The first time it happens he speaks a language he doesn’t recognise. Deep, harsh sounds are coming out of his throat, and he wonders what they mean. Shaun later tells him that he was cursing in Arab, and they both laugh about it.
But it gets so much worse.
He gets used to the shadowy figures he sees from time to time after leaving the Animus. He learns to distinguish them from what is real. Desmond invents his own criteria for reality.
But one day when he is again leaving the Animus, knows he was about to leave it, he realises that after stepping out he still is in Firenze. It’s nothing like the astrally spectres he sees from time to time. This is real, the skin, the fabric swaying gently when people pass him by, the smell of the sun on dusty roads, Italian herbs in warm air. He’s there, even more there than when in the Animus, and he blinks into the sun, lifting his hand to hold it against the light.
Everything is real. (Nothing is true).
He turns around when he hears his name, he isn’t even sure what name it actually was. (Ezio? Desmond?) And suddenly he is back in the vault, in this dark and damp place, and the smell of old water and mould is in his nose. He opens his mouth when he sees Lucy next to him. He reaches for her, he wants to smile, wants to say: Oh, hey. I'm okay.
And then he tilts over and the whole world spins with him. He hits the ground before anyone can reach him, the screams are muffled and far away in his head, and when he feels the touch of hands on his face his vision already went black.
He wakes up in the dimness of a breaking day and it takes him some seconds to realise he’s in his room. There’s someone standing in front of the window, and when they start talking their accent gives them away.
“For how long have you been experiencing these effects now, Desmond?” Shaun asks and he sounds very professional. (The voice is so much colder than normal, not his teasing voice when he is under pressure)
Desmond sighs, twists his fingers into his hair and pulls, just to feel something. (He invented some methods to tell the difference between reality and dream, this is one of them)
“Days now, I guess,” is his answer but it comes slow and hesitant. Shaun nods.
“More than the shadows, then? A full hallucination?”
“Full...hallucination?” His head hurts, he just realised the stinging pain in his temples.
“You know, hallucinating with all your senses. You see, hear and smell it, you can even feel it. It’s like it’s real.”
He can’t do anything but nod. It feels like if he had failed. “I’m fine,” he says, and then “I can fix this. I just need some sleep.”
Shaun stares out of the window, behind him the sun crawls over Tuscany hills. Orange and yellow and green. Olive gardens and lavender fields. (How could this not be real?)
“Alright,” Shaun finally says and turns to leave the room. “Rest, then.” And with that he’s gone.
The air is musty and stale, the shadows reaching into the room are long and thin. Desmond closes his eyes and waits for sleep to come.
He’s afraid that he won’t wake up again.
He's afraid he will wake up in another time, in another place, as another person.
He dreams of nothing.
Shaun cries his name, then a strong hand is pinning his arms to his sides. Desmond feels the pressure of a body on his chest.
“Bastardo,” he spits out and buckles against the person on top of him. He tastes blood in his mouth, the sweet coppery taste of something that went wrong.
Someone slaps him again.
“Desmond.” (He is sure that this is his name. It still feels wrong)
He grits his teeth and tries to focus on the face above his own. It’s like his vision is blurry, he blinks rapidly but it takes ten more seconds until he realises where he is.
Shaun’s expression is beyond professional. Beyond concern, too. Mixed in the man’s face are anger and trouble and oh, all the shades of something called fear. His hair is ruffled as if someone pulled at it, hard. He lost his glasses, the skin around his left eye blooms red. There is a cut above his brow, some blood trickles down his face. Desmond can’t stop watching. (A red line against pale skin, a memory, something about art)
They’re panting heavily, Shaun still holds his arms down, pushes his body against the ground. The air is thick with sweat and unspoken curses. The aggression in Desmond’s body disappears bit by bit, and eventually he slowly exhales.
“Did I...do this?” he asks, and when Shaun nods he swallows hard. He turns his head to see books and boxes scattered around the place. It looks like they had more than just a little fight. He can see Lucy sitting behind her desk, her hand covering her mouth.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispers but the words feel useless in his mouth. “I’m so sorry.” Saying them twice doesn’t change anything.
