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sviscerato et ardentissimo amore

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The Assassin left to retrieve the paintings.

As the door shut, Salai glanced around the wrecked workshop, the tables and stools turned over, the papers littered with words Salai couldn't decipher, yet alone understand but were drawn with such care by Leonardo covered the floorboards, the unfinished painting of the lady, words written on the floor.

He didn't know when he moved and started to righten the mess. He didn't think of anything while he worked, going through the motions as if in a daze. In no time the studio was brought back to it's previous state of usual genious-influenced disorder and Salai stood in the middle of it, feeling empty and lost among the familiar walls.

The conversation he had with the Assassino when they raced back to Leonardo replayed itself in his mind. Every haughty and dissmisial response he gave to Ezio's worry about Leonardo rang in his memory with vindictive clarity that made him hurt inside.

"Leonardo told you?" spoken with disbelief and annoyance, with a hint of urgent worry.

"He tells me everything!" and what pride, what cockiness was there in his voice! Of course his Master trusted him with his secrets, always happy to share what he had discovered, never even for a moment suspecting betrayal from his closest...

"Knowing Leonardo, I suppose he spoke of his discovery to whomever would listen. Did you notice any robed men around him?"

He noticed the robed men. He always noticed when someone was lingering in Leonardo's presence too long. Of course he did. So did Leonardo, but he wasn't that foolish as to brag about his discovery to suspicious strangers with too many questions and shifty intentions. No, that fault was Salai's and his alone.

He remembered one night at the Sleeping Fox - too much wine and a too loose tongue, a too willing ear to listen and his Maestro's secrets went tumbling out in a drunken daze. He remebered how proud he felt, telling the strangers (robed men, why, why didn't he realize?) how wise and skilled his Leonardo was to solve the puzzle of the hidden temple... He was so proud...

Salai chocked back a sob as he pressed his balled fists to his eyes. How selfish he had been! Robbing his Master, his Leonardo of florins, of credit for his work, betraying his trust and affection... All because he wanted to fulfill his selfish desires. Like with the doublet, that has gone out of fashion. Gambling. Leonardo always tolerated his flaws with a gentle, sad and dissappointed little smile that never reached his eyes.

He was crying now, bend forward and pressing his balled hands against his wet eyes harder. He betrayed his Master trust, over and over again, stealing and lying and everything out of selfishness - and still Leonardo loved him. Had he even embraced him that morning they took him? Was Maestro thinking about him in his prison? Did the thought of Salai ease his fears? Or maybe thinking of him caused Leonardo nothing but grief? Where was he? Was he safe?

Was he even alive?

He chocked back a desperate, dry laugh and took a shuddering breath. No, such thoughts would lead him nowhere. He must have faith in the Assassino... and in his Maestro.

He sat at his Maestro's desk, the one he was sitting at this very morning - and waited.

xxXXxx

The paintings slowly returned to the workshop.

Everytime that Ezio brought back the canvas it was Salai's task to search the painting thouroughly. He checked everywhere he could think of and still Leonardo's clues eluded him.

Frustration rose within him. He felt that the solution was near, could almost taste it... but it still slipped from his grasp and Ezio expected an answer he could not give.

"Cazzo! It's a madman's scheme! There is nothing here! Nothing!" In his mad tirade he sweeped his hand accros one of the workbenches piled with Leonardo's notes and sketches. Paper fluttered to the ground as Salai kneeled before the painting, defeated.

Silence descended upon the youth. The stillnes of the room only added to the grief Salai felt, reminding him of his loss with the absence of the sound of charcoal against parchment, silent murmurs in deep thought and triumphant cries. He clenched his fists against the floorboards, felt the wood scrape his skin and stared blankly at his hands.

"Leonardo... how your absence haunts me.."

It was later, when he finally found the strength to get up again and righten the mess his tantrum caused, that he took the time to examine the sketches made by his master. He felt as if some invisible hands squeezed his heart tightly and found it difficult to draw a single breath.

On each piece of parchment Salai's carefully sketched face peered back at him.

He doesn't remember ever posing for them.

xxXXxx

The Assassin was dressed in black.

That was the first thought that penetrated the haze surrounding his mind and Salai felt sick that that was the issue he concerned himself with and not the lifeless, pale body Ezio cradled in his lap. Blonde hair spilled from underneath a bright red beret, arms and legs hung limply. He appeared to be simply sleeping, relaxed and unconcerned with thoughts of the day. Yet he did notice the chest did not rise nor fall with steady breaths - it was still like the rest of him. Salai felt his heart constrict and his breath hitch. He fell to his knees, not daring to come any closer, gasping desperately for breath his grief denied him. The Assassin's face was mostly shadowed by his hood yet Salai saw those eyes glaring at him and felt their burn upon his soul. The man lifted slowly one hand and pointed towards him, then spoke with quiet, deadly conviction.

