There are people on the stage. There are always people on the stage whether Ezio holds the pieces or not.
Leonardo is the knight. Claudia is the queen.
And Ezio is—
"Come back to bed, Ezio."
"Messere, you know you want to."
"Let us play once more."
—nothing more than a pawn.
"Why do you look out the window so long?"
Because he can only watch this time, not act.
The bed. He has to get on the bed. He feels rumps and bosoms press invitingly against his flesh, but he makes no move to caress any of them, nor does he push them off. His arms and legs are boneless while he inclines his head back to the window once more and watches the sun rise; it is beautiful.
"Call me beautiful again." A giggle. Another giggle. A ripple of giggles offset by his eyes. "We do not mind a bit of charming."
But Ezio minds. He minds the pillows and the bed and the whores and the wine and the heavily perfumed haze of the room—no matter how hard he squints, he cannot see scrolls or tomes, strange gears or mountains of faces and poses. Debauchery and hedonism have become additions. And reality smothers his throat.
He is guilty.
For what, exactly, if he has nothing of what he truly wants?
"Si, esattamente! The giapponese have the correct concept: We must fold over this steel and monitor the aeration of the material. Else, everything will be too brittle."
"La Volpe and I have discussed this in detail a couple of days ago. We are thinking of sending another convoy further out east until we hit Giappone. An informer from the eastern border has guaranteed us a safe passageway that will be cleared soon by our brothers, so we can begin our preparations."
"Splendido." A pause. "Now, tell me, when will you be back?"
"Ah, now to the main point."
Main point? He stops eating his apple. He drops his book. He stills. He breathes. He cannot breathe. He listens. He looks. He sees colors. He peers through the window again.
He sees Claudia's mouth move: "Maestro Leonardo da Vinci, it would be an honor for you to come on this year-long trek with us to Kyoto."
And everything crashes.
Or he crashes. For the first time in his life, he falls off of a surface he's always known, and the branch cracks with a sickening snap while he falls, falls, falls—only to land on some poor recruit who is now unconscious. Damn tree. Damn recruit. Damn Claudia obtaining what he has always—
"Well, I …"
"Of course, you do not have to agree." The desire to hear the agreement is all too apparent, however. "Although, I—I mean we are all anticipating your further discoveries at the capital."
Someone randomly begins to question Ezio about why there is a random trainee sleeping on top of salt barrels, but he ignores him. He turns back to the distance, needing to know the final answer; he searches through the crowds, the multitude. He looks and looks and looks and looks and looks.
One distraction hurls him into the unknown.
"Is that a half-eaten apple on top of your head?"
What a harsh word.
But is he in denial? Somehow, he can sate his desire to possess solely by looking through cold winter-panes when Leonardo passes by.
Passes by with Claudia, that is. Claudia Auditore de Firenze. With Leonardo da Vinci. In the villa. For days, months, and years. For all the times Ezio chases Rodrigo Borgia and—
It comes back as a stinging sensation in the back of his head.
You liar. You filth. You sleep with whores. You lie with those you mean to kill.
But he wants him.
You do not deserve him.
He needs him still.
Better is he under the care of your sorella, heathen. She has wings instead of thorns.
"Oh, look, a bird!"
Si, Leonardo, there are birds. There are hundreds of them flocking to a particular window, to flutter down on hands that gently cup feathers. And also stake their claim on another pair of hands that contain his own blood. Gentle hands. Hands that seem to fit perfectly into an artist's when they feed seeds to their new friends.
Those eyes. So soft as they look into Leonardo's. They convey what Ezio can never convey, and something strong pulls at his gut.
No. He does not hate his sibling. How can he? The only person he can hate is himself.
He stalks away, thankful for a hood he used to bear for solely for duty.
It takes more than a month to convince himself, but Ezio is determined.
He will make Leonardo happy. Only he. He will finally get the chance to fulfill his desires.
Da Vinci with Auditore. Two families. A union.
He closes his eyes. Smiles a tad. His logic and rationale settle coolly and pull back the hunch in his shoulders. Why did he not see such a spectacular thing sooner?
A man worthy of taming an Auditore.
Leonardo da Vinci is not just an artist, a scientist, and an erudite: He is the hand that holds the reins to this supposed family that cannot be tamed—a family that will never be tamed. He, in all of their grief in the early years, had offered them shelter and comfort, companionship and his own life in order to do what was right. He gave—and gives—them birds in each outstretched hand to see the beauty in a single cloud and shadow.
He makes Claudia smile.
Claudia had never smiled again for him after the taught noose.
