"This is the afterlife, then," Desmond observes. "It's a lot…bluer than I expected."
Altaïr keeps shuffling the cards and ignores him, the bastard. The other two men, Corvo Attano and Garrett-no-just-Garrett-or-Master-Thief-if-you'd-prefer, both shrug a little, and the latter says unconcernedly, "Could be worse." Overhead, a whale drifts by.
Altaïr finally squares up the deck and starts dealing out the cards. They slide smoothly over the polished wooden table.
"What game are we playing?"
"War," says Altaïr.
"Speed," says Garrett.
"Hearts," says Corvo.
"Bullshit," says Desmond, and when they all look at him, he blurts out, "No, dude, it's a game, not, uh – not. Yeah."
They play Go Fish. Desmond doesn't think they had Go Fish in the twelfth, fifteenth, and nineteenth centuries, but that was Shaun's gig, not Desmond's. He's just the guy who died.
"Stop it," Altaïr says, more gently than Desmond would've expected.
"Stop what? I didn't do anything. Anyone got any kings?"
Corvo tosses one on the table as Altaïr tells Desmond, "Whatever you're thinking to put such regret on your face."
"My face is amazing," Desmond deflects while trying not to think about the bright light that seared his eyes and a cruel feminine voice that's still bouncing around in his skull. The sudden change to this surreal dreamscape is jarring and it takes a shit-ton of training from living as Altaïr – and isn't that fucking weird – to keep the shaking in his hands down to a minimum.
Garrett snorts behind his face mask. "Anyone have a queen?"
Corvo twitches for some unknown reason, but nobody has one, and when it's Corvo's turn he murmurs, "Six." Desmond adds another tally to the number of words he's heard from Corvo (a whopping three, now, including his name) and passes him the six of spades. He watches Corvo bat away a floating little oil lamp that had meandered too close to his head with the kind of casualness that suggests he's used to it. Weird.
"So, this is awkward," Desmond says into the silence. "Anyone got any words of wisdom for the newbie here?"
"Never trust a priest," Garrett says immediately, and Corvo shocks them all by barking out a short laugh. Eh, close enough; Desmond adds a half-tally to the mental scoresheet.
"Threes," says Altaïr, accepting Garrett's three of hearts with a smirk, then adds, "Next time, head towards the light. Eights."
"No eights. The light?" Desmond repeats. "You mean that bright light at the end of the tunnel with the pearly gates and the old dude with a clipboard? That light? Nines."
Corvo slides Desmond the nine of clubs. Altaïr pauses to consider Desmond's modern imagery and twenty-first century language and shrugs. "Yes."
"I didn't…" I wasn't ready to leave everyone. "Why didn't you three?"
"It would be predictable," comes a new voice, a half-purr that makes Corvo stiffen in his seat as wisps of smoke crawl from out of fucking nowhere behind him. It's a man, even younger than Desmond himself, in an old-fashioned coat and eyes as black as wet asphalt, who leans forward until his mouth is too close to Corvo's ear to be casual. Desmond doesn't realize that he's released the catch of his hidden blade until he hears the soft hiss of Altaïr's, sees Garrett's hand move towards a blackjack hanging from his belt. Corvo just looks disgruntled.
"Who the fuck are you?" Desmond demands. The new guy smiles and Desmond gets the uncomfortable suspicion that there are way more teeth than the average 32.
"I am the Outsider," he says gravely, "and I have found you all very interesting."
Corvo sighs and mutters, "Garrett, it's your turn."
Desmond adds four more tallies without thinking about it, distracted by the creeper currently creeping on Corvo. As though he'd read Desmond's mind, the Outsider meets his gaze and widens his smile knowingly.
"Have any aces?" Garrett asks after a long pause. No one does, so he draws a card, says, "Oh, look at that, I drew an ace," and lays it down along with the card from his hand.
Altaïr's eyes narrow. "You cheated."
"No, I didn't," Garrett argues, voice so innocent that even that weird butter substitute that always left a greasy feeling in Desmond's mouth wouldn't melt.
