The Beginning after the End
by Sandrine Shaw

Mercutio is a man of many pleasures: the rich taste of wine, the soft touch of women, the art of poetry, the company of his friends, lavish feasts that leave him sated and hungry for more at the same time. Yet nothing makes him feel as alive as he does when he spars with Tybalt. By all means, the never-ending exchange of taunts and insults should have got old by now - they've been at this since they were mere boys - but, if anything, the satisfaction Mercutio gains from their clashes has intensified over the years.

He thrives on the knowledge that even after all this time, he can get under Tybalt's skin like this, make him bristle with loathing and tension until he blows up at Mercutio and the two of them end up chasing each other through the streets of Verona like two wild dogs, fists and insults flying back and forth until one of them retreats - or, more frequently, someone steps between them and forces them apart.

If Mercutio is honest with himself (and he is, most of the time - he prefers to reserve his lies for his friends and the good people of Verona), the chance of provoking Tybalt into a fight is his main, if not his only reason for all his reckless manners and his outrageous behaviour these days. Like attending a ball at the house of Capulet, where he knows he's unwanted because he's a Montague in anything but in name. So he goes, his friends in tow, and he makes sure that Tybalt notices him, bumping into him on the dance floor, throwing him a quick dirty grin before stepping out of reach and blowing him a taunting kiss from the distance. Tybalt, of course, gets flustered and angry, as he always does. He's predictable that way, though Mercutio wouldn't dare to complain because he's savouring that sort of reaction far too much. He relishes the chance of stepping into Tybalt's space until he's close enough to feel the other man's breath on his sweat-slick skin and whisper another insult into his ear, delighted when Tybalt's eyes go dark with fury.

This is always going to be his favourite game.

Romeo, the fool, ruins it all. He ruins everything, with his self-importance and his stubbornness and the ridiculous notion that he can love sweet little Juliet Capulet and not bring disaster upon all of them.

But even dying and cursing his friend's name, Mercutio knows that he's been a fool as well.

When he saw Tybalt on the prowl, edging for a fight and asking for Romeo of all people, telling Mercutio to stay out of it, he was jealous. All that anger, and for once it wasn't directed at him. He hated it. Romeo could have the affection of all the women of Verona for all he cared, Romeo could be Benvolio's favourite confidant - but Tybalt's hatred and his rage, that was supposed to be Mercutio's.

So he did what he did best, he insulted and pushed and pushed, until he was sure he and Tybalt were locked in the same old violent pas de deux, underestimating Tybalt's new-found loathing for Romeo, and Romeo's preposterous desire for peace.

He knows that Tybalt's knife wasn't meant for him, knew it before he watched his old adversary's expression change from amusement to stark horror. For all their promises of mutual destruction, the countless "I will kill you"s, Mercutio never wanted to see Tybalt dead, and from the way the other man's eyes are almost comically wide with shock, the same thing was true for him.

It's almost funny, and Mercutio is tempted to throw a mocking "I didn't know you cared"at Tybalt. But when he opens his mouth, all that will come out is a cough and a mouthful of blood.

He feels his strength fading fast, and the pain in his side makes him light-headed. The horror spreads on Romeo's face above him like a disease, slow and unstoppable. He tries to smile to reassure his friend, but his features won't comply.

He's dying, he realises. He's dying, and he still feels the bruising pressure of Tybalt's taunting kiss on his lips, a phantom ache that's almost more painful than the sting of Tybalt's knife. There's something profoundly wrong with that thought, Mercutio thinks, before the world spins into darkness.

His first thought when he opens his eyes is that there is an angel hovering above him, the sweetest face surrounded by a white halo.

When his vision clears, he realizes that it's a nun, whose face is taking a stern expression now that she's aware that he has awakened.

"You must rest," she tells him. "Your wounds are still healing."

Mercutio's throat is sore and aches when he speaks, and he has to cough before the words will come. "How long have I been here?"

"A fortnight. You were lucky, both you and your friend. Your injuries were grave. We did not expect you to wake again."

