25 - The Hardest Part

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***This is another montage chapter, so mind the dates***

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July 29, 1477

Monteriggioni, Italy

"Where is Ezio?"

Catherine looked up from her bracer, ever adjusting them to make sure they were just right, and found the light confusion on Mario Auditore's face. He was a little later than usual for morning practice, and she had noticed that had become common over the last week or so. He wasn't terribly late, but enough that she noticed and wondered why, but respected him enough not to ask. She held the same respect even now as she stood up, brushing her clothes off.

"Claudia asked for his help gathering things and get an overview of the city's condition—she would have asked the men, but they need ladders to get to the roofs. He asked me to apologize and tell you he'll practice twice as hard tomorrow. Claudia just really needed his help for this, since she's kind of doing the whole management thing now," the redhead replied with a shrug. "I can still practice, though—if you want to do a spar between you and me to start?"

Mario paused, thinking, and his features fell slightly. He looked haggard then; his shoulders sagging and a sigh escaping him. Catherine frowned with concern, but before she could ask he waved whatever was bothering him—or perhaps he'd heard her silent question—off.

"It is good timing, actually. I came to say there would be no training this morning. There is a matter I must see to outside the city. Ottavio will be handling the normal work in the training ring today. You should see if my niece needs more aid—otherwise, return to the ring and train as you used to," he rumbled, and although the redhead nodded, she didn't leave right away.

"Is.... Um... what's the issue—outside the city? You've... well, I mean, it's not my business, but you've been... aloof lately?"

Mario blinked, as if not understanding, but then shook his head, "It is nothing serious, but it is best I oversee it. Do not worry; I will have a few men with me if that is your concern."

"I'm hardly concerned about you handling yourself—you can whoop all of us. I'm concerned about what has you worried and looking tired," she pressed, hands on her hips and giving him the "look".

"It is nothing for you to be concerned about. You need only focus on your training—you are almost ready to go on patrols regularly and take on what bandits may be out there."

Catherine sighed, "Mario... I know there's more to it. You wouldn't be this worked up. What's going on? Is the city in danger?"

"Catherine, this is not a concern of yours. My duty is to protect this place; yours is to become stronger and learn all you can here," he replied firmly, causing her to wince slightly. He was using the tone that he only brought out when he was mad without showing it, and where you didn't talk back. She held her tongue then, gaze falling.

"I... Sorry. I'll... I'll see if Claudia needs help," she mumbled, though paused before she could leave when the older man sighed.

"You do not need to worry, Catherine, I promise. I am not mad you wish to help, but this is not something for you to fret over. This is my burden, and the matter will be dealt with soon enough."

"...Okay," the redhead sighed. She smiled briefly, though, as she came over and put a hand on his arm. "Just... don't forget you aren't the only one who wants to protect the city. You don't have to shoulder things alone, either."

Mario chuckled, grasping the hand touching him gently, "I know, I know—I am the one who told you the same, remember? Ah, you are too kind sometimes, little one. Now go; see to Claudia or your training. Just let Ottavio know, although it is a half day, anyways."

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