The Noose

Summary: When the first of Ezio's young recruits falls in battle, the ghosts of twenty-five years ago rise to greet him. Set during Brotherhood, no spoilers.

Notes: Carlotta Caci really did die in my game, and when I, the player, actually felt kind of guilty about it, I got the idea of writing a story about Ezio mourning one of the recruits. Of course, Leonardo kind of hijacked it and made it his own story. I guess I like spending some time in Leo's head, since we spend all of two games with Ezio. Despite all that, I'm pretty pleased with how this turned out, I hope you are too!

If they were still in Venice, Leonardo might not have been so shocked at the sight of Ezio standing on his doorstep in the middle of the night. In Venice, Ezio had come and gone often, flinging open the door to the workshop with a sheepish grin and a rolled up Codex page (or three or four) in his hand. But that was Venice, and Venice was a long time ago. Rome was different. In Rome, Leonardo heard plenty of Ezio, but rarely saw him.

So when he answered the knock at the door in the middle of the night, despite his misgivings about who would be calling at such an hour, it was difficult to comprehend the sight of Ezio standing on his doorstep. Especially because of the blood. It covered Ezio's arms from the tips of his fingers to his elbows, and it was spattered across his front.

"You're going to be fine," was the first thing Leonardo said, almost ready to sprint into the night for the nearest doctor. But as he got closer he saw Ezio's clothes were not torn, and his armor was no more scuffed up than it usually was. The blood was not Ezio's own.

Leonardo would have been relieved, but there was something about the way Ezio was standing there, expressionless, looking at Leonardo but not truly at him.

Dear God, whose blood is it?

"Come in, Ezio," Leonardo said, strangely calm, as if it were a sunny afternoon in Venice instead of a black night in Rome.

Ezio seemed to finally realize where he was. He looked at Leonardo, past his shoulder at the workshop. It was as if he didn't know how he had gotten there. "No," he said slowly. "It's dangerous. I shouldn't be here."

"I beg to differ. Please, Ezio, let me help you."

"I'm beyond help this time."

"Let me be the judge of that." Leonardo put his hand on Ezio's shoulder, peering beyond him into the night. Could he have been followed here? Under normal circumstances, no, Ezio was much too clever for that, but there was nothing normal about this. "You must come in, at least. You're not doing either of us any favors by lingering in the doorway."

Ezio considered this and finally stepped inside. Leonardo bolted the door shut behind him, and it was only then that he realized what a wreck the workshop was. He had been wide awake, bouncing from project to project. He swept the mess off of the small table in front of the fireplace, gesturing for Ezio to take one of the chairs. He hesitated, looking from his bloodstained clothes to the chair.

"Forget the damned chair," Leonardo said brusquely. "I've dripped paint on it more times than I can count."

Ezio finally sat – collapsed, more like it – but Leonardo was anxious to do something, anything. "What can I do? Should I get a message to someone?"

Ezio was staring at his bloodied hands. "Let me stay," he said roughly.

"You know you don't need to ask." Leonardo dragged the other chair around the table, angling the chair away from the table and towards Ezio. They were sitting close to each other then, and Leonardo suddenly caught the scent of smoke on Ezio's clothing.

"You've been after those Borgia towers again, haven't you."

Ezio was unlacing his boots, slowly, tiredly. He didn't look up. "I've lost one of my recruits. Her name was Carlotta."

Ezio had spoken of his recruits with great enthusiasm. "Some of them barely know which end to hold a sword," he had said, keeping his voice low and his hood pulled forward as he always did when they met in public. But the he was smiling beneath the hood. "But they know how to survive. And they've all got promise."

"Sounds a little like you at that age, doesn't it?" Leonardo had asked. He had no doubt that Ezio saw a great deal of himself in his scrappy, determined recruits. It would have been a terrible blow to lose one.

"I'm sorry," he said softly. "Tell me what happened."

Ezio kicked his boots unceremoniously to the side and looked up at Leonardo. "We were going to take out Ferdinando di Napoli."

Some of the Borgia captains were in their position because of their wealth, their connections to the family. Others had risen to power with fear and intimidation. Ferdinando was such a man.

"The people are terrified of him. They call him the man with a hundred eyes."

"I thought, 'what can he do with a hundred eyes, when I have a thousand?'" Ezio said, a bitter, hard edge creeping into his voice. "I had Claudia's girls watch him and the area…" He trailed off, undoing the last of the leather straps holding his vambraces in place, and set them on the table. He eyed the blood seeping into the metalwork and smeared on his hands in dismay. "That needs to be cleaned before the blood dries," he muttered.

Leonardo was on his feet in a flash, returning a moment later with bowl of water and a spare rag. Ezio muttered his thanks and set to work.

"So the girls were spying on him," Leonardo prompted, watching the water in the bowl turn a pale pink.

