AN: First of all, this is way too long.
See, it was supposed to be a quick one-shot written for skywalker05 because I am too much a college student to be able to afford her an actual Christmas gift. Next thing I know it's reaching 40 pages and is somehow six chapters long. Parts of it are unabashedly cheesy and other parts are unabashedly out-of-time-period and Annetta kept sounding all 'I am woman hear me rawr' 1960s Feminist…and you know what? I'm super proud of it anyway.
But I need to put a disclaimer here: this is only somewhat fanfiction. It's AC:Brotherhood fic, but it's ACB fic about the assassin recruits you can pick up throughout the game, about whom is given only a name and physical description. I stuck to canon as much as was possible: so, all the names in this massive thing are the names of actual people I recruited, and they all look as they do in-game. Their death/survivals occur as they did while I was playing. In terms of personality, I worked with what I had: for instance, Annetta Barbieri is always lurking by the bookcase when not on a mission, so I had her be a well-born and literate chick. Tullio is always showing off moves to eager-looking Ermanno, so he became a friendly braggart and Ermanno became his hapless bff. The back stories themselves? Well. Let us just say that I am unhealthily obsessed with this series and both skywalker05 and I are grandiose nerds. Yeah. If only I could care this much about my original characters…
It's not as if we paired the recruits up and gave them paring names or anything. (The paring name is Panetta.)
So, to sum it up, this story is long, and about npcs with barely any in-game canon, and a Christmas present that had delusions of being something greater, and a pretentious guilty pleasure, and. I tried, dammit.
Merry early Christmas, skywalker05! You better friggen like this I swear to God.
(Title and quote are from Dante. I told you this was pretentious, but sometimes being pretentious is so much fun.)
As a Tower Firmly Set
"Be as a tower firmly set; Shakes not its top for any blast that blows."
The Man from Venice
He was always destined to hold a sword.
Panfilo grew up in the rancid backstreets of Venice, grew up smelling sewage and watching the rats fight in the muck. There were parts of Venice that shimmered, lustrous and well-lit and buffered by canals pure enough to drink from, but those parts of Venice were not his. His Venice was old, and dank, and the water was always brown and oozed up through cracks in the streets. The buildings creaked in the wind. Bodies would wash against the docks with a certain regularity, black-smeared and bloated.
There were thieves and whores and mercenaries, all of whom blatantly advertised without any fear of the guards (for there were few guards in the Venice he knew). Panfilo's own mother had been a whore, maybe, not that he'd ever met her—but when his father was drunk, and that was pretty often, he'd curse the mother of his five children as a slut and a bitch and a puttana. Petaccia Sr. could insult his wife for hours.
The Petaccia family was considered destitute even by their district's lacking standards, but Panfilo wasn't bothered by his family situation much. He didn't know his mother to miss her, after all. And though as a child he hated his father's bitter, drunken uselessness, the rage faded by the time he hit thirteen. By thirteen he was taller than average, and looked older. He started passing himself off as sixteen to work odd jobs, basically supporting himself, which meant there was no time nor need to burden himself with old grudges. Had his father given up the bottle and become a new man, Panfilo wouldn't have noticed; had the man fallen into an open sewer and drowned, Panfilo wouldn't have blinked. His father was there or he wasn't: not since he was a little boy could Panfilo have said he cared.
There were siblings to worry about, though, and as the only son Panfilo did feel something resembling obligation. Much of his odd job money went towards feeding his sisters, towards putting clothing on their skinny backs. But at some point around the time he turned nineteen, two things happened to rid Panfilo of even these weak ties: his eldest sister went out and became an official whore, and his youngest vanished for a month and a half. The eldest visited only once, and then she came with her face painted red and her dress bunched low around her breasts. Panfilo didn't recognize her, didn't feel any sort of attachment to her; Petaccia Sr. screamed his best curses until his voice gave way to ugly croaking. When she left, she made it clear she wouldn't be back.
The youngest sister washed up on the docks, part of the pattern.
