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Surrounded But Alone

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It hurts.

Every time he gets into the Animus it hurts. Not just physically --because he's become used to those pains-- but mentally. All of it’s in his head anyway, so it makes sense that it’s the mental part that wears him down the most.

Desmond forces himself to breathe evenly as he opens his eyes to the white loading screen of the Animus and his heart rate kicks up automatically. It's a conditioned response by now really. See the white, know the pain is about to come.

He hates this part the most, because once he gets going in a memory it's easy to let it all go away. Easy to get caught up. The beginning is the worst though because there’s nothing to see but white space so bright it hurts his eyes sometimes. Nothing to hear but the computerized voice informing him how much of the next memory is loaded.

23, 24, 25-

Nothing to feel because he’s not actually here in this white screen, and his nerves haven’t been fully connected just yet. He feels lost in the loading screen with nothing to focus on. Sensory deprivation, Rebecca had once explained how necessary it was to his synchronization.

Desmond hadn't paid much attention to the why once he was sure it wasn't a part of the process he could skip.

With so little for his senses to focus on, Desmond’s mind tends to reach out and fill the emptiness for him. Whether he wants it to or not. The problem with his mind filling in --matrixing Lucy had once called it, though he’s sure this goes far beyond that-- the loading screen is that he’s still connected to the Animus. Even incompletely connected the machine reads as much from his brain as his DNA. So while his brain reaches out with phantom sounds and images, the Animus takes those ghosts and brings them to life.

A low buzz becomes the chatter of a market, and a dark blur becomes a crowd browsing the stalls and haggling with the merchants. The scents of Jerusalem’s market unfurl around him, and a dry wind tugs at Desmond’s hoodie as people spin around him. Taking no notice of how much he sticks out in this time with jeans and sneakers. Their eyes either not seeing him or seeing him as someone else. There’s no AI here to dictate their actions, to make or break his synchronization. They are just a moving backdrop.

It would be so easy to lose himself in this alone, but a sharp shove from behind prevents that from even being an option. “Here, make yourself useful,” Malik’s voice is familiar for all that the scene is not. Desmond grips a woven basket automatically as it’s shoved into his arms. It rattles slightly, and Desmond knows it’s already filled with ink and quills. More than the man truly needs.

Malik strides on ahead of him and the crowd does not part for him so much as accepts him as part of it. Desmond follows the man for lack of anything else to do. The Dai doesn't spare him a single glance, confident that Desmond will follow him as he glances over the items for sale. Zeroing quickly on a bread seller. His dark eyes sharp as he looks the offerings over critically. Engaging in haggling with an ease and zest that Desmond finds hard to follow. Altair had been an indifferent haggler, using his stare and obvious bulk to intimidate instead of the complicated offer and counter offers Malik engages in.

55, 56, 57-

This is not something that Altair ever experienced. He watched the one armed Dai on occasion, especially when Malik went out unarmed among the populace, but he’d never considered jumping down to help the struggling man with his shopping. Fearing, rightly most likely, the sharp edge of Malik’s tongue not being tempered in the least by their very public location.

Desmond takes the three loaves Malik buys for what he suspects is less than the scowling merchant wants to part with and carefully places them in the basket. Confirming the many pots of ink, and knowing that it doesn’t really matter how he stacks the bread. None of this is real, none of this actually matters. Not the crowd around him, the contents of the basket, or the calloused fingers that wrap around his wrist to pull him impatiently on to the next vendor.

Malik’s eyes are pensive when he looks back at Desmond, but they're void of any of the hate Desmond knows too well from Altair’s memories. He isn’t Altair right now, so that emotion is not for him. Not here, not now. “Keep up, Brother. We have much to gather before any idiotic Novices drop in and ruin my Bureau while we’re gone.”

His words are sharp and caustic, but he smiles as he says it. Fondly and a little wistfully.

"I don’t think they’d dare," Desmond says. Helplessly smiling back, because that smile is a rare sight. Even though it’s not real it still sounds like something Malik would say. He can’t imagine anyone being stupid enough to risk messing with the Bureau and incurring Malik’s temper. Well, one person, maybe, but that man doesn’t exist right now.

Neither does Malik, but Desmond’s mind refuses to acknowledge it.

"I would rather not give them the chance, Desmond," Malik steers them towards a fruit seller and Desmond breaths through the sharp flare of pain his name --accented strangely on Malik’s tongue-- produces every time.

73, 73, 73-

The Animus counts down, far more slowly to him inside this false memory than it does outside to the others. They don’t see time pass the same way he does. He already knows that, and hasn’t ever been able to fully explain it to anyone --or why the time difference even matters-- in a way that doesn’t make him sound crazy.

Crazier.

Malik lets go of him to deal with the merchant and Desmond ignores the way warmth lingers around the few inches of his skin touched. He tries not to pay too much attention to anything going on around him at all. It makes things blur around him a bit as the Animus stops trying to render so many details as intricately as it can. It pulls him out of the event enough to speed up the real memory being accessed. Just a bit.

82, 84, 86-

The pressure of Malik’s fingers around his wrist again pulls everything back into sharp focus despite Desmond’s efforts. The countdown slowing once more because Desmond can’t ignore this.

87, 88, 88, 88-

"Is the sun making you sick?" Malik is frowning but there’s concern laced all under his voice --and Desmond doesn’t know where he’s picking that up from, because he never heard it in any of Altair’s memories-- as he lets go to tug the top of Desmond’s hoodie up over his head. His fingers touch Desmond’s forehead and rest there for a moment. Taking his temperature, maybe, before brushing down further. Four fingers resting against his cheek and a thumb sliding under his lips to stroke the scar Desmond forgets is there most days. "Your mind is far from here, Desmond."

Malik's voice is chiding. Rebuking him for not playing along with the scenario the Animus has set up for him.

"Sorry, I guess it is," Desmond manages to say even though there’s no sun anymore. No market, no people, not even a basket. It’s just him and Malik now in the white loading screen. All of Desmond's thoughts focused on trying to not lean into the fingers touching him.

With nothing else to render the countdown speeds up again, and Desmond swallows hard. Because it’s both not enough time and too much as Malik keeps tracing his skin.

97, 98, 99-

"You must go," Malik says with a sigh, and pulls Desmond close with his hand. His face blurs and Desmond closes his eyes. Eliminating sight so all he has now is touch and the smell of ink and dust as Malik presses their foreheads together. The pressure is firm and Desmond wishes --despite himself, despite knowing better-- any of this were real. "I can feel our time slipping away."

