This starts about five minutes after the end of Fostering Relationships, so if you haven't read that, you probably should.
Altair stumbles and falls back against the stone wall, eyes shut tight and chest heaving as he pants for air. Using the apple is difficult, impossibly difficult, and Altair realizes abruptly that speaking to Desmond was too much, too soon. He's only had the apple for all of about an hour. He's tired, mentally and physically, and not at all ready for the chaos that will be sure to follow.
For just one second, he allows himself to make a stupid wish, because there was exactly one time in his life when Altair truly felt safe. When there was no need to prove himself or push until he was the best.
He'd been four years old at the time.
Altair has never regretted his return to Masyaf from New York. This place is his home, and the others in the brotherhood are his family. Desmond has never been anything but a long faded memory, until today. And then, when he thought he'd lost everything to Al Mualim's betrayal, the memory had come rushing abruptly back from some long forgotten corner of his brain.
Altair knows now that he shouldn't have used the apple to talk to Desmond, but it's too late. And now that the memory is in the forefront of his mind, he can't force it away again. And for only a moment, he can't keep himself from wishing he was four years old again, and back in a time when he felt safe. It's only for a second, but it's a wish he makes with all the strength he has, and he's still holding the apple in one hand.
That's his mistake.
October 30, 2012
Desmond wakes in the back of a van, feeling better than he has since the day he was first kidnapped by Abstergo. There's a sense of closure now that was missing before, and he legitimately feels like an enormous weight has been lifted off his shoulders. Whatever happens next will be something he can handle.
Shaun and Rebecca notice the change immediately, although he can tell by the startled looks they keep giving each other that they don't understand. Maybe they hadn't seen the conversation between himself and Altair in the animus. Maybe it hadn't even happened. At this point, Desmond isn't ready to ignore the possibility that it was all in his head, but he's decided this is good enough for now.
Not even the unexpected presence of William Miles can ruin this moment. He's there with them, cold and distant as Desmond remembers from his childhood at the Farm, but Desmond barely even notices.
He and Shaun take the first load of supplies into the temple together, carrying the load between them. Rebecca follows, lugging a box of her own, while Bill stays by the van to make sure the area is safe. It's a beautiful day out, one of those early fall days where the cold feels refreshing instead of bitter, and the work goes quickly.
When they get back to surface level, though, something is different. Desmond is actually within sight of the van when he realizes someone's in the van with William. There's a sound that could almost be laughter and Desmond suddenly feels something small and forceful crash into his legs. A pair of tiny arms wrap themselves around him and it's all he can do to keep from falling over.
He glances down and feels all the breath go out of him because there's Altair in front of him, looking exactly the way he had on the day Desmond had been kidnapped by Abstergo. Except that's impossible in a thousand different ways, and it's impossible to keep himself from scrambling uselessly for answers that aren't there.
Then his brain shuts down and instinct kicks in. He kneels down and wraps his arms around Altair in return. For a long moment they stay like that, ignoring the other three, until finally Desmond draws away slightly. He studies Altair with a critical eye, although he's not quite sure what he's looking for. At first glance, Altair had seemed exactly the same as in Desmond's memory, right down to the purple gym shoes he'd worn everywhere.
But now that he's looking more closely, he can see the small differences. There's a scar on Altair's face that Desmond knows from the animus but not from his own memories, and his eyes are sad in a way that doesn't look right in a child's face. Desmond frowns at him, then gently grabs hold of his hand and examines it- four fingers. The middle one is missing.
"What happened to you?" Desmond asks.
Altair doesn't answer, just holds up his other hand, the one Desmond isn't holding. His fingers are gripped tight around a cold metal sphere that Desmond knows all too well- an apple. "Sorry," Altair whispers. "I didn't mean to."
"It's okay," Desmond says, even though it isn't, even though he has no idea what's going on here. He can make a guess- Altair's missing finger, the scar on his face, even the weary look in his eyes all tell Desmond that something strange is going on here. It's as if the apple has shrunk Altair's adult body, giving him a second chance at youth. The only question is what's happened to his mind.
"Desmond?" He looks up to see his father frowning down at the pair of them. For once, however, the frown is one of confusion rather than displeasure. "What's going on here?"
"I-" There are all sorts of possible answers to that question, but Desmond doesn't much want to tell the truth. He knows that he should, if for no other reason than this being assassin business. Had Altair reappeared as an adult instead of a child, Desmond would not have hesitated. Possibly a little, just to spite his father, but he would have said something in the end. This situation is different though, because if Altair's mind has gone back to being as childlike as his body, then Desmond's most important job is to protect him from anyone that might want to use him for their own purposes. And that includes his father.
