Malik’s wings begin to grow in the summer. It’s Rauf who points it out. They’re seated by the stream with their shirts off, feet dipped in the water, and Kadar splays one hand between his shoulder blades and asks, “What’s that?”
“I believe your brother is finally growing a pair,” Rauf says with a leer that makes Malik snort. Rauf’s own wings grew three months before. They’re impressive in size although aesthetically, they’re far from pleasing to look at, still covered in down with his pinions sticking out in odd angles. Still, Rauf is proud of them. He walks with a newfound strut, head held high, and wings lifted slightly. Malik never fails to tease him for it.
Back in the castle, Malik twists and turns in front of the mirror, until he final sees the odd bump of the wing joints beneath his skin, small and bony like small hands. The older novices congratulate him while the younger ones seethe in jealousy.
“It looks disgusting,” Kadar remarks because it does and Malik isn’t blinded by pride. Three days after the bumps appear, the skin over it turns red and flaky. Malik uses a stick to scratch the spot or he bullies Kadar into doing it for him.
“You are only jealous.”
A few days later, he’s bedridden and delirious with fever, his whole back burning at the feeling of bones pushing through the skin. They tie a cloth around his mouth to keep him from biting his tongue, and they tie his arms to the bedposts to keep him from clawing himself. Rauf keeps Kadar away as best as he can because Malik doesn’t want him to already fear the inevitable.
When they finally grow, they’re dark brown in color, smaller than Malik had expected, but strong, the muscles underneath rippling as he lifts one wing out. They’re built for speed rather than stamina. Al Mualim smiles at him when he sees and Malik can’t help but raise his chin in pride.
Most assassins are flighted because there is an advantage in stealth if you have wings to take you away as soon as you’ve sliced a man’s throat. This is what Al Mualim tells Malik. Al Mualim does not say this: most flighted people are looked down upon because wings belong to cavemen and cavemen are stupid. Malik is not stupid. He’s very good at his lessons and he can speak fluently in four different languages. But the people outside Masyaf treat him like he is soft-headed and their words spark anger in Malik’s chest.
Al Mualim does not tell Malik that there are two kinds of flighted people: the breeders and the providers. It is a novice who does, albeit indirectly. He and Rauf are hiding in a haystack when they learn of them, their wings tucked tightly and with their hands over their mouths to stifle the giggles that they make when the older novice talks of the breeders. Malik learns that breeders are like women in the sense that they can bear children and that they are good at pleasuring you between your legs. He’s more than a little dismayed when he finds out that breeders are instinctively superior to them.
“They’re the ones who choose their mates, not you,” Aslam says. He’s ten-and-fifteen and when he gets back from a mission in Acre or Jerusalem, he’ll gather the younger boys around him and talk of bedding women, and of how no woman is the same. Breeders are rare and precious and so far, the only one in the brotherhood who’s ever bedded a breeder is Jal, but as the man himself says, it’s not much.
“It’s worse when you get rejected,” Jal says with a wistful tone in his voice that makes Malik scowl. “Bedding is one thing, mating is another.”
“I will never have a mate,” Malik declares to Rauf later. They’re seated in the dining hall, Kadar between them. Malik watches his brother stab at his meat listlessly. “I will not look like some lovesick fool bent on providing things to someone.”
“True,” Rauf agrees.
They shake on it, their hands sweaty and blood-stained from sword practice.
And then, Altair happens.
“Safety and peace, brother.”
Malik snorts at that. “Your presence here deprives me of both.”
He’s used the same words before so Malik isn’t surprised to find that Altair isn’t affected by them. The first time—and Malik still isn’t sure if he imagined it—he’d flinched. Now, he merely hums, unperturbed by the sourness in Malik’s voice. He pushes his hood back then ruffles his wings, sending dust in Malik’s direction, and Malik’s about to protest when he hears the soft thump, announcing the arrival of another assassin.
It’s a novice, and unlike Altair, a literal novice. His robes are too big for him and when he steps in the inner room, he almost trips all over himself. “Safety and peace,” he murmurs, eyes lowered. Malik has a reputation for being harsh which is why most novices prefer taking missions in Acre. Jabal is much friendlier than him. Malik merely grunts a reply. There’s no need to be nice to them. Kindness doesn’t make a good assassin.
