Desmond watched the darkened ceiling through half-lidded eyes. His arm throbbed, a constant ache reminding him that it had not been long since he had died. Or almost died, really, back at the Temple.
His mind had been numb with excruciating pain as he burned from the inside out and outside in; he felt the fire licking up his arm and frying it to nothing, he wouldn’t have been able to take his hand away if he’d wanted to – the skin had melted on the surface of The Eye and it was there to stay, blackened and charred; his nerves had been irreversibly damaged, the muscles and tendons in his arms rendered useless.
Just as he thought the very last vestige of life in him was about to be burned out, a hand pulled him back sharply. He had landed on the cold stone floor and blacked out from the pain, the last thing he remembered being Juno’s furious screams, a white cloth passing over his vision and Minerva’s reassurances in his ears, telling him that “It is done, we have saved him, Aquila. Rest easy, Desmond. Your job is done.”
Right now, he was lying in a bed softer than what he’d been used to for the past few months. He had been lying there for hours, breathing heavily through the pain that barely subsided a not long ago, refusing to glance at his arm. Outside, he could hear crickets chirping, the sound comforting, but not supposed to be there.
It was that thought registering that finally made him move, joints popping from stiffness. He looked towards a window to his, feeling a breeze and saw trees rustling, faint moonlight passing through the leaves.
His brows scrunched together and he inhaled sharply. “What the fu-uck”. At the sharp tinge of pain at his mouth, he raised his good hand. There was a wound where his scar was, tender and bleeding sluggishly. His fingers came away red.
Desmond braced himself to look at his right arm, which should be charred for all purposes. He closed his eyes tightly and lifted the sore arm – braced himself - and opened them again, promptly clamped his other hand over his mouth, flinching violently as he expected grotesque burn wounds.
“Aah, fuck” he exhaled softly, muffled by his hand. His breathing was erratic, chest rising and falling fast. The arm looked okay, save for the ache and limited mobility in it as he tried flexing his fingers. He had expected something gruesome, but he couldn’t decide if this was actually worse.
“Shit.” He recognized this place. It was his room back at The Farm.
And because life really liked to throw shit at him at every given opportunity, he scrambled to his feet, going over to the calendar pinned on the door.
13th of March, 2003. The day he ran away from The Farm. Also, his birthday, but who actually cared?
The floor seemed to be a bit closer to him than he was used to, also; okay, weird. Coupled with the normal looking hand, no tattoo on his left forearm and also, the wound at his lips, he would daresay he had managed to travel back in time.
Of course, why not.
Out of the corner of his eyes, he sensed something. He turned around sharply, coming face to face with the wispy white vision of Altaϊr, watching him closely.
Only, where he was expecting the hallucination to simply fade away or say something to another invisible, long-dead person, the man passed through him – eugh – and went to… Yep. Went to dislodge the floorboards to reveal where Desmond had painstakingly hidden his stash in preparation for his escape. Which was tonight.
“Come.” said the weird echo of Altaϊr’s voice.
Desmond wasted no time in reaching the man’s side and he quickly shouldered the backpack, tightening the straps to ensure it would not hinder him. At his side, Altaϊr seems to faze a little before resuming form, and Desmond staunchly ignored that. Talk about creepy.
He turned to look at his ancestor, having to look up quite a bit to meet his eyes, partly hidden underneath his beaked hood.
The vision turned towards his window, and Altaϊr looked around, scanning the surrounding. He beckoned Desmond to follow – and really, why was he letting the man lead? Was his mind so damaged he could not escape a second time from the Farm? He had already done it once without (much) issue.
Considering how much his body trembled and how numb his mind was – which he attributed to shock – he doubted he’d be fully able to run away now.
Why was he even running, this time? He knew what was to come. It would help to stay.
No time to think, though. Altaϊr had grabbed the windowsill and hauled himself over. Desmond followed suit, twisting around to begin his descent.
In the end, it was his right arm that did him in – a strong, sharp pain shot up from his fingers to his shoulder when he put his weight on it. He choked on a cry and fell from the second story. Altaϊr had tried to catch him, arms raised to grab him from the air, but of course Desmond passed right through, breath knocked out of him as Altaϊr hovered at his side. At least the backpack got the brunt of the fall.
In two seconds flat, he was back on his feet, knowing that the noise of his crash would have alerted the other Assassins.
Cradling his bad arm, Desmond looked at the man again, who was already moving away, walking stealthily and silently out of habit even if it was not needed.
Desmond moved after him, automatically silencing his footsteps as best as possible. Moving in his younger body was a little weird at first – but it was him. Soon enough he grew comfortable in it as if he’d never aged before.
If not for the vision of Altaϊr and his wrecked arm, he’d have believed he dreamt it all.
They had just reached the tree line when Altaϊr ordered Desmond to hide behind a tree, while he looked back at the Farm.
In the short distance, he heard a door creak slightly and muffled footsteps on the porch. A light turned on, then voices growing louder and some cursing. The light turned off, and all was silent again.
Desmond did, numbly following his ancestor’s directions.
The whole escape went a lot better with Altaϊr compared to the first time, which was no surprise, really. He was a legendary Master Assassin.
At times, they nearly ran into the path of the pursuing Assassins, but the older male quickly directed him away from danger.
It was not too long before Desmond reached the main road and, on auto-pilot, flagged down a passing truck. The first one didn’t stop, but the second one did.
“You okay, kid?” asked a heavily accented man, leaning out the window of his truck as it came to a stop beside him. He looked to be in his forties, with a scraggly beard and a ball cap on, chewing on a gum.
“I… Where are you headed?”
“Rapid City. Hitching a ride?”
“Yes, please.” He looked around him. Altaϊr was gone. Was it just his mind, manifesting itself in the most resourceful, reliable way he knew while he was coming down from the shock of dying?
No matter. Time to think later. He got into the truck and the man, who informed him was called William - nice, ironic, swerved back onto the road.
“Are you sure you’re alright, kid? Do you need me to stop at the police station? You look pretty banged up.”
Desmond supposed he did. He had blood smudged over his face and he was cradling his arm protectively still. Not to mention the look on his face must’ve been pretty traumatised. It worked in his favor this time, anyway – he had had a baby-face until he hit his growth spurt later. People were more likely to stop for distressed children.
“My name's Desmond. And no, it’s fine. I don’t need to go to the police. Do you mind if I close my eyes a little?”
