A/N : So, this is a slightly updated version, which includes a brief, nongraphic scene of masturbation halfway through (because, really, can anyone blame Mercutio?) and also, I figured out how to put in horizontal rules to divide sections *facepalm for posting as a newbie forever ago* but most importantly I figured that this needs a WARNING for CHARACTER DEATH. Which totally spoils the ending, but it IS canon and warnings are warnings are warnings. Peace and love y'all!
It was noon. The wide square was empty, the air still. The light was bright; crisp light, silvery and very pale. It sharpened edges, making contrasts stark. Shadows were deep, and highlights washed out.
The tower clock in the church steeple chimed slowly, each toll ringing hollowly across the tiled roofs and cobbled streets, sounding almost muffled, as if heard through a thick cotton hood. And then there were two figures in the square, two young men, one dark and solidly built, the other tall, gangly and fair. They circled each other, wary and hostile, but there was no sound, just the slow tolling of the bell, and a hum, like cicadas in long grass.
Then there was a glint of sunlight on steel as one figure drew a long rapier. A second sword swished out, gleaming, and the figures circled, eerily silent. Metal met metal, parted and met. Steel and sunlight, blinding bright.
And then one blade was buried in the tall man's breast and there was blood on the cobbles and darkness was bleeding into the daylight.
A scream choked unborn in his throat as Mercutio bolted upright in bed, gasping. Sweat plastered his white nightshirt to his back, and he was shaking uncontrollably. The sheets were twisted and kicked at the foot of the lumpy mattress, the three flat pillows scattered on the flagstone floor.
Chest heaving, the young man looked slowly around the familiar chamber. Bright light streamed through the eastern window and barred the floor with brilliance. Nothing was out of place, and yet there was a coldness on him that would not be banished with the day.
Swinging his legs out of bed, Mercutio rose and stumbled to the window. Out in the courtyard, the first bustles of morning were beginning, as they did every day, and there was nothing out of place about them. He pushed dark hair back from his forehead in sweat-damp spikes and rubbed his eyes fiercely.
The dream was fading but a few sharp images remained; the courtyard, stark and bright in noonlight; the swords, crossing, slashing, leaping; the blond man stabbed, staggering, falling, dying… bleeding to death on the sunwashed cobbles.
"Laundry day, Maia?" Mercutio drawled, leaning against the doorframe and crossing one ankle over the other.
The young woman looked up, tossing another armload of dirty clothes into the basket, and swatted a strand of thick dark hair out of her eyes. "Every day is laundry day. What's gotten into you?"
He wrinkled his nose at the sour smell of the soiled linen. "Obviously it's not laundry day often enough."
"Obviously your lordships aren't being careful enough with your clothes," she snapped. "Us grunts have better things to do than wallow in your dirty linen. Like make you meals and draw you baths and kiss your filthy asses." She tossed the last tunic from the pile on the floor into the basket and eyed him shrewdly "What's wrong?" she asked more gently.
Mercutio rubbed his jaw, staring at the wicker pattern at the edge of the basket. "I dreamed about him again."
"Really? And I heard a cock crow this morning. Has something changed?"
Mercutio pressed his lips together. "I dreamed that he died. Killed in a duel, with a Capulet."
"Your greatest fear?" She hefted the basket, and shouldered him out of the doorway.
He followed her out across the courtyard toward the fountain where the washing was done. "My greatest fear? Why wouldn't it be? He's my best friend. There's nothing wrong with fearing for my best friend's life."
She gave a tight little smile that he glimpsed in profile. "Nothing at all."
"Don't give me that," he snarled. "I see the way you look at me. The pity, the disgust. I can't help it, what I dream."
"Who you love?"
"Sometimes I think you hate him," Maia said thoughtfully.
Mercutio laughed bitterly. "Sometimes I think I do too. Good God, I wish I could hate him!" he cried suddenly, slamming his fist against his other palm. "I hate he doesn't know, that he never notices, I hate that he goes all mushy over every girl he sees and never realizes what it does to me, I hate… I hate that I want him!"
"It's a sin, you know," she said indifferently.
"If you think it's sinful, why do you talk to me, knowing my secret?"
She set down the basket on the stone lip of the fountain, arching her back with a sigh of relief. "Because you're my friend. And I believe in love."
Mercutio's eyes darkened. "I don't love Romeo. Love is fickle and trite and lasts only as long as she keeps you out of her skirts."
Maia pulled a shift out of the basket and dunked it in the fountain. "Don't listen to what he tells you about love. Romeo doesn't love those girls that he pines after and tumbles and leaves. That's childish lust and capricious fancy. Love is something… strong, and fated. Something you'd die for."
Mercutio spat in the water. "I don't believe in fate."
The streets of Verona were crowded. There were peasants in their drab rags, the nobles rubbing shoulders with them, stepping over filthy puddles and piles of animal dung. Dogs, chickens and geese wandered underfoot, contributing their part to the cacophony of chattering voices, street hawkers' cries, and the heavy stench of mud and manure.
Mercutio strode through the throng with his hands shoved in his pockets and a moody cloud darkening his face. The sheathed blade of his rapier banged against his thigh with every step. People stepped out of his way without meeting his eyes.
There was some commotion in the street ahead, shouting and a scuffling crowd gathering. And then he heard the clang of a sword blade on metal and his heart contracted once, painfully. He swore to himself; the dream still had him on edge. The image wouldn't disappear. Blood matting blond hair, lips parted in a gasp, impossibly blue eyes wide and shocked.
He forced his way through the crowd that had gathered, elbowing people out of the way. In the center of the ring of onlookers was a small battle. He could see the liveries of both the Montague and the Capulet households, and dread curled in the pit of his stomach.
His rapier sang brightly as he drew it out of its sheath and the people around him drew back hurriedly. He launched himself into the fight with a wild cry, engaging one of the Capulet kinsmen with his blade. Fighting his way into the center of the melee he glanced around desperately, searching for one face, and narrowly missed being skewered as a reward for his distraction.
Turning back to his own duel he yanked the other man's blade out of his hand with a neat twist and dispatched him with a blow to the head, and then moved on, still searching for Romeo, unable to shake the deep foreboding fear the dream had left him with.