"No, you can’t," Desmond breathes out and feels a shift, and when he opens his eyes he’s alone. Venice spills out below him bright and vivid in ways Jerusalem never was, but light and unreal whereas the other city has always felt heavier and more real to him. Its borders shimmering into existence as the Animus renders the horizon and the sky. Sealing him up in a body not his own and memories not even close to the ones he wants to relive again. "You’re not real."

"What was that, Desmond?" Rebecca’s voice is distorted by the relays it has to go through to reach him in something close to real time for him in the Animus. He waits the time needed to ensure she isn’t saying anything else before responding.

"Nothing," Desmond says and pushes away the pressure of fingers on his face his mind wants to insist is still there, "what am I looking for here?"

Getting into the Animus hurts in ways he never thought possible. Ways that kill him slowly because most of the people he knows --cares for, hates, wants, loves-- aren’t just dead but never even knew him. He tries not to think about it, but thinking is all he has time for anymore and it hurts.

Every single time.

~

It had been easy while in Abstergo custody.

Desmond had torn through Altair’s memories quickly and with no regard at all to anything but the increasingly hostile threats from Vidic. Side trips had only been a thing used to keep his synchronization up when needed. He’d barely had time to process what he was learning along with Altair --how the man had handled it with even less time Desmond will never know-- in the few breaks Lucy managed to get him.

Desmond never thought that dizzying dive into the past had been a good thing before. Not until now does he see the benefits to it. Now that he's taking Ezio's life in at a rate that's a casual stroll as compared to the dead run of Altair's. Now that he has a solid seven hours of time blocked off each day for actually sleeping. Not to mention the breaks he gets in between memory blocks where Lucy insists he stretch his muscles and not think about anything.

Desmond is really good at not thinking about things, but the past unfortunately doesn't seem to want to let him. The Bleed Effect hits him hard, and Desmond struggles to cope with it.

He’s stretched out on an uncomfortable cot well before his scheduled bed time, the Animus defragging or something, and his mind working hard to process the memories of two very different men. His own personal defragmentation process. One that goes less smoothly than any computers.

Voice in different languages roll around in his head. Accents thick and heavy as je understands and doesn't understand them at all. The languages are embedded in him by the second day of diving, and the translation software is only needed to make things easier on the others.

Italian, Arabic, French, English. The words sounding out in a hundred different voices, and saying too many different things for him to grab onto any one of them. The noise deafening in the silence of the small closet he took as a room, and keeping him awake when all he wants to do is sleep.

To just forget, for a few hours, that he’s anything or anyone.

His own heartbeat pounds in his ears, not loud enough to drown anything out, as he pulls the small travel pillow tight against his ears. Futile because it's all in his head. His eyes shut tight against any vision he might see and teeth gritting to stop the shouts and pleas he wants to cut loose. Stop, please! Just for one fucking night, shut the fuck up!

Actually yelling won’t help, will never stop the sounds or visions. It will only get him those worried looks from the rest of the team that he hates so much. The Bleed Effect is not something he wants to deal with, and Lucy will make him talk about it if he gives her a reason to worry. So Desmond grits his teeth and deals with it as best he can.

A sound winds through the voices. Not words, but an actual sound that cuts the voices down by half the second he hears it. Desmond frowns and reluctantly cracks an eye open, looking at the door to see if someone’s trying to get a look in on him. Shaun, surprisingly enough, has a habit of doing the late night mom check on them all before grabbing the four hours of sleep he allows himself a night.

It's not Shaun though. The door isn’t even there when he looks. There’s only a wall covered in familiar tapestries where it should be. It’s lit by the uncertain flickering of an oil lamp, and Desmond knows before he even turns to find the source what he will see.

Malik is hunched over his often corrected map of Jerusalem, laid out on the floor of the courtyard and weighed down on each corner with a pot of different colored ink. Nose almost touching the paper as he corrects measurements and draws new buildings. He’s lost his heavy outer robes, and has a few spots of ink high on his left cheek. The scratch of a nib on paper cuts through the last of the voices in Desmond’s mind leaving him in blissful silence. For the moment at least.

Ink and dust and something too subtle for him to identify relaxes Desmond. He watches Malik work well into the night, a slight frown marring his face when he finds something that needs correcting. His right hand moving so gracefully it’s hard to imagine him ever not knowing how to exist with only one hand.

Logically, Desmond knows that this is far worse than the auditory hallucinations. That seeing and smelling things is several orders beyond what is acceptable with the Bleed Effect. He just can’t bring himself to care too much as Malik’s presence --not real, not here, you idiot-- and scent lulls him into the sleep he was so desperate for before.

~

"Interesting," Malik glances over some of the writings left out in Leonardo’s workshop. The papers written in more languages than Desmond can even name, but apparently not so foreign to Malik who is looking at something that looks vaguely mathematical. "Is this where you spend your time, Desmond?"

"No," Desmond says and consciously avoids the uneven three legged stool that Leonardo always seems to bring with him. No matter how many times he moves his workshop, Ezio’s favored stool will always show up. It’s something Rebecca had pointed out, and Desmond’s been ignoring the very pointed commentary from all sides for that ever since. He doubts Ezio himself has even the vaguest hint of what it may or may not mean. Even with Salai making certain things so very apparent, Desmond doesn’t think Ezio will ever think too deeply on his friendship with the other man. "Not by my choice at least."

"You don’t do much on your own, do you?" Malik observes cruelly, and the words ring right along with some of the more pointed comments Shaun’s taken to slinging his way lately. The red-head’s increasing frustration with the missions he doesn’t share with the rest of the team making him even shorter tempered than Malik dealing with Altair on a bad day.

"No, I really don’t," coming from Shaun, the comments had irritated him. Coming from Malik they sting. "Not like I have much choice."

49, 49, 50-

"But you do have a choice," Malik’s hand drifts across one of the half-assembled models that will probably be something brilliant if the idea manages to hold Leonardo’s attention long enough to be completed. Dust floats down from his fingers showing Desmond how very unlikely that is to happen.

"Yeah, die from a bullet in the head or die from a total brain melt down," Desmond settles down on a table strewn with papers and doesn’t let himself think about what he isn’t ruining. The papers aren’t really there after all. "Some choice there."

"I did not say it was a pleasant choice, just that you have one," Malik’s lips quirk up in a dark smile that makes Desmond’s chest ache a bit. It’s knowing and makes him wonder again at the time, the many months, between Solomon’s Temple and the very first time Altair visited Jerusalem. What dark thoughts Malik might have had, what choice he was given. "Too many do not have even that, Desmond."

