A/N: Here's the next one! Hope you guys enjoy! Please don't forget to leave a review please! :) PS - we only own the OCs and the idea for the twist in this awesome anime!
Chapter Nine – Discovered and Revealed
Crystal buried herself in frustrated research for the next day, barely speaking at all, fighting with herself each passing moment.
"Dear God…Mother…Father…Uncle Pierre…Abbe Faria…Edmond…help me. I didn't want to feel this way about him…the person…the creature that has now taken my friend away and hidden him where no one can find him. Why does my heart hurt when I see him? This 'Count'? Please…give me a sign…!"
After a tiring day of traveling from libraries to bookstores to offices that held personal and old records, she sluggishly made her way back to the inn.
The deep voice startled her, having been so deep in her own thoughts and prayers. Turning around, she saw Bertuccio standing behind her. His dark glasses concealed what would be considered worry, for he'd seen her leave the library in a miserable state, and he knew what could possibly be bothering her. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to startle you…"
"It's ok," she said, pinching the bridge of her nose and squeezing her eyes shut. "What is it, Bertuccio?"
From his pocket he took out a sleek black envelope, a golden 'M' emblazoned on it. "The Count would like to invite you, your cousin, and friend to his villa in Auteuil tomorrow evening."
Crystal gave him an odd look, one eyebrow raised. "Wait, did you just say 'Auteuil'?"
"Yes, mademoiselle," he responded.
She looked down at the invitation, the name echoing in her head. If she remembered correctly, Auteuil was a gloomly forest on the outskirts of Paris, constantly encased in darkness and fog. "Hm…I supposed I shouldn't be surprised," she muttered to herself, staring at the golden letter against its dark background. Seeing how he remained standing, she realized that he was waiting for her to open the letter. Gently tugging at the flap, she pulled the slip of crisp parchment out and read it quietly. The Count's impeccable cursive spread over the paper, she had to re-read the message, staring in disbelief.
"Mademoiselle Crystal Morrel,
I sincerely hope you will accept this invitation to my villa in Auteuil tomorrow evening, and by all means, bring your friend and cousin along. There are many details I wish to discuss with you, and I hope you can find it in your heart to give me another chance so that I may redeem myself, in your eyes at the very least.
Your servant always,
The Count of Monte Cristo."
"…did you read this?" she asked at last, raising her eyes to the servant.
"No, mademoiselle," he shook his head. "My instructions were to find you and give you this letter, and receive an answer at your latest convenience."
"You know you can just call me Crystal," she said with an impish grin, startling the man at first.
He returned the grin, however, and bowed politely. "As you wish…Crystal."
"Bertuccio, before I give you an answer, tell me something."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "Yes?"
Biting her lip, she debated with herself on how to word her question properly. "…why…I mean…why does the Count keep inviting me to these events? Not to mention Ig and Max. We're not aristocrats, and I have nothing of value that could interest him. I'm just a girl from Marseilles."
The tall man grinned once more. "That is precisely why the Count wishes to constantly see you. He values your opinions and company, and it is because you are not a noblewoman that he is fascinated by you…I shouldn't say anymore than that, but…he worries and thinks of you constantly, Crystal."
She gawked at him, unable to believe her ears. "…does he tell you all this?"
"More or less," he shrugged.
With a small smile, she placed the letter back into its envelope and nodded. "Please let him know we'll be there…what time is appropriate for this visit?"
"Eight o'clock," he informed her.
She nodded once more. "Ok. See you then."
With another bow and smile, Bertuccio turned and left, heading back for the Champs-Elysees without delay. As he vanished into the distance, Crystal looked at the envelope once more, the 'M' glittering in the dying daylight. "So…he spotted me and the boys after all…this is going to be awkward…"
Twenty-four hours later, Crystal and Ignis were traveling through the darkness on their bikes, their eyes constantly scanning their surroundings.
