergeant, but he smells of chewing tobacco and sweat and not much else. Something about this is quite hilarious to her, and who is she to get in the way of a good joke? At least, she's sure there is one, somewhere in there, which is why she's laughing.

And it goes ever on and on. "The world is certainly unfolding itself for you," she hears herself say. Said like someone who's figured it all out, ahaha. Whatever she had expected from the army, she hadn't expected it to be funny.

Of course, she knows what it's like to be a nice Borogravian girl falling for other nice Borogravian girls, and the presence of Tonker and Lofty should theoretically break her heart. But Oliver does a quite thorough job of that already, because the feeling she so acutely remembers now is not that of falling in love - she can't even recall the nice Borogravian girl's face anymore, the one who jumped into the lake - it's the feeling that, yes, there is another option. Yes, sometimes the world unfolds further when you think you know it enough to get by. And that's what Stella was: another option, an alternative to the engagement ring on young Maddie's finger.

Pity Stella turned out such a creep.

But inside every reformed vampire is an unreformed vampire, and the unreformed vampire inside Mal is taking notes. Maybe even Stella would have raised an approving eyebrow at how easily Strappi has deconstructed Mal, has watched her for a few days and has reached out and taken away the one thing crucial to her sanity, or what passes for it. Or maybe Stella wouldn't have, seeing how she did a pretty good job at deconstructing Mal herself, in her time.

So much for dark and mysterious.

Between counting giant screws in the sky (she doesn't know where they came from) and watching Polly (she doesn't know where that came from, either), she entertains the thought that maybe, just maybe, Strappi had no idea about the significance of the coffee and was instead just being a petty arsehole and thief. It's not because she believes in people, it is because she doesn't get him. What's it to him if they all die in a fucking forest?

Mal's been a bit cruel in her time, but she's never been random.


One point against the Strappi-is-just-misunderstood-hypothesis: There are far, far more incriminating objects in her pack than the small bag of coffee beans.

There's a bottle full of dust, for example.


So now it's Maladict who's sort of maybe a bit over the edge, and she thinks that maybe if she lets Maladict go to pieces, then Maladicta might survive this whole. It sounds good in theory. Doesn't convince Otto, though, and if she's honest, it doesn't convince her, either, since Maladict is mostly Maladicta except with less problematic source material.

"So are you sure you want me to tell zem?" Otto asks after the most awkward talk Mal's ever had, and that's counting her quarterly cocoa-and-bun-sessions.

"Tell Ozzer, he's practical," she says, against reason insisting on the male pronoun. Otto probably knows. He'd guessed Mal after a minute. "I have a fear he'd think I have delusions if I do it."

"Vell, you do," Otto points out. "Vhich vun is Ozzer?" Without looking, Mal points somewhere behind her. She always knows where Polly is.

She's a bit thankful that Otto's there, because going up to Polly and asking her to keep a stake ready isn't something she thinks she's capable of. Not because it's awkward, but because she doesn't want to die. She wants to kill, but she's on top of it.

She watches them talking, and Polly pulls a few very interesting faces. Mal tries not to think about things too much at the moment, but she is a bit glad about Polly's lack of enthusiasm. Whatever that means.


The rest of the journey is a bit of a blur. Mal is not quite sure what has happened, because, really, the giant screws in the sky and the humiliated bodies all around and the people following them and waking up in the night and finding the squad all dead and cold, all that felt just as real as what has really happened, in an other-people-have-experienced-this-as-well-way, as confirmed by Polly. But then again, vampire hallucinations are contagious, so Mal doesn't know if she can buy into the reality of it all. Things in Mal's mind are real enough.


She's watched Polly watch everything else, and her tired and hallucinating brain must have been misinterpreting left and right and centre. There goes the sparkle of her grand disclosure, and she realises, too late, that Polly couldn't possibly have developed a Maladict thing. Nobody with that reaction could have developed a Maladict thing.


Now that that's cleared, at least, Mal's inner list of things to do has shortened considerably. Item no. 1 is Strappi. Item no. 2 is Strappi's impending decapitation. There's the bloodlust again, coffee be damned. She doesn't want to drink him because he's disgusting and also she's reformed, she's pretty sure of that, but she does want to hurt Strappi in new and inventive ways. She has fourteen flowers left, one more wouldn't make a difference, they really do grow everywhere after all -

Scratch that thought. Strappi, dead or alive, is not going to get a flower.