The man looked unconvinced, but didn’t press the matter. “Knock yourself out, kid.”
He didn’t know how much later it was, but dawn was starting to paint the skyline a deep blue when William woke him up.
“We’ve arrived. City center is just that way. I’m afraid this is my final stop, night shift and all.”
“Ah, uh, thank you. Really.” Desmond said, blearily rubbing at his eyes. “Have a good day.”
Vinnie watched him intently, before reaching in his back pocket. He took out a couple of crumpled bills and pushed them into Desmond’s hand, who took them belatedly.
“What – oh! No, I can’t, thank you. I’ve already hitched a ride, I can’t take these.”
“Don’t argue with me, kid. Take these and go. And take care of yourself, brat.”
Desmond watched the man, pocketing the bills reluctantly. Truthfully, he had no money when he left the first time. There was no need for him to have pocket money when he’d lived at the Farm.
He got out of the truck and waved at the man, before walking down in the direction of the center. Now that he had some money, instead of hitchhiking he was going to get a ticket straight to New York.
As he walked, he felt the air shift as Altaϊr reappeared. He was looking around curiously, but he didn’t ask any questions, obviously aware how he’d make Desmond look if he made him talk to thin air.
Desmond walked into a convenience store and bought a bottle of water and some dry snacks. He was left with a little over 20 bucks. He figured that’d be enough to get him to the next major city, where he could pickpocket some more money for the fare to New York.
Suddenly, an arm waved in front of Desmond’s face. He blinked, seeing Altaϊr signaling him to follow him. He walked down a dingy alleyway, where Altaϊr stopped and turned around to face him.
“You must head over to the Temple in …New York.” He said, carefully going over the foreign name. “I’m afraid we can no longer assist you until you get there.”
Desmond merely nodded, opening his mouth to speak, but Altaϊr disappeared once again.
He walked back out of the alleyway and went in search of the intercity buses.
Hours later, he was on a bus headed to Chicago. He had already switched twice and managed to flawlessly pickpocket some poor souls. He currently had around 300 bucks in various pockets on his person. It was dark outside and he hoped that by the same time tomorrow, he’d arrive in New York.
For now, he was dealing with the shock of the past day. He was at the very back of the bus and thankfully, there were no other people sat nearby him to watch his meltdown.
He was hunched forward, head between his knees as he tried to regulate his harsh breathing.
What the fuck, what the actual fucking fuck, I died, I knew I died why am I alive. How did this happen?
And he’d ran away, in the middle of the night, again. Because that was a proper response to a resurrection – run from the possibly only person who could help him, even if he was loathe to admit Bill was his most likely source of information.
Actually, he really didn’t think about why he’d ran away this time – it was most likely the combined panic, shock, confusion and Altaϊr’s instructions that made him leave the Farm again. Now that he had time to think about it, he doubted he’d have stayed anyway, even if he presumably had a second chance and explanations. The wound on his lips reminded him why he’d ran in the first place – however his father and him had come to a certain kind of truce back at the Temple, Desmond could not forgive him his past deeds, how he’d abused him – which he now knew was abuse, thanks to living in the real world – and forced him into a role he did not want.
He raised his head and downed half of the water he’d restocked on earlier, a few droplets escaping and running down his throat. The cold feeling helped to focus him a little bit, at least.
He looked at his right arm and tried to flex his fingers. At least now, he didn’t have to worry about being forced to be an Assassin.
The movement was still reduced. He tried pinching the skin earlier, and the amount of strength he’d needed to feel something made him cry out in panic, to his utter mortification.
He sighed dejectedly, resuming himself to the idea that his right arm was probably a goner. At least he could still use it, but the range and dexterity were horribly reduced. It most likely meant he could not, even if he’d wanted to, be an Assassin anymore.
Maybe some physiotherapy could help? Some exercises to build strength back up.
But that was not the issue, though. He had strength, the muscles were not atrophied or torn, it was more likely his nerves that were damaged. He’d just have to get used to using his arm like that. Nothing he couldn’t handle, although he couldn’t really say – a doctor, he was most certainly not.
Feeling another bout of hysteria and anxiety well up in him, Desmond hunched back over, trying and failing to stop the tears from escaping.
It was a long journey until he reached Chicago.
wherein there are questionable physics
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was close to midnight the next day when he arrived in Turin, New York. He was already inside the Temple, waiting on any word from his ancestor. The doors to the main chamber were obviously sealed.
With each passing hour, he felt more like his mind had just gone crazy and led him on a wild goose chase across the US to the place he’d died – during his travels, he’d sometimes seen random buildings appearing in place of the ones already there, or masses of people talking on smartphones, which was wrong because he was currently in 2003. Right?
He had fallen asleep at one point, since he woke violently when he heard a voice calling his name.
“Desmond, wake up now.”
He scanned around him, seeing the visions of Minerva, Jupiter (huh) and Altaϊr (huh) and the doors of the Temple were open.
Minerva gestured him to follow.
He trailed inside after them, scanning the chamber. The entire place was weird – there were some wires along on the floor and he swore he saw a piece of cloth in one corner. Those shouldn’t have been there – not during this time period. The Temple had been empty the first time the'y stepped foot inside it. He did not see anyone else around for that matter and no dead body near The Eye, where the other three had gathered around it. Altaϊr laid his hand on it and Jupiter called Desmond forth, but he stay glued to the spot, unwilling to trust the two Isu, shaking his head vigorously, a hair’s breadth away from bolting altogether.
“Dezmund.” His eyes turned to Altaϊr; he couldn’t see his eyes from under the hood. “Trust me.”
And, despite his better judgement, Desmond did.
“I do trust you, I do not trust them.”
Minerva looked at him sadly, while Jupiter’s expression was blank.
“What the fuck is going on? Please don’t tell me it didn’t work – do I have to die again?” he said, a tone of hysteria in his still high voice.
“You did not fail. You succeeded in saving the world. Juno, through my and Aquila’s actions, did not succeed, either. Your entire purpose was met.” Minerva informed him, Altaϊr’s mouth twisting in a sneer when she’d said Aquila. So that was her title for him, then. He didn’t seem to like it.
“Then what exactly is going on?” he gave a harsh laugh, the young voice sounding at odds with the sound. “Are you offering me a second chance? All to meet the same end in nine years’ time?”
“Of a sort.” Jupiter chimed in. “Minerva had a back-up plan in case something like you choosing to save the world happened.”
