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1. Shake, Quoth The Dovehouse

Slowly, Benvolio sat up, dazed, covered in dust, with the sound of the church bells still ringing in his ears. For a moment, he could not remember what day it was, or how he had come to be sleeping in the middle of the street in broad daylight. Had there been a holiday? He remembered people running and shouting, and all the bells in Verona had been ringing. His head pounded, and he squeezed his eyes shut.

All at once, his memory came back. There had been an earthquake. His mother had sent him off to early Mass with a coin for the poorbox and old Tomasso to look after him. He had strutted through the streets proudly, feeling just like a grown-up lord, even though he was all of seven years old. He had skipped and pranced, and had run a few steps ahead of Tomasso, and then it had happened. A rumble like thunder had filled the air, the ground had begun to shake beneath his feet, and the church bells had begun to ring. That was the last Benvolio remembered.

Not knowing what else to do, he scrambled to his feet and looked around. The familiar streets of Verona suddenly looked strange and threatening. Chunks of brick and stone lay scattered all around, and people lay on the ground, bleeding. Some moaned in shock, some lay silent. Tomasso lay on the ground next to him, in a wide pool of his own blood. Benvolio shook him, but he did not move, and his eyes stared blankly at the sky. Benvolio wanted his mother, but he could not remember how to get home. He almost began to cry, but caught himself in time. He had just had his First Communion a few months past, and his father had sat him down after the service and explained to him that he had now reached the age of reason, and that it was time to start thinking and acting like the little man that he was.

A large pile of rubble blocked one end of the street. Benvolio turned around and began to walk in the other direction. He picked his way carefully over rocks and the occasional body until he came to the end of the street. The next one seemed clearer, and Benvolio followed it easily. He passed several groups of people hurrying on their way, but none of them seemed to notice a small, lost child, not even one who had reached the age of reason. Presently, he came to the piazza, and stopped cold in his tracks.

The little covered stalls that usually lined the eastern side of the piazza on market day lay broken and twisted all around, the vegetables and sale goods scattered all over the place. Chickens and ducks ran and flapped freely. It looked like the time a fortnight ago that his family's retainers had brawled with the Capulets and the Prince had come to break up the fight. He and his cousin Romeo, just returning from confession, had hidden themselves underneath a crate of eggplants and watched the fight with a mixture of horror and fascination. Afterwards, their mothers had run frantically through the chaos, searching for them.


He turned around at the sound of his name, hoping against hope that his mother had come for him.

His mother was not there, but Benvolio smiled anyway. Mercutio, his best friend in the world besides Romeo, walked across the piazza to his side. Mercutio was just as filthy as Benvolio was, and he held his little brother Valentine, who was two, and usually sticky, by the hand. Valentine's white-blond curls were gray with dust, and he looked up at Benvolio with round, frightened eyes.

"Art thou well?" Mercutio asked. "Thy head is bleeding. Come, let us go to the fountain, and I will wash the dust from my eyes and the blood from thy face." He grabbed Benvolio's wrist and marched him and Valentine over to the public fountain on the west side of the piazza.

The basin of the fountain had cracked in the earthquake, and the water spilled out, filling the depression that surrounded the basin. Valentine squirmed and tried to reach the water, but Mercutio held him fast. "No, Valentine," he said. "Thou art too little to go in the water. Hold Benvolio's hand a while, and I will make it safe for thee."

Benvolio took Valentine's hand, which was grimy as well as sticky today, and watched as Mercutio collected loose pieces of stone and built a rough pool near the overflowing fountain. He splashed some water into the pool and smiled. "That is better," he said. "There is a pool that is just thy size. Now thou canst splash and play, and the giant salamander will not pull thee down to the bottom of the fountain and drown thee before I can save thee."

Valentine giggled, and Benvolio smiled, too. Hearing Mercutio invent yet another fantastical monster made the day seem almost normal again. He lifted Valentine up and carefully deposited him in the pool. Mercutio dipped his hand in the water and scrubbed some of the grime off of Valentine's face and then his own. Then he left Valentine to play in his pool and led Benvolio into the deeper puddles surrounding the fountain.

"I was going to Mass with Tomasso," Benvolio said, "and then the earth rumbled, and I fell down. Tomasso is dead. I do not know the way home."

"Thy fall must have addled thy brains," Mercutio said. He pulled a large white handkerchief from his sleeve, dipped it in the water, and pressed it against Benvolio's forehead. "It is good for thee that I have found thee. I know where thy home is. I will take thee there."

The cool, wet handkerchief felt good against Benvolio's head, and the throbbing ache began to die down a little. "What about thy own home?" he asked. "I would not want to keep thee from thy mother and father."

Mercutio bent down and splashed water on his own face, then flicked a few drops at Valentine to make him laugh. Then he leaned close to Benvolio. "I will take thee home. It will be no trouble. My father is away doing business in Mantua, and my mother is dead."

"What?" Benvolio pulled the handkerchief from his head and stared at Mercutio in shock.

Quick as a flash, Mercutio pressed the handkerchief against Benvolio's mouth. "Hush!" he commanded in a harsh whisper. "Do not speak another word. Valentine does not know, and I do not wish him to find out, for if he does, he will start to weep, and if he starts to weep, then I . . . I will start to weep as well." Mercutio's lower lip began to wobble, but he caught himself just in time, and thrust his chin out bravely, as if he were far older than seven.

"What happened?" Benvolio whispered. "Why is thy mother dead?"

Mercutio turned away and splashed more water on his face. "We were in the orchard, and Mama was in the flower garden. After the earth stopped shaking, we went to look for her. She was lying on the ground with a pair of shears stuck in her bosom. I told Valentine that Mama was hurt, and that we were going to go and fetch her a surgeon. It was not a lie," he added, seeing the look of horror on Benvolio's face. "She was still breathing a little when we left. I think she is likely dead now, and no surgeon in the world will be able to help her. But I beg of thee, Benvolio, do not tell Valentine. I do not know what I would do with him if he knew that Mama is dead."

Benvolio gulped and nodded. "I will keep thy secret," he said. "But he will have to find out sometime."

"Sometime," Mercutio agreed. "But not now. How is thy head?"

"Better," Benvolio said slowly. "It does not hurt as much."

"Good. Then let me tie it up, and then Valentine and I will take thee home."

Mercutio rinsed his handkerchief mostly clean of Benvolio's blood, wrung it out, and tied it around Benvolio's head. Then he waded out of the puddle and pulled Valentine out of his pool.

"No!" Valentine cried. "More pool!"

"We are going to Benvolio's house now," Mercutio said. "Thou must come with us, or else I will have to leave thee all alone here in the big piazza."

Valentine looked properly horrified at that, and seized Mercutio's hand. "No!" he repeated, more firmly this time. Mercutio flashed a smile at Benvolio, and the three children walked out of the piazza. As soon as they started walking, Benvolio found that he did remember the way home, but he did not send Mercutio and Valentine away. He was just as happy as Valentine not to be left alone on this terrifying day, and he suspected that Mercutio was glad of the distraction as well.

They picked their way carefully through the damaged streets until they came to the big block where Benvolio's house abutted his uncle's grander one. The walls of both houses were cracked, but there did not seem to be as much damage in this neighborhood as in the piazza. Benvolio walked up to the gate and paused. He could hear voices just beyond the gate, screaming and wailing. He thought that one of the voices sounded like his uncle Tiberio.

"Lucio, Lucio," the voice cried. "Alas, my brother Lucio, and Floria, too!"

Lucio and Floria were Benvolio's father and mother. He wondered what had happened to make his uncle cry out like that. He turned to ask Mercutio what he thought, and saw that Mercutio was clutching Valentine tightly, looking as if he wanted to weep. Benvolio's stomach began to feel queasy. He swallowed, and reached up to open the gate.

"Benvolio! No! Do not go in!" His aunt Susanna came flying around the corner, her hair undone and streaming behind her. Romeo, sporting a fresh black eye, arrived only a moment later, and seized his mother's skirts. Aunt Susanna pulled Benvolio away from the gate.

"Do not go in, Benvolio," she said. "Come, I will take thee to our house, and thou mayst visit with Romeo for a while. I am sure that Cook can find some treats. Mercutio, wilt thou and thy brother come inside as well?"

Mercutio looked stricken, then slowly shook his head. "No, Lady Montague, though I thank you for the offer. I still have an errand that I must perform." He reached out and gave Benvolio's hand a quick squeeze, then squatted down in front of Valentine. "Climb on my back, Valentine, and I will give thee a horsie ride."

Valentine, exhausted from walking so far, climbed on Mercutio's back, and Mercutio stood up, wobbling a little. Aunt Susanna frowned at him.

"Art thou strong enough to carry him, Mercutio?" she asked. "Thou art not yet very big."

"I am big enough to take care of my brother," Mercutio said. "Farewell." He managed a watery smile for Benvolio and Romeo, then turned and walked away, bouncing Valentine as he went.

Aunt Susanna watched him go, then took Romeo and Benvolio firmly by the hands and. "Come inside now," she said. "Play in Romeo's chamber until someone comes."

Neither Romeo nor Benvolio felt much like playing, and they clung to Aunt Susanna's hands. Aunt Susanna sighed, and brought them into her personal sitting room. Her maids were picking fallen jewels and embroidery supplies off the floor, and Romeo's nurse pushed furniture back into place. When Aunt Susanna walked in, the servants made reverence, and the nurse immediately began to fuss over the children.

"Oh, the poor poppets," she said. "The little master has a black eye, and young Benvolio has been hurt as well! God's lady dear, something must be done." The nurse pulled a small bottle from her apron pocket, and poured a few drops of something pungent-smelling onto a cloth. She gave the cloth to Aunt Susanna, and Aunt Susanna held it over Romeo's eye. The nurse then untied the handkerchief from Benvolio's head and clucked at the laceration she found there.

"This wants a poultice of comfrey," said, and bustled off to make it. One of the maids hurried upstairs, and returned with little almond cakes for Romeo and Benvolio. Romeo gobbled his cake down, but Benvolio found that it stuck in his throat. The nurse returned with the comfrey poultice and bound it to Benvolio's head with clean, dry bandages.

"Wilt thou eat thy cake, Benvolio?" Aunt Susanna asked.

Benvolio shrugged, and nibbled at the edge to show willing, but he had no stomach for almond cakes. "What happened to Mama and Papa?" he asked, knowing what the answer would be, but wanting to hear the words anyway.

Aunt Susanna sighed. "They were out on their balcony, taking the air," she said. "No other part of the house was damaged, but the balcony shook loose of the wall, and fell into the courtyard. Thy parents were killed in an instant, Benvolio. They did not suffer, and they are with God now."

Benvolio forgot all about being a little man, and began to weep. Romeo slid off of Aunt Susanna's lap and put his arms around his cousin.

"Do not be afraid, Benvolio," he said. "Thou canst live here, in our house. Thou canst share my chamber and my bed. Thou wilt not be alone."

A small part of Benvolio was glad to hear that, but he kept on weeping. He was only vaguely aware when Uncle Tiberio came into the sitting room, picked him up, and carried him away to bed.

For the next week, funeral processions filled Verona. There were enough deaths that the Prince commanded the people to combine funerals and processions so that the dead might all be interred promptly. As it happened, Lucio and Floria Montague shared a funeral with, among others, Donatella Rinuccini, Mercutio's mother. Benvolio saw him in the church, standing between his father, Giacomo Rinuccini, and the Prince.

"Why is the Prince standing with Mercutio?" Romeo asked.

"Lady Rinuccini was his sister," Uncle Tiberio replied. "Mercutio is his nephew. Now, hush. Thou must show respect for the dead."

The funeral took a long time. The priest chanted in Latin, and the sweet smell of incense hung in the air, almost enough to cover the stench of death that hung over Verona. Benvolio tried to be a little man, and did not weep out loud, but he could not stop the tears that ran down his face.

Afterwards, the mourners followed the biers out to the cemetery. Just before the processions divided to go to the different family tombs, Benvolio caught sight of Mercutio again. He darted over and gave back Mercutio's handkerchief, freshly laundered.

"Thanks," Mercutio whispered, and tucked the handkerchief into his sleeve. Benvolio took his hand and squeezed. The two boys' eyes met, and they found that they did not need to hunt for words, for each saw his own sorrow reflected in the other's eyes.

Chapter Text

2. By Art As Well As By Nature

For the bricklayers, stonecutters, and plasterers of Verona, the months after the earthquake provided easy business, as the citizens patched and repaired their houses. Inside the freshly rebuilt walls, they went about the more difficult business of repairing their families.

Benvolio now lived with Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna, who had taken him into their home as if he were their son and not their nephew. He slept in Romeo's large bed, which meant that he had a constant companion with whom he could giggle and chatter after the servants extinguished the candles and who would snuggle next to him when he woke in the night crying for his parents. Gradually, the servants began to treat him and Romeo as if they were twin brothers, though Benvolio was a full month older than his cousin. Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna referred to them in a single breath as "Romeo and Benvolio," and made sure that their nephew had all the privileges they bestowed upon their son.

The Latin school that was run by the brothers of the Franciscan monastery on the edge of the city opened as soon as it was repaired, and Uncle Tiberio declared that Romeo and Benvolio were old enough to attend. They had both learned their letters and syllables from hornbooks at home the year before, and both could read and write simple Italian. Benvolio could struggle through most of the Lord's Prayer in Latin, though he recited it by rote rather than from true understanding.

"The good friars will teach thee that prayer and much more," Uncle Tiberio said as he inspected the two boys before sending them off on their first day. He pulled a thin, worn book from one of the shelves above his desk and held it out before them.

"This was my primer, that I shared with my departed brother Lucio. I have kept it since, and now the two of you will learn from it," he said. "Alas, you will have to share it, as Lucio and I did not, for he used it after me. Can you do that?"

Two dark heads nodded.

"Yes, Papa."

"Yes, Uncle."

"Good." Uncle Tiberio handed the book to Benvolio. "Thou wilt carry it to school, Benvolio, and Romeo may carry it home."

When they arrived at school, they were pleased to find Mercutio among the crowd of students and retainers waiting at the door. A brilliant smile lit his thin face when he saw them. "You are coming to school, too!" he cried. "I know I will like it now."

"What hast thou learned already?" Romeo asked, a little nervously.

"I can make most of my letters," Mercutio said, "though sometimes I forget and write them in the wrong direction, and I can read long letters in Italian, except for some words that I do not yet know, and Papa sometimes sets me arithmetic problems so that I will be quiet for a while, and –"

"Dost thou know any Latin?" Romeo broke in.

Mercutio seemed not to notice the interruption, but shook his head cheerfully. "Not a word. Papa said he did not know enough to teach me, and that is why he chose to send me to school. He said that a young gentleman ought to know Latin, and that was reason enough to spend money on my school fees."

Benvolio exchanged a worried glance with Romeo. Neither one of them had considered that their schooling cost money. "Surely thy father can afford thy fees," Benvolio stammered.

"Of course he can. I think he really wanted to have me educated at home, but a tutor costs even more money than school." Mercutio pursed his lips in imitation of his father. "He says that the Rinuccini family did not become wealthy by spending money on idle luxuries, and that sending me to school would cost him less money and keep me out of his hair, though the prank with the mouse and the cobwebs was long ago, and I have not done anything like it since then –"

At that moment, a young friar in a simple brown robe opened the schoolhouse door and rang a bell to summon the boys inside. Romeo and Benvolio found an empty desk and sat together, since they were sharing a primer. Mercutio chose a desk next to them and opened his own primer, swinging his legs as he waited impatiently for the first lesson to begin.

On the whole, Benvolio enjoyed going to school. Sharing a primer with Romeo was not as difficult as he had feared, though sometimes they had to study at different places in the book. Occasionally, Benvolio would slide out of his seat and go to sit with Mercutio and share his primer instead, for the subjects at which they were on the same level. Mercutio was clever and quick-witted, and learned elementary Latin faster than any boy in the baby class. It was far more interesting to sit next to him than Romeo, who, though not dull by any stretch of the imagination, had relatively little interest in school. Eventually, Benvolio stopped sitting with Romeo during lessons altogether.

Romeo did not seem to mind in the least, and the three boys gathered to play together at the short recess that the friars allowed after dinner in the school's refectory. One of them would usually bring a small toy to school, perhaps a ball or a bag of dice, and they would entertain themselves in the schoolyard. Romeo turned out to have a knack for betting on dice, and Mercutio could invent the most extraordinary games to play with a ball. These games soon attracted a larger crowd of boys, most of whom were distantly related to Romeo or sons of his father's clients.

It was during one of these games that Verona's feud, which simmered constantly beneath the daily life of the city, erupted into their lives. Mercutio had thrown the ball high in the air, and Benvolio ran to catch it as the rest of the boys scattered. Benvolio kept his eye on the ball's flight, and did not bother to look at the ground as he ran. Just as he was about to catch the ball, his foot caught on something, and he fell, sprawling on the pavement. The ball bounced down near him and rolled away.

Benvolio slowly sat up, wincing at his scraped knees and hands, and groaned. Tybalt, a dark, sturdy boy who was somehow related to the Capulets, stood over him and smirked, the wind making his black curls stir a little. "See the clumsy babe!" he crowed. "Montague's false son has fallen on his false face."

"Because thou didst put out thy foot to trip him," Mercutio snapped, as Romeo helped Benvolio to his feet.

Benvolio tried to pull the shreds of his dignity together. "This is our game," he said. "Thou hast no right to intrude."

Tybalt laughed at him. "It is a Montague game. I will not be told what to do by someone who is not even a real Montague."

"Benvolio is more a Montague than thou art a Capulet," Romeo said.

"And anyway, it is not a Montague game," Mercutio added, "as I am the owner of the ball, and I am no part of the house of Montague."

"Thou dost consort with them. That is good enough for me." Tybalt shoved past Mercutio and Benvolio, and spat in Romeo's face. "That is for playing at Montague games where all eyes can see, scum!"

"The schoolyard is free for everyone, rat-eater," Mercutio said, moving so that he stood nose to nose with Tybalt. "We have as much right to play here as thou and thy friends."

"Good," Tybalt replied. "I want to play Kill The Montague!" With that, he spun around, hauled back his fist and knocked Romeo to the ground.

Mercutio screeched, and leaped on Tybalt's back. Tybalt went down, and the two boys rolled over each other in the dust, hitting and kicking. Although Tybalt was the heavier of the two, Mercutio's fists were as quick as his tongue, and it was only a few moments before he had pinned Tybalt to the ground. The noise of the fight quickly attracted a great crowd of friars, students, and retainers.

"What is going on here?" Mercutio's cousin Paris, a big boy of nearly thirteen, hurried over, lifted him off of Tybalt, and held him squirming in the air so that Tybalt could rise and brush himself off.

"He jumped on me!" Tybalt cried, pointing at Mercutio.

"Only after thou didst strike Romeo," Benvolio retorted. Tybalt would have hit him for that, but Paris put Mercutio down and dragged Tybalt back a few steps.

"I do not care who started it," Paris said. "There is to be no fighting between Montagues and Capulets, by order of the Prince. That includes little children such as yourselves."

"Thou art high and mighty today," Mercutio grumbled. "One might think that Uncle had died and left thee his throne."

Paris snorted, and grabbed Mercutio's arm. "Hold thy tongue, pipsqueak, or I shall tell Uncle about thy part in this, and he will tell thy father, and then thou wilt have a thrashing."

Benvolio thought he saw a flash of genuine fear in Mercutio's eyes, but it was gone in an instant. Mercutio tossed his head defiantly. "I am not afraid of a thrashing. And I am not afraid of thee, nor of Uncle, neither."

"Thy Uncle is a buggerer, anyway," Tybalt said. That remark almost started the fight up again, but Paris hauled Tybalt and Mercutio apart.

"Be quiet, Tybalt," he said. "Thou hast no idea what that word means. Go back inside and study thy books. Romeo and Benvolio, do likewise. Mercutio, I thought that thou didst know better than to involve thyself in this fight. I will take thee home myself after school is out."

"No!" Mercutio cried, but Paris paid no attention, and dragged him back into the schoolhouse by the wrist, shooing Tybalt before him as he went.

Romeo and Benvolio and their friends stood in the schoolyard for a while. Vincenzo picked up the ball and tossed it in the air, but none of them felt much like playing any more. Without a word, they went back to their desks.

The escapade with Tybalt earned both Romeo and Benvolio a severe scolding from Uncle Tiberio that evening. After one of the maids dressed their scrapes and bruises, Aunt Susanna sent both of them to bed without supper. They fell asleep listening to each other's stomachs rumble, and dreamed of large feasts. In the morning, before they went to school, they begged forgiveness of Uncle Tiberio.

"Of course I forgive you," Uncle Tiberio said. "I simply have no desire to see either of you hurt. The Capulets are dangerous and hotheaded, and they can kill the unwary in an instant. I would not want to see either my son or my nephew hurt in such an incident." With that, he opened his arms and pulled both boys close in a warm embrace. Just as they left the door, old Abram, who took them to school in the mornings, presented them with soft white rolls that he had sweet-talked from Cook while they were apologizing.

Romeo and Benvolio hurried to the schoolhouse, where they could play with their friends for a short time before lessons began. Vincenzo and Salvatore were already there, tossing Mercutio's ball back and forth between them. Mercutio sat on the stoop, holding Valentine on his lap and chanting a rhyme to him, while his retainer Domenico stood nearby and watched. As Romeo and Benvolio approached him, he ducked his head and looked away. Valentine crowed, and held out his hands to Benvolio. Benvolio smiled and pretended to eat one chubby little hand, and Valentine dissolved in giggles.

"Hast thou no words of greeting for us this morning, Mercutio?" Romeo asked. "Why dost thou hide thy face from thy friends?"

"And what is Valentine doing here?" Benvolio asked. "He can barely speak. Surely it is too soon to teach him Latin."

Mercutio pressed his lips together briefly, then turned to face them. Benvolio's hand flew to his mouth to stifle a gasp. The entire left side of Mercutio's face was swollen and purple with bruising. He tried to muster a smile for his friends, but the injuries to his face twisted the smile into a grimace.

Romeo found his tongue first. "What happened to thee?"

Mercutio shrugged. "Just what Paris said would happen. I fought with Tybalt, and Papa thrashed me for it." He glared at them, as if daring them to say anything else about the matter.

Benvolio gulped. "I am sorry. If I had kept a sharper eye on where I was going, I would not have run into Tybalt, and this fight would not have happened."

"Do not make a martyr of thyself, Benvolio," Mercutio said. "If Tybalt had not tripped thee, he would have found some other way to pick a quarrel. I do not regret what I did. I would fight him again. Tybalt is a bully, and I cannot stand a bully."

Benvolio nodded soberly, and reached up to examine Mercutio's wounds more closely, but Mercutio flinched away. "Do not touch me!"

"Does it pain thee?" Benvolio asked.

"Not so much. Only if someone touches my face."

Romeo drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. "Thy father must have been very angry at thee, Mercutio," he said. "My father scolded us and sent us to bed without supper, but he forgave us this morning. He and my mother have spanked me before when I misbehaved, but not often."

Benvolio nodded. "I think I remember my father spanking me once. It hurt, but that passed, and then I went and played again."

Mercutio would not meet their eyes, but took both of Valentine's hands and kissed them. "Papa was very angry last night, was he not, Valentine?"

"Papa angry." Valentine reached up and put his arms around Mercutio's neck.

"Papa is still angry," Mercutio said. "That is why I have Valentine with me today. Domenico will keep him while we have lessons. I thought it best for us both to be out of Papa's sight."

Benvolio started. "He did not hit Valentine, too?"

"No. But Valentine is still little and does not understand things. I did not want him to be in Papa's way today."

Neither Romeo nor Benvolio could think of anything useful to say. Valentine sat up straight in his brother's arms. "M'cutio broken." He gave Mercutio a sloppy kiss on his uninjured cheek. Mercutio managed another twisted smile and the beginnings of a giggle as he wiped his face.

Benvolio smiled, and ruffled Valentine's hair. "Thou art a good boy, Valentine." He shifted to sit a little closer to Mercutio on the stoop. The door opened, and Friar Salvatore rang the bell, summoning them to another day of Latin lessons.

Chapter Text

3. Children Of Divers Kind

The sight of Mercutio's wounded face troubled Benvolio, although he said nothing about it for the rest of the day. When lessons were over, Abram appeared from the waiting room to escort him and Romeo home. As they pinned their cloaks around their necks, Benvolio saw Valentine toddle through the crowd of boys to wrap his arms around Mercutio's legs, while Domenico drew Friar Salvatore aside for a moment of private conversation. Abram gently nudged Benvolio's shoulder, and he turned to follow his cousin out of the schoolhouse.

Romeo, who always adored the moment when lessons were over for the day, chattered excitedly about their afternoon fencing lesson. Benvolio nodded, and pretended to look interested, but he could not force his thoughts away from the terrible bruises on his friend's face.

His distraction carried over into the fencing lesson, and earned him several bruises of his own. After Benvolio had fluffed an easy parry for the third time, the fencing master stopped and gazed down at him with a sigh.

"Your mind is elsewhere, Benvolio," he said. "I will teach you no more today, for that would waste time. Go to the edge of the room and run while I finish Romeo's lesson."

Benvolio saluted, placed his foil in the rack, and began to trot around the salon. He did not mind the exercise, for even as his feet found their pace, his thoughts soon flowed in their accustomed track.

After supper, he was not surprised when Abram appeared, summoning him to Uncle Tiberio's study. Benvolio arranged his face into a pleasant expression, and knocked on the great doors.

"Come in."

He pushed the door open and slipped inside. Uncle Tiberio sat at his desk at the far end of the room. Benvolio bowed. "You called for me, Uncle, and I am here."

Uncle Tiberio nodded. "So thou art. Come closer, Benvolio."

Benvolio moved to stand in front of Uncle Tiberio's desk. Uncle Tiberio laced his fingers together and regarded Benvolio with a strange look on his face.

"Thy fencing master came to me today and said that he perceived a troubled mind in thee, child. Wilt thou tell me of thy distress?"

Benvolio did not know where to begin. He hung his head and examined the fine pattern of the carpet. Uncle Tiberio waited patiently. The silence weighed down on Benvolio's shoulders until he could stand it no longer. "Mercutio was hurt today," he murmured. "His face was all bruised and swollen, and he said that his father thrashed him for fighting yesterday."

"Ah." Uncle Tiberio looked surprised, but not angry, and he leaned back in his chair.

"Can you help him, Uncle? Can you tell Mercutio's father not to do that again?"

Uncle Tiberio pursed his lips, then let out a long sigh. "I am pleased to see such compassion in thy heart for thy friend, Benvolio," he said, "but thou must know that there is naught that I can do. Rinuccini is not a kinsman or a client to be spoken to thus, nor even one with whom I do business. How he chooses to discipline his son is not my affair."

"Yes, Uncle." Benvolio tried not to let his disappointment show.

Uncle Tiberio shifted some papers on his desk. "Mercutio is a flighty child," he said, "and perhaps he has earned his correction. I will not discourage thee from pursuing friendship with him, for he is of noble blood and kin to the Prince, but I caution thee not to look to him for a model for thy own behavior. Instead, if thou dost truly wish to help him, then let thy own conduct be a model for him. Teach him to bear himself like a young gentleman, and his father will not need to chastise him."

"Yes, Uncle." Benvolio could see that there was no point in discussing the matter further, although he could not see how he could curb Mercutio's rambunctious spirits.

Uncle Tiberio reached across the desk and ruffled Benvolio's hair. "I am glad that we have spoken of this, Benvolio," he said. "Thou art truly becoming a man of mercy and Christian love, and I am glad of that."

The bruises faded from Mercutio's face in time, and Benvolio was glad of that. He did his best to be a model of good behavior, although he was not entirely certain if he was making a difference. Mercutio would still fight Tybalt if he felt provoked, and Tybalt did enjoy going out of his way to insult Romeo and Benvolio. Both Romeo and Mercutio usually responded to these insults with their fists, which led to a quick scuffle in the schoolyard. Benvolio remembered his duty to be a model of Christian love and tried to ignore Tybalt's taunting. But he could not stop a hot flush of shame from rising in his face, and it was this, more than anything else, that led Mercutio to knock Tybalt down in fury.

As the boys grew bigger and stronger, they left marks on each other during these fights, so that it was not unusual for one or more children from each growing faction to troop back into the schoolroom disheveled and sweaty, nursing some spot on their bodies that would blossom purple the next morning.

"Why dost thou do this?" Benvolio asked Mercutio one day. "Thou needst not fight on my behalf all the time."

Mercutio frowned. "Someone must. Tybalt insults thee, and thou art a model of forbearance, but I can see that it pains thee. I cannot stand to see him treat thee so. Whenever he flings his words at thee, or spits on thee, or tosses dust in thy eyes, thou dost look as if thou wouldst weep straightaway. Thou art my friend, Benvolio, and I do not want to see my friend so miserable."

Benvolio could not help but smile at that. "Thou art a puzzle, Mercutio Rinuccini. Thou art the cleverest person I know, yet thou canst not tell the difference between love and war."

Mercutio shrugged, and tossed a small rock into the air. "Even the cleverest person does not know everything. Perhaps thou wilt teach me?"

"Perhaps, if I can." Benvolio considered the issue for a moment. "Tybalt does not always attack with his fists," he said. "Sometimes he uses insults to pick a fight."

"Either way, it wounds thee."

"But, perhaps thou couldst return his attacks in kind," Benvolio went on. "Tybalt is bigger than thou, and often I fear for thee when thou dost fight him. But no one can match thy tongue and thy wit. Thou couldst match Tybalt jest for jest without the slightest effort. Couldst thou not do that instead, when he insults us?"

Mercutio thought about it. "I could," he allowed. "It would be most excellent sport. Dost thou know that Tybalt's face turns purple when he knows that he has been outwitted?"

"Purple suits him well," Benvolio said with a laugh. "See that he wears that color often."

"I will still fight him if he tries to hit thee."

Uncle Tiberio had once said that the better part of valor lay in fighting only those battles one could win. Benvolio felt that this was probably a moment to content himself with the gains he had already made. "Very well. But do not hit him too hard."

Mercutio grinned. "The lightest of caresses, dear friend."

After Mercutio made that promise, the schoolyard became at once more peaceful and more interesting. Mercutio had always loved his studies, but now he pored over the books even more intensely, feeding his wit and imagination so that he could challenge Tybalt to ever more elaborate verbal duels. The good friars did not seem to mind this, as it lessened the number of fights they had to end. The contests of wit became something of a schoolhouse vogue, and some of the other boys soon joined in the fun.

To the surprise of many, the new game sparked Romeo's interest in his books. Where he had previously been an indifferent scholar, now he took to his studies with new enthusiasm, if only to keep up with Mercutio's compelling performances. Friar Salvatore declared that if the little boys kept on learning at their new rate, he would soon bring in others of his order to teach them Greek and French. Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna glowed with pleasure over their son's new accomplishments, and Benvolio saw no need to explain the reason behind Romeo's successes.

The fistfights did not end entirely, of course, and Friar Salvatore still did his fair share of pulling squirming, shrieking boys apart. Even Benvolio found himself unable to avoid the occasional scuffle, though he came out of them well, as Mercutio had taught him how to fight. But what troubled him more than the odd split lip was that Mercutio still appeared at school looking as though he had been fighting, even when the schoolyard had been peaceful for days at a stretch. The marks were not always visible, but Benvolio could sometimes tell by the way that Mercutio walked or favored a limb that he was hiding an injury under his clothing.

Romeo was the only one who dared to ask Mercutio about his mysterious wounds, and that only once. Mercutio came to school one day with a swollen, purple lump on his head and a limp, and fidgeted through the lessons. It was clear that he was in pain, and he did not run with the other boys at recess.

"What happened to thy leg?" Romeo asked. "Thou canst barely walk."

"And what of thy head?" Benvolio added.

Mercutio looked startled, and tried to shift his weight so that his limp was less obvious. He could not prevent a sudden grimace, but then a sly smile spread across his face. "I have seen the fairies," he announced. "Last night, they flew in great swarms about my head. They are as brilliant and beautiful as the stars themselves – indeed, they resemble little twinkling stars come down to earth. They are the children of the stars and the fireflies, sparkling as the one, and small and delicate as the other. A great cloud of them surrounded me. I wanted to catch one and put it in a bottle, but they were ware of me and flew away as soon as I raised my hands."

Mercutio's description of the fairies was beautiful and absorbing, and it provoked much discussion among his friends. It was not until late in the evening that Benvolio realized that Mercutio had not actually answered their questions.

So the days of Benvolio's childhood passed in relative peace. Younger boys came to the Latin school, and Benvolio and his friends knew the pleasures of showing the baby classes how to grow beyond the initial separation from their mothers. Paris was preparing himself to sit for his university entrance examinations, a process that fascinated Mercutio. Often, he would spend entire recesses sitting at Paris's side and trying to follow the advanced texts that his cousin read.

"Canst thou possibly understand what he reads?" Romeo asked him.

Mercutio shrugged. "No. Not yet, at any rate. But I feel as if I could understand them when I am that old. I want to go to university one day."

"If any one of us will do it, surely it will be thee," Romeo said with a smile. Mercutio laughed, and then stopped abruptly, a worried expression creeping over his face.

"Wilt thou come to university with me?" he asked. "Thou and Benvolio. I do not know what I would do without my two dear friends at my side."

Romeo smiled. "I do not know if I am clever enough. But Benvolio might go with thee. He is almost as good at his books as thou art, and I think my father has it in mind to train him as a clerk."

"He can be my clerk when I have inherited my father's businesses and properties," Mercutio declared, and a pleasant warmth rushed through Benvolio when he said it.

Benvolio's dream of that future lasted until the summer that he was nine years old. The first crack was small, and it was not until many years later that Benvolio truly understood it for what it was.

It was a hot summer morning, a Sunday, and Benvolio filed into the church with Uncle Tiberio, Aunt Susanna, and Romeo. He paused in the doorway to shiver in delight at the cool air inside the great stone cathedral. As he did so, he caught sight of Giacomo Rinuccini entering the church with his sons in tow. Mercutio looked angry and a little bit frightened, but something else caught Benvolio's eye. Four-year-old Valentine had a black eye.

The priest's homily was long, and Benvolio's Latin was not yet quite good enough to follow it completely. He fidgeted, and snuck little glances over at Mercutio and Valentine, trying to determine what had happened. Valentine was too little to have gotten into a fight. Benvolio knew that, although Mercutio teased his brother as much as any boy, he did not strike him. He wondered if Valentine had fallen down, but that did not explain the anger and fear in Mercutio's face or the steely glint of Rinuccini's eyes.

Valentine, as uncomfortable as Benvolio, turned and saw him. He smiled and waved, and Benvolio waved back. Without a word, Rinuccini seized Valentine's wrist and roughly turned him away, crushing the boy against his leg to shut the distraction from his sight. Hot anger boiled up in Benvolio as he realized that Valentine's black eye must have come from his father. Benvolio shuddered, and turned his own attention back to the priest.

Mercutio's foul mood persisted into the next day. He barely spoke at all, save when Friar Salvatore asked him to recite. During the dinner break, he pushed his meat around and tore his bread into tiny pieces, but ate almost none of it. He could not be persuaded to join in the games at recess, but sat beneath a tree and brooded.

Benvolio would have dismissed it as a simple bad mood, such as they were all subject to on occasion, save for two things. He could not forget the scene at Mass the day before. And all day long, he had sat beside Mercutio on a bench, sharing a book. Normally, they sat pressed up against each other, but today, Mercutio seemed to have shrunk into himself and kept a sliver of distance between himself and Benvolio. Without a word, he had made it clear that he did not want to be touched. Much as this new distance puzzled Benvolio, he respected his friend's wishes and did not speak to Mercutio about it.

Chapter Text

4. Strained From That Fair Use

An outbreak of plague hit Verona the year that Benvolio and his friends were ten. The summer was unusually hot, and many people feared that the heat encouraged noxious miasmas to spread around the city. The Prince ordered Verona quarantined. Most public buildings were closed, and none of the regular gatherings or entertainments were permitted, save only that the markets remained open so that people could obtain food. The Latin school closed, as did the boys' Sunday club that Friar Salvatore ran. For the entire month of July, Romeo and Benvolio stayed at home. Uncle Tiberio gave them the run of his library and tasked one of his clerks with seeing that Romeo and Benvolio kept up with their studies.

After the relative freedom of school and the Sunday club, both boys felt the weight of their confinement heavily. Aunt Susanna only rarely permitted them to go outside the house, even into the garden. Romeo spent hours sitting in a window and dreaming, while Benvolio retreated into his books. Much of the food that appeared on the table came either from the Montague gardens or from the great storage chambers below the house. As a result, the meals soon became repetitive and dull. However, the boys did not complain, for each evening, Uncle Tiberio would receive news of the city, and report the latest death tolls to the family. Staying at home, in isolation, might be dull, but it seemed to be the only way to survive.

At last, the epidemic died down, and the Prince lifted the restrictions on the city. The Latin school opened again, and even Romeo jumped for joy at the prospect of going out of the house and seeing friends again. Both boys skipped and ran all the way to school, and Abram laughed as he tried to keep up with them.

When they arrived at the door, they saw a crowd of chattering boys, all eager to share stories of what they had done for the past month. For once, there was no fighting between the gangs, and even Tybalt tossed a smile in their direction. He did not deign to speak to them, but his friend Petruchio told them that Lady Capulet had delivered stillborn twins during the plague month.

Mercutio wriggled through the crowd and greeted his friends enthusiastically. "I cannot believe it!" he cried. "School is open at last! It has been pure torture to stay confined at home this past month. I hope that I have not fallen behind in my studies. I started to teach Valentine his letters while I was home, and he can now read very short words."

Romeo laughed. "With thou as teacher, he cannot help but learn quickly."

