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Who Are You, Really?

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Who Are You, Really?

 

-i-

 

Leonardo has seen the boy many times before this, but never has he made the attempt to speak with him until today. Not because of any reason in particular, mind you, it wasn’t like he was going out of his way to ignore the boy until now. It just so happens that more often than not Leonardo’s hands are full with some project or other or he’s in a rush and simply can’t break away to fumble through an awkward conversation with one of the many brooding adolescents littering the school’s grounds. 

 

Although Ezio has never truly been one of the ‘brooding’ types, Leonardo muses as he makes his way across the field to the pit. A few years ago, he’s been told, the pit used to be a small stone building that the soccer team used to store their equipment after the season, but had been knocked down during a freak summer storm to three jagged half-walls forming a square-like structure with one missing side. The floor had been ripped up along with the roof, leaving a pit-like depression in the dirt from years of shuffling feet – hence the name ‘the pit’.

 

Ezio is sitting on one of the pit’s walls, legs dangling over the edge and scuffing against the stone. A few other boys are with him. They look for all the world like a group of friends hanging out between classes, catching a break from the monotony of regurgitating the information teachers talk into their ears.

 

Except for even at this distance, Leonardo can see the stiff way Ezio is sitting. And one of those young men seem to be coming off a little too aggressively –

 

Ezio lunges off the wall into the other boy, knocking them both to the ground. The meaty smack of a fist impacting flesh echoes grossly across the field, and Leonardo really shouldn’t be as surprised as he is. He drops the folders in his hands with a yelp and runs the rest of the way to the pit.

 

“Hey! That’s enough, now. Stop – “ Ezio doesn’t pay him any mind as he punches the boy again, and again. The other two boys, friends of the one getting his nose broken presumably, have already turned tail and fled.

Perhaps not that close of friends after all.

“Enough!” Leonardo commands, grabbing Ezio by his arms and hauling him back against the wall. He tries to ignore the sharp lances of pain the stone scratches into his shoulders as Ezio struggles against his hold. “I staid that’s enough, calm down!”

 

“Crazy bastard,” the other boy yells, cupping a hand over his gushing nose and, oh, this is not going to end well at all, Leonardo bemoans. Cesare Borgia scrambles to his feet and points an accusing, bloodstained finger at Ezio. “You’re going to pay for this, do you hear me?”

 

“Hard to understand you past all that crying,” Ezio snaps back, and Cesare lets out a vicious snarl. There are indeed tears rolling down his ruddy cheeks, though perhaps those are more from the sting of a punched nose than actual, well, crying

 

“I hope you’re fond of prison cells, Ezio, because that is exactly where you are headed!”

 

“Let’s just all calm down.” Leonardo finds himself thinking that holding Ezio still is like trying to hold a wild animal. He is all movement, lean body bucking and twisting against Leonardo like the ocean waves breaking and crashing along the shore; completely raw. Totally untamed.

 

And somewhat terrifying.

 

Cesare stagger-runs away from them toward the school with his hands over his face, and from the muffled, wet mess of garbled words he makes as he leaves, Leonardo can only assume that he’s cursing Ezio the entire way.

 

He should let Ezio go now, but for some odd reason he doesn’t, at least not immediately. Ezio has stopped struggling to break his hold and is instead slumped back into his chest. In all honesty, Leonardo is probably the only thing keeping him upright.

 

“Do you want to tell me what that was about?”

 

He feels Ezio shrug a shoulder. His heartbeat is surprisingly steady against Leonardo’s palm despite just having been in a fight with the mayor’s son, and their current positions – which, yes, Leonardo realizes this is probably very inappropriate, thank you.

 

“You realize you will most likely be suspended for this, don’t you?”

 

“Are you going to let me go now?”

 

“I – yes. Sorry,” he quickly drops his arms and watches as Ezio walks a few steps forward on perfectly steady legs. “You seemed like you could use the support.”

 

“I don’t.”

 

Leonardo tries not to think too deep into that, even though he wants to. Even though he thinks that of everyone in this school, Ezio needs someone to lean on the most. “Of course not.”

