Author's Note: After a long, long hiatus I'm finally back! A little busy with other fandoms lately, and I haven't been able to find a lot of new material/inspiration for dear Heine... But in any case, I'm glad to be back. Thank you all for sticking with this story, and please leave a review and let me know what you think!
It was proving far more difficult to track down the perpetrator than Viktor had expected. Especially when you don't want to cause the general public to be in panic, nor to undermine your own power and authority by letting this news slip.
Viktor didn't even want to imagine what people would think if they knew that the palace failed to prevent incursions right to the inner chambers not once but twice, and the latter time with the whole place on high alert too. Even worse, it's been three days and the investigation is at a complete standstill.
How can he hope to keep the peace on the open streets when he can't even protect a tightly secured palace?
Viktor read over the report of the investigation for the hundredth time this night. Outside he could almost see a glow at the horizon. Dawn approaches… and he still haven't figured out what to do next.
What commands should he give? What could he do?
He had been rash, three days ago, after the death of the guards and that nightmarish attack in Heine's hospital room. The tactics and principles and the deviousness hammered into him in war has completely left him then. Abandoning subtleties, he ordered a full search, aggressive investigation, even inhumane interrogation of the one prisoner Heine had won for them.
That was stupid. It had likely drove the assassins and whoever was behind it deep into hiding by now, and it's too late to pretend leniency and lure them out.
So now, Viktor has to think really carefully. It's hard— almost impossible to undo his mistake. And it's even harder when he still has half a mind to just go in and drag whoever was behind this out to the city center for a public execution he had banned for so long in his reign.
He's scared that he would relish putting them to the sword himself.
That feeling tends to get so strong it was almost irresistible whenever he visits Heine in his new, even more heavily-guarded room.
It was almost a dungeon. The patient gets almost no sun for there was no window. There's guards inside and out and all times with orders to kill on sight any stranger, without hesitation. It was the most extreme policy Viktor had ever employed ever since he returned from the wars, and Viktor felt no small amount of guilt for putting Heine and the palace staff under this situation for his own selfish reason: to keep Heine safe, no matter what.
Viktor wasn't sure if he would ever be able to function if he couldn't be this sure of his friend's safety.
That said, there were severe limits to what he could do. Even after three days, Heine's condition has not stabilized. There is no sign of him getting any better, and the chance that the wounds would suddenly and implacably kill him before Viktor's eyes is always, always there, in the back of the king's visceral senses.
It was crippling, this fear. It was far worse than he'd have thought.
He knew— has always known that he won't be able to take it in strides if something happens to Heine. But even until now, he hadn't admitted to himself just how much his redhead friend means to him.
And it somehow still surprise him every time he finds himself in front of the heavily guarded door of the hospital room.
I shouldn't be here.
He blinked heavy lids, tried to wade his way to a decision in his muddy mind, then gave up and nodded to a guard, who opened the door for him with a bow.
Inside there were guards now, with guns at the ready. Everyone has to be recognized by at least three other guardsmen in order to be allowed in. There could be no spies, no secret operators, no further risk to Heine.
Dying of his wounds was risk enough.
Viktor stepped into the dimly lit room. The door closed behind him. The guards inside saluted, and resumed attention.
And Heine… the pale form of the redhead lie completely still. It was hard even to distinguish the shallow, infrequent breaths that disrupts his complete stillness. When Viktor came close enough to the bedside he could feel the heat of Heine's fever radiating like a furnace.
They had done everything they could, but Heine suffered from a cracked rib and a shoulder gash in addition to many smaller wounds, and this after the first deep gash in his side. Any of which can get infected and fester.
If it's the ones on the hands, they could cut it off before the infection spreads too far— though god forbid, Viktor hopes that would never happen. That was the better scenario. If the ones on his shoulder or side got nasty…. there would be no amputation, and the flesh around it is almost guaranteed to blacken and die, and that pool of dead flesh could only be slowed down, not stopped.
If a wound like that got infected, it's most certainly a one-way ticket to hell.
And then there is the broken rib…. which still pose a threat to puncture his insides, if they are not absolutely careful….
Viktor could still see it vividly, a technicolor image of Heine in his airy night robe, folding into himself when his legs gave out under him. His ringing scream as the bastard kicked him in the wounded side, echoing in his skull, a scream like the world would fall apart. His raspy voice—
I'm so glad you weren't hurt because of me again.
Viktor clenched his fists over the white sheets, desperately restraining himself from the urge to— what? Break thing? Cry? Shake some sense into his injured friend? Punish himself?
