Albert Neri couldn’t claim he knew anything about anything when he chose to throw in his lot with the Corleone Family. This didn’t bother him, because back then he lived his life based largely on reflex and instinct. Other than the fatal loss of restraint that had got him thrown off the force and nearly into the tank, it had proved a fail-safe way of operating. And everything about the Don and his youngest son sent an inescapable signal to his hindbrain: Home.
Their manner, their values, their Old Country heritage settled his astonished feeling of ill-use and put him at ease for the first time since his arrest. The man they called the Godfather was courteous, his house and family warm with the scents of domesticity that Neri had not experienced since his own wife left him. His men were efficient and respectful. And between them, Vito Corleone and his son commanded an entire world.
But it was Michael who clinched it. Neri had made up his mind before Michael even began to speak: the quiet aura of power and implacability surrounding the young man had caused the compass that sat deep in Neri’s subconscious to swing immediately in his direction, the needle almost straining off its pin in its efforts to point toward him.
Not that Neri visualized his attraction to Corleone’s strength in those terms. He just recognized it when he saw it. On top of that, Michael had a way of focusing his attention on a person that suggested they interested him more than anything else in the room. He was affable, sympathetic to the policeman’s thwarted views on justice, and he listened. Almost fatherly, in spite of his youth. And so, in the space of three days and without rationalizing it at all, Neri had happily tied his fate to the Family’s.
For a year he worked under Clemenza, learning the ropes. He didn’t mind: all that was required was that he observe, and follow instructions in a way that almost always jibed with his own ruthless inclinations. Before long the caporegime was giving him small responsibilties, and eventually he made his bones. Still, Neri didn’t always care for Clemenza’s choices when they differed from his own, and though he kept his mouth shut on it he could sense the older man watching him, with caution, he felt, and some amusement.
Perhaps it was these little inner rebellions, or perhaps his growing competence – Neri never was sure which – that prompted Clemenza to send him back up the ladder and out of his hair. Not that the reason mattered, because finally he could work under Michael, and that fact gave him more satisfaction than anything had in his life.
As far as Al Neri was concerned, Michael could do no wrong. Though his orders generally came through Tom Hagen, Michael’s will was one he never questioned; the man’s words were like the law Neri had practiced throughout his life on the beat. And more, because he had never enforced the law with such deeply-felt fervor as that with which he carried out the youngest Corleone’s commands. This was not out of personal interest in backing a man who could help him rise to power. Many men followed Michael because with luck he would one day be Godfather. Neri followed because, to all intents and purposes, Michael Corleone was God.
It would be years before this view changed, before Neri grew up and, what’s more, grew a brain with which to actually think about Michael. In doing so, he discovered a host of new reasons to be loyal.
Al hadn’t known Michael at all when the old Don was still in control. He’d heard the stories later, mostly from Pentangeli, who could never keep his mouth shut: the college kid, the war hero, part of the family but not in the Family. Seemed like he’d had a good life mapped out for himself, until Vito’s shooting and Sonny’s assassination had wiped it away clean as if it had never existed. By all accounts neither the Godfather nor Michael had wanted things to turn out this way, but there it was: he was smarter than Fredo, smarter than any of them, and he had paid the price of it.
Michael no longer had any sense of humor whatever, as far as Al could tell. Not that you could blame him. Al found it refreshing, especially after some of the morons he’d been responsible to as a cop; guys like, well, like Fredo, who maybe meant well but were always kidding around, not over-burdened with brains, who might make some dumb smart-mouth remark at any time. When that kind of man was in charge during life-and-death situations, a misplaced sense of humor could be trying. Not Michael, who from their first acquaintance had the poise of a much older man, playing things close to his chest and never letting his mouth run away with him.
Not even after the old Don died had he lost his cool, meting out a perfectly orchestrated sweep of vengeance for Sonny and his first wife and the disrespect paid to his Family. Al had never known the extent of Michael’s grand plan, but he had been delighted to be a cog in the machine. He’d played his part in the murder spree without a hitch.
