AN: Pre-humbled Altair is emotionally stunted, which when I write him seems to come off as distracted babble. He's not trying to be a jerk. It's just that no one's ever explained to him that normal people get sad.
So. The last chapter. I do think there will be a sequel. I'm playing AC3 now, although I was delayed a bit thanks to Sandy, and the new game really reminds me why I love this series and these characters and this fandom so much. This whole story, but especially the last few chapters, was written to a delightful mash of Jesper Kyd, Austin Wintory, and Linkin Park. That music, and also skywalker05's patient beta-ing, is what got this monster finished.
And the reviews. The reviews helped more than I can say.
Chapter title is taken from the poem "Cold Ashes," by Nima Yushij, translated from the Persian by Mahmud Kinaush. Quote is from a Silversun Pickups song.
A Story of Long Sufferings
"Remember when I played assassin,
Remember when my joking turned grim…
Is it perfect in our little hell?
Are you dancing, or stumbling beside me?"
It isn't the worst wound he has suffered in his life. But it lingers longer than it should, and he feels it as he storms up the narrow staircase. An ache below his breastbone, though when he runs his hand across he finds nothing wrong. It was a trick, somehow. It hadn't been real. But he feels it anyway, and maybe that makes it real after all.
Altair does not let himself dwell. Not now.
The fortress is unusually quiet tonight. He sees no one as he climbs the stairs. Altair knows that's because so many men are still in the village, trying to set it in order after yesterday's attack. There are many buildings that need to be rebuilt and many bodies that need to be buried, although unfortunately Robert de Sablé's is not one of them. Somehow the Templar leader escaped the log trap and slipped through the village's front gate, where the guard was decimated by the initial assault.
Altair knows where his Brothers are. Still he wonders if they aren't avoiding him, even more than they usually do. No one has come up to him, after all: no novices scampering in his wake, awed at his skills, grateful for his rescue. Despite being tired by the ride from Jerusalem he had fought well and done his share of slaughter. Certainly he'd killed more than the others, those weak assassins sullying the name. He'd been ferocious! But where are the novices to fawn over his achievements?
Kadar usually leads the novices.
Altair does not let himself dwell.
His chest aches again. He turns a cold eye towards it, stone-faced. Nothing makes any sense to the Son of None, not the mission or its outcome or the Master's fury. Not the wound. To lose to Templars? To return to Masyaf in disgrace?
He bristles as he climbs, chagrined by the lingering stench of failure that he thinks must cling to his hands. Surely by fending off the Templars' assault on Masyaf he has regained whatever honor might have been lost in Solomon's Temple. Was he not the one to follow after Rauf and set the logs free? Was it not because of him that Robert fled like a coward?
Master Al Mualim didn't agree. He'd been angry, putting the attack on Altair's head, cursing him for a traitor and a fool, and all over a gold ball. A gold ball that wasn't even lost. In the end Malik brought it to Masyaf, so why—
Careful. He won't think of Malik. Not yet.
He thinks instead of the knife in the Master's hands. It was the same one that took his finger, he's sure of it. The same one that marked him as a Master Assassin. And yet, this time, when the Master plunged it into him, it left no mark. Only a biting pain that consumed him whole, swallowing his demands for answers. He woke up in his quarters, alone, with no blood and no stab wound, his head cloudy as if he'd been drugged. His weapons were missing, and he felt light without them, as though he might float off the ground without the weight of his hidden blade.
His room had been neatly ransacked and all his extra knives and daggers removed. A mystery that deepened as he flung open his door and stalked past the guards.
And why was his room guarded?
Those men had smirked. He'd seen them do it, those coward-weakling-spoiled men, his supposed Brothers, the filth. How they'd smirked to tell him of his dishonor! Novice, they'd called him. That hated word. Hated because it wasn't true. Hated because it was Malik's preferred term of endearment, and how dare they use it in his stead.
But they'd used it, and they hadn't balked in the face of his ire. Had only laughed. It's been years since anyone dared laugh at Altair to his face, because it's been years since fear hasn't cowed their jealousy. Where was that fear now? Those guards, jeering at a Master Assassin. Telling him he wasn't a Master Assassin, that Al Mualim had stripped him of his rank and all the weapons it allowed.
