Harlequin's Slash Fic

To You Everything I Bestow

Title: To You Everything I Bestow
Author: Julien
Universe: Romeo and Juliet
Characters featured: Romeo/Mercutio
Category, Word count: Story; 12150 words
Rating: NC17
Summary: Mercutio is furiously frustrated by Romeo frittering away his life and his love, when he could be and do anything. Romeo challenges Mercutio to teach him, then, about the real thing.
Notes: As a teenager I loved the play Romeo and Juliet, and often speculated about Romeo and Mercutio’s relationship (while I always admired Juliet, and wish to take nothing away from her). This Romeo/Mercutio story was specifically inspired by the wonderful 1996 film by Baz Luhrmann. I found plenty of additional inspiration in the soundtrack (from which I drew the title), especially from the song Talk Show Host (I’ve no idea why it’s called that) by Radiohead.
Warnings: The fic covers both Mercutio’s death and Romeo’s.
First published: 10 October 1997 in Espresso for Two

To You Everything I Bestow

It was hot. It was unbearably hot, and Romeo was pissed off at him because Mercutio had just dared to insult his latest attempt at love-poetry. ‘You sigh and you moan, and you use every cliché in the book,’ Mercutio told him. ‘Your imagery is trite, your rhythms are forced, your rhymes are pathetic… And, anyway,’ he added dismissively, ‘no one really feels like that.’

I do,’ Romeo asserted.

The Montague cousins and hangers-on watched this exchange between their leader and his best friend with desultory interest, sprawled around the pair in what little shade was available under the beach umbrellas. It was too hot directly under the sun’s rays for even a lizard. It was far too hot to expect anyone to care for literary criticism.

Except for Mercutio himself. He continued, ‘You don’t know what love is, Romeo. When you do, when you finally feel something real, then you might write decent poetry.’

Romeo screwed his face up in annoyance – and nevertheless he still managed to look beautiful. In fact, Romeo’s beauty remained apparent even when he was vapid with what he thought of as love. A deadly barb was shot Mercutio’s way: ‘Don’t you know what it is to pine after someone you’ll never have…?’

Mercutio stared back at his friend, not betraying an ounce of emotion even though Romeo was all too aware… ‘I know what it is to love without hope of return,’ Mercutio agreed.

Benvolio was sitting up and squinting at them now, sensing the escalation of tension that heightened the pulse of their days. ‘Don’t we all?’ he muttered, clumsily trying to defuse the situation. ‘Anyway, how can you say his rhymes don’t work? Irene and serene are made for each other.’

‘A simpleton’s effort,’ Mercutio contradicted him, grimacing with impatience. ‘You’ll be appreciating moon and croon next.’

The fellow shrugged and glanced away. ‘Maybe I would. What of it? We don’t all breathe your rarefied intellectual air.’

It was obvious that the Montague genes had combined magnificently in one young man and not so favourably in his nearest cousin. Mercutio stood, Romeo’s intense gaze following him. ‘This young fellow,’ Mercutio announced to the world, ‘this young fellow of seventeen, I tell you now – he will transcend.’

‘Transcend what?’ Benvolio asked.

Everything. And you won’t even have the wits to recognise as much.’

‘Just as well you hang around, then, isn’t it?’ That would have been sarcastic if Benvolio had the energy for it.

Mercutio’s sparks roared into flames, and he turned on Romeo. ‘You could be a writer, a true writer, or a leader of men – or anything you want to be. If you’d quit moping around, frittering it away. You’re all potential, yet you make no effort. You’re all yearning, yet you let opportunity drift past you.’

A silence stretched, broken only by the enervated crash of a wave against damp sand. ‘And you think you can teach me,’ Romeo said o-so-slowly, the anger having ebbed away as quickly as it had arrived. ‘Can you? To write, and to love, and to lead.’

Strangely enough, Mercutio felt rather taken aback now that the question had been asked. ‘Maybe.’

Romeo nodded, thoughtful. ‘Yes,’ he said after a time. Their eyes locked, Romeo’s conveying a challenge and a readiness. And then the moment passed by, and Romeo turned back to his journal, picking up his pen, contemplating the words he’d scrawled.

Mercutio sat down again, staring hard at his friend, still feeling like he was teetering off balance. Around them, Benvolio and Sampson and Gregory and the other Montague boys settled back, sensing that the conflict had drained away. The day wore on… The heat stifled everything. Mercutio closed his eyes, pretended to doze and began to plan.

‘Pick me up tomorrow,’ Mercutio murmured to Romeo as they parted that night. Benvolio was watching them curiously, though he wouldn’t be able to hear at that distance. ‘Tell your father you won’t be home for a few days.’

‘Will this be my first lesson?’

‘Yes.’ Mercutio looked at his friend very levelly. ‘We’ll go somewhere. I’ll teach you about real love.’

Romeo contemplated him for a moment, the expression in his eyes hidden by darkness and strands of tumbled hair. Then he nodded once, and turned away.

It was almost noon of another hot day. Mercutio hadn’t nominated a time, but he sensed that Romeo must soon arrive. He wanted them free to do nothing but drive, so Mercutio wandered off to the deli a few doors down the street, and had them throw together a few sandwiches. When he returned, Romeo was sitting there waiting on his doorstep.

‘Ready?’ the younger man asked, tilting his head to look up at Mercutio. Romeo’s hair fell back, gold glinting and scattering across darker gold to reveal a face that had always been pretty but was lately developing into something more.

‘Yes,’ Mercutio replied. He lifted the brown paper bag of sandwiches in one hand, patted his gun in its holster with his other, and smiled. What else could they possibly need?

‘Let’s go.’ Romeo led the way with his easy grace, and slid into his sleek silver car. ‘Where?’

‘North.’

Romeo grinned at him. ‘Santo Francesco, right?’

Mercutio shrugged, not knowing whether to be pleased or annoyed that Romeo had guessed so soon. ‘The place suits me.’

An amused and tolerant snort. ‘It’s full of queers.’

‘Exactly,’ Mercutio replied with great satisfaction.

They drove with the top down, baking in the sun. Romeo’s tousle of fine hair was blown about by the hot wind, which barely stirred Mercutio’s short heavy dreadlocks. Within moments they were on the freeway and leaving Verona Beach miles behind… The freedom of anonymity beckoned…

For no one in Verona could ever overlook the fact that Romeo was the only son and heir of Ted Montague. And the Montague family had been feuding with the Capulets for so many years that the reason for their mutual hatred (if indeed there ever had been reason) was long forgotten. Amidst the corporate warfare, and the violent skirmishes that broke out between the young cousins of each family, Captain Prince, the Chief of Police, endeavoured to reach a measure of peace. And Prince was Mercutio’s uncle – not just any old uncle, either, but his mother’s most beloved brother. Which meant that it was not easy nor wise nor politically expedient for Mercutio to be Romeo’s closest friend, even though Romeo held himself as aloof as possible from the worst of the fighting.

I am in love, where I should be neutral

But who could resist this beautiful young man, who had the ability to do anything he directed his energies to? Romeo was six years younger than Mercutio, Romeo was only now fashioning himself out of the raw material of flesh and force and intellect, and yet Montague’s son had six times the potential and power of Prince’s nephew. Mercutio could only wonder that so few other people saw as much. Even Prince, usually a fine judge of men’s character, regarded Romeo as little more than a loose cannon waiting for trouble to set him off, and privately he expressed great reservations about Mercutio’s partiality.

Well, perhaps Prince was right in some ways – Romeo was as yet too unfocussed. Which in itself might soon create dangers…

O, who could resist the fellow?

Mercutio smiled wryly. There were indeed a handful of women in Verona able to resist Romeo’s charms, due to differing inclinations or partialities already devoted elsewhere. And Romeo managed to unerringly home in on them one by one, and fall for them, suffering and sighing with unrequited love.

It wasn’t really love. Not yet. Romeo was just practising, unaware himself that these crushes were nothing more than rehearsals. When Romeo really loved… the results would be spectacular.

The young man was singing along with the radio now, singing a love-song all grunge and angst, the longing in his voice audible over the loud music and the hot wind. And he was beautiful, emotions painting anguish and happiness over that mutable face. Mercutio smiled, watching him.