Desmond was a little floored by that, the guy seemed a little put upon that he’d chosen to save humanity and give them a chance to fight Juno, instead of let it burn if only to spite her.
“All that can be explained later, but we have managed to save your soul and put it into your younger body. Right now, the timelines are overlapping. If you are to stay in this world, the two timelines will clash and results in disastrous consequences for the world.”
“Then why did you save me? Why not let me die?” he said, voice choking on the last word.
He glanced at Altaϊr, who was staring at him, no expression discernible on his face.
“The only way you could have saved the world from the flare and stopped Juno was if you survived. Juno would have gained entry to this world through your death and the passage of your soul, while you would have left this world for eternity.” Minerva said. At least she was explaining stuff. “We saved your soul with the aid of Aquila at the last moment, but your present body was already burnt out – it could no longer house your life. So, we had to put it somewhere it would not be rejected.”
Having watched at least a few sci-fi films, Desmond paled. “Are you – am I – are you saying I killed my younger self? Or that he’s in here with me?”
“No. you are alone in the body. This world is both the present and the past right now, and your younger body had been uninhabited for nearly a decade in 2012 because it was no longer existing as it was; you had grown up. But the past imprint, the memory it had left in the Calculations was enough to put you into it.”
“So, then, what do I do now?” he was seriously going to ignore that abridged explanation, just trying to wrap his head around it made his brain hurt. It was far-fetched, even for a sci-fi movie. “you said if I stay here, I will make the entire world collapse. What am I supposed to do then?”
“You will go with him, in the past.” Jupiter said, nodding toward Altaϊr. His hand was still gripping the Eye, his entire posture tense.
“Hah.” He laughed. Then, “You’re not kidding” at seeing their serious visage.
Just then, as if to drive the direness of the situation home, the world shifted and he was able to see for a second, Abstergo staff cleaning up around the chamber and others exploring and writing down findings. One of them passed through Minerva and looked around weirdly, before they disappeared again.
“You must leave now, or the whole place will come down soon enough.”
“So, that’s it? My life is completely fucked up again by you people? Haven’t I done enough – why can’t I just kill myself right now and be done with it? Since Juno’s defeated and all.”
“Desmond.” The Isu said, her voice sounding almost guilty, almost. “You have a second chance at life. You have saved the world. I swear to you, you will not have to deal with us ever again.”
Desmond scoffed. Sure. “And what is me travelling back in time going to affect in this timeline, then?”
“Nothing. Everything has already happened, in a sense. You would live your life as you see fit, and not change anything in this future.”
Desmond stared, not even trying to read between Jupiter’s words, but noting his wording anyway.
“Dezmund. Come with me.” Altaϊr suddenly said. “I swear to you I will not leave you wanting in my time.”
Desmond stared at him for a few moments, turning after to glance at the two Isu. The three of them seemed to be patiently waiting for his next course of action, though he knew Altaϊr would not remain patient forever and, were he able to, would have come and dragged Desmond by force.
Around him, the world shifted again, and he heard Abstergo employees talking hurriedly in comms – there is something going on – weird readings – faint tremors like earthquakes – and Desmond sighed irritated.
“Oh, what the hell.” He said, walking over to The Eye and slapping his (bum) arm on it. “Let’s go, then.”
And the world exploded in brilliant, blinding, agonizing light.
not happy with this, but it' already been rewritten enough
on another note, thank you for the kind words, they've made my day :D especially after procrastinating on actual uni deadlines and ending up writing a 20k word bnha fic on a whim last night oops
this is supposed to be practice and helping me maintain a schedule but it's mainly just frustrating lmao.
Desmond woke up to cool hand on his heated skin and gentle murmuring in the background. He instinctively moved his face into it, but it removed itself from his forehead.
His whole body was in pain once again and he groaned, slurring out something along the lines of “did anybody see who body-slammed me in the path of that truck”
There was silence above him, then a belated “what?”, but no other response was heard.
Slowly, the memories pieced themselves together in his brain and Desmond’s eyes shot open, body trying to follow suit and shoot upwards, but he was stopped by a strong arm on his chest pushing him back down.
He groaned again, the movement having caused another spike of pain. God, his head was killing him. He looked up, down the length of the arm belonging to…
“Malik?” he blurted out.
At that, the man sighed exasperatedly, pinching the bridge of his nose and turning to look at the other inhabitant of the room.
“I will give you this, Altaϊr, you certainly know how to deprive me of both safety and peace of mind.”
“I did tell you I was not making this up.”
“Yes, well, excuse me for not exactly trusting your judgement of late.” Malik snarled.
In response, Altaϊr sneered at him, lips twisting harshly as he pushed away from the wall and came to Desmond’s side, who was watching the proceedings with a decidedly deer-caught-in-headlights look.
He slapped a damp, cool cloth over his eyes unceremoniously.
“How are you feeling?” he asked gruffly. “You’ve been asleep for two days. The fever seems to have broken at last.”
“No thanks to you, novice.” Malik muttered bitterly. “You have barely been at the bureau these past days.”
At that, Altaϊr bristled. “And what would you have me do, shirk in my duties when there is nothing I could have done for him while he slept?”
“Duties you would not have had to deal with had you shoved your pride aside and listened to me in the first place!” Malik yelled, sitting up from his place on Desmond’s cot.
“Enough!” Altaϊr shouted back. “This is not the time or place for this.”
“Oh, now you decide to practice discretion?”
“Oo-kay” Desmond intervened, horribly uncomfortable with the situation. The two men looked about ready to jump at each other’s throats and he did not want to become a murder witness. “Where… are we?”
He meant more like year, but Altaϊr seemed to grasp the unspoken specification either way.
“Jerusalem, Assassin bureau. It’s the year 1191.”
“I think I might be going back to sleep now, thanks.” Desmond said breathily, then promptly fainted.
The next time he woke, he felt a bit more rested, body merely sore instead of in pain, his headache had all but gone. He felt more like himself than he had in months.
At least, for now, he was safe in the knowledge that he was with allies, brothers, who would kill anyone daring to hurt him, even if there was no one here to hurt him.
He gingerly sat up, the now warm cloth falling off his forehead and into his lap. He was wearing his jeans, but had no shirt on. There were no windows in the room he was in and, as furniture, there was only the cot he was sat on and a dresser in front by the wall. There was a cup of water left on the floor by the cot, and he drank it greedily, not even having noticed how parched he was until the cool water slid down his throat blissfully.
