Spring of 1872.
Gregor claimed he was a Czech, or that his mother was a Czech--or that he'd spent time at a university in Prague, or a prison in Prague, or whatever he felt like telling Austria that week. He was also indispensable, and didn't spit in Austria's soup or break vases. But when he got himself killed, or it became necessary to get rid of him, he hoped his next Gregor would be able to polish a pair of boots without a running commentary.
But because he was indispensable for now--Hungary told him once in a happier moment that she hoped she lived to see the day he learned to make coffee himself, but that day had not come--he came with Austria to Budapest. The commentary came as well.
"And why are we here, sir?" Gregor asked, before even opening the carriage door to let Austria out.
Austria raised his eyebrows. "The Empress beckons. Matters of state." As far as Gregor knew, Austria was an aide to the Emperor’s personal secretary, and couldn’t often talk about his work; and so matters of state could mean anything that Austria wanted it to.
"Yes, sir," Gregor said. He whistled appreciatively at the size of Gödöllő Castle, and nodded at the doormen, who sneered from under their caps, as doormen ought. "Why are we here?"
"You're here because I tell you to be."
"Sir," Gregor said reproachfully.
Gregor's Sir was less a respectful address and more a speech tic, but Austria appreciated the effort the same way he appreciated Gregor's ability to procure goods in the middle of the night, and Gregor's collection of fine silver spoons from the dining tables of all Europe. He looked away and up the stairs and relented. "My--estranged wife. Is Hungarian." It felt oddly trivializing to call Hungary that, and shockingly forward at the same time: too much and too little, for someone who'd lived in his house for two hundred years. He stuck out his left hand and indicated his glove with a nod. "Button this."
"That woman you talk about--"
"I do not talk about her."
"--yes, sir. Elisaveta is your wife?"
"Fräulein Héderváry Erzsébet is my wife. Glove," Austria said. "Button. Pretend you remember your place for a night."
"A wife," Gregor marveled, and slipped the button through, and they entered Empress Elisabeth's "little soirée, just a few people, Herr Edelstein, I don't know if she'll be there." The Empress's definition of little soirée, Austria remembered too late, was seventy people, milling about a hall in the Empress's residence that was made to hold gatherings of a hundred-fifty or more. The Empress had at her command enough resources to ferret out the best string players in Pest, which was, at the end of the night, the only thing that mattered.
"You're looking for a woman of medium height," Austria told Gregor once they were deep enough into the crowd to avoid notice. He slapped Gregor's hand away from a servant passing a tray of champagne flutes. "When in Budapest, drink only the local wines. She has long, curly brown hair. Green eyes. Most likely wearing green." He began to scan the room and sighed when he noticed Gregor was not doing the same. "Yes?"
"Begging your pardon," Gregor said, and scratched his head.
"Don't do that. This isn't a stable."
"Begging your pardon," Gregor said again. "But--she's really a woman?"
Austria blinked. "Even in Hungary, they don't name their sons 'Elisaveta.'"
"It's only," Gregor said. "Well, sometimes you'd come back with a black eye and you'd get in the drink and talk about how much you admired her cannons and strong cavalry thighs. Her cannons. I thought maybe it was code." Austria stared at him. Gregor shrunk a little. "Not code, then."
"If it makes you feel better, sir," Gregor said, "I still thought you did the bugg--"
"Stop talking," Austria said. Gregor fell silent, and a laugh sliced through the crowd, snapping Austria’s head around. He started towards it. Then he stopped, grabbed Gregor's elbow, and nodded his head towards the crowd around the Empress, and Hungary in blue pressed close to her side. "Not a code."
He felt Hungary in the room, once he was close enough: a presence a little more and a little less real than the humans around them; and the moment she felt him too, the smile dropped off of her face. Hungary narrowed her eyes, scanning the crowd like a battlefield. HE didn't need to be close to her to know that her breathing had changed, and he wondered if the Empress was aware of what was happening in Hungary's head. He almost wanted to duck, but he forced himself to stop a few meters away and wait for her to see him.
"--My mother told me," the Empress said to some hovering young man. He had the thin, carefully cultivated asceticism of a novelist, and Austria tried not to hate him on sight. She dropped her voice, which forced all the men around her to lean in, and she was never this forward in Vienna. "My mother told me that in Versailles, they considered a woman flirtatious if she showed the top of her--" she swept her fingers towards her plunging neckline. "Well, her."
