Leo scribbles faster, wishing again that his writing could keep up with the inspiration flooding his mind, but even his nimble fingers are slower than the ideas that cascade through his imagination. Burdened by his guilt over the horrors of Otranto, he strives to come up with an answer to fix all the problems, new designs that will confound and destroy only the enemy and never harm another civilian.
In the dim light of the candles in the remains of his burnt-out bedroom, Riario stirs, but Leo doesn't turn to him. He had dosed Riario with more, stronger serum as soon as he had returned with Leo to the studio. The picture of the proud count and captain-general standing there—offering his wrists and waist to be chained, head bowed in defeat—will stay with him forever, supplanting even that terrible vision of the sinner with his fingers clutched around Signora Cereta's throat, blade aimed for her heart. Leo didn't give him a sedative; Riario had appeared to drop off from exhaustion as soon as Leo had helped him to the floor.
“Artista,” the voice croons, lengthening the vowels in a parody of Riario's normal tone. Leo shuts his eyes for a moment against the despicable sounds and sighs before turning to face the blood-red eyes.
“It's you again,” he says flatly.
Riario's head cocks to the side in a mockery of his usual response to Leo. Normally Riario looks at him fully, concentrated and focused, but this version, he seems to stare through Leo's skin into his soul—weighing, measuring and finding him wanting.
“Did you really think it would be that easy to rid yourself of me?” the sinner shakes Riario's head. “Do you truly believe the worm is strong enough to make his own decisions and banish me once and for all?”
“I believe that the Riario I know is more than strong enough to defeat an aberration such as you.”
“So you think that through your tribulations and travails, you've come to know this tainted vessel?” Riario's voice is laden with the biting sarcasm Leo has heard him put to good use as a verbal weapon.
Leo shrugs nonchalantly at the challenge. “I have seen Riario's heart, and I believe that his soul is not as tainted as you, or even he, believes.”
“His soul,” the sinner scoffs. “You claimed you would heal him body and soul. Yet here I remain, firmly entrenched in that blackened crevice, and his body... well, it seems as though the worm has been harboring some secrets so deeply, so profoundly sinful,” the voice lowers and hisses, “that even I did not discern them until now.”
“Really? And I suppose you are going to inform me.” Leo doesn't have to feign a yawn and disinterest in the ramblings of the liar; he is bone-tired and not remotely interested in hearing more foul and vile half-truths.
“You see, he desires you,” the sinner goes on, “in a thoroughly immoral fashion.”
Leo barks out a laugh before he can stop himself and turns his back on the figure of Riario even as the loathsome voice continues speaking. “He watches you intently, you know. At first, he convinced himself he desired you only for your war engines and your mental expertise, but then purely carnal thoughts began to haunt his mind and soon he was having quite different visions of you. He really has a vivid imagination for a supposed man of the church. He noticed your every move, he admired your genius, he talked to everyone about the brilliance in your mind, when he knew his true desires were far baser than that. He only craved your ass.”
Riario's voice breaks in a breathless laugh at his own words. “Ah, but there's the rub, isn't it? Even when you were in the new world, alone, abandoned, condemned to die, all he could think about was holding you down and fucking you until they dragged you to your execution.”
Leo shuts his eyes and keeps his back slumped so the sinner doesn't see the reaction he is kindling. He must give something away, or the sinner is just that good at provoking the response he wants.
“He notices the way you look at him, too,” the voice whispers as though confiding its deepest secret. “Admit it, you've harbored lascivious thoughts about him, you ravening sodomite. And he's caught you at it and given it right back. Thanks to his notion about resisting the lusts of the flesh, he won't act on it, oh no, the hypocrite, but I can tell you every single thing he wants to do to you, every fantasy that has ever run through his depraved mind when he takes his own cock in hand.”
Leo's writing stops altogether.
“He wants to fuck you,” the voice sing-songs, “but not that simply. He wants to tie you up, as your friends did to him when they presented him to you like a gift and you took the key away from him. Oh, the wanton thoughts that crossed his mind of what you could do to him at that very moment. He was powerless, incapacitated, and you could have taken your due. How he longed for you to master him, to mount him and make him pay for keeping secrets.
