"Come on, Desmond, let's see what you can remember."
The voice was like a splash of chill water, a waking from a pleasant dream. Desmond groaned inwardly as the calm landscape within the Animus began to fade, the buildings and seas of Forli shattering slowly into vague colors and cold lines of light. Ezio, having just boarded the ship to Venice, looked back a little distractedly as if to watch his descendant reluctantly slip away from the scene.
Desmond shifted his arm out of the device's mechanism as the warehouse hideout rematerialized around him, feeling a slight itch as he pulled the needle free from his skin. Lucy was standing over him, a half-smile upon her face, her eyes betraying both light-heartedness and caution.
Perhaps she herself didn't realize it, but Desmond could remember that expression from since he had been incarcerated in Abstergo, that face that both attempted to hearten him, yet remained wary of his reactions. Back then, the memories of danger and blades had not always receded so quickly, and she had apparently not forgotten the consequences.
Defensively, he told himself that his instability during those first weeks had been understandable. He had been alone then, but no longer. Though, perhaps, he did occasionally miss the silence.
"You needed a woman's help to gain passage on a ship? I thought you were an Assassin, how could you be so easily stopped by a mere captain?"
Desmond heard the dry comment from by his left shoulder and he sighed, long used to the bickering he knew would follow. The voice was harsh and heavily accented, but the English was passable, Desmond's own language apparently being the only means of communication between the two foreigners. The sharp reply came as he followed Lucy down to the warehouse storeroom, the lilting tone indignant.
"I didn't really need it, I was just being a gentleman. It was only coincidence that she gave me free passage for helping her - not that you'd know anything about sea travel, codardo."
"Guys, stop it, please," Desmond murmured under his breath, half-glancing back at the figures trailing about a pace behind him, hooded faces turned towards each other.
"Sorry?" Lucy asked in confusion, evidently wondering whom he was talking to. At this, he caught himself. None of the others could know what he was going through, especially her. God, how would she feel if he told her the truth, how much he had suffered at the hands of the Bleeding before he had finally found a way to cope? Sixteen had been enough.
"No, it's nothing," he quickly responded, his voice a little overly loud in his attempt to speak over the Masyaf Assassin's heated answer.
"I am not afraid of the sea just because I cannot swim," Altair snapped back, bristling.
"Of course, of course, which is why you never bothered trying to learn," Ezio replied calmly, a mocking smirk at his lips.
Desmond dully tuned them out at this point, his thoughts turning inwards instead. He remembered that the others had once told him not to fear following in the footsteps of his predecessor, had assured him that the Bleeding would not hound him as long as they were careful, as long as he remained alert. Silently, he scoffed to himself. They were wrong of course, but that was not surprising.
"-skills, and switch all of them on," Lucy finished, and Desmond jumped a little when he realized that she had been speaking to him for the past few seconds, and he had barely heard a word of it.
Catching his rather blank expression, she frowned and asked sincerely, "Are you ready for this, Desmond? We don't need to try it if you're not up to it. I understand if you're feeling tired."
"No, I'm ready, really," he said, forcing a smile despite seeing that she did not believe his mask.
"Well, if you say so," she said with a shrug. "Go ahead and turn on all the security protocols then, I'm sure finding them shouldn't be a problem."
Desmond turned obediently and took several steps into the warehouse storeroom, looking over the towering shelves and mountains of stacked boxes, and realizing that he felt somewhat at a loss. Before he could say anything, however, his Syrian ancestor impatiently cut into his thoughts.
"You need to go to those devices on the walls, correct? There's one above you, on your left," Altair said with openly patronizing calm, indicating it with a pointed glance.
He followed his gaze, catching sight of the flashing red LED of the security system high above, and feeling a slight chill of vertigo at the impending height and narrow walkway he would need to traverse. He approached the stack of crates leading up to it, but even as he hesitantly placed a hand upon one of them, Ezio was abruptly at his side, climbing past him without hesitation.
"Pay attention, just do exactly as I do," he called back to him lightly, evidently enjoying himself.
Desmond pulled in a rather shaky breath before he began to follow, honestly surprised on how easy it was to mimic the other's movements. It was how he was trained, he supposed, picking up skills on the wing, in the field, where his teachers ran ahead and all he could do was keep up. He could still hear his brother's light taunts at those times, Federico's tone always teasing whenever he slipped from the red tiles of the roofs and nearly tumbled gracelessly to the-
No. Shit, he was slipping. That wasn't his life that was Ezio's.
"Your brother... do you miss him?" Desmond asked quietly, almost blurting the question out of his desperation to hear some evidence of his separation from his ancestor's life, his sense of independent self. Ezio paused and Altair, who had climbed ahead of both of them and was waiting perched on one of the warehouse rafters, glanced down and appeared to be listening as well.
"Yes. Sometimes," the Assassin replied off-handedly, his tone nonchalant, but noticeably subdued. Desmond bit his lip as he watched Ezio continue to climb without another word, a little guilty to remind him, to impose the pained feelings onto him instead. It was necessary though, he told himself firmly. There was no way he would be able to handle it alone. It made him nervous just to think of attempting to take on the weight of both of the lives he had been observing, lives so soaked in blood and death.
