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these wicked times

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He wouldn’t have expected it in a million years, but he wishes he were back at the warehouse.

It’s not even that he misses the damn place. Sure, it was nice to have a real bed and a proper bathroom—things he’s been bitterly missing these past months—but it reminded him way too much of his floor in Abstergo: the practical, impersonal design, the line of cameras covering every inch, the locked rooms only he couldn’t access. Hell, when Vidic turned up and they had to haul ass, he’d been glad to leave the hellhole behind.

At least he had some free roam back there, though. He couldn’t walk around without getting caught in tape, but he could walk around when his brain was filled with static and his muscles with nervous energy. He didn’t have privacy, but he had space.

Here, he has neither.

He turns on his side, careful not to make the cot creak too much. If he stares at the cracks on the ceiling any longer, he’s going to scream.

Not that there’s anything else to stare at. Wherever the hell they are, there isn’t even a decent streetlamp or the occasional passing car out there, just the moon as a light source. He can barely make out Shaun’s one leg and shoe on the other side of the balcony door—and that’s mostly because he knows they’re there. He doubts Shaun can see anything out there, either, for all that he’s “keeping watch”.

Then again, it should still beat staying cooped up in here.

He pushes himself up and shoves his feet back into his shoes, not bothering with the laces. Wraps the blanket around himself as well before stepping out; his hoodie isn’t nearly thick enough for the winter weather.

Just as expected, Shaun is sitting with his back to the wall, huddled in that long coat of his, trying—and failing—to hide a cigarette behind his raised knee. The illustrious Shaun Hastings, everyone: historian, analyst, master strategist, rebellious teenager.

Shaun takes a deep drag, his eyes fixed on the dark sky and darker ground. On the exhale, he turns—and jumps when he notices him in the doorway. “You have got to stop creeping up on me, Desmond,” he grumbles, patting away the scatter of ash on his pants.

“Sorry,” he offers half-heartedly. “Habit. Mind if I join you?”

Shaun scoots over without a word. Desmond carefully lowers himself next to him and leans on the wall, suppressing a shiver when chill seeps through his clothes. He would’ve expected December in Rome to be more forgiving than in New York; the air stings his nose and freezes his lungs just the same when he inhales deeply.

“I thought Rebecca hid your pack,” he says, just to break the silence.

“She did,” Shaun confirms, smug as you please. He cuts a glance at him. “Not planning to snitch on me, are you?”

“Not if I get to bum one.”

He’s just joking—kind of—but the sideways glare Shaun sends him is pure disapproval. He hadn’t been on the receiving end of this in a while. Hadn’t missed it, either. “No. I’m not corrupting you.”

Yeah. All the shit he’s done—in and out of the Animus, now—and smoking is what’s going to corrupt him.

He shoves his hands deep in his pockets and tilts his head up, leaning heavier on the wall. They can see the stars from here. He was starting to forget what those looked like.

Shaun blows the smoke over his other shoulder, through the railings. “Since when do you smoke anyway?”

He shrugs. “I don’t. I mean—not regularly. Lighting up one helps sometimes.”

He shouldn’t have said that.

Shaun half-turns, watching him—appraising him—with that careful concern lining his face. It’s—he hates that look. That hesitant affection. The muted worry. As if Shaun can see right through him and is afraid for whatever he finds in there.

“I suppose it might,” is all Shaun ends up muttering. His clenched stomach relaxes, just a little.

They sit in silence; Shaun watching the perimeter with the occasional concerned look thrown his way, him just staring around for the most part. The buzzing in his head didn’t go away, not really, but it’s better, somewhat. Bearable. Fresh air helped a little.

Shaun finishes his cigarette, putting it out on the marble and sweeping it off the balcony. Desmond has the distinct feeling that his time is up. Should’ve feigned being sleepy and left when he had the chance.

Even the idea of going back in and staring at the ceiling some more makes his stomach turn, though.

Shaun folds his arms over his chest, hiding his hands and glances over again. Here it comes. “How are you holding up?”

How is he holding up? The way he always does, probably; he tries not to think too much about it. It’s not like he has a choice; they don’t exactly have time for a mental breakdown with the end of the world on their schedule.

He shrugs again, for lack of a better response.

“I just thought—after today, you might… want to talk.”

To talk.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he says honestly. “We got Dad back. We have the Apple. All’s well that ends well, right?”

“Not necessarily.”

Shaun shifts closer, just a warm pressure on his side, the light sting of smoke in his nose when he closes his eyes and breathes in.