“Why didn't you, Leonardo?” the sinner interrupts himself and pauses, clearly waiting for a response. Leo doesn't oblige him. A loud tsk sounds from Riario's voice as he begins to rant again. “The thought has haunted him many of those long, lonely nights when he dreamed up ways to make you pay for that dishonor. He has wondered why you did not take him right there, right in front of your friends, shown everyone that you always have the upper hand. It gave him a feeling of inadequacy, made him wonder if there was something wrong with him, but not I. Do you want to know what I think?”
Leo doesn't answer, won't answer, so the sinner goes on, his voice growing breathy in almost Riario's normal tones. “I think that you did want to. Maybe not then, in that exact moment, but I think that the thought of the count tied up now, being given to you with no consequences, would excite you, wouldn't it? Are you hard right now, Leonardo?”
Leo knows there is no way that Riario can see his expression, can't tell what kind of reaction Leo is hiding, but for one moment, he is uneasy. The sinner cannot read his mind—that is impossible, surely, even though Leo's mind has been invaded before—but then why does he feels so exposed?
When Leo doesn't respond, the sinner goes on, although his voice has hardened.
“But, now in this worm's imaginings, it is you at his mercy, and he has to punish you for your many sins.”
Leo reminds himself to keep his breathing regular.
“Sometimes he cannot decide which punishment you are to take. In some fantasies, he wields his blade, cuts you and scars you in patterns that mark you as his forever. In others, he flays you, whips you until you beg him for mercy, but he shows none. But in all of them, he licks your blood, tortures you until you are hard and straining under him and have no control. Then he'll fuck you, tear you apart.”
“This sounds like a tale you heard somewhere in a whorehouse,” Leo carefully keeps his voice bored.
The sinner sounds angry now. “You don't believe this fallen one can harbor such dark thoughts of you? You think his passion does not run as deeply as other artists? Oh yes, you described the aesthetics of my kills, but this one, he has dreamed of you as his muse. Drawing your blood for his paints and using your skin as his canvas, he would sign his masterpiece in your flesh even as he rams into your tight hole.”
Leo shuts his eyes against the unwanted image that conjures, unbidden, in his mind.
“When his masters told him to bring you into The Labyrinth, to become one, he wanted nothing more than to do just that. He dreamed of fucking you right in the chapel, spreading you out over the very bloody altar, showing you just what artistry he is capable of. While you drew imaginary designs of the scene, he pictured you suspended from that very iron, hanging vulnerable and naked, totally open and ready for whatever punishment he chose. Hanging in the utmost sacred place, he would make sure you were profaned forever, taking you again and again until the only thought in your head would be him and what he would do next to you.
“Even when he is barely lucid, every touch you administer inflames him. He dreams of bending you over that table, spreading you, eating you out, touching every inch of you, then fucking you, pounding you so hard, balls deep, that you will never take another man without thinking of him. He wants to spread his hands around your neck and choke you until you tighten and quake around him and then, only then, will he allow you to come.”
“Really, and this is supposed to terrify me?” Leo says wryly, mastering his expression as he turns to face Riario's body. “You were much more frightening when you were at least attempting to act sane and threaten my life.”
The sinner laughs that crazed laugh that Leo has come to detest.
“So the thought of taking his cock doesn't bother you? Knowing that he fancies he would be the best lay you've ever had? Or perhaps,” the head tilts again and Leo can practically see the gears turning in the brain. It is almost the look that Riario wears when he is calculating, planning, or ready to call Leo's bluff. Leo swallows hard, and Riario's face smiles, tongue darting out to lick his bottom lip.
“Perhaps, you would rather have it the other way around, giving it as you did to that whore he found to testify against you. Perhaps you want this worm to take it instead.”
It should be impossible for Riario to look alluring considering everything he has been through, but Leo is surprised by how well he manages. His body sprawls against the support post, and he lets his legs fall open wide then pulls at his shirt so it gapes as open as Leo's, baring his throat and neck. Leo can't help but watch the motion with admiration, and the sinner smirks, reading it as confirmation of Leo's wavering resolve.
