In the end, after all the struggles and fighting, all the strife and pain, Altaïr's library offers Ezio little answers – only the knowledge that for all his wisdom and power even Altaïr did not know what it was all for, and that in the end he gave himself into the task regardless of not knowing its purpose. Dying, in the most lonely way, for his cause, sending the last of his children to safety and giving himself up, locked away like the secrets he spent his whole life chasing and did not reach.
There is nothing in the library now but memories – and ghosts of duties long passed.
Ezio is tired. Tired of not knowing and more tired of wanting to know. Years, decades he's spent chasing golden phantoms with a title and a name ringing in his mind like distant church bells, calling him home towards a place he doesn't know, and now he's starting to finally realise isn't ever going to welcome him. There is a world out there with answers and peace, but it's not open to him, it will never be open to him.
He's the Prophet, and like a boy running an errand… he's played his part. And it seems that is all he will ever know.
Ezio bows his head to Altaïr's remains and stands, the last of the Masyaf Keys in hand. Then he turns, begrudgingly, to where Altaïr had set his Apple of Eden, finally letting go of the burden he'd carried for a great majority of his life… to pass the burden over to another.
Ezio approaches the Apple. "Another artefact," he murmurs and for a moment imagines himself taking it, continuing Altaïr's decades long quest for truth that the device refused to reveal to him, only tempting him with snippets and knowledge he obviously did not understand – chipping away that mountain of the First Civilisation until another appeared to take his place and continue the quest, until a whole line of Assassins sacrificed themselves on the altar of knowledge and power, until one day maybe one of them would have all the pieces and the codex of the ages would be complete and finally…
"No," Ezio says and backs away from the Apple. He will not take it. He had not kept the one he took from the Borgia, and he will not take this one. "You will stay here. I have seen enough for one life."
It is not the Apple's will, obviously – the artefact flares out in vivid brilliance, in anger perhaps, he cannot tell, but he knows this feeling. This sensation of being watched... of being known.
"Desmond?" Ezio calls into the light, while shielding his eyes from it.
He's talking to me?
"I heard your name once before, Desmond, long time ago, and now it lingers in my mind, like an image from a dream," Ezio says, looking round, searching. "I don't know where you are or by which means you can hear me… but I know you are listening."
He waits for an answer, thinking he must have imagined the voice, but knowing he did not imagine the sensation – he thinks he's known it all his life. Minerva had named it, but only now Ezio dares to address it – the watcher of his life.
There is a shimmer in front of him and in front of the Apple, in the shape of a man, glowing golden with a hand outstretched, palm held down, as if he is resting it upon something.
Oh, Ezio. I think I regret that the most.
Ezio frowns at the shimmer, its features just barely discernible, and lowers his hand. It's a man, young, with short cropped hair and clean features, his clothing simple and strange. He's looking down to what Ezio cannot see, an invisible thing he is touching – the hand upon it burning golden.
"Desmond," Ezio says, and the young man looks up, his eyes solid gold. "You are Desmond."
Oh, what am I doing? the golden shimmer asks, blinking, seeing him but also not. What is this? I can see Ezio – in Masyaf?
"Yes," Ezio says and reaches out to touch him – but like Minerva and Juno, Desmond is only a ghost, see through and formless, there is nothing there to touch but light. "What is this?"
Desmond stares at him with blazing eyes and then closes them. I'm going to die, he says and bows his head. This is so fucked up.
It's not what one might picture a god saying. Of all the things Ezio had imagined Desmond might be like, this is not it. This is not it at all. Desmond is all but burning in front of him, wisps of flames rising from the back of his hand as something scorches through him. And there is nothing Ezio can do and so little he understands.
"Why?" Ezio asks. "Why all of this?"
We're all just pieces in their machine, Desmond says, shaking his head like it's heavy, like he's tired. Things, dominoes – they set us up just to tip us over just right. Altaïr, Ezio, Connor, me, all of us – just links in a damned chain, each more ignorant than the last.
Ezio shakes his head, confused, and Desmond closes his glowing eyes. He looks like the stories of Djinns Sofia had read to Ezio in Acre – a burning spirit of power and misery.
"What chain – for what reason?" Ezio demands. "What is the purpose of all of this?"
Desmond bows his head. Juno is going to win, she is going to take over the world, enslave everyone – and I can't do anything to stop it because if I don't do this, then the world will burn and billions will die and I can't –
He trails of and shakes his head again, quicker, urgent. I'm so sorry, Ezio. This is so unfair for all of us, but I'm the sorriest for you. You tried so hard and you got so few answers and wasted so many years of your life serving a purpose that wasn't even yours. They just used you. I'm so sorry.