They had left the freeway, and were speeding along the narrow coastal road, winding along cliff edges, the sea crashing onto rocks fifty feet below. Romeo grinned across at his friend as the car powered around yet another tight corner. ‘What have you got there?’ he asked, stabbing one finger towards the paper bag.

‘Sandwiches.’

‘Great!’ Romeo replied with enthusiasm. ‘I am so hungry.’ And he ate one-handed as the road twisted and turned below them.

It was dark by the time they reached the city of Santo Francesco. ‘What now?’ Romeo asked as they sped along the freeways plummeting and climbing in long arcs high above the ground, skimming suburban roofs. Clouds scudded past the waxing moon, racing Romeo’s silver car and losing.

‘Castita Street,’ Mercutio announced, and proceeded to give him directions.

Soon they were in a bar, ordering shots of tequila. Romeo was dressed a trifle casually, in snug-fitting blue jeans and a loose cotton shirt, but a boy that beautiful would be welcomed into any establishment along this road. Ah, Romeo… No one else could have gotten away with wearing that shirt, anyone else would have found themselves outshone by the lush pink and gold hibiscus blooms spilling down the midnight blue background.

By contrast, Mercutio was dressed simply though with a touch of drama, in tailored black pants, and a crisp shirt so white that it glowed against his dark dark skin. A row of fleurs-de-lis were embroidered in black down the front of the shirt, matching the white fleurs-de-lis on his black gun holster. The two lads from Verona drew some curious glances. And though it was still early in the evening, Romeo was soon drawing more…

An older, rather attractive man was the first to brave the stranger. ‘Will you dance?’ he asked.

Romeo smiled up at him. ‘Yes, but not with you,’ he murmured seductively. And Romeo’s voice and expression were so warm that the other man left feeling he’d been blessed rather than rejected.

‘With me?’ Mercutio asked.

‘Maybe…’ Their eyes met. Romeo’s smile became intimate, though in a friendly kind of way, as if the young man were conveying that he knew why Mercutio had brought him to this place, after all, and Romeo wasn’t going to protest.

Mercutio reached into a pocket and produced his silver pill case with a flourish. He dipped into it with one finger, curled his hand into a fist so that no one saw the evidence, and then deposited the ecstasy on Romeo’s lips with a brushing caress. Romeo’s tongue-tip darted out to capture the tab, and he chased it down with another shot of tequila.

After that it was a crazed crawl from one bar to the next, up the even side of Castita Street and down the odd, the same songs following them and then skipping ahead to lead them on. Romeo had the wildest time: drinking with Mercutio; dancing on his own to the heart-thumping music, limbs boyishly flying every which way, energised by his despair; fending off a multitude of admirers with such good-natured refusals that they were all in danger of falling half-in-love with him. Mercutio was content to watch his friend, oblivious to anyone else, happy that Romeo was happy.

Eventually the pair stumbled into a hotel, beating dawn by mere moments. An expensive hotel, with soft-spoken staff whose service was soon secured by the gold credit cards Ted Montague had given his son.

Their room was a dim quiet cool sanctuary stretching around them. There were two large beds, but they stripped off and met in the middle of just one. A companionable tangle of limbs, nothing more and nothing less. Exhausted, they both fell asleep.

When Mercutio awoke it was mid-afternoon, and Romeo was on the balcony in his jeans, a golden boy leaning on the railing, soaking up the sun and smoking a cigarette. He greeted Mercutio with a lazy smile – and for a moment Mercutio was tempted to rush this lesson. But, no. Everything had its season. And for all that Mercutio knew, the lesson might best be taught through an absence of the physical interaction he momentarily yearned for.

Ah, Romeo… The child’s mother had brought him up well, for he’d apparently gone downstairs to buy them fresh pairs of underwear, given that neither had brought a change of clothes with him. Mercutio’s mouth twisted in wry amusement, and he headed for the bathroom to take a hot shower.

Strong black espresso, glasses of imported water with a slice of lime, and a hearty breakfast even though it was late in the day. The hotel’s supernally quiet and efficient staff were used to meeting these kinds of needs.

Romeo sat there in the restaurant opposite Mercutio, barely speaking a word. He seemed happy enough, though. Relaxed and easy and happy. And beautiful. So infernally beautiful. People would die for you, Mercutio silently told him. It wasn’t an accusation. More like a pledge.

Dark skies arching over bright neon. They walked the streets, breathing in the cool night air, passing the bars and the clubs, mingling with people marginal to society, soaking up the excitement. Mercutio took Romeo into one of the quieter establishments, and bought them each a nip of Cointreau.

This time when Mercutio proffered his pill box, Romeo shook his head in tolerant refusal. Mercutio was pleased. He murmured, ‘Tonight you’ll dance with me,’ and led him to the dance floor as soon as the DJ played a slow song.

They circled each other once, and then moved into a loose embrace. It was a friendly thing, this unstructured waltz, this comfortable congress. Mercutio lifted his arms around Romeo’s shoulders, and met his gaze levelly. Romeo seemed amused, while Mercutio remained serious. The music wove its gossamer spell…

Even as the songs cycled through the night’s play-list, and the beats per minute increased, the two young men slow-danced together. Mercutio devoted the evening to carefully exploring this simple method of romancing. It wasn’t an onerous task.

He ran fingers through Romeo’s fall of hair; traced patterns swirling around the young man’s nape; offered a patient massage to the flesh beneath those bright hibiscus; paid judicious attention to caressing Romeo’s sensitive waist; at last softly palmed the fellow’s derriere. All the while swaying to and fro with the music, letting it flow through them; watching each other, being together.

They never once kissed.

A late supper under the moonlight, ferns and wrought iron shielding the restaurant from the chatter and chaos on the street. And then back to their hotel, and their bed. Again they shifted naturally each into the other’s arms, bare skin warm and smooth and sweet. But despite the gentle mutual eroticism of their evening-long dance, there was no real urge to take this further.

Romeo was soon asleep, head weighty on Mercutio’s shoulder. The older boy held him, valuing this moment for its own sake. Everything that had happened so far had been perfect, Mercutio reflected; and this was perfect; and whatever happened next would be perfect, too, no matter what.

They woke mid-morning, dazed and out-of-sorts after a brief sleep. Neither moved. Romeo’s tumescence was heavy against Mercutio’s thigh, but the younger man did not seek the relief available from his friend. They simply lay there for a long while, doing nothing but letting gravity keep them encumbered together, until at last Romeo withdrew. Not meeting Mercutio’s gaze, Romeo went to take a shower.

A damp fog had rolled in and hidden Santo Francesco while they slept. Mercutio could barely see the street from their room’s balcony. He shivered, the coolness creeping into his bones. Then arms enfolded him, Romeo’s chest and stomach pressed warm against Mercutio’s back through the hibiscus-patterned shirt, and Mercutio sank into the friendly embrace.

They didn’t speak.

The hotel’s shop sold all the essentials such as underwear and cigarettes. Now Romeo bought a sweater there, too; cream-coloured cotton knitted in nubbled textures. Mercutio chose a black stone-washed silk jacket.

They walked up and down the steep streets, heading towards the bay. The fog blanketed everything, bleaching colours away; sounds, whether near or far, were carried clearly to the ear; the chill air worked its way in everywhere.

Romeo strode relentlessly on past the wharves and warehouses, along the shoreline, and up onto the porta d’oro bridge. Mercutio was content to follow him. It was odd, the two of them being here in this strange place with none of Romeo’s kin around, no gang trailing or inciting… Just the two of them.

At last they were in the remote elsewhere of the bridge’s mid-point, surrounded by nothing but asphalt and red-painted cables and mist. Cars sped past, but couldn’t touch the pervasive isolation. The deep and freezing water of the bay seethed unseen far below. A shudder ran through Mercutio’s frame, and he thought of all the suicides who’d leapt from this place. Would that make it easier, he wondered, launching yourself blindly into the shrouding clouds, the downward rush muffled and slowed so that it became a floating instead, and perhaps you wouldn’t see the unforgiving water until the very last moment when it slapped you hard…?