The middle two sisters were married off quickly, and young. Panfilo worked hard for a month, split what money he earned in half, and left one portion for those girls to use as they saw best. The other half he stuffed in a bag along with his clothes and a knife. Then he left.
He made no promises to see what remained of his family, and they did not ask him to return. Venice put no requirements or expectations upon his back as he paid fare for Forli. The ship that bore him across the water bore him away from nothing he would miss. He did not turn around to watch the decrepit old buildings pass into the distance, lost in their mildew and grime. Panfilo Petaccia had no one and nothing, and felt strangely satisfied.
Forli was still wet and still poor, at least where he could afford to stay. So he didn't stay. Most people saw one city in their lifetime, but Panfilo had known two by the time he stumbled into Roma, tired and dusty and completely broke. Rome was no cleaner than Venice had been, her poor districts were just as desperate, and her officials were so corrupt they didn't even pretend to be otherwise. People starved in the shadows of the ancient temples, and lived wrecks of lives in wrecks of buildings. Rome's days as a grand world-city were over; she was overgrown and overrun now, and not much loved by those who ruled her.
But there were glimmers of something greater, or at least Panfilo thought there were. Out of the corner of his eye, the sun glinted off marble paths and mosaic tile. He spent a full day just roaming the streets: he explored the Coliseum, starving inhabitants and all. The pure scale of the place caught his breath—it had been so beautiful once. Turrets and archways and stone carvings freckled with moss. Panfilo didn't have much of an opinion on splendor, but he knew that Rome was beautiful. Maybe nowadays it was more of a painted beauty, the way his eldest sister had been beautiful when she visited with rouge smeared across her cheeks. Maybe nowadays the beauty was a little worn, was a little suspect.
But Rome was very pretty. For no other real reason, Panfilo decided to stay.
There weren't many odd jobs, though. Rome's corruption ran so deep it touched on even the meanest tasks. The blacksmith's apprentice was a minor official's second cousin twice removed; the street sweeper had bribed a bishop's fifth illegitimate son by his second illegitimate wife to earn his broom. There were hordes of homeless starvelings, most of them children, willing to fight for every messenger job and every dropped coin. Panfilo moved on.
He'd never particularly cared for violence, but hunger did strange things, and eventually he used his knife for more than just protection. He soothed his wounded conscience by only robbing those who walked the streets in rich garb, those who could afford to drop coins and not notice the crowds of children converging on the spot. It was hard to feel bad for stripping some fat priest of his heavy furs; it was hard to feel bad for taking gold chains from women so made up they could have passed for his elder sister's coworkers.
It was hard to feel guilty, but the guards who finally arrested him (he'd gotten careless, robbed the wife of the captain of the guard for spare change and her silk parasol) were determined to make him feel something. Pain, if not guilt. Stubborn Panfilo wouldn't tell them where he'd sold the parasol until they'd broken every finger and blackened both eyes. He probably could have held out even longer had not the captain of the guard threatened to get creative with a poker so hot it glowed red.
"I gave it to her as a birthday gift," the captain informed Panfilo in between punches. "She was quite devastated over its being stolen. How long did you say you handled it for? I might just buy her another one, so she doesn't have to cover her hands in peasant dirt."
Panfilo opened a mouth streaming blood and croaked out a curse, one that had always been a favorite of his father. It earned him a kick in the groin from a guard wearing steel-toed boots. His huddled, groaning form was then dragged out from the abandoned building it'd been dragged into hours earlier. The captain of the guard was greatly amused to see him sprawled out in a puddle only half mud.
"You must be used to the view and the stench," the captain observed. "Hard to feel pity for your kind, though, when you are so unrepentant about your crimes."
That last kick had given Panfilo some extra wisdom. This time he stayed quiet, lying curled in the reek.
"Repent and be saved of your sins," added the captain. "Not that I expect you will." He gave one last kick as an incentive for salvation.