Someone stumbled into him and he turned to find a sweaty, gasping Benvolio almost in his arms. The young Montague grabbed at Mercutio to stop his fall and righted himself. "Mercutio!"
"Have you…" He broke off, looking over Benvolio's shoulder. "Look out!" Mercutio heaved the slight young man to one side, bringing his sword up to meet the falling blade of a dark, stocky young Capulet.
Their blades locked at the hilts and the two men were face to face, each trembling with the effort of forcing the other's blade away. "Good morrow, Tybalt," Mercutio drawled.
"Good morrow. How did you come to this fight?" the Capulet managed. "'Tis none of your house." He was winded and redfaced, but it was a face Mercutio had last seen, triumphant and laughing, in a dream.
Mercutio sucked in a breath, gritting his teeth with the strain on his arms. "House of Montague is house of mine!" The last word was a grunt as he yanked his arm down and to one side and their blades parted in a screech of steel.
The swords crossed and crossed again, thrusts and parries, until a booming voice resounded over them. "Rebellious subjects, cease this madness at once. You profane our streets with your hatred!"
Tybalt stepped back, disengaging. Mercutio would have ignored the familiar voice of the Prince and run him through if it hadn't been for Benvolio grabbing his arm and hissing in his ear, "Hold. Hold damn you! What madness is this?"
Mercutio grunted in response and subsided, glowering over at the young Capulet cousin. Prince Escalus was reprimanding the two families, but from the bored look on Tybalt's face it would hardly do more good than it had last time.
The crowd began to disperse, and the Prince and his retinue began to move away. Mercutio stepped out of their way, but not before the Prince caught sight of him. "Mercutio," he chided, "Were you part of this?"
Mercutio shrugged with careless insolence. "I might have been."
The Prince sighed. He was a middle-aged man with graying hair, made older by weariness. "I would have expected better of you. As my kinsman, its your duty to keep the peace in my name."
Mercutio bowed his head. "I'm sorry Uncle. My temper bested me. I'll try harder next time."
The Prince frowned reprovingly "Your temper didn't have to best you. You surrendered without a fight, you always do.
Mercutio just shrugged again. As the retinue moved off, one young man detached himself from the crowd and fell into step beside Mercutio. "You know, cousin" he said, confidentially, "There's another reason not to pick a fight with the Capulets."
"Really?" Mercutio said distractedly. He was looking for Benvolio who seemed to have disappeared in the crowd.
"Indeed. I intend to marry Lord Capulet's daughter."
That caught Mercutio's attention. "What? She's just a child."
"You're wrong. She's thirteen summer last, and as fair a creature as I have ever dreamt. One has to catch these flowers before they're fully bloomed anyway, or you're apt to find that someone else has plucked them first."
Mercutio's upper lip curled slightly. "So have you spoken to Capulet about this, Paris?"
"Not yet," said Paris cheerfully, "But I will this afternoon. And I don't foresee there being a problem. After all, are we not the Prince's own nephews, and a fine match for any lord's heir?"
"Well what about you? Have you got a girl? Or are you content with the whores at the Black Bull?"
Mercutio raised an eyebrow. "A timid girl who's never seen a man naked is far less fun than an experienced whore." Or a servant boy who knows how to keep his mouth shut, Mercutio added silently to himself.
Paris glanced at him. "You'd really rather have a old used baggage who's loose as a bucket than a fresh, innocent little thing who has nothing to compare you to?"
"That's what this is about? Worried about your performance?" Mercutio leered at him. "It's alright cousin, I understand. It happens to the best of us." But there was not quite the usual level of jovial humor in his tone. Too many times he had found himself naked with a woman and suddenly the only thing keeping him up was the thought of a lean blond haired Montague.
"You're in an odd humor today," Paris said.
"Just tired." Mercutio made an effort to smile normally. "I must be off now. Did you see Romeo in the crowd perchance?"
"No, I didn't. Looking for him?"
"Benvolio went off there," Paris pointed toward the Montague manor. "And where Ben is Romeo will be eventually too."
"Right. Good luck with Capulet."
"Thanks!" Paris waved an enthusiastic goodbye as his cousin hurried off.
The Montague townhouse was a tall elegant structure, pale stucco blazing in the midday sun and red tiles muted with dust. Vines in their green summer luster twined around pillars and climbed walls, and the gardens were riotous with color.
Mercutio swept the scene with an appreciative gaze. This place was as familiar to him as his own chambers, but most days he hardly noticed it. Today however there was a chill in his stomach making it hard to take anything for granted.
He strolled across a tiled courtyard and out into the gardens. His boots scuffed through the dust. Up ahead he heard familiar voices, and Benvolio appeared around a flowering hyacinth bush, with Romeo two steps behind him.
"Ah, there's a man who'll set you straight!" Benvolio cried.
"Let him try!" said Romeo with all too familiar defiance.
"What has gotten him bent?" Mercutio inquired as he came close enough to be heard.
"The man is sick in love! You sort him out! I've listened to his drivel for long enough. See if you can't shake him of it."
"Never fear," Mercutio said, clapping Romeo hard on the shoulder. "I'll shake him like a dog shakes a hare in his teeth."
"I'm not ill," Romeo complained. "Really, a man's love should be his own business."
"Not when it damages his love for his friends," Benvolio called as he walked away.
"God-given truth," Mercutio muttered.
"What was that?"
"A thought of no consequence," said Mercutio, rallying his attention. "Let us occupy ourselves with some valiant pastime to drive away these womanish wiles."
"I cannot fathom the pastime that would relieve my heart of its suffering, but by all means, please try!"
Mercutio let out an exasperated breath. "How about archery?"
"The English longbows?" Romeo perked up. "It's been a long time since we used those."
"I expect we're both out of practice. It would do us good."
The long rows of trees in the orchard behind the Prince's palace offered a clear view of the target; a man's clothes stuffed with straw. The trees also threw pools of cool shade, precious in the midday heat.
The two young men strung the bows, joking and laughing, just like they used to.
"The draw is heavier than I remember," Romeo commented, flexing his arm as he drew back the string experimentally.
"Nay, the man is lighter," Mercutio said, knocking an arrow. "He's been ill and off his supper."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Romeo's grin vanish. "Your jests feel as if you kick at broken ribs."