79, 79, 79-

"So I should be grateful?" Desmond can taste the bitterness seeping into his words. He’s not really bitter about any of this. Not too much at least. He knows it could be worse, knows it will be worse, but he’s not looking to bail out on it. Not anymore at least.

It’s just hard, sometimes, to forget how very much he wanted out of life. The things he never got to experience even after running from the Farm. The things he’s increasingly sure he never will get to experience now.

"No," Malik abandons the research and books to plant himself solidly in front of Desmond. His hand stealing around the back of Desmond’s neck to grip him tightly. To force Desmond to arch his head back and look up at him. "You should be furious. I was."

95, 96, 96-

"It doesn’t help anything though," Desmond says tiredly because he’d done that. He’d raged and bit back while Abstergo had him. Destroying what he could and only hurting himself each time Vidic got tired of dealing with his shit and called the muscle in to deal with him. Turning that on Lucy, Rebecca, and Shaun would get him even less. They’re only looking to help, looking to keep him safe. Lashing out at them will only make him feel like an asshole.

"Then you’re a smarter man than I was," Malik chuckles and his lips brush gently over Desmond’s forehead. Benevolent and brotherly even as the hand pressing down against his neck really isn’t. "It is still your right to feel though."

"Ezio! My papers!"

Desmond opens his eyes to an alarmed looking painter and grimaces as he carefully slides off the table. Ezio’s voice spewing apologies for something that might or might not have actually happened. The back of his neck is unbearably cold as Leonardo loses his alarm fast, the limited AI of the Animus smoothing the unexpected event over into what actually happened. Desmond relaxes and feels Ezio surge up to take control of his body and voice. Prompting Leonardo with a question that makes the man start to talk excitedly about a new translation that might or might not be the reason why Ezio’s here in the first place.

Desmond loses himself in Italian and wonders if he even wants to feel anymore.

~

Malik is a figment of his failing mind. He's a silent specter as Desmond explores Monteriggioni, and an oddly talkative companion in the loading screen. The man pokes through the areas the Animus pulls out of Desmond's mind with obvious pleasure, and Desmond tries hard to pull out different areas just to see the man react to them.

A smile, a scowl, or an incredulous snort the one time Desmond showed him Leonardo's broken flying machine. All reactions that Desmond can't help drinking up in the too short/long loading time.

"Are you sure this Ezio is not a descendant of Altair?" Malik eyes the distance travelled with incredulous eyes. Desmond's stomach still clenches in excitement, this had been one of his favorite missions. He'd love nothing more than to revisit the memory but time's running out, and Desmond has too much of Ezio's life to go through still. "It's a suicidal route, and is what I would expect from that idiot."

"Sorry," Desmond grins and ducks under one of the wings to follow Malik.

86, 86, 86-

"Liar," Malik grumbles but there's a light of laughter in his eyes that Desmond drinks in because it changes the man's whole entire face. He wants to know, suddenly and fiercely, what Malik was like before Solomon's Temple. He can see it in the ghost of a mischievous smile on his face right now, and the speculative look in his eyes.

"Next time, I'll try to put us both up there," Desmond nods back to the starting tower, seen only by its beacon light. "Then you can try it for yourself."

97, 97, 98-

"You are mad if you think I would try this," Malik reaches out and rubs a knuckle into Desmond's hair painfully. He doesn't quite manage to hide the keen interest in his eyes though as he studies the route a little more critically.

"Liar," Desmond whispers but none of the Apprentices take notice of Ezio acting strange and Desmond falls back to let the man guide their steps.

~

He clings to Malik, and Desmond's self-aware enough to know it's not just because the man is the easiest hallucination to deal with.

It's always been a problem for him. The way his heart decides to fall all too easily, and for the worst possible people. Without any remorse or thought to the consequences.

Desmond fell in love with Malik in Masyaf. He liked him in Jerusalem, but it was in Masyaf, his words echoing in Altair's ears, that Desmond felt his heart ache the way it always does when he realizes he's been stupid enough to let it happen again.

Malik Al-Sayf is dead, and even if he wasn't he wouldn't know a single damn thing about Desmond at all. Falling in love with him is one of the stupidest things Desmond's ever done, and he has an entire lifetime of stupid things to pick from for that title.

His brain and heart don't really care for something as irrelevant as logic. His brain continues to manipulate the Animus during load times, and his heart continues to be soothed as violent, vicious sounds give way to the calming sight of the Bureau folding around him every night. The sound of Malik working, and the scent of him as he settles into the cushions to watch Desmond sleep all he needs to relax enough to let go. His heart aching a bit more with each episode as he falls just a tiny bit more.

It's not real, none of it is, but Desmond doesn't think he can be so picky with the Bleed Effect picking up in intensity. If one of his hallucinations allows him to push through the rest? Well, a little heart ache is really a small price to pay for it. Stupid as it is, Desmond lets himself fall as far as he will.

~

"You alright, Desmond?"

Shaun's voice slices through the comfortable blanket of familiarity that had been easing him to sleep with an abruptness that leaves him cold. Desmond holds his breath and refuses to open his eyes. Holding tight to the illusion of Jerusalem's Bureau, but the silence has a waiting quality to it and Shaun will push if he feels he needs to.

He's been getting more worried lately. They all have. Desmond wonders how much his control has been slipping that he can't even pinpoint the one event that made them all start to side eye him and treat him like fucking glass.

"Yeah," Desmond concentrates to make sure he sounds tired, and that his words come out in English. Modern English because he's slipped into old English or whatever on a few occasions that had been funny at first. "'m fine."

"-alright," Shaun replies cautiously and shifts. The old floor of the once vibrant villa creak under his feet but he doesn't move closer. Desmond wonders what he was doing that'd alerted the other man that something was wrong. It must've been something really obvious because Shaun doesn't reply with his usual bite. "Well, then! Just get some sleep. You'll need it."

Desmond feels guilty at the actual honest to fuck worry he can hear in Shaun's voice --see in Lucy's eyes, and feel in the hand Rebecca carefully touches him with these days-- but there's not a whole lot any of them can do anymore. It's too late.

He rolls over and buries his face in the crook of his arm. Refusing to open his eyes as he pretends he can't smell the Bureau’s familiar scent because of his own skin. That the lack of noise is just Malik retiring for the night, because as much as the man works he's only human too.

Humans all need rest.

~

Hush. I will do it myself.

The words aren't spoken so much as they're blazed into his mind. Ten foot fiery letter searing his brain as he turns without meaning to, as he steps forward without wanting to.