The boy sneaks a glance at Altair and Malik doesn’t miss the way his face conveys lust. It has Malik bristling in anger. He’s nearly half Altair’s age and it shows. Altair himself doesn’t seem to notice. He’s perched on the counter, idly viewing a map Malik had just finished. Malik pokes his side with his quill. “Off.” Then he turns to the novice. “And off with you as well.”
“It is hot,” the novice complains.
“Then your target will mostly likely be at home, away from the sun,” Malik snaps. “Go now.”
“I had no idea you’re as harsh to them as you are to me,” Altair remarks as soon as the novice is gone. The smile he gives Malik is teasing. It makes Malik want to punch his teeth in, makes him want to grab Altair by the front of his robes to drag his mouth over the assassin’s. He does neither. “And here I thought I was special.”
Malik snorts. “You are delusional. And off my counter. Now.”
Altair is a breeder. To an unflighted person, Altair is just like one of them. But it’s obvious to Malik because of his scent. There’s a distinctive smell to him that has Malik and the other flighted boys blushing, has them thinking about want and taste and desire. They’re foreign feelings, and Malik does his best to keep them buried. He has no time to think about carnal desires. He is thirteen-years-old and he has a brother to take care of.
When he joins them, Altair is ten-and-eleven. His wings are fully-grown because breeders develop faster than providers. They’re large, almost too large for his lanky body, and the wingtips drag against the ground. Wings that large are meant for long distance flights. On the ground they’ll make you ungainly, make stealth more difficult. In water, they’re practically useless and the feathers will absorb water faster than any kind of cloth, weighing you down, which explains Altair’s infamous aversion to large bodies of water. They don’t stop Altair from beating Malik at sparring, and the smug, knowing look in Altair’s face has Malik seething in anger.
As they grow older, Altair becomes more aware of the effect his scent has on them. When they spar, he drags one of his wings around Malik and before Malik can remove himself from the haze of want, Altair’s already got him on the ground, one boot on his chest.
Once, and only once, Altair had knocked him off the ground and had sat on his lap, the blunt blade of the practice sword pressed against his throat. Their brothers had jeered, had laughed at Malik’s obvious discomfort. And Altair had raised one brow at Malik’s flushed face and had smirked, all-knowing when he deliberately rolled his hips, trapping Malik in conflicting shame and arousal.
“Do you truly despise him?” Kadar asks. He’s too young, too innocent to understand Altair’s power. His wings are slate grey and almost the same size as Malik’s, still covered in down and with pinions that never want to lie flat. Kadar has a habit of tucking them around him when he’s seated, making only the top part of his head visible. He’s doing it now and Malik finds those large blue eyes staring at him curiously. “I think he’s amazing.”
“He’s a cheat,” Malik replies, ignoring the confused look on Kadar’s face. “You’ll find out.”
But Allah, Malik wishes that he never does.
He wishes that no one else does.
“Have you ever thought about courting Altair?”
Malik nearly drops the newly-bought ink bottles. “What?” he asks, eyes widening at the suggestion. “Rauf, you must be insane.”
“Oh, I truly am for saying that because I believe we’ve all thought of it when we were younger,” Rauf says with a grin and Malik flushes because yes, he can’t deny it. They all thought of it before Altair became comfortable enough around them to open his mouth and wreak havoc. Besides Altair, there are no breeders in the brotherhood. They’re rare and most of them would rather become scholars than assassins.
“Why did you say that?” Malik asks. He looks left and right. They’re in Masyaf’s marketplace and the chances of someone from brotherhood overhearing them is too high. Altair isn’t here, though. He’s in Damascus, doing another one of Al Mualim’s favors. But Malik’s still on edge, afraid that one of the novices might report it to Altair and give him more fuel for mocking Malik.
“Well…” Rauf pauses, scratching at his beard as he thinks. It’s much thicker than Malik remembers and when Rauf speaks, the beard parts, flashing a set of yellowed teeth. He doesn’t understand how Rauf can tolerate it. The air is stifling this season. It’s making sweat run down Malik’s back like a waterfall.
“Well, it’s just that you seem to be alone.”
Malik rolls his eyes. “I have my work.”
“You need a mate.”
“I do not need one. You don’t have one. And of all people, why would I choose Altair? I would rather have a wife than to have a mate like Altair.”
“Why not? He is not aesthetically displeasing to look at.”
Malik can’t make a comment on that because it’s true. Altair isn’t soft like women are but his features are outstanding, his lips full and his eyes both beautiful and intimidating, and Malik knows that many in the brotherhood look at Altair with something that isn’t either annoyance or admiration. Malik saw him unclothed many times when they were boys, and the sight often brought an unwelcome fire to his loins.