Mercutio just grunted, drawing the string back. Whatever he said, the draw did strain his arm more than he recalled.
"You've never been in love anyway," Romeo said.
Mercutio's arrow flew wide and thunked into the ground a hundred yards beyond the target. He straightened slowly, staring after the arrow, but not seeing its flight.
"You tensed at the last second," Romeo said critically. "It made you jerk your arm and miss. Here."
Mercutio wasn't paying attention until he felt Romeo's hand on his arm, and found his best friend was behind him, nocking another arrow and trying to guide his arms. Mercutio submitted numbly. His arms were longer than Romeo's and the Montague was pressed close behind him to reach the bow. His body was lean and solidly muscled, smelling faintly of the day's sweat and dust, and the inherent citrus of his body.
Mercutio's hand shook on the string as Romeo's breath gusted in his ear, hot and damp.
"Steady!" he repeated, laying a hand over Mercutio's.
Mercutio gritted his teeth. "You aren't helping. At all."
"Oh. Sorry." He heard the hurt in his friend's voice, and could have kicked himself, but the blond boy stepped away from him, and that was the most important thing. Suddenly, Mercutio could breath again.
"Sorry," he said gruffly. "What were you saying?"
Romeo was behind him, but he could hear the faintly aggrieved note in his voice. "Just that you do me wrong by discounting my suffering at the hands of love, when you yourself have never suffered love's torments."
Mercutio drew an unsteady breath, releasing the arrow as he let it out. "The blind man accuses his neighbor of short-sightedness," he said sourly, as he turned.
Romeo, eyeing Mercutio's latest shot, didn't hear. It had fallen near the feet of the straw-stuffed target. "If cupid's aim were twice as good as yours, I would suffer his stings less often."
Mercutio rolled his eyes and wacked at the back of his friend's leg with the bow. "You try, and see if your aim is so much better. I can't imagine it would be, since you've spent so much time as the target, rather than the archer."
"It's not my fault. I am forever fated to be cupid's prey."
"Prey without a prayer?"
Romeo's arrow narrowly missed the target's arm and lodged, quivering, in the trunk of a nearby tree.
"A pity neither of us is Cupid," Mercutio said. "Lovesick trees are definitely an improvement on lovesick Romeo."
"However, were I a tree," he said earnestly, "I am afraid you would find my humor somewhat wooden."
It was too good to resist. "I fear, were you a tree, your humor would not be the only thing wooden."
Romeo cocked an eyebrow at his friend. "They say a measure of wood improves a man."
"No, no. A measure of wood makes a man." Mercutio winked. "I believe it's the switch that improves a man."
"The switch to wood?"
Mercutio twirled an arrow lazily between his fingers, grinning. "Many ladies would agree."
"So all in all," Romeo said, "better for man to be a tree?"
"At the expense of his humor?" Suddenly Mercutio was serious. "I value a friend's humor far more than his wood."
Mercutio dunked his head in the fountain and came up blowing water out of his nose. He ran his fingers through his hair, slicking back the dark strands and wiping water from his eyes. On the other side of the fountain, Romeo did the same. The water made his hair look darker, a shade closer to bronze than gold, and it dripped down his neck plastering his shirt to his chest and back.
They weren't the only ones; the fountain in the center of the square was the main attraction during the hottest part of an August day. Children shrieked and splashed, women washed linens and patted damp hands on their faces and necks to keep cool, men simply dunked their heads and shook like dogs, spraying passersby.
Benvolio, leaning against the stone lip of the fountain leaned away as Romeo splashed water at him. "Did you too really work up such a sweat doing archery? Its hardly a strenuous pastime."
The young men glanced at each other and grinned. "No, no I don't think so," Romeo said. "It was the wrestling match that did us in, I think."
"Ah." Benvolio nodded sagely. "I had noticed the grass stains but I wasn't going to mention it."
"The gruesome testament to a grisly battle that massacred daisies, and left hundreds of grass stalks mangled and crushed!" cried Romeo cheerfully.
Benvolio raised his eyebrows. "You really a magician aren't you?" he said to Mercutio.
"Why? Who called me a magician?" Mercutio asked curiously.
"It was that servant girl you like so much. May, or whoever. She said something like that. Something about you being… a conjurer of faces?"
Romeo laughed. "She means a liar. Who've you been lying to Mercutio?"
Mercutio looked sideways at his best friend. Romeo was grinning, teeth bright and even, water sheening his skin with silver gilt, droplets caught in his eyelashes and his disheveled hair, and beading in the faint dimples at the corners of his mouth. "Myself, mostly," he said mildly. "Why am I a magician, Ben?"
Benvolio gestured at Romeo. "You've got him talking in real words instead of enamored poetry and circular riddles. How did you ever manage to distract him?"
"It was probably the part where I twisted his arms behind his back because he hit me with his bow," Mercutio said reflectively.
"No, it was the part after I tripped you where you were grinding my face into the dirt and I couldn't breath," said Romeo philosophically.
"Really? Pity. Then you missed the part where I almost cracked my skull on the base of a tree." He rubbed his forehead ruefully. "I've got a bump."
Benvolio gave a whoop of laughter and seized Romeo by the hands, dragging him down the street.
Mercutio strolled after them at a more leisurely pace. Almost against his will he eyed Romeo's long legs as he roughhoused with Benvolio. He had indeed lied to Maia; it wasn't Romeo he hated, most of the time, it was himself.
"S'cuse me sir," said a voice by his elbow. He looked down at a young lad in page's livery, standing beside him and looking up with earnest eyes. "Do you read sir?"
"A little," said Mercutio gruffly.
The boy held out a scrap of paper. "Could you read this please sir?"
Mercutio squinted at the paper. The handwriting was cramped and curlicued. With a shrug he passed it back. "Beyond me."
"Oh. Well. Thank you anyway," said the boy, starting to turn away.
"Wait," Romeo called, jogging over. "I can read."
He took the proffered paper from the boy's grubby hand and read: "Signior Martino and his wife and daughters; County Anselme and his beauteous sisters; the lady widow of Vitravio; Signior Placentio and his lovely nieces; Mercutio and his brother Valentine; mine uncle Capulet, his wife and daughters; my fair niece Rosaline; Livia; Signior Valentio and his cousin Tybalt, Lucio and the lively Helena." He looked up. "A fair crowd. What does old Capulet want with them?"