Mercutio beamed at the praise, and then his face darkened. "We were spared the plague," he said, "but Uncle Aurelio and Aunt Niccola died of it. They were the parents of my Cousin Paris."

Romeo and Benvolio instinctively looked around in the crowd of boys for Paris, but he was not there.

"Paris will not come to school any more," Mercutio explained. "He has inherited Uncle Aurelio's title, and is now County Paris. He has an income, and Uncle Escalus has adopted him as his heir."

This was news. The Prince of Verona had never married, and Romeo and Benvolio had occasionally overheard adults at feasts speculating on the potential succession. Uncle Tiberio had said that Count Aurelio, younger brother of the Prince, would have the strongest claim to the throne, but the Prince had made no formal declaration of his will in the matter.

"Paris says that Uncle Aurelio's death frightened Uncle Escalus," Mercutio explained. "He says that Uncle Escalus wanted to make the succession formal in case he is taken before his time. Paris says that they will have a little ceremony at the palace to make the adoption legal, and Papa says that I must attend." He made a face at the thought.

There were many more questions that Benvolio wanted to ask Mercutio, but the door to the school opened, and all the boys fell silent at once. Instead of the merry face of young Friar Salvatore, a strange friar in his middle years emerged with the bell. His face looked kindly, but they did not know him. Benvolio clasped Mercutio's hand nervously. Mercutio gave a quick squeeze, then wiggled his hand free.

The strange friar smiled at the boys. "Come inside, young ones. Be seated. I will tell our sad tale when you are ready to begin lessons."

Still silent, the boys filed into the school and sat at their old desks, which somehow did not seem familiar. They took out their books and stared expectantly at the strange friar.

"I am grieved to tell you that Brother Salvatore was called to his eternal home," the man said quietly. "He ministered to the sick, and professed his faith in our Holy Father until his very end. It was his wish that this school should continue without interruption, and therefore I will teach you until a more suitable brother can be found to take over these duties permanently. I am Brother Lawrence. Now, I would ask each boy in turn to rise and tell me his name."

Gradually, the boys accepted Friar Lawrence as their teacher, and the rhythm of the school continued. Friar Lawrence knew a little French, and gave instruction in that language as well as in Latin, morality, grammar, arithmetic, and rhetoric. Benvolio studied French eagerly, as it was the language of the exiting romances of knights and ladies that he longed to read. Romeo responded eagerly to Friar Lawrence's manner, and worked hard at his studies to please his new teacher. Although he had no native aptitude for French, he became proficient in the language by dint of his intense studying. What surprised Benvolio was that Mercutio could not seem to learn much French at all.

Mindful of how much he had relied on Mercutio's assistance when they were learning Latin, Benvolio helped Mercutio with French as much as he could, but Mercutio did not make much progress. It was not that Mercutio did not want to learn French. He pored over the exercises until he chewed his lip raw in frustration. But some new hobgoblin in his mind seemed to prevent him from soaking up knowledge as easily as he had done before. His concentration wandered, and he had acquired a nervous habit of twisting his hands as if trying to scrub some invisible filth off of them.

Tybalt, naturally, seized every opportunity to mock Mercutio. One day, Mercutio decided to stay in the classroom during recess to study French verbs, and Benvolio offered to help him. They had made a certain amount of progress, when Tybalt barged in, with Petruchio and Salanio at his side. Mercutio started at the sound, and accidentally knocked his book to the floor.

"Mercutio, what is the French for dunce?" Tybalt laughed. Mercutio scowled as he leaned over to pick up the fallen book.

"Go away, rat-catcher. Go bother someone else in the yard."

"See how low thou hast sunk. Thou, who was Friar Salvatore's pet, now must stoop to asking help of a Montague."

Mercutio tossed his head. "At least I am still clever enough to know whom to ask for help. I would certainly never ask thee."

"Why dost thou still consort with those vapid boys?" Tybalt asked. Benvolio suppressed a surge of anger, but Tybalt went on without noticing. "Thy father, at least, has the sense to know that the real power lies in association with the house of Capulet."

Mercutio stiffened, and his voice became pure ice. "Tybalt, thou hast a face like the end of thy own pizzle, spewing filth into the world."

Benvolio froze, shocked that Mercutio would say something so crude. Tybalt drew back his fist, but Mercutio was quicker. He leaped from his seat and shoved Tybalt hard in the chest. Petruchio and Salanio rushed to aid Tybalt. Benvolio shouted for help, and then tried to pull Salanio off of Mercutio, earning a clout to the chin for his pains. Friar Lawrence rushed into the schoolroom, with Domenico, Abram, and Tybalt's retainers hot on his heels. Together, they separated the fighting boys. Friar Lawrence stared from one to the other.

"Jesu Maria, what noise is this?" he demanded. "Do I teach children here, or beasts?" Friar Lawrence's eyes sought out the one least likely to defy adult authority. "Benvolio, what in the name of holy Saint Francis has happened here?"

Benvolio squirmed under Friar Lawrence's steady gaze. Tybalt glared, as if daring Benvolio to place any blame on him. Petruchio and Salanio stuck their tongues out quickly. Mercutio stood with his arms wrapped around his thin body, staring at the floor. Benvolio glanced at the door, where he could see the other boys peering curiously into the schoolroom. He took a deep breath and tried to remember exactly what had caused the fight.

"Mercutio wanted to practice his French verbs," he said, "and I stayed behind to assist him. Then Tybalt entered, and threw harsh words at Mercutio, and Mercutio responded in kind."

"How did this turn into such a brawl?" Friar Lawrence asked. Benvolio looked around for help, in an agony of indecision, but no one spoke.

"Benvolio," Friar Lawrence said, "who began this fight?"

"Tybalt raised his fist," Benvolio whispered, "but Mercutio knocked him down ere he could strike."

Friar Lawrence let out a sigh, and then turned to the two primary combatants. Mercutio seemed to shrink down further under the friar's gaze. Friar Lawrence pursed his lips together for a moment, then took a step toward the boy. "Mercutio –"

Quick as lightning, Mercutio darted away, snatched up his book, and fled the schoolroom. Domenico took a moment to recover, then dashed out after his young charge. Friar Lawrence stared after them, then turned to Tybalt. "Thou hast no call to be cruel to one who cannot learn as easily as thou," he said. "Thou wilt stand in the corner and ponder thy wicked ways until I call thee to return. All the rest will take their seats. We will now turn to the words of Cicero."

Tybalt marched haughtily to the corner. Benvolio sat down next to Romeo. He tried to pay attention to the lesson, but he could not stop the thoughts that whirled in his head, whispering treacherously that Friar Lawrence's words had been unfair. Mercutio did not return to class for the rest of the day.

Benvolio knew that he had behaved properly by answering Friar Lawrence's questions, but he could not shake the cloud of guilt that surrounded him and gnawed at his heart all night. Mercutio would be punished for fighting, by his father if not by Friar Lawrence, and Benvolio could not help but feel that he had contributed to that punishment as well. Perhaps he should have laid all the blame for the fight at Tybalt's feet. After all, the fight would not have happened if Tybalt had not come into the schoolroom to taunt Mercutio. This was a subtlety that no adult authority could understand. Benvolio's last thought before he fell asleep was that he now knew exactly how Judas had felt.

He still could not muster a smile in the morning, not even when Abram surreptitiously presented him and Romeo with small handfuls of candied chestnuts, which he had begged from Cook to cheer the boys up. They put the sweets in their belt pouches to share with their friends at recess, and left the house to begin the walk to school.

Their normal route took them by the Rinuccini house. They never saw Mercutio there, since he was normally gone by the time they arrived, arriving at school early so as to snatch a few minutes to play before lessons began. But today, something was different. The house was alive with screaming. The cries of servants mingled with Rinuccini's enraged bellowing and the terrified shrieks of two boys.

Romeo and Benvolio stood rooted to the ground outside in horror. Even Abram, whose task it was to hurry them to school, stood still in shock. In the back of his mind, Benvolio had known that Rinuccini beat his sons to excess, but he had never allowed himself to imagine what that reality might be like.

"No, my Lord, not Valentine!" a maid cried within.

"Thief! He is a conniving thief just like his brother!" Rinuccini roared. One of the boys screamed. Feet pounded, and then the door flew open to reveal a maid with five-year-old Valentine under her arm. She thrust the boy at Abram.

"Take him. Take him to the school, or my master will kill him."

Valentine wailed and struggled, trying to run back inside to his brother. Abram held him fast. Something shattered within, and Benvolio had a brief glimpse of Mercutio, his arm caught in Rinuccini's grip, trying to pull free and escape to his friends. "Valentine! Papa, no!" he screamed. Rinuccini raised his arm, the maid shrieked, and the door slammed shut.

Valentine wrapped his arms around Benvolio's waist and sobbed. Abram hurried the boys away from the house. Benvolio lagged behind, trying desperately to make Valentine stop crying. "We will take care of thee, Valentine, thou art safe with us," he said. "We are Mercutio's friends, so we are thy friends, too, and we love thee. Friar Lawrence will be happy to see thee at school. Wilt thou not enjoy that?"

Valentine only wept harder. Benvolio fumbled in his belt pouch and pulled out a few candied chestnuts. He offered them to Valentine, and Valentine choked back his tears and stared at the treats. "Go on," Benvolio said. "Thou canst have them."

After only a moment of indecision, Valentine popped a chestnut into his mouth and sucked on it. Abram came and knelt down at his side, and stroked his hair. "There, now," he said. "Thou and I will sit in the back of the schoolroom and hear the big boys have their lessons, and thou mayst play with thy brother's friends after dinner."

"There are other boys only a little older than thou, Valentine," Romeo said. "I am sure that they will play with thee, too."

Valentine clutched Benvolio's hand and said nothing, still sucking his chestnut. Benvolio wrapped another chestnut in a handkerchief and gave it to Valentine. "That one is for Mercutio," he said. "Canst thou hold it for him?" Valentine nodded, and they resumed their walk to school.

Mercutio turned up at school the next morning, though he did not rush to greet his friends as he usually did. Romeo and Benvolio found him sitting on the stoop, his knees drawn up to his chest. He raised his head and smiled when he saw them, but his eyes were troubled.

"I thank thee for the chestnut," he said softly, "and for caring for my brother." His voice was rough, as though he had been ill, and they could barely hear him. Benvolio sat down next to him, and realized why. Mercutio's shirt was open a little at the neck, and Benvolio could see a ring of bruises all around his throat. Mercutio noticed his gaze, and nodded.

"Ay, they are from my father's hands," he murmured. "And others that thou canst not see. Please, do not ask me any questions, for it pains me to speak."

Romeo moved to embrace Mercutio, but Mercutio flinched away from his touch. Benvolio quickly patted his hand, and then the door opened, and Friar Lawrence called them inside.

Mercutio declined their invitation to play at recess. "I wish to speak to a priest, alone," he said.

Romeo frowned. "Friar Lawrence is here. He can confess thee."

Mercutio shook his head. "No. Not him." He turned, and headed for the main building of the monastery.

He was not gone long before a thin, hard-faced friar brought him back and deposited him in front of Friar Lawrence. "Have a care, Brother Lawrence," he said. "Thou wouldst do well to remind thy pupils that lying is a sin."

He spun on his heel and left the schoolyard. Friar Lawrence looked at Mercutio. He said nothing, but rang the bell to signal that recess was over. Mercutio walked stiffly back into the classroom and did not speak again for the rest of the day.

The day after that, Giacomo Rinuccini appeared at the school just as Friar Lawrence was about to call for the dinner break. "I thank thee for thy services, Holy Father," Rinuccini said, "but they will no longer be needed. From today, I will have my son educated at home. Come, Mercutio."

Mercutio rose from his seat. He said nothing, but his hand brushed lightly against Benvolio's as he gathered his books before following his father out the door.

Chapter Text

5. Dancing Shoes With Nimble Soles

Mercutio's departure left Romeo and Benvolio as the acknowledged cleverest boys in the Latin school. This was small consolation to Benvolio for the loss of his friend and studying partner. He now sat next to Romeo, and they made great strides together, especially in French, but it was not the same. Romeo could best every boy in the schoolyard at their old game of insults now, and he had developed a deep friendship with Friar Lawrence. Benvolio did not participate in the games of wit, but spent his recess time studying so that he could go to university one day. He had to admit to himself that he did like Friar Lawrence, but at the same time, he found it difficult to forgive the good friar for the things he had said about Mercutio.

Sundays were his great consolation. In addition to the Latin school, Friar Lawrence had taken over the boys' Sunday club, where the youths of Verona could meet to play under religious supervision after Mass on Sundays. Mercutio's father allowed him to continue attending, along with Valentine.

Mercutio always seemed thrilled to be at the Sunday club, and he invented new games for his friends as easily as ever. When he was not leading them in tossing a ball around or chasing a hoop, he would tell Benvolio about the things he had done during the week.

"Dost thou still study?" Benvolio asked him. "It would be a shame if thou didst learn no more."

"Ay, my father has hired a tutor," Mercutio replied. "The man is very old, and the lessons he sets me are mostly very dull. But he is teaching me mathematics, and I am glad of that."

"Thou didst always love numbers," Benvolio said.

Mercutio nodded. "In mathematics, there is always an answer, and it is always either right or wrong. I like that. There is at least one aspect of the world that is sensible."

"And what of languages, and the great writings? Dost thou still read those?"

"I have the run of Papa's library," Mercutio said, though he would not meet Benvolio's eyes. "I may read whatever I please." He sighed, and wrinkled his nose. "I wish I were back in school with thee. I fear that I shall never learn enough from my tutor to qualify for university."

They did not speak for a while after that, but watched Valentine learning a skipping game from another little boy about his own age. "That is Proteus," Mercutio said. "I like him. He is good for Valentine, and I am glad to see that my brother is learning to make friends. Sometimes I think that I would go mad if I did not have thee and Romeo as my friends, so I am glad that Valentine will have such a fine experience for himself."

Benvolio did not know how to reply to that, so he leaped up and tapped Mercutio's shoulder. "Tag!" he cried. Mercutio laughed, and chased him around the piazza.

Now that Romeo and Benvolio were almost young men, Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna allowed them to stay up and attend whenever great feasts were held at the house of Montague. These were always merry occasions, with music, and lots of fine food and drink. Sometimes, groups of older boys would come to the feasts wearing elaborate masks, and Romeo and Benvolio would spend hours trying to determine who they were. Only one masker was ever easy to identify, and that was Mercutio's Cousin Paris. He stood straighter than his friends, and walked more stiffly.

"Paris feels the weight of being Uncle's heir on his shoulders," Mercutio laughed when Benvolio told him about this. "I think he does not really enjoy masking, but does it because his friends do it. Perhaps I will ask him to give me a mask next Christmas. I know that I would like to go to a feast in a mask."

The idea intrigued Benvolio as well. It was another thing to look forward to when he was older.

Mercutio, lively and impatient, did not choose to wait so long. Uncle Tiberio held a feast to mark Shrove Tuesday, and the preparations for that feast consumed the Montague household for weeks before the event. Romeo and Benvolio, the acknowledged pets of the household, had their fill of scraps when the cooks were making the sweets for the festival. They brought these to Sunday club to share with their friends and playmates.

Mercutio laughed at one misshapen blob of marzipan. "Look, Benvolio! Does this not resemble a man's tool drawn and ready for a little night-work?" Benvolio giggled, even as he recoiled from that image. Mercutio opened his mouth wide, and then bit off the end of the piece of marzipan with a vicious snap of his teeth.

"I wish thou couldst come to our feast," Benvolio said quickly, to cover his embarrassment. "Aunt Susanna always supervises the decoration, and the house looks so beautiful. There will be lanterns, and evergreen wreaths, and ribbons, and music, and everyone talking and laughing and dancing, and . . ."

"That is surely a sight to behold," Mercutio said, and his eyes sparkled. Benvolio knew that look. It was a look that meant that Mercutio was planning something, and that something would get him into trouble as likely as not. Benvolio wondered what a model of Christian love and humility ought to do.

"Do not do anything foolish, Mercutio," he said weakly. "I would not have thee risk a beating on my account."

The Shrove Tuesday feast was a great success. Romeo capered next to the dancers and made them laugh, while Benvolio led some of the other boys on a game that was not quite tag, and not quite hide-and-go-seek, but was immensely entertaining nevertheless. Uncle Tiberio stood at the door to welcome his guests, and he let out a roar of laughter when a party of masked youths arrived. Benvolio stopped to stare, and did not notice when his friend Vincenzo tagged him.

One of the maskers was noticeably smaller than the rest, and seemed almost overwhelmed by his grand, feathered mask. He unrolled a piece of parchment, and in a voice more confident than one might expect of a child, read a speech all in rhyme that introduced the maskers and apologized profusely for their uninvited presence at the party. Benvolio's jaw hung open in delighted surprise, for he recognized the boy's voice.

Uncle Tiberio chuckled indulgently and patted the little masker's head before he welcomed the rest of the masking party to his feast. They dispersed throughout the room, and the boy ran directly over to Benvolio. He raised his mask, and he was Mercutio, just as Benvolio had suspected.

"How didst thou do it?" Benvolio asked. "Did thy father give thee permission to come?"

"No," Mercutio said. "But I do not care. Paris lent me one of his old masks, and I crept out of my bed after everyone thought I was asleep. What games are you playing tonight?"

"Tag," Vincenzo said.

"Thy father will be most displeased," Benvolio said.

Mercutio set his jaw. "I do not care. Papa will beat me anyway. I would rather endure a beating that I earned honestly than one that I did not. So let us play, and I will have a memory to console myself when I am beaten tomorrow."

Sure enough, when they saw each other at church the next day, Benvolio saw several marks on Mercutio's face, only one of which had been made by a priest wielding ashes. They did not speak, but Mercutio flashed a defiant, jaunty smile at Benvolio. Benvolio returned the smile, and tried to ignore the feeling that something inside of him was torn into tiny shreds.

A series of public scuffles and arguments between Montagues and Capulets marked the spring. Each incident brought a stern rebuke from the Prince. After the fourth incident, an argument after Sunday Mass that had somehow ended up as a free-for-all in the streets during which Benvolio had been swatted, hard, on the back of the head by the Capulet family's old nurse wielding a broom, the Prince summoned the heads of both feuding households to Free-town, the judgment place. Aunt Susanna paced around the garden, fretting over the Prince's possible sentence. Romeo plucked cherries from a tree and ate them, spitting the pits in expert arcs over Benvolio's head.

"Didst thou see that old nurse, Benvolio?" he said merrily. "She looked like a galleon in full sail, barreling down the street."

Benvolio rubbed the back of his head ruefully. "Thou didst not feel the touch of her broom."

"She was so angry she did not even notice thee. She laid about with that broom against all comers, Montague and Capulet, as if all were trying to storm her castle."

Benvolio had to smile at that image. "I cannot imagine who would try to board that noble ship."

Aunt Susanna stopped pacing and glared at them. "Romeo! Benvolio! Have you no thought of courtesy for an old woman? Truly, you are worse than savages."

Mildly chastened, both boys suppressed their smiles. "Beg pardon, madam," Romeo said, and spat out another cherry pit.

Uncle Tiberio returned home before sunset, a bemused expression on his face. He said nothing of his meeting with the Prince until after supper, and then he summoned his wife, son, and nephew to his study. He bade them sit, and a servant gave them goblets of wine. Benvolio tasted his and was surprised to discover that it was not cut with water.

"Thou and Romeo are becoming young men," Uncle Tiberio explained. "True scions of the house of Montague. Indeed, that is part of the reason that I have summoned all of you here."

Aunt Susanna's face paled. "Dost thou mean to speak of the Prince's doom? No, it cannot fall on Romeo and Benvolio! They are but children still, too young to –"

"Peace, Susanna, peace," Uncle Tiberio said gently, holding up his hand to still his wife's protests. "The Prince, in his mercy, has chosen to be kind in his judgment, and he wishes to broker peace between the children of our warring clans, in the hope that it will spread to their parents."

Aunt Susanna blinked in surprise. "That is an unusual idea. But perhaps it might work."

Romeo frowned. "Father, do you mean that Benvolio and I must be friendly with Tybalt?"

Uncle Tiberio's eyebrows crawled upwards. Benvolio did not know if Uncle Tiberio had ever met Tybalt, but he knew that he and Romeo had complained much about him. After a moment, Uncle Tiberio's eyes twinkled, and he smiled into his beard. "Friendly, my son? I do not know that I would expect that much from either of you, but I think that civility is not out of the question."

Romeo smiled. "I can be civil to Tybalt. I will ignore him when he taunts us at school. He only wishes he were as clever as Benvolio."

Uncle Tiberio nodded. "That is a good start, son. But there is more to the Prince's doom than that. He understands that there are a great many young sons of noble houses in Verona who do not know how to bear themselves in company. He proposes to remedy this situation by inviting these wayward boys to a series of dancing lessons at his palace."

Romeo and Benvolio stared. Uncle Tiberio threw his head back and laughed. "There will be no more child's games at my feasts from henceforth, I see. More is the pity."

The dancing lessons drew boys from most of Verona's wealthy families, not just the Montagues and the Capulets. The Prince had decreed that peacemaking was to be the burden of all, and his feasting hall was filled with boys. Mercutio immediately sought out his two best friends, and waited at their side for instructions from the dancing master. Tybalt looked around the room and frowned in puzzlement. "I see no maids," he said. "How are we to learn to dance, if we have no maids to squire about the room?"

The dancing master looked down his long, crooked nose at Tybalt. "Every boy will take his turn at dancing as a maid," he explained. "There is no shame in that, and it will do you all good to know both parts to a dance. Though you may not believe it, many of you will one day be the fathers of daughters, and perhaps you will teach them to dance at feasts even as I am teaching you."

With that, the dancing master separated half of the boys and designated them to dance as maids for that lesson. Fortunately, he allowed his class to switch parts frequently, and no one boy ever spent too long dancing in the opposite part. All the boys enjoyed the graceful steps and hops. Benvolio loved the stately pavane, while Romeo preferred the more social branle. Mercutio, who could not hear one note from another, proved to have an excellent sense of rhythm, and shone at the leaping galliard.

Although the ostensible purpose of the dancing lessons was to foster a sense of common purpose and sociability between the Montague and Capulet children, the two factions tried to avoid each other as much as possible. When circumstances forced a Montague to dance with a Capulet, both boys executed their steps silently, with an icy perfection designed to show off their own skills to their rivals. Once, the dancing master made Tybalt and Romeo demonstrate a pavane conversion for the class. The room crackled with tension as the two boys managed to perform the entire figure while keeping the thinnest whisper of air between their fingers so that they would not actually touch each other.

When the boys could get away with it, they selected their own partners, or switched discreetly when the dancing master was not looking. When they learned the moresca, Mercutio, dancing in the inner ring as a maid, found himself facing Tybalt as a partner, while Benvolio, in the men's ring, ended up with Petruchio. The dancing master paused in his music-making to explain the next part of the dance, and Mercutio seized the chance to switch places with Petruchio.

Benvolio smiled at the chance to dance with his friend, but Mercutio tossed a troubled glance in Tybalt's direction. "I do not mind dancing as a maid," he said, "but I do not like the look in Tybalt's eye. It makes me think of –"

The music started, and Mercutio's face suddenly lit up in a brilliant smile as the boys began to dance. The moresca was complicated, and by the time it was over, Benvolio had completely forgotten to ask Mercutio what he had seen in Tybalt's eyes.

Chapter Text

6. A Madness Most Discreet

"Romeo, hast thou heard a single word of what I have said?" twelve-year-old Benvolio asked in exasperation one day.

Romeo, who had been lying on his back on the bench beneath the grape arbor, raised his head and looked guilty. "It was thy plans for university, was it not?"

Benvolio rolled his eyes. "That was a lucky guess, as well thou knowest." He plucked a handful of sweet grapes from the arbor and crunched them. It seemed that he was always hungry lately. Romeo lay back and gazed up at the grape leaves rippling above him, and his eyes began to glaze over. Benvolio, who could never remain angry with his cousin for long, smiled indulgently.

"Who is it this time?" he asked. When he received no reply, he bounced a grape off of Romeo's nose, and Romeo started. "Who is it?" Benvolio repeated.

"Who is who?"

"The maid."

"What maid?"

Benvolio sighed. "The maid who prances through thy thoughts. I know that look in thy eye. Thou art thinking of fair maidens again."

Romeo smiled. "Truly, Benvolio, thou dost know me all too well. Often I forget that thou art my cousin, for I think of thee as my own dear twin."

"Flattery will get thee nowhere, cousin mine. Out with it." Benvolio leaned over Romeo's head and stared into his upside-down face. "Who is the latest beauty of Verona to have caught thy eye?"

"Bianca, the fair daughter of Signior Neri," Romeo said, a dreamy look in his eye. "She, I'll swear, is the fairest maid Verona ever produced. Alas that she is to be married to Agostino Orsini on Thursday."

"She is far too old for thee," Benvolio said. "She is nearly seventeen. When thou art of age, thy father will find thee a more suitable bride."

Romeo laughed. "Ah, Benvolio, dearest cousin. I see thou hast not yet been in love. When it happens to thee, thou wilt cease thy practicalities and learn the pleasures of the promise in a beautiful glance, the invitation in the tilt of a head, the swell of a –"

"Creamy bosom, I know," Benvolio broke in. "We have had this conversation before. I am hardly surprised that thou thinkst so often of Bianca's bosom, for she is tall enough that thy nose would rest most comfortably in that spot."

Romeo's grin grew even wider, and Benvolio poked him in the shoulder. "I hope I never fall in love, if it will cause me to spout such terrible poetry as thou dost."

"It will happen to thee soon enough," Romeo sniffed. "And then thou wilt know the exquisite agony of a lady's presence in thy heart and her absence from thy arms."

Benvolio could take no more, and climbed up a pear tree, leaving Romeo to his dreams of romance.

Although Bianca Neri had never so much as spared Romeo a glance, as far as Benvolio knew, Romeo fell into a deep melancholy on the day of her wedding to Agostino Orsini. His mood lasted for several days, reaching its darkest point on Sunday.

Friar Lawrence permitted the older boys in the Sunday club to practice fencing with blunted sticks, and Mercutio eagerly engaged Romeo in a friendly bout. Benvolio and Vincenzo had made a private wager on the outcome. Vincenzo pointed out that Romeo was taller and heavier than Mercutio, giving him greater reach and more force behind his blows. Benvolio argued that Mercutio's feet were as quick in a duel as they were in the steps of the galliard, and that his whip-thin body was difficult to hit. Neither of the two participants in the bout seemed to care much about the wager. Romeo had focused all of his concentration on his quicksilver opponent. For his part, Mercutio laughed delightedly as he eluded Romeo's blade.

Vincenzo's cousin Pietro, who had been keeping score, suddenly put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. "Hold the battle," he cried. "A great procession enters the piazza."

All the boys ran to look. Amidst a great noise of bells, horns, and drums, Signior Orsini was ceremonially conveying his new wife to his home. Bianca reclined in a litter, wearing a sumptuous gown of green velvet, trimmed with gold. Jewels winked at her throat and hands, and her hair was done up in an elaborately trimmed headdress. Beneath the finery, Bianca trembled a little, but put on a brave expression for her final journey out of her childhood home. Romeo whipped off his cap and gazed at her, feasting his eyes one last time on his unwitting beloved. He remained standing stock still in the piazza even after the bridal procession had disappeared from view.

Mercutio tapped his stick on the ground. "They are gone now, Romeo," he said. "Come, shall we continue our duel?"

Romeo turned to face him with a mournful sigh. "Alas, good Mercutio, I fear that I must concede to thee. I have no heart for any more childish games today."

Mercutio's smile vanished, and a hard, angry look spread over his face. He threw his stick to the ground, and advanced on Romeo. "What is childish about fencing?" he demanded. "All the young men of Verona fence, probably all the young men in all of Italy."

"Mercutio, canst thou not see that I am mourning my love?"

"Thy love?" Mercutio's eyebrows shot up. "Thou hast fallen in love?"

Romeo nodded. "Aye, the more pity is mine. She that I love is married now, and all my dreams are turned to dust."


Romeo turned to stare at Mercutio in amazement. "What dost thou mean by that? What is good about this? I shall never see my love again."

"Good, because now perhaps thou wilt see how ridiculous thou art," Mercutio said. "It is silly to fall into fits over such a thing as love." He spat the word out as if it tasted of wormwood.

Even Benvolio was intrigued at this vehemence. "Why, what sort of a thing is love?" he asked amiably.

Mercutio stared at his feet, and for a moment, Benvolio thought he would not answer. But he raised his head, and there was a sharp, defiant gleam in his eyes. "Love is a sickness, no less deadly than the pox or the plague," Mercutio said. "It is a storm that blows across the land, destroying everything in its path. It is a quagmire that traps one before an oncoming foe. Love forces one to choose between two paths equally filled with pain. Love hurts!" Mercutio's voice cracked, and he fell silent.

The other boys in the piazza stared at Mercutio, dumbfounded at his outburst. Romeo blinked, shocked from his self-absorbed stupor. "Surely there is more to love than that," he ventured. "Who has broken thy heart, Mercutio, that thou wouldst say such things?"

"No one," Mercutio said. "No one will ever break my heart, for I shall not give it to anyone to be broken." He tossed his head and stormed away from his friends, his stick forgotten in the dust of the piazza.

Mercutio was mistaken, Benvolio thought. His heart was already broken, though he did not seem to know it. Benvolio wondered where that notion had come from, and he thought about the strange look in Mercutio's eyes. His body had radiated anger and contempt, but desperation and a flash of naked terror had lurked behind his eyes. Upon reflection, Romeo's question had been a good one. Benvolio, too, wondered what had happened to Mercutio to set him so firmly against the idea of love at twelve years old.

Both Romeo and Benvolio soon had other things to worry about besides the nature of love. A week after Bianca Neri's wedding procession, Friar Lawrence asked them to stay in with him at recess, along with their friends, and Tybalt, and Tybalt's friends. Friar Lawrence did not seem displeased with them, and they had not had any fights recently. None of the boys could think of a reason for them to be called, for they had nothing in common save that they were the oldest boys in the Latin school.

Friar Lawrence tucked his hands into his coarse brown robe and looked them all over. He was silent for a moment, as if searching for the right words. At last, he smiled at the boys, that kindly, almost friendly look that led Romeo to hang on the good Friar's every word.

"Next week will be the last week of school for all of us in this room," Friar Lawrence said. The boys stared at each other in shock, and Friar Lawrence went on. "You have learned all that I can teach you," he explained. "I was never called to be a teacher, but after Brother Salvatore died, I agreed to take over the school, and – well, even the Franciscans can be guilty of sloth sometimes. But recently, a new brother has joined this most humble order, and he is much more suited to elementary education than I am. So I will return to my duties as an ordinary brother, and you will return to your homes."

"What of our education?" Tybalt asked. "My family sent me here to learn things befitting a young gentleman."

"Indeed he did, and indeed thou hast learned such things," Friar Lawrence replied. "I have spoken to all of your families, and I trust that suitable arrangements will be made for each of you. In the meantime, this is an occasion, and we must think of a way to mark it. On Saturday next, there will be no ordinary lessons. Instead, all of you will stand before the school and show what you have learned. You may read something in Latin, or recite, or work sums, whatever it is that shows off your skills to best advantage."

"Will the little boys watch us?" Romeo asked.

Friar Lawrence nodded. "Of course. We must give them something to inspire them to learn. Perhaps we might even invite your families," he added dubiously, glancing back and forth between Romeo and Tybalt. "Or perhaps they might have business of their own to attend to. In any event, we cannot send off such a fine group of young scholars without some ceremony."

Benvolio smiled at the prospect of being allowed to stand and recite in front of the whole school, but at the same time, something about the idea of the ceremony made him a little melancholy. It was not until Sunday that he realized what was bothering him. Though Benvolio suspected that no one else minded but him, he knew that their little group would not be complete, for Mercutio would not stand among them on Saturday.

Uncle Tiberio hired a tutor for his son and nephew, claiming that, useful as the Latin school had been, he preferred to have both of them at home. "You are both becoming good enough with your swords that you could cause real damage, should you encounter one of the Capulets in the streets," he said. "And you are not good enough to know when you should stop causing damage. I am growing old, and weary of this eternal feud. I do not wish to make it easy for young bloods to start it again. You will study at home."

The tutor, Signior Boccardi, was kind, and certainly more than competent. Under his eye, Romeo and Benvolio began to learn Greek and a little Hebrew, as well as mathematics. The mathematics intrigued Benvolio, in part because Mercutio had once spoken highly of the subject. It was more precise than anything Benvolio had yet studied, and demanded quite a bit of concentration at first. Romeo never did become especially proficient at mathematics, but Benvolio found that he could manipulate numbers almost as easily as words. Every time he clicked a bead on his abacus, he thought of Mercutio and smiled a little.

He and Romeo saw their friends on Sundays in the piazza, and at the dancing classes. However, they were rapidly becoming old enough to go along when Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna were invited to feasts and balls. They were not old enough to go masking yet, but that day would come. In the meantime, they discovered that their dancing lessons had been worthwhile, for they could now join in the dancing instead of standing at the sidelines watching or playing childish games.

This new wrinkle in their social lives would have been perfect if Romeo had not insisted upon falling in love with a different young lady at each feast. He sighed and moaned, and would usually produce a terrible poem in the lady's honor several days after the feast. He insisted upon telling everyone within earshot all about the beauty of the current apple of his eye and how much he longed to be with her.

Mercutio rarely sat still for these speeches. When he was in a good mood, he would wander off to find someone who would play with him, sometimes leaving Romeo in mid-sentence. When he was in a bad mood, which seemed to be at least three times a week, he would argue the merits of love with Romeo, insisting that love was nothing but a source of pain that was best avoided.

Benvolio had to admit that Mercutio had a point. Only rarely did the objects of Romeo's affection take note of him at all. Romeo maintained that it was because of a mysterious blindness shared by all the women of Verona, but Benvolio tried to offer him a different perspective.

"Romeo," he said, "thou art twelve years old. Thou art not nearly old enough for marriage. Perhaps, when thou art grown a little more, maids will take more note of thee."

"That is not so," Romeo replied. "I am doomed to remain what I am, helpless and overlooked."

Benvolio laughed. "Thou art only helpless and overlooked because thou dost choose to be so," he said. "I think that thou dost enjoy the pain of love more than the pleasure."

"Benvolio, art thou mad?"

"Not mad, but one who has eyes to see. This constant falling in and out of love would distress anyone, and most people avoid distress. Thou dost not. Indeed, I think that thou must enjoy being overlooked, since thou dost constantly seek it out."

Romeo glared at Benvolio, with all the dignity he could muster. "I do not seek it out."

"Thou dost. If thou didst not seek it out, thou wouldst not declare thy undying love for maids thou canst not have every fortnight."

Romeo sighed, and Benvolio knew that his point had struck home. "Wait, Benvolio," he grumbled. "One day, thou wilt know the pain of loving one who does not love thee back."

Benvolio smiled. "On that day, gentle Romeo, I hope that thou and Mercutio will join forces and mock me until I regain my senses. Come, I am hungry. Let us go in and see if Cook will give us something to eat."

"Thou art always hungry," Romeo said, but his expression was gentle. Together, the two boys raced into the house.

Chapter Text

7. Bit With An Envious Worm

On a Saturday evening towards the end of April, Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna summoned Romeo and Benvolio to the study after supper. The servant who delivered the message did so with a smile, and the boys marched into the study in full anticipation of good news. They were not disappointed. Uncle Tiberio met them with a broad smile.

"Romeo, my son," he said. "I trust thou hast not forgotten that the anniversary of thy birth draws near. Thou wilt be thirteen years of age next week." Uncle Tiberio was one of the men in Verona who had enthusiastically adopted the new-fangled notion of birthday celebrations, and the celebrations he threw were legendary.

Romeo grinned broadly. "I shall be even with Benvolio then." Benvolio had turned thirteen a month earlier, with little celebration or fanfare. However, Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna allowed him to share in Romeo's birthday celebrations. Benvolio was perfectly happy with this state of affairs, as his birthday usually fell during Lent and would have made for a poor feast. But he was always secretly pleased that Romeo never failed to remind his parents to celebrate both of them.

"Of course," Uncle Tiberio said, as he always did. "I would not forget dear Lucio's son, all the memory I have left of him and Floria. Well. Thirteen. It is quite an occasion, I would say. You are both growing quickly – perhaps too quickly for a sentimental old man such as myself."

Aunt Susanna delicately cleared her throat. Uncle Tiberio glanced at her and smiled.

"Ah, of course. My lady wife reminds me not to stray over far from the topic of our meeting. I propose a feast to celebrate the upcoming occasion. A week from today, shall we say, in the evening? We shall hire musicians, open our great hall for dancing. We shall invite those sons of Verona's worthies who are your friends. What do you say, hmm?"

"Oh, my noble Father!" Romeo cried in astonishment. Benvolio could not speak. They were to have a real, adult feast at last. This would be something to tell everyone at the Sunday club about. That thought led to another one.

"Uncle," Benvolio said softly, "Is Mercutio to be invited as well?"

Uncle Tiberio nodded soberly. "I have never cared for Rinuccini, but I do not begrudge your friendship with his son. Mercutio is as welcome in my house as any boy who is not a Capulet."

"I shall tell him tomorrow at Sunday club," Romeo declared. An idea crossed his mind, and his face lit up. "Oh, Father, may Mercutio stay the night? We do not see him nearly enough, especially since he stopped coming to school so early."

Uncle Tiberio raised one eyebrow. Benvolio guessed that he did not approve of the way Mercutio's father had pulled him out of school, though he had never said much about it. "I suppose he may," Uncle Tiberio said. "After all, you are old enough to learn how to entertain guests of rank. He may stay the night if his father gives permission."

