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A Place Called Home

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"Rufus, it's late. It will only take me a few minutes to make up a cot in Young Will's room, and--"

They went through this every Sunday night. It was a pointless argument, and it always ended the same way.

"And it won't take me that much longer to walk back to the palace." Drumknott was already shrugging on his coat. "Rose, you know His Lordship expects me promptly at seven to discuss the week's agenda."

It used to annoy him when that simple statement of fact didn't end things. Family was family and work was work, and each was allotted its proper space and its proper time.

Now, he was simply accustomed to the fact that his sister would keep up the volley of objections for another few rounds. At least it gave him time to untangle his scarf from the coat rack; no matter how carefully he draped it, the thing invariably managed to winkle its way under every other item on the rack and work itself into a half-hitch around one of the pegs.

"Big Will's due at the depot at seven. You could have a nice breakfast here and be out the door by six-thirty--you'd be going together as far as Sator Square, isn't that right, Will?"

William Mulberry did not stir from his post-prandial snooze, but he did give a grunt by way of answer. It didn't signify agreement as much as the fact that he'd been conditioned to respond automatically whenever he heard a wifely interrogative.

Drumknott made no comment about the nice breakfast, which would no doubt contain five varieties of cholesterol and very little else. The scarf was around his neck, and his gloves were out of his coat pocket. "I also need to review the clerks' accounts and any clacks transcripts that have come in before I meet with His Lordship. I'll be up just before sunrise, Rose. Well, just before five a.m., actually," he said in deference to the sun's winter timetable. It was important to be precise, even when it wasn't important.

Rose shifted baby Violet to her other shoulder, pausing to shush a petulant whimper before resuming the old argument. "I hate that you're always at his beck and call. Really, is a night with family too much to ask?"

The question was familiar, and Drumknott knew his next line well enough. But the question brought a stronger and stronger twist of guilt with it each time. Rose didn't ask in order to be manipulative--the two siblings genuinely enjoyed each other's company--but that didn't keep it from feeling like he was being brought to task for Not Being a Good Brother.

"I'll ask. Maybe not a Sunday night, but some other time." He smiled at her, and reached out to stroke what little hair there was on Violet's head. That last part was a new addition to their routine, but it was a good one. "It will be short notice, though, and I may have to change plans at the last minute, so don't say anything just yet. I'd hate to disappoint Young Will."

He could generally tolerate Not Being a Good Brother. As for Not Being a Good Uncle, however, he'd rather take a dip in the scorpion pit.

At this point, Rose would normally ask him if she could pack up some leftovers for him to take back (he would thank her, but refuse), but that night, there was a small deviation in their routine.

"Uncle Rufus?"

The siblings turned in unison. Young Will peeked cautiously around the doorjamb, as if by staying mostly in his bedroom he could avoid violating the sanctity of bedtime.

"Will, what did I tell you about going to bed--"

Drumknott rested a hand on Rose's arm, quieting her. She could deal with the infraction after he was gone. "Yes, what is it, Will?"

"Thank you for the stamps," he said, meek and half asleep.

"You're very welcome." It was the fourth time he'd been thanked for the stamps, but he still felt wonderfully smug about it. "You didn't have any like that before did you?"

Will gave an enthusiastic shake of his head. "Nuh-uh." The sleepiness was fading as fast as Rose's temper. "Did they really come all the way from Fourecks?"

"Yes, they did. All the way from Fourecks," he said gently, for the fourth time that evening. Young Will was at the age where places like Fourecks and the Agatean Empire were as wonderfully and deliciously fantastic as the Hogfather and the Soul Cake Duck. He would not be at that age for long, and Drumknott felt another twist in his heart, a close cousin to the guilt he felt at Rose's earlier question.

"There are lots of poisonous animals in Fourecks," Young Will said, solemn as a sage dispensing advice. "I heard they even have poisonous sheep."

"Don't be silly, Will." This got a meek 'yes, mum' from Young Will and a sleepy 'yes, dear' from Big Will.

"Poisonous sheep? I hadn't heard about that," Drumknott said, eyebrows raised in mock surprise. "Maybe I should look it up in the Palace library for you."

That got a wide grin from Young Will, so wide that his cheeks pushed his glasses up a fraction. The expression startled Drumknott every time he saw it.

