"Can you read us this one?"
Smiling down at the expectant child, Leonardo picked up the large book before he nodded at the rest of his siblings that gathered around the large chair, the atmosphere cozy. Fondly, he took in the sight of Desmond, Altair, Malik, and Ezio, the latter giving him a sly wink, sprawled out with treats and books around them, taking advantage of the artist's willingness to read whatever they wanted. He brushed back his hair as he gently patted a very grumpy-looking Malik's head and made sure no one was running astray in the vast room.
That is, before he noticed the content of the requested reading.
"Altair, this is …"
"Paul Clifford," the nonchalant child added, shrugging his shoulders. "Quite an ingenious piece of work Uncle Lyton wrote."
Leonardo caught Malik's frown deepening. "Father said no scary stories before bedtime."
"S-Scary?" Whimpering, Desmond pulled closer to his older brother Ezio and tugged on his sleeve. "I do not like scary things."
"It is not scary—it is simply factuality. Additionally, I prefer darker stories, take that as you may."
Ezio cocked an aristocratic eyebrow, allowing Desmond to crawl into his lap and curl his fingers into his silk shirt, a gesture Leonardo knew to be either black or white. He ran a hand soothingly up and down the younger male's back before he spoke: The comment was one Altair did not seem to appreciate, judging by the slight twitch under the twelve-year-old's eye.
"It is getting late, and Desmond must go and visit my in-laws tomorrow," he began, Leonardo catching the diminutive quirk of his lips when the child widened his eyes in panic. "Lord Hastings is a man who does not take well to latecomers."
Desmond blanched. "N-N-No, I shall be good, I promise! Do not send me to him! I do not need a mentor! I do not—"
"Are you going to read, or not?" Altair's impatience seemed to permeate through the sudden tension Desmond aroused.
"You are rude: Sit down." And so was Malik's.
"You could not get me, even if you went to mother."
Leonardo sighed. "All right, I shall read—"
Until Malik cut in with: "You, dumb oaf, are a twat." There was great emphasis on the last word. "A very large one."
Altair started. "A twat?"
"Yes. It occurs to me now that you are also deaf: How sad. I should not have been so unkind to one who could not have a grasp on all of his facili—"
Much to his relief, Ezio caught both of his younger brothers by their forearms before they managed to lunge for each other, a necessary measure after their mundane verbal spats, without a crease in his brow. Desmond curled further until he was a tiny ball, as the two twelve-year-olds continued their menace, even with their restraints, and buried his face into his older sibling's chest. Truly, Leonardo empathized with the intimidated seven-year-old child, and softly called to him so that the former could avoid a random hit while situated in the young master's lap, putting the large book onto the table. He gingerly lifted Desmond up onto his lap and settled him there while Ezio stood and took care of the usual business of sorting out the trouble: taking measures to halt the physical violence as well as the verbal, and clear the heavy maelstrom for the night. The nightly visit to the Auditore villa had turned out a darker shade of interesting most definitely, if one expected a good reading session to prosper instead of morphing into a brawl.
"Altair. Malik. The two of you should stop before father comes in. Go to your rooms and think about this, as I shall be going to each of you shortly." Ezio beckoned for Desmond to come to him. "And you, little boy, need your sleep."
The three of them watched the two contenders storm off to their chambers, something Leonardo found endearing instead of exasperating at the sight of two chins pointed high sans the loss of impetus. He did not miss the definite death glares, nor did he overlook the subtle attempts to trip each other as they ascended the grand staircase, before he turned at the hushed voice of Desmond, who protested sleep for one more story that did not have stormy nights or dark tales. Leonardo warmly smiled when Ezio's normally teasing eyes went soft at the chubby hand on his cheek, and it grew, for the latter lost the futile fight that ended with a kiss on his forehead.
"Sir, I shall be back shortly. I deeply apologize for keeping you late—much less, allowing you to leave after such a … queer ordeal."
The other shook his head. "No, it is all fine. I shall wait by the doorway; there is no need to wake your butler to fetch my necessities, for I know where they all are."
A quick ten minutes past found Leonardo situating his top hat upon his head, followed by his coat snugly wrapping around his form. He turned at the sound of light steps descending the stairwell and caught the young master's silhouette amongst the backdrop of dimmed rushlights, making him scold himself at perceiving the familiar tug on his fingers whenever a captivating scene appeared before him. Luckily, he had the volatile urge under control—or so he hoped—by the time the younger male strode up to him.