"I-It's terrible h-here!" Ignis stammered as they saw the building come into view. "W-Why would he want to st-stay in a p-place like this?!"
Crystal came to a slow halt, sighing in relief that the trip was over. The only decent dresses she owned were the soft, translucent Grecian gown and the stunning, new blue dress, both courtesy of the Count of Monte Cristo. Knowing that there would most likely be other guests (some not so pleasant), she stuck with the newest gown. The beautiful skirt was inconvenient, however, having to ride the motorcycle on her way their.
"Time to be creative," she said to Ignis as they had departed, tucking in her skirt as tightly as possible around her legs and praying it wouldn't fly free as she drove along slowly. Maximilien was preoccupied with contacting their family at the moment so he promised he would join them as soon as possible.
Getting off her vehicle, she released her long brown waves from her ponytail, brushing stray tendrils away from her eyes. Now standing before the dark, murky mansion, both Crystal and Ignis parked their bikes and cautiously entered the building, linking arms as so to boost their confidence. Walking down as silently as they could, Crystal could feel Ignis shudder nonstop. There was a cold, sinister feel to the air, causing her to immediately think of Gankutsuou. "You can try to freeze the Count's heart and you can try to hide Edmond far away from me all you like, Cavern King, but I won't let you…"
As they came to the end of the hall, the doors creaked open, making them stand still in their places. Light flooded the area, causing them to shut their eyes, wincing. Cautiously peeping out of one eye, Crystal blinked, regaining her vision. Lifting her head, she saw a great, spacious room, a table with different flowers designated for each family or guest, several seats and lounges scattered about. It was a brightly colored room, starkly contrasting with the exterior of the manor.
A smile swept over her lips as she saw Albert, Franz, and Eugenie, waving from one of the lounges. "C'mon, Ig, looks like we're in the right place after all."
The alien gave a breath of relief before nodding and heading off to get a drink to sooth his nerves. Crystal giggled, shaking her head at him. "Poor guy," she whispered.
A gasp slipped from her lips when she heard his voice. Her heart pounding furiously, she slowly turned, looking over her shoulder first.
The Count's eyes widened when he saw her, peeking over her shoulder to see him, a gasp caught in his throat. He'd seen her before in this dress, true, but now he was in no hurry to go anywhere and she was to spend some time here without any pressing matters hanging over her head.
"Good evening," she said quietly, facing him at last, offering a curtsy.
His gaze softened as he bowed back. "Good evening," he said just as quietly, offering his hand to her. No sooner had she slipped her hand into his, he let his gloved fingers curl around it before bringing his lips to them.
Shocks seemed to shoot through her frame as she felt his cold lips press against her hand. Still holding onto her, he stood, his eyes locking with hers. "You look…ravishing. Blue is certainly your color."
Her cheeks began to burn, making her want to squirm. She wasn't comfortable with the fact that he continuously managed to make her blush, make her heart race like this… "Thank you…" Suddenly self-conscious, she bowed her head, allowing her hair to fall into her face.
"No, don't do that," he said, a chuckle escaping his mouth. Reaching out, he gently brushed away her long hair, her bangs still falling over her forehead and into her eyes. Cautiously, he moved those aside, staring into her large brown eyes. "You shouldn't hide…not from me. Please…You're trembling!" he said, surprised at how she shook. "Are you all right?!"
She didn't understand why she was reacting like this. The way his eyes bore into hers, now looking over her with deep concern, she felt pathetic and wonderful all at once. "Why…? Why do I feel like this?"
"Crystal! Is that you?"
Both of them stiffened, Crystal's mouth twisting into a scowl as the Count's eyes became dark. Masking his emotions with a look of indifference, Monte Cristo watched as General Fernand de Morcerf came strolling towards them, a curious look in his eyes. When he saw Crystal, his own eyes became rather large.
"My God, is that really you?!" he laughed, smiling. "You look lovely!"
"Thanks," she said, glaring off in another direction.