Admittedly, it did occasionally cross his mind if this channeling, this siphoning of blood, was much better than simply attempting to completely suppress the Bleeding effect. He toyed with the thought briefly, but simply concluded that his method of coping was simply the lesser of two evils. Besides, it gave him such relief to pretend that the lapses in concentration, the afterimages he kept seeing, were happening to someone else, and not to him.
The others probably would not approve, but they didn't need to know.
Thus, he continued, listening carefully to Altair's calls from overhead as he directed both him and Ezio to every security panel in turn, with the Florentine Assassin escorting him to each with a somewhat amused air, apparently silently forgiving him for his earlier comment. However, these movements, so alike to those of his ancestors, set a significant strain against the semblance of order Desmond had erected in his mind, blurring the barriers he had put such effort into maintaining.
Ghost-like visions began to flicker across his sight, a woman carrying a jar, a group of thieves racing each other over the dangling scaffolding, a single phantom eagle circling the warehouse's fluorescent lights. Each time he saw one, he quickly pretended that it was simply a topic of conversation, with either of his ancestors commenting on them and expressing their opinions on each. He listened patiently to Ezio's recall of the differences of courtesans in Forli and in Florence, Altair's expression of distaste at the cloying attention of beggars. The "visions" were only called up by their words, nothing more.
He supposed this pretense, this imposition on imaginary figures, was somewhat cowardly, but he did not care. He did not voice it, but he was afraid, fearing losing his memory of self, as Sixteen had. Sixteen had not even been able to tell him his name.
"Desmond, can I talk to you about something?" Lucy asked a little hesitantly, calling up towards the roof of the warehouse. Desmond hastily looked away from his ancestors who were balanced on the rafters on either side of him, hissing at them to be quiet so he could hear her far below them.
"Yeah, what is it?" he answered a little distractedly, flipping the switch of the final control panel on the high wall of the warehouse.
"Come down here first," she said with a slightly strained laugh, waving him down. "Don't expect me to shout up to you for it."
Obligingly, Desmond grinned and moved towards the nearby ladder, but Altair interrupted him calmly, "Jump."
"Jump? What, are you insane? I'll break a leg," he shot back incredulously after a breath's pause, almost forgetting to keep his voice down.
"You won't learn unless you attempt it," the Masyaf Assassin pressed assuredly, his gaze steady as he met Desmond's eyes.
"Not to mention you're keeping the lady waiting," Ezio was quick to add, offering a light pat on the shoulder.
Desmond glanced down at the three-storey drop with a trickle of dread, but also a morbid curiosity; watching a little vacantly as the other two slipped past him and easily made the leap, each slowing their momentum by catching hold of one of the low-hanging ceiling lights. He sighed and shook his head, vaulting over the walkway railing and following them without a second thought.
"What are you-? Wait! Desmond-!"
Even as he reached for the long, hanging fluorescent, he already knew something was wrong. The confusion was sharp, his instincts slow to react as the electric light gave way, the wires snapping with tension and electricity, and the aluminum backing crumpling from his weight. As he hung in the air for a split moment, he wondered, aghast, why the structure had not held him, had not supported him as it had his ancestors. God, of course… Altair and Ezio weren't really…
Desmond grunted as he hit the warehouse floor, landing on his back amidst a tangle of metal and glass. However, the pain was distant, his mind still whirling in an effort to right itself, and make sense of his situation.
"Are you all right?" Lucy cried from somewhere beside him, and, blearily, he felt her hands about the sleeve of his torn jacket, dragging him a distance across the floor, and away from the sparking wires and jagged shards.
"I'm fine, Lucy, stop asking me," he snapped unsteadily, pulling free and wincing at the ache in his back and the minor lacerations he had suffered.
"No, you're not!" Her tone was suddenly, equally harsh, startling him. "Stop lying, Desmond, don't think the rest of us are blind enough to not realize what you've been going through!"
Desmond stared at her, abruptly at a loss.
Lucy gave a frustrated sigh, falling to a crouch on the floor next to him, a hand to her forehead. "This is what I wanted to talk to you about. God, I should have said something sooner." She paused uneasily, staring at him with a look of pity, which confused him. "A few days ago, I heard you talking to yourself in your room—no, not really yourself, but to other people, as if you thought someone was there with you."
"That was…" Desmond faltered, and suddenly found himself indignant, angry at the prying, feeling within him the flare of an impetuous eagle. "It's none of your business, Lucy," he said severely, his voice rising unknowingly into a shout as he stood. "How I deal with this is my problem. So what if I talk to myself sometimes? It's not like I'm emptying my veins to paint symbols on the walls!"
"Desmond, don't even joke about that."
"It's not a joke. It's a real possibility, you know it, I know it! If talking to myself helps me stay sane, then why should you care? There is no fucking way I'm going to let myself end up like Sixteen!"