"My master Capulet is planning a revelry this evening. I'm sure you would be most welcome, if you are any but the house of Montague."
Romeo and Benvolio glanced at each other, but before they could speak, Mercutio said, "We would be honored. Look for us there."
The page bowed. "Thank you again sirs. You've done me a service."
"Of course." They watched him as he hurried off.
Benvolio turned to Mercutio. "Why are you so eager to invite us into the lion's den?"
Mercutio shrugged. "You heard him. I'm to go. You think I'd want to go with no one but my baby brother for company?"
"I'm game." They both looked in some surprise at Romeo.
"To Capulet's?" Benvolio asked. "What madness is this?"
Mercutio narrowed his eyes. "Madness in love. Rosaline, yes?"
Romeo's cheeks colored slightly but he crossed his arms. "You mean the fairest lady ever to shame the eye of Venus?"
Benvolio rolled his eyes. "But should you go to the feast, you shall see her beside all the beauties of Verona. Surely her splendor will be diminished by comparison. No one woman could be so lovely as twenty."
"I shall see no such thing," Romeo said stubbornly. "I will gladly accompany you to the feast, and there shall see my Rosaline still the fairest of all maids there."
Mercutio rubbed a hand across his eyes. Whatever had possessed him to involve the two Montagues? Hadn't he heard Rosaline's name? He was dreading the evening already.
Torchlight flickered over the stucco walls and cobbled streets, as the group approached the gates of the Capulet mansion. "Should we go in without invitation?" Romeo asked, hanging back.
"I have been invited," Mercutio called carelessly over his shoulder.
"Besides, what's the fun of making excuses?" Benvolio added. "We'll go, dance a few measures, and be gone, and they can measure us as they will."
"That's just what I'm worried about."
Benvolio turned to look at his cousin, slowing his step and holding the torch closer to the blond man's face. "Worried they'll know we're Montagues? It's a masked dance, fear not! Besides, you were the one who wanted to go!" He turned and hurried after Mercutio who had walked ahead without them.
Romeo jogged to catch up. "Here, give me the torch. If you're so eager to make merry, let me carry it."
Once again Benvolio turned to his cousin. "Don't you want to dance?"
He looked away. "I fear I cannot."
Benvolio reached out and shook him by the sleeve. "Nay, cousin, quit this nonsense! We must have you dance. Isn't that right Mercutio?"
Mercutio turned. There was a silent imperative in Benvolio's expression Say something! He sighed in resignation. "You're a lover, Romeo," he said, hating the words. "Let Cupid's wings make you light. Be merry."
"That's just it!" he cried. "Cupid has wounded me so I cannot fly."
"Rosaline, is it?" Mercutio asked acidly.
It was hard to tell in the light of the torches, but Mercutio knew his friend well enough to tell when he was blushing. "When last we parted, her words were… sharp."
"Oh, now it becomes clear." Benvolio rolled his eyes. "You got too far up her skirts and she gave you a tongue lashing, and now you fear she will be angry to see you."
"I wasn't up her skirts," Romeo snapped defensively.
"No. She wouldn't let me get that far."
"So now you curb your revelry out of shame?" Mercutio taunted. "That's not the man we know. Be more of a tree, boy!"
"You can't loose if you don't play the game," Romeo said stubbornly. "Love stacks the deck. Best to fold early."
"Oh come now, you put too much weight on love." Benvolio said. "She is a gentle beast."
Romeo shook his head solemnly. "You have obviously not been so abused by her as I. Love is a rough thing."
Mercutio gritted his teeth. Oh the irony. But he marshaled his voice into buoyant carelessness with the ease of long practice. "Then if love plays rough with you, play rough with love! Come we burn daylight!"
"I still don't think this is a good idea," Romeo said, biting his lip.
"Why else?" Mercutio asked impatiently. They had halted before the gates.
"I had a dream last night."
Mercutio froze. The images flashed again, the noonday square, the flashing blades, blood on clean cobbles. Damn Romeo! To his mild surprise, he managed to speak without inflection. "And so did I. What of it?"
"What did you dream?" Romeo asked.
Damn, damn, damn him to the depths of hell. But when Mercutio answered, his voice was calm, even indifferent. "That dreamers often lie."
"In bed asleep," Romeo shot back. "But their dreams are true."
Mercutio waved a hand. "Nonsense! The fairy queen was with you, making you delude yourself in sleep. A quick and cunning trickster she, but no truth in her prophecy! Never think it. Lovers dream of love. Courtiers dream of curtsies. Lawyers dream of their precious fees. Dreams seem real because people dream about what reality they know, but dreams are fairy phantasms, no more real than fickle marsh light."
"You talk nonsense!" Romeo scoffed.
"True. I speak of dreams. Nonsensical and without meaning." His voice turned harsh and ragged, each word punctuated with a pause. "Dreams. Mean. Nothing!"
Romeo looked surprised at his venom, but before he could respond Benvolio was calling them, "Come on you idiots, do you want to go or not? We'll be late and miss the dancing."
Mercutio turned. It was Paris, in a ridiculous peacock mask, waving at him, making his way across the dance floor with a young girl on his arm.
"I didn't know you were going to be here," he said, arriving at Mercutio's side. "This," he added importantly, "is Juliet."
"Young Lady Capulet I presume?" Mercutio said, bowing over her hand. "Charmed."
The girl looked up at him, eyes shadowed behind the feathers of her dainty mask, and smiled, a small smile. "It's a pleasure to meet a future kinsman, sir," she murmured, hardly meeting his gaze.
Paris' face was shining with pride. Mercutio raised an eyebrow at him. "Having a good time?"
"Oh yes. Everything's going well."
"I'm glad to hear it," Mercutio said sardonically. "I'll just leave you two love birds at it." He sauntered off before his cousin could try to get him to make conversation with that empty doll of a chit.
A dozen yards away, he spotted Romeo, standing by a pillar and looking as stunned as if he had just seen a flock of flamingos prancing by. Mercutio strolled up to him and waved a hand in front of his vacant gaze. The blue eyes were so wide they were almost perfect circles in his face. His mouth was slightly agape.
