[A/N: My compulsiveness regarding writing the story in only one POV gave it a lot of loose ends… sorry. Here's a wrap up from Altaïr's and Malik's POVs, starting from before the story to the last.]
"Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad? And Maestro Malik Al-Sayf! A pleasant surprise."
The slender, tall Assassin slipped down from his perch atop a set of crates at the dock of Venezia and approached them, his smile wide under his cowl. Malik hid his own grin as he sensed Altaïr's instant disapproval – with how the Assassin had certainly not been hiding in plain sight, since his fine clothes made him stick out like a sore thumb amongst the dockworkers: and how the Assassin had just said their names out aloud for the world to hear.
"Assalam aleikom," The Assassin continued, in nearly perfect Arabic, bowing, once he was closer. Thankfully, he did not try to shake Altaïr's hand. "My father is waiting for us. I am Ezio Auditore."
"The second son," Altaïr recalled out aloud, as his lip twitched. "I pray that your father's business is urgent indeed, to call the both of us out of Masyaf."
"Ah… well, to be honest, we were only expecting one of you to come, but the business we have is indeed urgent. We have-"
"Peace," Altaïr growled. "Must you speak your mind constantly for all to know?"
"It has been a long and tiring journey," Malik cut in amiably, with a pointed glance at Altaïr that he ignored. "Please forgive Altaïr's temper, Ezio Auditore."
"Oh no, Maestro Al-Sayf, it was a good question and a good point," Ezio said cheerfully, as he led them through the dock. "Here in Venezia, Firenze and in Monteriggioni, we have a different system from Masyaf. See this," He picked at his cape, upon which was a familiar symbol, from the seal on the formal missives. "This is the Auditore crest. It is a promise to protect. It is an expression of trust."
"A poor system. A city of this size easily hides spies." Altaïr disagreed. "And the Creed states that we must-"
"Hide in plain sight, I know," Ezio said, as the crowd thinned. "But in this war we have is fought openly, with territories. It is a little complicated, our arrangement, compared to Masyaf's, as we share power also with the Dukes and Lords, but if we must rule, then we can do no less than to bear our name openly and with pride, if we must earn the trust of those we protect. And besides," Ezio added blandly, "It is not as though nobody knows where Masyaf is."
Altaïr scowled, but Malik chuckled, always happy to debate a philosophical point. "Such importance you place on trust."
"Aye. With people, the unknown easily breeds fear. This arrangement has worked to our favor, to date. You cannot defend a city so large, surrounded by water, without the support of its inhabitants, and besides, here we fight not to destroy the Templar, but to protect those who have entrusted their lives to us."
Malik smiled faintly at the note of challenge in Ezio's tone. Under his seemingly sunny nature was the famous steel of the Auditore, the Assassin family that had ruled Italia by default for several generations.
Altaïr frowned. "It is the same thing."
"No, Maestro, it is not. It has different priorities. Different sacrifices." Ezio turned to look at Altaïr directly, raising his head so that his face was visible under his cowl: a startlingly handsome young man, likely no more than twenty-five years of age or less, idealistic and unafraid. "Your choice in Bethlehem, that is not one that I would have taken."
"I am not here to defend myself to you, boy," Altaïr retorted, though, attuned to his partner and lover as Malik was, he could sense the disapproval waning in the wake of curiosity, and not a little amusement. As they crossed into an alley, Altaïr added, "So what would you have done differently in Bethlehem, Ezio?"
"Held his tongue, I hope." The dry voice above them made Malik and Altaïr look up sharply, their hands instinctively seeking the hilts of their weapons. Perched on a narrow strut was another man in assassin whites, who landed neatly and quietly beside Ezio.
"Federico," Ezio turned to clap his brother on the shoulder, smirking. "Why, what brings you here?"
"Do not try innocence with me, little brother," Federico Auditore cuffed Ezio over his ear. "My apologies, Maestri. I was meant to meet you at the docks. I am afraid that Ezio caused a deliberate misunderstanding regarding the time and place of your arrival so that he could speak with Maestro ibn La-Ahad privately. My apologies again if he has caused you any offence."
"Federico," Ezio growled, glaring at his brother.
"Be quiet, little brother," Federico sighed. "These men are our honored guests. They are not here to be interrogated by young pups."
"On the contrary," Altaïr said dryly, "It has been a pleasure speaking with Ezio. Perhaps we could continue our discussion after our business with your father is concluded."
"Really?" Ezio brightened, and then he seemed to consciously remind himself to be austere. "I mean, thank you, Maestro. I will look forward to it."
"The Maestri are too kind to say so," Federico said mildly, offering his brother a letter. "Ezio, this needs to be delivered. Now, per favore."
"Stop arguing, little brother. I think you have caused enough trouble – even for you – for one day."
