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“I guess... After that it was kind of hard to think. I’d held the Apple before, but it wasn’t really me. I don’t know, that time it was...”

“It’s different, isn’t it?” Clay affirmed.

“Yeah,” Desmond agreed. “In the Animus, you... I don’t know.”

“You can always tell yourself that it’s not real, even if it feels completely so. Even though it doesn’t help that much, it still helps.”

“You get it,” Desmond breathed a relieved sigh.

“Of course I get it. You’re in good hands here, buddy. The only person more insane than you and I, you put a knife in back at Abstergo. Not that he’d be very amenable to conversation with us fine fellows.”

Desmond just sat there, legs swinging casually back and forth over the edge of digitized... Everything. The odd false-paradise they rested in now, whatever it really was. Hard to tell. Easier just to accept it. At least he had a friend here with him.

“We’ve seen the effect the artifact can have on any mind, Desmond,” Clay told him. “I wouldn’t blame myself if I were you. You tried your best. Just like me. Sometimes, our best isn’t good enough. Sometimes we lose anyway.” He gestured around, enigmatically, like he often had back in the Black Room. Back on Animus Island. Desmond looked at all that Clay waved his arms toward. The pillars of glowing lines, there but not there. The odd columns of genetic memory, parsed and processed and uploaded to Abstergo’s Helix Servers, which they’d taken to cracking open, synchronizing with, closing, moving onto the next. It was... Something to do. When it got boring here, in this place colored no color at worst and grey at best, that’s what they’d go for. Find some other life, exist as that person. Just for a short while. Until they’d lived through it all. They were shocked to see how many of them were just... Normal people.

“Guess Abstergo’s moved onto mining the DNA of just about anyone they can get their hands on. I mean you were that guy for a short while after I was him, right?” Clay had asked once, laughing. “I think being around here was actually more interesting. At least there are incomprehensible patterns to question and ponder in here. I’m not keen on going back to filing taxes all day. Did enough of that back when I was alive.”

The look on Desmond’s face always reminded Clay that he was still getting used to his new conditions.

“Sorry, buddy. I keep forgetting. Let’s just pretend I never said it.”

“No, it’s fine,” Desmond insisted, putting his hand on Clay’s shoulder, looking down below them at the swirls of data, circling and falling away as someone on the outside accessed a file.

If anyone from Abstergo had noticed what Clay and Desmond had been doing, all the DNA they’d Synced with throughout their stay in this nothing-realm, they hadn’t made much of a ruckus about it.

“Think it’s because we’re not actually... Doing anything?” Desmond suggested.

“Oh sure. Think of it this way; it’s not being copied, not being deleted, this data’s not being put anywhere else. It’s just being accessed, closed, and then a few moments later -- we move onto the next one. If you saw something like that from the outside, would you be in a hurry to fix it?”

“It’d still concern me.”

“Of course it would! But at Abstergo concerns generally lead to an expenditure of resources, and unless something’s pretty serious, they’re quite happy to sit on their hands. At least until we show them their hands need to be a bit more active. As you so aptly explained.”

“Ah,” Desmond understood. A week ago... Was it a week? It was hard to tell what time did here. And what it didn’t do. Existing in the Now was the only thing that made any sense. “When you were about to delete one of the DNA clusters to test if it was possible.”

“Yeah.”

“You know I had to stop you. You know it made sense.”

“It did.”

Clay was pissed off at the time. Hadn’t run into any real conflict with another human being in a while.

They didn’t have bodies but that didn’t stop them from fighting. Not when their existence was at stake. The deletion of a memory cluster would spook Abstergo much more than some anomalous access-logs. That would be tampering. That would justify an expenditure of resources. And that’s when the bad things would start to happen. Desmond couldn’t let that go down. So, they fought.

It was exhilarating and frightening how quickly it all came back. How easy and normal it felt. Maybe they even both needed it. Altair threw a punch at Ezio and the legendary Assassin’s Italian protege, his student from across time, his successor, generations away, parried flawlessly, following with a quick spinning backfist. Now on the offensive, the Auditore moved quicker, punch after punch, a low-kick to try to crack Altair’s... No. Desmond’s guard. Neither really won. But they were both exhausted enough that neither could try tampering with Abstergo’s data anymore. So, Clay supposed, Desmond had won. He’d achieved his objective. And more importantly, when they laid down on the floor of code that glistened under their backs, as they stared up into the ever-expanding nothingness, they were able to talk. They realized how important it was to keep each other, and themselves, away from destruction at Abstergo’s hands for as long as possible. Abstergo’s hands, or anyone else’s...

Lying back on the platform now, staring up in much the same way, the quiet was interrupted by a flare, a burst of data in the distance.

“That’s probably not good,” Desmond remarked.

“Let’s go check it out.”

“You think?”

“It’s more responsible to find out. Not knowing doesn’t make us safer.”

“Right.”

