In Fair Verona
A/N: So this…was a thing. An ordeal of a thing.
I don't know if I achieved everything I wanted. In fact, I know I didn't, because I had meta-ed the hell out of this thing before I ran off to school, talking every angle of it out with jblostfan16 and breila-rose. A lot has happened between then and now, and some of the ideas we talked about slipped into the time stream. But there is a lot that remains the same; this ending, for instance, was one of the first parts I wrote.
I know that Verona lacks some things, like extensive world-building. And that's not laziness on my part; it's more that creating a unique world wasn't what this exercise was about. You want to see the world, watch William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet. You'll see the giant L'Amour sign, the Hawaiian shirts and pearl-handled guns. Pretend it's all a little more ragged, and you've got what I envision the dystopian Verona to be.
But what this story was and hopefully is about is this one boy at the center of the city; how and who he loves. We all have stories like that, and some of them end just as badly as this, but. They're still worth telling, and living.
The world is beautiful and terrible. Don't be afraid. Just breathe it in. 3
Kendall can't breathe.
He's trying; god, he's trying, but he can't. His lungs won't work, his mouth won't open, and he just can't inhale. He chokes on it, tries to suck down oxygen, but everything constricts. His nose is clogged with the cloying sweetness of flowers and the sizzle-burn of those electric crosses and he can't.
James's name is a scream caught in his throat; a sob that he can't quite get out.
There's this high, keening wail echoing in his ear drums. It takes him minutes of gasping, hiccupping breaths to realize; that broken thing, that wretched noise; it's coming from him.
"I can't," he gasps, and in the cold, empty church, his voice is in surround sound. "I can't, I can't, I can't."
James doesn't move. James doesn't take his hand and tell him that he can.
Without thinking about it, without thinking about anything other than the pale, bluish pallor of James's lips, Kendall fumbles for his gun.
He wants to die.
He thinks about how easy it would be, to lift the gun in his hand and end all of this. He'd be…wherever the hell James is now.
Maybe they'd even be happy.
That would be amazing, Kendall thinks. To be somewhere, some nirvana, where they would never have to worry about the hellscape outside Verona, about being persecuted. About keeping secrets that tear them both into tiny, shredded pieces.
In that place, bathed in light, Kendall thinks he'd finally find peace.
He remembers James's fingers fisted in orange-blue, the way he whispered that that moment between them was paradise, and chokes on another sob. He braces his hand with the gun against the side of James's memorial.
He can't die, because Kendall can't shake the notion that dead is just…dead.
If heaven exists, Kendall isn't ready to find out. Not even if James is waiting patiently at its pearly gates.
He falls to his knees, his fingers wrapped around the coolness of what was once James's arm. "I'm sorry," he says, and his voice sounds strangled and foreign. "I'm so sorry."
He inhales, he exhales, and then does it all over, trying his hardest to suck air into his lungs. This is how to keep living; one breath on the tail end of another, and again, and again.
Blood is roaring in his ears, and Kendall doesn't know what to do, but he sets his gun down. He won't end things this way. The world is beautiful, James said, and he would never forgive Kendall for giving that up.
He needs to find out what really happened. He needs to go to Logan.
All they have now is each other.
The thought makes him spiral, clutching at James like a child at their mother's arm.
He still smells like James Diamond. His hair is clean and perfectly arranged, his stupid leather pants and sword all in place. He's got on his favorite, filthy white v-neck tee, and he's here, he's perfect.
But he's gone.
Kendall sobs, because he can. Because Logan sleeps still, and Carlos is lost, and he will never, ever hear James's voice again.
How could any of this have happened?
They were princes, here. Favored by Arthur Griffin, protected by Camille Roberts, beloved by Mercedes, who was set to inherit the earth. One mistake, and everything tilted on its axis.
Except no, it wasn't a mistake. Kendall mouths soft, breathy kisses against James's cold cheek and knows with his bones that loving this boy could never have been a mistake.
"I'm sorry," he repeats.
He cries for what he's lost, and cries for what he's sure to find; a world that is cold and empty and sunless without his best friends. He cries for longer than he should, because Kendall knows when he leaves the church, his soul will stay here, tied to James, the way it always has been.
He'll walk the streets of Verona emptied of everything that made him real, and the world will still be cruelly beautiful. He will just have to fight so much harder to see it.