Ezio is tired. Tired of the half answers and mysteries and questions always going unanswered – he is tired of all the regret and loss and bitterness. He's tired of all of this.
"Then give me those years back!" he shouts, near senseless. "Give me all the time I wasted back! So many years I spent serving your purpose, not even knowing your will, and now you say it was for nothing? Give me back everything I lost, everything I sacrificed, and I will call myself satisfied being your Prophet."
Desmond looks at him, astonished, his eyes burning brighter.
That would fuck everything up, wouldn't it? he asks and looks down. Visibly, his resolve steels and he smiles, vicious. Oh yes, it would.
Ezio awakens both slower and faster than he is used to – his heart pounding in his chest and bleariness of confused dreams weighing his head down. He is on a bed, soft and comfortable, his head on a pillow, and there is a scent in the air that makes his eyes water and his throat ache. It smells like –
There is someone in the bed with him, a heavy weight pressing down on the mattress behind him and the duvet over him. Slowly, Ezio turns, careful with his neck – only it does not hurt, and neither does his back, or the shoulder he is putting weight on. His shoulder is bare, and the skin of it is smooth and firm and lacking blemishes in a way he scarcely remembers – and his chin, as it brushes against it, is hairless.
Atop his bedspreads lays a man, long-limbed and slim, lying still in slumber or in unconsciousness. His back is to Ezio, and he cannot tell his face – but he can see his hair, short cropped and familiar.
Slowly, Ezio rises to look around – and then quickly covers his mouth to stifle his gasp.
This room. This bed – he knows them. The desk, the chair, the clothes abandoned on top of it and spilling onto the floor, the curtains hanging above the bed frame, the window – how many times had he slipped out through it to avoid a scolding by his parents, how many times had he clambered in through it to circumvent his father at the Palazzo doors, how many –
It is his room, his first room, his childhood room – lost so long ago to history and to other occupants. Auditore Palazzo had been first claimed by the Pazzi after what remained of their family had to flee, then by the Medici once the Pazzi had but been slain. Later, Ezio stopped keeping track of who owned the place and who lived within it – by then, the memory was no longer an incessant pain, but an old scar, a bearable thing he was accustomed to, but which no longer caused him agony.
It smells like things he'd forgotten, that Ezio scarcely dares to name. Home, and safety, and family – Claudia's perfumes, and mother's cooking, and ink, and paper, and money…
Ezio closes his eyes and inhales, slow and shaking, his heart aching, scarcely daring to think it, never mind believe it.
But he feels it.
The lack of the twist in his stomach, where an old gut wound forever made its presence known. How his back feels like nothing at all, not a hint of strain or ache, not a single stiff muscle. His body feels like nothing at all. No crick in his neck, no stiffness of shoulders, no aching anywhere. When he touches his stomach, slow, there's nothing there – neither hair nor puckered scars. His skin is whole, unblemished – young. The hand pressing upon it feels scarcely calloused.
Ezio releases a breath slowly, smothering a disbelieving laugh.
Young. He feels young in a way he can barely remember.
There is sunlight screening through the curtains by the window, and Ezio turns to it, basking in the sensations – and the lack of others. Then, slowly, he turns to look at the other on his bed, lying loose and bare upon the duvet.
It cannot be anyone but Desmond himself, can it? And what a thing to behold – a god, unconscious, sleeping. If he even is a god. He looks very much like a man – a tall man, young and lean. The fires of divine power have died down, if they were ever here at all, and the only light upon him is the one of the sun itself, where it casts its rays upon Desmond's bare legs.
Slow, Ezio leans over him to get a better look at him – to see his face without the shine of divine power obscuring it. Desmond has turned his face to the pillow, which hides his features and makes it impossible for Ezio to tell if his eyes are still radiant with godly light – but Ezio can see the line of his jaw and cheek, the shape of his nose. It's… familiar.
As Ezio tries to put a finger to the familiarity and pin it down in his mind, the door to his room is thrown open.
"Ezio, good morning, get up – father has – work –"
Ezio looks up, slow, as the man sauntering into his room as though he owns it stalls beside the dresser to stare at him – and Desmond.
Ezio lifts his head slowly, feeling his eyes widen, his breath catch.
Lord above, he'd forgotten how his brother actually looked like. It had been so many years, so many decades – Federico had become a thing of distant painful past, and Ezio had first thought of him often, and then rarely, and then almost never. He'd never admitted it, though Claudia had, once, in the middle of night of pained drinking, not long after their mother had died, "I cannot recall what they looked like now, can you?" Ezio hadn't been able to answer then.
Federico looks like a stranger, almost, but also like something terribly dear.
