British Occupied Vienna, 1948
It wasn't that the bar was empty – it was absolutely packed for a Tuesday night. It was simply that to Matthew, none of the women around were shining as brightly as the one sitting in the corner alone.
She certainly had Germanic features – in the sense that he often found German women to be the most beautiful – but he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something about her that seemed out of place. She, like him, gave off the air of a foreigner – someone born a world away, who still thought in a different tongue than they were often tasked with speaking. But, he mused, this in itself is not strange. Vienna after the chop-up was a strange place.
People lost themselves here; often and on purpose. Matthew might be employed in the area, but he was certainly one of them.
He finished his bourbon, and ordered two more. When they slid into place in front of him, he steeled up his nerve and pushed his way to the lonely girl in the corner.
"Fancy a bourbon?" he asked, standing next to her table with two in hand. The girl – for truly 'girl' did seem a more appropriate moniker up close – fixed her eyes on him with a sort of detached contempt.
Something in her posture gave her more presence than the years on her face. Beautiful though she was, this girl could not be over seventeen. Perhaps it was the presence of the unfashionable hat that she had perched upon her head?
Maybe it's to make her look older?
Unlikely. Someone this stunning would probably be able to swindle drinks for free, age be damned.
Presently, she let out a sigh.
"Unnecessary," she said decisively, looking away from him. "Viennese bourbon sticks in the throat, burns on the way down. I have certainly had enough of the burning for one lifetime."
What accent was that? It sounded… unlike anything he'd ever heard. Obviously her command of English was sharp (which was brilliant, because his German was shaky at best), but Matthew couldn't place the accent at all.
Oh well. Must have been one of those bloody collaborating countries which fell like dominoes during the blitz. He pulled out the chair across from her, placing the drinks between them and lighting a cigarette.
"A smoke, then?"
"More burning, equally useless." She wasn't even glancing at him now, her eyes lost in some haze in front of her. "I do not desire company, sir."
"Nonsense. Everyone in Vienna is lonely." Matthew ashed some on the floor to his left.
"Will you truly not leave?" The red eyes met him now, holding him in a gaze of fierce intelligence. This was surely not some Russian floozy to be won with a drink or two. Matthew took a long drag on the cigarette and exhaled before answering.
"Well, not until I've finished my bourbon," he brought the cup to his lips. "And with your quite adamant refusal, I suppose I will have to finish two before I stand. It's not like one could simply return the tumbler."
The girl scowled, showing a row of quite sharp teeth (fangs was the word that sprung to mind), but settled into a sigh and picked up the bourbon provided for her.
"If you are so insistent on buying my affections in the future," she said, "'twould be more productive to ask for ale. Their darkest."
"I could go do that right now."
"Oh, please. Do not waste your coin on me, I will not be warming your bed tonight." She sipped at the bourbon, making a twisted face of dissatisfaction as it snaked down her throat. "Ugh… at least 'tis strong."
"I don't believe I got your name, Miss…?"
She glanced at him.
"Helene," she murmured.
"Pretty name. After the lady of Troy?"
"After nothing. After myself. And once again, no power on earth will make me sleep with you. You would do well to cease the useless flattery."
Prickly, Matthew thought, beginning to glance around himself, to make sure she was not part of some larger trap sent to lure young British soldiers out of their wallets. If she was, she was doing a spectacularly awful job at the drawing-in part.
Helene cracked her neck, and finally glanced back at him.
"And what about you, my young soldier?" She asked, somewhat anachronistically. He had at least five years on her. "What do the ladies of Vienna call you after you have warmed their guts with this poison?"
Instinctively, he extended a hand. "Sergeant Lawrence, ma'am. Lowly soldier and sometime keeper of the law, entreated by His Majesty to keep some bloody peace in this godforsaken rat ho-"
Her face is what cut him short. Where once had been cold indifference now stood a shocked sort of sadness. Tragedy lived in those eyes, sure as water began to sting at their edges. Matthew's hand hung limply in the air between them, and he retracted it as soon as she began to wipe away the offending tears with her sleeve.