They don’t talk when they get up and dust down their clothes. (And the silence seeps into Desmond’s mind)
It seems Desmond’s methods of telling reality and illusion apart don't work anymore. When he falls over now and then and starts speaking Italian or Arab again, Shaun will kneel beside him, holding his head, asking him questions.
Desmond tries to focus, he really is. But there are voices inside his head, and the screaming just won’t stop. He resists the urge to grab Shaun’s wrists and twist them until it hurts. Instead he lies still on the ground and concentrates.
“What year is it?” Shaun’s voice is calm even though his facial expression tells otherwise.
“2012,” he manages to say. (It feels right, this year)
“Good”, Shaun assures him. “Where are we?”
Desmond looks around, feels the tips of Shaun’s fingers on his face (and it feels so good to have someone touch him because now he knows that he himself is real after all)
“Villa Auditore, in the vault. Next to the Animus, actually.”
Shaun nods. (I’m getting good at this, Desmond thinks)
“What’s my name, then?”
“Shaun.” He doesn’t even need to think about that. It just slips out of his mind.
Shaun smiles. “Ah, right. Clever boy. Ok, last one. What’s your name?”
There are these seconds of silence and that expression on Desmond’s face before he manages to say it out loud. “Desmond”, he says but it takes him far too long. And Shaun knows that. He lets go of him nonetheless and stands up.
“Welcome back”, he mumbles, but the joke vanishes between the unspoken words between them.
Shaun says: “It’s exactly what happened to Sixteen. It’s the same pattern. Or even worse. He tried to kill you, Lucy!”
And Desmond just sits there and listens. It’s as if they were talking about a different person. The shadows have long become a part of his world and he follows the shifting picture of a beggar limping through the room. The constant sound of chattering, a bird’s song, and people talking from afar. This is all so real and all so normal now.
Lucy says: “I know, I know”, and she looks at Desmond and starts crying even if she promised not to.
“There is nothing we can do.” Desmond is surprised to hear that out of his own mouth. But he’s right. He knows that this is the truth.
(Nothing is true. Everything is a lie.)
Shaun’s mouth stays open for some seconds but he can’t seem to get the words out.
“I need to go on. I’m close, I know it. Just another session, maybe two.” He likes how convincing he sounds. “Keep asking me those questions when I’m spacing out again. It helps. It’s alright, really. I can do it, so don’t worry.”
He isn’t sure why they all stare at him like this. Lucy tries her best to stop crying but somehow he made it worse.
And finally Shaun looks up, looks him in the eyes and says: “These are the exact same words Sixteen used. A day later he was dead.”
There is only silence left between them.
He has nothing more to say.
The night is filled with eternal darkness. The shadows in his room are creeping on him and he’s still hearing those voices. There is a certain pain in his temples again and no matter how hard he presses the tips of his fingers against the flesh there, it won’t stop. He forces his hand above his mouth to stop him from screaming and when he bites down on his own fingers the taste of blood calms his mind a bit. But in the end he is still shifting in his bed, fighting against memories that aren’t exactly his own. Visions are flashing like stroboscope light and he can do nothing about it.
He can’t tell how he ended in Shaun’s bedroom, parts of his memory went missing again, but as soon as he realises where he is, he knows what he needs.
Shaun’s body radiates warmth. He is already awake and it seems like he has been waiting for him.
(The world shifts. It’s like one step to the right.)
He hears the eagle scream and he is in a den in Jerusalem. Light is seeping into the room through closed blinds. There is the sound of another person in here but when he turns around there is no one to be seen.
The dim twilight is filled with shadows and motion. (This is not true). And still he believes every bit of it.
The voices are louder in his head now, filling him up until the pressure is overwhelming. (They’re screaming) He presses his hands against his skull, the blood is rushing in his ears and everything is noise. (People are dying)
And then: Shaun’s face hovering above him.