"Fine." Ezio snatched the letter from his brother, pouting. "I will see you later, then." He glanced at the address. "To Leonardo? Why Leonardo? From Lord Lorenzo, at that."
"The letter is to be delivered sealed," Federico said pointedly. "But no doubt you can persuade Leonardo to open it in your presence, si? After all, you seem adept at persuading him to do any manner of things."
Ezio, Malik noted with amusement, actually blushed. "Ah, I will deliver the letter."
"Subito, little brother. Now, Maestri, this way, per favore."
Malik excused himself early from the debate, pleading weariness, though, as used to Malik as he was, Altaïr could see the indulgence for what it meant. Making a mental note to show his appreciation afterwards, Altaïr turned his mind back to the argument at hand. Passionate, still a little naïve, with a heart that cared for the world and all of its problems, Ezio Auditore was the biggest curiosity in Venezia that Altaïr had encountered to date.
At the end, pleasantly lulled by intellectual stimulation and a couple of glasses of wine, Altaïr found himself promising Ezio that if he ever cared to visit Masyaf, whether for business, pleasure or sanctuary, he would be more than welcome. At Ezio's too-quick, warm smile in response, Altaïr wondered if that had been the boy's intent all along.
"Surely politics was not why the both of you summoned us to Venezia," Malik observed. They were in Monteriggioni now, after meeting the Duke of Milan in Venezia and Lord Lorenzo de' Medici in Firenze, and the Auditore Maestri were showing them around the stately villa that was their family home. At present they were behind a bookcase, descending down a wide stairway. A tomb, perhaps.
Giovanni and Mario Auditore exchanged glances, and then Giovanni chuckled as they reached a circular, empty room, bare save for a white skull set into the wall. As they watched, Mario walked forward, inserting his fingers into the sockets and pulling outwards. The skull reassembled with an oiled click, turning itself upside down, and a door rumbled backwards and to the right. It had been cut seamlessly into the wall.
Through another narrow corridor, and they were in another, smaller, circular room, at its center a stone altar. Upon it was a brooch in the shape of a silver shield, resting in an unmarked, wooden box. As they neared, it began to hum, in an alien, insectile whisper.
"The Shield," Altaïr breathed, astonished. "When did you acquire the Shield?"
"We have always had the Shield," Giovanni said quietly. "It was part of Marco Polo's gifts to the first ancestor of the Auditore, along with funds, to assist him in founding a foothold for the Creed in Italia."
"And you did not think to notify the other Maestri of this?" Malik asked, as politely as he could, keeping a firm hold on his temper. "We could have used the knowledge."
"The Shield is dangerous. All the Pieces are dangerous." Mario said flatly. "We do not encourage its knowledge because its use will be deadly to the user. We have personal experience. Our father died insane."
"Besides that, the Shield has protected Monteriggioni against siege since it was constructed. And so, now, we entrust it to Masyaf." Giovanni closed the box, and offered it to Altaïr.
Altaïr put his hands quickly behind his back. "Why?"
"That matter with Rashid ad-Din Sinan… Al Mualim… is yet fresh. You face a Maestro convinced that Masyaf has been sorely weakened. War will strike quickly, once his forces are mustered. We cannot afford to lose Masyaf."
"Neither can we afford to lose Monteriggioni."
"No one has known about the Shield save the Auditore, and then, only when they become Maestri and inherit leadership of the family." Mario shrugged. "Giovanni and I are in agreement. Even without the Shield, Monteriggioni is impregnable. But Masyaf is the symbol of the Creed: it has been so for centuries, as its birthplace, as its cornerstone and bulwark. To lose it would strike the Assassins a fatal blow. So the Shield is yours. But again, I would warn you against looking into it."
"Then, you do us great honor, Maestri." Malik said, overwhelmed by the enormity of their gesture. Grudgingly, Altaïr accepted the small box, secreting it into his robes and bowing deeply.
"To use it, you need simply touch it once, and will it to protect," Giovanni continued. "Our ancestor advised that it would only protect a certain space. Like a small fort. It should be sufficient for Masyaf."
"If the war worsens here, we will return it," Altaïr promised.
"No," Giovanni shook his head. "Masyaf is more important. And besides, we have strong allies, strong territories. The situation in Italia is more stable than Syria."
"God willing, I hope you do not regret your gesture." Malik said soberly. "But the offer is there nevertheless. Should you ever ask for the return of the Shield, I – or Altaïr – will return."
"There is another matter," Mario added. "Once you are back safe in Masyaf, spread word that the Shield had come into your possession in your travels. This is a war of symbols, and Masyaf must seem unassailable. Do not reveal to anyone how the Shield truly came into your possession. Not even to my nephews, or my niece."
"We will do as you say," Altaïr said doubtfully, "But I am still not sure why you have kept it a secret. Even if it as dangerous as you say."
