Albert hated Janina. The mismatched jumble of buildings, the riotous cacophony of trade in a hundred tongues, the ever-crowded streets that wound around and around the city without ever seeming to go anywhere at all. It was not a city accustomed to any sort of order that he would recognize, it knew no rules that he understood and he had never felt at home beneath its sun. He would never come here at all if it weren't for Haydee and Baptistan. His visits with them were brief; any pleasure derived from their company inevitably marred by the memory of one who was not present.
Albert shuffled aimlessly across the sun-roasted tiles at the port, neither wanting to stay in the city nor eager to return to France. He could think of nothing awaiting his return that particularly interested him. A face in the crowd caught his eye for an instant and Albert stopped, dumbfounded, heedless of the crowd pushing against him like waves. No. No... "Count?" Albert whispered, doubting his eyes. It couldn't be, it wasn't possible. He had watched - felt - Edmond Dantes, the self-styled Count of Monte Cristo die in the catacombs beneath Paris five long years years before. He could never forget that day, or the events that had played out. It had been his fault.
Yet, there it was again - a certain carriage of form, a slight tilt of the head - every line, every muscle in the stranger's body announcing to Albert that this was the man he sought. The man he had never stopped thinking about since that day, the only man... "Count!" he cried, heedless of the crowd. "Count!" The winds seemed to carry his voice and the figure paused for the length of a single heartbeat before hastening on in his chosen direction. He did not turn around.
Albert forced his way through the throng of travelers, dodging a hail of blows and insults. If there was even the slightest chance - it can't be, it isn't him - Albert couldn't let him him slip away, not again. "Count," he begged, out of breath, beginning to lose sight of his quarry in the wide Janinan marketplace. He paused for an instant to catch his breath and the figure was gone, swallowed up by the crowd as if he had never been. A weight descended on Albert's chest and he squeezed his eyes shut against the tears of disbelief that threatened to fall.
Don't be ridiculous, he counseled himself. It wasn't him; it couldn't have been him. It will never be him. He sagged against a stuccoed wall, willing his heartbeat to slow to a normal pace. A hand reached out from the shadows beside him and grasped his arm, dragging Albert unceremoniously into an alley behind a vendor's stall heavy-laden with overripe fruit. The smell nearly made him gag; a hand clamped over his mouth and he kicked at his unseen attacker. "Who were you shouting for, boy?" a gruff voice whispered in his ear.
"A dead man," Albert replied, wondering why he was obliging a thug by answering his question. "I was - mistaken." Crazy, more like. Get on with it, then.
"So it seems." The bandit loosened his grip a fraction and Albert twisted free, spinning around to face his attacker. He'd earned every franc in his coat, and he'd be damned if some street punk was going to divest him of it without a good -
Oh. Not a bandit at all, but an older man of olive complexion, with high and sunken cheekbones and long chestnut hair falling past his shoulders. Albert's heart leapt and filled his throat. He almost forgot to breathe. "Count!" he shouted hoarsely and, incapable of any further speech, rushed forward to embrace him. The man stepped back, but not quickly enough, and soon found himself engulfed by Albert's forceful greeting. The boy said nothing, merely wrapped his arms around the older man and held him as if afraid he might vanish at any moment. For all Albert knew, he might.
The man once known as the Count of Monte Cristo suffered the boy's affections in stillness, arms held stiffly at his sides as he stared into the blackness of the alley. "Count," the boy pleaded, burying his face in the older man's neck with a muffled cry and - this had already gotten away from him, hadn't it? Should never have called attention to himself, should never have let the boy see his face, but what if he'd kept on shouting like that? What if someone had heard, what if someone had remembered? Oh, hell.
A shudder ran through the Count and he closed his eyes, knowing he'd already lost the battle. A long-held breath slipped away from him, then, melting the tension from his frame and he raised his arms to envelop Albert in a tight embrace. He breathed in the long-lost scent of him, of Albert: crisp linens and salt air and something darker, stronger, rising up beneath. You will never be forgiven for this, however long you may continue to live.
