AN: Is it too soon for Brotherhood fic? Bah, I don't care, I'm writing it anyway. Spoiler warnings for the first half(ish) of the game. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Most of the small details in this fic come from the Wiki. The female Babylonian assassin is canon: apparently she killed Alexander the Great via poison. The catacomb bit is in the game, though it's Ezio who wanders in. No parings, but if you want to see this as pre-Desmond/Lucy, I won't stop you.
(If you review-and I hope you do-try to limit the amount of spoilers you mention. I've only just finished the 3rd memory block.)
—with the wind fighting against him, fighting against every leap and he braces himself against the torrent as he makes the spring from roof to roof, and lands well, lands even, and the guard chasing him is stuck hesitating a few buildings back, unwilling to jump. Ezio smirks, without humor, because he rarely finds much to laugh about these days: his uncle dead, his sister a brothel madam, his mother quietly guarding her feathers. And Ezio trying to organize Roma into something he can work with. It never used to be this hard, he never used to have to convince the thieves and whores to work for him, but Roma is so different from any city he's ever known. It's corrupt, dirty to the core, and if he squints it's so easy to imagine his father swinging here and not there.
He leaves the guard cursing behind him and runs for the nearest tunnel, already deciding what he will and will not tell Machiavelli, though in the old days he never had to wonder which of his allies he could trust. In the old days it was good men against bad, but now it's all twisted, as twisted as this city, rotten down to the wooden core.
In the old days he had his uncle to turn to for advice. No, in the old days he had his brother to turn to for advice. No, in the old days he had his sarcastic comrade to turn to for advice, though Malik never gave his advice without adding an insult to the—Ezio doesn't stop running, but he furrows his brows in confusion. Malik? He doesn't know that name, doesn't remember ever thinking it before, and the memory it's attached to is suddenly too faded to see. It came and now it's leaving, and Ezio wonders as he reaches the tunnel—
And a bodiless female says in his ear, so unfamiliar and yet so damned familiar all the same, Hate to interrupt a good part but Lucy's giving me a death-stare. Time to wake up, Desmond. And Ezio stops running, thinking: who is Desmond?
And Ezio stops running, thinking: I'm in the middle of something. I'm not ready to leave yet, you stupid bitch—
And Ezio who isn't aware of any of this stops running, thinking: Whoa, where'd that come from? The Animus is fucking with my personality now. Hey, Rebecca, did you guys know this would happen when you strapped me in?
And there is a terrible pain, there is always a terrible pain: the act of separation, of being torn in two. Body from body and Desmond is on fire, the strands of his DNA being tugged and twisted and he tugs and twists in turn and screams, screams because it hurts so much...
And he thinks, I need to tell them how bad it hurts to come out of the Animus. I need to tell them because it hurts worse every time.
And he is ripped asunder, and by the time silver fades to black he has forgotten there was ever any pain at all.
Emerging from the Animus always leaves Desmond with a headache, a nasty bit of pressure square between the eyes. It's a headache bad enough to be disorienting, distracting; it's a useful excuse for the times when he blinks and suddenly he isn't where he was, for when he can't remember getting out of the red chair or how long it's been since he's moved. A handy excuse for when one second he is whirling around Roma and the next second standing in front of Altair's statue in the vault below Monteriggioni, without any memory of the spaces in-between.
It's been happening so often lately.
Lucy is usually the only one who notices; Rebecca is always glued to her computer screen, and Shaun is always ignoring him, loudly. But the whole of Lucy's job is Keep Desmond From Being Dumb, so she's always focused on him. Watching him. And she always notices.
For instance, today he remembers leaving the machine and he remembers sitting up, and now he is standing in front of the statue and he doesn't remember moving towards it at all. How long has he been here? When did he first surface for air?
