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“Does it ever bother you that he doesn’t write?”

Leonardo frowned over at his student where he stood, one arm upraised, a cloth draped over his torso. Instead of the usual petulant look or devilish smirk, Salai looked pensive. Maybe even sad.

“Why should it? He is a busy man. He makes time for things when he can.”

Salai wrinkled his nose and dropped all pretense of posing. “You don’t miss him?”

Leonardo paused, brush only a breath away from the canvas, and took a deep, steadying breath. “I never said that.” He put the brush and palette down and took a step back, appraising the splotches of color and shadow. “I think it is time for a break. You are restless, and the paint needs to rest as well.”

Salai’s sigh was loud and exaggerated, as was the way he rolled his shoulders, as if he had been standing still for six hours rather than fidgeting for half of one. “Tell me about him,” Salai said, a note of begging in his voice.

Leonardo stepped closer and unwound the cloth from his torso, skimming a soft touch down his arm. He took a deep breath and shook his head, then pressed a kiss to Salai’s pouting mouth. “Not right now,” he said, and dropped the cloth to the floor.

***

Salai snored. It was not a soft snore, not delicate, as abrasive as the rest of him. Leonardo loved it. He watched his young lover sleep and remembered another man in another workshop, long, lean body slumped in an uncomfortable chair, exhausted by the weight of burdens he had not yet learned how to carry.

As excited as Leonardo had been to discover the secrets of the blade, as proud as he had been of his work -- perhaps his finest yet, in some ways -- he had set them aside and sat for long moments, staring across the rough-hewn table. 

In sleep, it was obvious how young Ezio was, how vulnerable. Awake, he was all movement and flourish, restless energy and an aura that filled a room. It was easy to forget that he was still growing into himself. Leonardo had allowed himself the brush of fingers across Ezio’s furrowed forehead before he’d taken a step back, cleared his throat, and called out.

“Ezio!” The bracer and blade caught his eye again, and he grinned as he picked up a knife. “Ezio, wake up! I’ve fixed the blade!”

Two days later, he’d gotten a hastily scribbled note wrapped around a small purse of florins.

Leonardo--

Thank you for your services.

And for the continued use of my finger, you evil bastard.

Your friend,

Ezio Auditore da Firenze

P.S. You’re right, it was funny. But don’t do it again.

There was a smear of blood across the bottom of the page.

***

The door slamming behind Salai rattled him as much as it angered him, the punctuation to an argument unfinished, a fight that still boiled in his veins. But it was an old struggle, one that had been going on since the day after Salai’s arrival in his household. It was not the first time Salai had stolen from him for petty things, things Leonardo would have bought for him anyway. He suspected it would not be the last.

Instead of dwelling on it, Leonardo took his burden to the courtyard behind his house. The cage was poorly built, crude craftsmanship surrounding a nervous, fluttering bird. He set the cage on the ground and opened the flimsy latch then stepped away. It only took the creature a moment to scent its freedom, and a single white feather drifted down to him as it flew away.

A noise behind him made him turn, already weary as he imagined what new accusations and excuses Salai had brought with him, but instead he found a woman standing in the doorway. The style of her clothing was unfamiliar, but the hood shadowing her face told him all he needed to know.

“Leonardo da Vinci.” She spoke his name in a heavy accent, and Leonardo approached her cautiously. “My maestro asked me to bring you this. He sends his most heartfelt greetings and hopes you are well.”

He took the letter she held out toward him, and she bowed low before she turned and scaled his wall to the roof. As if he needed any more proof of who she meant by her maestro.

The letter looked weathered, and he opened it where he stood.

My oldest and dearest friend,

I am writing to you from a city with more names than I have. Some know it as Constantinople, others as Konstantiniyye, but my host calls it Istanbul and, more importantly, home. He is a unique man, the head of the order here. I cannot help but wish you could meet him; I think you would like him, and no one could resist your charms. In fact, it is likely better that you are so far away. Yusuf is not only clever but handsome, and it would not do to arouse Salai’s jealousy…or his imagination, which is more dangerous.

There is much afoot here, the scope of which is larger than I could hope to comprehend, but I am retaining a singular focus on my mission. The more years pass, the more I realize how small I am in the face of this struggle. I am just one man, and there are many others who can carry on with this work after I am gone. Sofia encourages me to take time for myself, and so I encourage you, my friend. Do not be consumed by thoughts of what is beyond you, but take what you have and hold it tightly.