"This is all your fault, devil."

He screamed, a desperate, sorrowful cry for his loss and woke up in his Maestro's bed.

Alone.

He clutched the blankets in his trembling hands and tried to calm his madly beating heart to no avail. The image of Leonardo, so pale and lifeless still clear in his eyes.

And like for many nights since his Maestro dissappearence, sleep did not claim him again.

xxXXxx

Somebody was knocking on the door to the workshop.

Salai was mildly surprised when he opened the door and a small group of courtesans in all their perfumed, scantily clad and flirty glory waltzed into the workshop. It took him a moment to stop staring incomprehendingly and shut the door after they flounced in. It took him another moment to notice that they carried with them two very familiar paintings and that they were putting them down, propped against the walls.

"Mio dio, where... where did you find it?"

They giggled and glanced at him coyly, fanning themselves and thus bringing to attention their impressive cleaveges. Salai still couldn't wrap his mind fully about what was going on and how in the all Hells did courtesans end up with Leonardo Da Vinici's paintings in their possession, when finally one of them took mercy upon him.

"You are the artist assisstant, no?" Salai nodded, noticing somwhere in the back of his mind that her hair was blonde. She gave him a smile that was neither comforting nor friendly and he barely resisted the urge to flinch. "Ezio Auditore requested we bring the stolen paintings here. He never mentioned we might find such a... pleasurable company, here." She assesed his form from head to toe and her grin widened, and Salai suddenly realized that the twist of her lips was supposed to appear sultry to him.

He backed away from her advancing form yet she still did not relent in her approach.

"Please, madame, I am very much busy..," she trailed her fingers up his arm and batted her eyelashes at him and the urge to just shove her away rose within him.

"Oh, that won't do, no? Busy men need time off to relax." She whispered seductively and Salai felt bile rise in his throat.

"No, you do not understand. These paintings are very important and I must examine them..." Salai felt his back hit the wall and his escape was thwarted. The woman descended upon him with the same scary smile. He heard the rest of the flock giggle and whisper jovially and his discomfort at the whole situation grew.

"Surely you can spare a moment... or two..." she trailed off suggestively, pressing her whole body against his front and Salai was hit with the sense of it is not him so strongly he felt tears prick his tired eyes and something break even more inside of him.

"I.. please, my lover has gone missing! Let me work!" he finally shoved her away and went to the nearest painting and knelt before it. He tried in vain to blink back the tears that threatened to escape as he examined the canvas, felt the stares of the courtesans on his back, heard them whispering among each other in rushed voices.

He tried to pay them no mind and lost himself in his mechanical search of the frame. Their whispers trailed off and quieted significantly but he did not dare to turn around, still ashamed at his own reaction just moments before. Salai shook his head and forced himself to focus, ignoring the shaking of his hands.

"Messere, bear no ill thoughts towards me." he heard the rustle of the dress as the blonde woman approached him after a while. She was speaking in hushed tones, as if afraid to rise her voice and frighten him. "I was only jesting. I sincerly hope for your lover's safe return." He felt her hand upon his shoulder squeezing reassuringly and then withdraw.

He felt as if someone was holding him in a chockehold, for it took him several tries before he reigned in his emotions and replied, "Thank you, my lady."

They left, more quietly than they have arrived, and Salai rested his forehead against the frame of the painting.

xxXXxx

He felt restless.

Salai paced while the Assassin sketched the hidden clues finally found in Leonardo's paintings. He walked in circles, glancing at the other man who sketched with quick, precise moves - so unlike Leonardo, he always took his time while drawing - sometimes sitting down briefly in front of the fireplace, but the pent up energy demanded from him that he keep on moving, do something.

Ezio dipped his quill in the ink and glanced briefly at the youngster who paced back and forth, biting his lower lip and wringing his hands in the hem of his tunic. The Assassin noted that Salai looked tired and worn, very different from the boy he met those couple of days ago. He returned his attention to the parchment, but that did not hinder him in pondering the youth.

When he met Salai from their brief conversation he summarised that the boy was a selfish, ill tempered, haughty, thieving brat. Granted his wit and charm were enough to fool most men, but not him. And probably not Leonardo. The artist might posses many quirks, but he was not blind. When they were racing on the rooftops Ezio kept thinking 'Why does Leonardo keep such an insufferable brat?'. He had his suspicions about why exactly Leonardo was willing to suffer the boy's temper and scatching tongue when Salai tried to flirt his attention away at the taverna - and finally something clicked into place in his mind. Ezio felt sorry for his friend, for it was apparent that his student did not hold him in high regard and most likely didn't share his feelings. For Leonardo was a creature that loved, not used and hated and it seemed that his pupil was his opposite. He was forced to change his opinion when they have finally reached Leonardo's workshop that day and Salai looked so crestfallen and lost upon fiding his Maestro had been taken.