Even that early Al had no compunction about disposing of men who threatened his boss’s dignity, never mind his life, and he had asked no thanks for it. But when Michael, alone in his study, had received the news of Barzini’s death with a restrained expression that nonetheless spoke of pride and cautious triumph, Al had felt pure exhilaration. And when Michael had clapped him on the cheek and given him his own cool brand of Sicilian kiss, Al had thought that he would murder the world to retain this feeling of approbation.
That feeling had never changed; it meant more to Al than all the tangible marks of trust given to him, like the acting charge of the old Tessio regime. Even with his new privilege he never lost his deep sense of awe for the man who directed his destiny. Still, as Al followed his boss’s lead and began to think, and to look, and to analyze instead of simply reacting, he gradually felt an urge to understand Michael, to figure out what made him the leader he was. And, just as it is a hard task to worship a man when you truly know him, so Michael’s status began to shift from god to person in Al’s eyes. Al did not see this change as diminishing Don Corleone’s stature, and would have broken the face of anyone who suggested it: if he worshipped Michael less, he loved him more.
Al sometimes found himself looking for traces of the past in his boss’s face – he liked to look at Michael, though by then it was more to study him than for the old sense of pleasure and stability it used to bring, like a dog’s gaze trained on its master. He was learning to observe from Michael himself. But he could never spot any regret for the loss of that other life. Just determination not to falter in this one.
He had less leisure to look once the Family had pulled out of New York and made the move to Nevada. Michael put him in charge of security for their operations all across Vegas. It was a sign of respect that did not escape Al, though for himself he had preferred his short stint as bodyguard to any more independent role. He only saw Michael now during briefings, or meetings where the Don wanted to show the strength of his Family by quiet display of his caporegimes. These made Al curiously wistful for that early time, when it was his job to be always within earshot of Michael’s call, when he could do the small services that put him close to his boss’s assured and reassuring presence.
He still guarded the privilege of performing these services when they did meet – lighting his cigarettes, mixing his drink – but the sensations that Michael’s proximity aroused were no longer as simple as the blind adulation of the old days. Perhaps it was his own growing understanding of the pressures of running an empire. Perhaps it was because he now spent days away from the main house that he saw more clearly the man Michael Corleone was becoming.
Al reflected on this as he stepped hurriedly into the office, where Michael was stubbing out a cigarette; the last of many, if the full ashtray was anything to go by. Not that the current Godfather had a lot of vices, or pleasures, come to that. On the surface he seemed so straight as to be almost dull, especially for a rich man living in a wicked state like Nevada. He just smoked, at times when normal men would be tired or worried or angry – and tonight he had damn good reason to.
When he didn’t have a cigarette to hand he had lately taken to pressing his fingertips against his closed eyelids. It was an older man’s gesture that fitted seamlessly into Al’s image of Michael – Michael as a man, not the near deity of his youth – and he couldn’t help but like the look of it, even as he wondered what it meant. Michael was doing it now. Al frowned, trying to work out if it signified displeasure or anxiety or even fear, or if it was a calculated pantomime of the above. Hard to tell; even with Al’s new hobby of reading faces, Michael was inscrutable. Usually this inspired nothing but Al’s admiration, but tonight it was jarring because this was, with no exaggeration, a state of emergency.
Al had not been on the estate when the assassination attempt had occurred – he was escorting Pentangeli and his crony to the airport on Michael’s instructions. Al agreed with his boss’s caution: the man was losing the plot, and needed watching. He had dropped by his girlfriend’s after, not being much of a dancing and schmoozing kind of guy. But he had barely settled in when he got the urgent call from Tom: Someone had tried to kill Michael. In his family home. That wasn’t business. Al felt a moment of guilt, before it was swallowed by a terrible anger that he had to physically rein back so as not to cause a car wreck on his way to the Corleone compound. And now things were going to get serious.
Al gazed at Michael for a few more seconds, then took in the placement of the room at a glance: the tense, poised figure of the Don behind his desk, Tom seated unobtrusively at his side. Serious, his instinct confirmed. Al wondered if he was about to be punished for his over-long absence tonight. For his failure. Either this setup was because he was in the shit, or because there was some new move brewing now, disastrous or important enough that it required both a caporegime and the de facto consiglieri to deal with it.