"We struck yesterday morning," Ezio said. "I had the girls and a few of La Volpe's men go in to lure away the guards on the outer perimeters. I took the recruits and a handful of mercenaries in with me. Ferdinando was right there. It should have been simple."

"But it wasn't?"

"Guards swarmed us out of nowhere. It was as if…he knew we were coming."

Leonardo's eyes widened. "You don't think…you were betrayed?"

Ezio set his clean vambraces on the table and ran a hand through his hair. "No. Not truly. But there are fewer pairs of eyes on our side than I thought. The mercenaries turned and ran. Sometimes I think we should leave this damned city to rot."

"What happened to Carlotta?"

"She was always headstrong. Even more than the rest. I was preoccupied with one of those brutes in armor. But she wasn't. She thought she saw an opening and she took it. Like a true assassin. Carlotta went straight for Ferdinando. I turned just in time to see him cut her down. To see him continue to plunge the sword into her body even after she had fallen."

There was a long silence.

"The other recruits - " Leonardo whispered.

" – were terrified," Ezio finished. "Though they did an admirable job at hiding it. By then, I…I just wanted to get the rest of them out alive." He stared down at his vambraces, tracing a finger along the intricate scrollwork. "Carlotta was always lurking around the library in the hideout. I never once stopped to ask what she was reading." Finally, he looked up at Leonardo. "Tonight, I went back to finish what I started."

Leonardo frowned. "That was risky. Surely that was what they expected you to do."

"Leonardo, they hung her body from the top of the tower."

Leonardo gasped sharply. "What? But he – surely someone that low in the chain of command wouldn't have known – that is – " He trailed off, wondering why his tongue seemed to move before he knew what it would say, and struggled to phrase his thoughts in a way that wasn't completely insensitive.

But there was no need. After twenty-five years, Ezio was skilled at deciphering Leonardo's ramblings. He smirked humorlessly at Leonardo's vain attempts at backpedaling. "Do you mean, was Ferdinando just particularly cruel, or did he know about my family? Did he do it on purpose, in an attempt to goad me into doing something stupid? To rattle me? I can't say. Likely a combination of the two."

Leonardo was quiet. Now he understood why Ezio had stumbled to him in such a sorry state. Half of him was there in the present, and the other half was at the gallows in Florence twenty-five years ago, grief-stricken, furious, and frightened.

"Did he succeed?" Leonardo said finally. "In rattling you."

"I wish I could say he wasn't," Ezio mumbled, avoiding Leonardo's probing gaze. "Damn it. When I finally cornered him…It was Uberto Alberti all over again."

Leonardo had heard rumors of the death of the man that had so betrayed the Auditores. That assassin had been an Ezio that Leonardo didn't know and one that he could barely imagine; an Ezio from a dream – or a nightmare, perhaps – half-mad with grief and the need for revenge. He could not imagine that Ezio now, especially not now in the quiet man sitting before him, shoulders slumped in defeat.

"Where is Carlotta now?" Leonardo asked finally.

"Back at the hideout. The recruits are preparing her for burial."

"It seems to me that that is where you should be now, my friend."

Ezio didn't answer at first, just dropped his head into his head. "I told – no, commanded – them not to come with me tonight," he said, massaging his temples with rough fingers. "Nino – the youngest – stood before me and said, 'You may be the master, but she is our sister'."

"A good boy," Leonardo murmured.

"A good boy," Ezio agreed. "All of them are. And they deserve far better than me."

Mourning was one thing, but excessive self-pity was entirely another. "Come now, Ezio," Leonardo said, but not unkindly.

Ezio looked up sharply. "After what I did tonight? After I went against everything I've taught them, against everything Mario taught me?" He rattled the lessons off, as if to reassure himself of what he knew. "An Assassin is deadly, but never violent. An Assassin takes no joy in killing. An Assassin is always respectful of his victim."

"You may be an Assassin, but you're also just a man."

Ezio snorted. "A delusional man. Why did I ever think I was fit to lead a Brotherhood, when I cannot even keep them alive? Why did I ever think I could save this festering sore of a city? The Borgia bastards can have it, I'm done," he snarled.

"Stop it," Leonardo frowned. "Every day I see more and more people with their heads held high. Every day I see fewer and fewer beggars on the streets. You have already done so much for Rome."

"Damn it, Leonardo!" Ezio jumped to his feet, upsetting the chair he was sitting on. He shoved the thing aside, and it hit the floor with a surprisingly loud clatter. "This is not about what I've done, this is about what I didn't do! This is about standing there and watching someone die!"

The room was silent, save for Ezio's labored breathing.

"Yes, Ezio. I know what this is about," Leonardo said quietly.

Ezio bent and righted the chair he had thrown to the ground. "I'm sorry," he mumbled as he sat back down, staring down at his hands in his lap.

"I'm sure the chair forgives you," Leonardo said simply, and waited for Ezio to speak again.

