Mary is dead.
Poor, darling Mary, all sparkle and charm and grace, lies dead on the floor at his feet, blood trickling from her pretty head. Her skin, always pale, is now is unearthly white, a stark contrast to her dark hair. She is dead. Rudolf knows what has to follow.
Death is there as quickly as he has ever been. Rudolf can feel his presence, long before he looks up - a familiar chill in the air and the deepening of the ever-present weariness in his bones leaves Rudolf in no doubt that he is here. He keeps his eyes trained on Mary’s body.
The words sound foreign and distant to Rudolf, although they had fallen from his own tongue.
"Rudolf," Death murmurs, voice so soft it’s barely audible.
Through an inexpressible force of will, Rudolf looks up to see Death crossing the room, with a gait which Rudolf could hardly recognise as his lover’s. There was none of the savage determination nor the ethereal grace which he had come to know so intimately over the years. Death reaches him in moments. He places a gentle hand on the back of Rudolf’s neck, and where his icy touch would once have burned, it now soothes, cooling the blood which runs far too hot under Rudolf’s skin.
Rudolf turns to face him.
“Please. You… you know what I need. You always do. Please. "
Death brings his other hand to Rudolf’s face, stroking along his cheekbone. Rudolf’s quick, shallow breaths catch in his throat for a moment.
“Not now, my prince. Not yet.”
Rudolf tears his gaze away from Death’s, to look at the revolver which still lay by Mary’s body.
“Not yet, but soon.” Death speaks the words as a promise. If Rudolf had looked into Death’s eyes at that moment, he would have seen the usual glossy impassivity replaced by hunger, by pity, by desire and hesitance and wanting and not wanting. As it is, Rudolf does not look. His eyes remain fixed on the revolver. Death takes Rudolf by the hand, his grip firm, and leads him, unwilling, past Mary and into the bedroom. Rudolf sits on the edge of the bed and stares at the floor as Death rifles through his cabinets, eventually returning with a bottle of whisky and a glass. He pours one into the other, and hands it to Rudolf.
“Drink,” he says, sitting down beside Rudolf. Rudolf does as he’s told, focusing intensely so as not to let the trembling of his hands spill the liquor down the front of his shirt. When he’s drained his glass, Death takes it from him and pours another. When that one is empty, he hands it back, and when he realises Death is getting up to put it away, something approaching a whimper of protest escapes his throat.
“Now, now, my prince. You wouldn’t want to die a drunkard, would you?” Death’s voice is light, teasing.
“Why shouldn’t I die as I lived?” The alcohol has eased the burning heat which coursed through his body, leaving him nothing more than pleasantly warm. Death smiles at him affectionately, and suddenly Rudolf is a small boy again, desperate for this man’s comfort, boots splattered with the blood of one he had loved. Then, it had been his kitten, sweet and soft and completely defenceless. Now, it was Mary. Rudolf suspects she had been much the same, and the thought is too much for him to bear. He stands up, unsteady on his feet, and flings himself into Death’s arms. He buries his head in the crook of Death’s neck and sobs.
They stand like that for some length of time - maybe minutes, maybe hours - until the feeling of Death’s cold hand stroking through Rudolf’s hair brings him back into himself. Death is shushing him, whispering reassurement and praise, and eventually Rudolf’s breathing evens out. Death presses a kiss to his forehead.
“Did I do the wrong thing?” Rudolf’s voice is pathetically small, and he again remembers the little boy calling out for his mother.
“You are doing what has been a long time coming.”
The answer satisfies Rudolf well enough. He places his hands, still shaking, on Death’s hips, and kisses his jaw, light and a little uncertain. Death allows it, for a moment, and then turns away.
“Come now, my prince. I think you still have some rather pressing matters to attend to.”
Unfortunately, Death is right, as he so often is. Rudolf links his hand with Death’s and takes the two of them over to his desk. For once, all is in order - paper, pen, and ink are neatly set out, and Rudolf reluctantly untangles his hand from Death’s and begins to write.
Dear Stéphanie …
When he is finished, his mind turns to what he will leave behind: a marriage always lacking love, a daughter soon to be lacking a father, a father soon to be lacking a son. And his mother. Always, it comes back to his mother.
“Do not dwell. It is easier that way.”
Rudolf nods slowly, trying to purge from his mind the thought of all those he had known in life. It is, he realises, easier said than done. Once again, Death interrupts his reflections:
“Dance with me, Rudolf.”
The simple use of his given name was enough to shock him from his train of thought. He was always my prince - he could not recall the last time Death had addressed him as Rudolf.
He takes Death’s proffered hand and stands. There is no music save for Rudolf’s heartbeat, impossibly loud in the quiet room. Their waltz is clumsy, insofar as anything Death does is ever clumsy - he leads Rudolf round the room, a little too fast for Rudolf’s leaden feet. The rhythm of the thing, Rudolf finds, is comforting. One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, onwards to eternity. They finish with a flourish, Rudolf spinning under Death’s arm to end up pressed against him. His chest is heaving, his cheeks flushed, his head spinning. Death places a steadying hand on Rudolf’s hip and brings the other up to his cheek. Rudolf closes the gap between them, and they kiss, barely. The touch of their lips is feather-light, although not due to any fear on Rudolf’s part. He has trusted for many years now that Death’s kisses will not hurt him until he is ready for it.
Rudolf draws courage from every kiss. When they eventually part, he presses his forehead against Death’s.
“You’ll stay with me?”
“Of course, my prince.”
“Then I’m ready,” he breathes, voice halfway between a prayer and a plea.
Death pulls back to look Rudolf in the eye.
“Are you certain?”
Rudolf does not hesitate.
The tightness in his chest is not fear, but anticipation.
“Then it is decided.”
Death brings the hand that was on Rudolf’s hip up to his face. Rudolf melts into the touch. His hands are no longer trembling. His breaths are slow and measured. Death kisses him. It is gentle and sweet and so all-consuming that for a moment Rudolf doesn’t notice when his own body drops to the floor.
He pulls away to stare at his own lifeless form, and then to look down at himself. He is as substantial as he has ever been (not that that is saying much, really) and yet his ashen corpse lies on the bedroom floor before him.
Rudolf stands, silent and still, as Death brushes past him, through to where Mary still lies. He finds himself unable to tear his eyes away as Death carries her into the bedroom, setting her down none too gently on the bed. He arranges her stiff limbs with a certain nonchalance, taking no pains to hide his distaste for the girl Rudolf had liked so well.
He hopes, sincerely, that she is at peace now.
If it was strange to watch Death move Mary, it is downright horrifying to watch him take Rudolf’s own body in his arms and prop him up carefully against the side of the bed. Rudolf takes a hesitant step forward to better see what happens next. Death takes the revolver that had killed Mary (that you killed Mary with, Rudolf reminds himself) and holds it under Rudolf’s chin. He fires one shot, and then places the revolver in Rudolf’s hand.
Rudolf inhales sharply at the sight.
“You know, my prince, you are dead. There is really no need for that.”
Rudolf moves to stand beside Death, staring down at his own corpse, and finds he does not need to exhale.