"Nipples," Hungary said loudly, looking right at Austria through the crowd. Sisi fluttered her fan over her mouth, but her eyes were smiling, and the novelist blushed.
"I think I'm in love," Gregor, who had no dignity, said in his ear. "Isten, áldd meg--" He made a strangled hurk noise, and Austria took the head of his cane away from Gregor's throat before anyone noticed. Except Hungary, who looked almost as if she wanted to laugh.
"One of those women is my Empress, and the other my wife," Austria said, and Gregor murmured an apology, which Austria accepted with a gracious nod.
Hungary watched him take two steps and open his mouth and then she spun around and said, in a carrying voice, "Dance with me, Andrássy," leaving Austria to stand there and pretend he actually had something to say to that fool woman. He turned to ask Gregor a question, if only to avoid the conversation, but Gregor had made himself conveniently scarce.
"Your Majesty," Austria said.
"Herr Edelstein," said the Empress, Elisabeth herself, in the flesh, not a hair out of place. She inclined her head to him. It was almost polite. "Mein Land."
He waved a hand. "Not in public."
"I am not sixteen," Elisabeth said. "None of these men speak German."
"Really?" Austria swept his gaze over Elisabeth's hangers on, and said to her, "That woman in the red dress just exposed herself." A poet twitched. Elisabeth gave the man a very speaking look, and Austria turned to watch the dancers in time to see the Andrássy laughing loudly at something Hungary said. Austria wondered if she'd told him to, but--that was something he would do. Surely, Hungary hadn't managed to develop guile in the few years they'd been apart.
"She doesn't speak of you, you know," Elisabeth said airily, and Austria could see that she was also watching Andrássy and Hungary.
"And Franz Joseph is doing well in your absence." He waited a beat. "As are your children."
"I miss them terribly."
He looked around the room, at the string players and the bright glasses of wine, and said, after a moment, "Doubtless. How is your health?"
"Immaculate." Szeplőtelen. Austria didn't bristle.
A waltz started, and Austria realized that he'd lost sight of Hungary, but she was suddenly next to him, taking his arm and yanking him into the dance with barely enough time to drop his cane against a table. Her lips were tight and her eyes sparkled with what probably didn't look like killing rage to other people. He let her pull him around the dance floor in silence for handful of turns, composing some polite opening in his mind, when he noticed her teeth digging into her bottom lip and recategorized her focused look.
He blurted, "Are you counting, Ungarn?" And that look was definitely rage. Unexpected and uncomfortable tenderness closed his throat.
But she schooled her features into a demure smile, the way she did when she was going to be horrible. "If you want me to stop..."
Austria imagined himself suggesting that he lead. It made his jaw throb. "Not at all, my dear." Her smile widened the moment dear left his mouth, and the easy rhythm they'd built guttered and died, and it took all his grace to keep from ramming into the other dancers. After several near misses, she slammed her heel down onto his foot. He felt his nostrils flare in pain, but he didn't allow her the satisfaction of a cry. No. When the music ended, Hungary curtsied and whirled off the floor, back to Elisabeth, leaving Austria to limp back to Gregor.
"She stepped on your foot," Gregor said, in tones of quietly republican joy.
"She does that," Austria said. "Sometimes I think it's the only reason she wears shoes." He sighed and snatched up his cane. "She also broke my things and taught my servants how to say filthy things in Polish." He thought of the time he'd asked her to bake dessert for the guests, and how she'd sculpted something rude from fondant--much to France's delight--but he chose not to bring it up.
Gregor gave him one of those the gap between your station and mine is not enough to explain why you are mad looks, and Austria ignored it. "Well. She's certainly beautiful."
"She would pretend to confuse Sie and du. She thought it was funny."
He didn't realize how tightly he'd been gripping his cane until Gregor tapped his shoulder, making him start. "We'll get her back, sir," Gregor said. His beady little eyes shone with the light of loyalty, or, at the very least, the anticipation of a good chase.
Austria straightened his back and nodded. "Of course I will. We merely parted on poor terms."
She’d allowed him to kiss her, when they’d returned from signing the treaty. Then, she’d taken up the great cast-iron pan from the stove--hefted it with ease--and smacked him across the jaw. Austria fell to the floor, clutching his face, and he’d blacked out for a moment; when he came to, he saw nothing but Hungary's boots and her sooty hand picking up the two bags which, presumably, contained everything she owned. He hadn't thought it was so little. He’d shut his eyes and hadn’t opened them until he heard the shutting of the door and the urging of a horse into a trot.
