“Do you love the Lord, Girolamo?”
The little boy looked up to the tall man, dressed in dark, expensive clothes, who smiled down on him. He nodded, but the trembling of his lips wouldn’t stop. His eyes were wide open and he couldn’t close them, not even when it started to hurt.
He was scared, he often was. Even when confronted with the priests, whom he knew he was obliged to trust, he sometimes started to tremble visibly. One of the nuns once told him it might be because of his lack of sense, that he was too dumb to trust in the rightness of His Will.
He probably was. Four years old and he couldn’t remember. Sometimes he woke up and didn’t know what had happened, why he had slept hidden in a corner under the stairs or beneath a shelf in the kitchen.
It ended when they took him to the monastery. There the doors were kept closed. There he stayed for the night in a hall together with other boys of different ages. There he woke up lying at the door with the others laughing. Bloody fingernails the only sign that he had tried to escape. No memory, and it didn’t matter.
“Do you trust in God?” The Priest again, still smiling and this time Girolamo smiled back. He liked the stories the man told him. Different than the ones he heard in school. The man told them using more words, using colors and details. He explained wonders that had happened a long time ago, but were still important to mankind. Always important.
“Do you love God?”, the priest asked and leaned down to him. And Girolamo, five years old now, loved and trusted in the Lord and in His servants.
It was never easy. Growing up knowing he was different. The other kids left no doubt. Maybe he was too quiet, maybe to small, to skinny. A perfect victim. He tended to keep his mouth shut and they tended to invent stories around and about him. Trying to reveal secrets he didn't even know himself. Mocking him. Establishing a position of which he didn't know why he deserved it.
Fact remained that they were privileged boys sent to the monastery in order to start a career leading them to the center of the world, to the city where power and money concentrated. They all were there in order to make their parents proud. To fulfill the special duty of a third or forth son, someone who couldn't follow the path of the firstborn heir, someone who wasn't sent out to become a salesman or a warrior. No, and they made sure, that Girolamo knew it: they were there to save and protect the souls of their family and of the people depending on them.
Girolamo wasn't, because Girolamo had no family. His future would belong to a congregation, his life to the Lord.
Knowing this felt secure and Girolamo had no reason to doubt the facts. Never had a reason to doubt the words spoken by the monks. Rare enough that they cared.
That might be the reason why he listened eagerly if one of them talked to him. Really talked. No orders, no instructions, no punishment for evils he didn't remember having committed.
Brother Angelus saw him and he took his time to explain. Eleven years old Girolamo was thankful.
"There is no reason to be afraid," Brother Angelus said and Girolamo kept quiet. He didn't tell him that he wasn't. That he was accustomed to the touches, to the closeness of a tall and reeking body. He was past being scared for a while.
"You know about the sins of the flesh," Brother Angelus assured himself. "There is nothing worse on earth, nothing more despicable." His voice was soft, the touch of his fingers gentle.
"You also know that what happens between us is different. It is a gift, it it's holy, pure and the Lord looks down on us with joy." He smiled and Girolamo smiled back. He didn't question his words. Didn't wonder why they shared their gift apart from the others, in small, dark and meticulously closed rooms. Why Brother Angelus insisted on keeping it a secret.
He had never been a talker, so he kept quiet. And probably Brother Angelus knew.
There were rules and he took them seriously. He kept quiet, he learned, he trained and he listened. Brother Angelus promised him that God knew, that God would help, that He would change his destiny. That Girolamo might become a priest himself one day. That he deserved to serve the Lord in higher ranks.
He listened and he kept his thoughts to himself. Thoughts that changed the older he became.
He didn’t care about the other kids, but he noticed that they changed as well. And he noticed that not all of them knew what he knew, did what he did.
When they looked at him like they smelled an older man on his skin, when they looked like he should act ashamed, he understood that there might be people in His Service who didn’t care to speak the truth. That there were monks and brothers who used him without the knowledge or the approval of the Higher Being he had learned to worship.
When he hit puberty he started to doubt. Not in the Lord but in the people around him.
Still he kept quiet. Still he did what some of them suggested him to do. He knew the glimmer in their eyes when they looked at his slim body, when they mentioned his eyes, when they touched his dark hair, pretending to took pity on a lonely orphan. He knew where these looks, these touches led and he didn’t say a word.
But slowly he learned to see through them, to understand intentions and to use them to his advantage. Simply because he learned about the importance of gaining an advantage. Of seeing through other people, people with power. The people who ruled his fate and that of the other kids. Though these kids meant nothing to him. He didn’t care, had never been one of them, had never understood why they stayed together without giving him space among them, in the midst of their community.
So he learned and he learned fast. Once having hit puberty he understood the depths of the desires ruling the men who approached him. He understood and he stayed quiet, learned to use them, learned to use the influence they had on the other kids. He grew up to become a young man who became extraordinary talented in the art of manipulating, silent blackmailing, of winning a game with a false smile, with a low voice and a threat he never needed to put into words.
And the other kids changed to. They learned to respect him, even to subordinate themselves. Still they left him alone but now he was glad. Now he could concentrate on his goal, the one and only destiny he felt called to. His fate lay with the Lord and he would never deceive him.
Surely he suffered from doubts, but doubt belongs to faith. So does patience and control. And so he still allowed nightly visitors, and he never dared to object. They became less the older he became and sometimes he believed to detect fear in their faces when they looked at him. And he answered with the small smile he had developed over the years. The one which wasn’t truthful or honest or amused. The one which was a threat in itself. And the men knew better than to visit him again.
Devoted to his Lord he was ready to dedicate his life to His service, when his life changed. His world turned upside down and he was taken from the peace he hadn’t known he had been granted with.
His father claimed his loyalty, his duty, his energy, willpower and his body before he even understood what was happening.
To his fathers astonishment he succeeded in impressing him with his quick learning, his talent to adjust and finally with his skills in riding and fighting without restraint. A fact which made him proud, maybe for the first time in his life. It was enough to make him adore his father to the point it hurt. To the point he was ready to do anything for him, to fulfill each of his wishes without questioning and with pride and joy.
When he saw da Vinci for the first time, he thought about potential, about possibilities. This man could be valuable, could be used for his father’s purposes. He could be more than Riario was able to imagine in this moment.
It was a game he was used to playing. Gaining a potential victim’s attention, their fear, their respect and at last their services came naturally to him.
But somehow with da Vinci he found himself acting and reacting differently. Something stole his conviction, his well-earned control, his superiority.
It happened slowly and at first he didn’t notice. Each time he met da Vinci, the man irritated him more. He felt distracted, caught himself watching the tiny little nervous movements of his fingers. He noticed da Vinci’s stare, his lips, the impatient tap of his feet, when nobody seemed to understand the meaning of his words. No one but Riario himself and he kept his mouth shut. But he felt the poison of da Vinci’s thoughts invading his own.
Then everything happened too fast. Their enmity, their open hate turned into collaboration and maybe even, if he wasn’t careful, into something like friendship.
Impossible, forbidden, evil and still he wasn’t able to silence the voices in his head anymore. They spoke of the wrongness of his path, started to scream, driving him into desperation and madness. Madness he often didn’t recognize, more often wasn’t able to conquer.
Until it won. Until his madness made him commit the ultimate sin. And when he recognized it, it was too late.
Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t used to hold himself in check, to keep himself from taking what he craved, from trying what other people wouldn’t dream of.
Usually he hadn’t problems to find out what it was he desired. Or what he loathed. Until he met Riario. The man irritated the hell out of him. There wasn’t meant to be much space between hate and love, he know it from the start.
He knew it each time he felt Riario's eyes on him. But he never admitted to seeing it, didn’t want to, couldn’t stand to spare a thought about a possible, permanent impression Riario left in his confused mind.
Neither the ridiculous wink nor the obvious arrogance shown with every posture should mean a thing to him. Nor the show the man offered, the well-planned appearances, the strangely perfect outfits, fitting in a way that shouldn’t be allowed in real life. Such perfection should be reserved for fantasy and art.