"One of the recurring traits of the Auditore, Maestro, is an unrelenting curiosity," Giovanni smiled gently. "As well as stubbornness, and a ruthless determination that subsumes authority where the cause is deemed just. They are good traits for an Assassin. But at the same time, should I say, if I were to let it be known that the Shield was here, Federico, Ezio, at their tender ages, would likely have stolen it and tried to use it. That is why its existence is only revealed to our successors when we deem them mature and experienced enough to handle the knowledge. And even then – as the death of our father would attest – sometimes even that is not enough."
"You have good sons," Altaïr disagreed. "They would not do so."
"Would they not? Run with it across the world, perhaps, to save an Assassin town from annihilation?" Giovanni's smile was knowing. "Brashly risk their lives and their minds for what they think is a just cause? They are young and convinced of their invulnerability. It is our way. But you of Masyaf are taken early from your mothers and know only discipline and obedience to your creed, to your Maestri. None of your own would dare steal or use it. The Shield would suit Masyaf better."
"I understand," Altaïr said finally. "And thank you again. We are in your debt."
"War changes as quickly as the storm," Mario said quietly. "Soon we will have no time to look to anything else but our own. Therefore, we will not accept that any debt has accrued. Guard the Shield well. Hold Masyaf against the Templar. That is all that we ask."
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
[Assalam aleikom]! I knew you would eventually discern how to read this. Leonardo was not entirely sure why I wanted a method of encryption that was not entirely unbreakable, but if it is unbreakable for Leonardo then it is unbreakable for everyone.
Mario will not permit contacting you outside of the formal missives as he is concerned that I will give offence, but the formal missives are corrected and approved by my father and uncle both, so nothing interesting can really be contained within them.
I know you went to Monteriggioni with them both while my brothers and I were sent on 'urgent' errands to Firenze and Venezia. Perhaps it is not my business to know why, but I must yet ask. My father and uncle may see Monteriggioni as ultimately unimportant in their war of symbols, but to me, my brothers, my sister, it is our home and our bastion. If you can assure me that what transpired was harmless I will believe you.
That aside, please find enclosed a book by a friend of mine. I think you will find it interesting. 'The Prince' is his best work, but as yet it is not published. This one is a copy of the latest draft. My friend would like your opinion. His family and mine do not usually agree, because he has a blood feud with the Medici, but he is good to argue with. Naturally, as you would surmise once you read the book, I do not share his philosophies about governance.
If you have time to offer us a return opinion it would be appreciated. And, of course, if you can say anything to put my mind to rest about Monteriggioni.
Safety and Peace,
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
I suppose I should have expected you to completely ignore my first question. Perhaps I should ask Maestro Al-Sayf instead? He is ultimately far nicer than you are. The God that threw the two of you together must have had a curious sense of humor…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
Formalities are necessary even in encryption. You are the hero of Masyaf and it feels entirely inappropriate addressing you by first name, even in written response. Therefore, unfortunately, it will have to be something you must bear. I am sure that it will cause you great distress.
Ill tidings have come: perhaps we should have anticipated it, with the Borgia family's rise in political power. Rodrigo is now the Pope. Mario senses a storm on the horizon. Still, no doubt you have your own problems in Masyaf: I hear that you are in the midst of contesting Acre. I wish you good hunting…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
We are losing Venezia. This sounds incredible to me even as I pen it, but we are losing. Antonio and his thieves suffer ever greater losses each day, and, as you have read in the formal missive, we have lost Maestro Bernardo Machiavelli. Niccolò is filled with a cold hatred that is ugly to observe, that is the special madness of vengeance; no matter what I say to him it will not falter. Revenge should not drive an Assassin, only justice and the Creed, and yet I cannot judge him. Had I too lost my father it is entirely possible that I would have become like him.
But enough of ill news, there is enough of that by far in the formal missive. The last time we spoke we discussed the necessity of an operational judiciary, independent from Church and State. Or, perhaps, you said it was impossible in Syria, the intractable system that we have in Venezia. I say that it is impossible only because it is different. Religion is subjective and should have no place in law…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
Venezia is lost, Sister Teodora and Maestro Bartolomeo are dead. I have only barely persuaded Leonardo to leave with me in time. He is convinced that the Templars would ignore him. I am afraid that his eyes do not entirely see this world, even with his long association with my family. He will be safe in Firenze until I can persuade him further to move to Monteriggioni. Lorenzo, my father, my uncle, will be on his back the entire stay to make weapons for them, but I will not allow him to. As you have said, that one is better off using God's gift to make beautiful things.
Have you resolved your quarrel with Maestro Al-Sayf? Your prior letter seemed fairly discontent. My dear Maestro, if you did not insist on having your way all the time you would be far happier. Any relationship depends entirely on equivalent trade. Just because Al-Sayf is more forgiving than most does not mean that you should ignore his opinion.