Desmond fights, he pulls and yells and rebels. But the words burn brighter, hotter and something breaks inside him. Pain, fresh and unlike anything he's felt before nearly drowns him as he silently screams. His own body not his own.

The Apple pulses in his hand and he hears the hidden blade snap out as Lucy stands there. Frozen and uncomprehending as someone
something
no
no
no

~

"Cogito ergo sum."

Desmond opens his eyes to the nicest blue sky he's ever seen and a sharp rock doing unfortunate things to his neck as 16 quotes Latin.

Physics, right, Murphy's Law probably fits right in around here too. Desmond pulls himself up and blinks blearily over at 16's back. A not so uncommon sight when Desmond swims back up from the black outs the man assures him are perfectly normal reactions to bits of his shattered mind slotting back together when the Animus kicks him back.

"Oh? 'I think, therefore I am,' interesting theory," Malik answers back and there's wicked amusement dancing in his voice that lets Desmond know the man is circling around to closing some kind of verbal trap he's spent hours laying out. "Are you sure about that? Just because you are does not necessarily mean you think."

Desmond frowns because Malik is interacting with 16, and 16, going by the way his stiffens, is clearly interacting with Malik. Which shouldn't be possible, not when Desmond has so very little control over the Animus while it’s in safe mode. The fanciful renderings of his mind shouldn't work here.

But Malik is here, Desmond sees that when he gets to his feet. Propped up against a broken pillar and smiling a razor sharp grin at 16 who doesn't look like he knows what to make of the Dai.

"After all," Malik gestures carelessly at himself, eyes not leaving 16 even as he tilts his head towards Desmond. A silent acknowledgment that he knows they have an audience now. "If you were to actually think about this you'd realize you got a few assumptions wrong."

"I'm dead," 16 crosses his arms and rolls his head on his shoulders. Cracking his neck before fixing Desmond with an accusing glare, like any of this is his fault. "I'd like to skip any more philosophical debates on existence, thanks. Had plenty of them already and it's hard enough reconciling myself as I am."

"Uh, sorry?" Desmond shrugs, not feeling the emotion particularly well, but also not wanting 16 to spiral into one of his fits of depression. They're sudden and fast, and always leave Desmond feeling pretty guilty despite the fact he has no reason to. The blame for any of this doesn't lay at either of their feet really.

"You apologize too much," Malik admonishes immediately, but he breaks his gaze from 16 and Desmond swears he feels a shit ton of tension fly out the metaphorical window. Or the literal one. The hole in the wall a few feet away could be a window if one were to squint at it. Malik looks him over from head to toe. A quick glance Desmond's seen the Dai use to assess situations, injured Assassins, and stubborn camel once. "How are you, Desmond?"

"Really?" Desmond laughs and folds himself down to sit on the ground between the two men. He rubs his hands over his face hard. Pressing into his eyes until spots of light burst across them. A psychological reaction because Desmond doesn't feel the warning ache that tells him he's doing it too hard at all. "I'm putting my brain back together with the help of an insane dead man, and another dead man is asking me how I'm doing?"

"Hey! I'm perfectly sane, thank you very much! It's the rest of you that're fucking nuts. It's a valid question though," 16 interjects, and he's grinning an asshole's grin when Desmond opens his eyes to glare at him. "Hey, I don't understand," he jabs a finger in the general vicinity of Malik, "this, but the man's got some intelligence to him. How are you feeling, 17?"

"Peachy," Desmond doesn't understand any of this. He barely comprehends what 16's already told him. The things he's explained over and over again. Patient in a way that Desmond's not really used to anymore.

It's just that there's so much to explain that the man can't seem to get any of it out fast enough. Words tripping over other words as he actually seems to fight himself to tell the most important things first. He's not the rambling, mostly mad lunatic Desmond got so used to hearing before. 16 is mostly coherent, but the effects of what he went through are etched deeply in him. His speeches are rapid volleys of information pushing Desmond to go faster, to mover farther without the full answers he really wants.

He turns to Malik and sighs as he's pinned by an unimpressed look. "Fine as can be considering the circumstances. You know since I started going all Exorcist and killing-"

The words lock up in Desmond's throat, and he can't quite spit them out. 16's reassurances that Lucy's loyalty had never extended to him meaningless. Mostly because the man himself seems unsure about that fact and because it was Lucy.

It was Lucy god-fucking-dammnit, and he was not alright with that! Not alright with the warmth of her blood that he can still feel covering his left hand. The compulsion of Juno's will driving his body with cold certainty of what she was doing as his mind screamed and tore itself into smaller pieces trying so desperately to stop. To save her.

"Lucy stopped being an Assassin the day she told them who she was," 16's voice cuts through the thoughts that never fail to make Desmond actually feel as broken as he is. He's not looking at him or Malik, and Desmond wonders what it must have been like. To find out your guaranteed ticket out of the hell of the Animus was a forgery. "She sold you out with the same friendly smile she used to save you."

It's hard to reconcile that though. Hard to put her in the same category as Vidic when she'd defended him so fiercely. When it's her blue eyes he sees behind his eyes. Filled with surprise, shock, incomprehension, and --at the very end as she choked on air and Juno released him-- betrayal.

Calloused fingers slide through his hair and Desmond didn't even know his eyes were closed until he opens them and sees Malik crouched before him. Eyes dark but there isn't condemnation or forgiveness in them. Just an awful kind of understanding.

"It's never easy accepting that those you trusted most would betray you in any way," Malik's eyes are far away and Desmond knows that this fact alone accounted for a great deal of the man's anger toward Altair.

Malik's lips quirk up wryly and he focuses his gaze back on Desmond, hand dropping to cradle the back of his head. "Even when it comes from someone you expect treachery from it can be hard to accept. It was not until I was thrown in chains that I believed-"

Malik breaks off with a sigh and a shake of his head. He pulls back, and Desmond feels bereft. Desmond licks his lips and asks, "What are you talking about?"

Because there's more than just the mission that lost him his arm and brother being spoken about right now. Desmond learned to read between the lines as a bartender, and Malik isn't really being subtle with that fact.

"I'm sure you will see that sorry episode soon enough," Malik deflects easily, with a short cutting gesture of his hand that means he's done with something. It's how he used to end all his arguments with Altair. A brutal move lacking only the deadly knife needed to turn it from a threat into an action. "You do well as it is. It shouldn't be much further along now."

16 is gone. Fucked off who knew when. Probably after he mentioned Lucy. That's the one story the man hasn't been willing to share with him at all, and Desmond remembers the way Lucy's eyes would dim every time he tried pressing her for more information on 16.