“I will offer you his body in exchange for my freedom,” the sinner looks up at Leo through those thick, dark eyelashes and smiles just enough to look like the real Riario. “You can let me go after you do whatever you want to him. You are restraining so much anger, regret, at least one grudge against him—go ahead, take it out on him. Make him scream. Gag him with your prick. Fuck him raw and make him gape. Deny him any pleasure while you do your worst to him. Fuck him in all the ways you've ever fantasized about but never dared.” The sinner rubs at the bulge growing in Riario's trousers.
Leo tries to keep his eyes on Riario's face as the reddened eyes grow heavy with arousal, but he can't resist glancing down. The sinner laughs that rasping, obscene chuckle and unlaces the trousers. He slowly takes himself in hand, eyes never leaving Leo's, and goes on conversationally. “Why, Leonardo, are you feeling suddenly shy? Do I make you squirm? Wouldn't you rather come over here and let me,” the sinner gasps and throws his head back with a moan, “choke you with this?”
Leo does one of the most difficult things he's done in a while—he gets up and walks out of the room, calling over his shoulder, “Let me know when you're finished with that, and I'll give you something to clean up. It may help you sleep better.”
“Fuck me. Come fuck me, Leonardo,” the sinner croons again. The voice is unnerving because it is almost Riario, almost the man Leo has admitted to himself is attractive, but it is alien now, tinged with a tone of madness, but Leo reminds himself that his Riario is still in there. Somewhere.
Leo takes some deep breaths and leans against the wall out of sight, against better sense listening to the sound of flesh stroking flesh as the sinner works Riario's body.
He knows beyond a doubt that the crude and vulgar things he's heard in the previous days aren't spoken by the refined, pious Riario he has come to count as a friend. Somewhere, in the deepest recesses of his mind, he must have heard things and remembered them somehow, and now the thoughts were spewing out. It is highly unnerving to Leo that a man's mind might not fully be under his own control.
He hears the voice cry out a loud “Leonardo,” then there is a choked-off moan followed by silence. Leo waits a moment before peering in, but Riario is asleep or passed out, body slumped against the post again. Leo grimaces in sympathy at the discomfort he will feel in the morning, but he doesn't dare to redress him. Instead, he finds a blanket mostly undamaged from the fire and spreads it over his lap then gently, so very gently, smooths the fringe of hair away from Riario's eyes.
It is still the middle of the night when Riario awakes with a shake and a gasp. Leo doesn't want to look over at him, but he needs to know if he is in his right mind. That is answered when Riario makes a sound like disgust. He is peeling the blanket away from his lap and looks up at Leo with a questioning raised eyebrow.
“I didn't lay a finger on you, I swear.”
Riario tucks himself away with a grimace. “What vile actions did I perpetrate this time?”
“You don't remember?”
Leo laughs quietly in relief. “You shared what you claimed were your deepest, darkest thoughts.”
“From my prick?”
“Something like that,” Leo laughs again and Riario shakes his head. “You spoke of... fantasies. Those involving the two of us.”
“Ah,” Riario says and looks away.
“Is that all you have to say?”
Riario glances at him but doesn't meet his eyes. “Of all the horrendous and obscene things I have said to you over these days, this is the one you question me further about?”
Leo steps over and kneels close to him, gazing into his clear eyes, tilting his chin to look closer. “It was by far the most fascinating and revealing of revelations.”
Riario looks pointedly down at his unlaced trousers. “And did you take advantage of it?”
“Never.” Leo runs his thumb over Riario's cheekbone, leaning close enough to be checking his eyes and also close enough to let his breath waft over his lips.
“Of course you wouldn't want to, not after everything I have done,” Riario whispers bitterly.
Leo lays his thumb gently over Riario's lips. “I never said I wasn't interested. But I am only interested when you are in your own, healthy mind.”
“I am. At least for this moment.”
“Are you truly?” Leo brings his lips close enough to brush Riario's which gratifyingly open beneath his. “I would never take advantage and do those things to you.”
Riario edges back and asks, “Exactly what did I say to you?”
“I cannot even repeat the absolute filth you said you wanted to do to me—and on my worktable, nonetheless—before you turned around and offered to let me do the same to you. In exchange for your freedom,” Leo breathes the words against Riario's cheek and watches his eyelashes flutter shut at the sensation.
“I am truly mad,” Riario whispers.
“To be honest, quite a lot of your ideas sounded very tempting.”