Nothing of this should bother him, he had enough problems, enough people, friends and enemies to deal with.
But he couldn’t stop his thoughts, could he ever?
In Riario's case there was a challenge beneath, a challenge especially sent to him by fate. He discovered it quickly.
There were moments when the mask shook, when he began to sense a glimpse of what Riario was hiding so perfectly he himself might not notice anymore.
There were times when he thought he’d solved the riddle. When he earned a smile, one of Riario's rare honest smiles. When his expression softened, and when he looked at Leonardo like he was everything.
This expression, at first just a flash, a vision grew familiar over the weeks and then months. It might have been fake at the beginning but very soon it wasn’t anymore.
And Leo learned to expect these expressions, to wait for them, for the view of complete attention, the concentration in these eyes, the small streak of amusement which might accompany a picture of entire dedication.
He waited, he saw, but he didn’t react, wasn’t capable of answering what might be hidden behind the dark eyes, which sometimes seemed to be filled with hurt in spite of the small smile crinkling the skin at their corners.
But later on, after they had seen so much together, too much for a lifetime, he noticed more. He saw Riario reacting to him, to his touches, his intentions to help him, to heal him. Wherever these intentions came from.
Then there was something in Riario’s gaze that seemed to be warm, seemed to be able to know love, to know friendship.
Anyway – this time again they parted and Leo knew that Riario hadn’t been healed. That there were wounds and scars invisible beneath his skin which hadn’t even been recognized, much less taken care of.
Sure, he had his own problems to solve. But it was a poor excuse for letting Riario go. For forgetting about a man on his knees, held in chains, finally succumbing to Leo's everlasting efforts, his quest to make sense of actions Riario himself had been far from understanding.
No doubt, he noticed the change, noticed the looks, noticed the softness in Riario's eyes, in his body, when it slid slowly and boneless to the floor. Still always attentive, still watching him. It had seemed like he had waited for Leo's touch, for the risk and hurt of his self-made medication. Riario even in his sick and disturbed state was a clever man, he knew about danger. And he knew about Leo’s lack of experience in this new and unexplored sector. How much of his consent had been based on his intention to die? How much of the expression of peace on his face Leo noticed had been reasoned by a predisposition which once had led to the scars on his wrists?
Leo hadn’t taken the time to question Riario’s motives, less his own actions. He wouldn’t, he couldn’t slow down. In no way. It had always been his purpose which counted and after finishing it he needed to move on. To search for another task, for a different method to keep his mind and hands occupied. So he did and he pretended to forget about Riario, a man whose path was so different from his own that they should never had shared a piece of the route.
Of course the rumors reached him faster the more he tried to hide. The more he buried himself in his work, in absurd assignments that years ago he would never have contemplated to accept. But they distracted him and probably that was the reason why Zo never said a word, just stayed Zo, supporting him, humoring him, staying at his side, whether he gave up, failed intentionally or decided to run without looking back.
Bad enough he had to worry about Nico and Vanessa, Zo never showed a sign of wondering about Leos behavior. Just organized the material he needed, arranged new jobs and ensured that even unfinished work won’t haunt them with the desire of compensation.
The strange circumstance that Leo noticed Zo’s endeavors – maybe for the first time – spoke volumes of how much he himself had changed.
He worked, but his work lacked the ever smoldering fire, the enthusiasm he never had consciously known he possessed. He couldn’t define what prevented him from abandoning himself to his art completely. Even the portraits he did felt wrong. Usually an easy task he now had to concentrate on setting the lines correctly, on avoiding to give skin a certain pale tone, on drawing dark and huge eyes, staring sadly and sometimes reproachfully at the beholder.
Notwithstanding he tried, and he ignored Zo’s growing restlessness. There was something on the friend's mind, he could tell. And when they slowly but surely moved closer to Rome, he didn’t know if it was coincidence or Zo’s intention. Maybe his own as well, because although he wanted to ignore his surroundings, the talks and gossip reaching him even in the most hidden places, he couldn’t stop his mind from listening. From asking questions, from deducing.
Therefore he heard from the pope, from the changes happening around his person. Ideas were spread, talks about a substitute having replaced Sixtus, looking like him but behaving differently. Leo didn’t care about the pope and his entourage. With the exception of the count who was apparently back in his services. Stories were told about the hand of God on earth, making Leo cringe. They spoke of religious frenzy, of insanity, and despite of all he had seen he couldn’t imagine Riario going down this path. He didn’t want to, and so he closed his eyes and his ears. And Zo remained silent.
Until one day, when he brought some bottles of wine and expensive liquor, placing them on the table of the secluded cottage they shared.
He smiled but even Zo’s smile had lost its frankness.
“Let’s get drunk,” he told Leo and pointed to the piles of papers and abandoned drawings and the canvas, Leo had been working on. None of the projects was finished, none of them ready to be used for anything.
Leo squinted. His head pounded from lack of sleep and his fingers twitched. He couldn’t see clearly for wherever he looked there seemed to be a mess of unruly black hair ready to be captured on canvas, and he couldn’t separate the image from the calculations he tried to work on.
With one motion Zo wiped the papers from the bunch of chairs Leo had surrounded himself with in order to keep all his drafts in check. Which was futile for he long since had forgotten the reason for working on them.
Leo shook his too long hair from his eyes when he looked up at the amplified mess. Sitting down on the ground he had been busy with arranging and rearranging drawings of different topics and sizes. In between his hands were flying over the lines, sometimes adding a detail, sometimes crossing out a number, some words or even an empty part of an unfinished picture.
“What do you want?” he murmured, dropping his head again in an attempt to go on with whatever he had began.
“Time to get drunk,” Zo repeated and Leo simply shook his head, until Zo sank down on one of the now empty chairs and held a bottle directly in front of his nose.
“Believe me”, he stated. “You want to be drunk while listening to what I need to tell you.”
Leo sighed and shook his head, but the bottle stayed in his angle of view. Part of him gave in because he knew Zo too well. The other part simply was bored by work for which he couldn’t muster enough interest to put his heart and soul into it.
So he rolled his eyes and leant back against the legs of another chair gripping the bottle and taking a swig.
“What is it?” He closed his eyes and imagined Zo swallowing, imagined drops of red wine rolling down his throat, over his chest, into the black curls. His fingers itched to draw but his mind wasn’t ready. He had simply lost any interest in capturing the beauty of a moment and preserving a single part of it for eternity. Which was frustrating and not entirely true. Because each time his subconsciousness commanded him to draw he knew exactly what it should be. Who should be captured on paper, drinking wine, leaning his head back to swallow, presenting a neck usually hidden by layers of expensive clothes. Usually but not always, not during the delicate moments they had shared.
He gulped and opened his eyes, hating it how his mind wandered all the time without finding a conclusion or even a way to occupy himself in the way it had done before he had met Riario.
Zo looked at him and Leo recognized the look from the last days, maybe weeks or months.
He seemed to be uneasy, maybe worried, troubled anyway. It wasn’t easy for him to differ, too much was going on in his own mind to care about the minds of other people. Even the ones he knows as well as Zo’s. On the other hand he never had had any reason to wonder about him. If Zo was anything then it was open, literally. For a moment Leo considered to dispel his doubts by using his skills. Distracting Zo with his body never failed and had some positive side-effects for himself too. Like escaping the prison of his own whirling thoughts if only for a moment.
But a second glance showed that this wasn’t an option. Even if he succeeded – and he would if he really wanted to – Zo wouldn’t forget about the issue. Leo discovered the deep creases on his forehead which only stayed there when something was really bothering him. And there was no way he won’t share the subject with Leo. The bottles alone were proof enough of the amount of thoughts Zo had spent on finding the best way to do so.
Leo drank again and decided to watch Zo following his example. The silence between them stretched out and started to become uncomfortable. Something wasn’t right and Leo bit his lip, sensing arising nervousness the booze couldn’t prevent.