It was growing dark by the time Panfilo found the energy to rouse himself to a sitting position. He sat with his bleeding back to a crumbling stone wall, shivering in the nighttime chill because his shirt had been ripped off and was too torn to put back on. The area around him consisted mostly of old ruins, a stone labyrinth miles wide, inhabited by people too poor to afford anything whole. Panfilo fit the description, especially at the moment; his stomach roared but he was too drained to consider finding food.
"Lucky bastard," someone said. "You survived the capitano."
Panfilo turned his head, relieved that there was at least strength enough for that. The man standing over him now was dressed in a motley assortment of clothing worn grey by over-washing, and had a blue cloth tied around his forehead. His chin was peppered with stubble, and his brown eyes were narrowed with curiosity. There was an old sword strapped to his waist.
"He gets power-hungry sometimes," the man continued. "You piss him off, he sends you off to the Devil real damn quick."
"Oh," said Panfilo. There wasn't much else to say.
"You're lucky you still have your life and your balls. Anything broken?"
"Fingers. I think some ribs."
"Lucky bastard," the man repeated. "Lucky and stupid. Don't rob the big guys alone. What, are you going after the Pope next?"
"I'm still learning." Panfilo leaned his head back against the wall. "Besides, I've been told to repent for my sins."
"Forget penance. Have you seen Roma lately? The only ones with more children than the whores are the priests."
"I've seen Rome," said Panfilo. "She's very pretty."
"She's an old bitch," the man grinned, "but she's ours. Don't worry about repenting. Christ is on our side in Rome."
"If you say so," agreed Panfilo, eyes flickering shut. He was suddenly very tired, too tired to feel even the pain boiling under his ribcage.
"Hey, lucky bastard, don't sleep here," cautioned the stranger. "This place is the ass-end of the earth. Even when they were worshipping Zeus they avoided the maze. You get knifed here, they won't find your body 'till it starts to rot. Why do you think the capitano dragged you here?"
"Plenty of horse shit," Panfilo suggested. It struck him that, when he was done being tired, he really needed a bath.
The stranger laughed—a low, thin rasping, the laugh of a man used to conversations in dark corners at night. "I think I like you," he said. "And because I like you I'm gonna put a roof over your head, rent-free." He added, "For tonight, anyway. The boss gets bitchy when we start using the barracks like an inn."
"Sounds good." Panfilo's lips were starting to go numb. He could barely follow the conversation. "I gotta walk there?"
"What, you want me to carry you? I don't like you that much." But the man did help him stand, did let Panfilo sling an arm over his shoulder. "Like I said. You are a lucky bastard."
Panfilo started to laugh at that, half-hysterical. The stranger stared askance at him, and he tried to drag himself back into some semblance of control. "Sorry," he said. "But I just remembered that today's my birthday. I'm twenty five. And I spent it getting kicked into horse shit."
"You're a mercenary," the stranger shrugged. "It's part of the life. What, you want a medal for breathing?"
"I'm not a mercenary," Panfilo said, confused. He wasn't bearing much of his weight as they began to walk.
The stranger said, "You're a mercenary now."
Being a mercenary meant being strong: strong enough to swing a sword, strong enough to scuttle in the darkness for days on end without sleep, strong enough to see friends die miserable deaths. His savior from the maze of ruins was captured and tortured for information or for fun, and Panfilo was part of the group sent to rescue him. They couldn't, though—there wasn't enough to rescue. There was enough to bury, so they buried, and then they went back to the old barracks they used as a hideout and never spoke of the man again. Panfilo could bare all this, because he was strong.
Being a mercenary meant killing, and Panfilo killed three guards on his first mission. The first two with the sword he still wasn't holding quite right, the last with the pure strength of his fists. The kills were bloody, and the first guard screeched a lot, but it was disturbing only in a vague way. Panfilo had seen death and murder in Venice, had seen life stolen for haphazard reasons. Here, there was some semblance of reason. A mercenary was little more than hired muscle, but their victims were almost always city soldiers, and no one felt guilt about shedding the blood of armor-plated rats.