That, Benvolio thought, was a rather large "if." But the prospect of having Mercutio for an overnight visit was appealing enough to be worth the risk.

Mercutio seemed excited about the birthday feast. His own thirteenth birthday had been in February, but Signior Rinuccini did not hold with the idea of birthdays, and Mercutio had always been fascinated with the celebrations that Uncle Tiberio held. "I would be honored to attend," he said, when Romeo invited him. "Especially if there is to be dancing."

"Canst thou stay the night as well?" Romeo asked.

For a brief moment, Mercutio's eyes glowed. Then he glanced across the square to where Valentine and his friend Proteus were tossing a ball back and forth. A frown briefly shadowed his face, and he chewed at his lower lip. "Such a celebration is surely of the very latest style. I suppose that one night would do no harm," he said, "but I must find a way to make my father agree."

"Oh, please do," Benvolio said. "We much desire to have thee."

Mercutio smiled. "I will ask him tonight. In truth, I do wish this visit as well. Can you both come to shrift at noon tomorrow? I shall meet you there and give word if I am allowed to come."

Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna were always happy to encourage devotion in their boys, and Abram escorted them to shrift on Monday. When they arrived at St. Peter's church, they found Mercutio kneeling in one of the side chapels, with Domenico at his side. Mercutio was trembling a little, and seemed to have difficulty meeting their eyes. "Go and make confession," he murmured. "I shall speak afterwards."

Romeo and Benvolio found the priest and made their confessions as quickly as they could, fearing what Mercutio's response would be. When they had finished, they made their way back to the side chapel. Mercutio had recovered himself somewhat, and gave them a brave smile. "My father has given permission," he said. "I may attend your feast, and stay the night, if I am still welcome."

Romeo grinned hugely and almost flung his arms around Mercutio, but a shudder ran through Mercutio's body, and he stopped. "That is wonderful news," he said. "Thou art more than welcome."

Benvolio was equally pleased, but restrained himself to a quick clasp of Mercutio's hand. It was as cold as ice. Briefly, Benvolio wondered what price Rinuccini had extracted in return for his extraordinary permission.

On Saturday, the Montague house was consumed with preparations for the feast. Romeo and Benvolio had their fencing lesson, and then received a small box of sweet kitchen scraps and instructions to stay outside in the garden until they were sent for. Through the garden gate, they could see the servants bringing in decorations. Later in the afternoon, a band of musicians arrived for the dancing.

"Where will we put Mercutio tonight?" Benvolio asked. He had moved to a bedchamber of his own several years ago, and it did not adjoin Romeo's.

Romeo thought for a moment. "I have an idea. My bed is larger than thine. I suspect that it is big enough for all three of us. Let us all share the same blankets."

That sounded like a grand plan, and Benvolio readily agreed. Abram came out into the garden and called them into the house. There, they discovered that they both had new suits of clothing for the feast, fashionably cut with the tight hose that all the young men were wearing. Romeo's was deep blue, and Benvolio's was a green so dark it was almost black. They dressed quickly, and ran out into the corridor to admire each other. The new clothes made them look quite grown up, they decided, which was only fitting for their first evening feast.

As the nominal hosts for the evening, they stood proudly at the door to welcome their guests. Many were their friends, children their own age, but Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna had invited adult friends and relatives as well, and Romeo and Benvolio resigned themselves to a certain amount of kissing and cheek-pinching from elderly aunts. Mercutio arrived in high spirits, ready to begin dancing as soon as he walked in the door.

For Benvolio, the party was a revelation. For the first time, he was at the center of events instead of playing on the sidelines. He was glad that he had gone to the Prince's dancing lessons, for he could hold his own in most of the dances. Romeo pointed out several young ladies and gentlemen, slightly older than themselves, who flirted as they danced, and Benvolio thought he saw two elderly relations brokering a marriage in a quiet corner of the hall.

The band signaled a galliard. Benvolio had already danced so much that his feet were beginning to ache, and he had never been expert at the galliard, so he helped himself to a glass of wine and found a place on the sidelines to watch the dance. Mercutio found a partner, a young lady whose name Benvolio could not remember, and hurried out to the dance floor. The band began to play, and the dance began.

Perhaps it was the wine. Perhaps it was the music, or the sweets, or the sheer excitement of being part of an adult feast for the first time. Whatever the reason, Benvolio found that he could not tear his eyes away from Mercutio as he danced. Mercutio was happier than Benvolio had seen him in a long time, dancing his favorite dance, his entire body radiating his joy in the moment. A shiver went down Benvolio's spine, and he was sure he had never seen anything so beautiful. The entire world seemed to narrow down to Mercutio's brilliant smile and his delicately prancing feet. Benvolio wished that this moment could endure forever.

Two of Aunt Susanna's sisters were talking behind him. "Look at Benvolio," Aunt Elvira said to Aunt Alessandra. "He is utterly moonstruck."

Aunt Alessandra chuckled. "Some fair young thing must have caught his eye," she replied. "No doubt he has fallen in love. He is growing so quickly."

Was that it, Benvolio wondered. Was the fluttering in his stomach and the tingling in his hands and feet really love? And had he really fallen in love with Mercutio, of all people? He had never heard of a boy falling in love with another boy, and could not fathom what one was meant to do in such a case. The dance ended, and Benvolio gazed across the floor at Mercutio's shining eyes and laughing face. He would worry about his problem later, he decided. Tonight, he would simply enjoy the feast and the wonderful, tingling feeling of being in love.

Hours later, after all the other guests had gone home, and Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio had all piled into Romeo's bed, the glow of the feast still had not faded. Mercutio snuggled down between his friends, his feet still twitching to music that had long since stopped. "I have never attended a better feast," he said. "Thank you for permitting me to stay."

Benvolio blushed, and hoped that it did not show in the dim light of the single candle in the room. "Romeo it was who thought of it," he admitted. Mercutio turned to smile at Romeo.

"Thank my noble parents in the morning," Romeo said. "They gave permission."

Mercutio's expression hardened. "As did my father. Well, I will not think of that. Tonight I am as warm and comfortable as if I rested on a cloud on a fair night in July."

"Are you abed, young sirs?" Abram walked quietly into the bedchamber, picked up the boys' scattered clothes, and draped them carefully over the storage chests. Then he went to the bed and pulled the covers up to the boys' chins before snuffing the candle and leaving.

The sudden darkness in the room brought home to the boys how worn out they really were. They wriggled one last time to find comfortable positions, and then began to fall asleep. Romeo dropped off almost immediately. Mercutio took a while longer, falling asleep in fits and starts. Benvolio wondered if he might be nervous about sleeping in a strange bed. Without a word, he moved his hand close to Mercutio's. After a moment, Mercutio laced his fingers through Benvolio's and was able to fall truly asleep.

Benvolio lay awake for a while longer, gazing at Mercutio's face in the moonlight and listening to his soft breathing. Despite the blankets, chills coursed through Benvolio's body, as if he were ill. But unlike a sickness of the body, these chills were pleasant, and even a little bit exciting, and Benvolio became ever more convinced that what he felt was indeed love. If it was, he decided, he would enjoy every minute of it, because he certainly did not want to end up like Romeo, endlessly mourning a beloved that he could not have, because that was silly . . .

At last, without fully realizing it, Benvolio fell asleep.

Some time later, he woke, aware that something was not right. Beside him, Mercutio lay awake as well, his eyes wide and glittering with terror. He still held Benvolio's hand, clutching the fingers so tightly that Benvolio could not wiggle them loose. "Mercutio? What is wrong?"

"Dost thou not hear?" Mercutio replied. "There are voices outside. They are coming here."

For a moment, Benvolio wondered if Mercutio had had a nightmare, but realized that he was correct. Several deep, male voices were arguing just beyond the door, and their voices were getting louder, as if they were approaching. Romeo raised his head, and rubbed sleep from his eyes. "Who is that?" he asked. "What do they want?"

As if in answer, the door burst open with a bang. Mercutio cried out and pulled the covers over his head. Domenico, his family retainer, burst into the bedchamber, followed by Abram, and Uncle Tiberio in his nightgown.

"What is the meaning of this?" Uncle Tiberio bellowed. "What right hast thou to enter my son's chamber, sirrah?"

"Orders from my master, Lord," Domenico said, offering Uncle Tiberio a note. "Delivered by page directly. Rinuccini demands the return of his son, and I am come to fetch him."

Mercutio sat up, and scrabbled as far back towards the wall as he could. "No!" he cried. "He gave permission! He said that I might stay the night here, with my friends!" He pulled himself onto his knees on the bed, and turned to Uncle Tiberio. "I beg it of you, Lord, please do not make me go with him!"

A strange expression flitted across Uncle Tiberio's face. He turned sad eyes and a resolute jaw to Mercutio. "I am sorry, Mercutio," he said, "but I cannot disobey thy father's will in this matter. He is within his rights to call thee home, and I have no right to interfere."

"Father, no!" Romeo cried. He seized Mercutio's hand, but the gesture did not help. Domenico took Mercutio by the arm and hauled him over Romeo's body and onto the floor.

"Which are thy clothes?" he asked. "Dress thyself. Thou dost need only thy shirt and hose. The rest I will bear for thee." Slowly, Mercutio pulled off his nightgown and put his clothes on. Domenico gathered the rest of Mercutio's things and bowed deeply. "My sincerest apologies, Signior Montague," he said. "My master will recompense you for the disturbance. Come, Mercutio."

He put his hand on Mercutio's shoulder and steered him out of Romeo's chamber. Romeo and Benvolio watched them go, utterly silent with shock. Uncle Tiberio sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I will speak to Rinuccini after Mass tomorrow morning," he said. "For disturbing the quiet of my house, I shall have him pay, whether or not his wife was sister to the Prince."

Benvolio clung to his cousin and waited for his heart to stop pounding. He had seen the betrayal and despair on Mercutio's face, and thought that, if he could have his say, a simple fine would not be nearly enough justice for that.

In the morning, Romeo and Benvolio rose and dressed themselves for Mass. They presented themselves to Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna for inspection with brave smiles on their faces, but Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna were not deceived. "I am sorry for the disturbance of last night," Uncle Tiberio said. "I trust you are both well enough to attend Mass?"

Benvolio nodded mutely. Romeo glanced at his father. "Last night, we spoke among ourselves before we slept," he said. "Mercutio would have thanked you this morning, Father, if he were still here."

Uncle Tiberio smiled. "I trust that thou art correct. I am sure that Mercutio meant well, and I will accept these thanks as if he had said them himself. Now, come, we must not be late to church."

St. Peter's was full this morning. Benvolio was sleepy after staying up late at the party and the interruption the night before, and he found himself leaning heavily against Aunt Susanna. She did not seem to mind, and only nudged him a few times when the beadle passed by them. After Mass was over, the congregants dispersed. Benvolio saw that Uncle Tiberio had managed to corner Signior Rinuccini and was engaged in a serious discussion with him.

The boys in the Sunday club were already gathering to play under the watchful eyes of a pair of friars. Benvolio looked around, and spotted Valentine trotting around a corner into the piazza, cradling one wrist against his chest. Feeling sick to his stomach, Benvolio motioned to Romeo, and they went around the corner where Valentine had been. Sure enough, they found Mercutio there.

Mercutio looked dreadful. His face was as white as milk, and he leaned against the church wall for support, twisting his hands as if he would scrub all of the skin off of them. When he saw his friends, he put on a smile and moved to greet them, and they saw that he staggered, as if both of his legs had been injured. He seemed close to tears, though Benvolio had never known Mercutio to weep. Romeo ran forward to help him, but Mercutio pushed him away. "Please, do not touch me!" he cried.

Puzzled, Romeo obeyed. He and Benvolio stayed at Mercutio's side, but did not touch him as he slowly limped to the front of the church and collapsed onto the steps. He took a deep, ragged breath, then faced his friends.

"I had a lovely time at the feast last night," he said softly. "I think it was the best feast I ever attended. Thank you for inviting me."

Benvolio could not speak, but moved so that he sat as close to Mercutio as he could without actually touching him. Romeo thought for a moment.

"I am not accustomed to staying up so late," he said. "I am too weary to play today, and I would prefer to sit here and take the sun with my friends."

Mercutio smiled weakly at him, then curled his arms around his drawn-up knees and rested his head on them. Benvolio sat quietly next to him, experiencing yet another new sensation as the particular pain of being helpless before an injury to his beloved stabbed through his gut.

Chapter Text

8. Things Have Fallen Out

Mercutio's body healed quickly from this latest assault, and he was able to run and play again within a few days. This did not surprise Benvolio. What did surprise him, and what grew to be a cause for alarm, was that Mercutio seemed to lose his appetite. He had always been small and thin, but had happily accepted treats when they were offered, and had been as eager as anyone else for the meals that the friars had provided at the old Latin school. At the birthday feast, Mercutio had helped himself to generous portions of food to fuel his joyous dancing. But over the course of the following month, he lost all interest in food, even in the sweets that Benvolio sometimes begged from the kitchen and brought to him.

This latest affliction puzzled Benvolio, and worried him as well. He himself was constantly hungry, and Romeo was little better. Uncle Tiberio had explained that it was part of growing up. He would not permit them to overindulge at mealtimes, for that was unseemly. However, Benvolio suspected that he had told the cooks to feed the boys whenever they asked, for there always seemed to be at least a few tasty scraps available in the kitchen when they grew hungry between meals. Most of Benvolio's friends who were around his age felt the same way. But Mercutio turned away from food. Romeo and Benvolio invited him to dine at their house, and they could see that he made an effort to eat, so as to please and honor his hosts, but his heart was not in it.

Romeo had remained friendly with Friar Lawrence, and sometimes visited him in his cell. He returned from one of these visits and told Benvolio about something he had heard at the monastery. "A long time ago," he said, "there were saints who could live on nothing but the wine and bread of Communion. Is that not astonishing?"

"Most astonishing," Benvolio said, "but Mercutio is not so devout as such a living saint."

But Romeo's mention of saints had given Benvolio an idea. From then on, whenever he was at Mass, he made sure to offer a special prayer to St. Anthony of Padua for Mercutio's well-being. He was not certain that his prayers did much good, however, as Mercutio persisted in turning away from food, and grew alarmingly skinny. Some nights, Benvolio wept himself to sleep at the prospect of watching someone he loved so dearly fading away before his eyes.

He had still not told anyone about how his feelings for his friend had changed, for he could not imagine what he might say, nor to whom he might say it. Romeo was wrapped up in loves of his own, and Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna were wrapped up in their own business. Benvolio was certainly not about to say anything in the confessional, not after the lecture he had received when he had shyly confessed to touching himself at night before he fell asleep. And he could not even think of telling Mercutio, for he could not know whether Mercutio would laugh at him or knock him down.

One night, Benvolio dreamed that there was a party. Music played, and Mercutio danced to it, as golden and shining as the dawn. Benvolio watched him, utterly drawn into the joy in Mercutio's bright blue eyes, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world when Mercutio extended a hand to draw Benvolio into the dance. In his dream, Benvolio was an expert at the galliard, and he danced with Mercutio, the two of them in perfect, precise rhythm with each other. When he woke, his heart was pounding, and his bed linens were damp and sticky.

If the world of dreams was exciting and a little bit frightening, the world of reality matched it. Now that they were growing up, Benvolio and his friends had somewhat more leisure time than they had had as children. They were not yet old enough to carry swords in the street, but they were permitted to roam for a short time, several days in the week. They were meant to socialize and practice interacting with adults in the world beyond the home, but for the most part, they met in the piazza and showed off new tricks and feats of skill and daring that they had learned.

This showing off inevitably led to difficulties whenever Tybalt appeared with his own friends. Tybalt insisted on either mocking every trick that the Montague boys could do or attempting to cow them with tricks of his own. Sometimes, a punch would be thrown, and all the boys would gather around the two combatants, hooting and hollering. Mercutio, though he was kin to neither family, was involved in as many of these scraps as any of the Montague boys, and he fought more ferociously than any other boy.

It was not that he never had cause; Tybalt seemed to delight in quarreling with Mercutio, and had learned exactly how to insult Mercutio to goad him into a fight. "Is that thy brother?" he asked loudly one Sunday, pointing at Valentine, who was playing not far away.

"It is, as well thou knowest," Mercutio answered, eyeing Tybalt suspiciously. Benvolio sent up a silent prayer that Tybalt would not try to torment Valentine, an exercise that invariably sent Mercutio into a shrieking fury.

"How old is he now?" Tybalt mused. "Six? Seven?"

"Eight. Almost nine." Mercutio's eyes had narrowed to slits.

"He is as pretty as any maid, with those golden curls and angelic blue eyes," Tybalt said with a sneer that he no doubt intended to look sophisticated. "'Tis a pity that thou hast not such looks."

"Tybalt, go hang thyself."

"Thou hadst best watch him closely, Mercutio," Tybalt said, "lest he become catamite to some great lord."

Benvolio put out his hands to restrain Mercutio, but Mercutio shoved him aside and leaped on Tybalt. "Take back thy words, Prince of Cats!" he snarled. After a few blows from Mercutio's hard, bony fists, Tybalt surrendered. Mercutio shoved Tybalt's nose in the dust for good measure, then stalked off, his head held high. After Tybalt's gang had fled the piazza, Mercutio sat down on the steps of the church and trembled a little.

"My brother is no man's catamite," he spat, "nor will he ever be, as long as I live." With that, Mercutio wrapped his arms around his knees, and refused to say anything else about the incident.

Benvolio fought back his immediate impulse to put his arms around Mercutio, for he knew that Mercutio would shy away from such an attempt at a loving touch. Instead, he sat next to his friend and tried to convey his love and painful worry over Mercutio's increasingly troubled behavior by thought alone.

So their thirteenth summer wore on, cooling gradually into autumn, and then into winter. Benvolio took care to enjoy every moment he could spend in Mercutio's company, and accepted his friend's wrenching changes of mood with steady good grace. On good days, Mercutio was as lively and imaginative as ever, bursting with new ideas and prattling on about whatever notion had come into his head. On bad days, he was sullen, angry, and fearful, apt to quarrel at the slightest provocation. Some of the Montague boys were wary of him, claiming that he was going mad, but neither Romeo nor Benvolio believed them, and they made sure to stay close to Mercutio through the bad days as well as the good ones.

One morning, shortly after Romeo's fourteenth birthday, he raced into Benvolio's bedchamber and yanked the covers off the bed. Benvolio sat up, and rubbed his eyes. "Romeo, what dost thou want of me?" he asked. "It is too early to rise yet."

Romeo paid no attention, but climbed onto the bed and knelt before Benvolio, his whole body quivering. "Thou wilt never guess what I have heard today," he said. "I woke up early to use the chamber pot, and as I was setting it outside the door, I heard several maids talking amongst themselves. One of them said that she had gone to the public well, and she heard from another servant that Signior Rinuccini was banished from Verona last night!"

At this, Benvolio came fully awake, and he stared at Romeo. "Thou knowest not what thou sayest," he gasped. "That was but idle gossip, overheard from servants. It cannot be true."

But it was true. Later in the morning, Romeo and Benvolio heard Uncle Tiberio complaining about the disruption in Verona's business world. Signior Boccardi, their tutor, explained that, even though Uncle Tiberio had chosen not to do business with Rinuccini, he had known plenty of men who did, and the disruption to their business affected his. Romeo nodded sagely, as if he understood. But the look that he shot Benvolio beneath his lashes showed that they worried about the same thing. After an hour of lessons, Signior Boccardi sighed, and closed his book.

"I see that I am the only one whose mind is on schooling today," he said. Benvolio blushed, and tried to apologize, but Boccardi waved it away. "Far better to deal with such problems as they come," he said. "Follow me, young masters."

He marched Romeo and Benvolio directly to Uncle Tiberio's study and knocked on the door. At Uncle Tiberio's word, he nudged them inside. "Good my lord," Boccardi said, "your son and nephew would have a word with you. I fear they shall be of no use to me until they have unburdened themselves to you."

Uncle Tiberio looked up from his accounts. His expression was one of surprise, but Benvolio could see no anger. He nodded, and Boccardi sketched a quick bow and left the room. Uncle Tiberio turned to the boys. "Well? Speak, children. What is it that troubles your minds so that you cannot apply yourselves to your books?"

As always, Romeo was quick to make a declaration. "We know about Signior Rinuccini, Father, and we are worried about Mercutio and Valentine," he announced. "What has become of them, now that their noble father is banished? We do not know the cause of this banishment, nor where he has gone, nor what may become of our friend and playmate."

Uncle Tiberio sat back in his chair and regarded them for a long moment. Finally, a smile wormed its way out of his beard. "I see that I can no longer keep the news of the world from you," he said. "I had hardly intended to join the crowds besieging the palace for news, but perhaps I must, for it seems mine are not the only associations to have an effect on the smooth running of the household. Therefore, we will have a lesson in civic actions. I shall go to the palace, and you will go along to learn how one petitions a prince."

As Uncle Tiberio had guessed, they had to wait their turn in a long line that stretched outside the palace. "Do all these men wait on the Prince's pleasure?" Romeo asked.

Uncle Tiberio nodded. "It is hardly usual for a citizen of Verona to vanish suddenly, in the grey hours before dawn. Only once have I seen a man of high rank chastised so ruthlessly. He had committed a most savage and unnatural murder, and the Prince announced his crime before all the men of Verona before causing him to be put to death."

Benvolio swallowed the knot of fear that formed in his stomach at the mention of murder. "Why has the Prince made no announcement about this?"

Uncle Tiberio gave a grim little smile. "Perhaps he has not yet had the opportunity. I fear that these crowds have been besieging him for audiences all day."

It seemed an eternity of moving from line to reception hall to antechamber until a secretary finally came to them and said that the Prince would see them. Uncle Tiberio looked Romeo and Benvolio over to ensure that they were presentable. "Follow me close," he said, "give your Prince the deference that is his due, and speak not unless you are spoken to." With that, they entered the Prince's public study.

Prince Escalus himself sat at an ornately carved table. He glanced up when Uncle Tiberio and the boys entered, and Benvolio saw that he looked weary, his face bristling with stubble, and prominent rings beneath his eyes. Uncle Tiberio bowed, and Romeo and Benvolio followed suit.

"Montague," the Prince said. "Yours is a face I had not expected to see this day. I would sooner expect you if aught had befallen Capulet, your ancient enemy." His eye fell on the boys. "Have you brought your sons as well? That is no less unusual."

Uncle Tiberio coughed, then put a hand on each boy's shoulder. "This is Romeo, my son and heir, and this one is Benvolio, the son of my late brother Lucio, but no less dear to my heart. Indeed, it is on their behalf that we seek audience today."

The Prince seemed startled, and his eyebrows crawled up his brow as he turned his gaze on the boys. "This audience already differs greatly from those I have already granted this day. That alone is sufficient to interest me." His gaze moved from Romeo to Benvolio and back again. "Romeo, son of Montague. Tell me, what interest do you have in the affairs of Giacomo Rinuccini?"

Romeo gulped, and glanced up at his father. Uncle Tiberio nodded to him, and he turned to face the Prince. "It is not interest in Signior Rinuccini, my Lord, but interest in his sons. I – that is, my cousin and myself – we are – Mercutio is our friend, my Lord, and we would know what is to become of him and his brother Valentine. If they are to be banished, without a chance for farewells . . . " Romeo's voice trailed off, and he bowed to cover his shyness.

The Prince sat back in his chair, and regarded them solemnly. His face was a blank mask. Benvolio could not tell whether or not they had angered him with their petition. He wanted to squirm, to stand on one foot, or run away, but he bore up under the Prince's gaze. The only way to find the answers he so desperately wanted was to endure it. At last, the Prince nodded, and his expression softened just a little.

"Romeo and Benvolio," he said. "You would risk much for news of a boy and his brother."

"Mercutio is our friend!" Benvolio burst out.

Uncle Tiberio seized his arm. "Silence, Benvolio, when the Prince speaks!"

The Prince raised one finger, and Benvolio bowed as an apology. After a long moment, the Prince spoke again. "It is well for Mercutio that he has such friends as yourselves. Since you have braved our displeasure to ask, here is the reward for your actions. Mercutio and Valentine are still in Verona; indeed, they are here, in the palace, as we speak. Their father's sentence of exile does not fall upon their heads. They will live here as my wards, even as does County Paris, their kinsman."

Benvolio let out a breath he had not known he was holding, and Romeo shivered all over. "May we see Mercutio?" Romeo asked.

"Mercutio will see no one today," the Prince replied. "He is stricken with fever, and a physician keeps watch over him."

All of Benvolio's relief turned to horror. "What has happened? He will not die?"

There was a long pause. Finally, the Prince took a deep breath. "Mercutio's fate is in God's hands now. If you would contribute to his welfare, then I would ask you to return to your home and pray for his soul."

Uncle Tiberio bowed, and nudged Romeo and Benvolio to do the same. "Many thanks for this news, noble Prince," he said, and steered the boys out of the study and onto the street.

"There are your answers," he said, as they made their way home. His tone was harsher than Benvolio was accustomed to hearing, but his expression was gentle, and he patted their shoulders as he spoke. They passed through the piazza, where St. Peter's church stood. Benvolio's steps slowed, and Romeo cast a longing glance at the door. Without a word, Uncle Tiberio nodded, and followed them up the steps and into the church where they could begin their prayers.

Chapter Text

9. A Gentler Judgement

It was only after nearly a month had passed that Benvolio saw Mercutio again. He had been studying Aristotle in the solar, when Romeo strode over to him and yanked the book from his hands. Benvolio snatched for it, but Romeo held it out of his reach.

"We are going out," he said. "Too long hast thou sat here or in the chapel, not letting the sun kiss thy face."

Benvolio glared, but put a hat on his head and followed Romeo out of the house. It was indeed a beautiful day. Spring was ripening into summer, and Uncle Tiberio had declared them old enough to go out by themselves, without Abram to guard their backs. Romeo was in fine fettle, and walked with his hand resting prominently on the grip of the rapier that Uncle Tiberio had given him for his birthday. He looked around, casting admiring glances at pretty women in their windows, and Benvolio finally had to laugh.

"Thou hast the persistence of a mule, cousin mine," he said.

Romeo sighed, but his grin spoiled the effect. "Verona is home to hundreds of comely ladies. One there must be who will return my poor heart's affections."

Benvolio was about to make a retort about the location of Romeo's affections when they entered the piazza, and he stopped cold. Mercutio, whom he had feared he would not see alive again, was tossing a ball back and forth with Valentine near the fountain. Mercutio missed a catch, and the ball rolled into the depression at the base of the fountain. He went to fetch it, and Valentine noticed that they were not alone.

"Benvolio and Romeo!" he cried. "Mercutio, look who has come to play with us!" Valentine charged across the piazza to greet them. Romeo laughed, and he and Benvolio pretended to hide behind each other. Valentine normally tended to be a somewhat reserved child, and Romeo and Benvolio had encouraged him to emerge from his shell. However, he had all the energy of his nine years, and could knock them over if he were not cautious. He threw his arms around Benvolio, and Romeo ruffled his hair.

"It is good to see thee again, Valentine," Benvolio said. "We feared that thou and Mercutio were gone from Verona forever."

"Nay, that's not so," Mercutio said with a smile as he joined them. "I remain to plague this city still."

Benvolio looked at his beloved friend, and his stomach flopped over. Mercutio had always been thin, but his recent illness had left him with almost no flesh on his bones. His smile, still beautiful, was slightly uncertain, though his eyes were as bright as ever. Benvolio raised his hand, wanting desperately to embrace Mercutio, but knowing that Mercutio despised close physical contact. Romeo, who had fewer reservations, threw an arm around Mercutio's shoulders anyway and held him for an instant before releasing him.

"We saw the Prince, and he told us that a fever had claimed thee, and that thou wast sick almost unto death," Romeo declared. "Truly, thou hast more lives than a cat."

Mercutio's eyes twinkled merrily. "If that is so, then I may fight Tybalt with impunity, for he is the Prince of Cats, yet I have more lives at my disposal."

"Caution," Romeo said, holding up a finger. "We know not how many lives thou hast already used."

Benvolio could see that this conversation would quickly turn into a contest of wits, and he would have to intervene if he wanted any real information. "Stop there," he said. "Mercutio, what happened? Romeo came to my chamber a month past with the news of thy father, but we have heard nothing since save idle gossip. How cam'st thou to the Prince, and wherefore is thy father banished?"

Mercutio laughed a little. "Dost thou care about my father?"

"It is a most sudden change," Romeo pointed out. "We seek only to understand."

"Very well." Mercutio pulled his handkerchief from his sleeve, and toyed with it as he spoke, twisting it through his fingers and tying it in knots. "In truth, I know not where to begin my tale, for I do not know all of it myself. My father has committed a – a great crime, and for that my uncle has banned him from Verona's walls. He has gone to Mantua, and I will never see him again save only if I seek him out. My uncle has offered sanctuary to Valentine and to me. We do not see him often, but we see Paris. Indeed, when I awoke from my fever dreams, it was my noble cousin who sat by my bed."

"All this in so short a time," Benvolio mused. "What illness struck thee down so suddenly? I suppose it could not have been grief at thy father's fate?"

"Grief? Nay," Mercutio snorted. "Thou art clever, Benvolio, and I know thou art aware that I would never grieve to see my father gone. But I must confess, this fever has cooked my brains, and I cannot remember all of my tale. I do not remember how I came to the palace with Valentine, nor have I a memory of my father's banishment, save only that Paris told me of it when I awoke."

Mercutio took a deep breath and shut his eyes. When he opened them again, they were troubled. Benvolio took it as a sign and elected not to push for further details. "Thou art well now," he said, "and safe, and still in Verona with us. That is what matters. The rest is not important."

Mercutio smiled at him, a real, genuine, affectionate smile. It pierced Benvolio's heart, and he was helpless to do anything more than return the expression, reveling once again in his secret love.

Romeo looked Mercutio up and down. "Thou art grown so thin, it is as if thou art all bone," he said. "Come, let us play a while. It will help thee regain thy strength."

Mercutio agreed, and called Valentine to bring them the ball. The four boys spent a glorious, golden hour playing with it until Mercutio grew weary, and they took leave of each other to go their separate ways.

Giacomo Rinuccini's banishment might have meant turmoil for business dealings in Verona, but it was an unmitigated success for the young people of the city. Mercutio no longer appeared in the piazza with bruises or other injuries that he could not explain. He was more lighthearted than he had been in several years, and could hold the entire group of Montague cousins and hangers-on in thrall to the elaborate stories he invented. He also turned out to have a talent for telling bawdy jokes that made his adolescent audience roll on the ground laughing. If Rinuccini had had a hand in suppressing Mercutio's joy in life, and Benvolio was certain that he had, then Benvolio, at least, was glad that he was gone.

Mercutio turned out to have another surprise for them. He had always been small and thin, and had become downright skinny when his problems with food had first started. But he was eating a little more these days, at Paris's insistence, and his reaction to the food was hardly what anyone expected. Instead of filling out, Mercutio began to grow, shooting up until he was taller than Benvolio, who had always been the tallest of the three boys. When Benvolio teased him about it, he laughed.

"I do not mind growing," Mercutio said. "For one thing, it means that I may have new clothes. My uncle has said that he will give me money, and I may ask the tailor for whatever I desire."

"There art thou fortunate," Benvolio said. "Aunt Susanna still exercises her taste on my wardrobe and Romeo's. We must dress to reflect the dignity of the House of Montague, she says."

Mercutio laughed, and pulled Benvolio's hat down over his nose. "There is the dignity of the House of Montague!"

After that, there was nothing else for Benvolio to do but chase Mercutio around the piazza until they were both sweaty and laughing. He chased Mercutio to the fountain and playfully hurled a handful of water at him. Mercutio whooped, and pitched himself into the basin. Benvolio let out a scandalized gasp that turned into a laugh.

"What art thou doing?" he cried. "Thou wilt ruin thy doublet."

"I have outgrown it anyway," Mercutio replied. "And the day is hot, and the water will cool my brains. They have been cooked enough already this summer." He ducked his head under the water, then surfaced, his fine blond hair dark and plastered to his skull. Benvolio looked at him, and suddenly wished that he had his friend's daring. Mercutio smiled, and handed Benvolio his handkerchief, dripping wet.

"Bathe thy face," he suggested. "Thou art nearly as wet as I from thy perspiration alone."

Benvolio sat down on the edge of the fountain and ran the cool, wet cloth over his hot face and neck. It did feel good, and he groaned in pleasure at its touch. They sat in companionable silence for a moment, enjoying the sunshine and the rush of the fountain. After a while, Mercutio pulled himself from the basin and sat down on the edge next to Benvolio. Something seemed to be bothering him, and he glanced away several times, as if trying to find exactly the words he wanted.

"Benvolio," he said softly, "dost thou think . . . wouldst thou ask . . . dost thou think that thy Aunt Susanna would exercise her taste upon my clothes as well as thine?" Benvolio glanced at him in surprise, and Mercutio tried to explain. "I know not how to speak to a tailor, for my father always did that for me and for my brother. My uncle has no time. Paris says that a beanpole such as I have become must choose clothing carefully, and he has offered to help, but his own suits are not at all becoming, and I do not know that I should trust him with mine. But thou and Romeo are always well turned-out. Perhaps it requires a lady's hand, and I have neither mother nor aunt to help me."

For a moment, Benvolio was not certain what to say. He was proud of the compliment to Aunt Susanna, even if he did find her overbearing at times, and he was pleased that Mercutio thought enough of her to ask for her help. But at the same time, the fact that Mercutio had to ask for such help at all distressed Benvolio in a way that he could not quite fathom. So he pushed that thought to the back of his mind and smiled.

"I will ask my lady aunt," he said. "I am sure she will agree. She loves clothes, after all, and she will be pleased to hear that there is indeed one boy in Verona who desires her assistance."

Mercutio laughed, and clasped Benvolio's hand in gratitude, dripping water on Benvolio's clothes in the process. Nevertheless, Benvolio treasured the touch, as he always did, and counted himself well rewarded for his aid.

In the new clothes that Aunt Susanna helped him choose, Mercutio looked quite grown up, and citizens who knew whose nephew he was would occasionally stop him on the street to ask for his favor in their dealings with the Prince. Mercutio held himself at a wary distance for many of these encounters, and would always look around to locate Valentine if a strange man approached. But he listened to petitions, and gave advice if he thought that he could, which was not often.

"Why dost thou do it?" Romeo asked him, after yet another petitioner had walked away. "They frighten thee. I can see it in thy eyes. Why dost thou subject thyself to these encounters?"

"For the dignity of the Royal House," Mercutio answered. "Thou and Benvolio have duties to the House of Montague. I have duties to my uncle, in whose house I dwell, and who provides clothes for my back and food for my belly."

"Not enough of the latter," Romeo said. "Thou art still as thin as a blade of grass. Art thou never hungry?"

Mercutio shrugged. "I do not always wish to eat."

"Well, I do." Romeo looked around and smiled. "There is the man who sells pickles from his cart. Balthasar, wouldst thou be kind and purchase pickles for us, and one for thyself? My stomach calls."

"Thou didst dine at noon," Benvolio said, but he smiled to take the sting from his words. In truth, he wanted a pickle as well. He wondered if he would ever stop being hungry between meals. Balthasar, Romeo's new page, loped over to the pickle seller and bought four pickles, dripping wet, from the pickle seller's bin. He gave one to Romeo, one to Benvolio, and one to Mercutio, and kept the last for himself.

Romeo wasted no time biting into the end of his pickle, and Benvolio followed suit a moment later, his teeth sinking into the end of the pickle with a satisfying crunch and a burst of spicy, vinegary flavor. Mercutio hesitated, glancing from his friends to the long, thick pickle in his hands. A strange expression flitted across his face, and his smile vanished.

Benvolio looked up from his half-eaten pickle. "Mercutio?" he asked. "What troubles thee?"

Mercutio frowned, and looked as if he were about to speak, then changed his mind and was silent for a moment. He glanced at his pickle again, then placed it in Romeo's hand.

"I am sorry," he murmured. "I thank thee for thy kindness, but I cannot eat this. It would choke me, or, if it did not, I fear that it would return to see the light of day most unpleasantly."

With that, he turned and walked away into the arcade at the far end of the piazza. Romeo and Benvolio watched him go, stunned into silence. At the sound of footsteps, Benvolio turned to see Valentine standing next to him, staring after his brother with a worried look on his face.

Benvolio's heart twisted in his chest. He wanted to run after Mercutio and find a way to bring him back to the sunshine and pleasant companionship of the piazza, and he wanted to embrace Mercutio and take in all of his sorrows, but he knew that Mercutio would lash out at him if he did those things, so he did neither one of them. Instead, he put an arm around Valentine's shoulders, resolving to care for Mercutio's brother when Mercutio could not do that himself.

Chapter Text

10. Trooping With Crows

All growing boys suffered fits of mood, Aunt Susanna had told Benvolio. Uncle Tiberio had concurred in this, and had even told some stories about himself and Benvolio's father when they were young. The words had helped, and Benvolio always loved to hear things about his parents, but they did not completely ease the worries in his heart.

The first worry was for himself. Benvolio had tried to tell himself that his unnatural love for Mercutio was a simple childish fancy, born of concern and friendship, and that it could ease now that Mercutio's father was gone from Verona. Now that no one was hurting Mercutio, Benvolio would be free to turn his eye to the comely maidens of Verona, as Romeo did. But instead of abating, the strange love grew and even mutated. All the other boys talked of the soft skin and bosoms of the maidens they occasionally saw. Benvolio joined in these discussions, albeit mostly to listen, but found that his gaze traveled somewhere quite different.

A glimpse of a maiden at church or at a dance pleased him in the same way that a painting or a fine piece of furniture pleased him. But when he allowed himself to admire his friends' legs in their fashionable hose, or, even more rarely, the decorated bulge of a codpiece, his heart pounded, his stomach fluttered, and what happened lower down than that was even more embarrassing. It took Benvolio only a short time to hit upon the solution of carrying a book or two wherever he went. If he could not use the philosophy to cool his ardor, he could at least hold the book so as to conceal it. He developed a reputation among his friends for being a scholar, but he did not mind. It was certainly better than letting them know the truth.

