The noise of the glass shattering as it hits the floor is one that will haunt Shaun for a while.
Lucy springs to action with a brush and dustpan and soothing words to the grown man who can’t seem to operate a drinking glass. He’ll have none of it, and he bolts. At the door, he stops, turns, and pauses like he can’t remember how to speak; anger, fear in his eyes.
Then he finds the words, sorts out the language and tells the silent room, “I am still human.” The implication of impermanence in the statement is definitely not lost on Shaun.
Shaun knows he will find Desmond later in the highest corner of the warehouse, where it’s freezing cold and metallic and damp and nothing at all like Italy or Jerusalem, where nobody can reach him. Nobody can make him come down; nobody can make him plug in and download a new skill like a fucking USB memory stick, nobody can make him process memories like the fucking computer he’s got rammed up his arm. It is the place where Desmond is in control. Desmond hasn’t said it, but Shaun knows he’s terrified of losing even that space, too.
Shaun doesn’t watch all of this, but he hears it, and he doesn’t have to look over because it has happened before. And his typing halts and he puts his face in his hands because it will happen again. Maybe not a glass, maybe the fly of his pants, the little metal teeth utterly foreign to Altaïr. Maybe it will be the strange coldness pouring out of the refrigerator that will have Ezio planted in front of it with the door wide open, exploring any mechanism of it he can find. Or a lightswitch. Or any number of little things that Desmond will suddenly forget, like asking for a quill to write something and being confused for half a second when he is handed a pencil.
Everyone in the little group knows what the Bleeding Effect is. It really tends to throw a wrench in the gears of group morale to know that one of their own is slowly but surely losing his shit, and that to stop it and try to save him would be to end their mission of saving the world.
Lucy had once compared the Bleeding Effect to multiple personality or delusional disorders. Shaun feels he could safely throw in a dash of the Alzheimer’s he’d seen in his mother’s father. Memory problems. Walking into rooms as one person, forgetting why he was there as another. Losing his crap in stupid places. A veritable cocktail of problems, all mixed together in the shaker of Desmond’s head. A fitting analogy, Shaun thinks humorlessly.
The other night, at about two in the morning, Desmond had lined up all the glasses, booze and juice in the hideout and set to work mixing every drink he could think of with the ingredients. Not for himself or any sort of celebration, but because it was something that Desmond did. That Desmond knew how to do, that Desmond wouldn’t have to worry about being a leftover habit from Ezio’s party spirit. (Ezio never bothered with mixing his alcohol before it went down, for one.)
Shaun once heard on the radio that instead of trying to bring people with dementia into the present, it was better for both parties to let them stay in the reality they knew. But Shaun can’t bring himself to apply the logic here because almost eighty percent of the time—and the number is dropping, slowly, surely—Desmond is lucid and in the moment and he hasn’t been himself in a while but he’s still rightly Desmond, in 2012, the bartender. To pretend he’s not would be a slap in the face.
Over time, Desmond had quit pestering Shaun; quit finding entertainment in the back-and-forth banter that resulted. It was annoying as hell and Shaun could never focus properly while he was at it, but Shaun would take it all day every day if it meant Desmond was okay.
He’d quit reading, too, and Shaun knows it was because he had to reread a passage two or three times to figure out what language it was in. He now lives in the Animus, asleep, or up in that corner. There isn’t a whole lot else to do, holed up as he is. He doesn’t even argue in favor of going outside anymore because he knows just as well as anyone that if he switched when he was out there alone, he might never find his way back.
It is killing Desmond.
And it is killing Shaun.
For the former, however, it is probably a bit more literal.
Rebecca stands up and leaves the room. “I need a break,” she says. Lucy doesn’t argue. They all do. Do they have the time? No. But Becca is most useful with Desmond wired up, and he’s the one who needs the time off more than anybody.
Shaun can’t focus. Despite his knack for connecting and deducing, he can’t think straight. He hasn’t been sleeping well, either. He was the one that heard Desmond clinking about in the kitchen that one morning and had gone to check and see that he wasn’t decorating the walls in his own blood.
“Want anything?” the American had asked.
“It’s two in the morning.”
Shaun had pulled up a chair at the little table, resting his elbow on the surface. He ran a hand through his bedhead and sighed heavily. “Red wine. Please.”
“Coming right atcha.”
They had sat mostly in silence after that, Shaun sipping his wine and Desmond quietly counting shots of this and that.