He built a body peppered with muscles. Brown hair that had a tendency to curl flattered hazel eyes and dark skin. One of his fingers, as it healed, developed a slight curve he could never quite straighten out. The rough contours of his face made him look thirty at twenty five. He was, with enough food and plenty of training, a large fellow, towering over some of his reedier accomplices.
Strong, too. Strong enough to send his training partners flying. That a boy from the ruins should be such a skilled fighter—he was only average with a sword, but he made up for all that in sheer size—surprised some of the other mercenaries. The rest commented constantly on what they felt was his unfair advantage with women: he wore his face well, and looked impressive instead of just old. But for all their complaining the mercenaries were a friendly bunch, and Panfilo felt he fit in well enough.
His new barracks home was falling apart, as all his previous homes had done. Bartolomeo, the condottiero, the 'boss', swore near-daily that he'd fix it up. Every now and then he'd drag the mercenaries nearest him to whatever door had fallen off its hinges and bellow at them to start working, stop loafing, did they want to live in a barn the lazy sons of bitches or did they expect their beloved leader to do all the work or what. "Or what," those conscripted generally agreed. Then Bartolomeo would bellow even louder and start whacking at things with his beloved sword Bianca.
The barracks usually looked worse after one of these rebuilding sessions. But the men loved Bartolomeo, so they didn't argue much. In front of him, anyway.
Panfilo was equally enamored of their leader. The condottiero was loud and foul-mouthed and so ridiculously meek around his pretty wife that some of the braver men called her the boss, but he was also fair. And loyal. And he followed his men into battle without fail. He never took assignments from people he didn't trust, no matter the pay offered, and if a mission went poorly he took the blame upon his own broad and burly shoulders.
He'd also lived in Venice once, and Panfilo spent a lazy afternoon sparring with Bartolomeo and remembering older days. The canals, blue or brown. The over-the-top drama that was Carneval. The way the mists would rise on some mornings, so that the sunlight was splintered into a million glistening pieces, overwhelming even the dank miasmas of the poor districts.
By the end of the day Panfilo could barely lift his arms and Bartolomeo was singing love songs to his blade; Panfilo spent the night nursing the knowledge that Roma was a part of him in a way the other cities had never been. And afterwards, when Bartolomeo road out on missions, his right-hand man was usually the man from Venice. And the sun rose on misty mornings to fracture into a million pieces of light.
Then the light faded. Then the miasmas from Venice came.
Panfilo was leading a mission in the ruins he'd been recruited from. By now he knew their twisting pathways as well as any of his fellow mercenaries, but no one could map out that place entirely, and so he was eager to leave before darkness struck and made doing so nigh impossible.
His men were joking around, satisfied by an easy mission and the certainty of easy pay. Easy missions weren't easy to find, these days; Roma's painted beauty was starting to tarnish. It was more than just corruption…it was something darker. Something more insidious. More people were starving and more people vanishing than ever before. The ranks of the mercenaries swelled, but so too did the ranks of the guards, as the name Cesare Borgia began dripping from the lips of the powerful and the scared. What control there had been was lost. A captured mercenary could no longer even hope for a quick death.
But this, today, had been an easy mission. And this, today, was the life that Panfilo, twenty eight and content, had made.
Someone—something—howled. The noise, inhumane and crazed, echoed against the crumbling frames of buildings. Then it came again. And again. It seemed endless, and so cruel.
The mercenaries were, as a rule, not an easily frightened bunch. And Panfilo was not an easily frightened person. His men pulled out their swords, and he readied his own. Wild dogs prowled the maze, sometimes. Or else there were guards out having fun. Either creature would fall to the blade.
But what finally roused itself from the growing shadows was not man nor dog, but both. A strange mixed beast of war. The wolfmen—were they only men wearing furs heaped upon their backs and heads, or were they wolves with stolen faces strapped to their skulls?—surrounded Panfilo's little group, moving swiftly over fallen stone. There were nervous mutters from the mercenaries. One of the wolfmen threw his-it's head back and howled.