He stayed silent until Zo had taken his fill. His movements became slower, his gaze unsteady. At least he sighed and stared at Leo, eyes black and sad.
Then he placed his bottle on the floor and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“You remember the guy”, he started and looked at Leo, whose heart stood still. There wasn’t any further explanation necessary. He knew exactly about which guy Zo was talking. None of them had mentioned him, not after all that had happened. But in this moment he understood that Riario always had been there between them, mentioned or not.
So he simply nodded and Zo pressed his lips together and released a breath.
“Well, then you know about what has been talked about.”
Leo decided not to answer and Zo continued with a hint of sarcasm.
“I really don’t care about the pope, about what happened to the real or false one and who might be in position now. In fact nobody seems to. But the craziness we already noticed within our dearest count meanwhile seemed to be visible to everyone. Even to his corrupt relatives and the followers who might be even crazier than he himself is.”
“What are you talking about?” Leo’s voice sounded hoarse and he coughed before taking another gulp.
“I’m talking about the hand of God”, Zo stated. “About someone killing and murdering his way through the ranks of the Vatican. Not that I care much as I already mentioned. All these religious fanatics can go to hell if you ask me. But right now it seems like there still are too many of them in positions of power. And more important – they are not happy with some decisions their hand of God is making, obviously without asking for their consent.”
“So?” Leo’s heart suddenly pounded in his chest and he wished he was more drunk. Trust Zo to know what was good for him. Though it seemed that he already had carried this story with him for a while without giving a hint. But before Leo could decide to get angry, Zo answered.
“Meaning they tried to get rid of the problem.”
“No!” Suddenly Leo was on his feet, trembling and shouting. “What – what are you going to tell me?”
“Calm down!” Zo shook his head and breathed audibly, clearly in an attempt to stay in control. Different from Leo who felt like burning on the inside. How came he hadn’t thought about losing Riario, had never thought about the dangers lying on his way. Dangers which always had been there and even more now in his recent unstable state.
“Nobody’s dead, as far as I know. Except some hypocritical church dignitaries and other criminals of high descendence. Wouldn’t say they don’t deserve it. Probably the guy killed his father too. Or uncle, whatever.”
Leo shook his head, tried to slow down his breathing. He felt dizzy but refused to sit down.
Zo read him fairy well. “I know you wonder why I’m talking about this now.”
“Right.” Leo knit his brow.
“That’s because Riario …” Zo stopped, apparently having trouble saying the name, then sighed at last. “Because the bunch of crazy followers, the ones who believed in his madness, are starting to forget about him. Therefore he soon won’t be protected anymore. And I know that you wouldn’t forgive me, if I hadn’t told you before it will be too late.”
“What about Laura Cereta?” Leo felt confused. “I thought she would support him at any cost.”
Zo raised his eyebrows. “Turned out the woman started to develop a better taste in men. Last thing I heard from her was about hanging around with some handsome Duke from England. Someone obviously reliable and mentally stable, an advantage which shouldn’t be undervalued, am I right?”
Leo shook his head. “What happened to him?”
Zo sighed again. “That’s why we are here. Of course it isn’t easy to get into secrets of these dimensions but there’s nothing I’m not capable of finding out.”
“I’m deeply impressed”, Leo forced himself to admit. “Could you please tell me.”
Zo smiled suddenly. “If you ask me he’s where he belongs. And I would leave him there happily if the adorable nurses hadn’t agreed that there was someone after him. Imagine – they put him into a nuthouse so even his followers couldn’t complain – I mean the man is downright crazy, I don’t have to see him to know – and as soon as nobody cares anymore they get rid of the risk.”
“He knows too much”, Leo whispered and couldn’t help but shudder. Guilt rose inside him but he fought it back. If Zo was right than there was no time for self-recriminations.
He felt shaky when he tried to get up, put more effort in the move and finally stood on wobbly legs. "We need to save him", he croaked and didn't need to look at Zo to notice his disapproval.
"No way", he heard him say, while he staggered to the corner where he had left his bags, looked around to check which of his belongings he needed to take with him. Still without looking at Zo he shook his head. "I won't discuss this matter", he said. "Stay here or go wherever you want to. But I feel responsible. It was my attempt to heal him, which might have caused the biggest damage."
Suddenly he felt Zo at his back, Zo's hand on his shoulder. "You know very well that I won't leave you", the friend said. "If I hadn't done it yet, why should I start now?"
A weight crashed from Leonardo's heart and he sighed thankfully but still didn't turn, feeling slight movements behind him. "And I disagree", Zo spoke again. "He was dangerous all his life, you probably haven’t made it worse."
Leonardo snorted and finally turned to discover the twinkle in Zo's eyes. He threw the bag at him. "You're an idiot", he stated. "And you know it. So don't lose our time and Girolamo's."
"Excuse me! Who?"
Leonardo blinked, shook his head in order to keep this thoughts straight. "Riario's time", he corrected and Zo pouted and finally rolled his eyes. "Hadn't known we're on a first name base here."
Leonardo coughed, slightly embarrassed. And really - when had it started that Riario invaded his thoughts wearing this rather ridiculous first given name? Leonardo could tell that Girolamo probably wasn't happy to wear a girlish sounding name like that. Or was it him spending this totally inappropriate amount of time and energy thinking about this man?
He sight and went on packing, his nervousness rising with every second.
"Do you think we could involve Nico?", he asked more to himself, when they mounted the horses Zo had organized without having explained how a deal like that might be possible in such a short amount of time. Leonardo knew better than to ask.
The longer their journey lasted the more nervous Leonardo became. His head filled with pictures of Riario, of the amounts of times he had seen him hurt, injured or being beaten up. Not seldom it had seemed that he had accepted, even welcomed the pain. Like some kind of justice. Like he deserved it. Whatever would happen to him now, he probably wouldn't fight it either.
Leonardo remembered the broken look in those dark eyes and again he felt guilt rising. His fault. His problem. All the signs he had noticed and hadn't reacted.
Of course - he never had a reason.
Leonardo shook his head in a useless attempt to clear his thoughts. They had been enemies from the start. Each bond they might have formed during their journey together had been an illusion. At least that was what he had told himself repeatedly. Everything he might have discovered in these long and intense glances, Riario sent him, in fact was something unreachable, incomprehensible. Just some kind of trust born out of a shared fate. And some kind of appreciation this strange man held for him. Leonardo wasn't sure if he deserved it. Wasn't sure what exactly it was, Riario saw in him.
Therefore he preferred to avoid thinking about him. To send him away, let him go, no matter how deep those looks were, how much they made his heart stutter in his chest.
To be true he was no stranger to those feelings, met them often enough. A pretty face, a nice body and his heart skipped a beat. And usually that was enough for him to make a move. Strangely with Riario it was different. Well, it was different with people of fame, with people bearing a name society cared for. Maybe his father had beaten this kind of caution into him during the first years of his life. Don't dare a nobleman! Never embarrass your father! And though he really had thought that he had overcome this obstacle soon enough, it sometimes came back to haunt him.
But now even he himself could tell that his reaction to Zo's words meant something. Maybe he knew already.
"Hurry up", he said and fortunately Zo followed his instruction without questioning it.
No surprise that Zo had contacts showing him the way to the little town not too near to a hidden institution, as their landlady told them in secret.
"Nobody talks about the loony bin", she said and poured them some of her wine. Carefully she looked around before she continued.
"But I heard from people who came close. There are screams and all kinds of crazy laughter. The whole place is cursed."
She bowed her head, looked at Leonardo, smiled wickedly. "I don't see why some pretty boy like you and your friend might be interested in a bunch of lost souls who would be dead if the Lord even cared."
Leonardo changed a glance with Zo and left it to him to answer. He left the wine untouched and soon enough they were on their way through the woods.
"There it is," Zo whispered and Leonardo stared at a formerly noble building. The years had taken their tolls on it. One path led to the entrance. Apart from that the building was surrounded by thick forest and Leonardo doubted that it would be easy to approach the place without gaining attention.
