Juliet’s hands were soft and warm against his skin as she washed his wound and applied the medicinal salve. Through, half-open eyelids, Tybalt watched as she applied the fresh bandages, her fingers nimble and precise, as though she had done this many times before. The concentrated look on her face was pinched with worry and consternation. Tybalt wished he could make it go away; he hated himself for putting it there in the first place.
He had been so preoccupied with his mission to kill Romeo, to protect Juliet, to keep her for himself – his own pure angel of happiness and innocence. Sometimes she was the only person who could remind him who he was inside: not a tool of vengeance and familial honor, but a man capable of love and tenderness. Until the Montague brat came along, his Juliet had been untainted by the world, though Count Paris was also a threat to that innocence. But at least he and Juliet seemed to be in agreement there – Paris did not deserve her love and he did not have it. But Montague had swept her off her feet and pulled her into that debauched world of lust and strife that swallowed everything worth having.
And then came Mercutio, infuriating and cocky, a perfect embodiment of all the things Tybalt so wished to keep Juliet guarded against. But, perhaps, he needed to guard her from himself as well. After all, Mercutio infuriated him, but Tybalt could not deny that he also found the boy immeasurably desirable. There had been many nights when they had run into each other in a tavern or a bawdy house and fucked each other from across the room with nothing more than heated glares and rude gestures. Mercutio was especially proficient at the latter.
But worse that even his own sins, was the fact that Tybalt had hurt Juliet. He could see it in her face, in the sadness radiating off her, the way she would often refuse to meet his eyes, even as she nursed him through his wound-induced fever. He needed to apologize to her, even if it hurt to say he was wrong in doing something that had felt so right at the time. He would never apologize for trying to protect her but hurting her was unacceptable.
When Juliet finished with the dressing, she took a moment to rearrange all the medical supplies on the bedside table before, finally, looking at him. “You’re healing well. Is there anything you need?”
“Yes,” he said, forcing the words past the lump suddenly in his throat. “I need to talk to you about what happened.”
“Oh!” Juliet said, the pitch of her tone rising in panic. She pressed a hand to her mouth, as though to hide her turmoil.
“I wanted to say I’m sorry that I hurt you. I see now that this was not what you wanted.”
Her eyes sparked, lighting up with an internal flame she so rarely allowed to show. Certainly not anywhere her parents could see. “Of course it’s not what I wanted! Tybalt, you could have died. You almost did. What would I do then?”
Her eyes filled with tears and Tybalt reached out to take her hand. He pressed her hand to his lips and kissed the knuckles one by one, until she stilled and seemed to calm. “Don’t cry. I’ll be fine.”
“Don’t you see I was scared?” Her tone was soft, pleading.
“For the Montague?” The way Juliet flinched told Tybalt it wasn’t a kind question, and he berated himself for the slip-up.
“For you,” she said, slapping his arm lightly. She bit her lip and the but for Romeo too hung unspoken but understood in the air.
Tybalt let go of her hand and reached up to cup her cheek. “I just wanted to protect you.”
She leaned into his touch. “I know. But I’d really rather you stay safe.”
“I’m serious, cousin. If I’m old enough to be married, don’t you think I’m old enough to look out for myself at least a little?”
She was right, of course. No longer was she the sweet little girl Tybalt could give piggy-back rides to or teach silly little riddles and rhymes. Her eyes no longer lit up in wonder at the smallest things, though she could still appreciate beauty, like the slow blooming of a flower in early spring. “How do you expect me to stand by and watch as you are being taken advantage of? No—no, you are young still and there are things… The Montagues are our enemies.”
“I know that’s not who you are.’ She shifted her position to sit on the edge of his bed. Her eyes were eager, pleading with him to understand. “You don’t trust the Montagues because you have been taught to hate them. But I know you don’t really want to do all this fighting, cousin. I see it in your face. You’re a good man. What good comes out of violence for violence sake?”
“It’s not so simple.”
“What about me? Do you trust me, or is that complicated too?”