And Maestro Al-Sayf, if you have by now managed to crack Leonardo's encryption, see, I did say I liked you better than he…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
Thank you for your counsel. I am not sure how you could have guessed right from the very first time I met you, but yes, Leonardo and I are… involved, if not in the way you and Maestro Al-Sayf are. Oh, I am sure that he would be more than interested, but Leonardo has a complicated soul under his good nature and usually, he hides all the hurt he can endure until it bursts, if you do not notice, and I am poor at noticing. He deserves a better man – or person – than someone with an incorrigible weakness for beautiful women.
Leonardo, if you are reading this – and I know that you can just from a glance, since you normally read things backwards – I cannot change, and I will not let you accept that from me.
Firenze is under siege. Perhaps it is only a matter of time. Something has changed with Rodrigo. Yes, he has already taken Venezia, but I saw him the day before, on reconnaissance. He is different. He seems… older, surer. And the Staff that he has, it burns in the Sight, like a beacon.
The formal missive would have told you that I had been there observing Rodrigo speaking with Al Mualim. It would have told you that I saw Rodrigo give the Apple to Al Mualim, one that burned in the Sight, so much so that Al Mualim's was a pale shadow in comparison, and for one moment, before they merged, there were two Apples. My uncle forbade me from including my opinion on the matter, but here it is: I think that both versions were true, but the first was truer. Another place, perhaps, or another time…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
We have lost the eastern District of Firenze, and Leonardo has been persuaded to work as a weapons engineer. I disapprove, but I am the only one to disapprove, and his mind is set. Now the Templar will target him as well, as much as the rest of us. He has no conception of his own safety.
If you have any words at all that can change his mind, please…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
Lorenzo is slain. The Medici are no more, Paola has disappeared, and even Antonio has taken Rosa and the rest away in the night. Strange. The Medici have been a part of my life since I was a child, and yet, I feel beyond grief. War is the great devourer, it consumes even emotion, after a time. We will retreat from Firenze soon. Perhaps we can even find a place to bury Lorenzo's body where the Templars cannot find it…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
Forlì is lost and the Sforza line with it, and as you have said by your last missive, you have lost Acre, and now even Jerusalem is bitterly contested. I have my own theories how this could have escalated so quickly, so disastrously. Remember previously, the Apple and the Staff? It may have been the first time that I have looked at any of the Pieces, but I know what I saw.
You have Al Mualim to contend with, and he has the Apple. I know you have driven him off before, even when he wielded it, but now it is not the same. If you could but find a way to get a look at it as I had, you would understand. Safely, of course, if that is possible.
In better news, however, as per Maestro Al-Sayf's advice, I am trying… with Leonardo. His trust is both humbling and frightening. I wish he would argue with me, like you do with the Maestro, but yet even you take your partner for granted. Still, I will try to do some justice to his affections. I want to be better…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
Leonardo's fortifications have been added to the walls, and we have turned back the first wave of the siege with ease. Perhaps the Templar will break their backs on our little fortress. I do not like what Leonardo does: I can see that it is changing him. He is more focused. His harmless obsession with the world has been changed to a single knife's point, and he is not suited to making weapons. The words you suggested did not work. He does this because he loves me, he does not listen when I say it is not wanted…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
The siege grows long. I hear that you have lost Jerusalem. Still we have held, here. Rodrigo has tried using the Staff but even with that monstrous thing it has not been sufficient. The will of the defenders is strong, and we can see that the Staff has an application too limited to do much damage to the walls.
I have managed to persuade Leonardo to draw again. He says he has no time, so it is not as often as I like. Still, here is one of his pieces, a sketch of my brothers, my sister and I. The one with the pet hawk on his shoulder is Federico, the shorter one is Petruccio, you remember, our brilliant tactician? And of course, the beautiful Claudia, my sister. She has been trying to persuade Federico and I to teach her how to fight. We tell her that the moment that becomes necessary, we will probably both be dead.
You should see the reaction of the great and wise eldest son of the Auditore when she bursts into tears. He has absolutely no idea what to do. Very amusing. Petruccio is the best of us all: unlike the rest of us brothers, he always knows the right thing to say.
We probably look older than what you remember. Wiser, too, hopefully…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
I hope you will understand that I will not ask this of you lightly. We may soon need to leave Monteriggioni. Rumors have come that the Templars have found the Sword. If they have, perhaps our walls will not hold further. The closest safe bastion of the Assassins is Masyaf. We will need to bring those of Monteriggioni who will come.
