Author's Note: I have no idea what the palace of the Hapsburg Monarchy looked like at this period in time. Pretend this is a summer palace of some sort. Major thanks to trunk show, who is an amazing beta reader. Any remaining mistakes are my fault alone.
Disclaimer: If you recognize it, it is not mine.
It started out like any other midsummer's day. The sun was high in the sky, beaming down on to the world below and making the nape of Rudolf's neck sweat, clothed as he was in a heavy uniform. The General always made him dress in such formalwear, for "Rudolf was a prince". The princes he read about in books did not have such rules as he did, he learned. The General, though, was a tyrant and would not listen to any of Rudolf's pleas.
Take this afternoon for instance: The General had ordered him to practice his marksmanship in the fields behind the palace. After handing Rudolf a pistol and a box of ammunition he had pushed the princeling through the door into the hot sun. When Rudolf had asked when he was to stop shooting, the General had laughed and simply walked back into the cool rooms of the palace. So at four in the afternoon, six-year-old Rudolf found himself in the fields shooting at a tree marked with a red cross.
Each time his fingertip moved against the trigger he flinched. Such power frightened him to his core. The noise of the bullet being released did not exactly help the boy's fears either. He was scared to consider what he would be ordered to shoot at next, that is, after the General had lost patience with the tree.
Suddenly a noise from the left, in the thick forest distracted him. Rudolfslowly turned his head to face the disturbance, shaking slightly in fear. Was it the General in yet another sadistic attempt to frighten a six-year-old? Or was it simply a kind maid come to bring him back inside for supper? He rather hoped that it was the second option.
However, a new thought coursed through his mind. What if the mysterious noise had been caused by an animal, perhaps a bird or a deer? Then, what should he do? Rudolf knew that the General would be impressed if he shot down an animal. Yet his own misgivings prevented him from desiring the same outcome. Rudolf, though not well-experienced in the matters of the world, did not believe in killing for sport. Even if the General would grant him some kindness because of it.
He trained his eyes on the source of the noise, waiting for the thing in the woods to make its next move. Suddenly, he saw a flash of gold towards the middle of the height of a tree, about at the height of a tall man. He heard a slight humming noise which he thought could perhaps be a bird preparing to sing. He pointed the pistol hesitantly in its direction, ready to act if the thing, whatever it was, decided to attack.
It moved again, and Rudolf could now see a brilliant blue amidst the green leaves. Now he was certain that it had to be a bird, though he could hardly guess at what species it was. Rocks and plants he knew; he had no knowledge of animals.
Perhaps he ought to shoot at it, he thought. This would be a moving target, though, and chances were he probably would not succeed in killing it or even wounding it. However, if he did manage to…the General might grant him repose for the night. Such good luck was nearly unheard of, and Rudolf desperately wished for at least one night without being subject to the General's harsh orders.
And maybe, if he showed some "manliness" then his father would love him as he did his soldiers.
And maybe, if he showed some bravery, his mother would care for him and help him when he was not so brave.
So Rudolf readied his gun with shaking hands and aimed carefully with one eye squinted as he had seen an infantryman do one day not too long ago. Resting a finger upon the trigger, he pulled it with a hope and a prayer.
What happened next, though, he could hardly have imagined.
He heard a muffled groan followed quickly by a muffled thump as something crumpled to the grass below. Hesitantly, Rudolf walked the few paces towards the woods, the pistol still pointed in front of him. He peeked around the trunk of a tree in curiosity and he could barely stifle a gasp at what he saw.
His friend, his Walter, his guardian angel and his personal demon, was lying in the grass. One hand was pressed tightly against his chest, and Rudolf could see a red liquid that had to be blood seeping between his pale, thin fingers. Without a second thought, Rudolf rushed over to him, dropping the pistol to the grass with a thud.
Walter looked up at him, his mouth smiling despite the pain concealed in his perfect blue eyes. "Hello, child," he whispered.
Rudolf looked upon him in desperation. What could he do to save his friend? Struck with an idea, he removed his heavy coat and handed it to Walter. "Press this on it," he said, repeating words that he had once heard from a battlefield. Walter looked at him for a moment, and then did as he was told.
"What do I do?" Rudolf asked aloud, his fear apparent in his tone. The wound was not bleeding too badly, he thought, but he had precious little to compare it with. Then, in fear, he asked another question. "Will you die?" he asked, his voice trembling.
"No, child," Walter said comfortingly. He laid his other hand lightly on Rudolf's chest. "Be calm, please. Help me stand up."
