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.
Albert flew up the stairs to Haydee's residence and pounded on the oversized doors. "All right, all right, Albert," Baptistan called from within, having seen him from the window above. "Give it a rest." The door opened a crack and Albert forced his way inside. "Where is she?" he demanded, fixing Baptistan with a haunted look. "In her salon, where you left her not an hour ago," the manservant answered, confused. Albert raced up the stairs, Baptistan trailing along silently behind him.
"Haydee!" he called, his voice shaking with anger. The uncrowned princess of Janina looked up from her mirror, comb stilling in her hand. "Albert?" she questioned, as confused as Baptistan. What could have happened to send the boy rushing back like this? There was only one thing she could think of that would send him into such a tizzy, and that - oh. Shit.
"How could you?" He stood propped in the doorway to her suite, chest heaving, dried tears still visible on his flushed cheeks. Oh, Albert. Will you never grow up? "How could I what?" she answered innocently, not wanting to play her hand too soon.
"I thought we were friends," he said, gritting his teeth. "Albert," Haydee responded patiently. "We are friends. Come, sit beside me." She patted the bench at her vanity. "Tell me what has you so upset."
"Upset?" He repeated, his voice hollow. "You want to know why I'm upset?" He advanced across the room as he spoke, voice increasing in volume with each step. Soon he towered over her at her mirror, blocking out the light from the window across the room. Haydee began to feel uneasy and wished Baptistan had not remained downstairs.
"You knew he was alive," Albert whispered, leaning in close. "You've known it all this time, and let me come here looking for some measure of solace, knowing that all I ever wanted - all I needed to be whole again - was him." A dangerous light had come into his eyes and Haydee shrank back against the vanity. "You let me cry on your shoulder, told me how much you missed him, how you wished you could have him back when all along, you could have had him and you turned him down! Five years you've made a fool of me, you lying little whore!" He punctuated his words with a blow to the mirror, raining silvered glass down in her shattered image around Haydee's huddled form. She was still for a moment, eyes squeezed shut against stray slivers of glass and any further onslaughts from Albert.
Baptistan watched from the shadows, choosing for the moment not to act. He would not see Haydee injured in this, but the boy had a case. It had not been his idea to hide the truth about the Count from Albert, but he had learned over the years not to contradict the princess when she issued an order. It had likewise not been his idea to feel the rise of butterflies in his stomach, or palpitations in his chest when she looked at him a certain way, or tilted her head just so that her hair caught the light, but as it turned out, he did not have a choice in that matter. He was a man of his word, and he would take his choices where he could find them.
"Five years?" Haydee questioned, rising carefully from the glass-littered cushion and opening her eyes. "Five years? Are you mad, boy? For fourteen years I belonged to him, body and soul, and you speak to me of five miserable years? Your pain is nothing to me." Haydee pushed past him to look out the window at the city that had once abandoned her, the city she had never wanted to see again. She smirked, shaking fragments of glass from her dressing gown, her profile bathed in shadow. "At least I had the good sense to know when I was being used and turn it to my advantage, instead of trailing along after the Count like a little lost puppy."
The blood drained from Albert's face and he reached out in a blind fury, striking Haydee across the face. She recoiled with a yelp, staggering backwards across the floor. "How dare you?" she spat. Baptistan sprang forward from the shadows at the back of the room, his steel at Albert's throat cutting any attempt at a rejoinder short. Albert froze, hand twitching at his side. He was not precisely unarmed, but one did not bring a knife to a sword fight and expect to survive. So many things today he had not expected. What was one more?
The clash of steel against steel just below his ear and Baptistan's blade was lifted from his throat in a hail of sparks. A commanding voice from just behind and to his right, "Albert, leave us." He tried to obey, such was the force of those words, but he found his feet would not oblige him and Albert remained rooted firmly to the spot. Baptistan retreated an inch to solidify his stance as his opponent's blade slid down his own with a hiss. The point slipped between the decorative scroll work on his hilt and missed his fingers by a millimetre. A single forceful thrust twisted the blade from his hand, the manservant's cry of pain drowned by the clatter of steel hitting the floor. It was over in seconds.