He set the cup down and left in search of Altaϊr or Malik.
Exiting the room found him in the halls around the courtyard of the Assassin’s bureau. It was dark outside, the moon up high; the only sounds he could were crickets and other insects of the night and some faint noises coming from the main office, along with the warm light of lanterns.
He headed in that direction, shivering slightly as the sweat on his skin cooled down. He would have to ask for some clothes until he had enough coins to buy his own.
The door to the office was open, and he poked his head inside, seeing Altaϊr and Malik – quietly discussing. Huh. That’s a new one. He didn’t think they were able to talk civilly.
They both shut up as he came in, however, so they were most likely talking of business affairs – the only thing that would make them put aside their …differences, for lack of a better word, as well evidenced by the map spread in front of them and the heaps of paperwork scattered around.
“Uhh…Hi. I was wondering, can I borrow a shirt? And, if it’s not too much trouble, get something to eat?” he added right as his stomach growled audibly.
Altaϊr moved from the desk and left the room without a word, while Malik got up and came up to him.
Either Desmond was shorter than he remembered being at 16, or Malik was just that tall. Making different heights for multiple NPCs might’ve been difficult in the Animus, who knows, certainly not Desmond.
“Certainly. I am Malik, but you seem to already have known that.”
“Ahh, yeah” Desmond scratched the back of his head. “I am Desmond. I’m honored to meet you, brother. Thank you for caring for me.” He placed his left hand over his chest and bowed his head.
Malik scoffed, but he was smiling. “I wouldn’t call it an ‘honor’, but I appreciate it. Come with me, there is some food in the cellar.”
He grabbed a lantern and led Desmond out into the hall and into a room to the right of the office. Over there, he lifted the hatch in the middle of the room and climbed down into the cellar. He shoved a basket in his hands and directed him to get some bread, cheese, hummus, tomatoes and various fruits.
Soon enough, Desmond and Malik were climbing out of the cellar, the latter locking it back up, and they went into the courtyard, where there were blankets and pillows to sit.
Desmond dug in with gusto, hungry after days of living on soup, as Malik told him. He’d been too delirious to remember much of the past 48 hours, but he thanked his lucky stars he had been conscious enough to get to the lavatory himself.
He was reaching for some grapes when Altaϊr returned from wherever he went, stopping to give him a large, white cloth before sitting down across from him and Malik. He reached for a piece of bread and ate.
“Oh” Desmond said, picking up the shirt. “Thank you.”
He put it on hastily, glad for the reprieve from the cool night air. It was big on him, the sleeves covered his fingers and it fell off one shoulder, but it would have to do for now.
“How is your arm?” Altaϊr asked suddenly, after minutes of tense silence, courtesy of Altaϊr and Malik being in each other’s vicinity.
Desmond grimaced, biting into a grape. “Bad. It aches still and I can’t really use it that much, or at all.”
Malik leaned forward at that, interested. Honestly, he was surprised the man had been able to control his questions so far. Altaϊr as well, but Desmond had the feeling he had not bombarded Desmond with questions because Malik was abstaining. “What exactly happened? Altaϊr told me little of the events.”
“What… what did he tell you?”
Malik raised an eyebrow. “That you are his time-travelling descendant in his teenage body.” He said flatly.
“Oh. Okay. We have a lot to work with here.”
He took a deep breath, mentally preparing himself, and started: “I was born to the Mentor of the 21st century’s Assassin Order. When I was sixteen, which is a decade ago for me, I ran away.”
As such, he went on, sparing no details so he would not be questioned more later on, until an hour, then two passed, interspersed with queries and explanations of the 21st century technology; about how humans were created, their purpose and the Isu and their plans to save the world.
“…and that is how I ended up… like this. Not really fun, I’m not looking forward to go through puberty again.”
Silence descended between them, both men digesting the fairy-tale like story of his life. Malik looked a little bit pale, obviously rattled by the…origins of their race. He felt a little bad for throwing off the man’s entire worldview.
In that silence, something came to Desmond.
Frowning, he looked at Altaϊr. “How exactly did you get in touch with…the Isu?”
Now that he’d asked it, it was a really good question.
Wordlessly, Altaϊr reached in the folds of his robe, through some hidden pouches and pulled out the goddamn Apple of Eden.
Desmond’s eyebrows tried to climb themselves off his forehead.
“Woah. Weren’t you supposed to deliver that to Al Mualim?”
“We were.” He said vaguely.
Desmond gave him a flat look, turning to Malik expectantly, the Dai sighing irritatedly at Altaϊr’s stellar social skills.
“I was about to, and I assume you know the entire situation at Solomon’s Temple, when I retrieved it from the Templars. I rode towards Masyaf to meet with the Mentor, hoping that at least something worthwhile would come of our failed mission”
At that, Altaϊr’s mouth tightened, jaw working as he ground his teeth and bowed his head until none of his face was visible anymore. His hand slipped the Apple back in his robe.
“but, someway, the damned thing stayed my tongue. I could not answer Al Mualim as he wished me to, no matter how much I willed myself to speak of the treasure. I felt like a man possessed, keeping the treasure for my own, in secret.
After the Templars’ siege, I was appointed Dai here and left with the Apple. Altaϊr, having been spared if only for his skills and because we could not afford more losses after the attack, came on a mission to redeem himself.” Malik sighed, lifting a glass of arak to drink from, which Altaϊr, surprisingly, had retrieved for them sometime during Desmond’s retelling.
“I debriefed him and that is when the blasted thing started to glow, unnatural light pouring from the drawer I’d locked it in at the Bureau. I was paralyzed, watching Altaϊr as he retrieved it. That’s when I got knocked out cold. When I came to, he was speaking to me of the future, an end of the world and having to ‘help his descendant, Malik, other duties can wait’”.
“Oh.” Desmond exhaled, hopelessly relieved. At least Al Mualim didn’t have the treasure. He squirmed in place, trying to bite at his lip and stopping when he felt the sharp pain of the wound as he aggravated it. His hands fiddled instead with a string of the pillow he sat on, wondering how in the world he was going to breach the subject of ‘your Order’s Mentor is a Templar, surprise’.
“Speak your mind.” Altaϊr’s sharp command broke through his musings.
“Oh, uh, I, there’s nothing to speak of.” He said, unconvincingly.
