~ oOo ~
Rebecca had been needed to watch the Animus, to watch Desmond as he lay ensnared in a coma, and so it was left to Shaun Hastings to deal with the matter of Lucy Stillman and her mortal remains. It all seemed to be moving so quickly. He barely remembered staggering out of the Coliseum, dialling Bill and hearing the man's voice turn cool and firm, telling Shaun exactly what needed doing. Put Desmond back in the Animus, take the Apple, take Lucy's body, and seal the tomb behind them.
Shaun was reasonably certain that Bill had needed to repeat himself before Shaun took on board what he needed to do, but his superior's voice never wavered or shook. He sounded not the least bit perturbed, and it was terrifying. Shaun had stumbled back inside the tomb to help Rebecca. Lucy had been dead, beyond the hope of resuscitation, by the time they had been released from whatever hold the Apple had put over them. There had been blood on Desmond's hand, blood on the floor, blood on the Apple, and while it was hardly the first, or even the worst incident of bloodshed that Shaun had witnessed, it was more horrific than he'd ever thought to see.
He picked up the Apple warily, but it remained utterly dead to his touch. It felt like nothing more than a lightweight ball of slightly warm metal. He helped Rebecca drag Desmond and Lucy to the platform, which started to raise them back towards the surface without any prompting whatsoever. That was a small relief; Shaun had not relished the idea of trying to figure some way to climb out.
They left Lucy in the church as they hustled Desmond to the van. There was nothing more that they could do for her, and Desmond's pulse was becoming weak beneath his fingertips. It wasn't easy manhandling a fully grown man into the Animus, but they somehow managed it, and Rebecca stared at the monitor readings like a hawk as Shaun connected cables and lines, and impressed himself by how his hands utterly failed to shake.
"Take him to the airport," Shaun said, as Rebecca sagged in relief as Desmond's vital signs, propped up by the Animus' integrated life support system (designed to stop subjects from dying while their minds were occupied with data feeds and genetic memories they were never intended to witness). "Bill will meet you there. I-"
He glanced back to the open door of the van, to where the church could be seen.
Rebecca paled, and swallowed. He could see she desperately wanted to talk about what had happened, wanted to know why and how as much as he did, but questions were a luxury they didn't have time for. They'd just have to hope that there would be a later in which they could figure things out. "Right," she said, and wiped her hands on her trousers. He realised that her hands had been bloody. So were his, though the blood was drying slowly, turning brown against his clothing. "Just help me secure the Animus so it doesn't move in transit."
They spend nearly ten minutes tying down the Animus as tightly as possible so that it wouldn't move, putting in electronic baffles so that the output of the active device wouldn't flag up any Templar sensors, tucking the Apple away behind panelling, and strapping Desmond in so that he wouldn't be knocked out of his position the first time Rebecca hit a curb. And she would; Shaun had seen her car.
"Shaun-" she said, when they'd finished.
He reached out, and took a hold of her hand. He squeezed it tightly, then tugged her forward. When she was close enough, he dropped a chaste kiss on her forehead. "It'll be ok," he said, though he didn't believe a word he said.
Neither did Rebecca, but she did him the courtesy of not arguing, instead nodding, and letting him go. She slammed the van doors shut and clambered into the driver's seat without a backward glance, and not long after Shaun was staring at her brake lights as the van headed down the narrow side street before turning out of sight. Alone, except for her.
He went back into the church through the still open doors. Lucy was still there, in the same position they'd abandoned her in. Not his first dead body and not his last. It wasn't even the first dead body that happened to be a friend. He'd lost a lot of people in the war between the Assassins and the Templars, and he expected to lose a lot more. He just hadn't expected it to happen like this.
He sat down on the floor next to her, outside of the blood trail that she lay in, and stared at her slack face. After a long moment, he leaned forward, reaching out to close her eyes. In his position as a historian he knew that it had been the practice of Assassins of old to say a few words over the dead, even just a brief acknowledgement that this person had left the mortal plane. It had fallen out of usage in modern times.
"Rest in peace, Lucy," he murmured, and sat back on his heels. He'd never been a religious man, and being an Assassin made you very wary of any sort of organisation that promoted the lack of free will, nothing is true and all that. Here, though, in a church, kneeling over Lucy's body, he felt like he ought to pray.