It wasn't just that it was odd for a child to be enchanted by the idea of research. It was that Drumknott's memory always wanted to recall the expression as a faint smile that didn't quite reach Will's eyes. He always corrected his memory with the facts, but Young Will was so like he was at that age, he had to constantly and deliberately remind himself of the differences. Will's hair was blond, but already a shade darker than Drumknott's, and while Will's features favored his mother, the stocky frame was pure Mulberry. Despite these facts, it was a constant temptation to picture Will as paler and slighter, to see him as a bespectacled, scholarly boy who was bullied rather than a bespectacled, scholarly boy who could drop a would-be bully with a casual punch.

"Uncle Rufus?"

He said 'what is it?' even as Rose told Young Will that his uncle needed to head back to work. He started to say something to her (and there was that twist of guilt again), but Young Will blurted out his question:

"C'nIgotoworkwithyousomeday?"

There was a short, shocked silence. Then, Young Will clapped both hands to his mouth even as his mother snapped out his full name all the way up to the 'Junior.'

Again, he lifted his hand to Rose's arm. It was no fun for anyone when his visits ended with Young Will in trouble. "I would like that. Now, I can't promise I can take you in with me," Drumknott said slowly, picking each word with great care, "but I can promise you I'll ask his Lordship next time I see him."

Young Will pondered that for a moment, then with a big smile and a final "g'night, Uncle Rufus!" he vanished back into the bedroom.

"I'll see you out," Rose said. That should have signified that their routine was back on track, but something was not right. The words were clipped and cold, not warm and gentle as they normally were. Baby Violet grumped and squirmed on her mother's shoulder, and Rose patted her a bit too brusquely for comfort.

Drumknott pulled on his gloves and followed his sister out the door. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to say next. The words were right, but the cues were wrong. Once out the door, there was an awkward dance on the landing when he expected Rose to head on down the stairwell only to have her cut behind him and ease the door closed so as not to disturb Violet or the two Wills.

She spoke softly, but no less viciously for that. "Rufus, so help me, the next time you promise something to my son that you can't deliver on, I will make you wish I'd drowned you when you were born."

He was a head taller than her now, but for a moment, he was under the illusion of looking up at the older sister who had terrorized him in their younger years.

"I'm sorry?" It came out as a squeak. He hoped it wasn't a terrified one. Only his confusion over what Rose was talking about felt him from feeling like a complete coward.

"It's one thing to constantly hem and haw about how you can't find the time to spend with your own family, but it's another tell your own nephew that you'll ask the Patrician--the Patrician--about him going into work with you! You know Young Will thinks the sun rises and sets on you--"

"Rose..."

"So don't you dare play fast and loose with his trust--"

"Rose!"

She was so furious at being cut short she could only open and shut her mouth like a landed fish, but at least it gave him the time he needed to say what needed to be said.

"I said I would ask, and I will." He pushed down on each word a little more forcefully than he otherwise might, not knowing if she would believe him or not.

At first, she just looked at him, eyebrow cocked, while waiting for him to reconsider or dig himself in even deeper. Then, her expression slowly softened, and she cocked her head to one side.

"You will? Honestly? I mean... you can?"

He nodded, wondering at the flush that came to his face. "Yes, of course," he said, even as a tiny voice in the back of his mind said that even just a few years ago, there was no 'of course' about it.

She blinked a few times. "Oh." It was a very small 'oh.' Then, she shook herself as if shuddering her way back into the right reality, and she smiled. "Well... even if it doesn't work out, he'll be glad you asked. Really, Rufus, even the stamps are far too much."

"It's my pleasure."

"You spoil him."

"It's my job." He thought for a moment, and made a decision. "You can also tell him I'll ask about staying over on Hogswatch Eve." He leaned down and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. He then kissed the top of Baby Violet's head, thinking about a too-soon day when she'd greet that sort of thing with a giggle rather than a sleepy whimper.

"Tell him yourself only after you've asked and got a 'yes,' Rufus. Easier on all of us, that way." The frostiness was gone, and she was his doting big sister again. They walked the rest of the way downstairs and out to the building's front stoop. A few flakes of snow circled around randomly, as if checking things out in advance of an invasion.

"It was a lovely evening, as always." He snugged his scarf tight up under his chin. "You'd better get Vi back inside before she gets a chill."

"Are you telling me how to raise my own children?" It was meant to sound stern, but it came out laughing. Then came the last part of their little ritual. "Are you sure you can't stay?"

"I really need to head back," he said, and there was that little twist again. Before he could think more of it, he waved farewell and headed off, knowing that she'd stand there watching until he rounded the corner.