There's too many stories running through Desmond's mind and he willingly lets that one go.

The island is as it always is, there's no change that he can see though 16 says it changes all the time. Malik doesn't appear to be going anywhere, and, for once, there's no countdown limiting his time. Desmond wants to take the time offered, wants to spend some of it here. Relaxing without being assaulted by another's memory.

Malik stands and his face is stern, no doubt reading Desmond all too well. "You have things to do, Desmond, and not much time left to do it in."

"I know," Desmond climbs back up to his feet and turns toward the only exit he's been shown. "But I can want a bit of a break every now and then, right?"

A hard hand plants itself between his shoulder blades, and Desmond lets himself be pushed. He's on the edge of tipping into Ezio's body when Malik speaks. Distant like he's miles away as Desmond's senses shut down in prep for the memory. "You can want to be a lazy ass, yes. Just as I can and will beat you for it."

Desmond doesn't feel the shove that has him running over roofs in Ezio's body, the shouts of guards ringing in his ears, but he knows it happens and it makes him smile.

"Are you having fun now, Ezio?" Yusuf laughs from beside him as an arrow embeds itself just shy of his running feet. Ezio runs and jumps off a ledge, twisting enough to send a few deadly knives behind them. The smile stays on Ezio's face as Desmond laughs silently.

~

16 and Malik play chess, and Desmond wonders if they both exist when he's not here to see them. 16, he's mostly sure, does, but Malik is harder to pin down. The man is a hallucination pulled straight from his brain, and shouldn't exist without Desmond's direct input.

It says a lot about his state of mind that Desmond isn't sure that Malik might not be the sanest part of him right now, and that is why he's there when Desmond claws his way back to consciousness.

Neither man really acknowledges him as Desmond sinks down to sit next to them. He's exhausted from what the latest Memory Seal showed Ezio, and he's not up for trying to push further for the Nexus Synch he needs to get out.

"Check," Malik says as he moves one of the pieces into place. Desmond doesn't know much about chess at all, and can't tell which one. It also doesn't help that their chess set is made up of rocks and chips from various places on the island. Ones that only the two men know the meaning of because Desmond had been watching Sofia through Ezio's eyes at the time they'd scrounged them up.

Ezio's growing infatuation with the pretty young woman is a well-worn habit by now to Desmond. He falls in love almost as often as Desmond does. Though he at least has the ability to let that love go when it hurts too much.

16 studies the scratched out board on the ground before his shoulders slump in defeat. He reaches down and flips one of the larger rocks onto its side. Probably the king. "I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to have all the advantages in games like this."

"I have had a long time to play," Malik sits back and looks over the island. Desmond stares hard at the way the muscles of his neck move as he twists his head back.

Malik is young and healthy for all that he doesn't have his left arm. He's decades away from the gaunt figure Altair had lifted all too easily, cracked lips spilling apologies that were never needed. He's nothing like the blood stained burlap sack that had been Abbas' 'gift' to Altair that had made the man nearly break. Maria and Malik's deaths, so close together, had rattled Altair. Had rattled Desmond.

Desmond knew that Malik was dead. It had never been a thing he ever questioned, but to actually see it? To know how and when? To know the events that had led up to it?

"I need a break," Desmond curls up on his side between them as they reset the game. Even though this is not his real body, he hurts in a way that he's not used to. Both Altair and Ezio are older men now, and their bodies don't move as fluidly as Desmond is used to. They take hits more often and without Rebecca to monitor his pain receptors Desmond is really feeling it.

It adds onto the stabbing pain in his chest and Desmond wants to sleep a bit. To forget just enough so he can push on and get this over with.

He moves so that his head rests near Malik. On his left side so there are no fingers free to reach down and card through his hair, but Malik shifts just enough to press the side of his leg against him. 16 snickers something that Desmond chooses to ignore in favor of a nap. Just a brief one as he focuses on the heat of Malik's living --but not, never really alive again-- body next to him.

~

"Will it all go away?" Desmond asks and 16 smirks at him when he almost stumbles over the question. "The Bleed Effect?"

"Most of it, yeah, should go away. The abilities, the muscle memory will stay. Might change a bit, but they'll stick with you because it's in your blood not your mind," 16 shudders. Appearing half an inch to the right before he's back in place. Pixels blurring before resolving into a form that's solid again. Desmond wonders if he does that on purpose or if he's even aware of it. He lets the question go when 16 doesn't try to pretend not to know what Desmond's really asking, "Malik though? Gonna be honest here, 17, I don't know what the hell he is. So I kinda doubt you'll be getting rid of your boyfriend that easily."

"He's a hallucination," Desmond states because Malik isn't here now, and Desmond doesn't think he'll show up again for a bit.

"A shared one?" 16 cocks his head and gives him a skeptical look. "I'm not from Altair's bloodline, I never even knew the guy existed as more than ancient history until you got dropped in here. I know the two of us aren't all that good up here," 16 taps his forehead with a bright grin, and a light that isn't quite madness in his eyes, "but I don't think either of us was ever bugfuck crazy enough to start sharing breakdowns now."

"Then what is he?" Desmond asks, himself more than 16, because the man already answered that question. It's disturbing to think about, that Malik might not just be a figment of his mind, but every other option he can think of are all worse. Far worse.

"I don't know, I just don't know," 16 shudders again and slowly blinks out of existence. Going off to do his thing so Desmond can complete a bit more of the memories left. "Not my problem really. Guess that's one truth that's going to be all on you."

~

Malik is waiting for him in the loading screen. There's no setting or props pulled up automatically for them, and Desmond isn't surprised to see him. Even if he had been dreading the possibility he wouldn't see the man again.

"How did-" Malik frowns and it takes effort for him to open his mouth again. "How did Altair die?"

I don't know what the hell he is. Desmond sits down on the white floor and watches things half-form in the distance before collapsing. There's no countdown, Rebecca's tinkering with her Baby and warned him she was taking some features offline for a bit.

Malik knew he was dead before Desmond did. He knew the memories he was going to see up to a certain extent. Knew what Abbas had done before Desmond even saw the memories of Al Mualim's cremation.

"He was tired, he sat down and closed his eyes," Desmond remembers trying to resist the pull of that chair. The way it had felt so inviting to Altair's tired body. He'd fought it hard, knowing that it was the end for the Grandmaster and not wanting to give into the inevitable like Altair had. "He didn't open them again."

Ezio, too had gone that way. Though far more reluctantly than Altair had. The sight of Sofia and Flavia a comfort as much as a regret to him in his final moments as he lost his brief struggle to remain for them.