Climbing up onto the pedestal next to James's body, Kendall curls protectively around it.
He wishes and wishes, and wants, but there is no warmth. No heartbeat to meet his own. There is nothing, and in the end, when Kendall whispers, "I love you," into the back of James's neck, all it is are words, mumbled sorrowfully in an empty church.
They resonate back at him from every angle, from every pew, his own voice amplified. For the briefest of moments, Kendall pretends that it is James.
But the pretense is a punishment, because when the reverie breaks, there is only Kendall and a corpse that used to be a boy, bespoke for him.
In the rectory, Kendall watches, hollow-eyed, as Jo fusses over Logan's sleeping form. Bruises blacken the indent of his collarbone and the curvature of his cheeks. His skin is too pale, corpse-pale, and Kendall is certain there's more, beneath Logan's clothes, where he can't see.
"How is he?"
"Not great." Jo's eyes narrow. "Hawk's men did a number on him."
He croaks, "What happened?" because he's supposed to. Because Jo expects him to, and it doesn't really matter that Kendall no longer cares. What happened is incidental; the end results are all that matter.
Knowing won't breathe life back into James or Carlos's chests, or wake Logan up.
Knowing won't fix anything at all.
Jo's dark eyes flick to the left, the right. Anywhere except on Kendall. She's got pity written in every nook and cranny of her face.
Sadness too. Kendall's friends were hers once.
Vaguely, he remembers that; Jo at his side, laughing in a way that he can't imagine anymore.
Laughter in general isn't something Kendall can picture. He's too far beneath the waves of his own grief, numbly staring up at this girl who used to be something like the sun to him.
"Where do you want me to start?" She asks, heaving a sigh that rattles through her frame. She shifts her weight onto a chest of drawers, splintered wood and medical supplies sitting in disarray on the surface of the furniture. "You left."
"I was gone for a-" Kendall swallows. "For a month. How can all of this have happened in a month?"
He's begging, pleading, asking Jo to tell him that it isn't true.
She doesn't contradict the ludicrous nature of what's occurred. A single month, and two of his best friends are dead.
He can still feel the imprint of James's lips, red-hot against his skin.
Eyes burning, Kendall presses his palms to the sockets. He repeats, "How?" and even his voice is a specter of its former self.
Jo swallows. She's angry and miserable, frustrated that she wasn't able to do anything, and its written clear as day across her face. But Kendall doesn't care about that, can't handle her helplessness when he's struggling with his own.
"Within days of your departure…" She tapers off, like this is the last story she ever wants to tell. Kendall stays silent, goading her into continuing, "Hawk's men were exercising their right to investigate Dak's murder. Everyone knew you were guilty. It's the why of your culpability that held their interest."
It's his fault. Okay. That's.
Not something he can handle, honestly, even if he'd suspected it. Griffin was so cryptic; nothing he'd said made any sense. But he knew about Kendall and James. He had to have found out somehow. And that somehow probably has to do with why Logan is lying prone on this fucking slab in front of him, and maybe Kendall does want to know after all.
Maybe he wants to hear that if he hadn't gone after Dak, everything wouldn't have dissolved into shit. Maybe James would be standing next to him, holding his hand and telling him that everything would be okay.
He's the one to blame for all of this. Of course he is.
Kendall's freaking out. He knows that, intellectually, but he can't seem to stop.
Jo must see it on his face. She reaches for him, but she aborts the movement when she sees how Kendall flinches, like a dog kicked too many times.
"Tell me," he hisses, trying to work his way through the pain.
On the table, Logan stays too still. Too close to something resembling death.
"They took Logan and Carlos in for questioning. They tried to take James, too, I think, but you know him." Knew, Kendall's mind corrects, even as Jo says, "He had hidey-holes all over this city. He evaded Hawk's men like he was born to do it."
For the sparest of moments, Kendall can almost feel pride. It evaporates as quickly as it came, chased by bile that Kendall can taste.
Logan is, by far, the weakest link among his friends. But no matter what, he wouldn't betray the guys' trust. Unless something horrible happened.
"The riots were already spiraling out of control." Blanching, Jo says, "That's my fault. At least a little bit. I used what happened to Camille, and the doctor – have you heard about that? The woman they executed?" Jo begins to chew on her lower lip, murmuring, "No. I suppose you wouldn't have. My point is, things were bad, and Logan and Carlos? They weren't giving Hawk's men anything."
