"I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death."
– Leonardo da Vinci
"It is a strange life we lead, brother," Ezio murmured beside him on the bench. Leonardo could not help but notice the way his eyes sought out the stars so intently, as though looking for something in particular amongst all those far-burning entities.
"What do you mean, Ezio?"
It was the simplest of so many questions he wanted to ask his friend. What do you mean by looking at the sky that way? What do you mean by disappearing for so long that I thought you dead? What do you mean by bearing this weight that leadens your limbs and makes you walk like you are so much older? What do you mean when you tilt your head this way at me, smiling that non-smile?
"I remember –" Ezio began, then shied away from his own words, a frown settling onto his face. "Nevermind. It is nothing, amico mio."
"There is no such thing as nothing," Leonardo replied. "What do you remember?"
A long silence, and Leonardo let it rest there, let Ezio find his words.
Leonardo remembered, too. A boy of seventeen standing on his doorstep, impetuous and fierce and angry, so very angry…but frightened, too. A cornered animal baring his newfound set of fangs at the world.
Leonardo had borne witness to the dangerous boy becoming a dangerous man, still bearing the daggers he had in lieu of teeth. But he was not afraid anymore, and not so angry either — no longer a cornered beast but a refined hunter. His executions had become elegant, his mind divested of the blind vengeance that had plagued it for so long. Before Leonardo's eyes the raw grief of the boy had slowly ebbed and been replaced by something difficult to name.
Everything, now, was difficult. Roma was so big, so twisted in every sense of the word, and yet sometimes he thought he even understood Roma better than he understood this new Ezio.
What do you mean, Ezio?
"I was remembering my brother," Ezio said suddenly, drawing Leonardo out of what felt like a millennium's worth of musing.
"Petruccio?" Leonardo guessed. He had spoken of Petruccio before, though only in his sleep, while Leonardo had been working on a codex page. And the name had sounded so broken from his lips then, shattered stone that must have stung and scraped and bled him from the inside… at the time Leonardo had thought it better not to ask.
"Federico," Ezio replied. His voice was tight, his eyes downcast, as though he had had quite enough of stars. "He was the eldest of all of us. We used to run across the rooftops of Firenze, thinking no guard was quick enough to catch us."
"And was that true?"
Ezio's smile was genuine now, though his eyes remained on the ground. "No. We fought our way home plenty of times."
Leonardo laughed at the matter-of-fact admission, and when Ezio looked up at him there was the unmistakably bright but brief flicker of Ezio-before-Roma. Before the attack on the villa. Before he had lost Mario and the Apple and his hope for peace in one fell swoop, as if he had not lost enough already to make him a man only half-alive.
"What brought these thoughts of your brother?" Leonardo asked, trying to banish his own miserable thoughts from his mind, because they made him sick and sad. There were too many worries on his mind these days without trying to take on the vast sorrows of Ezio Auditore.
Ezio went silent again, but this time for not nearly as long. "He once told me almost the same words I just told you."
"Which would be?"
"'It is a good life we lead, brother.'" Ezio's expression was more tired than bitter, his voice heavy with irony. There was a pause.
"How things change," Leonardo said quietly, wary of treading on this ground, this grief, that Ezio had guarded so closely for so many years.
"And how they change us," Ezio replied, his eyes hungrily seeking stars again. Leonardo didn't blame him. Here was a man who lived the majority of his life in the dark, hidden beneath hoods or catacombs – and even an assassin could only last so long in complete darkness.
"There are some ways you have not changed," Leonardo said at last.
Ezio glanced at him. "And what ways are these?"
"Well, more often than not, you still fight your way home." A weak joke, but Ezio laughed wearily.
"Si," he said. "That is true. And I am beginning to believe more and more that it always will be true."
"One day, Ezio," Leonardo said, then hesitated. What was he going to say? One day this will all be better. One day you will be at peace. One day the battles will be won for good, and you will sleep without crying out for your dead father and brothers and now uncle. All of those, lies. He could not predict Ezio's future. He could not bear to try.
Leonardo cleared his throat. "Perhaps one day," he amended, "when all of the fighting is over for good, you would like to take a walk with me?"
Ezio looked amused. "A walk?" He glanced around, seeing no guards, and waved a hand at the mostly-empty streets. "We could do that now, Leonardo."
"No, no, Ezio, a – a liberated walk. You will not use a hood, or thieves, or courtesans to shield you, you will not have to blend into crowds, you will not have to take to the rooftops. You will simply walk. Freely, without fear of being hunted."
Ezio studied him as though intrigued by such an idea, as though it were something he had never before considered. "You are a good friend, Leonardo," he said finally, and there was something odd about his voice.
Leonardo, smiling, inclined his head. "To a good man," he answered.
And that, at least, would not ever change.