Though the memory of realisation dawning on him was starkly clear in Drumknott’s mind, he could not have said when it was exactly that Vetinari started to actively hide the palm of his right hand. Soulmarks begin to appear very slowly, like fading in reverse, and bloomed with the realisation of one's feelings; in Vetinari's case, Drumknott was sure he would have realised his feelings from the moment the soulmark had become visible, and begun hiding it even then.
The thought that Vetinari might have found love made Drumknott smile. Sort of. It was a slightly bitter and melancholy smile, owing to the fact that he carried Vetinari's soulmark on the base of his own neck, for years carefully hidden behind high collars. But he wanted to be happy for his master. He had no purpose in life other than to serve Vetinari, and every feeling that Vetinari experienced was his own by extension. His only hope was that it was not someone he, Drumknott, disliked. That would be utterly unbearable. Fortunately, it was unlikely - there weren't many people on whom his opinion was divided from Vetinari's.
Apart from that, he could not even begin to guess who it might be. He and Vetinari spent almost all of their waking hours together in work, and Vetinari had not shown any particular fondness of anyone they met semi-regularly. Of course, this was Vetinari, who was always so cool and in control, but Drumknott believed he knew him well enough to spot even the slightest thing out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was someone he corresponded with. Drumknott did not always know who Vetinari received letters from.
It was a bit of a liberty, but Drumknott decided that, as Vetinari's personal secretary, he was allowed to sometimes ask after his personal affairs. Besides, it was undeniable that there were few people on the entire Disc who Vetinari trusted, and while Drumknott would not go so far as to count himself one of them exactly, he was the person who spent the most time with him, the one in his immediate surroundings who knew him best, and if Vetinari wanted someone to talk to about the matter, he would be there for him.
‘Forgive me if you would prefer not to discuss it,' Drumknott said during an afternoon tea break, 'but has a soulmark appeared on your hand, my lord?'
'Ah, I expected you to notice eventually. You are faster than I gave you credit for, though,’ Vetinari said. Drumknott could not hold back a smile, his hand touching his collar. He was painfully aware of his own automatic reactions whenever Vetinari complimented him, but he could rarely stop himself.
'May I ask who it is?' Drumknott said, forcing out words that put his composed expression in danger.
Vetinari appeared to consider this on a sip of tea. 'I would show you in exchange for seeing the soulmark you possess.'
Startled, Drumknott's hand flew to his collar again. He had always thought that Vetinari knew whose soulmark he held. 'You don't already know?'
'No. I only know that you are not in a relationship with that person, though I do not know what holds you back, either.'
'It's ... someone who would not wish to be burdened by my feelings, my lord.'
'Have they said as much?'
'No, but I ...' Drumknott swallowed, resisting the urge to take a defensive step back. 'I'm sorry my lord, I cannot show you.'
'Then I cannot show you either.' There was the hint of an amused smile in the corners of Vetinari's mouth. 'You will simply have to discover it for yourself.'
A challenge. How like Vetinari, Drumknott thought fondly.
'It will not be difficult to assume if you enter into a relationship with that person, even if you decide to keep it a secret, my lord,’ he said.
'No, I am in a similar position as you concerning the person whose soulmark I possess. No good can come of my revealing my feelings.'
'I'm sorry to hear that, my lord,' Drumknott said, and he meant it. Of course, there was a little part of him that was secretly pleased that his enjoyment of Vetinari's presence would not be diminished by the thought that he was involved with someone else, but he quickly folded that part of his subconscious away.
Vetinari shrugged. 'The relationship I currently have with that person is enough for me. I am content with how things are between us.'
Yes, Drumknott thought the same about his relationship with Vetinari. It was not just that Vetinari was so much more than him, so much higher in rank, age, intelligence - everything. They had a good partnership, and in the interests of the city, they had to keep it that way. It might very well be that, even if his feelings were reciprocated, they would still be unable to enter into a relationship.