The two men stared at him, unimpressed, but clearly Malik was an angel descended from above to save Desmond’s skin.
“The boy is clearly thrown by this whole situation, Altaϊr. Let him process it.”
“Can you hand me the Apple?” Desmond blurted out, nearly cutting Malik off. He shot him a sheepish look, seeing the slightly baffled expression on his face.
“No.” Altaϊr answered him.
“And why is that?”
“This device… it is tempting. I do not want you to look at it until I’ve discerned what exactly it can do.”
“Mind control, create illusions, break minds and kill humans, among others.” Desmond answered for him.
He was so not going to laugh at the thoroughly shocked expressions on the two men’s faces. At least, not until he was in private.
“I’ve had to use them before. So, in that sense, I think I am better equipped to dealing with this than you are. What?”
“Surely, you must be joking.” Malik stated. “There is no such thing as-“
“As mind control? Just like how there’s no such thing as travelling through time and space? Trust me, that thing should not get in the wrong hands. I’ve held it before and I want to make sure there is no Juno exerting her influence over it.”
“The Apple is to be returned to Al Mualim.” Altaϊr stated. “The reason for this delay has been due to retrieving you. Now that is no longer a concern, it is to be brought to the Mentor, where he can decide what to do with it.”
“Oh no you don’t want to do that.” Desmond’s mouth said, before he pursed his lips, thoroughly fucked.
He did not imagine the dangerous edge to Altaϊr, sudden and suffocating. “And why is that?” and oh, God, that sounded like a threat, didn’t it?
Desmond chanced a quick glance Malik’s way, before doing a double take. The man looked speculative, resting his chin on his hand as he leant forward, a curiously open expression to him. “Indeed, why not?”
So, Altaϊr was pretty much the one that, as Abbas had phrased it ‘put his tongue to Al Mualim’s boots’. Maybe some of the other Assassins were not blinded by faith like Altaϊr was?
From the sounds of it, he’d only just started the mission to redeem himself, so he has yet to meet Garnier or Talal, the ones who started shaking up his blind loyalty first. Somehow, he needed to wiggle his way out of this conversation without outright calling Al Mualim a traitor. That would only serve to make Altaϊr defensive and shut off.
“You said the Apple tempts people? Then you should know how it affects the mind. Why would you want your Mentor to be tempted by the Apple?”
Desmond frantically mentally patted himself on the back for that save.
Altaϊr scowled. “Al Mualim is not a man of weak will. He will not succumb to it.”
“Are you implying you are, then?”
Besides them, Malik barked a surprised laugh.
Hazel eyes narrowed, a golden sheen passing eerily over them as Altaϊr lifted his head, looking down his nose at him.
Malik interrupted before he could put his foot in his mouth, ever the voice of reason. “He speaks rationally, Altaϊr, I would advise you to do the same and think. Al Mualim is but a man himself. He is not invincible and impervious to the same thoughts that sometimes plague us. He can and most probably will be tempted as well. Would you wish for our Mentor to be influenced by that thing, when he has to see to our Order’s welfare?”
Malik was brilliant. He mercilessly pounced on every single one of Altaϊr’s weaknesses in a few seconds, he made it seem like Altaϊr was the one not thinking of the Mentor’s well being. Desmond had to fight to hide his grin. Malik reminded him of another version of Shaun – just as acerbic, but only ever directed to stupid remarks. And Altaϊr provided the man with a plethora of openings that Malik could attack, seemingly.
“Do not mock me, Malik, you know very well what I meant.” Altaϊr bit back, before exhaling heavily. “You should bring the Apple back to Al Mualim.” He said, finally.
“Why ever would I do that?” Malik asked, honestly surprised.
In a sudden display of emotions, Altaϊr confessed. “It is my fault, for everything. If you were to bring the Apple back to Al Mualim, you would not have been sent away from Masyaf.”
“And you believe letting me bring the treasure back to him would help any, Altaϊr? As much as I appreciate knowing you are capable of feeling guilt, this will not bring back either my arm or, most importantly, Kadar.”
Oh, not this again. Subtly, Desmond scooted back a little, warily eying Altaϊr dragging a hand over his face. Poor guy was always fucking up when trying to apologize, huh? He doubted Malik was ready to accept any apologies either, still so raw from grief and loss.
“It may bring you your honor and status back.” He muttered sullenly.
Malik’s mouth dropped open. “Altaϊr, I am honestly considering you took a sudden foray into insanity. Bring back my honor? Or status? Or, better yet, do you think I regret being made Dai? I cannot possibly be an Assassin anymore, this is the best possible outcome for me. I do not wish to return to Masyaf, where I would constantly be under scrutiny from out Mentor and brothers. Unlike you, Altaϊr, the rest of us do not heedlessly worship the ground he walks on, knowing he is as fickle a man as anyone could ever be.”
As Malik took a deep breath and Altaϊr clenched his fists tightly, Desmond scooted back some more without drawing attention to himself, taking a large gulp of the alcoholic beverage in the hopes it would just give him instant poisoning and make him die.
Being in the Animus with his brain melting would be better than this.
A sudden longing made him wish it were Ezio and Leonardo in front of him, jesting good-naturedly as they sometimes did during downtimes. His other ancestor had always been more easy-going, friendly and accepting and right now, Desmond wished for his level-headed approach to situations and his easy charm. He’d only been here a few days, unconscious for two of them and he’d already been in the middle of their arguing more times than he cared for. As much as it made him feel like an asshole, he was not mentally prepared to invest in other people’s problems – and he could not avoid doing that either, because, as much as he didn’t, he kind of did know them. he felt obligated to help.
He had heard through Altaϊr’s ears the grief in Malik’s voice, the raw fury whenever he saw the other and now, he experienced that in person. It was hard not to feel for the man.
Rarely, in the Animus, he got glimpses of Altaϊr’s feelings. Whenever he was not forced to skip memories, he would feel the crushing guilt and utter shame he carried for years to come after Solomon’s Temple.
“Think, for once in your life, Altaϊr. How would I leave the Bureau unattended to bring him the treasure? What would I say to him? How would I have retrieved the Apple, crippled as I am? If he knew that I had not brought it to him in the first place, he would have both of us killed and, loathe as I am to admit, we cannot lose you. You are our best Assassin and you still have room to grow, if you would only get your head out of your ass and think.” He went in for the kill, thoroughly stomping Altaϊr’s idea to the ground.