"He's my son," Desmond lies, and it's not hard to sound convincing. For several weeks after Altair first showed up in his apartment, their similar appearances had led Desmond to think he was Altair's father.
Altair looks up at him and frowns, and Shaun starts to say something from behind Desmond, but then doesn't. Of course everyone else- everyone other than Bill- knows that Altair is Desmond's ancestor and not his son. No one says anything, though. Later, Desmond knows there will be words, but that's definitely not a conversation for right now.
"Your son," Bill repeats, in a voice like he can't quite believe it. "What's he doing here?"
"I have no idea," Desmond says, which is at least the truth. "The last time I saw him was in the city, the day Abstergo took me."
"He can't stay here," Bill says.
Desmond frowns. "He can't go anywhere else."
"This is no place for a child," Bill snaps. "This is no life for a child."
Desmond stares at him, suddenly angry. It takes him a few seconds to get himself enough under control to answer calmly. "It was a good enough life for me when I was a kid, apparently," he says. "You never cared-"
"And you left," Bill snaps. "Nine years, and none of us knew if you were alive or dead."
"Not to interrupt the, ah- family reunion," Shaun interrupts, "But we're just a bit exposed up here. Can we maybe just relocate and do this later?"
"Yes," Bill says, and moves back toward the temple with Rebecca and Shaun, carrying the last of the supplies. That gives Desmond a few minutes alone with Altair, but only a few. As soon as the others are out of sight, Desmond turns on Altair.
"Tell me what you're doing here," he tells him. "Now."
Altair frowns, and studies the ground like the dirt and rocks are suddenly fascinating. "You're mad," he says.
"No," Desmond says. "But I really need to know."
Desmond looks down at the apple in his hand, and sees Altair flinch slightly. "Was it this?" he asks. "Do you remember?"
"Yea…" Altair looks up, finally meeting Desmond's eyes. "I just wanted to come back," he says. "Don't send me away."
He looks like he might be about to cry, and Desmond realizes at once that he has no choice. He can't return Altair to his own time and place, and he can't help him back to the right age, either. "I won't send you away," he promises. "But you have to make me a promise, okay?"
Altair nods, looking serious. "What?"
"You can't tell anyone where you come from," Desmond says. "Alright? That's really important." Shaun and Rebecca already know, but Bill doesn't, and Desmond understands how his father works. If he knew that this Altair is the same as the Altair from the past, he will do everything he can to use that knowledge. And he'll use Altair, too.
Desmond picks Altair up and heads to the cave. They're nearly there when Altair asks, "So do I have to say you're my dad?"
"Just for now," Desmond tells him. "I'm sorry, but it'll be easier until everything gets figured out."
"S'okay," Altair says. "I don't care." He goes strangely quiet then, which worries Desmond, but he doesn't have time to ask questions before they reach the main room of the temple, and suddenly there are too many people around to say anything.
October 30, 2012 (Later)
Altair shrinks into the shadows of the temple as Desmond starts to argue with the older of the two men. It sounds like they might be father and son, but right now Altair doesn't care enough to find out for sure. His head is mixed up and foggy, and it's impossible to think straight. It's hard to concentrate, and he's feeling things he hasn't felt for years and years. All the self-control and discipline he's worked to master over the years have been stripped and he feels…
He feels like a child again.
He also feels like he's going to cry, and he presses his fist angrily against the nearest wall as hot tears start to form in the corners of his eyes. It's been years since he cried, but right now he's powerless and small and his face is wet. He really wants to see Desmond again, but he's too busy arguing right now. So instead, Altair tucks himself into a corner and waits for his head to stop spinning. It hasn't quite settled when he realizes someone's headed his way.
It's the man with the red hair, not the older man with the watching face. Looking at everyone to see who's going to do something wrong first. That man watches the redhead as he stops a few feet away from Altair, but doesn't make a move himself.
"So," the man says. He moves uncomfortably from one foot to the other, and his eyes look everywhere but straight at Altair. "Hello."
"Hi." Altair tips his head up, but otherwise doesn't move.
"So, um…" He glances back over his shoulder, but no one's paying him any attention. "My name's Shaun." He gestures at the other three. "That's Rebecca, Bill, and- you know Desmond, yea?"
Altair nods. "What's wrong with him?"
