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that trembling tender little sigh.

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it’s a hot, hot day, hot enough that malik can barely focus on the parchment in front of him.  no assassins had come to him, nor was he expecting any, but when the sun was at its hottest and highest he hears the telltale scrape of someone’s boots on the atrium wall.

 

he leans around enough to see altair lower himself to the ground, and malik lets go of the blade he keeps tucked under the top of his desk.

 

“safety and peace,” altair says.

 

“safety and peace,” malik says, “are you injured?”

 

“no.”  altair pushes his cowl back, and his hair springs up, curly and damp with sweat, against his palm.  “just weary.”

 

“a rest then,” malik says.  altair nods.  “drink some water.  i don’t need you passed out on my floor.”

 

altair huffs, but his mouth curls into the hint of a smile.  he takes a drink, splashes some water on his face, before taking off his robes.  he’s wet with sweat but doesn’t seem to mind, until he pushes all the bedding from one shady corner of the courtyard and sinks into it with a sigh.

 

“warm?”  malik asks on the tail end of a chuckle.  altair just groans, leaning his head against the cooler stone wall.

 

altair doesn’t take his hidden blade off to doze, doesn’t let his sword stray too far, either.  the way they had become after the fall of al mualim was familiar, in a strange new way - years of bitterness and biting tongues had quelled to this; altair, comfortable enough to sleep while malik quietly shares his space.

 

when it starts to cool off, malik puts his quill and inks away, puttering away inside while he’s aware that altair has woken, if only from the gentle splashes of the wash basin in use.  malik opens a small drawer in his desk and retrieves a small container, smooth wooden pipe and a lighting steel before moving back to the atrium.

 

“you need a real wash, altair,” he says, and altair’s head snaps up from where it had been bent over the wash basin, splashing water down the back of his neck, “someone needs to take you down to the river and give you a scrub.  you stink.”

 

altair glowers, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.  “i rode three days to get here.”

 

“in this heat i’m surprised you are not dead.”

 

“you would miss me.”

 

malik scoffs, but smiles at the glint in altair’s eye.  “like a dog misses a tick, maybe.”

 

malik situates himself on the floor, away from blankets still, for the heat.  he taps out a little hashish from its box and packs his pipe, holding it between his lips as he extends the flint and steel to altair.

 

“you and your two hands can do me a favor,” he says, muffled.  altair shifts closer on his knees.

 

“i didn’t know you participated in the stereotype.”  there’s nothing judgemental in his tone.  malik shrugs, and altair lights his pipe in one practiced strike.

 

“prescribed for the pain,” malik says around a lungful of smoke.  slowly, he releases that breath, and holds the pipe out to altair.  he looks at it skeptically.

 

“come on, don’t make me smoke alone.”

 

altair pauses a moment before he takes the pipe from malik’s fingers.  he brings it up to his mouth, the side not bisected by scars.  he splutters, coughing on smoke, as he does every time.  a sheltered upbringing made him unused to such things.  it doesn’t stop malik from snickering at him.

 

they pass the pipe back and forth a few times.  altair is especially susceptible to such things, so by the time malik is really starting to feel the effects to the hashish altair is all but melted against him, his back to malik’s ribs, legs kicked out in front of him.

 

“don’t take this the wrong way,” malik says as altair hands the pipe back to him, over his shoulder, “but i am a bit surprised you still spend your overnights in the bureau.”

 

“hmm?”

 

“surely there is an inn or pillowhouse that would better suit your needs?”

 

altair’s mouth pulls, uncomfortable.  “that is not a comfort i pursue.”

 

“that’s not what i’m saying,” malik says, pipe trapped halfway to his mouth, “however, they do have beds .” 

 

“ah.”

 

“plus, i’m sure you don’t need the help of concubines, hmm?”

 

“what do you mean?”

 

malik snorts, handing altair back the pipe before he does a little sweep with his arm.  “altair, the grandmaster of the levantine brotherhood, slayer of al mualim, keeper of the apple of eden!  you need just look at one of your novices to send them withering to your feet.”

 

altair shakes with silent laughter against him.  “i have no interest, i assure you.”

 

“handsome man such as yourself?  your amount of interest has nothing to do with it.”

 

malik can sense the smile that curls onto altair’s face, even if he can’t quite see it, just the barest slip of cockiness in his voice.  “you think i’m handsome?”

