What with swordfights, and interviews with mysterious ladies from Genua, and a new commander to break in, it felt like an age since Vimes had so much as sat down. The small, stuffy, and slightly odd-smelling room he rented from Dr. Lawn had taken on the character of a paradise in his mind.
But when he finally got there and was sitting on the bed, halfway done taking off his second boot, he was only a little surprised when one patch of shadow detached itself from the wall.
Vimes kicked off the boot, sighing. He wanted to go home, where he already knew all the invisible people. "Well, who are you this time? Faithful public servants? Noble revolutionaries? Long-suffering --"
But the face that came into view, with its great beak of a nose and its sharp-eyed, unwavering gaze, was horribly familiar. "Oh, ye gods, no. No. Not you."
The eyes widened. That alone was enough to make Vimes second-guess himself -- since when had he ever seen that face show surprise, or any other emotion?
"You don't know me." The voice was the same, give or take thirty years.
"Of course I do. You're --" The bane of my existence, the reason I have to suffer danger and discomfort and, worse yet, dress armor. But of course he wasn't that yet. Right now he was only a skinny young man who only had to shave every other day, wearing a rusty, shapeless coat that looked1 as though he'd borrowed it from Foul Ole Ron. The only traces of the future Vetinari were the nose, the hands, and the stillness.
" -- the one who's been following me," he finished. It was, after all, a safe bet.
The young Vetinari's eyes narrowed. Vimes wasn't surprised he'd seen through the improvisation. He was surprised he'd let it show on his face.
"A person could learn all sorts of things, following you. If he survived. How did you know that crowd wouldn't attack you the way they did at Dolly Sisters? Why didn't you stay inside with the door locked?"
The amazing thing was, the kid really didn't know. The old Vetinari only asked a question when he had something to gain from hearing the reply spoken out loud. This Vetinari really wanted to learn the answer.
"Look," Vimes told him. "What's a door? Not much, if you're looking for protection. No matter how many crowns you carve into it, wood still burns. No, the only thing a door is for is to divide the world into two parts: the part on the inside and the part on the outside. If you've got a bunch of guys with grudges and weapons, the other side of a door is the last place you want to be."
He watched as the kid digested that -- it was odd to be explaining it to the very man who'd taught it to him. After a moment, he nodded, apparently satisfied, and went on to the next question: "Why are you taunting the Unmentionables?"
"A man has to have some entertainment."
"They're hardly a safe target!" Vimes had been wrong; the voice wasn't quite the satiny instrument of fear and annoyance that it was later to become. The perfect smoothness and the underlying threat were only there intermittently, because the young man didn't quite have a handle on this enthusiasm and kept breaking out into exclamation points. Had the older Vetinari outgrown that enthusiasm, or was he just keeping it suppressed? A pity, either way.
Was he feeling pity for Vetinari?
"I'd think the last thing you'd want is to get their attention," the kid said. "I'd think you'd want to keep your head down."
So either he figured nothing could be done about Cable Street, or he figured what Cable Street was doing was fine as long as it didn't interfere with him? Couldn't be. Not if he really thought about it. Vetinari -- his Vetinari, Lord Vetinari -- had let Vimes arrest him, back when it had looked as if he'd stabbed his clerk. He could have said he was above the law. Gods knew there were a lot of nobs up on the hill who would have supported the idea. But he hadn't. His Vetinari understood.
Maybe this one just needed to learn.
"Look," he said. "In this town, if you kill someone without a contract, you'll go before the Guild, and if I kill someone, I'll go before the Patrician. But if the Patrician kills someone, or one of his friends, well, that's just the breaks, right? And everybody keeps his head down for as long as it's still attached. So it's shiny, expensive law for the nobs, and dirty, beat-up, secondhand law for the rest of us, and no law at all for the Patrician and his cronies. Well, where i come from, there's only one law. It's not perfect. It's like the old Watch House: it shivers in a high wind, and parts of it have been repaired so often they're more paint than plaster, and there are doors that open on blank walls. But it's our law, one law, and it belongs to everybody."
Somewhere in that performance, he'd jumped to his feet. He cocked a hip and crossed his arms, as if he'd done it on purpose.