Benvolio's second worry was for Mercutio. He had thought that, with Rinuccini's banishment, Mercutio would return to the joyous, playful boy he had been, long ago before the earthquake. After all, he lived in the palace, the ward of the wealthiest and most powerful man in Verona. The Prince seemed to set very few rules, for Mercutio could wander the streets at will and do whatever struck his fancy, without so much as a whisper of reprimand. Any other boy that Benvolio knew would have been ecstatic at the chance to live like that just for a week. But Mercutio was often unhappy, and sometimes outright distressed, for no reason that he could name.

The strange melancholy would come upon him suddenly, sometimes in the middle of a game or a story. Sometimes Mercutio would walk away from the group for a little while, regain control of himself, and then return. Other times, he would fly into a rage. The most frightening times of all, he would start speaking loudly and quickly, often about dark, uncomfortable things, as if he could build a wall of words to seal himself off from the world. When Mercutio had worked himself up into such a strange temper, he sometimes lashed out at any boy who came too close. Romeo was the only one who dared to take Mercutio's hands and talk to him in soft, gentle tones until he was calm again. Benvolio envied Romeo his courage and hated his own cowardice in those moments.

There was one thing that he could do, however, and he did it with his full heart, defending Mercutio's behavior from the tongues of other boys.

"I do not know that it is wise to associate with him any more," Vincenzo said one day, after Mercutio had wandered off. "He has become a madman, and that is dangerous."

"He is not mad," Benvolio said hotly. "There is something troubling him."

"Something that he will not tell us?" Pietro laughed. "His friends?'

Benvolio could think of plenty of secrets that one might not want to share with one's friends. "I do not tell thee everything that I think."

"Thou dost not fly into fits with no cause," Vincenzo pointed out.

"Perhaps he is not fully mad," Pietro offered, "but he is touched. What if he goes mad later on?"

"What if our company is all that keeps him from going mad?" Benvolio retorted.

It was clear that they would not find a satisfactory answer to the question that afternoon, so they dropped the issue. Mercutio returned to them shortly afterwards, and the conversation drifted towards the taverns that the boys had recently begun to frequent.

The evening after Candlemas was cold and rainy, as early February in Verona tended to be. Romeo, Benvolio, Vincenzo, Pietro, Salvatore, and a few of their pages and other friends had all gathered at their favorite tavern. Mercutio was not with them, having an obligation at the palace that night. None of the other boys missed him; indeed, his absence was the reason they had gathered. After the innkeeper had brought them a round of drinks, Romeo leaned forward to signal the official beginning of their meeting.

"Mercutio will be sixteen on Thursday," he said. "His family never marked birthdays, and I do not know that the Prince has ever done so, either, if he even knows when it is. But we should think of some way to mark it amongst ourselves."

"I should enjoy a birthday gathering," Salvatore said. His family was known throughout Verona for being scrupulously up-to-date on the latest trends and fashions, and Salvatore took birthday parties almost for granted.

"But what can we do?" Benvolio asked. "There is hardly enough time to arrange a grand celebration. Aunt Susanna is already planning for Romeo's and that is in April."

"I suppose it need not be a grand feast," Pietro mused. "After all, it will be only us his friends. We should do something that we all enjoy."

"We do that every time we meet," Salvatore said. "This must be something special, for Mercutio's birthday."

Vincenzo sat up a little straighter, a wide grin spreading across his face. "I have just the thing!" he announced. "Pietro and I had some confidence with Mercutio not three days ago, and he revealed that he has never lain with a woman."

"Neither hast thou," Romeo said, puzzled.

Vincenzo laughed. "But thou and I are not yet sixteen. What better gift for a boy of sixteen years than a night with a well-trained jade?"

The others at the table considered the possibilities of such an event, and sighed in envy at the mere thought. Benvolio frowned. He knew that he would not appreciate such a gift, which already put the lie to Vincenzo's assumption. He did not know whether or not Mercutio would appreciate it. Mercutio joined in their discussions of female beauty amiably enough when his opinion was asked, but he never seemed especially interested, and always tried to steer the conversation to some topic besides the arts of love.

"Perhaps Mercutio might prefer an evening in the company of his friends," Benvolio suggested. "We could visit several of our favorite taverns, and stand him his wine."

Pietro nodded sagely. "Those are both most excellent ideas," he said. "Let us adopt them both. We will collect money amongst ourselves and spend the evening carousing together in good fellowship, then escort Mercutio to the house of the nearest bawd, so that he may finish the evening on Olympus's peak."

Benvolio's dissent was drowned in the din of the other boys' agreement.

When Thursday arrived, the Montague boys swung into action. Without directly saying so, they had all conspired to keep the details of the evening a secret from Mercutio, saying only that they desired to keep him company for a few hours. At the first tavern they visited, they revealed that the gathering was to celebrate his birthday, and Mercutio cried out with joy at the prospect. The boys toured through four of Verona's taverns, sampling the best wines that the city had to offer.

By the fourth tavern, everyone was relaxed and in high spirits. Benvolio propped his head up in his hands, and enjoyed the buzz and whirl of the wine in his head. Mercutio was laughing heartily at something Salvatore had said, and Romeo sprawled happily across an entire bench. Perhaps this birthday celebration would be a success after all.

Vincenzo stood up and gestured to the tavernkeeper. He placed enough money in the man's hand to pay their bill, then clapped Mercutio on the shoulder. "It is time for our next visit," he said.

Mercutio smiled, and accepted Vincenzo's help rising from the table. "Another tasting? That is too kind. I shall float away on a tide of Verona's finest vintages."

"Thou wilt find this establishment most stimulating," Vincenzo said. "I wager thou wilt never forget it."

"Oho! Then this must be a pretty place indeed! Lead on." Mercutio followed Vincenzo out the door, the rest of the boys trailing after.

They wandered through the streets in a loose knot. Romeo and Pietro sang, loudly and out of tune, the pages giggled, and Benvolio strode along, all of his joints marvelously loose. Mercutio did not pay any attention to where they were going, content to let his friends lead him, as they had been doing all evening. It was not long before they entered a neighborhood known for its bawdy houses. Vincenzo selected one and steered the group towards it. "That is our next resting place!" he cried.

Mercutio stopped walking and looked around to get his bearings. Slowly, he took in the houses with women standing in the doorways, brazen and disheveled, their faces boldly painted. Muddled as he was from wine, it took several moments for the nature of their destination to make an impression on him. His loose, delighted smile faded into an expression of astonishment and disbelief.

"We are in the stews," he said. "Wherefore came we this way? I had expected another tavern."

"No, gentle Mercutio," Salvatore said, a sloppy grin on his face. "The time for wine is past. Behold the second half of thy birthday gift."

"Thou may'st choose the fairest of all the jades and pass the night with her," Vincenzo said, holding up a small bag of coins. "The lady shall make a man of thee tonight."

Mercutio looked from the bag of coins to Vincenzo's leer, a strange expression on his face. He glanced at one of the women, then turned back to Vincenzo. "I would as well visit another tavern," he said.

"What, wilt thou recuse thyself after we have gone to the trouble to bring thee here?" Vincenzo laughed. "Go to! I say thou shalt."

Mercutio glanced around at his friends. The smile was definitely gone from his face, and he seemed to be struggling for words. "It is . . . truly kind of thee to look after my welfare thus," he managed. "But I have no desire for such sport tonight. Go thou in, if thou wilt, and I shall wish thee joy of it."

"What?" Vincenzo said with a wine-soaked laugh. "Shall we know thee for a coward, then? Surely thou canst face the secret parts of a woman with courage."

Mercutio backed away from Vincenzo, and fine tremors began to course through his body. "Please, I have no desire. Not tonight."

"Thou art no babe in arms, therefore do not behave like one. They are only whores, thou wilt find thy courage soon enough." Vincenzo nodded to Pietro, and they each took one of Mercutio's arms to escort him into the house.

At their touch, Mercutio's body went rigid, and his eyes snapped open. "No!" he cried. "No, I will not! Let me go!" Before any of the other boys could move to stop him, he twisted free of Vincenzo and Pietro, striking Vincenzo in the chest and planting his elbow in Pietro's chin in the process. He pushed past Romeo and Salvatore, and fled into an alley.

For a moment, the revelers stared after him, stunned. The women, who had been watching from their doors and windows, said nothing. Salvatore helped Pietro to rise. Romeo was the first to recover his wits. "I will go after him," he said. "In such a mood as this, who knows what evil he may commit upon himself." He seized a torch and sprinted away. Benvolio hesitated only a moment, then followed after.

Distressed, and under the twin influences of wine and the demons in his own mind, Mercutio had not gone far. They found him at the other end of the alley, crouching on the pavement, his head in his hands, a stream of incoherent words dribbling from his mouth. With the courage that Benvolio had always envied, Romeo approached Mercutio and knelt down before him. He reached out hesitantly to touch Mercutio's jaw.

Mercutio gasped, and started violently, but Romeo clasped the sides of his head and forced Mercutio to look him in the eye. "Peace, Mercutio," he said softly. "It is only Benvolio and I." Slowly, so as not to startle his friend further, Benvolio moved to kneel next to Mercutio.

"Breathe slowly," Romeo commanded. "We will not injure thee. Thou need'st not enter a bawdy house tonight."

"Vincenzo . . . " Mercutio murmured.

"Vincenzo is an ass," Benvolio said. "He ought to have listened to thee, but he did not. I shall see that he makes thee an apology."

Finally, Mercutio relaxed a little. "I hate birthdays," he said. "I have had too much wine, and my head aches as though it would split in twain." He fumbled in the dim light for Benvolio's hand, and gripped it as though it were a rope tossed to a drowning man.

"Perhaps the evening is best ended here," Benvolio suggested gently. "Wouldst thou permit us to escort thee home?"

Mercutio nodded, and stood up. He swayed a little, and Romeo put an arm around his waist to steady him. For once, Mercutio did not object to the touch. They set off through the dark streets together, lighted by the torch that Benvolio now bore in one hand. Mercutio still clasped his other hand, and squeezed it occasionally for reassurance. They did not speak until they reached the palace.

"Wilt thou be well?" Romeo asked.

Mercutio nodded. "I will, and I will see you both tomorrow." He turned to go up the stairs to the door, then paused and looked back. "Thank you," he said. "For thinking of my birthday."

Neither Romeo nor Benvolio knew what to say to that. Instead, they waited silently as Mercutio mounted the steps, spoke to the night guard at the door, and entered the palace. Then they set off for their own home.

"I wonder why he grew so angry," Romeo said after a while.

Benvolio shook his head. "Nay, that was not anger; at least, not entirely. It was fear. Didst thou not see? He was terrified."

Romeo frowned. "It was simply a bawdy house filled with whores. What possible cause for terror lies therein?"

For that, Benvolio had no answer.

Chapter Text

11. Above A Common Ground

With the help of some pressure from Romeo and Benvolio, Vincenzo and Pietro apologized to Mercutio for trying to force him into the bawdy house. They pleaded overindulgence in the taverns, which was an acceptable excuse, though it did not quite cover the situation. Mercutio accepted their apologies graciously and made peace with them, though Benvolio was never certain whether or not he went so far as to forgive them.

He did count one positive result from the disastrous birthday celebration, though. Some of Mercutio's wariness about touch had dissipated. It did not leave him completely, and there were still days when he shied from even the slightest brush of a hand, but on the whole, his friends could make casual contact without fearing a flinch or a blow. Later, Mercutio even began to reach out to others. This delighted Romeo, who had always enjoyed the ready intimacies of friendship. As for Benvolio, the occasional light, hesitant touch of Mercutio's fingers on his arm during a conversation sent tingling jolts through his body, and he sometimes had to take a deep breath in order to retain control of himself.

The adventure at the bawdy house had inspired the boys, and half of their talk now concerned maidens. Most of Benvolio's friends declared themselves madly in love with one maiden or another, though Mercutio continued to insist that love was a fool's game. Romeo, of course, shone at this sport, writing impassioned poetry about the beauties who caught his eye and then reading the poems to his friends. Pietro would pretend to swoon, and Mercutio would laugh. Privately, Benvolio thought that Romeo's poetry was usually terrible, but he envied his cousin the ability to fall so easily in love with women.

Benvolio put off questions about his own desires as long as he could. His salvation came unexpectedly from Mercutio. They were attending a feast at the house of Count Bellini. The music was fine, and they danced until they were out of breath. When the musicians paused to clean and re-tune their instruments, Mercutio approached Benvolio with a smirk on his face.

"Look over there," he said. "Yon maiden in the rose-colored gown with lace in her hair."

Benvolio looked, and saw a tall, rather gawky girl with a long nose and liquid eyes nervously patting a stray lock of hair back beneath her lace headdress. Something about her interested him, though he could not say what it might be. "What of her?" he asked.

"That is Helena Pergolesi," Mercutio said. "She is niece to Signior Capulet through his youngest sister."

Benvolio nodded. Mercutio knew most of the Capulets, as their family had done business with his before his father had been banished. They continued to associate with him now as a ward of the Prince, and he had been invited to several of their feasts. "I see," Benvolio said. "What wouldst thou have me see in her?"

"Didst thou not notice?" Mercutio said with a grin. "I had thought that the entire hall could see. She has had her eyes on thee through the last pavane and the galliard that followed."

This was news. Usually, women seemed to have as little interest in Benvolio as he had in them. "Truly, Mercutio? Surely this is another of thy jests."

"No, upon my honor. She gazed at thee alone and did not condescend to spare even one glance at the gentleman who squired her through the dance. I think he was most put out by that."

Benvolio smiled. "I can well imagine. Who was the unfortunate gentleman?"

"Tybalt. It seems thou hast won the eye of a lady and the anger of a gentleman all in one fell swoop. I think thou art to be congratulated." Mercutio laughed, and Benvolio rolled his eyes and went to fetch himself another drink.

If Helena Pergolesi's wandering eye had widened the rift between Tybalt and Benvolio, it also provided him some benefits. Now, at last, he could tell his friends that he was intrigued with a woman. It was not entirely a lie, either; Benvolio could not quite define the nature of his attraction to Helena, and that was a pretty puzzle to occupy his mind. Helena's connection to the Capulets meant that no one expected him to pursue his interest beyond looking. His friends were impressed that he dared to contemplate a woman attached to the Capulet family at all, however distantly attached. If he had to pick a woman to be in love with, Benvolio decided that Helena Pergolesi would do quite nicely.

If anyone could be said to fan the flames of the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets the most, it was Tybalt. When he was younger, Benvolio had wondered why Tybalt was so dedicated to the cause of the feud, for his parents were not Capulets at all. His father's younger sister was Signior Capulet's wife, which did not strike Benvolio as much of a connection at all. Still, whenever a fracas erupted between Montagues and Capulets, Tybalt was sure to be in the middle of it, swinging his sword with gleeful abandon.

He even went out of his way to provoke fights. He and his gang of friends and followers had a disturbing trick of surrounding their chosen target, closing off all avenues of escape while Tybalt hurled insults and petty physical assaults at their victim until he erupted in rage and struck the first blow. Benvolio was aware of this tactic, and tried not to allow himself to be caught in their trap. However, when the Capulet gang did manage to surround him, they only became more vicious. Once, Petruchio and Salanio caught Benvolio by his arms, and Tybalt advanced on him, threatening to tear off his hose and chase him home flopping in the breeze if Benvolio did not immediately make a servant's bow to him.

Benvolio twisted free of Petruchio and Salanio, who had not been expecting him to react with such vehemence, and shoved his way out of the circle. Tybalt started to give chase, but stopped short when he saw Mercutio pointing a rapier directly at his eye.

"Hie thee hence, worm," Mercutio snarled. "Think not that thou canst insult my friends with impunity."

Tybalt's nostrils flared, and his hand moved to the grip of his own sword. Mercutio advanced on him until his blade was a mere handspan from Tybalt's face. "I dare thee," he said. "Shall we see whose blade can move the fastest? Thine from its scabbard, or mine into thy brain?"

Tybalt paused, and Benvolio could see his mind working furiously, trying to find a way to disengage himself from a situation turned truly dangerous without damaging his pride. Finally, Tybalt let out a derisive laugh. "Do not bother playing at being a man, Mercutio," he said. "Look thou to thy friend, for I have left him more in need of a nursemaid than a knight."

With that, he snapped his fingers, turned on his heel, and stalked off, his friends swaggering after him. Mercutio kept his sword drawn and raised until they had turned a corner, then sheathed it and turned to Benvolio. "Art thou hurt?"

Benvolio managed a wry smile. "In dignity only," he said. "And whatever Tybalt may think, that wound will heal quickly, of its own accord." But he could not keep the tremor from his voice or his hands.

Mercutio frowned, and something that Benvolio could not identify stirred behind his eyes. The hand that had been so steady holding a rapier now trembled a little as he reached out and touched Benvolio's shoulder, a comforting gesture that any other of Benvolio's friends would have made without even thinking about it. Coming from Mercutio, however, even such a light touch was a rare and precious thing, and Benvolio relaxed almost immediately at the unexpected intimacy of it.

"Why does he do that?" Benvolio asked. "Why must Tybalt fight so much for the honor of the Capulets, when he is not even a Capulet by blood?"

Mercutio's eyes grew hard, as they always did when he thought about Tybalt. "In the eyes of the law, he is a Capulet. That family has run to daughters, and Signior Capulet has no surviving sons or nephews – at least not legitimate ones. I have heard rumors that Salanio is one of his by-blows from a chambermaid, but do not repeat that where Salanio might hear thee say it."

Benvolio managed a smile. "My lips are sealed. But what of Tybalt?"

"Signior Capulet has made his wife's nephew heir to a son's portion of his estate, and to the privileges of his name, in return for assistance with several old gambling debts," Mercutio said. "Therefore, Tybalt is a Capulet, by law if not by blood."

"And he fights for that name to prove his affiliation," Benvolio sighed. Although much of Tybalt's behavior had become clearer to him now, he still could not bring himself to like Capulet's heir.

Mercutio laughed suddenly, startling Benvolio a little. "I think that the family affiliation is a convenient excuse for one such as Tybalt. He is vicious and loves to quarrel, and he would fight thee even if he were thy brother."

"Harsh words, from one who is not even a Montague by a trick of the law." Benvolio smiled to take the sting from his words.

Mercutio shrugged. "Tybalt is a bully, and one need not be a Montague to see that. I hate bullies, and I will not suffer them to wound my friends."

Several weeks later, Benvolio discovered that Mercutio's impetuous defense of Tybalt's victims was not limited to his friends, or even his acquaintances. Mercutio had dozed off during one of the Montague boys' interminable debates about the feminine objects of their affections. Romeo, having just described the charms of Cecilia, the newest lady to catch his eye, reached out and shook Mercutio's shoulder. Mercutio opened his eyes and swatted irritably at Romeo.

"Upon my word, thou wilt sleep through a tale of the fairest lady ever to walk the earth?" Romeo asked.

"Not as soundly as I would wish, for I could still hear the lady's name penetrating my dreams," Mercutio said. "Cecilia the fairest of the fair, Cecilia the gracious, Cecilia the virtuous. I have heard it unnumbered times before."

"Have we bored thee to tears at last?" Pietro asked.

Mercutio sat up and squinted into the morning sunlight. "Not yet. In truth, I am weary because I had little rest last night."

This remark made the boys hoot with laughter. "Dost thou mean what I think?" Vincenzo chortled.

Mercutio glared at him. "Ay. I spent several hours in the company of a woman." He said no more, even when they pressed him for details. However, after the group had parted to pursue separate interests, Mercutio told Romeo and Benvolio the true story.

Mercutio had gone to bed early the night before, but sleep had not found him. In order to escape his own dark, troubled thoughts, he had pulled clothes on and left the palace in the hope that a walk in the night air might clear his mind. This was not exactly news to Benvolio; he knew that Mercutio sometimes had difficulty sleeping as well as eating. It worried him, but there was nothing he could do about it except offer his sympathy.

It seemed that Mercutio had not been the only high-born youth prowling the streets of Verona that evening. He had heard what sounded like a quarrel between a man and a woman, and recognized the man's voice as Tybalt. Upon further investigation, Mercutio discovered Tybalt pressing a strange woman up against a wall, working her skirt up and her bodice down as the woman squirmed and struck at him with her fists. The woman's distress had distracted Mercutio from his own, and he drove Tybalt off with savage mockery and a few well-chosen threats, assisted by several more blows from the woman's fists.

"What didst thou do with her then, thy damsel in distress?" Romeo asked with a smile.

Mercutio was weary enough that he simply bit his thumb at Romeo before he continued his tale.

"I asked the lady's name, for I did not remember having seen her before. She said that she was Sarah bat Eliezer."

Benvolio raised his eyebrows. "That is an odd name. I have never heard anything quite like it."

Mercutio smiled. "Nor had I. I offered to escort her home, and I asked where her family's house was. She grew distressed, and explained that she lived in the goldmongers' street."

It took a moment for that detail to sink in. When it did, Romeo sucked in a shocked breath, and Benvolio's eyes grew wide. "That is in the ghetto," he said. "She is a Jew, then, this Sarah bat Eliezer?"

"What business had she in the street after the coming of darkness?" Romeo asked. "The ghetto is locked at night."

"She had gone to the river to do her washing," Mercutio said. "I suppose she took longer than she had anticipated." He frowned a little remembering. "She will have to go and do it again, for she had dropped her basket, and the clothes lay all over the street. Tybalt had made her drop them. He did not need to do that." For a moment, Mercutio's expression wavered between anger and misery.

"How didst thou manage to return the lady to the locked ghetto?" Benvolio asked, as much to bring Mercutio back to himself as to hear the end of the tale.

Mercutio looked surprised for a moment, then smiled. "Being nephew to the Prince bears certain advantages," he said. "I brought Sarah to the gates and encouraged the guards to let us in. When they hesitated, I asked their names, that I might tell my uncle of their diligence, and they relented and opened the doors."

Romeo laughed delightedly at that, and Mercutio imitated the guard's fish-faced expression of shock upon discovering the identity of the young man he had tried to refuse.

"Thou didst escort this Sarah to her home, then?" Benvolio asked. "Didst thou see her family? What manner of folk are they?" Benvolio knew that Jews resided in Verona, but he had never met any, for Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna did not encourage their boys to mingle with that alien folk. All that Benvolio knew about Jews, he had heard in church, and most of that had contradicted itself at every turn. He burned with curiosity about this strange, stubborn group of people living in a shadow world in his very own city.

Mercutio's eyes sparkled now, and Benvolio was sure that the evening had been an adventure for him as well. "She is unmarried, and lives with her father and two brothers. They were amazed to see me, but they knew me and treated me with respect. That is more than I had from my uncle's own guards at the ghetto walls.

"Sarah told me of her family as we walked. Her father is Eliezer ben David Moreno, and he traveled in the Orient as a young man. Dost thou know, he had schooling in Baghdad, and is a learned surgeon and physician? I did not know that there were lands where Jews could be physicians." Mercutio smiled, momentarily lost in a dream of exotic, faraway lands. "He does not advertise his skills in Verona, of course, and I trust that neither of you will breathe a word about it."

Romeo and Benvolio both swore to keep the secret. "How does the family survive, then?" Romeo asked.

"Her brothers are moneylenders, of course," Mercutio answered. "It would seem that they do brisk business, for their house is richly appointed. It would not surprise me if Tybalt's father, or mine, had done business with them in the past."

"Yet thou didst have the better end of the bargain, with the fair Sarah," Romeo said with a smile.

Mercutio shrugged. "Perhaps. She did smile upon me when I left her, and I felt that I had done a deed of true worth that night." And he smiled, a wide, open, beautiful smile of pure joy, a smile so rare that it broke Benvolio's heart to see it.

Chapter Text

12. The Mad Blood Stirring

Even after the other summers of Benvolio's childhood faded and ran together into a bright haze of memory, the events of his eighteenth summer remained stark and distinct in his mind. The old man, who sometimes did not recall what he had done an hour previous, and who could not always keep names in his mind, never forgot the hot days in July when his world turned inside out.

Mercutio had been in a strange temper for much of the week, wild and irritable. His appetite was poor, and he claimed that he could not sleep in the heat, which Benvolio found all too easy to believe. Mercutio had even snapped at Valentine, something he rarely did. Benvolio wondered at that, since Mercutio normally treated his brother with a tenderness he showed to few other people. Valentine shrugged it off easily enough, however.

"The heat gives him nightmares," he said, when Benvolio asked him about Mercutio's foul mood. "He woke me with his cries several nights ago, and I am sure that was not the only dream he has had of late."

Romeo, utterly besotted with a maid by the name of Rosaline, was no help at all. His latest fancy had grown into an obsession, and he stayed alone in his chamber for days on end, brooding. The only good result of that was that Romeo managed to avoid taking part in yet another outbreak of violence with the Capulets that completely destroyed a Sunday market and left old Abram with a twisted knee and a lacerated scalp. Benvolio found himself praying desperately for cooler weather.

Sneaking into the feast at the Capulet house seemed like the perfect diversion. Mercutio, although he and Valentine had both been invited, agreed to accompany his friends in their masking party. At first, it was entertaining, as they capered through the streets by torchlight, singing and laughing. But even as Mercutio spun a fairy story for his friends, one of his fits of despair came upon him, and he fled into the empty darkness of the piazza. Romeo's courage, gentle hands, and soft voice saved the situation, and they made it to the party without further incident. Benvolio swore to find out which of the pages had foolishly used a drum to goad Mercutio further into his frightening dreams and see that the boy received a scolding he would never forget.

The party itself provided another revelation for Benvolio. The Capulets had engaged a singer, a pretty boy with a decent voice who entertained the guests with a love song. All of the young women at the party were enchanted, none more so than Helena Pergolesi, the maid that Benvolio told his friends he loved. He used the opportunity, as she stood lost in the music, to study her face and figure and try to determine why she, alone among women, caught his interest. It was not until Benvolio glanced away and saw Mercutio slouching against a pillar with a drink in his hand that he knew the true reason.

Helena Pergolesi was tall and thin, with a sharp glance and a face that, while not quite beautiful, caught the eye and made one want to study it. In fact, Benvolio realized, shock crashing over him with the force of cold water, she looked like nothing so much as a female version of Mercutio. All along, Benvolio had taken his desire for the youth he could not have and transferred it to a maid whom he could yet win, if he had the wit and will to do so. Of course, he had neither, which only increased his frustration.

Mercutio came to him when the minstrel stopped singing. "Tybalt has spied Romeo," he said. "He is in a furious dudgeon. Old Capulet bade him be calm and keep the peace, but I know not how much longer he intends to do so. Hast thou had thy fill of wine and dancing?"

"Ay." Benvolio roused himself to gather the rest of their party together and depart. Many of the guests chose the same moment to leave, and in the confusion, Benvolio lost sight of Romeo. He and his friends called out, but received no response. By that time, he had had enough wine that he did not care any more. Romeo was a grown youth with enough common sense to stay out of Tybalt's path. He could take care of himself, and Benvolio could return home to bed.

Morning dawned as oppressively hot as before. There was no sign of Romeo, and Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna were concerned. Benvolio volunteered to search for his cousin. On his way out the door, he spied a page in the livery of the Capulets. The page gave Benvolio a barely veiled look of contempt, dropped a letter into his hand, and left. The letter was addressed to Romeo, and Benvolio recognized Tybalt's scrawled handwriting. He remembered Mercutio's quiet warning to him the night before, and his heart sank. Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna had no need of any further cause for alarm, so Benvolio crept back inside and slipped the letter underneath Romeo's door.

In truth, Benvolio was still feeling the disappointment from the party the night before, and he did not expend much effort searching for Romeo. He was already hot and weary by the time Mercutio found him in the street. They tarried for a while in the shade of the balcony in the building where Verona's aldermen met, and Benvolio told Mercutio about the letter that Tybalt had sent to Romeo.

"A challenge, on my life," Mercutio said, suddenly intrigued.

"Romeo will answer it."

Mercutio suddenly turned a sunny, almost adoring smile on Benvolio, and Benvolio's heart pounded in his chest. "Any man that can write may answer a letter," Mercutio said, as if he were begging permission to fight Tybalt himself.

Benvolio smiled back, taking care not to seem too eager, lest he inadvertently reveal his great secret. "Nay, he will answer the letter's master how he dares, being dared."

Mercutio seemed disappointed for a moment, but it passed, and he was soon entertaining Benvolio by hobbling about as if he were seventy instead of eighteen. Just as Benvolio forgot his original intent to find Romeo, his cousin appeared, in high spirits, still wearing his fine clothes from the night before. In response to Mercutio's idle scolding, Romeo lobbed a few gibes at him. Soon they were laughing and teasing, and Romeo had been tacitly forgiven for abandoning his friends.

The rest of their friends joined them in the piazza, and Benvolio's wish for some entertainment to take their minds off the weather quickly came true when the Capulet family's old nurse hove into their sight. Her long robe dragged in the dust, and her veil billowed absurdly in the breeze, and she flirted so shamelessly with Romeo that Benvolio could not keep from laughing when Mercutio mercilessly twitted her dignity until she sat on the steps of the church, quivering with rage.

"That will pay her back for striking me with her broom," Benvolio said, as they ran off.

"Why, when did she do that?" Mercutio asked.

"Some years back, but I have not forgotten the clout that woman gave me."

"Poor Romeo!" Mercutio cried. "Think what a clout the old bawd might wish to give him. Shall we turn and go to his rescue?" He struck a pose as a knight of old, preparing to charge forth to challenge a dragon.

Benvolio laughed. "Nay," he said. "It is no more than Romeo deserves. Let us find a tavern instead, for I am hungry."

The rest of the boys agreed, and they ambled off in the brilliant sunshine.

By midday, their high spirits had evaporated. Mercutio had accompanied Benvolio to the tavern readily enough, but he had choked and turned away from the food placed before him. Hungry, but either unwilling or unable to eat anything, Mercutio quickly descended back into the foul mood that had claimed him too often recently. Benvolio endured his sniping, worried and not wishing to leave Mercutio alone in such a state. He wanted to return to the shady balcony of the aldermen's building, but Mercutio was restless and roamed the streets, paying no heed to Benvolio's repeated suggestions that they find shade.

Mercutio, still grumbling, headed for the fountain, and Benvolio followed, glad of the chance to splash his face with cool water. His relief evaporated when he spied Tybalt and his gang strolling into the piazza. Benvolio could not tell whether or not Tybalt had mischief on his mind at the moment, but he had not forgotten the letter that Tybalt had sent to Romeo in the morning. For the first time that day, Benvolio was glad that Romeo was somewhere else.

Mercutio, who never cared about keeping his clothes neat if there was water begging to be played in, had stepped into the fountain, and was busily splashing around. The activity caught Tybalt's attention, and Benvolio suppressed a groan as the Capulet gang sauntered over to the fountain. Mercutio and Tybalt tossed thinly veiled insults at each other, more from habit than anything else. Benvolio tried to swallow his nervousness. Mercutio seemed in no hurry to leave his cool bath, and Tybalt seemed equally disinclined to get himself wet. Eventually, Tybalt would think of an excuse to move on.

However, as fate would have it, Romeo chose that moment to appear, bounding down the steps of the church, clearly burning up with some news to share with his friends. Benvolio could hardly believe his eyes. Romeo had finally changed into a fresh set of clothing, which meant that he had been home. If he had been home, he had to have seen the letter that Benvolio had left in his chamber. And if he had seen the letter, Benvolio could not fathom what Romeo intended, striding towards Tybalt with a smile on his face.

Tybalt did not waste his opportunity. "Romeo," he said, "the love I bear thee can afford no better term than this. Thou art a villain."

Mercutio whistled. Benvolio tensed. After such an insult, there was bound to be a fight. He hoped that he would be able to break it up before the commotion attracted the attention of the Prince. It was too hot for such an effort.

Fortunately, Romeo seemed to feel the same way, and responded amiably even to Tybalt's continued challenges. He even went so far as to clasp Tybalt's hand in a sign of good fellowship. Tybalt looked puzzled for a moment, then sniffed his palm. "Eeyucch!" he cried, and made a show of washing his hand in the fountain, as his friends looked on and laughed. Egged on by their laughter, Tybalt shoved a great handful of water at Mercutio, splashing Benvolio as well. Benvolio stumbled back from the surprise.

Mercutio glared at Tybalt, the assault on his person and his friend igniting his already dangerous temper. Tybalt's laughter rang in the piazza, and he turned to leave. Benvolio tried in vain to restrain Mercutio, but Mercutio shoved him aside and climbed out of the fountain, furious and dripping wet. "Tybalt, you rat-catcher!" he called.

Tybalt paused. "What wouldst thou have of me?"

"Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives, that I mean to make bold withal, and, as you shall use me hereafter, dry-beat the rest of the eight!"

Romeo tried to pull Mercutio back, but met with as little success as Benvolio. Mercutio had never in his life turned down a chance to fight Tybalt, especially if Tybalt had attacked or humiliated one of his friends, and today was no exception. Tybalt, just as eager, took up the challenge.

After the first tentative exchange of thrusts, Benvolio found that he could breathe again. As he had hoped, it was far too warm for a serious brawl. Both Mercutio and Tybalt appeared to be playing for honor rather than fighting for life or death, and the loser would pay in humiliation, not blood. Mercutio, wittier and quicker than Tybalt, shone at this kind of game. All the onlookers had to do was keep an eye out for the Prince and ensure that neither combatant lost his head and inflicted serious injury on the other. Mercutio would put on a good show, puncture Tybalt's arrogance and hand him his dignity, and all would be forgotten by tomorrow. All they had to do was wait, and enjoy the spectacle.

But Romeo had other ideas. Even after it was clear to Benvolio that no one's life was at stake, Romeo persisted in trying to stop the bout. Several times, Vincenzo or Salvatore had to pull him back, lest he come between the blades by accident and be hurt. Within minutes, Mercutio had established himself as the victor, having seized Tybalt's sword, leaving Tybalt with nothing but a pitchfork for defense.

He kept Tybalt's sword until even Tybalt's friends began to taunt him. "Make haste, Tybalt," Petruchio laughed. "We cannot wait all day!"

Mercutio tossed the rapier back to Tybalt, who fumbled the catch. The sword clattered on the ground, and Tybalt wrung his hand. Pietro pointed. "Mother's baby's dropped his sword!"

The Montague boys cheered as Mercutio strode back to the fountain, striking a victory pose on the ledge. The Capulets followed, and in the sudden swarm, Benvolio lost track of Romeo. He thought he saw Tybalt approaching for another quick thrust, he heard Romeo's voice and saw him approach the combatants, and then Vincenzo and Salanio moved in front of Benvolio, and he could not quite see what happened, and then Tybalt and his friends turned tail and fled. The Montagues chased them, hooting their victory.

Benvolio ran after them for a few steps until he was sure that the entire gang was gone from the piazza. Tybalt had never run so quickly from a fight, and for a moment, Benvolio wondered if Romeo had indeed managed to get himself between the blades and taken injury.

The Montagues and their supporters and pages were cheering and congratulating Mercutio. Vincenzo and Pietro had somehow managed to lift him up on their shoulders, though Mercutio was shouting at them to put him down. They did so, and Benvolio caught a glimpse of Mercutio's face, twisted in distress. Benvolio thought he knew why. Although Mercutio had learned to tolerate casual body contact among friends, he had never liked being manhandled. The best thing to do now was to get him away from the crowd and let him breathe.

Benvolio shoved his way through the group just in time to see Mercutio curled up on the ground, twisting his body as if he were in pain. "I'm hurt!" he gasped.

Perhaps he had turned an ankle parrying Tybalt's last thrust while standing on the edge of the fountain. Benvolio smiled at him. "What, art thou hurt?"

Mercutio looked up at the sound of Benvolio's voice. His face was gray with pain, and Benvolio could see that he held his handkerchief clutched to his chest. A chill washed through Benvolio, but Mercutio forced a smile that was more than half a grimace. "A scratch," he laughed, "a scratch."

Benvolio did not believe him for an instant. Mercutio had endured vicious beatings for much of his life, and a real dueling scratch would hardly have been enough to leave him doubled over, pale with shock.

Romeo squatted down beside Mercutio and smiled. "Courage, man, the hurt cannot be much."

"No!" Mercutio said, brushing away Salvatore's attempt to pull him to his feet. "'Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door –"

Benvolio never knew what prompted the sudden surge of courage within him. All his life, he had stood helpless as the boy he loved was beaten and betrayed. Now was his chance to change that. He knelt down and put his hands on Mercutio's shoulders. "Let me see it," he said, in a low voice that carried through the shouting around them. "Let me see this scratch of thine."

Mercutio fell silent, and his hand holding the handkerchief trembled. Gently, Benvolio reached out and pried Mercutio's hand away from his chest. What he saw made him recoil in horror. What Mercutio had called a scratch was a deep, clean-edged stab wound that bled freely. A man could die from that sort of wound.

Mercutio gasped for breath, and Benvolio choked down a surge of sudden grief. He was not ready to lose Mercutio, not to something as petty as a street fight. Through the pounding in his ears, Benvolio heard his own voice, stronger and calmer than it had any right to be.

"He needs a surgeon."

Chapter Text

13. Into Some House

The Montague boys stared at Mercutio, all their pleasure in his victory turned to horror. For a moment, there was no sound save Mercutio's gasps for air. Benvolio quickly replaced Mercutio's hand over his wound and looked at his friends. "Did none of you hear my words? He needs a surgeon!"

Balthasar, Romeo's page, swallowed convulsively. "I shall go fetch one," he offered, and turned to leave.