"You don't understand, that's not what's wrong here," Lucy responded firmly as she climbed to her feet as well, her brow knitted as she seemed to weather his temper with difficulty. "It's not that you talk to yourself, it's that you seem to think that Altair and Ezio are able to answer you! They're your ancestors, Desmond, they've been dead for hundreds of years-"
"Don't you think I know that?" he challenged, his hands clenched into fists. "It's just how I cope, that's it. I know that this isn't… that they aren't real."
"Really?" Her tone was dead, disbelieving. "Then why did you nearly kill yourself just now? That isn't like you, Desmond, too proud, too brash. More like them, than you."
"Don't pretend to know me."
"There, see, even your attitude is changing," she shot back. "This isn't any way to live, Desmond. You can't just ignore a problem, and impose it on people who aren't actually there."
"What, would you rather I lose my mind?" he questioned quietly, his eyes averted and his tone suddenly writhing with subdued anger. "Would you rather I forget who I am, make me feel shame for a failure I never committed, make me cry for a father I never lost?"
"I know it'll be hard, but it's the only way," Lucy implored, trying to meet Desmond's clouded gaze. "You'll only encourage the Bleeding the way you're handling it now, and soon it'll be too much for you to control."
"I need to go back in the Animus."
"Things are so much simpler there," he said impatiently, running a hand through his hair and still refusing to meet her eyes. "Just one life, one self. I just… I just need to sort myself out, okay?"
"Fine, if you really think it'll help you," Lucy agreed after a pause, though her voice betrayed doubt. Desmond walked off without another word, rubbing absently at the slightly bleeding cuts on his arms.
"You should have those treated," Ezio commented lightly, speaking up from at his side. "Infection might set in."
"I don't want to hear anything from either of you two right now," he snarled in response, controlling his agitated steps with difficulty as he climbed back up to the main room of the hideout.
Anger only met anger, and Altair cut in hotly, "Don't blame us for your lack of skill. You should learn to respect your betters, we didn't need to help you."
"I said shut up," Desmond hissed exasperatedly, whirling on the spot and meeting the Assassin's equally heated glare. "I'm sorry, I really am, but for once, please just listen to me, and give me a little peace-" He stopped mid-sentence, suddenly noticing Lucy meeting his eyes levelly, her frown worried. He swiftly turned and hurried ahead in silence, dodging the reproachful gaze.
Neither Shaun nor Rebecca paid him much attention as he sat at the Animus again, their minds evidently elsewhere. Rebecca hooked him up to the machine with a mechanical air, only sparing him a slight smile as she skillfully inserted the needle into his hand, before turning back to her screen. Desmond leaned back and closed his eyes, almost immediately calmed by the flat, digital landscape of the loading screen.
Nearby, Ezio and Altair conversed in quiet tones, agreeably not speaking to him as per his request, but casting sidelong glances in his direction as he paced the empty screen. Desmond thought little of it at first, however, though he continued to will it to appear, the expected buildings of Venice refused to solidify around him, leaving him standing in space and silence. Confused, he began to attempt to disengage himself from the machine, when the somewhat warbled voice of Lucy sounded into the virtual space.
"Desmond, don't panic, all right? We're just worried about you, you'll only feel a slight jarring."
"What? What are you talking about?" he asked into the air, adrenaline rising with sudden confusion.
At the panic in his tone, the two Assassins approached him, abruptly guarded and cautious, and perhaps a little protective. "What is it?" Altair questioned levelly, glancing first at him then skywards, likely in a search for the source of Lucy's voice.
"I don't know, I just…"
"It's only the medication, a dose of chlorpromazine. Rebecca siphoned it into the Animus jack while we were outside. It'll help you stay focused, that's all."
"You… you're drugging me?" Desmond cried out incredulously, rather involuntarily looking towards his ancestors, and seeking the assurance of their presence. However, they had vanished, both of them, leaving him blatantly alone in the gray void.
"Altair? Ezio?" His voice was broken, and unnaturally feeble.
"Stay with us, Desmond, they're not really there, remember? Focus on the present, think of us, not them." Lucy's calming ramble had little effect on his nerves, and he found that he could barely breathe.
His consciousness faltered, body and mind trembling, failing as he attempted to gather himself and hold onto his identity. But… God, there was too much, too many flashes of memory, the fragments of lives scattered behind his eyes. He could see everything, everywhere, across the years, so many, all at once - the fortress, the villa, a crowd of guards, flashing blades, the skies, he was flying, almost weightless, on a machine of wooden wings…
A name, so foreign to him now. He only vaguely realized that he was on the ground, blanked eyes staring straight up, straight down, into nothing and everything.
"Shit - that's it, get him out of there, now!"
A hand was suddenly under his head, propping him up and shaking him gently as if to rouse him. Through a darkening vision, he saw a hooded face, concerned brown eyes so similar to his own meeting his gaze, the scarred lips moving, though no sound could be heard. There was another figure in the background, rigid and watching, surveying them both as if a raptor from its aerie. He did not know them, did not know if he was them, if they were him.
There were words, he knew, but he did not hear them.