He drew the final line and straightened up from his hunched over position. In the blink of an eye, Salai was by his side asking about the whereabouts of the entrance.

"I must first position its pieces."

"Wait! What about the burned paintings?"

"It is likely the missing parts will not be needed."

"Care to bet on that?.."

"Heh. No."

Salai hid behind his imperfect mask of impatience that portrayed pure worry and backed away, giving the Assassin much needed working space. Ezio saw from the corner of his eye that Salai had returned to the fireplace where he stood, silently observing the flames.

Silence descended upon the two, each lost in their tasks. The only sound was that of crackling of the fire and of shuffled parchment.

"Leonardo said that one of the most beautiful and difficult things to paint is fire." Ezio heard the boy say quietly, as if talking to himself. He shifted the parchments and tried to match them. "He always said that no matter how skilled the artist, how steady his brush or untainted his view of the world, one could never paint fire and do it any justice." Ezio heard a wistful smile in those words and glanced briefly from his puzzle. Salai had his arms firmly wrapped around himself, as in a comforting hug from beloved one. "He told me very beautiful things. Showed me so much. And I laughed at him." The young man gave a mirthless, self depracating laugh. "I was foolish and selfish. God, I did not deserve him..."

"If you feel you have wronged Leonardo, why not change your ways?"

Salai hung his head even lower and his auburn hair hid his face from view. Ezio was sure that were he privileged to see it in that moment, he would have seen tears on his cheeks. He drew another parchment from the pile and tried to find its proper place.

"And what would that accomplish, Ezio? I have betrayed his trust. I have wronged him," Salai's voice broke and Ezio pretended not to notice quiet sobs escaping him. "I have been nothing but hindrance for him for years! And he forgave every mistake, every bad deed, payed my debts, fulfilled my whims!-" the youth cried and Ezio managed to piece together some fragments of the puzzle. "I do not deserve to kiss the ground he walks upon, Ezio!"

Salai collapsed in front of the hearth, openly crying.

Ezio placed the last piece of the map in it's designed place and surveyed briefly his work. He turned towards the fallen boy and made his way over to him.

"And I am useless to you as I was to him. You retrieved the paintings, risked your life and all I did was sit here and do nothing. All of this was my fault and I have done nothing to help." Salai spat the words with self hatred as if they were bitter in taste. He looked up suddenly, as if struck by a sudden thought, face determined and desperate. "Ezio, take me with you! You have seen my skills with blade, limited as they are, but I might be able to help! I might help you save Leonardo! Please, Ezio!"

Ezio gave a wary sigh and kneeled next to the shaken youth, placing his large hand upon his trembling shoulder.

"Salai, you need not blame yourself for this. Leonardo knew his research could leave him in danger." Ezio swallowed thickly and continued after a small pause, "I'm sure his greatest comfort came from the thought of you being safe from harm. It would do him no good if you went with me and you know that, Salai."

A loud sob and the young man shook his head vigorously,"But it was I, I who told the robed men! I spilled Leonardo's secrets like worthless gossip! And I can not help him when he needs me the most." With that, Salai curled up even more. "All I ever did was think of myself... Gods, if I could..somehow.."

"Then let me find him. Find him and bring him back, so you can work on reedeming yourself in his eyes." he squeezed the trembling shoulder and Salai looked up at him with tear stained face. "Wait for him here, greet him upon his return and work from there on your future actions."

"But, will he have me? After all treachery from me, all anguish I have caused... will he still have me?" there was so much raw need to know, such hope in the boy that Ezio did not know what to reply for a moment.

"I suppose you will have to ask him." Salai took a deep, shuddering breath and looked down quickly to hide another tear. "But, I have a feeling that if Leonardo kept your insufferable self for this long, he will not send you away from his side now." Ezio gave a wry grin and patted the boy's back as he stood up. Salai grinned wryly through his tears and followed suit, then joined the Assassin at the table with the map.

They gazed at the pieces of parchment splayed across the wooden surface. Salai was wiping his eyes furiously with the sleeves of his tunic and sniffling every now and then. Finally, Ezio's eyes rested upon the mark he wished to see.

"Here. The entrance to the catacombs." he tapped what appeared to be a crossed out circle with his finger.