A very, very unwelcome fire.
The beard twitches, amused when Malik continues to say nothing. “Altair seems to have taken a liking to you. In fact, it seems to have been going on for a long time. You’re the only one he liked to provoke when we were younger.” Rauf chuckles. “If I’d tried something like what he liked to do to you on Altair, I believe a hidden blade would have found its way somewhere extremely uncomfortable.”
“That was then and that was just nonsense. We were boys, Rauf.”
“I have heard that he’s often at Jerusalem.”
“For a mission!”
Rauf snorts at that. “And since when has Altair even been so incompetent as to go back and forth cities just to assassinate one target? In fact I heard Al Mualim complain when he didn’t return immediately after assassinating that merchant. What did you do Malik?” Rauf leers. “Pull him in your nest?”
Malik feels himself grow red.
“If you are so inclined towards Altair then why do you not mate with him yourself?” Malik hisses even when the thought of Rauf and Altair together pierces through his gut. He shakes the feeling off. It is not good to dwell on such things.
Altair killed Kadar. Not directly because Altair isn’t that cruel. But still, Malik lays the blame on him because it’s easier than blaming himself.
“Altair only has eyes for you,” Rauf teases, loudly enough that a novice passing by looks at them curiously. Malik glares at the lad then at the space where his arm used to be, annoyed that his one hand is occupied and can’t be used to throttle Rauf.
Malik looks down. The haystack looks far too small to be able to catch him. This high, Malik can only recognize it by its dull yellow color, a spot of color against the gray of the rocks below. He looks to his right where the other two novices stand, the wind whipping through their clothes. “Why should I jump? I have wings,” he asks. His tone is petulant and it makes the novice guarding him raise his brow.
Fortunately, the older novice just sighs. He’s heard it all before, Malik is sure. This one doesn’t have wings but his bearing is just like the flighted assassins’. “You need to learn to trust yourself,” he says. “Take a leap of faith. There will be a day where your wings cannot take you anymore.”
There won’t, he thinks with all the self-assurance of someone as young as he. But he does as he’s told because if you’re in the brotherhood, you follow.
The healer tells him this: he can still fly.
The healer also tells him this: but not for long.
“Your sense of balance has been changed due to the loss of your arm,” the man explains. “In fact, it is better if you don’t try. You may risk losing more than arm if you fall.” He eyes the stump with a sympathy that has Malik scowling. You are a cripple. The healer doesn’t say these words out loud but it’s clear to Malik what he’s thinking. The world is not kind to cripples.
When the healer leaves, Malik takes the time to regret. He regrets not savoring his ability to fly, regrets that he’s still alive because Kadar is dead and no amount of crying, no amount of sitting here mourning for him will change that.
He regrets reaching out to try and grab Altair before he attempted to stab Robert de Sable. Malik had knocked him off, made him lose his balance. Perhaps, Altair still wouldn’t have been able to do it if Malik hadn’t tried to grab him. Perhaps, if he just hadn’t stood there after, waiting to see Altair fail, he’d still have his arm and his brother would still be alive.
“Ah, no insults for me today? I’m disappointed, Malik.”
“Shut your mouth. You cause a disturbance,” Malik snaps, then promptly closes his mouth when he sees the blood on Altair’s robe. There’s too much of it and Altair’s skin has taken on a deathly-pallor. Distantly, Malik hears the sound of the city bells, but it’s mostly background noise because Altair is bleeding. He can’t remember a time when Altair was bleeding this much. There probably never was a time.
Let him bleed to death, the vengeful part of Malik’s brain, the one that still can’t not associate Kadar’s death with Altair, hisses.
Malik finds himself moving forward.
“I’m fine,” Altair insists. His cowl’s down and Malik can clearly see the embarrassment on his face. There’s a bruise on his face that will turn a hideous shade of purple tomorrow.
“Don’t be stubborn,” Malik sighs.
Altair doesn’t fight him when Malik gets the supplies, nor does he say anything when Malik tells him to take a seat on the rug. He’s patched up other assassin’s before and Altair’s wound isn’t any different from the other’s he’s seen. He gets lost in the work and even forgets that it’s Altair he’s patching up because he’s surprisingly quiet, up until Malik rubs the wound with wine.
“That hurts,” Altair bites, and Malik can’t help but laugh at the surprise in his voice. Like Altair is too skilled to ever know what pain is like. Malik shakes his head. Stupid novice.