Telling him that all the Order had heard how he failed. How he ran. How he let other men suffer. How he let his best friend suffer, the man he was closest to, the only man willing to call him comrade and mean it. That poor bastard, he ignored all the warnings and here was his reward, staggering into Masyaf half out of his mind with pain, grieving and alone, and had Altair yet seen his arm?
("Where are Malik and Kadar?")
"He should have known better," the guards told Altair. "Your mother was a Christian whore. He's strong. You're just a mutt."
Altair leapt for them, driven to violence in his confusion, the world around him a fever he couldn't shake. They'd flinched, because they were cowards, but they'd warned him off before he could land a punch to one of their sneering mouths.
"One more mistake," they said, "and you're dead. Al Mualim will kill you himself as a traitor."
It didn't make sense. He was Altair. Is he still Altair?
He pauses now, on the top of the stairs, to consider. When he looks at his hands he thinks he sees himself. The scars are familiar. But when he'd left the guards cackling at his back to confront the Master, to prove their lies so he could break their jaws with confidence, the fever had only worsened. The men guarding the main hall wouldn't even let him inside.
"Turn back, novice," they said. "Only high-ranked assassins may enter here at whim. Master Al Mualim will send for you when he feels the need."
"I am his favored assassin, and I demand to see him. Stand aside and let me through."
It had been a mistake to say that. "Favored assassin?" one of them asked. "Is that what you think you are? You were his favored assassin. Another brought him the artifact and other journeymen will offer their fingers. You aren't anything to him."
He'd raged at them then, he'd cursed long and loud, he'd threatened. They'd impassively ignored him, and he was rendered a loud-mouthed fool, some madman come up from the village to babble. Soon they'd send for his minder to take him away.
But it doesn't matter. Not the guards and not their mockery. Not the massive window on the second floor, by the Master's library. Not the Master himself, standing by that window. It doesn't matter that Altair looked up and saw him there, and knew that Al Mualim had heard everything and agreed. The rejection doesn't bother him. He's the Son of None and it's fine.
It doesn't matter and he doesn't care, because Malik…
He comes to the end of the hallway and turns left, feeling better now in some indefinable way. The fever will be broken once he sees Malik again.
Yes, the guards had been happy to tell him of the other man's bizarre injuries, his arm lacerated and rotten, the hand missing a finger already. Malik wouldn't say how it had happened.
And, yes, the guards were delighted to tell Altair that Kadar was dead, left behind in the Temple by an older brother whose eyes no one could recognize. They wondered what Malik had done in that place to survive. They said his good hand shook with an old man's palsy. Hadn't Altair noticed that himself, they wanted to know. Did he felt nothing when confronted with the horrors of his crimes? To which demon had he sold his heart?
(Hadn't he noticed the arm? No, Malik kept it covered. Hadn't he noticed the eyes? No, Malik wouldn't look at him. Hadn't he noticed the man, wretched and brokenhearted? And if he had, what did they expect him to say?)
It doesn't matter. What is one arm? What is one brother? What is anything but the two of them? Never mind the quarreling, the betrayals. Altair sees his mistake, picking fights before the mission, and if this surreal, scoffing Brotherhood is his punishment, then that is fine. He accepts it.
But the idea of Kadar still makes him uncomfortable. Altair hadn't wished for his death, is more or less sad to hear of the loss. Although he doesn't have much of a reference for sad.
Altair definitely never wished for Malik to be unhappy, and he decides that he personally will put Robert's head on a pike, and give it to Malik as a gift. It could take the other man some time to regain his strength, so Altair will get revenge for him. Perhaps he might even bring the Templar alive to Malik, so that the King of Swords can practice stabbing people one-handedly and then keep Robert's ears as a memento.
That will surely be enough.
So he and Malik will go together to Al Mualim and demand his rank be restored. With his honor intact, the other assassins will beg forgiveness. He looks forward to the groveling almost as much as he looks forward to kicking the shit out of them. Malik will be just as strong a fighter without an arm as with, and now that he doesn't have Kadar there's nothing to hold him back. Nothing to get in the way.
Malik's voice will break the fever…
Altair clenches a nervous fist.
("I still live, at least.")
"The two of us will change everything," he says out loud, to reassure himself. He is not a half-breed. He is an assassin. He is stronger than the deaths of other men.