“Al.” Michael nodded at the younger man and left off touching his face – Al noticed that his hand was shaking – gesturing to a chair before the desk. “Sit down.” Al took it quietly, hoping he was not betraying how Michael’s attention could rattle him when he laid it on like this.
“You’ve been with me for how long now?” Michael continued, gazing at him levelly, cool as ice given that someone had tried to murder him a bare hour before. As usual, Al had no idea what the man was thinking, only that he was sure Michael knew the term of his involvement with the Corleones to a day.
“Five years, just about,” he said. He saw Michael nod.
“Time flies.” He said it as if he was fifty, thought Al. He had never known Michael as a youth, but couldn’t imagine it had suited him. “You’ve been completely true to me so far.” Al nodded, the old blaze of pleasure at his boss’s praise tempered by his new analytical turn of mind, as well as a pressing concern for Michael’s wellbeing; something that had not entered his head as a proper thought before tonight but which had been growing, unformed, since he had first seen that weary hand gesture.
“Mike?” said Tom encouragingly, after a pause. Michael shot a glance at his brother.
“I trust you, Al.” The return of his attention was like a beacon. Al had always felt it as a call, this desire to be of service to Michael. It was different for Rocco, even Tom, he understood: they had belonged to the old Don, and in future they might be inherited by another. Al’s loyalty, he knew in his bones, had been born for this and only this. But Michael was still talking.
“And I trust you’ll prove yourself again when I go.” Al stared at him, thrown. “I’m disappearing,” Michael said flatly. “Tonight. Now. I’m leaving Tom in total control.” Al could feel his eyebrows traveling up his forehead: an acting Don was not unheard-of in times of crisis, but Tom had been out of the loop for months now. And besides, there was the old hurdle: he simply was not Italian. But Michael looked immovable.
“We’re set to make our play in Cuba soon,” went on Michael, “and now it’s getting complicated. Legitimacy.” He said the word as if it was some mythical creature: marvelous and simply unlikely. “I’m going to have to sort this out personally. And I need to be sure my family is safe.”
“Okay,” said Al, mentally cataloging what he’d need to bring along. “Where’re we going?”
“You’re not going anywhere. You and Rocco are staying put, and you’re going to support Tom in whatever he needs. Until I can fix everything.” Oh, Al did not like that one bit.
“You need a bodyguard,” he stated bluntly. “Especially now.”
“I’ve got one arranged,” said Michael. “No need for concern.” Well, Al was damn concerned. It had been some time since he had worked as Michael’s personal guard, but he knew he was the best, and his Don could afford nothing less. Added to this was an uncomfortable proprietary feeling, which Al did not recognize as jealousy simply because he refused to think of himself as so petty.
Michael twitched the right side of his mouth upward in an odd expression that looked both sympathetic and utterly humorless. Al suspected his boss knew exactly what he was thinking.
“Most crucially,” he said, “I need someone who is not already known to the associates of Hyman Roth, here or in Havana.”
“Ah.” That explained it. Al had never been involved in negotiations with the Jewish empire builder, but he had met Johnny Ola, and he knew Michael must have his suspicions about Roth’s role in tonight’s events. Michael always had suspicions. “…Sure, Boss. Whatever you need.”
“Good,” said Michael, giving the rare small smile that reached his eyes. Al was surprised and flattered that he could summon up even that much. “You’ll be a strong right hand to Tom.” He patted his brother firmly on the shoulder, then stopped smiling. “This may take some time; weeks, even longer. I’m relying on you.”
Upon hearing this, Al felt a complicated mixture of gratification and dismay that he could not remember experiencing before. He couldn’t quite pin it down, not now, not under Michael’s stern gaze that was as much a distraction to introspective thought as a streetlamp is to a moth. But it didn’t matter: a request from Michael might no longer be a command from God, but it carried as much inevitability.
“We’ll handle it.”
Michael gave him another long look, then nodded. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He pushed his hair distractedly out of his face. Al thought that if he had been alone with Tom, Michael might allow himself the luxury of looking afraid, but that wasn’t going to happen until he was on his way. Al stood up and made to go, but Michael beckoned him back.