He was a crybaby when he was younger, worse than Kadar even, and it was only when Abbas had shifted his position in Altair’s life from friend to enemy did Altair stop. Malik aches for that boy sometimes. Altair had no one.
“That’s what happens when you kill like a novice,” Malik taunts, and Altair huffs then tries to kick Malik’s legs out from underneath him.
He’s washing the bloodstained-rag he’d used to clean Altair’s wound when he feels it—the gentle brush of a hand on his wings.
Malik doesn’t dare breathe, doesn’t dare move, but Altair’s hand doesn’t move away. Altair is preening him. You don’t preen your brothers in the brotherhood. You don’t preen just anyone. It’s something lovers do, something mates do.
His heart beats rabbit-fast inside his chest. Malik doesn’t know what to do with it.
When Abbas touches Altair, Malik loses it.
He’s an assassin still, even with one arm, so his aim is perfect. The jar of ink breaks the moment it comes into contact with Abbas’ shoulders, and the liquid spreads to his clothes like blood. “What is wrong with you?!” he spits, shoving Altair away from him. Malik’s hand goes to his knife before he can even register it.
“You will not brawl in my bureau,” he snarls. You will not touch him, you will not even look at him or I will kill you. Abbas glares at him but the other assassin that came with him sags under Malik’s glare. The man murmurs something to Abbas that has the other man scowling even more.
“Cripple,” Abbas hisses. But they leave and Malik finds himself alone with Altair. His wings are still ruffled in defense, his stance stiff with rebuttal. There’s only one thing that annoys Altair more than demeaning his status as an assassin—demeaning him for his sex, and Malik knows Abbas well enough to know what tactic he’d used.
He’s watching Malik’s every move, eyes still wide open in shock, and a small part of Malik takes pride in being able to surprise Altair.
A larger part of him is screaming in confusion and frustration because he wants, he wants so badly, but he shouldn’t.
Because this is Altair and Altair is his brother and his rival and he shouldn’t be anything more than that.
“Malik—” Altair starts but Malik turns his back to him.
“Go back to Al Mualim,” he mutters.
They’re running from the guards (because Altair is a stupid novice who doesn’t understand the meaning of discretion, and damn it, this should have just been a normal market day, but Altair and his stupid mouth has them running for their lives) when Altair jumps from one roof, wings spread open to glide to the next one, and Malik finds himself following.
He hasn’t tried to fly ever since Solomon’s Temple. He’s only ever spread his wings open to threaten people or to shake off the city dust.
What he’s doing now still isn’t flying. They’re merely leaping from one high point to the other, but it’s more than Malik’s ever done in months. They’re far enough and high enough that the guards can no longer chase them, and it soon dawns on Malik that he’s the one doing the chasing.
Altair keeps looking over his shoulder every now and then, a small smile playing on his lips. Malik doesn’t know why he’s entertaining him. This is childish and stupid and he has work that needs to be done, but Malik can’t bring himself to stop. He has to catch Altair, has to claim him.
And then Altair stops and Malik isn’t fast enough not to barrel into him and knock them over. Instinct has his wings reacting, wrapping around his body and Altair’s the moment his eyes see the haystack below.
“That was an awful leap of faith,” Malik mutters when he sits up. He’s itching and he’s pissed because there’s probably hay in his clothes. Putting them on is already a difficult task. Cleaning is worse.
“Yes,” Altair agrees. Malik turns his head, ready to tease him for finally agreeing with him, when Altair hooks one arm around his shoulders and kisses him.
“You caught me,” Altair explains when Malik pulls back, startled. He leans forward to kiss the corner of Malik’s mouth. The intimacy of the gesture grips at Malik’s heart. He’s confused, he truly is, but one look at Altair tells him that he’ll get his questions later.
His hand splays on the space between Altair’s shoulder blades when Malik pulls him in, his mouth fitting Altair’s perfectly.
“You stopped. I didn’t catch you. You stopped.”
Altair sighs. A light crease appears between his brows when he’s annoyed. Malik rests his thumb over it, and Altair closes his eyes, frown changing into a satisfied smile as Malik’s hand drifts to the shelf of his jaw.
“Does it matter? I chose you.”
And at the end of the day, Malik finds that it really doesn’t.
Without becoming fully conscious of it, Malik becomes Altair’s mate.
