I've recently gotten into this musical in a big way, and I thought I'd try my hand at writing it some fiction, as there is woefully little already about.
Disclaimer-I don't own Elisabeth, das Musical, nor any of the character thereby portrayed in this story.
Characters: Death (der Tod)/Prince Rudolf
Summary: A second encounter with a mysterious figure from his childhood finds Rudolf ensnared in a dangerous and irrevocable obsession with Death.
Warnings: Suicide, Character death
Rudolf has heard the rumors about his mother, born, hushed, from behind gloved hands, raised to cover petty, covetous mouths. He doesn't understand them, at first, these whispered mentions of 'die Herrin des Todes' that accompany every mention of her name and—somewhere in his distant memories—follow her down hallways like a lingering scent of perfume. But, even at this young age, he knows enough not to ask, to keep the doubts and questions inside and hope, quietly and obediently, to be told what it all means. For years, Rudolf can only grasp at the edges of understanding, never truly knowing what is truth and what is fantasy, forever wondering at the hazy specter of mystery that his mother has become. The answer finds him soon enough, on an otherwise unremarkable night when he is driven by loneliness from his bed to his mother's darkened bedroom.
'Mama!' his little voice reverberates through the room, returning to him empty and hollow. 'Mama, where are you?' He is a big boy, he reminds himself, and big boys do not cry, but that does not stop him from wanting to when he wakes up in the grip of a terrible nightmare like drowning, when he cries out and there is no one to stroke his hair and comfort him.
Rudolf's mother is not there; but He is, and He is everything that young boys want to be at this age; strong, prepossessing, with an endless air of careless, fluid confidence. 'Why do you call out to someone who cannot hear you?' He asks casually, a smile on his face and a tilt to his head. It is strange and wonderful to look at him, like someone has cut a swath out of the air to reveal a swatch of the night sky.
Rudolf sucks in a great breath of air, barely able to summon the courage to ask him, 'Who are you?' in a shaky voice. He sounds exactly like the frightened, awe-struck little boy he is, and this infuriates him.
'I am…' He leans down to Rudolf's height, smile widening. 'a friend.' A hand settles on Rudolf's thin shoulder, and it seems like most of the air has gone out of the room. With a gasp, the little prince recognizes Death for who He is, and he cannot help but feel that this is only because he has been allowed to do so. Without thinking, he reaches forward desperately, cries, 'Stay with me!'
'I'm not going anywhere.' Death's laugh is magnanimous and warm, and Rudolf senses that there is a limitless supply of immense, tensile strength beneath the gentle touches, the squeezing fingers that seem to be meant to keep the boy in place as much as they are meant to comfort him. But the smile—that smile is a million promises, laughter in the curve of His mouth, kindness in the little creases around His eyes. He is everything that young boys want to be at this age, and He is something that Rudolf needs, too; a friend, or the offer of friendship. 'I'll be there if you need me,' He says, and it feels like this is a more significant gesture than anyone else has ever made for Rudolf—he feels incredibly special, a chosen child. Immediately, irrevocably, Rudolf wants to please Death, wants to make Him proud. 'I could be brave,' he tells Death in return, as if trying to convince Him that He has made the right decision in calling the little prince a friend. 'I could be bold, if I wanted to. I could be strong.' He is adamant. 'If I wanted to be, I could be a hero.' He tells Death about the cat he's killed, and not once does that smile falter. Maybe Rudolf is just being optimistic, but the expression seems inherently fond.
Rudolf grows up with Death blazing as a golden idol in the back of his mind at every moment, and he tries to be brave, and he tries to be strong. He tries to be a hero. He tries to be everything Rudolf could be, the vision of himself he saw reflected in those endless dark eyes. Death had been everything Rudolf had wanted to be back then, and as He draws the prince's head to rest on His lap, Rudolf tries to remember what it was like to be that age—before, when he wasn't happy, exactly, but wasn't unhappy—miserable, desperate, and pathetic, constantly nervous, always afraid. His own ribs are like lead, constricting his lungs, lying heavy on his heart, poisoning his blood. His skin is burning—Rudolf wishes he could just rip it off, the stuffy woolen jacket, stifling laundered shirt, and just keep tearing until he reaches bone.
The fingers in his hair are cold, and Rudolf leans into them for the wonderful relief this is from the inferno below his skin.
'It has been too long since we last spoke, wouldn't you say?' The voice is soft, a pleasant, chilling whisper, but right next to Rudolf's ear, and the breath is like stale, dusty air from a disused attic.
Somehow, Rudolf's arm has ended up around Him, and they sit close as lovers. Rudolf is exhausted, but he manages to pry open his eyes for his old hero, and he is immediately transfixed by the face from his memories. Death hasn't changed at all—Rudolf supposes that's to be expected—but there is something distinctly different about Him. What it is exactly is beyond Rudolf's abilities to put it into words, but, for some reason, he feels the difference is more a change in himself than in his childhood idol.