Desmond winced as he took another gulp of alcohol, the bitter taste burning down his throat.
Fingers twitching, Altaϊr stood up, graceful as always. “Very well. It was a foolish idea. I-“
“You will not do anything until you listen to me. You are not to bring the treasure to Al Mualim. You have been appointed a mission. If you do not finish it and bring the Apple to him, he would not be grateful – he would think you acted on your own, once again, recklessly, to gain back his favor. Do you think it’d do you any good?”
Sensing a chance, Desmond activated his Eagle Vision, spying for the Apple in the folds of Altaϊr’s robe and – there! Now, if he could only…
“What would you have me do then, Malik?” Altaϊr asked between clenched teeth. At least he was not outright dismissing the man.
And, yeah, that was his cue. Desmond rose, not nearly as graceful as Altaϊr and sneaked a quick hand to retrieve the Apple.
Surprised by the action, Altaϊr merely raised a hand towards him but did not stop him or attack him. Thank God.
“As I said before” Desmond cleared his throat, tossing the Apple in the air a few times to the terror of the other two “I am best equipped to deal with this. It is going to stay with me, unless there is a dimensional bitch messing around in here, in which case I’ll just find a way to destroy it and – Shit. That’s new.”
His eyes widened comically, as he caught the Apple with his damaged arm and it lit up – illuminating the whole courtyard – along with a set of circuitry on his arm. The light snaked its way up, up, up his arm, over his shoulder and neck, to his eyes , making them glow bright gold, before disappearing as soon as it appeared.
Before his eyes, the Apple in his hands cracked and crumbled to dust, falling through his fingers to the floor.
Biting his lip and tasting blood, he chanced a look at the other two, who were staring in a semblance of shock at the remnants of the Apple of Eden.
At least now there would be no way Altaϊr could sneak the Apple back to Al Mualim behind Malik’s back.
i think i rewrote this like 5 times and completely forgot where i was going with it in the first place so i'll have to figure that out? it's nearly indistinguishable from the first draft too. my apologies for typos, i felt like reading through the whole thing again would make me discard this one too.
on another note, sorry for the delay, i was extremely busy with university.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Desmond opened his eyes to flickers of light entering through the blinds at his window, whispers of a dream fading from his mind. He sat up on the cot, stretching his arms and back with a groan. Wiping his face with one hand, he rose and shuffled to the water basin in the corner, cupping his hands and gathering cold water to splash on his face and neck. He felt gross – he hasn’t had a shower in days and he desperately needed to get clean.
Truthfully, he did not want to leave the room just yet, but he’d done enough running away to last a lifetime so he gathered up his courage and put on the shirt from last night, along with a pair of pants Malik lent him. Once dressed he left the bedroom, turning down the hallway leading to the shop.
“Good morning,” Malik smiled at him as he paused in his paperwork, “feel any better? You looked ready to die last night.” For a moment, he paused while eying Desmond warily. “Not that – that was a bad thing to say.”
“Morning to you too, and yes, I slept well. I don’t mind, I say plenty of bad things too.”
Desmond lingered for a bit, glancing around the shop and, with half a thought, wondered what time it was. The shop was closed still, it shouldn’t have been past breakfast considering the chill lingering. Malik raised an eyebrow and gestured to the crates in front of him.
“Would you like to help me sort these out?”
“Please.” He sighed in relief, marching forward to empty one crate and await instructions.
“These go there – “ Malik pointed to the right, with shelves lining the wall, “and these ones, go behind the desk, in the drawers.”
Desmond hurried to do as told, gathering scrolls, pens and inkwells to put away, humming slightly as he worked.
“I daresay I read you quite well, then, didn’t I?” Malik said, though he looked as he was mostly thinking out loud.
Still, Desmond’s curiosity was piqued.
“What do you mean?” – an inkwell clattered rather loudly as he set it down – “you barely know me.”
“True, but you look as if you’re always itching to do something. Am I wrong?”
The pen scratching on the paper stopped, and Desmond turned around, finding himself watched attentively by Malik.
“Ah – you’re right. I guess it’s all the lives I’ve lived; some stuff just clung to me. I was perfectly happy sitting on the couch and reading” – or watching TV – “all night before I got kidnapped.” With a shrug he rose, going to another crate and taking the items to put them away.
“What was that like? Seeing through someone else’s life, feeling what they do?”
“I didn’t. Feel what they did, I mean. I saw what they went through – I know what they knew, but I rarely felt their feelings and all, especially while I was kidnapped. I was rushed through everything and didn’t pause to stop and analyze anything.”
He turned to face Malik, who was back to writing, a shrewd smile on his face.
“Why’re you asking?”
Malik scoffed, “I am not interested in what the novice feels, novice, if you were wondering. Whatever sentiments he has – if he has any – doesn’t change the fact that he’s a reckless, hot-headed mule. Nor does it change what he’s done.”
“Of course not, I was not implying that. I wouldn’t tell you anyway even if I knew –“ and he did know, just a bit, that the shame and guilt ate away at the man far more than Malik would ever think “– since I’m aware it won’t change anything; you’d still hate him.”
“Hate him, huh. Does it seem so?” Malik raised his head, looking at nothing, before he shook his head and gestured with his arm to the leftover crates. “These ones, behind me.”
Desmond did, sorting out the books. They were small, worn and torn in some places, as well as handwritten. He had a feeling these books were incredibly pricey in this time period. He had no idea actually, of how things worked around here. The Animus was still a simulation – it was only the bare-bones of a world so he could get whatever information he needed, not the actual life with its intricacies and convoluted, complex infrastructure and human interrelations.
“I’d honestly be surprised if you didn’t hate him.”
Pausing, Desmond took the books and went behind Malik as a cover while he gathered his thoughts.
They led him to Lucy.
“I –“ he swallowed, “I think so? I mean, it’s different.”
“How come? Have you ever been betrayed by anyone close to you?”
Scoffing, Desmond gripped one book a bit too tightly.
“Have I ever. Yes, there was someone I trusted with my life – a best friend, really. I had connected really fast to her, and I hadn’t felt that kind of thing, well, ever. Attachments are not so easy when you’re on the run.”
“Careful with that,” Malik pointed to the book, not even glancing at him.
“Right, sorry – there. And, well, it turns out she was working for the enemy all along. I killed her.”
“Because she was a traitor?”