Malik might mourn his arm, might mourn Kadar, and that's perfectly reasonable. That he said such terrible things in front of Al Mualim can be forgiven. Altair can allow him his sorrow. The Son of None is magnanimous in his understanding, because sorrow fades but Malik is his protection and his comfort forever.
They are too close for separation. Altair knows him as well as he knows himself, has marked him below the skin. Those dark eyes, that slow, sarcastic smile, the twitch of his fingers and the taste of his mouth and how he arches his back when Altair fucks him, how he chokes down his moaning and curses instead…
What need of fathers or brothers or Masters or friends? Malik is enough.
"It was not my fault," Altair will say to him. "I tried to get back but the rockslide blocked the archway. You saw that. I didn't intend for you to be injured or your brother to die. It was Robert," he'll say, and because Malik is reasonable Malik will understand. "I will kill him for you. I'll pull you after me if I must."
It will work. Malik will calm down. It'll be easier once Altair's rank is restored, as will surely happen quickly. He's too skilled to play these stupid guilt-games, Al Mualim and Malik will both realize that. Though it burns to know he failed, the artifact was retrieved. Malik had held it aloft and said, "I found what your favorite failed to find." Altair squints, recalling the words cracking into shrieks at the ends, the finger jabbing at him like a curse: you didn't listen, you lost the artifact, you let Kadar die.
Malik has never sounded quite so shrill and hateful as he did then.
But Malik isn't, can't be, bitter. He's too smart for that. No common Abbas-journeyman, he! Altair was wrong to call him jealous before, that much he can admit. "I confess my error," he wants to announce. "Isn't that what you want? For me to be humble? For you I confess it, be satisfied and move on! What else can I give you but Robert's head? If Kadar could be brought back—"
If then, what? Kadar, in the way. Kadar, Malik's first choice. But Kadar is the dearest thing to Malik, who is the only person besides Al Mualim worth anything to Altair. If then…but it isn't possible. Altair knows how to spill blood, not how to put it back.
And he's never trusted words. "You are alive," he could say, "You lived though I thought you were dead." But to continue, to mention his own ride through the desert…Malik might not believe the stress. Might not accept it. Altair himself hadn't accepted it. He told Al Mualim the A-Sayf brothers were dead, but the words were dull and he felt nothing saying them. Not because he sold his heart. Because they made no sense and he only said them to speed the reunion along. Malik's arrival was not a surprise, though the Temple was overrun and even Altair couldn't sneak back inside.
("All of this could have been avoided!")
After all, Altair claims him.
("You would not heed my warning!")
("My brother is dead because of you.")
And all of this will end.
He realizes that he has been standing at the entrance to the healers' hall for five minutes or more, mumbling to himself, dredging the past in search of the future. Shameful, for an assassin to hesitate. He has no reason to doubt: Malik will forgive and the Master will see his point's been made and Altair will return to highest rank.
No reason to fear what he'll find in the healers' quarters. Malik A-Sayf is healthy, is already healing. It won't even be noticeable.
Unused to this mental bedlam, Altair searches for solid ground.
The door he wants is guarded. Abbas stands there with arms folded, talking to Rauf, who's lugging a pot of water with both hands. When Altair steps towards them Rauf jumps and nearly drops it, but Abbas only angles himself forward with unashamed eagerness.
"Altair," says Rauf, sounding nervous. "Safety and peace, Brother. It's, um. It's good that you've survived. The whole Order was shocked when we heard…such a tragedy…"
Abbas interrupts. "What do you want? Novice assassins shouldn't roam the fortress alone."
Altair ignores him and asks Rauf, "Is Malik in there?"
The man's face falls. "Um. Well, he's…"
"Is he inside or not?"
"He's there," says Abbas. "The healers are removing his arm, as I'm sure you've heard. And I am standing guard."
"I'm not concerned with what you're doing."
"But you're concerned with Malik? A little late, don't you think? Or did you come to take off the arm yourself? You have a knack for causing others misery."
"Stand aside. I need to speak with him."
"You can't," says Rauf, with surprising firmness. "Not now. The healers were clear that no one should be allowed in. The infection is bad and they can't be distracted."
"It's not them I need to see."
Abbas says, "You need to see no one, and no one needs to see you."