Father has considered the kartal, who are closer, but they have no concerns outside of their territories and have refused us. I know that you are stretched at Masyaf, that you have likely as of your receipt of this letter already lost your hold on Damascus, but please…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
I was disappointed to read your response. I know that you have limited resources, but I had hoped that something in all our letters would have changed your view of war. People wage war over people, for people, and when there are no people left then it devours itself. Victory is had by the side that has saved the most lives…
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
It has been months since your last letter. Have you resorted to ignoring us? The Sword is coming from the Dark Continent, the Apple from Jerusalem, and we have heard disturbing news of their efficacy in application against seemingly impenetrable walls when combined with the Staff. We must begin plans to evacuate. But we must also have a place to go. Mario remains unconvinced of the difference that the Sword can make, but instinct tells me otherwise…
This is Leonardo. Ezio is not very good at encryption, but I trust that you can read this message eventually. If you will let us take refuge in Masyaf I promise you, I will do whatever I can for you in return. Enclosed is a sheaf of my latest work. Perhaps it will persuade you.
And of course, in case it crosses your mind, my love does not approve, and is trying to snatch the sheaf away from me at this very moment.
Maestro Altaïr ibn La-Ahad,
We leave tomorrow. The Templars that come to Monteriggioni will find it a nest of traps, the birds long flown: we have our ways out of Monteriggioni, away from the siege. Our gratitude for your 'offer' has been lengthily spelled in the formal missive, so I will save my ink.
I may not know what Leonardo promised you but I can guess. We will have words, you and I, once I see you at Masyaf. Do not think that the words will be kind.
"Altaïr," Malik said, finally exasperated, looking up from his book. "Stop fretting. You will wear a hole in the floor."
Altaïr had been in a very poor mood since the rescue of the Auditore and their people, enough that he had even come into Malik's own chambers to vent it. Usually, Malik noted, sourly, Altaïr knew better than to crowd him when he was reading.
"He is not Ezio."
"So you have said. Ezio has lost his memory. He deserves sympathy, not animosity."
"Too many threads are wrong," Altaïr waved a hand dismissively. "He recognizes me, yet he does not, and he does not even know you. And if he recognizes me, why does he clearly not know Leonardo?"
"He knows Leonardo. The regard is there. If you want proof, just walk outside and hit Leonardo," Malik said flatly, "I will wager all the money I have that Ezio will try to kill you, Maestro or not."
"It is regressed. He thinks they are only friends. It is obvious." Altaïr glared briefly out of the window, towards the courtyard. "It does not add together."
"I think it does. He reads blue, and he has lost his memory. Instead of thinking how selective it is, think of this: Ezio has lost his memory up until before the point where he was introduced to us. At that point, he did not love Leonardo."
"He remembers nothing about the war, and the war was being waged long before he was born," Altaïr retorted. "You can hear it in his voice, when he was asking you questions."
"Who am I to say how the mind works, particularly when it is damaged?" Malik countered, snapping his book shut. "They are guests. They are allies. Must I beat some sense into your head or will you listen?"
"You can try," Altaïr said, belligerent, and finally, utterly annoyed, Malik pounced. Altaïr ducked the first punch, blocked the second, but backed against the shelves, the knee caught him in the stomach. Even as he fell sharply to his knees, Altaïr still managed to catch Malik's wrist as the edge of his palm cut towards Altaïr's neck. "Finished?" His tone was harsh.
"Once you get out."
"You were friends with Ezio for years, Altaïr," Malik sighed, tired, as Altaïr got to his feet, unsteadily, leaning against the wall. "Since you had first met him, and then through the letters. I am sure that there were others that were not attached to formal correspondence. You used to speak so warmly of him. Now, just because of this, you want to kill him."
"It is precisely because we were friends that I must make sure." Altaïr retorted. "If someone has taken his place, I need to know what happened to Ezio. The real Ezio."
When the madness was upon Altaïr, when his mind was set and buried within the scars left by old betrayals, there was nothing Malik could do, no matter how he fought or what words he used. The ugly core of hatred that lay within Altaïr, that had been born on the day that he had been betrayed by his teacher, the day he had lost his family, was there, watching, and Malik would be damned if he would let Altaïr do something that he would later have cause to regret.
"Talk to him. If you can even bring yourself to do so." Malik ran a hand through his hair, walking back towards the bed to pick up his book. He stilled instantly as arms wove around his waist, lips pressing under his ear. "Do not touch me when you are like this."
"I will talk to him," Altaïr's voice was low, conciliatory. "For you."
"Do not do this for my sake," Malik retorted coldly, though he relaxed tentatively into Altaïr's embrace, tilting his head to allow his teeth better access.
The 'true' Ezio Auditore, Altaïr determined, was essentially the same, still brash and idealistic, still concerned about the world and all of its problems. This was worse than an Ezio that was cold and ruthless, or an imposter; this one was likeable, like the first one, and so, this worsened matters.
Guilt had prepared an apology, an explanation, for the Ezio of this reality, guilt over the gift of the Shield and the refusal of the Auditore Maestri to have it returned even in their hour of need, guilt that he had not ignored their determination. And, at the last, guilt that he had only offered sanctuary to the people who had ensured Masyaf's safety after Leonardo's message, even in the light of Masyaf's dwindling resources and space. With Ezio here, but not the Ezio, this festered, unresolved. It seemed easier and more comfortable to resent him than to explain.