 

malik traces the aquiline cut of altair’s profile with his gaze, the eyes the colour of sunlight, feels the lean muscle pressed up against him.

 

“less of a thought, more of an observation.  do not flatter yourself,” malik says, a bit of bite on his voice.  altair hums thoughtfully, bringing the pipe back to his lips.

 

“i’ve never felt the need to pay for it,” he says softly, “have you?”

 

malik cants his head to the side, to hazy with hashish to bother shrugging.  “a few times, right after solomon's temple.”

 

altair is quiet, but the hash always loosened mailk’s tongue.

 

“i was lonely, and it is hard to find someone who will sleep with a cripple, you know.”

 

altair ends up choking on smoke again.  “you are hardly a cripple.”

 

“oh?  god be praised, has it grown back?”  malik grabs the empty sleeve hanging by his side, and then raises his eyebrows sharply as he sets his gaze on altair.  altair scrubs a hand over his face and malik can’t tell if he’s trying to soothe a laugh or embarrassment.

 

“you know what i mean.”

 

“i’m afraid i don’t, altair.  i’m missing a limb.  it puts people off.”

 

“well then they are foolish ,” altair says, and the conviction in his voice splashes water on the embers of irritation that were building in malik.  “i find you no less capable than any other.”

 

“you just had to light my pipe for me.”

 

“and yet just last week you bested me sparring.”

 

malik thinks about jabbing back, but instead just accepts the pipe back from altair.  he’d always been a fair swordsman, but it was hard to find a partner to practice with who didn’t pity him.  altair doesn’t.  he never has.

 

altair slides further down, head pillowed against one of malik’s thighs.  his eyes are hazy and bright, gently focused up on the night sky.  “i think i’ve had enough.”

 

“you have always been a lightweight.”

 

altair’s eyes flick to meet malik’s gaze briefly.  “my formative years were spent training, not smoking hash and whistling at women like the rest of you.”

 

“and it did wonders for your personality,” malik says dryly.  altair chuckles, low and smooth.

 

“as always, you are right.”

 

there’s a quiet that’s long and comfortable in which malik smokes and altair stares up through the grate and traces a finger along the embroidery at the hem of malik’s robe.

 

“do you ever think about if you had led the solomon mission?”

 

“sometimes.”  malik lets out a lungful of smoke right as altair takes a sharp breath.

 

“do you wish you had?”

 

“no.”  altair twists enough that he can look at malik’s face, confusion pressed between his brows.  “i would still have my arm, and my brother would be alive, and i would have delivered the apple directly to that old bastard’s hands and ruined us all.” 

 

“i don’t -”

 

“there’s no need to defend me, altair,” malik says, “it was only you that saw through him.  i was so blind in my following that i could not see what had unfolded right beneath my nose.”

 

altair regards him for a while.  he could not disagree, but could not voice his compliance.  eventually he relaxes back, idly tracing the scar on his lips with a forefinger.

 

“besides,” malik continues, “there would have been little opportunity to tear you down a few notches.  you would have stayed insufferable .”

 

“and i’m not now?”

 

malik releases his last mouthful of smoke, the pipe diminished.  “now you are tolerable, if only by my ceaseless training.”

 

“you keep me humble,” altair says, a laugh caught in his voice.

 

“such is the burden placed upon my shoulders.”

 

altair just hums, and malik is sure it was supposed to sound disgruntled but it just sounds fond instead.  he is a solid weight at malik’s side, a rare bonelessness along the lines of his body.

 

“i come back here because it feels safe,” he says, looping back around so far malik’s addled mind takes a moment to follow it.  altair told him once that within his sight, safe spaces are edged in white, and malik takes a moment to imagine it - the entrance to the bureau emitting light, white as rare snow.  it doesn’t take.

 

“come and rest here as you need.”  malik puts the pipe down, makes a mental note to clean it.  “i do not loathe your company.”

 

“that’s more than i could have asked for.”

 

the moon comes into view, occupying the sliver of sky they can see with white light.  that must be closer to what altair sees.  he goes to ask, and notices that altair’s eyes are closed.  malik sighs, unwilling to wake him by moving, and instead drapes his arm across altair’s chest, feeling him breathe.  he’s careful not to trap him, but otherwise he lets the moon swim in his eyes until he can keep them open no longer.