"Isn't she a vision, Count?" Mondego grinned stupidly.
With an unseen glare of hatred that was swiftly hidden, the Count answered, "She's always a vision, General…she's a precious gem."
The words struck her with a sudden force, her face jerking to stare at him in disbelief…in hope. "A…a gem? Edmond called me his little gem when I was a child…could it be…?"
"Well, of course," Fernand laughed nervously, tugging at his collar.
The sound of more footsteps caught their attention, making them turn their heads to see the Villefort family enter.
"Please excuse me while I welcome my guests," the Count said, bowing to Fernand and Crystal, sending her a small smile before taking off to greet the Crown Prosecutor and his wife and daughter. Crystal watched him leave, her blood racing as she clutched her necklace. It couldn't be Edmond…how could the Count of Monte Cristo be Edmond…?
"I meant what I said, you know."
Her blood went from racing to boiling in a matter of milliseconds. "What?"
"I meant what I said just now," he repeated, taking her hand in his, bringing it to his lips. "You look lovely…"
"Oh?" she asked, snatching her hand away before he could kiss it. "I thought you were talking about all the other times we've chatted and you've said that I will never find a husband, or that I'm worthless."
Stunned, he frowned. "That's because you get my temper started and bring out the worst in me when I get angry…"
"See? There you go," she said enthusiastically. "If I'm so terrible, then why do you continue to harass me?" Grabbing her skirts, she began to step away when he grabbed her arm, causing her to spin and face him. "Let me go," she snarled.
"Don't make a scene, Crystal," he growled. "It'll only make things worse."
"You have Mercedes. Why do you want me, too?" she hissed.
He didn't answer her at once, but his eyes trailed down to the necklace she wore. "Bah," he spat, his eyes burning in fury. "You can daydream all you want about him, but he's dead. And as for the Count-!"
"Did I hear my name?" Fernand leapt back, startled. The Count seemed to have materialized out of nowhere, smiling amiably at him.
"Ah, Count, I must say this is all very exquisite!" Danglars said, running up to meet them. His eyes fell upon Crystal, and his jaw hit the floor. "Cr-Crystal?! Crystal Morrel?!"
"That's my name," she sighed. "Can I help you?"
The fat banker looked her up and down, a feverish gleam in his eye. "Oh, yes, actually…-OOH!" He bit his tongue, striving not to curse as Crystal stomped on his foot, glaring daggers at him.
"How very immature." Crystal spun to see Villefort coming behind them, ready to scold her when he saw her face. He paled a little, recalling the information Danglars and Morcerf had recently shared with him in private conversations. "Ah…you must be Mademoiselle Morrel."
"Please excuse me," she said gruffly, waltzing away from them to a staircase where Ignis stood, watching with huge jade eyes.
"Are you all right?" he whispered as she fumed.
"I'm gonna kill myself if they keep it up," she gritted her teeth.
"What h-happened?" Ignis whispered.
"They're being their old, greedy, gluttonous, lustful selves, that's all," she sighed, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "Are you feeling better?"
He nodded, still sipping his drink. "Y-Yes. Thanks."
Crystal glanced up to see Franz and Albert up on a balcony overhead, overlooking everyone below them. They seemed to be emerged in a private conversation, causing her to purse her lips, deciding against visiting them for now.
The flash and snap of a camera blinded her, Ignis jumping up in surprise.
"Ugh, Beauchamp, is that really necessary?" she sighed, frowning at the photographer.
He smiled carelessly, tipping his hat to her. "Hey, I haven't seen too much that's photogenic tonight."
"I'm one of those things," she insisted calmly, turning away.
"Aw, c'mon. For someone who's so sure of herself, you've got pretty low self-esteem."
She shrugged, ignoring the fact he'd just stated.
"Well, I wanted to talk to Albert for a second," the reporter said, tipping his hat once more when another figure entered the room. "Hmm?...hey, isn't that Max?" he asked.