Riario jerks away to look at him, even an inch far enough to gain some clarity. Leo knows he can see nothing but gentleness in his eyes because that is how he feels now. His manic energy is curbed for once even if he's not sure exactly why. It is more than fear, terror, exhaustion and the worry of what is to come, the thought of losing more people who are precious to him. Leo feels older, tired, his brash arrogance and streak of anger tempered by everything he has suffered.
Just as Riario has changed from their acquaintance, Leo knows all the sacrifices and crises he's endured have taken their toll. And it enables him to be quiet and tender to Riario, something he had never imagined before this ordeal of trying to save him.
“Perhaps you are as mad as I,” Riario says and leans forward, just that fraction of an inch and they are kissing. Leo keeps his hand on Riario's face, fingers caressing softly, and he keeps the kiss as gentle as his touch. But Riario seems to have accepted the inevitable and licks into his mouth, tongue issuing a challenge that Leo is only too happy to accept. He kneads at Riario's shoulder and they kiss harder, moving closer, until Riario's head bounces against the post behind him.
“Sorry, sorry,” Leo apologizes against his mouth as he strokes the back of Riario's head then kisses over to his ear, nipping at a vulnerable spot on his neck. “Are you sure you are in agreement with me?”
Riario's bound hands fist in Leo's shirt and pull it aside as much as possible. Leo leans back, eyes on Riairo's, and strips it off.
“I am most definitely in agreement with you,” Riario rasps, his voice even breathier than usual.
“I will not take advantage,” Leo insists as he moves up to straddle Riario's legs.
Riario lets his head hit the post with another thud. “I am literally chained up and at your mercy, you can have your way with me and you are just now finding your conscience.”
“Better late then never.” Leo grins and then manhandles Riario away from the post, pulling him forward and kissing him again. Riario growls and wrests his mouth away, kissing and biting his way down Leo's neck, nipping then suckling the hurt. Leo knows he will be marked from the attention, and he could not care less. He holds Riario's head to him and grinds his hips in Riario's lap, feeling a growing hardness to match his own. He gasps when Riario sucks a tender spot in the center of his collarbones then grunts when the heavy chains hit his chest.
Riario tries to maneuver his bound hands but they are trapped between their chests and fastened to his waist, limiting his range of motion. Leo gasps, “Wait, I will release you.”
“No, we do not know if I'm still dangerous.” Riario looks up at him, and Leo is surprised by the fear in his wide eyes.
“I have grown to trust you,” Leo says quietly and can't help but add, “and my cure.”
But Riario shakes his head. “No, the heightened emotions, it could force a recurrence.”
“That's an interesting hypothesis. I wonder if your sinner will feel as threatened by pleasure as he does by pain?”
Riario tries to pull back, but Leo kisses him and strokes a hand gently down Riario's chest, feeling the smooth skin, the tense of muscle when Riario sucks in a breath. He watches Riario's eyes closely as his hand toys with the untied laces of his trousers. “What if you were to simply concentrate on this?”
Riario gasps and moves toward Leo for another kiss which Leo is happy to give. He reaches into Riario's trousers and finds him hard, wet at the tip, and slicks his thumb through it before pushing back the foreskin. The touch makes Riario groan low in his throat, but when Leo leans back to look in his eyes, they are only dark with passion.
“I want to feel you,” Riario grinds out, chained hands reaching for Leo, but he is unable to touch most of Leo, hampered by the bonds that restrict his movements. Leo obliges by unlacing himself one-handed and with some posturing and kneeling, manages to stroke himself alongside Riario. The feel of his velvety soft flesh stretched over the hardness rubbing against his own makes Leo shudder in pleasure. He feels Riario tremble similarly beneath him.
“Girolamo, is this good?” Leo asks and Riario's moan is his answer. He feels the rub of the chains against his chest before Riario smoothes his palms across his stomach and pectorals, touching as much as he can reach. Leo presses closer, crushing his hands between them, to kiss him again. Then he is panting into Riario's mouth as he asks, “Do you still want to fuck me wide open or is this enough for now?”
