It is early enough in the evening to still see by the sun's light, when they finally arrive at Monteriggioni – both for the first time, and returning at long last. It is a complicated feeling to see the place, at long last – how different it looks, how different it feels.
Ezio had only ever returned to Monteriggioni once, to leave his clues that led Desmond eventually to the Apple of Eden in Roma, and that one time he had not lingered. Monteriggioni had been long abandoned since, and in ruins – and Ezio now dreads to ask how long it took for people to settle in its walls again. They must have, one day, for Desmond to seek shelter in the town – but who settled there and why, and what wars did Monteriggioni end up serving a role in…
Now, Monteriggioni is as it had been, upon the first day Ezio had entered it, long ago – and never before, at the same time. The walls are still in something of a disrepair, and the towers are barely staffed, if at all. The gates to the city lay open despite the late hour, and there is only one guard at the gate, more a stablehand than a man of arms. Even at a distance, Ezio can tell how poor his armour is.
How poor the entire town is.
"Man, this is nostalgic," Desmond murmurs, rising to stand on the stirrups of his mount, peering at the gates. "It feels like it's been ages."
"It has," Ezio muses, feeling a stab of pain at the sight of the fortress. Once a hiding place, then a home, then a point of pride, he'd had some of his most troubled as well as his happiest years within Monteriggioni's walls, rebuilding the town, only to see if fall, eventually, at Cesare's hands.
Now it would never come to pass, hopefully.
"Are you alright?" Desmond asks, noticing his expression. "Should we take a break before entering the town?"
"No, it is… fine. I am fine," Ezio says, lifting his chin, and then digs his heels into his horse's sides, urging her forward, until the sleepy, distracted guardsman finally spots them.
"Ho there – who goes?" the man asks, nervous, as Ezio and Desmond come closer.
"I am Ezio Auditore da Firenze, the nephew of your Condottiero," Ezio calls. "He is expecting us."
The guardsman almost drops his spear, stuttering, "Oh – Ser Ezio, is it?" he asks nervously. "Yes – yes, Ser Mario mentioned you were coming – I – I will run ahead, give everyone warning."
"As you wish," Ezio says, and dismounts. "We will look after the horses then, and follow."
The poor guardsman hesitates – likely it is his job to look after Mario's horses. In the end, he chooses the better part of valour and hurries into the fortress proper, making his way hastily towards the villa.
"It will all be in disrepair," Ezio warns Desmond, while holding out his hand for the reigns of Desmond's horse. He hands them over and then dismounts himself in a smooth motion – smoother than one might expect, knowing that the trip from Firenze to Monteriggioni was the first time he'd ever ridden a horse. "The city was in a poor state when I entered."
"I know," Desmond says, still in a tone of nostalgia. "Watching you repair and rebuild it was one of the highlights, I think, when I was reliving those memories. Do you think we can do it again?"
"It will be difficult without an Assassin's income during troubled times, but I daresay we can certainly try," Ezio says and leads the horses to the stable, just outside the gates.
He's barely gotten the saddles off and the worst dirt brushed off, when Mario comes to greet them. "Ezio!" his jovial voice nearly makes Ezio's heart break. "And you must be Desmond! Welcome to Monteriggioni!"
Ezio is hugged first, tight and boisterous enough to pull him off his feet. Then Desmond is given the same treatment, though his feet stay on the ground.
"You must be Mario," Desmond says, smiling, and pats the man on the back before turning to pick up their saddlebags – and his guitar.
"I am, indeed, Mario Auditore da Monteriggioni," Mario says, patting both their shoulders. "You made good time – I barely had the time to read Giovanni's message, and now you are all here. Come, come, let me show you around the town – Alberto can look after your horses. Come!"
Ezio swallows around the clump suddenly stuck in his throat, and with Desmond follows the man into the fortress. It is quiet, as it had been long ago, with only a few people out and about, and those few looking a little wretched and sad. Monteriggioni had only had mere five hundred people living within her walls at the beginning of Ezio's life there – and those who did live there were either poor, or mercenaries. It took years before that changed.
Mario shows them to the shops, the few there are, and then shows them up the stairs and to the villa. It is not yet renovated, with most windows shuttered or boarded, to cover the fact that the glass had long ago broken and there had been no money to have them replaced and to keep the wind from howling in the villa's corners at all hours. It howled there anyway.
With a near physical jolt, Ezio remembers how uncomfortable the first few years had been, in the villa. Mario made some money for the town, working as little more than a mercenary with his forces, but not enough to keep the villa in good repair. Sometimes, there was no money for firewood, either. It had been a rather cold stay, those first few years, before Ezio started killing – and robbing – people in earnest, earning the town an actual income.
