It was raining. Vimes didn't mind the rain usually, but today it did nothing to raise his spirits. He shook out his cape and entered the front office. There was a sudden explosion of laughter from a group of watchmen gathered around Colon's high desk. Vimes glanced over at them, and felt a sudden pang of embarrassment when he realized Carrot was among them. He turned his back and hung up his cape, wondering if he should've taken the day off. Then he caught the end of a joke he'd heard at least a dozen times before, and relaxed. He closed the door, chastising himself mentally.
Carrot turned to see who had come in.
"Sorry, lads, I'll have to go now," he said. "Duty calls." He grabbed a slim folder from Colon's desk and came over to greet Vimes. "Morning, sir," he said. "I have last night's reports here, sir. Not much to report really, sir, looks like the rain's had its usual effect."
Vimes took the folder without looking up. "Thanks," he said. He scanned the room, trying to avoid anyone's direct gaze. He found the person he was looking for in the corner, making himself a coffee. "Captain Noakes?" he called out. "Come up to my office when you have a moment, would you?"
Noakes looked up. He exchanged glances with Carrot, who merely shrugged. "Yes, sir, of course." He left his mug where it was and followed Vimes up the stairs. He glanced back halfway up, somehow sensing that Carrot was watching him. He was right, he was. And then he was gone.
Vimes threw the reports down on his desk.
"I forgot to thank you for what you did yesterday, Noakes," he said. "Stopping on late, I mean." He motioned for Noakes to sit down.
"It was nothing, sir."
"Well, I appreciate it anyway," said Vimes. He sat down himself. "How's your shoulder now, by the way?"
Noakes' hand went automatically to where he'd been shot during Carrot's rescue. "It's fine, sir," he said. "Still a little numbness in the fingers, but the feeling will come back eventually, I expect."
Vimes nodded. "They tell me the bolt they pulled from you was silver-tipped," he said.
"But then you knew that of course, didn't you?" said Vimes, leaning back in his chair. "That's why they pulled it out of you and not Angua, wasn't it?"
Noakes didn't answer; he simply lowered his eyes. His expression was carefully blank, but under his lashes his gaze flickered around the room. After a moment, he glanced back at Vimes. "You didn't call me in here just to talk about my shoulder, did you, sir?" he asked quietly.
"No, you're right, Noakes, I didn't." Their gazes lingered for a moment as they regarded each other silently. Then Vimes reached for the reports folder and pulled it in front of him, he opened it casually and riffled through the reports. "Carrot seems to have recovered well," he said, his eyes still on Noakes.
"Physically, at least."
"There's no telling how an ordeal like that might effect someone psychologically, of course."
"How much do you know about us, Noakes?"
"Don't play dumb, Noakes. You worked it out ages ago, didn't you?"
Noakes tried valiantly to maintain his impassive expression; he almost succeeded. "I-I'm not sure what to say, sir."
"Just tell the truth. You're good at that, aren't you?"
"Well, I sensed... something, sir."
"And the fact that you've never mentioned it to anyone means I can trust you, right?"
"Sir, your personal affairs are no concern of—" Noakes began, but something familiar in Vimes' eyes immediately told him it wasn't the right answer. "Yes, sir," he said quietly. "You can trust me."
There was a subtle change in the atmosphere.
"Get on well with Carrot, do you?" said Vimes, pushing the folder to one side; his voice was softer now, almost conversational.
"Yes, sir. We... work well together."
"What about socially? Do you go drinking together after work, that sort of thing?"
"Er, no, sir. Some of the lads do, sir. But I usually go home."
"Not much of a drinker, then, Noakes?"
"No, sir." Noakes looked embarrassed.
"Well, that's sensible," said Vimes. His smile was reassuring, but humourless.
An awkward silence filled the room. The sound of muffled voices drifted up the stairs. The rain fell steadily outside the open window. And Vimes thought how close he'd come last night to being insensible...
He'd left Carrot's place in a stinking mood. The heavens had opened before he'd made it home, and he arrived at the house looking like a drowned rat. The maid seemed more concerned by the puddle in the hallway than by the prospect of him catching his death, and gave him The Look. So he headed for the bathroom, purposely walking past the liquor cabinet, and pausing there... thinking of a time he'd felt useful, and not like a spanner in the works. Sybil was less than welcoming too. Later, when he crawled into bed wanting nothing more than a cuddle, she pushed him away complaining of tiredness, and he lay there, staring at the ceiling, muttering that it was all right when all the time he knew that it wasn't. And he'd drifted off to sleep feeling like a spare cog. Unwanted. No longer needed. Not only by Carrot, but not even in his own home...
Vimes reached for the folder again. "Does Carrot ever talk about me, Noakes?" he said absently.