‘Hey!’ Romeo suddenly yelled into the vast nothingness.

Mercutio closed his eyes against the deadness of the fog.

‘Hey…!’ An outraged cry, wanting only to be heard. Insisting on being heard. ‘I want to –‘

You want to what? When Mercutio looked again, he saw Romeo’s hands clutching at the wires and cables, the boy’s body taut with angry need, straining out into the bay.

‘I want to be someone else!’

No

‘Or I’ll explode!’

‘No,’ Mercutio murmured, though he understood the impulse well enough. He walked unsteadily closer to his friend, who stood there glaring out at the fog – the fog which had swallowed his words, received them and now gave nothing back. ‘No, my love.’

Gently, Mercutio worked to loosen the fingers of Romeo’s nearer hand, and then held it in both of his, chafing it though Mercutio had precious little warmth to give. After an eternal moment or two, Romeo reluctantly turned his head to look at his friend.

Mercutio offered him a small but sympathetic smile, and then turned to face the nothingness, so that the two men stood side by side and hand in hand. ‘I celebrate myself,’ Mercutio declared, ‘and sing myself. I sing the body electric!’

A scrap of Romeo’s laughter won free.

‘Behold, I do not give lectures or a little charity – when I give I give myself.’ And Mercutio cried out, ‘I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world!’

‘What is that? Are those your words?’

‘No, it’s Whitman,’ Mercutio chided the boy. And he dispelled the last of the fog’s gloom with this:

‘We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming, air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.’

A less fraught silence settled over them. Romeo drew Mercutio into his arms for a brief warm moment, before stepping back and lighting a cigarette. Mercutio noted that Romeo’s hands were shaking, perhaps due to the cold. He sighed, and reflected on how chaste their embraces had generally been.

‘Your father won’t like it if I keep you to myself for too long,’ Mercutio said. He was driving Romeo’s car, and they were speeding south again, returning to Verona Beach.

Romeo was curled up in the passenger seat, sulking. ‘But I don’t want to go home,’ he protested. ‘Not yet.’

‘There’s no point in staying away.’

‘There is! We’re not done yet. We haven’t even begun yet.’ A silence stretched between them, and was tossed about by the wind. At last Romeo continued with some resentment, ‘You were going to teach me about love.’

‘No,’ Mercutio said, ‘you were going to learn about love.’

‘There’s a difference?’

‘Yes,’ he replied firmly.

‘Semantics,’ Romeo dismissed him with.

And the silence returned, as cold as any Santo Francesco fog…

It was late, and they were both tired. Too tired to drive, really, along these narrow, dangerous, cliff-edge roads. While the Montague boys were never sensible about such things, Mercutio decided to pull over and try to find some decent coffee.

Romeo trailed along behind him, hands thrust into his jeans pockets, shoulders hunched and face glowering. They walked into the only café that was open, and squinted against the harsh fluorescent light, winced as the girl behind the counter asked, ‘Can I help you?’ in too bright a voice.

Mercutio paid for two espressos and a bar of chocolate, and took them outside to a balcony that teetered ten feet over the ocean. Waves crashed directly below, the moon tried to lay a trail across the restless sea, chairs and tables and umbrellas scattered through the shifting cloud-shadows. Romeo followed him out, and to Mercutio’s surprise sat down close beside him. Every now and then as they sipped at the hot coffee, or broke off a square of chocolate, their arms brushed against each other companionably.

They didn’t speak.

They didn’t speak, until at last Romeo said, ‘I’ve been thinking.’

‘Yes?’ Mercutio whispered.

‘That first night in the gay bars on Castita Street, drinking and getting high, with strangers coming on to me – that wasn’t anything to do with love.’

‘No, it wasn’t.’

Romeo stared at him for a moment, as if he hadn’t expected Mercutio’s easy agreement. ‘All right, then. The second night, dancing with you, letting you take me to a romantic supper – none of that was much to do with love, either. Not the kind of love you mean.’

Mercutio wrapped his jacket a little tighter against the cool breeze, and nodded.

‘Even sleeping in the same bed with you wasn’t about love.’

‘Go on,’ Mercutio invited.

‘Standing on that bridge today, yelling at the world, you quoting poetry…’

‘Yes?’

Romeo grimaced, and thought about this some more. At last he said, ‘I think that was about as close to it as we’ve gotten.’

‘Yes, and do you know why?’

‘Tell me,’ the young man asked.

Mercutio contemplated the beautiful face turned to his. He couldn’t decide whether he was more annoyed with Romeo for not understanding, or frustrated with himself for not conveying the matter more effectively. ‘No,’ he replied a little testily. ‘Work it out for yourself.’

‘But won’t you…’

‘No!’ Mercutio repeated, and he stood, pushing his fisted hands into his jacket pockets. ‘We’re going to stay here for the night,’ he announced. ‘The driving can wait until tomorrow.’

Romeo’s gaze had remained fixed on him, and now the young man nodded slowly. ‘Yes,’ Romeo agreed.

There was a plethora of seedy motels to choose from. Mercutio cast a weary eye over them as they idled past in the car, and selected the one that appeared to be least offensive.

Romeo’s temper worsened again when he realised his friend had arranged for them to sleep in separate rooms. ‘What are you doing?’ he angrily whispered in Mercutio’s ear.

‘Praying for sleep.’ Frowning, Mercutio tried once more to fit the door key into his room’s lock. It wouldn’t cooperate.

‘But we were supposed to…’

‘What?’ he snapped.

Romeo glared at him. ‘We were supposed to make love.’

‘Were we?’

‘Yes!’

Mercutio turned to him, and coldly asked, ‘So, if we’d fallen into bed together and coupled, would that have been love?’

‘No…’ Romeo admitted. He kicked at a pebble on the sidewalk, glowering again, and then burst out, ‘This is too unfair! I am heartily dissatisfied!’

‘Tell someone who cares.’

You care,’ Romeo replied with a sudden renewal of certainty. ‘And I want you.’

The key finally slid home, but Mercutio paused and glanced back at his friend. A moment passed, in which Mercutio found the courage to be vulnerable. ‘You want me? Well, you know where I am. You’ve always known. I’ve been waiting there for a long time.’

Romeo was simply standing beside him, doing nothing but watching Mercutio, the anger drained away again. It was as if the young man were nothing more than curious, or caring at most, or unwilling to take action for some other good reason. How could Romeo’s declared wanting honestly be thought of as lust or love?

Mercutio nodded a goodnight, and slipped inside his room. The door was shut and locked between them before Romeo managed to bestir himself – and then all he did was hit at the wooden panels once in frustration, and let out a growl, before withdrawing and heading to the next room along…

Neither of them slept.

Mercutio lay on his bed, naked against the cotton sheets, head propped up on the pillows, gaze fixed on the wall that hid Romeo from him. The younger man was pacing to and fro, footsteps so heavy with anger that Mercutio could hear him clearly. Eventually Romeo cried out, ‘I don’t understand!’

Offering no response, Mercutio continued to wait.

A thump against the wall. ‘Mercutio?’

‘What?’

‘You know what I was expecting when we left Verona. You know what I was agreeing to. I figured that was… the reason we came away together.’

‘Yes,’ said Mercutio. ‘I know.’

A third voice, its muffled tones indicating it originated in the room beyond Romeo’s, now joined the conversation. ‘Shut up in there!’

Romeo continued regardless, ‘I don’t understand why you didn’t take what was yours!’

‘Shut up, or I’ll call the manager!’

‘Mercutio…!’ Romeo yelled, wanting a reply.

‘I’m not teaching,’ Mercutio said; ‘you’re learning.’

‘If you two don’t shut up –‘

A snarl drifted out into the night from Romeo’s room. And then there was the sound of his key being jammed into the lock on the connecting door between their rooms, the handle turning, the door being forced…

…but it remained locked on Mercutio’s side.

‘Damn it, Mercutio!’ Romeo cried. ‘Open the door!’

The older boy didn’t move; he simply waited.

And at last with a strong and well-aimed kick, Romeo broke the door open. It slammed back against the near wall, the jamb splintering. Romeo stood there bare-chested, breath heaving, glaring at his friend through fallen strands of hair. ‘You want me?’ Romeo asked, hoarse with the immediate aftermath of fury.