He wonders what friend she is referring to, if Tybalt had the nerve to attack Romeo again, despite the disastrous result of his first attempt. Before he can ask, though, he feels unconsciousness taking hold of him again.

The following day brings the prince to his bedside. He stands stiffly, and even though he seems genuine enough when he tells Mercutio that he's glad that he lives, there is so much anger and accusation buried beneath the sentiment that Mercutio can't miss it.

"I'm glad I live too, uncle," he replies with a smile. But the joke falls flat and the prince leaves as hurriedly as he came.

Neither Romeo nor Benvolio come to visit him.

He has asked the nuns who change his bandages and clean his wound if Romeo is with them as well, but they only shake their head and go on with their duties. He imagines that Romeo is too busy entertaining his Capulet bride, then.

He tries not to be hurt by his friends' open rejection, but how could he not?

After days and days of lying uselessly in his bed, devoid of company and cursing everyone he knows, when the nuns finally allow him to stand and take a few steps on his own, Mercutio drags himself through the corridors into the courtyard.

Tybalt is the last person he expects to see, sitting on a bench in the sunlight with a gloomy expression on his face.

Despite everything, Mercutio breaks into a grin. "Tybalt, my old friend, coming to visit me? You shouldn't have!"

As he turns towards Mercutio, Tybalt's face darkens further. But beneath the frown and the glower, there's something else, barely noticeable for anyone who doesn't know the man as well as Mercutio does: stark relief, quickly and effectively masked, but written all over his face if you knew where to look. It belies the words he spits at Mercutio.

"I should have known a cockroach like you would survive anything," he says, and Mercutio's grin widens.

Familiar ground, at least.

"Clearly, you're not as good with the knife as you claimed you were, Tybalt. As always, you disappoint."

He expects a quick retort, but when Tybalt's jaw clenches and he averts his eyes, it doesn't look like he's angry, and Mercutio feels the absurd notion that he said something he shouldn't have. It makes no sense, for all he did was throw Tybalt's own words back at him: "You won't feel a thing, I'm good with a knife, Mercutio, you're going to die," which turned out to be not one lie but three. Mercutio wants to tell him that, but the mood is different from what he expected it to be; there's suddenly all this guilt and gloom and bitterness where there should be only hot-headed anger and the clever cut-and-thrust of words. It feels wrong, and it throws Mercutio off-balance.

"I know you weren't..." He feels the need to make this stalemate between them go away, but he doesn't know the words, never having engaged in any conversation with Tybalt that didn't contain insults and scorn. He coughs and tries again. "I know you didn't mean to stab me. If Romeo hadn't come between usラ It doesn't matter. Nothing happened. I will have a pretty scar I shall impress all the girls with, so there's no need to be all doom and gloom about it."

And there, at least, is a flash of genuine anger.

Tybalt reaches for a pair of crutches lying by his feet and stands on shaky legs, and Mercutio is still wondering what has happened to him (he's certain he did not injure Tybalt in the fight, not beyond a few bruises and insults that cut at his ego) when Tybalt wobbles over to him. Despite the unsteadiness of his step, he still seems intimidating, even now, and Mercutio feels his body react to it, blood starting to boil in his veins and excitement making his mouth go dry.

"You're a fool, Mercutio," Tybalt spits. "How can you stand here and grin that stupid grin of yours and tell me nothing happened when it was our fight that set everything in motion? You and me, we did this. Their blood is on our hands. On my hands."

He takes a step back and, as quickly as his crutches allow him, makes his way past Mercutio, as if his presence alone is enough to sicken him and he can't stand it for even a moment longer.

"Wait," Mercutio shouts after Tybalt and rushes to catch up with him. Luckily, Tybalt's injury is slowing him down considerably, whereas Mercutio's only hurts like blazes but doesn't stop him from walking fast. "Whose blood? What on earth are you talking about?"

Tybalt stares at him. "You don't know," he finally says, and Mercutio rolls his eyes.

"Of course I don't know. No one tells me anything. Romeo hasn't come to see me at all and neither has Benvolio, and the nuns say nothing except tell me all the things I mustn't do because I'm oh-so-gravely injured."