"You take offense."
Leonardo was baffled. "Offense? For what reason?"
Raking his fingers through his hair, the youth sighed, though it was not one of agitation, simply fond exasperation. "For tonight: I do apologize, sir. You could have left after supper when the family portrait was completed, but you stayed due to my selfish request for company." He shook his head. "And that occurred, much to our chagrin."
"No, No, it is fine, it is fine. Truly. I did enjoy my time here, and painting is something I love, anyway. It has been a long while since I have had children to dote on."
The former grinned. "You are a natural when it comes to children. They love you."
Perhaps it had been the grand lighting, or the warmth from the kitchenette nearby that still held fresh bread, but the artist could not overcome a sanguine tinge that colored his cheeks at the compliment. It did not help in the least that Ezio's amusement matured into an all out twinkle in his gaze at his uncalled reaction. Remarkably so, all of the Auditores genuinely possessed tongues carved out of silver and gold, if the natural way the young lord held his seemingly casual opinion stated otherwise.
"M-My lord, you flatter me."
"It is not flattery when it is the truth. Come, now," Ezio teased, turning the palm of one hand up lightheartedly, "when was the last time you allowed yourself to desert humility? Praise is not a hot brand, Sir—not when one is a polymath, master of all."
Again, the same flush tormented him. "I-I … I … thank you." Leonardo fiddled with the fingers of his gloves that he pulled out of his pocket: out of embarrassment, a twisted sense of pride, or understanding his awkward self, he did not know. Those words seemed to have much more meaning, even if the tone was light, those words repeated every so often whenever he pulled up to the Auditore driveway. "Though, I do not have expertise in all things, to be honest."
"Aye, aye, there you go again. I do not believe you out of good intentions. Name one thing that you do not know, for I know none."
"That is … of course … many things, such as …" There was a thoughtful, but still fragile pause. "Jockeying, ballroom dancing, fencing, swimming, gambling—"
The younger male's laugh rung in the hall. "Those things." Once more, he chortled. "I have seen you do them, and you, dear sir, do it exceptionally well. You are an expert horseman: Do not attempt to denounce it. You have a keen eye for the best breeds, the best ways to ensure the creatures run swiftly without repercussions. Not even the Frenchman de Sable could prove his knowledge to be better than yours."
"And you dance without flaws, without fumbling or losing your tempo. Your steps are even, and your style in which the waltzes are carried out is the envy of all men at court, including me, if I say so before God. I cannot see a better man in a gavotte."
Another blush assaulted the older fellow."
"Fencing, that too. Might I recall that you have never lost a duel, aside from the fact that it perplexes me that there are those who wish to duel such a kind man as you? I shall explain no more when it comes to that, as much as the topic of swimming. Surely, not even a merman could prove his worth when he is set next to you.
"And gambling: Ah, yes. I cannot forget Bartolomeo's gratitude towards you when you redeemed him from his loss at cards against that Borgia scum. All four aces have never been shown any better until you revealed them on the table." The adolescent eased his shoulders and leaned against the wall, tugging his lips upwards. "Thus, I say, sincerely name one thing that you cannot possibly accomplish."
Trying his best to keep all of his blood rushing to his face, the latter clumsily scratched at his head and caught his top hat before it fell. The gaze that boasted of great weight in such outward lightness were not lost on him, not when he felt as if he could brave the winter outside without the aid of his overcoat, not even when he was subjected to such praise every time they crossed paths.
"I … I can say no more but that you flatter me."
"Say no more."
"There are other things you—"
The air suddenly seemed heavier.
And then, the dreaded—was it really?—moment came, in which the magnitude of that single glance upon his face intensified, making the lights in the hall seem all too dim, all too bright, all too contradicting. The step the eldest Auditore took closer was solid, and Leonardo did not notice that he had subconsciously retreated so that the great oak doors met the heated flesh of his palm. The immediate change—not of demeanor, but of depth—made the two inches Ezio had over him to seem all the more enormous, causing him to widen his eyes and press his hand backwards to allow any semblance of coolness to seep into his skin.