 

-

 

malik jolts awake when altair moves under his hand, heart pounding in his chest and vision bright with adrenaline.

 

“just me,” altair says, voice slow and smooth and free of sleep.  malik wonders how long he’d been awake.  malik lifts his arm and rubs the sleep from his eyes.  altair wastes no time sitting back up, but malik doesn’t take it personally.  altair seeks touch on his own terms and no other.

 

“my target is in the southeast quarter,” altair says, checking the bracer that houses his blade, “he travels with two guards, who i will dispatch on either end of their patrols.”

 

“and the target?”

 

altair’s hidden blade slides out of its sheath with barely a scrape of metal as altair inspects it.  “templar.  will take him down quietly, while he takes his morning walk by the river.”

 

malik gets up, ignoring how sore he is from sleeping sitting up against the wall.  “sounds fair,” he says.  he wanders back to his desk, takes a feather and then returns it altair, who deftly takes it from his fingers.  malik keeps his hand extended, and altair grasps it, allowing himself to be pulled from the floor once his blade is safely back into hiding. 

 

altair dons his robes, his cowl, his sword.  he places his feather in one of his pouches.

 

“peace and safety, brother,” malik says.  there’s a hint of a smile on what he can see of altair’s face.

 

“peace and safety, malik.”

 

-

 

malik only begins to worry once the bells stop.

 

if they are ringing, altair is running.  the bells only stop for two things; either the guard has lost him, or he is dead.  there are no other options.

 

the time in which altair should have returned comes and goes.  malik finds himself staring out into the sun, straining his ears for soft footfalls.  worry turns to dread turns to some sort of grief all in the span of a few hours.

 

it is late evening, sky the colour of blood and terracotta, by the time malik hears someone land in the atrium.  and he tries his best not to be hopeful, fears the courier that would bring news of altair’s death.

 

instead altair stands there, dirty and haggard but alive .

 

when malik strides forwards he isn’t sure if he wants to hug him or strike him.  he surprises both of them by catching altair’s jaw in his hand.  he expects altair to shy away but he doesn’t.

 

“you idiot ,” malik says, recoiling from the emotion in his own voice, “i thought i had lost you.”

 

altair leans in and presses their noses together, almost as if he thinks the action of greeting could calm malik.  “a patrol passed by, saw the bodies.  i got trapped on the riverbank.”

 

now that malik notes it, he does smell like river mud, and his robes are damp, the blood of his kill washed out, rosy across his torso.  he breaks their contact, and malik lets his hand drop.  altair takes down his hood, revealing his eyes.  malik can tell by the way they are unfocused that he spent a long time using his sight.  he can also tell he doesn’t want to be inside; there’s tension across the line of his shoulders and his knees won’t straighten.

 

“well, now that you’re not dead -” malik takes an additional step back, because there’s an ache in his chest that just won’t go away, something ignored since his youth - “you may as well wash.”

 

altair huffs a breath that may have been a laugh, under different circumstances.  “come with me?”

 

-

 

they slip through the city as the sun sets for real, and end up at the stables outside a quiet gate.  malik’s horse is a sturdy chestnut thing, and she stands well as altair gives malik a leg up unto her back.  malik is content to stand and watch the stars blink into existence as altair tacks up, and pretends he doesn’t notice him sabotage some of the dancing arab bits he finds in the barn next to horses he doesn’t even know.

 

his horse dances on her own, barely standing long enough for him to get on.  she trots off near instantly, but his hips and hands stay soft.  malik nudges his own horse after him.

 

altair rides on malik’s left side.  the night bleeds into indigo, and malik uses the stars now to map their course up the river, far away from where altair last killed.  they find somewhere where the water is clean and babbling before they dismount, leaving the horses ground tied close to a crop of scrub that malik’s horse chews on despite there being nothing edible on it.

 

malik only second guesses how easily he agreed on this trip when altair strips down to nothing behind him.  he’s not looking, of course; he assumes altair only asked for his company to keep watch, sitting on a rock facing the city.  he knows when he’s waist deep, though, because the energy rolling off him is palpable.