He also noticed the guards dressed in papal uniforms and provided with first class weapons, somehow unusual concerning the institution in which they stayed.
"A temporarily measure", Zo stated. "Usually just some guards coming from the town are checking the surroundings. What I heard of there isn't much need of special security. The nutcases are just harming themselves and no one cares."
"Shut up", Leonardo hissed and didn't know if he felt irritated because of the possibility that Zo named Riario a madman. It certainly hadn't been the first time. But hearing it in this context, watching the building which looked like a fortress, he couldn't help it.
"Easy, man", Zo soothed and slightly disapprovingly shook his head. "We'll get this done."
Then he raised his head, obviously listening.
Leonardo rubbed his fingers against each other. He felt inexplicably anxious. The thought of Riario locked in there made him much more uncomfortable than he couldn't have imagined.
"We need to do something", he whispered and Zo turned around and grinned at him. "We will", he said and suddenly stepped out of the bushes they had used as a camouflage. And now Leonardo heard it too. Hoof trotting, a sound he shouldn't have missed, quickly came nearer. What was wrong with him? He couldn't concentrate. It was like he was feeling Riario’s presence through the walls and it made his skin crawl and his body itch in all the wrong places.
But now instead of being the responsible part of their relationship, even Zo seemed to forget each caution.
"You're here!“ he called instead to the men approaching them on their horses. No uniforms, no familiar face but Leonardo discovered quickly that they weren't unarmed.
"Niccolo sends his regards." The man descended from his horse and took Zo in a quick hug.
"Nico?" Leonardo didn't understand.
Zo smiled at him. "Hadn't you spent your time hidden in a makeshift studio doing nothing, you might have noticed that our friend is on his way to gain some real influence."
"Nico?" Leonardo repeated stupidly and Zo laughed.
"That's my buddy, Angelo. The great nephew of my grand-grandfathers maitresse impregnated his aunt."
"I understand." Leonardo deadpanned.
"They are already watching us", Angelo mentioned, pointing to the guards. One of them left the entrance, throwing suspicious glances into their direction. "Shouldn't we act now?"
Zo nodded. "No time for finesse as long as we don't know what's going on in there."
"Hey", the guard called to them. "You're not allowed here, vermin! This place is under protection of law and church."
Zo changed a glance with Leonardo and stepped forward. "We're here to visit someone. It's important."
"It's forbidden", the guard said and others stepped out of the building, pulling their swords. "There is nobody inside worth visiting."
"That's not what I heard." Zo grinned and Leonardo felt for his weapon, when he heard the other newcomers behind him move. Tilting his head he heard a whizzing sound and then another one. The guards screamed and then he noticed the shaft jutting out from the chest of the nearest before he fell down to the ground. He glanced around and saw one of the men in Angelo’s company throwing a knife, another one handling a crossbow. They were quick and obviously they came as a surprise. Their eyes glinted and their black hair reminded him of Zo's when he was wearing it longer.
"Your pals?" he asked breathlessly and Zo took his sword, gesticulated into the direction of the building. "Renegades. No intention to stick to traditions, they prefer to be free romanies."
"I owe you", Leonardo breathed and pulled his sword as well, smiled at Zo.
"I know", his friend responded. "Let's kick some ass!"
It clearly looked like nobody had expected an attack, at least not one performed by seemingly capable and well trained fighters. Though Leonardo didn't want to know where they got their experience from. Yet he stored the knowledge presuming he might need it one day.
Right now they stormed the building, Zo and the other men trying to keep the remaining guards away from him, while the terrified staff hid wherever possible. There were some heavy attendants putting themselves in his way, but Leonardo resurrected his fighting skills and found himself getting back into the mode easily.
He broke into closed doors, met shrieking and panicking patients, most of them constrained or at least bound to metal rings secured to the wall. All of them worn-out and emaciated, crowded in too small rooms. Children and women among them. No Riario and he began to feel their panic reinforced.
"Girolamo", he screamed fruitlessly, running up and down the stairs to the attic. Yet there was nothing but scared looking nursing sisters pleading for mercy, too upset to answer a question.
"The basement", he heard Zo call from below and immediately he changed direction and followed his voice.
When they met, one of the attendants, a coarse, tall man tried to keep them away from the steps leading into a dark cellar. "It's God's will", he blurted. "The betrayer needs to suffer for his sins before he dies and goes to hell."
"Stop fussing", Leonardo groaned and stabbed him without caring that the short sword the man wore went through his clothing, scratching his skin, maybe going deeper. No time to think about the pain, when he was this close to his aim.
The man fell down the stairs into the darkness and Leonardo followed him quickly, finding his way through the momentary blindness capturing him. But his eyes adjusted to the lack of brightness and suddenly he recognized few torches giving sparse light. Some were hidden in closed rooms. Only barred windows inside the doors allowed a glance inside. Leonardo shuddered when he discovered a skeleton bound to the wall in one room, a rotting carcass in another one.
"Riario", he whispered, not capable of speaking or even calling. Horror crept over him and he straightened his posture, not willing to show a weakness to which ghost ever was haunting this walls.
Still the sight he met was worse than what he had imagined. Frantically he kicked against the lock, broke the hinge, before the remains of the door allowed him to step inside the room.
From all he could tell Riario looked dead and Leonardo’s heart broke over and over again.
"I'm so sorry", he murmured while his sword fell to the floor with a clattering sound. "Forgive me, please." He didn't know if he talked or what he said, just noticed his lips moving while he slumped down besides the seemingly lifeless body tied to the wall. Even down here iron rings secured into the wall forbid the tightly bound victims to move away more than a few steps. Riario wore cuffs on hands and feet. He leant against the wall, eyes closed, legs pulled up, body huddled into the corner as if he had feared the possibility of an intruder before someone showed up. He seemed smaller than Leonardo remembered him, skinnier which shouldn't be possible. Black shadows were visible under his eyes. His lips seemed dry and his hair thin. There were cuts visible under his high cheekbones and one hand splayed in a strange angle against the stone. Like he had been thrown against it and hadn't bothered to search for an easier position.
Leonardo touched it carefully, the coldness and whiteness of the finger bringing tears to his eyes.
"What did they do to you?" he whispered. "What have you done to yourself?" he added without thinking. Words tumbling out of his mouth like the thoughts that used to tangle in his mind. "What did I do?" He brushed his free hand over Riario’s cheek, coming closer, searching, hoping for any signs of life. There wasn't much his enemies needed to do. To forget him in this place had been enough.
But then, just then he felt something, like a breath sucked in, like a chest moving under his hands. "Girolamo", he urged. "Please, fight."
Big eyes slowly opened and an unfocused gaze met his and went through him. Dark as ever Riario’s eyes were bloodshot and glassy, made the skin of his face seeming more waxy.
"We'll get you out of here", Leonardo promised and belatedly recognized the feverish heat emanating the body before him.
He jumped to his feet, pulling on the chains. "Zo", he cried, noticed Riario flinching. The man tried to curl up, but the ties prevented him from doing so. He moved his dry lips and Leonardo bent to listen. "I won't surrender", Riario croaked. "You've got no power over me, demon."
Still his gaze went into the void and Leonardo wasn't sure if they were directed to him.
"What the hell!" Zo burst into the room. "The bastard is still alive. Hadn't thought so after having seen the other 'patients'."
"What's happening out there?" Leonardo asked while still examining the chains and at the same time loosening Riario’s ties wherever possible. Freeing a weak body wrapped in a wide, dirty shirt, formerly white, and ragged trousers.
"The guards ran away", Zo reported. "Some of the inmates unfortunately as well." He grinned wickedly. "And the nurses we sent away. They deserve a better job somewhere nice and friendly."
"You're too kind", Leonardo snorted.
"To good for this world", Zo agreed and shoved him aside. "Let me try."
He lay down his sword and brought out a bunch of keys.
"Where did you...?" Leonardo stopped himself. Instead he watched his friend’s clever fingers opening the locks quickly.