“No! Of course not. Of course I trust you.” That she could even think that hurt. It wasn’t that Tybalt didn’t trust her, it was that he worried that her innocence and youth could be easily taken advantage of.
“Then I must tell you a secret.”
She told him then. About how she fell in love with the Montague boy from the first time he held her hand. About how he treated her better than she ever imagined it was possible for a man to treat a woman – certainly not with the example her parents set. And finally, that they were married. It was the last that made Tybalt deflate with defeat and resignation. If Juliet was lawfully married, opposing that marriage or doing anything to harm her husband would only bring shame onto her. And that was not worth anything or anyone in the world. But it did feel a little like he had lost her.
“Are you not happy for me, cousin?” Juliet asked when Tybalt did not immediately react to her tale. She took his hand and squeezed it tightly, suddenly nervous. “Do you think I have…shamed the family?”
“No—no. You never could Not you,” Tybalt said softly, closely his eyes so she would not see the fear there. “I’m just afraid of losing you and of you getting hurt, that is all. It is all I care about. Far more than the family honor, though I have fought for it all my life.”
When he managed to work up the courage to look at her again, she was smiling lovingly at him, her eyes once again bright with unshed tears. “You don’t need to worry about that. Romeo won’t hurt me – he loves me and I love him. And you will never lose me. I love you as if you were my brother and that won’t change, no matter who I marry.”
He reached for her in pure relief, and she sank down to lay her head on his chest, careful to avoid his wound. Tybalt stroked her hair as she embraced him, and thought, as long as she loves me dearly, all other hurts will wash away with time.
“How is he?” Benvolio asked.
Romeo gave him a look of concern mixed with exasperation, which was better than the pure concern it had been the day before. “His fever broke, but Mercutio being Mercutio, he’s still talking nonsense.”
Benvolio smiled fondly, relief spilling warm and sticky inside his chest. “That’s good to hear.” It had been almost two weeks since Mercutio got hurt in the fight with Tybalt. After two days of no sleep and the surgeon’s declaration that Mercutio would likely live, Romeo and Benvolio decided that it would be better if they took turns looking after him so they could both have some time for rest. Romeo seemed to also have other things on his mind as well and sometimes brought strangely detailed news about what was going on in the Capulet household. Benvolio thought it best not to ask; he could only deal properly with one crisis at a time, and in that moment, Mercutio was more important. “Has the surgeon seen him?”
“Earlier today. He should be fine if he follows instructions.”
Benvolio ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. “Which, knowing Mercutio, will be a battle in itself.”
“Especially when his strength starts coming back.” Romeo bit his lip. “Have…have you news from the Prince?”
Benvolio shifted. “The Prince has decided to wait until after both Mercutio and Tybalt have recovered to pass final judgement, as he will want their testimony. But your Lord father says that, as they both live, the Prince has promised that the punishment shall be lenient.”
Romeo let out a sigh of relief, though his shoulders remained tense. “Well, that’s some hope at least.”
Benvolio put a hand on his shoulder, briefly. “Keep your chin up. And get some rest.” Romeo nodded and left without another word, once again caught in his own thoughts. Benvolio sighed and shouldered open the door to Mercutio’s rooms.
Mercutio reclined on several neatly arranged pillows. Romeo had created a something of a nest for him out of blankets and pillows. The side table was still crowded with medical supplies and, as always, it made Benvolio’s heart ache. Mercutio looked up when Benvolio entered and tried to sit up more, but instantly gave up the endeavor, wincing.
Benvolio gave him a stern look. “Don’t even think about running about just yet.”
Mercutio gave him a pained smile. “I’m going to go crazy with boredom.”
“I’m sure you’ll live. How are you feeling?” He perched on the edge of bed and took better stock of Mercutio’s appearance. He did look a lot better.
“Tired like a worn-out whore. This scratch really fucked me. Who would think – from a shoulder wound!”
“Hush. You got lucky. Did Romeo change the bandages before leaving?”
