[A/N: I am hoping to work this into an Altaïr/Ezio/Leonardo, plus or minus Malik, or a mixture of pairings between the four of them. Will see. Will also try and work on another segment of the Vitruvian Man at the same time, and see where either idea goes. :3 I love writing AU fiction. Here's one where there was no miraculous disemboweling strike recovery.]
The Sword of Damocles
Delirium was a cruel creature, Ezio decided; he was bleeding to death from Rodrigo's dagger to his belly, facedown on the mosaic in Roma, and yet, at the same time, he was on his back in a bed that swayed and bumped as though in movement, and his father had his hand in a tight grasp, talking urgently.
"… Ezio? Ezio, you cannot sleep, do you understand me? Ezio, wake up!"
"You are dead," Ezio meant to say, a little annoyed; surely his father could wait but a moment for a wayward failure of a son to join him in heaven or hell, but he could only manage a thin moan. The grip on his hand tightened, as though in reassurance, and there were cool fingers probing at his belly, a cold cloth pressed over his forehead.
For a hallucination, this was rather creative. Ezio managed to laugh, wetly, through the agony, trying to share his joke with his personal ghost.
"That is the last of the poison," Leonardo's voice, now, weary and tight from stress. "The wound is treated to the best of my ability. The rest is up to Ezio."
"Thank you, Leonardo." His father's voice, again, as Ezio slid further, away, into the warmth of sleep, likely to his death. The very thought filled him with a sense of mixed injustice: he had failed to stop Rodrigo, failed to save the world, and yet… and yet, he was so tired.
On the wire-thin awareness of an assassin, Ezio's body awoke a heartbeat before his mind, grabbing the intruder's wrist before it descended on his neck.
Leonardo's voice. Mutely, Ezio attempted to focus, blearily opening his eyes. The cloth on his head was removed and quickly replaced with another, cool and wet. He was in a wagon, dressed in breeches and boots, propped up on cushions and rushes, Leonardo kneeling beside him, to his right the whickering of tethered horses, to his left the low sounds of hushed conversation, at his feet a set of chests and crates.
He could make out a darkened, open sky and a seemingly endless, sloping plain, dusty and fringed with dying grass. Other supply wagons and carriages were strung in a haphazard curve around the simmering embers of a fire; around it, seated on crates and on rocks, were Mario's condottierri. Further afield, also guarded by mercenaries, were huddled groups of Monteriggioni villagers, particularly women and children.
"Here, drink." Leonardo held a glass of water to his lips, and Ezio managed to get some of it down his parched throat, guiltily letting go of his friend's wrist. "Are you better? The fever has abated. I will inform your parents."
Instead of his usual colorful finery, Leonardo was dressed in greys and browns, dusty with travel, the clothes well-made and well-worn. The absence of the red cap on his friend's tawny gold hair was the oddest of all, and Ezio stared at the unadorned crown of Leonardo's head for a long, disoriented moment before speaking.
"My father is dead," Ezio frowned, looking wonderingly around him. "Where are we? I was in Roma. I had failed, Rodrigo has both of the Pieces, he means to wake the tomb!"
"You are raving," Leonardo squeezed his hand gently, his eyes pinched and hollow from a clear lack of sleep. "You have been delirious for days. It is the fever. Do you not remember?"
"Where are we, Leonardo?"
"On the way to Masyaf," Leonardo said soothingly, "We will be there soon. Monteriggioni has fallen despite the best of our efforts, and we have battled Templars much of the journey. You yourself took a grievous wound in our last encounter. I… I am glad to see that you are over the worst of it."
"Do not jest, Leonardo," Ezio growled, struggling to sit up, jerking his hand out of Leonardo's grasp. "I was in Roma. Monteriggioni was fine when I left – it is a fortress that has withstood sieges through time. Why are we headed to Masyaf?"
"It is one of the last of the holdings of the Creed," Leonardo explained carefully, looking genuinely confused. "It was your idea. Do you not remember? You convinced everyone that it was best to seek refuge with Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad."
"This must be Rodrigo's doing," Ezio felt around his hip for his blade, but it was missing, as were his bracers. "I will not fall for your illusion, maestro! Come on out and face me!"
"Do not mock me, Rodrigo," Ezio sneered, slapping away Leonardo's hands and struggling to his feet, propping himself against the side of the wagon and looking around for a weapon, "This illusion is ridiculous. We are in Roma, my father is dead, Altaïr has been dead for centuries, and Leonardo is only a friend!"