Later, he’ll blame it on having little to no parental guidance. Both of his parents died before he entered the brotherhood with Kadar, and any chance of nurturing his knowledge on sex and mating flew out the window the moment he realized that there would be no one to take care of Kadar other than him. Most of his knowledge had come in fragments from his fellow novices and from the bawdiest of the minstrels, and most of that had been about bedding. Courting had rarely been talked about.
He doesn’t even know how he courted Altair. He’d given him food, true, and he’d tended his wounds, but if that was the basis then Altair could have chosen the Rafiqs in Damascus and Acre. He’d only done his duty.
You reap what you sow. It’s something his mother liked to say when he was younger and when Kadar was still inside his mother’s belly. Do not be afraid to take rewards if you believe that you deserve them, Malik.
“I like your grumpy face,” is the only thing Altair tells him whenever Malik asks. “And I like what you can do to me with your cock,” he’ll add just for the sake of seeing Malik redden.
The first time he beds Altair, it feels more like fighting than sex. Altair leaves bites and bruises and there are red scratches on Malik’s chest that he doubts will ever fade away. It hurts, almost every time he pulls Altair to his bed, but it’s worth it to see the way Altair loses himself, his eyes fluttering shut and his wings spreading when he slowly sinks down on Malik’s cock, his hands spreading over Malik’s chest as he moves over him.
He learns more about Altair’s body in one night than in the peeking he’d done over the years when they were novices. There are numerous nicks and scars on his back and there’s a wine-red birthmark on his right hip which Malik likes to suck on. It never fails to leave Altair shaking and breathless, wings twitching restlessly until Malik sinks into him.
He makes his own marks on the map of Altair’s body, gives him his own share of finger-shaped bruises on the malleable skin of his hips, gives him marks that tell the world that he’s Malik’s.
Malik can pinpoint the exact moment when he falls in love with Altair.
He doesn’t count the first week of being Altair’s mate because Malik had been too busy trying to sate his lust to even notice anything beyond what Altair looked like stripped of his white robes.
The day Malik Al-Sayf falls head-over-heels in love with Altair Ibn-La'Ahad is the day he crashes in Malik’s arms, bone-tired and bleeding profusely but still fighting and Malik becomes hyper-aware that Altair nearly died and Malik’s lost far too much and all the gods be damned if they let Altair die in his arms.
This is the day when Altair killed Al Mualim.
It’s a bit morbid and disgusting because Altair is covered in blood and there’s a corpse burning beside them, but Malik wraps his wings around Altair and kisses him and kisses him until they’re both shaking from the sheer of joy of being able to do so.
There’s a spot behind Altair’s ear where his scent is strongest, the smell of it like a mix of hay and wood and myrrh. Malik likes to greet Altair by pushing his hood down so that he can press his nose against that spot, his mouth brushing against Altair’s neck while he does. Malik will feel him shiver and if he permits it, Altair will grab him by the front of his robes and drag his mouth over Malik’s over and over again until Malik feels like he’s drowning.
This is how Rauf finds them.
“Must you two treat this bureau like a nest?” Rauf complains loudly. Malik nearly pushes Altair off because Altair is sitting on his lap, robe unlaced and exposing far too much skin for Malik’s liking. But Altair just laughs against his mouth then lifts one his wings up to shield them from Rauf’s eyes. “That’s no use, I can hear it.”
“You’ve brought your novices with you,” Altair observes once they’re in a more dignified state. One of the novices is looking at Altair’s neck where Malik’s marked his teeth. The bruise is large and deep enough that it will take days to heal. Good, the primal part of Malik’s brain thinks.
Not good. The more rational part of Malik’s brain argues because Malik is a Dai and Altair is now (whether he likes it or not) the new Mentor seeing as the last one was burned to ashes, and there really is no need for the novices to see two respectable men in this state, even if they are mated.
“They have never been to Jerusalem and I am here to tour them,” Rauf says. He wrinkles his nose. “We stopped here to rest, but I was not aware that you two were…playing.”
“You should know better than to come here when you know that I’m in Jerusalem,” Altair replies. He scratches at his stomach idly. “You are aware of what we do.”
“I would rather not think of it and I would rather not have you announce it in front of my students. Have pity on them. Have pity on me.”
Altair rolls his eyes but when he looks at Malik, there’s a fond smile on his face. Malik smiles it back, heart swelling at how much he loves this man, and he can’t help but subtly reach out until his fingers are brushing against the soft feathers of Altair’s left wing, the touch always a gentle reminder that Malik chose him as well.