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The Strike of Midnight

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A sweet sound, a haunting melody, echoed through the Imperial hunting lodge, one that drew him in like no other. It wasn’t a song, per se, not in the traditional sense, but it was one in particular that Death was very familiar with. He’d heard it the world over, from the poorest man to the richest king, played for many different reasons over many different generations. This particular one, however, was from one of the objects of Death’s own fascination.

 

It was the sound of Prince Rudolf crying.

 

Like a hunter stalking its prey, Death wove through the lodge slowly, the sound of the sobs growing as he drew near. The Prince was quite distraught, like so many other times before. Each time, Death had beckoned him. When he seemed to be at his lowest, Death entreated him. But every time, just when it seemed like Rudolf would give in, he pulled away. It was that stubborn pride of Sisi’s that he’d inherited, and so when he was rebuffed, Death simply retreated to wait. One day, he knew, Rudolf would be pushed beyond the bounds of that pride and give in to him. And oh how sweet that victory would be. It was simply a waiting game. Though, he felt, not as long as the one he’d been playing with Sisi. No, while Rudolf had inherited several pronounced qualities from her, in the end he was merely a shadow of her. He would give in, Death knew it. He need only bide his time.

 

As he came upon the Prince, weeping against a bed, he slowly traced over to him, Rudolf’s tears calling to him. Something about the royal crying stirred something deep within Death, something that simultaneously wanted to wipe the tears away and yet watch more fall. He could not see them now, however, as Rudolf was hunched over the bed, sobs shaking his shoulders. Gently, Death caressed his shoulders before he sat, his lap next to Rudolf’s head as he entreated him softly, “Shhh, my Prince. What bothers you?”

 

Rudolf shook his head, raising it just to wipe away the tears, and the sight of them stilled Death, his eyes tracing every stream until it was wiped away. Biting the inside of his cheek so he could maintain some semblance of control, he reached out and tucked an errant strand of hair behind Rudolf’s ear, simply waiting for the Prince to confide in him, which he always did. And, as soon as he could exercise control over his voice, he cleared his throat and began, even as his tears spilled over once more, “I … I went to Mama. I thought … I thought of all people she would understand. That she would help me. But …” With that, he descended into sobs once again.

 

And Death, as always, was left to pick up the pieces left in Sisi’s wake. Pulling Rudolf up on the bed, he held the Prince close to him, stroking his hair as he murmured, “I know. I understand.” Having Rudolf that close to him, crying, it did things to Death that the entity didn’t even want to consider. He wanted to just take him now, just yank him into the afterlife and claim him, but that was not how Death operated. He wanted Rudolf to come with him willingly, but now may just be the time. He hoped it was, because the Prince’s tears were far too beckoning for him.

 

When the Prince finally came down enough to where his sobs had turned into sniffles, Death took his head in his hands and murmured, “I am so sorry, Rudolf. Sorry that life has cursed you so. But I am here, now.” Wiping away a tear with his thumb, Death sucked it into his mouth and relished the sweetness. As an entity beyond humanity, his senses were vastly different. To humans, tears tasted salty, but to him they were a sweet, sweet nectar, drawing him in. “Do you remember, dear Rudolf, when last we spoke? I told you … the shadows grow longer, and they are longer still now.” He nodded, his lip trembling and his nose and cheeks red. To Death, though, he’d never looked quite as beautiful. It took every ounce of self-control to see this through the way he wanted to. “Then … then it was five to twelve. Now it is just one minute ’til. It is drawing closer, my dear Prince. Will you come with me yet?” Rudolf went to shake his head, but he paused and it was then that Death knew the time was truly nigh. “Please, Rudolf, come with me. I will heal every hurt and soothe every heartache.” At that, Rudolf’s tears began again in earnest, their intoxicating presence almost overwhelming. “Is what I offer so repulsive? I ask you, who else has been there for you? Your siblings? Your father? Your mother? No one. No one but me. I have been the only one to lend a shoulder to cry on, to dry your tears and comfort your sorrow. Ever since you were a child I have tended you, picked up the broken pieces that others left scattered in their wake. For better or worse, I am your oldest and dearest friend. Will you not then trust me as such?”

 

Rudolf hung his head slightly, but Death knew … he knew that he had finally gotten through to him. He would not leave Mayerling alone this time, and that thought had him nigh trembling in anticipation. The tears were coming hard and fast now, and as Death comforted him one last time, stroking his hair and his neck as he held him close to his chest, the Prince accepted the situation for what it was. Between the burgeoning scandal and the rejection, it was too much. Perhaps life had dealt Rudolf a cursed hand, or perhaps it was just coincidences. The reason didn’t change the circumstances, however, and Death’s voice was just a little too sweet, a little too comforting, a little too loving to ignore again. He had almost given in before, but he had thought of his mother and hope had sparked anew. Now that that avenue was closed to him, he had nowhere else to turn.

 

And Death was sitting there with open arms, waiting.

 

When he pulled away, Death almost didn’t let him, wanting to relish the tears that wet his shirt. The tears one shed before knowingly passing were some of the sweetest to him, and he wanted so badly to savour every single one. But there was a tiny shred of hesitation in Rudolf, and so he waited patiently for the Prince to speak. “Will it … will it hurt?”

 

Smiling gently, Death caressed his face, gathering his tears as a balm before he murmured, “It will be over in an instant. Just like that. And then you’ll be with me, always, and I will be with you. I will take you away from the worries and the hurts of this world and bring you into mine, where you will know only peace.”

 

Rudolf returned his smile sadly, tears shining in his eyes. That was it. That was all the reassurance he’d needed. “Will you stay with me? Please?” he begged, his cheeks stained once more with the precious tears Death wanted to simply bath in.

 

“Of course, my dear Rudolf. I have always stayed with you, have I not? Now is no different than when you were a boy wanting his mother.”

 

It was time, then. Rudolf, beautiful in his sorrow, reached for the gun that sat on the nightstand, his hand trembling as he held it. Standing, he looked around the room once more, his tears starting to slow as he accepted the situation. Death stood to join him, reaching out to cup his cheek. “It’s time, Rudolf. Midnight is striking.”

 

Nodding, a few more tears squeezing out, he cocked the pistol and held it to his temple. Death could stand it no more, wait no longer, pulling him into a fierce, hungry kiss. It was a claiming kiss, one that clearly demonstrated belonging, as Rudolf belonged to him. Rudolf’s wet cheeks pressed against Death’s own, and he swore he could barely wait any longer. But he would. He would let Rudolf do this on his own. He simply reached up to hold Rudolf’s hand, the one that held the gun, not to force him but to show him that he was still there and he wasn’t leaving. Out of everyone in Rudolf’s life, he was the one to support him completely. He could put his trust - and his heart - in Death. And he did so, his hand ceasing to tremble as his resolve strengthened.

 

Just as their lips barely parted, Rudolf pulled the trigger.

 

Death finally didn’t have to leave empty handed.