Young Vetinari was giving him a look that was level and unreadable and familiar. "Where you come from," he said slowly. "That would be Pseudopolis, yes?"
Vimes' face went hot. "Very law-abiding city, Pseudopolis."2 Then, feeling he'd better get his balance back again, he said, "Who's taken the contract on me?"
It didn't actually unbalance this Vetinari any more than it would have done the old one. "Three people have tried, but I turned them all down."
"Which means I can expect a visit from some other members of the Guild instead. Why?"
"You won't have any problem with them. Why did people offer contracts, or why did I turn them down?"
"I already know the first one."
"I wonder if you do. As for the second -- you intrigue me, Sergeant Keel. You seem to have a talent for turning people's worst qualities to your advantage. I wanted to understand how it was done."
"I hope you're done with figuring it out. I can make things quite difficult for people who want to keep an eye on me."
"I've no doubt of that." The young Vetinari's eyes narrowed again, this time in amusement. It was a strange pleasure, having a conversation with Vetinari and actually knowing some of what he was thinking. Maybe he should ask him something, something he'd always wanted to know, like Do you eat or sleep? or Is there anyone who's a real person to you, anyone in the whole city? Except that the person who answered them would be this young near-stranger, not the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork.
Vetinari crossed his arms, possibly unconscious of how he mirrored Vimes' pose. "How are you planning to take down the Unmentionables?"
His first reaction was the familiar Vetinari-related geyser of rage. As if he didn't have enough problems, now he had to take down the Unmentionables? The man had to know it was impossible! And even if it were possible, it wasn't his job. He had plenty to do just to keep the tide of chaos from drowning his Watch, and now --
And then he realized that it wasn't a subtly phrased order. It was a question based on a faulty assumption.
Vetinari was wrong.
Vetinari wasn't the all-seeing Patrician. He was a smart kid who knew how to make use of a lucky guess. He'd made a mistake.
Vimes couldn't keep the grin off his face. (Not that he tried very hard. His grins worried people, which had often come in useful.) "I don't have a plan to destroy the Unmentionables. I refuse to have any part in what they do, but I'm not going to do anything to them at all." He shook his head. "As if the likes of me could do a thing against Cable Street."
Vetinari's mouth moved into a completely unfamiliar expression. "I think that before you go, you'll find that you're mistaken about that. In fact, I'm fairly certain it's what you'd call a safe bet."
Wait, that was a smile. Vetinari was smiling.
It nudged Vimes into the caution he should have been using all along. "Before I go?"
"Listen." Vetinari leaned forward urgently, and his arms came unfolded. "I don't know your secret, but I know you have a secret. It's possible you're John Keel, but I seriously doubt it. It's possible you're really from Pseudopolis, but, again, the preponderance of evidence is against it. You're a stranger to all my acquaintance, but you don't treat me like a stranger. But listen to me: I don't care!" Vimes had never seen Vetinari this passionate about anything. His pale face even had a flush of pink. "I don't care who you really are or where you came from. I only care what you're doing. You're turning my city on its head. Things get less intolerably foolish where you are. That's what I care about."
Vimes felt almost fond of this Vetinari with his exclamations and his big ideas. "Your city, huh."
He wasn't even surprised when the young Vetinari flushed. "Listen," he said instead of answering. "I want you to go to bed with me."
"I told you, I'm not planning any -- what?"
"If there were any problem with your hearing, I'm certain I would be aware of it, Sergeant."
"Are you insane?" It had never crossed his mind, never once, he would swear it to any available god. But now that the possibility had been raised, all the things he thought and felt and noticed were poisoned with it. No. No, no, no. No -- but.
He drew a long breath.
"In the first place," Vetinari interrupted, "yes, you do; not recently is not the same as not ever. In the second place, you know very well she'd say yes if you asked her; I wouldn't be surprised if she's been dropping hints about it for years."
Before Vimes had got his breath back (It had felt a lot like being headbutted in the stomach, by a head with a helmet on it), Vetinari neatly robbed him of it again by placing one hand on his chest and tipping him back against the wall. He found Vetinari's knee between his and Vetinari's face so close that he could see the flush that warmed the smooth but still unmistakable face of the future Patrician of Ankh-Morpork. Vimes' commander, his nemesis, his teacher, and the burr in his boots.
