*****

Ezio seemed to cast about for a response, startled, but held his tongue. Leonardo could see the thoughts whirling in his head, the hows and the whys and the what-ifs. He found it almost sweet, that someone with Ezio's reputation could still be so innocent. They stood, unspeaking for some time with only the sound of the rain and the soft hiss and pop of the fire.

At last, Leonardo sighed. "I wouldn't actually ask that, you know." He did, however, reach out to cup the side of Ezio's face with a gentle hand. Once more, Ezio remained still and did not shy from the touch; his dark, golden eyes shadowed and deep in the firelight. "I would not destroy what already exists between us for the sake of a physical want."

He stepped closer, felt the hitch in the other's breath. The muscles under his fingertips tensed, then softened as if Ezio was forcing himself to calm. But now Leonardo had his attention. His hand curled into the brown hair, whether to keep Ezio in place or to simply feel that softness against his skin, Leonardo did not know. The distance between them was negligible now; Leonardo could feel the faint brush of contact with every rise of Ezio's chest.

When Ezio said nothing in response, Leonardo went on, eager to fill the silence lest he undo himself. "Ti amo," he murmured, and this time Ezio did start. "You seem surprised. I don't know how you never noticed. Ezio, Ezio, bello mio, I have always loved you."

"Why?" The single word was barely a breath, indrawn and pale.

"Why does anyone fall in love with anyone else?" Leonardo shook his head. "Perhaps it is just chance or fate that one soul finds its match in another. Or perhaps there is a God and He wants all of His children to have someone to love them." He felt a rueful smile pull at his lips. "Then again, maybe there is no rhyme or reason. I should hope at least that there is no gleeful, malicious power laughing down at us, at such a one-sided love as this."

"Leonardo..."

"Don't say it." Leonardo could no longer help himself; he leaned against the broad chest before him, rested his head on the powerful shoulder, breathed in the scent of rainwater and leather and olives that he still could detect on Ezio's skin. But those were underlaid with the coppery tang of blood and the warm smell of sweat, reminders of the danger and fear that were Ezio's constant companions. "Everyone deserves to be loved, amico mio. Even if it is unrequited, or unanswered, or indifferent, or unknown. Our paths crossed for a reason all those years ago, and I would never have changed any of it."

His arms went around the unresisting form, and at the familiar embrace, he felt some more of the tension leave the other's body. More beautiful still was the warmth of Ezio's arms about him. Leonardo clung to him, though he might never admit that was what it was. Ezio, too, fisted fingers in the loose cloth of Leonardo's chemise and held on as if for dear life.

And still, Leonardo knew, he knew beyond all doubt that there was no romantic undercurrent in the touch. Ezio might be skilled in stealth and able to fool his enemies, but he was not such a good actor to be able to hide from Leonardo's knowing eye. The last bit of hope that still guttered in Leonardo's heart-the bit that had held out for so long for some miraculous acknowledgement that his feelings were returned-finally died, and yet Leonardo could not mourn its passing. It had been a long time in coming and he was ready for it to go.

Leonardo let out a breath he had not noticed himself holding, even as his arms tightened around Ezio. "Ahh, caro. You know that nothing has changed between us, don't you?"

"Hasn't it?" The words were gruff but still gentle, careful.

"Of course not. I have felt like this for years-it is not a new thing. I will always be here for you. I will always help you in any way I can. My reasons have always been the same and they are still the same. The only thing that has changed is that now you know."

"Mi dispiace molto, Leonardo," said Ezio, and Leonardo knew he meant it. "I wish-"

"Wishing a thing does not make it so." Leonardo embraced him for a moment longer, then released him. "Any more than wanting to be healed makes the skin mend any faster. Get some sleep, caro, and in the morning the rain should be ended. You can leave under cover of the fog and no one will see you."

Ezio sighed, ran his fingers through his loosened hair. He turned to go back to the chair but Leonardo stopped him.

"Take the bed. I...will not be able to sleep for some time. But you need it." He turned away from the protests that followed, partly to arrange the blankets on the bed and partly to avoid seeing some kind of pity on Ezio's face. "Please, Ezio."

He might have been fine except for the apologetic hand that came to rest on his shoulder. It was too much to bear. Leonardo's will broke and he braced his arms on the bedpost as he struggled to keep himself together. The hand slid forward, was joined by another, and then he was being embraced from behind, a sweet, solid presence at his back. It was brotherly, utterly devoid of sexual intent, but even then, Leonardo welcomed the touch. He covered the hands with his own and leaned back, closing his eyes.