And Mal does indeed scratch that thought eventually.

And then it all goes to pieces and she leaves and doesn't come back to anywhere for six months. This time, she makes it up to ninety-eight before she flees back into the detached insanity of the military world, where they actually need people like her.


She meets Polly again.


Goes off to war.












Fuck. She'd like to say that aloud, but finds she can't. As it where, Mal isn't breathing. She blinks again, and with brain activity comes the pain.


"Mal?" This very worried voice belongs to Polly, and Mal tries and tries to focus, and finally there's Polly with a stake in her hand. Funny. Last thing Mal knew, that thing had stuck between her ribs.


"Can't you breathe?" asks Polly, clearly a bit weirded out. Mal tries, but she isn't quite sure how to start. Air moves a little, and -

- oh, fuck -

It must be the blood in her lungs, she hasn't healed enough for this to work, and it hurts, and she can't cough because her body's frozen. Her heart isn't beating, because quite clearly it has a hole in it where the stake has been, and there's no blood flow and no warmth and really not much of anything.

So she tries to shake her head, and fails. Blinks instead, but it's only half a blink, since her eyes fall shut in the middle of it.

She'd really like to tell Polly that this is normal, no need to worry, but she can't. No breath.


So Polly digs a hole in the snow, and makes a fire right next to her, and holds Mal's hands, rubbing warmth into them, and that is the strangest feeling ever. Mal can move her fingers a little. It makes Polly laugh. A little hysterically, but yes, it's laughter, it's not despair and not anger and not what you'd expect from the last living creature in this valley, wherever that is.


Except for the crows. Oh, the crows.


Mal tentatively nudges her heart, to see if it's up to beating yet, but no, it's twisted and torn and a right damn mess and this is taking too damn long. The fire's warmth reflects off her face and just then she can move her lips and she can mouth things and Polly guesses until Mal blinks. They're not very successful. Mal tries to communicate that she needs a little time, and Polly fails to understand. Or maybe she's just creeped out. Possible.


This is a body-shaped prison.


"This is stupid," says Polly the next morning. "You're a vampire, you should be healing. What's wrong?"

Despite the fact that Mal can't really say anything, Polly has no problem asking her questions. Most of them are rhetorical, but a few make Mal itch to get the old machinery up and working, just to give her answers. Truth is she's forgotten how to breathe, or rather, how to start this breathing thing. Her body's numb and she can't remember how it feels, and that is something she can't quite convey by moving her lips and blinking.

It's scary as all hell.

"So," says Polly, who is in an organising mood and possibly also cold and tired and frightened. "Do you hurt?"

Yes. No, say her lips.

Polly's fingers trail to her collar, and she hesitates. "'s it okay if I take a look?"

A second's pause, and, Yes.

Polly's fingers clumsily open a few buttons. "Sorry," she mutters at some point, and Mal really has no idea what she's talking about, because she can't feel a damn thing. Polly melts a clump of snow in her hand and wipes some of the blood away, carefully, carefully.

"Bad news first?"


"I don't think your shirt can be saved," says Polly. Deadpan.

Ha ha, very funny. Mal isn't so sure whether Polly pays attention.

"It looks mostly healed, so clearly you're feigning this," says Polly, closing Mal's shirt again. "How's the inside?"


"Why the hell aren't you breathing, then?"

Can't seem to get started.


Mal closes her eyes in desperation. She doesn't know, just that this is much worse than playing dead. She's stuck. No moving without warmth, no warmth without a heartbeat because it's winter and the fire's gone out, no talking without breath. No nothing without anything.

"I'm going to try something," says Polly. "Igor showed me."


"Gonna help you breathing," says Polly. "I don't think you're supposed to be conscious during this, so do try not to completely misinterpret my motives. And I'm not sure if this works at all, so it might end in complete embarrassment, anyway, which you can't communicate and I'm too cold to blush, so I guess it's okay. It's a plan, at least." She's clearly rambling now, lowering her head to Mal's, then hesitates again. "'s this okay for you? Mal?"