"Nothing," says Shaun, still looking away. That's how Altair finds out that Shaun is a very bad liar. Of course there's something wrong with Desmond- he's spent the last half hour or so lying still as the dead on what looks like a tacky red chair on the other side of the room. He could be sick or injured or worse, and the fact that no one wants to tell him makes Altair think it must be really bad.
"Fine," he says, and jumps to his feet. Shaun half opens his mouth, but Altair is off and running before he can get a word out. He doesn't leave the temple, because he has nowhere to go, but there's plenty of corners within the cave to hide in, and Altair tucks himself into one of them, a small cranny where no one can reach him.
October 30, 2012 (Evening)
As usual, Desmond feels like shit when he comes out of the animus, but this time it's worse, because his dad's waiting there with an absolutely impassive look on his face. Not the best sight to wake up to. Desmond knows that face well; it's his dad's bad news face, the one he only wears when he's gone right through angry and out the other side. It's an expression Desmond saw many, many times before running away from the farm.
"What'd I do this time?" He grumbles. Everything hurts, inside and out, and he's not in the mood for this.
"Nothing," Bill says.
"We need to have a discussion," Bill interrupts. "About your- your son."
"Right," Desmond mutters, rubbing at his eyes. "Altair."
"That's his name?" Bill asks.
"I didn't give it to him," Desmond says, because it's true and also because William's giving him a skeptical look that pisses him off.
"How can you act this irresponsibly?" William demands. "Half the time I could swear you're still a child yourself."
"Only when you're treating me like one," Desmond says, and watches his dad's eyes narrow. "Where is he, anyway?"
"Climbed up somewhere," Bill says.
"Great," Desmond says, because this way at least he can go after Altair and his dad won't be able to follow.
He eventually finds Altair wedged into a corner of the temple (there are quite a lot of those), head in his hands, staring into empty space at nothing in particular. He looks up when Desmond sits down nearby, but doesn't say anything. Desmond lets the silence hang for a long time, more because he's not sure what to say than because of any other reason. Finally, Altair speaks up.
"This isn't okay, is it?" he asks.
"I shouldn't be here," Altair says.
"No," Desmond agrees, after a moment of thought. "But you weren't supposed to be here the first time, either, and that turned out fine." He's been staring at his hands, but now he glances over at Altair again. "How are you feeling?"
He shrugs, then hunches his shoulders, almost defensively. There are no words, but his body language says more than words ever could, and Desmond has spent enough time with Altair and in his head to know what he means. "You can stay, you know," he says. "As long as it takes."
"As long as what takes?"
"Until you're ready to go," Desmond says. "Whatever that means." It's impossible to even guess how or if or when Altair will go back to his own time, but Desmond has no intention of driving Altair away.
Silence falls again, and for a little while Desmond is content to sit in absolute silence, back to the wall, staring at nothing, utterly lost in his own thoughts. Gradually, however, he starts to notice that Altair seems uncomfortable. He keeps fidgeting, glancing sideways at Desmond and then letting his eyes slide away. "Come here," Desmond says, and Altair willingly climbs into his lap. It feels right when Desmond wraps his arm around the boy, holding him close the way he used to before everything changed.
"I think I'm too old for this," Altair whispers, but the complaint is halfhearted. He almost sounds like he's asking to be contradicted.
"How old are you?" Desmond asks.
"Twenty six," Altair says, and Desmond has to keep himself from laughing at how small his voice suddenly sounds.
"And how old do you feel?"
Altair doesn't say anything, but the way he presses himself closer to Desmond tells him that the point has been made.
"I'm not going to judge you," Desmond says. "I'm here as long as you need me."
October 31, 2012
"You should probably get some sleep."
Altair looks up from Desmond's motionless form, and finds Rebecca frowning at him. "It's not that late," he says, despite the protests of his body that tell him she's right.
"It's past midnight," Rebecca says.
"Can't I stay up until he's done?" Altair asks. He doesn't understand exactly what Desmond is doing in the animus, but he fully intends to get the story as soon as possible.
"It's going to be a while," Rebecca says. "But if you want to go lie down for a while, I can send him your way when he's done."
Altair realizes he's rubbing at his eyes, and stops. He's unimaginably tired, so he nods and slides off his chair, ready to head for the corner where he watched the bedrolls being set up earlier. Before he can quite turn his back on Rebecca, though, she calls him back.
"You should probably know- the animus- I mean, did anyone tell you what it's for?"
"Memories," Altair says. Desmond had given him a very brief rundown before getting into the machine. "Ancestral memories."