There is nothing he could do anymore, despite the wealth of resources at his beck and call.
In the end, even kings can't fight against mortality.
And even kings can't fight against love.
"I hope you'd recover soon, Heine." He whispered, but only the shallow breathing was his reassurance. It was less than he needed, but probably more than he deserves, for being such a failed friend, for acting so slowly and putting Heine through so much.
But even now, the presence of guards in the room limits what he could say, what he could do. He has felt suffocated for most of his life, it's just his destiny as a prince and then as a king. But today— today he needs some air. Today he needs to prove a point.
Almost on impulse he took Heine's cold hand. It was bandaged, just like Viktor's, from grabbing shards of broken glass as a weapon.
He carefully lifted the limp arm, bringing their twined fingers to his bowed head, squeezing, letting his eyes shut for the first time in who knows how many days.
He didn't fall asleep though, despite his exhaustion. The coldness against his forehead makes it feel like he's pressed against a corpse— a prospect that makes it impossible to relax in any circumstances.
If Heine were dead...
Viktor found himself clenching his fists, clamping down on the small hand as if that could tether the soul to this world. Pain blooms and laced down his forearm, but he almost didn't notice.
"At least, break out of this fever. Please, I can't work like this, worrying about you all the time. Do this for me, Heine. Please, recover. Please, please be safe. Oh God, please keep Heine safe."
Heine felt suspended in time, unaware of what had happened and what comes next. He had a vague consciousness that breathing hurts, and a resplendent sense that Viktor is safe and warm and unharmed.
The redhead almost never fell into deep sleep yet he never woke up. Instead, he hung in the in-between— aware of his surroundings like random pages of a book, scattered without anything to bind them.
He felt his wounds being treated at some point, remembered screaming at the burn of disinfectant, recalled the sensation of fire seeping inside his wound and spreading everywhere.
At some point there were dim faces. Faces he didn't recognize.
Sometimes he would wonder blearily when had he open his eyes, and he would register the princes huddled around his field of vision. He couldn't hear a thing, though, and he didn't know if his attempt at a reassuring smile even got reflected by his stubborn body.
Time seemed fragmented, but the redhead knows one thing: Viktor was never there. Viktor was never there and that might have been a bad thing. Maybe something had happened after he passed out? Maybe there were more enemies outside. They could have had the palace surrounded.
Any number of things could have happened— and Heine needed to know if Viktor was all right.
This is no time for complacency. Heine found himself thinking, distantly. I have to survive.
In the distance, as if submerged in water: "I hope you'd recover soon, Heine."
A whisper? A thought? A figment of his desperation?
His right hand felt warm, but he couldn't seem to muster the will to move.
He needed to open his eyes. He needed to open his eyes and get up and go make sure Viktor was okay— and he tried and tried— But his body wouldn't move. His eyelids felt so heavy. And he was sinking, sinking… engulfed once again in a book without pages.
Viktor continued mumbling entreaties and prayers for god knows how long. The guards might have changed shifts multiple times and Viktor wouldn't have noticed. He had never prayed this fervently in his life.
He must have fell asleep at some point though, because when he next roused a doctor was beside them, trying to work around Viktor, letting him sleep instead of risk disturbing the king.
"G- good morning, your majesty. I hope I have not been a disturbance."
"Of course not, good doctor. Please, wake me next time. I command you take the best care of your patient, even if that might require a bigger sacrifice than a little lost sleep for me."
"As you command."
Then, realizing he is still holding on to Heine's hand, Viktor forced himself to release it. As he peeled their palms apart the movement revealed dark red stains— all over the bandages. The king paled in stricken dismay.
Heine had struggled for some time with blood loss, and if Viktor himself ruined the effort with just a tight grip...
Then the doctor, having rushed in to inspect the bloodied bandages, turned to reassure him that the blood was the king's own, not Heine's.
"I recommend your majesty to see a different doctor before the wound can be contaminated further." He suggested, continuing to work on inspecting Heine instead of fussing over Viktor.
He was pleased with that reaction.
Consoled, Viktor stepped back to allow the doctor room to work his miracle, somehow thinking about a Scottish marriage tradition that he had read about some time ago. Slashing the palms and pressing them together, so that two may become of one flesh and one mingling blood.
It was perfect, in the king's mind, except he was content with it being anyone's— including his own blood— and not Heine's that must be shed.
It has always been that way. His blood on a cobbled street, his enemies' blood on the front lines, criminals' blood on execution blocks. Those were acceptable.
