Author's Note: So, a bit of a quickie oneshot with minimal planning or editing. This isn't something I expect to be very popular or anything, but I just needed to write it for myself, for one of the more heartbreaking characters I've ever encountered. The pureness and beauty of Franz's devotion is damn...well, depressing, actually.
Whoo. So, enjoy this while I go off and curl up in the fetal position. Thanks for stopping by, and please review if you can!
That idiot, came searing through Franz's mind. Albert and his damn pride!
His fear was eating through him like flames, and curled up on their hideout's floor Franz pressed his agonizing forehead against his knees to cool. If only the foolish boy would call off the duel with the Count—and Franz didn't care about any stupid witnesses or legalities; running away and living on the lam would be a small price to pay for keeping his friend safe. He'd already helped "kidnap" Valentine with the authorities blazing on his heels, and to save Albert he'd be more than happy to break every law in existence, even if he had to drag the young man kicking and screaming.
But there was only one way to make sure that the Count—no, Gankutsuou—wouldn't pose a danger to Albert or anyone else any longer. Fists tightening, Franz knew what he had to do.
There was a warm summer's breeze to sweeten the decaying air on the hilltop. The honey-golden sunlight did little to brighten his father's tombstone, in the cemetery down below. Quickly tiring of the view of graves, Franz tucked his knees against his forehead, having already placed a bouquet where his father lay and then sprinted away with misted eyes.
"Cheer up," Albert said in his usual chipper tone, a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Don't cry, or else I'll have to throw things at you, remember?"
"That's right, because soon you'll be a grown-up anyways."
"I'm only gonna be eleven," Franz replied despondently. With a start, he was shoved by Albert onto his back, soft grass matted under his shoulder blades. "Wha-hey! What was that for?" His eyes flew open to be blinded by a sunlit sky, and the intent stare of Albert's face right above his own. Something must have been wrong with his heart, because it felt like it just got knocked around in his chest like a clacking pool ball.
"If the view was depressing you so much, just look at the sky. And try to be more excited about your birthday—it's special, you know," Albert admonished calmly. "So guess what present I got you."
Franz almost balked a little at the strange seriousness in his friend's gaze. "Eh…I, uh…a new bike?"
"Nope. Guess again."
"That'd be cool! But nope. Guess again."
Franz grew impatient. "For Pete's sake, just tell me what it is."
"What? Why would you have me guess for a present that doesn't even exist?" his friend burst out exasperatedly, and Albert dropped his faked intensity with a grin.
"Relax, I was pumping you for ideas—if I wanna get you the best present ever, I need to figure out what it is first, right?"
What an idiot. Turning his head to the side, Franz was thankful that he didn't flush as easily as Albert did. "You don't have to worry about getting me 'the best present ever.' It's not like I get you anything all that great for your birthdays."
"Liar," Albert teased. "You're the greatest present a guy could ask for—even when you're being sad or annoying or a jerk, you're still my favorite person in the whole world." He gave a small, unabashed laugh, as pure as the rustling wind that wrapped around them.
Thunderclaps ocean-crash solar flare earthquake. Inside his heart, Franz felt the universe being turned inside out, planets colliding and stars collapsing, until everything was painfully rearranged to revolve around his friend's beaming face, and his dumbstruck pulse could only throb Al-bert, Al-bert, Al-bert.
"Ah—erm. If that's the case, then I don't need any extra presents either." What he was feeling was wrong. Albert was his best friend, and he wanted to… he wanted to…
Franz looked away from the other boy's lips.
"Really?" Albert asked.
"Yeah, I think you're about all the present I can handle." He said this with a glare aimed at Albert's way, and the two boys held this position until they both started to laugh.
With the sun in his eyes, amongst the scent of grass and Albert's shampoo, and dandelions brushing his cheeks, Franz realized that he was in love. And at the exact same time, his too-wise heart had already broken.
He would take Albert's place at the duel and kill Gankutsuou. Or be killed by him.
