A Job Offer
Disclaimer: I do not own Cantarella. Cantarella is the property of Yuu Higuri. I'm just borrowing it for a bit, trying to make it less depressing.
A/N: This is not a romance, yaoi, or shonen-ai fanfic, just letting you know. Though I do promise fluff. :-)
"Signore Michelotto has returned, Master Cesare." Pedro sounded a bit unsure of himself, and Cesare turned to acknowledge him. "He… um…." Pedro looked flustered. "He said… to tell you he doesn't wish to see you."
Cesare blinked. "Did he?"
Pedro chewed his lip. "He seemed… angry."
Cesare gave a heavy sigh. "Thank you for letting me know."
Pedro nodded and walked away.
So, Chiaro didn't wish to see him after his last assassination job. Well, he would simply have to get over himself. Cesare needed more information than "Signore Michelotto has returned." He went to Chiaro's room and knocked.
"Who's there?" Chiaro asked from inside.
Cesare started to open the door, but something shattered against it, forcing it shut again.
"I said go away."
Cesare felt a surge of annoyance. "Chiaro, I am coming in, and if you throw anything else at me, I'll have you whipped. By Volpe."
"Yeah, right." But apparently Chiaro took him seriously enough that nothing was thrown as Cesare entered the room. Cesare raised his eyebrows at the obvious signs of a rather violent temper tantrum. There was, of course, the goblet that had shattered against the door, but Chiaro had also strewn his armor all over the room, including his sword, which still had traces of blood. His mask had obviously been ground into the floor by his boots which were lying beside it. At length, Cesare looked at Chiaro himself. His eyes were red, as though he'd been crying. "What do you want?" he asked through gritted teeth.
"For you to look at me, for one thing."
"I think I'll pass."
Cesare paused. "How did it go?" he asked at last.
"I did exactly what you told me to," Chiaro said coldly. "Now will you please go away?"
Cesare really didn't want the day to end on this note. "Why are you so angry?" he asked.
Chiaro turned to glare at him. "Why am I so angry? Think, Cesare. Think really hard."
"Will you stop using that tone with me?"
"I'll use whatever tone I want with you. What are you going to do, kill me?"
"Did you know there were women in that group of assassins you sent me to kill? They had their wives with them! They weren't even on a job!"
Cesare paused. "Did you kill the women?"
"Well, I had to, didn't I?" He pressed his hand to his eyes. There was a pause. "Did you know?" Chiaro asked at last.
"No," Cesare replied.
"Would it have made a difference to you if you had known?"
Cesare combed his fingers up through his hair, feeling a little awkward. "I… would have warned you."
Chiaro's hand dropped. His cheeks were wet. "How very kind of you."
"Chiaro, there are assassins who do that—when they're on a job, they'll bring their families with them for cover… and also probably to discourage scrupulous assassins. I can't control that. They still needed to be killed. I'm sorry you had to kill the women as well, but that was their choice, not mine, and as I said, I didn't even know about it."
Chiaro said nothing, glaring into the space in front of him, arms folded.
"Thank you," Cesare said.
Chiaro glared at him for a moment, then went back to staring into space.
A slight uneasiness passed through Cesare before he could stifle it. "Do you hate me?"
Chiaro said nothing for a few seconds, but then his expression slowly softened. "No," he said. "That's why…." He stopped. "Never mind." He sighed. "If you don't mind, I'd like to be alone for a little while."
Cesare nodded, a little reassured. "I'll see you in the morning."
"—swordsmanship is excellent," Cesare heard as he approached the main room in the morning. "I really don't think I've seen its equal." The voice was vaguely familiar—a visiting lord, perhaps.
"Well, it comes in handy," said Chiaro's voice. Cesare stopped short. Who was Chiaro talking to, and what about? "Part of my function is as Cardinal Cesare's bodyguard, after all."
"Yes, I wanted to talk to you about that," the voice continued. Now Cesare recognized it. It was Lord Piero de Medici from Florence. "I wondered how open you were to a career change." Cesare felt his jaw drop. Someone was trying to take Chiaro? Chiaro was his! How dare they even ask?