“It’s okay to not be all right with what happened today,” Shaun says. What you did, he carefully doesn’t say. So this is going to be one of those things they will talk around forever. “Taking lives… It’s never easy, no matter the reason.”

He looks down at himself. Looks at the swell of his fists in his pockets, the specks of red and grey all over the white of his hoodie that he can’t stop seeing.

“I think I got used to that part,” he confesses. God, it sounds even worse out loud. “That’s not what haunts me.”

In his periphery, Shaun is watching him—expectantly, as far as he can tell; not with judgment. He doesn’t have it in himself to look back and make sure.

“What haunts me,” he continues, swallowing through the sudden dryness of his throat. “Those people had loved ones, too, Shaun. Families, maybe even children. I mean, I got my father back, but what about the kids whose fathers won’t be coming home—all because of me?”

“Not all because of you—”

“No, I know,” he doesn’t snap, not exactly, but it’s something in that range. He rubs at his face and takes a deep breath to calm his racing heart, wetting his lips. “They had Dad, they forced my hand, we didn’t have time for clean and careful, I know all that—but that doesn’t change anything. Does it? It’s still lives I took. It’s still blood on my hands. There’s nothing I can do to change that.”

Shaun is silent. Desmond has no idea what that means—is Shaun trying to think of something to say? Does he regret having asked in the first place, now that he actually got an answer? Should Desmond have kept his big mouth shut for a change?

Yeah, he really should have. Fuck.

He’s trying to think of a way to change the subject when something falls on his lap. A pack of cigarettes.

Shaun is digging into his pockets. “Take it before I change my mind,” he grumbles in answer to his look. “If Bill catches us, it was your idea.”

He chuckles despite himself, flicking the top open. It's almost full, with two missing. Three now. “You'd throw me under the bus like that?”

“If it meant dodging your father’s ire? In a heartbeat.” Shaun finally comes up with the lighter, along with another pack and a handful of crumpled paper. He shoves the rest back and reaches to help start Desmond’s cigarette. “He already doesn't approve of me for you; I'd rather not be the bad influence on top of that.”

“I’ve dated worse; he’ll come around.”

He takes another drag, the first deep one—and chokes.

“Th' fuck is this?” he manages to get out between coughing, his mouth full of grit by how it tastes. He had never put something so terrible in his mouth, what the hell.

Shaun grins, pocketing the pack and the lighter. “The cheapest I could find in this part of the city. Saving the world doesn’t pay well, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“The food was a dead giveaway,” he croaks, then tries to clear his throat. He’s not touching Shaun’s cigarettes ever again, hell. “I ate better as a broke bartender in New York, you know.”

“Don’t hesitate to pitch in yourself.”

The cigarette stops tasting that bad after a couple more drags. Still shit, though.

It takes the entire smoke for the buzzing in his mind to finally start quieting down. He’s kind of numbed down, cold in a distant way wherever the blanket isn’t covering. It’s probably a good idea to try to sleep again while it feels like he might actually be able to.

It will take a second wind to get on his feet, though. It’s been rough, these past days and he’s really feeling it now, in the way all his muscles are throbbing vaguely. He’s half ready to doze off where he’s sitting if it means he won’t have to move again.

Beside him, Shaun sighs deeply. “It gets easier.”

He realizes that the weight in the pit of his stomach had disappeared, now that it’s back again. He had thought—hoped—that that conversation was over.

“It doesn’t get easy,” Shaun explains to the open air. “But it does get easier, to live with yourself. Just so you know.

He doesn’t want to speak up—doesn’t even know what he could say anyway—so he nods. Shaun’s hand finds his leg and squeezes.

“My watch duty should be about over,” Shaun says without checking his watch. “It’s Rebecca’s turn, if you wanted to stay up and chat.”

He could probably use the distraction. “Maybe tomorrow," he says anyway. "Been a long day.”

“That it has.”

Shaun pushes himself up with too much trouble, shaking and stretching out his locked joints with a grunt. Once satisfied, he turns and extends a hand to him. “Come on up. We need to leave early in the morning.”

He’s still not exactly dying to move, but he takes Shaun’s hand and pulls himself up on shaky legs. They’re both covered in dust that clings deeper to the fabric the more they try to slap it away.

“This is bloody stupid,” Shaun practically announces at last, frowning at the state of his coat. At least Shaun won’t have to sleep in it. “I’m heading in; I can’t deal with this right now.”

“I’ll be a minute,” he replies. Shaun folds the coat over his arm and steps in.

He shakes out the blanket one last time, kicks away the proof of their delinquency and follows.