'My friend,' says Rudolf. He sounds every bit as exhausted and overwhelmed as he feels, and this infuriates him. He should have learned to be stronger by now.
'I told you I would be here when you needed me…didn't I?' Death is terribly, terribly close—Rudolf's eyes nearly cross trying to focus on the pale face, his attention catching on the smile that had so captivated him when he was young. Before he can stop himself, Rudolf jerks away, the rush of blood through his frantic heart like the roar of a waterfall in his ears.
'I feel like I'm suffocating,' gasps Rudolf, still feeling the ghost of Death's breath on his lips. 'I keep having these nightmares, and it's like being smothered.'
'You needed me—' Cold lips brush against Rudolf's cheeks, and his eyes flicker shut. 'Here I am.'
Death can see it—can see that the world is falling apart, catching fire, shriveling up and dying. Rudolf has always known it, but his desperate attempts to share this knowledge with his father have always been dismissed angrily, ignored, and Rudolf himself has been treated with disdain. What they don't realize—his father, his father's advisors, the lofty members of his inner circle—is that they are all walking blindly into the falling darkness, sailing ignorantly into the gathering storm that awaits Austria just over the far horizon. They will all be shattered like glass against the rocks unless someone can do something, can change the country's course. Something must be done to stop it. Even before Death says the words, Rudolf knows in his heart that, in the end, it will be up to him.
'But what do I do?' he asks. 'My hands are tied—I am shackled…helpless.'
Death's hands are on his shoulders, tracing the line of his jaw, pressed against the small of his back. He holds Rudolf flush against Him—the prince has to lean back to look Him in the eye. 'I think you know what you have to do,' comes the dreaded answer.
'I am powerless…'
'Then you must take the power you seek.' Death's face is all but pressed into the crook of Rudolf's neck, and Rudolf is lost. Lost in the potent storm of his own frustrations, in the fiery rhetoric of rebellion, in the heady sensation of cold fingers against his flushed skin.
'Take…?' He can only parrot Death's words dumbly, like a puppet, unable to process the words through the thick fog in his mind.
Death presses fingers against his spine, fire in His eyes. When His fingers rise to brush, frozen feathers, against the side of Rudolf's neck, Rudolf cannot help but have his attention drawn to it, as it has been to the many quick, tender touches, the lingering looks. He remembers the gentle, supportive hand on his shoulders from when he was young—back then, those hands had seemed so big, but really they're almost delicate; slender, long-fingered, and pale. They glance occasionally across his shoulders, now, but mostly they're on his face, pulling at his waist, gripping his hands, and they're gentle, but insistent, and every touch is hungry. Rudolf thought he was burning up, before, but these touches set fires of their own; smoldering and hot, pooling low in his stomach like molten metal. But this heat acts like baptismal fire, clearing his brain and letting him breath again. He sees clearly the road before him, see what he must do.
'Time is running out; you know it. You must at least try to turn the tides in your favor, or everything you love will be lost beneath the waves.' Rudolf can no longer tell if He's really speaking or if these intimate whispers are a language all their own, an exchange of heat, prickling vibrations of skin against skin. He nods, willing to agree with anything if it means that Death will keep speaking like this, keep those cool, soothing hands against him. There is courage flooding through him—he knows that he is not crazy, knows that the problems he sees are real, knows now that, no matter what, when he acts it will not be alone. Death will be on his side—and how can he lose with such an ally?
'How do you like the sound of Kaiser Rudolf?' The way His voice has lowered to a husky hiss sends electricity down Rudolf's spine, fills him with a surge of strength. He feels capable of anything. It's ironic—standing here, on the brink of something great and terrible, rebellion singing through his veins, enfolded in the arms of Death—he's never felt so alive.
Just as the true enormity of this situation begins to dawn on him, and the old familiar fear begins to creep in, Rudolf realizes that he is alone. Death is gone. Restless, frightened, but burning with the fire that has been set in him with cold hands and hot words, Rudolf gives himself no time to grieve for this sudden separation that feels so much like loss, no time to think about those burning eyes, those icy lips. He focuses on his goal and swears upon his life that he will charge ahead. He will be brave, he will be strong. He will be a hero.
But his moment never comes, and Rudolf begins to despair.
Food seems to have lost all flavor, and so he refuses to eat; wine has lost its potency, and so he refuses to drink; haunted by vague, faceless demons and troubles that have no name, he cannot sleep. The things that used to matter to him have begun to pale, their colors bleached in the blazing light of Rudolf's dark and undeniable god. Since their most recent encounter, Death has given Rudolf's mind no room for any other thoughts, and so he is troubled ten-fold. Desiring to make Him proud, Rudolf aches to prove himself, to successfully wrest the throne from his undeserving father. But at the same time, another desire has sprung up within him, and try as he might Rudolf has been unable to put it aside for a moment. It is written in his bones, in his very instincts, more than the need to eat or drink; it is more exhilarating than the drive for power; it is a snarling need, deeper and more all-consuming than the desire for the intimate contacts of his mistress.