Fortunately, Chiaro knew this too. He was already saying, "I belong to Cardinal Cesare."
Another pause. "Do you suppose he would sell you?"
"No… not as his slave, as his servant."
"Oh. Well, then, there is nothing stopping you from a career change."
A slight sniff. "Except, you know, loyalty."
"I can make it worth your while. Will you at least listen to my proposal?"
"If you insist."
Cesare's heart missed a beat. Chiaro was listening to a proposal to leave him? He caught his breath. How angry had Chiaro been last night? Angry enough… to leave? Cesare stood, frozen, as he listened to Medici.
"We need a swordsmanship teacher in Florence. Your style is impeccable. We would love for you to come and be our teacher."
Silence. Cesare forced himself not to run in and see their faces. Chiaro would never need to kill again if he taught in Florence. He would never even need to see Cesare again.
"How much does Cardinal Cesare pay you?"
"He doesn't," Chiaro replied.
"You work for him for free?" Medici sounded surprised, and Cesare started mentally kicking himself. He decided at the beginning not to give Chiaro a wage, because a wage was a means to freedom, and he didn't want to take any chances. But Chiaro had never mentioned it. Did he want one? Had Cesare accidentally driven him away by not giving him one? "Are you interested in teaching?" Medici asked. "We would give you lodgings and a good wage. Any time you do not spent teaching would be your own to spend as you please. The position holds a great deal of prestige, and Florence is a beautiful city."
There was a long pause. Cesare thought his heart might shatter if it went on much longer. What normal person wouldn't want those things? Chiaro didn't even like working for him. He hated killing. So, he was trying to decide between being a demoniac's assassin and a respected teacher in the most beautiful city in Italy. Don't leave! But he would. Cesare knew he would. He considered rushing in angrily and stopping this exchange, but it wouldn't change anything. Chiaro could leave him at any time.
"No," Chiaro said, startling Cesare. "I can't leave Cesare. And I don't want to. But thanks for the offer."
"Well," said Medici, sounding disappointed, "If you change your mind, the position is open. Just send us a message if… well, if anything ever goes badly between you and the cardinal."
"I'll remember," Chiaro said. "Thanks again."
Cesare waited until he heard footsteps leave the room. Chiaro had said no? Why? Footsteps approached the doorway, and Chiaro came out. He jumped a little. "Cesare."
Cesare looked at him.
"Oh." Chiaro rubbed the back of his neck and smiled a little. "You heard that? Medici himself thinks I could teach in Florence, can you believe it?" He looked pleased.
Cesare said nothing.
Chiaro blinked. "What?" he said.
"You… sounded interested."
Chiaro looked confused. "I said no."
"After a very long pause," Cesare said.
Chiaro looked confused. "I might've paused for a second." He shrugged. "I like teaching. And Florence. But I wasn't seriously considering it." He smiled a little. "A little insecure lately?" he asked.
"I… no," Cesare said, looking away.
"Cesare, this happens all the time."
Cesare looked back, startled. "What happens?"
"I probably get a job offer at least once a month." Chiaro shrugged. "A lot of people have the gall to say I'm not actually working for you if you don't pay me. At least Medici was polite."
"Do you want a wage?"
Chiaro considered, then shrugged. "An allowance might be nice. You know, if I want to buy a bottle of wine occasionally, or something… it's kind of embarrassing to ask for frivolities. But I don't need a wage. It would feel too much like blood money. Besides, what would I do with it?"
"Every month what?"
"You get a job offer every month?" Cesare thought he might be sick. How many times had he almost lost Chiaro? How many jobs were open should Chiaro decide to stop working for him? "What… what can I…?"
"Cesare, don't worry," Chiaro said, smiling. He put a hand on Cesare's shoulder. "I'm yours."
It was all Cesare could do not to grab his hand and cling to him, but he let him step away, feeling his light slip away as he did so.
"So, how did the cardinals' meeting go?" Chiaro asked.