Salai's eyes brightened for a moment and he turned to the Assassin. He saw the youth swallow nervously, as if in an attempt to reign back emotions and then rise hopeful eyes to meet his own.

"Go. Bring him back to me."

xxXXxx

Leaving the Temple of Pythagoras was proving to be a task easier said than done.

It appeard that Leonardo was driven thus far by his need to explore the secret of the ancient building and once the discovery had been made, his body simply rebelled against him. Ezio supported his beaten up friend and went about the painstaking task of getting them both out safely.

He shifted his grip around Leonardo's waist and discarded the torch he held. He could see the exit now and towing Leonardo's practically dead weight was really taking its toll on his strength. What worried him most was that the artist was mostly silent, save for his heavy, harsh breathing.

"It is not far now, my friend. Soon we will be in the city again and from there it is an easy path home."

The painter gave a weak chuckle, head bowed from exhaustion. "I fear that our dishevelled appearance and your presence alone will attract unwanted attention from the guards, Ezio."

The Assassin snorted at that, for it was probably true and continued in their shuffling of feet.

"So," the inventor once more broke the silence, "Did you mean it?"

"Mean what?"

"That.. that you approve."

It took a moment for Ezio to recall their earlier brief talk about Ezio's approval of Salai being with Leonardo. The Assassin smirked when he saw how unsure the artist still acted.

"My friend, I hardly think you need my approval to act as you wish in your life." he admonished gently with good humor, yet felt Leonardo tense slightly under his touch. "However," he continued after a pause, "Salai really seems to fit you. I am surprised to admit it myself, but the little devil really cares about you."

Leonardo tripped over his own feet at those words and the motion caused Ezio to tighten his hold. In result, Leonardo's injuries were aggravated and the painter succumbed to harsh, painful coughs. They stopped for a moment and the Assassin lowered his friend to sit on the ground, back supported by an old, crumbling coffin. Once Leonardo's coughs died down Ezio was leveled with a hopeful yet slightly disbelieving stare.

"H-he does?" the painter whispered and Ezio gave a sharp nod. "I-I mean, I always suspected, well, maybe more hoped that is, but to hear it from you, Ezio - you have never lied to me outwardly." Ezio ignored the slight jab at his elusive answers towards their find in the final room of the Temple of Pythagoras.

"I speak the truth, my friend. When we came into your workshop and found you gone he was heartbroken." he assessed his friend condition and decided to rest a while. He sat down next to the artist who was watching his bruised and battered hands folded in his lap in something akin to wonder.

"I hope he had not wrecked the shop in his tantrum." he chuckled and Ezio noted the softness of his smile.

"Quite the opposite, actually. He righted the mess you have made after your abrupt exit."

"Ah, now I will never be able to find anything! There is a reason I let him go and gamble and not clean my workshop, you know." the painter confided good naturedly with a twinkle in his tired eyes. Ezio laughed at that and patted his friend's knee.

"Like with the captain's name?" he teased and Leonardo gave an embarassed shrug. "I suppouse you will have to get used to the order, my friend." Leonardo gave him a questioning look but he offered no answer, opting to grin widely. A moment later the Assassin rose and helped Leonardo to his feet.

"I'm.. really relieved you approve, Ezio." he heard Leonardo whisper and smiled.

"Come, Leonardo. We should hurry if we do not want to face the full force of the little devil's ill temper."

"Ha, call me insane, Ezio... but I actually can not wait."

xxXXxx

The sun was setting when Ezio finally easied open the door to Leonardo's workshop.

The painter was trying his best to remain upright, yet Ezio could tell that every move was painful for his friend. They shuffled over to the nearest chair where Ezio promptly sat the artist down. Leonardo was breathing heavilly and under the bruising Ezio noticed with growing worry the pale hue of his skin. He touched his friend's shoulder gently.

"Leonardo, we should tend to your wounds. Where are your medicines?"

"I am fine, Ezio. My body is just not used to take such abuse, but I can assure you that I am well." he shifted in his chair and hissed. Ezio raised an eyebrow at him and the artist shrugged sheepishly. "It is nothing a full night of rest won't heal."

They both turned their heads in the direction of the stairs that led to the bedchambers when they heard rushed footsteps coming from their vicinity. Both of them relaxed when they saw the familiar, slight figure of Salai descending the steps. The boy paused at the bottom of the stairwell, eyes drawn to his mentor's body and a soft, broken sound escaped his trembling lips.

"Leonardo!.."