The immediate flash of hurt on Leonardo's handsome, expressive features looked genuine enough that Ezio hesitated, but he narrowed his eyes as Giovanni Auditore pushed past Leonardo to stand before him. His father was dressed in assassin whites, his missaglias armor pitted and worn, his boots and cape stained with travel.
"Oh, come now," Ezio said, contemptuously, "Are Federico and Petruccio alive as well? Is this meant to tempt me?"
Giovanni moved like a viper; Ezio did not see his palm until it cracked smartly across his cheek. He stumbled back, spitting out an instinctive curse and shoving Leonardo roughly away when his friend tried to steady him.
"It may be delirium or worse," Giovanni said, his tone even, "But at the least have the courtesy to hold your tongue. Your brothers are murdered and your mother and sister are grieving, and if you would have no respect for the cares of the living, perhaps you should at least have respect for the dead."
"Giovanni, he is not himself," Leonardo was quick to interject, but Giovanni held up a palm.
"Leonardo, go to Mario and tell him that my fool son is awake, and then check on your cannon and your devices. Go."
"I… very well." Leonardo ducked his head, flushing and avoiding Ezio's eyes, slipping off the wagon and heading towards he end of the wagon train, his shoulders slumped.
Once Leonardo was clearly out of earshot, Giovanni sighed, and sat down on the rushes, running a palm over his eyes. "If you do not even remember Leonardo, then perhaps the crack to your head when you were felled from the poison was worse than we believed."
"I do remember Leonardo, and this is not Leonardo," Ezio insisted stubbornly, fingering his jaw.
"Oh, and am I also not your father?" Under the cowl, Giovanni had a dangerous gleam to his eye that Ezio remembered all too painfully clearly from his childhood. "You stubborn child, what must I tell you? That you fell into the river when you were five and pretended to drown by diving and hiding, sending Claudia to tears and your mother into distraught hysteria? That you and Federico used to chase each other over the rooftops, and once you slipped from a pole and fell headlong onto one of your cousins, nearly scaring her to her death? That the first time you met Lorenzo as a child you informed him, much to the embarrassment of the Auditore, that you did not like the color of his robes?"
Ezio bit at his lower lip, wavering. On one hand, these were all clear, private memories; on the other hand, he had no idea what the Pieces were truly capable of. "This is what I remember, 'father'. I was in Roma, with the Apple. I meant to assassinate Rodrigo, but I failed, and the last I remember was him freezing me with the staff and using a dagger to cut my belly open, leaving me to bleed to death on the tiles."
"Roma is the capital of the Templars, and Rodrigo is at its heart. You, I, many have tried, but we have never been able to penetrate it. We do not have the resources. We have been fighting a losing battle with the Templars for a long time, since they acquired the sword, the staff and the Apple." Giovanni pulled back his cowl, running fingers distractedly through his hair. "Every last one of the Assassins is now precious, and if we have lost you, my son, one of the best of us all, then perhaps the Creed will be doomed in my lifetime."
Perhaps, Ezio reasoned mutely, attempting to process Giovanni's words, he was in Hell, and Hell's games were more perverse by far than the visions of the most crazed of the zealots on the streets. If this was an illusion, why would Rodrigo bother with such intricacies? Why not simply end his life? If the object was to cause him despair, why return Giovanni to him, why surround him with allies en route to Masyaf?
"Where are my weapons?"
"Here." Giovanni tapped on the chest in the wagon. "Leonardo made sure to clean them."
There was accusation in his father's voice, but Ezio ignored it, edging along the sides of the wagon to the chest and slumping down beside it, opening it. With the bracers back on his wrists, he felt instantly better.
The best move would be to accept this 'world' for now, until he could figure out its twisted logic and find Rodrigo, or in alternative, find out why he was trapped here instead of either waking or dying. It was not as though Ezio had much to lose, given his last memory before emerging hence.
"How are the others?"
"Your mother and sister are well, in the circumstances." Grief was writ clear in the paleness of Giovanni's cheeks and the deeper creases of the crow's feet at his eyes and over his brow, but his mouth was set in a thin line. "Mario was injured, but not seriously; he will limp for a week. We managed to evacuate most of Monteriggioni during the last leg of the siege, but our supplies are stretched thin. We must reach Masyaf soon."
"Was there no other option but Masyaf?"