Hesitantly, Cesare let himself be distracted by conquering the world. He didn't have time to worry about Chiaro, especially since Chiaro didn't even seem to be angry at him anymore. But the ache in his stomach didn't go away for the entire conversation. The whole time, Chiaro—perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not—sat just far enough away that his halo of light was barely touching Cesare. It was enough to make the demons a little quieter, but Cesare wanted to be bathed in it. But that would require Chiaro to hold him, and Cesare knew that was asking too much. But Chiaro's every touch was like a brilliant sunbeam, only to be hidden a moment later, and he was forever craving more. While meanwhile Chiaro was completely oblivious. "You're enough to drive anyone mad," he muttered, realizing too late he was speaking out loud.
Chiaro blinked, looking a little shocked. "What? What did I do?"
Cesare sighed. "Nothing. Never mind. What's on the agenda for tomorrow?"
Chiaro was angry. He looked like a beautiful, terrifying avenging angel, and Cesare knew with one look at his face that his fate was sealed. "Enough," he said. "I've had enough."
"Enough of what?" Cesare asked, though he knew.
"Enough of being the devil's assassin, that's what," Chiaro said, furious. "You've gone too far. I swear, you don't have an ounce of humanity in you anymore. I'm sick of killing for you. I'm sick of working for you. I can't even stand being around you."
"But… Chiaro…." Cesare was sure the desperation could be heard in his voice. "I… I won't make you kill anymore if you don't want to. I promise. Then will you stay?"
Chiaro gave a mirthless laugh. "Right, because everything else will be enough to compel me to stay? So instead of being the devil's assassin, I'd be the devil's companion."
Cesare felt like he'd been stabbed. He'd thought Chiaro didn't mind being his companion at least. He'd used to call Cesare his friend. Apparently it had only been pity. "But… Chiaro… I need you." Saying that felt so pathetic, but he thought it might make Chiaro feel some compassion.
Chiaro looked back at him coldly, not an ounce of pity remaining in his beautiful eyes. "Well, maybe you should have thought about that. Honestly, Cesare, can you blame me for leaving? Look at the life you've made me lead!"
He was right. His anger was entirely justified, and Cesare knew it. "I… I'll make up for it… somehow. Just don't leave. Please!"
Chiaro shook his head. "It's too late, Cesare. I already agreed to take the teaching job in Florence that Medici offered me. You'll just have to do for yourself."
"Chiaro!" Desperate, Cesare grasped his arm, but though he could feel the light, it no longer washed away his demons, as though Chiaro had somehow shut him out.
Chiaro pulled his arm away, looking disgusted, hatred in his eyes. "Don't touch me, you demon." He walked away, taking all the light in the room with him.
Cesare opened his eyes to find that he was somehow in his bed. A dream. It had only been a dream. He was sweating, tangled in his sheets. Chiaro…. A dream it might have been, but it was only a matter of time before it came true. Chiaro had a means of escape. How long would it be before he took it? He would leave. Cesare could try to hunt him down, could even take him prisoner, but Chiaro would still no longer be his in spirit. Once, he'd thought—irrational as it sounded even then—that Chiaro could love him, or at least like him. But that was impossible. He had until Chiaro's pity was overcome by his anger and disgust, and then he would lose everything.
Chiaro's beautiful, terrifying, angry, merciless face forced itself into his mind again, and Cesare's tenuous hold on his emotions broke. Sudden tears flowed down his cheeks, and moments later he was trying to muffle his sobs in his pillow. Chiaro! He had already done too much damage. He couldn't make up for it now. That job in Florence had tempted Chiaro. Had others tempted him even more? What reason did he have to be loyal? Somewhere nearby, Cesare thought he heard his name, but it wasn't enough to break through his darkness. The demons surrounded him, mocking him for being so attached to Chiaro, tempting him to give himself over to them. After all, there was no point in remaining human if Chiaro could never love him. And yet, Cesare couldn't give in, because the darkness still terrified him. God, what he would give to feel Chiaro's arms around him, keeping him safe and warm, sending the darkness away….