"I built their funeral pyre myself," Ezio mumbled finally. The smell of smoke from the burnt Borgia tower still clung to his clothes, and Leonardo suddenly understood what memories the scent must have called to mind. "That was twenty-five years ago. That night I swore – swore – that I would never fail anyone so utterly, ever again. And now I have."

"You did everything you could, Ezio."

Ezio looked up at Leonardo, his mouth twisted in a wry smile. "That is what old men tell themselves so they can sleep at night."

Leonardo smiled back, a sad smile to match Ezio's bitter and broken one. "Have you forgotten? We are old men now." He looked at Ezio – really looked – at the tired eyes and the tiny lines around them, at the crooked nose that had met with a guard's fist on too many occasions, at the tiniest suggestion of gray in his dark hair – and struggled to recall the face of the self-assured, handsome boy standing on Leonardo's doorstep with his mother.

"Twenty-five years ago," Leonardo murmured. Saying it aloud didn't make it seem any less preposterous. It felt like they had met a lifetime ago, and Leonardo wondered if Ezio ever felt the same way.

Ezio had spread his hands on the table. "Twenty-five years of blood on my hands."

"Nothing that can't be washed away." Before Leonardo really knew what he was doing, he reached out and took Ezio's hand between his own. Ezio tensed a little, but did not pull away.

Leonardo's life was lived in the little details that others missed. There was so much you could tell about a person by studying their hands. Leonardo had sketched Ezio before, when the assassin came to get patched up or for a brief respite from the guards, and he was too worn out to care. But it was always Ezio's hands that Leonardo returned to.

There were the calloused palms from years of wielding a blade. His fingers were dry and cracked from scaling countless buildings. There was the finger where he'd torn the nail off, scrambling for a ledge after a badly-timed jump. He was practically pouting over it when he came to Leonardo. "Oh, for goodness' sake, Ezio, you've lost the nail, not the finger," he'd said, wrapping a bandage tight around the wound.

And then there was the brand on his left ring finger. Perhaps more subtle than removing the finger entirely, but still an ever-present reminder of the life he'd been thrust into.

Some might look at those hands and simply think, "assassin," but Ezio was so much more than that.

Leonardo ran a thumb over Ezio's brand. The little voice in the back of his head was strangely absent, the one that always said, "Don't show too much, hold it back, he'll figure out what he means to you and he'll run."

"It seems to me that this is not the sort of mark one can simply shrug off when things go wrong."

Ezio didn't answer.

"You know what I think?" Leonardo said, and when Ezio raised his eyes Leonardo continued. "You need to be the one to lead the Brotherhood. Because I think it means more to you than it does to the others. Because you, better than anyone, understand what is at stake here." He squeezed Ezio's hand. "But the burdens you carry are far heavier than most men's. It's all right if you need to set them down once in a while."

"No," Ezio said suddenly, meeting Leonardo's gaze straight on. "I can't show weakness like that. Not when there is so much to do. Not when my enemies are always looking for an advantage."

"You have no enemies here," Leonardo said, nodding towards the messy room. "Please, Ezio. You and your burdens are always welcome here. I'd even help you carry them, if you'd let me."

Ezio frowned, shook his head. "I can't ask that of you."

Leonardo leaned forward. "Yes, you can. Do you know why? The others may think of you as some heartless killer, but I know that isn't true. I know the real Ezio."

A wry smile. "Oh? Who is the 'real' Ezio, then?"

Leonardo smiled back, a little sadly. "He is a son, and a brother. Stubborn and constantly in motion. Someone who would never turn down a person in need…especially if she has a pretty face. And, yes, occasionally an assassin." He turned serious again. Ezio may have escaped the gallows twenty-five years ago, but the noose had followed him all the same. "You must never let the assassin part of you smother the rest. Don't ignore the part of you that feels guilt, that misses your family.

Ezio still wore that twisted smile. "It would be easier to kill that part."

"It would be, wouldn't it." Leonardo felt his heart ache for the tired man before him and the boy he'd once been, the boy that he had loved so fiercely and so secretly. He loved the man no less, but it was a different sort of love, more grounded in reality. There was no use pining for Venice and what they'd had then. Rome was different.

"But 'easy' isn't for old men like you and me," Ezio said suddenly, reaching out and putting his other hand over Leonardo's. "Perhaps you're right. I can't let this ruin everything I've worked for. Everything we've worked for."

"Your recruits will be glad to hear it."

Ezio frowned. "The recruits…"

"Go to them," Leonardo said firmly, letting go of Ezio's hand. "They need to see you. To see that you are only human."

Ezio nodded, and moved as if he going to leave, but then he paused and looked at Leonardo. He sucked in his breath, and Leonardo waited patiently. Ezio never was very good with words.

Finally, Ezio just shrugged. "Thank you," he said simply. "I know I don't say it to you near enough."

Leonardo smiled, his heart swelling in his chest. "I'm glad to help."

He watched Ezio disappear into the darkness with his shoulders back and his head held high. "So very glad."