"Oh my," Federico says, covering his mouth with his hand, his eyes shining, and quickly Ezio looks down at what he is looking at.
Desmond, lying bare before him, with Ezio leaning over him.
Ezio looks up sharply, his eyes widening further, and Federico's grin becomes more and more apparent the longer he looks. "Brother – " Ezio says, and saying it almost strangles him.
"Shh, shh," Federico says and quickly closes the door behind him. "Don't panic, Little Brother, your secret is safe with me – but god, what nerve! Bringing a man here, didn't think you had it in you, Ezio."
Ezio draws a breath and releases it, trying to think of how to proceed from here. Federico is on his side, he can tell right away – Federico would keep this secret, or whatever he thought this secret was. But Ezio cannot quite recall what Federico might do with such a secret. There had been teasing between them, they'd been playful with each other, he recalls that. Federico would make fun of him, no doubt. And Ezio isn't sure he can afford it.
"Brother, get out," Ezio says, hastily trying to push covers over Desmond, to hide him.
"Now, now, Ezio, I can't help you hide this if you send me away, now can I?" Federico asks and leans quickly to look. "Oh, very nice –"
"Federico," Ezio hisses, and it almost cuts at his throat to say. "Please, get out."
"Oh, please? Things must be serious indeed," Federico says, but some of his devilish mirth settles, and he holds up his hands in a sign of surrender. "Peace, Little Brother, I won't look. Who is he, then? I thought you only had eyes for Cristina."
Oh, Cristina. She too would be alive, now, wouldn't she, and not yet so far removed from him. And of course, thinking of her makes Ezio think of Sofia, whom he had left in Masyaf – in another time. Lord, she wouldn't even be born yet, would she –
Ezio pushes such thoughts aside as quick as he can, before they too can threaten to strangle his voice. He cannot become overcome by emotion and regret now, though so many vie for his attention. "Brother, Federico," he says, as steady as he can manage. "Please, leave us."
Federico hesitates, looking at him with actual concern and then clears his throat. "Can he scale the walls?" he asks pointedly. "Because if he can't, Brother, you will have a hard time sneaking him out of here. You will need help."
Ezio hesitates, glancing down at Desmond. He hasn't yet had the time to come to terms with being here, never mind coming up with what to do with the one who came with him. Hiding Desmond from sight would be a start, and hiding him from his family, yes… that seems a likely option, from Federico's view. He only sees a man, after all, bare upon Ezio's bed, and draws the easiest conclusions.
But Desmond might not be a man at all, and he might not be content with being hidden. And even if he was hidden, then what? What would he do, where would he go – what would he expect of Ezio, in return for this incredible gift he has given him?
Ezio hesitates, and Federico clears his throat, awkward. "I can make a distraction for you," he offers. "Keep Father and Mother and Claudia from seeing him."
Ezio draws a breath – and in that moment, they hear Mother calling, "Federico, Ezio, Claudia, Petruccio! Breakfast is ready!"
She's in the hall, and with a blink Ezio can see her through the wall – walking towards them.
Under Ezio's arm Desmond flinches, and Ezio makes a decision – launching himself up from the bed and, careless of his state of dress, pushing Federico by the shoulders back and towards the door. "You want to help me – distract her now," he says urgently. "Keep her out."
"Will do – but oh do you owe me, Little Brother," Federico says with a wild grin. "I want to hear all about this."
"Never," Ezio says firmly, opens the door, shoves his brother out, and then closes it behind him. Then, his heart racing, Ezio turns around, to look at the bed.
Desmond is sitting up slowly, blinking – his eyes dark and fully human. "What?" he asks, looking at him. "Ezio?"
"Yes," Ezio agrees, breathing deeply in and out and then putting a finger on his lips. "Shush."
Desmond stares at him confusedly, but stays silent as Ezio tilts his head towards the door, to listen. Outside, Federico is talking to mother, laughing, "Trust me, Mother, you don't even want to see – the state of him, it's appalling. Went to bed without a shred of clothing and then tripped out of it and fell flat on his face, it's ludicrous. Better give him a moment to pick up his pride from the floor…"
Ezio closes his eyes, his heart torn between pangs of nostalgia and pain and old brotherly annoyance. But, fun though he makes of it, Federico keeps their mother away, and with a laugh Maria goes to wake Claudia instead.
Ezio exhales and looks at Desmond, who is slowly, awkwardly, pulling the duvet over his bare waist. Ezio's eyes are drawn quickly over him, taking in an array of black marks on his left inner arm and the lightning scars upon his right, before he snaps his eyes up to Desmond's face. He looks flushed, embarrassed, it is a very human look on him, but he doesn't look angry – only confused.