The nerves in his stomach were electrified with anticipation, but his own dread aside it really was a simple plan; deciding to die might have been unbearably hard, but deciding between Albert's life and his own was easy.
Writing Albert's letter, however, would be much more complicated.
"This telescope is so old-fashioned," Albert complained as he held the lens to his eye—no buttons, no wires, no batteries. "Do you think we'll actually be able to see any shooting stars with this thing?"
The two of them were sitting on the roof, dangling their kicking legs over the edge. Goosebumps prickled on Franz's arms from the night air.
"It works fine. You're just looking at it through the wrong end, genius." He grabbed it, turned it around, and placed it back into Albert's hands.
"Oh. I thought it worked like those extendable binoculars..." Their fingers touched briefly as the telescope changed hands. "Wow Franz, your fingers are ice-cold!"
Setting the telescope down, he grasped his friend's hands between his own to warm them, oblivious to the self-conscious fear that took hold of Franz's eyes.
He looked happily to the sky and asked, "So once we find our star, what're you gonna wish for?"
Franz cursed himself for his racing pulse and stupidity and for not being a better friend and for thinking of strange, bad things. "I guess…that we'll be together forever."
"Really? I'm gonna wish for us to stay friends forever, too!"
Staying friends, huh? Franz thought to himself as rekindled hopelessness rose up his throat. He knew that while Albert might not have realized it, they had wished for two very, very different things.
Staring down at their clasped fingers, he said with a chill in his voice, "Hey, Albert…I think we're getting a little too old to be holding hands."
"Oh—I guess you're right…" The boy blinked at him, first with confusion and then with sadness, before tentatively releasing his friend's hands. It felt strange for both of them to be conscientious of something so natural. "We can't hold hands with Eugenie anymore either, then?"
"I guess not."
"But…but Franz! That doesn't mean that we're changing, right?" Albert asked with a forceful distress. "Even if we all grow up, I want everything else to stay the same."
Franz had wanted the same thing, but he was aware that he had already changed in a frightening, terrible way. He looked into his friend's wide, starry eyes with a surge of guilt at the new bubbling feelings in his chest.
"Albert, don't worry, okay? I promise that your wish will come true, star or no star." Like a seal on an envelope, Franz closed off his chances of ever making a confession as he continued, "I'll make sure of it. We'll always stay friends."
And only friends.
Franz pulled back the revolving chair with a scuttle of wheels and sat down at the desk. He rummaged around for some pen and ink and paper, wondering just what in the world he should say. There were volumes and volumes of feelings that he wanted to make his last words, but he had to choose the right ones.
Tears falling silently, Franz faced the shut door with dull eyes, watching it shudder under the fall of Albert's pounding fist.
"Franz, open up! Let me in and tell me what's wrong! Franz, why won't you answer me?" The boy was stirred by the sounds of Albert's voice breaking, as his friend also began to cry much more audibly. "I'm sorry if it's something I did…please don't hate me, Franz."
Placing a hand on the door, Franz finally brought himself to speak throatily.
"Albert…no, it's not your fault."
It's my fault.
"It has nothing to do with you."
It has everything to do with you.
I can't be trusted.
"I just can't see anyone right now."
Really, I want to see you way too much.
"Please leave me alone."
I miss you all the time.
He exhaled out of crushed lungs and closed his eyes, placing his forehead against the door.
Disobeying him as always, Albert hadn't budged. "Franz…I don't want to leave you—not when you're like this. Why are you upset? Come on, you know you can tell me anything!"
No. No, this was the one thing that Franz couldn't let his friend know about.
The truth was, Albert still thought that he was a little boy who could embrace aching chests and touch anywhere he wanted and kiss cheeks and laugh too loud, too free, too lovably. He was so friendly that sometimes Franz wanted to collapse into sobs—and he knew how ironic it was, that Albert's unchanging companionability was what doomed his heart to loving him in the first place.