“No – because I was controlled by Juno. That’s also when I found out she was a Templar. I would never have killed her otherwise.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. I wasn’t given the chance to process that fact she was a traitor in the first place. I didn’t even get to grieve for her.”
And wasn’t that a hard pill to swallow? While he’d been in a coma, he’d had to live out his ancestor’s life, then another’s after he woke up. He didn’t get to think about Lucy, mourn for her, feel guilty about her, feel angry at her – it had all been fast, without pause, no time left for himself.
It was going to eat away at him soon, he felt it, once he calmed down completely.
“So, anyway, that’s why I said it’s different. She betrayed me – she was my friend and she betrayed me. My family didn’t die because of her – I didn’t lose anything because of her. Maybe I would have – if she wasn’t killed. I’ll never know that. So I can’t really hate her when she didn’t really do much of anything to make me hate her.”
Not to mention that, he knew she thought she was doing everything in the hopes it was the right choice for both him and the world. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, after all – how could he hate someone who had been shaped by circumstance, tugged from both sides by Templars and Assassins, when he was the same?
Malik hummed in assent, rolling up his last paper. He crouched down, opening a cabinet and placing them inside as Desmond went around the desk, peering inside the crates for anything he’d forgotten.
At the bottom of one, sat a small slip of paper, tucked in the corner and folded neatly. He picked it out, not even bothering to look at it as he handed it to Malik, who took it with a surprised expression.
“That’s curious,” he murmured, pocketing the letter. “I see. Do you think me dramatic for my actions toward Altaïr?”
“What? No – seriously, don’t look at me like that. What’s that got to do with anything? Hate him all you want, it doesn’t matter what I think.”
“He’s your ancestor – he’s saved your life.”
“And he’s cost you your family’s. These things are not interchangeable. He was doing his job on both of these, it only happens that one turned out better than the other.”
“Good, glad we cleared that up then. I rather took a liking to you – I’d hate for dissent to come between us thanks to a certain novice.”
Desmond laughed, scratching at his hair.
“Speaking of him, thank you. For last night. For keeping him from hounding me after the. Well. The incident with the Apple.”
“Hah, you don’t need to thank me. He’s sworn to protect you – he wouldn’t have killed you even if I didn’t interfere.”
“He did? Really? Him?”
Malik nodded. “Indeed, just after he’s brought you back to the bureau. I told him he’s an idiot to bring a stranger here and that some passing Assassins would not feel quite at ease with you here. He’d made it clear to me he was going to kill anyone who tried to get at you.”
“Huh, is it that obvious I am not an Assassin?” Desmond smiled ruefully, looking down at himself. “I thought Assassins started early even here.”
“You carry yourself as an Assassins – you did say you were born into the Order right? Well. It’s not so much that as how you look like you lived in luxury.”
“Sorry? You kind of lost me. Luxury?”
“You came in strange clothing made of well-sewn, sturdy materials. You bear no scars or injuries save for your lip, didn’t have any weapons on you, you have no callouses and clear skin. I don’t know how you live in the future but here – being clean and without blemishes is a sign of luxury.”
He whistled, a bit thrown. And this part of the world, if memory served him right, had always been the cleanest and most hygienic of the Middle Ages.
“Speaking of, I don’t suppose I could have a shower? I mean a bath, my bad. I really need to clean up.”
“You really do. I’ll show you to the bath.”
Just before Malik could direct him, a crash and loud cursing drifted from the courtyard toward them. They both rushed outside to see an Assassin curled up on the ground, cradling his arm which was gushing out blood steadily, his robes stained with the fluid. His face was partly obscured by the hood, though he took it off once he saw the two of them approaching, sporting a black eye and a split lip.
Malik crouched next to the Assassin, one hand reaching forward to take his arm.
“Let me have a look – you weren’t followed, were you?” the Assassin shook his head.
“No, I dispatched of them.”
“Good, now – let’s peel this away and –“
“No, wait, don’t touch that!” Desmond shouted, catching Malik’s arm by the wrist from where he was as his side. “You’re going to make it worse.”
“And why is that, Dezmund?” Malik raised an eyebrow, while the Assassin looked between the two of them.
“Your hand’s dirty and covered in ink for Christ’s sake, you don’t touch open wounds with unwashed hands, it causes infection.”
Frowning, Malik rose to his feet. “Do you think you can help better?”
“I – “ and oh, Desmond really hadn’t thought this one through, had he? “I might. I’m going to go get some water and soap – do you have an hard alcohol? Yeah, didn’t think so. Where do I get soap and some bandages?”
Malik pointed him in the right direction and he hurried, calling out to the two to “keep pressure and don’t touch.”
He returned shortly with two water basins, soap and a piece of linen he was rather suspicious about using. Using the soap, he cleaned his hands two times, making sure to clean the underside of his nails and his wrists.
Carefully, he peeled the ruined cloth away and looked at the wound.
A few tense moments passed, with both men silent as they waited for his verdict.
“I don’t know how to tell if it needs stitches or not,” he admitted, tone somber.
Malik sighed, heavily, peering over as well.
“It definitely does. It is deep, but properly cared for it won’t pose an issue. I’ll be back in a moment. I hope you know how to sew, novice.”
Desmond really did not know how, but he nodded, turning his attention back to cleaning the wound of blood and chatting with the Assassin.
“So, what’s up?”
The Assassin smiled at him slightly. “You’re a novice?”
“Not really anymore, no. Damaged my arm badly, so I can’t train any longer.” He explained, nodding to the limb.
“A shame then, Brother. What did you say your name was?”
Desmond frowned, a prickle at the back of neck making him grow a little wary. He lifted his eyes to meet those of the Assassin’s – fixed on him, devoid of emotion, just like a born killer.
Against his better judgement, Desmond looked at him with Eagle Vision and the man was bathed in blue, a solid, cheery hue. He blinked again, and the world back in color. Even so, a part of him was screaming that something was a bit not good.
“Well, then, inform me. I am called Bahir. Thank you for your help, Brother.”
“No problem, I’m glad to help. I’m Desmond.” He peeled the cloth away to get the rest of the blood and the wound gushed out a bit more fluid as he did; gross.
If Bahir was surprised to hear such a name, he didn’t show it.
“Dezmund, huh? That’s a strange name. Were your parents foreign?”
“Ah, yes.” A wipe, and Desmond swallowed nervously.
“Uh,” Desmond glanced at the man with Eagle Vision once more, seeing bright blue shining back at him, but still felt incredibly thrown, for some reason he couldn’t discern. “My mother was from Spain.”