--you, oh happy Austria, make marriages.
Gregor looked far more pleased than was appropriate when Austria explained this, with appropriate omissions: "A shocking twist in your tale, sir!"
"I beg your pardon." Austria took a glass of wine from a passing servant.
"Your hidden depths, sir. Your stillest of waters." Austria clutched his cane with one hand and tried not to imagine himself strangling the smile off of Gregor's face. "And, sir," Gregor added, "I talked to one of the chambermaids, found out where your young lady's sleeping tonight, in case you were interested. Sir. Herr Edelstein, sir."
And this was why Austria kept him on, this was why he put up with the insouciance and impertinence, because Gregor was the best kind of servant: the kind that anticipated orders, rather than merely following them. Still--"I only want to talk to her."
Gregor nodded—the very portrait of understanding—and leaned in. "You give her a good talking--a good, long talking."
"That's quite enough," Austria said. Indispensible, he reminded himself. He settled on a scowl, and Gregor fell silent, leaving Austria in peace to watch Hungary and the Empress taking a turn about the room, deep in conversation.
Then Hungary leaned in to whisper in her ear and he sucked in a lungful of wine and he knew. Hungary's hand spread on the small of the Empress's back, the casual brush of Elisabeth's thumb over Hungary's knuckles, the way their foreheads bumped together--he knew.
He stood there, watching, the wine growing warm in his hand. Hungary touched Sisi's chin, said something, and crossed the room to mount the stairs.
"Where is her room?" Austria said, and something in his tone made Gregor turn to look blankly at him. "Where is her room?"
Gregor grinned. "Change of heart--"
"Draw me a map."
Gregor bounded off and returned with a wonderfully detailed map, and Austria almost praised him. "Stop the Empress from going upstairs tonight." Austria tapped the paper with one gloved finger. "I do not care how."
Gregor rubbed his jaw for a second. "You can count on me, sir."
Austria made for the stairs, and then stopped and turned around. "Nothing illegal. No arson. We are civilized men."
"You said you didn't care--" Gregor paused. "With all due respect, sir, you're the civilized man, sir."
"No theft, kidnapping, or murder."
"You aren't leaving me a lot of room to work."
"Earn your pay." Austria considered Gregor for a long moment, then said, “I trust you.”
Gregor puffed his chest out. "No arson, no kidnapping, no murder, no theft. Of course."
"Godspeed, Gregor Mysliveček," said Austria, and they set off in opposite directions.
When Austria was halfway up the stairs, he heard Gregor rushing back. "Sir!" he whispered loudly, through cupped hands. "How do you feel about treason?"
Austria whirled and grabbed the railing, staring down over the ground floor. "What?"
Then he went barreling into the middle of the assembled crowd, shrieking, "I demand to see the Empress! Independence for Čechy! The eagle of Saint Václav will fly again!" Austria watched in dumbfounded awe as Gregor ripped off his coat--ripped, as if he didn't know its cost--and threw it into the face of a gentleman who reached out to stop him, then pulled off his cravat and tied it about his head, yelling something about a Tripartite Monarchy.
A true son of Bohemia, Austria thought, and shoved down the memory of being tossed out the window of Prague Castle. He would bail Gregor out of jail later, and perhaps set up a trust for his descendants. Something expensive-sounding shattered, and Austria winced and walked faster.
And so Austria found the room after some searching--after quite a lot of searching--and tried to force himself to simply open the door. It was only a door. After a fruitless minute of watching his hand hover over the knob, he sighed and knocked. "Come in!" Hungary sang.
The room may have once been frilly, with its China shepherdesses and large indefensible window, but now there were dirty boots on the armoire and a rifle with fixed bayonet being used as a drying-rack. A heavy green satin dress lay discarded over the back of a chair, and Austria awarded himself points for guessing half-correctly, and then was forced to take them away again when he realized he was scoring his own social interactions like an imbecile, or Prussia.
Hungary stood before the foot of the bed, back to the door, trying to remove the corset Sisi had doubtless stuffed her into. "Give me a hand," she said, in a tone Austria neither recognized nor liked. But she didn't turn around, and it would have been ungentlemanly of him to deny her, so he crossed the room and stood behind her. She will murder me, he thought distantly, then raised steady hands to her laces and undid them slowly, as he imagined the Empress would, and refrained from imagining what else the Empress would do.