As if some merciful angel had read his thoughts, the darkness suddenly shattered. The bed shifted, and before Cesare could even register what was going on, hands had gone under his arms, gentle but firm, drawing him out of darkness into a light so bright it nearly blinded him. "Chi… Chiaro?" he gasped.
"Yes. It's all right." His arms wrapped around Cesare, pulling him into a tight hug.
"I… I…." Cesare gasped, trying to stop crying. He was making a nuisance of himself.
"It's okay," Chiaro said, his voice kind and gentle. "Go ahead and cry."
Cesare couldn't do anything but comply. He held onto Chiaro tightly, hands clutching the back of his shirt, and he tried to muffle his sobs against Chiaro's shoulder. Chiaro held him warmly, rubbing his back, not saying anything, just letting him cry. Where had he come from all of a sudden? Was Cesare dreaming again? He hoped not.
Once his sobs became quieter, Chiaro began to stroke his hair and talk to him quietly. "It's all right," he said again. "I'm here. Whatever's wrong, we're in this together, and I'll take care of you."
The words soaked into the cracks of Cesare's heart, and he gave another sob, clinging a little tighter. How could this be real? Chiaro had yelled at him and thrown things at him just the night before, and now he was holding him? But the darkness had never stayed away in Cesare's dreams.
"I guess I can't promise everything will be all right," Chiaro amended, apologetically. "I can't really see the future, but… I can promise you won't be alone." He hugged Cesare a little closer. "You're my best friend in the world, and my king. You mean the world to me." He lightly kissed the top of Cesare's head. "I love you."
Cesare's eyes widened, and he blinked fast to hold back the tears. He blinked a few more times and pulled away a little to see Chiaro's face in the light of the candle Chiaro had brought with him. Chiaro was smiling, and his eyes were warm and kind and completely sincere. His face was so completely different from the avenging angel in his dream that Cesare wondered if it were even possible for Chiaro to have that other expression. "R-really?" Cesare asked.
"Really," Chiaro replied. "I love you."
"Is… is that why… you said… no…?"
Chiaro blinked. "Huh? Said no to what?"
How could he not know what Cesare was talking about? Cesare had been thinking about it all day. "Medici's… offer."
Chiaro looked completely confused for a moment, then his eyes widened. "Is that why you're upset? Because… I hesitated?"
It sounded really stupid when he said it like that. "You… said… every month… someone… and last night… you were so angry…." He buried his face in Chiaro's shoulder again, trying not to cry. He'd suppressed it last night, but Chiaro's anger had felt like being stabbed. He'd been up for hours trying to convince himself not to think of it.
"Damn," Chiaro said, holding him closer. "I'm the one who made you cry? I'm the scum of the earth."
Cesare took a shaky breath and tried to process what Chiaro was saying.
"You know," Chiaro said, still sounding guilty, "I told you that to reassure you. That obviously, if I'm turning down offers all over the place, I'm not going to leave you."
Cesare blinked. "Oh." That did kind of make sense, when he thought about it.
Chiaro adjusted their positions so that he was holding Cesare gently, leaning back against the pillows. "I've never seriously considered any of them, Cesare. Not even the teaching job in Florence." He stroked Cesare's hair and used a corner of his nightshirt to wipe away his tears. "I promise."
"But… why not?"
"Why not?" Chiaro repeated, looking confused.
"You have… every reason to go… and none to stay… so why?" Tears came to his eyes again and he put up a hand to stop them.
Chiaro hugged him tighter. "First off, I stay because I love you, and secondly, that's not true. I have no reason to leave you other than the fact that I don't like killing people, and I have every reason to stay."
Cesare looked at him doubtfully.
"I do," Chiaro said. "You're the best friend I've ever had."
"You've… had a poor… sampling, then," Cesare said.
Chiaro sniffed. "Well… I can't really deny that, but… I don't know. I've always been glad to have you as my friend, ever since we met. I didn't expect it, you know. And I'd been so lonely…." He trailed off, sounding like he didn't want to dwell on those days.