"Anyone in there?" Mercutio asked dryly.
Romeo blinked slowly, and then shook himself all over, like a wet dog. "Who was that?" he asked, voice cracking slightly.
Mercutio groaned silently. "Paris' fiancé," he said sharply. "Someone you want to leave alone."
"She is the very goddess of beauty herself," Romeo breathed
"She's a vapid child," Mercutio snapped. And then cajolingly, "Come on Romeo, let's get out of here. Go to a tavern. Get drunk. Have some real fun."
Romeo shook his head slowly. "She's… she…"
"She's Circe to your Odysseus," Mercutio said coldly. "And she's enchanted you already." There was acid roiling in his stomach and a bitter taste in his mouth. "I wish you luck then."
He whirled and strode away, feeling unreasonably angry, but Romeo didn't even glance after him. Mercutio kicked a pillar as he passed, and made for the edge of the room. He didn't want to be penned in by people.
There was a balcony running around the room. Mercutio climbed up the stairs and wandered around it. It was blessedly empty, but for the occasional scurrying servant with a tray of drinks. He leaned on the polished railing and surveyed the room, turning his painted devil's mask over in his hands. Benvolio was swinging through the steps of a dance in the center of the room and Romeo, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen. Paris and his girl – Jeannette? Joliet? Juliette? – were dancing too, with a proper space between them.
Mercutio waved at one of the passing servants, snitched a drink off his tray, and drained it in one gulp. It was sweet, fancy stuff, too insubstantial for his taste, but it would get him drunk. That was the important part.
He gazed moodily down at the crowd of insipid, colorless nobles, idly watching one lean-legged young man dancing. Slim and tight assed, but with hair a shade darker than Mercutio cared for. Even as he thought it, he hated himself for it.
He growled a curse and threw back another shot of the thin, sharp alcohol.
Then he spotted Romeo. The Montague was almost hidden from the rest of the room, but clearly visible from the balcony. He was standing close to a slim slip of a girl, her face tilted up to his, and Mercutio recognized her by her smile, that sweet empty smile. Mercutio swore.
Of all the stupid, brainless, foolish…
"Good e'en, sir."
Mercutio straightened and whirled. There was a woman, ten years older than he, standing behind him, painted, primped, and predatory. "Good e'en," he grunted turning back to the balcony. His eyes wandered back to Romeo and the girl out of some masochistic compulsion.
She moved closer, and he could smell the slight rankness of her sweat under the heavy stench of her perfume. "You looked lonely up here." Her voice took on a familiar husky note, and he felt her press against his side.
A wave of disgust clench his stomach. At least whores had some honesty; they needed your money with all the desperation they pretended to want you. All that this woman wanted was a night's entertainment.
"I appreciate your concern," Mercutio said coldly, eyes on his friend and the Capulet girl.
The woman looked up at him through her eyelashes and ran a tongue along her lips, shamelessly wanton. This close, he could see the cracks in the caked paint on her face, and the faint spidery lines of sun and age under it. He leaned away fractionally, glancing back at the floor below, and spoke distractedly.
"I'm not sure that… would… dammit!"
They were kissing, Romeo and the girl, bodies pressed together, faces tilted, mouths open. Mercutio yanked his gaze away. "I'm sorry," he managed to say, his tone only slightly strained. "Let me save you time, by telling you, try someone else. I'm not interested." He swept a contemptuous eye over her, and couldn't help adding, "I'm afraid I have impeccable eyesight."
She gasped, and then slapped his face with the flat of her hand. The crack was loud but more shocking than painful. Mercutio put a hand to his cheek and then raised his hand, fully intending to hit her back.
Her eyes widened in fear and she stumbled back, then turned and fled. Mercutio checked himself, and turned his attention back to the tryst in the dark corner below.
But they were parted. The girl was nowhere to be seen. He spotted Romeo and Benvolio talking, and then Benvolio looked around and pointed up at the balcony where he stood. They both beckoned and waved him down.
Reluctantly he stood back from the balcony and walked toward the stairs, grabbing another drink from a passing page on the way. Despite the apparent mildness of the stuff he could feel the initial buzz.
"I fear trouble," Romeo was saying as he reached the two friends. "No good will come of all this."
Benvolio looked to Mercutio in exasperation. "When he's not bewailing love's rough kisses, he's fretting over fated misfortune."
"I don't believe in fate," Mercutio growled.
"Beware how you speak of it!" Benvolio warned.
Mercutio scowled. "I put my trust in Lady Tyche."
"Luck against Fate?" Romeo raised an eyebrow. "An interesting wager."
"I'm in no mood for wagers," Mercutio said. "What say you we leave this gaggle and get ourselves to some place for real enjoyment?"
"Or home to bed, yes," Benvolio agreed.
Mercutio rolled his eyes. "You can be such a spinster Ben,"
"I take offense at that."
Bickering with Benvolio was familiar and easy, as they left the Capulet house. At the gate they looked around, and Romeo was gone.
"Romeo?" Benvolio called. Inside the party had not yet ended and they were the only two in sight in the street or in the walled garden behind the gate. "Cousin? Are you there?"
Mercutio leaned impatiently against the wall. "He's probably gone on ahead to bed. If we were wise we would go after him."
"No, he ran this way and jumped over the garden wall." Benvolio pointed into the darkness. "Call to him, Mercutio."
Mercutio, who could guess too well where Romeo had gone, sighed long-sufferingly. "I'll conjure him then." He cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted into the night, "Ho! Romeo! Madman! Lover! Won't you come to me in the form of a sigh? Won't you whisper sweet words in my ear, oh passionate lover mine? Tell Venus you love me and call Cupid by my name!"
"If he hears you he'll be angry," Benvolio warned.
Mercutio dismissed it. "He hears not. You see, the dumb ape is dead and I must summon him." He raised his voice again. "I summon you by Rosaline's bright eyes, her red lips, and her dainty feet. Won't you come for her? Isn't she the one you loved most? I summon you by her straight legs, her quivering thighs, her glistening cu-"
"Whist!" Benvolio grabbed his arm. "You mustn't say such things."