Not Heine's blood in impeccable palace hallways… Never Heine's blood anywhere if Viktor could help it.
"How is the treatment going?" Viktor asked in morbid curiosity, "Can I be of any assistance?"
Of course, the doctor refused to let him help, which was fine and expected. He did let Viktor see some of the wounds, though, the room smelling a little like sour milk as the bandages came away.
That must not be a good sign.
And sure enough, the gash on Heine's side was angry red, almost glowing against the pale, smooth skin. The center was somewhat yellow— a sure sign of infection.
Infection is fatal, especially with wounds on the torso. A limb could be sawed off, the infection stopped before it could invade the entire body. With the shoulders and the abdominal area though…
Dread creeps up Viktor's throat like an ugly snake, constricting against his windpipe.
"Is there… Is there anything we can do?"
When he got the words out, they seemed faint and far away. He couldn't take his eyes off the rotting wound, tracing the thick black stitches, hoping he could cleanse with his gaze alone.
"We could— we could be inviting a priest—
His denial came out more like a growl, and Viktor felt a pang of guilt over it. It was not entirely the doctor's fault that Heine's condition worsened. And the 'death shivers'— this damned fever— has already set in. It was reasonable to have the priests ready before it is too late.
But Viktor wasn't ready to accept it.
There must be a way. There must be a way to stop the infection. He has been funding their universities and medical establishments for decades, ever since the wars. There must be something that could help. Something—
Belatedly Viktor noticed the nervous glances around him. The king acting so agitated is supposedly not a very good sign, especially with the reputation he had built for himself over the years.
The perfect image of a king— calm and collected and strict and fair. He couldn't seem nervous. He couldn't fret. For all intents and purposes he should be the picture of steadiness. He should be making confident decisions.
All Viktor felt was like the ground was swept out from under him, though.
Putting real effort to stop pacing, Viktor faced the now nervous doctor once more and voiced his complaint. Surely, if someone knows of a recent progress or breakthrough, it would be him.
"In fact," the man said reluctantly, "one of my colleagues has been testing a new chemical that was proved to kill infectious life forms…. However—
"You heard him," Viktor snapped to one of the guards, "go fetch this person and tell him to bring the chemical immediately."
"However," the doctor added with some measure of impatience, "It has not been tested, Your Majesty. Not with any humans. We are calling it 'antibiotics' for now, which means it can potentially harm the human body as much as it harms the germs!"
"So who cares?" the king snarled, and the target flinched back at his intensity. The guard lingered in hesitation, unsure what to do.
"Tell me, doctor, if we don't use this new form of treatment, what do you think the prospects will be?"
The surgeon remained silent, and Viktor waved a dismissive hand to signal that he should get back to his work.
"We can be pretty conservative. Try out small doses. See the results. At least buy some time for Heine to recover by himself. It's going to work. I command you to do try it."
The surgeon continued bustling about his work, evidently unconvinced.
"Plus," Viktor tried once more, "you will be allowed a human trial, with my personal sanction. Both you and your colleague with receive all the academic credit if it succeed, and none would be the wiser if it fails."
That got the doctor thinking, no matter how painful it was for Viktor to reduce Heine to a mere 'human trial.'
Silence. Considering silence.
It was always like this, with the intellectual class. The premise is that they know more than you and their counsel should be heard above a preemptive command. It was something Viktor himself has always encouraged. But now… now he just wanted to scream that his decision was final and just get on with it.
When the silence stretched and the doctor's expression hardened though, the king couldn't quite bear it. Not with every minute ticking away from Heine's life like this.
So, for the first time in his capacity as a king, Viktor took a knee in front of someone. "Please, doctor... I need a miracle this time."
A tense, panicked silence settled over the room. The air seemed suddenly to increase in pressure, and it was condensing in a pinpoint in front of the doctor's lips, waiting to catch the words that might destroy the king and break the kingdom.
A bated breath.
Then, blessedly, a long, resigned exhale.
"….Very well, your majesty. As you wish."
The doctor consented, and turned to give the details and address to the guard, who rushed off as if his life depended on it— which, in point of fact, it might have been.
The serpent relaxed its grip around Viktor's neck, and he breathed relief in place of oxygen into his lungs.
"The rest is up to God to decide." The doctor remarked, and both of them turned to look at the ceiling, suddenly hoping God could hear them in this room without windows, buried under all these stones.
"Go back to work, doctor. I'm going to stay here awhile and pray."