"What a foolish thing to say," Edmond addressed Haydee where she cowered by the window. "As I recall, you were inconsolable for days after your little speech to the nobility of Paris. If you were so calculating, so ruthless, then where was your joy in Mondego's ruination, in his son's shame? Where was your exultation in his downfall at your hands?" Haydee's chin trembled with silent tears. Baptistan wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her close, hiding her face in his chest. Edmond sneered, lowering his sword. "Yes," he said. "That's what I thought."
"Think well on your words before you speak again." He turned on his heel and stalked from the room, finding Albert still frozen in his path. His face shifted, like the removal of a carefully crafted mask, and his purposeful footsteps slowed. "Come with me," he sighed, lowering his head as he left the room. This time, Albert's feet obeyed him and he followed Edmond down the stairs and out into the street. A modest carriage awaited them, nothing like the handsomely outfitted cab he had once appointed to carry them about the streets of Paris. Edmond opened the door for Albert himself, and climbed in after, motioning to a tired-looking Janinan driver at the reins.
"Where are we going?" Albert ventured after a moment. "The port," Edmond answered. "There are any number of ships bound for Paris there; I will see you safely to one of them."
Albert closed his eyes. "Why did you follow me?"
"Baptistan could have killed you," Edmond muttered angrily. "You didn't know I was going to see Haydee," Albert countered. "In fact, it seemed to me like you were running away."
Edmond turned to face him, eyes flashing. "Where else would you have gone? Did you think your motives so subtle that I could not have followed them as they played across your face? Do not delude yourself into thinking that you have ever been aught but an open book to the world, Albert." You unnerve me. I just needed time to think.
They rode to rest of the way to the docks mostly in silence, Edmond resting his head against the cool window glass. Edmond made only one abortive attempt at small talk - unfortunately choosing to ask after Eugenie Danglars by way of apology. The attempt fell flat. "Eugenie met a wealthy American in New York...Morgan somebody." Albert said dismissively. "She wrote to me of him once, then I received the announcement of their formal engagement. I haven't spoken to her since." Albert turned away, stone-faced, and Edmond made no further attempts at conversation.
Once at the port, it was a simple enough matter to purchase a ticket on a passenger vessel bound for Paris. Albert insisted on paying for his own fare, earning a scowl from Edmond. "The ship doesn't sail for several hours, yet," Albert ventured as Edmond paid the driver of the coach and sent him on his way.
"If you are suggesting that I entertain you, I think we have had quite enough of each other's company for one day." Albert took the surly rebuke in stride. "Of course not, I only thought that I might see your ship before you go - that is, I mean, if you have one."
"If I have one -!" Edmond turned back from the rig and Albert knew he had played the right card. "As it happens, the Daedalus is moored not far from here and I would be happy to give you a tour." Then you will see, Albert. I am not the Count you remember. I have nothing left to dazzle you with.
"Daedalus," Albert mused, looking up at Edmond with an impish smile. "Not Icarus?"
"No," Edmond answered with humorless chuckle, eyes fixed on a point far in the distance. "I have flown the path of Icarus, and would not do so again." Something in his tone kept Albert from continuing the conversation, and he walked beside Edmond in silence.
They turned a corner down a row of docks, ships growing smaller and smaller as they passed. At last they reached an older model cruiser emblazoned "Daedalus" along the side, sails folded and at rest. It was a far cry from the last vessel Edmond had captained, but it looked serviceable enough - even if the sails did look a little small. Edmond pressed his hand against a hidden security pad and the ship roared to life, sails unfurling, engines humming in welcome. Albert studied intently the design of the sails, the angles at which the masts joined the ship and the alignment of their solar-catching panels. It was an old design - positively ancient, really, but the manner in which the panels had been incorporated into the fusion generators was ingenious. He wished he had thought of it himself.
"I've never seen that power-grid configuration before," he commented, stepping up the entry ramp and into the ship's surprisingly roomy interior. "Is it stable? Can you really get enough energy out of that little space to power your core?"