"Who are you?" demanded Panfilo. "Are you with the city leaders? Are you Borgia men?"
"It speaks," slurred the howler, "It speaks, it defiles our city, it does not belong here."
"Drunk," a mercenary muttered.
"Stand down or we will knock you down ourselves," Panfilo said in warning. The wolfman laughed.
"Look at the leader." He snarled, revealing canine teeth sharpened into fangs. "So tall and brave and mighty. So he thinks. Is he used to loss? Shall he discover it fresh?"
"Enough," Panfilo said. "Kill them," Panfilo did not say, because he did not have time to speak again before the wolfmen were upon them, tooth and claw.
"Hey, lucky bastard, don't sleep here. They won't find your body 'till it starts to rot."
Panfilo managed to drag himself out of the maze, as dawn light reached the world. There was a red-rimmed haze in front of his eyes that had nothing to do with the weather. There was a dull ache by his mouth that scared him more than the agony blazing from his left wrist. There were no mercenaries by his side. He opened his mouth to speak and could only gurgle, his jaw hanging uselessly, the muscles in his left cheek pulling open. The haze grew.
But he did not stop until he reached open fields. Then, because here his body would be found before it started to smell, he let himself collapse.
The barracks were never quiet. The mercenaries did not know how to do anything but roar. But now the silence was so mighty Panfilo could not break it. He was given a small room to himself, for the first time in his life, and it scared him. He hated it. It was too big and he felt lost.
No, Panfilo was not used to loss, but then, this was the first time he'd had anything to lose.
Bartolomeo forbid anyone but himself and his wife into the room while Panfilo healed. 'Healed'. Something. His wife drew cool cloths across the swelling and stitched shut the worst of the gashes. Panfilo lay still as death in bed, mute and ugly.
"Wolfmen," Bartolomeo said, for once not bellowing. He sounded tired, and Bianca was lying out upon his lap. "They showed up at the same time as the Borgia. Some crazy sect of whoredogs. They think they're beasts. Even the Papal Guards are afraid of them."
Panfilo chose not to answer. Then he chose to answer. His choices, he knew, were meaningless because there wasn't a choice—there was a deep slash along his jaw line, and Bartolomeo's wife had ordered him not to talk, not for a while. His wrist was broken, there was massive bruising around his chest, and none of that concerned him, but his face…
Long, inflamed gashes, from one cheekbone to the other. Five, to be exact, mirroring a handprint from pinky to thumb. His nose broken under the impact of dragging fingers, of fingers bearing claws sharper than any human had a right to own. An upper lip that would heal a mass of scarring. From below the eyes Panfilo was more a beast than the wolfmen.
Bartolomeo was obviously uncomfortable. "You'll be fine," he said finally. "Every mercenary has scars. I'd show you mine but my wife would take Bianca and run me through."
Panfilo had been told not to talk, so he did not get to choose whether or not to tell the condottiero that the scars were merely the physical proof that things had been Lost. The mercenaries, victory, strength and pride. And the scars would be so noticeable, it was obvious from the type of wound. There would be no escaping them. He could not pay fare to Forli and run.
Bartolomeo stood to leave. His wife watched him with unreadable eyes. Panfilo stirred in bed.
"The bodies," he croaked. It hurt, Christ in Heaven it hurt. He could feel the swollen skin twanging tight against bone. He could feel the burning along his upper jaw, where muscle sat exposed and glistening in a river of fat and flesh. "The bodies. Did you find…?"
"…We'll keep looking until we find them," Bartolomeo said after a slight hesitation. "Give them a proper burial."
Panfilo shook his head, which made him dizzy, which made him moan. "Then you won't find them," he said.
He had been told not to talk, and so after that he didn't. For months.
AN: I fully understand that most people don't read fanfiction about npcs, but I'd appreciate reviews from anyone who actually manages to slog through. Thanks so much!