"This is a table of thieves and assassins," Desmond points dryly, "I'm pretty sure at least one of us saw you."
Garrett the self-proclaimed master thief leans back in his chair and spread his hands out wide. "Then how did I do it?"
Nobody says anything. Finally, Altaïr grunts, "Just go, Attano."
Corvo opens his mouth, but then the Outsider interrupts with a whispered, "You have always defied my expectations, my dear, but perhaps you would consider selecting a different card."
"Hey, time out, are we not going to talk about the fact that a creepy guy just showed up and is helping Corvo cheat now?"
"I thought I was the cheater," Garrett protests.
"You are," Altaïr growls.
"Isn't everything permitted?" Garrett snarks.
"No," Corvo tells the Outsider. "Fours." Altaïr, Desmond, and Garrett all slide him cards and the Outsider looks immensely pleased that Corvo's ignoring him, the fucking weirdo.
Everything's quiet for a moment as Altaïr takes another of Garrett's cards before Desmond says, "Jacks. So, Outsider, is this your place?"
"The Void is the beginning of all things," the Outsider replies, "and the end."
"I'll take that as a 'yes.' What are we doing here?" Garrett, Corvo, and even Altaïr all look at him in surprise as though straight-up asking what the hell's going on had never even occurred to them. "What, did none of you ever think to ask?"
The other three are very quiet. The Outsider laughs like the burbling of seawater in the tide pools Desmond once saw on a field trip as a kid. "You remind me of someone who once held my attention so closely, Desmond, one of my Marked, just as Corvo is. You two shared an incredible capacity for enduring in times when most men would have given up."
"Stop," Corvo cuts in suddenly. The scar crossing over his right eye makes his glare that much more terrifying. "He's just a boy."
"Hey," Desmond snaps, because if he isn't gonna put up with that shit from his own dad then he's sure as hell not gonna take it from a stranger, but the Outsider is focused entirely on Corvo now, murmuring, "You know that the world is not kind to innocence, Corvo. It will not stop trying to pull up the deepest roots and tear it all apart. Many children understand this better than any number of grown men."
When the silence goes on a little too long, Corvo never looking away from the terrifyingly inhuman blackness of the Outsider's gaze, Desmond mutters, "Touchy subject, then."
Garrett sighs like he wishes he could just get up and go do something more interesting than watching the drama, like listening to politicians talk or staring at a wall. "We're all dead, Attano, nobody's getting Marked and it's all a moot point now anyway. Twos."
Desmond and Altaïr hand over the two of hearts and the two of diamonds respectively. When Garrett asks for fours and ends up having to go fish, Altaïr says with a hope that's been worn thin for too many years, "Perhaps one day humanity will pull itself together so that the world is no longer so unfair."
"The world isn't supposed to be fair," Garrett says with dry, almost bitter, amusement. "People who can say it's unfair have the privilege to believe that they're entitled to something better than what they're stuck with."
"Isn't everyone?" Altaïr has a weird kind of intensity in his expression. "Doesn't the poorest child on the street deserve the same as the child of an aristocrat? The lowliest prostitute as a great queen?"
"Theory always sounds better than reality. What about your grandson there?" Garrett is still all loose limbs and easy drawl, but Desmond can see his own kind of intensity going on under all that kohl. "He didn't deserve to get kidnapped and thrown into a conspiracy that could destroy the world, but if he hadn't chosen to sacrifice himself for the sake of the world then he'd be condemned as selfish and cowardly anyway. Attano here saved the capital of an empire and killed only a handful of people in the process, but is he really a hero if he didn't do it because it's fair but because it was a creative way of punishing himself? Arguably, you and your kid there are the only two of us here who did anything for the 'right' reasons, and you both lost everything because of it.
"You should know better than almost anyone that what the world says isn't what the world does, Ibn-La'Ahad. And if I ever knew that I'd be agreeing with the black-eyed taffer over here I'd have gotten myself infected with the Gloom years ago."
Everyone's too busy staring at each other to notice Desmond sighing and scooping up all the cards so he can shuffle them.
"Guess we're playing Bullshit after all."