Benvolio grabbed at his arm. "Nay, do not go. There is no time to wait for a surgeon to come to us. We must bring Mercutio there ourselves."

"How?" Pietro asked. "He cannot walk that far."

Benvolio glanced around the piazza. A rickety cart filled with straw caught his eye. He did not know whose it was, nor did he care. "We will bring him in that cart."

"I see no horses," Pietro said.

"Then we will pull it ourselves!" Benvolio cried. "Wouldst thou have Mercutio die while we debate horses and carts? Pull it here, at once!"

Pietro, Salvatore, and their pages rushed to do his bidding. Vincenzo cast a worried glance at Mercutio, then at Benvolio. "Where shall we go?" he asked. "Dost thou know any surgeons of repute?"

It was a good question. Benvolio did not know any surgeons. Aunt Susanna usually oversaw the process of patching up members of the household who had been wounded by Capulets, but he doubted that she could fix the sucking hole in Mercutio's chest. Benvolio glanced up at Romeo, to see if he had any ideas. But Romeo stood transfixed, nearly overcome with a shock that Benvolio guessed went far deeper than the sight of Mercutio bleeding on the pavement. He knew not what the cause of it was, and he did not care. Romeo was useless to him now.

Pietro and Salvatore pushed the cart across the piazza. It creaked alarmingly, but it held together. Vincenzo organized the pages to lift Mercutio into it as gently as they could, though Mercutio grimaced and nearly fainted. Still, Romeo stood as if he were made of marble. Benvolio gave him a shove. "Take Balthasar, and tell someone what happened," he ordered, more sharply than he had intended.

"Who should I tell?" Romeo asked. "And what should I tell them?"

Benvolio only hesitated for a moment. "Find Valentine. And tell the Prince. Tell him that Mercutio has been hurt, and we have taken him to . . . to . . . " he glanced around, and inspiration struck. "We are taking him to the house of Eliezer ben David Moreno, in the goldmongers' street."

Romeo blinked, startled, then recalled the name. "The surgeon, the one with a daughter."

Benvolio nodded. "Yes. Now, go."

Romeo hurried away, with Balthasar hot on his heels, and Benvolio climbed into the wagon. Mercutio was still conscious, although he seemed to be in so much pain that Benvolio was not sure whether that was a blessing or a curse. "To the goldmongers' street!" he cried.

Vincenzo looked back from where he and the others gripped the harness pole. "The goldmongers' street? That is in the ghetto."

"I know. That is our destination."

The Montague boys shrugged, but leaned forward. Slowly, the cart began to rumble out of the piazza.

The slow ride through the streets was easily the most terrifying experience of Benvolio's life. He dimly remembered being frightened after the earthquake that had killed his parents, but Mercutio had been there to comfort and distract him then. Now, Mercutio lay curled around his wound on the straw of the wagon, struggling to stay conscious and alive. Benvolio helped him press down on the wound and made him talk through the pain, fearing that Mercutio would die if the words stopped.

"It is too late," Mercutio murmured. "I am sped."

"Thou art not sped. We are nearly at the ghetto now. Art thou such a churl as to die when we have gone to such trouble to keep thee alive?"

The cart creaked and swayed. It was moving through the ghetto now; when Benvolio looked up, he saw suspicious faces, beautiful and mildly exotic, staring at them, strange Christian intruders into their separated world. "Which way to the house of Eliezer ben David Moreno?" Benvolio asked. "We must find him, and quickly! We mean no harm to him," he added as an afterthought.

An old woman, her hair covered with a black veil, pointed them down a particular alley. "The third house on your right hand." Benvolio thanked her, and his friends pushed the cart along. They stopped in front of the third door, and Vincenzo pounded on it.

After a moment, a tall man with fathomless dark eyes, in the prime of life, opened the door. "We seek Eliezer ben David Moreno," Benvolio said, stumbling a little over the unfamiliar name. "Our friend is dying, and we have come to beg his aid."

The man regarded him skeptically. "What need of money can he have if he is dying? A Jew may give a Christian no other aid, according to the laws of Verona."

Benvolio's stomach clenched, but he persisted. "He did give aid to your daughter, a year past."

"I have no daughter," the man said. Benvolio nearly broke down right there, but another man, older, and wearing a long gray beard, appeared in the doorway.

"What is it, Solomon?" he asked. "What do these strange guests need of us?"

Solomon, the younger man, turned and spoke to him in a strange language. Benvolio bowed his head and muttered a prayer, hoping that it would be heard even in a Jewish ghetto. After a brief argument, the old man turned to him.

"I am Eliezer Moreno. What would you have of me?"

"It is my friend, Mercutio Rinuccini," Benvolio said. "He has taken a terrible hurt, and he will die of it if he does not see a surgeon. He told me once that he had heard that you were learned in that art."

"And who told him that?"

"It was Sarah, your daughter, whom he did defend a year ago, from the very man who has dealt him this wound."

Eliezer's eyebrows shot up at that remark, and he went to peer through the rails of the cart. "It is he," he said, "the Prince's nephew. I remember him well. Bring him inside. I will do what I can for him, though I can work no miracles."

Solomon helped Vincenzo and Benvolio lift Mercutio out of the cart. Though they were as gentle as they could be, Mercutio cried out with pain, and then collapsed in their arms. For a terrible moment, Benvolio thought he had died right there on the surgeon's doorstep, but Eliezer placed a hand on Mercutio's brow and shook his head.

"He clings to life, but barely. There is no time to waste. Solomon, go ahead and tell Sarah to prepare the secret room." He glanced at the Montagues. "One of you may accompany me, to witness that I will do this boy no harm. The rest must wait in my receiving room."

All eyes turned to Benvolio. "I will go along," Benvolio said. "I would not leave his side, not for all the gold in Verona."

Eliezer nodded. Between them, he and Benvolio carried Mercutio into a back room, its entry concealed beneath drapery, and laid him on a table covered with a clean linen sheet. Eliezer removed his outer coat, draped himself in an apron, and leaned over to examine his patient.

"It will not be easy," he said, "but perhaps I can yet save him. Tell me, young sir, will your courage hold through what I must do?"

Benvolio had no idea what Eliezer planned to do, but for Mercutio's sake, he could endure anything. "Ay," he said. "Do what you must, and I will witness it."

"That is well said. Hand me that chest."

Benvolio found a small wooden box on the shelf that Eliezer indicated, and handed it to the surgeon. It turned out to contain a variety of implements. Eliezer selected a small, sharp knife, and bent over Mercutio's still body. Benvolio took a deep breath, and steeled himself for the first cut.

He knew not how long the surgery lasted, but at last, it was over. Eliezer stitched the wounds with silk thread, and bound Mercutio's chest with pads of wool and bandages of soft linen. Mercutio was as pale as death, but he still breathed. Eliezer and Benvolio moved him onto a couch in the corner of the room, and Eliezer draped a light coverlet over him. Benvolio gently brushed a lock of hair away from Mercutio's brow while Eliezer tidied away the bloody table linen, wiped his instruments, and put them away.

"He has survived my efforts," Eliezer said, in a soft voice. "Now his fate rests in the hands of the Eternal."

Benvolio recalled the last time that someone had said that about Mercutio. He had survived then. Perhaps it was a good omen. "I should say a prayer for him," Benvolio said. "Do you think God will hear it?"

Eliezer stopped his tidying and looked Benvolio in the eye for the first time. After a moment, his expression softened. "Do you not know that your God and mine are the same?" he asked. "Any prayer said from a true heart for your friend will be heard in this room."

Encouraged, Benvolio dropped to his knees beside the couch and prayed for Mercutio's soul with all of his might. Eliezer finished tidying, and called down a hidden corridor. After a moment, a young maiden appeared, as dark and beautiful as Solomon. "This is Sarah, my daughter," Eliezer said. "She will watch over your friend now, for he cannot be left alone. You must accompany me now, as we reveal to the world what we have done."

Benvolio brushed his fingers over Mercutio's brow one last time, then rose and followed Eliezer out of the secret room. His friends were still waiting in the front room. Romeo and Balthasar had joined them. Valentine clung to Romeo, trying hard to look brave. When he saw Benvolio, he ran and seized his hands. "What of Mercutio?" he asked, tears spilling down his face. "Does my brother yet live? Oh, say not that he is dead!"

In that moment, Valentine looked far younger than his fourteen years. Looking at him, Benvolio began to shake. He wrapped his arms around Valentine and buried his face in the boy's hair so that no one would see his own frightened tears. "Mercutio is alive, Valentine," he whispered. "He clings to life by a thread, but he lives, for now."

Trumpets outside signaled the arrival of Prince Escalus. He strode into the receiving room, ignoring the bows directed at him. "Where is the Jew Eliezer?" he asked. "What has happened to Mercutio?"

Eliezer rose, trembling a little. "I am Eliezer ben David Moreno," he said. "At the request of these young men, who came to me, I did perform surgery on Mercutio, their friend, who had sustained grievous injury. The youth lives. This one," and he gestured to Benvolio, "will testify that I did no harm to him."

The Prince's gaze swept the room. He took in the worried faces of the Montagues and of Eliezer and his family. At last, he settled on Benvolio, who held Valentine with one arm while he wiped his face with his free hand. "Speak, Benvolio. Does this man speak the truth? Tell thy tale, and do not omit the slightest thing."

Benvolio released Valentine, and stood up straight. In a clear voice, he told the Prince all that had happened, from the moment that Tybalt had entered the piazza until the end of Mercutio's surgery. "Mercutio lies now in the surgeon's chamber," he said at the end. "He lives, whom Tybalt would have slain. Eliezer did him no harm, and I will swear to that on my life."

The Prince pressed his lips together and nodded. "We have always known thee for an honest youth," he said. "I would look upon my nephew's face. Tybalt will be found and brought to the palace, where we may have more study of these strange tidings. Romeo shall come as well, for it appears that he had no small hand in this matter."

Romeo shivered, but nodded silently. Eliezer ushered the Prince through his hidden passageway. The others stood silently, hardly daring to move. Valentine clasped Benvolio's hand. Benvolio stared at Romeo, working up the courage to ask the question that now burned in his mind.

"Why?" he said at last. "Why didst thou come between them? Mercutio has fought Tybalt a thousand times before. Why didst thou interfere this time?"

Romeo took a deep breath. "I did not wish to chance seeing blood shed on either side," he said. "Neither my dearest friend, nor my new-made cousin."

The Montague boys murmured in surprise. For a moment, Benvolio could not believe his ears. "Thy new-made cousin? Dost thou speak of - of Tybalt?"

"Ay." Romeo lifted his chin defiantly, but the soft smile that spread over his face ruined the effect. "Tybalt, who became my cousin when I wed Juliet, the fair daughter of Capulet."

It took Benvolio a long moment to realize that his mouth was hanging open, and he quickly shut it again. "Thou art married?" he choked out. "And to a Capulet?"

A thousand more questions whirled about in his mind, and merged with the memory of the sudden terror on Mercutio's face as he sat, stabbed, on the pavement of the piazza. All at once, cold fury rose up in Benvolio's heart. Romeo, it seemed, had given them the slip twice. And Mercutio had been the one to pay for his impetuous change of heart. Benvolio turned away from the cousin who had always been as a brother to him. Valentine began to weep, and Benvolio put an arm around the boy's shoulders without really thinking about it. No one seemed to know what to say or where to look.

After a while, the Prince emerged from the secret room. "Mercutio will live, I think," he announced. "If he does not, I shall hold Tybalt responsible for his murder. For the moment, all concerned will come with me. I shall set this matter straight before the end of the day."

Benvolio looked up. "If it please your Grace, I would remain at Mercutio's side," he said. The Prince turned a sharp glance on him. "He will not know where he is when he wakes," Benvolio went on. "He should have someone he knows at his side."

The Prince considered this argument. "It is well spoken. I have already heard thy statement concerning Mercutio's injury. Thou may'st remain here, and continue to witness the honorable intentions of the Jew. But thou must remain until morning, for the ghetto will be locked at sunset, as the ancient law of Verona decrees."

"I am not afraid," Benvolio replied. "I will remain at Mercutio's side, if Eliezer will have me."

Eliezer nodded. "If all are in agreement, he may stay. Someone must watch over the youth in any event, and I think that, in these perilous hours, there is no force that could tear this one away from his friend's side."

Benvolio bowed to the Prince, and squeezed Valentine's hand. "I will send thee word as soon as there is word to be sent," he said. Turning from Romeo and his friends, he followed Eliezer to the secret room where Mercutio lay.

Chapter Text

14. Stony Limits Cannot Hold Love Out

Benvolio spent the night sitting by the couch where Mercutio lay, holding his friend's limp hand and watching him to make sure that he still breathed. Towards nightfall, Sarah appeared with a few slices of bread spread with quince paste. "Eat this," she said. "Have no fear. It is no different from the food on the other side of the ghetto wall. You must keep up your strength if you intend to watch all night." Benvolio realized that he was hungry, and tried to remember the last time he had eaten. It had been noontime, at the tavern. He had eaten then, but Mercutio had not.

In the middle of the night, Solomon offered to relieve him so that Benvolio could sleep a little. At first, Benvolio was unwilling to give up his post, but Solomon persisted. "You will be of no use if you fall asleep on your own. I will wake you if anything changes." Reassured, Benvolio lay down on the floor beside the couch. Although he had never slept on anything but a soft bed, he was so exhausted from worry that he was asleep in an instant.

He dreamed of Mercutio, as he often did, but Mercutio was not dancing this time. He was running, or trying to run, limping and stumbling, crying out in desperation, though his cries made no sound. Somehow, Benvolio knew that Mercutio was searching for something, and that he would die if he did not find it. When he tried to go to Mercutio to offer him aid, he realized that he had no body. He was nothing more than an insubstantial mist, able only to observe Mercutio's frantic quest.

Benvolio woke from his dream with a sharp cry, after little more than an hour of sleep. Solomon tried to make him sleep again, but eventually gave up and allowed Benvolio to resume his solitary vigil. Benvolio spent the rest of the night deep in prayer. Alone, with no one to hear, his words eventually changed from praise of God to his love for the wounded youth who lay before him. The secret, kept and nurtured deep in his heart for so many years, spilled forth at last, and it was as if a festering boil inside him had been drained.

He pleaded with Mercutio to live, even if he never returned Benvolio's love. "I cannot live in a world where thou art not," he said. "If I were never to look upon thy face again, if I never heard thee jest or saw thy smile, I would die. If thou dost not live, my heart will break, and Verona will see two funerals that day."

Mercutio's hand in his was as cold as ice. Benvolio searched in the cupboards of the secret room until he had collected a handful of candles. These he lit and placed near the couch in the hope that they would provide warmth as well as light. Then he returned to his spot, picked up Mercutio's hand again, and tried to chafe some warmth back into it. Then he thought to warm it with his breath, and from there, it was only a moment until Benvolio bestowed a tender kiss on the palm and murmured, "I love thee, Mercutio Rinuccini."

Frightened at what he had done, Benvolio's body stiffened, but he still could not bear to release Mercutio's hand. In the candlelight, he thought he saw color returning to Mercutio's face, but he could not be certain. But then, Mercutio's fingers briefly closed around Benvolio's, and Benvolio's heart almost leapt from his mouth. He watched as Mercutio slowly swam towards consciousness, wincing at the grimace of pain that flitted across Mercutio's face even before he was fully awake.

After a few moments that seemed like years, Mercutio blinked and opened his eyes. His first pain-filled, unfocused glance struck Benvolio with the force of a bolt of lightning. Without really thinking about what he was doing, Benvolio raised Mercutio's hand to his lips and kissed it again, overjoyed at the renewed life within.

Mercutio turned confused eyes on Benvolio, and tried to speak, but nothing came out save a soft "Uh?" Benvolio started at his own daring, and sat up quickly, certain that he had destroyed something rare and precious even as it was returned to him.

He looked around for something to cover his embarrassment, and his glance landed on a pitcher sitting on a worktable. There was a little water inside. It looked clean enough, and Benvolio poured it into a goblet he found in a cupboard and brought it to Mercutio. He slipped an arm around Mercutio's shoulders to raise him enough that he could drink, and secretly rejoiced when Mercutio did not push him away. Mercutio managed a few sips from the goblet, and then turned his head aside. Benvolio set the goblet down and eased Mercutio back down on the cushions.

"Thanks," Mercutio said softly. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked around. "I am alive," he said after a moment, and disbelief colored his voice. "I remember . . . Tybalt . . . and Romeo was there, he – he seized my arm, and I . . . I am alive . . . "

Benvolio nodded, joyous tears blurring his sight. "Ay, thou art alive. Never have sweeter words been spoken."

Mercutio frowned. "Thy words amaze me," he said. "What am I to thee that thou dost hold my life in such high esteem? I am not Romeo, thy cousin, nor am I thy uncle or aunt, who dote upon thee as their own son. I am thy friend, and surely thou hast enough of those that one more or less would count no difference. If I had died, thou wouldst be none the poorer."

"There art thou mistaken," Benvolio said, taking Mercutio's hand in his once more. "Thou art neither cousin, nor uncle, nor aunt, and neither art thou merely friend. Thou art Mercutio, caro, beloved, the one whose death would mean my own. Since we were boys of thirteen years, I have known that I loved thee as I loved none other, maid or man, and I love thee still."

He had said it. He had spoken his deepest, best-guarded secret, handed the keys to his heart to the one person who had the power to break it beyond repair. The words could not be unsaid. Flustered, Benvolio pressed another kiss into the palm of Mercutio's hand, readying himself for angry words or bitter mockery.

But neither came. Mercutio simply looked at Benvolio, puzzled but not angry, and, just for an instant, his fingers brushed over Benvolio's jaw in what was almost a hesitant caress. Then his face twisted in agony, and Benvolio pushed aside his surge of joy.

"I am hurt," Mercutio moaned. "It is as if Tybalt's blade is still within me."

Benvolio gently pushed him back into the cushions. "Do not try to move, for thy wounds are still newly stitched and not yet healed. I will summon Eliezer, and perhaps he will know how to ease thy pain."

"Eliezer? The Jewish surgeon?" New confusion seemed to distract Mercutio from his wounds, and he finally looked around at his surroundings. "Am I in the ghetto?"

Benvolio smiled. "Ay. I knew no other surgeons, but I remembered thy tale. Thou art fortunate that he remembered thee as well. He saved thy life, and I am sure that he will wish to see thee awake now. Rest quietly, and I will fetch him for thee."

He stroked Mercutio's hair one last time, earning himself the ghost of a pain-filled smile before he went in search of Eliezer.

The Prince arrived as soon as the ghetto was unlocked for the morning. He had brought both Paris and Valentine with him, and Uncle Tiberio trailed in his wake. Valentine begged to be allowed to see Mercutio, and the Prince agreed, saying only that Paris should escort him, and they should not stay for too long. He detained Eliezer in the receiving room, saying that they would speak, but he turned to Benvolio first.

"You have my deepest thanks for your actions of yesterday, Benvolio," he said. "But for you, Mercutio would be dead. When first he came into my care, I was glad that he had such a friend as you, and I see that I was not mistaken. You will see him again, for I have no doubt that he will ask for you, but there are matters in your own house to which you must attend. Your noble uncle has come to escort you home."

Benvolio opened his mouth, to express his own words of gratitude, but his voice refused to work, and he bowed deeply instead. Uncle Tiberio laid a steadying hand on his shoulder.

"Come, Benvolio," he said. "There is much that awaits thee at home, and I wager that thou hast slept and eaten only a little, if at all."

Benvolio nodded, with a sheepish smile, and allowed Uncle Tiberio to lead him out of the house. Weary as he was, he was not blind to the strange look that Paris gave them as he followed Valentine through the hidden door to the surgery chamber. He wondered briefly about that, but then decided that it was not worth the effort. Mercutio lived, and knew of Benvolio's love, and had not turned away from him. That was enough for now.

The first surprise that Benvolio had upon returning to his home was to see Signior Capulet and his wife arriving at the door shortly after he did. Uncle Tiberio greeted them somewhat stiffly, his formality masking his unease at their presence. The Capulets seemed as uncomfortable as Uncle Tiberio, which was to be expected. What was astonishing was that they were there at all, in the home of their most ancient enemies. Benvolio did not know what to do with himself, and managed a wary half-bow. Lady Capulet looked around, her manner suspicious but coldly polite. Signior Capulet smiled at Benvolio, as if desperate for some trivial matter to break the ice of their sudden truce.

"Ah, young Benvolio, is it?" Capulet said. "Thou didst cut a pretty figure dancing at my feast – was it but two nights past? It seems a hundred years since then."

Benvolio blushed, and dipped his head when Uncle Tiberio raised his eyebrows significantly at him. Benvolio remembered that he had told Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna that he and Romeo were going to a party, but he had neglected to mention the name of the host. But Uncle Tiberio did not mention the incident further, and Benvolio knew that that offense had faded into insignificance next to the events that had followed from it.

Uncle Tiberio ushered the Capulets into his finest receiving room. Aunt Susanna was waiting for them, and rose to make a polite welcome. Uncle Tiberio gestured that they should all be seated, then stepped briefly through another door.

He returned escorting Romeo and a young maid that Benvolio did not know. She was pretty enough, with large green eyes and long dark hair, and Benvolio vaguely recalled seeing her dancing at the feast. She clung to Romeo's arm, and he leaned in protectively over her. Capulet harrumphed, and Lady Capulet sat up very straight. Benvolio guessed that the girl was their daughter, Juliet, whom Romeo claimed to have married the day before. A gold ring shone on Juliet's finger.

"So it is true, then, what you have said," Capulet choked out at last. "They are wedded."

Uncle Tiberio nodded. "I had no foreknowledge of this, but when I heard the news, I sent word to find a witness to the marriage. My son gave the name of Friar Lawrence, who performed the secret ceremony, and the Friar himself confirms it."

That, at least, made sense to Benvolio. He knew that Romeo had maintained his friendship with Friar Lawrence even after they had ceased to attend the Latin school.

Lady Capulet turned to glare at Romeo. Her entire body quivered with rage. "How dare you?" she spat. "You entered our family's home, and stole the greatest treasure therein. We had sought to match her with the County Paris and secure an alliance with the Prince's household. Your thievery has robbed us of that chance. What penalty should be paid for this theft?"

Juliet looked up then, and smiled at her mother, though her eyes were troubled. "Sweet my mother," she said, "do not lay all the blame at Romeo's feet. What fault there is in this match is mine as much as his. I love him even as he loves me, and it was I who first uttered words of marriage."

No one knew quite what to say to that revelation. Benvolio caught Romeo's eye, and Romeo smiled helplessly, obviously smitten and unable to deny the truth. Benvolio thought he had an inkling of what had happened. After so many years of fruitless devotion to one or another of Verona's fair maidens, Romeo had finally found one who returned his passion. When he realized that, much of Benvolio's anger at Romeo drained away. He would still have words with his cousin later about Romeo's lies of omission and their consequences, of course. But after his words with Mercutio early in the morning, Benvolio found that he could not be angry with Romeo for the impulsive match he had made.

Lady Capulet was still shaking with fury, and turned to her husband. "Is there nothing we can do?" she asked. "Surely our daughter cannot be allowed to throw all of our efforts on her behalf back in our faces."

Signior Capulet scrubbed his hands over his face, then glanced from Romeo to Juliet. "They did not seek our consent, nor did they post banns," he said. "Signior Montague, did you discover any other witness to their marriage apart from the friar?"

Uncle Tiberio shook his head. "All was done in secret," he replied.

"My nurse was my aide in the matter," Juliet offered. "She bore messages between Romeo and me."

"Did thy nurse witness the ceremony?" Aunt Susanna asked.

Juliet bowed her head. "She did not. I asked leave to go to shrift, and I ran straightaway to the church."

"And had I known thy true intent, I would never have given thee leave," Lady Capulet said. Juliet laid her head on Romeo's shoulder and looked as if she was about to cry.

"Well," Signior Capulet said, "it seems as if this marriage, though heartfelt, is not entirely legal. Should you wish, Signior Montague, there are grounds for annulment."

Romeo and Juliet clung to each other, and a smile of triumph spread over Lady Capulet's face. Uncle Tiberio caught Signior Capulet's eye, and raised his hand to signal for quiet. "It seems to me," he said, "that we are presented here with a rare opportunity. For many years now, the Prince has begged us to find some way to make peace between our families. Perhaps our children have found the way that we have not."

Everyone looked at Romeo and Juliet. Romeo squeezed Juliet's hand, then moved to kneel before Signior Capulet. "Most honored Signior Capulet," he said, bowing his head, "I humbly beseech and petition you to grant me the hand of your daughter in holy matrimony. I vow in perfect faith that I will cherish her even as you have done."

Lady Capulet gave a contemptuous sniff and turned her head aside. Aunt Susanna put an arm around Juliet's shoulders, and Juliet leaned towards her, seeking reassurance. Signior Capulet and Uncle Tiberio exchanged glances. Uncle Tiberio shrugged and nodded, and Signior Capulet smiled.

"I do grant this petition, Romeo of the house of Montague. Thou hast my permission – though after the fact – to wed my daughter Juliet. Let this marriage serve to create a link and alliance between our two houses and bind us in friendship forever more. Rise, my son."

So saying, Signior Capulet pulled Romeo to his feet and kissed him on both cheeks. Aunt Susanna embraced Juliet, and Uncle Tiberio ruffled her hair and Romeo's. Even Lady Capulet managed a smile. Through it all, Benvolio sat frozen in shock at the sudden change in his world. For as long as he could remember, the house of Capulet had been the highest, most forbidden enemy. Now Signior Capulet and Uncle Tiberio were embracing as if they were long-lost brothers, and Romeo had caught Juliet - his wife! - in his arms and was kissing her hungrily. This maid, whom Benvolio had never met before this morning, was now as good as a sister to him.

Benvolio plastered a smile on his face and joined in the merriment. He allowed Romeo to knuckle the top of his head, and he embraced Juliet, though somewhat awkwardly. "My deepest congratulations, cousin," he told her, and was pleased to see her blush. "Thou and I will speak more of this later," he promised Romeo, and was equally pleased to see that Romeo suddenly could not meet his eye.

Mercutio would live. That thought completed Benvolio's good cheer. Romeo had found his true love at long last, and so had Benvolio.

Chapter Text

15. Hands That Pilgrims' Hands Do Touch

Eliezer did not allow Mercutio out of his house for several days, waiting to see if Mercutio would recover from the surgery. Benvolio visited him as much as he was allowed, bringing him news of Verona to distract him from the discomfort of his healing wounds. He did not tell Mercutio of Romeo's marriage, however, insisting that Romeo deliver that news in person.

"I cannot face him," Romeo admitted. "I was at fault in his injury, for it was I who pulled him onto Tybalt's blade. He would not be in the surgeon's home were it not for me."

"I am glad to hear thee admit that," Benvolio said. "I am reasonably certain that Mercutio will forgive thee thy trespass if thou dost ask it of him, but thou must do so thyself."

Romeo sighed, and then nodded. "I will go this afternoon, then," he said. "Should I tell Mercutio about Juliet?"

Benvolio snorted. "If thou dost not, who will? I have not told him. Juliet is thy wife, not mine. It was thy choice to wed her, and it is thy part to acknowledge thyself as her husband."

Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna agreed with Benvolio's reasoning, and Romeo set out that day for the ghetto. While he was gone, Benvolio took the opportunity to seek out Juliet. He found her in the orchard, clutching a book of hours, but not reading. Benvolio coughed a little as he approached, so as not to startle her. Juliet looked up, and smiled at him.

"Thou art Benvolio, Romeo's cousin," she said.

"I am. May I sit with thee a while? I have hardly had a chance to speak with thee, and I would know my cousin's wife."

Juliet moved to one end of the stone bench, and Benvolio sat down next to her. An awkward silence fell. Benvolio, never having been interested in women, had not had much practice speaking with them, and Juliet seemed almost as shy of him as he was of her. At last, she flashed him a quick smile.

"I confess, I know little about thee," she said. "Romeo did not speak about his family before we married."

"I believe thee," Benvolio said, with a nervous laugh. "He was not out of my sight for long at thy father's feast, and I cannot believe that he would have spent that time expounding on the various members of thy enemy's family."

Juliet giggled, a child's laugh, and Benvolio suddenly wondered how old she was. "He did not speak much at all at the feast," she admitted. "He kissed me, twice. It was just as in a book of romance."

Benvolio smiled. "That I can believe," he said. "When we were boys, Romeo practiced kissing his own hand, so that he might not shame himself when he kissed a maid. I caught him at it many a time."

Juliet laughed out loud at that, and then she and Benvolio fell to chatting like old friends. Benvolio discovered that his cousin's wife had a sharp sense of humor and a practical mind, though she was not yet old enough to have had any experience of the world. She was almost fourteen years old, a few months younger than Valentine, her head filled with dreams of romance.

"Dost thou have a love as well?" she asked shyly. "It does not seem right that I should have all the joy of love with thy cousin and thou left alone in the world."

Benvolio froze for a moment. He wondered how this sheltered child might take the news that he loved a youth and not a maid. Finally, he settled on the bare bones of the truth. "I do have a love," he said carefully. "But it is a new and tender thing, for both of us, and I would not spoil it with much disclosure. Thy passion is as a bright bolt of lightning, but mine is yet a hidden ember."

This explanation seemed to satisfy Juliet. "I wish thee well in thy pursuit of thy love," she said. "Love has been kind to me, and I would have thee know its joys as well."

When Romeo returned later in the day, his mood was thoughtful. Mercutio had been surprised at the news of Romeo's sudden marriage, and both angry and hurt that Romeo had not seen fit to mention his new love before the disastrous encounter with Tybalt. But Romeo had apologized profusely, and as Benvolio had predicted, Mercutio had forgiven him.

"I suspected that he would do so," Benvolio told Romeo. "Thou knowest that he is quick to reconcile with his friends once an apology has been given."

"Ay, so he is," Romeo said. "He has even agreed, for my sake, to avoid fighting Tybalt for a time, especially while the truce between our houses is still so new."

Benvolio laughed at that. "Well, that is a sacrifice indeed. Let us only hope that Tybalt will honor his end of that bargain."

Juliet, who had just joined them, put her arm around Romeo's waist and smiled. "I have heard from my old nurse that Tybalt has been keeping increased company with the Franciscan brothers," she told them. "He is boastful and quarrelsome, but he has little taste for murder. Nurse said that he was distraught at what had happened, and sought ghostly aid, as he has not done for many years."

"That is good news," Romeo said. "If Tybalt can be convinced to keep the peace, then we have truly done well."

Juliet smiled, and Romeo bent to kiss her. Benvolio sighed. "I wonder," he said quietly. "Wouldst thou still have said such words if Mercutio had died of his wounds?"

But that question remained academic. Mercutio lived, and Eliezer soon pronounced him well enough to return home. At Mercutio's request, Benvolio continued to call on him in the palace. Although he was out of immediate danger, Mercutio was still sore and grew tired easily, and Eliezer had ordered that he not go out to roam the streets for at least a week after going home. Deprived of his usual companions and cut off from the unfolding social drama of the ending of Verona's great feud, Mercutio was bored and lonely, and welcomed each of Benvolio's visits.

They spent many hours walking in the gardens and courtyards of the palace. Since Mercutio was not yet strong enough to play, they talked instead. After Benvolio's initial frightened confession of his love, they had not spoken about it; now, very gradually, they began to explore the broader topic of love in some detail.

Mercutio often asked about Romeo and Juliet. Were the two families still speaking to their children? Were Romeo and Juliet content with their sudden decision? Did Benvolio think that their love was strong enough to ensure a successful marriage? Were they happy? Benvolio answered Mercutio's questions as honestly as he could, and tried to gauge Mercutio's thoughts from his reflective silences.

"I think thou art afraid," Benvolio said one day. "I think that the notion of love strikes terror deep into thy soul."

"And why should it not?" Mercutio answered. "When has love ever brought Romeo happiness? It has made him moan, and sigh, and recite dreadful poetry, but I have never seen him happy and in love at the same time."

Benvolio smiled. "He is both now, strange though that may seem. Juliet loves him as fiercely as he loves her. But come now. I suspect that thy fear of love runs far deeper than thy concern for my cousin's welfare."

Mercutio stopped walking, and shot a nervous glance at Benvolio. "If thou hast aught to say, then say it plainly." His voice trembled a little, and he twisted his hands together.

Benvolio sat down on a bench and patted the seat beside him. "Sit down, Mercutio." Warily, Mercutio complied. It made Benvolio vaguely sick to see Mercutio look at him with fear lurking behind his eyes, but he persisted gently. "Canst thou tell me why thou dost fear love? Has someone broken thy heart?" Romeo had asked that question once before, years ago.

Mercutio's answer had not changed. "No one can break my heart, for I give it to no one to break." He was shaking now, and Benvolio reached out his hand to steady him. Mercutio flinched violently, twisting away from Benvolio as though he feared that Benvolio would strike him. He had not startled so badly since the night of his disastrous sixteenth birthday.

Slowly, several new ideas began to form in Benvolio's mind, along with a realization that hit him like a blow to the stomach. "Oh, Mercutio," he said softly. "It cannot be love that thou dost fear. Thou dost not even know the meaning of the word."

"I do. Love is pain, and I have had enough of that in my life."

Benvolio took a deep breath. "There art thou mistaken. Love is not pain, Mercutio. Love can cause pain, but the two are not the same. Love can give pleasure, too, and great joy."

Mercutio seemed to shrink in on himself. "What pleasure wouldst thou have?"

"I would give thee the pleasure of a sweet friend's loving touch." Benvolio held Mercutio's eyes with his own, and held out his hand. "Wilt thou take it? It is nothing more than my hand, and thou hast held it before to give and receive comfort by it."

Mercutio hesitated for a long moment. Benvolio kept perfectly still, his hand extended, trying to keep his expression calm and reassuring. Finally, Mercutio seemed to come to a decision, and placed his hand in Benvolio's. Benvolio let out a breath he had forgotten he was holding, and caressed the back of Mercutio's hand with his thumb.

"There," he said. "It is merely hands, nothing more. It is not so terrible, is it?"

Mercutio shook his head, still staring down at their joined hands. "Thy hand is warm."

"And thine is cold. But I will warm it, if thou wilt give me leave."

Mercutio said nothing, but gripped Benvolio's hand a little more firmly, and nudged himself a little closer on the bench. They sat for a while, not speaking. Gradually, Mercutio relaxed, and even managed a smile. Warmth spread through Benvolio's body in response to that smile, and from that day, he began to believe that his dream of loving Mercutio might one day become reality.

After that day, the two youths often held hands as they strolled in the garden. At first, Benvolio was the one to offer his hand. But after a few days, Mercutio had grown comfortable enough with the gesture that he slipped his hand into Benvolio's of his own accord. This act, and the trust that it implied, thrilled Benvolio to the core, and it also set him wondering. Mercutio had learned to tolerate incidental contact from his friends. Perhaps Benvolio might be able to help him learn more, to accept a comforting hand, or even a loving embrace.

Such a task, Benvolio realized, could take a great deal of time. Although Mercutio had never admitted it directly, Benvolio suspected that the accident that had nearly killed him had frightened him badly, and that terror had torn open ancient scars inside of him. Now, Benvolio was beginning to see some of the secret wounds that Mercutio bore deep in his mind and soul, and he knew that they would take far longer to heal than the wounds to his body. But he could no more abandon his beloved friend than he could chop off his own arm, and he determined to stay at Mercutio's side until those deeper wounds healed.

Gradually, Mercutio recovered the strength of his body, and could run again. He and Benvolio chased each other around the garden, playing as they had done since they were small children.

"I think that I am grown strong enough to go outside again," Mercutio declared one day. "It will give me great joy to escape these walls and see my friends at last. Dost thou think they still remember me?"

Benvolio smiled at him. "Of course. They will be pleased to see thee again. Things have changed, of course, with Romeo's marriage. Vincenzo's father has started to seek a bride for him, and the others have also begun to consider the question of maids seriously."

"At last, they are acting upon their desires and not moaning endlessly," Mercutio said. "That will be different, at least, and likely more entertaining. And thou?"

Benvolio's smile softened. "I have told thee already. I have found my heart's desire here, in this garden."

Mercutio suddenly looked troubled. "Thou canst not love me."

"Why can I not? I do. It is not something that I can change on a whim."

"Because thou hast earned something better." Mercutio stared at the ground. "Thou hast said it thyself. How canst thou love one who knows nothing of the word?"

Benvolio sighed, and took Mercutio's hand. "The heart chooses its own course, and mine has chosen thee. For my part, there can be nothing better, but I would not have thee against thy will. Say the word, and I will pursue this no further. Have I thy leave?"

Mercutio's glance slid across Benvolio's face before settling on their clasped hands. After a moment, he nodded. "No one has ever asked my leave for such a thing," he said. "But thou art my friend, and thou hast never done me wrong."

Benvolio's heart pounded in his chest. It was probably as close to an admission of returned feeling as Mercutio was capable of making. He did not miss the unspoken warning to proceed slowly and with great care, however, and suppressed his urge to take Mercutio into his arms. Instead, he tightened his fingers briefly around Mercutio's. "I would ask a kiss of thee."

Mercutio's body stiffened, but he nodded again. Benvolio raised his hand and kissed it, and Mercutio relaxed again. "Just hands," Benvolio murmured. "No further will I go today."

He kissed Mercutio's hand again, and Mercutio responded as he had in the surgery chamber, with a brief caress to Benvolio's jaw. But this time, the intent was clear and deliberate, and it sent a shiver down Benvolio's spine. It seemed that, where most people kissed with their lips, Mercutio kissed with his hands. The effect was almost overwhelming, especially from someone who usually held himself out of anyone's reach.

Benvolio felt as if he were a traveler who had come upon an inn on the road. No one had come to greet him yet, but the door was unlocked.