Edmond eyed him curiously. "What do you know about ships, boy?" he asked, curious.
Albert laughed. "Well, I haven't spent the last several years in mourning, if that's what you mean. I had to earn a living somehow, after..." he trailed off. After Haydee disgraced my father. After my father killed my mother and tried to kill me. After he shot himself and left me with nothing. "I took my mother's name, I dyed my hair, I grew a beard - I tried everything, but no one in Paris would hire me. No one thought I was capable of learning a trade, and they certainly wouldn't have trusted me with a position in the bureaucracy. Lucien put in a good word for me, but...well, I wasn't a very good ambassador."
Albert paused, embarrassed by past failures. "So I went to Marseilles." Edmond looked at him, wonderingly. "Do you mean to say you -"
"Maximilian gave me a job on one of his ships. I'm a hard worker and a fast learner, and more importantly, he trusted me. I'm only a midshipman, but I'm good at what I do and I've a knack for mechanics." Edmond closed his jaw, which had dropped considerably since the beginning of the conversation. "I'd been visiting Haydee whenever we got a little shore leave - after all, there's really nothing for me in Paris anymore, but now I don't really know where I'll go."
He left the sentence open, hoping Edmond would fill in the gap for him. He was disappointed. "You've become a sailor," Edmond said instead, still disbelieving. "We've both of us been out there, searching the deep for answers -"
"I was searching for you," Albert said in a rush. "I knew it was impossible, I knew how foolish it was to even look, but I couldn't help it. Some part of me refused to believe that you were dead, because if that was true, if you were really gone, then how could I still be alive? It just didn't make sense." He bit his lower lip to stop it from trembling with the force of his confession. "I stared up into the night and every star that guided me had your face."
Edmond turned to him, astonished. "Albert, stop this! I came to Paris - I befriended you - with the explicit purpose of bringing ruin to your family. How can you stand before me, after all that has been lost on my account, and say these things?"
"Perhaps - " Albert struggled to find words that would convey his meaning. The intervening years had given him plenty of time to think on these very matters, and he had come to a somewhat unorthodox conclusion. "Perhaps you have only been an agent of Fate in all of this, Edmond. Perhaps my family was meant to be destroyed, in the end. We were never what we claimed, either - we were never truly anything. My father's crimes against you were unpardonable. If Fate had been kind to you, I wouldn't exist at all!" He turned his face away, not wanting Edmond to see how much this last disturbed him. He meant every word he had spoken.
"No, Albert, if Fate had been kind to me, you would have been my son, instead of Mondego's!" Edmond was surprised at the vehemence in his own voice. Perhaps he was only trying to convince himself, trying to deny the way the boy had felt in his arms, the feelings stirred up again at the mere scent of him. Useless words, hollow, if true in their passion. He did not want Albert as his son. What he wanted, he would not let himself have. It wasn't right, not after what he had done. It would never be right.
"Still, though..." Albert murmured, almost to himself. "Aren't you at least a little glad that I'm not your son?" And there it was. The fool boy had gone and said it, just like that. Edmond struck back with the first thought that came to mind, anything to keep from answering his impertinent question with You have no idea how much.
"Have you forgotten so easily the casualties of my revenge? Your father, your mother, Franz - " Albert's face twisted at the name of his dearest friend, the one death the years had not softened in his heart. He reached out a hand as if to strike the older man, but Edmond caught his arm easily in a fierce grip.
"I have forgotten nothing!" Albert snarled, struggling in the sailor's grasp. "Then why must you ever take my wretched side in all of this?" Edmond demanded angrily.
"Because you will not take your own," Albert replied hotly. "It was not you who did those things, it was the monster inside of you - the mad spirit long ago set free." He did not mention the why or how of Gankutsuou's exit from Edmond's body; Albert found his lips would not form the words. His mind remembered well enough.
"You are wrong," Edmond replied coldly, releasing Albert from his grip with a forceful shove. "Every wicked deed, every calculated act of murderous revenge was entirely mine. The shadow on my soul simply provided the means and the opportunity to act." He took a step back, then another, spreading his arms. "Can you see me for who I am, Albert? Truly?"