Eventually Desmond fell silent, and folded his arms and put his head down. By the time Shaun had noticed, he was sound asleep. Good on him, he thought. Sorry bloke needs it. He cleared the counter of the bottles and took Desmond’s hoodie from the back of his chair, draping it over the man’s shoulders like a blanket. He let his hand rest on the man’s shoulder, felt It move slightly as he breathed. Desmond stirred.
“What the fuck are you doing?” He blinked up at Shaun in the half-light.
“No need to thank me, sleeping beauty.” Shaun put his glass in the sink and filled it with water. He’ll wash it later.
Desmond was just about back asleep right where he was when he muttered, “Grazie.” Shaun pretended not to hear as he headed back towards his own room.
Somebody should probably go check on Desmond. It’s been twenty minutes. Shaun thinks. He tells Lucy, “I’m going to go check on him.” She waves him towards the warehouse. Now that he’s said it, he actually has to follow through.
The warehouse feels lifeless as Shaun walks through it, each step echoing. He doesn’t know how to get to Desmond’s spot, but he knows how to get closer than either of the women. And so he does, scraping his hand on a jagged edge of metal and cursing it. Desmond couldn’t have not heard him coming. So much for Assassin stealth.
Desmond is staring at him from his perch on an air duct when he reaches the top of some scaffolding, panting.
“Why are you here?” Desmond asks.
Shaun doesn’t answer immediately. “Came to check on you.”
“Well, I’m not painting the walls yet, guess I’m fine.”
“No, Desmond, you’re not.”
This time, it is Desmond who thinks about his words. “Think I haven’t noticed? Don’t even know what the fuck was wrong with me back there either; glasses aren’t exactly the newest innovation. I was holding it, and then… I wasn’t holding it anymore and Lucy was talking to me like I was a goddamned four year old.” He sneers, and gestures to his head. “I’m still in here, you know.”
I know, Shaun wants to say. But he doesn’t, not really. He doesn’t know what the Bleeding Effect feels like. He probably never will. He stays silent. Maybe that’s why Lucy is so adamant about his staying out of the Animus.
The next things Desmond says are in Arabic, and it hits Shaun like a kick in the stomach. Eighty percent lucidity is harder and harder to justify. Seventy-five, if he’s being liberal.
It’s almost as if the man across the gap heard his thoughts. “I am not a number, Shaun!” he asserts. “Seventeen—no.” He shakes his head. “Desmond.” He tells the air duct.
Shaun needs to make sure that after he’s gone, Desmond Miles’ name will still be used to refer to him. He won’t be another Sixteen. If he can’t be afforded sanity, dignity is certainly still within their means. He’s owed that, for the price he’s paying now.
“You can stop, you know.” Even as he says it, he knows it isn’t true. Desmond has the option of trading his mind for a shot at saving the world. That’s not a real choice.
“No, I can’t.”
The two men are silent for a couple more moments. “Do you have a bucket list, Desmond?”
“Yeah, yeah I do.” He replies cautiously. “It’s more of a marbles list, though. Things to do before I’ve lost them all, that is.”
“Anything on it I can help with?” What can you offer a healthy young man who knows his days are probably numbered?
“Just because I’m sick doesn’t mean I want your pity,” Desmond spits.
“Well then, do you fancy a beer or something?” Lucy doesn’t want Desmond to drink, and Shaun knows he does anyways, to forget and also to prove that not everything in his life revolves around the damned Bleeding Effect.
Desmond lies down on his back, feet dangling off the sides, reveling in the fact that if he rolled over, it would all end. “Something stronger. I’ll even come down to get it. I’m not so stupid that I’d get smashed this high in the air.”
Getting smashed wasn’t what Shaun had intended by the gesture, but it probably wasn’t what Desmond had in mind, either. Altair was bloody unpredictable when inebriated, and with each drink Shaun seemed to look more and more like a Templar—or Malik, depending on his mood. God knows Desmond needs another part of his identity to question.
Shaun carefully starts his descent, and Desmond waits a couple minutes before making the leap to the same structure. So that’s how he does it.
They reach the floor at just about the same time, and make their way back through the crates together. Shaun walks him to the kitchen and leans on the doorway as Desmond retrieves a bottle that he opened the other night.
“If you want to get out of here and run about outside a little while, I’d babysit you so Lucy’d let you.” Shaun blurts. They don’t have time for half the team to go muck about. But there’s got to be something Shaun can do. It’s not in his nature to think otherwise. If it were, he’d be in the wrong line of work. You can’t be tactical support for Assassins without there always being another Plan B.