He laughed derisively. "For fear of angering him? This won't anger him. I am only reminding him of what he claimed to love most, just this noon past. What I'm saying is fair and honest. Invoking her name to draw him out of the darkness. Or is she no longer your love Romeo?" he called. "Are you so fickle as that?"
"You're drunk," Benvolio said wearily. "Come on. He's hidden and doesn't want to be found. Let's to bed."
That night, he tossed and rolled in bed, plagued by tormented, restless dreams of murder and death and blood in the moonlight, glistening darkly. Swords clanging, crossing, swords of steel, scraping sparks off bright blades, slashing, slicing in the sunlight, duelers dancing. A different dance, bodies writhing together, hot and slick, gasping, grunting, rough and primal. A blond head thrown back, mouth open in a silent cry, blue eyes tightly shut. The taste of salt on his tongue. Sweat and blood and semen. The buck and shudder of climax.
He woke gasping and shaking for the second morning in a row, his heart thumping wildly. His mouth was dry. He had a throbbing erection, and his head pounded dully.
Look on the bright side, he told himself, At least you aren't dreaming about his death anymore.
Small comfort. He was aching with the need for release, and after a moment he gave in.
It didn't take long at all before he was arching off the bed, gasping Romeo's name, spilling warm sticky liquid over his fist and onto his stomach. He swore quietly to himself as he sank back onto the pallet. He was very aware of the rough texture of the sheets, the lumpy straw under his back, the current of air across his exposed chest. His senses were sharpened in the heavy slackness that followed orgasm.
His head was aching worse than ever, and his stomach churned with last night's cloying alcoholic drink. Worse, he felt dirty. Soiled, contaminated by his own thoughts. How was it that fantasies that aroused him so acutely in the throes of climax could sicken him utterly a minute later?
There was a sharp rap at the door. "Who-?" he croaked, and then coughed and tried again. "Who is it?"
The acerbic female voice was familiar. "Come in."
He heard the door scraping, but didn't open his eyes or move to cover himself. He heard her make a noise of surprise, and then give an exasperated sigh. "Really Mercutio? Sometimes I think you deliberately try to provoke me."
He smiled lazily. "Oh but I do. You're so sensible about it. It's refreshing."
She tutted. "If I didn't know you so well I'd take the wrong meaning from that smile on a naked man's face."
"If you didn't know me so well, I wouldn't be naked." But the smile dropped away. It had been a mask anyway. He heaved a sigh.
She patted him on the arm, and then he felt a cool damp cloth on his stomach. His eyes snapped open. "Now that's humiliating!" he exclaimed, snatching the rag from her hand and shoving her off the bed. "Give me that! Get with you! Go on. Shoo!"
She laughed as he wiped himself down. "At least you're up. The sun's hours gone dawn. Can I do anything else for you then? Help you dress? Lick your boots maybe, since you prefer boys kissing your ass?"
He laughed, and then winced, as his head throbbed sharply. "Get me a drink."
And Maia, good friend that she was, heard the raw edge to his voice, and went to fetch him one without another gibe.
"Where the devil is Romeo?" Mercutio said impatiently, peering down the street, craning to see over the heads of the crowd. "Did he come home last night?"
Benvolio shook his head. "No. I spoke with his servant."
Mercutio growled and scuffed a foot over the cobbles, sidestepping a man with a loaded mule. "He's mad with love over that hussy."
"There was a letter sent to his father's house," Benvolio continued, not listening. "From Tybalt. The Capulet."
Mercutio drew up short, the dream of the duel exploding behind his eyes. It had been Tybalt in that dream, with Romeo's blood on his sword. "A challenge," he muttered. "I'd bet my life."
Benvolio nodded gravely. "And Romeo will answer it."
Mercutio's mind was churning. "Any man can answer a letter," he said slowly.
"Nay Romeo will answer Tybalt, being dared."
Mercutio made a furious noise in his throat, fists clenched and teeth grinding. "Romeo is already as good as dead," he snarled, startling a woman with a basket of chattering chickens. "He has been killed by love, shot to death with Cupid's arrows, stabbed by treacherous vixens, pierced through the ear with a love song; and you say this is a man fit to face Tybalt?"
"Why, what is Tybalt?"
"More than Prince of Cats." Mercutio spat. "Arrogant and quick with a sword. He's like a tomcat, always yowling to prove his manhood. But he fights a fine duel," he admitted, remembering the brawl, and how it had taken all his skill and attention to keep Tybalt's blade from his throat. "He pays attention to time and distance and proportion. A neat fighter, he could butcher a silk button. A duelist, indeed! He takes his time, plays the game, measures the measures; one, two, and the third in your heart!"
"Here comes Romeo," Benvolio said distractedly.
"Oh, yes, here comes Romeo without his roe, like a dried herring. But whether he emptied himself into a girl or the garden goat, that's the question! Oh flesh, how easily thou art fishifed! Look at his feeble, lovesick face." Mercutio listened helplessly to the vitriol gushing from his mouth, and hardly felt as if he knew the man uttering the words, nor did he know how to stop or even if he wanted to.
He raised his voice. "Bonjour Signor Romeo, there's a French greeting for you French slops." He spits the word, wondering why the hell he was feeling so vicious and hating himself for the look on Romeo's face; white shock, like he'd just been slapped – or taken a sword thrust to the gut. "You gave us counterfeit fairly last night."
Romeo's expression of hurt became stiff. "Good morrow to the both of you," he said formally. "What counterfeit did I give you?"
"The slip, sir the slip!" he cried waving expansively. He felt drunk.
"Pardon me, good Mercutio," and there was a nasty twist on his name that made Mercutio flinch inside, "But my business was great, and in such cases a man may strain courtesy."
Mercutio was soaring on wings of something black and loathsome. "Some business that had you exercising your buttocks no doubt."
"You mean curtsying?" Romeo said scathingly.
Mercutio rolled his eyes theatrically. "Oh aye, you've hit the mark there."
"How kind of you," Romeo rejoined. "Ben-"
But Mercutio wasn't done. "I'm the very pink of courtesy, I am."
"A pink flower," Romeo snapped.
Mercutio waggled his eyebrows.
[A/N The jokes they are making in this passage of the play do not translate easily into our modern language. I abridged this severely but it is meant to be a contest of wits and strung together (very sexual) puns.]