The tightening of Riario's body is his answer as he clenches and comes across Leo's hand and cock. The feeling of the hot spurt on his flesh spurs him to stroke faster and he comes with a muffled moan, painting Riario's chest with his release. He settles on Riario's lap as he catches his breath and feels the heat pouring off Riario so he leans back to check Riario's eyes.
“Are you still you?”
“I am not at all sure what I am,” Riario says, panting, but Leo sees his eyes are clear and bright.
“Good,” Leo says and shifts his weight off to one side as he tucks Riario away first and then laces himself in. “I think that if you made it through this, with that much excitement flowing through you, you may finally be cured.”
“But at what price?”
“None of that talk,” Leo chides him and drops a kiss on his forehead as he stands and staggers slightly as blood rushes back to his legs.
“Da Vinci, what did I say to you last night, about my … feelings toward you?”
Riario looks so broken and open that Leo doesn't dare tease him again. “You didn't talk about feelings,” he says honestly. “Your sinner was more concerned with describing the sexual fantasies he said you have about us.”
“It is good to know that at least one corner of my soul was not plundered and all my secrets laid bare,” Riario shuts his eyes and leans back.
“Perhaps those feelings come from a different part of your soul altogether?” Leo says cautiously, prodding to see how Riario reacts, but he only opens his brown eyes and meets Leo's directly.
“Feelings,” Riario muses. “It was … a relief to see that you had survived Otranto, even though you looked like you had faced death already. Working so closely with you was … invigorating, as always. But, betraying you, allowing the Labyrinth to take you...”
Riario trails off but Leo kneels back down and grips his shoulders tightly. “You saved me, in the end. We have all made mistakes, some more egregious than others, but not everyone is so fortunate to have an Ariadne to guide them safely out of danger.”
“But how do I manage with this overwhelming guilt?” Riario says in a quiet voice.
“The reality of what I have done. The lives I have taken. The violence I have incited. Now, taking pleasure when I deserve only punishment and pain.”
Leo shakes him gently this cups his cheek in his hand. “Please don't ever feel guilty about finding pleasure when you can. You know that life is a series of struggles. Indulging in this, in intimacy with another person, it's one thing that reminds us we're human, that there is still good in this world. You are not wrong.”
Riario bites off a little smile at him. “The mantra of the Labyrinth, I was instructed to bring you in, to make you become one, but it wasn't how I had thoughts of us becoming one together. It seems my sinner was correct in that way.”
Leo laughs and kisses him, nipping his lower lip teasingly. “I like this bantering version of you. It makes me believe that sharing your deepest fantasies isn't always a terrible thing, if, indeed, I have the power to make them come true.” Leo pulls away slowly even as Riario sways a little toward his kiss without seeming to realize it.
Leo caresses his shoulder again. “Now, I'll help you clean up then try and rest. If you make it to the morning without another episode, we may have seen the worst.”
Riario gives him a tight, sad little smile, but Leo answers with a real one, and he doesn't try to hide the tears welling in his eyes at the thought of Riario finally being out of danger.
Riario reaches up awkwardly but can't stretch to brush them away so Leo wipes them quickly. “That is the second time you have shed tears for me. I am not deserving of such compassion.”
Leo rests his forehead against Riario's. “I told you I wanted to cure you.”
“I can never thank you for saving me even from myself.”
“Your salvation is your own. I am merely facilitating it.”
“Thank you anyway,” Riario murmurs against his lips as he kisses him.
“I can think of a multitude of ways you can repay me,” Leo says between kisses then forces himself to stand. “You can start as soon as you fully recover your strength. Rest now. I'll bring you something to eat in a few hours.”
Riario nods, eyes already slipping closed as he curls up on the floor, and Leo can't resist carding his fingers through his hair as he pulls the blanket over him.
He feels a little like he's gone to hell to pull Riario from it, feeling more like he has faced Hades than a Minotaur, but seeing the man before him, resting peacefully, makes it all worthwhile. He doesn't know where they will go from here, how long this alliance with Sixtus will last, how long until they step onto a battlefield against the Turks, but he hopes to do so with Riario, the one he knows and has grown fond of, against his better judgment. He hopes Riario will be able to wake up, to forgive himself and to accept that those who care for him forgave him as well.
Leo scrubs his hands over his face and goes back to the worktable, picking up his notes and starting again, planning for war in the wavering light of the dying candles.