Then he was falling, still held in those arms, and he realized they were falling together. The bed was soft and warm and he was trying desperately to keep from crying, of all things. And then he was crying, which angered him and made his shoulders shake with the effort of holding it all back.

Through it all, those arms never left him. Ezio held him close, held him down, his dearest friend, and comforted Leonardo as best he could with just his existence, a few soft words, and nothing more. He did not mention the tears or the weakness or the things they'd said earlier. There was no censure and no expectation, just a closeness born of years of amicizia.

Friendship.

Leonardo wondered if his own words were still true-that nothing was different, nothing would change. He had Ezio, he had Ezio's vow. But that was all.

It was enough. It had to be.

"I'm all right," he said at last, shakily. He tried to slip free of his friend's-his friend's-grasp. "Get some sleep now."

"Stay." Ezio's tone brooked no discussion, tired though it might be. "It's a compromise."

Leonardo considered arguing, but in the end, he couldn't bring himself to do it. He just clutched the pillow under his head and tried to absorb every breath that pooled on the back of his neck, every faint twitch of the arms that still surrounded him, every moment that he spent with Ezio so close. Instead, the drumming of the rain and the warmth of the bed and the exhaustion of emotion all conspired to send him to sleep.

It was in this way that Leonardo finally spent the night with Ezio. Not quite the fulfillment of his desires, but he would have to take what he could get.

*****

Morning found them unchanged, though perhaps Ezio had curled closer around Leonardo, and perhaps Leonardo had turned so he could spoon into Ezio's warmth. Leonardo lay there for some time in the thin grey light of dawn. Something was different, something upon which he could not place a finger.

It was the silence. The rain had stopped.

Ezio murmured something in his sleep and hugged Leonardo closer. Leonardo had to close his eyes and count to ten before he could muster the will to extricate himself from the bed. The moment could not last forever, after all.

He stretched his arms over his head, let them flop to his sides, and crossed barefoot to open the window. Outside, the world was obscured by shifting fog that had rolled in from the canals. The mist of Venezia always fascinated him, made up as it was of a thousand unnamed colors, changing, restless, secretive. Without the constant noise of the rain, but still muffled by the roiling gloom, the city seemed deserted. Leonardo crossed his arms on the damp sill and leaned out, just to feel the cool air on his face.

Behind him, the creak of the bed and the scuff of footsteps on the floor told him that Ezio was awake as well. Leonardo rested his chin on his arms and listened to his friend dress. Buckles clinked, leather and fabric made a susurrus as they rubbed together. Then there was a sound with which Leonardo was almost too intimate: the slide of metal on metal. Ezio was dressed, armed, ready to go. The footsteps-changed by the addition of boots-approached him.

"I don't suppose I can convince you to stay for breakfast, can I?" Leonardo attempted and failed his usual cheerful tone.

"Not today, amico mio. Though next time, perhaps."

Leonardo looked at him sideways. Ezio's color was better; two nights' rest had been good for him. "I hope next time, you don't have to come through the window in the night."

At that, Ezio smiled, that sweet, crooked smile that was uniquely his. "I will see what I can do."

"Ah, well." Leonardo straightened and offered his hand, uncertain. Surely it would be...strange, to hug as usual. To his surprise, Ezio ignored the handshake and embraced him as though nothing had happened. After a moment, Leonardo returned the gesture. "Remember your promise," he said softly against Ezio's armored shoulder, then stepped back to let his friend climb easily to the windowsill.

The smile flashed once more, then the beaked hood was drawn up and Ezio was turning to go. "Always, Leonardo. A presto!" With a twist and a heave of his legs, a pull of his powerful arms, Ezio disappeared upward into the mist.

Leonardo waited to hear any other sign that Ezio had been there-the sound of his feet on the roof, or a grunt as he hefted himself up a wall, but there was nothing more. He listened for a moment longer, just in case, but then the chill of morning was too much to take. He closed the casement against the cold and went to build up the fire.

He decided to go out later, when the sun rose and burned away the mist. There was still work to be done and errands to run, but all that could wait. For now, he wanted to go back to sleep to make up for the time lost while caring for Ezio's wounds.

The bed still smelled like him. Leonardo nested in the blankets, breathing in the soothing scent, lulling himself back to sleep. It would not occur to him until much later that now, when he dreamed, the bloody feathers no longer troubled him. At least one fear in his heart had been put to rest, now that he knew Ezio would live.

He had Ezio's word, after all, and Ezio always kept his vows.