"Don't take offense, Altair. He's not well enough for any visitors. If the infection gets much worse, he could…he could still-…"
"He won't," says Altair, sharply. Rauf drops his eyes and Abbas hackles.
"Listen to you! Is that why you abandoned him in Jerusalem? Because you knew he wouldn't die? Too bad you didn't know that about Kadar as well, but his death mustn't matter to you." He nods at the closed door. "It matters to him. You should have heard the things he said before the healers calmed him down."
"Abbas…" Rauf says, tense now. "Altair, please, come back later."
"I only need to see him for a moment," Altair says. Only a moment and the fever will break. "He will want to see me."
"He doesn't want to see you," Abbas shouts. "A thousand curses on your head! Malik's paid enough, this is his punishment for your corruption."
"What punishment? I didn't come to listen to your ravings."
Abbas sneers. "I know why you came. And I'm telling you that it's over. Open your eyes, infidel. He's no longer your catamite. At last Allah has made him see."
Altair's eyes widen, and words fail to come. Such treacherous things they are. It's a startled Rauf who puts an end to it, barking for them both to shut up, while a hundred different insults die strangled on Altair's tongue.
Rauf says, with another wide-eyed glance at Abbas, "After all that's happened, you'd still fight? There's enough misery in this place already! We don't even have a body to bury…" He shakes his head. "You need to leave, Altair. I know Malik was your, uh, your friend. But he's not well enough to talk to you, and frankly I think it's for the best. Give him some time. Deal with your own problems." To Abbas he says, "I need to get this water to them." Abbas opens the door and Rauf slips in without glancing back. The door shuts again before Altair has a chance to look inside.
He stands glaring at Abbas, who taps a finger to the side of his mouth. "I have to admit I wondered why you left him," the guardsman says. "If it were only Kadar it wouldn't be a shock, but I figured you would want to keep your slut alive." He sighs. "Such a shame. I warned him."
"Don't call him that."
"He's called you worse." Abbas muses, "I do believe he wants to kill you."
"I never abandoned him or Kadar. We were separated and there was a rockslide. The shouting ended…if I'd thought Malik had survived I wouldn't have left."
"Even Master Al Mualim doesn't believe you. I've always known you were a traitor but now others are beginning to understand."
"I am no traitor," Altair says, echoing himself, infuriated but unable to describe it. He'd said as much to Al Mualim yesterday, and had been stabbed as a result. Only Malik has ever listened to him and really heard.
"Do you know what I think? I think," and Abbas lifts his voice into a song, "I think you were relieved for the excuse to ride back alone. Even if you'd failed. I think you were happy to have outlasted the competition."
"Oh, you have all your pretty excuses, oh yes, but Allah knows you, Altair! He knows how you really think. How empty you are."
"No," says Altair, and what he hears is, I found what your favorite failed to find…
"Malik must have been a little too skilled for your liking, you didn't look so impressive next to him. Cunning plan, Brother! First you debase him and when that doesn't work you cripple him. He won't rival you after this, not with one arm. Maybe you've come to embarrass him further, to make sure."
Violence has always felt so much more natural than words. The Son of None chooses then to luxuriate in the punch he's held in for two days, in the sight of Abbas lurching down the hallway with a bloody mouth. Altair hits him again and cracks his knuckles, then pulls Abbas up by the collar and shoves him against the wall.
"You can't," Abbas croaks. "You're a novice now. You can't attack your superiors!"
"My true rank will be restored. And even if it weren't…" Altair knows the Brotherhood thinks him feral. Only Malik treats him as though he were any other man: refreshing, at points, but also infuriating. Altair is feral. More so now than before.
"Even if my rank was taken, do you think my skills were taken with it? Do you think you can stand against me?" He pushes Abbas away and spreads his arms wide. "Come on, then. You with all your weapons against me with none of mine. If you think you can win."
Abbas stares at him. Altair waits a moment, smirks, and heads for the door. He pushes it open with the guardsman trailing his heels, but that doesn't matter. The insults of the Brotherhood can be buried in the same pit as the loss of limbs and family. He will drag Malik through this, because Malik is strong but he is stronger.
And he will not dwell.
The Son of None enters the room a soldier ready for war.