 

altair’s fear of deep water and subsequent refusal to learn to swim was a source of long term teasing, and malik does a quick check over his shoulder.  altair is standing there with his back to him, shoulders drawn up, looking every bit like a cat fallen into the wash basin.  malik laughs, he can’t help it, and altair shoots him a scowl over his shoulder.

 

“remember when you were young and impossible and i pushed you into the fountain at masyaf?”

 

altair grumbles, starting to scrub at himself with soap and a cheesecloth.  “i try not to.”

 

“you screamed.”

 

“i was a child .”

 

“that does not change the fact that you screamed.”

 

altair sighs, dunks his head and comes back up snorting water from his nose, hair wild and curly.  “i’m sure it would not pain you if you were not so rude.”

 

malik barks a laugh.  “if i was not so spiteful i hardly think i’d still be alive, my friend.” 

 

“i cannot argue with that.”

 

malik leans over and splashes an arc of water at what he hopes is altair's face.

 

malik.

 

altair scrubs down quickly, because he doesn’t want to be in the water for long.  malik hears him wade out, and waits for him to dress again.  altair taps him on the shoulder when he’s finished, and they wander away from the riverbank towards where they left the horses.  altair helps malik up, before hoisting himself up onto his own beast.

 

the first portion of their walk back is quiet.  the horses pick their way through the rocky ground, even if eventually altair’s mare starts jigging sideways, tossing her head.  it was just like him to pick an animal so high strung that malik doesn’t even worry for a second.

 

“i’d like to touch upon something you said last night,” altair says.  his horse’s trotting feet are the loudest sound in the air.

 

“oh?”

 

“you said you’d miss me as though a dog misses a tick.”  if it wasn’t for the scant humour on his voice, malik would think he was upset.  but he knows now he is referencing how distraught malik was at the prospect of his death, and it burns up malik’s throat and into his cheeks.

 

“you must know by now that i have a tendency to talk out of my ass, altair.”

 

there’s a quiet pause.  malik can’t see altair’s face in the shadow of his cowl.

 

“you are my dearest friend, somehow,” malik continues, “and i do not wish to live in a world in which i experience your death.”

 

altair says oh like it’s half a breath.  there’s another small pause.  “nor do i.”

 

“then let us hope,” malik says, and then it is silent.

 

-

 

they sneak their way back into the stables, and then make their way through the city using the back alleys.  even though the sun has gone to sleep it’s still warm, and malik thanks whatever god is real that the stone of the bureau keeps the heat out.

 

altair settles in his favorite corner and bids malik goodnight, but malik pauses in the doorway.  he drums his fingers once in the sandstone arch, before he turns back around and seats himself on some cushions not too far away from where altair had already curled on his side.  he doesn’t say anything, only shoots malik one puzzled look before giving malik his back.

 

malik sits up for a long time watching the rise and fall of altair’s shoulder in the dark, cataloguing the restless shifts of sleep and pushing down at something that tries to struggle to the surface.  he fails.

 

assassin’s weren’t allowed to love.  malik wasn’t close with his parents.  the love he had for kadar was secret and forbidden.  they shouldn’t have wanted to die for one another, but they did.  but those were al mualim’s rules.  he doesn’t know yet if altair will change them.  altair has been spending a while working on himself, malik has noticed.  learning to accept affection from his novices and from malik, learning to voice it.  he lived under the iron hand of al mualim for so long, malik is impressed he even knows the definition of the word.

 

it just means, malik supposes, that he was born with a large sum of it.  to be given such capacity for love when it was never felt is a gift.  malik hopes that one day, someone will be on the receiving end of it. 

 

-

 

they wake up to rain.

 

not the kind that drizzles, no sprinkle of warmth from above.  in the early morning, the sky opens up with a roar and soaks them both through before they’re fully awake.  clearly it startled altair, for he’s in malik’s space before malik is really conscious, but it’s been so hot and dry that he turns his face up into it, despite his inherent dislike of water. 

 

malik holds his hand out, watches the raindrops bounce off his palm for a few moment before he realizes that altair has turned his head to watch him.  there’s something almost unreadable in his eyes.  almost, because malik can identify it as what has been lying dormant in his belly for ten years.  curiosity, wonder, affection, laid bare, finally illuminated in the dawn, and god, they’re only so young, a youth malik often does not feel except in moments just like this one.

