Stay strong – at least for the time being

Beta read by SapphireNight.

Disclaimer: Nothing you recognise belongs to me. All credit goes to Kunze/Levay.

My existence as Death has never been easy and I doubt it ever will be. But when on a Sunday night, one of my Shadows informed me that the six-year old crown prince of Austria, Rudolf, was contemplating suicide in his chambers, things started to get even more complicated. Let me put this straight, preventing suicides is not usually one of our tasks. But we are not talking about just anyone here, but about her son and I just could not allow myself to bring more sorrow into her life than necessary. I allowed the passage of her daughter, I am not denying that. Even though it would have been within my might to prevent it, I just could not miss out on the opportunity to remind her that it would be just so easy to leave all her pain and grief behind and join me. But losing her only son, as well – I could not let that happen. Besides, I could feel that he still had a role to play. That is why I did not feel like I had a choice when it came to 'rescuing' her son. It was my duty to at least try to convince him to keep on living – at least as long as she needed to detach herself even further from him so that his death would not tear her apart.

I did not waste any time and appeared straight into his small bedroom. There, the crown prince was lying in his bed under his covers, knees drawn up to his chest – it was a cold autumn night after all – sobbing quietly. Barely audible, I heart him calling for Elisabeth, but I knew that she would not come. Did she ever? No.

When I approached him I tried to make my voice as soothing as possible and tried not to look too imposing. The former was easy, the latter was harder – but then I realised that for a normal human being the lights would have been far too low to recognise much anyway.

"She can't hear you, Rudolf. It's no use calling her…" I said and slowly approached his form. He was shivering when he asked, 'Who are you,' and the fog surrounding him, the kind that only our kind can see, betrayed his fear. But that was not the first thing I noticed.

He had her eyes. And as clichéd as it might sound, they were almost as mesmerizing as hers and I had trouble looking away.

"I am a friend of your mother. I want to be your friend, too," I told him in a kind voice, sitting down next to him. He seemed to relax a bit.

"Won't you tell me why you're crying?"

"I shouldn't cry," he said and sounded downright guilty about it. "The general always says that only girls cry and that men must be strong."

He stopped to take a deep breath. A little more composed he continued: "It's just that… I am really alone. My father only scolds me. My mother ignores me.… and now even Erich is gone!"

He sobbed again quietly and his desperation was almost tangible in the air.

"Erich…" I said and tried to remember what my Shadows had told me about the acquaintances of the crown prince.

"The stable boy?"

At that the crown prince nodded.

"He was my friend. My only friend, but now he's gone and I am all alone again. No one will even talk to me. They only give orders. Everyone's just so… cold." he said as fresh tears started to run down his cheeks.

Somehow I wanted to comfort him, but I must admit that even though comforting the ones consecrated to death could be called one of my specialities, comforting one so young and not trying to loosen the bond between body and soul was unfamiliar to me. Nevertheless I gently patted his head. I did not know much about the stable boy, only that he had been a lad of thirteen years who had been in charge of some of the odd tasks in the smaller stables. He had died some days ago from internal bleeding caused by a fall from some stable's rooftop. Yet, the crown prince did not seem to be aware of the nature of his friend's departure so I decided to leave him in the dark. The truth would only upset him more, and it was my aim to get him out of his depressive state, after all.

"You know," I said smiling slightly, "I am certain you will see him again on day. Just you wait." And yes, I was sure of that.

"Besides, I told you I want to be your friend. What do you say?"I inquired and he flashed me a tiny smile.

"I'd like that," he said and, after a moment, asked,

"So what's your name?"

I hesitated. I did not want to outright lie to him, but saying that I was Death would surely not help matters.

"I will tell you my name, but not today. It's a secret," at which his eyes seemed to grow even larger and he stared at me in awe.

"Are you some kind of special agent?" he asked. I nearly laughed.

"Well, something along the lines." I told him.

"You must be really strong…" he said but I ignored this statement. I needed to complete my "mission" for the night: getting his mind of suicide so that his death would not add to her burden.

"Rudolf, what is the best thing in your life," I asked, hoping he would remember the good things that would put him through the rough times. But he only smiled bitterly, an expression I have only very rarely seen in one so young.

"I guess horse riding is kind of cool, but I only learn it for hunting. And I do not want to kill animals just for the fun of it. I liked to play with Erich… but they won't let me anymore…"

Inwardly, I sighed. Could not things just be easy from time to time?

"You know, it won't always be like that," I told him. "In a couple of years you will have power and you will take your destiny in your own hands. Don't you think it would be wrong to just… give up?"

At that, he slightly turned away and looked into the distance, leaving me uncertain whether he would ever give me an answer to that question. I gave him some time to think and took my time inspecting the room. There were not many toys, only a handful of tin soldiers and a collection of expensive-looking glass marbles. Instead of toys there was, however, a vast selection of books aligned on several wooden shelves. Could the crown prince even read yet? I was not so sure.

So lost was I in my reverie that I flinched when one of his small hands touched my right forearm, his small ice-cold fingers closing around it. The crown prince was freezing. But before I could comment on that he whispered,

"I do not want to give up. I want to be strong. I just don't know how to do it…" he whispered, his voice nearly breaking. Well, I guess that sounded promising enough.

"I will be there for you, when you need to be strong. I'll help you," I told him, though I knew that I might not always be able to keep that promise. But for the moment being preventing his untimely death was my top priority. When I concentrated I could see that the desperation, which I had previously seen in the fog around him, had given way to weariness. I counted that as a small victory.

He sighed and his other hand crept up to also clasp around my forearm. How could he be so cold?

"Rudolf," I asked him, "Why are you only wearing light night clothes and only have a summer blanket in the middle of winter?"

At my inquiry, the small expression of content at feeling my warmth vanished and was replaced by a look of utter devastation.

"My grandmother took my winter blanket from me again just the day before yesterday. She said I needed to grow up. I needed to become a soldier. Now I am cold again…" he answered, his eyes filled with unshed tears. Maybe I should not have asked…

Of course I knew that the archduchess was mean at the best of times, and downright cruel at the worst. And yes, it would have been within my power to just give him another warmer blanket, but at what cost? It would surely be taken away again and the consequences for him would likely be quite severe. I wondered if she really was convinced that her behaviour towards her grandson served a higher purpose, or if she just took silent pleasure in tormenting the son of her daughter-in-law.

So absorbed was I in my thoughts that I did not noticed how Rudolf had snuggled closer and was tugging at my shirt. His hands sent shivers down my spine as they touched my sides and I was started when he all but hugged me and awkwardly rested his head on my lap.

"Please," he whispered, "Stay for a while. I am so cold and you are so warm. Just a moment, please."

And I could not deny him. His lips, that were so much like hers, quivered and his gaze held so much pain that I would have done almost anything to comfort him. Of course, I realize that I used him as an object for projection, but if she denied me time and time again, who would blame me for turning to her son?

And yet, it remained innocent enough. Regardless of my feelings for his mother, he was still a child and I did not see him that way.

So when he did not stop shivering, I lay down next to him and gently pulled him closer. I allowed him to hug me underneath my shirt and press his small body against my slender frame. As he was slowly drifting off to sleep I willed the room's temperature to go up a few degrees, though not too much so as not to raise suspicion in the morning. Only when he was sound asleep, looking nearly peaceful in his slumber, did I allow myself to leave his side. Yet before I slowly faded away into endlessness, I leaned down once more and whispered into his ear: "Stay strong, young prince – at least for the time being."