 

They both get quiet. Leonardo imagines that Cesare has already made it to the nurse, who has probably informed the principal, who is in turn on the phone with Mayor Borgia right this second playing mediator to a power-hungry man who really, really should not be re-elected this quarter. And who frankly spoils his son to the point of it being ridiculous.

 

Ezio will get a lot of heat for this, the least of which being his immediate expulsion. Leonardo bites back a sigh and gestures toward the school.

 

“Perhaps we should – “

 

“Who are you, anyway?”

 

“What?”

 

“Are you supposed to be a teacher?”

 

Leonardo blinks down at himself, taking in the casual blue jeans and rumpled tweed jacket spattered with white flecks of paint. He looks back up at Ezio with a rueful grin. “Substitute, actually. Mr. Carmichael is having hip surgery and asked me to step in for his senior biology class.”

 

“If you teach biology then why are you covered in paint?”

 

“Ah. Well. I have certain teaching methods that require dabbling in other fields.”

 

Ezio frowns and Leonardo tries not to be amused by the downturn moue of his lips. He clears his throat and finally steps away from the wall to dust himself off. “I’m sure Cesare has already alerted the entire school of your fight. We should probably go speak with the principal before a doom squad is sent out to hunt you down.”

 

He sets off back for the main building at a leisurely pace and it takes him a second to realize that he’s the only one walking. When he stops and turns back around to insist Ezio come with him lest his punishment be increased, Leonardo finds himself at the center of one very, very angry scowl.

 

“I don’t need your help. Why don’t you go back to your classroom already? I can handle the principal on my own.”

 

“My word could be beneficial,” Leonardo hedges, rubbing his mouth to hide the amused grin threatening to come out. Hotheaded, arrogant and stubborn – it seems as if the wild animal from before has suddenly transformed to a little ankle biter.

 

“How?”

 

“It might reduce the punishment, somewhat.”

 

“I told you, I don’t need your help.

 

“I don’t doubt that.”

 

“Then back off!” Ezio snaps and moves to storm past him. Leonardo lets him, quietly following behind until they reach the pile of spilled folders – now damp from lying in the wet grass.

 

Leonardo sighs and squats down to salvage what he can. The ink has already started to run, making half of the graded papers nearly indistinguishable. His class will not be pleased when he informs them that they will most likely have to retake the test; just the thought of their outraged protests has him wincing as he peels the papers carefully apart.

 

Another pair of hands join him in the rescue and when he looks up Ezio is frowning steadily down at the papers avoiding his gaze. Surprised, he doesn’t immediately tell Ezio he doesn’t have to help. Honestly, he had expected the younger man to stalk right off without another word to better avoid Leonardo’s attempts of diplomacy.

 

He’s pleased to see he had been wrong.

 

“Thank you,” he says, flashing a friendly smile as Ezio hands over what he gathered. “Though I believe it’s a lost cause, it appears that they are mostly ruined.”

 

“Why are you smiling about that?”

 

“Hm? Oh,” Leonardo flaps a hand dismissively. “It’s not that big of a deal. The students will just have to retake the test.” He lowers his voice conspiratorially. “Frankly, I’d be doing them a favor seeing as how the entire class failed anyway.”

 

That startles a laugh out of Ezio, of which he quickly covers with an unhappy frown and crossing his arms. Leonardo’s smile softens, unable to help the feeling of warm compassion when faced with someone so adamant on being as grumpy and standoffish as humanly possible.

 

“Ezio” he starts, pausing to work out exactly what he wants to say. He very much wants to ask what the fight with Cesare was about. He wants to know why Ezio seems to have built such high walls around himself that random acts of kindness make him snap and snarl.

 

Instead, he ends up dismissing it all with a shake of his head and saying, “I’ll walk with you back to the office. If you want, that is.”

 

Ezio stares at him with an unreadable expression before finally shrugging a shoulder and turning to walk away. “Do what you want.”

 

-i-

 

It turns out that Leonardo’s word is worth exactly zilch when it comes to talking with Principal Sforza about the fight. Not that he was expecting much, exactly, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t disappointed at not being able to help.