A corner of Romeo's mouth quirked.
Mercutio felt as if some huge tension inside him had been released. Relief flooded through him, heady and intoxicating as his anger had been, as Romeo tried not to smile, saying "My pump is well flowered then." Somehow, in some twisted way, Mercutio had been forgiven, though by whom, for what, he couldn't fathom.
"Come, break this up Benvolio," he said. "I'm loosing this match of wits."
Romeo made mock slashing motions in the air, dancing from foot to foot like a prizefighter. "Keep on, keep on, else I'll cry myself the winner!"
"You see," Mercutio said, suddenly at ease, "Isn't this better than groaning for love? Now you're sociable. Now you're Romeo." Now you're mine, he added silently to himself. My friend. "Not some blithering fool who runs lolling up hill and down dale looking for some hole to bury his bauble in."
"Stop there, stop there," Benvolio cried, raising his arms, before Romeo could respond. "Look who comes."
Mercutio turned and didn't bother to stifle a laugh at the obese woman waddling across the square with a manservant trailing after her like a schooner after a man o war. "Ho!" he cried. "A sail, a sail!"
The woman spoke to her companion, unheard across the bustle of people, but as they moved closer, her next words were audible. "Give me my fan Peter!"
"Aye good Peter!" Mercutio cried jovially. "Give her the fan, for the fan's the fairer face!"
The woman turned a sharp eye on him. "God'y good marrow gentleman."
Mercutio bowed flamboyantly. "God'y good e'en, gentlewoman."
"Is it e'en already?" she asked, fluttering her fan.
"Tis no less I tell you," he said, tipping her a wink, "For the bawdy hands of time now sit upon the prick of noon." He gestured up at the clocktower looming over the square, and sure enough both hands of the dial were pointing straight up, towards midday and the sun's zenith.
"Out with you!" the woman cried laughingly. "What kind of a man are you?"
"One God hath made, himself to mar," Mercutio said, tone suddenly reflective, as he gazed at the clock face. Last time he had noticed it distinctly, had been in a dream, and then, like now, the hands had been together on the point of noon, as the bells tolled a solemn knell.
"You ne'r spoke a truer word, lad," the woman said crisply. "Now where shall I find young Romeo?"
"I am the youngest by that name, for want of a worse," Romeo said, stepping forward.
"If you are he, I desire a confidence with you," the nurse said.
Benvolio laughed at her malapropism. "She will indite him to supper."
"Romeo are you coming to dinner at your father's? Let's away," Mercutio said.
Romeo waved them off with a distracted look. "I'll come after."
Mercutio and Benvolio started off slowly, glancing back at the two with their heads bowed together.
"Do you think he'll come?" Benvolio asked.
"No," Mercutio snorted, foul mood returning suddenly. "Come on, or we'll miss the meal."
It was sunset.
Romeo had not been seen all day. Mercutio told himself it didn't bother him, that Romeo's business was his own, that he didn't care if the blond Montague had spent the afternoon with the Capulet girl or a whore behind the Black Bull or a mare in the stables. Mercutio shook his head, feeling sick, needing to think about something other than Romeo for a little while at least.
His footsteps carried him out beyond the courtyard of the Prince's house, into the gardens, and up a shallow rise. From the crest of it, he could see the garden spread out below him like the quiltwork of angels, beyond it the houses of the town, red roof tiles glowing in the last golden light of day. The city looked clean and peaceful. Beyond the rooftops were the mountains, blue and hazy with distance, and the brilliant disk of the sun just resting on their peaks.
Mercutio stretched, looking out over the scene, and thought he had never seen anything so beautiful. Except maybe Romeo. Romeo laughing. Romeo, trying not to smile. Romeo, water dripping from his eyelashes running down his cheeks. Romeo rolling in the grass after their wresting match, face flushed, hair spiked with sweat. Romeo-
The dams burst.
Hundreds of images flooded his head, a thousand days of laughter and companionship, when it was just that, just friendship, and neither wanted any more. It tightened his throat with the joy of the memories. He wouldn't give it up, he thought fiercely, not for anything. If he could make a deal with the devil and have Romeo as his lover forever, he wouldn't do it. Not if it meant giving up those memories, the precious record of an untainted friendship.
A man God hath made, himself to mar, he reflected wryly, gazing unseeing over the lush fields and the silent city toward the blazing sunset, now streaking the sky with all its glory. Was that what I was doing, saying all those terrible things to him? Trying to ruin myself? Punish myself perhaps, make him hate me the way he should? Hate me so I would stop loving him? Watch him flinch and die a little inside myself because I know it's what I deserve?
He's my best friend, he told himself harshly. I don't want to hurt him. I would do anything for him. I would die for him.
The last brilliant sliver of the sun sank behind the purple mountains, and chill blue dusk fell over the earth.
It was noon. The wide square was empty, the air still. The light was bright, crisp light, silvery and very pale. It sharpened edges, making contrasts stark. Shadows were deep, and highlights washed out.
The tower clock in the church steeple chimed slowly, each toll ringing hollowly across the tiled roofs and cobbled streets, sounding almost muffled, as if heard through a thick cotton hood. It was hot. So hot it was hard to breath, one could almost ring sweat out of the air like a saturated cloth.
People were indoors, hiding from the heat. Benvolio and Mercutio were alone with a stray cat on the opposite side of the square. "I'm begging you, Mercutio, let's retire," Benvolio pleaded. "It's too hot for sanity and the Capulets are abroad in the streets. If we meet them there's sure to be a brawl. These hot days may boil a man's blood to madness."
Mercutio was sweating through his tunic, but cocked an eyebrow at his friend. "Go in to escape a fight? You are one of those infuriating men who, on entering a tavern, claps his sword upon the table and says, "God grant me no need of thee." But by the time he's on his second drink, he'd pull it on the bartender for no reason at all."
Benvolio rubbed a hand across his glistening brow. "Am I such a fellow?"
"Come, come," Mercutio said. "You are as hot a man as any in Italy, when the mood takes you."
The Montague cousin shrugged noncommittally. "What of it? You're as hot to fight as I, or more so."
