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Cats and Dreams

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Ah, what a dreadful, dreadful evening.

Juliet looked up into the starry sky and sighed dejectedly. Obviously, someone up in the Heavens held some terrible grudge against her. Earlier that evening she made a wish to meet someone special at the masquerade, and now, a couple of hours later, here she was wishing she’d never have to attend another social gathering in her life.

To start off the party, Tybalt got into a fight with some masked guests at the entrance, claiming they were members of the Montague clan. Two broken tables and four traumatized servants later Juliet’s father, having finally lost his temper, ordered the guards to kick both arguing sides out on the street to cool their heads.

The rest of the evening blurred into one absurd picture in Juliet’s head, but she did remember fruitlessly trying to disengage herself from Countess Paris’ clutches, that part was hard to forget. And at one point Juliet recalled her father, his face a truly Capulet shade of red, standing menacingly in front of her, telling her to go back to the dance floor and give her suitor one more chance. And she was bawling that the suitor was too clingy and her breath smelled bad, and that she didn’t like this party anymore. And that was before she ran into mother kissing some tall masked man underneath the stairs…

The sound of footsteps echoed outside the door. Seized by a wave of panic, Juliet ran into the room, grabbed her bedside chair and jammed it underneath the door handle. The trick worked for the heroine of the novel she’d read once, when her family came to marry her off to the main villain, so it would better work for her as well.

There was a knock on the door.

“Milady?”

The Nurse. That wasn’t so bad. And then the door handle started shaking violently.

“Juliet, what- have you locked yourself in? Open this door right now!”

Oh no, that was mother.

“What is it?” Juliet wailed. “ I’m busy- I mean, I’m sleeping!”

“Lying is a mortal sin, Juliet! I can see the light underneath your door! Now open up, Paris wants to have a word with you!”

Good Lord, how many of them were there? And what more could the Countess possibly want from her, given that she has already talked off Juliet’s ear and danced both of her feet off during the ball? Juliet tried clamping her hands over her ears to block out the shouting, but it did no good. This really was turning into that scene from that novel. Except in that story the heroine had the luxury of summoning a friendly dragon and riding off into a sunset, when all attempts to negotiate with the family have failed.

She ran back onto the balcony and the sight of an empty street made her heart sink. Not a single dragon anywhere in sight. Two stray cats were singing serenades on top of the ivy-covered wall, but upon noticing her they too scrambled off into the night. Well, so much for fairy-tales and romance…

“Hey, what’s going on up there?”

Wait, was that Tybalt’s voice? Yes, there she was, her up-to-no-good cousin, standing right below the balcony hands planted firmly on her hips, still wearing her white masquerade costume, which contrasted so sharply with her bright-red tresses.

“Juliet?” her voice was more concerned now. “What’s wrong?”

Juliet’s mouth opened before she even had the time to formulate a proper response: “Oh Tybalt, you wouldn’t believe this! Father’s been trying to make me dance with a dragon- I mean, with Countess Paris the whole evening! And you hear that shouting? The ball is over, but they still won’t leave me alone! Can you go inside and tell them to cut it out?”

Tybalt’s eyes narrowed. She hissed something between her teeth, but Juliet couldn’t catch what it was.

“Well, you see, according to your father, I’m banned from entering the doors of this house for the night,” Tybalt was now giving the ivy-covered wall next to Juliet’s window a calculating look. “But then again, there are always other ways to enter.”

With this she started climbing the ivy-covered wall next to Juliet’s window. And in a couple of smooth moves she was already balancing on top of it. Despite the tense situation, Juliet couldn’t suppress a smile. For as long as she remembered, her cousin could climb the tallest trees, ease her way through holes in fences, dodge blows, fall and land right on her feet with effortless feline grace. It was always a pleasure watching her move. Well, except that one day, when her mother strapped her into a dress, but according to Tybalt that incident never happened…

Meanwhile, the voices behind the door were becoming more urgent. There were probably several servants there now, and someone was suggesting they break down the door.

“So, how many of them are back there?” Tybalt sounded almost casual, as she swung her legs over the balcony aisle.

Now that Juliet got a closer look at her cousin, she noticed that her costume wasn’t pristine white anymore. She must have been taken part in one nasty brawl, and was sporting dirt stains on both of her knees, and some blood speckles on her jacket-sleeve. She was trying to brush them off now, but it wasn’t really helping.

“I think, at least four. Why?”