“Take care of my family. You understand?”
“Got it,” Al confirmed soberly, because if Michael felt the need to say something twice you could bet it was twice as important. He saw that smile again, fainter this time and with more effort; then his boss was pushing himself out of his chair and rounding the desk to face him.
Michael held out his hand, wearing what Kay and Tom had come to think of as his ‘Don’ face, which was subtly different from his private or ‘home’ expression. From the corner of his eye Al thought he could see Tom smiling indulgently – perhaps at the resemblance of Don Michael Corleone to his father – though his face soon dropped back into worry. Al looked down at the head of his Family. He had said weeks; more, maybe. This, then, was the longest he would be without Michael’s centering presence, the magnetic gravity of his face, since they had first met. Al thought he deserved the luxury of looking.
Michael was tiny – any man in the room could stand taller than him, as could his wife – but gave off such an impression of power that it was hardly noticeable. Al was not a tall man himself, despite his great physical strength. Still, when his boss turned his hand at an unmistakable angle and Al bent to kiss it – this meeting marked an undertaking of the utmost gravity, after all – well, he really had to lean down. It was always a surprise to Al, how small Michael was once you got past the aura.
“Don Corleone,” he muttered, pressing his mouth to Michael’s knuckles; maybe harder than protocol demanded, but he hadn’t grown up giving this kind of obeisance, and besides, it was a measure of his sincerity. He felt the hand twitch, as if Michael were startled; then his fingers closed on Al’s momentarily, his grip firm. Al was obscurely comforted by the feeling, which was channeled straight to his instincts rather than the thinking part of his brain. To him the grip conveyed strength, leadership, and the boundless confidence that they could rely on this man not to fuck everything up.
Michael patted his follower on the shoulder with his free hand, and bent his head to Al’s ear. “Do this right, huh?” he murmured, his tone rich with the comradeship of their first meeting; a tone that Al had come to realize was simply a tactic, almost akin to seduction, pitched deliberately to draw in and win over the uncomplicated sort of man he had once been. He did not resent it, even so. “For me,” Michael added, before he let go. At that, Al felt a faint shiver, which was unpleasant only in that he had no idea what it meant.
An hour later Michael had vanished.
Al did his job, and he did it well. Still, it felt like the longest wait of his life. As usual he was not given the big picture, but his gut told him that this Cuban design was growing in scope and complication with every week that passed and his boss did not return. Not once did he see Michael, or even hear his voice on the telephone. Tom was no doubt in contact with him; but for the rest of the Family, it was as if Don Corleone had disappeared off the face of the Earth.
By the time he at last made it home, it seemed that the long weeks had been for nothing in any case: everything had managed to fuck itself up in spite of Michael’s care. It was the first time Al had known anything to go truly, disastrously wrong for his Don. It could hardly have been otherwise, in the end; but if ever Al had needed proof that Michael Corleone was human, here it was. From the national catastrophe of a political coup to the personal blow to the heart of Fredo’s betrayal, Michael had been unable to regroup in time.
For a few days Al had been stunned, though logically speaking Michael could not have done anything but retreat gracefully. Truth be told, Al had been worried about Michael coming back, about what he might discover in himself when he did. He dreaded meeting and perhaps finding himself judging his boss, feeling his faith in Michael’s strength ebb away. He did not know what he would do if he lost the focal point that gave his actions purpose.
In the end, the only thing the meeting taught him was that he need never worry about a crisis of faith again. Sure, when Al first laid eyes on Michael it had been impossible to take in his exhausted posture without enumerating the number and extent of his defeats: Cuba, Roth, Fredo, and the loss of his unborn child. But beneath that, Al found to his joy that his impulse toward loyalty was as strong as ever in its foundations. Maybe it was what he inferred from Michael’s tone as he told them what was going to happen next: obstinacy, purpose and a cold, bright will to revenge. Or perhaps that, for once, he could almost see beneath the surface of Michael’s expression. Somehow, seeing the pain and weariness there, dismissed and unacknowledged by their owner in favor of more useful emotions, made Al feel more invested in his boss’s interests than ever before.