Gentle ends for men who led violent lives. A rarity among Assassins.

"I see," Malik says and there's honest grief in his voices as he bows his head. "He must have hated growing so old."

Altair had been exasperated by the failings of his body. His mind knowing what he used to be capable of, but his body unable to comply. It had frustrated him more when Maria was still alive. Her sharp laughs at his grumblings an easy balm that he deliberately looked for. After her death Altair had been more accepting of his limits. He'd been so very tired he could do little else but accept them.

Desmond doesn't voice any of that to Malik though. Not when the man reaches out and grips his shoulder hard. Eyes soft and grieving for a friend who has been dead for hundreds of years already. Someone as different from the old man who had settled down on that chair in a nearly empty vault, as the arrogant Assassin who had abandoned two Brothers to death from the Altair Malik is remembering right now.

It's almost a relief when Malik fades and is replaced with forests that seem endless, and a silence unbroken by any man as Connor's linear mind keeps them both on track.

~

"His name was Clay," Desmond says after the Animus glitches. Throwing him out of Connor's memories and back to the loading screen.

99, 01, 02-

Good as her Baby is, Rebecca's Animus is always hell to get warmed up in a new setup. The Temple has all the room they need to spread out and hook up as many wires as she wants, but the glitches always kick in hardest the first day.

Normally, they'd wait for the machine to work through it on its own, but time is at a premium these days and interrupted progress is still progress.

"I know," Malik is studying the path of an eagle as it wheels over a still lake. The forests of Connor's youth spread out below them in a sight that's still breathtaking to see today. As long as you face one particular way and ignore the light pollution coming from a city to the South. "He told me while you were away once."

"He never told me," Clay had been amused, bitterly but still amused by the fact that no one had told Desmond who he was. Even after Desmond had woken up, no one had wanted to say anything. Shaun had given him what little he knew about Clay, but Shaun has always believed that information should be never be hidden. "He gave me his memories."

55, 55, 54-

Encoded and neatly partitioned already to slide right in next to Altair and Ezio. No threat at all of bleed over to Desmond. Just a neatly organized life put together in a way that Desmond has come to realize is the man's slightly demented humor at work.

He'd wanted Desmond to know him, to know what he'd done. Clay had wanted to make a difference and he wanted to be remembered for it, but he'd be damned if he didn't make Desmond work a little for it first. The labyrinth turns of Clay's memories chase him to sleep these days. The comfort of the Bureau something Desmond only sees in the Animus now.

"He said we're the sum of our own memories. That it's our story that makes us who we are," Desmond muses on the words that've been only one of many that've bothered him lately. "It's true I guess. We don't really exist without someone to remember us or our stories."

Malik is silent, he blinks slowly and doesn't say a single word. Desmond watches as his throat bobs as the man opens and then shuts his mouth.

"Are you real?" It's not the question Desmond was aiming for when bringing Clay's words up, but it's the one he wants to hear the answer to most right now. Clay hadn't known what Malik is, but had been convinced he isn't something from Desmond's mind.

"Are you?" Malik eventually counters. He turns to face him and the lake fades around them. The resolution dropping fast as the Animus gears up for another try at Connor's memories.

95, 14, 11-

"I hope so," Desmond tries for humor, but it falls a little flat. Clay and his AI construct, and how very close Desmond came to being punted into the recycling bin still too fresh in his mind.

Was he even real?

Were any of them real?

Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. Clay's own words hadn't been aimed at Desmond, but they were a good enough anchor anyway. He is real, he has to be, because he doesn't have the time to believe anything else.

"I hope so too," Malik says and he looks tired. Looks aged and far too close to the memories Desmond wishes he never had to see at the end of the man's life. "I really do, Desmond."

"Alright! I think we got it," Rebecca's voice filters in, loud and startling as Boston blinks into sudden existence. Not too far off from where he was last. Malik gone in a blink of an eye. "This should be it for the glitches. Try this block again."

"Sure," Desmond mutters as Connor's feet travel a route he's pretty much memorized with how many times he's been kicked out of this memory. The sound of the colony rises up around him, and Desmond wonders if he even knows what the definition of the word 'real' is anymore.

~

"She is real."

Shaun laughs and pokes fun at the images of Juno that creep up on them all without warning. A defense mechanism because the woman is creepy as fuck, and absolutely psychotic. Her words are filled with hate and loathing that don't really endear her to him at all. As if taking over his body wasn't enough.

"She is here, trapped."

The emails are even worse. Real time communication that Desmond finds hard to believe are prerecorded messages of any kind. Shaun's insistence that Juno is reacting to him, to them all, sounds less and less paranoid the longer they stay in the Temple.

"I understand how she feels," Malik says as they both look on from up high. The small working station is exactly as it looks in the real world, but the Animus chair itself is missing. Desmond had thought it odd at first, but there's too much odd in his life to for any of it to even phase him anymore. "A little. That is a long time to be alone."

Malik isn't looking at anything or even Desmond. He's not even standing on ground that's there. The shadows of one flicker around his feet, but if Desmond were to step out to him he'd fall.

26, 27, 27-

"No one to see you or hear you, all alone," Malik sounds pained and he turns slowly. Eyes nearly black with something Desmond doesn't understand but fears all the same. He looks like he did in the dungeon. The horror of his words and apologies ten times worse because of how much they obviously hurt coming out of him. "Your access to the world so limited. Only able to appear briefly. A mere second against an eternity of isolation."

56, 57, 58-

The cave flickers and dies in a scatter of code lines and they're in the loading screen again. Desmond crouched down and looking up at Malik who is worn and haggard in a way that Desmond has only seen once before, but there'd been far more blood then and life. There'd been life in the anger Malik had spit out as he accused Altair of killing Kadar. "I can't blame her for that anger. God help me, I can't."

78, 80, 83-

"Malik, she was crazy even before that," Desmond protests because that's very, very clear to just about any one of them, and the thought of Malik feeling empathy for Juno --who thinks of humans a animals not even fit to be the mindless slaves her people once used them as-- is wrong on so many levels. "She was imprisoned with all that already!"

It's important, for some reason, that Malik understand that. Desmond doesn't know why, he just knows it in his gut. Malik isn't really listening to him though.

He's just looking. Like he has been for the last several sessions. Eyes terrifyingly blank before something a little stunned looking warps his face. His hand comes up, and there's a fine tremor in it as he reaches out for Desmond.