“Oh, how curious. And your father?”
Desmond leaned to wring out the linen over the basin with the dirty water, before dipping it in the clear one.
“I’m not entirely sure – he died before I was born.” he lied. Better than trying to explain a continent this part of the world hasn't heard of yet.
He was saved from further questioning by Malik’s arrival, who carried in one arm catgut and a threaded surgical needle. The Dai motioned for him to step aside, and Malik set to stitching the wound back up – thankfully, he did not ask Desmond to stitch it – with unsterilized catgut. Great. He had a strong feeling he was going to die in the Middle Ages because of bad medical practices.
Surprisingly, they were done in what he'd guess was half an hour, even as Desmond felt slightly nauseous. Who knew – for some reason, killing people did not make him squirm as badly as watching open wounds being sewn back together, squelching and slipping from his grasp as he tried to keep the skin as close as possible for Malik to thread more easily.
Malik tied off the last knot, biting into the spool of suture to break it off from the needle.
“Give me the rest of the bandage,” he instructed Desmond who complied hastily, wanting to be done.
“My thanks, Brothers.”
“Rest up, Bahir. Have you any tasks that cannot await?” inquired Malik, as Bahir shook his head.
“As far as I am aware, no, but the Mentor told me a letter would be waiting here for me with instructions. Unsealed, came hidden?”
“A letter, you say? We did find one this morning, unsealed, at the bottom of our supplies crate. Would that be it?”
“Very well, I have it here,” he rummaged through his pockets, pulling out the slightly rumpled piece of paper and handed it over to Bahir.
While the Assassin surveyed the contents, Desmond set about gathering up the bloodied linen, soap and water basins. On top of being dirty after days of not showering, now even the undersides of his nails were lined with crusted blood.
“Is it to be done today?” Malik asked once Bahir started tearing up the letter in small pieces, dumping them in the dirty basin Desmond held.
The Assassin shook his head, reaching with his good arm to pat Malik on the shoulder, asking “how fare you, Brother? It’s been a few weeks since you left Masyaf.”
Malik sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “It has certainly been eventful. Come, I’ll take you up to speed, this way. Dezmund, bathing rooms are that way. Leave the basins in there, I will deal with them.”
“My thanks, Malik. I’ll get going.”
He followed Malik’s directions, setting down the basins inside the bathroom. It was pretty much a tub carved into the ground, tiled and slippery. When he dipped a toe to check the temperature, it was cold. What a surprise.
He undressed quickly, slipping into the cold water gratefully.
Sighing, he set about soaping himself and rinsing, the water around him darkening slightly before dispersing in the wide tub. He grimaced, missing his shower more and more. He felt at his cheeks, not surprised when he felt a bit of stubble there, and instead dipped his head in the water, scrubbing at his hair with the soap.
For now, soap would have to do.
Though the water was certainly dirtier, he decided to let himself soak for a little bit after he finished cleaning himself.
He was close to falling asleep in the tub when the door creaked open. Spluttering and shivering, he glanced behind him to see Bahir, taking off his weapons and undressing slowly.
“Ah, sorry, I nearly fell asleep. I’ll be leaving soon.” He said, ducking his head in slight embarrassment and standing up, feet leaving prints on the wooden flooring next to the tub as he trudged to his clothes. It was then that he realized he didn’t have a towel – he’d have to either wait until he dried off, or put his clothes on while wet.
Bahir raised an eyebrow, teasingly asking “are you prudish? Did you not use to shower with our brothers back in Masyaf?”
And Desmond was going to dress while still wet, then. He turned around and set about putting on his underwear and pants first, lip curling as the material caught on to his skin. He heard the swishing of Bahir’s robes, his swords clanging together.
“No, not really. I’m not exactly from Masyaf, I trained somewhere else.”
“And pray tell, where would that be?”
From outside, he heard an Assassin drop to the courtyard, footsteps thundering as they ran and shouting loudly and authoritatively for ‘Malik’, signaling Altaïr’s return.
“Small town, to the West from here,” was his vague response. He put his right arm through his borrowed shirt, noting the silence behind him and turned around to the snick sound of a hidden blade being released and pressed against his throat.
A bit of blood bubbled up at his throat when Bahir pressed the blade closer, piercing the skin.
“I thought you were taking a bath,” Desmond dumbly said, glancing at the fully robed Assassin.
Chuckling, Bahir replied, “would you prefer for me to knock you out while we’re naked?”
“Knock out? Not kill then?”
“If you do not willingly come, I will have to. Now, I’ve been instructed by the Mentor to bring you back to him.”
Frowning, Desmond tried to reason. “Back? I just told you I am not from Masyaf.”
Bahir tilted his head at him, murmuring “ours is not to reason why,” and reached out to twist his damaged arm behind him, putting his chest to his back, his blade remaining at his neck.
Desmond nearly blacked out from the pain, hissing sharply through his teeth as tears gathered at the corners of his eyes on reflex.
“Move,” Bahir hissed, pushing him towards the windows.
“Wait,” he strained out, teeth clenched and let himself go heavy, “you seem like you’re in a hurry. I think I’m going to stall you a little.”
“Are you dumb? I’m going to put this blade through your neck,” he punctuated the statement by digging in the blade further, the action a sharp sting.
“No, you won’t, you just want to scare me, right? It’d be stupid – for Al Mualim to want me back, but tell you to kill me if I didn’t want to come. That's not like him.”
The question was, why had his Eagle Vision failed him again? First, Lucy, now this. Oh, also, he’d have to find out how exactly Al Mualim knew of him, but he was starting to put two and two together rapidly.
Behind him, Bahir sighed, before he laughed and flicked his wrist, blade retreating. He kept a grip on his arm though, twisting it a bit more and Desmond would’ve keeled over if he could’ve.
“You’re not bad; certainly got more wits than half the novices. Shame your arm is like this, you would’ve been good in our ranks. Still, orders are orders,” Desmond barely heard, still breathing harshly from the pain.
He felt himself being twisted around, his arm falling limply by his side as he glanced through one eye – hadn’t even realized he’d closed them – to see the Assassin’s arm raised high above his head and braced himself for unconsciousness.
And then, the door to the bathroom was broken open.
thanks for reading! i appreciate the comments a lot - i'm just really shy so i really don't know how to reply without feeling like a social wreck.