Zo stored the keys again and took his sword. "We should hurry", he recommended. "Though these guards are rather stupid they will think about mentioning our little venture sooner or later."
Leonardo laid his arms around Riario, grabbed and lifted him way too easily. The man weighed nearly nothing anymore and it turned out to be not much of a problem to carry him up the stairs. He tried to lead, but Riario’s legs gave in with the first step and for a moment Leonardo thought the man would start to fight him. But instead he began to murmur words Leonardo couldn't understand, recognizing them later as Latin.
Somehow they managed to climb the stairs and reach the outside. And somehow Zo or Angelo - Leonardo certainly didn't care - had organized a carriage and he settled Riario on the load area of the wagon, took place beside him without allowing any questions or doubts from Zo’s side. When Leonardo had arranged a blanket around the curled and still mumbling patient, he looked up only to discover that Zo had taken the driver seat and already steered them down the path away from the building and out of the forest. Zo glanced back to him, shook his head, pointing at Riario and Leonardo’s place at his side. Too close to be inconspicuous. "You really are crazy, my friend", Zo said and clacked his tongue. "I always knew that and of course I had my doubts about this mission, but you should get a grip on yourself before you might end a nutcase as well."
Before Leonardo could answer he heard Angelo's laughter. The man directed his gelding closer to Zo. "Patience, Zo. You told me enough about this special maestro of yours. I doubt we can measure him according to ordinary regulations." Leonardo met his gaze and Angelo dropped it to the huddled form of Riario next to him. "Each artist is pursued by his demons. The only difference here is that you prefer to keep your demon with you instead of running from him. Remarkable for this demon is no other than the monster of Italy himself." Angelo grinned and Leonardo’s heart dropped.
"He isn't a monster anymore." He produced the words with closed teeth, keeping the anger at bay. "I doubt he ever had been one."
"Stop it, Leonardo!" Zoroaster, who had returned to directing the carriage out of the forest, turned back to him. "You know very well that he always had been a murderer. Employed, manipulated, directed sometimes, but a murderer on his own as well."
"Just like we are." Leonardo spoke quietly and Zo pressed his lips together and shook his head, allowing his curls to move with the motion. "He knows no compassion", Zo added at last and Leonardo bit his tongue. He wanted to scream, to deny it, but even if he couldn't believe the words, he had to admit that the impression Riario conveyed didn't let room for speculations. Zo wouldn't understand. Zo didn't know what Leonardo knew. And even if Leonardo would tell him what Riario some day had confessed in private, would tell him what he learned while trying to cure him, Zo wouldn't believe it.
Basically he wasn't wrong. Leonardo knew very well what he had brought himself into. What Riario was and had ever been. But the knowledge didn't change anything. Leonardo felt committed. Just like Riario when he had once confessed to him, that he hadn't been able to let him die in the claws of the Labyrinth.
Zo would never understand what a connection there was between him and the count. What a silent understanding existed here Leonardo couldn't find the words to describe.
They drove fast. It was a bumpy trip and sometimes Leonardo felt Riario jerk. He was tempted to touch him, to try to soothe him, but for once he felt unsure. Usually quick and easy with expressing himself physically, he now felt the need to handle the situation with care.
Riario behaved strange, not that he hadn't expected it, but he seemed to be absent in a way Leonardo couldn't get a grip on. So he watched him closely, but apart from the sudden shudders there was no movement, no sound. Even the quiet babble had stopped a while ago. Though he wasn't asleep or unconscious, Leonardo could tell. And so he waited and hoped. Watched the surroundings, the forest opening, the streets giving way to a new kind of journey.
He hadn't cared that they were travelling alone for a while, but after a few hours Angelo returned and brought their few belongings. Zo stored them under the coachman's seat and Leonardo smiled thankfully at Angelo and his companions.
It was more than obvious, that Zo finally took over the lead and Leonardo wondered how he had become used to this pattern. Hadn't there been a time when he had called the shots, made the decisions?
Nevertheless he had stopped listening to the man who directed the wagon, until Zo's voice became louder.
"That's how Angelo and his people are supporting Nico. They trust him and the other way around. We should be proud. Our boy is on his way to become someone really important. I just fear he might remember me in the wrong way and draw attention to the wrong people." He laughed and finally stopped the wagon. Leonardo's limbs hurt and he couldn't imagine how Riario might feel.
It was dark again, but he noticed a small cottage alone in the woods. It had been a long time since they'd passed any villages or farms.
"This is it", Zo stated. "No one ever bothers to control this one. You should be safe for a while."
"Me?" Leonardo blinked and Zo nodded, jumped from the carriage, started to unload the baggage. "That's why I brought your stuff. I will check the situation and find a more permanent refuge. Meanwhile you could think about what to do with the snake. Or what is left from him." He stopped in his motion. "Just one thing: remember to secure him. I don't intend to return and find you slaughtered. Even if your foolishness would be to blame alone."
Leonardo sighed. He stretched, followed Zo to the ground and drew him into a hug. "Thank you", he said warmly. "You're the best."
"Don't forget that." Zo clapped him onto the back. "Hurry now. I need to find a tavern before the night ends."
Leonardo nodded and carefully pulled the blanket from the still form, reached out and finally touched the still body. "You need to come with me", he whispered. "You're safe here."
He didn't really expect to succeed but suddenly, slowly Riario turned his head and looked at him. Leonardo had no doubt, that this time he saw him, that his somehow confused brain managed to understand what it received.
Riario blinked, once, twice and then struggled to sit up. Leonardo’s Fingers itched to help him but he stayed away, didn't want to risk a negative reaction.
Yet he leant closer when Riario moved his lips while turning his gaze away from him. "You're not real", Riario whispered and he sounded exhausted. The shadows under his eyes grew bigger and the arms holding him up trembled. Still he held his posture, always trying to be in control. At least of his body - Leonardo thought.
"I am", Leonardo said quietly and held out his hands. But Riario shook his head and moved. He struggled to get his legs to the floor, slipped more than he climbed down from the wagon. But somehow he managed. Though when leaning against the wheel, his legs started to shake and finally Leonardo overcame his doubts. Wouldn't help if he carried this once proud man inside. Better to support him even if he rejected any help.
Indeed Riario accepted the help and limped inside the cottage, never looking at Leonardo, though he returned to the murmuring under his breath. Leonardo was thankful, that Zo stayed quiet during their interaction, just lend him a hand, when he started to carry his belongings inside after having seated Riario next to the fireplace.
"You really should secure him", Zo repeated and handed him a rope, pointing to Leonardo’s side. "And then take care of your injury. I don't wish to come back to find you both hallucinating."
Leonardo looked up to find him smiling and smiled back relieved. That were the most friendly words he remembered Zo having uttered in context to Riario, and he remembered that all his showing-off in the end just was that - some bragging, some bravado hiding the softness inside him. Maybe he understood more of Leonardo’s feelings than he seemed to.
"You won't", he answered and nodded to him one last time before returning to Riario.
In no way the man looked like he meant any risk but to keep his promise Leonardo very loosely tied one of his hands to the window frame using one of the longer ropes he found. Riario watched his movements with open eyes but didn't object. Just when Leonardo reached for the other hand he pulled back, pressing himself against the wall.
"You're injured", Leonardo said. "I just want to help you."
"Why?", Riario asked in a low voice. Though Leonardo could tell that he aimed for indifference, he didn't miss the curiosity in his words. Leonardo smiled and shrugged while he carefully took Riario’s hand in his. Riario let him though the movement seemed to hurt. Still he watched Leonardo with big eyes. The expression made him appear so much younger than his years. He even looked innocent in a way which reminded Leonardo at the first time he had given himself willingly into Leonardo’s hands. The amount of trust had amazed him then and intensified his wish to help him.
He smiled again while feeling without applying to much pressure. "There is a fracture", he said. "But as soon as I will have stabilized the wrist, the pain will be bearable."