Mal just wants to breathe, so, yes.

So then Polly's lips are on hers, and Mal scolds herself for sort of wishing to be able to actually feel them, because that's not how it's meant, and anyway Polly's hand covers her nostrils which she guesses is just the way it's done, and then her lungs fill with air and that's the best thing that has happened to Mal, ever.


"Did it work?"


Sort of. Almost. So Polly does it again, and then Mal grasps the concept and draws a shuddering breath of her own.

"Motherfucker," she whispers. And breathes again, because she can. Somewhere inside, a lump of mangled tissue remembers what it is, and begins to beat.


It's a little pathetic, but. She falls for Polly. At this moment.


A few more hours are spent with Polly trying to warm Mal up and get her somewhat mobile, and Mal trying to make sense of things. She's confused, and thus, trying to make up for one and a half days without talking.

"So who the hell stuck this thing into me? 'cause I wasn't that badly out of coffee, I don't think." She's in a bad mood. Her skin tingles, as if she's buried in the world's biggest anthill. But sitting up, sorta. It's a sign of progress.

"I dunno," says Polly. "Think the Zlobenians have finally figured out we've got a vampire with us." She sighs.

"Good thing nobody ever remembers they've gotta cut off the head as well," mutters Mal.

"As a matter of fact -" begins Polly, and stops herself. "Fuck."

Mal raises a hand, and she sort-of-but-not-really feels deep cuts in the side of her neck. These days, nothing seems to hurry healing.

"Bloody amateurs," she says. "Was that a butter knife? A pair of nail scissors? Bloody amateurs."

"Dagger," says Polly. "I have it now."

Mal looks at her from the side. Polly's face gives nothing away, and that's all Mal needs to know.

"Thank you," she says.

"Don't," sharply. "I hate this. He never even saw me."

"Yes," said Mal, brushing it off. She doesn't need Polly's emotional hangover, she has one of her own. "Why did you wait for so long?"

"Didn't know what you'd be like," said Polly. "Didn't know what to do. Until I said to myself, fuck that shit, the situation can't possibly get worse." The swear words sound a thousand times more convincing than they did when Mal first met Polly.

"You didn't know what?" asks Mal.

"I know you get erratic around blood, and there's a lot of blood around -"

Polly stops dead, watches Mal's face. "Shouldn't I have said that?" she asks. She doesn't seem to care much.

"Eurgh," says the lack of caffeine. "Probably not," says Mal. "But as long as I can hardly move, I think you'll stand a chance."

"That makes me feel so much better," says Polly. "Come on, I'll make you some coffee. Where do you keep it? In your pack?"

"On my very own person, thank you," says Mal. "On account of not being bloody stupid." She tries to to reach the bag that is oh so discreetly tied to her belt, and, since the hand-eye-coordination is not quite up to standard yet, she fails.

"Let me," says Polly. "I am already in mother mode, I guess, so... shit. I swear I'm not trying to make a move on you." Her hand's slipped and brushed Mal's thigh, and Mal is far too aware of this. So what.

"You, Polly, are clearly out of your mind," says Mal.

"And that's why you love me." Dryly. It's some sort of game between them.

"Well," says Mal, and looks around. "It is quite nice of you to have waited for me," she adds. "Where is everyone?"

A pause, and, "Gone."

"I kind of figured," says Mal, who's tentatively trying to wriggle her toes. It doesn't work, but it's winter in the mountains, so it's not that unusual. "Where?"


"Gone," says Polly, again.


"When you're ready," Polly adds, "I sort of need your help. I tried to dig the holes myself, but the ground's frozen, and -"


Polly starts a new fire with the pages of one of the lieutenant's military textbooks, and makes snow coffee, which is really lukewarm sandy water - the coffee engine is nowhere to be found - and Mal drinks it. She'd lie if she said it doesn't make her feel better, but it's coffee. It makes her feel better; that's the whole point.


Later that day, Mal digs in silence, while Polly goes through the pockets of their attackers, taking food and weapons, and stripping them of their grey uniform coats. They're thirty miles into enemy territory. Polly's told her she'd ordered Rosemary and Mary to take the lieutenant and try to break through, and Mal hasn't told Polly yet that she's found Mary already.