Tybalt looked up and whistled, “Not bad. I wonder how many of them are armed. That rosy twat that calls herself a Countess doesn’t look like she could fight to save her life.”

How many of them are what? Suddenly, it dawned on Juliet how her cousin intended to resolve this situation.

“Fight? No, we can’t possibly fight them off-”

“Oh don’t worry, my knife and I will do all the dirty work. You just be a good girl and stay behind us.”

If there was ever anything that Juliet found annoying, it was when Tybalt talked about her dagger as if it had a spirit of its own. Somewhere in the back of her mind Juliet suspected that the blade had a human name, but when confronted her cousin usually denied such accusations.

“Tybalt, I swear, I’ll throw your knife off the balcony, if you don’t keep it sheathed!” – Juliet hoped her tone sounded menacing enough. “Can you imagine what mother would say, if you were to start waving that thing in front of her?”

Tybalt’s face fell at those words. She fingered the engravings on the knife hilt gloomily, as if soothing the blade after it’s been denied action. Apparently, running headfirst into battle was the only plan she had in mind. But after a few moments she looked up at Juliet and a languid grin spread over her face.

“Fine. If the princess won’t let me slay the dragon, will she at least let me rescue her from its clutches?”

Juliet laughed and took Tybalt’s hand in hers. Now that sounded like a plan.

“Lead the way, fair knight.”

For a second, a look of intense, almost painful adoration lit up on Tybalt’s face. It was an expression Juliet got to witness very rarely, since nowadays her cousin was so adamant about playing the too-tough-for-you card. It made her feel slightly giddy, as if she stumbled upon a four-leaved clover while taking a walk. But then Tybalt turned away to survey the wall, and when she turned her head back the expression was gone.

“I have an idea,” she said. “I’ll need you to close your eyes and count to twelve.”

“Why do I have to close my eyes?”

“If I tell you, it will ruin the surprise.”

“Huh. The last time you said that I ended up with a horned toad on my lap.”

Tybalt rolled her eyes exasperatedly at that: “Oh come on, Juliet, we were both children back then! You’d think, some things might have changed since those days!”

Still, they both giggled at the memory.

“Fine, fine, you scaredy cat. I’ll carry you over my shoulder and we’ll make it down before you can count to twelve. Does that make you nervous?”

“What, of course not! I’m not afraid of heights and I’m not afraid of you.”

Perhaps, that wasn’t entirely true, but Tybalt didn’t have to know that.

“Good, don’t say I didn’t warn you then,” the smile on Tybalt’s face grew wider, and before Juliet knew it her cousin grabbed her by the waist and hauled her over one shoulder.

Huh. Juliet remembered reading about heroines being carried like this in a few novels, but no one ever mentioned just how awkward it felt.

…One. Tybalt’s hand was gripping her leg just above the knee, thumb pressing against the inside of her thigh. Was that really necessary? It probably was.

Two. She thought she heard father shouting to push against the door with more effort. Really, all that fuss over some lousy Countess…

Three. They were climbing up the wall now. Leaves were brushing against her legs. She felt more than heard Tybalt let out a shaky sigh.

Four. Whatever punishment they’d choose for her afterwards, it would probably be a grand one. No more romance novels. No more theatre. Definitely, no dessert for a long, long time…

Five. Juliet wondered what her cousin was feeling at this moment. Was she uncomfortable? Angry at having agreed to go through with this? Maybe, just a bit scared?

Six. There was a distinct sound of wood cracking. She buried her face in Tybalt’s fancy locks, breathing in the bittersweet mix of sweat and perfume.

Seven.
“I’m sorry for dragging you into this, Tybalt.”
“Why on earth are you sorry? This night is just getting better and better, as far as I’m concerned.”

Eight. The shouting has gotten louder, the company must have finally entered the room. Was their adventure already at an end then?

Nine.
“Tybalt, do you think they’re going to catch us?”
“No, never.”

Ten. They were climbing down now, and Tybalt was muttering something about how all the damned foliage was making it hard to find proper footing.

Eleven. There was a snap, and oh no, they were sliding down rapidly, and her cousin was cursing, desperately trying to grab onto anything-

They landed on the cobblestones with a thud, but, against all the odds, Tybalt managed to land on her feet. The next thing Juliet knew the square was alight with torches, and Tybalt was shouting at her to run for the gates. As she glanced back, she saw her parents and several other members of the household standing on her balcony. Tybalt gave the company a mocking bow and ran after her. They slid off into the night hand in hand, as threats of various punishments rang out on the square behind them.