At first Malik doesn't bother to look when the door to the healer's room opens. People have been coming in and out since he was brought here: healers and Rauf with bandages and water, solemn Raed bringing condolences from other assassins. The healers are annoyed with the interruptions and chase Raed off before he can say much, which is a relief. Malik saved Raed's family once, and the other man is only a reminder that he's failed to save his own.
They think him out of his mind with fever, but they're wrong. Malik has never been so sober. His memories chase him when he sleeps so he stays awake, though the healers want to douse him with sleeping agents to numb the pain they say must be unbearable.
It is, but Malik bears it. Wrapped in agony like a swaddled child he endures their fussing and deliberation, their prodding about the dead flesh. They try to find a way to save the arm though everyone knows it's hopeless, and Malik doesn't have the words to explain how he doesn't care. He's no attachment to the carious thing. It isn't his arm anymore, just as Kadar isn't his brother.
Finally, with heavy sighs, the healers consult Al Mualim and agree to the amputation. A shame, they say, because Malik was such a skilled fighter. A loss for the Brotherhood. "What was Kadar, then?" Malik asks, but they tell him to hush.
When he groans Rauf kneels at his bedside and tries to smile. On the other side of the bed an unfamiliar man is pulling out an unfamiliar-looking knife, rounded and fat, the blade running far up the edge. The steel handle loops for an easier grip. Malik stares at the weapon first, then the man. The bone-saw doctor could be an imam with his bushy beard, and he speaks with a thick Baghdad accent, but he never speaks to Malik directly.
"The hashish now," he says to one of the healers.
"No," says Malik, chest heaving. They aren't listening to him so he tries to sit up, Rauf pushing him down by the good shoulder. "No," he says again, louder. "I don't want it. No drugs."
The surgeon dismisses him with a shake of the head. "He's delirious. To be awake for this would kill him."
"It won't," says Malik, "Listen to me, I won't take the hashish, I don't want it."
"Malik, be reasonable," begs Rauf. "It'll help with the pain, and anyway you have to stay still!"
"I tell you I don't want it. I'm not delirious—Rauf, get off! I don't want to take anything. Just cut the damn thing off."
The bone-doctor mutters, "You assassins are all crazy." But Malik only flattens himself against the bed and closes his eyes against fresh tears.
Here, Kadar, he thinks, here is my penitence, here, all for you. Don't you see it?
"More water," says the doctor to Rauf. "And clean cloth for the mess."
Rauf runs for the door. "Echh, the stench of it," a healer comments. Malik is lost in his repentance and scarcely hears him.
So when the door opens he assumes it is Rauf back with the water and doesn't look. Allah Almighty, it hurts to lay there, hurts with incessant rhythm. He is drenched with sweat and shivering, which brings to mind his own warnings of shock. But he thinks he feels the damn blood in his veins, beaded like pebbles under his skin: he's too aware for this to be shock. Unless even in his dying moments Malik is to be allowed no rest.
Rauf is back by the bed but the door opens and proves him correct. His rest has been forbidden him. At Rauf's sharp intake of breath he forces his eyes up and sees Altair.
"Who is this?" the bone doctor asks crossly. "All these disruptions will make the wound worse, you know. They'll throw the body's humors out of line."
Altair says, "They told me you were in here," and stops, sounding dumb. He looks startled by the sight of the arm spread out on the bed, fluids dampening the sheets. He isn't wearing any weapons, there are some superficial cuts on his face, and dark circles line his eyes. He looks disgusted. He looks the same.
He rallies himself after a moment of that screeching silence. His eyes waver before he can force them still. "I'm sure your hurt isn't as bad as they say."
Abbas careens into the room behind the Son of None. "I told him to stay out," he says over the doctor's protests. "The maniac wouldn't listen!"
"Some guard you are," groans Rauf. "Listen, Altair, really, come back…"
"No," says Malik, and everyone falls silent. "No, no, no," and he can't control the discordance in his voice, he can't stop himself from half-shouting until the word sounds false. "No, don't come back," and the pain that has been building bursts. When he cries out Altair's lips thin, enough to be a balm.
When he can breathe again he snarls, "Who let him in?"
"I wanted to see you," Altair says. "Because you—"
"Because! Because what?" Malik bellows. "You have a nerve to come here after…"
"Calm down," says Rauf. "Altair, go away."