And as Drumknott considered this, he was startled by an occurring thought. But he quickly pushed it away. That Vetinari could be in love with him was unthinkable. Drumknott was aware of how fortunate he was to be working so close to Vetinari when he was really no one interesting - not the son of a nobleman or ever showing any particular talents during his training. It was impossible that Vetinari could love him.
Naturally, once the thought had entered his mind, it was impossible to banish it. He was annoyed at himself for seeing the way the pieces fit just so - that they both could not make their feelings known to the person whose soulmark they possessed, that they were both content with the way things already were, that there was no one else whom Vetinari ever spent time with every day; aside from the occasional conference, even the people who reported to Vetinari daily only met him for 15 minutes at a time.
But maybe even that was enough for Vetinari, he told himself sternly. It must be difficult for Vetinari to get involved with anyone, considering his position as Patrician. And Drumknott did not know all the details of Vetinari's personal life.
It could be anyone. Anyone at all.
Hope was like a disfiguring disease. It either left behind its scars, or continued to cling on just underneath the skin, never letting go. As much as he fought it, Drumknott sometimes found himself aching with the desire that it would be him. Even if they couldn't be together, just the knowledge, he thought, that they shared the same feelings, would be enough.
The fact that Vetinari had challenged him to discover it, however, made him feel happy. It was a game, a friendly thing that had nothing to do with work, that made him feel like they were really something just a little more than master and servant. It would be hard for Vetinari to make him bare his neck, but with Vetinari's ingenuity, and his awareness of the fact that Drumknott would be searching for an opportunity, made the challenge of uncovering the palm of Vetinari's hand just as difficult.
Drumknott had no delusions that he could outwit Vetinari. He had always approached his master with complete and open honesty, because there was simply no other way that could work. And so, for his part, it was the direct approach that would have to do.
'My lord, as you have challenged me to discover the name on your hand, should I assume that you will make an effort to discover the person whose soulmark I carry as well?' he asked.
'If you have no objections to it. It would not be a fair fight otherwise, would it?'
'Indeed. Shall we shake on it?' Drumknott extended his hand across the desk.
Vetinari stared at his hand for a good second before looking up at Drumknott's face with a raised eyebrow. 'I hope you didn't honestly expect this to work, Drumknott.'
'Expect this to work what?' Drumknott said innocently.
Keeping his palm away from Drumknott's line of sight with exaggerated care, Vetinari shook his hand. For a moment, their eyes locked. Vetinari's expression was amused, and even this close, Drumknott could see the lines in the corners of his eyes, the light of interest in the blue irises. They might have looked upon each other for a second, or ten. Drumknott couldn't say, preoccupied in gazing into eyes he admired so much, and the sensation of Vetinari's warm, slightly-calloused palm pressed against his own.
When they let go, Drumknott felt almost light-headed, and quickly turned away to hide a blush. What was wrong with him? Almost everyone who ever came into this room were terrified of those piercing blue eyes, but Drumknott wanted to drown in them.
His own feelings aside, of course Drumknott had not expected to gain anything from getting Vetinari to shake his hand (except for a single, wondrous moment during which Vetinari had actually, deliberately touched him). It had only been a joke, and a declaration of the method he had chosen. He would not sidestep around him or reposition the mirrors in the Oblong Office for a glance at Vetinari's hand. He would rather find a way of making Vetinari give him his hand. Or discover it by accident.
For a few days, he did not actively pursue any course of action in their little game, and was unaware of Vetinari doing anything to discover his own soulmark, either. But he wondered all the while what he would do when Vetinari inevitably found out about it. What would Vetinari do? Would it present a problem in their working relationship? That, at least, he was sure it would not. Was not the fact that he had survived this long without letting it affect his work proof that it did not have to change their relationship in the least? What would Drumknott say come the moment, though? Apart from, perhaps, 'It doesn't matter.'
He was afraid of it mattering. He did not want to see Vetinari's soulmark, only to realise that it mattered to him more than he thought, whoever it was whom Vetinari had developed feelings for. He wanted to be always by Vetinari's side, offering the little support he was capable of giving, with no misgivings or tainted emotions in the way.