Mal's arms and shoulders and back are protesting, but these things have to get done and it warms her up thoroughly and Polly can't do it. She considers, briefly, digging two holes, one for their squad and one for the Zlobenians, but it's not as if anyone was in a position to complain, and they don't have all week.

Polly wraps dead people into their threadbare sheets, and Mal carries them over the ground, lays them down carefully inside the grave. It may be her aching body, but every single one of them feels so much heavier than they look. Mary has been a really good soldier, too. Mal covers their bodies in clumpy earth, and that is the end.


"Some flowers would be nice," says Polly, inspecting the grave.

'You didn't kill them,' is what Mal wants to say, but Polly wouldn't understand it, and in the case of the Zlobenians it may not even be entirely accurate. So she says nothing.

"Well, I am not a praying man," says Polly. "Can you think of anything to say?"

Mal shakes her head. "Vampires don't have much of a funeral culture," she says.

Polly stays rooted on the spot for a second longer, than abruptly grabs her pack and hoists it on her shoulders.

"In that case, we're leaving," she says. "We're about three days overdue as it is."


After this, they walk for hours, heading straight east. By some hiccup of fate, they are left alone for once, and the ever falling snow obscures their traces, muffles all sound.


A few days later, Mal knocks on the door of a small room in the women's barracks. As soon as the door opens, she considers rethinking the whole idea, but by then it's too late. Polly appears to be in the middle of packing for furlough, but there seems to have been no progress since the morning.

"What is it?" says Polly. Every since they came back, she has out-gloomed Mal in every way.

"Good news," says Mal quickly, before her head is ripped off.

"What could possibly be good news?" asks Polly. She retreats into the room to stand by the window, which overviewed the casern's drill ground. A bunch of new recruits are practising shooting in the snow, while a corporal is shouting at them in order to improve their aim. It isn't working.

"Well, I don't know, maybe Blouse and Rosemary made it back safe," said Mal.

"That would be good news," says Polly. There was a pause. Then she spun around. "They did?"

"They've arrived in Plonk, south of here," says Mal.

"Okay," says Polly. "Let's just pretend I'm mocking Rosemary's sense of direction, but I don't have the energy for it." She commences looking out of the window. Her posture is impeccable, as is the new uniform she's acquired; her shoulders are tense.

Mal debates just leaving her here until she's done disentangling her mental knots, but decides she can't. She saunters over, a nonchalant breach of military conduct, but her voice is gentle when she asks, "are you okay?", like handling a device which may explode at any second.

Polly turns her head towards Mal, and her eyes are too bright. "Tell me, Maladict," she says, "do you have a heart at all?"

"Well, quite obviously I -," starts Mal, her brain going for the literal route before she realises that this question is a bit out of the ordinary.

"I mean," says Polly, "the kind of heart that leads your actions. The kind of heart where when you have only so much time, you decide to save the immortal." She looks down. "The kind of heart that breaks when you lose someone dear to you?"

There's not much that Mal feels she can say to that, so she doesn't, instead wondering if it was at all a good idea for Polly to take up soldiering again.

"Of course you don't," says Polly, and turns to watch the recruits outside once more. "You're dead already."

"If you weren't human, I'd punch you," says Mal.


There's this silence again, a silence that began years ago and rings in her ears when nobody's speaking. The same silence that causes Polly to drink when they don't have marching in the morning, the kind of silence that's caused by a heart that stops beating forever. They'd signed up for twelve years and that was three years ago.


"No, that's not what I meant," says Polly to her surprise. "You never told me you were turned."


But that doesn't mean she's -


How does Polly know that -


"I saw the scars on your neck," says Polly in an attempted explanation.

"It was a long time ago," says Mal, because it's the truth, it's somewhat relevant, and it gives her time to process the fact that apparently the whole business has left scars, that it's etched into her skin and is visible to everyone and she hasn't know until now. Of course, she couldn't have seen it in a mirror. But someone could have told her.

"Do you regret it?" asks Polly.

"Well, the immortality, the superpowers and the flawless beauty were kinda hard to get used to," says Mal. Her eyes narrow. "Polly, I do not know what you're insinuating, but I chose it. I let her."