--

Juliet, Juliet, Juliet. Her presence went to Tybalt’s head faster than any wine in the world ever could. And with every step they took into the summer night, with every breath of sweet darkness Tybalt craved more and more of it. The sight of Juliet’s figure bathed in the moonlight, the mesmerizing sound of her voice, the touch of her hand, the tempting heat of her body just a step away. She has even agreed to put on Tybalt’s jacket to protect her from the night chills. It wasn’t a dream. Juliet was wearing an article of her clothing. Tybalt sighed happily. Just how in the world did she get this lucky?

Although, if she didn’t think the next step of their adventure through, this luck would run out very soon. The Capulet guards have undoubtedly started searching the city for the runaway heiress, which gave them very little time to find a safe hideaway.

Funny how the idea of hiding from their own clan would have seemed sacrilegious to Tybalt just a couple of hours ago, but now she just shrugged it off as something that had to be done. She’d probably question herself about it later, much later, but now she had more important issues to take to heart.

They have crossed the bridge to the other side of Adige and were now walking at a brisk pace past the riverside villas. The households in this area have been affiliated with the Montague clan for generations, but several particularly smart families have recently considered switching loyalties. The courtyards adjacent to their houses presented an ideal place to spend the night. Uncle Capulet’s guards wouldn’t dare to breach those doorsteps just yet, and if any of the family members tried to protest against their presence, Tybalt knew exactly what to say to quiet them down.

And there it was, their safe haven. Tybalt opened the ivy-covered iron gate and ushered Juliet in. They didn’t appear to be followed, and luckily the courtyard was deserted as well. The only window facing them covered up for the night, and the flowering apple tree would likely prevent any curious eyes from ogling them. The place even had a marble-lined dancing fountain. Well, if this wasn’t an ideal setting for an ideal date…

“Tybalt, are you even listening to me?”

“Huh? …I mean, of course.”

Alas, one sideways glance confirmed that Juliet wasn’t convinced. In fact, her cousin was eyeing her with dejected curiosity. Tybalt felt her face grow warm. She had to say something deep and comforting immediately. So what was the last thing she remembered Juliet saying? Something about the masquerade being a disappointment?

“Yes, um. In fact, I think so too.”

“What?” Juliet’s face went from sad to shocked, and she yanked her hand out of Tybalt’s grasp. “You also think that loveless marriage is the best marriage? How, wh- Really, I thought you of all people would be able to see my side of things!”

Oh gods. “Wait, you misunderstood me! I meant that I feel about it the same way you do.”

“But I haven’t explained how I feel about marriage yet.”

Oh gods, two minutes into an ideal date, and things were already going downhill. Juliet sat down on one of the stone benches, and buried her face in her hands.

“Oh forget it, this subject probably doesn’t interest you anyway. Nobody’s making you marry. And you just wish your baby cousin would deal with her own problems, and let you figure out your own complicated life.”

Was there a hint of tears in Juliet’s voice? No, anything but that! Tybalt couldn’t see Juliet’s face behind her hands and waves of cascading hair, but standing by helplessly and listening to that voice become frantic was enough to awake an all-too familiar ache in her chest. She slinked into a seat beside Juliet and ran her hand through her cousin’s hair in what she was hoping was a comforting manner.

“Come on, Juliet, you know that’s not true.”

Juliet still had her face covered with her hands.

“I got carried away for a minute there. But everything about you - your life, your problems – it all matters to me, I swear.”

Still no change. In a desperate attempt to prove her point Tybalt grabbed one of Juliet’s hands and intertwined their fingers together.

“Hey, remember how we used to walk hand-in-hand sometimes, when we were little? We may not get to do that these days, but our connection will always be there. Now don’t be this way, talk to your dear cousin.”

This seemed to have some effect. Juliet slowly straightened out, and brushed loose strands of hair back from her face. There were no tears in her eyes, and if anything they bore a mischievous glimmer. For a couple of seconds she looked somberly at Tybalt, and then stuck her tongue out and burst into a fit of giggles.

“Really, it’s just impossible to have a serious conversation with you,” Tybalt huffed.

Juliet giggled even harder at that: “Says a girl who couldn’t listen to me talk about my life for ten minutes straight.”

“Don’t call me “girl”, I’m not five.”

“Girl, girl, girl! Tybalt Capulet is a sassy girl!”

For the sake of all that was holy, Tybalt hoped that no one in the house behind them was listening to this humiliating exchange.