Crystal smiled, seeing that he'd finally made it. However, he immediately began talking to Valentine, who got up and left. Before he could stop her, Villefort started snapping at him to stay away from her.
Beauchamp grinned impishly, seeing an opportunity to humiliate the high and mighty prosecutor. "Excuse me." Hurrying off, he got there in time to snap a photo of the fuming judge, making Crystal stifle a laugh.
"Oh, d-d-dear," Ignis shook his head. "M-Max is getting into m-more trouble."
"Yeah," she agreed, watching him leave to find Valentine. "But I'm sure he'll work this out…he always does."
"Mademoiselle Eugenie," she heard the Count say. "I certainly hoping I'm not forcing this upon you."
"No, it's all right," she smiled politely.
Baron Danglars laughed. "It'll be good of her to use her skills. I've spent a small fortune on these piano lessons all these years, you know." Eugenie scowled at him before taking a seat and beginning to play.
"Oh…" Ignis sighed, closing his eyes. "T-That's…beautiful…"
She nodded in agreement, walking over to the piano and taking a seat on a settee, winking at Eugenie for encouragement. A light tap on the shoulder made her brows furrow. "Listen, Fernand, you can get lo-!" Her eyes became huge and covered her mouth in shock when she saw who she was speaking to. "Count! Oh, I'm so sorry! I thought that-!"
"No apology is necessary," he smiled lightly. Offering his hand, he asked, "May I have this dance?"
Her face and neck instantly heated up once more as she shyly accepted his invitation, allowing him to lift her onto her feet and spin her out. "I should warn you, I'm not very good," she said.
He chuckled. "As I recall, you said the same thing on Luna…and you did just fine." Blush spread over her cheeks as she remembered how they'd first met, ducking her head down in embarrassment. "That…that's only because you were guiding me."
"Then let me guide you again."
His voice was soft, his eyes filled with pleading. She surrendered, letting him hold her as they swayed and twirled to the music. All eyes were upon them, and in the background, Beauchamp's camera went off nonstop, but they ignored it all, only seeing each other.
"…can you forgive me?" he whispered, his head lowering just a smidge.
She blinked, confused. "Forgive you for what?"
"The other day, you saw something that was…wrong."
The image of him and Madame Villefort flashed through her head, her eyes stinging once more. "…oh…we shouldn't have been there, anyways…Albert and I were trying to help Max talk to Valentine, but it didn't quite work…and then I saw you and Madame…I shouldn't have followed you." Bowing her head, she murmured her apologies.
Taking his forefinger, he lifted her face and sadly shook his head. "I am the one who should be apologizing…I shouldn't have let myself go so far…to be honest, I don't understand why I let myself do that."
"She's a beautiful woman," she said quietly.
He stared into her eyes, shivers traveling down her spine. "You are the most beautiful, though." She gasped and he smiled at her, squeezing her hand gently.
Albert watched from the balcony, a smile creeping onto his face. "Hey Franz?"
"Hmm?" the other asked, looking over at him.
"Do you think…maybe the Count has deep feelings for Crystal?"
Franz looked down at the two, now standing still as they gazed at one another. A crooked smile came onto his own face as he shrugged. "It wouldn't be shocking if he did." His eyes trailed over to the wives of the important guests the Count had invited, and his brows knitted together in concern. "Albert…Madame Villefort…"
"What about her?" Albert asked, tearing away his eyes from the couple.
"Look at her face," Franz whispered.
Albert did so, and was stunned to see her glaring from her seat at Crystal.
"Look at your mother…your father, the Baron and Prosecutor…they're all looking at the Count and Crystal…what do you suppose it up?"
As the young Viscount looked from each person to the next, he saw faces mixed with emotions of sadness, disappointment, fear, jealousy, and anger. "I…I don't know. I don't understand any of this…"
Eugenie's piece came to an end, and everyone clapped as she left the grand piano.
"That was beautiful, Eugenie," Crystal smiled, hugging the girl.
