AN: Finally, the last chapter (srsly). A warning for content: though I doubt anyone reading this besides skywalker05 dislikes slash, seeing as how this is in fact a slash fanfic, the summary did promise subtleness and this epilogue did, er. Break that promise rather more than I'd expected it to at first. There's no sex, and the rating is still in the T range! I fully admit that this chapter is probably out of character as hell. I mean, the time period AC takes place in just does not make it easy for there to be canon same-sex hookups. Apparently I've become that horrid yaoi fangirl who slashes everyone with everyone else…but at least I know I'm going to fanfiction hell when I die.
How do people actually manage to write full-blown same-sex smut, anyway? There aren't enough pronouns!
In all seriousness, thanks so much for the wonderful comments, favs, alerts, etc. I had a hell of a good time writing this, and all the support really played a huge part in that. A special thank you for those awesome people who reviewed every single chapter (or close to it)-much love!
And three days later word reaches the small house underneath the skinny tree that King Richard of the Christians has gathered with his army in Arsuf. Saladin's forces are not far behind. Altair knows he must reach Arsuf before the two leaders have a chance to be swayed by whatever Templar elements Robert left behind.
So he sends a second informer to report back to Al Mualim, brow furrowed with the knowledge that he rides to prolong conflict, not to end it. It seems backwards that he, as an assassin, as a man who willingly bears the weight of murder in exchange for the safety of the land, should want to ensure the continuation of an already endless war. Everything has been twisted, these last few months. The Templars he has killed were united for a cause they swore was just. Al Mualim speaks in puzzles; his eyes are fixed on lumps of gold, gilded Apples that have already been the downfall of many men. Now Altair—of all people, Altair—will be a fresh wellspring of poison between Christian and Muslim armies.
It does not feel right. An assassin must always bend to his senses, and Altair's are telling him that there is something festering, just out of his line of sight. Something dangerous.
Someone had to betray us.
But there are other things on Altair Ibn-La'Ahad's mind the day he leaves for Arsuf. The sun is already high by the time he is ready to depart—it was foolish to delay this long, and now he will be riding through the worst of the day's heat.
Altair turns and walks back to the hut.
The first room is dark as ever, hot as ever; Malik's men bustle around, preparing themselves for the coming return to Jerusalem, and as ever they ignore him. Altair strides for the far door and lets himself in without bothering to knock. He is fully armed, but his cowl rests around his shoulders.
(Altair has never been quite as comfortable without his cowl; with his brown hair showing he tends to feel exposed, denuded, a bird without its crown feathers. It's for the same reason that he wears his robes even when not on duty: they brush at the backs of his knees, familiar rectrices to keep him stabilized.
Cowl or no, he is never very comfortable around Malik. In some ways he will always be defenseless.)
Malik is fully dressed and out of bed; with his back to the door he is rearming himself with throwing knives. There are at least a dozen of those knives scattered on the bed, but the Dai finds room for them all, hidden in his sleeves and beneath his robes. With his bandages covered up, he almost seems healed—but his movements are halting, and he bends slightly as he works. Several times his fingers fumble a dagger, and he lets out a soft curse.
Altair watches without saying anything. After a few moments, Malik sighs.
"How long are you going to stand there?" he asks without turning around.
"Am I in the way?"
"Of course. You always are."
Altair leans against the wall behind him, arms folded. "Should you be on your feet so soon?"
"So soon? It's been over a week. How much patience for idle nothing do you think I have?" Finally, he turns to face the assassin. "King Richard and Saladin will meet on the battlefield in a matter of days. You should be in Arsuf right now, Brother."
"I leave today," Altair says. "Within the hour. I came here only to—"
"To what?" Malik looks at him, dark eyes calm and waiting. His words are light, almost taunting. "You know, I am still waiting to have last week's events lauded over my head. Go ahead and boast, it's obvious you want to." He smiles. "Truthfully, I would expect nothing less from you." *
"Should I always bend to your expectations?" Altair asks with a quirk of his eyebrow. "I have no interest in being predictable."
"We have spent too much time together, I think." Malik glances back at the remaining daggers on the bed, as if disinterested. He is a good actor, Altair decides. He gives so little of himself away.
"Go to Arsuf and stay there for a while," Malik says. "A year or so without your insufferable presence should make up for this past…"
He turns and Altair is there, hands grabbing his shoulders hard enough to leave bruises and teeth closing against his neck in what isn't a kiss but a bite. Malik falls back against the wall, eyes wide; he lets out a startled gasp as Altair presses him there and leans in, close as he can. This should be unnatural—having a simple, civil conversation with the Dai is almost impossible, so this should feel bizarre—
But it doesn't, really. In the end, pushing Malik up against the wall and leaving red marks along the side of his neck is just another type of strength, just another assassin's instinct to obey. Strange how it's laid dormant so many years, strange how little Altair understands it: but he doesn't have to understand it now, held in thrall by what sings in his blood. These urges are another part of him; he does not need to know why they exist, and at this point he does not care. It's with confidence that he smirks into Malik's unblinking eyes.
Force, he understands. The passion that rises in the heat of battle, he understands. What this is—whether it might not be born of darker, uglier things than he realizes now—no longer matters at all. With his left hand braced against the wall, he lowers his right to the front of the other man's chest.
Malik grabs that wrist and starts to twist it loose, but stops. He licks his lips, arched back against the wall; somewhere along the way Altair's leg pushed its way between Malik's two, and the assassin can feel the Dai radiating tense energy against him, all taut muscle and throbbing pulse.