Albert's eyes searched his face for a long moment. "Yes," he answered calmly, head sinking to his chest in resignation.
"Good," Edmond replied softly, turning his back on the boy. "Then we are finished here. I trust you can see yourself back to your ship." He leaned against the bulkhead, hiding his face in the crook of his arm. His eyes would swiftly tell the lie of his words. Get out of my sight. Don't leave me.
Footsteps whispering across the panels then, but in the wrong direction. "You mistake me, Edmond," Albert said, his voice low and unwavering. "I said that I see you. I always have. Five years with the universe between us and I still see only you."
Edmond's breath caught in his throat. "I would have killed you without a thought," he whispered, unable to face the boy.
"I know," Albert answered. "I'm not sure what frightens me more - knowing that, or not fearing you because of it."
"Idiot child," Edmond breathed, turning back to face his tormentor. Albert grasped Edmond's face in his hands before he could muster a protest and kissed him fiercely. He let his hands linger for a moment, afraid that Edmond would push him away, but when he didn't move, Albert slid one hand down his side to wrap around his waist and pull Edmond closer. The fingers of Albert's right hand slid up his sunken cheek to tangle in his hair, surrounding him, enfolding him. Edmond's body reacted before his mind could step in, kissing Albert back with a hunger he had not known was waiting so close to the surface. It frightened him, and he pulled away from the younger man's hold with a gasp.
"Stop running away from me," Albert whispered, again closing the distance. "I'm not a child, I can make my own decisions, and I decided long ago that my place was with you."
"That isn't your decision alone to make," Edmond managed, finding a breath. Albert's hand paused in the air, half-way to stroke Edmond's cheek and he blinked as the words registered. He could hear Franz's voice in his mind, admonishing him. You never did stop to think about what this would do to him, did you Albert? No, all you could think about was finding him and making him understand how you feel. You never took his reaction into consideration at all. "You're right," Albert said softly. "It isn't, not mine alone."
He took a step back, the hardest step in his journey so far. "I love you, Edmond," Albert said simply. "I always will, whether you're here beside me or light years away. I don't think I know how to love anyone else." He gave Edmond a sad half-smile and continued. "You can take me or leave me, but my ship sails in an hour, so you don't have forever to decide." He turned around and walked a few paces towards the door, as if to emphasize his point.
Silence greeted his retreat, and for a paralyzing instant Albert thought he had failed here, as well. If that was the case, he thought, then it didn't matter what came next, what material successes might await him in the future. They would mean little, and hold no sweetness for him. His heart would never leave this ship.
Footsteps, then, in the right direction. "You frighten me." Not the words he had expected, but they were a start. He half-turned, but Edmond's voice stopped his progress. "No, let me speak. I've never met anyone else who experiences life the way you do - you hold nothing back, no joy, no suffering, no hatred - I can read it in every line of your body, see it written out in your eyes, and for all that you are an open book to me, Albert - I can't figure out why you don't hate me. After all that I've done, how is it that I've earned your love instead of your enmity?"
Albert did turn to face him then, with a hesitant smile. He wrapped his arms around Edmond's neck and looked up into his troubled eyes. "I think Franz was right," he began, unsure, "that while love and hate begin in the same place, they follow very different paths to their eventual destinations." Edmond, somewhat taken aback by this explanation, said nothing as Albert rested his head on his shoulder and spoke softly in his ear. "You've earned nothing, my dear Count - but I have given you all I have left. I expect nothing in return."
Strong arms wrapped around his waist, holding Albert close in the heavy silence that followed. "Nothing at all?" Edmond whispered, tickling Albert's ear with his breath and the promise of more. Albert blushed from his hairline to the nape of his neck, and Edmond chuckled. "No one has forever, Albert. But stay with me a while, teach me to live in this world as freely as you live, and I will promise you all I have to give in return for the favor."
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
So I love you because I know no other way
- Pablo Neruda, excerpt from Sonnet XVII4/3/2007