Suddenly, Juliet’s face became serious again, and she tugged lightly at her cousin’s hand: “So, do you think of our connection often, Tybalt?”

Tybalt licked her lips and shrugged: “Not… that often.”

“I understand,” Juliet sighed. “So many things changed since we were children. Back then I’d spend hours on end with you. I knew what books you enjoyed reading, what outfits you hated, what food you liked.”

Lost in thought, Juliet has started tracing the ornaments on the jacket sleeve with her finger: “And then you turned fifteen. And now all I hear is rumors of you taking part in some brawl, or romancing some lady, or losing a bet with your friends.”

“Pff, that’s just dirty gossip, don’t you believe a word of it. I never lost a bet in my life. And while it’s true that I draw my knife on the street sometimes, I do so only to defend the honor of the Capulet clan.”

“You never leave the house without that thing in your belt, you even tried to wear it to church once.”

“Well, you never know where you’re going to meet rude people. And personally I still think Father Lawrence overreacted that one time.”

Juliet hid her face behind Tybalt’s shoulder in a vain attempt to hide a grin. And as much as she disliked being made fun of, Tybalt found herself smiling back.

“What’s so funny now? That a priest made your dear cousin surrender her weapon without breaking a sweat?”

“No, it’s the face you made when Father Lawrence told you that he won’t put up with your “spirit of Mars” or any other demons in his church. You looked like a cat that got doused with holy water.”

Tybalt gave Juliet a playful nudge, “Tsh. I did not.”

“Did too,” Juliet returned it and snuggled a bit closer to Tybalt’s arm.

Ah, if only moments like this could last forever.

“Did not, end of story. Anyway, family business might keep me busy on some days, but I have no secrets from you. And I’m always ready to play catch up, if you are.”

“Really? You mean, we can play it right now?”

“Sure, why not. Ask me anything.”

There was a long pause. Juliet looked down at her slippers, then up at the sky, as if searching for inspiration. Then she cleared her throat: “So, since we were talking about love and marriage, do you have anyone special in mind yet? Someone you’d like to live with, happily ever after?”

The question felt like a punch to the stomach. For a second Tybalt felt dizzy, and then she felt all the blood in her body rush to her face. And Juliet was looking at her with those dreamy eyes, and their faces were mere inches apart, and Tybalt just couldn’t muster enough strength to say a single word. In the end, she managed to give a quick nod, and then pushed Juliet off her shoulder and turned away to survey the cobblestones beneath her feet.

“I see,” somehow Juliet didn’t sound very impressed. “Where did you two meet?”

“Hell if I know. It feels as if she’s just always been there.”

“Was she present at our masquerade, by any chance?”

Tybalt’s hands have clenched into fists. This wasn’t fair. Juliet was playing her heart-strings like the wandering street musicians played their damn lutes by the City Wall.

“Indeed she was, dear cousin,” she hissed.

“Good. That’s good. Maybe you could introduce us sometime.”

With that Juliet stood up from the bench and walked over to the fountain. Tybalt couldn’t stop herself from gazing forlornly after her. The situation has gotten so absurd she didn’t even know how to respond anymore. She wanted to laugh, to cry at her own misfortune, to scream at Juliet to look down at the water surface and say hello to her own reflection.

“It’s weird, but I can’t help feeling a bit envious… of your luck, maybe, when it comes to love.”

Luck. Right. Tybalt sighed exasperatedly. Seeing the object of your desires walk past you everyday and knowing that it’s futile to hope for reciprocity, who wouldn’t want to get lucky like that?

“My only suitor so far makes me feel nauseous,” Juliet has jumped up on of the marble border of the fountain, and was now walking back and forth, wringing her hands as she spoke. “I thought of you while dancing with her.”

What did Juliet say? Did she fantasize about Tybalt courting her as a suitor, dancing with her, holding her close?

“The Countess wouldn’t stop grabbing my arms and stomping on my feet as we danced. It made me want to punch her, and I thought that you’d be proud of my efforts.”

Oh. Well, that was a different kind of fantasy, but actually the more Tybalt thought about it, the more she liked it. There was something truly Capulet about it.

“But you had more important things to attend to. I get it.”

Was there a hint of sadness in Juliet’s voice now? Was she hurt by this lack of attention? Maybe everything wasn’t hopeless after all? Then to hell with all the rules, with all the boundaries in the world. If Juliet was reaching out to her, Tybalt would be a fool not to take this chance. With that thought Tybalt felt strength return to her body. She leapt up from the bench and walked towards Juliet.