Cesare looked down. "I could have been anyone… and you would have felt the same way."
"Possibly," Chiaro consented. "But not many people would have done what you did."
"You make me sound like some kind… of hero," Cesare said.
"You were, in my eyes. I was grateful. And you are such a good master."
His voice held such conviction that Cesare looked back up. "I am?"
"Oh, definitely. Pedro and Volpe and anyone else serving under you will say the same thing. You're always fair, never abusive… you almost treat us as equals."
"This is unusual?"
"Pedro is the one of the only servant boys I know who's never been whipped or… um… hurt in other ways."
"And you know, you take such good care of me, I've never wanted for anything since I joined you. People say you don't pay me like it's a bad thing, but a wage would be completely unnecessary. I mean, Cesare, you paid for my education. I would never have had that kind of opportunity if it hadn't been for you."
"I just wanted to have a friend at school," Cesare said, feeling a little warm.
"I know." Chiaro was smiling. "And that made it even better. That you weren't paying for my education because you thought it would make me more useful, but because you actually wanted me there with you."
"But you never had a master before me, did you? You have no one to compare me to."
"I didn't have any that I considered a master." He sighed. "But Lord Bartrono thought he was my master and acted as such." He paused, then let go of Cesare briefly to undo his laces and pull his shirt down over his back. A little startled, Cesare suddenly realized he'd never actually seen Chiaro with his shirt off. He was taken aback by how many scars his friend had, which answered the question of why Chiaro never changed in front of him without him having to ask. "See… he gave me these," he said, showing horrible crisscross whip scars on his back, "when I botched my first assassination job."
Cesare touched the scar gingerly. "Cat of nine tails."
"Yeah." Chiaro pulled his shirt back up, tightened his laces, and resumed holding Cesare. "That wasn't even the worst he did. Punishments were pretty typical. He'd hold my father's wellbeing over my head when he wanted me to do something. It was awful." He gave Cesare a squeeze. "Anyway, now you know why I'm so glad I have you."
"But… yesterday you seemed like you hated me, because…."
"No," Chiaro said. "I don't hate you. That's why… killing for you hurts so much." He paused. "It's hard to explain, but I feel worse killing for you than I did killing for Bartrono. With him, it was always against my will, but I kill for you because I love you. It… feels very wrong… and confusing."
"Like you love the devil?"
Chiaro frowned, looking thoughtful. "No. But like I love someone who serves the devil. And I keep wondering if I'm actually helping you or only helping to damn you."
Cesare sighed a little. Amazing. Chiaro still wanted to save him. He leaned his head into Chiaro's shoulder. "You're too good for me, Chiaro."
"I don't think so."
"You don't think any of your job offers would have given you a better master?" He felt so guilty, he almost wondered if he should encourage Chiaro to take one of the offers. Not that he actually would, but it might be the right thing to do.
But Chiaro shook his head. "Doesn't matter. They're not you, and I'm yours."
"And you want to be mine, in spite of everything?"
"Then… I don't need to worry about you leaving me for a better offer?"
"Not at all."
"Because… you love me."
"Exactly. And I'm very, very sorry I made you worry this much. I really didn't mean to." He smiled a little. "You know, I kept hoping that at some point you'd let a little emotion escape, confide in me, let me comfort you a little." He shook his head. "I never thought you'd break down because you were worried over me. Cesare, you can depend on me. I don't ever want to be the thing that's keeping you up at night. You've got so many other things to think about… I want to help you with those, not add to them."
"You do," Cesare reassured him. "Always. Just your existence in my life is more comfort than I can say. It was just… it never occurred to me until today that you could leave… that hasn't even crossed my mind since we were children, I'd just sometimes worry that you would hate me. But when I realized there was someplace else you could go…."
Chiaro shook his head. "Cesare, my heart belongs to you. I gave it to you when I decided to serve you. Nothing could compel me to leave you."
Cesare wanted to believe him. But it was harder to believe Chiaro would never leave him when that belief was based on trust rather than simply thoughtlessness. Chiaro seemed to want it to be based on thoughtlessness again… but on the other hand… Cesare had never really been properly grateful for it, had he? "Thank you," he said.