Desmond takes a swig straight from the clear bottle and wipes his mouth on his sleeve, staring into the sink. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. But not if you’re drunk.”
“I wouldn’t be wasting your precious time?”
You’ve got less time to waste than I, mate. “So long as you don’t kill yourself.”
Desmond slowly replaces the stopper and sets the container down. “I can do that.”
To his surprise Lucy almost immediately agreed. She didn’t want to make Shaun spell out why. He walks back to the kitchen, where Desmond hasn’t moved. He’s smiling, and he almost looks like the happy-go-lucky American bloke Lucy’d saved from execution at Abstergo. Shaun suddenly realizes just how much they have in common.
“What’re you staring at? What’d Lucy say?”
“Twenty minutes. Could be longer if it was just you, but I really should get back to work.” After the first two words Desmond is running and Shaun certainly can’t keep up, and by the time he makes it outside, Desmond is twenty feet up the side of the building. What was it with him and heights? Then, like Ezio between buildings, he launches himself off the wall to a tree. What is he, a tiny child on a playset?
As Shaun watches, Desmond is surprised at just how different a tree and a façade are, and he misses, managing to slow his fall with branches but ending up on his arse nonetheless. Not even five minutes and you’ve already set out to break your spine. He doesn’t get up immediately, and it’s Shaun’s job now to make sure he survives this little excursion, so he saunters over.
Desmond sees him coming, however, and springs up and darts off through the trees, and Shaun shrugs and leans against one. This is why he brought a book.
A little alarm on his watch pings to let Shaun know it’s time to round up his charge and corral him back into the warehouse. “All right, Desmond.” he calls. There is no response. It’s been a couple minutes since he heard anybody, either. “Time to come inside. Here, boy.”
There’s a rustle in the branches above him, giving Shaun warning to the hundred and seventy pounds of Desmond Miles that decided ambushing him was a good idea. He is ready and Desmond ends up pinned to the dirt, smirking up at him with a grin entirely not his own. Shit!
Caught off guard by Italian words, Shaun is easily thrown off and it’s Ezio staring down at him now. “Desmond?” There’s a flicker of recognition on the brunet’s face, but it soon passes to something a little more malicious. Who does he see? Templar or… someone else? “Desmond. I’m Shaun Hastings. I’m not Italian, I’m not a Templar, the year is twenty twel—fuck.” He doesn’t comprehend anything but the word ‘templar’.
Desmond goes from smirking to looking confused, angry, and Italian. A bad combination, especially in this position. This was not a good day for Desmond. Couldn’t the man be allowed twenty bloody minutes in his right state of mind? He raises an arm and flexes his wrist. Good fucking thing the blade is inside. Shaun flinches.
Desmond—or Ezio, or whoever he is right now—seems to notice the missing weight, and he’s still sitting on Shaun as he examines his left forearm with his other hand, tracing the outline of where the blade should be. “Yes, the blade’s not there. Will you please get off of me now, you great oaf?”
To Shaun’s surprise, the other man does just that, after a pause, awkwardly scrambling off to the side. “Is that really you, Miles?”
“Shit, Shaun, I’m sorry. Are you okay? Ah, shit.”
“Slightly dusty, but otherwise intact, this time.”
“What, again, made it a good idea to tackle me?”
“I dunno, get you a little dusty.” A corner of his moth twitched. “Two hours of sleep? Hair perfectly gelled. I was sorta trying to shake that off of you.”
“My hair gel?”
“The way you’re so fucking together all the damn time when I’m trying to figure out which side of my jeans my ass goes in.”
“Well, you are an ass so it doesn’t much matter, does it?”
“Yeah, well… screw you.” It’s a lame jab.
Shaun rises and brushes as many twigs as he can off of his coat and checks his watch. “If you ever want to be allowed out of the Animus room again we’d best be heading in five minutes ago.”
“Time to go do what I do best, eh?”
Shaun doesn’t respond to that, and they start walking back. For once, he can’t think of a Plan B. Can’t think of a better way to do this. And he looks over at the younger man, who looks like he’s readying for battle, almost nervously fingering the sleeve of his right arm. The one he never rolls up outside the Animus anymore, no matter the temperature. The one that the Animus plugs into, shown off for all the world when he’s under.
Shaun silently watches Desmond stare holes into the pillar as Becca hooks him up again. Not a minute later, he’s back five hundred years.