Even playing as they usually did made Franz nervous and clumsy and hurt all over. Albert had only wanted to teach him some fencing techniques and touched upon his wrist to guide it, and Franz ruined their fun by abruptly turning to run into his room and slam the door in his friend's face.
"I'm sorry. I really am. I'm so sorry. I can't—I-I'm—I'm so, so sorry."
He wanted to banish the wistful, impure thoughts. He wanted to tear out his dumb heart and yell at it to stop.
But it went on tirelessly, mercilessly, whispering its tell-tale secrets through his veins: Al-bert, Al-bert, Al-bert, Al-bert.
Sometimes Franz wanted to hate Albert because he cared about him so much.
It didn't make a whole lot of sense, but neither did loving him.
"Feelings of hate, and feelings of love," he wrote on the parchment after a thoughtful pause. He would have to do his best to pour out his heart without actually spilling his more potent feelings. For his friend's sake, he had to tell Albert what he needed to hear, not what he himself wanted to say. "They both come from a deep caring about someone."
As always, the memory of Albert's pure smile lit up Franz's mind, warmer than glowing gold and infinitely more precious; it clashed against the more recent image of his friend slamming down his fist, teeth bared in hurt, roaring rage against the Count.
He was desperate not to lose that smile.
"Albert," Franz's pen scribbled more urgently, "don't hate anyone."
"You're looking quite glum," Eugenie remarked, popping a grape into her mouth as she reclined on a cushioned lawn chair.
"Jus' drowsy," Franz mumbled with half-lidded eyes, chin in hand as he sat on the ground nearby with his back turned; had the news been broken to him just a couple years back, he would have been devastated, but now he was much better at subduing the painful chant of his heartbeat. He had to conceal his emotions—if he kept up acting the way he had been, he would just be a burden to his friends. "D'you know how long your parents've been conspiring about this?"
With a snort, the girl leaned back with a creak in the lawn chair's legs. "Good question. Those selfish jerks made their decision without considering any of our feelings in the matter…n-not—not that I think Albert would be a bad choice or anything, he's a great guy and we'd get along just fine—oh, but it's not like I think of him as more than a—than a friend, I totally don't! That dummy's just…ugh! You know what I mean."
Lazily swiveling his head back, Franz saw that a blush had crept on Eugenie's cheeks as she glared angrily into space, her chin just barely jutting out. Despite himself, he snickered.
"W-what? What's so funny you—you double-dummy!" She chucked a grape at his head, and it bounced right off his scalp.
"Nothing, nothing." Almost starting to crack up herself, Eugenie tossed another grape, and this time Franz managed to catch it in his mouth. "I understand if you and Albert are upset about the whole arrangement," he said around the ripened berry, "but when you get right down to it I guess it might not be so bad."
"Yeah." He swallowed and continued, "Whether you two end up loving each other in that way or not, you can at least be sure that you'll both take care of each other real well and have a lot of fun living together. And knowing that's enough to make me happy, anyways."
"I…I guess I never thought of it like that." Sighing, Eugenie closed her eyes as a comforting breeze rushed through the branches of the tree above, causing its leafy shadows and dappled blots of sunlight to wave back and forth across their faces. "Franz, you're a good friend, you know that?"
With his matured skills he calmly swallowed his guilt. "Heh, well…I guess I could brag, but since I'm such a good friend and all, I think I'll just let you bask in my sheer goodness."
"Knock it off, I'm being serious!" Eugenie giggled. "I mean, you're the most selfless person I know. And I—one of the reasons my engagement to Albert was bothering me so much was—well, I was afraid that it'd ruin things between us."
For a moment, a talon of fear gripped Franz's windpipe. "U-us?" Did she know? How did she find out? How—
"I mean, all of us. Like, Albert and I've been getting all awkward and stuff and because of it the three of us haven't hung out in a while, and it's not fair to you because you had nothing to do with this whole stupid situation. It might not've been my idea, but I can't help feeling responsible just for being involved, and…well, I'm sorry." Her gaze lowered under a melancholy weight.