--

It was good to see Tybalt smiling again. Hopefully, her cousin has finally gotten over the thoughts that have been bothering her.

Their catch-up game has taken an awkward turn, and Juliet has already regretted asking the initial question. The answer she received was unexpected, and maybe just a tad disappointing. Perhaps, she expected her cousin’s lack of commitment to justify her own hesitation to say yes to her suitor, or maybe she just wanted someone to relate to in her romantic woes. In any case, this shadow of a long-term love interest was now hanging low over their cozy conversation and somehow turning it sour. If Tybalt were to propose a change of subject, Juliet certainly wouldn’t mind. And judging by the way her cousin was rubbing her hands together, Juliet could tell she thought of something exciting.

“You know, you’re not going to get far by thinking about punching people. Give in to your instincts. Hit them hard. They deserve it.”

“Oh come on Tybalt, I was just making a joke.”

“I wasn’t. The Countess deserved to be taught a lesson. Now come down, I’ll teach you how to get your point across in the future.”

“You want me to beat up my suitors?”

“Just those obnoxious types, who can’t take more subtle hints to hit the road.”

Juliet smiled awkwardly. Leave it to Tybalt to think of a tactic like that. It sounded absurd, but maybe she could go along with the idea for a bit. Her cousin was so enthusiastic about different fighting techniques that it didn’t feel right to not let her have her moment. Juliet jumped down from the parapet and Tybalt embraced her lightly by the shoulders.

“Alright, now stop fidgeting and pay attention. Imagine Countess Paris standing right in front of you. What is she doing?”

“Taking a big step back, now that she’s seen you glaring at her.”

“No, she can’t see me, only you. Let’s say, she’s trying to grab your arm so she can pull you towards the dance floor.”

They were standing so close that her cousin’s breath was tickling her ear. It was peculiar how in a span of one night they have caught-up enough for this kind of proximity to feel comfortable.

“Turn sideways a bit, left foot forward, knees slightly bent. And relax your shoulders, you’re too stiff.”

“How can I relax?” - Juliet was trying hard not to start giggling. “I’m about to punch the living daylights out of the wealthiest citizen of Verona.”

“Good, if she’s so wealthy, she should be able to afford a new set of teeth.”

“What? No! That’s just gross-”

“Shush. Now pull your hands to your chest, left hand at the level of your chin, elbows in.”

Tybalt’s hands have slid from Juliet’s shoulders, and were now supporting her at the elbows. Even through the fabric of the jacket, Juliet could tell that her cousin’s fingers were trembling.

“Alright, “elbows in” doesn’t mean you’re allowed to slump your shoulders, straighten out-”

“Hey, do you want your jacket back?”

“Why, are you feeling hot?”

“Not really, but I thought you might need it, because your hands are shaking.”

There was a brief pause, during which Tybalt cursed under her breath and flexed her fingers.

“I’m fine, really. Think nothing of it,” she sounded almost apologetic. “Is it making you uncomfortable?”

“No, but it feels like the two of us are getting ready for war.”

Tybalt gave a strained laugh at this: “We are, in a way. Every fight is a war – you either win or lose. So you must never present your enemy with any openings. When you hit with one hand, the other stays in defensive.”

“Are you sure we’re still talking about the same Countess? Because I doubt that Paris would put up much of a defense.”

“Whatever. In a fight, you’re better off assuming the worst. Besides, you never know what monster of a suitor might wind up at our castle next.”

Huh. So Tybalt was even more pessimistic about the whole business of arranged marriages than she was. Juliet sighed and leaned back against her cousin, nuzzling her head against the tangled mass of curls.

“You don’t think that one day someone wonderful might show up at our estate? Someone I’d actually want to marry?”

Tybalt let out a sharp breath and her grip on Juliet’s shoulders tightened: “Hell, I don’t know, Juliet. Fate is strange. It’s possible that you’ve already met this person, but haven’t realized it yet. But just, whatever you do, don’t let those snobs decide your future for you. Decide for yourself who you want to kiss and who you want to kick in the teeth.”

Wow, that was actually pretty eloquent, except for the crude last part. But how could she have already met her future love interest? Most of the people she talked to regularly were her relatives. There were also servants, a couple of people she knew at church. Then just last week a cute boy started chatting with her during an afternoon scroll, but the Nurse said he was probably a pickpocket…

Tybalt’s voice snapped her out of her reverie: “Now back to kicking people in the teeth. Give me your lovely hand.”