His instincts kicked in and forced his mouth to fill the strained silence with senseless words that seemed to come faster and faster with each passing second. "I-It was very nice of you to invite me to your dining table today, young master, especially in the presence of his lord and ladyship. My teacher has isolated me too long. Oh, dear, did I forget my manners? Have you noticed? Because I normally do not until the next day, in which I forget the cause of the event."
Faster. "And I must have been quite hasty with my words. For, you see, I have noticed that there was a large lamb roast upon the table, and I am really grateful that your cook was kind enough to remove it, and serve it piece by piece in the kitchen, but I had let my queasiness shake me for a brief while. The assorted salads and soups were quite delectable, if I may say so myself. Which reminds me of Altair and Mali—I-I-I mean, young Master Malik and young Master Altair building—"
And faster. "Why, it is quite hot; it was not this hot, even near the fireplace when I had been reading aloud for my audience. I understand that y-young Master Altair enjoys noire and much more somber literature than I expected, contrasting the others' preferences for the classics that have happy endings. The next time I come—oh, L-Lord, I mean, the next t-time I am given an invitation, I shall surely sort out an appropriate lot of the readings that I—"
Until Ezio's voice cut through.
"My words are not empty, dear sir."
Leonardo could not catch his breath. "What?"
"If they were ones of open flattery, I would not have taken the means to justify my stance."
"My lord …"
Ezio took another step forward before he outstretched his hand and settled it on fingers that were definitely not quaking, capturing the silken material of gloves that he had forgotten about. He directed Leonardo's fingers into them with the lightest touch and fastened the ties once they were in, proving skill and efficiency that was beyond his seventeen years as a notoriously known noble. His hands, the artist marveled, were long and fine, pianist hands, to be exact, and the itch to draw them struck once more, as they lingered a tad longer than what most considered as a means to aid another. The words the young master had spoken to him still reverberated in the forefront of his mind, all the more accentuated by the warmth that radiated from that palm: If Leonardo had not listened to the inward caveat to stay alert, he was sure to have humiliated himself as a dumb, staring fool.
"I mean what I say, and I say what I mean. Honesty goes farther than anything else, does it not?"
"I …" The large brass doorknob scalded his hand, no longer cool to the touch the way it was prior to his desperation. "Yes. T-There is nothing better."
Seeming to draw nearer, the other continued, "And I, sir, no matter what is spoken of me, say only what I know to be sanctified, though the things I mention are by no means things saints declare. Ruses and facades are superficial, whether one believes my mundane additions or not, but truth …" He gave the latter's hand a gentle squeeze. "What double meanings could be concocted there?"
Leonardo felt his body yield, not because of exhaustion of any sorts, but because he had no genuine notion of how to reply to such a candid statement, one that did not hold the necessary flourishing courtly life demanded. It was not a line to steal attention at a masquerade ball, nor was it the epitome of seduction that did not require enhancements of solitude and dimmed lights. Basics were all that were shown—forget the cards, the masks, the baroque diction and clandestine glances of whatever emotion that prevailed in every situation; surely, the other had known about the strange tie between him and Cesare Borgia, yet the need to say his name was imminent in the way Ezio looked at him for who he was, not the man defined by slander and libel over the involvement of him and the Spaniard. It was simply Leonardo of the Vinci and the man before him, and he had forgotten, just for that tiny while in which he saw the need for pursuit, that they were who they were while the most tender of relationships was being forged over the course of many months, including this night.
Especially this night.
"I know that you wish to go now. However, tomorrow at Hyde Park …" The younger male captured his gaze as he lightly readjusted the hat upon his head. "I shall go riding; meaning, that breakfast will be promptly at seven."
Leonardo understood the statement—there were no additional words to be said, for he would have automatically come to be in front of his villa, if it meant sneaking out at the crack of dawn to escape from his teacher. He colored again as Ezio's hands dusted off the lapels of his coat before they buttoned what his burning fingers could not. Tonight, he realized, was a step taken, no matter how small, with the faint scent of the former's cologne and the heat that captured his palms. Whether it was intended to be so this very evening, he would not know—yet, he found that he did not care, not when clear fondness defined the young master's gaze as Leonardo was led out to his horse.
"Goodnight, my lord."
With all sincerity.
"I bid you adieu, sir."
And it would be a goodbye that would never be the last.