Even Ezio had to admit that the boy was fast on his feet. In the blink of an eye he was at his master's side, kneeling so abruptly that dust rose from the floor and hiding his face in Leonardo's lap, clinging to his legs. From the way his body was trembling Ezio guessed the boy was trying to supress his tears and failing. His suspicions were confirmed when a chocked sob that could have been Leonardo's name escaped the boy's lips and the artist gently placed his hands upon the youth's head and back, stroking softly. Leonardo tried to lean towards his student and comfort him, but a pained frown accompanied by a hiss of pain escaped him. Salai looked up immiediately and studied his Maestro's face.

"Leonardo, you are badly hurt..."

"It is nothing, Salai. Do not fret." The inventor caressed the tear stained face, thumb gently swiping at the moist tracks, smiling softly. "Non piangere, Salai."

The youth bit his lip and touched the questing fingers briefly, then cupped the palm of the older man in one of his own, squeezing tightly.

"Salai," called Ezio, reluctant to break the moment between the two. "Leonardo needs medicine and rest. Do you have anything that we can use to tend to his injuries?"

"Yes, yes, we have oinments and bandages..." he replied distractedly, still looking up at his mentor's face, mesmerized as if seeing him for the first time. He cupped Leonardo's face, fingers lightly trailing across the high cheekbones as if trying to wipe the bruises away with a gentle touch. "Leonardo, what have they done to you?"

The painter covered the trembling hand with his own and pressed it closer to his cheek, already feeling soothed from the gentle, worried touch. He gave an exhausted sigh and nuzzled his face against the warm palm, closing his eyes wearily and Salai noted how tired and worn out his Maestro looked.

Ezio could also see the inventor's fatigue, so he stepped closer and took Leonardo's arm to help him to his feet. His actions disrupted the peace between the two and Salai's gaze snapped to him with annoyance from being interrupted and stood up as well.

Ezio wasn't intimidated.

"Come, my friend. You must rest." he adressed Leonardo and then turned to Salai. "Prepare the bed and ointments."

"It has already been prepared, Messere." the youth took a step closer to his Maestro and supported his wieght with practiced ease. "I am grateful for your assistance, but I will take care of Leonardo."

Ezio was about to argue, but then figured that it would be best to leave the painter with his assisstant. He nodded his consent and Salai spoke softly to his exhausted master, steering them slowly towards the staircase smoothly.

Ezio watched them ascend the steps, slowly yet surely, one supporting and the other leaning on in a display of trust. He smiled to himself when they finally reached the top floor and he heard the sound of door closing. Yes, Leonardo would be fine. And so would Salai.

He left, thinking of little devils and artists, beautiful paintings and doublets that went out of fashion and love - and smiled.

xxXXxx

It was not the first time he had disrobed his Maestro, altough this time it had little to do with pleasure.

Each bruise and welt upon the pale skin made him wince and clench his fists in anger - at himself, at the robed men. He hoped that Ezio had not been merciful upon those who had caused this as he trailed his fingers against the markings. Leonardo was sitting on a stool next to the fireplace in his bedroom and looked so tired that Salai didn't have the heart to coax him into conversation. He dipped the washcloth in the basin with warm water and went around the task of cleaning his master body of sweat and grime. Leonardo gave a sigh of pleasure when the warm washcloth cleansed his skin and soothed his aching muscles. Salai's touch was soft, almost reverent as he trailed the cloth over the wide expanse of skin. When he was done he placed a warm kiss at the nape of Leonardo's neck, almost like an apology and the man shivered.

Salai put the healing salve over Leonardo's bruises, the artist hissing slightly at the touch and the student was quick to mumble a soft apology. Done with the ointments Salai wrapped his Maestro's torso with bandages to ease the pain of moving around and helped him to the bed. The painter was almost asleep on his feet and went wilingly wherever Salai led, murmuring something about numbers and apples.

As Salai gently tucked the covers over Leonardo's form (brought from his rooms, for they were more luxorious and comfortable) the inventor's eyes opened slightly and rested on Salai. The youth felt captivated by those eyes, lazy warmth in pools of liquid blue and wondered briefly if one could ever paint that look and do it any justice.

Leonardo smiled, a soft pull of his lips as he blinked and reached out his hand towards Salai's face. The youth took it with his own, cradling it against his chest gently as one would with a small bird. He felt his heart beat wildly in his chest and slowly returned the soft smile with a one of his own, and was rewarded with a gentle squeeze of the hand he held. He leaned forward and kissed his Leonardo's forehead softly, lingering there for a few moments, relishing in the warmth and comfort coming from the mere presence of his lover.

"Sleep, Leonardo." he whispered and the artist gave one last squeeze of his fingers, then followed his instructions gladly.

Salai sat by his Maestro's bed, holding his hand and brushing hair from his forehead with a gentle look in his eyes.

xxXXxx

Salai paused in his rearranging of Leonardo's documents as he heard the front door ease open.