She wriggled her shoulders a bit as the cloth came free. "You always put the knots where I can't reach them," she said. Austria stopped just above the small of her back with a handful of ribbons. He touched the damp nape of her neck with the tips of the fingers on his other hand and trailed them down the ridge of her spine. Hungary took a shuddery breath in, and Austria took his hand away and resumed unlacing her.
"I think you do it on purpose," she said. The corset split open down her back now. The fabric of her chemise was thin and dampened with sweat and clung to her hips and shoulderblades. She was closer than she'd been in years.
Then Hungary leaned back against him.
"--The Compromise is negotiated every ten years, Ausztria," Hungary said. "You haven't lasted five." Austria still held the ribbons, he could hold her to him just a second longer, touch that place on her arm where the Donau rushed through them both, turn his face into her hair that smelled like the violets that bloomed in Pest every spring--he let go. He was too sentimental, and her hair did not smell like violets. It smelled like leather and horse under perfume borrowed at the last moment, as it always had.
"Don't call me that. You're in my house, you speak my language," she said. She hadn't yet turned around, and she hadn't moved away, and he could feel her trembling with what he hoped was rage.
"This is the Empress's house."
"This is my house."
"When did you learn to talk like a mistress?" Austria said, and because he did know her, better than anyone, he let go of the ribbons and was already moving back and out of range when she swung around.
Hungary stopped facing him, and slowly, slowly lowered her raised hand. "I ride with Sisi," she said, in a tone that screamed make something of it. "I hunt with her. I teach her my language."
"A vocabulary lesson I would love to hear," he said, in Hungarian. She flinched, and he knew it had been perfect.
"I've been improving relations."
"On your back."
"I learned from the best!"
Austria raised his eyebrows exactly enough to show both dismissal and acknowledgment: half of Europe had used that barb at least once, and it didn't hurt coming from her. It did not. "By bedding my Empress," he said, "whenever she deigns to set foot in my soil."
"Our soil," she snapped. "Our empress." Austria waved a hand and noted, not without some petty satisfaction, that she looked as though she wanted to crack his skull open against the flowered wallpaper and make gulyás from his brains. "She's beautiful," Hungary added. "And she loves me. And if that's all you came here to talk about, I'll see you in five more years."
Hungary half-turned, and the stays slipped. She muttered one of those oaths he pretended not to hear, and he missed that, even that, because his house was so quiet now, with Gregor the only one who dared speak that way to him. Austria despaired of his own taste.
She looked up, and the fabric of her chemise pulled tight across her breasts, and she looked at him looking and stepped back.
You, oh happy Austria--
It would be easy, he thought, to slide a hand through her hair and kiss her until she stopped wanting to hit him. He knew with a certainty that ached inside him that if he just didn't let go she'd hit him once, twice and then kiss him back. She would be angry but afterwards it would be--okay again, for a little while.
"I've missed you," Austria said, instead.
Hungary flinched and stepped back again until the bed came up against her thighs--stepped back, as if he had ever been physically prepossessing, as if he was dangerous. Then she sighed and sat down. She looked exhausted, perhaps. Or resigned, or conflicted, if that was not his own hope talking.
So he went to his knees before her, in what could be mistaken for supplication. She must have known better, but Hungary still reached out to him with one cautious hand, like he would burn her, and he turned his cheek into her palm. "I tried going to England with her," she said softly.
Austria stiffened and gave her the same look he’d give Gregor for making an inappropriate comment, but that had never worked on Hungary. "How did you survive the food?"
"How did I survive the man."
Austria pushed up his glasses to hide his smile, but she ran her thumb in a slow circle around his birthmark, and it was too intimate to mean nothing. He stood up, he leaned forward; Hungary grabbed his cravat like a lanyard and dragged him down. She made a greedy, furious noise, took his chin in her hand, and kissed him hard. Austria didn't try to gentle it. He followed her down onto the bed, letting her nibble and suck at his lower lip, and took her almost-open corset and yanked the halves apart.
He dropped them on the floor and pulled back to loosen his cravat. "No," Hungary said, and wrapped her legs around his waist to roll him on his back, and Austria went gladly. He put a hand on the dip of her waist to steady her, changed his mind, took her shoulders and pulled her against him.