Lovely hand? Actually, their hands looked very similar by the dim street light. They were practically the same size and shape, but Tybalt had several scars running across the backside of her palm, and her nails were trimmed very short. Juliet wanted to ask whether those scars still hurt at all, but her cousin seemed to be completely engrossed in giving her more instructions.

“Make a fist for me. Good, but the thumb goes on the outside. You aim to hit your target with the first two knuckles. Don’t bend your wrist, punch in a straight line, pushing your body forward with each hit.”

“Fighting is boring.”

“We’re getting to the fun part.”

With this Tybalt let go of Juliet’s shoulders and strolled to the spot in front of her. Her face was slightly flushed and she looked very pleased with herself.

“Now let’s see if you actually learned anything. I’m going to act as your suitor. And your job will be to hit me, when I’m within the reach of your fists.”

Wait, what? Was this some sort of a joke?

“Tybalt, what in the world- You can’t seriously expect me to-”

The blush on Tybalt’s face grew more pronounced. She frowned and crossed her hands over her chest: “What? It’s a game, a make-believe scenario, for gods’ sake! You’ve acted parts before. You once played an angel in Father Lawrence’s Christmas skit, remember?”

“Yes, but all I had to do there was sing along with the chorus!”

“This part is even easier. It doesn’t involve memorizing any words!”

“But I don’t want to punch you in the face!”

“Oh is that what it is?” - the toothy grin was back on Tybalt’s face. “You don’t want to see your dear cousin get hurt?”

Really, sometimes Tybalt said the strangest things.

“Of course I don’t want to see you hurt. Why would I?” Juliet huffed. “You’re my cousin. We grew up together. I kind of like you even. Except when you put frogs in my lap or come home drunk, that is.”

And then there it was, for a second time this evening – the look of adoration lit up in Tybalt’s eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, closed it, opened it again, and then shook her head, as if reprimanding herself for this behavior.

When she spoke up again her voice sounded distant, as if she was lost in thinking of something else entirely: “Don’t worry, I’ll evade your blows. I’m quite good at this game, you know.”

“You promise?”

“Word of honor.”

Was there a sly wink at the end of that phrase, or did it just look like one? In the darkness surrounding them it was difficult to tell anything for sure.

Juliet sighed: “Alright, then I guess I’ll play.”

Juliet watched Tybalt retreating back and bit her lip. This still didn’t feel much like any kind of game she knew, and she felt a lot less nervous singing hymns in her Christmas angel attire. On the other hand, this felt exciting, a bit like the real theatre when the lights on-stage have just been lit. There was no way she’d walk out on that, nobody would walk out on that.

Tybalt has stopped by the flowerbed, about fifty feet away from the fountain. She stood with her back turned to Juliet for a couple of seconds, and when she turned around something about her seemed different, as if a magical veil has been lifted from her features. There was something irresistibly confident about the way she flung her hair back, straightened out her shoulders, lifted her chin up. Her movements have become more languid, or perhaps it was in the slight swing of her hips, but now more than ever she resembled a majestic jungle-cat on a prowl. Was this part of playing her role as a suitor? Was that how she usually looked when courted girls? For some reason, Juliet recalled the maids’ giggling voices discussing Tybalt’s amorous escapades while the setting up breakfast, and she felt an embarrassed flush creep up to her cheeks.

However, as Tybalt came closer, Juliet noticed that despite the confident stride, her cousin’s face has grown pale and her pupils were so huge that her eyes appeared black. The last hints of a smile were fading from her face. Her lips were slightly parted, and she was drawing short shallow breaths. If anything, she looked lost now, scared even.

Tybalt stopped a step ahead from Juliet, and then without warning dropped down on one knee. Bewildered Juliet reached out her hand to help her cousin up, only to have Tybalt latch onto it with both hands, like her life depended on it. Her hands were shaking so badly now that it felt as if she was running a fever.

Juliet felt her stomach give a lurch and her own hands grow clammy. She searched in desperation for something she could say to get a grip on this strange new reality.

“Tybalt, for heaven’s sake, please, tell me what’s wrong?” her voice sounded small and weak, even to her own ears. “I’ve never seen you like this in my life. What’s going on?”

Tybalt slowly looked up at her, but instead of answering she brought Juliet’s hand to her lips. The kiss must have lasted a second, and was comparable to courtesy kisses she’s seen people receive from their dance partners, but at this moment it felt as if all nerves in her body were concentrated in that spot on her first knuckle. Juliet was about to yank her hand out, when Tybalt began to speak.