Altaïr stared at the note that had come to Masyaf via pigeon for a long time, in silence, and then he thrust it at Malik and left the room.
Beside Malik, on the platform with the pigeon coop, Leonardo paled, clearly fearing the worst. "Maestro Al-Sayf, what does it say?"
"That the Maestri Auditore have survived, that Ezio has been successful in rescuing his father, assassinating Al Mualim, and retrieving the Apple. This is in his hand. Ezio is alive."
Leonardo crumpled back against the fragile wooden rail, visibly overwhelmed with relief. "Then… why was Maestro ibn La-Ahad displeased?"
"He was not displeased," Malik handed Leonardo the note. "But it is difficult to explain. Someone else has closed a chapter on his life, on the ghosts that have haunted him for far too long. It is hard to face. May I trouble you to inform his family?"
"It will be my pleasure, Maestro Al-Sayf." Leonardo said, with a quick smile. "And, ah, good luck with Maestro ibn La-Ahad."
Predictably, he found Altaïr cross-legged on the edge of the highest roof in Masyaf, contemplating the sea. Carefully, Malik sat down beside him in companionable silence. In the distance, the white arcs of seagulls curled and dived around the fishermen boats, and the water glittered under the sun. Malik had never been fond of the sea, of the endless infinite that it represented and of its uncontrollable moods, but Altaïr had always said that it gave him perspective.
"I feel like I have been freed," Altaïr said finally, softly. "And yet, it is not in a way that I wanted. It is hard to describe."
"A death of an enemy is a death," Malik chose his words carefully. "I doubt that Ezio specifically journeyed to Jerusalem to kill him. If he did so, it must have been solely for his father's sake."
"A foolish interpretation of the Creed," Altaïr grunted, though he did not look displeased. "And a foolish child."
"Perhaps it is time to forgive him for not remembering you," Malik suggested, teasing.
"In losing his memory he has also forgotten his place." Altaïr retorted, narrowing his eyes.
"He has slain Al Mualim, retrieved the Apple, rescued his father, and all without support," Malik pointed out. "Perhaps he has earned his place. I do not know what La Volpe had said to you, you and Ezio, but it has not mellowed your mood to him. I have asked you before, why you resent him-"
"Guilt," Altaïr said heavily, to Malik's surprise. "I wanted to apologize."
"You, apologize?" Malik smiled, and chuckled when Altaïr glared at him. "Over the matter of sanctuary?"
"We took the Shield from them, Malik! Because of that, Monteriggioni fell, and we lost… he lost his brothers."
"They gave us the Shield, Altaïr. And they refused its return."
"We should have ignored them. Journeyed to Monteriggioni."
"And then Al Mualim may have attacked Masyaf." Malik sighed. "It was a difficult enough decision allowing them to come here. We are desperately low on supplies, on space. And they would have been a fat target the whole journey. You and I agreed that we should try to persuade them via our refusal to seek shelter somewhere closer, where the road would not be so long and so risky."
"But then we lost Damascus, and Masyaf needed Leonardo." Altaïr agreed. "At the very end, that was the decider. His last letter to me resented that. So I want to apologize. But he does not remember."
"Is it not a little unreasonable to punish him for a matter of which you were the instigator, Altaïr?" Malik reached over, to put his hand on Altaïr's thigh, squeezing it lightly. "Let it be. And he has more than proven that he is not an imposter, I think. Honestly, Altaïr, if you think that Ezio is not who he is because he no longer tries to argue politics and policy with you… have you considered that it may be because you try to bite off his head whenever he even ventures into your line of sight?"
"Must you always be the voice of reason?" Altaïr, however, smiled faintly. "You, with your own foul temper?"
"Only when I see that reason is sorely lacking." Malik inched closer, and leaned forward, to nip Altaïr's jaw sharply enough that the other predator growled.
At the battlements, Ezio's words startled him: and humbled him, that all he had done to Ezio to date, all the petty injustices and tempers, were all forgiven, that Ezio had let it slide, like water off a duck's back. It was not because Altaïr was beneath his concerns, but the opposite: that for those people whom Ezio thought important, from them, such matters of disposition were simply insignificant.
This Ezio had lost much, and early in his life; earlier than Altaïr with Masyaf and Al Mualim, and yet it had not changed him. He had once spoken of vengeance against Rodrigo, against the Templar, and yet it did not consume him; still he laughed and loved like any other man. A strong heart, and a strong soul. The Apple had to be his to bear.
Ezio became boneless the moment he touched the Apple, slumping further against the couch. Leonardo sat anxiously beside him, tenderly stroking his cheek, the gesture so intensely private that Malik felt embarrassed to be in the same room.