And that was related to the issue of consent – it wasn’t yet another a request for Mercutio to take action.

‘You want me?’

‘Yes,’ whispered Mercutio.

Romeo stalked closer, quite maddened… Another step, another… and then he was falling across Mercutio on the bed, their bodies urgently trying to find the best match each to the other, Romeo’s mouth seeking his friend’s as if starving for kisses, their hands grasping and clutching and demanding.

It was hot, it was fumbling, it was full of unrecognised cues and missed timing, it was perfect in its imperfection. Romeo was too raw, too untutored to be clever – and Mercutio was too needy, too overwhelmed, for it was ten, a hundred, a thousand times better than his imagination had dared paint it…

The phone rang, but they ignored the damned thing. And anyway the only sound they were making now was the conflagration in their blood, the heaviness of their panted breath, and no one but themselves would hear.

Romeo was trying to unfasten his jeans, push them away; Mercutio was mindlessly hindering him, thrusting his hard prick up against the rough denim, holding the boy too close for any independent movement. For Mercutio’s long-restrained need had ignited within him, and nothing could ever be the same again…

‘Mercutio…’ Romeo whispered against his throat. ‘Mercutio, my friend…’

Eternity stretched while Mercutio fought to return to some semblance of quiet.

‘Is this love?’ A genuine query, and the young man was apparently more than willing to be answered in the affirmative.

‘Only in that it is the truth of how I feel for you,’ Mercutio replied. He gave a short humourless laugh, unable to prevent his hands roaming around the warm sensitivities of Romeo’s waist, the small of Romeo’s back. ‘Otherwise it is nothing more than simple lust.’

‘Ah, but when lust is a part of true love, can’t we call it passion?’

‘Perhaps. It sounds more noble.’

‘Then be noble with me…’

Another laugh burst out of him, a cynical ring to it chastising his own baser instincts. But his love for this young man was as true as anything else about him – no, indeed, it may well be the truest part of him. And so Mercutio held fast to the newly-grasped control.

Romeo murmured his name once more, before re‑acquainting his mouth with Mercutio’s lips. Whatever else the boy had or hadn’t experienced, Mercutio reflected, Romeo knew by instinct or by practice how to kiss… They were so close that the long gel-spikes of hair that usually fell across Romeo’s eyes now brushed and swayed at Mercutio’s eyes instead.

Between them they dealt with Romeo’s jeans and underwear, and then at last the two men were moving naked together in an abundance of bare skin. There was no rhythm to it, which was probably as well, or else it would have been over as soon as begun. Mercutio had been careful to keep Romeo where he was, lying on top of him, not wanting to challenge the young man with anything more complex or threatening. It was enough that Romeo was here. It had been enough…

Now Mercutio broke the endless kiss and levelled their gazes. ‘I want you to have me,’ he said. ‘If you want me, then take me.’

Romeo didn’t even blink. It seemed he was utterly open to whatever Mercutio wanted to suggest. Which was… a temptation. ‘Yes,’ the young man said. ‘Teach me that.’ And Romeo was ready, lying there between Mercutio’s thighs, lifting then shifting his hips so that his prick dragged down and then nudged up towards its home.

A fraught groan rolled around the room, and Mercutio belatedly realised it was his. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘We must wait one moment more.’ And he managed to slide away just far enough to reach for his wallet. From it he produced a square of foil, which he tore to reveal a condom. ‘Sit up, my friend,’ Mercutio murmured, ‘and let me prepare you.’

Softness and fondness graced Romeo’s features. He pulled away and sat back on his heels between the older boy’s wide-legged surrender. Mercutio lifted up, too, and rolled the rubber onto Romeo’s cock. A prosaic task, but Romeo sighed, and said with great satisfaction, ‘This is love…’

…which gave Mercutio pause. He stared up at Romeo, feeling naked in more ways than the physical. ‘How so?’

‘Well, you know,’ the fellow gently meandered, looking away, ‘the way you all talk. I don’t think any of you bother much. Maybe you even prefer the risk.’

Mercutio let out a breath, and waited until Romeo met his gaze again. ‘You’re right, Romeo, on all counts. I love you. I haven’t been safe. And therefore I must be safe for you.’

There was something of love in Romeo’s eyes now; an understanding, a warmth, an honesty, an acceptance.

‘Come,’ said Mercutio, easing down to lie once more on his back. ‘Come, Romeo, and couple with me.’

Rough and splendid. Mercutio wrapped his legs around Romeo’s waist, which he knew by now the boy would like, and he curled up tight to reach low with his hands, to guide Romeo inside of him – then the young man was plunging away, with so little sophistication that Mercutio was charmed all over again. And that was exactly what they both needed – the rawness, the relentlessness of it. Ah, the glory of sex with Romeo…

They woke late the next morning, heavy and sated in each other’s arms, and wanting more even as they blinked sleep away… A deep kiss, and then the simplicity of hands chasing and stroking, until Romeo spilled over with a oddly bereft cry. Mercutio followed his friend, wondering at himself for still trusting that the reality of this could be better than his dreams. It shouldn’t work that way. But apparently it did.

There was no further talk of an immediate return home to Verona Beach. Instead they both seemed to assume that they would stay on here for a while, for a few days at least, and indulge in exploring each other some more.

After all, there was little else to explore in this nowhere place: nothing more than a clutter of tawdry hotels and shops aimed at the tourists who based themselves here for the sake of the spectacular coastline further north. Even the beach was barren and uninspiring, though Mercutio and Romeo walked up and down it at least once each day. The hills rising directly behind the strip of buildings were scrubby and mundane, but the two young men spent hours climbing them, searching for distances to gaze into.

They lazed around, content to keep each other company, remaining comfortably silent or talking until their throats were sore, laughing until their faces and stomachs ached. Or Mercutio would watch and wait patiently while Romeo scribbled in his journal, sprawled on their bed or on the grass under a high pale blue sky.

And they made love. Of course. As frequently as was humanly possible, disdaining any thought of moderation or sense other than Mercutio’s continuing concern for Romeo’s safety. The younger man had more skill and imagination than Mercutio initially gave him credit for, especially when their mood was slow and gentle… He was a quick study, though he readily admitted to a lack of experience. For whatever reasons (if there was such a thing as a reason for compatibility), the two of them loved well together.

The days and nights wore on…

…becoming a series of vivid memories, with no time or date attached to them.

In the coolness of early morning, Romeo wandering around in nothing more than his cotton sweater, his fingers poking out from the long sleeves and his genitals peeking out from under the hemline… Finally Mercutio could resist no longer, and fell to his knees before the boy, rubbing his face against the textures of nubbled knit and rough hair and soft flesh.

Romeo charming the hotel manager, and handing over generous amounts of cash, apologising for the broken connecting door. ‘My friend and I, we were arguing,’ he murmured, chagrin and amusement warring on his beautiful face. Inevitable that he was soon forgiven.

One evening after dinner, glowing with mango margaritas, Romeo giving himself to Mercutio. Romeo lying there utterly passive, surrendering all to Mercutio’s careful spell. This golden boy so relaxed and so affectionate and so willing that it seemed nothing could ever hurt him. Instead, Mercutio was the one near weeping. The act had never been that unproblematic for Mercutio – which didn’t prevent him from giving himself to Romeo whenever the boy wanted.

Another evening indulging in exploring the shallow convex hollow just behind Romeo’s hipbone, the pale curve of his buttock beyond that, massaging the boy’s lower back until he was melting with pleasure…

Ah, Romeo, Romeo, Romeo…

‘You and me…’ Romeo said, staring up into the sky’s dizzying infinity.

They were both spread-eagled on their backs on the grass of the highest hill, the earth spinning speedily beneath them. ‘Yes?’ Mercutio prompted.

‘We’re good together.’

‘I was thinking exactly the same.’

‘Then I still don’t understand why you didn’t make love to me while we were in Santo Francesco…’

‘Ah,’ said Mercutio, wondering if he would have to spell it out after all.

‘In fact,’ Romeo continued, ‘I don’t see why you never made love to me before, ever. I wouldn’t have refused you.’