"Edmond," he whispered, finally, when he could find his voice. "What?" Albert questioned, uncomprehending.
"I was never a Count in truth, and certainly cannot claim the title now. Call me Edmond, if you must call me anything."
"I thought you were dead." The accusation in Albert's tone fell short of the sorrow riding alongside it and when Edmond answered, he chose his words carefully.
"I was dead. I am dead, and better I remain so." He could not tell Albert what he wanted to hear. The words simply did not exist.
"How can you say that?" Albert demanded, pulling back to look Edmond in the face. "For five years I've thought you were gone - I thought I'd lost everyone, and now - now, I - " He pushed back slightly, attempting to find some sense of decorum amongst the tide of emotion. "How? How did you survive? And where have you been all this time - that is, if - if I may ask such things of you." Albert started intently at his feet, tracing a line in the sand with the toe of his boot.
"How," Edmond said softly, looking past Albert into the darkness of the alley, "How is not an easy story." He let his arms fall back to his sides, regretfully. "Ali saw the others safely out of the catacombs and returned for me. I have never fully understood his abilities, but I relied upon them more times than I would have liked." A sadness cloaked his eyes and he changed the subject. "As to where I have been..." Edmond trailed off, staring up at the sky. "The stars welcomed me home, as I knew they would. They have kept me company, for I deserved no other." He should cut this short, return to his ship and never return to this place.
"That isn't true," Albert whispered, earning a hard look from Edmond in return. "Oh!" he said, then, brightening. "Haydee will be so happy - Count, we have to go see her!"
"Edmond," he admonished, then, "I doubt very seriously that Haydee will have any interest in seeing me. Our parting was - less than civil, and I have respected her wishes by not contacting her since. My presence on Janina today was strictly a business matter, and in fact, I am already late in taking my leave."
Albert processed this statement slowly, confusion evident on his face. "I don't understand," he said, face paling as unwanted knowledge dawned. "You can't mean to say that Haydee has known all this time that you were alive."
"Of course," Edmond frowned. "I offered her a place on my ship and she turned me down, quite forcefully in fact. I would rather Baptistan had not stayed behind with her, but we cannot always choose these things." Edmond smiled ruefully, shaking his head. The smile faded as he noticed Albert's hands clenched into fists at his sides.
"Albert?" he questioned, fighting the urge to cup the boy's chin in his hand, to tilt his face up into the light. If he touched Albert, he would never get back on his ship alone, never be able to turn his back on this - on him - again. You vile, old demon. You deserve everything you get.
"I'm not sure what's worse," the boy whispered to the earth. Edmond had to strain to hear but he would not - could not - move any closer. "That you lived -" he paused, and Edmond flinched, feeling the shard in his heart as if it had never been removed. "That you lived these years, and never came back for me, never once tried to contact me, or that you tried to take them with you and they refused." Albert looked up, his gaze hot and piercing. "They never told me, Haydee and Baptistan. I would have burned the length and breadth of sky at your side and they let me think that you were dead."
Edmond was lost for words. His hands reached out without his mind's consent, clasping Albert's clenched fists in his own. "I -" he began, having no idea where his words might find their end. "I - am late for a meeting, as - as I said, and I am sure that you will forgive me for keeping this brief." His eyes clouded over, his smile fixed and formal, he untangled his fingers from Albert's and stepped back out into the marketplace.
Albert had expected nothing less. A tear slipped between his eyelids as they closed and he sank to the ground, momentarily defeated. He leaned his head against the stuccoed wall, felt the sun-drenched warmth of the building begin to seep into his body. He had found Edmond once, completely by chance; he could find him again. There was nowhere in the universe he could hide if Albert looked hard enough. But Haydee...
It was a long walk back to Haydee's apartments. He wouldn't give her the chance to run.