He tensed slightly when a robed figure entered the workshop and relaxed almost immediately when he recognized the man. He smiled broadly and went to greet the visitor.

"My, Ezio Auditore graces us with his presence once more!" he laughed. "To what do we owe such pleasure?"

Ezio chuckled and pat Salai's arm in a friendly gesture. "Buongiorno, Salai. I came to check upon you two. How is Leonardo?"

The Assassin felt dread pool in his stomach when the youth's face fell and his shoulders slumped. He gripped the thin arms of the boy with urgency as Salai hung his head and wouldn't meet his eyes. Granted it had been three days since the Temple of Pythagoras, had something happened while he was otherwise preoccupied?

"Salai, what is wrong? Has something happened to Leonardo?"

"He was feverish and delirious for the last two days." the boy confessed finally and rose his head. Worry lined the handsome features and fatigue was obvious in his eyes. "The fever broke only yesterday, and the Dottore said.." he swallowed nervously and he blinked rapidly. "He said that I should prepare for the worst if the fever did not pass after a day." he gave a broken laugh. "Trust the Maestro to do the impossible, no?" A pause. "I know the two of you have explored the catacombs after you have freed him." Salai lowered his gaze, all mirth gone from his voice and replaced by weariness. "He told me about the rooms with light and wind and fire, about how cold it was. He was there for days, Ezio." Finally, he had risen his eyes and levelled the Assassin in a heavy stare. "You should have brought him back immediately after you have freed him."

"It was his decision. Leonardo wanted to ensure no one with the same beliefs as the Order of Hermes would discover the secrets of the catacombs." he explained and the youth scoffed, shoulders tense underneath his palm.

"And was it worth it? Risking life, health, for what? I ask of you, Ezio: was it worth it?"

The Assassin thought back to the glowing room with numbers, numbers, numbers and frowned.

"Leonardo thought so."

All fight left the youth at those words and he gave a resigned sigh. "You do not know what it was like. After the Dottore left, I sat by his side, listening to him breathe and hoping that every breath he took will not be the last." Salai looked at him. "It was Hell."

Ezio squeezed his shoulders in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. "How is he now?"

"Resting. Weak, but that does not hinder him from being a nuisance." he made a face. "I actually came this close to roping him to the bed! He is infurating!" Salai broke from Ezio's hold and paced, gesturing wildly and imitating Leonardo's voice. "'Salai, can you give me my sketchbook?' or 'Salai, I feel much better and the weather outside is perfect for painting!' or even 'Salai! I have an idea for a new invention! I must sketch it!' Every time I turn my back he tries to get up, even though it is obvious he needs to rest more." the youth stopped by a workbench and grabbed a handful of papers he was organising prior to Ezio's arrival. "He drives me to distraction!"

Ezio chuckled as he observed the tempered youth. "Typical Leonardo. Full of energy and ideas, as usual. I would like to visit him for a while, if that would be alright."

"Go ahead. He is in his bedchamber. I hope." the boy grumbled and went back to his papers.

Ezio was halfway to the stairwell when he paused and turned partially towards the youth.

"La Volpe tells me you have not been at his taverna recently."

Salai flinched slightly and paused in his task. He turned his face towards the Assassin and regarded him with a small, amused smile.

"I seem to have lost my will to gamble." Ezio saw him shrug and return to his work. "The thrill of the unknown loses its appeal when there is something far more precious than florins at stake." He turned and smiled broadly, motioning with his head to the stairs. "Go. Mi prezioso tends to get bored easily. Do try to entertain him a little."

The Assassin inclined his head and continued on his way, smiling under his nose.

xxXXxx

Ezio found Leonardo thankfully in bed, looking out the window with a sleepy expression.

"I am still here, Salai." he sighed and settled more comfortably against the pillows he was propped up against. Ezio noted with amusement the slight irritation in the otherwise raspy voice.

"So I see, my friend."

The change was instant. Leonardo faced him and his bored expression brightened into a spectacular smile of someone desperate and thankful for any kind of distraction.

"Ezio!" he made a motion as if to stand but was halted by an admonishing sound from Ezio. The genious gave a sheepish smile and settled back in his bedding. "I would've liked to greet you properly, my friend, but my very nursing caretaker is particulary strict and does not approve of me leaving his clutches. Or this very bed, for instance. It seems he has gained an ally."

Ezio took his seat at one of the stools near the bed. "He was very worried about you." he gave Leonardo an assessing glance and frowned. "And you have not spared him grief, I hear. How are you feeling?"