She hesitates, pushing a hand through her thick blonde hair. Her eyes dart to Logan, layered with sympathy. "That's when they came up with the idea to murder those men, from the cabaret. Carlos among them. I think…I think they could tell he was the strong one."
Hello, something horrible.
Kendall pushes back the revulsion, the rampant realization that Carlos's death too, is on him. Griffin implied as much, but this is confirmation from someone he trusts.
Everything that's happened, everything that he's lost; it's all his fault.
"After that, Logan broke. At least, that's what we think." She touches Logan's ankle, tentative, like he's made of glass. "It wasn't until a few after Carlos that the city-wide hunt for James began in earnest. They called him aberrant. They said that he, and you…" Jo is biting her lip raw, now. "James couldn't hide from all of Verona. We only got his body back from Hawk's men yesterday. Kendall, I'm so sorry."
Kendall doesn't answer. He touches Logan's shoulder, scared that he'll shatter apart under his fingertips.
Logan is the only real thing that Kendall has, anymore.
He imagines Griffin and Hawk know that.
"We'll have to get out of the city."
"You can't move him yet," Jo responds, hovering protectively over Logan's prone form. "He'll never make the trip. Besides, where are you going to go?"
"Somewhere new. Somewhere…I don't know." Kendall thinks of outside, of the monstrosities beyond the city walls, and how they compare to the monsters here, in Verona. "I have to think. I have to figure it out, and keep him safe."
"You have to keep yourself safe, too." This time, Jo doesn't retract her hand when she touches him, but he barely notices it. The only thing Kendall can actually feel in the entire room is Logan's skin under his palm. "Kendall-"
"I need some air," he says, shaking her off. He squeezes Logan's shoulder one more time, his other palm pushing Logan's bangs off his forehead. Kendall doesn't know how his best friend is going to survive this, even if he wakes up. He doesn't know how either of them will. "I need to breathe."
Jo takes a step back, ever-respectful.
She's right, he thinks, that the riots were her fault. Her and her underlings, spreading those stupid pamphlets, stirring up chaos. If they hadn't, Hawk wouldn't have needed a catalyst to subdue the city, and…
Carlos still would have died, Kendall thinks.
Hawk would have killed him either way. The upheaval only gave him the excuse to execute all those other poor men alongside him.
Kendall knows better than to blame this on Jo.
He kisses Logan's cheek, once, whispering, "Hang in there."
Then, before he leaves the rectory, he hugs Jo.
Tight, like a goodbye.
Outside, the fog is dissipating, mid-afternoon sunlight piercing the melancholia of Verona's still-wet streets.
Kendall doesn't bother with the hood of his sweatshirt, some small, suicidal part of him unconcerned about whether he'll be struck down where he stands. He presses a palm to his chest, and he can feel his heartbeat, and it is strong, and it feels nothing like broken.
He's alive, he's alive. James is gone, but he's still alive. Kendall pulls air into his mouth, trying to remind himself that James would want that, would want him to live, to chase one breath after another, no matter how hard it gets.
The rain-wet scent of stone and soaked earth mingle with the green richness of mold, and distantly, wind-carried brine, jacaranda, and eucalyptus. James loved days like this; sinking his toes into the damp sand, watching the ocean spray fly as the shy sun slowly baked the world back to normal.
At the thought of the way he would smile out at the sea, Kendall's heart constricts. He's back there, in the church, where light will never touch James's skin again. He'll be buried in the bowels of the cathedral; Jo had assured him.
He'll have a real resting place instead of being left to rot.
Like Carlos, Kendall thinks, and he has to shut that thought down as quickly as it comes.
This place, Verona, it gave and it stole. It was never a kind city, but Kendall can't force himself to wish he'd never brought his friends here.
If he hadn't, he wouldn't have drunk champagne on top of burnt out cars with Camille. He wouldn't have walked through the fetid rows of herbs in Doc Hollywood's apothecary, the only place Logan really shone.
He never would have fallen into Mercedes's arms, and maybe, if he hadn't, James wouldn't have been brave enough to confess how he felt.
Of course, if Kendall had never come to Verona, so many more people would be alive.
Sea salt scratches at Kendall's throat. He's overwhelmed by it all, by the things he can change and the things he can't. He doesn't know how to do this, to live, without James and Carlos by his side.