Chapter Text

16. By Summer's Ripening Breath

August should have been a perfect month. Many things that Benvolio had expected only in his imagination had taken place. Romeo had found a lover who would love him back, and had married her; Mercutio had learned of Benvolio's love for him and had at least accepted it, even if he did not know his own heart well enough to be able to return it freely; and Signior Capulet and Uncle Tiberio had taken the first small steps toward making true peace with each other. August should have been the month of dreams come true. Instead, it proved difficult in ways that Benvolio had never imagined, and that disappointment often made him want to weep in frustration.

What surprised him most of all was the sudden, unexpected surge of jealousy that rose up in him when Romeo was around. Aunt Susanna had declared that, as a married man, Romeo should have his own household, and Uncle Tiberio had agreed. Within a week after their sudden marriage, he arranged for Romeo and Juliet to move into the house adjoining Uncle Tiberio's. It had belonged to Benvolio's parents, but had stood empty and boarded up ever since their deaths eleven years ago. Uncle Tiberio had explained to Benvolio that, while Benvolio's father had intended to leave the house to his son, he had never written it into his will.

"Lucio had intended to alter his will when thou didst become a man, Benvolio," Uncle Tiberio said. "But, while thou were yet a child, he did entrust it to me. I had intended to keep it for thee, but circumstances have forced my hand in this matter. Thy lady aunt is right; Romeo cannot form his own household under our roof. Therefore, I beg thee to see the sense in this matter. Romeo and Juliet will live in Lucio's house, and thou canst see them as much as pleases you all. Thou wilt still retain thy place in my house, and I will love thee no less for it. Should the time come that thou dost wed and find thyself in need of a home, we may revisit this matter."

Put that way, Benvolio could not deny the basic logic of Uncle Tiberio's decision, but resentment still festered in his heart. It was not that he cared so much about the house itself. He had not entered the place since his parents' death, and he was not sure he could have brought himself to live there now, occupying rooms alone where once he had been someone's son, sleeping in the chamber where his parents had slept, and where they had died. But the fact that Uncle Tiberio had given Romeo something that should have been Benvolio's, a final legacy from dimly remembered but beloved parents, rankled. Romeo had seen that, and had assured Benvolio that he was welcome to visit as often as he liked. Benvolio appreciated the sentiment, but did not like the idea of being a guest in what he still thought of as his parents' home.

After Romeo and Juliet established themselves in their new home, Benvolio found that he was lonely as well. Without Romeo, who had become more a brother than a cousin to him, Benvolio became painfully aware that he was the nephew and not the son of the man and woman who had raised him, no matter how much they loved him. Although in his head he knew it was not the case, he wondered in his heart if Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna saw him as an imposition, a burden that they had not asked to bear.

He tried to discuss his feelings with Mercutio, who also had experience with living under the care of an uncle. Mercutio offered sympathy and a hand to hold, but Benvolio could see that he did not quite understand the heart of the matter. Mercutio had almost forgotten his own mother, and thoughts of his father still gave him dreadful nightmares. He also had Valentine, who adored him, and from whom he had not been parted.

Benvolio remembered that the Prince had also adopted Paris, his other nephew, and briefly considered asking Paris for advice. But Paris, who had sincerely hoped to marry Juliet, bore his own crushing weight of disappointment, and was less than inclined to speak with any Montague. Mercutio assured Benvolio that it would pass, that Paris would learn to be friendly again, but Benvolio was still left with no one who could aid him.

The time he spent on the street with his friends helped a little bit. As he had promised, the boys had welcomed Mercutio back among their numbers, and they still gathered in the piazza most days to share news. In many ways it was as Benvolio had always wished it would be. The sight of a group of Capulets was no longer an overt sign of danger. The two gangs, though not friends by any stretch of the imagination, honored the truce, and kept their distance from each other. Mercutio's spells of distress still came upon him, but Benvolio was better able to distinguish their early signs, and no longer feared to offer Mercutio the steadying hand that would calm him.

But Romeo was no longer among them, and there were signs that the group as it stood would soon dissolve. Vincenzo's father had entered serious marriage negotiations with another family on his behalf. Salvatore had managed to settle his wandering eye on one particular maid, though he took Romeo's example to heart and pursued her slowly and with all due caution. Benvolio dutifully kept up his pretense of being in love with Helena Pergolesi, explaining his lack of progress by claiming that his family wanted him to wait a while until the shock of Romeo's marriage to a Capulet had worn off.

To be fair, Romeo kept his promises to Benvolio and invited him to visit often. Benvolio saw him mostly during the day, at odd hours when they both happened to be home. Romeo or Juliet would call out to him, and he would stroll over for a brief visit. When the new household had been established firmly enough to host a formal event, Balthasar came to Benvolio with a list of invitees to a small dinner gathering. The list included Benvolio, Mercutio, and their friends, as well as several of Juliet's old playmates. Helena appeared on that list, and Romeo had also seen fit to invite Paris. Benvolio doubted the immediate wisdom of that, but Romeo had, no doubt, intended it as an overture of peace.

The dinner gathering itself proved an illuminating experience. Never before had Benvolio attended a feast where no adults were present. With a sudden shock, he realized that he and his friends were meant to be the adults. Juliet, all of fourteen years old, played a spirited hostess, and Benvolio had to admire her ability to rise to that occasion.

"Welcome," she said to him, kissing him on both cheeks. "Romeo has said that thou didst dwell in this house once as a boy."

He nodded. "It has not looked so festive since my honored parents occupied it."

Juliet gave him a warm, sunny smile. "This house opens its doors to thee with pomp and splendor once again."

He decided to take her words in the gracious sense in which she offered them, and allowed the warmth of the once-familiar surroundings to cheer him. Juliet moved off to greet one of her playfellows, and Benvolio took a glass of wine and went to seek out all of the places he had loved when he was little.

The dinner was excellent, rich and varied. Many of Benvolio's favorite foods appeared on the table. Romeo caught his eye during one of those courses and winked, and Benvolio understood that the food was meant in part to welcome him specifically.

He watched Mercutio going through his normal mealtime dance, occasionally nibbling at something, but mostly pushing the food around for show, and had an idea. He put two meatballs in Mercutio's dish. "Try these," he said. "This was one of my favorite things to eat when I was a boy."

For the first time, Mercutio looked interested in the contents of his dish. As Benvolio had hoped, he ate both meatballs and pronounced them good. Encouraged, Benvolio repeated the trick with a few more items. By the end of the evening, though Mercutio had not eaten nearly as much as Benvolio would have liked, he had at least eaten something, and Benvolio was glad of that. It was a small triumph, but one that he desperately needed.

When the feast was over, Benvolio looked around for Helena, thinking that he ought to bid her farewell. Mercutio laughed. "Didst thou not see?" he asked. "Paris offered to escort her and her chaperone home."

Somehow, that news pleased Benvolio. "I am glad to hear it. Perhaps he will find in Helena something to make up for his loss of Juliet."

"So the desertion of thy lady does not distress thee?"

Benvolio shook his head. "Paris is welcome to her. She deserves to have a lord who can give her his heart."

They bade farewell to Romeo and Juliet, and Benvolio was pleased to see that Romeo was once more able to look Mercutio in the eye. "Thou art still his friend," he told his cousin. "It would hurt him more to lose thee than to die by Tybalt's blade."

Outside, the street was empty. There was enough of a moon to illuminate Mercutio's face, revealing a tense, thoughtful expression. "What troubles thee?" Benvolio asked.

"I am not troubled. Thine is the distressed mind." Suddenly, Mercutio leaned in and kissed Benvolio briefly on the corner of his mouth. Startled at his own daring, he jumped back. Shocked and pleased, Benvolio stared at him.

"I thought perhaps to relieve a portion of thy distress," Mercutio said. "I thought thou wouldst enjoy it. If thou didst not –"

Benvolio smiled. "I did, and I thank thee for thy courage." He reached out slowly and ran his hand down the side of Mercutio's face, then returned the kiss, as soft and brief as the first. Mercutio trembled, but did not turn away, and he smiled a little when he bade Benvolio good night.

Such chaste kisses were hardly the stuff of romantic epics, but they burned straight through Benvolio. That night, when his hand moved between his legs, the memory of Mercutio's gentle mouth warmed his heart.

In the end, Romeo's feast did have at least some of its desired effect. Some of the unspoken tension among friends eased, and various slights and insults were tacitly forgiven. Benvolio acknowledged that Juliet's poise and graciousness had contributed greatly to that cause, and he wondered where she had learned it. He had not had much contact with Lady Capulet, but from what he had seen of her waspish behavior towards her daughter and unintended son-in-law, he could not imagine that Juliet had learned manners from her mother. The only other possible candidate, as far as he could tell from what he knew of Juliet's sheltered life, was her old nurse. To his own surprise, he found himself developing a certain respect, if not liking, for the garrulous old lady.

Mercutio had begun to eat a little more, at least in Benvolio's company. He still could not finish a meal, but he did make the effort to eat something, and would occasionally accept a sweetmeat if Benvolio offered it. Benvolio noticed that Mercutio found it easier to swallow food when he was in a good mood. To this end, he arranged for friends to dine with them often, and took Mercutio to taverns where they could find entertainment while they ate.

When they were alone together, they spoke of many things, but only occasionally of love. Mercutio's unease at the word was as strong as ever, but Benvolio persisted in demonstrating that touch could be a pleasant sensation. Mercutio sometimes permitted a few rare, brief kisses on his mouth, but made it clear that he preferred to be touched from a certain distance. He clasped Benvolio's hand readily enough, and allowed Benvolio to caress his face and hair, but quickly ducked away from any attempt at even the most casual embrace. When Benvolio asked him why this was so, he could not answer.

"I like to see thy eyes," he offered.

"My eyes?" Benvolio asked, charmed and puzzled in equal measure.

"They shine with a warmth to rival the sun when thou dost place thy hands upon me."

Benvolio smiled, and felt the beginnings of a blush warming his cheeks. "I enjoy touching thee," he admitted. "Thou art like a cat, who will not allow every Jack in the street to stroke its fur. Touching thee is an honor as well as a pleasure."

That remark seemed to surprise Mercutio. He frowned, and then the beginnings of an impish grin spread across his face. "Is this a pleasure, too?" he asked, and reached out to run his fingers through Benvolio's hair.

Benvolio shuddered. "Do that again, and I will have to kiss thee," he choked out.

Mercutio pulled his hand back and looked away for a heart-stopping moment. When he turned back, there was a look of determination in his eyes, and he ran his hand through Benvolio's hair again. Benvolio, being a man of his word, had no choice but to take Mercutio's face in his hands and kiss him, though he took care to keep the kiss gentle. After a moment, Mercutio responded, kissing back briefly before it grew too much and he broke the kiss. For a moment, Benvolio wondered if he had gone too far, but there was no panic or fear in Mercutio's expression, only the curiosity and mischief that had been there before.

When Benvolio left the palace to return home that night, he noticed that one of the shadows near the door seemed deeper than normal. When he gave it another glance, Valentine emerged from a dim corner and came to stand facing him. He wore a solemn, focused expression, one that Benvolio had never seen on him before. In a sudden flash of insight, Benvolio realized that Valentine knew what he and Mercutio had been doing in the garden. Without quite meaning to, Benvolio stood a little stiffer, waiting for Mercutio's brother to speak.

"Benvolio, thou knowest that I have always held thee in the highest esteem," Valentine began. Benvolio nodded, but could not bring himself to speak.

"Ever hast thou been a devoted friend to Mercutio," Valentine went on. "And I have not forgotten thy care for me as well, and I have loved thee for it. But now," Valentine swallowed convulsively, as if his speech cost him dearly, "I have seen things that make me guess that thy feelings for my brother have moved beyond the bounds of friendship, even one forged in earliest childhood. Am I correct?"

"Ay." The word came out as little more than a whisper.

Valentine studied Benvolio's face, and Benvolio realized how much he had grown. Benvolio still remembered the round, sticky toddler who had held his hand after the earthquake. Now, at fourteen, Valentine was already only a little shorter than Benvolio. He would probably grow almost as tall as Mercutio, and would certainly be broader. Benvolio had no desire to see Valentine's friendship for him turn to disgust and hatred.

"I do love Mercutio," he said, "but I do not wish to cause trouble by it. If thou dost oppose my friendship with thy brother –"

"I said no such thing," Valentine said sharply, then smiled to take some of the sting from his tone. "Mercutio has endured much sorrow and hardship in his life, some of it on my behalf. I am glad to see that someone has seen fit to offer him love, and that it is one of those he trusts. Mercutio does not trust many people."

"I know." Benvolio smiled at the understatement.

"I would not for all the world see Mercutio hurt any more than he has already suffered," Valentine went on. "I am no churchman, and if thou dost wish to pay court to my brother, then I will not object to it. But if thou dost hurt him or do him harm, I will not stop until I have paid thee back in kind. Do we understand each other?"

Benvolio nodded, and clasped Valentine's hand in his. "Ay. Know, then, that I love Mercutio as my own life, and I will guard both from harm with equal zeal. I cannot promise that Mercutio will never hurt again. But I swear to thee, I will do all within my power to ensure that it will not be by my hand, and that I will care for him as I would for my own kin should he be harmed."

Valentine smiled, and was once again the adoring little brother that Benvolio had always known. "I believe thee," he said, "for thou hast already fulfilled thy vow. Save for thee, I would be mourning at my brother's grave today."

With that, he embraced Benvolio firmly, then walked away. Benvolio left the palace and headed for home. Between the kiss from Mercutio and the embrace from Valentine, his heart was lighter than it had been all month.

Chapter Text

17. Much Abused With Tears

At first, autumn brought a welcome relief from the heat that had baked Verona all summer and had inspired young men to near-fatal violence. Benvolio basked in the cooler breezes, letting them run through his hair and dry the sweat on his brow. All too soon, just as the last harvests came in, the rain began. Ordinarily, Benvolio enjoyed rain. He liked to sit and read, and listen to the splatter of drops against the window, or play chess with Romeo. Now Romeo was gone, and when Benvolio grew tired of his book, there was no one nearby to suggest a game.

Briefly, Benvolio considered going to visit Romeo, but then thought better of it. Romeo and Juliet were still in the first flush of their marriage, and Benvolio had a good idea of what they would think to do on a rainy day, and he knew that he would be less than welcome. But there was one in Verona who was always happy to see his face. Benvolio wrapped himself in a heavy cloak and splashed through the streets to the palace. By now, he had become a frequent enough visitor that the guards recognized him by sight, and he greeted them by name as he entered.

A page pointed him down the proper corridor, and he found Mercutio in a study, staring at an open book. He looked up when the door opened, and smiled to see Benvolio.

"Welcome," he said. "I should throw myself at thy feet, for surely thou hast come to rescue me."

Benvolio chuckled. "Had I known thou didst need rescuing, I would have come sooner. What villain threatens Mercutio today?"

"A sage of the ancient world, who rises out of the mists of time to stab me with the barbs of his reason and hoist me upon the petard of his logic," Mercutio moaned dramatically. "His thoughts pull me under, drowning me in a sea of words. He taunts me with theory, and flings my own faults back in my face. I am laid low by a dead man."

"Ah." Benvolio glanced at the book on the desk. "And who is this sage that has slain my friend?"

Mercutio laid a ribbon across his page and closed the book. Benvolio picked it up. On the spine, gold letters picked out the words Plato and Symposium. Benvolio let out a low whistle.

"This is not easy material. My tutor set me to read it several years ago, and I wrestled with it for a long time."

Mercutio's smile faded, and an uncertain expression replaced it. "Dost thou recall aught of what the good philosopher meant?" he asked.

Benvolio sat down beside Mercutio. "It has been a long time since we studied the same books. I would be happy to help thee."

"My uncle has engaged a tutor," Mercutio said. "Valentine has lessons more often than I do. He is clever, and reads his books quickly, and he understands what he reads. It is difficult for me to finish a book, and I do not always remember the arguments contained therein."

"Plato is difficult," Benvolio assured him. "There are scholars who devote their lives to his philosophy. But thou art clever as well, and I know that thou wilt understand this in time."

Mercutio glanced briefly at Benvolio, then turned his head aside and pushed the book away. "Thou dost not need to flatter me, Benvolio. I was clever once as a child, I remember that. But those days are gone, and now my head is duller and more witless than that of an ape, hooting and mocking what he cannot understand."

Benvolio pressed his lips together for a moment. "There art thou mistaken, caro," he said. "Thy wit sparkles brighter than that of anyone I know. Thou art clever enough that thou canst think circles around all of thy friends and all of thy enemies. I know this to be true, for I have seen thee do it many a time." He took a deep breath. "It was an act of wanton cruelty when thy father took thee from school."

Mercutio's head jerked up at the mention of his father. "I had already lost my capacity to learn," he said, in a voice tinged with deep bitterness. "That is what my father told me on that day. He said that the spark of my mind had died a-borning, and it was not worth the gold he paid to the friars for my education."

"Mercutio, thy father was a gold-plated fool!"

The words flew from Benvolio's mouth before he could stop to think about them, and their effect on Mercutio was immediate. For a moment, he stared at Benvolio, a shocked expression on his face. Benvolio was horrified at himself, and opened his mouth to apologize for the insult, but no words came.

"Dost thou speak truly?" Mercutio asked, and Benvolio was amazed to hear hope in that question.

He nodded. "I could not have said it at the time. But thy father was wrong to take thee from school, and he was a fool to think thee witless."

Mercutio bowed his head and began to choke. After a moment, he raised his hands and brushed awkwardly at his face. Benvolio reached out slowly and tilted Mercutio's chin up. Mercutio's eyes had grown liquid, and the tracks of two tears shone in the lamplight. To his utter shock, Benvolio realized that, for the first time that he could remember, Mercutio was weeping.

Mercutio seemed as surprised by his own tears as Benvolio was. He coughed, and tried to swallow his sobs, and brushed savagely at the tears as soon as they fell. Benvolio clasped his fluttering hands. "Do not deny thy tears, caro. Too long hast thou held them back. Let them come."

A shudder ran through Mercutio's body, and he slumped onto the desk, weeping in earnest now. The sight tore at Benvolio's heart, and without thinking, he pulled Mercutio into his arms. Mercutio struggled for a moment, but then laid his head on Benvolio's shoulder. Benvolio caressed his hair and felt hot tears against his neck. "I have thee," he murmured. "Thou art safe in my arms, and none shall harm thee. Weep until thou hast spent all thy tears."

Mercutio's coughs soon turned to deep groans, and he clung to Benvolio blindly as his body shook. Benvolio held him and kissed his hair until Mercutio had choked out his last cry, and his tremors had ceased. Exhausted, Mercutio rested quietly in Benvolio's arms, and tried to mop his face with his hands.

"Dost thou not have thy handkerchief?" Benvolio asked. Mercutio reached into his sleeve and extracted the square of white linen, the favored toy of his childhood, soft with wear, still faintly stained with blood. As gently as he knew how, Benvolio used it to dry Mercutio's tears. "This is how it was meant to be used," he said, earning himself a weak smile.

They sat together in silence for a while, until Mercutio grew restless. Benvolio released him with a kiss.

"The rain has not stopped," Mercutio said, his voice still trembling. "We cannot go out in the courtyard today. Wilt thou stay here? I would ask thy aid in my studies."

Benvolio nodded. "We will read the Symposium together," he said. "In truth, I have forgotten much of what is contained therein, and would gladly read it a second time with thee."

Mercutio set the book on the desk between them, just as it had been when they had studied from the same primer in the Latin school. After a moment's hesitation, Benvolio put his arm around Mercutio, and Mercutio did not flinch or duck away. Encouraged, Benvolio opened the book and skimmed the first few pages.

"I remember now," he said with a smile. "This treats with the nature of love. It is definitely proper that we read it together, for I trust that it will give us much matter for conversation."

So they spent the rest of the afternoon together, pressed close against each other, laughing and talking about Plato's tale of the origins of the sexes. Benvolio had forgotten about that particular passage, but the moment he read it, it struck him with the force of a hammer blow. He had found his other half, and he counted himself blessed for it.

Benvolio had thought that, once Mercutio had accepted a close embrace, it would be easy for him to accept another. But this proved to be a false assumption. For many days following their shared reading of Plato, Mercutio refused to be touched at anything less than arm's length. "Surely thou know'st I will not harm thee," Benvolio said. "I love thee. I love the weight of thee in my arms, to feel thy breath so close to mine." But Mercutio remained wary, and Benvolio had to content himself with holding hands.

He wished that he could ask someone for advice in this matter. But as far as he knew, the only person who was aware that his feelings for Mercutio extended beyond simple friendship was Valentine, and Benvolio doubted that Valentine could offer much useful advice. Benvolio would have to find his own pathway into Mercutio's heart.

His opportunity came with the beginning of winter. Mercutio had engaged him in a friendly bout of swordplay. It had been fine sport, but they lingered for too long in the chilled salon after they had finished. Mercutio grunted as he tried to stretch out the muscles in his shoulder.

"Afore God, I am frozen as stiff as a block of wood," he said.

"That will pay thee back for the blow thou didst strike at the end," Benvolio replied amiably. Mercutio was, and always had been, a better swordsman than Benvolio. "I have had the same problem fencing with Romeo. His hands were most excellently skilled at soothing the pain."

"Oh?" Mercutio glanced at him, intrigued. "How did he manage that?"

"Dost thou mean to say that no one has seen fit to lay hands upon thy back to soothe thee?" Benvolio asked. "Come, we must remedy this situation immediately." He steered Mercutio into a private antechamber.

"Doff thy shirt, and lie on this bench on thy belly," he directed. Mercutio complied, twisting his head around to watch Benvolio's every move. "I will not harm thee," Benvolio assured him. "I will place my hands upon thy back. If I press too hard, tell me, and I will stop."

After a moment, Mercutio nodded, and laid his head on a pillow that Benvolio found for him. Benvolio blew on his hands to warm them, then gently touched Mercutio's back. He and Romeo had often kneaded each other's shoulders, pressing down with all their weight to relieve sore muscles. But he suspected that Mercutio, painfully sensitive to even the slightest touch, would not appreciate that. So he made sure to keep his strokes light, caressing as much as massaging.

Without warning, Mercutio tensed beneath Benvolio's hands. His breath hitched, and he squirmed away. Benvolio removed his hands immediately.

"What is wrong? Have I hurt thee?" he asked.

Mercutio shook his head. "Nay, the sensation is – pleasant, it is more than pleasant, but, please, do not touch me any more." He sat up, then clutched the pillow and drew his knees up until he was huddled against the arm of the bench. Confused and alarmed, Benvolio searched around for his cloak, then draped it over Mercutio's body. Mercutio pulled it around his shoulders, as if it were armor to shield him from the world. For a moment, he looked as though he might weep.

"I am sorry," Benvolio said. "It was not my intent to cause thee pain or fear."

"It was not thy doing," Mercutio said. He took a few deep breaths, and a shudder ran through him. "It was merely – a memory of my father came upon me, of his hands upon my body."

A sick chill washed through Benvolio. "What dost thou mean?" he asked slowly, fearing the answer to his question. "I know that thy father did beat thee – that was never a great secret . . ."

Mercutio pulled Benvolio's cloak tighter around his body. For a while, he looked at Benvolio, and the sharp gaze of his bright blue eyes pierced Benvolio like an arrow. At last, he found his voice. "My father did beat me, thou dost remember correctly. He beat Valentine as well; I could not prevent that. But he also – Benvolio, sweet friend, there is no kind way to say this. I am ruined, defiled, at his hands. He used me, as he used my mother before, to satisfy his baser, animal desires. He poured out his lust upon my body, and made me a toy for his pleasure. Dost thou understand my words?"

Horrified, Benvolio nodded. "How long?" he choked out. "How many times did he commit these vile crimes upon thee?"

"Five years. He began to touch me when I was a boy of nine, and used me at his will until I was fourteen, when my uncle banished him from the city. I have not seen him since, nor have I any desire to do so."

With that, Mercutio bowed his head, and buried his face in his hands. Benvolio leaned back against the wall and let out a great sigh of sorrow and anger. He grieved for Mercutio, and he raged at Giacomo Rinuccini, at the citizens of Verona who had not interfered in five years, and at himself. He had seen Mercutio almost every day for most of their lives. He had seen the bruises on his friend's body and had known that all was not well, but he had never suspected anything of what Mercutio had just revealed to him. A small shred of reason in his mind argued that he had been a child, lacking any ability to put an end to Rinuccini's actions, even if he had recognized them, but he did not listen.

After a moment, Benvolio became aware that Mercutio was watching him closely. "Now art thou angered," Mercutio said softly. "Thou hast seen me for the dreadful, ruined thing I am, and thou wilt despise me and scorn my company. I have thrown away the dearest friend I had."

Benvolio came back to himself with a start. "Despise thee? May Heaven strike me dead if I even thought of that, caro. I have told thee before that I love thee, and nothing thou hast told me today can change that. I am angered, but my anger is at thy father, for what he did to thee."

Mercutio glanced away, but relaxed a little. Benvolio found his shirt and handed it to him, thinking that he might be more comfortable dressed. Mercutio managed a small smile for thanks as he pulled the shirt over his head.

"Who else in Verona knows of thy father's deeds?" Benvolio asked.

"Valentine, of course," Mercutio answered, at once. "He knew almost from the beginning, though my father never used him as he used me. I saw to that, at least. Paris knows, as does a kind fellow called Bartolomeo who is one of the guards, and my uncle's physician knows as well. They were with me on the night my father was banished. And my uncle knows." Now his smile almost resembled itself. "I told thee once that my uncle banished my father because my father had committed a terrible crime. Now thou dost know the nature of that crime."

Benvolio nodded. It seemed that he had been admitted to a most select fellowship, and he was very much aware of the honor. "I am glad to know that the Prince was swift and stern in his judgment," he said, "though, in his place, I would not have been so merciful."

"My father was banished from Verona on a moment's notice," Mercutio said. "Dost thou name that mercy?"

Benvolio nodded. "I do. Had I been Prince of Verona, I would have killed him where he stood, without a second thought."

"I am impressed," Mercutio said. "Thou dost not usually have such a taste for blood."

That was true, Benvolio thought. But then, he also did not usually have such terrible cause.

Chapter Text

18. To Season Love

Now that Mercutio had confided his great secret to Benvolio, a weight seemed to have lifted from his shoulders. His good cheer returned, and when he went to the taverns with his friends, he once again told the intricate, fantastic stories that kept them on the edges of their seats and made them roll with laughter at the end. But, now that Benvolio knew what to look for, he could see the isolation and wariness that he realized had dogged Mercutio for most of his life. After a certain amount of coaxing, Mercutio occasionally allowed Benvolio to hold him close when they were alone together, though he made it clear that he would not be touched at all in public. In his head, Benvolio understood why Mercutio wanted to keep such distance, but nevertheless, it made his heart ache a little.

Sometimes, when Benvolio held Mercutio in his arms, Mercutio would speak of his father, and of the mistreatment he had endured at his father's hands. He was not inclined to give many details, claiming that he did not remember all of what his father had done to him, and Benvolio found that he had little stomach for details in any event. He suspected that what Mercutio really wanted from these conversations was reassurance that Benvolio would not cast him aside upon hearing a story of the acts that Mercutio had been forced to perform. So Benvolio listened quietly to Mercutio's terrible words, and then kissed him or petted his hair.

"I love thee," he said. "Thou hast given me no cause to cease loving thee, and so I continue. I am stronger than thou dost know, and I will not break my attachment over something that is part of the past."

Mercutio began to shake in Benvolio's arms. "Sometimes I wonder if it is part of the past," he said. "There are days when I wonder if all my life is but a dream, and I will wake to find myself in my old bed, with my father standing over me."

Benvolio tightened his embrace. "This is real, caro," he replied. "I feel thee in my arms, I look into thy eyes and listen to thy voice. I smell wine from dinner upon thy breath. I vouch unto thee, this moment is real, and thy father is no longer in a position to cause thee harm."

Christmas arrived, and the noble families of Verona competed with each other to host the most elaborate feasts. It seemed that there was a dance every night at a different house. Benvolio had some occasion to dance with Helena, but it was plain to him that her heart was given to Paris. Romeo tried to console him about that loss, but Benvolio shrugged it off.

"Paris is a fine suitor for her," he said. "Look how he dotes upon her. His heart was sorely wounded when thou didst wed Juliet; now Helena has healed that wound. They are well matched."

Romeo blinked, then clapped a hand on Benvolio's shoulder. "Thou art most forgiving, cousin," he said with a laugh. "The only woman in whom thou hast ever shown the slightest interest has eyes for another, and thou art generous enough to be glad for his sake! I would not have been so philosophical were I in thy position."

"Thou hast most kindly hit it," Benvolio replied, unable to stop himself from smirking a little. "I have learned my lesson by thy example. Much good it did thee to sigh and groan over the lost affections of a woman."

Romeo laughed again. "And thou hast spent too much time in the company of Mercutio. Soon he will have convinced thee entirely of the uselessness of love."

Juliet appeared out of the crowd and pressed a glass of wine into Romeo's hand. "The uselessness of love? What talk is this, husband? Shall I show thee useless?" She ran a finger up Romeo's spine, and he shivered. Juliet and Benvolio both laughed at the look on his face.

"And that is a pleasure that Mercutio will never have, as long as he continues to cut himself off from love," Romeo said. "Learn from his example as well as mine, and do not deny thyself what pleasures this world can offer thee."

Benvolio smiled, not sure how to respond to that. Fortunately, the band struck up a new tune, and Juliet pulled Romeo out onto the dance floor.

Later, after the party had ended, Benvolio walked through the chilled streets with Mercutio. When they reached the place where they had to part, Mercutio stopped and sent their pages on ahead to give them privacy. "There is something troubling thee, Benvolio," he said. "Thou hast been quiet ever since we left."

Benvolio smiled and shook his head. "I am not troubled. It is simply that I had a conversation with Romeo that has given me food for thought."

"Wilt thou then be sociable and share thy meal with thy friend?"

"Ay. Would that thou didst beg a meal of food as easily as thou dost beg a meal of thought." Briefly, Benvolio recounted his earlier conversation with Romeo. "It is not the first time we have spoken thus. I think that Romeo has always been amazed at thy protestations against love, and I think also that he fears for thee. I know that I did feel the same until thou didst tell me some of thy troubles."

Mercutio glanced away, and a thoughtful expression came over his face. "I have been hiding for so many years," he said quietly. "At first, I lived in fear of my father – and I confess that I still fear him, though I know that he can no longer touch me. But thou hast given me new courage. Never before have I shared aught with thee that I have kept from Romeo, and it sits ill with me. Thinkst thou that he would accept the truth if I gave it to him?"

Benvolio considered the question for a moment. "I think that Romeo would be angered," he said slowly, "but not at thee. Romeo treasures thee as he has always done. It would grieve him to hear of the hurt inflicted upon thee, but it would touch his heart if thou didst trust him to hear the tale."

Mercutio nodded. "For some time I have pondered whether to tell him. Thou didst not turn thy back on me, after all, and that did give me hope. What Romeo knows, he is bound to tell Juliet, and I have not made up my mind about her. I did not share my childhood with Juliet as I did with thee and Romeo."

"I have spent more time around my cousin's wife than thou hast," Benvolio said. "She is young, and a stranger in the ways of the world, but her heart is true, and I think that she would respect thy confidence."

A strange smile quirked across Mercutio's face. "I suppose that she was destined to know in any event. Before she married thy cousin, she was promised to mine. Had she married Paris, he would not have kept it from her, if only to explain to his new bride why his cousin sometimes wakes screaming in the night."

Benvolio sighed and slipped his arms around Mercutio. "I wish thou didst not have such dreams."

"As do I. But Queen Mab is not always kind. I shall confide in Romeo after the New Year. That is as good a time as any, I suppose."

"I have always admired thy courage."

Mercutio shook his head. "Surely thou canst do better than admire one who still fears a father banished by a Prince's edict."

"Then I will give thee a charm against thy fear." Careful not to make too sudden a move, Benvolio reached up and kissed Mercutio's lips. "Remember, if thou dost wake in the night, that I love thee."

"Thou hast said as much many times."

"And I will continue to say it," Benvolio said with a smile, "until the day that thou dost believe it."

Although Mercutio did not mention the exact date upon which he planned to talk to Romeo, Benvolio knew almost as soon as the story was told. It was the afternoon before Twelfth Night, and Benvolio was in his chamber selecting clothing for the evening's feast. Signior Capulet had announced a grand celebration and had invited the family of his son-in-law. It would be a volatile, gala occasion, and Aunt Susanna had given the word that everyone was to look their absolute best. Benvolio had spread two velvet doublets out on his bed, and was pondering their merits when he heard a commotion of voices in the corridor.

"Romeo, my son!" came Uncle Tiberio's voice. "This is a welcome surprise indeed. We did not expect to see thee today."

"My noble father, where is Benvolio?" Romeo asked. "I must speak to him at once."

"He is in his chamber. Wilt thou not spare even a moment?"

There was a clattering of feet, and Benvolio barely had time to turn around before his door flew open, and Romeo charged into his chamber. Romeo's face was a mask of shock, and he stared at Benvolio for a few seconds before he found his voice.

"Has Mercutio told thee what he has just told me?" he demanded.

Benvolio nodded. He did not need to be told what news Romeo had just heard. "He did, a month past."

"For a month, thou hast carried this knowledge in thy heart?"

"It was not my place to tell thee. The choice was Mercutio's to make."

Romeo sat down heavily on Benvolio's bed. "All these years," he moaned. "All the years of our youth, and I did not know. Was I so blind?"

"Nay, cousin, no more than the rest of us." Benvolio gave a wry smile. "We saw no more than Mercutio intended for us to see."

"Why did he hide it?" Romeo asked. "Why not share his troubles with those he called friends? It tears my heart to think of what Mercutio suffered while we remained ignorant."

"I do not know all the details," Benvolio admitted. "But I think that his father pressed him to keep the secret. I recall that Signior Rinuccini was a man both tall and broad. He terrified me when I was a boy. I can only imagine how it must have been to be his son."

Romeo sighed. "I suppose thou hast the right of it, as usual. But afore God, it makes me mad to think that such a thing could happen here, in Verona, in such a noble house as that one, and we might never have known."

"I suppose it is not an easy theme to speak of," Benvolio said. "I think that Mercutio might never have told me, save that, by chance, a friendly touch after a bout of swordplay called the evil memory forth in him."

Romeo nodded thoughtfully. "How many times must we have seen him after his father . . . did things to him, and we never knew, but enticed him to play as if all were normal?"

"I think those were the times he liked best of all," Benvolio replied. "Those were the times that he could pretend that all was normal."

He and Romeo sat silently together for a while after that, mourning the strange, sad childhood of their dearest friend.

February came, and brought Mercutio's nineteenth birthday. Benvolio knew that Mercutio did not care much about marking birthdays, but he felt that this one was special, as he had feared that Mercutio would not live to see it. There was no grand celebration, but Benvolio gave Mercutio a small medal of Saint Raphael the Archangel that had been his mother's.

"Mama used to tell me that the Archangel Raphael watched over children's beds to soothe their nightmares," he said. "Thou art no longer a child, but perhaps the Archangel can be persuaded to watch over thee anyway."

Mercutio stared at the little medal, then put his arms around Benvolio and held him tightly. That embrace was all the thanks that Benvolio needed.

February turned into March, and Benvolio was nineteen. Aunt Susanna and Uncle Tiberio made as much of a feast as they could during Lent. But it was Romeo who surprised Benvolio the most on that day. He sent Balthasar to invite Benvolio for dinner, and Benvolio accepted the invitation at once.

Plain as the dinner was, Benvolio always enjoyed spending time with Romeo and Juliet. But today, an extra spark of excitement hung in the air. Romeo grinned crazily throughout the entire meal, and Juliet's eyes sparkled. It was plain that they were trying to hide a secret from Benvolio, though they concealed it poorly. But Benvolio played along until they had finished eating.

"I have such news for thee, cousin, on thy birthday," Romeo said, fairly bursting with eagerness. "Thou art the first to hear our glad tidings."

"I am honored." Benvolio gave a formal nod of his head. "What is this great secret?"

Benvolio had never actually seen anyone swell with pride before, but Romeo almost managed it. "Juliet is with child," he said. "It will come in September. I am to be a father!"

Benvolio gasped, then laughed and embraced Romeo and kissed Juliet's hand. "My congratulations to you both!" he cried. "A child born of a Montague and a Capulet, that is news indeed."

"My nurse is already looking forward to taking care of it," Juliet said, "though we must find another to give it suck. "

Romeo's smile softened. "I would ask a boon of thee, cousin. When our child is christened, I would ask thee to stand as godfather."

"Of course I will do so," Benvolio said, deeply touched by the request.

Romeo glanced at Juliet, then back at Benvolio. "Dost thou think that Mercutio would be willing to share the honor? We would have our child christened in purest love."

Benvolio froze, wondering what Romeo knew. Romeo gazed steadily at him with clear eyes.

"I have hit the mark, I trust, concerning my cousin and my dearest friend?"

Slowly, Benvolio nodded. "Thou art wise," he said after a moment. "Hast thou seen aught that has disturbed thee?"

Romeo shook his head. "Nay, do not fear. Thou art as discreet as I have ever known thee to be, and Mercutio . . . well, Mercutio is adept at guarding the privacy of his heart. It was Juliet who first suspected."

"I am not yet fifteen years old, but I am no one's fool," Juliet said softly. "Thou didst tell me once that thou didst love, but thou wouldst not name thy beloved. Since then, I have had occasion to see thee and Mercutio together. Thou and my husband are much alike, Benvolio. When thy gaze falls upon Mercutio, it is filled with the same love that I see in Romeo when he looks at me."

Benvolio swallowed. "And still thou wouldst have us be godfathers to thy child?"