 

“I’ve already called your brother and he has agreed to support whatever punishment I decide to enforce.” Ezio doesn’t even fidget in his seat, something that Leonardo finds impressive since Principal Sforza is a rather intimidating figure. Though maybe that’s because Leonardo is twitching enough for the both of them – twiddling his fingers, tapping his feet, bouncing his knee and picking at stray threads on his clothes.

 

Leonardo had tried to leave when they’d come to the office since it was very clear that Ezio didn’t care for him to be there, but Principal Sforza had cut that retreat short by calling him back in as a ‘witness’. Truly he doesn’t mind, he was happy enough to let her know what he had seen and explain that it appeared as though Ezio had been taunted into the fight and couldn’t be held fully responsible for what happened. Predictably, however, she didn’t much care for what Leonardo ‘thought’ about the matter, only for the facts.

 

And the facts, as they stood, were that Ezio threw the first punch while Cesare never raised a fist. Never mind that the boy had it coming –Leonardo hasn’t been at this school long, but it doesn’t take a genius to recognize a bully and Cesare Borgia’s one of the worst.

 

“I’m suspending you for the rest of the week,” Principal Sforza says tightly, her eyes reminding Leonardo of the glinting steel from the scalpels his students fumble with during lab work. “When you return Monday morning, you will be assigned after-school detention for the remainder of the year helping out the staff with their evening duties. I’m sure the librarians will appreciate the extra set of hands.”

 

Ezio’s shoulders come up defensively. “There’s labor laws against that, you know.”

 

Principal Sforza smiles, and it’s such a sharp, cutting thing that Leonardo suddenly feels the urge to clap a hand over Ezio’s mouth and apologize on his behalf. “I’m well aware of the Child Labor Laws, Ezio Auditore. However, if you would rather the option of being expelled and facing assault charges that Mayor Borgia would be all too happy to slap you with, I suggest you suck it up and deal with it.” She folds her hands delicately in front of her, cherry-red nails glittering menacingly in the fluorescent light. “Am I being clear?”

 

Leonardo tries not to wince as Ezio mutters, “Crystal.”

 

“Good. Then I suggest you collect your things and return home. Your brother is expecting you.”

 

As Ezio leaves the office (slamming the door behind him like a gunshot), Leonardo stands to make his own exit, only to be called back down for the second time that afternoon.

 

“I apologize for dragging you into this,” Principal Sforza says, slumping back into her leather rolling chair with a heavy sigh. She doesn’t look like the indifferent, cold figure from just ten minutes ago, but instead an incredibly tired and wary looking woman trying to keep it together. Leonardo has the distinct impression that she rarely, if ever, lets the authoritative mask slip away.

 

He sits back down, careful not to fidget too much. “It’s really no problem.”

 

“Oh, yes, it is,” she says, painted lips curling into a small grin that immediately falls away. “I can’t begin to tell you how many times that boy has been in my office already, and for the exact same reason as today. He causes more trouble than any student I have ever had the displeasure of punishing.”

 

Leonardo blinks, surprised. “Ah. I was not aware he was such a…”

 

“An annoying little shit?” Principal Sforza supplies.

 

“Troubled individual,” he amends, covering his shocked laugh with a cough.  

 

She hums and dips her head in the barest of nods. “Troubled,” she murmurs. “Yes, he is definitely that. But given where he comes from, I suppose none of this should be very surprising.”

 

“I’m sorry?”

 

Principal Sforza’s eyebrows knit in an elegant frown. “How well do you know Ezio, Mr. da Vinci?”

 

“Not very well, I’m afraid. I’ve seen him around the school of course, but I’m sorry to say I’ve never made an effort to speak with him before today. May I ask why?”

 

“I just assumed…” she trails, frown deepening. “Well, nobody on the faculty has ever really ‘made an effort’ with him before.  Not from lack of trying, I assure you. Ezio has the uncanny ability to thwart any and all efforts of civility as I’m sure you’re well aware.” Leonardo nods, because yes, yes he is very familiar with that particular ability. “It’s just that, from the way he was treating you, and by that I mean not fussing about you staying here, in fact I’d go so far as to say he didn’t mind that you even were, well. I just thought that perhaps you two were close.”