And there is no other man Ezio can trust more than his sworn brother, his comrade, who cannot lie to save his life. He sees the soft eyes and hands Claudia messages to Leonardo, and the man accepts them as tokens and trades his in return. An ambience of innocent affection. A masterpiece through the window panes. All Ezio has to do is step aside and draw some extra curtains for the both of them.
Then, why is it that you postponed the voyage to Edo? You liar.
He just wishes to recheck inventory and roads.
You told the ambassadors that coming here was unnecessary.
Claudia can handle it.
You gave pointless work to Leonardo.
He requests such things.
He finally comes!
"Ezio, come va?" Mario's voice is still rough and strong, but the charisma and easy poise in his tone reflects success in fending off some Florentines. His arrival is sudden; yet, Ezio has never been able to track the sound of the other man's footsteps without giving himself away. "You are most fortunate. I have come directly from Romagna about fifteen minutes ago."
"Che piacere vederti, Zio. It is good to hear that you have been victorious."
Mario nods. Nods for him to go on and cut to the chase.
"Matters aside, I wanted to speak to you about matters of the heart—"
Arches an eyebrow. Ezio thinks it is confusion and masculine pride welling up to enforce a cough, for his uncle has spared him the blank expression before until now.
But it is something worse.
"You have fallen in love? Aye, aye, bless my hairy ass, the impossible has become the possible! Why, that is such good news! Wait until La Volpe hears about—"
Convincing his uncle that he does not possess an "aching heart" is harder than it looks.
Ultimately, Mario suspects something, tells him that he has always been more than a bit strange over the last two years—and that men cannot be changed in such a way except for the wiles of a woman. An enchantress. Asks him if the maiden is beautiful, if she has quite a large bosom, which he will not deny as an attraction that appealed to him before these two confusing years, and inquires about his "mysterious" lover for over three good weeks. Ezio denies all supposed evidences and claims.
Still, his uncle is not entirely incorrect. Instead of a woman, he has been—
No. He grips his quill and writes out another scenic location. All of his efforts must now go to joining Claudia and Leonardo together, to top the festivities with matrimony this very year, if all goes according to plan. Mario apparently knows about Claudia's fondness for Leonardo since they all have stationed in the villa, and Ezio wonders when he has been so lost when his duty is to find.
"Deliver this letter to Mario Auditore," he tells his pupil. "And tell our special guests this evening that we are ready tomorrow."
Courtesans. Mercenaries. Doctors. Guards, even. Enlistment of help to an exponential degree? He does not think so. One must be meticulous in his efforts to accomplish the simplest of tasks.
Not that this is a simple matter, of course.
"Open the curtains."
Encounters in sceneries. Routes for aestheticism. Great food and wine. Meetings in which all the brothers had to leave except for those two. Missions with them paired together.
The next few months proceed smoothly: He and his uncle weave the pattern, and the whole of Monteriggioni acts as ramparts. Si, the courtesans tell Leonardo that he accidently leaves manuscripts in the library, while he himself tends to Claudia getting the appropriate maps for a most important mission. Then, the mercenaries hoist the good sir away to Firenze for weapon creations; Mario firmly asserts that Claudia should visit Lorenzo for business advice. Shopkeepers detain one until the other happens to pass by, and maintain proximity between the two. And there is more and more and more and more …
He expects nothing but satisfaction and contentment for his endeavors. He expects joy and excitement at funding the entire Kyoto jurney for their sweet escape after the vows are said. He expects nothing but marriage bells and the duties of being a cognato.
And maybe an uncle, too, if he delves deeply.
He laughs. Leans back in his seat and watches Leonardo and Claudia being entertained by a jester he hired a fortnight ago. There is still a nagging voice clawing out from the back of his head, but he ignores it and taps his feet to the rhythm of the lute.
Where did he falter?
"Ezio, per favore, I need to speak to you."
Or does he falter at all?
The last four weeks have been strange; Leonardo and Claudia, looking at him with enigmatic expressions, have been whispering—talking of what, he does not know. He conditions his mind to accept the quiet as Leonardo's preliminary stage before making a formal confession to Claudia. His extra assistance, courtesy of Mario and Monteriggioni, assure him that it is true.
"You know how lovers are: Everything is obvious to others, but they like their little secrets," the blacksmith tells him. So does the baker. And the silk merchant. Even the maids in the villa.
But you know that it is all a lie. Look how you trapped yourself, you fool.
Leonardo's voice is hushed and tense, and Ezio finds himself lowering his own voice to reply back in a skewed sort of hesitancy he does not like. He looks back. Forward. Right and Left. Looks at Leonardo's bemused face. Nods.