Doing repairs without it would be difficult indeed.
"She has seen better days," Mario admits, motioning to the villa's façade. "But she welcomes you all the same, as do I. Monteriggioni will be a home for you, Nephew – for both of you – for as long as you like."
"Thank you, Uncle," Ezio says, and somehow manages to keep his voice level. How long it has been since he's said that word… too long. "And thank you for your welcome – it is more appreciated than you know."
"Yes, thank you so much," Desmond says.
"Nonsense," Mario says and pats Ezio on the shoulder again. "I know you had something of a difficult time, in Firenze – Giovanni told me some of it in his letter. You have nothing to worry about here, and no reason to hide, none at all. And later, perhaps," he says, not very sly. "I can show you two how to defend yourselves, too."
Ezio nods slowly, swallowing. So, Mario would be taking Federico's and Father's role in teaching them? Well, he had assumed that Giovanni had plotted something of that nature… "That too is appreciated," he says and then clears his throat, before he risks saying more, and being honest. "So, some rooms, perhaps? Or a room?"
"I have just the thing," Mario says, grinning. "You will have all the privacy you could want up there, and it has by far the best view of the town and the surrounding countryside," he promises, and points upwards, at the central tower of the villa.
"Perfect," Desmond says, and Ezio smiles.
After settling in and unpacking their things, they take a look around the town, poking into the abandoned buildings, the barracks, into what Ezio had turned into a brothel eventually, the church. "We have our work cut out for us," he comments. "Though thankfully my eccentric great-grandfather will help us there somewhat. There are many treasures hidden in Monteriggioni, which will get us started."
"Mmhmm," Desmond agrees, peering up at the church's bell tower. "Kind of weird, that, in hindsight. Monteriggioni is this poor, and he hid all that money away. Why?"
"Likely it wasn't so poor, then. But, if your theory about the tombs is correct, then it might have been to test his children – a test, which they, obviously, failed," Ezio comments. "I think… Renato Auditore likely had the gift of the Eagle Vision, and none of his children shared it, and so the treasures he hid simply could not be found, for none could see them."
"Until you, anyway," Desmond muses. "That's… weirdly mean of him, but also I get it, I guess. Would you do something like that, with all the money you had? I mean – you had so much money."
Ezio chuckles. "I left mine to the Brotherhood, and to my guilds," he says. "When I left for Masyaf. That was my intention in Istanbul as well, but I was forced to leave it before I could. Hopefully some of those fine Assassins picked up the slack of my investments, cashing them in, or perpetuating them as they saw fit."
"Mmhmm," Desmond hums and looks at him. "So, treasure hunting first, then rebuilding?"
"There is no hurry," Ezio says, stroking his hand down Desmond's back soothingly. He's always so eager to do things. "For now, let us just walk."
And so they do, walking up and down the streets of Monteriggioni, examining its secret alleyways and narrow corridors, marking down every abandoned building and every dirty, disused corner. Then Ezio climbs a wall and holds out his hand for Desmond, and they go about examining the town that way, on the rooftops, examining their conformation and state, seeking the spots that most needed repair. That, Ezio remembers, was his biggest regret when the rebuilding of Monteriggioni finally begun – how much preventable water damage there was in so many buildings.
They climb the tallest tower of Monteriggioni's walls, the one overlooking the gates, and there, on the tower roof, they sit down to watch the quiet town darken as the sun sets. There aren't many lit windows in the town, and fewer still at the villa itself, but there's enough to spark a certain kind of hope in Ezio.
Desmond hums a tune, his feet kicking idly over open air as he sits on the edge of the rooftop. "So, the Sanctuary," he says. "Should we try and find the other seals and take them there?"
"At some point, perhaps. Now it might be somewhat suspicious," Ezio admits. "Mario, I think, would believe us if we told him the truth, and I would like to tell him, one day – but not this soon. Let us just settle in and live for a while."
"I'm all for that, living for a while. That sounds perfect," Desmond says with a sigh and leans back, finally relaxing in full. "That sounds just perfect."
Ezio smiles and takes Desmond's hand in his, lifting it and kissing his knuckles. "It rather does, doesn't it?"
Already Desmond is in a much better mood, the last of his hesitation fading, even the nostalgia giving way to the open excitement. Ezio is a little sad, himself, and knows he will miss his family, but he also knows he will see them again, that they would visit – and he would visit Firenze, and it would be alright.
Here, they are home.