The wind whipped up the dust in the empty square into miniature whirlwinds, spiralling lazily around the debris of another busy Verona day. He was the only person here now, he and the ghosts of the past, meeting once again.

He always came here at the end of the day's hustle and bustle, just to be alone with his thoughts. He'd done so every evening since that fateful week, when his world had fallen apart, when his two best friends had quit this mortal sphere for the clouds above.

There, there was the spot. The rust-red-black stain on the stone steps, faded over time. It had been crimson once, fresh and liquid, his friend's life-blood pouring from his body. He remembered that – holding Mercutio's head as he gasped out his last words, a curse which had come to fruit all too soon. He remembered………..

"I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire: the day is hot, the Capels are abroad,
and, if we meet, we shall not 'scape a brawl; for now, in these hot days, is the mad blood stirring."

Benvolio looked about the square warily. He was tired, in no mood for fighting, and would much rather return to the shaded gardens of the Montague's house than prowl the hot dusty streets with the threat of a Capulet challenge hanging over his head.

However, Mercutio seemed to revel in the tense atmosphere, and was resisting all his friend's efforts to persuade him to depart. The older boy was now perched on a convenient ledge, one hand on the stone to steady himself and the other raised in a declamatory fashion. He grinned at Benvolio, and rolled his eyes.

"Thou art like one of those fellows that when he enters the confines of a tavern claps me his sword upon the table and says 'God send me no need of thee!' and, by the operation of the second cup, draws it on the drawer, when indeed there is no need."
"Am I like such a fellow?" Benvolio asked. He thought the description fitted Mercutio far more accurately than it did him – his witty friend was apt to quarrel about the smallest of things.
"Come, come, thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy, and as soon moved to be moody, and as soon moody to be moved," Mercutio retorted, hopping down from his ledge and throwing an affectionate arm around the other boy's shoulders. Benvolio smiled, and decided to play along. "And what to?" he asked.
"Nay, an there were two such, we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other." The brown-eyed boy groaned with mock annoyance at Mercutio's wordplay, and relaxed, letting his friend's speech wash over him. He'd been subjected to this theme before, and he knew that Mercutio was able to go on in the same vein for fully half an hour, stating the same points over and over, but wrapping each one in new jokes and quibbles. He let his mind wander, pondering over the events of the past few days. Where had Romeo been that night? What was the cause of his sudden good humour? Perhaps he'd finally…

"…..and yet thou wilt tutor me from quarrelling! Hah!" Mercutio let go of Benvolio, and sprang back onto the ledge again, where he settled himself in what looked to the other boy like an incredibly uncomfortable position – lying on his shoulder blades with his legs and back on the wall, and his head hanging down over the edge of the stonework.
"An I were so apt to quarrel as thou art, any man should buy the fee-simple of my life for an hour and a quarter." Benvolio joked, but he did have a serious point. Mercutio was notoriously hot-headed, and the younger boy did sometimes fear for his friend's safety.
However, Mercutio seemed not to pick up on the reproach. "The fee-simple! O simple!" he laughed, twisting his face into a grimace that would have made a gargoyle blink. The effect was doubled by the fact that his head was upside down, due to his unusual position, and Benvolio almost had to look away. He did turn his head somewhat, only to notice a purposeful-looking band of young men rounding the corner into the square. Capulets. This was not good.
"By my head, here come the Capulets!" he exclaimed, trying to alert Mercutio to the approaching threat.
"By my heel, I care not," the other replied, kicking his legs back against the wall in a movement that rolled his body off the ledge and left him standing upright next to Benvolio. He brushed some dust off his sleeve with a nonchalant air, smirking at the approaching Capulets in a supremely irritating fashion.

"Gentlemen, good den: a word with one of you," Tybalt, who seemed to be the leader of the gang, remarked. His tone was civil, and Benvolio found himself hoping that a confrontation could be avoided.