"It is bearable", Riario said and Leonardo looked up. That Riario wouldn't acknowledge pain didn't come as a surprise, but to his astonishment Riario seemed to be fully conscious. No Latin, no babbling, no unintentional jerks. He still looked at him and endured his treatment. Leonardo worked quickly, bandaged the hand with a flat piece of wood in a way the bones would heal properly, hopefully without leaving any longterm damage.
When he had finished he again met Riario's eyes. "Thank you", Riario said. "Artista."
Leonardo blinked. "You're welcome, Count", he said and stood up, groaning involuntary. His side hurt and he felt Riario’s gaze drop to the damage. Blood seeped through the fabric of his shirt and he lifted it with a sigh.
"Just a scratch", Riario said and Leonardo again looked at him. The man had rested his head against the wall, watched him with nearly closed lids. "No potential danger."
"Probably," Leonardo agreed, but still looked at Riario, fearing the sinner to appear suddenly and threaten him with hateful words.
Riario closed his eyes. "You’re not in danger,” he whispered. "Not here. Not from me. Not anymore."
Leonardo opened his mouth to speak but couldn't think of a reply.
For a moment he stayed and watched Riario but the man didn't move. In fact he looked like the epitome of exhaustion. No chance that he would try something.
Leonardo stepped outside, found a well at the backside of the cottage. It was peaceful outside, dark and quiet and he cleaned his wound and washed his shirt, hung it up to dry before he returned.
Riario showed no sign of consciousness and so Leonardo lit a fire in the fireplace, rummaged through his belongings until he found a new shirt. It was cold and they didn't have many blankets. Leonardo searched the cottage but it was small and obviously abandoned years ago. There wasn't much the ravages of time had left untouched.
Yet there was straw and Leonardo certainly had managed to form a comfortable place to sleep in from less. Meanwhile the fire spread some pleasant warmth though he feared it wouldn't be enough for the length of the night. When he approached Riario with a blanket the man opened his eyes slowly. First his gaze stayed unfocused but when Leonardo cleared his throat he seemed to come to.
"It will be cold in the morning", Leonardo explained when he carefully covered Riario’s legs with the blanket and nodded to the mattress of straw right next to him. "Lie down if you want to."
Still slow in his movements Riario shook his head, mumbled something Leonardo couldn't understand. Feeling uncomfortable he coughed before he spoke again. "Tomorrow I'll go for more wood. There is a well and therefore a possibility to clean and..." He stopped, slapped himself against the forehead. "You might need to drink as well. And food." Turning back to the baggage, he went on. "Might be that Zo had taken care of this. I swear, sometimes I don't know if I would survive without him. I know you never liked him, but this could change your mind."
Triumphantly he presented some bread and a leather bottle of something he hadn't identified yet.
But Riario already had closed his eyes again, and though Leonardo could tell that he wasn't asleep yet, he cut himself off.
His side hurt and he was tired. With a yawn he settled down in front of the fireplace, tore himself a piece of bread and chewed it thoughtfully.
Riario didn't move. He stayed still, frighteningly so. His eyes were closed. Long lashes threw shadows, painted the usually pale skin dark.
His hair gleamed with the light of the fire moving over the black strands. They hung into the forehead, nearly covering the eyes. Longer than he wore them usually, Leonardo thought. The beard was shorter though, just accentuating chin and cheeks. Again Leonardo wondered why Riario looked so much younger than he remembered. Such a fake innocence, as if he wanted to fool him, wanted him to believe that he wasn't capable of doing any harm. When Leonardo knew very well what Riario could accomplish with just a simple knife, with just his hands. His gaze dropped. At least not with one of his hands, he thought, feeling slightly guilty for thinking so.
He looked at the makeshift splint and remembered what he used to suppress. He had managed not to think about the scar on Riario’s wrist when he bandaged it. Didn't mean that he hadn't noticed it. Again. Another fact he hadn't paid attention to. Another fact he had pushed aside, moved aside easily. Too much on his mind. Too busy calculating another problem, another item, another work, he couldn't let go.
He laid the bread aside, his appetite long gone.
Could it be that he had found kind of a solution? An explanation for his behavior during the last months? Nothing had been capable of fascinating him enough to lose himself in the process of creating, of inventing, of searching for answers. Nothing wherever he had looked, whatever he had done. Everything seemed to be the same, the same boring old crap. He had thought it had to do with the loss of Vanessa , with Nico's decision to go. With the guilt he had felt as the aftermath of all their adventures.
But maybe there was something else, something he hadn’t recognized. Because as long as he remembered the crazy journey of the last years, as long this man in front of him had played a part in his life. Had influenced him and maybe more than that.
He bit his lip, tilted his head. Damn, he hadn’t managed to get Riario out of his head. Had tried, surely. But obviously he hadn’t recognized the extent of Riario’s influence on his mind and therefore on his ability to work, to concentrate, to deal with the problems of everyday life.
It was crazy, more than that. It was downright scary. Leonardo shook his head, felt sick. It shouldn't be that clear all of a sudden, shouldn't come as a surprise and at the same time as a revelation. Yes, Riario meant something to him. More than he would admit to himself or to anyone else. Even if he couldn't believe it, his actions spoke for themselves. He hadn't been able to leave Riario in this house, had accepted danger, trouble and pain. And what for? For sitting in a lonely cottage, in the middle of nowhere and watching a crazy man dozing his way through the night.
Leonardo sighed and Riario stirred, turned his head to him. His eyes were clear and the fire painted vivid patterns on his pale face. Was he still feverish, Leonardo wondered, but didn't speak.
Riario blinked, stared back at him. "Are you real?", he suddenly asked, his voice hoarse. "Da Vinci?"
Leonardo nodded, still unable to speak.
"Why?", Riario asked and leant back against the wall, closing his eyes.
Leonardo let out a breath. Should he admit what he had noticed himself just a few seconds ago? To a sick man? Someone who wasn't able to handle himself, to understand what was happening around him? Someone who might have committed countless crimes in this state of mind? Or even before? Mislead, manipulated, forced by fanatical leaders of the church.
"Because I care", he finally said without looking at Riario and didn't know what to add.
"You care", Riario repeated and a kind of wonder was audible in his voice. Then he opened his eyes but lowered his gaze to the ground. He shook slightly and Leonardo suddenly noticed what he should have noticed long ago.
"I do", he said and smiled sadly while slowly approaching him. "But for I'm living with my heads in the cloud and my senses obsessed with everything but the reality in front of me, I hadn't realized that you're freezing. Of course you are."
He nodded, kind of reassured himself. "Therefore I'll insist that you move closer to the fire."
Riario blinked and turned his head to him, looked at him carefully. "Leonardo", he said and Leonardo nodded helplessly, smiling again. "That's me", he said. "No ghost, no demon, no hallucination." And maybe it was a mistake to mention one or all three of these possibilities, for Riario almost looked scared now. Leonardo bit his tongue, waited and hoped.
Finally Riario spoke again. "No", he said. "You aren't the demon. I am."
And what the hell should Leonardo answer to this. So he remained silent and let his body speak. Sometimes it was easier, sometimes the only possibility. At least the danger of being misunderstood should be minimized.
He kept moving closer, very slowly, very carefully. And then he waited a moment, close to Riario, close enough to sense his shudders through the air between them. Riario still looked at him, big eyes wide open. Leonardo couldn't tell if he was scared or maybe planned an attack. In the end it was Riario he was dealing with. Everything could happen.
But strangely and even in spite of Riario’s confession he didn't feel scared, not a little bit. And so he reached out and laid his hand on Riario’s shoulder. "Come closer, Girolamo", he said without knowing where his need to use Riario’s first name came from. "It might help."
Riario blinked and blinked again and Leonardo was reminded of red eyes, of the burning he had felt himself. But right now Riario stayed quiet, just looked at him.
"You know what I am", Girolamo said at last, very quietly. "Why can't you let go?"
The question contained more than a suggestion to leave Riario, to give up on him. Leonardo thought of Riario’s scars, imagined the situation which had caused him to go down this final path, imagined the sadness, the desperation, the loneliness which might have accompanied him.
