The sounds of bickering faded until the words were mere sounds, floating like moths in the still night air. Leonardo felt his head clear a little as he went to the rampart. On this side, the wall was nearly flush with the side of the cliff, and the drop below him was dizzying. If he leaned out a little, he could almost believe that he was hovering in midair above the moonlit fields.
"I knew I saw you come this way." Ezio said behind him, disgruntled.
Leonardo hadn't heard him approach, though he wasn't surprised he'd been found. "Claudia was going to stop you," he said without looking around.
There was a rustle of fabric as Ezio pulled down his hood. He joined Leonardo at the wall and propped his chin on a fist as he, too, gazed out over the fields. At length, he heaved a great sigh and sidled closer to Leonardo. "Are you angry at me?"
"Ezio." Quiet exasperation crept into his voice, though it lacked any heat. "Yes. Yes, I am."
"I thought as much." There was suddenly a hand on Leonardo's arm and a warm presence at his side. "I'm sure I deserve it."
Something about the way he said it made Leonardo's improving mood evaporate in an instant. He pushed away from the wall and turned to face Ezio, truly angry now. "You think you might? Can you truly pretend nothing has changed? Do you believe that you can just come back and act like you haven't ignored me for the past four years-"
"I didn't ignore you, I just-"
"You wrote to me once." Leonardo said through gritted teeth. "I did not come here for you. I came because I needed shelter, and your mother, who did keep up a correspondence with me the entire time, offered to let me stay in Monteriggioni. That is why I am here. Not to see you, or to be here to translate your damned Codex page." He took a breath. "If not for her, I wouldn't have known you lived at all."
"I-" Ezio made a frustrated noise. He paced, full of nervous energy, and Leonardo was struck by how unlike Ezio this was. Indecision stalled whatever it was that Ezio wanted to say, and this, too, was unusual.
Though not unusual enough to keep Leonardo from turning away. Before he could go further, however, Ezio caught his arm and spun him around.
"Leonardo, look at me!" Strong fingers gripped his shoulders and held him in place. "I just-please. There are things we must talk about but I simply don't have the time." At Leonardo's frustrated sigh, he shook his head. "No, no, I mean that I have to leave in the morning for Roma, and it would be unfair to start talking about it tonight if we can't finish the discussion. I need to be sure you won't leave before I get back."
"I might. If I get a new commission-"
"I know, my mother told me. She said you were sending letters to people who wanted to hire you. New patrons. She said-" he choked on the words, went on. "She said that you planned to leave as soon as someone hired you. Please don't."
Leonardo was certain he would have bruises where Ezio's fingers dug into his skin. Gently, he touched one of the other man's hands. They loosened immediately, fell away, though Leonardo did not retreat. "Why shouldn't I go?"
"Because I need a reason to return." Immediately once the words passed his lips, Ezio growled and turned away, pacing again. "That is not what I want to say but it works just as well. Please, Leonardo!"
The reason was suddenly so clear, so sharp. "You're afraid."
Ezio stopped moving. He met Leonardo's eyes steadily, then nodded slowly, once. "Please," he breathed.
He would have to say it like that, wouldn't he? Leonardo stared at him for long seconds. What was Ezio thinking? Was this time really any different from the dozens of times before? Where did that note of desperation come from?
"It's late," Leonardo heard himself say at last, "and you have a long ride ahead of you. Get some sleep." He put a hand on Ezio's arm, then lightly embraced his friend.
Ezio returned the hug just as carefully, as though Leonardo was a wild bird he didn't want to frighten. "But will you..."
"I'll wait." God help him.
"Then I will say farewell now. I may not see you before I leave, for I plan to ride out at dawn."
"Ahh." Leonardo sighed, and without thinking, he rested his head on Ezio's shoulder, where it always felt natural to do so. "Buona fortuna, caro." He felt his lips turn upward into a sad smile. "And...well. You know to remember your promise."
All at once, Leonardo was being crushed to Ezio's chest, the other's hands clutching at his clothes and his face buried against Leonardo's neck. Before Leonardo could regain his senses or struggle, Ezio gentled. His breath came unevenly, hot and damp on Leonardo's skin. "You know," he said at length, voice muffled, "that promise is all that keeps me alive sometimes."
"Don't say that," Leonardo whispered, a bolt of fear lancing through his heart. "I feel responsible for holding your life in my hands. What if I lose it?"
"You won't. That's why I trust you with it." Ezio stepped back just enough to look at him. He started to say something, thought better of it, closed his mouth. They faced each other now, close enough to touch if only one of them would reach out.
They stood in awkward silence. It stretched between them, enveloped them, until Leonardo felt it might smother him entirely. Then resignation caused Ezio's shoulders to hunch just the tiniest bit; for someone with such control over his body, the movement was as telling as if he'd heaved another sigh. "Ah, amico, I should go. I am tired and I did not rest much on the way here. Mi scusi."
Leonardo lifted a hand to stop him, but at that same instant, Ezio jerked his head in a parody of a nod and turned away. Then he walked stiffly toward the shadowed wall of the villa. Leonardo heard a grunt and the clap of a leather boot sole against stone. He could imagine Ezio pulling himself up to the top, hand over hand, finding every crevice that might serve as a toehold.