They got up, and crept quietly to the part of this plane that they seldom ever visited. Not since they realized She liked to float around there, muttering to herself, or to other consciousnesses they didn’t much like being around. Now She was there again, floating on a stream of burning bytes upward.

She noticed them.

“My precious Assassins,” she spoke as if wanting to laugh. “Worry not. My time is nigh, and as much as I’ve enjoyed being here and observing you do nothing of purpose or value, wasting away your consciousness as you wasted your human bodies, it’s time for me to say goodbye.”

“Yeah, good riddance you bitch,” Desmond raised his voice in her direction.

“I’m not sure Elijah would appreciate hearing his father talk like that,” Juno stung, right before waving bye and disappearing in a flash of light.

Desmond stood there. There wasn’t much else he could do in the moment.

Clay walked up to him, asked him something, but his voice was far away, a blur.

What the hell? What the hell...? Elijah...?

Oh. Oh fuck.

“Clay... A long time ago... I saw you in the heart of the Animus. You warned me about the sun. I think I did a good job saving us from that one. But... You also said something else.”

“Your son,” Clay reminded him.

Desmond turned to look at his face, and despite his tone being level and calm, the ghostly expression Clay carried now was anything but.

The two Assassins stared at each other, haunted, a chill through them, unable to voice what the other was thinking, though they knew exactly what it was.

“When she comes back, I don’t care how powerful she thinks she is in here, I’m going to ask her some questions. And you’re going to help me. You have reason to hate her too,” Desmond’s voice shook.

“I don’t think so, Desmond.”

“What the hell do you mean, you don’t think so?”

“I don’t think she’s coming back.”

“Why wouldn’t she? Oh. No, you’ve gotta be kidding me. I died, for...!”

“I died too, Desmond." He interrupted. "We’re in this together. You get it? We gave it our best shot. And we lost anyway. It happens. We’re Assassins. Kind of our little group’s thing. And if we stopped trying just because we knew we were gonna lose, well we wouldn’t be around in the present day at all. But...” A sigh. “Yeah. I know. You’re right.”

“That monster’s got a body? Somewhere out there? Minerva warned me not to let her out. Clay, are you aware of how dangerous she can be?”

“Enlighten me,” he said, monotone.

“Minerva literally preferred I let all of human civilization burn to a fucking crisp, rather than release Juno’s consciousness from the Grand Temple.”

Clay whistled. “That bad, huh?”

“The other Isu seemed to think so, and I think they probably know a little better than we do about this stuff.”

“Fair enough. So. Looks like we’re in pretty deep shit.”

Clay sat down and pulled Desmond down with him by the wrist.

They both gazed out over the vortexes of programming. All manmade. An unbelievable sight, to think they existed in this place that wasn’t made for them, but for numbers, digits and sequences of ons and offs. Then again, they effectively were numbers and digits now.

“What do we do?” Desmond asked. “We’re stuck in here. Can we get some kind of message out to the Brotherhood? Something, anything...?”

Clay shook his head.

“I really doubt that, Desmond. There’s not much for us to do. But...”

“But?”

“I don’t know how to say this.”

“Just go ahead. Can’t be any worse than the other bullshit plot-twists we’ve experienced to date.”

“If the world goes to hell, well. I just wanted to say, I’m glad you’re around for me to bother and talk to while everything falls to pieces out there. Could’ve been worse. I could’ve been alone.”

Back on Animus Island, he had been. For a long time.

“Yeah, we’re equally fucked, I guess,” Desmond laughed and leaned back until he was lying down again, staring up at where the stars would be if they existed in a place where stars were present.

Silence. And more silence.

“I like the one with the axe.”

“What?” Desmond asked, confused.

“You know. Ezio liked to do certain moves to finish his enemies. Some of them, I enjoyed more than others. Which one was your favorite?”

“You’re asking me that at a time like this?”

“And why not? Humor me, man.”

Sigh. “Fine. I... There was something really cool about the one where he stabs his enemy really fast over and over again with both hidden blades, alternating, left right left right. You remember that one?”

“Boy do I?” Clay grinned. “The first one I got pulled into, in his memory of getting his second blade from Leonardo.”

Desmond smiled and shook his head a bit. Funny. They’d both lived Ezio’s life.

“Oh,” Desmond remembered. “The one with the axe?”

“Oh yeah,” Clay thanked him for the reminder, “So, slamming the axe blade down into the guy’s shoulder, then doing that badass slow push and watching him tip over. Unreal.”

“He was a hell of a guy,” Desmond agreed.

And so it went. Discussing the specifics of this life that belonged to neither of them, and yet also belonged to both. Of this man who they both came from, eons ago. There was nothing they could do about the world anymore. They’d fought for Earth before, they’d given everything they had, even their very lives. And it hadn’t been enough. It was... It was okay to rest now. If only for a while. And although they were powerless to do any more, at least they were in good company.