"Call us if you cannot wake him in an hour," he said, clearing his throat.
"Of course," Leonardo nodded, with a weak smile. "I will."
Malik jerked his head at Altaïr, who inclined his in silent agreement, and they left the room, closing it behind them. He was a little surprised when Altaïr followed him into theirs: although Altaïr had returned with Ezio, he had been sullen and quiet even when addressed. They had had long quarrels before, in Masyaf, shouting matches and silent warfare and everything along the spectrum in between, and usually a ceasefire was called only when either side tired. Malik was not yet ready to make overtures, and Altaïr had clearly not been willing to break.
He arched an eyebrow at Altaïr in a silent question, even as he walked over to the desk, removing the artificial arm, laying it carefully on top, and Altaïr cleared his throat, looking away even as he shut the door.
"If you truly wish to know, Malik…"
That surprised him. "Did you fall off the roof while chasing Ezio back here?"
"What?" Altaïr frowned. "No. What makes you think-"
"Concussion, perhaps." Malik said, keeping his expression as blank as possible. "Or some other form of trauma. This is quite unlike you."
At that, Altaïr was silent, walking around Malik to the window, leaning out, his palms splayed against the sill. "He told me not to hate myself."
Instead of answering, Altaïr asked, "Do you wish that we love as they do?"
"No two people love in the same way," Malik said cautiously, his instant strategy in the face of a possible trap, "I cannot say."
"With no games," Altaïr continued quietly, "No arguments save for lovers' quarrels, with nothing to prove to each other, absolute and unassailable."
"The Italians seem to be a different breed of men," Malik said, keeping his tone light. "I know I cannot love as they do. It might bore me."
"Could you? Would you want to?" Malik pressed his palm onto Altaïr's arm. "An independent soul like yours, and mine?"
"Or a lonely soul, that thinks itself independent," Altaïr returned, his tone distant. "Lonely and afraid."
"Is that what you think when we touch, Altaïr?" Malik retorted, challenging, jerking Altaïr around to face him. "Because I can assure you that it is not, not for me."
Altaïr stared at him, silent, even as Malik reached up to push back his cowl, and then he smiled, thin and wry. "Their way seems easier and more restful, certainly, but then, Leonardo is not so difficult a person as you, Malik."
"And Ezio is certainly not as cantankerous as you," Malik shot back, pulling Altaïr towards him for a kiss, insistent and demanding, growling as hands stroked up from his rump to the small of his back, rubbing at the base of his spine, his body instinctively tensing; the honed assassin in the back of his mind resenting the vulnerability.
The disciplined killers within them both did not understand sex, the necessity of going weaponless and bared, the pleasure of another body in dangerously close proximity. The constant need for restraint, to hold back instinct and trained reflexes, the frisson of risk from baring one's neck to the teeth of another killer; this he would not trade, could not.
When they broke for air, Altaïr's eyes were dilated, his teeth bared, and Malik smirked, his hand dropping to Altaïr's neck, to press his thumb lightly and pointedly over his Adam's apple, his fingers curling around the nape. Lust flared between them in the next, hungry kiss, and another, as Altaïr walked them impatiently back towards the bed, shoving Malik into it and snarling silently when Malik rolled, fingers clawed and back arched, to snap their positions in reverse. Altaïr's teeth sought his ear, and then his jaw, even as Malik raked his nails down his flanks; another twist and a growl, and Altaïr was on top, straddling his hips, kissing him roughly, his palms pressed hard against Malik's cheeks, Malik's fingers clenched around a wrist.
"Then you do not want to know," Altaïr panted, against his cheek, and Malik frowned for a moment before recalling the context.
"You gave your word to La Volpe."
"Then, I do not want to know."
"I was angry about your reasons, Altaïr. It has been a long time, between us both, and still you cannot trust me." Malik leant up onto his elbow. "If we touch, if we speak, it must be as equals. I will not tolerate anything else, not like Leonardo, content to stay in Ezio's shadow."
"You are no less a man than any other," Altaïr said fiercely. "I have never said-"
"Even with only one arm?" Malik countered.
"You want me as an equal, your touch tells me as much, and yet outside of governance, outside of our bed, you do not treat me as such. That is why I was angry."
"I…" Altaïr began, hesitated, then curled his hands tightly on the sheets beside Malik's head. "I see."
The rawness in Altaïr's tone softened his, turned it teasing. "An apology would be appreciated."
"Since when have you been one for apologies?" Altaïr retorted, though he pressed his lips to Malik's neck. "Either you insult me or you disregard the attempt."
"Then evidently your efforts to appease me are sorely lacking. As usual."
"I will make you eat those words, Malik."
Snapping his hips towards against Malik's thrusts, teeth clenched, back arched, Altaïr sank his teeth into his lover's shoulder, the fingers of one hand twisted over the flesh of Malik's missing arm, the other pinning Malik's wrist to the sheets just above his head, tangled in the sheets, his ecstasy interlaced with pain, copper between their tongues and blood flecked across their lips.