"I will not lie to thee," Romeo said. "Such a love will be difficult for thee, and I wish in part that thou hadst chosen an easier path for thyself. I confess that I am not fully accustomed to such an idea. But thou art as a brother to me, and I hold Mercutio almost as dear. If ever I did love you both, so I will now learn to love you together. Besides," he added, putting his arm around Juliet's shoulders, "who better to understand and offer sympathy for a disruptive love?"

Benvolio relaxed, and smiled gratefully at Romeo. He had not realized how important Romeo's opinion would be to him. While he might not have Romeo's blessing yet, he retained his cousin's friendship and trust. In many ways, that was far more precious.

Chapter Text

19. Wisely And Slow

Juliet's pregnancy caused an enormous fuss. Aunt Susanna and her nurse watched over her constantly, supervising her diet, shielding her from anything that might upset her and mark the baby, and escorting her on carefully guarded walks so that she could breathe good air. The nurse bought armfuls of amulets against evil spirits from street vendors, while Aunt Susanna inquired of the other ladies of Verona whether they knew of any potential wet-nurses.

In public, Romeo was the very picture of a proud father-to-be. In church, he doted on Juliet, and escorted her gallantly to the stone benches along the sides of the building. He allowed both Uncle Tiberio and Signior Capulet to toast his health, and endured both the good-natured teasing of his friends and Tybalt's frosty politeness. But in private, drinking in taverns with Benvolio, Romeo confessed his secret fears. He worried about Juliet's health, and was utterly terrified of Lady Capulet.

"I do not understand," he said. "During the first months of our marriage, it was as though Juliet was an orphan, so thoroughly did the lady cast her aside. Now that Juliet is with child, Capulet's wife has become a mother once more, and will smother her with affection." He shook his head and drained his wine.

Benvolio could not suppress a snort of laughter. "Thou may'st console thyself with philosophy, cousin mine. Juliet cannot carry this child forever. When the babe is born, and Lady Capulet finds herself a grandmother, perhaps her conduct will change."

"Ay, but will it change for the better?"

"I am not learned in deciphering those particular oracles," Benvolio replied. "But, at the very least, it will be a change." He drank deeply from his own cup. "When I hear thy tales, I count myself glad that I will never sire children."

Romeo frowned. "Art thou sure?" he asked. "Wouldst thou not –"

"Never," Benvolio repeated. "Unless, by some chance, I should beget one on Mercutio, and the sun will set in the east before that happens."

"Ah." Romeo suddenly became very interested in the grain of the wooden table. "Then thou and Mercutio have . . . ?" His voice trailed off, and his hands finished the question.

Benvolio shook his head. "Do not fear. Mercutio can barely endure an embrace or a single kiss, and that only on days when fortune smiles. My virtue remains intact."

Romeo could not quite mask his sigh of relief. "I am glad of that." He glanced sharply at Benvolio. "Is it worth the risk, Benvolio? Dost thou know if Mercutio returns thy love?"

Now it was Benvolio's turn to examine the surface of the table. "Mercutio has only begun to comprehend the meaning of the word," he said. Romeo raised his eyebrows, and Benvolio met his eyes. "That is not such a surprise," he said. "Who has ever bothered to love him, apart from me, or thee, or Valentine?"

"Can he love thee, then?"

"I do not know," Benvolio admitted. "But I believe so. We have spent much time together, and I have begun to learn to read his actions as well as listen to his speech. He cannot speak the words, but I do believe that his affections for me are of the same nature as mine for him."

Romeo sat up a little straighter, and offered Benvolio a little smile. "Well, that is good tidings, at least. But I fear for thee, Benvolio, and for Mercutio as well. I can assure thee of my discretion, but others may not be so kind. Do not draw attention to thyself."

"I shall have little chance of that," Benvolio said, forcing a laugh. "I have no need of such haste as thou hadst, since I cannot simply run to the abbey and beg Friar Lawrence to wed me to my secret love."

"Nay, I suppose thou art correct," Romeo said. "Thy road is a hard one. I hope that thou wilt be happy, cousin."

Benvolio smiled. "And I wish thee the same." He poured more wine into their cups, and they drank to each other's continued good fortune.

Romeo proved as good as his word, and maintained the discretion that he had promised. However, Benvolio had not reckoned with the rest of his family. It was a fine, warm evening at the end of the spring. Most of the flowers were in full bloom, filling the air with a rich, humid perfume. Romeo had invited Benvolio and Mercutio to dine at his house. The food, as always, was excellent, and Juliet fairly glowed in the torchlight. When the visit was over, Benvolio drew Mercutio into the honeysuckle arbor that connected Romeo's house with Uncle Tiberio's.

They did not speak for a while. Benvolio allowed Mercutio to explore his face with his fingers, the tiny, gentle caresses that were Mercutio's way of kissing with his hands. Each fluttering touch sent a shiver through Benvolio, and he gradually responded with caresses of his own, all up and down Mercutio's arms. After a pleasant evening in the company of friends, and relaxed a little with wine, Mercutio was in a playful mood, and responded amiably to Benvolio's inquiring pats. He moved a little closer to Benvolio, enough that Benvolio could draw him down for a kiss.

Mercutio returned the kiss, and for a moment, Benvolio was conscious of nothing except their mingled breath and the warmth of the honeysuckle-scented air. All too soon, Mercutio squirmed away, drawing his finger gently over Benvolio's lips to ease the parting. "Good night, Benvolio," he said. "I shall see thee again when the sun covers the world in glory." With a brief clasp of hands, he left the arbor and collected his page for the walk home.

Benvolio remained in the arbor for a while, savoring the memory of Mercutio's touch, his entire body enflamed with desire. When his wildly pounding heart slowed to something closer to its normal rhythm, he rose and walked toward the house. He had not taken ten steps when something rustled. Benvolio turned to investigate, and froze in horror. Aunt Susanna was standing there. It was hard to make out her expression in the darkness, but Benvolio could see enough to make out her disbelief and distress, and he knew that she had seen them.

"My lady aunt –" he choked out.

"Come inside, Benvolio," she said, in a soft, even tone that bore an undercurrent of steel. "Get thee to bed. We will speak in the morning."

Benvolio's shoulders slumped, but he followed his aunt without a word.

The next morning, Benvolio sat uncomfortably in Uncle Tiberio's study, his plans for a leisurely day with his beloved friend utterly ruined. Instead, he squirmed through a discussion of his abnormal desire for men and his choice of Mercutio in particular. He was not sure which pained him more, Aunt Susanna's quiet sorrow or Uncle Tiberio's crushing disapproval.

"Why dost thou persist in thy stubborn ways?" Uncle Tiberio asked. "Experimentation between boys is one thing – many youths have had such experiences in childhood, and have emerged none the worse for it. But thou art no longer a child, Benvolio. Why must thou persist in this childish activity?"

"My heart has chosen its path," Benvolio answered. "Its course is set. I cannot wed a woman in honest faith and be a full husband to her. I would not be so cruel to any maid of Verona."

Aunt Susanna choked back a sob. "I had longed to weep at a wedding," she moaned. "When Romeo married secretly and in haste, I consoled myself with the thought that I might yet attend thy nuptials."

Benvolio clamped his lips together and forced down a surge of guilt. "I am sorry, madam," he said. "I cannot take Mercutio to church for your sake."

"Thou wilt still claim Mercutio as thy accomplice?" Uncle Tiberio asked. "Now dost thou compound our scandal. Perhaps I could have overlooked thy unnatural affection. I would have wedded thee to some fair maid, perhaps Helena, who I believed had caught thy eye, and thou couldst have lived as a decent man by day. I know full well that the stews are home to boy-whores as well as dames, and I know why they offer themselves. Thou canst yet have a respectable home, and feed thy taste for boy-flesh where none need know of it."

"No father would offer up his daughter to such a marriage," Benvolio said. "No heirs would come from my bed, and within a year, the lady would have sufficient grounds for annulment."

Aunt Susanna gasped and waved her fan in front of her face. Uncle Tiberio twisted his hands together and glared at his nephew. "Then thou wilt still ally thyself with Mercutio, as full-grown as thou art, as highly born as thou, a ward of the Prince and heir to his banished father's fortune? What madness has possessed thee, Benvolio? Mercutio cannot play the whore for thy amusement."

The corners of Benvolio's mouth twisted into an ironic smirk. "On that point, uncle, we are in perfect agreement. I love Mercutio, and I would not ask him to play the whore for me."

Uncle Tiberio sucked in a breath. "Wouldst thou debase thyself to play the hind for him, then? Has he tumbled thee, beneath my very nose?"

The idea of Mercutio, still uncertain and wary of kissing, tumbling anyone was so absurd that Benvolio burst out laughing. Uncle Tiberio's face went purple, and he leaped to his feet and seized Benvolio's arm. "Come along, thou pillicock," he said. "I shall take thee directly to the palace. Thou canst make thy case for thy behavior with the Prince's nephew to the Prince himself." And with that, he marched Benvolio out of the house.

Benvolio had faced the Prince before, and found him intimidating, but never more so than now. The aged secretary had shown them directly to Escalus's study, where Uncle Tiberius accused Benvolio of immoral acts and unnatural desires. The Prince listened quietly, his eyes fixed on Benvolio. Benvolio burned with shame and wished silently that the floor would open up beneath his feet and swallow him. For the first time, he felt that he truly understood why Romeo had chosen to marry Juliet in secret.

At last, Uncle Tiberio had said all that he wanted to say, and fell silent, glaring at his nephew. The Prince regarded Benvolio silently for a moment. "Benvolio, what have you to say to your uncle's charges? Does he speak the truth?"

Benvolio swallowed. "Ay, he does, for the most part. I fear he exaggerates certain details . . . but his primary argument is accurate. I do love Mercutio, as I have done since I was thirteen years of age."

"Hmm." The Prince motioned to his secretary. "Find Mercutio and bring him here." The secretary hobbled out of the room, and an uncomfortable silence fell. Presently, the door opened again, and Mercutio entered. He took in Escalus's carefully neutral expression, Uncle Tiberio's suppressed anger, and Benvolio's misery, and stiffened.

"I am here, Uncle," he said. "What is your will?"

"Signior Montague has come before me saying that an unusual closeness has developed between thee and Benvolio. What hast thou to say in this matter?"

Mercutio blinked in surprise. Benvolio trembled a little, afraid of what Mercutio might say and how it would be received. Mercutio glanced at him, and there was a familiar set to his jaw. It was the same expression he had worn as a child, just before fighting Tybalt in defense of his brother or his friends. "Benvolio is the sweetest friend I have," he said. "He is kind and gentle, and cares for me even in those hours when I am as cross and contrary as any evil demon. He loves me, and I know this because he has told me, and because he has stayed at my side even as my fortunes have changed. He is dearer to me than anyone, save only Valentine my brother."

Uncle Tiberio stared. Benvolio's breath came in small, quiet gasps. Up until this moment, he had not been quite certain of Mercutio's heart. Even now, Mercutio had not used the word "love," but his plain, direct statement had made his affections clear.

The Prince nodded thoughtfully at Mercutio. "Would it distress thee to be parted from him?"

Mercutio nodded. "Ay," he said. "If harm came to Benvolio because of me, then I would surely go mad."

The Prince laced his fingers together. "I would speak with Signior Montague in privacy," he said. "Mercutio, take Benvolio and wait in the antechamber."

Mercutio bowed. Benvolio rose shakily to his feet and managed a polite nod. Then he followed Mercutio out into the antechamber. Mercutio guided him to a chair, where he collapsed.

"What has happened?" Mercutio asked. "Has thy uncle . . . ?"

"My lady aunt espied us in the arbor," Benvolio said. "She was most distressed, and told my uncle of the matter. I think he would have beaten me and turned me out onto the street if Aunt Susanna had not been there with him. I do not know what I shall do now. They will surely wish to part us, if they do not put us to death. I do not know which fate I fear most."

Mercutio ran his hand gently through Benvolio's hair. "Sweet Benvolio, do not terrify thyself before our guardians have spoken. Our case may not be so dire as thou dost fear."

"How can I be other than terrified? The Prince knows what I have done with thee, and –"

"Ay, he does. And he does not condemn us for it."

"Canst thou be so sure?"

Mercutio smiled. "I can. I dwell under his roof, after all. Listen, I shall tell thee something that most of the citizens of Verona do not know. There is a good reason why my uncle has never taken a bride."

Slowly, the words penetrated Benvolio's whirling mind. "Thou dost not mean – he shares this –"

"Ay," Mercutio said. "He takes male lovers to his bed." Benvolio stared at him in shock, and Mercutio laughed. "Benvolio, I am not so innocent that I would not notice such things. My uncle takes male lovers, and maintains his discretion. There is probably none in Verona who will extend us more indulgence."

Finally, Benvolio was able to relax a little. He picked up Mercutio's hand and kissed it, with a silent prayer that this would not be the last time he would be allowed to do so. They waited in silence for a while. At last, the door to the study opened, and Uncle Tiberio emerged, a roll of paper in his hand and an odd expression on his face. Mercutio and Benvolio rose to their feet.

Uncle Tiberio nodded. "I thank thee for thy speech, Mercutio," he said. "Benvolio, come thou home with me. The Prince has offered a course of action, which I will describe to thee at home."

Benvolio swallowed nervously. Uncle Tiberio was not nearly as angry as he had been earlier. That could only be a good sign. He dared not kiss Mercutio in front of Uncle Tiberio, but he gave Mercutio's hand a quick squeeze before he followed his uncle out of the palace.

Chapter Text

20. Sometimes By Action Dignified

Uncle Tiberio did not say a word to Benvolio until they were at home, seated once more in his study, with cups of strong wine in their hands. Benvolio burned with curiosity about the Prince's doom, but he knew that it would do no good to speak before Uncle Tiberio was ready. So he waited, as politely as he could, taking sips of wine that had no taste. Uncle Tiberio regarded him silently for a while, then laid the roll of paper on his desk. Benvolio could see that it was a contract of some sort, not yet signed.

"Well?" Uncle Tiberio asked after the silence had grown too heavy. "Dost thou not wish to know the decision concerning thy fate?"

Benvolio nodded. "Ay. I do. I knew not how best to ask."

Uncle Tiberio stared at the contract, but it did not seem to make much impression on him. "I have learned much about Verona's Prince today," he said quietly. "I know not which is the greater surprise, the information about him or the information about thee."

Benvolio kept his expression carefully neutral. If the information was the same as that which Mercutio had told him, there might yet be hope.

"We spoke of many things," Uncle Tiberio went on. "We spoke of thee, and of Mercutio. The Prince thinks highly of thee, and claims that thy affection has been to Mercutio's benefit. I must admit that I did not expect to hear such things."

"I am glad to hear it," Benvolio offered. "Nothing could be further from my desire than to cause Mercutio harm."

"What harm he has taken was not by thy hand, at least," Uncle Tiberio said, and Benvolio wondered briefly how much the Prince had told him. But Uncle Tiberio went on. "I suppose that thou couldst have done worse than to select the Prince's ward for thy . . . paramour," he said. "The Prince is more learned in the law than I, and has graciously offered a solution to our current problem."

He pushed the contract closer to Benvolio. Benvolio glanced at the opening paragraphs. "I see that County Paris is to marry Helena Pergolesi on Thursday," he said, smiling faintly.

"I take it that this news does not distress thee overmuch," Uncle Tiberio said, with a wry grimace.

Benvolio shook his head. "I am happy for them both. Helena deserves a lord who can give her all of his heart, and Paris should have a loving bride at last."

"There art thou so like my son, it is as though thou were his natural brother," Uncle Tiberio said. "Thou dost always consider the heart first. Well, I suppose there are worse fates. But think now about the greater implications of this match. The niece of Signior Capulet is to wed the nephew of the Prince. That will effect a powerful alliance between those two houses."

"That is why Juliet had been promised to him."

Uncle Tiberio looked mildly startled to hear Benvolio say that. "Well, so thou dost think of the larger world after all. That is good. Thou wilt then appreciate the magnitude of the favor that the Prince was willing to grant the house of Montague."

Benvolio leaned forward, waiting.

"Thou wilt go to dwell in his household on Friday," Uncle Tiberio said. "His clerk is aging, and thou canst train to replace him. It is a worthy position, after all. I had thought, once, to send thee to the university in Padua to qualify thee for such a profession, but now thou canst receive thy training as an apprentice instead. I shall grant thee a writ of emancipation and send thee to the palace. In return for thee, the Prince will grant the house of Montague an alliance similar to that which he will grant to the Capulets upon the marriage of Paris and Helena. Thou needst no longer dwell under my roof, and thou mayst treat with thy employer thyself regarding thy conduct with his ward."

Uncle Tiberio sat back in his chair, folded his hands, and looked expectantly at Benvolio. Benvolio blinked and tried to comprehend what he had just heard. For a moment, he could not breathe, and his body was numb with the shock. "I am taken by surprise," he admitted. "I know not what to say. My noble uncle, have I your leave to consider this news for a time?"

Uncle Tiberio frowned, then nodded. "Thou hast until the hour of six this evening," he said. "I must speak to thy aunt in any event, and perhaps this time to reflect on thy actions and the Prince's extraordinary mercy will do thee good. Return to me at six, and I will sign the deed."

He turned away from Benvolio and made a show of assembling the materials for the rest of his daily correspondence. Benvolio rose, made an awkward bow, and left the room. As soon as he had closed the door, he sent his page to carry messages to Romeo and to Mercutio to ask them to meet him in their favorite tavern.

Romeo arrived when Benvolio was halfway through his first cup of wine. "Sit thee down, cousin," Benvolio said. "Come, raise a cup with me. I intend to drink until I see two of all things."

"What is wrong?" Romeo asked. "All day, I have tried to find the cause of the disturbance in my father's house, but no answer have I had. Juliet is fretting, and when Juliet frets, her nurse becomes unbearable. All I have determined is that thou art at the center of this mess."

"There art thou halfway correct," Benvolio said. He drained his wine and poured another cup. "Mercutio shares my position at the eye of the storm."

It took a moment for Romeo to absorb Benvolio's meaning. "God's me, thou dost not mean – oh, gentle cousin, believe me, it was not I who betrayed thy trust!"

"I know. I do not blame thee. I am most at fault in this, I guess. It was I who entreated Mercutio to tarry a while with me beneath the arbor, and it was there that thy lady mother spied us." Benvolio's hand shook, and he raised his cup to his lips to steady himself.

Romeo sighed. "And she told my father. The tale becomes clear now."

"He would have killed me this morning, I think, had thy mother not been there. As it is, he has merely cast me out of his house."

"What?" Romeo's eyes bulged.

Benvolio summarized the terms of the contract that Uncle Tiberio had drawn up with the Prince. When he had finished, Romeo said nothing at first, but took an enormous swallow from his cup.

"So he will cast thee forth from thy family home, and receive in turn the Prince's favor and alliance and the money that he will not spend to send thee to university," Romeo said. "It is a clever bargain, that much is certain. He will not withhold thy inheritance from thy father?"

Benvolio had not even considered that aspect of the situation. "I hope not," he said. "If I am to be put out, I would prefer not to be penniless as well." He and Romeo both drank, and Romeo filled their cups again.

Mercutio joined them, his expression sober but remote, as if he had troubles of his own that he did not wish to share. Benvolio filled a cup of wine and pushed it across the table to him. "I am sorry," he said. "They have cast me at thy feet, whether I will or no."

Mercutio tried to smile. "Thou needst not fear for thy reception, at least. My uncle will keep thee in style, as he has kept us his nephews, and thou shalt want for nothing. If he does not see to that, I will, for I will not see thee made into a pauper for my sake."

"Dost thou know of this contract, then?" Romeo asked.

Mercutio nodded. "Ay. I wager that I know it better than either of you. Paris and I have both read it in its entirety. As for its basic provisions, it will give me great pleasure to take thee in, Benvolio. I do not resent that, and I welcome thy coming."

At that, Benvolio relaxed a little and reached across the table to squeeze Mercutio's hand in gratitude. Romeo, slightly more sober, frowned for a moment. "There is more that thou hast not told us, Mercutio. I can see it in thy eyes. Something there is about this contract that troubles thee."

"It might be nothing," Mercutio said. "Uncle is not the most imaginative writer in Verona. However, I could not help but notice that the language that he used to describe Benvolio's entrance into our household was almost identical to that describing Helena's marriage to Paris."

Not even several cups of wine could cushion the impact of that information. Benvolio raised his head and stared at Mercutio, who gazed back with a look of bleak resignation.

"I cannot be sure, but I suspect that my uncle has a plan that he will not tell me," Mercutio said. "He believes he is giving us a great gift." He pulled his hand free of Benvolio's, and wrapped both arms around his body. Tremors began to course through him.

Romeo glanced from his cousin to his friend. "Why can they not allow things to come in their own time?" he asked plaintively. "They would have counseled an interminable wait for Juliet and me, yet now they will push the two of you into such a hasty arrangement? There must be something we can do."

"Accept the contract," Mercutio said quietly. Romeo and Benvolio both stared at him. Mercutio briefly met Benvolio's eyes. "It is a gift, though perhaps not quite the way my uncle thinks it is. He is giving us an extraordinary chance to be together. Such a chance will not come again in our lifetimes. If thou dost desire me still, the contract is the only way, and it must be now." He glanced at his untouched cup, then pushed it away, rose from the table, and walked out of the tavern.

Benvolio and Romeo drank silently for a while after that. Benvolio escorted Romeo back to Juliet, then headed for Uncle Tiberio's study to witness the signing of the contract.

The marriage of County Paris and Helena Pergolesi was a grand affair, with music, dancing, and a great feast. Benvolio's arrival at the palace was accomplished with almost no ceremony at all. On Friday morning, Uncle Tiberio's servants packed Benvolio's possessions into trunks and sent them ahead. On Friday evening, Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna delivered their nephew to his new home. They walked silently through the streets accompanied by two servants bearing torches. Benvolio tried to remember that he was not, in fact, marching to his own execution, and that Mercutio would be waiting for him when they arrived.

The palace guards admitted them without a word, and servants bowed to them. Paris, with Helena on his arm, greeted them cordially.

"Welcome," he said. "Will you do us the favor of dining here this evening? Benvolio, thy things have arrived safely, and have been placed in Mercutio's chamber."

No one missed the implications of that. Aunt Susanna stifled a small gasp, and Uncle Tiberio set his jaw and stared straight ahead. Benvolio considered the idea, and realized, with some embarrassment, that it aroused him in spite of his nerves. He shifted his weight a little and tried to tug the front of his doublet a little lower. If Paris noticed, he did not say a word, but ushered them into a small but richly appointed dining chamber.

Mercutio and Valentine were waiting for them there, dressed in their finest clothes. Benvolio recognized Mercutio's deep blue velvet as the outfit he had worn to the feast at Capulet's house, where Romeo had first laid eyes on Juliet. The color complemented his hair and his eyes, and Benvolio could not help smiling at the sight. Mercutio tried to return the smile, though it came out as more of a grimace, and he bowed to Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna. Valentine moved forward and embraced Benvolio.

"Welcome," he said softly. "Mercutio would have said it, but he has not spoken for half an hour."

"I am sorry," Benvolio said. "I promised thee that I would not hurt him, yet it appears that fate is pushing me to do just that."

Valentine nodded. "I understand. Do not fear, I will not really kill thee for it. He trusts thee as he trusts none other, and I know that thou wilt not abuse that trust."

Valentine had no time to say any more, for the Prince entered and bade everyone sit down to dine. The food was rich and abundant, but it tasted like sawdust in Benvolio's mouth. The Prince made pleasant conversation with Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna, engaging them in discussions of faith and philosophy. Paris winked at Benvolio. "My noble uncle is a skilled statesman," he said.

Benvolio listened more carefully to the conversation, and almost let out a snort of nervous laughter. Escalus spoke of the Greeks, of Plato, and of David and Jonathan. Uncle Tiberio nodded, and allowed himself to be carried along in the discussion. He had not been so relaxed and animated in several days. Benvolio had to admire his new employer's skill.

He glanced at Mercutio, and his heart sank. Mercutio had eaten nothing, and had not even bothered to disguise that fact. He sat perfectly still, save only that his hands twisted around each other in his lap. He wore an expression of desperate courage and crushing fear. Benvolio was suddenly reminded of the wedding procession of Bianca Neri, which he had witnessed as a boy in the piazza. She had worn the same expression on her face.

When the last course had been consumed, the Prince and Uncle Tiberio made Mercutio and Benvolio kneel on the floor before them.

"We are here," Escalus said, "to cement a political alliance between our two families. Ordinarily, there would be vows made to a priest of the Holy Church, to solemnize such an alliance. Tonight, naturally, there can be no such holy vows. In their stead, I will require you both to make binding promises of alliance here, to your Prince and to your houses. I will expect you to honor these promises as obedient sons of Verona."

Escalus stated the promises, and Benvolio repeated them by rote, not quite comprehending what he said. Uncle Tiberio nodded to him, an acknowledgement of a difficult job well done. Then Mercutio repeated the same promises in a soft but clear voice that did not shake. Escalus and Uncle Tiberio shook hands, Uncle Tiberio returned the signed contract, and it was over.

Benvolio rose to his feet and bade his aunt and uncle farewell, not quite able to believe that he would not go home with them. Uncle Tiberio could not bring himself to look Benvolio in the eye, but Aunt Susanna embraced him. "Thou art still the little boy I raised as my own," she whispered. "There is naught that can change that." It was not much, but it warmed Benvolio's heart.

After Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna had left, the servants began to clear away the remains of the dinner. Paris and Helena made their excuses and left. Valentine embraced Mercutio fiercely, and Escalus drew Benvolio aside. He murmured a few enlightening pieces of information into Benvolio's ear and pressed a small jar into his hand, then clapped him on the shoulder and left, taking Valentine with him.

Mercutio raised beautiful, frightened eyes to Benvolio. "I am glad that thou art here," he murmured.

Benvolio's heart broke for his beloved friend, but he could feel the rest of his body rising to the occasion. "I love thee," he said. "This cannot change that."

Mercutio nodded, then glanced quickly away. "Come. I will show thee where they have placed thy trunks." He walked off, his head held high, and Benvolio followed him.

Chapter Text

21. Come, Loving, Black-Brow'd Night

Benvolio did not speak as he followed Mercutio up the stairs and through the corridors of the palace. He had never been upstairs, in the private family quarters, before, and it struck him that he was now, in a sense, part of the royal family. Mercutio did not speak or look at him. Benvolio ached to clasp his hand and reassure him, but he feared that Mercutio would either collapse or lash out and strike him.

They stopped in front of one particular door. Mercutio pushed it open, then leaned against the doorframe. "This is my chamber – thine as well, now. Thou wilt find thy trunks inside, and some of thy things unpacked, I think."

Benvolio started to enter the bedchamber, then stopped when he realized that Mercutio was not moving. "Wilt thou not come in as well?" he asked.

"Shortly. Go thou in and make thyself comfortable. I – I wish to say my prayers. I will join thee when I have finished."

Benvolio walked into the chamber, and Mercutio shut the door behind him. Momentarily alone, Benvolio looked around. Mercutio's bedchamber was of a good size, but sparsely decorated. There was a balcony that overlooked the garden. The dominant feature of the room was a large bed, hung with gauze drapes and made up with fat pillows and a thin quilt. There was a shelf above the bed, which held a variety of stones, feathers, and other interesting objects. A servant had located Benvolio's nightgown and laid it out on the bed. Benvolio's trunks occupied one corner of the room.

Slowly, Benvolio removed his hat, his shoes, and his doublet, laying them carefully over one of the trunks. Clad only in his shirt and hose, he sat down on the bed, and ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. He knew that Mercutio had not gone to pray, for Mercutio was not nearly that pious. Benvolio suspected that he was waiting just outside the door, not quite daring to enter his own bedchamber.

Benvolio looked at the small jar that Escalus had given him. It was short and squat, made of thick green glass. He opened it, and discovered a sweet-smelling unguent inside. Escalus had made the purpose of that unguent quite clear, and a hot blush spread over Benvolio's face. He put the jar on the shelf above the bed. Part of him wanted desperately to find Mercutio and waste no time putting that unguent to good use. He had dreamed of such a moment ever since he was thirteen years old, and this not insignificant part of him almost could not believe his incredible good fortune.

But his mind and his heart were not so sure. As much as he had fantasized about being in a bedchamber, with Mercutio lying pliant and willing in his arms, he knew that such a dream could have no basis in reality. However firm Mercutio's affections for him might be, he was still painfully chary of all but the gentlest physical expression of that affection. Giacomo Rinuccini had done that to him, and Benvolio hoped with all his heart that there was a special place prepared for that man in the hottest part of Hell. Meanwhile, Benvolio was left to sit on Mercutio's bed, achingly stiff with desire, but consumed with doubts about what he had been granted an extraordinary license to do.

A soft noise at the door brought Benvolio out of his thoughts. Mercutio had reached his own decision, and now stood just inside the bedchamber, looking at Benvolio. There was no expression on his face, but Benvolio could see the stiffness of his posture and could easily guess at how tense he must be. Benvolio's mouth went dry, and he could not help feeling another jolt of arousal now that Mercutio was within his sight.

Mercutio slowly removed his shoes, then came to stand before Benvolio. With trembling fingers, he worked at the laces of his doublet until he had undone them all, and the doublet hung open. As it did, Mercutio's stoic façade crumbled, and Benvolio saw naked terror creep across his face as he removed the doublet and dropped it on the floor. Benvolio's heart broke to see Mercutio so desperately frightened of him, and his arousal shriveled away. Mercutio's breath hitched, and he summoned the courage to pull off his shirt. Openly shaking, he reached for the strings that fastened his hose.

Benvolio could no longer bear the horror of the moment, and he reached out and took Mercutio's hands. "Mercutio, stop," he murmured. Mercutio made a small, unintelligible noise, and tried to pull his hands free. Benvolio gripped them tighter. "No, caro," he said. "Do not do this. I cannot bear to see thee in such misery."

"I know what I must do," Mercutio said, almost in tears. "For thee, sweet Benvolio, I will. I am prepared to give myself to thee."

"Caro, thou art no more prepared to do this than I am the queen of Persia. I have no desire to ravish anyone as unhappy as thou art."

"I am sorry," Mercutio said. "I have displeased thee."

Benvolio shook his head. "Thou hast not. Dost thou truly think that I would want to lie with thee in such sorrow? I love thee, caro, and I would prefer to discover the fruits of that love in joy rather than fear."

Mercutio started to sink to his knees, but Benvolio caught him and helped him sit down on the bed. "All my wits are in disarray," Mercutio said. "I cannot think. What shall we do now?"

Benvolio rummaged through a clothes chest until he found Mercutio's nightgown. "Put this on," he said. "Thou art distraught, I know thou didst eat nothing at dinner, and I am certain that thou art exhausted, from fear, if nothing else. Tonight, we will sleep. In the morning, after we have slept a little, we may resume this discussion."

Mercutio struggled into his nightgown and wriggled out of his hose. Benvolio turned his back to change into his own nightclothes. When he turned back, Mercutio seemed somewhat more alert, sitting on the end of the bed with his knees drawn up to his chest.

"Does thy bed have a truckle?" Benvolio asked. "If it does not, give me a pillow, and I will sleep on the floor."

Mercutio managed a laugh. "That is a foolish idea," he said. "The floor is cold and hard, and thou dost not deserve that. I said that thou wouldst dwell here in comfort, and I meant that. It is too late to find thee another bed for the evening, and I will not have thee on the floor, so thou wilt share my bed. It is large enough, I think."

"For this trust, many thanks," Benvolio said. "I swear that I will lay no untoward hand upon thee tonight, caro."

Mercutio crawled beneath the quilt, and Benvolio joined him a moment later, being careful to keep an open space between them. Very slowly, Mercutio began to relax, and Benvolio reached out to snuff the candles. In the darkness, he listened as Mercutio's breathing slowed. Just before he fell asleep, Mercutio reached over and placed his hand in Benvolio's. Warmed by this gesture of trust, Benvolio caressed the knuckles with his thumb before sleep claimed him as well.

For the most part, Benvolio slept peacefully. Shortly after midnight, he woke to hear Mercutio squirming and moaning in agitation. Benvolio grasped one flailing hand and held it tightly. "Sleep, Mercutio," he murmured. "It is not real. It is naught but a dream, caro, and it cannot harm thee."

Gradually, Mercutio grew quiet, not having woken fully. Benvolio fell asleep again almost instantly, still holding his hand.

They woke in the cold gray light just before dawn. For a moment, Benvolio could not remember where he was, or how he had come to be sleeping in a strange bed. Then he turned over and saw Mercutio curled on a pillow next to him, blinking sleepily, and he remembered everything. He remembered the tense feast, the promises, his aunt and uncle leaving him, and the dreadful conversation that had followed.

He could see that Mercutio remembered as well, for he frowned a little and buried his face in his pillow. But after a moment, he looked up and smiled at Benvolio. "Good morrow," he said softly. Then he held his arm out in invitation.

Benvolio swallowed. His blood sang with promise, and he was suddenly aware that he was hard. "Art thou sure?" he whispered.

Mercutio nodded. "Ay. Thou hast been most kind to me, and I am grateful for this night of peace. But now it is time for me to give thee what I promised, and I am willing."

Benvolio moved closer, and took Mercutio in his arms. Very gently, he ran his hand through Mercutio's hair and kissed him. "Last night, I made promises to my Prince and to our houses," he said. "Now, I will make a promise to thee. I love thee, whether or not thou canst understand that. I will never knowingly hurt thee or cause thee to come to harm. Whatever happens, remember that I love thee with all my heart."

Mercutio smiled and nodded, then rolled onto his back. Benvolio, lying half on top of him, pulled off his nightgown, which had suddenly grown constricting. Then, slowly, with many soft, soothing words and gentle caresses, he eased Mercutio out of his nightgown as well. Mercutio shivered, and Benvolio reached back to pull the quilt a little higher, then wrapped his arms around Mercutio's bony frame to warm him. When Mercutio's tremors subsided, Benvolio reached up to the shelf for the jar of unguent he had placed there the night before.

Mercutio's eyes widened when he saw it, his breath hitched, and his body stiffened again. "Please," he said. "Please, not inside my body."

Benvolio dropped the jar on the bed and embraced Mercutio again. "Never, if it causes thee distress."

"My father would do that to me, he did it the last time I saw him," Mercutio said. "I still bear the scars."

"I am not thy father,caro. I promised that I would not hurt thee, and I will honor that promise."

Mercutio clung to Benvolio for a moment longer. Then he lay back and nodded his permission, his blue eyes now dark with desire. Benvolio leaned over him and began his introduction to the joys engendered from the coupling of two loving bodies. The old fire, familiar from many nights in the company of his own hand, built in Benvolio's belly. He and Mercutio writhed and thrust against each other, their bodies growing slick with mingled sweat, unguent, and other fluids, and their breath coming in small gasps. Then Benvolio cried out as his entire body tightened in a glorious spasm, and he remembered again exactly why the French called it the "little death."

He was amazed, when the sensation faded, to discover that he had, in fact, lived through it. Nothing he had done with his hand and his imagination could quite equal the sensation of being with the youth he loved more than anything else in the world. Still shaking a little, he kissed Mercutio's open, panting lips, then slid off of him and tried to recover his own breath. His muscles were loose and thrummed as if he were drunk, and he was aware that there was a silly grin on his face, but he did not care. If the reality had not quite matched his expectations, it had still been an overwhelmingly joyous experience.

For his part, Mercutio lay on his back, stunned and silent for a few moments. Then he reached up to the shelf and fumbled until he found a scrap of blue cloth. With gentle hands, he used it to wipe their bodies clean, then folded the stained cloth and pushed it under one of the pillows. Then, to Benvolio's shock, he curled up on his pillow and began to cry.

All of Benvolio's warm satisfaction drained away, and cold horror knotted in his stomach. Nothing he had heard or read had prepared him to lie naked in a still-unfamiliar bed and watch his new-made lover weeping. For a moment, he wanted desperately to be somewhere, anywhere else, but there was nowhere to go. He did not yet know his way around the upper floors of the palace, he did not know who he might encounter in the corridors, and he certainly could not flee the building entirely. And, he realized, even if he could have gone somewhere, he could not leave Mercutio alone and miserable.

Guilt flowered in Benvolio's heart, accompanied by an almost overwhelming sense of remorse and self-loathing. He should have known better. No matter how ready and willing Mercutio had claimed to be, Benvolio should not have touched him, not after he had almost broken down just the night before. Mercutio was adept at using words to conceal his true thoughts and feelings, and had likely offered himself simply to please Benvolio. Two days earlier, Mercutio would have pulled away from him after a single kiss. What, Benvolio wondered, had made him think that a furtive, improvised ceremony would have changed that? Mercutio still bore the scars from his father's abuse on his heart as well as his body. In a single fit of passion, Benvolio had torn those inner wounds open again. He hated himself for it, and knew that Mercutio would be well within his rights to hate him as well.

Something pressed against his shoulder. Benvolio swallowed back tears of his own and saw that Mercutio's hand was fluttering blindly near him. He was astonished to realize that Mercutio appeared to be seeking comfort from the very person who had hurt him in the first place. Benvolio almost pulled away, then thought better of it. He had already broken the promise he had made less than an hour ago, and he would not compound the error by refusing to give the comfort asked of him, however foolishly.

He took the searching hand in his own, and was surprised at how firmly Mercutio returned the grip. As gently as he knew how, Benvolio slid his arm beneath Mercutio's body and held him close. Mercutio laid his head on Benvolio's chest, and after a while, his tears stopped. Benvolio used a corner of the sheet to mop his face.

"I am sorry," he said. "I fear that I have hurt thee, in spite of my promise. Believe me, Mercutio, I never intended this to happen to thee."

"Then thou didst not break thy promise," Mercutio said. "Dost thou not recall thy own words? Thou didst promise never to hurt me knowingly, and thou hast not done so."