Lucy doesn't outright ask him if he's lost his mind, and for that Desmond is mildly grateful. She doesn't point out that, ever since the unexpected move to Monteriggioni, he's been having a lot more of these times-without-time. She just watches him. Watches him blink and awaken from the Animus, ten minutes after he's already gotten up from the chair.
He has his excuse ready. If she asks, he'll blame the headaches.
"Why are you always staring at Altair's statue?" is what she asks, rendering Desmond's plan useless. "After you wake up from the Animus, you always come over here and look at it for a while."
He has to be careful how he answers, not just because he knows Lucy won't hesitate to hit him if he gives her an answer she thinks is trite. He has to be careful because he's at a real risk of giving her an answer she'll fear.
That's been happening a lot lately, too: someone will ask him a question, and the first answer to pop into his head isn't an answer at all, but a ghost of one. What's your favorite city, Desmond? and he'll start to say Venezia. What language do you speak, Desmond? and he'll want to answer in Arabic.
What do you regret most, Desmond? and it was his arrogance that killed Kadar, or else it was his naiveté that left his father and brothers dead by Templar hands.
"Desmond?" Lucy asks. "What is it?"
"Just reliving old memories," he answers, which gets precisely the sort of snort from Shaun—who's still ignoring him, even louder—that he was hoping for. Lucy rolls her eyes at the other man, and the tension oozes away.
"Bloody hell, I work with stupid people," Shaun informs his computer screen. "They aren't your memories to relive, or must we go over the same rudimentary information a thousand times over?"
"Just can't keep up with you, buddy." Desmond draws his gaze back to the statue. It is so stern…haughty, almost, which is fitting…a part of him wants to bow, as Ezio always does, to show proper respect to the Master Assassin.
"Desmond." Lucy frowns. "You have to tell me if something's wrong."
Desmond glances at her, then past her. "Look at that," he says in wonder. White-flecked ghosts of ghosts drift in the background.
"Look at what?" Lucy wants to know, and he almost pities her. She is so stuck in one body and one time.
He needs to clear his head—needs to get away from Altair, from the vault. He can't get away from the ghosts, which have gotten more numerous since they fled here. (He hates that they fled here. This was a place of safety, a place of rest, and now it's a vine-covered wreck with a parking lot, and fences blocking the city walls. This is not the Monteriggioni he never knew.)
Rebecca is still zoned out on her computer, but Desmond drifts to her because he can't face Lucy and is in no mood for Shaun. She's good at holding a conversation while only half-listening, and right now all Desmond wants is for someone to half-listen, half-ignore. Surely he isn't that interesting. Surely every word out of his mouth isn't a sign that he's losing his mind.
"How's the Animus holding up?" he asks.
"You're really making her work overtime," Rebecca says, grinning. "But she's my baby, she'll come through. I was gonna ask you the same question," she adds. "Any residual effects? Double-vision, nausea, that kinda thing?"
Desmond considers telling her about the headaches, but doesn't. "Nothing much," he says. "I'm just tired all the time. Which is weird, considering I do nothing but sit on my ass all day."
Rebecca laughs. "Being an assassin is hard work."
"It's gotten harder since we came here. I'm starting to feel homesick for Monteriggioni in the good old days. Which I was never around for, I'd like to point out."
"Quit complaining. The Monteriggioni Ezio was used to didn't have indoor plumbing. Some paradise!"
Desmond lets the conversation die. He doesn't want to talk about the Villa (about the empty spots on the walls where he hung the paintings he bought, about the marble pedestals where he put the statuettes he found). "There's something I've been meaning to talk to you about," he says instead. "All of Ezio's memories, and Altair's…they're my memories too, now, right?"
Rebecca hesitates. "They're in your DNA. The Animus decodes…"
"I know that," Desmond interrupts. "But—look, I've never been to Rome but Ezio has. So, aren't those my memories, too? I've never been to the vault before, but this isn't the first time I've looked at that statue!"
Finally, Rebecca looks away from her computer screen. "Ezio has been here before," she says carefully. "You watched it happen. So in that respect…think of it like you're watching a movie."
