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and who shall I say is calling?

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Altaïr might never tire of seeing Malik put arrogant novices in their place. It is entertaining to watch the man teach Rauf's students a lesson about underestimating an opponent. As the cocky Sadiq is thrown onto his back, the breath slammed out of him, he bursts into teasing laughter.

"You still have a ways to go," he says as Sadiq scrambles up and away from Malik. "Do not worry, you will get there."

Malik throws his head to the side and rolls his shoulders before he turns to Altaïr, his expression neutral in all but his passionately burning eyes.

"Does the Grand Master wish to be the next novice on his back in the dirt?"

He hears Rauf's aborted snort behind him and sees the horror in the eyes of a few novices, as well as the amusement in others'. And, well, it is quite enough to have heat gather in his cheeks.

"I certainly would not mind you trying, Dai," he says. Malik's lips curl in a lopsided grin. A lazy challenge from a man wishing for a real fight.

"Get in the ring, Altaïr Ibn La'Ahad."

Altaïr cannot get there fast enough. Just the look, just that single look in Malik's eyes and he is ready to be possibly humiliated in front of his brotherhood.

Not that he ever expects to lose. Perhaps that is why he sometimes does.

More spectators gather quickly: it is, after all, quite a show to see the two most powerful men of Masyaf fight. No weapons, no other rules. Altaïr takes off his hidden blade and sets it next to Malik's and nervous energy coils in his stomach as Rauf tells them to begin.

There is a very minimal amount of circling before they're up close and personal. Malik has never been one to delay the inevitable and Altaïr is soon deflecting elbows and knees. The whole thing is akin to a practiced dance as they try to catch each other off-guard, close combat for small periods and then jumping back again to bide time for the next attempt.

Altaïr realizes too late that Malik is lulling him into that pattern. It crosses his mind the instant that the man does not hop back but quicksteps to the side instead and lunges at him.

Being tackled by a one-armed man, Altaïr has learned, is different from the norm. Malik has learned to guard his weakness well but there is no way around it: it takes him longer to push himself up. Just a fraction of a moment, but a fraction is all Altaïr needs. As they tumble into the ground he is recovered and ready, and he takes that short amount of time to push himself off the ground, with Malik kneeling above him. Puts Malik on his back and is just as quickly thrown off.

They roll over a few times, always finding the weaknesses in each others' defence, until finally Altaïr catches Malik's arm in a grip the man cannot get out of and presses it into the ground. Malik trashes and kicks vainly and Altaïr laughs breathlessly.

"On my back in the dirt, was it?"

Malik relaxes. A hundred different things flash through his (beautiful) brown eyes. They settle on acceptance.

"It does seem you have the upper hand."

"Do you yield?" Altaïr asks.

Malik looks thoughtful. His hips press up into a filthy grind. Altaïr barely holds in the sputter and the blush and what the fuck, they are in the middle of a veritable army of witnesses--

--and Malik gets his arm out of his grip and the world turns nauseously fast.

An arm across his throat, knees holding down his arms, and the balance settles.

"On your back in the dirt," Malik taunts. "Just as promised." He leans closer and his warmth and boldness is positively intoxicating. Altaïr feels his entire chest implode as Malik's lips part and he speaks. "Do you yield?"

"I do," he says because getting out of this would force him even closer to Malik and he is genuinely afraid of his reaction to that. Malik snorts and pushes himself up. Altaïr sits and Malik offers him a hand to pull him up.

Rauf muffles his laughter in time to look at Altaïr with a mostly straight face. The starstruck novices are positively gaping at them as they exit the ring, Malik dusting off them both and griping about their dark robes getting sandy as if nothing significant has happened. It is off-putting.

 

"So," Malik says in a voice that promises a fight. "I am a challenge for novices to overcome, yes?"

Altaïr looks up from al Mualim's diary. He will gladly exchange the sick combination of longing and hatred for a simple quarrel with Malik. Though, he has no idea what he has done to earn the man's ire this time.

"You're going to have to elaborate," he says.

Malik pins him down with a look that would be enough to crumble a man less proud and stubborn. Altaïr, though, simply crosses his arms and leans back on his chair.