"My brother is dead. Kadar is dead and you are the one who killed him!" He breaks free from Rauf's anxious grasp and pushes himself to a sitting position, ignoring the warning complaints of the bone-doctor, ignoring the answering spurt of pain and blood from his arm, ignoring everything but the look on the Son of None's face: ashen, and alarmed.
"You should have been the one to die. Not Kadar. He did nothing to deserve—you were so damned arrogant you didn't realize what you were walking into. You were blind! And then you left us there to pay for your mistakes. You are a pompous idiot and you should have died!"
Malik fights for breath. Agony crashes in waves against his shoulder, spiking through his body and threatening to drag him below the surface of consciousness. But the injured man resists. Tears press against the backs of his eyes but he does not let them show.
"Malik," Altair starts to say.
"Askut! Get out of here, Master Assassin. Your presence is making me nauseous."
Malik peers out from behind a body that isn't his, trapped behind the sludge of betrayal like an insect caught in amber. Something not human slithers beneath his skin. A demon closes sharp claws over his mouth and eyes and throat. Malik feels this happening and does not try to fight it.
"You told me once that I should keep something for my own self. Don't you remember?" He sneers through his heartbreak, his rage, sneers because if he loses his anger he will be murdered by this grief, he will drown. He sneers to see the glimpses of real pain in Altair's eyes: Altair, who never had learned how to express his emotions. Maybe he's struggling in the same way with his guilt.
Good. Let him choke on it.
"So I am keeping what little you've left me," Malik says, his voice a needle, "And I am removing what little you offer." Everything else…his brother, his arm, his talents and his future…everything has been taken from him, except for Altair. And Altair, at least, is something Malik A-Sayf can reject on his own.
"You are an utter waste. If it had been you to die in Jerusalem no one would have cared. No one would remember."
"Listen to me, Malik…"
"No," he hisses. "Not any more. Get out of here, Altair the Son of No One. Get out of here and rot."
He stops, pants for air. Altair is still staring. Malik needs him to go.
(If he stays Malik will lose his will. If he stays Malik will latch out with desperation for the one thing he still has left, and be punished forever for his frailty, and lose what remaining strength he has.)
Altair is still lingering, and that is intolerable. The demon that was Malik strikes.
"You half-breed bastard," he spits, and oh, it tastes so foul, those words in his mouth. Oh, to stab sharp knives into a weeping sore.
Altair's shoulders jerk.
"That's what you've always been," Malik says, "an unwanted baby with curdled blood, tainted from the start. All your unnatural lusts are…you're disgusting. An aberration, that's all you are, a mistake. I hope you die a miserable death in the gutter, like the mongrel you are. I hope I'm there to see it."
(If he stays…!)
Altair looks at Malik, wordless, swallowing hard. "Can't you see you aren't wanted?" Abbas demands from the doorway. "Allah yela'an ya, Altair."
The Son of None ignores him as ever, ignores the eyes of everyone else in the room save for Malik's. He seems about to say something; Malik waits to hear it. But the moment fades before it can begin. Altair lets his cowl fall low over his eyes. He does not apologize, he does not argue.
He turns on his heel and leaves.
Malik lets the hated wash over him afresh. That bastard, that whore's son, that hateful killer who has carved all that was human from his wasted frame. Abbas is smirking as if he's won a victory, Rauf leans over the bed in abject worry, the bone-doctor is muttering about distractions and poisoned blood as he presses the sharp edge of his blade to the tainted meat of Malik's shoulder.
(Malik can't know it, but this is the last time he will see Altair for two years. In suffering he will recuperate and then be moved to Jerusalem as Dai, a cripple now with a cripple's post for all its supposed honor, but still he will be glad for the change. Glad to escape all those pitying eyes. Glad for the Jerusalem bureau's dark corners and dusty rooms, where he can sit and linger and loathe. Altair, meanwhile, will have his own burdens. He will go off to salvage his name, and when he does enter Jerusalem they will both be different men.
There is more yet for them to say. But it will be flecked with loss like worms.)
"It's good that he's gone," says Abbas. "What a traitor he is." And he goes out again.
"Keep him still," says the bone-doctor.
The door slams shut. The saw presses down. Malik throws back his head and howls.