"Yes, sir. All the time."
"Yes, sir. He says you're a fine man and an outstanding officer, sir." Noakes smiled.
"Is that all? He hasn't said anything else?"
Noakes shook his head. "No, sir."
Vimes toyed with the folder.
"Has Carrot ever lied to you, Noakes?"
"No, sir, never." Noakes watched as the folder was shuffled around the desk. "But... that doesn't mean he never would, of course," he added tentatively.
Vimes looked up. "What makes you say that?"
"Well, I just think if Carrot thought something was... important enough..." Noakes swallowed, hoping he'd deduced correctly what Vimes hadn't actually said.
"Go on," Vimes prompted.
"Well, then I think there's a possibility he might lie, sir."
They held one another's gaze.
"You really think that?" said Vimes.
"Yes, sir. I do."
But< this isn't important, thought Vimes. This is personal. Which isn't the same thing at all...
"That's interesting," he said. "And what else do you think, Noakes?"
"Well... I think today might be a quiet day, sir..." said Noakes, glancing at the slim folder. "So... perhaps if something's happened, sir, and you have... other matters to attend to..."
"Then you'll hold the fort while I'm gone?"
"Something like that, sir, yes."
Which is just another way of saying I'm not needed... thought Vimes.
There was a long moment of silence.
"And you think you'd be able to manage that, do you?" said Vimes softly.
"Yes, sir, I'm sure I could. And I'd only be doing my job, sir, wouldn't I?"
Yes, you would, thought Vimes. And if you do it as well as you normally do, I'm sure no one will even miss me...
Carrot passed by the bottom of the stairs, trying hard not to look at his watch. Considering how few reports he'd handed in, Noakes was spending an awfully long time in Vimes' office.
Suddenly the door opened, and Vimes jogged down the stairs.
"Going out, sir?" said Carrot, noticing Vimes had his jacket on.
"Not out on patrol, surely, sir?" said Carrot, automatically swept up into Vimes' wake. "Only it's foul weather out there, sir."
"No, just taking back a few hours owed, Carrot, that's all."
"Oh, well, I'm sure no one deserves it more, sir," said Carrot, trailing anxiously behind him. "And, er, you needn't worry about a thing here, sir. I'll make sure everything is—"
"There's no need, Carrot," said Vimes, reaching for his cape. "Captain Noakes has everything under control." He threw the cape around his shoulders and fastened it tightly.
"He does?" said Carrot, glancing back up the stairs. "Oh, well, that's all right, then..." He gave a nervous little laugh. "You know, if I didn't know better, sir, I might think Noakes has become your new blue-eyed boy."
Vimes shot him a sideways glance. "Don't be absurd, Carrot," he said, yanking open the front door. "Noakes' eyes are green..."
It was later.
Much later. In fact, it was dark.
And it had stopped raining.
Vimes felt good.
And he still had over half a bottle of Bearhuggers left, which was even better...
Getting hold of it had been surprisingly easy. He knew the liquor cabinet at home would be well stocked; the servants replaced whatever was used at functions, and he knew where Sybil kept the key. She didn't even bother hiding it anymore. He'd simply reached in and taken what he wanted.
And he no longer felt guilty.
Once he'd taken the first sip, the rest had been easy. And the effects had been swift. The familiar warmth had spread through his body, taking away his guilt and his pain, but oddly enough, not his anger...
He wasn't even sure who he was angry with anymore.
It wasn't Carrot. Not really. Why be angry at Carrot for no longer loving him? Carrot couldn't help the way he felt. If anything, he ought to appreciate his honesty. It must have taken Carrot a great deal of courage to say what he'd said, and he'd never promised to love him forever. No, Carrot's love had been a privilege, not a right. And even he knew he'd never been worthy of it.
Vimes took another sip of Bearhuggers and wandered over Maudlin Bridge.
Maybe he was just angry with himself, then? He certainly felt like a fool. But then, didn't someone once say love was a fool's game?
And it had been love. He was sure of that.
And it had felt wonderful, hadn't it? Carrot had loved him completely, simply for being himself. For once in his life he'd actually felt good about himself.
But now, he'd taken that love away, leaving nothing but a hole where something used to be...
Oh, he could live without him. The truth was he didn't want to.
He wanted him back.
He missed him...
Vimes took several large slugs of Bearhuggers and continued over the bridge. Then he turned left and wandered aimlessly along the bank of the river. Eventually, he turned right into Peach Pie Street.
From here the lights of the palace were visible.
And one small light in particular.
And suddenly, his anger found a focus...
He remembered one person who'd wanted this all along.
Oh, and he'll be so glad it's over, won't he?