She doesn't recognize him at first. She wakes up, disoriented and confused and in pain, and someone is leaning over her. "Franz," she says, in a voice that comes out faint and uncertain, not like her at all. The floor under her is hard and dirty, and she's hurting, but Franz is here with her and it'll be okay.
But the hand that takes her is cold, so cold, and when her vision clears and his face comes into view, she realizes that she was wrong. It's not Franz at all.
"Elisabeth," Death whispers. Smiling, he presses his lips to the back of her hand, and the vertigo increases. It's a familiar feeling, like coming home, like floating and falling and dreaming, without consequences or sorrow. She basks in it, welcomes it, but the urge to give in and let it take over is not as strong as it used to be.
She smiles at him as she withdraws her hand, weak but determined.
"Elisabeth, Elisabeth," he chides. It almost seems as if he's amused by her sad little attempt at rebellion. Only now does she notice his black-winged companions loitering nearby, drawing closer.
Death's hand brushes over her face, and she is proud of herself when she remains still under his caress. "Why do you make it so hard on yourself? It could be so easy. Just let go."
His voice echoes in her head, a persistent chorus of "let go", seductive at first but steadily growing louder and more demanding until it's too much. She pushes him away with all the strength she can muster. When she sees him stumble, his usual grace gone for a second, there's a surge of triumph in thinking that she did that. But then, she was always the one who could make him stumble, one way or the other, wasn't she? The thought invigorates and empowers her. It gives her the strength to say no, and she does.
"No. Not like this. Not now, when there's still so much to do, so many adventures to have. Not when I finally have my freedom."
"Your freedom." The scorn on his face makes it obvious how much exactly he values this freedom of hers. "It's not freedom when you run away because you cannot face a man who loves his routine more than he'll ever love you, or the daughter you never loved enjoying her motherhood in a way you never did, or—"
But he doesn't. Of course he doesn't.
"It's not freedom when you run from one place to the next, always afraid that if you stop and look at yourself, you'll notice that you've become bitter and old and hard."
I am what you made me, she wants to tell him, but it would be a lie. She is what life made her, what her choices made her. And she never chose him then, did she?
And still, she won't– cannot let him have the last word on this. The smile on her face may be a little forced, but her voice is strong and triumphant. "And yet... bitter and old and hard, you still want me. You still desire me. You still wait for me."
He recoils, and she knows that her words have hit home. The victorious feeling that comes with it lasts until he draws himself up rigidly and his face becomes hard and cold.
"Perhaps. But I will not wait forever. I won't always want you." He turns around and he's gone, and his winged escort follows him like a veil that's dragged away.
She knows he lied. At least, she hopes he did, because even though she might reject him time and time again, she cannot imagine a life without him being her ever-present companion, always trying to lure her into the shadows. One day, she knows, she will follow his siren call. But not now. Not today.
Her mind is heavy and slipping, and she feels consciousness sliding from her grasp. But it's okay, because she knows that it's only sleep. There will be a tomorrow.
* * *
She doesn't recognize him at first. She comes to, disoriented and confused and in pain, and her ladies are leaning over her with twin expressions of worry on their faces.
"She's awake!" Ida's voice is uncomfortably loud in her ears. "She's awake, Doctor!"
Elisabeth squeezes her eyes shut for a moment in a vain hope to banish the mind-numbing headache. "Where am I? What happened? Where's the Emperor?"
"Don't you remember, Your Majesty? We are in France. You fell off your horse. We've been so worried about you!" Marie seems genuinely upset, and Elisabeth smiles faintly, reassuringly.
"Ah, how silly of me. But as you can see, I'm fine."
And then she sees him, and the smile slips from her face as if someone had pulled it off. He stands at the far end of the bed, wrapped in a grey travel coat, his hat pulled deep into his face to hide his features, but it's unmistakably him. She closes her eyes again, ready to dismiss him as a trick of her mind and wait until his form disappears and fades into nothing, when he speaks.
"Your head has sustained injuries, though. It would be better if you didn't ride out for a couple of weeks. In fact, I recommend absolute rest." The ghost of a smile brushes past his features, fleeting, taunting. And when he adds a formal, "Your Majesty," he turns the respectful title into a mockery.
Ida turns her head to him and nods. "Yes, of course, Doctor."
Fury sweeps over Elisabeth in red-hot waves, and if it weren't for Marie's soothing hand pressing her down onto the mattress with gentle force, she would have risen from the bed. She should have known he'd pose as the doctor again. But just because he managed to outsmart her with that little trick, it doesn't mean she has to allow him to order her around.
"I'm not letting you take riding from me!" she hisses. Angry tears well up in her eyes, and she hates it, hates his power over her and her weakness before him.
Stepping closer to the bed, he leans over her, and when his mouth curves into a smile, it's cruel and triumphant. "You should listen to me, Empress. You don't want to die, do you?"
Such a loaded question. No, she doesn't. Yes, she does. At the end of the day, it doesn't really make a difference. Any way she plays this, he'll win. He always wins at the end. It's a realization that should be frightening and frustrating, but it's not. If anything, it's liberating, because ultimately, her choices are inconsequential. It's a kind of freedom, in a way.
"I am the Empress, Doctor," she says, not answering his question. "The decision will be mine, and mine alone."
But even though her tone is majestic and leaves no room for arguments, she's only play-acting now, and so is he when he smiles and raises her hand to his lips in a fake gesture of submission, a mirror performance of their last encounter. "At that time, I shall be standing by... at your disposal."
When he turns and leaves the room, she thinks she hears him say, "I'll be waiting."