The pup, Malik whispered harshly, even as he jerked upwards, hard enough that Altaïr snarled into his ear and clenched his fingers tightly enough into Malik's arm to bruise, He was watching.
Let him learn, Altaïr retorted, rolling his hips as he dug knees and toes into the bed, forcing Malik to arch in a taut bow beneath him and mark his arm with his teeth.
Malik walked sedately beside Leonardo even as Altaïr chased Ezio through the crowds, and then up onto a strut, a windowsill, and then the rooftops, ignoring the gasps and gestures from startled passers-by.
"Abandoned again," Leonardo said, chuckling. "I am sorry, Malik. You are shackled with me."
"Why should I risk my neck for no reason? Let them tire themselves out. They will be less annoying on the journey." They were heading towards the gate, to join a merchant caravan on its way to Roma, and Malik was mentally reviewing their resources. Leonardo would still need special provisions, but there was a small bazaar close to the gate where they could purchase a sufficiency.
"Joining a set of caravans. It will be a slow journey," Leonardo agreed. "I give it two days before they ride out to find trouble."
"Ten florins on one day."
"Done." Leonardo studied him thoughtfully. "You seem well-resolved, friend Malik, for such a long argument."
"We have always argued. Since we were boys. If we did not fight bitterly at least once a month, I would probably miss it." Malik admitted, smirking.
"Truly? I would not understand," Leonardo said doubtfully. "I do not think I have ever seen Ezio angry at me. Frustrated, yes, or exasperated. But not anger."
"I do not think you could give him cause for anger, Leonardo."
"I… I would surprise you."
"No, Leonardo," Malik said gently. "I said 'could', and not 'would'."
"Oh. That is true." Leonardo blushed. "Certainly he has not had a scarcity of reasons. But you are truly all right?"
"Yes I am." It had been a long and ardent evening. "It is a little different for us. Neither of us need nor desire the other's approval. So when we fight, usually it is only resolved in contest, either in the courtyard or-"
"Ah," Leonardo said, his blush deepening though he clearly did not comprehend the import of Malik's words: he could not, without a predator's mind. Now, and as before, Malik did not envy him.
You cannot end it this way, Altaïr shouted into the white, his words slithering away into scrolling text; around him, time flowed forward and away, in a rapid-fire litany of brief images. Ezio!
I must. Ezio's voice was an echo that came from all around him. It is the only way. I thought you would understand, Altaïr.
He did; Allah forgive him, but he did, and he resented it. You are doing this for Leonardo.
I am doing this for us all, Ezio corrected. Time and place, returned to how they must be, so that this world can continue to exist. You must understand.
In the past, without you?
Why, Maestro, Ezio laughed, all around him, almost inhuman, Would you miss me?
Malik, Altaïr retorted simply. Without Ezio's unrelenting interference, would Altaïr still remember all that he had learned… would he have healed-
You will learn again and you will heal. Eventually. Ezio amended. You will.
So you say, Altaïr snapped, adrift in time.
Because if you do not, Ezio continued, solemnly, Then I will come to Masyaf to look for you, old man. Beat it into you, perhaps.
Hah! As if you could best me, even as you are now. Altaïr relaxed, grudgingly, a little reassured. Your word upon it.
My word upon it. Ezio whispered, and he awoke.
-fin: this ended up a bit longer than I thought. AS ALWAYS. Sorry to the people who scan fics for porn, no blow by blow in this fic. ;3
Lonely soul reference to manga that I translated with my fragile grasp of my mother tongue, haha. Some kindly soul in return has scanlated it with the text. The 4chan community is so giving! It is available on 4chan, or sendspace here:
.com/file/rjg6rf - if you cannot see the link (FFNET), go to this fic in my livejournal from my profile page. I didn't save it (since I can read the original version, lol), so don't ask me for an alternative link if it's broken.
'if it is unbreakable to Leonardo' – from Terry Pratchett. My Leonardo (or at least, the river version) is based off his, which would likely have been clear to anyone who reads Pratchett. :3
Regarding Ezio never being angry with Leonardo, this Leonardo didn't have the Flying Machine Hissy Fit Incident of Abusive Boyfriend Bastardy. Though I only made it aloft a few seconds before faceplanting into a tower, seriously Ezio, would you jump off a rooftop in that contraption and not expect to break some bones?
Also, I'm not really fond of Desmond or Shaun (it's not their fault, it's just that compared to the extremely colorful and freerun fun places that are in the Animus, when it's in Real Time I feel bored and irritable), but I'm surprised no one has drawn Desmond watching Avatar with the gang. "Can you program the Animus to load Pandora?" or "This is way cooler than Masyaf" would all be possibilities. XD-