“Juliet Capulet, I’m asking for your hand in marriage,” Tybalt’s voice was desperately measured, as she was afraid that if she paused once, she wouldn’t be able to continue. “I have been in love with you for a long time now. I’ll work hard to guarantee your well-being and to please you in all respects. I’ll protect you with my life. Will you marry me? Please?”

At that last desperate “please” Juliet’s heart gave a painful throb. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Instead, her own words from earlier this evening came crashing back into her head. She wished for heaven to send her a soulmate, didn’t she? And with this realization she felt the ground sink from underneath her feet.

As if in a dream sequence she watched Tybalt rise up, their eyes never breaking contact. Her cousin took an uncertain step towards her, and then another, and then she reached with her free hand to gingerly stroke Juliet’s cheek. Her pleading eyes went from Juliet’s eyes to her lips, and then back up, as if asking for permission. Permission to kiss her. Sweet Lord, her cat cousin Tybalt was going to kiss her.

“Juliet, talk to me, it’s against the rules of this game to stay quiet,” Tybalt’s whisper was barely audible over the sound of her heart pounding in her ears.

“…This game?”

Oh right, that’s what it was. A game. And with this simple realization the magic spell shattered into a million pieces.

The scene made sense now. Tybalt didn’t have any special feelings for her, and, needless to say, wasn’t asking for Juliet’s hand in marriage, like that was even possible for two cousins. Besides Tybalt stated explicitly that she had a lover waiting for her, and Juliet’s mind chose to ignore that fact altogether. All in all, her cousin was masterfully performing her role. It was an exciting adult game, but a game nevertheless. And Juliet fell for it, like a stupid sixteen-year-old she was.

“You,” – she was struggling to keep her voice firm, but her throat kept tightening and her lower lip was starting to tremble. “You and your stupid games…”

Now she was stumbling back, her vision becoming obscured by angry tears. In her head the maids’ giggling voices grew louder, and they were now laughing at her. Perhaps, this wasn’t supposed to hurt that much, but the thought only made Juliet angrier. Who set the standards of what was supposed to hurt, and what wasn’t? It was her heart and her eyes, and she could feel raw, if she wanted to. She was aware that Tybalt was saying something, and judging by the tone of her voice, she was also pretty distraught. But Juliet didn’t care, didn’t want to care anymore. She tried to wriggle her hand out of her cousin’s grasp, but in the end Tybalt was stronger than she was.

“Juliet, please, I didn’t mean it like that-”

“No, stop it! I’m not listening to you anymore! Let go of my arm!”

“I will, I just don’t want you to do anything foolish-”

“I’ll do something foolish if you don’t let me go, you bully!”

Thumb on the outside, aim to hit with the first two knuckles. That was the trick, wasn’t it? She hardly registered bringing up her arm. All she felt was the sharp pain as her knuckles hit a hard surface, and then her cousin’s surprised yelp, and then her left hand was free.

She ran from the courtyard as fast as her legs could carry her, her head humming and her hand pulsing with pain. As she cleared the gates, first rays of sunlight hit her eyes. Have they really stayed up all night? It felt like no more than a couple of hours, yet the sky was already aglow with the most delicate shades of yellow and red, and townsfolk were rushing past her on the way to early mass. A group of youngsters were pushing wheelbarrows loaded with vegetables down the road, their high-pitched voices ringing in the chilly air. Juliet pushed past them, ignoring the whistling behind her back.

She stood watching the waters of Adige soak up the red glow from the sky for some time, and as she did she felt all emotions of the previous night slowly drain out of her. It felt as if she has spent this night in a particularly vivid dream, and now the morning light returned her to reality. Somewhere among the rooftops rising on the other side of the river was the Capulet family mansion. They had to return there now, if they knew what was good for them. Back to clingy suitors and parents’ advise on marriage. There was no miracle escape from that, after all. But perhaps, she wasn’t as powerless to influence those situations as she thought she was…

Juliet spun around upon hearing the familiar click-clock of high-heeled boots behind her, and the sight before her made her gasp. Tybalt’s face was a mess. Her eyes have lost their sly glimmer. There was an ugly cut on her bottom lip and the tissue around it was beginning to swell up. She must have washed the blood off her face, but there were a few red spots left on her shirt. And judging by the smudged make-up around her eyes, she has been crying as well. Tybalt’s lips were moving, but at first Juliet couldn’t make out what she was saying.