 

cautiously, malik reaches out and pulls altair’s cowl down.  he does nothing to stop him.

 

“altair,” malik says softly, letting his fingers curl into altair’s hair, “i’m going to kiss you now.”

 

altair freezes for a second, before he nods, barely there as a motion.  his tongue darts to lick rainwater from his lips.  “okay.”

 

malik leans in, just to bump their noses together as if in greeting, feeling altair’s skittering breath, before he tilts his head and kisses him oh so gently on the mouth.

 

altair isn’t very responsive at first; he doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, but malik is persistent, patient in a way he didn’t know before.  eventually altair relaxes, decides on resting one hand on the back of malik’s neck and the other curled into his robes.  and then it’s like something clicks, and altair is kissing him back like wildfire kisses the earth.  he’s not well practiced, god, neither of them are, but altair kisses him with such reverence that malik nearly relents control just because it would feel so good to do so.

 

and then it’s over, altair pulling back.  malik would say he looks surprised, but he did give him a fair warning.  scared, perhaps, but he doesn’t know what about.  it doesn’t matter, because altair gets up, takes two backwards steps before spinning and leaping out of the atrium and back into the daylight.

 

malik is left sitting there feeling more alone than he has in months.

 

-

 

he doesn’t see altair for three days.

 

he assumes, by any logical account, that altair has returned to masyaf.  he doesn’t really blame him.  malik thinks he should feel angry, but instead there is only a hollowness - not regret, because he doesn’t regret kissing him.  sadness, maybe.  heartache.

 

some novices come and go, none of which comment on malik’s mood.  he is not particularly cheerful on the best of days, and the whole brotherhood knows not to get on the wrong side of his barbed tongue.

 

it’s just past midday - the rain had quelled the heat for a time, but now it’s back, enough to make malik shed his robes while he’s inside - and he is furiously scribbling intel onto parchment to tie to the birds to send to masyaf.  he barely notices when the honey loaf appears in his peripheral.

 

when malik lifts his eyes, altair is standing across the room, looking sufficiently chastised even though malik hasn’t even said anything.  malik does take a moment to appreciate the fact that every time he’s heard altair come into the bureau, apparently it’s because he wanted him to.

 

malik puts down his quill and stares at altair expectantly, eyebrows raised, but says nothing. 

 

“i am sorry for leaving,” altair says quietly.  his eyes are elsewhere.

 

“so you brought me bread?”

 

“so i brought you bread.”

 

malik breathes a sigh, and sees altair perk up when it sounds fond.  “you’re ridiculous.”

 

altair just nods, accepting.  he shifts from foot to foot.

 

“sorry i kissed you,” malik says, the first bite of guilt gnawing at his ribs.  near instantly altair’s face pinches.  he shakes his head.

 

“no that’s -” his mouth pulls, thinking - “that’s not why i left.”

 

“oh?”

 

“i’d just -” he drops his eyes, and malik must be imagining the rose colour tinting his cheeks - “i’d never -”

 

“you’d never kissed someone before that, hadn’t you?”

 

altair pulls at one of his fingers.  the shake of his head is barely there.  malik pinches the bridge of his nose, pulls his hand down over his mouth.

 

“why didn’t you tell me?”

 

“i don’t know,” altair says quietly, “but i do know i’d like to do it again.”

 

something lurches in malik’s chest.  he drums his fingers against the flat of his desk, and it takes a great deal of control to stand his ground.

 

“not until you know why you left.”

 

malik watches a number of things flit across altair’s face.  he can name almost none of them.  altair chews on the inside of his cheek for a moment.  “i haven’t known love.  what if i do it wrong?”

 

malik laughs, he does, does it again when altair’s mouth pulls into a frown.  “oh, don’t you know?  you do know love.  i have given it to you.”

 

altair is still for a beat, processing, and then there is that rare smile, half-mooned across his face.  malik snorts, going for dismissive and ending in firmly overwhelmed and fond.

 

“come here,” malik says, and altair does, prowling forwards, but he does not watch him like a predator watches prey, but like a man in the desert watching the sky open up for rain.  “you kiss me this time.”