‘That’s a different question,’ Mercutio informed his friend with a touch of severity. The earth sped round on its axis for a while until Mercutio found a less defensive tone. Then he turned towards Romeo, lifted himself up on an elbow, and spoke slowly. ‘I never approached you before, Romeo, because you’re not gay. You’re not even really bi.’

An instinctive protest, sweet despite its mildness…

…which Mercutio cut off with quicker words. ‘O, you’re capable of this. People are capable of all kinds of behaviours. But in your heart and in your sex, and even in your mind, you’re straight.’

Romeo had been watching him – but was now waiting for Mercutio’s proffered wisdom, open to whatever his friend wanted to tell him. One really had to be careful around such a vulnerable and trusting soul.

Perhaps Mercutio would spell something out, while he could. He lowered his voice, so that Romeo would know this was deadly serious. ‘Me loving you, and choosing to do nothing,’ Mercutio said, ‘is a very different thing to you sighing over Irene, and despairing because you feel there’s nothing you can do. Do you understand?’ Mercutio asked, his own intensity wringing him soul-deep. ‘You deciding to have me, and doing something about it, that’s far closer to love than you moaning for Irene, and never even making the choice to have her or not…’

Contemplation for a while. Apparently Romeo was feeling disconcerted, but he was nevertheless making the effort to think it through. ‘What do I feel for her, then? If it isn’t love?’

‘A crush, an infatuation,’ Mercutio said. ‘Which is fine, and can be very enjoyable, if recognised for what it is and treated accordingly.’ A question had occurred to him on that first night they spent here together, and Mercutio now dropped it into the silence. ‘Do you feel passion for Irene?’

Trouble crept across that beautiful face, and Mercutio read the reply: No, not really

‘True love might choose to be chaste, but not due to an absence of lust,’ Mercutio declared.

Romeo nodded in vague agreement, and cast a direct look at his friend as if letting Mercutio know that their mutual connection could not be severed even by such difficult notions… And then Romeo turned away, and buried himself in his journal again, wanting a trifle of distance.

Mercutio was willing to give it to him, though his heart ached to hold Romeo close once more.

That night their love-making was poignantly sweet. And the next day, by unspoken agreement, they drove back towards Verona.

Mercutio couldn’t bear to hear the words that would end this interlude. He’d known Romeo’s love for him would be of short duration, he’d known they would come home and be friends once more, he’d known he would have to give Romeo up. Everything that had happened and was happening and would happen remained perfect, no matter what. None of which meant Mercutio was required to find this easy to deal with.

Romeo’s manner had been remote all day. They didn’t speak.

They’d been missed. The Montague boys were loitering aimlessly around the beach in the late afternoon sun when Mercutio and Romeo drove up. A grin broke across Benvolio’s face, and suddenly everyone was there dragging Romeo bodily out of the passenger’s seat, passing him from cousin to cousin for a boisterous welcome home. Mercutio slowly climbed out of the driver’s seat, and propped himself against the side of the car. Benvolio was decent enough, and truth-be-told fond enough, to come round and tug Mercutio into a hug, too – but it was Romeo whom everyone adored.

News was exchanged, gossip shared, experiences and conquests bragged about. When pressed, Romeo spun a brief tale of bar-crawls in Santo Francesco, drinking and dancing until he fell, being propositioned by people whose gender wasn’t mentioned.

‘Your timing is perfect,’ Benvolio declared at some point. ‘There’s a party tonight at Lucia’s, and…’ He paused dramatically, and everyone waited for the next line. ‘I have it from James that Irene will be there.’

Romeo, who’d remained cool even while his people man-handled him in greeting, sparked alive as soon as this name was spoken. ‘Irene…?’

‘Sure, coz, and I have the invitations. But you’d better check in with your old man before we go to Lucia’s. He wasn’t real happy with you being away for so long.’

It was barely more than a week, Mercutio wanted to protest. He stood there alone while the others made plans for the party, what time they’d meet up, and where, and who could bring what to drink…

At some stage during this loud and happy confusion, Mercutio noticed that Benvolio was watching him. There was puzzlement on Benvolio’s slow but good-natured face as he glanced from Mercutio to Romeo and back – and then understanding belatedly dawned. Well, it wasn’t as if Mercutio had ever really hidden how he felt; at least not from those with eyes to see. Mercutio waited, wondering what the young man’s reaction would be.

Sadness. Benvolio offered him sadness and compassion, and Mercutio almost wept. Because that only made it more obvious that Romeo wasn’t his, and never would be. Even Benvolio recognised as much.

The boys were moving, milling around ready to go. Mercutio stepped away from the car, figuring he would walk home from here.

But Romeo broke out of the crowd, and approached Mercutio. I don’t want to hear it… Romeo was brimming over with compassion, too, along with a sweet dash of regret. Everyone was watching him. Mercutio stood still as if trapped, when what he wanted to do was run wild, leave this forever-ache behind. Don’t say it, and don’t you dare apologise or make excuses

Perhaps Romeo understood, for he didn’t speak. Instead he lifted hands to Mercutio’s face, palest-honey against Mercutio’s darkness, soft fingers running over knotted dreadlocks before palms cupped cheeks –

– and Romeo kissed him, a full-blooded mouth-to-mouth coupling, an acknowledgment and a farewell. And perhaps even a tribute, here in front of all their friends.

So serious that beautiful face as the young man finally pulled back. A folded piece of paper was pressed into Mercutio’s hands…

…and then Romeo was walking away, tall and unashamed and easy, amidst the wide-eyed stares and dropped jaws of several cousins. Benvolio was smiling, amused, maybe even a tad impressed.

Chaos as the Montague boys left in a bevy of cars; engines gunning hard, tyres spraying sand, music pumping loud.

A measure of peace returned once they were gone. Other people turned away, curiosity dying. Who could care for this man who’d been left alone by his friends?

Mercutio opened up the paper Romeo had given him… It contained, of course, a poem. Not even scanning the words, Mercutio simply refolded the paper, and thrust it into his back pocket, trying not to surrender to anger. He could walk home from here.

Around midnight, having searched for solace in a bottle or two of red wine, Mercutio unfolded the paper and read Romeo’s words…

You and me together…

We spin a web and cast a spell; to delight but not to trap;
a strand of golden hair from me, fragile gossamer from you.
We weave a dream and write a poem; for inspiration not fantasy;
a thread of words from me, a rich metaphor from you.

We mine for the gold in our hearts, dive for the pearls in our sex,
fly for the diamond-stars in our minds, share the wealth in our souls;
revealing what is there, revelling in our selves, not creating anew.
We leave home, but only to clarify that you’ve always been beside me.

We forget about forcing the false, we leave wishing and yearning behind;
together we find the inevitable. We love and we fuck and we live.
We build a castle and lift it high; to celebrate not to impose;
our bricks are truths, our mortar vulnerability, our turrets joy.

When the web is finished, the dream over, the poem read through,
your tender love returns to friendship. We each remain whole;
undiminished but not untouched, unhurt but not unmoved.
A silk flag snaps in the breeze, colours glowing in the sunlight…

So unfair! Letting Romeo go was not easy, no matter what the boy himself assumed; Mercutio’s heart wasn’t hard enough to remain untouched.

Mercutio endeavoured to consider the first three stanzas. Well, it seemed that he hadn’t needed to spell out every lesson – Romeo had grasped something vital without his friend’s prompting. And presumably Romeo was even now attempting to apply what he’d learned to his beloved Irene.

The phrasing of the poem lacked finesse, the rhythm was tenuous. But there had been some effort made to find images that usefully conveyed the central ideas, and the lack of rhyme in itself illustrated the notion of not forcing what should not be forced…

It was no use pretending. Cool analysis was impossible. Tears dimmed his eyesight as Mercutio clutched the paper up in his hand and whispered, ‘Farewell, Montague.’

♦ ♦ ♦

Life sank back into familiar grooves, though with an off-kilter feel; nothing was quite what it had been. The excessively hot weather continued, provoking mood swings from apathetic lethargy to desultory complaint to outright warfare and back again. As the Montague and Capulet boys prowled irritably through Verona, Captain Prince was kept busy round the clock quelling outbreaks of strife.