"The Medici have fallen, and the Sforza," Giovanni said, irritable, "There are none. You yourself pointed this out."
"I remember nothing right now," Ezio put up his hands, placating, "It will come back to me."
"So long as you still remember how to use a blade, at present the rest is of little consequence," Giovanni replied gruffly, seemingly mollified. "But until you remember I would suggest begging rest and speaking as little as possible to the others. Everyone is highly strung now, and stressed. It has not been an easy journey."
"No doubt," Ezio said, wondering if Giovanni's suggestion was because the other, less detailed illusions, would be more easily caught out. His father's simulacrum was well crafted, but Leonardo's was already clearly flawed. He had little doubt that Mario's, his mother's, and the rest of his family would be similarly so. "What of Antonio, Rosa, La Volpe, Bartolomeo, Paola and Teodora?"
"La Volpe I have not heard word of. No doubt that man is still alive, somewhere," Giovanni shrugged. "Paola is in hiding in Firenze. Antonio and Rosa have also gone to ground, with the rest of their guild. Bartolomeo and Teodora are dead."
That was convenient. "And now the Templars have overrun Italia."
"They have overrun much of the world, by all reports."
The wound in his belly, the scratchy rasp of the wood behind his naked back and the crisp night's breeze felt all too real for an illusion, Ezio decided grimly, as his mind cleared slowly from the pain and the immediate shock of the violent changes to his world. It was clear that Rodrigo had achieved his goal, breaching the tomb, and instead of the destruction that Mario had predicted, instead, he had used the Pieces, somehow, to recreate reality itself.
And yet it did not explain why Ezio remained, healing, with allies… unless Rodrigo intended to take his time, to murder the worst of his enemies again, like a cat playing with a mouse.
He might now be the mouse, Ezio thought, absently running the thumb of his left hand over the spring mechanism of his right bracer, but he still had teeth.
"I will rest as you have suggested, father. Mi dispiace about my outburst."
"Apologize to Leonardo," Giovanni said dryly, getting to his feet to help Ezio back onto the cushions. "If you cannot bring yourself to be kind, at least do not be cruel."
"You know that my preference is for women," Ezio pointed out warily. This particular… development with Leonardo was the oddest of all. Leonardo was his closest friend, and if need be, Ezio would gladly die for him, but he was only a friend. Granted, the man was handsome, kind and wise, and Ezio loved him, but it was not more than a brother's love, at the most.
"So you have said," Giovanni seemed amused, shaking his head. "This one, as you have also said, is the sole exception."
To Ezio's mixed relief, he was left mostly alone, and he spent his time sleeping. Occasionally he would be dimly aware of his family, speaking at him in muted tones or changing the cloth on his forehead, but he did not respond, trying to think his way out of his situation. A clear target to kill, an item to steal, such tasks he could gladly turn his mind to, but with a world so out of kilter, Ezio felt lost, and not a little afraid.
Still, at least, he was alive. That was better than bleeding out on the Basilica's hallowed floors, at least.
He was able to walk without stumbling when they set up camp for the night in an abandoned shell of a town, the alien, squarish sandstone and mud huts long left for the ghosts. Skeletons with their skulls rent and ribs chipped still lingered in the dirt in some of the huts, their bleached jaws agape in silent accusation at the living.
Ezio found himself wandering away from the subdued clamor of camp, heading outwards into the sad little ruin. A river ran sluggishly under the remnants of a bridge, a short walk from the ghost town, and upon it was a familiar, neat figure in a brown doublet and cowl, that raised its head as Ezio approached warily.
"Aye, child." La Volpe's violet eyes looked him over briefly, then he shook his head and glanced back at the river. "Such a mess of the world you have wrought."
"I… a mess?"
"This is not meant to be, or have you also forgotten?"
"No, no I have not," Ezio said, stumbling over his words in his relief, suppressing the urge to embrace La Volpe. "You remember!"
"Of course I remember, child," La Volpe said, annoyed, "There is only one La Volpe in all of the tangent worlds and I am he, and my eyes are always open. I take it that you failed to prevent Rodrigo from opening the tomb."
"I did. I was too weak." Ezio admitted.
"No matter. Perhaps it was also our fault. We had sent you into the lion's den alone, and now we cannot be surprised if you were devoured." La Volpe pursed his lips. "Rodrigo has used the Apple and the Staff to activate the tomb. The river of time has been diverted into the tangent reality most favorable to the Templars, away from the Balance. This must be corrected."
