Venezia, 1488

Another rare day for Venezia, thought Leonardo, where the smell is bearable. Or perhaps he had just gotten used to it after...what, seven? Eight years? Time was a funny thing. Sometimes it felt like he had only just arrived, seeing the city with the eyes of a newcomer.

There was no denying that visually, at least, Venezia was beautiful. Pale stone or stucco buildings with grey and pink and red roofs, vine-covered balconies, striped poles at which the gondoliers parked their sleek, bobbing watercraft-he loved all of it. He spent too many hours avoiding some deadline or other by strolling the city streets, enjoying the feel of white cobblestones beneath his feet. He adored the ponti that spanned the canals where one might not expect them, tucked away between buildings and connecting quiet alleys. No two were completely alike, which made each discovery a delight.

When he wanted to rest, there were shady plazas and fountains by which to sit. There were arches over the street where buildings were so close they connected. Though sometimes he missed the courtyard of his workshop in Firenze, he decided that the plaza just outside his door here in Venezia was lovely in its own way, if not as private. The angle of the buildings that surrounded it gave it an oddly intimate feel, as if his home was protected by the city itself.

The best thing about Venezia, he had long ago decided, was the people. Their fashions were different from Firenze's-lighter colors, lighter fabrics. Even when it wasn't time for Carnevale-one of the most fantastic aspects of the city in its own right-they tended to have a grace, a spring in their steps, a gioia di vivere, one might say. The brightness of the city extended to its inhabitants. It was a good place to be an artist.

It was apparently not, however, a good place to be an assassin.

Where Leonardo felt like he fit in, Ezio complained that he stuck out. Which was a ridiculous thing for him to say, given that he spent much of his time either running around on rooftops and avoiding guards or blending in with the crowd on the street...and avoiding guards. But that was just a job; Ezio's complaint was that he felt he didn't belong here.

Something had taken hold of his young friend's heart, some sadness or disappointment that would not go away no matter how many conspirators he tracked down and killed. Leonardo shook his head at the thought. He could have warned Ezio about that long ago. But each man had to find his own path, didn't he? Nothing Leonardo could say would have altered Ezio's decision to take up the mantle of the Assassin. All he could do was to support Ezio as best he could.

Leonardo focused on the dappled shadows cast by a tree under which he now walked, if only to keep himself from musing further about that handsome Florentine. That handsome, solidly off-limits Florentine. Dealing with his feelings about Ezio had become a familiar battle within himself, one where he was torn between their strong friendship and how fervently he still wished it would become something more. But Ezio was a lover of women. No amount of wishing would make things change.

Ezio still came to see him, at least. That much had remained thankfully the same. There were no references to that one night spent together, where Leonardo had shamefully broken down and Ezio had apologetically thrown him a bone and held him while he slept. Four years since then, and no words between them to acknowledge anything about that...what, lapse in judgement? And if so, whose? It didn't matter. Either way, it was as if that night had never happened, except that now when Ezio left after a visit, Leonardo would say, "Remember your promise," and Ezio would flash that cocky grin and reply, "Always, amico mio."

As if thought itself could conjure the assassin from the air, Leonardo heard Ezio's unmistakably Tuscan accent reply to an equally identifiable female voice. Rosa, he thought. He could not help but eavesdrop a little, for they did not see him approach and he did not want to interrupt.

They were flirting. Leonardo considered whether or not he should simply turn right around and wander back the way he came before either of them realized he was there. He had no interest in hearing about Ezio's conquests, nor did he want to become the unwanted third party. But he had missed his friend dearly. It was rare to see Ezio out in broad daylight like just one of the crowd.

At a throaty chuckle from Rosa, Leonardo made up his mind. He turned away and began to walk toward the footbridge.

"Wait, Leonardo!" The call startled him. He glanced back over his shoulder to see Ezio waving him over. Rosa's expression was disappointment mixed with a measuring look in Ezio's direction. Ezio didn't seem to notice. "I thought you might come by this way."

So Ezio had been waiting for him? That was new. "Oh, Ezio! So glad to see you." He forced a note of gaiety into his words and hoped it fooled his friend. It seemed to, though now Rosa's shrewd gaze slid toward him instead. Leonardo had to drag his eyes away from hers before she could ask any awkward questions. To Ezio, he said as if nothing was wrong, "Did you need my help?"