Do not give her time to think about this, Austria thought, in that little cold place inside of him that never stopped observing. Hungary did not plan seductions like sieges; Hungary could not conceive that anyone did. Keep her here with you. He pressed his lips chastely to hers for a moment, and she flinched--once again, as if he'd done something threatening--and looked confused. "Relax," he murmured into her mouth, bringing a hand up to stroke her back.
She dragged her tongue over the roof of his mouth, and he allowed himself to groan into her mouth and press up against her, as though he was losing control. Hungary leaned back and pulled him up with her with a hand twisted in the front of his shirt. A few buttons popped; Austria did his very best not to cringe.
She stared at him, then, as though she had no idea how to proceed, and before she could start thinking he fisted a hand in her hair and slanted his mouth over hers, bending her backwards. She shut her eyes into the kiss, but Austria didn't, and the moment he felt her become pliant, felt her breath coming faster, he pulled away.
"Shit, Ausztria," Hungary said. He took it as a compliment, and did what he'd wanted to do: plucked one of his gloves off, finger by finger, slowly enough to draw all of her attention. "I hate your hands," she muttered, and sighed and let her head loll back when he ran a finger down the side of her neck.
"We've had this conversation," Austria said. He took her jaw in his bare hand, brushed his thumb over her chin. "I enjoyed it then, too."
Hungary made a noise, deep in her throat, and reached out and undid his trousers, then gave him a solid squeeze. Rougher than he liked, but Hungary was never careful, she jumped into things too fast and too hard, she didn’t think ahead, and Austria missed her so badly. His memories as much as her palm against him made his hips tilt up honestly, and he pulled her to him with his hand on the back of her neck, catching her hand and his cock between them. Austria set his lips to her ear and murmured, "Ungarn, Ungarn, I lo--"
Hungary threw herself backwards, and her rough grip coming off him hurt. She scrabbled back across the bed and slid off the other side. He watched her, bewildered, as she snatched up a China shepherdess and stood with it, arm half-raised as if to throw. They stared at each other across the wide expanse of the bed.
Then Hungary blinked and shuddered and took a deep breath. "No," she said, carefully putting the little figurine back on the shelf. "No. You should leave."
"Why?" His voice was grinding and unrecognizable coming out of his mouth. "For God's sake, Ungarn, why now, when things should be better between us than they have ever been? Why do you act like you have never heard German, why her, why--"
Why did you leave me? He stopped, sick with himself. He had not begged Spain to stay, not for gold and warm beaches and laughter filling his house.
"Come back," he said instead. "You've won."
Hungary grabbed the green dress off the chair and tossed it on the floor. She sat and looked at him, and she looked tired. "I can't."
Austria retrieved his glove and tugged it back on. "Is being her maid so much nicer than being mine, then? I admit it only takes an hour to dry my hair, perhaps the greater challenge drew you?"
"I will never," Hungary said, "be anyone's maid, ever again."
"You were awful at it." He straightened his clothes with irritated snaps of his wrist. "Do you think that's why--"
This wasn't how it was supposed to go at all. Austria took in a breath and tried to think of railways, cold iron flinging itself in clean lines around him, and how little snow and rock and green fields needed anything. He was not a man, and he did not need.
"I won't go back," Hungary said. "Not to your house."
"You may, of course, do as you please. I leave for Salzburg in the morning." Austria up and pulled through the last button on his glove and he was just as he'd been, as though nothing had happened here on someone else's bed--nothing at all. He was only leaving the option open for her. He didn’t believe himself for a second.
She frowned and stared at her locked hands. "I've got a house in Óbuda," Hungary said, finally. He looked down at her. "And an apartment--in Pest."
"And another home in Nagylózs, and a cottage by Lake Balaton, overlooking a vineyard. I know." He wanted to turn on his heel and leave, and he wanted to drag her kicking and screaming back with him--because there was something in him that still wanted to grind Hungary under his heel, even as there was something that wanted just as badly to lay his head on her lap and let her stroke his hair.
Hungary stood up. Austria watched her impassively as she reached up to take his face between her hands. "I won't go back to your house," she said again.
Austria wrapped his hand around her forearm and squeezed, gently enough so she didn't feel threatened and bolt. "I know," he said, finally.
"But you could come to mine."
His coffee press was in Vienna, and his manservant was in jail, his Empress starved herself and Prussia gnawed at his northern borders; and Hungary smiled--and she always looked so lovely when she smiled, so Austria kissed her, because he could.