But for Logan's sake, and for his own, he squeezes his hands into fists, ready to try.
"You thought you were king of the world. Engaged to Mercedes Griffin, working for Rocque Records. Look at you now." The voice carries from the bottom of the church steps, malicious and taunting.
Jett Stetson is staring balefully up at him, like Kendall personally broke every toy he had and then took away his dessert.
The blaze of his blue eyes is matched by the patchwork of sky emerging from the clouds, and Kendall never really understood what he did- other than exist - to make this guy hate him.
"Now really isn't the time," Kendall tells him. He hopes the brushoff will work, even though he's got a creeping suspicion that there's a bounty on his head, and Jett knows it.
"There won't be another, Knight." Jett begins making his way up the steps, his movements slow and methodical. He's a lion, stalking his prey, and he doesn't give a damn that Kendall's not in the mood. "This is your last stand."
"What, you're going to bring me to Griffin?" Kendall asks.
"I'm going to break you. Just like I did to your little friend."
"You were there?"
"Hawk's men let me help them work, with Mitchell," Jett says, smugly. He's at the plateau Kendall's on now, mere feet away. Too proud, he continues, "I'm the one who brought your James in. I roughed him up a little first. How's he doing now? I hear he had a little brush with the afterlife."
"Shut your fucking mouth."
Kendall's shaking, furious. If Jett brought James to Hawk, that means that he's directly responsible for the corpse in the church.
The only thing that keeps him from throwing himself at the other man is the memory of Dak's blood on his hands, and how that started all of this.
"I'd ask you to make me, but you might take it the wrong way."
The accusation is lascivious, the implication that Kendall would ever do anything like that with Jett disgusting. Icily, he replies, "Disabuse yourself from that particular delusion. You're not my type."
Jett's face darkens. "When I heard you were back in Verona, I thought; surely he can't be so stupid. I underestimated you."
"And I overestimated you," Kendall retorts, fueled by rage. "I figured you had a soul."
His temper won't stay in check long, and he can see that Jett knows it. That he's waiting for it.
This won't end well.
"You're beneath me," Jett says. "You and your friends walked around Verona like you were somehow better than the system, better than the city-"
"We were," Kendall snarls, hatred in his bones. "We were so much better than you."
Jett cocks an eyebrow. "Look where that got you. How is Logan, by the way? He squealed like a stuck pig. We only had to break three of his ribs."
Kendall lunges for him then, the visceral image of Logan in pain caught in the web of his mind.
He's going to tear Jett apart with his bare hands, or he would, if Jett didn't draw a dagger in response. The silver tip of the thing flashes ominously, Jett waving it in a drunken zigzag through the air.
If it lands, Kendall doesn't feel it.
"Bastard," he grits out, the air punched from his lungs.
He stumbles back to avoid Jett's brazen movement, trying to sight a new angle of attack. His holster weighs heavy at his arm, but when Kendall reaches for his gun, it's gone.
He left it in the church, he numbly recalls. He left it there, the Virgen de Guadalupe face-up, to guard James as he rests.
He vaguely remembers thinking that she is supposed to look out for lost causes.
Now, that's him.
Jett swipes to the left, and Kendall stumbles over his own feet trying to dodge. His sneakers skid across the steps, losing his footing too quickly.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpses something white and gold.
Kendall flails his arms, a sharp pain in his side, and for the briefest of moments he thinks that maybe Jett grazed him, before he lands with an undignified oof.
"Look at you," Jett says, looming over him. The knife is fisted in his hand, a thin line of ominous gray below his too-white knuckles. "Right where you belong."
Kendall thinks of James, cold and still, inside the church. Paradise, James had said, right there in Verona, in the spaces between their shared breath.
"You thought you'd made it, here," Jett sneers, "You thought you could be something better? I'll show you what you've made."
He raises the knife high, silhouetted by the sun.
Kendall closes his eyes shut, not wanting Jett Stetson to be the last thing he ever sees. He counts his breaths, one after another, all for James, every second of it, this inexplicable tightness in his sternum-
There's a wet thud, and then Jett falls to his knees, eye-to-eye with Kendall now, and it makes no sense at all.
Blood burbles over the cleft of his lips, and Jett says, "I wasn't expecting that."
He slumps to the side, a ruby-hilted knife sticking out of his back, right around where his left kidney would have been. Behind Jett, Mercedes stands, still wearing a tight, white dress, the cloth flecked with her victim's blood.