Tybalt looks white as a sheet at once, and Mercutio wonders if it's the wound or something he said. When Tybalt speaks, his voice is barely more than a whisper. "You stupid fool," he chides, but the words lack the derision they imply. They sound as tired and horrified as the look Tybalt bestows upon him. "He's dead. Your friend Romeo is dead, and so is Juliet."

And just like that, Mercutio's world shatters.

He hears it all, eventually, from Tybalt and later from Benvolio who comes to see him the next afternoon, looking like a shadow of himself and leaving as soon as he told the story and conveyed his good wishes.

Mercutio wails and he curses the world and God and the Montagues and Capulets, and he tries to hit Tybalt, who pushes him away with surprising strength for an injured man.

The nuns appear and pull them apart, leading Mercutio back to his room with accusing eyes and stern words neither of which he has the patience for. His best friend is dead. His best friend is dead because he avenged him, Mercutio, and the bitter irony is that Mercutio lived and Romeo died. His best friend is dead because Mercutio couldn't let pass the chance to get into a fight with Tybalt. His best friend is dead because Mercutio was reckless and jealous and obsessed with having Tybalt's attention focused entirely on him.

It's a sobering train of thought, and one that keeps him awake at night. He wants to blame his insomnia on the throbbing pain in his side, but it seems that having stood at death's doorway makes Mercutio even less prone to denial than he was before he almost died.

Knowing he won't be able to find any sleep tonight, he pushes the blood-stained bedcovers off and stands.

He finds Tybalt's room faster than he expected - it turns out there's only half a corridor between them. He enters without knocking and isn't surprised to find Tybalt as wide awake as Mercutio himself.

Tybalt smiles humourlessly. "Come to get some vengeance, Mercutio? Better take it now when I won't be able to fight back properly." But the challenge is half-hearted at best, and it would make Mercutio laugh if he wasn't mourning his friend.

"I just wanted some company, that's all," he says. For old time's sake, he adds, "Even if it's yours."

He half-expects Tybalt to send him away or laugh in his face, but when neither happens Mercutio cautiously crosses the room and heavily flops down next to him. They just sit there in silence for the rest of the night, not speaking.

The silence is comforting, which Mercutio finds odd because comfort is not something he has ever associated with Tybalt before.

Verona is a changed place when Mercutio is finally allowed to return from the sanctuary of the convent. There's an eerie stillness in the streets where there used to be laughter and brawling, and people walk with their heads bowed and their faces grave, as if they were attending a never-ending funeral.

When at first he sees a young man from the Capulet clan engrossed in quiet, unagitated conversation with a Montague, he almost rushes towards them and shakes them, but he soon realises that no one else seems to take offense, so he quickly carries on with his own business. On Sunday, he catches a glimpse of the Ladies Capulet and Montague, both dressed in black, leaving Pater Lorenzo's church side by side.

Decades of feuding seem to have vanished at once, too sudden for Mercutio to grasp, even if he's aware how high the price has been.

In fact, in the midst of the recent reconciliation between the families, the only person everyone seems to avoid is Mercutio himself, the man whose almost-death set all this in motion and who didn't even have the decency to die in the end. Even Benvolio has barely spoken a word to him since Mercutio's return, and Mercutio can't tell if his friend is merely too absorbed in his grief or if blaming Mercutio for what came to pass is what's making him keep his distance.

In this strange new world, Mercutio feels like an outsider, lost and alone and frustrated, and the anger builds up until something has to give.

So he does what he's always done when he's been spoiling for a fight: he finds Tybalt. It's a habit that's nigh impossible to break - even now, even after everything.

He's half-afraid that he'll find Tybalt the same as he last saw him, quiet and morose and unwilling to rise to his bait. But he needn't have worried.

When he tracks down Tybalt, it's in a tavern in the seedier part of the city. He's already half-drunk when Mercutio walks in, his entrance making Tybalt's eyes light up and his hands clench into fists, and Mercutio knows that he'll get his fight.

"Are you courting death, Mercutio? Do you need a memory refresh of what happened the last time you challenged me?"

Mercutio smiles crookedly. "You're so drunk even my mother could beat you. I could take you down without breaking into a sweat."