"Yea," Rebecca says. "We're looking for something, and we need to find it, before- well, the end of the world, actually." She offers a halfhearted smile, but it's obviously an effort. "Anyway, that's why Desmond needs to be in there, but there are side effects."
Altair glances nervously at Desmond, but he seems fine, like he could be sleeping. "What do you mean?"
"We're basically forcing another person's mind into his head," Rebecca says. "It's a lot easier to tangle two minds together than to separate them out again."
"So you mean… he might not be Desmond when he comes out?" Altair asks.
"It'll take a while," Rebecca says. "But eventually that could happen, yes."
"Oh," Altair whispers. So Desmond's going to leave him, too. He's going to be alone, again. "You're right."
"It's time for bed."
This isn't Altair's first time sleeping on a cave floor, and it's definitely not the worst. This time there's at least blankets and pillows to soften the floor under him. Anyway, he's tired enough that he could have slept in a pit of lava, or on a bed of nails. He's barely on the ground before his eyes are shut, and that night he sleeps the sleep of the dead.
In fact, he's tired enough that he sleeps straight through the night, and most of the next morning as well. It's close to noon when Altair wakes up again. Desmond's in the animus, but when Altair asks, Rebecca assures him that Desmond did sleep the night before. "He went by to see you this morning," she adds. "But you were still asleep."
Altair nods, and climbs back onto the chair he'd claimed the night before, to continue his silent watch over Desmond. He's the only familiar thing here, and Altair can't help clinging to him like a drowning man. It's a childish action, but for the moment at least, Altair is a child.
The other three work around him, and as the day wears on with no change in Desmond's condition, Altair starts to watch them. Rebecca, he's already decided that he likes. She's the only one besides Desmond that's explained anything. She doesn't hide things from him just because he's a child, but she does her best to soften the blow when she has bad news. Altair shouldn't need that, but he just can't deal with it all right now.
Shaun's not bad either. His normal mode of communication seems to be sarcasm, and he's weirdly nervous around Altair, both of which are annoying. He claims he's just nervous because he's bad with kids, but Altair's already figured out that Shaun's a bad liar. It's way more likely that Shaun knows where he comes from, but he doesn't want to come out and ask, just in case he's wrong. Rebecca might know too- they both seem a little too accepting of his sudden appearance.
William, on the other hand, probably doesn't know. He's constantly angry. Not just about Altair being there, but apparently about everything. He stomps around the cave for most of the day before finally sitting down to have a talk with Altair. "So," he says. "You're my grandson?"
Altair squirms uncomfortably and glances at Desmond, still and unresponsive in the animus. Then he nods, just once, because even though that's a lie, it's one that Desmond asked him to tell. Anyway, it's the simplest possible explanation, and maybe that will make William go away faster. It's a weird feeling, being... not exactly afraid of the man, but definitely nervous. A couple of days ago he wouldn't have hesitated to tell the man exactly what he thinks of the unnecessary rudeness.
Except today, everything is different. It's hard to pick a fight when everyone around him is suddenly so much bigger than he is. Rebecca is the shortest of the group, and Altair barely comes up to her waist. Besides that, his mind feels… raw, like someone's ripped a giant bandage off it. All the years of carefully building up defenses, of learning to handle life when it gets difficult, are stripped away.
William's still watching him, apparently expecting something else, but Altair has nothing to offer. He shrugs and stares at the floor instead. "You could be a little more talkative," William grunts.
"Knock it off, Bill," Shaun says without looking up from his computer. Altair feels an unexpected surge of gratitude, but William ignores the comment. Instead of backing off, he studies Altair intently, head to foot, a judgmental frown on his face. Altair draws his legs onto the chair and curls his arms protectively around himself. Logically, he knows William isn't a threat, but logic seems to have flown out the window lately.
"Did Desmond tell you about me?" William asks. "Is that why you're afraid?"
"I'm not afraid," Altair bursts out, mostly because he thinks he is. It's not a huge fear, not like he's afraid William is going to threaten or hurt him. It's just nerves, and being so small.
"Good," William says. "But really. Did Desmond tell you about me?"
"He said you're an assassin," Altair says. It had been the only time Desmond had ever mentioned his past while they were in New York, actually.
"That's it?" William asks. He sounds honestly surprised at that. "I'd have expected worse, honestly."
"Why?" Altair asks. "Don't you like him?"
William opens his mouth, but closes it again without saying anything. Finally he manages an "It's complicated" before walking away to work on something else. Altair watches him go, feeling relieved and weirdly triumphant.