So, Al reflected later, things changed, or at least went in circles. The Godfather’s circumstances were altered, his genius turning inward now to retribution rather than outward to going legitimate. Just like the old New York days. And now that he was alone, Al could consider his own reaction. His initial impression was just of an overwhelming relief that his faith still held. But now, staring at the ceiling of his cottage on the estate, he tried to step away from his feelings, to walk around them and examine them. He wasn’t great at it, but he thought that maybe they had changed after all. It was the type of change that bothered and eluded him: whether it was simply an increase in intensity, or a shift in their fundamental nature.
At last he gave up and resigned himself to the fact that, whatever his allegiance to Michael Corleone had been in his period of triumph, it was nothing to the devotion he felt at this moment of defeat.
For all that Al smelled change in the air, nothing of note happened for some time. Michael reclaimed his responsibilities from Tom, who was clearly relieved, though he had acted with competence throughout. Al was with Michael or the others every day, took Kay and the kids out sometimes. It was the only way he could tell Michael was concerned about the effect all this had had on his family; it never showed on his face, not even under Al’s scrutiny. Michael’s face, now he had collected himself, was like an empty sheet of paper.
Nevertheless, Al knew something was building. He could feel it crackling at the nape of his neck, the same sensation he’d had as a cop when he knew a street was about to go bad or that something wrong was happening behind a closed door. But he had no justification for it until Michael gave him another job.
If there was one thing Michael wanted to know – more than Hyman Roth’s next move, more than what the FBI were currently up to in Vegas – it was the whereabouts of his brother. Al understood this: it was of double import, Fredo being both business and personal. And nobody seemed to have the answer, not their mother, not the famous ex-wife, not even Tom. Al knew Michael must have explored every avenue of possibility before summoning him. But he also knew, in his bones, that he would be the one to find Fredo. Because Michael commanded it.
“If he turns up dead?” asked Al, who liked to be clear about these things. He observed a muscle tighten momentarily in Michael’s jaw – he had his left profile turned toward Al, the side he’d had broken years ago. The surgery to fix it up had left it very slightly easier to read than the right side, and the fact that he presented it to Al at all was another mark of trust in his caporegime. Michael gazed at a pattern of leaves meandering across the lawn.
“Then I want to know who, and when, and how,” he said coolly.
“And if he’s just hiding?”
“Don’t touch him.” Michael turned to face him properly, the breeze tugging at his fastidiously groomed hair. Al didn’t think the warning was necessary, but then again, when Al Neri was sent after important men it was usually so they could wind up dead. “Don’t let him spot you. Just have him watched and come back. I’ll send Tom to talk to him.”
Al nodded. He wouldn’t allow himself another long absence from his Godfather. This time, he’d make it quick.
It was three weeks, in the end. Al experienced a strong sense of homecoming as the gates closed behind his car and the sprawling silhouette of the Nevada compound appeared against the sky. He allowed himself to enjoy it: this time there were no nagging fears about his own loyalty to prevent it.
The study was as dark and comfortable as ever; Michael must be the only man with conservative tastes left in this State of screaming neon. Tom opened the door for him and slipped out, yawning surreptitiously; it was three in the damn morning, after all. Al heard it close behind him as Michael beckoned. He made himself walk slowly. For just a moment Michael blinked, as if shuffling his mental index cards to remember what Al was there for. Al took note of this, tucking it away in a section marked ‘concerning’ before allowing the pleasure of seeing his Don to take over.
Michael came out from behind the desk, raised eyebrows the only outward show of his eagerness to hear Al’s answer. Al nodded, felt Michael’s attention focus on him in the way that always left him inwardly stammering, though he knew all Michael cared about was whether he had done his job.
“San Francisco,” Al said without further delay. “Not New York after all. He’s all right.” He heard Michael give a muted sigh, which coming from him was a huge display of excitement.
“Have him brought back here,” he ordered, subdued again. “Quickly. I don’t have time for Tom to reach out first, but don’t spook him more than you can help.” Al must have looked like he had questions; he watched Michael’s eyes move over his face. “I need him,” was the only explanation he got. Al shrugged to himself; it was enough. No explanation at all was required, from Michael.