"I wondered if I could talk to you about something." He shifted uncomfortably and his hand moved to a pouch at his belt. "In private."

Ah, another Codex page. Leonardo smiled and clapped his friend on the shoulder. He did not miss the odd flinch that caused; was Ezio injured? He carefully dropped his arm, thinking ahead already to what medical supplies he had at home. "Of course! Come, we'll talk in my workshop." He took two steps before he remembered that Rosa was still there. "Ah, that is, when you have the time. Please, don't let me interrupt."

Rosa merely studied him with hooded eyes. "Oh, no, I would not keep you from your...research," she said, and Leonardo could have sworn she purred. Despite her boyish clothes, she was all woman as she unfolded herself from the bench and stood to press herself against Ezio's side. Presumably, this was to kiss his cheek fondly, but when he stiffened at her touch as well, Leonardo was startled to see a kind of delighted fascination cross her sharp features. Something was definitely bothering Ezio, and Rosa knew it, too. Leonardo wondered what it could be.

She let Ezio go, then, and gave him a push in Leonardo's direction. "Go on, ragazzi. Have fun," she said, sashaying off in the opposite direction, laughing.

"What an interesting person," said Leonardo as she disappeared into the crowd. "I don't think I would want her angry at me." He grinned at Ezio. "She seems quite...predatory."

"You don't know the half of it, my friend." Ezio fell into step beside him as they walked. He was possessed of his usual grace, but there was an edge there that Leonardo did not often see.

They said nothing more for a while. Leonardo enjoyed the company, even if Ezio was a bit surlier than usual. After a few moments of this, however, Leonardo struck up a somewhat one-sided conversation in an effort to distract his friend from whatever was bothering him. He commented on the intricate stonework on a particular building, the untrained but heartfelt singing of a gondoliere, the gorgeous weather.

Ezio remained tense at first, but by the time they reached the workshop, he had unwound enough to grin and even offer a reply or two. He still looked weary, but Leonardo was gratified to see the corners of Ezio's mouth curving upward. His stride loosened and became less clipped, and even the set of his shoulders changed.

He calmed further when they were inside and the door was shut behind them. Ezio took in a deep breath as if the smells of paint and wood were the most comforting things in the world to him. He moved into the center of the room, absently pulling his hood back as he stepped inside, and Leonardo could not look away from that beautiful, if haunted, profile.

Ezio crossed into the path of a sunbeam that lanced through one of the workshop's high windows. Dust motes hung suspended in the air, glowing bright as fireflies, and now Ezio stood amid them with his eyes closed. He tilted his head back as if to accept a kiss from the sun. The light found purchase in his hair and lashes where it limned the dark strands with fiery gold. His skin, it turned to the color of honey with deep black shadows wherever the shape of his face curved away. In this way, Leonardo could see a scar he had never noticed before, and the hollows under Ezio's eyes, and the line that had appeared between Ezio's brows somewhere along the way.

He looked like an angel, albeit one beset by earthly woes.

"Bello," murmured Leonardo at the vision. Immediately he regretted it, for the spell was broken. Ezio, back to being mortal and no longer a heavenly messenger, looked at him, curious.

"Did you say something?" he asked. Leonardo waved a hand.

"It is nothing. So! What did you want to talk about? Is it another Codex page?" All things considered, Leonardo thought he had covered himself quite well. He didn't have to force the interest, either-he positively adored the challenge each page brought. They were so different from his usual work, a rare language to study and on top of that, each page had a unique puzzle to solve. Of course, each page also gave him an opportunity to talk with Ezio. But beyond that, he felt like it was one good, solid way in which he could help his friend.

So the little disappointment that he felt when Ezio shook his head was not feigned, though now he was mystified. If not the Codex, then what...?

"I need to ask you something, Leonardo," Ezio began, and now he looked terribly self-conscious. "I wondered if I could..." he paused, looked away, "...if I could stay here. For a few nights."

Leonardo raised a brow. "Well, naturally. You know you're always welcome."

"No, no!" Ezio shook his head vehemently this time. "That's not what I mean at all. Porco mondo! How to put this?" He began to pace, agitated, and Leonardo watched him struggle for a few moments. "I mean-"

It hit Leonardo then. He fixed Ezio with an incredulous glare. "You are not suggesting what I think you are suggesting."

Ezio looked uneasy, and Leonardo swore.