He didn't, but it was a strangely strong compulsion.
He was there less than an hour, though if he'd been asked he wouldn't have been able to say the exact length of time that passed, when he heard the sound of footsteps. He got to his feet, darting to the side of the doorway, out of sight, just in case it was the local police come to investigate a strange van in the area of the church. Instead, two men walked in, hoods pulled up over their heads and moving with the sort of casual grace that generally only belonged to professionals; Assassins or Templars, one or the other.
Shaun lurked in the shadows, out of immediate sight, and held his breath, waiting to see what would happen. The two men saw Lucy's body instantly, but didn't approach her straight away, clearly wary of a trap. One of them, slightly taller than his companion, raised his head to look around the church.
"Checkmate," he said, in a loud enough voice to carry and ring out through the stone walls.
"No such thing," Shaun said, the appropriate response, and stepped out of the shadows, feeling a knot of tension unravel as he recognised the code phrase.
The man gave Shaun a brief scrutinising look, before seeming to dismiss him as an immediate threat, his posture less guarded. "William sent us."
"I would rather think so. Did he fill you in?"
"Yes." The man gestured to his companion, who slung a bag off his shoulder and took out a black plastic square which rapidly unfolded into a tarp just the right size for wrapping up a body. Shaun pointedly didn't watch him. "We've got new papers for you. We'll dump Stillman's body somewhere the local police will find her. You'll be called in to identify her as her next of kin. You're Marcus Hall, her cousin-"
The Assassin gave Shaun his cover story in short Italian accented sentences that Shaun memorised instantly. He had a good memory when he needed to have one. He tried to ignore the way that the other man was rolling Lucy onto the plastic and wrapping her up. At least he was treating her gently, with the sort of dignity another Assassin deserved. They might be forced to use her body in a ruse to put the Templars off their trail, but while they had possession of her remains, they would treat her kindly.
"Do you understand?" the man said, intently.
Shaun wondered who the man was; rank and file Assassin or local cell leader? He was betting on the latter, if Bill had made the call. "Yes," he said, simply.
The Assassin gave Shaun new papers, tickets, and a hotel key card. They would inform the police that he had been in the bar of the hotel all night. Several witnesses would swear firmly to that effect. They would all, of course, be Assassins, but that went without saying. He would be on file as having been there several days, and one of their own technical staff was doctoring CCTV footage to back up that story even as they spoke.
The man picked up Lucy's body in his arms, hefting her without any apparent effort, and carried her outside. He couldn't see what happened then, but he guessed that they had their own transport. Shaun would be forced to walk through the city. The Assassin took one look at Shaun's bloodied clothes, and immediately took off his coat, which was long enough to conceal any incriminating stains from casual passers-by.
"I'll see to it there's clean clothes at the hotel. Make sure you dispose of those properly."
Shaun wanted to snap that he knew the protocol, but forced himself to simply nod. "Understood," he said.
The Assassin, for the first time, unbent slightly. He gave Shaun a somewhat sympathetic smile and put his hand to Shaun's shoulder. "Addio, brother," he said, squeezing Shaun's shoulder once before letting go and departing. He'd almost certainly lost friends and family to this conflict as well. It was something any Assassin would relate to. Maybe that was why they had the business of dealing with the fallout down to a fine art.
Shaun waited ten minutes before leaving. He didn't worry about the bloodstain on the floor. It would be dealt with, and he had to get to the hotel and make sure his alibi was established before Lucy's body was discovered. The address he'd been given was about a mile and a half away, a moderately expensive hotel that wouldn't be out of the price range of a reasonably successful man. The receptionist gave him a blank look as he walked by, though he was certain she was an Assassin plant. It was best he didn't know if she was, or if she had just been bribed, that way if the Templars did catch him, he wouldn't wind up giving anything away. The room was clean, though shabby, and the bed was just a shade too hard. He sat on the edge, and looked at his hands.
There was bloody under his fingernails. Lucy's blood. He should wash that off before the police came to tell him that his "cousin" was dead.
His phone rang.
Shaun jumped, scrambling in his pockets to find the small, noisy device, and stared at the 'unknown number' readout for a long time before he screwed up the courage to flip it open and say, "Yes?"
"Shaun." Bill. He should have expected the call.