“Thank you,” said Michael neutrally, then just…stopped. Al assumed he had dropped into thought. It sometimes happened, when he had a sudden revelation or made a new mental connection that required immediate consideration. But no, it felt different this time; like he had switched off. It was hardly Al’s place to interrupt, but he found he could not just leave, either. So he decided to take this opportunity to try and read his boss.
To his amazement, he could do it. For the first time in his life he could see Michael, and the mere fact of it unsettled him. It felt like looking at someone through a two-way mirror, like Michael had no idea he was being observed and had allowed his permanent guard to drop. Everything that had happened to him, all the past and present, suddenly seemed etched there on his face. Al wasn’t sure if he was more fascinated or horrified at the sight.
Michael’s expression was the same as ever, sober and withdrawn, his hair neat and impeccably tailored clothing tidy, even in the middle of the night. But, like a trick picture when the line of sight changes, Al could see the grief and fury of recent events riding heavy on his familiar features. That sort of thing was to be expected, in a normal man, Al told himself; after all, life was hard and bound to leave scars.
But Michael was very far from a normal man, and the ravages of life had rarely left a visible mark. And so it was with a shock that he realized his Don, and by extension himself, would never be young and without care again. Looking now at his face, his hands, Michael was so very white; well, he always had been, even with his pure Sicilian blood, much more so than his parents and siblings. But there was a distinction to be made between pleasantly fair and pale, and Michael was now decidedly the latter. Had the man moved from his office in the last month? Did he still sit out in the sun with his mother, did he play with his children?
Al was surprised at himself. What kind of thoughts were these? His inner monologue had turned into a damn woman.
He directed his gaze to the middle distance instead; if Michael chose to focus on the interests of the Family to the detriment of his private life, that was his own business. Besides, this interview was starting to feel…odd. He wanted to slip away and think about things. Certainly didn’t want Michael to know Al had been staring at him like Michael was his own private picture show.
Again, though, he found it impossible to leave his boss like this. So he just stood there, and Michael stood there, black brows furrowed against the ivory of his skin. More seconds passed, Al wasn’t sure how many. He cleared his throat.
“Michael?” he said carefully, hoping to attract his attention. No reaction to that. “Don Corleone?” he tried again, louder, and saw Michael’s head jerk up wearily. How many times, thought Al, had people called him by that name, asking for favors, advice, judgement? He had no idea how the heads of the other Families, many of them well into their seventies, kept at it for as long as they did.
“Al,” said Michael at last, as if he had only just noticed him. He smiled, the rote smile that couldn’t quite make it as far as his eyes; then his arms opened in the standard fraternal gesture of friendship. Al knew that when it came to Don Corleone this gesture could mean anything, though he trusted it actually did mean trust in his own case. He crossed the carpet quickly to embrace his boss. Michael gave him a comradely slap on the back, arms tight around him; it was another of his rituals to maintain the illusion of equality, but Al had never minded that. Michael felt as strong as ever, and Al might have thought he had imagined the last five minutes if it hadn’t been for the faint, fatigued tremble in the older man’s limbs.
Al recognized that for what it was, pure body tiredness that came with not enough exercise and too much concentration. He almost felt relieved, because the solution was so straightforward: a little sleep, and Al would never again have to see the eerie specter of the cares that hung on Michael.
“You did well to find him,” Michael murmured, getting back to the point at last. He sounded so tired that Al wished he could make him lie down and sleep right there at his desk. Well, maybe he could; it wasn’t like other people didn’t try and tell Michael what to do, in both business and private. It just didn’t work all that often.
Before he could offer any sage advice, however, Michael had stepped back, taken Al’s head in both hands, and was regarding him at arm’s length with a certain sleepy approval. Al found himself basking in his boss’s approbation, even as his troublesome brain observed from a distance and wondered what this performance meant. Maybe Michael had noticed him staring, had realized his subordinate had seen him unguarded and vulnerable, and was now distracting him with affection like a kid with candy.