 

Now it’s Leonardo’s turn to frown, confused and a little bewildered. “I don’t understand,” he admits sheepishly. “Close?”

 

Principal Sforza studies him quietly, thin-lipped. Finally, she says, “Ezio has a good heart, and he guards it more fiercely than most grown men I know. You were right about him being troubled. Up until this incident, I have done everything in my power to keep him from completely screwing up and tried guiding him in the right direction. I’ve since realized that he doesn’t want my help.”

 

Leonardo has to bite his tongue against asking what terrible thing happened to make Ezio such a problematic child. A part of him argues that it’s not right to discuss such private things behind Ezio’s back. “Is there something I can do?” he asks, still not quite sure about where she’s going with the conversation.

 

“I think maybe there is,” she says, leaning toward Leonardo with a look that’s almost desperate behind her usual professionalism. “Spend some time with him, get to know him. He has pushed everyone and everything so far away that I’m ready to throw in the towel. The only reason I am even able to allow him back at school next week is because Mayor Borgia can’t afford any bad publicity with the upcoming elections , and isn’t pursuing any harsh punishment.”

 

Which can only mean that Cesare will likely be on the prowl for his own retribution. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful,” he says. “But what makes you think Ezio will even talk to me again?” He can’t help but feel it’s a legitimate concern considering how Ezio had acted before they came to the office. It’s hard to imagine that he would even be willing to strike up another conversation given how their first encounter had turned out, and how he outright ignored his presence here in the office.

 

Principal Sforza huffs a self-deprecating little chuckle. “A prayer. I’m basing this on absolutely nothing but a prayer.”

 

“That is not very reassuring.”

 

“No, but it’s all I have. You obviously left an impression on him or else he wouldn’t have been so agreeable about all of this. Which, believe me, that was agreeable.” She leans even further over her desk, and Leonardo can see the concern and worry buried there in her eyes, the hope that one troubled, hurting young man won’t be lost and forgotten in the endless sea of nameless faces surrounding them. “Just try, for his sake. The boy could use someone to talk to right now.”

 

“I’m just a substitute teacher,” he points out. “And a rather poor one at that.”

 

“Perhaps,” She nods, lips curling in a slow, tentative smile. “But maybe you could turn out to be the one friend he so desperately needs.”

 

-i-

 

Leonardo spends the next few days preparing his schedule so that he allows himself a few hours every day to stay after school with Ezio, per Principal Sforza’s request. Rather than subjecting Ezio to the labors of cleaning toilets and listening to the ancient librarians gush about their great grandchildren, he will instead be assisting Leonardo in prepping the labs for class or whatever other tasks he needs help with.

 

It works out well, and Leonardo questions if it’s even really punishment in the first place. Ezio, for his part, readily complains about the work, especially when a couple of days into the arrangement Leonardo asks him to help rearrange squid samples in the freezer for dissection the following morning. The look of utter bafflement and disgust on his young face has Leonardo bent double laughing and nearly ruining a perfectly good sample.

 

But even though he appears unhappy and annoyed in the afternoons, it’s all an obvious act. Leonardo can see it in the way Ezio watches him out of the corner of his eyes when he thinks Leonardo isn’t paying attention, and in the faint, barely their grins when Leonardo says or does something funny.

 

He wouldn’t go so far as to say that Ezio enjoys their time, or even that he would care if Leonardo stopped being friendly to him altogether. If anything, Ezio simply tolerates his ‘punishment’ and endures it like any other obligation. Indifferent and unconcerned.

 

But not once does Ezio shut him out completely, or treat him less than a human being as Principal Sforza had claimed he did to others. And as the weeks pass, he starts slipping into Leonardo’s classes during his lunch period, sitting in the very back, slumped down in his seat behind all the other students so he isn’t seen.

 

Leonardo pretends not to notice and hides his smile every time.