The pronoun slips into place easily, as if she hadn't avoided the like of it in the past, but she's so tired of it. She knows Polly picks up on it, probably files it in a mental cabinet for later use.


Polly had asked her once what it felt like to die.

Like flying, Mal had said. You get lighter and lighter and then the floor drops from under your feet.

It's not much of a choice when it's the only way out.


"Yes," says Polly, "you chose it so much that you signed a pledge that says you're not a vampire officially."

"Well, excuse me, I think I'm allowed to change my opinion once in a century or so," says Mal. "Also, I originally came over to find out why you are so fucking moody, actually."

"Because I lost the squad," says Polly. "And you appear indifferent about it. Tell me, does anything I say or do hurt you at all?"

"Why would you want it to?" There's a remnant of former aggression somewhere in there.

"Tell me," says Polly again. "Am I even able hurt you, or are you unfazed by the antics of humans? I suppose our deaths are par for the course to -"

Mal thinks of Stella, who thought stabbing her with a penknife was very amusing. Mal thinks of how she learned not to scream. "You'd have to sink very low," she says. "Or die. That might put a dent in my composure."

"I can't help the latter, obviously," says Polly. "But I'm glad you say that. I do not wish to hurt you."

This is, to Mal, a turn of events that she has not predicted. "What exactly," she asks, "is the purpose of this conversation?"

Polly's eyes are still on the goings-on in the yard, but she goes just a little bit tenser, if that is at all possible. "I think I lost the thread somewhere," she says. "So if I were to kiss you, would you kiss me back?"


"Is this the time?"

When in doubt, self-reference, and Mal is very much in doubt. She thought she'd become jaded in the ways of flirting, but Polly, apparently, flirts the same way she fences, in ways the experienced cannot comprehend.


"I've been wanting to ask you that," says Polly, still watching the yard, even though the recruits are now filing off. She'll have to turn around soon or look silly. "But it was never the time. I doubt it'll ever be, so I'm making it the time. It is if I say it is." She thinks for a moment. "If you agree, obviously."


There's this pattern in Mal's life of not saying no to drastic changes in her life when she doesn't see an alternative, but this time, it may just do good. Polly is forceful, of course she is, presses her against the wall next to the window and claims her mouth for herself. Mal feels her body react, heat and cold at the same time as Polly bites her lips, not drawing blood, that's harder than the layperson thinks; but Mal wouldn't be herself if she didn't also think all the while, picking up that there's so much more to this than lust, that there's wounds yet to heal and this is not the way to go about it.

But with the military being what it is, it may be the only way they have. So in the end she holds Polly in her arms, and Polly clings on like a drowning person would, rib-crushing, suffocating, and like a drowning person she may just manage to pull Mal under with her.


But Mal can't die.


It ends in tears, of course, but not very many, and while Mal suspects there is a lot more grief yet to extract, this is not for today. Polly laughs it off and orders her not to tell, and then they share a cigarette at the open window, while Polly tentatively takes her hand and doesn't let go.

This is a strange day. She's almost forgot about the bottle of dust for a while, but it is with her, always.


"So if I were to ask you if you wanted to come to Munz with me while we're on leave," asks Polly after a while, "would you say yes?"


"No," says Mal, as she puts out the cigarette in the snow that has gathered on the windowsill. Suddenly she remembers how cold and numb she was out there.


"I understand," says Polly.


"I have unfinished business elsewhere," says Mal.


"I understand," says Polly, and there's an edge in her voice. There's more of that silence. "Where?" she adds.

As far away as possible from you, thinks Mal, but doesn't say it out loud, never. The silence stretches, it has never really stopped, they may never be able to make enough noise to fill it. All hearts will stop beating, except her own.


"I'd better be leaving," says Mal, and suddenly her voice is shaky and she doesn't know why it happens now. "I may drop by in Munz later, but for now - oh to hell with it," she says. "Wish me luck? I'm scared."

The expression on Polly's face is unreadable. "You goddamn stupid vampire," she says. "If you don't take care of yourself, I will come and punch you."


So you always leave the best things for the end.