Romeo’s father was making serious noises about sending the young man to college come fall; and even if that was a local institution rather than one of the venerable colleges a thousand miles away in a cooler climate, everything would change. Benvolio had taken a full-time job with one of the Montague subsidiaries, beginning to shoulder the responsibilities and salary packages there for a cousin’s taking.

Gregory and Sampson, both eighteen years of age now, still clung to the old aimless and childish pursuits, not wanting to grow up. And who could really blame them? The boys had shared such good times.

By contrast, Balthasar, the youngest of the group by far, was also the most earnest; he followed Romeo with puppy-dog loyalty, and as Montague’s son quietened further so did he. The down-side was that despite Romeo’s gentle remonstrances Balthasar took up smoking. Mercutio could well understand the child wanting to imitate Romeo in this way: no one but young Montague could look so beautiful with a contemplative frown on his face and a cigarette hanging from his fine fingers.

The heat wore on… Mercutio continued in his own orbit around Romeo, watching and conversing, worrying and occasionally challenging. Something significant was askew with the younger man, though Mercutio wasn’t entirely sure what. Things had after all simply returned to pretty much what they had been, with one slight change in players…

It was Rosaline now. Irene had drifted from sight, Irene had been speedily forgotten… A different young woman had been fixed upon – but it seemed that Rosaline was just as likely to leave Romeo thwarted and unhappy. And, perhaps not unexpectedly, Romeo’s love-poetry had degenerated once more.

Mercutio spent every waking moment puzzling and bothering over the situation. Every night he agonised and fretted through his dreams. He could not find rest.

Why wouldn’t Romeo choose from the plethora of girls and young women who could return his love? He was more than handsome, he was the best of companions, he was Ted Montague’s treasured one-and-only son – Romeo could have his pick. Indeed, all Romeo need do was let someone have her pick of him. If he wasn’t bold enough, there were plenty of women out there who would respond to the slightest encouragement; a glance from under that tumble of gold hair, an intimate smile lighting up that beautiful face, and he’d be home.

Depending on what Romeo wanted, it didn’t even have to be romance… It was a long-accepted practice that the older women, having paid all due respect to their husbands over the years, provided a safe way for the younger single men to let off a little steam. That prince of cats, Tybalt, for instance, reputedly enjoyed the indulgence of his aunt Gloria, first lady of the Capulet family… And yet the scrupulous Romeo would not take advantage of such generosities.

What did the fellow want?

Surely all the sighing and moaning wasn’t an end in itself…? No, for Romeo had been eager and happy enough to consummate his friendly love for Mercutio, and his misery now seemed all too genuine as he beached himself once more on hopeless infatuation.

Well, maybe Mercutio would offer him a long-term alternative…

Romeo and Mercutio had loved well together, had brought each other as much joy as any pairing Mercutio had ever known. He had the ability to make Romeo happy again, so why shouldn’t Mercutio try for an involvement of more lasting duration?

During those few days Romeo had spent with Mercutio, even though his inclinations were mostly straight, Romeo had nevertheless been himself. He’d even said as much in his poem: We forget about forcing the false… Yes, Romeo had loved and learned with Mercutio – yet on his return to Verona, Romeo hadn’t applied those lessons or that love to Irene or to Rosaline or to any other woman. So, why shouldn’t Mercutio reach once more for the gold and pearls, diamond-stars and wealth in Romeo’s heart and sex, mind and soul?

Romeo was the best of men, but in embryo. Maybe he needed someone to help him form life and love out of raw matter, someone to guide and stimulate and challenge him. Perhaps someone was required to bring resolve to Romeo’s yearning, to be steel to his silk. And why shouldn’t that someone be Mercutio?

If Romeo was waiting to be stormed and taken, then why shouldn’t Mercutio be the one to possess him?

Why not indeed?

Ted Montague and Captain Prince would no doubt provide a hundred reasons why not, but Mercutio couldn’t give a damn. It was time for Mercutio to heed his own lessons, and take action where he loved…

The ideal situation soon presented itself.

Romeo wanted to attend a party that night at the Capulets’, at the home of his family’s sworn enemies, and Romeo was willing to run this potentially deadly risk merely because his beloved Rosaline would be there… Well, Mercutio was supposedly aligned with people uninvolved in the feud between the two families, so he was easily able to secure the necessary invitation for Mercutio and friends. He did not intend, however, that Romeo would have the opportunity or even the urge to pay any attention to the cold-hearted girl he was currently fixated on. Instead there would be Mercutio: a distraction, an enchantment; a friend, and a hot-blooded lover.

The party was to be a masked costume ball – a circumstance which begged to be taken advantage of.

Intending to remind Romeo of their first night together in Santo Francesco, and of all that happened in the week thereafter, Mercutio dressed in drag: a white garter-belt and matching stockings reaching halfway up his dark dark thighs; silver stilettos; a white-sequined bra with his black shoulder-holster and gun; and a white-sequined mini skirt that flattered his muscled stomach and strong narrow buttocks. Outrageous… The Montague boys were delighted, shocked, impressed.

As a further reminder, Mercutio gave Romeo a tab of ecstasy…

Ah, and Romeo was looking particularly beautiful on this night, dressed in silver armour; as noble and thoughtful and graceful as the boy-king Arthur…

The others were a little less imaginative, somewhat less effective: Sampson and Gregory were dressed as warriors, Viking and Scot respectively; and the large-framed Benvolio wore a monk’s habit. However, the Montague boys had returned to their old selves for this daring prank, full of braggadocio.

Poor miserable Romeo experienced some last minute misgivings, but then finally they were on their way to gatecrash the Capulets.

The party was a ridiculous, wonderful extravaganza. Things did not go quite according to plan, but Mercutio had a fine time of it anyway, singing and dancing and fooling around. Romeo had gotten separated from his friends, but whenever Mercutio spied either Rosaline or Irene amongst the throng, Romeo was noticeably absent…

…which was at first a relief, for Mercutio need not be jealous of either wench. But then Mercutio began to wonder what now – who now had distracted his young friend?

Best to leave that question for later; for the game was presently drawing to a close. Tybalt, prince of cats and favoured nephew of Fulgencio Capulet, had recognised the Montague infiltrators, and was furious. Time to leave while they could; Mercutio and Benvolio began merrily rounding their friends up.

At last Mercutio found Romeo standing stranded at the foot of the main staircase. He was doing nothing more than gaping up at a cluster of local royalty: Gloria Capulet and her young daughter; and Dave Paris, the white-bread-and-mayonnaise son of the Governor. What in heaven or hell is so fascinating? Mercutio fleetingly wondered. Though they’d both been born with all the benefits of race and rank and privilege, Romeo was worth a hundred, a thousand, ten-thousand of the Paris boy.

‘Come, dreamer!’ Mercutio cried, having to bodily drag Romeo away. ‘Come, madman,’ Mercutio said, laughing as Romeo finally surrendered to his friend’s guidance. ‘Come, lover,’ Mercutio murmured. And they were away.

But then, after Mercutio had bundled his friend safely out of the Capulet mansion, Romeo slipped away from his grasp once more.

Mercutio had been intending to ditch the other Montague boys, and take Romeo out dancing in the classiest of Verona’s gay bars… But as they drove out through the gates and the security checks, Romeo leapt from the car and darted off, not hearing or not responding to Mercutio calling after him… ‘Romeo! Madman! Lover!’

Well, that was the end of Mercutio’s fine plans, for tonight at least.

Benvolio was hollering for Mercutio to get back in the car, and the security guards were wanting them all to move on. Eventually Mercutio quit staring into the night, trying for a last glimpse of his love, and tumbled into the back seat, feeling lonely and bereft.

It was too unfair.

What had happened at the party? Romeo had seemed dreamy, pensive, enthralled – but enthralled with whom? Mercutio could have sworn Romeo hadn’t gone near either of his latest love-objects. Could he have fixed on someone else again? Perhaps Romeo had managed to find yet another frozen woman who would not be thawed by this beautiful boy’s devotion…

There had been something about him, though, a quality to his mood somewhat different. For Romeo hadn’t been vapid with yearning – he’d been resounding, he’d been alive. Perhaps he’d found some woman to his liking who’d actually encouraged him. Or perhaps Rosaline had at last let herself be possessed.