“He did.” Mercutio rubbed a hand down his face. “What’s going to happen to him?”
Benvolio looked down into his lap. He didn’t want Mercutio to worry about this, about anything but recovering. But he knew that was impossible. Romeo was right that even getting him to lie still would be a challenge soon. Asking him to not worry about Romeo would be like asking him not to breathe. “I don’t know yet. But the Prince promised to be lenient. You’ll have to testify.”
“Oh, I’ll testify alright—”
“Fucking Tybalt. Why can’t he ever get a grip for five minutes?”
“Why can’t you?”
“Whose side are you on anyway?” Mercutio made another move to sit up, but Benvolio put a firm hand on his shoulder, holding him down.
“Stay still.” Then, more softly, “You know I’m always on your side.”
Mercutio deflated and relaxed back into the pillows, closing his eyes half-way and staying quiet for so long that Benvolio almost began to worry. “Romeo told me Tybalt will be fine. I know this will sound strange, maybe, but I’m glad.”
“I don’t think that’s strange.”
“I don’t mean just for Romeo’s sake.”
“I still don’t think that’s strange.”
Mercutio met his eyes, looking a little guilty. “You know, who would I bicker and fight with if he died? Everyone else is so boring.”
Benvolio gave him an exasperated, knowing look. “Can’t the two of you just…you know…already? Would save everyone a lot of trouble and emotional energy.”
Mercutio made a face. “You’re lucky I’m too exhausted to tell you what I truly think about that.”
“You’re just a stubborn brat.”
Mercutio looked away. “He’d never anyway.”
“Are you sure? Because, frankly, I’m not, with the way he looks at you.”
“He tried to kill Romeo. That’s crossing a line.”
“I didn’t realize that was a thing for you.”
“Hey, I’m the only one allowed to threaten my friends with a stabbing!”
Benvolio had to hold him down again. “Alright, alright. I shouldn’t have gotten onto this topic. Now you’re all flushed.”
“I’m fine,” Mercutio said, stubborn and pouting all at once. He had always been a pain when unwell.
Benvolio reached out stroked loose strands of hair out of Mercutio’s face. “We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. But I will say, look at what all your unresolved tension has done? As though there isn’t enough fighting in this city. I don’t want to lose you, Mercutio. Or anyone else I love. And if you and Tybalt can’t work out whatever shit is going on between you two, that’s going to happen sooner or later.”
Mercutio caught his hand and held it against his own cheek, eyes closed. “I can’t promise you anything. Except that I’ll…make an effort.”
Benvolio smiled fondly at him, while trying to not get his own hopes up too much. “That’s all I ask.”
Mercutio stood leaning against the doorframe of his rooms, watching Tybalt slowly work through the lacing on his most formal doublet. He had dismissed his manservant the moment Mercutio walked in, thinking it would be better if the servants were not privy to whatever this conversation would entail. He also did not want Mercutio to see how much his wound still hurt him at times, although he soon realized that dressing on his own would not serve that purpose well.
Mercutio, on his part, looked completely relaxed, his posture and expression as cocky and insolent as always. If it wasn’t for how pale he was and the sling his left arm was in, one could almost imagine his wound to have been a fiction. If he was honest with himself, Tybalt had to admit that he was glad Mercutio survived, not only for his own sake, but because he had never wanted to hurt him in the fist place. There were many things Tybalt wished Mercutio could be, but dead had never been one of them.
Finally, the silence began to grate on him and Tybalt asked, “So why are you here?” He regretted it instantly at the small smirk that immediately sprouted on Mercutio’s face. He had been waiting to see if Tybalt lost his nerve first.
“Perhaps I’ve simply come to see my favorite Prince of Cats.”
“I’m not in the mood for your idiot jokes, Mercutio. Why are you here?”
“Fine.” Mercutio’s expression immediately became serious. Far more serious than Tybalt had ever seen him. “I’ve come to ask you…to say we should coordinate our stories.”