There's an answering grin on Tybalt's face.

"Why don't you try, you inbred buffoon," he scoffs, and then he's out of his seat and his fist comes flying at Mercutio.

They fall back into their old dance easily, insults and blows raining down on each other, and it's violent and glorious, and Mercutio feels alive for the first time in weeks, even when there's blood running down from where his lip has been split and a particularly well-placed blow from Tybalt hits the exact spot where his wound had only just healed.

Tybalt grabs him and smashes him face-first onto a table, and Mercutio laughs through the pain, tears stinging his eyes.

The innkeeper is suddenly between them, pulling Tybalt away and shouting for them to stop, threatening to call the prince's guard and report them. "Kill each other if you want to, but not within my walls."

Mercutio staggers up and takes a mocking bow. "Your wish is our command, good sir, we shall continue outside then, if you will."

"I don't give a fuck," the man yells. "Just get the hell out of here and don't return."

Tybalt laughs, reaching out and grabbing Mercutio by the back of his neck, dragging him outside. The fresh cool air hits Mercutio in the face like a slap and he would have fallen down if Tybalt wasn't forcing him along.

When he's steady on his feet again, he tries to free himself from the other man's grip, but Tybalt will have none of it, pulling him into a back alley, where he finally lets him go and pushes him away like a rabid, unwanted dog. Mercutio stumbles backwards until his back hits a wall, and he rests heavily against it and catches his breath.

It's dark, the dim moonlight making it hard to see anything that's more than a couple of feet away. He can see Tybalt, though, can see the bleeding cut on his cheek, the tousled blond hair, the way his eyes gleam when he steps closer.

"Do you like getting hurt, Mercutio?" Tybalt taunts him. "Is that why you keep coming back for more?"

Mercutio chuckles, but even he can hear that there's an edge of madness in it. He surges forward, pushing himself away from the wall, and presses his lips to Tybalt's. It's meant to be payback in kind: the same sort of mocking kiss that Tybalt gave him that fateful afternoon when he thought Mercutio was only pretending to be gravely injured. Just a punishing press of lips against lips, not even a real kiss, a different kind of gauntlet thrown.

That's not what happens, though. Mercutio's mouth is on Tybalt's, and then Tybalt's lips open under his, and Mercutio doesn't break away like he'd planned but deepens the kiss instead. And suddenly, it's just that: a real, proper kiss, hungry and violent and still a challenge, but so much more yet. Tybalt's hands claw at Mercutio's clothes, and Mercutio's fingers tangle in Tybalt's hair, and it isn't until they need to come up for air that they break away.

When they do, they stare at one another, both equally shocked - and for a moment, it could go either way: erupt into the familiar kind of violence again, blows and insults, or find a different outlet.

Tybalt laughs softly, scornfully, and Mercutio braces for a blow or a kick, and is almost surprised when instead, Tybalt closes the remaining distance between them and starts pulling at the fastenings of his breeches.

His mouth is on Mercutio's again, all unyielding lips and careless teeth. It stings like needles where Mercutio's lip is already cut and bleeding, but he couldn't mind less.

Their clothes come off more slowly than Mercutio would have liked, but at last they're naked - or naked enough, anyway - and when Tybalt presses Mercutio's body into the wall with his own, their cocks rub against one another, and the sensation is enough to make Mercutio release a mewling, broken cry that would have shamed him under different circumstances.

Tybalt takes him like this, Mercutio's back chafing uncomfortably against the rough stone wall, his legs wrapped tightly around Tybalt's hips, his head bowed forward and resting against Tybalt's shoulder, and his hands leaving finger-shaped bruises all over Tybalt's body.

He comes with the other man's name on his lips.

When they pull apart, neither of them speaks or even so much as looks at the other.

He doesn't seek Tybalt out afterwards, nor does he run into him anywhere on the streets. Verona is by no means a small town, but Mercutio knows Tybalt too well to think their lack of encounters is a coincidence.

Part of him wants to go and find Tybalt, but for once he's too much of a coward to do so.