Damnation! All Mercutio’s plans for the night lay in ruins around him, scattered amidst these tawdry sequins. Had he been refused? Or maybe he had suffered the indignity of being completely overlooked. Could Romeo have not even noticed the renewal of Mercutio’s offers?

Why the devil had he left it till too late? Why couldn’t Mercutio have struck while he’d had the chance of love returned?

Unfair!

The discontent provoked by loss and sleeplessness was worsened early the next morning when Benvolio confirmed that Romeo hadn’t made it home to his bed.

Mercutio made up his mind that Romeo had finally had his way with his beloved Rosaline. This was not a thought to make Mercutio happy, not by any means. Apparently she – well, she or someone else, but what did that signify? – had resolved to have the young man, and Mercutio had missed his turn through waiting too long.

Action had been called for! And Mercutio was found lacking. The bitterness of it could not be borne…

At last Romeo drove down the beach towards them in his sleek silver car, high spirits evident as he leapt gracefully out onto the sand. One glance at that happy face was enough: Mercutio turned angrily away, propped himself against the hood, resting one heel on the bumper. ‘You gave us the slip last night,’ he began resentfully.

‘I’m sorry, Mercutio,’ the young man replied in warm and reasonable tones, as if knowing he could count on a friend’s understanding. ‘I had such important business to attend to that I took the risk of offending you with my rudeness.’

‘Tell me your business was offensive in its crudeness, and I’ll be well-pleased.’

Romeo laughed in amusement, walking around the front of the car to face his friend. ‘If you were pleased, your wit would be sharp rather than blunt.’

Mercutio was too startled to avoid the fellow’s knowing gaze. ‘Perhaps my bluntness unravels your tale. Your sharp wits can embroider it…’

‘It is a tale of learning, but I cannot tell it yet, even to learned ears.’

‘Learning,’ Mercutio asked with some suspicion, ‘or yearning? Tell me but one part of it.’

Ah, Romeo was laughing again, and looking so beautiful, so satisfied. ‘But one part?’ he asked. ‘Well, Mercutio my friend, I’ll tell you this much – if I gave you the slip last night, it was only because you weren’t wearing one.’

A shocked moment – and then Mercutio burst into joyous laughter. You noticed? he silently asked, even as he jumped Romeo and wrestled him to the ground. The pair of boys tumbled to and fro in the sand, tickling and fighting and loving, their friends staring after them in bemusement.

‘But, beware!’ Romeo breathlessly cried. ‘For a man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to…’

The maxim rested incomplete. ‘No need to scruple,’ Mercutio advised in a murmur, ‘over my butt. Beware!’

Chortling away, Romeo renewed his friendly assault, and they rolled further down the beach.

Mercutio soon found himself lying on his back, straddled by his love, and he happily surrendered. A moment’s awareness passed between the two of them, and quietly Mercutio asked, ‘No matter how vile the puns, is this not better than groaning for love?’

Romeo was watching him carefully, the younger man’s satisfaction shaded by a return of compassionate regret.

Nevertheless, Mercutio could not be unhappy to see Romeo fulfilled – even though the how and the why of this sudden fulfilment remained a mystery. ‘Now you are a friend. Now you are Romeo. Now you are the best of what you are; all your qualities blessed by art as well as by nature.’

‘My good friend, my best friend…’

‘Hush,’ chided Mercutio. And though he sensed well enough that Romeo was no longer his and maybe never really had been, Mercutio was about to draw the young man down into a kiss, wanting only to convey his love this one last time…

…but a shadow fell across them both.

A plump old woman, all done up ridiculously in red, stared down at them; she imperiously indicated Romeo, and announced, ‘I desire some confidences with you.’ And then she turned and walked away towards a chauffer waiting by a Town Car.

Much to Mercutio’s amazement, Romeo actually rose and followed her.

Mercutio picked himself up off the sand, his skin cold where Romeo had lately been touching him.

The other Montague boys were equally befuddled. Benvolio met Mercutio’s questioning glance, and shrugged; no one knew who this woman was. ‘Perhaps she will invite him to some supper,’ Benvolio lamely joked.

Romeo’s manner had become so serious now; and while he didn’t seem nervous, the young man was holding himself carefully, as if something momentous and good was at stake.

What on earth…? ‘Romeo!’ Mercutio called.

Nothing. No response. As if Mercutio no longer existed.

‘Romeo!’ And then Mercutio drew his gun, and fired it into the air. Quiet fell.

Startled, Romeo turned back to see his friend standing there.

‘Won’t you come to your father’s?’ Mercutio asked. ‘We’re expected.’

‘I’ll follow you,’ Romeo reassured him, before hurrying off after his new suitor once more.

Bizarre. Mercutio watched for a long moment, disgruntled, as his love listened earnestly to the old woman’s confidences. And then Mercutio turned away and stalked off towards his car. Damnation…

The dim air-conditioned reaches of the Montague dining room surrounded them. Every week or so, Ted Montague invited Romeo and his friends and cousins to a men-only midday meal; perhaps hoping to maintain some kind of sympathy between himself and the boys, perhaps endeavouring to remind them who wielded the power in this family. Today the luncheon was a constrained affair, with most of the participants out-of-sorts.

Nothing much was said about the fact that a written challenge, addressed to Romeo and sent by Tybalt, had been received here this very morning. Presumably Tybalt was still outraged over the Montague presence at the Capulet party the previous night.

Romeo sat there at the long table, preoccupied with distant and happier thoughts – for all Mercutio knew, Romeo might not even be aware that Tybalt had thrown down the gauntlet.

Mercutio knew from his uncle Prince that Ted Montague had promised to keep the peace: the father really should be taking this opportunity to counsel his son, to advise him in mending this rift… But, no, the older man, having maintained this feud with the Capulet family throughout the decades, seemed unconcerned over this latest little skirmish.

And who could look at Romeo now and accuse him of wanting to fight? The young man was utterly quiet, radiating peace from the very core of him, content through to his marrow. Ah, while Mercutio appreciated fire in a man, he couldn’t help but notice that Romeo drew more beauty from his restful satisfaction.

Though as Romeo’s satisfaction increased, Mercutio’s rapidly decreased. If only Romeo weren’t so withdrawn… If only he would confide in Mercutio… It was difficult for Mercutio to continue feeling happy for his friend’s sake, when that friend excluded him so pointedly. If Mercutio couldn’t have Romeo’s love, all right, he would live with that; but Mercutio didn’t want to have to manage without Romeo’s companionship as well.

The meal wore on. Before it had quite drawn to a close, however, Romeo stood and made his excuses to his father. Apparently urgent business called him away.

Mercutio sat taller, surprised once again. More important business? Something to do with that old woman in red, no doubt… He supposed he really should have expected this.

A moment stretched as Romeo cast a glance around the table. Then, ‘Balthasar?’ Romeo asked. ‘If you can, would you accompany me?’

Jealousy knotted Mercutio’s stomach. He said not a word. Not a word. While he was here in Romeo’s home, with Romeo’s father, it was best that a certain dignity be maintained… He owed that to his love.

The heat was building, storm clouds were massing on the sea’s horizon, and a wind was blowing everything restlessly about. Waiting for Romeo to return from his urgent business, Mercutio waded knee-deep in the languid waves, firing at fish or figments of his imagination. Bullets trailed air bubbles, and impacted the sea-floor with a flurry of sand.

Benvolio perched on the lifeguard tower, fretting the hours away.

He soon had what he thought of as good reason to worry: Tybalt arrived with two of his Capulet cousins, looking for Romeo. Mercutio amused himself by taunting the prince of cats in Romeo’s absence, and the two were immediately goading each other to a fight… Gregory and Sampson, and the two spare Capulets, warily circled the stand-off; while Benvolio pleaded for reason to prevail.

Well, Mercutio was in no mood for cold reason.

He and Tybalt were just about to draw and go to it, when a car sped up.