Tybalt looked back at him sharply and bit back a wince at the sharp pain that shot through the right side of his chest. “What is that supposed to mean? I’m planning on telling the truth. The last thing I need is to perjure myself in front of the Prince, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
“That is actually exactly what I’ve come to ask you to do.”
Tybalt gave a disbelieving laugh. “Why the hell would I do that?”
Mercutio went on as though he hadn’t heard. “I want you to say that I’m the one who stabbed you. Not Romeo. We were fighting and we both dealt each other a blow.”
Tybalt froze, his ceremonial crimson cloak clutched in one hand. “Why would I say that? Besides, there were a dozen witnesses. And didn’t Benvolio Montague already give account to the Prince?”
“Yes. But he only said that you stabbed me and Romeo stabbed you after. He was not very specific about the timeline. Benvolio will recant in so far as saying that he was confused about what he saw, since Romeo was between us and was trying to make us stop fighting. If you and I give the same story…”
Tybalt shook his head in disbelief. “This is madness. About a dozen of your men and mine saw what happened.”
“Our men will fall in line if yours do. It will be better this way for everyone.”
“Mostly for Montague.”
“Yes,” Mercutio snarled, his resolve to stay cool and reasonable obviously fading. “If the Prince thinks we stabbed each other and were both about equally hurt, he might decide that we’ve already carried out our punishments and levy no further penalty.”
“And what if he does decide to punish us further?”
Mercutio shifted impatiently, his hands balling up into fists. Tybalt was clearly getting on his nerves. ‘Well what is it to you? Your position doesn’t change.”
I would rather Montague be punished than you, Tybalt thought. He said, “But you will be punished where else you might not be.”
“Yes,” Mercutio said, flatly, giving him a blank stare.
Tybalt sighed in resignation. “Why are you all so bloody loyal to that puppy?” Forgetting himself, he threw on his cloak and almost doubled over in pain. When he looked up, Mercutio was standing directly in front of him. Tybalt reached up to push him away but found the pain too great to move his right arm. He glared at Mercutio, feeling slightly embarrassed at not being able to hide his weakness.
Mercutio reached up and fastened Tybalt’s cloak with his free hand. Tybalt watched his movements, mesmerized by their natural fluidity for a moment. “I started the fight with you,” Mercutio said in a tone so low it was almost a whisper. “If anyone deserves to be punished it’s me, not Romeo. I don’t know if you can understand that but do try.”
Tybalt wondered if Mercutio knew about Juliet’s marriage to Romeo and if that was why he felt it would do any good to ask for Tybalt’s assistance in this insanely risky plot. He thought of Juliet and how devastated she would be if some harm was to befall her new husband and the shame it would bring on her. Tybalt would not lift a finger for Montague’s sake, not even for the pleasure of watching Mercutio beg. But for Juliet, he would do anything.
Still, it would be wrong to let such a chance pass by. “If I were to do this, I would want something in return.”
Mercutio’s expression went carefully blank. “What?”
Tybalt leered at him with his most suggestive smirk. “If we do walk out of the Prince’s audience alive and free, meet me here tonight and I will finally make a man out of you.” He traced a finger up Mercutio’s chest, across his Adam’s apple, and over his chin, his thumb briefly pinching the corner of Mercutio’s mouth.
For a moment, Mercutio only stared at him. Then, he broke out in uproarious laughter. He grabbed Tybalt by the ties of his cloak and pulled him forward, crushing their lips together in a firm and promising kiss. “I thought you would never ask, kitty,” Mercutio purred against his lips.
Tybalt growled, feeling his body react in a way that was distracting at the moment, and threw off Mercutio’s hand. “Get on then.”
Still grinning, Mercutio turned to go, but looked back and waved back at him from the doorway, swaying his hips in a way that would help Tybalt appreciate his ass. “See you soon!”
Without further ado he was gone. Tybalt looked at himself in the mirror – the parade doublet, the heavy cloak with the family crest embroidered into it in full splendor – and pondered all the ways in which his life had changed in the last few days and all the ways in which it would change again after the day was through.