"Good riddance," she says, brusque and breezy. "He talked too much."
Kendall gapes. "Where do you keep that knife?"
Mercedes shrugs. "It's Verona. You never know when you're going to need something sharp and pointy."
He'd have a witty retort to that, probably, if his mind wasn't scrambled and his blood wasn't dripping on the church steps.
As it is, Kendall staggers to his feet, trying to make his way towards her, one step, then a second, and-
"Whoa there. You've looked better, Green Eyes."
"I don't feel- um." Kendall falters, dropping to his knees.
Mercedes, quicksilver fast, catches him before he can concuss himself against the stone.
She's stronger than she looks, manhandling Kendall down until his head rests in her lap. She runs her fingers over Kendall's abdomen, searching, until she finds something that makes her expression go black. "Kendall-"
"Don't," he whispers, remember how he felt like Jett had punched him on that first, wild swing. "I don't want to know."
"It's bad." She shows him her fingertips, stained with blood. Her voice comes out trembling, terrified. "Kendall, it's really-"
He shakes his head as adamantly as he can. It barely musses Mercedes's white dress. "Where did you come from?"
"I followed him here." Her gaze drifts to Jett, imperious, furious. "He was part of the team that interrogated Logan. When Daddy told him you were in the city, I knew he was going to chase you down. And he knew – we all did, that you'd be here." More gently, she says, "I tried to stop them. I tried, and no one listened. I couldn't get to James until- well."
"Why didn't you call?" Kendall chokes out. "Why didn't you tell me they had my friends?"
"I didn't know. Daddy kept it from me, right up until they began hunting James." Mercedes's face darkens, there in the shadow of the church steeple. "It seems like a lot of people have lied to me, lately."
Kendall asks, "Are you mad? That I wasn't in love with you?"
"I don't know," Mercedes says softly, but her tone has a mocking edge, "Are you mad that I wasn't in love with you?" Her shoulders slump as she gives into to what Kendall wants, touches his face, his clavicle, his heart. She leaves a bloody imprint on his chest, but Kendall can only see the tips of it. He refuses to look down. "We had fun. How could I ever be mad about that?"
"I don't want you to hate me," he says, and he's not even sure if he's making sense.
"I could never." She smoothes a hand through his hair, her fingers on his scalp hothothot. Or maybe Kendall is just coldcoldcold. "I'm too young to get married. We both are."
Kendall thinks about how he probably would have jumped headfirst into marriage if it had been the right person, if it had been-
"Don't look at me like that," Mercedes scolds. "My heart will go on, etcetera etcetera etcetera."
She's trying to distract him, he knows. Because even with the fierceness, tears are tracking freely down Mercedes's face. She's sniffling, now, deep, snotty breaths, and Kendall doesn't want all that.
He doesn't want to cause anyone grief.
He knows he can't help that, though. He says, "Logan's never going to forgive himself for this."
Mercedes snorts. "Great, another reason for him to be so uptight."
Her voice is quieter than normal, less squeaky, more serious. Kendall glances at his own blood stained hands, the mere effort to lift them exhausting. "It's not his fault. He's been hurt so much. He's not as strong as he used to be."
"Did I say anything about blaming him?"
"Can you- would you…?"
"What?" Mercedes touches Kendall's face, tilting his gaze back towards her. "Anything, Kendall. Anything you want."
"Take care of him. Please? For me? He's so fragile. The world was…too much. This will break him."
"I'll keep him safe. I'll protect him," Mercedes swears.
It comforts him somehow, the idea of Mercedes and Jo, looking after Logan. They'll keep him safe, together, because they are some of the fiercest, bravest women Kendall knows. Each in their own way, to be sure, but both made of iron, at their core.
Kendall smiles and wonders if there is blood in his teeth.
The wind gusts over the church steps, tousling Mercedes's hair. It is a shining blonde halo. She's an angel, Kendall's guardian, outlined by the electric blue sky.
He says, "You're so beautiful."
Mercedes's hand cradles his cheeks. She's burning, blazing, her heat too much for him to take as all of his slips away.
She says, "So are you. So was James."
"So was James," Kendall agrees.
He closes his eyes, an image of James's hair shining in the sunlight, his sweet smile flashing lightning quick through Kendall's mind before everything fades to black.