"I won't do you no harm", he said, and cleared his throat. "Even if you might ask for a final solution."
Riario blinked again, but then he closed his eyes. His head sank forward and then it tilted to the side. But Leonardo was quick, was suddenly close to him, offered his own shoulder for support and laid his arm around the slender frame. In a moment Riario’s head rested on Leonardo’s shoulder and his body against him. Leonardo held his breath, but then he pulled Riario closer and with his free hand wrapped the blanket around him. Riario went limp in his arms and Leonardo wondered if the reason was exhaustion or maybe something different. He might have given up on himself a long time ago, might have gotten used to the treatment as a prisoner. Might have gotten used to a lot of different treatments in his life. Leonardo thought about him bound to a tree, snarling, laughing and mocking his captors. Certainly that must have been another person than the one now leaning against him.
Again Leonardo bit his lip. He felt confused in a way he never had been before. Usually the world was formed from riddles, created for him to solve. He did solve them or he failed and either way he went on. But this riddle here was different. Because it involved him and his feelings, if he liked it or not.
Riario snuggled closer. He felt hot. Nothing serious though, he wasn't burning. The problem was his soul. Or his mind, if there was any difference. Just one of the questions Leonardo hadn't figured out yet. So many puzzles, not enough time to solve them. Never enough time.
Riario shuddered again, clearly he still was freezing. And Leonardo suddenly felt tired. The excitement of the day vanished in a single moment, gave room to helplessness and to his own exhaustion. He yawned and with his free hand he added more straw to the place behind them, so they were able to lie down, but stayed upright to be able to react to whatever might happen. Zo's words in his ears he imagined Riario trying to attack him, but dismissed the possibility quickly. No, he had to trust his instincts. And his instinct told him that there wasn't any danger. Rather the opposite.
He stopped this line of thought immediately and yawned again. Obviously he was tired enough to go crazy. Sleep seemed to be the only solution and slowly, very slowly he started to pull down Riario with him. It felt good to stretch out. His side ached with the effects of the adrenaline subsiding, but he concentrated on the throbbing of his torn skin and flesh in order to still his breathing and to welcome sleep. Already drowsy he noticed Riario who had stayed quiet and compliant, had allowed him to be handled like a doll, even felt pliant in a way Leonardo never had expected, started to move. But instead of turning away or struggling he snuggled closer until his head rested on Leonardo’s shoulder and his body close to him. Still radiating heat, and still shivering even if barely noticeable. Seeking for warmth, Leonardo thought tiredly, but couldn't find it in himself to reject the closeness. When he fell asleep, he felt strangely content. For once relaxed, not haunted by thousands of questions and possibilities. Somehow he found that there was another problem, he had solved without even knowing, without even recognizing the problem or its solution.
He slept deep and quiet and when he woke up, Riario still lay close to him, did not even stir. Leonardo stayed, listened to the slow and even breathing. Obviously the man was deeply asleep and the heat he had sensed the night before radiating from his body had disappeared.
The mild light of a setting sun illuminated their surroundings. They must have slept through the day but there was no reason to regret it.
Leonardo’s side was still aching, but it wasn't like the pain from the day before anymore.
Carefully he sat up, trying to bed Riario’s head as soft as possible on blanket and straw. The man stayed quiet though a feeling crept over Leo. Maybe Riario was used to fake his sleep as soon as he awoke? The warrior in him might have been alerted by Leonardo’s first movement, but the prisoner stayed quiet and obedient. A way to survive, Leonardo guessed, but not the way he had imagined Riario would take, much less chosen voluntarily.
He let out his breath and got up. He went outside to take care of his bodily needs, check his wound and fetch some water from the well to give Riario time to adjust to the surroundings, to find the man again, he once had been.
Leonardo discovered some wood outside too and brought it in together with the bucket. Nobody had been outside, no signs of life apart from the sounds and tracks of birds, rabbits and other animals. It wouldn't be difficult to find some plants, mushrooms, maybe some fruit.
Leonardo wasn't surprised to find Riario upright, but he hadn't expected to see him back in the corner, close to the stone wall. Riario's gaze followed him when he took care of the fire and prepared to heat some water. But he said no word. So it was on Leonardo to break the silence.
He brushed his hands against his shirt, stood up and clicked his tongue.
"Well well, he said. "Are we back to this again?" He gesticulated into the direction of the wall, but couldn't prevent to notice that Riario looked better in the light of the sparkling fire. Still pale, but he thought that he discovered some color, especially on his cheeks.
"What are you talking about - Artista?" There was a pause before Riario uttered the term he used to label Leonardo with. Leonardo noticed a slightly mocking undertone but Riario's voice was still hoarse. It lacked the force Leonardo was used to
Leonardo shrugged and decided to sit down right opposite from Riario.
"Do you remember anything?", he asked and folded his hands in his lap. Riario’s eyes followed the movement.
"I remember everything", he answered and Leonardo raised his eyebrows. "I can't believe that", he uttered without thinking and then, unexpectedly, Riario smiled. A true smile, one of his seldom smiles.
"Of course you can't", he said and there he was again, the old, arrogant bastard.
Leonardo crinkled his nose and at last answered the smile.
"Good to know", he said jovially. "Then I don't have to tell you that probably the henchmen of the pope are busy searching for some vanished inmate of a nuthouse."
Riario looked at him searchingly. "His servants were looking for a way to get rid of me for a long time." His mouth distorted in an evil grin. "But they were scared. At first." He faked a sigh. "Then - not so much. I knew they were coming. All the time."
"Yes." Leonardo breathed, thought about an answer. "Well, we were faster." He frowned. "Know what? I had thought for a while about leaving the country. About putting some borders between me and this whole crazy society. In fact there is nothing holding me here."
He watched Riario, watched the movement in his face, the different expressions following each other too quick to identify one or the other. Finally Riario closed his eyes. "I still don't know what you are talking about, Artista. Or what you are doing. Here. With me."
Leonardo jumped up and began to walk in the restraints of the small room. "But that's easy, isn't it? I heard of your madness, of your imprisonment, of the danger you were in, and I needed to act." His fingers moved quickly, the nervousness was back in full power. "To be honest, I still wonder why. I'm not sure what it means. Not completely. Or..."
He froze and stood still, stared at Riario who stared back.
"It is you who should be locked up", Riario said at last. "I doubt that you ever knew what you were doing."
“I probably didn’t”, Leonardo confessed and smiled. “But I’ve been always lucky in the end. And I intend to go on like this.”
Riario pressed his lips together, shook his head and looked away from Leonardo.
“I’m a monster”, he said. “I kill on behalf of the Lord. And sometimes I don’t remember why.” His voice fainted.
Leonardo licked his lips. The riddle, the task. Here it was again, presented itself in all its glory.
“But would you kill me?”, he asked and Riario looked up to him. “I don’t know”, he whispered. “There are tidings, hidden messages. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand them. But I need to obey.”
Leonardo smiled. “They are difficult to understand because you doubt them.” He tilted his head. “I don’t think that you would kill me. You had enough chances over the years. You wouldn’t. I trust you.”
Riario’s mouth opened in wonder. “Then you are stupid”, he whispered and Leonardo smiled again, stepped closer and untied his hand with some quick movements.
Riario sat still, looked at his wrist and where it had been bound to the window frame. He shook his head. “Don’t take such a risk”, he said.
“I’m not known for taking advice seriously”, Leonardo remarked, still kneeling down in front of him.
“Maybe you are a demon after all.” Riario’s voice was nearly inaudible. He blinked, began to murmur. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Leonardo sighed, took his hand. His thumb stroked over the healed scar, slowly, softly. “How does it feel when evil and temptation can be found at other places than foreseen?
When your faith had been misguided from the start? When the monster in you had been fed by the representatives of a corrupt church?”
Riario’s head was down, his hair covered his eyes, and the most of his face as well.