"Indeed. It was magnificent," the Count of Monte Cristo agreed.
"I do believe she deserves a gift of congratulations."
Albert's eyes became large as a handsome young stranger brazenly came up to his fiancée and offered her a huge bouquet of red roses. She took them, uncertain of what to make of this character. "Who's that?" the viscount whispered.
"Allow me to introduce the Marquis, Andrea Cavalcanti," the Count announced, waving his hand to the extravagant gentleman. "He's the son of an old friend of mine."
The women immediately began to whisper, gossiping about the dashing newcomer as Danglars gawked at him. "I…I didn't think that family had an heir."
"I've been away for such a long time that no one really knew about me," the Marquis said smoothly. "The Count's been very kind to invite me to join him and introduce me to all of you." His eyes skimmed over to Crystal, an odd smile stretching over his thin lips. "Ah, I've heard about you, Mademoiselle Morrel, is it?" Taking her hand, he kissed it.
She froze, looking down at him with perplexed, untrusting eyes. "Something's up with this man…I don't like him…" "Nice to meet you," she lied, tugging her hand away from him.
"Who the hell does this guy think he is?" Albert frowned.
"Probably the Count's new favorite," Franz smirked. "I'll bet he's got all sorts of 'talents.'" He snickered, laughing as Albert furiously placed him in a headlock.
"Now that we are all gathered here, why don't we eat?" the Count asked, motioning for his servants to come forward. "Afterwards, I have a little activity for us." Offering his arm to Crystal, he took her to his table and helped her into a chair. When the meal was set before them, Crystal gawked at it. "Is it not to your liking?" he asked, raising an eyebrow in worry.
"What? Oh, no! It's just…" Glancing over at him, she cocked her head and said, "It seems you're very taken with Marseilles, Count…have you been there before?"
"Once, and only briefly," he answered coolly. "I tried this dish and I can't seem to shake it from my mind."
"I see." She sipped her soup, refraining from anymore questions about the topic. "Have you known the Marquis long, sir?"
"You could say that," he laughed, drinking his wine. "He's charming, isn't he?"
He watched from the corner of his eye how she refused to answer, her eyes narrowing at the young man from across the way who chatted with Lucien Debray and Beauchamp. Taking her hand and surprising her once more, he leaned close to her and whispered, "I see you distrust him…and rightly so. He's my guest, but I don't care for the Marquis. Please, Crystal, avoid him at all costs. Should he bother you, let me know at once."
Raising an eyebrow, she asked, "If he's so dangerous, why keep company with him, Excellency?"
The Count gave her a wry smile. "It's out of necessity that I keep him close…enough of that. I do hope you'll play the game I have planned out for tonight. It's bound to be exciting."
"If you wish it, I shall," she answered coyly, focusing on her soup once more.
"Excuse me, Excellency?"
The two of them blinked in surprise as they saw Franz appear at the Count's side, his face so solemn it made Crystal want to laugh. "Baron d'Epinay?" the Count raised an eyebrow.
Franz bowed. "Please, sir, if it's not too inconvenient, I'd like to speak with you some time tonight."
"Business?" the blue-skinned man asked, amused.
"Um, so, sir…" Blush spread over his face as he admitted, "…it…concerns Haidee…"
His eyebrow still raised in interest, he excused himself, taking Franz aside so that they might speak in private. "You're still worried about her? I've already send Baptistin to your home with the news that she is well…"
"Yes, Excellency, I know," he stated. "I just…I wanted to ask something personal…" When the Count said nothing in response, he bowed, his face and neck burning, his stomach in a knot. "Excellency, I care very much for your ward! I'd…I'd like permission to see her!"
