Vimes wouldn't ordinarily take a shortcut through Spotted Alley in the dark. But one of the stranger effects of rebelling, if that's the word for it, is that the People's Republic of Treacle Mine Road is the safest part of Ankh-Morpork. And taking the alley does shave five minutes off the walk to the Goose Gate barricade.
"At dawn, do you reckon?" asks Sam from about three inches behind Vimes's right shoulder. The alley's too narrow to walk abreast. "That's when they'll attack?"
It's the obvious time, and therefore a deeply stupid one. Vimes starts to say so, then considers that the order will be given by a high-ranking officer with years of experience and a long family tradition of military service behind him. "Probably," he says.
Vimes is digging through the linty pockets of his mind for a halfpenny of advice, or at least reassurance, when Sam grabs his shoulder and spins him hard against a wall. It's not a wall Vimes is happy to be touching even with armour on. That's not his main worry for long, through, because the next thing Sam does is kiss him. Metal clangs as the edges of their helmets meet, and Sam's mouth smashes so roughly against his that there ought to be another, fleshier clang. This is not the sort of dark-alley problem Vimes knows how to react to, and for a warm, stunned instant it just happens. In that sliver of time Sam's tongue darts into his mouth and Sam's hands get purposeful, if clumsy, with the laces of Vimes's breeches.
Vimes shoves hard, and the second clang finally sounds as the boy hits the other wall. Sam's hands come up defensively over his face, then drop. Moonlight glints in patterns off a miraculously clean spot on his breastplate. He's breathing fast, or maybe shaking.
"I haven't slept in almost three days, lad," Vimes says. Except, he remembers, for that little while earlier, when he nodded off over his stew bowl and woke with his head on Sam's shoulder. "My mind's playing tricks. I'm sure that what I think happened a minute ago actually didn't. It was all just some very odd shadows."
Sam levers himself away from the wall and stands very straight. "No, sarge. It was real."
Pig-headed is one of the politer things Vimes has been called over the years. But bugger him - er, blast him if he knows how this particular bit of stubbornness grew its tusks. He didn't teach it to Sam, because he doesn't have it.
Vimes scrabbles around again for words but comes up empty-handed. Sam breaks the silence. "I've never - " The rest of the sentence slinks shamefacedly off into the darkness. Vimes thinks back. No, he never had, not then. "If I die tomorrow I want to have . . . you know."
If he wasn't confronted with the evidence, Vimes would deny he'd ever been so young. "You're off duty for two hours, Sam. Go back to Welcome Soap. Find yourself a nice girl. Or at least a nice seamstress."
Any sensible Watchman would be grateful and gone. Sam hasn't moved. It makes Vimes think of all those times he's stood in front of Vetinari's desk and said Sir to everything he couldn't make himself agree with. The stubborn little bastard is sirring him without a word, with nothing but the tenseness of his rigid shoulders. And Vimes doesn't have any of Vetinari's irony to call on.
He takes a deep breath of good, thick, piss-and-onion-reeking Ankh-Morpork air. "Or a nice lad, if you'd rather."
It feels like he dragged that sentence out from somewhere around his kidneys, where it's been sitting unsaid for thirty years. It's lain in him like a stone or a tumour, not really part of plain old Sam Vimes. Something he forgets about it until it flares up and makes him suffer for a while.
"I'd rather it was you," Sam says.
Vimes would never sympathize with Lord Vetinari. But in this moment he understands why the man's so fond of scorpion pits. Chucking in the occasional street performer must be a relief from dealing with Samuel Vimes. "It can't be me. Go on, now."
I never felt that way about John Keel, Vimes thinks as Sam walks off, slumping a little despite the armour. Not that it would've mattered. Keel didn't like the tailor boys or the men who went with them, nor even the quiet sort who set up together like man and wife. Everyone knows some things just aren't natural.
He wonders what Sam's going to do. Find another lad like that, like himself? Or put it aside and choose the natural thing? The decent, ordinary thing for a plain man, not running after perversions.
Or maybe he'll just have a drink, and then another. And some more tomorrow, when John Keel is dead. When Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh, is back at home with his good wife who loves him and the child he fathered on her.
His life will be Sam's life, someday, and it's better than any other he could have. No matter what the lad might think he wants now, when his blood's up and he's not sure there's any life for him at all past tonight.
The choices people make change the world, the History Monks said. Sam, tonight, could choose something that will unmake Vimes's world. Vimes puts a hand in his pocket and touches the silver cigar case. It feels too solid to vanish in a puff of sex and quantum thingummys. Even if Sam does what he's fancying, it could mean nothing but a secret. A memory to chew on of a quiet night, like an old dog's favourite bone.
But universes split off every moment. Sometimes they change around you as you fall through a skylight, as Carcer murders the hero of the barricades days before the barricades go up.
Vimes goes home tomorrow. Or rather, he'll try. There's no way of knowing if he'll get there.