"Rebecca's on her way, if she's not there already," Shaun reported, tersely. A headache was beginning to build behind his eyes. "Everything else is in place. Desmond's stable, by the way, if you were interested."
Silence for a moment. Bill had never advertised some truths about himself, but Shaun was far too good at putting disparate and seemingly inconsequential bits of information together to form an overall picture. It was what made him a good historian and a great tactician for the Order. It was why he'd been assigned to work on the Animus project in the first place. He'd known as soon as he'd met Subject 17 exactly who he was, and what he had to do with Bill.
If nothing else, the resemblance was uncanny.
"Good to know," Bill said, sounding only professionally interested in the situation.
Shaun's hand tightened on the phone and he resisted the urge to call Bill a 'cold bastard', no matter how accurate the description would be. His headache spiked, and he wondered if there were any pharmacies nearby that were open all night. He could have used an analgesic at that moment.
"Do you know why it happened?"
Shaun squeezed his eyes shut. "No," he said, the words forced out past the exhaustion that was suddenly overtaking him. He recognised the symptoms. He'd been so keyed up, adrenaline flooding his veins, and now it was ebbing away, leaving only fatigue in its wake. He'd been trained how to deal with it, how to push past it, how to ensure it didn't make him sloppy, but it was so very tempting to give into the urge to just curl up and go to sleep. "Something to do with that damned-" It was best not to say the word, even over what was supposedly a secure line, "-beachball."
Bill snorted slightly at the description, but didn't argue with it. "We'll find out. Do what needs to be done, and when you're able, head for the airport. We'll extract you."
"Right," Shaun said, and there was a click as the line disconnected. He tossed the phone to the bed without caring where it landed, and forced himself to his feet and into the small en-suite bathroom. He stripped and stepped into the shower, turning up the heat as high as it would go without scalding him, and scrubbed at his hands, his nails, until every speck of blood was gone, and then he scrubbed until his skin was pink, just to be sure. When it started to feel uncomfortably painful, he made himself stop.
New clothes were in an overnight bag tucked beside the bed. He changed, stuffing his soiled clothes into the bottom and covering them with a towel. It wasn't perfect, and he'd have to make sure to dispose of them sooner rather than later. He should leave it for the moment. He didn't want to do anything that someone might spot and deem suspicious.
So he stowed the clothes, and lay on the too hard bed and stared at the ceiling, and replayed the events of the tomb over and over in his mind, trying to figure out what he'd missed, and how.
~ oOo ~
The knock on the door came the following evening. Shaun had risked sneaking down to the basement of the building during the day, evading the staff without much effort. He found bleach, poured it all over the clothes, and snuck outside with them. He tore them into pieces and hid them in several over-full refuse bins in the back alleys of Rome. The police might find them and put it together, perhaps even identify the blood, but hopefully he would be out of the country by then. He went back to the hotel via a long leisurely lunch at a nearby cafe, as if he were nothing more than someone enjoying a day off on holiday.
"Marcus Hall?" There were two of them, a man and a woman, both wearing studiously sympathetic expressions, the sort that only came through long practice.
He carefully assumed a blank expression, with just a hint of nervousness around the mouth. Nothing more than an unexpected police visit would warrant. "Yes?" he answered, in rather heavily accented Italian. He was trying to sound like an Englishman in the city to visit his cousin, his grasp of the language not perfect, not like someone who could speak it with a fair degree of fluency. "Is something wrong?"
They had him sit down, and explained the situation, and it wasn't hard to fake the necessary shock. All he had to do was remember the exact moment that, still conscious, he'd heard Desmond's blade sink into Lucy's stomach, and then the twin thuds as they both fell to the ground. His sense of time had become warped after that; how long it had been after that awful sound to regaining control over his own body, he couldn't have said, but the shock had lingered. It was an easy memory to recall.
They asked him some questions, and took him to the station to identify 'Annabeth Hall', which he did so with a shaking voice. They didn't seem suspicious of him at all, and most of the events that followed were a blur.
A man was arrested a couple of days later, a junkie so strung out he could barely remember his own name. He was found with a weapon that was a match for the knife that killed 'Annabeth' and her blood on his clothes. He was incoherent when the police brought him in, he was told by sympathetic officers, but it was very obvious that he'd killed her for what little money she had with her. A tragic, random act of violence. Case closed, body released.