Torn between the conflicting wants of his soul, Rudolf vacillates, does nothing. Never truly free from it, Rudolf's attempts to ignore this new desire seem only to make it stronger, drive it to vie more enthusiastically for his attentions. In his weaker moments, when he possesses too little energy to keep up the fragile glamour he wears in the public eye, Rudolf retreats to his private quarters, cold sweat drenching the collar of his coat. He sinks into a heap on the floor—dignity and propriety discarded like lines of shed clothing leading to so many wedding beds—and weeps, longing to be caught up again in the arms of Death. The peace he knew there haunts him like waking up in prison after a vivid dream of heaven. But most of all it is that touch he craves; his skin remains feverish in hopes that it might be calmed again by those cool hands; his pulse races with the mere memory of that enticing voice breathing promises against his neck. He is swept along helplessly in a ceaseless storm of his own passions, and the few nights when sleep does take pity on him, Rudolf dreams of nothing but a sirenic and unmoving face, with pale and parted lips bending ever closer to his own…
It has become an obsession, and one that Rudolf cannot afford to indulge. But in a moment like breaking to the surface of a tumultuous water, the person who was for so long everything that Rudolf wanted to be has become instead everything the young prince wants, and it is at once much simpler, and yet endlessly more complicated. It is a shameful, secret wanting that makes Rudolf feel like a little boy again, smuggling in injured birds from the garden to hide them under his bed—he had always tried valiantly to nurse them back to health, but now that he thinks about it, every last one of them had failed to live. He feels a prick of impossible, stupid jealousy at the fact that even those insignificant little birds have had the honor of flying into the waiting embrace of Death while he, Crown Prince of Austria, must stay here in torment and infuriating, heart-sick longing, shriveling like an ash in the terrible intensity of his own twisted lust. It is unfair, thinks Rudolf, that he be given such a brief, but nonetheless intoxicating taste of all that Death had to offer, only to have it snatched away and be thrust back into the harsh, dry glare of his unhappy life.
Of course…there is always the pistol…
As the days draw out like a blade, Rudolf finds his thoughts drifting to the pistol in his desk drawer almost as often as they replay his last meeting with Death. Before long, it becomes a familiar weight in his hand, with long idle hours spent behind locked doors, lounging in his shirt-sleeves, watching the light from his windows as it pools across the weapon's glimmering skin. (Sometimes, when he has the pistol in his hands, he can almost hear a voice calling his name, but it's so far away he can never quite recognize it.) It's such a well-crafted weapon—almost fragile—and so responsive! Why, he could practically slip, and if by some terrible stroke of fate his finger happened to be on the trigger…
He always shoves the gun away after a while—he's far too much of a coward to ever actually use it.
It only takes one last time with the pistol to change that—it happens the day he finally recognizes the voice. If it had been Death, Rudolf might have been able to hold on, but the sweet, high voice that sings his name is one far more familiar, though the loving way it calls him is as alien as a foreign language.
'Mama?' Rudolf can barely believe his own ears. 'Mama, where are you?'
Of course she won't answer him; they are too alike to see eye-to-eye, too similar to recognize the need that they might fill for one another. And anyway, she isn't really there.
Rudolf wonders idly if she ever has been. His heart aches.
But there is someone who has been there, someone who has seen that need and been drawn to it, someone who has offered him friendship, who has been a constant, shadowy companion. Someone who has, for the first time in Rudolf's life, given him a cause, ignited a fire within him, who has made him feel alive—as if the ends of every nerve has been flayed, leaving them bare and receptive until the slightest touch is like being struck by lightning. Someone who has sensed Rudolf's open wounds and latched on with razor teeth.
He feels like an old envelope, crackling and yellow and stuffed with someone else's love letters. And he is tired, so tired, of being the only person who can see the red flags in a world that has become a blurry landscape of smudgy grays. He just wants to sleep, to lose himself in the tender embrace of his dreams and never again open his eyes.
As the cold ring of the pistol's barrel presses against his flushed temple, Rudolf steals one final glance at the fierce, beautiful face above him and thinks, 'At last!' He loses himself in Death's vicious kiss; the sensation of the impossible lips he has so long coveted against his own is like brutal poetry—it sucks the air out of his whole body. Rudolf drinks the moment in like a drowning man drawing water into his lungs. The world around him erupts, and one, sharp, eternal note rings in his ears.
The pistol drops from Rudolf's fingers and clatters to the ground.
Ugh, if I were a character on Sesame Street, I'd be the Comma Monster, snatching up all the poor, helpless commas and wrangling them into servitude in my stupid, overly-verbose sentences. It's a personal problem; I've recognized it, I'm working on it--I hope it didn't make it impossible for you to enjoy the story.