"A movie that has the actual ability to punch me," Desmond mutters.
"Hey," says Rebecca, indignant now. "You said you weren't having any residual effects."
"I'm not," and the lie comes smoothly. "But when Al Mualim stabbed Altair it felt like he was slicing me through the gut too." He rubs at his head, where there's still traces of his headache lingering. God, waking from the Animus is like shoving his head under a truck…
"Just keep reminding yourself that they're memories," Rebecca is saying. "There'll be some bleed-through, but as long as you can distance you from them, you're ok."
You from them. Ezio was the one who discovered the vault, not Desmond, but Desmond was there, as Ezio, so it was—Ezio was the one. He was. I've never been to Rome. He-I has. Or I-Him. Or just him. Them from me…
"Keep me up-to-date, ok?" says Rebecca. "I know the Animus can be pretty hard to adjust to. You gotta remember what happened when. If you start feeling seriously sick…"
Desmond shakes his head, slowly. "It's not that bad," he says, "I feel fine. Seriously. Believe me, I've seen people suffering and this isn't that. When I poisoned Alexander, he suffered…"
Rebecca stares at him. "What are you talking about? Alexander?"
"Alexander the Great," Desmond says and knows he shouldn't. "Poisoned by Iltani…"
Rebecca's head whips around, and she looks hard at the statue of the ancient, female assassin standing at the far end of the room. "Iltani? The Babylonian? Desmond, you've never accessed her memories. You've never been to Babylon, in real life or in the Animus."
"I know that." He rubs at his eyes, irritated. "Shit. It's all…wrapped up in my head..."
"I'm just tired," he decides. "I must have read something about Iltani after we discovered all that crazy shit from Subject Sixteen."
"Yeah," Rebecca says, sounding anything but convinced. "It must have been that."
He resists going back into the Animus that day: keeps postponing the return, keeps stalling for food and bathroom breaks and restless naps. Even Lucy's patience with his idiosyncrasies begins to wear out. "We don't have a lot of time, Desmond," she tells him. He sits against the wall and shrugs his shoulders. "The Templars are getting closer. I thought you understood that."
"I'm exhausted," he argues. "This is slave labor."
"Charming and witty!" proclaims Shaun in the background. "I can see why Vidic was so sad to see him go."
"Desmond," Lucy snaps.
"I can't right now," he snaps back. His head throbs and he rests it against his drawn-up knees. "Not right now," he repeats, softer. "Give me a moment."
Worry-lines immediately cross Lucy's forehead. She kneels down beside him, frowning with concern. "Are you ok?" she asks. "You've been acting funny all day. If something is wrong, tell me—"
"Nothing is wrong." He spits out the words, one by one. "Nothing. All I need is to catch my breath."
(He is thinking of hanging up flyers: Searching for Desmond. Have You Seen Desmond? He thinks that he has lost bits of himself, in Jerusalem and in Rome and in that stupid grey nothing he's trapped in each time the Animus has to load. Bits of Desmond, roaming through time, doing all sorts of God-knows-what.)
"Terribly sorry to interrupt your day at the spa," Shaun says, not sounding sorry at all as he makes his way over, "but would it be too much to ask for you to do something useful? Anything at all, really, I don't want to pressure you. It's only total annihilation we're facing."
"Shaun," Lucy says. He scowls.
"I am not the one dicking off because I'm sleepy. Desmond, might I humbly ask for your services for a moment?"
"Anything you want," Desmond says dully. He doesn't have the wherewithal to follow through with the angry charade. Doing so would require too much of him—there's so very little of him left.
"A new round of supplies just came in. The truck's waiting out front where it always is. Would bringing in the food we use to keep your ever-so-important self alive be a worthwhile task, do you think?"