"You see," Vetinari said, conversationally, as though their bodies weren't so close they brushed with every inhale, "you came here two days ago from ... Pseudopolis, and if I am not very much mistaken, you will soon be returning to ... Pseudopolis. I have plans, Sergeant Keel, which make close ties with others in Ankh-Morpork inadvisable. You've no idea how long I've been waiting for a man from Pseudopolis."
And then he was completely still, and close enough to smell, and waiting.
The conversation in Vimes' head was unexpectedly complicated. On the one hand, the Patrician wanted to go to bed with him, for which there was not enough No on the Disc, not enough in the multiverse -- the No that was required was looking like bankrupting the No supplies of several neighboring multiverses as well.
And who knew what effect it would have on the future? This was a lot bigger than just leaving a few barricades alone.
And yet ...
Here was Vetinari, and he wanted something. And instead of pulling strings to make it happen, he had to just ask for it and wait for an answer, like everybody else.
He was waiting to see what Vimes' answer would be. He didn't know.
If Vimes touched this Vetinari, he wouldn't give him a level, slightly amused look. If Vimes touched him, he would, by the gods, react.
If Vimes put his hand on the side of his neck, like this --
-- then, yes. His breath would come in faster -- not quite a gasp, but only because he was controlling it. His eyelids would flutter. And when he said, "You see the merits of my argument, then," there would be a rough note in his voice.
Vimes moved his hand slowly, lightly down to rest in the spot where neck and shoulder met, thumb brushing over Vetinari's collarbone. Vetinari's lips parted. Vimes reached his other hand into the loose coat and took him by the hip, pulled him in closer. Vetinari's chest rose and fell faster.
No, said Vimes' mind. I don't want this. I've never wanted anything like this. I've never even thought of such a crazy thing.
"Yes," Vimes' mouth said into the mouth of Havelock Vetinari.
Had this Vetinari ever kissed anyone? For that matter, had his own -- his own time's -- Vetinari ever done so? The effortless skill he had half-expected (not that he'd ever imagined such a thing) was nowhere in evidence. There was no smooth and dispassionate application of arcane knowledge or near-supernatural observation. There was nothing but hunger.
Vimes kissed him until he was gasping, not so much pinning Vimes to the wall as leaning on him so as not to fall down. Then he pulled back suddenly enough to make him sway and shoved the coat off his shoulders. What he wore underneath was the same -- shapeless garments of indescribable color, with not a button or a buckle to make noise. "Get that off. All of it."
Vetinari jumped to obey. His hands were shaking. Vimes shut his eyes. Gods, he could not want this so much.
When he opened them, Vetinari was a pale blur in motion, and his own breeches were falling down. He shook his head as he stripped. Should have known not to shut his eyes while the bastard was in the room.
Vetinari was stretched out on Dr. Lawn's sagging bed. His expression was familiar. It was the one he wore, back home, when Vimes defied him, argued with him, thwarted him. Vimes had always figured it was a mixture of annoyance, amusement, and mild curiosity.
He had never wanted this in his own time; he hadn't. But what had Vetinari wanted?
When Vimes didn't move, Vetinari raised one hand. No uncertainty showed on his face, but it was there in the smallness of the gesture. Didn't like being looked at, eh? Too bad, because Vimes had never seen him when he wasn't covered neck to wrist to ankle in black, and he had no intention of wasting an opportunity that might be even more unusual than time travel.
He was pale and thin, but with the kind of muscle in arm and shoulder and thigh that a person got from scaling walls. Very little body hair, but the gods only knew how young he was. Vimes' Vetinari -- Vimes' time's Vetinari -- might well have more.
He was still as only Vetinari could be -- so still that, even naked, he began to disappear into the sheets. Vimes might have looked into the room and not seen him at all, if the intensity of those eyes hadn't been trained on him.
He sat on the bed, and when Vetinari's body made an almost undetectable movement toward him, he pressed him back with a hand on his shoulder.
Who touched Lord Vetinari like this? Who had the guts to draw a hand down his chest? To circle his nipple with a thumb, and see it peak, and hear him draw breath? Who knew the feel of his heart pounding, the taste of his skin, the way it looked when he finally weakened enough to close his eyes and let his head fall back on the pillow, baring the line of his throat?