Life goes on. He writes sad poetry, he drinks wine that tastes like water, he has half-hearted conversations with Benvolio without his former friend's eyes ever meeting his, he beds women who don't give him any satisfaction beyond empty, perfunctory release, and he goes to feasts that feel more like wakes than revelries.

What he misses most - beyond the camaraderie and the joy and the feeling of being king of the world, beyond Romeoeven - is how alive the battle of wits with Tybalt made him feel. Now he feels dead inside, half-guilty to be alive, half-guilty not to be living properly as long as he has the chance.

He resigns himself to the fact that it will always be like this, from now on.

It's Tybalt who comes to him, weeks later, when Mercutio has all but given up hope that he'll ever see the other man again.

One morning, Tybalt stands in his bedroom as Mercutio wakes up, casually leaning against the doorframe like he owns the place. Mercutio runs a tired hand over his face and tries to hide a smile by pretending to yawn. Next to him in the bed, the whore he brought home last night stirs. When he pokes her with his foot and tells her to get out, she raises a fuss about her payment.

Tybalt watches, amused, and Mercutio can feel a hot flush rising to his cheeks.

"I didn't know you had to pay for those kinds of service these days, Mercutio. Didn't you once pride yourself on being a ladies' man?"

Mercutio rises from his bed, naked, and shoves some money at the girl, before pushing her out of the door. As soon as she's gone, he turns to Tybalt. "I didn't have to pay for your services, did I? Which I suppose makes you cheaper than any common whore."

He knows that the smile on his lips is most likely taking at least part of the sting out of his words, but he doesn't care. If Tybalt is offended and wants a fight, he'll get it. But if he isn't, Mercutio wouldn't mind either if they rolled around in the sheets in a different kind of tumble; maybe he'd even prefer it.

Tybalt laughs. "You couldn't afford me anyway, so it was more like a charity fuck."

He's close enough to kiss, so that's what Mercutio does.

"A man with your past should commit to charity more often, to atone for his countless sins," he mutters against Tybalt's mouth. When Tybalt pushes him away, he stumbles backwards, coming to rest spread out on the bed. Tybalt follows him, climbing on top of him until he's straddling him and for an uncomfortable moment Mercutio is reminded of the moment after Tybalt's knife had struck him. Even when Tybalt bends down to steal another kiss from his lips, it's still almost like déjà-vu. But the kiss is different - different, in fact, to all the kisses they've shared. It could almost be called tender, if it was anyone but them, and Mercutio finally feels the tension seep out of his body.

Afterwards, he expects Tybalt to leave, and is surprised when he doesn't, when he lies back on the mattress next to him and doesn't edge away from where their bodies are still touching.

For a moment, he feels almost content.

When Tybalt speaks, though, his words pull the ground from under Mercutio's feet.

"I'm leaving Verona." He doesn't look at Mercutio when he tells him.

Mercutio swallows the onslaught of feelings: anger and despair and hatred and a tidal wave of loneliness. The truth is, he's been so used to hating and wanting and needing Tybalt in equal measure, he cannot even imagine Verona without him, doesn't know what it'll do to him. He forces himself to nod and remain stone-faced.

"Do as you wish," he says, and he almost succeeds at keeping the bitterness out of his voice. "I'm glad to see the last of you. But hey, no hard feelings, eh? I wish you all the best."

He stands quickly and gathers his clothes, but Tybalt's laughter stops him and for a moment he wishes he had a knife at hand that he could sink deep into Tybalt's black, unfeeling heart.

"You really are too stupid to live, aren't you? I'm asking you to come with me, moron."

Mercutio stills. "What are you saying?"

"There is nothing here for either me or you. They hate us, every single one of them, the sad lot." A wicked smile flicks across his face. "And we've always hated them. So why stay? What keeps you here?"

Mercutio's heart is racing a mile a minute when he thinks about what Tybalt is proposing.

"Well, I suppose you'd get bored without me," he says. "So why not? It's not like I have anything better to do."

He tries to make it sound nonchalant, like he's making the decision on a whim, but he can't quite hold back the grin on his face.

Tybalt stares at him, then slowly his mouth twitches into a smile.