"I don't know, sounds like I might break a nail." Desmond climbs back to his feet, wearily. (He'd spent what had felt like a week in the Animus, fighting Ezio's battles. It'd only been a day of real life. But…no. It had been a week.) He turns and trudges up the crumbling stares, feeling Lucy's eyes boring holes in the back of his neck. It makes him tense, which is funny: one would think he'd be used to pretty women staring after spending so much time as Ezio Auditore.
Desmond takes the too-familiar turns of the stairway, and reaches the hole in the wall where once a grand door used to stand. A ghostly figure drifts past him, but he grits his teeth and refuses to look. He pushes a wooden beam out of the way and steps outside, into the main hall—
The catacombs are long and dark and ensnarled. A black mass of bone and dust. Desmond cries out, startled, and he knows his voice must echo but he doesn't actually hear a sound. He whirls around, but there are only more tunnels where the staircase should be. Skeletons hang from the wall, grinning senselessly at him…the air is so musty it itches in his lungs…
Desmond runs. Hallway after hallway, and they all look the same. Skulls crunch underfoot. Perhaps he is in the Animus? Perhaps he has forgotten—
No. He looks down and sees jeans, sees his sweatshirt growing greyer with ash. He is still Desmond. An I, not a Him-I. He is Desmond, and he is lost.
Stick to the left, and he can't remember where he learned that making the same turns will eventually lead to an exit. As a child? In what city? In what time? He makes only lefts and soon there are footprints in the dust. Oh, God, he's going in circles, he's walked down this way before.
A pit yawns open in front of him. The catacombs are murky, lit only by the occasional torch, but here is a source of blackness more complete than any other. It reaches for him. He wants to turn around but he is afraid of all the bones.
The catacombs are long and dark and endless, and he is lost within them. He will starve to death, or fall, and what will that do to history? Which He is he right now? Where is his sword, where is his dagger? He opens his mouth to speak and the words might be Arabic, or Italian, or English, or something else. He sticks to the left and the catacombs close in around him—
He blinks and he is still standing at the top of the stairs. Lucy is with him now, one hand clutching at each shoulder, shaking him with alarmed eyes.
"Desmond, can you hear me?" she demands. "You were standing here staring at nothing. You wouldn't answer—you're pale, you're shaking. Desmond, what is going on?"
He lifts a trembling hand to the side of his face and realizes there are tears drying against his cheeks. Realizes he is scared shitless. Realizes his head feels as though it is about to burst open.
"You have to fight the bleed-through," Lucy urges. "You have to keep it under control!"
Desmond's dazed eyes meet hers. A wisp of memory floats past. He nods. "Did I ever tell you?" he wonders, dreamily. "Leaving the Animus hurts like hell."
Desmond doesn't go back into the Animus that day, or the next day, but on the third day he insists. "Like you said, we don't have a lot of time. I was just tired, it made the bleeding worse. I'm fine. We need to do this."
And they do need to, because Rebecca has been picking up some unsettling signals lately that mean the Templars are getting closer. So they sit Desmond down, and they strap Desmond in, and as Rebecca warms up the machine he notices Lucy staring at him with wide eyes. Shaun is watching too, for once without a nasty comment, which is disturbing in its own right.
And the world is drowned out by the familiar grey, and the words in his mouth morph into Italian droning, and he braces for the pain as his mind is split open and resealed—
"Pay attention, Ezio," Machiavelli says impatiently. "This is important information. You should focus on what my men have learned."
"I am focused," Ezio says coolly. He stands in the security of the hide-out, not bothering to hide his dislike of the other man. "What is it you have to tell me?"
He leans in to study the piece of paper in Machiavelli's hand. He notes an unexpected name, is taken by surprise, and says before he can help himself, "It is hard to find men in this city I can trust."
Machiavelli looks at Ezio with obvious disdain and murmurs something subtle and nasty under his breath. The assassin is unruffled as he turns to find something to drink: he has a pounding headache, all of a sudden, and there is a voiceless whispering in his ears—