“It’s… for your hand.”

As Juliet looked down, she saw that Tybalt was handing her a folded handkerchief. She took the piece of cloth and tried to tie it with one hand, but it kept slipping off. Eventually, she gave up and let her cousin help her with the knot.

“Does your lip hurt much?” Juliet finally ventured, in an attempt to break the awkward silence.

The corners of Tybalt’s mouth twitched, but she kept her eyes firmly trained on Juliet’s hand.

“No,” her voice was still barely above a whisper. “It’s just a scratch, and the swelling will be gone by the evening.”

“Are your teeth ok?”

“The front ones feel as if they might fall out any minute.”

“What?!”

“My teeth are fine. Hold your hand still.”

“You didn’t even try to dodge my blow. You promised you’d do that!”

“I’m sorry.”

“You gave me your word of honor!”

“I guess that makes me dishonored from now on... There, all done. This should hold together until we get home. There your nurse will give you something proper to clean it up, while auntie Capulet screams my head off for this completely irresponsible behavior.”

“Tybalt, do you want to return there?”

“No, but what other choice do we have? It’s home.”

--

They walked to the bridge, their hands close, but not quite touching. Tybalt’s right hand was gripping the hilt of her knife, and she put on her best menacing face to discourage people from staring. She didn’t have to try hard to get the scowl right. The harsh morning sunshine and loud bustling crowds seemed to mock the memory of their nighttime adventure, when they could run, talk, and touch freely, and the universe seemed to exist only for the two of them. Now everything felt tense, awkward, and irritating. Tybalt kicked a piece of gravel with the tip of her boot. Uncle and auntie Capulet would probably never leave her alone with Juliet after this incident. And what was infinitely worse, Juliet’s trust in her was shattered. If only she had the guts to confess her feelings on her own, instead of cowering behind the mask of a suitor. Or maybe she should not have brought this topic up at all. Maybe she should have also kept the fighting tips to herself, and instead asked Juliet something meaningful about her life. Although, chances are, she would have messed that up as well. If only talking about feelings was as easy as fighting…

And speaking of fighting, here came some Montagues. A pair of lanky punks, wearing oversized blue tunics, came strutting down the road like they owned it. Tybalt thought she might have seen them once or twice at the marketplace, but these were not regular fighters. The older boy was lost in recalling some story, his hands flying around wildly as he spoke, and the younger one was nodding vigorously at each phrase. As they grew nearer, the story-teller caught sight of Tybalt, and the warm smile slowly faded from his face. For a couple of seconds his face showed a conflict of emotions, then he finally settled on a gloomy frown. His right hand went to the knife-hilt. The younger boy, after taking one look at his counterpart, attempted to mimic the same stance, but in the absence of a knife ended up awkwardly grabbing his belt. The whole attempt at a vicious stare-down looked so comical that Tybalt just snickered at the display. The pups weren’t worth the effort of lifting a finger.

“Tsh, pathetic,” she hissed, as they walked past.

“What?” Juliet glanced back at her.

“Oh nothing, just checking on the crowd. Did you see those two Montagues staring at us?”

“I can’t blame them. We must make such a striking picture: you with your split lip, me with my bandaged hand.”

“Hmph, maybe we look a bit unusual. That’s no excuse to stare though, especially if you’re a Montague.”

It was kind of amusing to think of what people passing them by made of their appearances. Split lip aside, Tybalt wasn’t seen on the street wearing all-white that often. Nobody on the streets of Verona wore much white, actually, except for the newlyweds. Tybalt stole a quick glance at Juliet. Her dress was light-pink, but she was wearing Tybalt’s white jacket. Ah, now wasn’t that the most unrealistic and at the same time the most alluring fantasy.

“Hey, you’re smiling. What are you thinking about?”

Tybalt couldn’t help her smile growing wider: “That we really must make a pretty picture. How about you?”

“Just wondering if they’ve set up breakfast at home yet.”

“It’s about time. They should be doing that as we speak.”

“Huh. So you think we might get a chance to grab a snack and retire to our rooms before the storm erupts?”

“No, I’m pretty sure we’ll have to fight this battle head-on.”

Juliet laughed at this and offered Tybalt her bandaged hand, “I’m glad I have you for company in this battle then.”

They rounded the corner hand in hand, and as the familiar stone gates came into view, Tybalt thought that it was for moments like this that she felt grateful to still be alive.

 

~