He stared at nothing.
He blinked, trying to focus his vision. Was this another nightmare? Another delusion?
"Malik! What have they done to you?"
A white hood, grey stubble that did not hide the scar on the mouth, and a soft tenor that he had missed for years. Could it be...?
"Alt-" His voice cracked and his breath caught, sending him into a racking cough. Small hands touched his shoulder, and grey-brown hair filled his vision.
"He's been sick." A woman's voice, Crusader vowels. "How long were they keeping him here? Much longer than two months..."
He looked up and still could not believe his eyes. "Is this..." he coughed once more, but fought it and tried again. "Is this real...?"
"Yes, brother, I am here," Altair said, smiling briefly. "I will be back, I must deal with the guard."
The white shadow disappeared, and Malik almost thought he was hallucinating but for what he heard next.
"You need a haircut," Maria said, "And a shave." She, too, smiled briefly, and reached out to touch his face. "We're getting you out of here."
He blinked, still confused and not quite believing what he was seeing. "Is Lady Barakah with you?" he asked.
Maria blinked, frowning, before her eyes lit up in recognition. "Little Barakah? From the gardens? She's but a child, how do you know her?"
But Altair returned, and with strength Malik no longer possessed he shrugged the one armed man onto his back, hoisting him to his feet. "We'll take him to our rooms," he said softly to Maria. "Go ahead and prepare for him; I imagine he needs food and water, perhaps medicine."
Altair's wife nodded. "Here's hoping they haven't changed where supplies are kept. I'll to go to the kitchens first." She put on some speed and walked down the halls.
"Ask if Lady Barakah has returned," Malik called after her, his voice weak but able to carry. "She is a scullery maid there."
Maria's face slacked in shock, but she nodded and disappeared around a corner.
"You are really here," Malik said, pressed against Altair as he could hardly carry his own weight anymore. The sensation of touch made it real, he was slowly coming to believe it, and the more he did the more relief flooded him. At last. At last!
"How long were you down there?" Altair demanded, the two of them passing an unconscious guard at the door of the dungeon.
"What season is it?"
Altair's lips pressed into a thin line, his jaw tightening it. "It is early summer."
"Then two years," Malik replied, relieved to give a report to the grandmaster. At last! "I don't know much of what Abbas has been doing in the interim."
"Killed before the conclave. I don't know how."
The elation quickly disappeared as he realized just how many of his failures he would have to report to Altair, and the negative emotion drained him of what little strength he had left. The next thing was aware of was a cool compress being pressed on his face, and he opened his eyes to see Altair tending to him. Looking around, he found himself in a journeyman's room, and that confused him. He looked to the grandmaster in askance and he replied in dark tones.
"Our quarters, apparently. Abbas claims I am no longer grandmaster. We only arrived yesterday. Abbas has created a senior council of idiots; and he says that you killed Sef when he learned you wanted to supplant me."
"Malik," he said in his soft tenor, holding up a hand. "I am sorry. I placed burden after burden on you and never even realized it. When I first became grandmaster you told me you preferred middle management, but I dragged you into being my second, and I left you over and over to set up branches in other cities, leaving you a duty you hated. I am sorry, I never thought about you and your needs. I-"
"Shut up, novice," Malik groaned, turning his head away. "I should be the one to apologize to you. It is because of me that Sef-"
"I'm back," a third voice, Maria, interrupted their conversation and she quickly settled to the other side of Malik's head, setting down a tray of materials. She disappeared again, but only briefly as she returned with a bucket of water. The two of them quickly stripped Malik of his filthy robes; Altair gently cleaning every inch of skin and Maria following with ointments and salves, mostly to the blow Abbas had struck him. "It's such an ugly scar," she murmured, tending it with gentle hands.
"It is no more than I deserve," Malik said, sighing at their gentle ministrations. He lost time again; his mind was quick to fly away, but soon he was in fresh robes and drinking thin millet.
"Malik," Altair said, shaking him awake. "Start at the beginning."
And, slowly, painfully, Malik told them everything. He explained the innocuous day he made a comment about the senior council being filled with old men, and Abbas revealing his colors afterward, about deciding to make Sef his assistant in order to protect the boy and keep him close, about discreetly talking to Rauf and Nazim and Ibtisam and the others to ascertain whom he could trust. He brokenly explained his last day of freedom, the ambush at the library and Abbas' accusations, of trying to use Rauf to prevent the coup, of how Abbas gloated about the "fever" that had taken so many other assassins. He detailed his prophecy to Abbas, hidden words and seeds he could only hope were planted in the brotherhood, and of the high turnover of the cells in his first months of captivity. He trailed off explaining the plight of the garden visions, what Barakah and the others had done to themselves in order to be true to the Creed.
"She had to leave with her family to Alamut," he said, exhausted from talking so much. "That was last summer, and I have not seen her since."
Maria had been an active audience for the report, growling and crying and pounding her fist onto the stone, her emotions always visible on her face. Altair by contrast was consummately mute, his face stoic and hard to read as it always was. But, when Malik at last finished, Altair reached forward and pulled Malik into a tight embrace.
"Forgive yourself brother," he whispered, "Forgive yourself as I do not need to, for you have done nothing wrong. Absolve yourself of your imagined sins, and come back to us as you were before we left you with this burden."