Whatever Al’s analytical side thought about all this, the underside that thrived on reflex and reaction didn’t care. That side just enjoyed the suggestion of power in Michael’s short fingers, bent its head and presented its cheek to receive his cool, undemonstrative kiss. It was a gesture that with any other Italian would be warm and exaggerated, when it was used like this to show praise. Al had never expected such theatrics of Michael. Still, he was given a friendly pat on the face that made him glow like it did every time; for a moment Michael’s pale temple rested against his jaw.
That weary lean confirmed every thought Al had had that night about Michael’s state of mind, every suspicion about his wellbeing that had been a persistent itch at the back of his neck since before Cuba. And he found he could not ignore it.
Al had worked hard for years to build the level of stoicism that the Corleones looked for in a close associate. It had not been particularly easy; his early reputation for lashing out was well founded. But he had managed it, and now only let his emotions push him to action at his boss’s behest.
However, Al was to discover that stoicism had its limits, because right then he felt such an unwelcome rush of fellowship and pity and pride that it made his head spin, at what this man was capable of enduring. And as it came, all his carefully-learned restraint and thought retreated in a wave, leaving the old, primitive core exposed.
Al heard himself say Michael’s name in an entirely unfortunate tone, and before he knew it he was moving, just a few inches needed, to press his mouth firmly against the other man’s in a gesture that was chaste but quite passionate with admiration.
The worshipful fog cleared in time for him to see Michael jerk back against the desk. For an instant he looked as unnerved – not afraid, he was never that – as if his caporegime had just given him the kiss of death. Al, cursing inwardly, realized this would not be too big a leap to make, either: how many of Michael Corleone’s closest friends had screwed him over in the past, after all? Tessio, Pentangeli, Fredo; why not him?
Michael’s fingers turned steely against the back of Al’s neck, holding him still while he stared at him with those large hazel eyes opened wide. Al could see the thoughts hurtling back and forth behind them, far too fast to read. He was so aware of Michael that he had no idea what his own body was doing, but from the breathless way the older man was poised – tense as a leopard sizing up a bigger predator – it probably wasn’t anything helpful.
The small part of Al’s outraged rationality that was valiantly hammering on his brain told him that he had to do something within the next second to convince the Don that Al wasn’t about to try and off him. But with his fear had come a surge of adrenaline that put his urges in almost complete control, and all he could think of was to kiss Michael again. It took every scrap of fortitude Al possessed to keep himself from trying.
All the while Michael was watching him raptly, one defensive hand still pinning him in place. As Al struggled with his gut instinct, however, the smaller man narrowed his eyes and let go, leaning back cautiously to get a broader view when his subordinate did not move. Al could feel that cold, invasive stare everywhere, knew that Michael was running through every possible scenario that could have led to this moment, and could only pray his latest impulse had been so beyond the pale that his boss would be able to make nothing of it.
Whatever Michael was thinking, Al was not to be privy to it. Michael stared at him for another small eternity, then dropped his gaze. This was both a relief to Al and another kind of dismay, as he found his eyes lingering on the curve of Michael’s lowered lashes – far too luxurious for a man, even his mother said so – with a quite different kind of admiration than the one he reserved for his Godfather’s mind.
“Back, please,” said Michael quietly, an odd note in his voice. He stood up straight so that Al was once again in his space, but this time it was with the full weight of his presence, the intangible force that made sensible men wary without him saying a word. Al’s instincts knew exactly how to react to that: he stepped away.
“Thank you,” said Michael. “That’s all for tonight.”
“Boss,” Al began urgently, because his brain was clicking back on – too late now, of course – and he knew he had to explain himself.
“No.” Michael interrupted him, the word soft and thoroughly chilling. As Al watched, stung into silence, Michael held out his hand, pale knuckles up, and waited grimly for his caporegime to toe the line. Al found it both disconcerting and daunting, but he had no options. He took his boss’s hand and raised it to his lips as penitently as he could, given the circumstances.
“Don Corleone,” he muttered. Michael calmly disengaged himself and nodded at the door.
“Good night.” Al managed to return the salutation, and went out. Turning to shut the door behind him he saw Michael lean back against his desk, bloodless and pensive. Michael’s hand came up to press against his eyelids in that gesture Al had once been so fond of. Then the door closed on him.