"Do you think me so damaged that any decently trained moron might defeat me?" Malik asks sharply. "That if Sadiq continues his training, he will get there and defeat me like some last hurdle between youth and adulthood."

"No!" Altaïr snaps before he has even thought up a reply beyond that. "I… no, how can you even think that? Is that what you imagine I think of you?" And the cold shock starts to settle in as he remembers what he said, and remembers that for all his strength, both physical and emotional, Malik is unthinkably fragile in some things.

The man looks away and it pains Altaïr.

"Forgive me," he says softly. "I know you do not. It is just…" The breath he draws in is shaky. "It is sometimes hard to remember." And he motions meekly at his left side.

Suddenly it is not just Malik's downturned face and soft yet harsh voice that gives Altaïr pain. It is everything; the desk separating them, the scholars pretending not to be looking, and the air, every inch of the stifling air between them. He yearns desperately to touch Malik, to hold him and stop him from existing in the real world that wants him to always be strong and untouchable, he wants to shield them both from the constant pressure to be better and stronger.

He settles for setting the accursed journal aside and standing. Inadequate, but he is going to rectify the situation as soon as he possibly can.

"Walk with me," he says.

 

Between Masyaf tower and the sheer drop down into the river far below he finds a place safe from prying eyes. There he pushes Malik down onto the ground and gets on top of him, kisses him as if he could simply breathe confidence into this man, someone who is more than his right hand man, more than his best friend, more even than his lover.

He doesn't rightly know what he is mumbling into Malik's skin as he takes him apart piece by piece; he hopes they are words that communicate everything he feels all at once. That maybe they will finally make Malik understand that if he feels inadequate next to Altaïr he should remember that there would be no Altaïr without him.

"You've made me who I am," he catches himself saying into Malik's stomach. "More than Al Mualim, more than my father or my mother. They made me an arrogant fool. Al Mualim tore me down. But you rebuilt me, my brother."

"Stop talking," Malik hisses but by now Altaïr has learned enough to know when to ignore the contrary words the man speaks almost out of habit.

"You make me a better man," he says. "Because you are better than I could ever hope to be, better than any I have encountered. You know yourself wholly, and through it you know others." He kisses Malik's hip, bone jutting under soft skin as the man squirms. "You should not be so harsh on yourself, habibi."

Malik kicks, not to harm but to startle, and Altaïr takes his ankle into his grip and kisses his thigh. Malik relaxes and sighs, and his hand creeps into Altaïr's hair. He pulls him back up and Altaïr goes. Malik's eyes are two bottomless wells of passion and emotion, and Altaïr simply melts down against him.

"I am sorry," he whispers into his mouth.

"Shut up," Malik says. "Busy your mouth with something else than useless apologies." He, of course, has a suggestion - Altaïr feels it quite prominently against his thigh. He laughs and pulls Malik into his lap.

"Sometimes," he whispers, "I feel like your design is just to drive me mad, even at the cost of everything else."

"You were mad already," Malik says and pulls himself up to wrap his arm around Altaïr's shoulders.

 

It dawns on him when he wakes up that night to find Malik curled up around his missing arm: the guilt is never going to leave him. He will forever be making up for his actions in some form.

Now, it is pulling his right hand man close to himself and gently uncurling him, untangling the nightmare around him. Tomorrow it will be something else. And when it comes to it, he will learn to deal with it; not because he has to, but because he wants to. And now Malik pulls himself to the surface of reality and shudders and Altaïr kisses the pain off his face in the dark.

"It is early, habibi," he says.

"I am aware," Malik grunts. His voice is thick. Altaïr pulls him in tighter and he bows into him, pressing all of himself against Altaïr's body. Clings tight and tighter with his only arm.

"Go to sleep," he soon says. "You idiot."

"If you sleep with me, I will," Altaïr responds. Malik draws in a shuddering breath and then, when there is a tense silence, he thumps his fist into Altaïr's shoulder.

"If you even think of apologizing, I will cut off your family jewels."

Altaïr laughs lowly and digs his fingers into Malik's lower back.

"You would miss them too much, I'd wager."

"And you are lucky I would," Malik huffs and buries his face into Altaïr's shoulder. Altaïr kisses his head.

"I am lucky for a great many reasons, my brother."