It was so easy compared to some of the tricks that Shaun had pulled against the authorities that he kept waiting for someone to turn around and say, 'Only kidding, we know exactly what happened, you're under arrest'. Instead, he accepted her remains, and arranged to have her buried just outside Rome, in a small, quiet little cemetery where no one would be able to find her. It was all rather pleasant, in an odd way. The sun was shining, the air was fresh, and the service was small, attended by a few of Annabeth's colleagues (not Assassins, but those paid off by them to attend and look appropriately sad) and presided over by an old priest who was very kind to Shaun when he saw the genuine sadness in his eyes.
"She is at peace now," he told Shaun, with a kindly hand resting on Shaun's, as they sat inside the church, Shaun not even consciously aware of the decision to accept the priest's invitation to talk to him. Maybe the man was a little bit psychic. Shaun wouldn't have dismissed the possibility; after witnessing a man experience his ancestor's memories through a machine, he was almost ready to believe anything.
"I know," he said, and looked at his hands. They were still slightly pink, the nails severely clipped back. Normal, ordinary hands. "No war, or conflict, or pain. She's probably the lucky one there."
"Pain is part of life," the priest said, "We exist in spite of it, and strive to be better than what the pain could make us. To deny conflict would be to deny that which makes us human. Do not seek to follow her so quickly, son."
Lucy hadn't been catholic, but she probably would have liked the service anyway.
~ oOo ~
The flight out of Italy wasn't exactly first class, but Shaun was so relieved to be out of the country that he almost didn't mind being squashed between a man for whom the word 'salad' was only used in scrabble, and a woman with unconscionably strong body odour that had him breathing through his mouth and reminding himself that the alternative was being captured and probably killed by Templars. In spite of them leaving earlier, Rebecca and Bill would get to the airport in Washington DC around the same time that Shaun would. They'd had to take more circuitous routes than a simple passenger on his own, given that they had a still comatose Desmond and the Animus to transport. The plan was that they would all meet up in the terminal and pass through customs together before they did their very best vanishing act.
He was met by as he stepped off the aircraft by a young man in a hospital security uniform, who introduced himself as 'Bob' and kept the ring finger of his left hand curled into his palm as he spoke. Shaun followed him through several security doors until he was let into what looked to be a cargo storage room, inside of which was a familiar site. Desmond, lying insensate on the red couch of the Animus, Rebecca hunched over a nearby laptop and peering at the readings with thin-lipped determination.
At their approach, Rebecca flinched, hand straying to the side – she must have a gun hidden there, just out of sight – before she recognised him and stood so quickly her chair toppled over. "Shaun!" She crossed the gap between them in three long strides and threw her arms around his neck, clinging tightly. Shaun wasn't sure when Bob left, but when Rebecca stopped trembling, and finally pulled away from him, they were alone.
"Hello, you," he said, touching her cheek briefly with his fingertips before stepping back slightly as she extricated herself. "Bill not here?"
"He's off to meet a contact," Rebecca said. As if tied by an invisible cord, she was drawn back to Desmond's side. She righted her chair without looking at it, and settled back down so that whatever readouts that were on the laptop were in her immediate eyeline. "I feel like I haven't slept in a week."
"If you have, you're doing better than me. I have the entirety of a badly patterned hotel room ceiling in Rome memorised. Got a biro? I could draw it for you."
"Shaun," Rebecca chided, though it wasn't any real chastisement for his levity, and she smiled faintly. It was an expression that faltered quickly, and her eyes dropped to Desmond's body and she sighed softly. "I'd like to wake up now."
He crossed to her side and rested his hand on her shoulder. She brushed his knuckles with her fingertips without looking at him and they stood there in silence for a long moment, only the distant sound of aircraft and the soft humming of the Animus the only sounds to intrude. Desmond was breathing too slowly for it to be very audible. If Shaun couldn't see his vitals splayed out on Rebecca's laptop, he might think the other man was dead. Finally, Rebecca stirred slightly, her hands falling back into her lap.
"I keep thinking about it," Rebecca said, softly, as she looked down at Desmond's recumbent figure. She wasn't wearing her headphones, and she didn't look like herself without them. "About Desmond picking up the apple, turning, his blade, not being able to move..."
