Venezia, 1495

Leonardo's mouth felt bruised, messy, but at that moment he did not care. He wanted more of that feeling, the softness and hardness and the nip of teeth on his lips and the rasp of Ezio's unshaven face, the fullness of that mouth and the ferocious desire that burned away any reticence either of them might once have had.

The kisses grew more intense, swift clashes of tongues and teeth that rubbed their lips raw. Leonardo closed his eyes, let his head loll back, bared his neck to Ezio. He could not hold in a sharp moan at the feeling of those teeth on his skin. He twisted his fingers into the billowing white sleeves of Ezio's shirt, unfettered by armor, and pulled the man closer to him.

On nights like this, Leonardo could almost forget that Ezio wasn't really his.

He was never sure if he regretted his decision or not. Seven years was quite enough time for Leonardo to get used to the "arrangement", as they politely referred to it. Ezio might leave for weeks, months, or even years, but when he returned, he was always full of dark dreams and in need of the comfort that only Leonardo could offer him.

Sicurezza e pace, indeed.

When Ezio was there, Leonardo shoved aside the feelings that what he was doing wasn't right or healthy, choosing instead to have the option of that warm, strong body next to him for a night or two. After that first, unplanned, too-revealing night, they had agreed that certain rules had to be set. The arrangement was supposed to be simply for sleep, for Ezio to stay the night in Leonardo's bed with the comfort of his friend's presence to chase away the shadows.

That was the intention, at least, but during those hours together they rarely remained completely chaste. In the beginning, they had tried to refrain from those damning kisses, but as they slept their bodies would press closer together, faces would bury themselves against necks, hands would wander over muscular flesh, and then, in the darkest hours before dawn, still hazy from waking, their mouths would unerringly find each other of their own accord.

In time, they gave up the pretense of propriety. More than once, Leonardo would be working in his studio, his assistants gone for the day and some project or another capturing his attention, when suddenly he would not be alone. Strong arms would encircle him, a powerful body would align itself along his back, and a full, scarred mouth would nibble at his ear. Leonardo began to live for those times, rare though they were. It meant he could give in to his hunger for a taste of what he knew was out of reach.

Leonardo had at least been strong enough to stand by his insistence that no matter what else he and Ezio might do in bed, there were lines they could not cross. Not unless Ezio bade farewell to his courtesans, or Caterina, or the countless incidental women who were drawn to his handsome face and charming smile. Ezio was Ezio, after all, and there was little chance that he'd give up his philandering ways.

But while it was tempting blame the whole thing on Ezio's charm or his own weakness, Leonardo knew where the truth lay. As much as he might wish otherwise, the arrangement was really just giving them both a way to use each other. Neither of them wanted to hurt the other, but if they went on as they were, it was bound to happen. Leonardo might gain someone to cling to in bed once in a while, but each time he did, he lost a little more of himself.

That would have to end tonight.

Easier thought than done. It required all of his will to drag his mouth away from Ezio's; really, it was almost criminal, the things that man could do with his tongue. But they had a lot to discuss tonight, and Leonardo had already put it off twice. He couldn't let it slide any longer.

"Ezio, please. Ezio!" It was so hard to concentrate with those lips moving along the skin of his neck, those strong fingers teasing along his spine. Leonardo had to physically push himself away before he could be dragged under once more. "Ezio," he said more firmly, "No."

The pleasantly languid atmosphere still clung to them both despite his attempt to shake it off. Ezio watched him in confusion, startled at the unexpected turn of Leonardo's mood. "What is it?"

"" He climbed backward off the bed in hopes that putting distance between them would help cool his blood. He tried not to look at the man lying before him, because if he did, he knew he would just put this off another night. He'd run out of nights to do it. "Ezio, I...I have a letter."

"A letter, really." That earned him a raised brow and a smirk, though he could sense a wariness under the insouciant words. Ezio was no fool; he realized something was up. "Is it such an important letter that we have to talk about it this minute?"

"Si." Leonardo moved to the mantel above the fireplace and picked up the folded piece of paper that had haunted his thoughts for the past few weeks. The wax seal still clung to the edges, though broken and crumbling, and it opened easily along the folds. Leonardo had read the thing dozens of times since it arrived, and by now he knew his answer. "It's for a commission."

The cocky smile faded entirely, and Ezio sat up. "A commission, that's good," he said carefully. "For whom?"

"Ludovico Sforza." He held the letter out to Ezio, its ribbons dangling. "In Milano."

Ezio took it, the sharpness of his glance revealing that he understood exactly what Leonardo was saying. "Milano is a long way away. It's nowhere near Monteriggioni."

"Of course it's not. What does that have to do with anything?"

Ezio frowned at the script on the paper. "I was going to have you move there. We were going to talk about it tonight. Or," he added, noting the late hour, "in the morning."