The Count's eyes widened for a moment before he began laughing, startling the young man. "Goodness. It's a pity Haidee decided to stay home. It would have been good if she'd heard this herself." Placing a gloved hand on the young man's shoulder, he leaned forward, his tone serious, his eyes dark. "I have no doubt that you care for her, Franz. I think as highly of you as I do Monsieur Albert…however, if you should do anything to harm her in the least-"
"I swear on my father's grave, I'd never even dream of that!" snarled Franz. "I'm more than what I seem, Count, and I can honestly tell you I've never felt this way for any woman before Haidee!"
A mischievous grin spread over his lips. The Count of Monte Cristo leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "In that case, Baron…welcome to the family." Pulling back, he saw the mixture of relief, fear, and unease in Franz's face, causing him to laugh heartily. Clapping him on the shoulder, he waved back at the tables. "Come. Shall we sit down and enjoy ourselves?"
Once dinner was over, those who remained in the room gathered around as the Count began to explain his game to them.
"When I bought this villa, I added my own personal touches to this incredible place…except for one room, which I left perfectly in its original state. You see, some time ago, I believe something terrible and tragic happened here…this room, at the heart of the manor, is the source of the evil aura emancipating from this place."
Madame Danglars gasped, her eyes large as saucers. Villefort paled, but glared at the Count. "What are you suggesting?"
His Excellency chuckled ominously. "I suggest we have ourselves a little scavenger hunt. Whoever finds this room first will win a small prize, and it will give you a chance to tour the manor."
"Sounds like fun!" Danglars smiled, rubbing his hands together at the prospect of winning the prize. "Shall we get started?"
Raising his eyes, the Count called out, "Monsieur Albert."
"Huh?" the viscount blinked, surprised.
Franz smirked. "Monsieur Franz." He paled, looking down at the Count. "Who, me?"
"And Mademoiselle Eugenie." The young woman gasped, startled. "Yes?"
"I will need three groups to form, and each of these young guests will be the leaders," Monte Cristo informed them. "Can you do that for me, gentlemen? Mademoiselle?"
"Yes, of course," Albert answered, leading Franz towards Eugenie.
Grinning, the Count separated them into groups, some of the others refraining from the game. Eugenie left with Fernand and Cavalcanti in tow, while Franz led Marquise G and Baron Danglars.
"I guess I'll be with you, Albert," Crystal smiled.
"Great," Albert said enthusiastically. His crew was composed of Madame Danglars and Monsieur Villefort, who were none too happy about this game. Walking through the dark corridors and hallways, the two young people stuck close, the elders sticking to the rear.
"What do you suppose is so evil about this room?" Albert nearly whispered, feeling as though if he spoke too loudly he would disturb something or someone.
She shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe the previous owners had some dark secret…"
"Crystal," Albert lowered his voice so much that she could barely hear him. "Careful. Monsieur Villefort used to own this place."
"Hmm…" She glanced back, seeing him glaring coldly at their backs. "Well, that would explain why he's acting like he's being forced to attend his own execution."
Their path was winding, seeming to never end. Albert felt dizzy by the time they entered yet another hall.
"This is ridiculous," the Crown Prosecutor snapped harshly. "Albert, Crystal, we must turn back at once. Madame is not feeling well."
"Wait!" Crystal cried, pointing at a glow coming from the end of the passage. "What's that?"
"OH!" Madame gasped, shaking fiercely. "No! It can't be!"
Villefort had large drops of sweat racing down his face, his pupils fixated on the light.
"C'mon!" Albert exclaimed, suddenly excited, taking off towards the doors.
The group huddled along, Albert tugging at the doors before they could enter. Madame Danglars seemed to turn green at the sight of this room. Crystal didn't see how any of this could be terrifying, but she had a feeling that there was more than what there seemed to be. As she and Albert looked around, a secret door slid up and there stood the Count of Monte Cristo.
"Congratulations," he said, his hands clasped behind his back. "You are the first group to make it here."
"What is the meaning of this?!" Villefort demanded. "Is this some sort of joke?!"