"I do not understand what you are saying."
"Just take my word for it that these events are not new to me. The Templars have been trying to achieve this for centuries." La Volpe waved a hand over the town, encompassing it, "We have always managed to correct its course. But this time… this is the largest scale of such an undertaking that I have seen. It troubles me."
"And it is odd," Ezio ventured. "My father is alive. So is Altaïr, at the same time."
"There must always be a balance, even in the worst of the worlds. It cannot tip fully one way or the other. That is the reason." La Volpe responded, as cryptic as ever. "You are headed to Masyaf. Guide your family to Masyaf and speak with Altaïr. It may be difficult, but live in this world for a time. I will return to Italia and attempt to discern how this process can be reversed."
"If I could have the Apple, and the Staff, and return to the tomb-"
"Theoretically? Yes. But how would you reach the tomb, or attain either? They are closely guarded, and on a scale that you are not used to. I will find a way."
"Let me go with you," Ezio took a step forward, wincing as pain flared in his belly. "My family in camp-"
"Your father is alive and your mother is well. In this Templar's world, perhaps that is as silver a lining as you can get. I would suggest enjoying it while you can… and perhaps when you are recovered, I will come back." La Volpe raised a hand, palm up. "Safety and peace, Ezio Auditore."
"Swift journey and God's blessing." Ezio returned, disappointed, but understanding the reasoning. As he was now, he would only be a burden.
He was still thinking La Volpe's words over as he returned to the town, leaning for a moment under the battered awning of the skeleton of a pottery shop to catch his breath. A crackle of broken pottery under someone's foot, to his left, made him turn, his hidden blades at the ready, switching briefly to his second sight.
A man was hidden in the shop, but his outline was a bright, reassuring blue. Ezio relaxed, pushing aside the rotted cloth at the doorway and walking inside.
Leonardo flinched violently when he realized he had been caught, and looked away, blushing. "Ah… I was coming after you to see if you were all right."
"I was clearly not in this room," Ezio teased, his trained eyes taking in Leonardo's position and the broken window with the view of the river, and he sobered. "Did you hear it all?"
"I, ah," Leonardo's fingers were twisting together, a sure sign that his friend was trying to decide whether or not to lie. "Most of it. It does not make sense, and yet it does. I will inform-"
"No, leave the rest out of this. Even if they are not the family I am used to they are still my family. I do not want to cause them undue worry." Ezio stared hard at the river, almost longing.
"Was it a better world, then?" Leonardo's voice was a whisper.
"The Templars and the Assassins worked in secret, and most of the world were unaware of our war, living out their usual lives with little to no interference," Ezio said, wondering how to describe a world in just a few words. "You were a great artist, an engineer, a philosopher, living in Firenze, then Venezia, you were going to Milan as an ambassador, one of the most famous men in Italia."
"Then it is better than now, when entire cities can be sacked because of an affiliation to either side," Leonardo said, his expression grim. "If I can, I will help you."
"Grazie, Leonardo," Ezio said, grateful. Leonardo's offer might not amount to very much in the scale of matters, but at least it was some support; his friend's easy faith and trust was reassuring. "I am sorry about my words, earlier, and I hope I did not hurt you."
"Then, are we…?" The hope in Leonardo's eyes, in his tentative smile, nearly made Ezio swallow the truth, but he could not live a lie, and his friend deserved better.
"But what I said was true. In the true 'river of time', we are only friends. The best of friends, but no more. You are celibate, as far as I know, and once you said that I had more than enough interest in women for the both of us combined, when I asked you the same."
"I… I see." Leonardo said, clearly agonised, but struggling to hide it. "In that case, I will keep that in mind. We… we can be friends."
"Mi dispiace, Leonardo," Ezio felt awkward in the face of his friend's pain, but he had no other options. Sometimes it was necessary to be cruel to be kind. "But it will be for the best. I will make things right again. How far are we from Masyaf?"
"A week's journey into its territory," Leonardo was avoiding his eyes again, looking out through the window. "I am thinking that there must be a faster way to travel that either lightens the basic load on the horses, or better, will not rely on horses at all. I was making sketches the other day, though, Mario said I was better off inventing more cannon."
"At least the rest of you is indeed the Leonardo I know," Ezio grinned, clapping Leonardo on the shoulder and ignoring the faint, instant flush to his friend's cheeks. He knew now what he had to do, and fear and doubt were behind him.