The Oblong Office was always terribly cold during the spring and winter months. That was just Vetinari's character: the cold and calculating tyrant who never gave or took more than necessary - not even for himself. Drumknott sometimes worried about him during the cold months, seeing the way he relied on his cane more than usual during that time of year. Yet Vetinari, of course, was always supremely unbothered.
Today, however, there was a fire in the grate when Drumknott returned from breakfast. Not much of a fire, typically for Vetinari, but it was there and Drumknott was glad to see it. He hoped Vetinari would be more comfortable for it too.
He had donned a thick robe that morning, as he usually did when he knew it would be cold in the office. After a few hours, he realised that he had become used to being cold in the office during winter. The fire combined with his robe made him feel uncomfortable, and he tugged at his collar to loosen it. Then, realisation dawning, he put down his pen and looked up at Vetinari.
'Is this a rebuke for my choice of direct methods, sir?' he asked.
'Hm?' Vetinari said. If their relationship were any more friendly than it was, Drumknott would have snorted. There could be no doubt that Vetinari knew exactly what he was talking about.
'I have hidden my neck from the world for years, my lord. Concealment is the automatic action for me, and revelation the deliberate move.'
'I see. Thank you for the hint,' Vetinari said, signing off on a letter with a flourish.
For a moment, Drumknott sat with bowed head, fighting back a smile even as he mentally conceded defeat. How could he have thought making him expose his neck had been Vetinari's motive in the first place? He really should know the man better by now - but of course, that was only one of the reasons he admired him so. He knew him, better than anyone, and yet, even his own knowledge was only a fraction of the real man.
'You need not answer me if you wish, but why do you feel that you cannot tell the person whose soulmark you possess of your feelings?' Vetinari said, several days later.
Revelation, the deliberate move, Drumknott mused.
'I would hope that the existing relationship between us is strong enough that if they did come to know of my feelings, it would not affect the way we treat each other,' he said slowly, picking his words carefully. 'But our existing relationship is important, and it is easier that he does not know. Furthermore, I am too occupied with work to commit to a relationship.' Of course, if Vetinari was interested in him, he would do anything to make it so they could be together. But the former was impossible, let alone the latter.
'So "they" are a he,' Vetinari said. There was no hint of gloating triumph in Vetinari's tone, but Drumknott cursed himself. It was so unfair. Vetinari was far cleverer than he was. How was this a fair competition?
'Yes, sir,’ he said, trying not to sound defeated.
'Though I suppose that hardly narrows it down. I do not know about your circle of acquaintances, so I cannot venture any guesses.'
If only you knew just how far you had to look to guess, Drumknott thought. Just how far could he refuse to tell him? Vetinari was his master. If it stopped being a game, Drumknott knew he would simply have to tell him.
On impulse, Drumknott went to the sideboard and poured him a cup of tea. 'My circle of acquaintances does not extend far, my lord. My life is as wholly devoted to work as I can be.'
'Do you not have any close friends amongst the clerks in the Palace?' Vetinari asked.
'Yes, I have a few friends.' Though none of them particularly close. He only ever had time for the occasional chat in the clerks' main office on the floor below, or in the kitchens during break. On his days off, he visited his sister's family. The Oblong Office was almost his entire life.
He walked over to Vetinari's side of the desk with the cup of tea. Boldly, and still quite impulsively, he took Vetinari's hand as if to place the saucer directly on his palm. Vetinari must have been deep in thought about Drumknott's answer, or perhaps he was tired, or ... something. He did not resist in the single second it took for Drumknott to glance at his hand. Drumknott looked - and his heart stopped.
Vetinari's hand snapped away. With the other one hand, Vetinari took the cup from him, placing it on the desk. Drumknott blinked and took an automatic step back.
An hour, a minute, or, more likely, a second passed before Vetinari said, 'You are even more direct than I expected. But I suppose I cannot chide you for unfair play.'
His voice was soft and completely void of emotion. Drumknott could not speak.