And it's nothing that Desmond has ever seen before. Bits and pieces that he can recognize from the brief glimpses Altair got into his friend's life. Tired, worn, haggard, pained. It hits, like a punch to the gut when Desmond --finally, finally-- get it.

Malik is broken.

"Malik!" Desmond steps forward to reach back, and hits the rail of the Aquila instead. The ocean rendering itself in a shimmer too bright to be real, and Desmond can't breathe. Can't force the briny scent of the sea into his lungs to replace the musty smell of the cave and Malik for enough seconds that the Animus begins to send him warnings about losing synch.

Desmond breathes in sharply, and Connor spins away from the rail. Mind already forgetting why he'd spent so long staring out into the open ocean.

~

He doesn't see Malik again after that, and it feels a lot like something vital has been ripped away from him. The loading screen stays white, and nothing appears no matter how hard he tries to will it to. No cities spring up under his feet, no crowds to push him around, no Malik to reach out to. Proof, more proof, and damning proof.

He still doesn’t know what the fuck Malik is, or was, and he doesn't really have the time to try and figure it out. He spends too much of his nonexistent time on Malik anyway.

Desmond hadn't even realized how much he's really come to rely on those brief visits until now. How he's grown dependent on those few minutes between memories. Not until the end of the world looms closer, and there's no one to talk about it with that won't take his head off for bitching. No one to play devil's advocate with him as the next memory loads and he tries not to think about what's going to happen when they find the key.

It's as stressful as the nearly constant dive he's in as he races to the end of Connor's memories. Something that weighs him down even as he shoulders the weight of Connor's life. The decisions others force onto him, and the ones he forces onto himself.

It dogs him back to his bedroll for the few hours he allows himself to sleep. Real sleep because the last time he came up he spoke Italian for a good five minutes before remembering himself. The strict divides of memories in his mind weakening under the force of yet another man's memories being shoved so quickly into his mind.

The Bleed Effect kicks in again. Another slow slide that seems so much quicker than before because now Desmond knows what it's like. Knows the signs to watch out for as Connor's memories break the partitions holding Altair, Ezio, and Clay away from Desmond.

The pounding of hooves chases Desmond around the world because there's no one else as good as him, and it's not just memories they need to save the world now. The Temple needs power, and there just aren't enough Assassins left to get them all. Not with the Templars hunting the batteries too. Desmond fights Templar agents in body armor and red coats. Still in control enough to know that these Templars don't need to stop to reload. For now. It will get worse if he doesn't finish quickly enough and attains another Nexus Synch to fix it.

He won't, he doesn't have the time to wander through Connor's entire life. He has to pick and choose the memories. Aiming for the ones bound to give him the information he needs. It won't matter if his mind breaks again anyway.

He isn't going to live long enough to have to worry about his sanity this time.

Desmond figures that out as he learns a little more with each battery he slots back into place. With each hateful monologue by the ghost of a woman that Desmond's increasingly sure isn't actually dead. Her eyes burning a little brighter each time, as they begin to fix on him with a brightness that he's only seen in sadists.

He dives through a dead man's memories, fixes the power grid for the Temple, and wishes like hell that he could see Malik again. Even if it's just for these last few hours of his life. The minutes spent alone in the loading screen as Connor attains everything he wanted, and loses everything else.

There's graveyard dirt under Desmond's fingernails as he holds the key, and they're down to minutes now. Death and destruction approach the world and all Desmond can think about is how he wants to see Malik again. Just one last time.

~

Desmond dies, and Juno is a lying bitch because it fucking hurts. Lightning and fire coursing through his veins and eating up every last little thing he has until there's nothing left of him at all. Just a small spark that gets sucked up by a wave of gold and endless darkness.

~

Waking up is a surprise, a painful one.

Desmond sucks in a harsh breath that tastes sweet to him, but only fuels the fire he can still feel in his hand. There's a fine lattice of scar tissue spreading over his right hand when he can unclench his fist enough to look at it. Jagged and uneven like lightning bolts. They're smooth and cool to the touch, but his hand burns with one last renewed bolt of pain before it fades into a dull ache.

He's in his bedroll, as far from the Animus as he could get it without actually leaving the Temple. Looking around is eerie. Everything is exactly as it should be, exactly as he remembers it. Except for the Animus chair.

It's not there.

Desmond frowns and reaches for the Animus menu automatically. There's nothing there though. No ghostlike sensation of an interface to guide him. He's not in the Animus. He's dead.

Desmond wonders if there really is an afterlife of some kind after all.

A hot wind swirls past him. Faint and barely felt, but enough to get him moving to the exit. Slowly walking as thoughts of afterlifes fade with the steady increase of the temperature that really doesn't go with the colder nights they'd been dealing with. There's no forest or clearing when he comes out of the cave. What greets him instead is something far more familiar.

Jerusalem spreads out below him and the cave he leaves blends seamlessly into the road he's traveled a hundred times in someone else's body. His own feet remember it well enough that Desmond doesn't have to think before he's approaching the gates. Wide open and inviting. Disturbing because there are no guards, no people, no scholars, nothing.

The city is quiet and deserted. Suffocating in its stillness and silence. It's no better when he climbs up onto the roofs where he'd expect fewer people, because the always present sound of voices rising from the streets is gone. There's only the sound of his own breathing and the faint rush of wind as he runs and jumps. His body taking moving with little thought to the one building he needs to see right now.

The grate to the Bureau is open and Desmond doesn't pause to look before jumping down into the courtyard. Silent and still, but not empty.

Malik sits against the wall furthest from the fountain. Propped up by more cushions than Desmond ever remembers there being. He's every bit as --broken-- tired and haggard looking as Desmond remembers from the last time he saw him. There's barely anything in his face as he watches Desmond walk towards him. Not pleasure, not surprise, not even anger.

Desmond is dead. Malik is dead. Desmond doesn't know what is going on, but Malik's been telling him about this --whatever it is-- from the beginning. Desmond has just been too stupid to really listen before.

"How long have you been here? Like this?" Desmond asks. He moves when Malik doesn't answer and crouches right in front of him. Reaching out --and why did he never notice it was always Malik reaching out before?-- and barely skimming the man's face with his fingers before Malik jerks back. His eyes going a touch wider. "Malik, answer me."

Slowly, the man reaches up to touch Desmond's hand, his eyes turning to it like it's the most fascinating thing in the world. His smile is strangely detached as he lightly curls his fingers around Desmond's wrist. The grip growing tighter as life seems to flare back into his eyes. When he speaks, his voice is low and Desmond strains to hear it even in the utter silence of this world.