As for Sofia--I hope you will have the chance to meet her, and at the same time I hope you never will. I am torn between the desire to see her kept safely away from me and the troubles that follow me, and the desire to never leave her side. Time will tell.

You are in my thoughts, now and always. Be well.

Ezio

A small white feather drifted down to the page just as he read Ezio’s familiar signature, and he glanced up to see Salai standing before him, looking subdued.

“That was less time than usual,” Leonardo observed, and Salai’s eyes flashed. Then he winced.

“I saw someone headed this way. Someone in a hood.” He shrugged, gaze darting to the side. “I wanted to be sure you were all right.”

Leonardo snorted, cupping the feather in his hand. “If I had been in danger, you would be just in time to collect your portion of my will.”

Instead of anger as Leonardo expected, Salai looked hurt.

“Don’t.”

Leonardo remembered the way Salai had been waiting for him the time Ezio had rescued him, the way Ezio had stood back and watched them embrace. When he was leaving, Ezio had gathered Leonardo into his arms and held him for long moments.

“Do not doubt it,” he had whispered into Leonardo’s ear. “He may not always show it, but he cares for you.” He’d drawn back then, met Leonardo’s gaze head on, and squeezed his hand. “As do I.”

Leonardo folded the letter and slipped it into his doublet, then nodded at Salai. “Let us go inside and see what there is to eat.”

Salai relaxed, smiling wickedly, and Leonardo shook his head.

“And don’t say you.”

***

Leonardo,

I hope you are well. Tonight I sit awake plagued by ghosts, the memories of all that has come before. I miss our talks, although it has been many years since we were young men with time for such things. Now we are both old men, and I discover that a lifetime is not as long as I once thought it was.

Tonight Sofia gave birth to our child, a daughter. It seems impossible that I should ever have been so young and small myself, so soft and full of promise. It seems that I have been ancient since I was a young man, while you have always been timeless. I hear your laughter sometimes when I am dreaming, and I remember Firenze, so full of light, and your workshop, so full of wonder.

I will see you soon, old friend. Sofia and I have decided to return to Italia to raise our family, and Flavia must meet her uncle Leonardo. Only promise me you will not try to cut off her finger someday.

Yours,

Ezio

Leonardo shifted as he heard Salai fold the letter, the tell-tale crinkle of parchment. He did not open his eyes, but left them closed against emotion and the dim candle light that gave him such headaches to read by.

“Thank you,” he said, “for reading that to me.”

“Of course.” Salai slipped the paper under his hand, and Leonardo stroked his fingertips over the texture, the broken wax seal. He imagined Ezio folding the paper, sealing it; imagined their hands touching again as they had not in so many years.

“I miss him.” The words were out before he knew he was going to say them, and Salai leaned over and kissed his forehead.

“I know. But he will be here soon; he said so.”

***

The sun was shining in Amboise the day Ezio Auditore stepped into Leonardo’s home, but it was not until his embrace that Leonardo realized how chilled he was, down to his bones.

He heard the shuffle of feet nearby, Melzi and Etienne, and Machiavelli subtly clearing his throat. He also heard the silence of Salai’s absence, still fresh after almost a year.

But none of these things would move him, and when Ezio finally pulled back, he found that both of their faces were wet.

***

“Salai.” Melzi stood at the door, unruffled as always, and Salai frowned, pushing away old, familiar resentment. Leonardo was gone now; they were no longer rivals. There was nothing left to compete for except memories, except the property divided in their old maestro’s will -- most of which had gone to Melzi, in fact.

He held out a box, small and intricately carved cedar inlaid with ivory, and Salai took it with some confusion. “What is this?” He’d already received his share from the will -- the Mona Lisa, who smiled because she remembered how Leonardo had laughed when Salai had painted her nude, as bare as Salai had been, with the same satisfied smile.

The painting was appraised for over five hundred florins, but the secrets she kept were worth more.

“I do not know.” Melzi shrugged, content to leave questions unanswered -- content as Salai had never been. “It was among his things. It seems to be personal trinkets. They must have meant something to him, but they have no meaning to me. I thought perhaps you might recognize them.”

Although he loathed to do it with Melzi right there, his curiosity forced his hand, slipping the lid free. Nestled inside the cedar were folded papers, three of them, and a single white feather. Salai smiled, tracing the soft fuzz near the quill.

“Yes,” he said. “I do.”