‘Now you see that our reasons for concealing our feelings from the people whose soulmarks we respectively bear are the same,' Vetinari went on. He was definitely not looking at Drumknott. 'Would it not be better if you had never known? My only request is that you continue to be with me as you have always been. That is all I require.'
Still, Drumknott said nothing, and Vetinari gave him a sideways look.
'Or may I make one more request?' Vetinari said. 'Will you show me the soulmark you possess now? Due to its location, and the habits you have already ingrained within yourself, I know it would take me a long time to discover it for myself. Now that you have seen the soulmark I have - or should I say -' He paused, for only a breath of a moment, '- your soulmark on me, I am uninterested in pursuing the long-term venture that would be discovering the one you hold. I promise you I will not harm him in any way.'
The thought of Vetinari hurting someone out of jealousy almost made Drumknott laugh, and he found the power of speech again. 'Do you really not know?' he said.
'I do not.'
'Surely you have suspected. I thought you would have known before it even appeared on me.'
'Should I have?'
Drumknott wanted to laugh for joy. He was so full of relief - of delight. Nothing would be difficult for him to endure now, not with the newfound knowledge that his feelings were not unrequited. He unbuttoned his collar and pushed open the top of his robe to reveal the name, in the handwriting he had admired for so many years, on the base of his neck.
'I was always worried that I would embarrass you by being transparent with my feelings,' he said as Vetinari sat up straight, eyes fixed upon his throat. 'Should I have been more open about them? But I would never do anything to upset our relationship. You are always so kind to me, and I treasure that more than anything.'
'I wonder at your definition of kindness, if that is what you think,' Vetinari said at last. He stood up to face Drumknott. 'I thought I had been pushing you away for a long time. The outline of your name first appeared on my hand more than a year ago, but I could not accept my feelings for you. There would be no good in my acting on them, so I fought to eliminate them. It was only a few days ago when I gave in, on the realisation that battling against my desire was a battle that I would be fighting for as long as you remain by my side.'
'And you already know that I intend to stay here for as long as you will have me,' Drumknott said with a smile.
'Will you indeed?’ Vetinari reached out to touch his neck. The fire had not been lit today, and Drumknott shivered as Vetinari's cold fingers brushed against his skin, even as he leaned into the touch.
'Do you doubt my resolve? I have always realised how fortunate I am to be working alongside you, and it did not take a year by your side for me to know that I wanted to stay with you for as long as you would allow me. And I already carry your soulmark.'
A small smile curved Vetinari's lips. 'And I carry yours. Though, may I just remark on its inconvenient location? I need my right hand for shaking more hands than just yours, you know.'
'I'm afraid I can't do anything about that,' Drumknott said, his smile growing with mirth. 'Unless, of course, you would like me to attempt forcing you to despise me, thus erasing my soulmark?'
'Don't be ridiculous,' Vetinari said before Drumknott could even fear the possibility of a yes. 'I am content with this. If you are?'
'What is "this"? The "this" that we already have? Or ...'
Vetinari leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his lips. He pulled away before Drumknott even had time to move against him, but the slight touch left Drumknott breathless.
'Would you be alright with that?' Vetinari asked.
'Of course I would,' Drumknott said. It came out in a whisper, and he cleared his throat, feeling heat flood his face as a glint of amusement lit in Vetinari's eyes. 'If ... it is really okay, I would love that.'
'I am sure we can figure something out. I have heard that it is unwise to ignore your own feelings once they have become strong enough to manifest into a soulmark.'
'I've done it for years, and I definitely would not recommend it.'
Despite everything else that had already happened, Drumknott was shocked when Vetinari pulled him into an embrace.
'Yes,' Vetinari said. 'I am sorry that you had to endure it by yourself for so long.'
'Don't be,' Drumknott said, returning the hug. 'It wasn't very bad. I see you every day, and you are always good to me. It was easily tolerable most of the time.'
'Then let us speak no more of the past.' Vetinari stepped back. 'There is still the day's work to complete, but afterwards ... we may speak of the future.'
Drumknott smiled. Thinking of the wonderful days that they had spread out before them, he buttoned up his collar and returned to his desk.