Albert stares in the mirror, turning the flower over and over in his hands, anxious about its delicacy, its slender weight, its perfect color. Red, like passion and the beads of ruby hanging down over the incredible chandeliers out in the lobby, sparkling glory over the world. He must get up the courage to ask, but this is a difficult thing. They have been colleagues for years and after all he knows-- he knows that the marriage would get in his way, would tear them in twain if he lets it happen.
Well, this is the moment of truth. This is the time. He straightens himself, and slips the flower into the breast pocket of his suit, trying to arrange himself neatly, smartly, in the elegant manner of a man who wants to be seen looking well. It stands out perfectly against the black fabric, and he can imagine that it draws all the eyes he wants to him, that like a spotlight on the stage, this radiant flower has marked him as the star of the evening, and all will be well, in the end.
He cannot really blame Barnaby, for Emily is beautiful, a perfect specimen of woman with charm and grace that would drive any man wild just to be around. She is brilliant and foremost in the field of robotics and electronic engineering in the world. After the War, she was one of the most prominent scientists on the eastern seaboard.
Albert can think back to all those times fighting out across the sea, and he knows that Barnaby was always looking back, because Albert was looking with him. Of course they were. That land was no friendly place, and the cigarettes were all marked with the wyrm, and Barnaby and Albert had surely not been the only men sleeping in the tents shivering with ungodly cold. It was look back, or face the ugly truth of what the bastards they fought were doing to the prisoners they rescued. No, Emily was the star that lit the way home after that nightmare of battle, and Albert can't blame Barnaby because after all-- he, too, followed her letters back to the places he'd known, he, too, found comfort in the knowledge that life had not stopped for the War, and would not stop now that it was done.
Considering the situation, it's only natural that Albert is jealous. He tries to suppress it, to remind himself that now is the time to ask, that things may yet change. He cannot blame Barnaby, or Emily, for being oblivious because he has not told them anything. Striding out under the glimmering opulent chandeliers and through the crowded hallway with deft grace, avoiding collisions with several patrons and preserving the flower in his jacket pocket, Albert seeks them out. Intermission will be over soon, and to his surprise- maybe relief- Emily is evidently not back yet, still in the restroom taking her break. He can see that Barnaby is waiting for her to return, up at the top of the stairs beside the door to their private booth, where the three of them have been raptly watching Pelléas et Mélisande.
Albert is not sure what to do about the situation, though it may be ideal, if he acts on it correctly. Barnaby has not yet noticed him standing here, and Emily is nowhere to be seen; he could act now without any danger of interruption. He has never been much for careful planning when it comes to matters of the heart; and overall, never much for matters of the heart, either.
Nervously, he decides to ascend the stairs, calling out in greeting. His concerns are not soothed when Barnaby brightens at the sight of him. "Ah, there you are. Emily's still in the ladies' room; I hope she makes it back soon, the curtain's up again in just a minute."
"Well, she'll find her way into the booth even if they turn the lights out. You know Emily, she's got a sixth sense, practically."
"That she does. You might almost think she was one of those altered humans they've been talking about in the news lately!" The joke is common among the three of them, though the news regarding what are now being referred to as 'NEXT' is rarely so uplifting as all that. Perhaps that is why they joke, he reasons. Joking is their only defense against the worry that the War has been for nothing, and a new, worse prejudice has begun. Shaking off those thoughts, Albert smiles, and steps back to let Barnaby precede him through the door to the booth. Barnaby sits in the middle seat, as he'd done before; Albert joins him on the left, sitting down with great care not to crease his suit.
For a moment they sit in silence, while Albert wonders if he's missing his chance. But he's made his decision.
Barnaby speaks first, candidly, his face creased with a thoughtful frown. "Albert- Do you think I'm making the right decision?"
"The right decision? What do you mean?"
It is hard to look Barnaby in the eye like this, seeing that pensive frown on his face, the way that he is being consumed by some personal demon. This is probably like the symbol of the wyrm, that haunted them, always printed on their cigarette cartons by the time rations were distributed. Some of the men in the regiment had quit smoking over it, Barnaby among them. Too creepy, too risky, they had said: Something could be in them. It could be a warning.
They were never able to find out. It haunts Albert and Barnaby both, to this day.