Shaun scratched at his chin, fingernails scraping against the stubble that was forming from a lack of opportunity to shave. Rebecca blinked and shook herself, visibly dispelling her own momentary introspection.
"I'm going to grab a coffee before William gets back," Rebecca said. She rubbed her face as she spoke. Her eyes were rimmed with red, most of her makeup having rubbed away, and her hair was limp. She looked like she was going through sheer willpower alone. "Can you keep an eye on the Animus readouts while I'm gone? Make sure he doesn't crash suddenly?"
There wasn't much Shaun could do to stop Desmond from suddenly dying if that happened, and they both knew it, but he could watch the readouts, knowing them well enough to be able to tell what was good and what was bad.
"Sure," he said. "Go get me one as well?"
"'kay," she said, and stood, stretching until her joints popped, then she shuffled out of the room in search of an infusion of caffeine to revive her.
Shaun sat down in the chair she had vacated and glanced casually at the readings. They were all over the place, much more so than Shaun would expect from someone in Desmond's condition, but there were no lights flashing or alarms blaring, so he wasn't especially worried. Reading neural traces wasn't his speciality anyway.
"What's going on inside of that head of yours?" he asked, and took off his glasses to wipe the lenses off on his shirt. "What was going on inside that head?"
When he put his glasses back on, it was to find that Desmond hadn't moved an inch, though that was hardly surprising.
"I suspect that my life would be a great deal easier if I just killed you know," he told Desmond. "Before Lucy dragged you out of Abstergo, all I had to worry about was getting shot in the head by a Templar hit squad. Now, apparently, I have a world-destroying celestial event to be bothered about."
He glanced towards the doorway, a blank off-white rectangle in the wall, and back down. "Of course, that'd probably piss off Bill, and I'd be dead not long after. You're nothing but trouble, you are."
The lines on the screen hitched briefly, but Shaun couldn't tell from looking at them if it was something to be worried about. Since Desmond didn't look like he was about to immediately expire, Shaun tried not to worry too much.
Except he was worried, dammit.
If anyone had asked Shaun even fortnight ago what his opinion on Desmond Miles, formerly Subject 17 of the Abstergo Industries Animus Experiment, it would have been 'mildly annoying, possibly useful to the order, talks in his sleep'. Shaun would have had to admit that working on the Animus and Desmond's memories gave him a chance to flex his historian muscles, something that the Assassins rarely required him to do beyond some very specific tasks. He'd been assigned to dig through historical documents and artefact collections to find out information about Pieces of Eden, but he'd never been given free rein to research and to investigate one of most interesting periods of European history.
And more to the point, Desmond had seemed to share his fascination. At first Shaun had been determined to see Subject 17 as nothing more than exactly that: an experimental subject who would probably be dead sooner than later, a lab rat that Lucy had brought home from work. Then Shaun realised that Desmond was paging through the historical information even though it wasn't necessary to be able to work through his ancestral memories. It wasn't useful, in fact, as anything other than an interesting resource for the Animus user. Then, unsolicited, Desmond started providing him with little details, details that weren't in any documents or records. The smells of places, the way the walls felt under his fingertips, the sounds in the air.
Shaun hadn't been able to resist taking notes, and if he'd been able to, he might have even considered publishing a paper on the subject, if it weren't for the fact that as an Assassin it was stupid to stick his head above the metaphorical parapet in such a fashion, not to mention the fact that he would never be able to tell anyone where exactly he'd gotten his information from.
By the time they'd been forced to hit the road, running from the Templars, Shaun had developed a tolerance for Desmond that bordered on friendliness. By the time they'd reached Monterrigioni, it had almost felt like they were a proper team, a group he'd worked with for months and trusted completely.
He didn't know what he thought about how it all ended. He hadn't known Lucy the way Rebecca had, only knew her by reputation prior to her departure from Abstergo. How well did he know either at them at the end of the day?
And there was all that time at the Sanctuary... Lucy had gone out for air so often, had hand-waved her absence with the barest of explanations that they'd just accepted because they had no reason not to.
Seven years was an awfully long time to be in the bosom of the Templars.
Shaun wrenched his thoughts away from that unproductive line of thought. If there was anything going on with either Lucy or Desmond, it would be up to William to uncover the information and deal with the situation. One thing that Shaun knew for certain was that Desmond was definitely William's concern, and if Shaun was stupid enough to stick his nose in that situation, a knife in his back would be the least of his problems.