And Malik could only cry again.
Maria hugged him from behind, and the last memory he had was of being embraced by the people he loved most.
It was the most restful sleep he had in years.
Dawn shone through the windows, and Malik shied away from the light after living in the dim gloom of a prison cell. A tiny hand touched his face and he looked up to see Maria tending him.
"Altair has gone to get us breakfast," she said, "He didn't want to leave you alone, so I offered to stay." She shifted her position slightly, and put a hand on his shoulder. "I asked about Barakah last night. She never returned after she left for Alamut. I'll ask around the village later, once we've dealt with Abbas."
"She... she was so kind to me," Malik confessed. "She wanted to give me everything, and apologized when she could not. Her body... she..."
Maria put a finger to his lips to quiet him, smiling softly. "I remember her when she was first brought to the gardens. When you and Altair were introduced she asked me why she had been born so late and if you had a wife. She had a very strong will and an even brighter mind. Wherever she is I'm sure she is fine."
"When she left... it felt so final..."
Maria nodded. "I have suspicions about that. Only one thing will tear a woman like her away from her man: circumstance."
Malik shook his head slightly, confused. " 'Circumstance?' You mean Abbas?"
Maria blinked, staring at Malik before she let out a great huff of air and rolled her eyes. "I swear; you're no better than Altair! Why did Sef-" her voice cracked but she wiped her eyes and pushed on, "Why did Sef marry so young?"
"Because she was..."
His eyes widened, and all air exited his lungs. Barakah... she might be...?
Maria panicked slightly, quick to put a hand on his shoulder. "Breath, breath, Malik. I don't know for sure, so please breath."
And his next breath brought about a laugh, weak and broken but one of pure joy, tears of happiness leaking out of the corners of his eyes. "Sef would be so proud," he gasped, still laughing.
And Maria, knowing her son, could only smile and nod. "He probably would."
Not long after, Altair returned and gladly served Malik. The one armed dai was still weak from his months of malnourishment and the grandmaster was only too happy to feed him. "I will never neglect your needs again, brother," he said with deep conviction, and Malik could only smile before muttering, "Novice."
They both laughed.
Malik soon fell asleep again, dreaming for the first time of milk and honey. Altair embraced him and called him brother; Maria touched his shoulder and said he was family. Darim looked at him stoically before calling him Mentor. Barakah, unscarred and beautiful, kissed him and put his hand to her abdomen; and he smiled now, understanding the gesture. "We will be fine," she whispered. And then Sef walked up with his wife and daughters, smiling. "I told you settling down would do you good!" before clapping him on the back and laughing. And Kadar was there, young and wide-eyed as he always was. "Welcome home, brother." Love was everywhere he looked, his family was enormous, and he was content.
That was when Swami killed him.
Authors Notes: The premise of this? "Fill in the gaps for the thirty year jump from Altair: 30 to Altair: 62 in Revelations." Sixty-five pages later I look over this and wonder if I didn't go a little overboard. Er, I didn't mean to?
Reader reaction for these last chapters makes us really curious. I teared up writing it, and Mirror cried twice (twice!) when she did her separate passes reading it - and she never cries. Even our beta Tenshi cried at the end of this, and so we're just super curious if it happened to other readers. We're nervous that breaking it up into parts ruins the magic of it, but it would be an absurdity to ask a reader to read 65 pages in one sitting on ff . net. So please, please let us know what you thought.
This fic had a lot of pieces to it: there was incorporating the Codex, spinning the "Abbas" plate, trying to show without words that the world Altair sees a much bigger world and has a much wider scope than anybody else, looking at the La-Ahad family from an "outside" source, Constantinople and setting up branches, and showing how the Order broke apart in Altair's absence. For all that this fic is from Malik's perspective, our beloved grandmaster is a huge figure in the fic - understandable, given close he and Malik are.
While not stated overtly, we wanted very deliberately for Maria to have a specific role in the Order, and putting her in charge of training the garden visions made perfect sense - mini assassin's in the making, paving the way for Ezio to not be shy in the slightest about recruiting girls two hundred years later.
Which leads to Barakah. Yes, we created a girl for Malik. His son was born the same year he died, right? Seriously, look at the numbers. How else was it going to happen? Having said that though, Barakah turned into a really interesting character. She's so devoted to Malik, even back when she was twelve and met him for the first time; her crush turned into love easily (or not, given that this IS Malik we're talking about and he's just so prickly), but she's also completely committed to the assassins. Can you imagine what Tazim's upbringing would have been like with a mother like her? (laughs at self for falling in love with an OC).
Though very vague, there are some mild biblical references here in the end; the Bible (at least in my mind) makes washing hands and feet and important gesture of servitude/respect. Given the overall culture of thirteenth century Syria, touch we assume is a rare thing, and that Barakah does it so readily - and when Malik is filthy as heck from being in prison - makes her very bold. It's also a testament to Altair's opinion of Malik as he's the one that cleans him and feeds him. There's also the dream of milk and honey - two things that Paradise is overflowing with.
There's something in this, either tone or set up, something probably technical that we don't recognize, that we really like about this fic, and we hope you all enjoy.
Feedback is always appreciated.