"Oh, caro." Leonardo sighed. He moved toward Ezio, hesitated just shy of contact. Then he steeled himself and braced his hands on Ezio's arms, forcing the two of them to stand close yet not close enough to distract. . "Ezio, please. Listen. I love you. I always will. But I can't do this anymore." He searched the other's handsome face for understanding, or at least acceptance. "It's been the same thing over and over again for seven years. Seven years. And before that, another four since I first told you how I felt. And before that, another eight during which I loved you and never said a thing. Add them up, and you'll see why I have to stop now."

"Nineteen years." Ezio murmured the words, stunned. "Has it been that long?"

"It has. And I have felt every single one of them. Twilight can't last forever, Ezio. Either night has to fall or dawn has to break. At this rate, neither is going to happen for me." Leonardo dropped his hands and took back the letter from Ezio's nerveless fingers. "I just can't go on like this anymore," he repeated, subdued. "I have given up opportunities and commissions in the past, simply because I knew they might take me away from you. Don't misunderstand-I did that because I wanted to. I was happy for a long time. But this commission..." He could not keep the somewhat dreamy note from his voice when he thought of it. "...This is going to be a masterpiece. I cannot turn it down, or I will regret it."

Shadowed golden eyes focused on him, picking up on the sudden change in his tone. "What is the project?"

Leonardo smiled for real. "A horse," he said reverently. "A gran cavallo, cast in bronze. No one has ever done it before, not on the scale I have planned." He clutched the letter to his heart, uncaring that he crumpled the paper or that more of the wax seal chipped away. "I have been sketching it for months. Years, even, though when I started, I didn't dream that someday, someone would actually ask me to make it. Can you imagine? Sforza wants to pay me to move my workshop to Milano."

"But why can't you stay in Venezia? Or better, Monteriggioni?" Ezio did not add, but Leonardo heard nonetheless, where I can see you, where you will be safe?

He shook his head. "The whole idea is to go away for a while. I need to put some distance between us, caro, before I do something I regret. Before I begin to resent being left behind like a soldier's wife. Only I never even get the benefits of being a wife, and I am not so callous as to expect you to change what you are."

"And what am I?" demanded Ezio. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Oh, Ezio." Leonardo drew Ezio's cheek to his, spoke softly into the other's ear. "You are Ezio. You have a woman in every quarter of every city. You love them all and they are drawn to you like cats to cream. I don't blame them, or you. But I will not put myself in a position to be hurt because you can't help but charm your way into a soft bed whenever you please. I told you-I have to be the only one. Either that," he said evenly, pulling back once more, "Or I cannot be yours at all. Dispiace, caro, but that is how it must be from now on."

Silence fell. Then Ezio turned away and went to the chair where his doublet lay. "I was unaware that our arrangement offended you so, Leonardo. I will leave."

"Don't be like that." Leonardo moved to intercept him. "I'm not throwing you out." More gently, he said, "You don't offend me. Perhaps anyone else would, but those years were not for nothing. I knew who and what you were and I let things go further than they should have. I don't hate you for it." He closed his hand around Ezio's, stayed it from picking up his clothes and armor.

Ezio stared at their hands, then covered Leonardo's as well. "I am still not happy about you going to Milano." His eyes met Leonardo's, fierce and hard.

"It's not forever," Leonardo promised. "You won't even notice I'm gone-you said you were going to Spain anyway. We can see how things stand when you come back."

In the end, Ezio slept alone in the bed that night. Leonardo was too anxious to sleep, and instead he spent the hours left until morning making lists and thinking about what he needed to bring with him on his trip north. He also wrote a letter to Sforza, apologizing for his late reply and accepting the commission. One of his assistants would ride ahead with it come morning, and in the meantime, Leonardo had a lot of preparation to do.

Work would also distract him from how he felt about ending things with Ezio.

Their parting came just before dawn. Ezio appeared in the workroom, dressed, armed, silent as ever. Leonardo, sleeping at his bench with quill still in hand, might have missed his leaving except that Ezio made a special effort to wake him. They stared at each other for long seconds, wavering, until Leonardo smiled.

"I regret nothing, Ezio," he said quietly. "Don't ever believe otherwise."

"You can always change your mind. My mother and sister would be happy to see you if you decide that Milano doesn't agree with you."

Leonardo couldn't help but grin, shaking his head. "I'll think it over. And I will write to them, at least. I appreciate the invitation."

"It will always be open to you," Ezio said gruffly. He seemed unsure of what to do, shifting his weight. Leonardo took pity on him and stood to embrace him.

"And I will always be your friend," he replied, closing his eyes to ward off the sudden sting behind them. He inhaled the scents of metal and leather, of wool dye and worn linen. Then, as if this was just another parting, he added, without looking at Ezio's face, "Remember your promise."

The sharp intake of breath told him his words struck a chord in the other man; suddenly, Ezio's arms tightened on him and he felt more than heard, "Always, Leonardo." Then he was released, and before he could think, Ezio was a whirl of fabric and a glint of metal, and then he was gone.

Author's Note: I have the absolute best betas anywhere, in any fandom. Falxumbra and Lady Madbeth, I can't thank you both enough. *heart*