Mercutio shook his head. "If there were two like you, we would shortly have none, for they would surely kill each other. You would fight a man who is cracking nuts, just because you have hazelnut eyes. What other eye but yours would look for a fight like that?"
Benvolio rolled his eyes expansively. "Were I so apt to quarrel as you, my life would not be worth a farthing. We both know, good friend, that it is you who seek the fights, and I who seek to end them."
Mercutio pretended to consider, and then grinned. "Mayhaps. But you must admit, money is foolish measure of a man's life."
Benvolio started to respond, and then his eyes widened, looking over Mercutio's shoulder. "Here come the Capulets!"
And indeed, swaggering across the square, warping and shimmering in the heat off the cobbles, came a band of young men, wearing the red livery of the Capulets. The leader of the pack broke away and approached, stocky and dark, easily recognized as Tybalt. There was malevolence in his stride and the arrogant tip of his chin, and open distain in his face.
"Good e'en gentlemen," he said, in a tone that belied the pleasantry. "I'd like a word."
"Just a word?" Mercutio called, voice ringing off the stucco walls and tile roofs. "Raise your stakes! Make it a word and a blow!"
Tybalt nodded insolently. "You will find me ready enough, sir, if you give me reason."
"Couldn't you find a reason without my giving it?" Mercutio asked archly.
"Good Mercutio," Tybalt began, "You consort with Romeo, do you not?"
"Consort? What do you take us for, minstrels? You would find our music harsh. Draw your sword, by god!"
Benvolio grabbed his friend by the back of his tunic. "We're in a public place," he hissed. "Either take this quarrel somewhere private and settle it with cool logic, or else just go away! Out here all eyes are on us."
"Men's eyes were meant to look," Mercutio said. "Let them see. I'll not budge for no man's pleasure, I."
"Peace be with you sir," said Tybalt, looking over Mercutio's shoulder. "Here comes my man."
Mercutio spun to see Romeo strolling toward them. He raised a hand in greeting, looking ridiculously happy, and Mercutio whirled back to face Tybalt. "I'll be hanged if he's your man," he spat.
But Tybalt ignored him, shouldering past and calling out to Romeo. "Romeo, the little love I bear you can afford no better term than this; thou art a villain."
"Tybalt," Romeo answered calmly, "The reason I have to love you excuses the rage I should feel at your greeting. Villain, I am not. You do not know me."
"All this pretty talk will not excuse the injuries you have done me," Tybalt growled. "Turn and draw!"
"I protest," Romeo said mildly. "I have never injured thee, in fact I love you more than you can imagine, for you know not the reasons for my love. And with that, good Capulet – a name I treasure as dearly as my own – be satisfied."
Mercutio was sputtering. "That's bloody bullshit," he finally exploded. "Vile, dishonorable submission! None of that!" His rapier sang, high and keen as he drew it from its sheath. "Tybalt, you rat catcher, fight me dammit!"
"What would you have of me?" Tybalt asked, eyes glittering as he turned on Mercutio at last.
"Not but one of your nine lives, King of Cats," Mercutio jeered, and spat at his feet. "Make haste, before I sheath in your belly."
The Capulet stiffened. "I am for you sir." He drew his sword smoothly, aiming it at Mercutio's breast.
Romeo grabbed at his best friend's arm. "Mercutio, good Mercutio, my friend, put your sword away."
Mercutio shook him violently off. His nerves were humming, buzzing with a kind of déjà vu like cicadas in long grass. A sense of inevitability crackled like electricity in the air, so thick he could taste it like the dust. Perhaps the dream was true. But perhaps he could change it.
He did not believe in fate.
The blades flashed in the sunlight, slow as quicksilver, swift as sight. Steel screeched and sang and showered sparks. Steel and sunlight, blinding bright. Mercutio grinned madly.
They circled each other, the only sounds their panting breath and the scrape of their feet on the cobbles. All other noises seemed muffled. The oven-hot air pressed against their ears like wet wool. Around them the circle of watching faces was blurred, unrecognizable. The only thing real was the duel.
Lunge, parry, strike and counterstrike. Metal met metal, parted and met, and screamed like dying stars.
"Stop, stop it, please stop!" Romeo was shouting. "The Prince forbid this, for shame gentlemen! Hold, Tybalt, good Mercutio, stop!"
Mercutio stepped back, disengaging, at the earnest urgency in his voice. He was breathing heavily, sweat dripping off him, grip slick on the leather hilt of his sword. He and Tybalt eyed each other warily, still circling slowly.
"Stop this," he said more gently, stepping between them.
Mercutio, watching Tybalts eyes, saw them narrow to evil slits, saw his arm flex, the sword being drawn up, glinting in the sunlight, and with all his strength he shoved Romeo aside, twisting in front of him so the sword blade buried itself deep in his gut.
He saw Tybalt's eyes widen slightly, and then felt a lurch in his belly as Tybalt yanked the sword free. It didn't hurt, not really, just felt… wrong, in a slightly sickening way.
Mercutio stumbled back, hands clamped over his stomach, feeling hot sticky liquid welling between them. He vaguely heard shouts and saw Tybalt fleeing with his cronies, heard Benvolio's frantic voice, but it barely registered because Romeo was holding him, supporting him, talking in his ear. "Are alright, are you hurt? Say something!"
Mercutio choked on a laugh. Was he hurt? His hands were slick with his own blood. "A scratch, a scratch." He hacked again, this time tasting blood in his throat. A lung gone then. "I'm done for," he added more quietly.
"No! No, courage, man," Romeo shook his shoulders. "The hurt can't be much."
Mercutio grunted. "Not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church door, but twill serve. Look for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man! Ha!" He coughed, body wracking, and this time spat scarlet on the cobbles. "A plague on both your houses," he mumbled, but there was no real rancor in it. Romeo was murmuring in his ear as if to a child, wordless comfort and consolation. His stomach was beginning to burn, a bright, throbbing pain, sharp as sunlight on steel, and liquid gurgled in his lungs on every breath, but it didn't matter, because Romeo was there, solid and warm, holding him, alive, alive, and that was what mattered, because he had saved him, and Romeo would live and prosper and it would be worth it, worth anything, and as he rested his head on Romeo's chest, the only thing in the world was the thump of his heartbeat as darkness bled into the daylight.