"Lucy had a nice service, y'know," he told Desmond. "The priest said some very nice things about young life tragically cut short, but I suppose I don't have to tell you about that, considering you did the quite literal cutting."
Desmond didn't react. Shaun narrowed his eyes at him. "You were either really lucky, or very good. You bisected her aorta quite neatly. Without emergency surgery on the spot, there was nothing to be done. But then it wasn't you holding us in place, was it? Stopping us from acting. It was her."
Shaun's life was less complicated when ancient gods weren't interfering in it.
"Fuck this nonsense," Shaun said, feeling very tired all of a sudden, "Seriously. Just... fuck it."
It wasn't a sound that grabbed his attention, or movement in the corner of his eye; it was the indefinable sense of a presence, of no longer being alone, that prickled at the back of his neck.
Shaun glanced up. Bill was standing in the doorway. How much he'd heard, Shaun had no idea, but he refused to be intimidated by his old teacher. He stared solidly at the man, refusing to back down from the look of frank regard that he was receiving. Bill looked older than he had the last time Shaun had seen him; maybe this business with Desmond, the Animus and the Templars was aging him faster with each passing year.
"What's the plan?" he asked, finally, when it became apparent that Bill wasn't going to say anything.
Bill had been leaning against the doorframe, his arms folded. He let them drop to his side as he straightened. "We'll take an internal flight to New York. There'll be an operative there with papers. I'm not willing to chance getting through customs here. Too many Templar eyes in the city. Besides. New York is where we want to be."
Bill walked across the room slowly as he spoke, coming to halt on the opposite side of the Animus to Shaun. For a moment, something unguarded stole across his face as he looked down at the insensate Desmond, but it was gone too fast for Shaun to identify it. Bill's hand crept up to rest on Desmond's shoulder, and Shaun said nothing of it.
"The coordinates?" was all he asked, instead.
"The coordinates," Bill confirmed with a nod. Then, "Are we going to have a problem?"
Shaun looked up from Desmond with surprise, fixing on Bill with no small amount of trepidation. "Sorry?"
"Desmond," Bill clarified. "He killed Lucy, after all."
"It's-" Shaun broke off, hesitated, and tried to think of how best to phrase his words so that they didn't sound like they were being issued by a complete idiot. "I keep waiting to be angry, to hate him. I really should, right? I saw him. I saw him stab-"
He stopped and took a deep breath.
"But then I think about that... that thing and its history. Everything it is, and does and I just... feel kinda sorry for him." The thought had occurred to him that maybe Desmond had been a sleeper agent of some sort, that maybe the Templar Animus had done more to Desmond's brain than just allow him to access distant memories. But Desmond had been given ample opportunity to kill Lucy before reaching the Apple, and surely any sleeper agent would try to escape with the Apple, if that's what they were waiting for, instead of collapsing into some sort of coma.
The door clicked, and soft footsteps heralded Rebecca's approach. In her hands she held paper cups that were steaming in the cool air of the storage area. She hesitated just inside the door, glancing between Shaun and William as if wondering whether she should interrupt. Shaun relieved her of the burden of deciding by standing and giving her a wan smile to beckon her forward.
Rebecca glanced between the two of them, probably wondering if she should say something about the obvious tension in the air, but eventually she handed the paper cup full of watery coffee over to Shaun and raised her eyebrows at William. "What's the word?" she said.
"The word is 'soon'," William said, shoving his hands into his pockets and turning away from Desmond. "Make sure all your gear is together. We'll want to move quickly when we do."
Rebecca nodded shortly, and with only a brief glance at Desmond, William walked from the room, the very image of a man with many things more important than his son that he needed to concern himself about. Shaun wondered if the obvious falsehood of the man's preoccupation was only obvious to him, or whether it was writ large for all to see.
"I should get the generator ready to move." Rebecca downed the remains of her coffee and shuddered at the sharp and nasty aftertaste. "Help me set up the battery packs?" She tossed the paper cup into a nearby waste paper bin, and turned away.
Shaun experimentally rested his fingertips against the back of Desmond's hand. Warm. Not dead yet. "Sure," he said, "Be right there."
** The End **