Yet again Bartolomeo della Scala wakes up to the sound of a child crying. Yet again he throws the covers aside, frowning, and lights a candle, and pulls open the heavy curtains… only to see — yet again — that the sky is pitch black. There is no moon, there are no stars: every time, it is in the darkest night of the month that the child cries… every time, the sound of crying gets a bit closer.
This night is no different: all of Verona is dark, shrouded in the thick, heavy shadows of a gloomy November night. The city is fast asleep, and it knows not that its Prince's eyes are open. It hears not the sounds of the child crying, it cares not for the quiet steps in the empty corridor of the royal palazzo.
But the Prince does.
And the voice in the corridor is painfully familiar to him.
"Uncle, I am scared," Mercutio, almost seven years old, calls timidly from behind the closed door. "Uncle? Uncle, are you awake?"
Bartolomeo is silent, and the knuckles of his fingers that grip the windowsill are almost white.
"Uncle?" Mercutio's voice is full of tears. "I had a nightmare. I am scared. Let me in, uncle."
Bartolomeo turns around very slowly, biting down on his lower lip; the golden candlelight flickers across his graying hair and furrowed brow, turning his proud face into a scary mask.
"Let me in, uncle!" the tiny voice implores, tearful and yet insistent. "I am so scared…"
…Mercutio had never needed permission to enter Escalus's rooms.
"Go away," the Prince forces out. "I have no need of you."
"But I am so scared," repeats the voice behind the door. "Tell me a story, uncle?"
"Why do you keep coming?" Bartolomeo's shadow comes to life, dashing across the room like a frightened bird as he takes an involuntary step towards the door. "I will not let you in."
"I am scared, uncle," the same words come yet again, like there are no other words left in the whole world. "Will you tell me a story?"
"Why do you not want to let me in, uncle?" Mercutio is no longer crying; on the contrary, his voice is full of barely contained mischief, and the room grows strangely cold. "I am your nephew, am I not? Will you not let your nephew in?"
Escalus drags a shaking hand over his face, desperately trying to ignore the tremor, and wraps his brocade robe tighter around his body.
"Leave, whoever you are," his voice is as calm and confident as ever; but deep down, the Prince of Verona knows all too well — this guest will not be easy to get rid of.
"Am I unwelcome here, uncle?" the child behind the door grows sad. "I thought you loved me…"
Bartolomeo sighs shakily. God only knows how much he would have loved to say — of course I do, my child, Mercutio, my dearest child, come in, I love you, I would do whatever you want, anything…
…if only it could bring you back to life.
For Mercutio is dead, dead and buried, and it has been ten long years since the day of his death, and he was no child when he died, but almost a grown man; and whatever is waiting now in the corridor is not Mercutio, it could never be him…
"Am I unwelcome, uncle?" the voice asks again, and the Prince can almost hear it giggling. "Then I will go to Valentine."
"No!" Escalus dashes forward, presses his hand to the door, not even thinking of what he is doing. "Don't you dare!"
"But I am all alone, and I am so scared…" the child is now crying again. "And my brother loves me, he will let me in. He loves me, and you don't…"
Bartolomeo digs his nails into the skin of his palms, desperately trying to rein in the fear that threatens to overcome him. No. No, not Valentine, not his only remaining nephew. Whatever this thing is, it must never get to Valentine.
No matter what the cost.
The Prince exhales slowly.
And opens the door.