"But…you're hurt." Rudolf had always thought that one ought not to move an injured patient. "Shouldn't you stay here while I get help?"
"No!" Walter said vehemently. "No doctors. But I think I hear hoof beats." And sure enough, Rudolf could hear the heaviness of a horse's hooves pounding into the grass. He glanced behind him, trying to identify the rider.
"It's Elisabeth," Walter whispered in a voice so soft that Rudolf had to strain to hear it.
"Elisabeth?" Rudolf asked.
"Your mother," Walter clarified. "She's riding here…now."
Rudolf looked up from Walter, standing so as to see better. Yes, it was his mother, decked out in her green riding habit. She rode swiftly, with her hair loose against her back. Glancing back at Walter, Rudolf stepped from the woods, waving his arms in the air.
"Mama!" he called, trying to get her attention. She heard him, luckily, and she halted her horse with a low murmur. She dismounted, straightening her hair as he ran over to her.
"What do you want, Rudolf?" she asked, and to him, she sounded tired.
"Mama, someone's hurt!" he exclaimed.
"Who's hurt?" Yet her voice displayed little concern.
"Uh…well…" He was unsure of how to explain his friend. "His name's Walter and I've known him for a little while. He's really hurt though." His voice got softer. "I accidentally shot him with my pistol. The General told me to practice shooting, and I thought he was a bird."
"Where is he?" she asked. "Take me to him, Rudolf." Her voice was urgent now, but at least she seemed to pass over his mistake. He walked quickly back to the woods, his mother rushing behind him. As soon as she glimpsed Walter, she let out a cry.
"You!" she exclaimed. Walter smiled up at her.
"Me, in slightly worse condition than usual," he joked. "Nice to see you again, Elisabeth. I wish we could have met on happier terms."
"Me too," she retorted. She glanced between him and Rudolf, a puzzled expression upon her face. "When this is over, you're going to have to explain this." She indicated Rudolf with a flash of her hand.
Walter nodded softly. "Right now, I need some assistance, my love."
"Don't call me that," she ordered. "And anyway, I thought…I thought you couldn't die." She looked at Rudolf hesitantly, as if he ought not to know what she had just said. Rudolf had eyes only for his friend though, and he paid her no mind, just as she had done so many times to him.
"I cannot die, indeed," Walter replied. "But I can bleed, and I can become weak. And weakness does not exactly help me in my…tasks." He, too, looked cautiously to Rudolf, who simply looked concernedly back at him in response. "So a little help would be quite appreciated."
Rudolf's mother nodded. "Alright," she said. "Rudolf, go back to my horse and get a blanket from my bag," she demanded. Rudolf looked to Walter, who motioned for him to obey his mother. He ran off, anxious to help.
"I'm still not happy about this," Elisabeth said to Walter. "What have you done with my son?"
"Were we not going to wait until later to talk of this?" he asked with a smirk, his hand still holding Rudolf's coat to his bleeding wound. "In any case, your son invited me in. He needed comforting, and you and Franz-Joseph were…unavailable." He said the last word like poison, and it caused Elisabeth to draw back from him.
"Stop that," she hissed. He simply tilted his head in response, refusing as usual to yield.
She just shot him a glare. It was useless to argue with one such as Death, for he tended to be both rather unmoving and rather unforgiving.
"What should I call you?" she asked. She figured that Death would have given her son a pseudonym to use as appellation; one cannot expect a child to find salvation in Death. She had heard Rudolf call him "Walter", but she just had to make sure. And this was a good excuse as always to bother Death about something, as he so often did with her.
"Walter will do," he said. "Now, could we turn our attention to my wound, please?" He lifted his hand from the balled-up jacket, lettingit fall to the ground, which revealed the bleeding wound in his chest. Elisabeth let out a little gasp and brought her hand to her mouth. The blood seeped from the injury, staining his black shirt. He had already long since unbuttoned his jacket, in an attempt to get closer to the wound.
"You'll have to take off your shirt," she said, visibly unhappy about this turn of events. Somehow she doubted that even he would be happy with it. Death tended to be a rather private man, keeping to himself while slowly permitting only those that he trusted a small glimpse into his mind.
Nodding slowly, he removed his coat with ease, but he found it significantly harder to take off his shirt. He looked to her and she was suddenly surprised to see the pain and pleading in his eyes. He was actually worried for once, and for Death to be worried about something, well, that had to be something terrible indeed.
Reaching over him, she grasped at the shirt and slipped it over his head and his arms. He lay before her, his eyes now closed and his head tilted to the side. His breathing, which she had never noticed before, was coming fast and hard.