Chiaro smiled. "You're more than welcome."
"So… what were you thinking when you hesitated?"
"Hmm? Uh…." Chiaro paused, looking a bit blank. Obviously, Medici's offer hadn't taken up nearly as much of his thoughts as it had Cesare's. He gave a laugh. "I think my thoughts went something like, 'Wow, Medici himself thinks I'm good enough to teach in Florence? Teaching does sound kind of nice. I wonder if Cesare would let me take a few students in my spare time. I'll have to ask him. Pedro could probably use some lessons. Wonder if we're going to Florence again sometime soon. Sometime we should go somewhere just to go somewhere, not for business. He needs a break.' And then I said no."
"Are you serious?" Cesare asked.
"Yeah, so can I teach Pedro swordsmanship? I suggested the idea to him after my conversation with Medici, and he seemed really interested."
Cesare started to laugh. "You actually didn't consider it?"
"I told you I didn't. I was flattered, but actually taking the job didn't even occur to me. It's amusing to me to see what people will come up with, and sometimes for a lark I'll imagine myself in that position, but it's never more than a joke. I think my favorite was an offer from the circus—show-fighting, you know."
"Your favorite?" Cesare asked, confused.
"Yeah… I'm afraid I laughed in his face. Really, can you imagine me in the circus?"
"Is that why you let Medici make the offer? You were just idly curious?"
"That, and I knew he wouldn't leave me alone until he did."
Cesare laughed again and shook his head. "Yes, you may teach Pedro swordsmanship. I can spare you both for a few hours a week."
Chiaro grinned. "Thanks!" His smile became warm. "See? Best master in the world."
Cesare thought he could live on that smile. How had he not realized Chiaro cared this much about him? No, he didn't want to be thoughtless about this anymore. He exulted in the fact that Chiaro had, for some reason, decided to serve him and no one else. That Chiaro belonged to him. That Chiaro loved him. It was all for him, that smile. Chiaro didn't want to serve anyone else, not even if it meant he'd never have to kill again. He realized suddenly that Chiaro had never needed to join him at the beginning. Chiaro had made that decision on his own. He might have killed Cesare and been free to do as he pleased, but he hadn't. Chiaro had chosen him. Chiaro would always choose him. He hugged Chiaro tightly. "Thank you," he said again.
Chiaro laughed. "What are you thanking me for?"
"But I like being yours," Chiaro replied. His smile broadened. "Hey, does this mean I can hug you whenever I want?"
Did what mean that? "How often do you want to?" Cesare asked, curious.
"Couple times a day."
Cesare thought his eyes would pop. "Yes. Hug me as often as you want to."
"You won't pull away like you always do?"
Did he always pull away? Startled, Cesare realized he had, every time Chiaro had hugged him. He'd never believed it was really for him, just that Chiaro was having an emotional moment. Had Chiaro seen this as rejection? Had he been hurt? Was that why he never hugged Cesare? "I won't."
Chiaro beamed. "All right." Suddenly, he yawned. "Hey, not that I don't want to keep talking, because I do, but could we maybe sleep and talk more in the morning?"
Cesare frowned, still hugging him. "But… I want you to stay."
"Who said I wasn't going to?" Chiaro eased himself under the covers, pulling Cesare with him, adjusting so he was holding him again, lying down.
"Are you seriously going to hold me all night?" Cesare asked, shocked.
"Unless you have some objection."
Cesare shook his head and closed his eyes. He highly doubted he would have any more nightmares tonight. Tonight, he would sleep bathed in light. "Will you still be here in the morning?" he murmured.
"Yes," Chiaro replied.
Cesare smiled, feeling completely safe for the first time since being a small child in Vanozza's arms. "I love you," he said quietly.
Chiaro's arms tightened around him, then he let go a little to look at Cesare. He looked a little surprised, but then he broke into a smile that seemed to make the room even brighter, if that were possible. He pinched out the candle and hugged Cesare close again. "I love you too."