The Count's frown turned into a cool smirk. "I had thought this would prove to be an interesting activity, however, I see that you disagree. I apologize, sir. Albert. Crystal. If you would come with me for a moment, I'll give you the prize to bring out."
"Yes, Excellency," Albert said, following the Count into the hidden room, Crystal right behind him.
The moment she stepped in, the door slid shut behind her, making her jump. "Whoa," she breathed, looking about the room. It was lit only by two torches which flickered fiercely, casting a mysterious glow around the barren apartment. The only piece of furniture there was a set of shelves through which the Count rummaged, looking for something in particular.
"I want to thank you both for playing along with my game," he said, pulling out a box and setting it aside.
Albert bowed his head, his eyes downcast. "Count…I…I'm sorry."
Monte Cristo turned to face him, one eyebrow raised, his expression playful curiosity. "Sorry? Whatever for, Albert?"
Glancing at Crystal, who was also perplexed, he bit his lip and stammered, "Well…the other day, Maximilien, Crystal and I were at the Villefort residence to see Valentine…but we saw you there and followed you…and we saw you in the greenhouse with Madame Villefort…"
The Count laughed, shaking his head. Startled, Albert lifted his head and gawked at him. "My, this is awkward. I've wanted to explain to you and Crystal that what happened was both our faults. You see, Madame would not take 'no' for an answer, and I, unfortunately was caught up in the moment. It was when I saw you there that I managed to regain my senses, so I am indebted to you for that."
Albert blinked, Crystal blushed. A smile grew onto Albert's lips as he laughed sheepishly. "That's a relief…for a moment, I thought you were mad with me." The Count continued to laugh, and the young viscount joined him. Crystal's uncomfortable smile soon became laughter as well. They were making it extremely difficult to be serious about the matter, and there was something about their laughter that she couldn't help surrendering to. Once they were out of breath, the Count of Monte Cristo became solemn, stepping forward and kneeling before them.
"Crystal…Albert…I want to show you something." Tugging his glove off his hand, he explained, "Over the years I've traveled in Deep Space, I've contracted an illness." Lifting his hand up, Crystal gasped when she saw that a patch of his skin was transparent, the bones and even some veins visible in the torchlight.
"Oh, Count!" Albert whispered. "Is it…serious?"
"No, not all," he said, averting his eyes from them for an instant. She could sense he was lying – Gankutsuou's side effects were not without some elements of horror. "There is an occasional numbness, but it passes. It's not contagious, so you have nothing to worry about." Slipping his glove back on, he took each of their hands into his own and gazed up with doleful eyes. "There are times when my illness overtakes me, and I must spend periods of time alone. That is why I hadn't called on you or asked for your presence these past few hours." Squeezing their hands, he said in a strained voice, "You two are the only ones outside of my home and aside from my servants that know of this…I trust that you two will keep this secret…just between the three of us?"
Albert's blue orbs and Crystal's brown spheres locked with his mismatched eyes, both firm in their resolve.
"Of course, Count," Crystal nodded.
"You can depend on us…you have my word," Albert vowed.
Squeezing them one more time, he smiled. "Good. Thank you." He placed his lips on Crystal's hand as if for emphasis, causing her to squeak in shock. Albert swallowed back a laugh, placing his fist to his lips.
Releasing the young woman, the Count got up and grabbed the box. "Now then, let's get out there and give them their prize, shall we?" Handing the box to the young man, he offered his arm to Crystal, a gentle smile spreading over his lips as she cautiously accepted. The door opened without delay. Albert stepped back into the room, grinning as he held out the small chest.
"Congratulations!" he declared. "Here's our prize!"
The moment Madame saw the box, her eyes locked on the accursed object, she shrieked like a banshee and collapsed onto the floor. Both Crystal and Albert's jaws dropped in disbelief. Villefort, trembling, peered at Monte Cristo. "Who the devil are you?!"
Seeing how the Count strived to hold back a smirk, Crystal felt her blood run cold. "He knows that something's up with these two…but what?!"