 

the fact that altair has caused so much pain with the hands that he uses to draw malik close only makes malik’s heart swell when he is so gentle with him.  he still doesn’t really to seem like he knows what to do with them but that’s alright.  all things take practice.  he just curls them into malik’s shirt at his waist to stoop down and press their mouths together, nothing but soft.  no rush or frenzy, almost tentative in its application.  it is malik that cradles his jaw and tips his head to bring their lips in better contact, and that’s all altair needs, it seems, for he melts against him, bringing their bodies in line.

 

one of altair’s hands comes up to circle malik’s wrist, no doubt to feel his heartbeat skyrocket.  that seems to cross some sort of line in a sand floor, because altair breaks the kiss, only to lean his forehead against malik’s shoulder, his breathing coming out stilted and rough.  he wraps malik up in his arms, loose enough that he doesn’t feel trapped but tight enough some other emotion threatens to choke him.  it has been so long since he was held.

 

malik takes altair’s cowl down, curly hair finding his fingers in embrace.  “alright?”

 

“i understand the old man a bit better now,” altair says, and his voice is so raw malik can’t even be mad at the content of his words, “for i think i’d surely die for you.”

 

malik makes a noise, a soft one, like he’d been struck.  “don’t say such things.”

 

“you’d like me to lie?”

 

altair ,” malik says on the end of a breathless laugh, pulling on his hair enough that he has to lean back and malik can look into his eyes.  they’re dark and warm, like an eclipse.  “who knew you’d be such a romantic?”

 

altair rolls his eyes, but there’s light in them, he leans in again, but seems to get stuck about halfway there, but malik is okay to meet him.  three times and it doesn’t seem to be getting old.  still, malik gives altair a nip on the lip for kissing him instead of answering, and he isn’t surprised in the least at the growl it earns him.  isn’t surprised his back hits the scroll case behind them a moment later, altair’s hands unlooping from his body to cushion his collision.  malik is trying not to grin hard enough to break the kiss, fisting his hand in altair’s robes to drag him back flush against him.

 

a voice rounds the bend from the atrium.  “is the rafiq in?”

 

altair gasps, means to leap back, but malik is held fast in his robes, drags him right back up against him.  exactly where they are, behind the desk and pressed against the shared wall, no one can see in from outside.  “come back later.  i am busy.”

 

altair shakes with silent laughter and malik pinches him sharply in the ribs.  there’s a pause outside.

 

“i can be quick?”  the poor novice sounds so confused.

 

“i cannot.  with peace, novice.”

 

they hear a gentle scuffle of the novice climbing up the wall, and it’s only then that altair relaxes again.

 

“you are lucky i am always so mean, or they would have suspected something,” malik says into altair’s ear.  he hums.

 

“you are not always so mean.  you just want the novices to think you are,” altair says, tipping a little to touch his forehead to malik’s.

 

“you are right.”  malik bumps their noses together.  “no one can see me like this.  you may need to die by my blade if you tell anyone.”

 

altair hums, disbelief in the noise.  he takes a step back, and malik lets his fingers unfold from his clothes to his hand.  he gives malik a long look, a wandering one, though malik does not feel laid bare by those eyes.

 

“come back to masyaf with me?”  his voice is so hopeful it breaks malik’s heart.  “we can send a bird, have a replacement within the week.”

 

“you’re sure this place wouldn’t fall apart without me?”  malik dips his head so he can press a gentle kiss to the side of altair’s neck and watch his eyes as he tries to decide if he likes it or not.

 

“a risk i’m willing to take,” altair says, long eyelashes fluttering.  seems he likes it.  “i don’t wish to be far from you anymore.”

 

“you do not need to beg for me, altair, as much as i’d love to hear it,” malik says, grinning.  the answering twinkle is altair’s eyes is cheeky.  “you will stay here while we wait?”

 

“of course.”

 

they eat the bread, out under the dimming sky, sharing sticky pieces of it right from each other’s fingers.  altair ends up lying over malik’s lap, looking up, and when aquila shows herself up in the night sky, malik traces her path over the rabbit-foot thump of altair’s heart.  the star altair under the hollow of this throat, each flanking star under each collarbone.  how lucky malik was to find someone who saw the wretched parts of him and still came back for him.  how lucky altair is to have found the same.

 

under the moonful night another creed is written.  one of long nights and worry, trust and gentle hands.  this one is free of violence and at the same time made of it.  for what is love but the partner of freedom?  what is it but a fight against everything else?