To have this power over the great man -- to bring a small noise from the mouth of a man who could probably take a crossbow to the heart in silence -- was shockingly arousing.
He was young, and he'd been waiting some time for a man from Pseudopolis. A normal youth would have been doing math in his head just to keep control. It was no surprise that Vetinari had less weakness than other people, but he did respond, subtly, pushing his body up into Vimes' exploratory touches, moving into ever more vulnerable positions for Vimes to lick his throat and the lower curve of his ribcage below the armor of bone, pull his prick into his mouth and hear, by the gods, a groan, soft but unmistakable.
When Vetinari tugged him up, he went because he knew he didn't have to. Up for more of those ravenous kisses, holding Vetinari down with the weight of his body, feeling Vetinari's hands tentative and questioning on his back and sides.
Vetinari's elegance had entirely deserted him, and he shoved his cock against Vimes eagerly. It was good, wonderful, Vimes was flying rimwards at a high rate of speed, but he could do this with anyone.
He rolled to the side, evading the clutching hands, and took Vetinari's cock (like its owner a long and determined handful) in his hand, pressing up against him to stop him turning over. He wanted to *see.
Vetinari's face was flushed and soft, his mouth red -- the face of a sensual animal, almost handsome. As Vimes watched, stroking slowly, his lids rose, revealing eyes that had gone very dark. His first attempt at speech was lost in a gasp, but the second time he managed it: "I see that -- crowd behavior is not -- your only area of expertise."
I see that destroying my life isn't your only pleasure. But he didn't say it. This Vetinari hadn't yet destroyed anything, except by taking him to bed against both his better judgment and his best interest.
Which might turn out to be the biggest catastrophe Vetinari had ever involved him in, at that.
Instead, he took Vetinari's swollen underlip very gently in his teeth and held it while he twisted his hand.
"Ah!" Vetinari tore his mouth away and threw his head back, and his hips moved, slicking Vimes' hand. A few more moments and Vimes changed the twist for a slow squeeze-and-release, and then a circle of just his thumb in the most sensitive spot. He wasn't teasing on purpose, just drinking in the sight of Vetinari's face and the feel of the smooth muscular hip he was rubbing against.
Fingertips at the crown, whole fist in a loose sweeping motion -- Vetinari's lips were moving now, and his chest was heaving. A rapid up-and-down at the root. There were as many ways to do this as boredom plus privacy could devise, and he tried them all. Thumb on the flat side, around and around -- an almost inaudible whine started up in Vetinari's throat. Fast. Slow. Fast.
Vetinari drew a heaving breath, half-opened his eyes, and breathed, "Please."
Please. From that mouth --
Vimes sank his teeth into Vetinari's shoulder and pulsed out against his hip, never letting go as Vetinari did the same into his hand with a sound that was almost a cry.
When at last Vimes raised his head, he was stricken again. Vetinari, still pink and breathless, was gazing at him with soft-eyed fondness, as at a lover. He reached up and pushed the sweaty hair up off Vimes' forehead.
For the rest of his life, Vimes was never going to be able to look at that face without seeing this expression.
So it couldn't do any more damage, could it, to kiss him some more?
He must have fallen into a sleep -- a light sleep but a genuine one, not a copper's half-drowse -- because he woke to find Vetinari gently disengaging himself from an embrace that had become complex and involved. Even their feet were touching, and Vimes found that his half-conscious impulse was not to push but to cling. He let go and lay watching as Vetinari washed in the basin and clothed himself in invisibility again.
He sat down on the bed. "There are a few more things I'd still like you to show me," he said softly, "but I have a feeling that you and I won't be seeing one another again soon."
Vimes' mind flinched away from knowing how mistaken he was. "Maybe not."
"I think this is the place where the departing swain elicits a promise from his lover not to forget him." He said it lightly, with a faintly amused expression. Vimes would wonder for a long time whether there had been any real feeling behind it.
"Believe me," Vimes said, "there's very little danger of that."
1 But did not smell.
2 Law in Pseudopolis was so notoriously lax that the city was a haven for couples who couldn't find a magistrate to marry them, usually because one or more of them was of questionable sanity, sobriety, or species.