Or, in Mal's case, she's left herself a situation with no clear way out. It's been years and years and years, though, she's had enough time to think. So, naturally, at this moment, she hasn't even picked out a flower yet.

Something poisonous would be very suitable, she thinks. Deadly nightshade, or something, but she doesn't know what that looks like and in any case isn't motivated to go all botanical on destiny's arse. There's someone in the inn's bar who sells roses. A white rose will have to do, they're vampires. It doesn't matter. She will be fed it.

She has coffee in the bar. It's sour, which comes from not cleaning your coffee engine regularly, and it's sticky with sugar, but this is a small inn at the border to Uberwald, it's not properly civilised. This will do.

She spends the night packing her small suitcase; first the coffee, then everything else, in neat piles. She's always neat when she's nervous. The suitcase is lighter now than when she arrived, because she's left the emergency poppy seeds on the table, the knife, the bottle, the dead rat, the rose. It's four in the morning when she's done, and she sits down in the window frame, smoking cigarettes end to end, lighting each with the leftover glow from its predecessor.

The room fogs up, and outside, the morning star rises. Time.

Her hands are not shaking as she pours the bottle's powdery contents onto the floor boards, thanks to years and years of refusing to shake. She takes the knife and guts the rat, squeezes, counts to twelve; twelve drops of blood, twelve years. She discards the rat, steps over to the window, her eyes on the horizon to watch out for the first signs of dawn.

Behind here, there's a sound like wind in a leaveless winter tree, branches rustling together, or bones. Skin woven from abandoned spider webs. Bones, skin, hair, flesh. Blood. Someone breathes in, but it isn't Mal. She doesn't dare turn around.

"This is interesting," says a soft, dark voice, a thing in a cellar. Nineteen years until Mal saw the sun again. There's the sound of bare feet on the wooden floor, something is picked up from the table, a stir in the air, the smell of roses. "For me?"

Bones, skin, hair, flesh, blood, behind her now, and Mal looks down. It takes her hand, closes it around the stem of the rose, and squeezes. The pain is unremarkable, but it is real, and it tells Mal that whether she refuses to turn around or not, Stella will still be standing right there. So she turns.

Stella smiles, perfect teeth in a white face, framed by white-blond hair. "Maddie all grown up now," she says, "and what a killer she's become!" She lifts Mal's hand, on which droplets of red warm blood blossom and pool together, and presses her lips to the palm, licks her skin. "You killed me," she says. "Why did you bring me back?"

Mal shrugs. "To forward goodwill and pacifism and to encourage you to take the pledge of not one drop." Stella looks at her as if Mal were the crazy one, and there's blood on her mouth. One minute after resurrection, it must be a new record. Stella lifts a perfect eyebrow. "Well, no, not really," says Mal. "Because I was ordered to repent and you're unfinished business and also kinda heavy to carry around all the time. This isn't personal."

"Pity," says Stella as she advances, takes Mal's wrists and pins them down on the windowsill. "I'm gonna make it personal," and her face is so close now as she says it.

Suddenly, Mal's heart soars, her fear catching up with her. Not the mouth, she thinks, fervently, not with the blood, not now, when she is doing so well. She turns her head away, fully aware she's granting full access to her neck instead.

Somewhere behind the open window, she hears the larks sing, as Stella's teeth rip into her skin, as she spills her blood like she's done so many times before, and drinks deeply. The floor falls away from her, and she is lighter and lighter and dying. Then she remembers something.

"Sun," she breathes, as her knees buckle and her head swims, but Stella won't let her fall. "The sun is coming up."

Stella stops and smiles, done for now. "So it would seem," she says, and gathers a lightheaded Mal in her arms, a farewell to any innocent bystander.

"I will destroy you," she murmurs and presses her lips on Mal's, a kiss that she can't refuse anymore, "at leisure," another kiss, "later".

The faintest light on the horizon, a flock of bats flies up to flee it, and Mal slumps to the ground.


Somewhere along the way, the thought behind it had ceased to work, and between Mal knocking on the door and a bemused Shufti answering it, she's had enough time to discard a scraggly bunch of wildflowers beneath an ornamental shrub.

After all, Polly isn't dead yet.

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