But Barnaby finally finds the words: "Is it right for me to be marrying Emily, do you think? Do you think we'll be happy?" Albert feels his face getting hot. It's as though he's been caught with his hand in a cookie jar, and he hasn't even done anything yet. He feels childish and stupid. He adjusts the flower in his jacket self-consciously, squeezing his knees and glancing away. Barnaby says worriedly, "Albert?" and puts a comforting hand to Albert's shoulder.
There are few men in the world Albert would die for. Barnaby Brooks is one of them.
He takes a deep breath, and tells Barnaby the truth. "I think you'll be very happy," he says wearily, and cannot meet Barnaby's eyes, though Barnaby tries to catch his. "I think Emily will be very happy, as well."
"Well, pardon me for saying so, Al, but why don't you look happy about it at all?"
Albert Maverick has made mistakes before, and learned that you live to regret them. He tries hard not to make a mistake now. The spotlight he imagined before is like the gleam of an interrogator's lamp above his head instead, harsh and penetrating. He feels naked when he looks into Barnaby's eyes, and guilty.
And he tells him,
"Because I love you, Barnaby."
The world falls apart almost literally. Albert can see it in slow motion, see the comprehension and the sick horror as Barnaby thinks of how close they are and realizes that Albert already knows he can never love him back, not that way, not the way Albert desperately wants to be loved. They've gone through hell together. Emily is a saint, but she doesn't know what it was like.
Albert does. He wants to say, who will comfort you through the nightmares? The ones we both have about the frozen bodies, and the abandoned people we were too late to save?
He wants to say, who will comfort me?
It's a very small thing. Barnaby takes his hand off of Albert's shoulder, and leans a little away, trying to make his answer as clear as his regret. And the world is over, because in an hour, the opera will conclude, and Albert will have nothing but his empty apartment in the slum corner of Stern Build. He'll have a bottle, and maybe he'll take out his pistol and that will be the end. And there is nothing that can change that.
"Oh," he sighs, hating himself for even trying, and drops his face in his hands with a bitter laugh, "God."
Barnaby makes an unhappy sound, and murmurs, "Albert, I'm so sorry."
Albert wants something, but not pity. Anything but that.
He pushes Barnaby's hands away from his shoulders, and only at the very last instant registers the white glow cupped in his fingers. He gasps in surprise at the same moment Barnaby does.
The possibilities are endless and terrifying, because Albert cannot know what the light will do. He has read all about altered humans, and very few of the powers that have made it to the news have been less than explosive. Trying to curb it, Albert bites his tongue, afraid he's about to hurt them both. Nothing prepares him for the terrifying realization that he has no control over what is about to happen, and then it simply does: he sees it, walks through the corridors of Barnaby's mind and turns time back just a few seconds.
He sees the twinge of pain in Barnaby's face, in his eyes, and the betrayal and he doesn't care because he can, for once, fix it.
And he does.
Barnaby rubs at his temples, one hand to either side of his head and winces, blinking owlishly as Emily enters the booth. Albert glances up calmly from reading the program, smiles at her. "Just in time, Emily," he says.
"I'm lucky like that," she chuckles, and sits down to Barnaby's right, as it should be. Barnaby does not look her way, and she pats his shoulder soothingly. "Hey, are you feeling all right?"
The confusion creasing his brow does not go away. He frowns. "Just getting a headache. And- I was asking Albert something, but I don't--"
"Whether you're making the right decision?" Albert supplies helpfully, and smiles, shaking his head. They both laugh over Barnaby's puzzled expression, Albert winks at Emily knowingly. "You must be really worried about living up to Emily's standards. I told you: I'm sure you two couldn't possibly be happier. It'll be fine."
Emily laughs out loud, this time, and Barnaby simply looks confused. "Hah! I can't believe he would ask you something like that. Barnaby! Really, it'll be fine. You worry too much!" Shrugging at last, he returns their teasing smiles, and nods his gratitude to Albert.
"Thanks for humoring me, Al. Just need to get my head together, I guess."
Emily is still chuckling as she squeezes Barnaby's hand, leaning into him just so. They talk softly of the wedding, now that it's firmly on their minds, and Albert folds up his newspaper as the lights dim. In the dark, he is free to rub at his eyes, sitting separate from them, reeling, frightened by what this all could mean. His only comfort is the knowledge that at least, for now, he is not yet alone, not completely, not quite.