(It’s like one step to the left)
“What year is it?” The words drip out of his mouth, he can actually see the letters. Shaun is holding him tight, as not to lose him, and Desmond clutches at him as if he would fall otherwise. And maybe he would.
“Don’t ask me questions”, Desmond says, his voice oh so steady, he’s fooling himself again. “Give me something that is real.”
It’s an order. (It’s a plea)
He can feel Shaun’s hands on his skin, can feel the warmth of his touch, of his lips against his, long after they stopped moving. Desmond tries not to let loose of him, pulls him closer after they climaxed. They’re panting, trying to breathe the same air. Shaun rests his forehead against his and it feels real after all.
The room seems cold and distant but the body against his is like a beacon. The flames are keeping him warm and maybe they will burn him in the end. It would be a relief.
Shaun mumbles something against his skin and kisses the scars of fights Desmond can’t even remember because his real past is something he abandoned long ago.
Warm fingers trace Desmond’s jaw line, and he can’t help to love the man hovering above him. He reaches up, curls his fingers around Shaun’s neck and pulls him down into a long, slow kiss.
“You look tired”, Desmond eventually says, and then “You worry so much about me you forget about you.”
Shaun’s smile is bitter. “I worried not enough the last time. It won’t happen again.” His gaze is distant, trapped in a memory.
Maybe Shaun loved Sixteen, too. Or he loved only Sixteen and now he loves Desmond because they are the same. But Desmond doesn’t care now. He clinches to his beacon, this warm body beside him, and when he closes his eyes, the shadows are gone.
(But there are still the whispers of a distant past)
The last time it happens he can’t stop staring into Shaun’s eyes. Shaun panics, he knows that because he can feel the other man’s fingers leaving bruises on his shoulders.
“You’re hurting me”, Desmond says and tries to push him off, but Shaun is resistant. There are tears on the other's face but he can’t tell why. His mind skipped some memories again.
“What year?” Those questions again. Shaun’s voice trembles. “What. Year.” He’s almost hysterical now, and meanwhile Desmond feels calmer than he’s ever been. He can’t find the right answer to the question, doesn’t bother actually, and so he just stays quiet.
Shaun looks at him, long and silently, and the fear in his face is overwhelming. And then there's the blood on Shaun’s shirt, Desmond recognises it just now. He asks him what happened but Shaun just shakes his head and laughs a strangled laugh.
“I don’t speak Arab”, he chokes out.
“Shaun,” Desmond finally manages to say, it sounds like a cry for help. There is a faint smile on Shaun’s face. It looks like it isn’t real but he can’t tell.
“It’s always my name. You seem to forget everything but never my name.” A long pause follows, and then ”What to make of this?”
(False laughter and real fear)
There is blood on Desmond’s hands, too, and suddenly it’s hard to breathe.
“Your name. Do you remember it?” Shaun’s voice is nothing but a whisper.
The voices. Shaun is crying. Someone thrusts a dagger deep into the heart of a woman, the mouth a silent “Oh” of surprise. And then there is the blood, it’s everywhere.
“Tell me your name.” It’s a plea. (It’s an order)
Lucy’s eyes are empty.
A cry for help. A cry for love.
“Do you remember it?”
He doesn’t know the man who’s pushing his body to the ground. He can’t remember his face. There is this hatred in his stomach, boiling up to the surface, he feels it tingling on his skin, in his fingers, twitching.
There is the blood of a dead woman on his hands. He likes the smell of it, the taste.
The man above him says: “Your name is Desmond Miles.”
And then, nothing.
The stranger dies fast and in silence when he breaks his neck.
The voices in his head stop immediately. He relishes the silence for some minutes before he gets up.
He leaves the room, inside dead bodies he doesn't know the names of. Outside the sun is battling the darkness, orange light creeps over the horizon. The air is heavy from the scent of herbs and flowers and the chill of a passed night.
He inhales. Stretches his fingers.
Fully synched at last.