It was a quiet night, and other than a few thieves (he had his Thieves' Guild receipt with him, of course, so being jumped only meant losing a few minutes to cordial conversation rather than losing his wallet or his health), he encountered no one.

It was a good time for thinking. Thinking about how much he liked and loved his family, and how much he enjoyed being an uncle, and how natural it would have been at the end to say I really need to head back home.

His tidy little filing system was falling apart at the seams. He could remember the day at work when he saw a Genuan stamp, and instead of wondering what the document in the envelope might portend, his first thought was I should save this for Young Will. It had unsettled him enough that he had to go lie down for a few minutes.

Then, at dinner tonight, Big Will passed along a juicy rumor that was working its way through the city, and Drumknott had instantly wondered what His Lordship's take on it might be. What bothered him was the realization that this was not the first time this had happened. Things filed under 'home' were showing up under 'work.' Things filed under 'work' were showing up under 'home.'

Home. One of these days, the word would slip out in the wrong place. Maybe Rose wouldn't notice. Maybe she would, and she'd tease him mercilessly about it for weeks. Or maybe she would be deeply hurt, and instead of dropping guilt on him by accident, she'd start doing so on purpose.

It wasn't an easy thing to ponder, but that didn't do anything to diminish the warmth of home at last when he finally saw the bulk of the Patrician's Palace.

At the same time, this did nothing to take away from the feeling of home that came with his sister's teasing or his brother-in-law's terrible jokes, or the way his nephew would race to be the first to greet him when he came to the door on Sunday afternoons.

Drumknott looked at these two thoughts, these two disparate notions of home and work, and put them aside until he could figure out how to file them properly.

A quick glance up to a certain window told him His Lordship was up and about. He was not surprised, but he felt something like relief as he headed straight up to Vetinari's chambers.

His Lordship was sitting at his desk, leafing through a stack of documents. A quick glance confirmed they were Klatchian.

"Good evening, Drumknott. I trust you had an enjoyable dinner. Did your nephew appreciate the stamps?"

"He did indeed, sir. He was quite grateful."

Vetinari turned to the next document in the stack. "I imagine he didn't have any stamps from Fourecks yet?"

"No, sir. He's quite excited about it. He's already trying to figure out how best to place them in his album. It's very well organized."

The corner of Vetinari's mouth lifted slightly. "That does not exactly surprise me, Drumknott."

"He did it all by himself."

Vetinari looked up, mildly startled, but amused. "Young William Mulberry sounds like quite an interesting boy," he said, and Drumknott racked his brain, wondering when and if he had ever talked at length about his nephew.

"You do go on about him, you realize." Vetinari's attention shifted back to the ledger, but Drumknott knew better than to assume that meant he was distracted.

"I... I didn't, sir. Realize, that is. I do apologize."

He was about to say he'd endeavor not to do so any more (the thought brought the twist back with a vengeance), but Vetinari waved the apology aside.

"I didn't say I minded." Vetinari slid a small piece of brown envelope to the edge of the deck. It had been carefully trimmed to preserve the four colorful and exquisitely detailed Klatchian stamps. One of them had a picture of a five-legged camel.

"Oh." It sounded a lot like Rose's 'oh' from earlier that evening. Drumknott wasn't surprised by what Vetinari had just done, but the lack of surprise was itself... surprising.

"Thank you." He picked up the stamps. "I'm sure he'll be thrilled. Anyhow, sir, speaking of Young Will--"

"You really ought to bring him in one of these days, Drumknott." Vetinari still seemed to be preoccupied by one of the documents. "I should like to meet him. Things are often quiet enough just before Hogswatch. You'll be taking the day off to spend with your family, I assume."

Drumknot paused for only a second. Other men might have been knocked for a loop, but instead, he felt something within him quiet and settle as certain important items slid into their proper places. "Yes, I believe I shall. Perhaps I can bring Young Will by on Hogswatch Eve day?"

A slight nod was all the confirmation Drumknott needed or got.

"Is there anything you need from me tonight, Your Lordship?"

There was a brief pause as several possible responses were apparently considered and then put aside. "No. No, I don't think so."

"Good night, sir." The routine was as familiar as the one he had with Rose. The things that had slid into place stayed there. Belonged there.

"Good night, Drumknott."

Drumknott headed back up to the room he had started to think of as 'home.' He examined the thought for a moment, and felt only an echo of that old guilty twist that was conjured up by the notion of 'work vs. home.'

The old filing system had broken down, but a new one was coming together easily enough. In the end, it turned out he simply needed a bigger box to label 'home.'