“I always suspected it had been”, he whispered and Leonardo was struck by the realization of what a bright mind Riario had. Even in this state. “It makes no difference”, Riario added. “I could break your neck in a second and you wouldn’t notice.” His voice still was faint, his gaze went to his wrist, to Leonardo’s hand stroking it.
“You wouldn’t”, Leonardo answered and lifted Riario’s chin to look into his eyes. He saw the darkness inside, but he saw more. A softness, maybe fear, maybe trust. He didn’t care anymore. His decision was made.
“You wouldn’t”, he repeated. “And now it’s about time for you to wash, to eat and drink and heal.” He looked at the water, already steaming. “There are some more clothes and I want to change your bandages.”
Slowly Riario nodded and Leonardo smiled. There was progress and he liked improvement. Very much.
Da Vinci was a force of nature. Riario had always known. He washed, he fed him, he cared for him, surrounded him.
Zoroaster came and scolded but Riario didn’t listen. He was busy fighting off his demons. The ones telling him that Leonardo was dragging him to hell. That everything he saw and felt was wrong, was a hallucination, was a trap. And then there were the moments, when he thought that if there was a trap he would like to be captured.
He had lost much of his strength. But there were still memories he wished to lose. Yet with every day, every night he spent in da Vinci’s company the past disappeared a little bit more.
He slept a lot and when he woke up one day in another cottage, far from another border they had crossed, he found a sketch of him, half hidden by a blanket, black hair tousled, and a small smile, barely noticeable on his lips. Shadows beneath his eyelashes and one hand open. He seemed at ease, peaceful and Riario couldn’t believe that Leonardo saw him like this.
He crouched into a corner and thought. About the open landscapes, the silence, the melody of nature and earth which accompanied their journey. It was so different from everything he knew. Without the service, without confession, guilt and penalty. Without an unforgiving Lord judging his sins every day, every minute, every second. Because maybe – maybe there was a world the Lord had created which was different. Where he might be allowed some peace, where there was hope.
He was still sick, he told himself. Crazy as he could be. But maybe, maybe there was beauty and he was allowed to admire it.
Maybe the Lord was different.
“What are you thinking about?” Leonardo stepped into the room, some branches in his arms.
Riario looked up. His eyes were burning and he saw concern in Leonardo’s gaze. He remembered concern, remembered Zita and Laura. But this was different. Now he understood. Now he accepted the possibility. Now he allowed the concern.
“God”, he said.
“Ah.” Leonardo put the branches aside. “Well, not one of my topics.”
Riario smiled. “I know”, he answered. “But I thought, that maybe He doesn’t care.”
Leonardo smiled back to him. “Here we are united. I agree that He wouldn’t.”
Riario removed his hair from his eyes.
“Then there remains the question where else we might be united.”
Leonardo’s smile grew. It lit up his face and he was so beautiful that Riario’s breathing stopped.
‘That’s it, that’s the sin’, a voice inside of him screamed. Maybe it is, he thought. But even when, I started to go down the path of sin before I even was old enough to remember.
“I’m glad you are better”, Leonardo said softly and crouched next to him, took his bandaged hand in his, stroking it carefully. “And I want to be with you when your health will have returned." He coughed silently. "I mean, when your wrist will be healed, you might be able to help here and there." Gaining back his confidence he went on. "Fact is that I got an assignment. There is a mural that shall be renewed. The priest or monk, more a friar I met, told me they need an artist."
Riario looked up at this. "This doesn't sound like you will be paid."
Leonardo shrugged. "It's a way to get back into business. And to be true, I hadn't felt the urge to paint for a very long time. It will be a great distraction."
Riario nodded, then bit his lip. “You’ve changed, Artista”, he said. “You’ve become more quiet, kind of reasonable.”
Leonardo smiled. “Happens to us all.”
“It suits you”, Riario admitted and his gaze dropped to their still joined hands, lingering there.
"I still don't get why you stay here", he said, didn't add the 'with me'. "You could go anywhere, do anything."
He didn't look up, when Leonardo moved. "Maybe", he said after a while. "But I don't want to."
Riario shook his head. "It's a dangerous path you're following. I'm taming the demon within me, but I don't know how long I will succeed."
"Hey." Leonardo’s voice was so soft it sent shudders down his spine.
"You already defeated it. Trust me. I observed you. Whatever is going on in this brain of yours, you've gotten it under control." He cleared his throat and Riario was tempted to just close his eyes and listen to this soft, kind and enjoyable voice. A kind undertone resonated with the words and Riario had grown much too accustomed to hear it. Among the many things that were wrong with him, there was the growing need to be with someone who showed him the kindness he hadn't met too often in his life. Certainly not by a man. It made him wish he could drop his defenses and show kindness himself.
Riario pushed the thought away forcibly.
"It's different", Leonardo went on. "The disorder you're suffering from isn't that prominent anymore. I think that you have mastered it. If I would guess, I'd say it has to do with what happened to your father."
Riario went stiff, but still noticed that Leonardo hurried to go on. "Needless to say that everything that had happened to him deserves support." Again he cleared his throat. "Anyway, the aftermath might have been confusing, devastating in the least. Things like that need time."
When he stopped speaking Riario held his breath, didn't know what to do, what to think. Leonardo’s fingers on his injured hand were warm and comforting and he shouldn't accept them. He should stand up and leave, be proud, be a man. A groan escaped his lips and Leonardo’s fingers tightened their grip.
"I know what you are thinking, Girolamo", he said and Riario trembled when his name sounded acceptable, seemed normal when pronounced by Leonardo.
"But there is time", Leonardo went on. "Time for us both to think, to heal, to be free. For once."
At this Riario looked up. "Free?", he asked hoarsely, disbelieving.
Leonardo nodded and smiled his beautiful smile. "We are", he said. "Far away from Rome, from Florence, from politics, corruption and warfare.
It might not last. Things will calm down. Faults will be forgotten. Popes come and go, especially criminals like the current ones. The world is changing, you will see. One day I'll be a famous artist and you will return to clean and claim your name. To live your life according to your own rules." His smile deepened. "Or we'll get a ship and explore the world together, searching for treasures, discovering secrets, solving the mystery of life, death and the universe."
Riario couldn't help, he smiled too. "I think I'd like that."
"Yes?" And was there a little fraction of insecurity in Leonardo's voice? In this kind and yet so self-assured, always self-confident voice?
"Yes." Riario’s lids dropped when he felt Leonardo’s body leaning closer, felt the warmth of a man who didn't seem to suffer from doubts. He shuddered when for the split of a second he went back to a moment decades ago. To a small boy handed over to a fate he refused to remember.
A past fate, meaningless in the face of the present. It was his decision now. He was healthy enough to fight and overpower Leonardo twice if he would like to.
He opened his eyes a slit, found the place where Leonardo had fixed the bandages on his side, covered an injury he hadn't talked about and which almost certainly had been caused during his deliverance. Leonardo wore his shirt open enough for him to have noticed it before.
"You might be hurt again", Riario mentioned. "Life as an artist is much less dangerous than life with me as a fugitive."
"I can handle hurt", Leonardo answered. "And I will handle hurt. As long as it's worth it."
Riario shook his head. "Then you shouldn't."
"Why?" Leonardo whispered, his voice close to Riario’s ear. "Because you aren't worth it?" His lips met Riario’s temple and Riario flinched. But this time Leonardo didn't let him go. "Let me express an objection." He kissed him again, carefully and slowly. "And then allow me to prove it."
"Girolamo", Leonardo breathed and Riario turned his head to meet his gaze. "I'm all wrong. My body and mind are soiled."
Leonardo smiled. "In this case we are a perfect match."
And Riario took in his smooth skin, the wavy, long hair, tender lips and the velvet eyes. He listened to his heart maybe for the first time in his life. His heart approved. And so did he, closed his eyes and met Leonardo’s lips with his own. Opened them with a sigh, ready to drown in the kiss he had longed for. Because he knew. In this moment he knew that his admiration for the artist had changed a long time ago into something different. Into something deep and true and final. Had changed into love.