"Better than a few days ago, I admit." the artist sighed and shifted carefully. "The bruises are healing well and the fever has passed. All that is left for me is to lay here like a log, it seems." he gave a resigned smile to his companion. "Salai has been a great help lately." he admitted quietly after a small pause with a smile, as if sharing a deep secret. "He has not left my side since our little adventure."

"Admirable." commented Ezio dryly and Leonardo chuckled good naturedly.

"I must admit, I find myself unused to being subjected to all this attention, but..." he trailed off and Ezio noticed with growing amusement a slight embarassed blush adorn the painter cheekbones. "It feels very nice." he finished with a small, shy smile and Ezio lowered his head to hide his grin.

"Do tell me Leonardo that your talent has not perished from your latest ordeal." he changed the subject and the inventor welcomed the distraction gladly.

"Ah, Ezio! The things I have in my mind are begging to be put to parchment. Yet my dear Salai denies me any kind of work."

Ezio listened to his friend describe all the new ideas for paintings and inventions, complain (altough half heartedly) at his caretaker and his strict rule - and all this time Leonardo's eyes looked more bright and alive than ever.

They sat there, talking and laughing until Salai brought them dinner and lit the fireplace and candles that Ezio realized how late it has become. He bid them both goodnight and left, Salai walking him out.

"It seems you had a good time." the youth commented offhandedly. "I could hear Maestro's laughter downstairs."

They stood by the front door. "We talked." he replied curtly and Salai frowned. "I would advise you let him sketch, Salai. He won't rest with all those ideas in his head."

"Don't you think I know that?" he snorted. "But I also know he will get even more obsessed with paper and charcoal available to him. He will work himself into exhaustion, like usual." he grumbled and Ezio fought down a smile.

"Perhaps you could assist him. Draw the line between work and rest."

"Perhaps. I don't know if he would let me. I think my constant presence is starting to grate on his nerves."

"I know from a certain source that your presence is very much appreciated and wanted." Ezio clasped the youth shoulder briefly and turned to go. "Buenas noches, Salai."

Outside the night has settled over Roma and cool breeze drifted between the streets. He walked aimlessly down the aisle, then turned to the wall to climb when he heard a familiar voice call his name.

"Ezio! Ezio, wait!"

He did as requested and waited paitently for Salai to catch up to him. The youth slowed down from his jog and took deep, even breaths before he adressed the Assassino again. He straightened up and squared his shoulders, and his face took that determined look.

"I have not thanked you yet for returning him to me." he spoke and Ezio was proud to note his voice shook only a tiny bit. "Nothing I can think of would be enough to pay you this debt, Ezio Auditore. I will abide to your wish." he finished with a deep bow.

Ezio regarded him for a moment. The night breeze ruffled his auburn locks and he noted the boy was trembling slightly - from the cold or nervousness, it was hard to tell. Ezio grinned to himself and decided to rile the youth a little.

"You will abide to my wishes, Salai?"

"Yes."

"Hm. So if I were to ask you to leave Leonardo," the boy stiffened and gasped, "you would do it?"

"...Is it really your wish, Messere?" the boy ventured softly. When no answer was forthcoming, he bowed his head and continued. "It would hurt Leonardo and in result, it would pain me even more to be the cause of that grief. I wish not to burden him anymore, Messere. Please, do not ask of me to leave him." he awaited his reply with held breath.

After a long time of standing still in the midst of the silent street, Salai slowly rose his head.

He was alone.

xxXXxx

The dimly lit workshop warmed him when he entered.

Salai looked around the familiar walls and trailed his fingers across the furniture as he went. Fondness filled his heart as his gaze rested upon Leonardo's work.

He made his way upstairs. His thoughts were still racing after his bizzare talk with the Assassino. On one hand he felt unease - he was indebted to the man for eternity it seemed. On the other, no debt could cloud the sheer joy his Maestro's return had brought him.

He opened the door to Leonardo's bedroom quietly and paused at the treshold.

The painter was in his bed, looking out the open window and the cool breeze swept his hair in a lazy sway. He had this faraway look on his face that Salai recognized when the painter was deep in thought. On his lap lay an opened book, one hand tracing lines lazily on yellowed pages.

Salai felt his mouth go dry.

He shook himself from whatever trance he found himself in briefly and made his way over to the bed. Leonardo turned to him and smiled, and Salai felt his heart skip a beat.

"Ah, Salai. Ezio has left, I presume?"

"Yes. Altough, for an Assassin, he picks pretty easily spottable walls to climb." he sat by his Maestro upon the bed, pressing close against his side and felt Leonardo's form shake as he chuckled.

"Ezio is a very exceptional Assassin, Salai. And a friend. Altough, it would be better for you not to bait him and test his patiance." Leonardo turned to face him and Salai saw the fire reflect in his eyes. "He is extremely well skilled with blade."