The sounds faded as Ezio climbed higher and higher, farther and farther away. Leonardo stood where he was, blinking in the cool breeze. His earlier tears had left his eyes dry and feeling coarse, and now, though he still felt hollow, he found himself unable to cry again. The knowledge pleased him on some level, that he had at least enough self-control not to break down as he had.
What peace there had been, however, was no longer to be found. In its place, Leonardo felt restlessness build inside him.
To Hell with it.
Leonardo's feet started moving before his brain even began to process the decision he'd made. They carried him into the house, swiftly past the still-crowded office and up the stairs to the second level. Past his room, too, without hesitation, and down the hidden hallway that ended in a ladder. He clambered over the top and into the room. Ezio was frozen in surprise, already half-undressed. His Assassin's robes had been carefully hung and his armor laid out neatly for the next morning.
"Don't say a word," Leonardo muttered in response to Ezio's nonplussed expression. "Not a single word." He crossed the room, carelessly shedding his doublet and dropping it wherever it fell along the way. At the bed, he sat and tugged off his boots, kicking them aside. Then he looked up at Ezio, who still had not moved.
A dozen questions flickered across his friend's face, though all went unasked. Then, all at once, Ezio smiled warmly. He looked relieved beyond hope, and Leonardo knew that he'd made the right decision. For Ezio, at least.
The bed was not large, but it was enough to accommodate the two of them. Leonardo lay back first against the pillows and opened his arms for Ezio to join him. Still silent, Ezio climbed into the bed and arranged himself along Leonardo's side. They embraced each other, chaste and comforting, and with a sigh, Ezio rested his head over Leonardo's heart. It all felt so warm, so right.
Just like that, four years apart might never have happened.
Ezio stirred. "Leonardo, you shouldn't-," he began, but Leonardo stroked a gentle hand over the other's dark-bearded jaw, stopping the flow of words before the sentence could end.
"I know," said Leonardo softly, "It's all right." He pressed a kiss to the top of Ezio's head. "Get some sleep."
He felt Ezio's arms tighten about him briefly in response, then relax. His breathing grew even, slower, shallower, and soon Ezio slept as though nothing could trouble him. Leonardo idly drew his fingers through Ezio's loosened hair and smoothed the strands in their wake.
Then he, too, slept.
Morning came to Leonardo by way of an errant sunbeam, refracted through beveled, diamond-paned glass. He rubbed at his eyes to scour the sleep away, the other hand groping blindly at the space where Ezio had lain the night before. It found nothing but rumpled sheets, and this realization brought him to full awareness. He sat up quickly, ignoring the rush of dizziness and the dull ache that reminded him of last night's shameful tears.
All signs that Ezio had been there were gone. His armor, his robes, his boots: all were conspicuously missing and the room was just as austere as it had been when Leonardo had first seen it.
It was not, however, empty. Claudia Auditore stood silhouetted against the window, looking out. As usual where Ezio was concerned, an odd tension suffused her. Her arms were crossed and she tapped a finger against something she held in one hand. At his movement, she turned.
"He left an hour ago," she said without preamble. "I told him he should have woken you up but he doesn't listen to me. I don't know why I even try to talk to him sometimes."
"No, it's all right." Leonardo felt sheepish. After last night, their conversation, he wondered if she understood what he was thinking. "I didn't expect to see him this morning anyway."
She raised a brow. "Liar," she murmured, though her face was kind. Then she strode to the bed and tossed something to land beside him with a rustle and a faint thump. "This is for you. He kept insisting that I say nothing but if he's not going to listen to me, then I will not listen to him."
"What..." Leonardo picked it up. 'It' turned out to be a small packet of pages bound by a ribbon. Some of the paper was new, while other pages had yellowed with age. "...What is this?"
Claudia pursed her lips. "Letters. No, don't bother looking for some code, just read them. Perhaps when my brother returns, you can ask him yourself why he tried to hide them from you. I am done with explaining his actions away." She paused, and in that moment, the fire seemed to drain from her. "I will send some food up for you. You shall not be disturbed otherwise. Come down only when you're ready."
He waited until her footsteps faded down the hall before his fingers plucked at the ribbon. It fell limply open, creased and slightly frayed in places as though it had been tied and untied countless times. Leonardo recognized Ezio's bold handwriting instantly, its hurried, confident strokes like furrows across the paper. Leonardo could appreciate how they flowed, straight-ruled and sharp. But then his breath stopped at a symbol that he knew well. He used it often enough himself: a lion surrounded by flames.
Lion arde. Leonardo.
The letters were for him.
With hands that refused to steady, Leonardo chose the topmost page and unfolded it.
I seem to collect the best, most thorough betas this fandom has to offer. Obviously, this chapter gave me a lot of grief and it was a long time before I could feel comfortable posting it. Falxumbra, Lady Madbeth, and now Alexb49 have proven themselves beyond valuable. I am lucky to have them listen to me whine, talk me back from the ledge, and point out when I've ceased making sense from one paragraph to the next. Grazie mille as always, my loves.