‘Mercutio!’ Romeo’s happy voice…

Tybalt smiled with nasty satisfaction, and relaxed somewhat, no longer interested in Mercutio. ‘Peace be with you. Here comes my man.’

…’Mercutio!’ Apparently Romeo was too pleased with the successful conclusion of his business to notice the deadly situation here.

Turning his gaze away from Tybalt, perhaps unwisely, Mercutio watched young Montague run towards him. Was Romeo finally intending to share his news with his best friend? What god-forsaken timing from his contrary love.

Romeo caught Mercutio’s warning look…

…just as Tybalt called his name. ‘Romeo! You are a villain.’

A hot still moment dragged by; and then young Montague calmly approached the prince of cats. ‘I have reason to love you,’ Romeo announced, ‘though you don’t know it yet.’

None of them knew such a strange thing. All eyes were on Romeo.

‘And I am not a villain,’ Romeo continued, ‘though apparently you don’t know that, either. So, until you know these things, I’ll leave you in peace.’ And Romeo turned and began walking away.

Everyone stood amazed.

The storm clouds were massing, the wind tumbling them closer… A distant flash of lightning.

Tybalt snarled, and then ran after his prey. A scuffle broke out – or, rather, Tybalt leapt on Romeo, hurled him to the sand, and towered over him. ‘This does not answer the hurt you’ve done me!’

There was blood weeping from a cut on Romeo’s mouth, sand on his face. He gazed steadily up at Tybalt, and said, ‘I have never hurt you. And so, good Capulet – whose name is as dear to me as my own – be satisfied.’ As he spoke, Romeo carefully withdrew his gun from its holster, obviously not intending to use it, and laid the weapon in the sand. ‘Be satisfied.’ Then he picked himself up, and walked away once more.

Unbelievable.

Sunlight was lost in storm-shadow.

Blindingly furious, Tybalt chased after Romeo, shoving him to the ground, kicking him when he tried to crawl on, dragging him up with a fistful of Romeo’s shirt and hitting him solidly across the face. Once, twice, thrice. Yet all the while, Romeo would not lift a hand against the man. Even though Romeo was reeling dizzily from the blows, blood running from a cut to his temple – even now he would not fight.

Mercutio could stand it no longer. Granted, Romeo’s passivity was generally a wiser thing than the angry provocations and over-reactions of the other boys. But how was Mercutio meant to bear watching his love being beaten, no matter what reasons Romeo had for not fighting this bastard?

With a yell – ‘Tybalt, you rat-catcher!’ – Mercutio charged, slamming into Tybalt and letting momentum take them both away from where Romeo had fallen defenceless.

‘What do you want with me?’ young Capulet demanded.

‘Nothing but one of your nine lives…’

And Mercutio and Tybalt were scrapping together, maddened. Lightning and thunder loomed closer. Confusion, and the hot imperative of righteous violence. Soon Tybalt was lying dazed amidst broken glass. Mercutio stepped forward, resolve hardening within him. It was time to finish this matter –

– but Romeo came between them, wrapping his arms round Mercutio and dragging him away. ‘Enough, Mercutio! Enough.’

‘No…’ Mercutio mumbled in protest. ‘No.’ Though, because Romeo had requested it, he took a breath and tried to quell his blood’s pounding.

‘Enough of this outrage, my friend.’

Of course Tybalt was not listening. He was on his feet again, staggering but intent. A shard of glass in his hand.

‘No!’ Mercutio cried – and he twisted Romeo out of the way, and took the blow for him.

Pain.

Tybalt gazing at him, dazed and distraught; beginning to guess what had happened. Sirens approaching, though they’d be too late. The Montague boys cheering Mercutio for his victory.

Pain.

‘Are you hurt?’ asked Benvolio at last.

‘A scratch,’ Mercutio bravely replied. After a moment he gingerly lifted his hand from where he’d held it pressed tightly to his side, and he looked down. Ugly. An ugly cut, and far too much blood. He didn’t let the others see. ‘A scratch…’

‘Have courage,’ Romeo was saying, coming to hold him, having no idea. ‘It can’t be too bad.’

‘It will do,’ Mercutio told him. ‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man.’

Pain.

And Romeo realising… Dark sorrow fell across his beautiful face. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered, fraught grief already springing in those blue eyes.

This stupid feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. Who’d have thought it would be the death of Mercutio, kin of Captain Prince the peace-maker? He looked from Romeo to Tybalt and back again. ‘A plague on both your houses.’

‘Mercutio…’

The Capulets ran off, dragging a shaken and remorseful Tybalt with them. The threat was gone, Romeo was safe; but Mercutio cared no longer.

‘A plague on both your houses.’ Mercutio pushed away from his love’s arms, beginning to hate Romeo in that moment. Death was weighing heavy on him. Trying to outrun it, Mercutio tottered off down the beach.

When he fell, Romeo was there, straddling him in thoughtless intimacy, lifting Mercutio’s head out of the sand. Once Mercutio had wanted to kiss him, in just this way – but he wanted that no more. Tears and blood and sand spattered Romeo’s beautiful loathsome face.

‘A plague on both your houses!’

The storm finally broke, rain pelted cold. The wind whipped him out of himself. And darkness claimed Mercutio.

♦ ♦ ♦

Nothing.

Nothing.

Mercutio’s soul is but a little way above our heads!

Nothing, and then Romeo calling on him. His Romeo, both beloved and hated.

‘Mercutio’s soul is but a little way above our heads!’

Romeo was on his knees in the torrents of rain, raging up at Tybalt – and Tybalt was standing there holding his gun, but Romeo was the one aiming it, Romeo’s fist holding the barrel hard against his own forehead…

‘Either you or I or both must go with him!’

Romeo was relentlessly trying to force Tybalt to fire.

And Tybalt was panicked by this man, barely recognising the quiet, passive, aloof young Montague who spoke of love not violence. But whenever Capulet took a step back, Romeo pressed forward.

‘Either you or I or both must go with him!’

At last Tybalt wrenched free from the madman.

The gun fell to the ground at Romeo’s knees. He picked it up slowly, wondering; then he looked up to see Tybalt running scared up the steps before him.

Romeo hefted the gun as if in a dream, aimed it, following a fate decreed. He fired. Once, twice, thrice. Tybalt fell.

Mercutio was avenged.

A horrified moment stretched. The gun slipped from Romeo’s fingers… And the boy sobbed. ‘O, I am fortune’s fool!’

Darkness and disquiet, and the fear that it would be never-ending. Then the torment of knowing that Romeo had died untimely…

…and Mercutio was still adrift and alone.

Darkness.

Are you satisfied now? Benvolio calling on him at last, venom and grief in his voice. ‘Are you satisfied now, Mercutio? Your curse came true…’

The cathedral dim around them, lit by candles. Benvolio praying, kneeling in the front pew, and Balthasar waiting loyally in the shadows. They were, perhaps, keeping watch.

‘Your curse came true. A plague took the only child of both houses. Is that what you wanted?’

Mercutio saw the altar then, and he knew…

…Romeo had transcended his infatuations and found his true love. Romeo had even transcended the ancient family feud. His urgent happy business had been wooing and marrying young Juliet Capulet, the woman who had been steel to Romeo’s silk. But then the new-made bride and groom had each suicided rather than live without the other…

They were laid out there in their wedding clothes. No, their bodies lay there – their souls were somewhere else, together, at rest or at play.

Romeo… Ah, Romeo was of course beautiful and worthy, flawed and perfect. The remnant of Mercutio was consumed with a fierce hopeless yearning. I loved you. I truly loved you. If there was any way of lifting that ridiculous curse… Mercutio sighed, apparently still capable of impatience. What’s done cannot be undone.

Benvolio asked, ‘Can’t your soul be free now? He knew you loved him. But he loved her… Wasn’t she magnificent?’ Benvolio sighed at the sad cliched symmetry of the situation. ‘He loved you in his own way, Mercutio.’

Yes. Yes, he did.

‘So, what will give you rest?’ Benvolio asked. ‘What do you want, coz?’

Peace… He remembered Romeo wishing it for him. Peace, good Mercutio.

And he was granted it.

So shrive my soul.

♦ ♦ ♦

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