"I thought I was finally going mad. To imagine not being alone any longer," the smile turns sharp and bitter and this is the most of Malik Desmond has seen in a while. His withdrawal from Desmond something that has been happening slowly since Desmond saw his death. "I welcomed it, Desmond. Even knowing it was my own mind failing me I welcomed the respite. I relished the company, even if it was so utterly foreign. Anything was preferable to being so alone."

Desmond's wrist hurts from the grip, and it's an immediate pain that he's never experienced in the Animus. That sensation dulled to almost nothingness to aid in synchronization. This isn't the Animus though, and there's something terribly funny in the thought of them both seeing the other as their own personal avatar of madness. He'll laugh over it later, as soon as he's over the horror of what he's starting to realize has happened.

Malik's legs give way as Desmond kneels between them, reaching out with both hands to grip his head and keep him facing forward. Fingers lacing through black strands of hair free of the gray and age he'd last seen in Altair's memories --the blood and torture and death as he'd held the severed head in his arms-- seemingly so long ago. "Malik, how?"

"I don't know. It was, it was that damned Apple," Malik's face contorts in rage and disgust, but he doesn't let go of Desmond, just transfers his hand to Desmond's neck. Holding tight and pulling him close. Closer than ever before and Desmond can feel the shudders wracking the man as he buries his face against Desmond.

"Abbas couldn't use it," Desmond protests the words, not the actions because Malik had barely had the chance to understand his freedom before his death. Had barely had the chance at all to enjoy the lack of chains and the fresh air before a traitorous bastard took it from him. "It was too much for him."

"Swami!" Malik hisses out and it's a laugh. Wild and angry and bitter and delighted. "The whore son kissed the shit Abbas walked on, he'd do anything for his master's approval! Though I know not what he did, or why I ended up like this."

There's a jerk and Desmond feels the end of Malik's amputated arm hit him in the chest. Disabled but still younger than the frail man Altair had pulled from the dungeons. Denials falling weakly from his lips as he tried to feverishly assure him Sef's death was not on his hands.

Swami had never touched the Apple though. It had glowed and pulsed in Altair's hand as rage had taken him, and Swami's whimpers had only fueled it. His blinding rage making him reach out and into Swami. Not content with a simple death from the man, he had wanted Swami to suffer for a long time, and the Apple had gladly responded. Desmond doesn't know what would have happened if Maria hadn't interfered. If her death hadn't shocked Altair back to his senses enough to reign the power of the artifact back.

Too late to not cause even more harm. Harm that Desmond doubts Altair even knew he caused.

"No one else?" Desmond manages to croak out as the enormity of this final insult, this final undeserved punishment dawns on him. He wants to laugh at it, because Altair somehow managed to end his friendship with Malik the same way he began it.

"I used to be able to reach out," Malik says slowly, his body is losing some of the tension that has kept him stiff and is melting slowly against Desmond. "To those I knew, to those who thought my name. In dreams or thought, I could touch them. For only a fraction of a second."

It's terrifying, how easily Desmond can track that thought down to its logical conclusion. Malik could reach out to the world of the living as long as there was someone to remember him.

His friends, his family holding him dear in their thoughts until they died one by one. And then no one was left to think of Malik Al-Sayf. No one to touch or interact with for hundreds of years. Not until Desmond came along and got himself kidnapped by Abstergo.

Malik isn't broken. He broke a long time ago, and he's slowly pulling himself back together. Piece by piece as Desmond holds him. The shards of himself found sometime when he was playing along with Desmond. Both of them taking comfort in their own hallucinations.

"I am not mad," Malik says, still slow but with sure conviction that Desmond doesn't think he'd ever be able to manage if the situation were reversed.

"No," Desmond confirms and doesn't let go even as the man moves to shift back. "Just dead."

The barked laugh is dark as night but it's steady at least. Malik pulls back harder, taking Desmond down with him in a pile of limbs and cushions that he knows Malik would have never allowed in life. But an eternity of loneliness will change a person, and Desmond doesn't really know this man who stares at him with barely concealed desperation. Five fingers digging bruises into the base of his skull. "Tell me."

Desmond doesn't know what Malik is asking for, so he opens his mouth and tells him everything.

~

Desmond is used to being alone. He's been alone for most of his life from the minute he decided his parents were crazy. He'd pulled back then, at fifteen, and had never quite allowed himself to grow close to anyone after that. A mixture of the paranoia of enemies he didn't really believe in mixed up with the fear that he was still being tracked had kept him distant from most people as he wandered the States.

Becoming a bartender hadn't just been a money thing for him. It'd been a way for him to fit into a world that he didn't want to let too close. Bartenders were everyone's friend after all, but no one was really friends with a bartender. Desmond knew everyone, but not a single person he knew could pick his face out of a line up if their lives depended on it.

Even his coworkers hadn't gotten close. They worked together, maybe shot back a few beers, and then went their separate ways as the sun rose in the morning. Turnover at bars are always high, and Desmond had used that to his advantage when people had started getting too nosey. Started asking too many questions.

Lucy had been the first person to really get close to Desmond in a long while, and that is what had made the end --her end-- so very much worse. Rebecca and Shaun came a close second, but even they knew more about him from his files than from his own mouth.

He's used to being alone and lonely, and that is what had made diving into the memories of his ancestors so hard and painful.

Altair had been alone and that had been easy, but the man hadn't stayed that way for very long. Ezio couldn't exist without others, and his gregarious nature had been a rasp against the ache started by Altair. Connor had actively looked for- Well, not quite a family, but those he brought to the homestead were definitely something more than mere friends.

It'd all made Desmond so very aware of how alone he was, comparing his life to that of any of his ancestors. He cannot imagine what it must have been like to Malik who had always seemed to have the entire Brotherhood at his back when Desmond followed Altair's footsteps. An unwavering support that bent itself to his whim so easily that Altair had felt no doubts leaving the Order in his hand.

Malik sleeps uneasily. Hand nearly buried in the cloth of Desmond's unzipped hoodie, and head pillowed at an uncomfortable angle on his leg. He'd listened to every word Desmond had to say and the long silence that followed had gone unbroken by either of them until Malik slipped into sleep.

Tiredness tugs at Desmond too, but he stays awake and aware. Malik had helped Desmond through the worst of the Bleed Effect, and Desmond is determined to pay some of that back. He stays up because he knows what it's like to be alone and how very much it hurts. It's a small drop in the ocean of time Malik's spent alone, but Desmond stays up so that Malik won't be alone anymore.

It hurts, but Desmond is used to this pain now. This ache as he feels himself falling even more.