"I wish we were still dumb, dirty children running around berry-picking on the hills, you know? I wish—" she gripped the grape cluster tautly as her voice thickened, "I wish Albert had picked these for me instead of my parents!" A dry sob escaped up her throat, and she threw the fruit at the side of her house.
Smacking into the creamy-white outer wall, its dribbling corpse stained it with red juice. "There," Eugenie huffed with a thick voice, staring at her workmanship. "Think of it as a paintjob. It's an improvement to my parents' mansion, don't you think?"
With sympathy, Franz agreed with somber humor. "You've got the makings of a great architect. But next time, try embedding the wall with tomatoes instead of grapes—they're more traditional for throwing, you know?"
Eugenie smiled appreciatively. Lifting her eyes to the drifting clouds in the sky, she murmured, "Someday…someday I'll be far, far away from this place. Making my own decisions."
"And me and Albert'll be right behind you, making all the wrong ones."
She laughed at that. "But of course."
They fell into companionable silence, both absorbed in the separate planets of their spinning thoughts.
After a while, Eugenie spoke up again.
"Don't be afraid."
He blinked and asked in surprise, "What?"
Sitting up straight, Eugenie fastened him in an earnestly piercing gaze. "It's just…me, you, and Albert, we're all afraid of different things. But you're the only one who won't talk about your fears. I won't try to pry, but…well. If it's yourself that's causing the terror in your eyes, then I'll tell you right now that you have nothing to worry about, no matter what you might think."
Franz was too good to let his mouth fall open in a little "oh," but he felt the unuttered syllable echoing down the walls of his throat. He smiled a little, but he couldn't say anything. There was nothing he could promise her.
Hand hovering over a finished letter, he only briefly lingered over the idea of putting down those three words. Shaking his head, he signed his name at the bottom, and nothing more; he wanted Albert to remember him as he always had, a friend he could adore freely and innocently like when they were boys. In many ways, that was better.
Stamping down the seal with undimmed determination, he now promised aloud, "I'm not afraid."
I'll be seeing you soon, Eugenie, he thought as he pocketed the envelope. I know I can trust you to deliver all my love to him.
He left the hideout tenderly unchanged as he departed into the night.
One late night, when they had pulled out the sleeping bags and crashed in the hideout, Franz found himself restlessly staring at the ceiling despite his fatigue. Albert had outstretched his hand absently, the lamp by his head casting a magnified, fingered shadow upon the wooden beams. Watching the flapping of Albert's silhouette as he closed and opened his hand, Franz rolled over onto his side to look at him.
"Mm? What is it?"
"This…this might sound like a dumb question." Franz's eyes slid down to the floor against which his cheek was pressed, overtop the rustling fabric of his sleeping bag. Having just entered his teen years, he had difficulties coming to terms with the strange lukewarm, jittering fevers he experienced when he thought of Albert too much. But then, their newly-discovered hormones were something they could talk about together at times with jovial lewdness, and other times with furtive embarrassment. No matter how ridiculous or serious, he and Albert had gone through so much together.
And with Eugenie too, he thought with fondness as he recalled the serious words they had shared, once upon an afternoon.
"There's no such thing as a dumb question. Only slightly unintelligent ones," Albert declared easily. His hand's shadow circled its thumb and forefinger into an "okay" sign. "Just tell me."
"…What do you think of me? I mean…what am I to you?"
Hand sinking to rest near his heart, Albert said, "I thought I told you this before, a while back—you remember, don't you? You were my favorite person then, and you are now. Always will be."
Franz had difficulty talking around the smile that welled up on his face. "Really?"
Yawning, Albert smiled back and settled down more comfortably. "No," he mumbled, "I should be thanking you…for everything…" He blew out the lamp and lay down his head, exhaling like the breeze of a rocking lullaby.
This was enough—more than enough. Grateful in the surrounding darkness, Franz allowed himself to drift away as he closed his eyes.