"Idiot." Malik's voice is so hoarse it almost chokes off the words. "You will reopen the wound." He pushes at Altair's wrist again, but without much force. "What in God's name…"
Altair lowers his left hand, brings it to Malik's chest and then to his neck, smirking afresh to feel his heart racing. "If this offends you, push me off," he says, the challenge evident in his voice.
Malik doesn't move. He's practically holding his breath. "If it offends me?" he manages. "You are a madman. I'm no woman, Altair."
"I know that." The assassin studies the other man's incredulous face. "You've forgotten what you said in the fortress. I'd assumed as much…"
"What I-…" Malik's eyes widen even further. "Enough of your games, what did I say?"
"Well, if you've forgotten…" Altair shrugs. He expects the Dai to rise angrily to the taunt, but to his surprise Malik settles back against the wall and offers the assassin a small smirk of his own.
"I'm not going to beg you," he says. "Keep your secrets, if you must." He grabs at the hand against his chest again. "It doesn't change the fact that you are insane. Most men would stone you for this."
Altair's eyes flash. "I'm not concerned with what most men would do." He lowers his head. His mouth brushes against the fresh bite marks on Malik's neck; the injured man shivers as he breathes out, "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted."
"You…of all people, lecturing me on the creed…" Malik swallows. Altair watches his jaw work. "I still don't think you know what it actually means, Brother." And then—because Altair hears the edge in his voice and wants to taste it—he presses his mouth against Malik's in what is finally a kiss.
He keeps his eyes open. So does Malik.
A dare, the assassin realizes. And this is a good thing, a reassuring thing: Malik has never been weak.
When they pull apart Altair slides back to the center of the room, arms crossed. The other man lowers himself to the edge of the bed, still breathing hard. He rubs at his side for a moment. Then he looks up at the assassin and raises an eyebrow.
"Is that why you've not yet left for Arsuf?" he asks. "If so, you're an even bigger novice then I thought."
Altair smirks a bit. "I had other reasons. Don't be so arrogant." Malik gives him a look that can only be described as frightening, and he continues rather quickly: "I had time to consider what you said the day you woke. About someone within the Brotherhood being disloyal."
"And…for months now, Al Mualim has spoken to me in riddles, hinting at great secrets but expecting me to discover them on my own."
"He always has put great faith in your abilities," Malik comments. "He's never doubted that you deserve to be his successor."
There is fresh discomfiture here, and Altair treads carefully to avoid it. "The master and I are the only ones without that doubt," he says as if in complaint.
"Not the only ones," Malik says, expressionless. "So? Continue, Altair. What do Al Mualim's secrets have to do with our potential traitor?"
"I think he already knows of whatever deceit led to all this. He turned it into another one of his tests…"
"And let the Jerusalem Bureau fall as a result? Don't be ridiculous. It is his duty as master to protect the Brotherhood, not let it come to harm just so he can experiment with his favorite assassin."
Altair studies the clean stump of his ring finger. After a moment, he says, "A year ago I would never have questioned Al Mualim's actions, but…it has been a strange few months."
He pauses. The words, as always, refuse to come. "Either way, I'll deal with this traitor. I assume you'll rest here for a while—"
But Malik cuts him off with a brusque shake of his head. "I didn't join the Brotherhood to laze around. One more week. Then I will return to Jerusalem and attend to my duties."
Altair doesn't bother to hide his surprise: "Malik, you've been stabbed."
"Thank you for reminding me. I surely would have forgotten without your beloved attendance." The look the Dai gives the assassin is hard, and unwavering. It gives Altair no opening to break through. "You'll have to share some of the coming glory, for once."
Some of the coming danger, Altair wants to argue, but he knows better than anyone the insult in those words; he keeps silent, frowning, in the wake of promised tumult.
(Traitors and riddles: there will be violent times ahead.)
"So, Master Assassin," Malik says, and his gaze does not waver from Altair's face: he has had a lifetime's practice in accepting his fate. "What is it you would have me do?"
"Dangerous questions," the assassin mutters. The injured man rolls his eyes. "For now, only keep your ears open to the gossip around you."
"I gather information while you charge blindly ahead."
"I keep the enemy distracted while you learn what you can." Altair pauses a moment, then purses his lips and says it anyway: "This is not some minor official, some easy kill. I will need all the information you can give me, and you will need time to work."
Malik smiles. His voice is perfectly calm. "Are you saying you'll protect me?" he almost purrs.
Altair brushes it aside with a wave of his hand. "You hardly need it," he says. "But surely it is better to work together than apart."
"Surely." Malik rises back to his feet. The two men look at each other, and are quiet: there is nothing else to say.
Or rather, there is nothing else they can say. Altair remembers the heat of Malik's breath against his skin and is almost tempted to—not that it matters. Let it keep to the shadows, let it be another bit of himself to hide away. Let the secrets remain intact: it would be impossible to explain it all, and Altair does not trust the words.
He is an assassin. His path is a strict one, soaked in blood.
"Safety and peace," he says, and turns for the door. "I apologize in advance for the next time we meet."
Perhaps Malik says something in response; Altair does not hear him if he does. He leaves the bedroom, brushing by the three men in the first room for the last time. He opens the front door, and sunlight blinds him—
Then he squints, and the brown-green world comes back into focus: his steps as he walks through the afternoon heat are steady and sure. The guards have readied his horse, and he swings his legs onto the saddle without a thought for the tinge of pain the motion brings. Gripping the reins, Altair turns his horse toward Arsuf. He nudges it into a walk, then reaches for his cowl and pulls it back into place. The road curls out in front of him, no doubt hiding soldiers and refugees, distractions behind every twist…
Altair urges the horse into a gallop. He is ready, and he does not look back.