"Si, lead the way."
How long have they walked? They are already here? The villa. They are at Leonardo's room, and the light seems to glare at his lies, albeit it barely illuminates the angle of a clenched jaw. Night after night, he attempts his escape to be in the same room with the other man for a long time—tonight is the exception.
He notices the moon shines brightly into Leonardo's eyes—
"Why is it that you cannot look at me, anymore?" A pause. "Why?"
"You—I—Ezio. Even now, you do not even … try."
Why? Who? What? When? Ezio does not know what the other man is speaking of. Is this a jest? Will he finally tell him that he is soon to be escorting Claudia down the aisle? Perhaps, it is a challenge. That would explain the fervor in Leonardo's voice.
"What have I done?"
He did nothing. Look at him. Cristo, why will you not look at him?
"Leonardo, what are you—"
Suddenly, he looks at him.
At tight fists and restrained indignation.
At the weariness, the confusion, the dying candlelight.
At a whole year's worth of blinding his own desire.
And everything crashes.
"No, Ezio. For once, let me speak."
He cannot believe this.
"What I feel cannot be questioned. There is no explanation for what I know of, no axiom or theory.
There is no science that can prove the durability or constant rate of development. I cannot draw what I feel, nor can I write at what exact time in a day I think of you, when all you do is consume the entirety of my thoughts.
"So, what shall I say? Shall I speak the truth? That I do not feel for your sister the same way I—"
Leonardo penetrates him with a stare that drains denial, and Ezio finds the back of his throat to close and hold him captive. He knows what he will say next. Tries to silence him. Fails. Fails at not only running away like he always does, but fails at breaking free from the very year he succumbed to self-delusion. He fails at allowing himself what he wants—what he needs.
"I am not afraid, Ezio." Why will you not look at him the same way he looks at you? "You may despise me, but I will not be denied my voice. I know that I am a man. I know that you are a man.
And you may not even come close to where I stand. But let me tell you something."
Tell me more.
"I feel for you in a way that is beyond the goodness of a kinsman. I look at you in a way that a brother cannot.
And that is all that I will say. That is all I can say.
So, goodnight, Ezio. You may keep pushing me and a woman whom I do not love together, but there will be no wedding bells or rings. Because I: I will not change my mind. I will never change my mind, no matter how hard I wish to."
No, not ever.
Before it is too late.
He must grab him.
Never let him go.
Before he leaves!
"I think my legs are broken."
That is the first thing he says.
"Maybe. But those are just legs," Leonardo responds, and Ezio cannot help but to snort and wince at the movement. "I, however, probably have a distorted spine." A grunt. "A very distorted spine."
"All right, then. I see how this plays." How smart. "I think my ass has been thoroughly beaten."
An arched brow dominates his vision. Ezio arches an eyebrow back. Shrugs. Looks out the window and makes a disbelieving noise. Leonardo does the same.
"At least you did not have a murderous uncle cornering you in the dark and telling you that he'd cut your coglione off if you did not say the vows."
"Aye, you are lying."
"No, I am not." For a while, the other man closes his eyes and breathes deeply, and the soothing pulse against Ezio's neck lull him to sleep. Of course, it is all for a while. He wakes up again to the other man looming over him on one elbow. And quirked lips that make him uneasy.
"And, just for correction, your ass was not beaten." Another gesture of amusement flickers before his eyes. "It was thoroughly … how should I say this?"
Mierda. His cock begins to stir.
"That is quite a suitable term."
"And so was yours," Ezio replies back. He snorts once more. "You may ask your poor back if that was true."
"Tell your legs good day."
"Aye, aye, fine, you win."
Leonardo falls asleep once more soon after, and Ezio watches the sunset creep past the curtains.
He is yours.
Ezio shakes his head. Turns and looks at the arm wrapped around his stomach, all the while reflecting on the truths stated with the moon as the only witness. Leonardo is not his.
He is Leonardo's.
Tamed. He instead of Claudia, and no other. Claudia is still queen, though, as she makes sure of that every day. And Leonardo is not a knight but a king.
Ezio is …
"—a man who will be in an ill mood if he does not sleep."
So he shakes his head and laughs, settling an equally demanding arm over the curve of Leonardo's hip. Closes his eyes. Finally listens to that one voice that always stays true. Regrets nothing at the way he had grabbed the other man and crushed him to his chest after those honest words. He can still recall his own little secret spilling into Leonardo's warm ears.
"I will be, no doubt."
And so he does.
A sleep fit a wish granted.