"You will be fine," she whispered, though she was not sure if she even believed it herself.
"Will I?" he asked, like a child asking if it was okay to sleep while gripped by fever.
"Yes," she said hesitantly, running a hand through his pale blonde hair. He leaned into her touch, his mouth twisted in a grimace.
And then Rudolf was back with a blanket clutched in his small arms. "Mama, I have a blanket!" he announced but when he saw the true state of his friend he grew pale. "Will he…"
"He'll be fine," Elisabeth barked. "Now, tear the blanket up, into strips as long as your arm."
Rudolf, ever the obedient child, did as he was told. Blearily, Death opened his eyes, and looked down at his chest. "So much blood…" he murmured. She supposed that, for Death, he was awfully innocent in matters of war and killing. But then again, he did not kill people, he simply ensured their passage to their next destination.
His eyes slowly drifted over to where Rudolf knelt shredding the blanket with shaking hands and tear-filled eyes. "Child," he whispered, and Rudolf heard him. "Don't fear for me."
"But the blood!" Rudolf insisted.
"There are no worse situations for me to be in than the one that I am in now, that I have been in for all of my existence," Death explained calmly. Elisabeth shot him a look, forbidding him to say much more. She grabbed one of the cloth strips, pressing it tightly to Death's chest with a vengeance.
After several taxing minutes of this, the bleeding began to subside and his breath grew easier. Slowly, he began moving his arms around, lightly touching Elisabeth's hair, as if to say his thanks. She glared at him, but the sentiment was appreciated all the same. Rudolf gave a little shout of excitement and rushed over to kneel beside Death's head.
"Walter!" he exclaimed. "You're alive!"
Death laughed, a welcomed gentle sound. "Indeed," he said softly, gazing at Elisabeth the entire time. "I believe that your mother has a magic touch, my child."
Elisabeth groaned. "Stop with that this instant."
"Never, ever, forever, my love."
Rudolflooked between the two, confused. What was Walter saying to his mother? His words held so much more than simply words in them.
"Dea-I mean, Walter, are you feeling better?" Elisabeth asked, taking note of the look upon her son's face.
"Yes, my lovely Empress," he said sweetly. "Much better."
"Good." She pulled tight the makeshift bandage, perhaps tighter than altogether necessary. "Can you stand?"
Death nodded. Helooked at Rudolf and the boy seemed to read something in his pristine blue eyes. Rudolf leaned over him, grabbing his shoulder and helping him sit up straight. Slowly, the boy helped him to then stand up.
"Thank you," Death said, and for once the words rang true. Rudolf reached for his coat and shirt, no longer bothered by the blood staining the fibers. First he handed the shirt to Death, who slowly managed to put it on himself with very little assistance from Rudolf. They did not bother with the jacket.
"Elisabeth," Death murmured once he was once more respectable. "May I hope to see you again, next time under happier circumstances?"
She turned to look at him from the bloody cloths that she was gathering. "You shall see me again before I die," she stated slowly, watching for any sudden movements on his part. Rudolf, like a serving boy, stood obediently at his side.
"Then I shall be miserable until that day," he replied. "Elisabeth, I'm begging you: let me see you. You and I both know that you cannot live without me."
"Yes, and yet you cannot live at all. We all die, but you. Let me live amongst the living before dying in eternity with Death," she said quietly. He nodded, but he was not giving up the argument. However, Rudolf's presence made it difficult to discuss such matters openly. There were some things that Death would simply not do.
"Thank you, my dear child," Death said, looking down at Rudolf. "Your help is greatly appreciated, even if by your pistol I ended up in such a predicament."
"I didn't mean to!" Rudolf pleaded. "Please, don't tell the General!"
It seemed to Elisabeth as if her son and her lover talked more than she had originally thought.
"I will not do that," he promised. "And now, you ought to go back to practicing in case he wonders where you've gotten off to." Rudolf nodded, pleased with his friend's gentle words. He wrapped his arms around Death's torso, briefly burying his face into the man's shirt.
"I'm glad you're well," he said. Death chuckled.
"I tend to heal quickly," he replied with a grin at Elisabeth. He was rather childlike, in his way of delighting in secrets kept and told. "Now, dear boy, hurry along. And don't forget the pistol!"
Rudolf saluted, marching quickly off to the open field again. Silently Death and Elisabeth walked side-by-side back to her horse. Mounting it, she looked back down at her enemy and friend, her nemesis and lover.
He touched her hand lightly, as if to make this scene real. "Until then," he said, barely moving his lips.
"Until then," she replied, turning away and riding off.
Hecould still feel her fingers against his own.