"I saw him fight. He is nothing special." he dismissed and Leonardo laughed, shaking his head in amusement.

"What are you reading?" Salai inquired and tried to peer over his master's shoulder at the large, leather bound tome laying open in his lap.

"Ah, this? Just some light reading to help me fall asleep." he indicated the pages filled with neat rows of words that held no meaning to Salai. "After all this lying about I do not feel tired at all."

The youth ignored the jab at his expense and instead opted to continue their previous subject. "What is it about?"

Leonardo gave him a look and Salai felt the urge to shrink back under the calm, assessing gaze. "Salai," he paused, "You have taken great care of me and the workshop these last few days." he paused again and Salai fought down the blush that threatened to rise at the words. "A-and I am very grateful, but... do you not get bored here? You spent every moment here and I know how you dislike being cropped up inside the workshop. I worry you have too many duties as of late and not enough time for yourself." he finished gently and Salai found himself lost for words.

Salai gazed at Leonardo. The well known face with intelligent and kind eyes, the fine blonde strands framing his cheeks. The kindness, the worry and love that filled his words washed over Salai like a soothing salve and he sighed deeply. He pressed more firmly to his Maestro and laid his head upon his shoulder, embracing his arm.

"I am content right where I am, Leonardo." he whispered. "Will you read to me?"

It took Leonardo a moment to gain control over his emotions and with a last fond look at the auburn haired head resting upon his shoulder, he began to read.

Salai felt the words vibrate in his master's chest, heard them flow with grace over his ears. He closed his eyes and turned his head to the side, nose pressed against the warm skin of Leonardo's neck and inhaled deeply. The painter paused briefly in his reading and Salai smiled lazily when he heard some admonishment scoffed amusedly at him. Leonardo continued and the steady tone of his voice made Salai drowsy and relaxed. He nuzzled at the skin and lifted his head slightly to touch the Maestro's cheek with his own. At the back of his mind he noted that Leonardo stopped reading and chuckled quietly, a soft puff of air against the painter skin. He pressed a kiss to the skin presented to him and then nuzzled the spot again, hearing a soft gasp escape the other's lips. He felt Leonardo turn his face towards him and almost expected the slow, lazy kiss that they shared.

Leonardo drew back slightly at the sound of another chuckle coming from Salai. He gave a questioning stare which made the youth want to laugh even more.

"Your beard." he explained and caressed his master chin. "It tickles me."

"Oh. Perhaps I should-"

"No. It fits you." Salai didn't give the inventor a chance to respond and kissed him again. "And I am rather fond of it." he continued with a small grin after they have parted. The genious chuckled lowly and leaned in for another kiss, which was gladly given.

The book laid forgotten on the bed, and the morning light found it later sprawled upon the floor.

xxXXxx

At first he did not know what woke him up.

It was still night time, for Salai could clearly see the stars dotting the inky sky. The wood in the fireplace was still burning, casting a warm, orange glow to dance across the floor and walls.

He heard a soft sigh behind him and felt the hand that was holding him clench and unclench sleepily, as well as the matress shift underneath them. He turned over towards the other and smiled at the sight.

Leonardo was sleeping, a small, content smile adorned his face. He looked so relaxed and peaceful that Salai felt the same just by looking at him. He reached his hand and trailed his fingers across the blonde hairline, down his nose and cheeks, briefly played with the beard and then traced just the tips of his fingers over the painter's lips. He felt every puff of breath his Maestro gave and fought down an urge to chuckle at the tickling sensation. Finally, he started to comb his fingers through the thick blonde strands, marvelling at the softness and the way the light shone on them. He let them slip from his fingers one last time and then he cupped Leonardo's warm cheek. He pressed closer, so that their bodies touched from head to toe, no barriers of clothing between them. As he shifted he felt the reminders of their earlier activities twinge, but he paid them no mind.

Not tonight.

Salai rested his forehead against Leonardo's and closed his eyes. He gave a deep, relieved sigh and kissed the lips he touched just moments before. They were as soft and gentle as they always were and he wondered if he would ever get enough of them. He felt overwhelmed by something - a feeling he had always felt but never really could put name to. Always slipping from his grasp in moments he shared with Leonardo, lost untill they surged within him again. They seemed to choke him when his Maestro went missing, turning his usual confident self into a nervous, sobbing wreck. But now, as he shared Leonardo's breath, touched his skin and felt his wamrth envelop him, the answer to those feelings seemed so simple he might have laughed at himself for missing it sooner.

He settled back against his pillows, their bodies still entwined together and smiled.

"I love you."

And sleep took them both to the morrow.

xxENDxx