Mercutio, on the other hand, appeared to be disappointed by this salutation, and Benvolio could see that the older youth was not going to be brushed aside that easily.
"And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something; make it a word and a blow," he challenged, his hand resting on the pommel of his rapier in a way that made it quite clear he was itching to use it.
"You shall find me apt enough to that, sir, an you will give me occasion," replied Tybalt, obviously irked.
"Could you not take some occasion without giving?" Mercutio riposted. Benvolio repressed the urge to roll his eyes. Why had he ever supposed that this meeting would end amicably?
"Mercutio, thou consort'st with Romeo-" Tybalt began, but the words had scarce left his mouth before Mercutio was arguing once again.
"Consort! what, dost thou make us minstrels? an thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords: here's my fiddlestick; here's that shall make you dance.

Zounds, consort!"

Benvolio put a calming hand on his friend's shoulder, fearing that Mercutio's hot temper would provoke Tybalt to a fight. That would not be a good move. Tybalt was practically the best swordsman in Verona, and, though Mercutio was probably just as good, he had a tendency to joke around whilst fighting. Tybalt, on the other hand, was deadly serious, which would mean he would concentrate more on the duel. And Tybalt would fight to wound, or kill.

This could turn out very nasty.

"We talk here in the public haunt of men: Either withdraw unto some private place,
and reason coldly of your grievances, or else depart. Here all eyes gaze on us," Benvolio reasoned, trying to stop this argument before the two could come to blows.

"Men's eyes were made to look, and let them gaze; I'll budge for no man's pleasure, I." Mercutio looked over at Tybalt, his lip curling in a cold sneer of defiance.

Benvolio sighed inwardly. Why didn't Mercutio ever back down from a challenge? Surely he could see that it would do no harm to refuse to fight, just once? But he knew that his hot-tempered friend would never do anything so…well…rational.

He awoke from the reverie he'd unconsciously sunk into, to the sound of more raised voices. Tybalt and Mercutio were now…..fighting!? He looked around, seeing Romeo running towards the combatants. Where had he come from? But there was no time to worry about that now. The fight looked serious, and, if he'd read Romeo's expression rightly, his friend was about to do something very stupid.

"Draw, Benvolio! Beat down their weapons!" Romeo yelled, pushing himself between the two youths. Benvolio heard Mercutio hiss something at Romeo for blocking his sword-arm, saw Tybalt smile slyly and lunge forward, saw the smile change to an expression of shocked horror, saw Mercutio cry out and stumble backwards…

Benvolio ran to his friends, his heart thumping in his chest with anxiety. He arrived by them just in time to hear Mercutio ask "Is he gone and hath nothing?"

"What, art thou hurt?" he asked, not wanting to believe the evidence of his own eyes. There was a spreading stain of red across the older boy's white shirt, and his face was slowly turning blue-white.

"Aye, a scratch, a scratch; marry, 'tis enough! Where is my page? Go, villain, fetch a surgeon."

As the servant scurried off, Romeo leant over his friend. "Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much," he said, trying to keep up his own spirits as much as Mercutio's.

"No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door"

Benvolio smiled with relief, a feeling that was shattered by the next words his friend uttered.

"But 'tis enough…'twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world."

That shocked him, shocked them both. Surely their lively, laughter-loving friend was not dying?

"A plague o' both your houses! 'Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death!" A fit of coughing overcame him, but he swallowed and went on." A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm."

"I thought all for the best," Romeo answered, through the tears that choked his voice

"Help me into some house, Benvolio, or I shall faint," gasped Mercutio, his voice weakening. "A plague o' both your houses!" He coughed again, blood bubbling in his throat, his face already assuming the waxy pallor of the dead. "They have made worms' meat of me: I have it, and soundly too: your houses!" His head fell back, a trickle of blood snaking from his mouth.

Benvolio bent over his best friend's body, checking the pulse. Nothing. He checked again, panic rising in his throat. Still nothing. He turned to Romeo, his face streaked with tears…..

Yes, he remembered. All too clearly. There was no way to wash the memories away, but maybe it didn't hurt to remember sometimes.

The sun set behind the hills to the west, its red rays shining down on a lone figure, sitting crying on the steps of the empty square…