Slowly, Ezio dares to leave the door and approach him – picking up his brache as he goes from the chair. "Thank you, my lord," Ezio whispers. "And apologies for the situation. I was not expecting this," he says, and quickly pulls the brache on, covering at least that much of himself. "But I thank you for this gift, sincerely."
Desmond blinks at him slowly and then looks around. "This is the Auditore Palazzo, then," he says softly. "It worked?"
"Aye. My Brother is over three decades dead, so… I daresay it did," Ezio says, approaching the bed and the man sitting upon it. "I did not expect you to join me, Desmond."
"I…" the man says, lowering his eyes. "I'm – sorry, I couldn't help myself," he admits then. "I didn't really want to die. And I would have, either way."
Ezio sits on the side of the bed, watching him. Desmond glances at him after a while and offers him a sheepish smile before shaking his head. "You're going to change the world, Ezio, that's a given," the man from another time says. "And it will undo my world. I won't ever be born, everything that happened to me, won't. So… I…" he shrugs, uncomfortable. "Sorry."
"I don't mind," Ezio says slowly. "And I understand. I only… I'm unsure as to what I can do for you here." He'd hoped to change the past, yes, but – this undoubtedly complicates things.
Desmond smiles wryly. "I wouldn't say no to some clothes," he offers.
"Ah," Ezio says, and quickly gets up. "Of course."
He digs through his dresser for hopefully clean clothing that might fit the man – he is markedly taller than Ezio, though, so they will all be undoubtedly too short. Desmond doesn't complain at all, however, accepting what Ezio hands him with a grateful nod and then giving the hose a slightly confused look.
"What is it?" Ezio asks, while finishing dressing himself, pulling on breeches over his hose and then pulling on a shirt.
"I've – never worn something like this," Desmond admits with a cough and quickly moves to pull them on, his motions awkward. "Clothing in my time is – different."
His time, hm? "Put the brache on first," Ezio instructs him before he gets too far. "The white one – that one. Hose go over it, and breeches over that."
"Thanks," Desmond says, coughing, and does as ordered. The hose are too small on him, and fit very tightly over his calves, but they don't split at least – and breeches are a worse fit still. The shirt at least doesn't seem too small on him, though the man looks a little awkward.
"I don't think my doublets will fit you," Ezio says apologetically – they're tailored to him. "A vest perhaps?"
"Thank you," Desmond says with a sigh, accepting the cloth and pulling it on – it only barely buttons up at the bottom. He coughs awkwardly and looks at Ezio. "Um, now what?"
Ezio doesn't know. What he wants to do is step outside, see his family as it was in a long lost memory and bask in their existence and happiness for at least one stolen moment – and then set out to change the past, the best he could. He needs to find out the date, the year and then investigate the Pazzi, perhaps kill Uberto Alberti before he can cause any damage, unearth the conspiracy before it had a chance of coming to fruition.
But what of Desmond, in the meanwhile?
Ezio tugs at the lapels of his doublet, a little unused to wearing such things, and then steps forward. "Whatever you want to do, my lord, I will help you in any way I can," he offers. "You have given me a gift greater than I daresay I even know yet – anything I can do for you, I will."
Desmond looks at him silently for a moment, his expression one of mixed emotion and regret. "I don't know," he admits quietly. "I don't know what I want. I just want to live."
"Then I will make sure you can do so happily," Ezio promises. "Though it might take me some time to get in a position where I can, I will make sure it happens."
The man in front of him lets out an amused huff at that and shakes his head. "I have no doubt you could," he agrees and stands up. "I guess I have to go and hide somewhere now," he says and looks away, at the window. "One of the Assassin tombs maybe, no one even knows where they are, I could hide there."
Ezio nods slowly, eyeing him warily. He'd thought something similar himself, but now that it's been voiced… "If you think it necessary," he agrees. And if he can get to them…
Desmond shrugs. "It's fine," he says. "I'm used to hiding."
"Hm," Ezio answers, considering him and the hint of regret in his eyes. "Or I could introduce you to my family as a friend in need," he offers. "There is space for you here. My parents will understand."
Desmond hesitates at that, so obviously tempted by the offer that Ezio makes up his mind there and then. "Come," he says, and holds out his hand. "I will introduce you as a friend, if that pleases you – and should my family not offer you hospitality, then we can think of something else."
"You sure that's a good idea?" Desmond asks hesitantly, but takes his hand.
Not at all, Ezio muses. "We will hardly know, unless we try," he offers. And honestly, he would not leave this man to wander the streets of Firenze by himself, when he doesn't even know how to properly dress himself in the time. Who knows what abilities and powers Desmond has.
Better to keep him close, for now.