"M-my, I'm sorry. 'Tis a night of memories for me, Sergeant." She laughed slightly as she got herself back under control. "A night I often wish to spend alone, for I truly hate appearing in this state around… others." She finished wiping and looked at him with her first smile of the night. "The hotel had run out of rum, you see."
Matthew tried a smile himself, "It's scarce around these parts."
"Goods always are after wartime, but alternatives can always present themselves," she said, raising her bourbon. "I thank you for this drink, Sergeant. My previous words hold true, but I will not let your money go to waste. This much I can do."
He chuckled slightly, placing his cigarette into the ashtray for later. "You seem quite preoccupied with money."
She snorted and smirked. "Old habit," was all she said.
"You knew a banker?"
She gently twirled the glass in her hand. Matthew had the inimitable sensation of being 'sized up'. He was reminded of his drill sergeant back in the countryside.
"Tell me," she began, "are you actually interested in what I have to say, or are you just trying to make the night disappear?"
Matthew shrugged. "I don't find those aims contradictory. Perhaps a bit of both."
Helene stared through him, stone faced.
When she finally smiled, it was like sun breaking across a field after a week of rain.
"I married a merchant, which is not a banker but they're cut from similar cloth, I grant you. I even bore him children, which was something I never thought I would do in a thousand lifetimes. I loved him as no person could ever love another, and we were perfectly happy for a very long time." When she drank from the bourbon this time, it was a long swig. "Tonight is the anniversary of our last child's birth. I haven't seen him, or his father, in an age. Nights like this I wish to. That is why I did not desire company. The memories are enough to keep me occupied, already."
Matthew's eyebrows shot up. Already a mother so young? How many children did she have?
He faltered a moment before continuing. "I-I'm terribly sorry. I lost… people in the war, too."
Helene gave him a strange look, as if he had said something almost amusing.
"The war. There have been many. But yes, 'twas quite a frightful one. Many more people gone," she mused, before finishing her glass. "People leave you, but the inability to make a true farewell is something tragic. 'tis amusing: people come and go through life, and one rarely has control of when or why they do. People you need inevitably become a good you take for granted. But they will still leave, regardless of your permission."
Helene lost herself in the glass for a long time. Matthew didn't even realize how long he had been staring until she met his gaze. Another shock of red.
"Somewhere during the life we made together, I had convinced myself that this wasn't true. Naïveté can be blissful, even if it's only temporary. Don't you find?"
Matthew truly had nothing to say. His long forgotten cigarette burned out its last on the table between them, filling the space in between with a thick plume of smoke. Through the haze, and only for a moment, Matthew thought something became animal-like in her features. She didn't change, per se, but with the cloak of her beauty somewhat obscured, he realized there was something about her almost…
Helene let out a yawn, and stretched. "I should to bed," she murmured. "On a normal night, I would stay here until the dawn and drink you under the table, but now I think the memories are… stronger than usual." She stood, and turned to go, but paused before walking. The ambient noise in the bar lowered slightly, enough that Matthew heard her next words very clearly.
"Sergeant, may I ask you a favor? 'tis but a small thing, and strange... but it would mean quite a lot to me. It may perchance help me sleep."
She spoke a word, foreign to his ears. Then, she asked him to repeat it, which he dutifully did:
Her body stiffened slightly, as if a small shiver ran through it. "Again, as if it were something you cherished."
And so he did. She stood there for a moment, unmoving.
"Aye, even the voice is similar," she chuckled. "Even the voice…" Helene turned to him and gave him one more radiant grin. "Thank you again for the drink, Lawrence. Should we meet again, I shan't have forgotten you."
Matthew watched her walk outside and into the downpour over Vienna. When he regained his senses, he stood to follow her, but upon exiting into the street, all that he found was the tempest and its infinite howl.
It swirled around the city for three days, leaving untouched or warm.