In spite of himself, Benvolio laughed a little. "Thou art a marvel! Of course thou dost remember every word. How could I expect otherwise?"

"It was a promise. That is important." Mercutio sighed, and clutched Benvolio's hand a little tighter. "Now thou hast had me. Dost thou feel differently now?"

Benvolio almost made a quick reply, then thought better of it. After a moment's consideration, he nodded. "I do. I have seen the most fragile portion of thy heart, and thou didst offer it to me with such courage and tenderness that I am near overcome. After such a gift, I can do naught but cherish thee. I would keep thee from all harm, caro, even my own."

Mercutio did not make an immediate reply to that. "I can feel thy heart beating," he said after a while.

"For thee."

"Thou art as romantic as thy cousin." Mercutio's eyes held a little of their old mischievous glint. "I hope that I did not invite the wrong Montague into my bed."

Benvolio smiled. "Thou didst invite the one who loves thee more than his own life, the one who weeps to see thee hurt."

"Well, do not weep overmuch," Mercutio said. "I have been hurt before, and I know what that is like. I do not think I am hurt now, exactly. I feel – I feel - I do not know what I feel. I am frightened, and happy, and overcome. Wilt thou stay with me a little?"

"Of course. Where else should I be than by thy side?"

Mercutio shivered, and Benvolio guessed that it was more than just a chill of the body. But he searched around the tangled bedclothes until he found Mercutio's nightgown, knowing that Mercutio would be happier clothed. Mercutio pulled the gown over his head and curled up again at Benvolio's side, and Benvolio drew the quilt over them both.

"I do not think anyone will come looking for us for a while, caro," he said. "Let us enjoy the morning together."

Mercutio nodded, and they did not speak after that. Benvolio watched the dawn slowly brighten the bedchamber, and idly stroked Mercutio's hair. After a while, Mercutio drifted off into a light sleep. Benvolio held him, and offered a silent prayer of thanks for the treasure that was still in his arms.

Chapter Text

22. Through Lovers' Brains

As Benvolio had guessed, no one made any serious demands of them on that first day. After they rose and dressed themselves, Mercutio helped Benvolio unpack his trunks. Benvolio spread a runner that Aunt Susanna had embroidered for him over the clothes chest. He thought of how it had looked in his old chamber at home, and a lump swelled in his throat. Some small noise must have escaped, for Mercutio came to him and awkwardly put an arm around his shoulders.

"I am sorry that thy uncle did deal so harshly with thee," he said. "I cannot believe that he cast thee out so suddenly. He always seemed to dote upon thee as much as he did with Romeo."

"It is difficult," Benvolio admitted, leaning into Mercutio's embrace. "A week ago, I was as a son to him. Now I am little more than a stranger."

"Perhaps there is still hope," Mercutio offered. "Thy uncle surely cannot forget all his care of thee in a week. Perhaps, after a time, thou and he might reconcile."

"I hope thou speakest true," Benvolio said. He slid his arm around Mercutio's waist and laid his head on his shoulder. "But whatever fortune awaits, still I have thee, and that is a great comfort to me."

"I hope I may prove worthy of thy speech." There was a noise at the door, and Mercutio looked up. "How now, Valentine?" he said. "Did I not teach thee to knock?"

Benvolio turned around and saw Valentine lounging in the doorway. Valentine attempted a knowing smirk, but it turned into a genuine smile on his face.

"I came merely to say that there is food on the table, should either of you care to partake," he said. "Unless you have filled yourselves with the food of love instead."

Mercutio strode over to his brother and knuckled his head affectionately. "Thou art an impudent boy. Must I place a chair before the door?"

Valentine rolled his eyes. "Thou hast not done that since first we came to dwell here."

"Well, perhaps I must do it again," Mercutio said, laughing for the first time since Benvolio had arrived at the palace.

"There will be no need for that," Valentine replied. "I shall not call thee to dinner every day. I came here today to ensure that thou art well, and to greet Benvolio." He moved to embrace Benvolio much more firmly than he had the night before at the feast. "How dost thou fare?"

Benvolio smiled. "Well, I think. It is disquieting to be sent away from one's family so abruptly, but Mercutio thinks that we may yet be reconciled."

"Even if thou art not, thou hast found a family here," Valentine said, "though it be a poor, fragmented thing assembled from cast-aside scraps and orphans. I shall be glad to call thee brother, in my heart if not in the law."

Over the course of the next few days, as he shadowed the Prince's secretary to learn his new tasks, Benvolio had ample opportunity to observe the family he had joined. He found much that he had not expected, that was concealed from the rest of Verona. The first observation he made was that Mercutio had told the truth about the Prince's tendencies. Sometimes Benvolio heard strange, heavy footsteps echoing in the corridors at night, and he would encounter an unfamiliar man the next morning, in the hours before the Prince received petitioners. Often, Escalus would be with the stranger, and Benvolio found that he could interpret the glances they shared quite well.

As Mercutio had promised, the Prince kept his nephews in comfort and style, but did not pay much attention to them otherwise. Paris, as the heir, received more notice than his cousins, but even that was confined primarily to business matters. As for Mercutio and Valentine, when they were not with tutors, they were left to their own devices. As a boy, Benvolio remembered, he had been a little bit jealous of Mercutio's freedom to do what he pleased. Now, as a young man, he recognized the neglect for what it was, and marveled that Mercutio possessed any capacity for affection at all.

Paris had done what he could with his cousins, but he was only five years older than Mercutio, and had never been able to display anything resembling parental authority. Between Signior Rinuccini's mistreatment and Escalus's silence, the task of caring for Valentine had fallen to Mercutio. Benvolio now had access to the Prince's financial accounts and those of Verona itself, and he marveled that, in such a wealthy city, two sons of a noble house could have been left to raise themselves on the streets.

While Benvolio learned the art of assisting in the governance of Verona, Mercutio and Valentine continued their lessons with tutors, attempting to patch the holes in their fragmented educations. Valentine was quick to soak up history, poetry, rhetoric, and philosophy. Mercutio, though he retained his old skills at mathematics, did not learn at nearly his brother's pace. It was not for lack of trying, since Benvolio often found him poring over a book long after the tutor had departed for the day.

"I cannot concentrate on books," Mercutio said. "Once I could do that. I remember that I used to read quite long passages in the Bible when I was small. But that skill is lost to me now."

"Perhaps thou canst yet regain it," Benvolio replied. "Would it help thee if we read a book together on occasion?"

The suggestion proved more profitable than Benvolio had anticipated. He had often read books with Mercutio during what he thought of as their courtship, and Mercutio appreciated the revival of a pleasantly remembered activity. The evenings spent sitting close together on the same bench, or sprawled over the bed not only improved Mercutio's concentration, but also helped him acclimate to longer stretches of close physical contact.

After their nervous and awkward first encounter on the morning after Benvolio's arrival, Benvolio had hardly dared to lay a desiring hand on Mercutio again, and had reverted to his old pattern of gentle kisses and caresses. But as he grew accustomed to being held, Mercutio responded more eagerly to loving touches. After a while, he allowed himself to fall asleep at night in Benvolio's arms. Slowly, they began to explore each other's bodies and learn the arts of physical intimacy in earnest.

Soon, it was the middle of July again. Once more, the summer heat settled over Verona, but Benvolio marveled at the differences between this summer and the summer before. Capulets and Montagues still did not often speak to each other in the streets, for old habits were not easily broken, but there had been no heated confrontations, and the air was blessedly free of that wariness and tension. Signior Capulet once again opened his house for his old accustomed feast, but this year, both Romeo and Benvolio received proper invitations.

Valentine and his friend Proteus planned to attend the feast in masks, but the rest of the royal household did not. Benvolio wished that he could sweep in grandly with Mercutio on his arm, as Paris did with Helena, but he contented himself with greeting Signior Capulet bare-faced, as he had not been able to do the previous year. Capulet's skills as a host had not diminished, and the hall was as lively as Benvolio remembered it. Mercutio's eyes sparkled, and he immediately rushed off to join the dancing.

After a moment, Benvolio spied Romeo, and made his way through the crowd to talk to his cousin. Juliet, in her seventh month of pregnancy, had grown too large to dance comfortably, and had settled herself among a group of her friends. Romeo hovered at his wife's side, not quite willing to spend the evening dancing without her. Benvolio bowed politely to the young ladies, and embraced Romeo.

"Last year, thou didst play beggar at the door. Now, thou art a son of the household," he said, grinning. "Is that not a wonder?"

Romeo laughed. "Ay, one such as I feared would never come, yet dreamed of nevertheless."

"Wilt thou not dance? Or has thy newfound flock captivated thee?"

Romeo glanced at the group of young ladies surrounding Juliet, listening with rapt interest to a story she was telling in a hushed, animated manner. He rolled his eyes and gave Benvolio a wry smile. "Half of them are betrothed now, and the other half will be so before the year is out. Juliet, to them, is the voice of Lady Wisdom herself, and they hang on her every word concerning marriage and the course of this pregnancy."

Benvolio nodded, in a show of understanding. "Let us hope thy lady has naught but flattering words to say about thee. But come, this is women's talk, and they have no need of thee at the moment. There is nothing to stop thee from dancing." He propelled Romeo out onto the dance floor just in time for a sprightly branle.

Later, during a galliard, Benvolio found himself on the sidelines, a drink in hand, talking easily with Helena. He was amused at how easy it was to talk to her now that she was married to Paris and he shared Mercutio's bed. "Are thy feet weary already?" she asked.

Benvolio smiled and shook his head. "I was never very good at the galliard," he said. "But Mercutio excels at it, and I enjoy watching him dance."

"Then thou hast no care for the lady he is currently squiring around the floor?"

"Why should I care?" Benvolio laughed. "She will not be the one in bed with him after the feast is over."

Helena giggled, and swatted Benvolio lightly on the arm. "Thou art generous indeed. I think that is why I loved thee, once."

This was news to Benvolio. He took a swallow of wine to cover his surprise and regain his wits before he replied. "Didst thou truly love me?"

"Ay, for a while. I dared not speak of it, for thou art a Montague, and I am niece to the Capulets. I had heard that thou didst have some interest in me, though that cannot have been more than a rumor."

"It was and it was not." Benvolio pressed his lips together, not quite sure how to explain to Helena how he had used her name. "I tried to love thee, more than I had ever tried to love a woman before. But my heart was not in that game. I am sorry if I raised thy hopes overmuch. I would never wish to shame thee."

"No shame," Helena said. "Though I am flattered by the attention, I am glad to have a lord who loves me for what I am. And," she added softly, so that only Benvolio could hear it, "I am glad that Mercutio has the same." With that, she kissed Benvolio lightly on the cheek and went in search of Paris.

Romeo invited his friends to a feast of his own a fortnight later to celebrate Juliet's fifteenth birthday. The group of youths who had spent their days together in the square was slowly dissipating, as marriage or new responsibilities claimed them. Vincenzo was betrothed, and Pietro had begun to contemplate the priesthood. Salvatore did not attend Romeo's feast. He had disowned his former friends upon learning the true reason that Benvolio had accepted an apprenticeship in the palace. Romeo had declared that he was not sorry to see Salvatore go, that he had never cared much for him, and that he would support his cousin over the son of his father's client, but the issue still rankled in Benvolio's heart.

Juliet, a little rounder and a little pinker in the cheeks, accepted her birthday guests as graciously as ever. She made pleasant conversation, sharing bits of news that she had received from her nurse, and showed off a new bracelet on her wrist.

"Tybalt gave it to me," she explained. "He said it was in part a birthday gift, and in part in earnest of the child to be, for he will not be here when it is born."

"Why, where has he gone?" Mercutio asked.

"He left for Padua this morning," Juliet said. "Father has sent him to the university there to study law."

Mercutio laughed. "That is the very thing! Tybalt was always quarrelsome, and now he will have a respectable forum where he can quarrel for the rest of his days and grow wealthy from it as well."

Benvolio laughed along with the rest, but that night, he lay awake, brooding.

"There is something weighing on thy mind," Mercutio said. "What troubles thee?"

"It is naught of great importance," Benvolio replied. "Go to sleep, and do not worry about me."

"It is Tybalt, is it not? He will have the university education that thy uncle denied thee."

Benvolio sighed. There were times when Mercutio could read him all too well. "Ay. It would be a lie if I said that I did not envy him. He was an indifferent scholar, and it does not seem just that he should be the one to go to university."

Mercutio nodded in the gloom. "I am sorry," he said. "Thou didst not ask to come here."

"It is not thy fault. If anything, the fault is mine for kissing thee with no thought for our safety. But I suppose I have not lost much. Had I gone to university, I would have studied in hopes of obtaining a position similar to the one for which I train now. And I have thee as well,caro, and that is a considerable benefit."

As Benvolio had hoped, Mercutio recognized his cue and moved into his arms with a kiss. Benvolio embraced him tightly, then held him as he drifted back to sleep. He himself remained awake for a while longer, holding his lover close. "It should truly have been thee going to university," he whispered, but Mercutio did not wake.

On the seventeenth of September, Balthasar rushed to the palace, bearing an urgent message. Juliet had been delivered of a healthy son, whom Romeo had named Marcello. The news that there was a child born to the formerly feuding houses spread quickly around the city, and there was much rejoicing, as the citizens now truly believed that the feud had ended. Marcello was christened at St. Peter's church on the Sunday after his birth, with Friar Lawrence conducting the ceremony. Juliet's cousin Rosaline stood as godmother, one of her last public acts before she was to join a holy sisterhood. Benvolio stood proudly as godfather, but Mercutio had politely declined to share the honor, out of deference to Uncle Tiberio.

"Thou shalt have the honor when our next child is born," Romeo told him. "Thou hast always been dear to me, and thou art no less Marcello's uncle than Benvolio is."

So it was that, on the christening day, Benvolio held his cousin's infant son in his arms as Friar Lawrence carefully poured the holy water over his brow. The baby fussed a little, but quieted when Romeo reclaimed him. Benvolio vowed solemnly to help bring up the little boy in grace, and promised to care for him in the event that he was orphaned.

As he spoke, he noticed Uncle Tiberio looking at him. When he had made his final promise, Uncle Tiberio smiled, and gave him an almost imperceptible nod. It was not much, but Benvolio knew now that the door between himself and his family was not completely closed.

Chapter Text

23. For Such A Feeling Loss

Autumn faded into winter, and Benvolio's life settled into a comfortable rhythm. Vincenzo married a young lady named Elizabetta on St. Stephen's Day, and Rosaline, the former object of Romeo's affection, took her vows at a nearby convent on New Year's Day. Romeo, at Juliet's suggestion, decided to grow a mustache. To his great dismay, it came in red, and he shaved it off again quickly. Benvolio realized with no small amount of surprise that he and his friends were growing up and taking their places in adult society at last. His mentor, Escalus's old secretary, claimed that he looked forward to the day when he could retire and live out his last days in peace with his wife. His eyes were failing rapidly, and Benvolio handled more and more of his work.

Mercutio's schoolwork improved considerably, and his astonished tutor reported that Signior Rinuccini's elder son, whom he had long thought to be slow, was in fact quite bright. Benvolio carefully kept a straight face upon hearing that, although he could have told the tutor as much several years earlier. Escalus received the news without much comment, but nodded to Benvolio as he left the room.

Benvolio was also pleased to see that Mercutio's wounded heart was beginning to heal, though not as quickly as his mind. Benvolio's patience and forbearance had begun to show rewards, as Mercutio gradually pushed beyond memories of helpless pain and terror and began to discover that night's activity could be a pleasurable sport. He was not always of a mind to accept Benvolio's advances, and sometimes he still squirmed away from even a friendly touch. However, there were times when, in a playful mood, Mercutio became almost wanton, and those nights shone brightly in Benvolio's heart.

Even now, Mercutio spoke no word of love, but Benvolio did not mind. Mercutio told him long, absorbing stories of fairies and demons, embraced him and kissed him when he grew lonely, played chess with him, or lay warm and relaxed in Benvolio's arms as the two youths talked about everything and nothing. For all his dexterity with words, Mercutio could not yet connect the proper name to these acts of affection. Benvolio did not press the issue. He read the intent in Mercutio's actions and, as in the larger matter of their contracted match, was perfectly content to have the substance even without the title.

Two days after Ascension Day, Benvolio was helping the secretary review the Prince's correspondence when a page announced that a messenger had arrived at the palace. The secretary went to alert the Prince, while Benvolio escorted the messenger to the reception hall. He thought no more of the matter and returned to his work. But it was not long before the door to the reception hall opened, and the page hurried out.

"Find Mercutio and Valentine," Escalus called after him. "Bring them here at once, whatever they may be doing."

Mercutio and Valentine appeared in short order, and Escalus called Benvolio into the reception hall with them. "Come," he said. "Thou shouldst also be present when this news is spoken."

The messenger seemed apprehensive, and his manner alarmed Benvolio. Valentine seemed puzzled, and Mercutio looked suspicious. Escalus, wearing an expression of regal neutrality, gestured at the messenger. "This man has come from Mantua," he said. "He bears tidings of great interest to our house."

The messenger bowed, then licked his lips nervously. "I am commanded to speak to the sons of Signior Giacomo Rinuccini, formerly resident in Verona," he said.

"I am his firstborn son," Mercutio said, "and this is Valentine, my brother."

The messenger glanced at Benvolio, but did not ask for his name. Instead, he removed his cap and bowed his head. "It is my sad duty to bear this most untimely news. Signior Rinuccini is dead this past evening, of a brief sickness brought about by a dinner of spoiled fish."

Valentine gasped. Mercutio stood frozen, all the color suddenly gone from his face. Benvolio laid a gentle hand on his arm, but he twisted away without seeming to notice. The messenger stared at them, not sure what to make of their reaction.

"Do you speak the truth?" Valentine choked out. "Is our father truly dead?"

"Ay. His last wish was that his body be returned to Verona to be buried in the ancient monument of his house." The messenger glanced at Escalus. "I trust that is acceptable?"

Escalus gave a brief nod. "We will prepare the funeral rites. Go now and take some refreshment."

The messenger bowed, and left the reception hall. For a long moment, no one spoke. Then Mercutio turned on his heel and strode out of the hall. Benvolio hurried to the door, just in time to see Mercutio break into a run and sprint towards the palace entrance. He would have followed, but Escalus restrained him with a hand on his shoulder.

"Let him go. He will return."

Benvolio shook his head. "He is distraught. I fear that he may injure himself unwittingly."

Escalus considered that statement, then nodded. "I shall instruct one of my guard to follow him at a discreet distance and see that he returns safely. In the meantime, we must plan for the funeral. I would have it dignified, as befits a man of Rinuccini's rank, but not elaborate. No grand ceremony will I hold for the man who turned my sister's existence into hell and who treated his own son as a common whore."

Mercutio did not return that evening. Benvolio worried, but there was nothing he could do. Escalus assured him that a guard had been assigned to trail Mercutio's every move. Beyond that, all they could do was wait. No one ate much at dinner, and Benvolio climbed into a cold, lonely bed. He had barely drifted off when a knock at the door woke him. He guessed that Mercutio had returned, and wondered why Mercutio felt the need to knock on the door. "Come in," he called. "I have not barred the door against thee."

The door opened, and, to Benvolio's surprise, Valentine edged into the chamber. "I cannot sleep," he said. "Whenever I close my eyes, I am assaulted by the most terrible dreams." Muzzy, tousled, and frightened, Valentine bore no resemblance to the confident youth of fifteen whose striking good looks already caused female heads to turn in Verona.

Benvolio sat up and pulled the quilt aside. "Thou canst stay here with me if thou wilt," he said. "I am not thy brother, but perhaps I can offer thee a little comfort."

Valentine needed no second invitation, and climbed under the covers. Benvolio pulled the quilt back over both of them and lay down. Valentine shivered, and burrowed his face into Mercutio's pillow. After a moment, he turned to Benvolio.

"I shared a bed with my brother when we still lived in Father's house," he said. "Mercutio tried to comfort me, but I was always terrified. I dreaded the moment when Father would come in at night and take Mercutio away. I always feared that Father would come for me one day, but he never did. I only learned later how Mercutio arranged that, the sacrifices he made for my safety. I cannot believe Father is really dead, Benvolio. In my dreams, he stood over me with his hand raised to strike me."

"He is dead," Benvolio said, his voice sounding thin and hollow in the darkness. "He will be buried tomorrow, and thou wilt see him shut in the tomb. He will never emerge from that place."

Valentine nodded. After a while, he relaxed enough to fall asleep. Benvolio adjusted the quilt, then closed his eyes and indulged himself in a moment of pure hatred for the man whose funeral he had helped to plan. Giacomo Rinuccini's body might be dead, but his spirit and his memory had lost none of their power to terrify the two sons he had abused.

Mercutio returned to the palace in the gray hours of the morning. He said nothing of where he had been or what he had done, but changed into attire suitable for a funeral. The cortege from Mantua arrived just before midday. Servants transferred Rinuccini's shrunken, shrouded body onto the bier prepared for it, and the small procession set out for the cemetery. Friar Lawrence offered a brief prayer, and choirboys sang. Through it all, Mercutio stood stiff and withdrawn, seemingly oblivious to Benvolio's hand on his shoulder and Valentine weeping at his side.

Some of Rinuccini's former associates attended the funeral, and after the body was interred, they attempted to greet Mercutio, calling him by his father's title. Mercutio's eyes flashed dangerously, and Paris stepped in to draw the men away from his cousin. "Mercutio must return to the bosom of his family now," he said smoothly.

"Of course," one of the businessmen said. "A good son must have time to mourn his father's passing. The sons are so young still – twenty and . . . fourteen, perhaps?"

"Fifteen," Paris said.

"Of course. So young. Ah, well, 'tis a sad day indeed to bid farewell to a most honored associate." The man bowed. Mercutio shut his eyes.

"I will tarry no longer in this place, this temple of the past," he said.

Escalus nodded, and Paris and Benvolio escorted the dead man's sons home.

Even in the relative safety and comfort of the palace, Mercutio's behavior continued to deteriorate. Escalus called him into his study to go over the titles and property that Mercutio and Valentine were to inherit. Benvolio laid the files on the desk, but Mercutio refused to look at them.

"Take them away," he said. "Valentine may have it all, if he desires it. I have no wish for anything that was my father's."

Escalus sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "That is not so easily done, Mercutio. Thy father had a house, land, and investments here in Verona, and it appears that he has built a second fortune in Mantua. His property in Verona is willed to thee and Valentine in shares proper to your rank, but he has left behind no testament concerning his business and other holdings in Mantua. The law of Mantua confers these upon thee, and I cannot change that on a whim. If thou dost truly wish to refuse thy inheritance, thou must consult a lawyer and create formal documents to that effect."

"Call a lawyer, then," Mercutio said. "My father pricked me almost unto death for his amusement, and I will have no part of anything that was his."

"I will call no lawyer," Escalus retorted. "It is true that thy father is dead, and his legal power over thee is no more. But I am thy Prince as well as thy uncle, and it is within my power to declare thee still in need of guardianship. I will not hesitate to assume that power if I see the need." His expression softened a little. "Mercutio, thou art still in a passion, and thy thoughts are not yet rational. I will put thy inheritance in trust for a while. Later, when thy head is cooler, thou mayst think better of how thou dost wish to dispose of it."

Mercutio nodded stiffly, and wandered away.

Once again, Mercutio did not appear at the table for dinner. Escalus did not summon him, saying that he had no wish to start a battle he could not win. Dinner was a silent affair, and Benvolio was only too happy to escape to a private sitting room afterwards, where he could enjoy a book in peace for a while. Eventually, he grew weary and went to the bedchamber.

Mercutio lay fully clothed on the bed, staring at the ceiling. He flinched away when Benvolio moved too close. Benvolio sighed. "Don thy nightclothes, at least," he said. "Thou wilt be more comfortable."

Mercutio took his nightgown into a side chamber to change, though he had not done that for several weeks. Benvolio changed into his own nightclothes and climbed into bed. Weary as he was, he could not fall asleep until Mercutio returned. He opened the covers in silent invitation, and was distressed but not surprised when Mercutio curled up tightly in the farthest corner of the bed. At least Benvolio knew where he was and that he was safe. That would have to do.

Several hours later, a blood-chilling scream shattered Benvolio's sleep. Mercutio struggled free of the bedclothes and raced for the balcony as if a demon out of hell were chasing him. Benvolio followed, and his stomach clenched as Mercutio climbed onto the balcony's rail. The balcony was just high enough that a fall from it would cripple Mercutio for life if it did not kill him outright. Mercutio did not seem to care about the danger, or even notice where he was.

"Mercutio, stop!" Benvolio cried. "Whatever is chasing thee is not real. It is a dream, caro, nothing more. Come back to bed."

Benvolio moved closer, trying not to startle Mercutio, but ready to pull him back bodily if need be. Mercutio stopped moving, and looked around, as if he had only just woken fully from his nightmare. Benvolio held out his arms.

"Please, caro, come inside. I would have thee safe in thy chamber. No one will harm thee there, I swear it on my life."

Mercutio did not flinch or fall, but neither did he return to Benvolio. Benvolio swallowed back a wave of terror and tried to appear calm and welcoming.

"I cannot bear the thought of losing thee, not to the terrors of thy father's ghost. Thou hast fought him courageously all thy life. Wilt thou surrender now that he is dead?" Benvolio's voice cracked, and he drew a ragged breath to steady himself. "Please, caro Mercutio, please do not leave me alone. I would die without thee."

Slowly, Mercutio climbed off the balcony rail. He stared at Benvolio for a moment, then took a step toward him, and another. He was almost inside when he doubled over, moaning. Benvolio rushed to his side and helped him back into the bedchamber. Mercutio collapsed on the floor, his cries growing stronger. Benvolio dropped to his knees and held Mercutio firmly in his arms.

"Cry, caro," he said. "I know that thou hast tears inside that must come out, or they will poison thee. Weep and scream if thou must – thou mayst scream into my shoulder, and no one will hear. Let thy grief out, caro mio, before it destroys thee."

Mercutio struggled for a moment, then went limp in Benvolio's arms. His eyes filled with tears, and he began to wail. Benvolio cradled Mercutio's head close to his shoulder and held him tightly as he convulsed.

Mercutio wept until he was sick, gagging over the chamber pot, but nothing came up save bile. Benvolio held Mercutio's shoulders as he retched, then clasped him in his arms once more, praying that they would both live through this terrible night. Mercutio screamed and wept and choked until he had no more tears left. With the last of his energy, Benvolio maneuvered them both back into bed, still holding Mercutio against his chest. He stroked Mercutio's hair, but said nothing, fearing that his soul was shredded as raw as Mercutio's voice. Finally, utterly exhausted, Mercutio fell asleep, and Benvolio followed quickly.

Chapter Text

24. Grace And Rude Will

Benvolio woke when the sun shone in his eyes. He had not slept nearly long enough. His muscles ached, his mouth was dry, and his eyes felt as though they were filled with sand. Mercutio still lay huddled against him, sleeping as one dead. Slowly, Benvolio eased Mercutio down onto a pillow, and rose to use the chamber pot. When he carried it outside into the corridor, he heard the servants' voices, and he had an idea.

As he had hoped, the cooks were in the kitchen already, and there were scraps from last night's dinner left over. Benvolio put all of his best persuasive skills to work, and finally emerged from the kitchen bearing a mug of warmed-over chicken broth and two chopped hard-boiled eggs on a plate. He brought the food into the bedchamber just as Mercutio began to stir.

Benvolio climbed back onto the bed and pulled Mercutio into his arms. "How dost thou fare this morning, caro?"

Mercutio turned his face away from the light and shuddered. Benvolio patted his shoulder. "I have brought thee food. It is nothing heavy, merely broth and eggs."

"Food?" Mercutio croaked. "So early in the morning?"

"Thou hast eaten nothing for two days, caro. Thou hast no flesh to cushion thy bones. I would not have thee starve thyself." Benvolio picked up the mug of broth and held it to Mercutio's lips. "Drink, just a little. It will soothe thy throat."

Mercutio took a few sips of broth, then turned away. Benvolio kissed the top of his head, and offered a slice of egg. Mercutio ate it without seeming to notice. Benvolio waited a little, then offered the broth again. This time, Mercutio raised shaking hands to hold the mug himself. He took small sips, and Benvolio made encouraging noises and fed him more pieces of egg. Slowly, with much coaxing, Benvolio managed to get most of the food into Mercutio.

Once he had eaten, Mercutio seemed more alive, and the tight knot of worry in Benvolio's chest began to ease a little. They lay together in silence for a while before Mercutio spoke.

"I loved my father," he said softly. Then he sat up just enough so that he could see Benvolio's face. "Does that surprise thee? After all that he did to me, all that he made me endure, I still loved him."

"He was thy father,caro. It is the most natural thing in the world for a child to love its father."

Mercutio shuddered. "He touched my entire body, and he taught me to use my hands and my mouth on him even before he took me from school. When I was a little older, he ploughed me until I bled, and he promised to do the same to Valentine if ever I breathed a word of it. He beat both of us, whether we had earned it or not, and we feared him too much to cry. And still I loved him. Is that not perverse?"

Benvolio shook his head. "What thy father did to thee was perverse. Thy love for him was as natural as the sun and the rain."

"Every time I . . . satisfied him, I prayed that it would be enough, that he would love me as a father ought to love his son." Mercutio gave an ironic laugh. "I prayed for a life such as thou and Romeo had. Even after my uncle banished him, still I clung to the hope that he would return to make amends, that he would finally tell me why he did such things to me."

At last, Benvolio understood what had been behind Mercutio's strange behavior the past two days, and why he had screamed himself into exhaustion the night before. "And now he is dead, and he will never return."

Mercutio nodded. "I will never have my father's love, nor the answers I desired for so long. All that is left to me are the memories and the nightmares they engender."

"Caro, I cannot take thy memories away, nor can I tell thee why thy father acted so brutishly towards thee. I wish that I could do these things for thee. But all I can do is to give thee my love and ensure that thou needst not ever face another nightmare alone."

Benvolio buried his face in Mercutio's hair, and Mercutio patted his arm gently. "Sometimes," he said, "I fear that I am going mad."

"Thou art not mad," Benvolio assured him. "A weaker man would have gone mad, but thou art too strong for that."

"I am not mad?"

Benvolio chuckled. "Nay, thou art exhausted. No one has come to fetch us, and I suspect that they will not come for a while. I am weary this morning, and I wish to sleep a little more. I think it best that thou do the same." He carefully shifted down until he lay comfortably, still holding Mercutio, then wrapped them both in the quilt. Just before Benvolio's eyes fluttered shut, Mercutio tightened his embrace.

"I love thee, Benvolio," he murmured. Benvolio had but a moment of ecstatic joy at the words before he fell asleep.

When they finally rose, the sun was high in the sky. Benvolio had a moment of panic at missing his first appointments with the secretary. However, when he flew down the stairs and raced into the secretary's office, he found Paris sitting at his desk. Paris nodded to him. "Good morrow, Benvolio," he said. "I will take thy tasks for today. We guessed that thou wouldst be needed elsewhere."

Benvolio relaxed with a shiver. "For this relief, much thanks." Then, something connected in his mind. "Last night – thou must have heard . . . "

Paris gave a wry smile. "Ay. Helena was terrified, and to speak honestly, there were times when my blood ran cold as well. That, I think, was the worst night since my cousins came to dwell here. But it was not unexpected. I think thou hast earned a little leisure."

Benvolio bowed his thanks and left the study. He thought for a moment about what to do with an unexpectedly free day. Though guilt twisted in his stomach at such treachery, he realized that he did not want to spend it in Mercutio's company. He loved Mercutio dearly, but last night had been too full of horror, and he wanted some time to clear his head. His heart sank at the prospect of telling Mercutio this, and he hoped that Mercutio had recovered enough to be left alone for a few hours.

Fortunately, Benvolio found Mercutio in the garden with Valentine at his side. The brothers sat beneath a tree, so deep in conversation that Benvolio was loath to intrude. But Valentine spotted him and waved, so Benvolio approached them. "Paris has agreed to take on my tasks for the day," he said. "I am going to pay my cousin a visit."

Mercutio nodded. "Send him and his wife a greeting from me. I am not disposed to walk in the street today. I would prefer to remain here with Valentine."

"Then I will see thee this evening. Be well." Benvolio kissed Mercutio's hand and left the garden.

Romeo was glad to see Benvolio and called for wine. Juliet kissed him on both cheeks and summoned the nurse to bring Marcello to greet his godfather. Benvolio bounced the baby in his arms and tickled him to make him laugh. Marcello, at nine months of age, crowed and babbled, and would crawl a little when placed on the floor. Benvolio was always happy to see his godson, though he occasionally regretted that he would not have children of his own. All too soon, a familiar odor rose from Marcello's clout, and the nurse carried him away. Juliet excused herself and left her husband alone with his cousin.

"I heard the news about Signior Rinuccini's death," Romeo said, sipping at his wine. "I must confess that the tidings aroused no grief in me."

For the first time in two days, Benvolio laughed. "I am sure that the joy I took in planning that man's funeral was a sin," he said, "but I care not."

"How fares Mercutio?" Romeo shook his head. "I cannot begin to imagine how a son of such a father might receive the news of his death."

Benvolio swirled his wine meditatively, and stared down into his cup. "It has been hard on him," he said. "Thou knowst well that he will not touch food when he is distressed. I am certain that he did not sleep the night before the funeral, and last night . . . Romeo, last night, for the first time, I truly feared that Mercutio would go mad. He grieves for his father and despises himself for it."

Romeo accepted the news silently, staring at the pear trees. "And thou?" he asked after a while. "How dost thou fare in the midst of such turmoil?"

Benvolio did not answer at first. Then, unbidden, his throat swelled painfully, and tears leaked from his eyes before he could stop them. Quickly, Romeo set down their cups and embraced Benvolio. He made no comment, but allowed Benvolio to weep uninterrupted.

"It is difficult," Benvolio choked out. "I cannot tell thee how difficult it is. Romeo, cousin mine, thou must believe me. I love Mercutio as I have never loved anyone else in this world. I would not give him up for any threat or any sum. I am bound to him by contract, by vow, and by the choice of my heart above all else. But he is so deeply wounded, the scars on his heart are so profound – there are times when I am overwhelmed. I know not how to care for him, and yet I am the only one charged with that task. Mercutio would have hurled himself from the balcony last night if I had not pleaded with him to return. Perhaps next time I shall not be so fortunate, and I could not bear to lose him thus."

Romeo waited until Benvolio had wept himself dry, then nodded. "When a man's body is ill, he calls for a physician," he said. "But it is Mercutio's soul that suffers now. I think a priest might help him where thou cannot."

"He has no great love for holy men."

"Perhaps, but there is a holy man who would gladly receive a visit from him."


Romeo smiled. "Friar Lawrence. He performed the funeral rites, did he not? It is to be expected that he would see the dead man's son, and I know that he would be glad to offer counsel to a former pupil."

Benvolio considered the prospect. "I recall no special affection between them, and the good friar certainly never saw the best of Mercutio. But it is a desperate state of affairs, and perhaps that calls for desperate measures."

Romeo nodded and stood up. "Come. I will walk with thee to the palace and present the plan to Mercutio myself. I shall escort him to Lawrence's cell, so that he need not face the friar alone."

Benvolio threw his arms around his cousin. "That is an excellent thought. How can I thank thee enough?"

"Mercutio is one of my dearest friends, and he is the lover of one who might as well be my brother. How can I not do all that is in my power to give him aid in his time of need?"

After a certain amount of persuasion, Mercutio agreed to accompany Romeo to the abbey the next morning. They left as the clocks were striking nine, and Benvolio settled down to his secretarial duties, grateful for the assistance. There were times, he thought, that Romeo displayed a rare wisdom. Mercutio had need of far more guidance than one lay youth could give him, lover or no. Escalus clearly had not seen fit to provide that guidance, and Benvolio found his respect for the Prince significantly diminished because of that. But what Mercutio lacked in his guardian, he had in his friends, and Benvolio was glad of that fortune.

Romeo and Mercutio did not return for most of the day, but Benvolio did not worry. He suspected that Mercutio would emerge upset from his conference with Friar Lawrence, and guessed that Romeo would find an activity to soothe and amuse him afterwards. In the meantime, there was pressing business at the palace to occupy Benvolio's mind.

Three hours after noon, a packet of letters arrived from Mantua. Some were addressed to Mercutio, and others to Escalus. As Benvolio sorted through the latter, he recoiled in shock at what he read. This was a matter that required the Prince's immediate attention, and he did not hesitate to interrupt a scheduled meeting with the city fathers.

"Send Mercutio to me as soon as he returns home," Escalus said. "He must know of this at once."

When Mercutio returned, he seemed to be in a good mood, to Benvolio's relief, for the difficult news would be that much easier to break. Benvolio greeted him with a kiss, then told him of his uncle's summons. Mercutio dutifully presented himself to Escalus, who laid out the letters for his inspection.

The primary letter came from the Duke of Mantua, asking for information about the habits of the late Signior Giacomo Rinuccini, a former resident of Verona. It appeared that he had not been idle during his years of exile. At the time of his death, five families in Mantua had brought charges against him in the court for preying upon their young sons. One of the boys, eleven years old, had hanged himself in shame, and another had been pulled from a cistern in which he had tried to drown himself. The family of the suicide had included a sketch of their son, drawn by his grieving sister. The sketch showed a slender boy with pale hair and piercing eyes, who bore a striking resemblance to Mercutio at the same age.

As Mercutio read the documents, his shoulders grew stiff and his expression hardened. "I knew he was a monster," he breathed, "but even I did not guess at the depth of his depravity. My heart breaks for these boys, and for the others as well."

The bottom dropped out of Benvolio's stomach, but he said nothing. Escalus raised his eyebrows. "The others?" he asked. "Dost thou know of more such crimes, Mercutio?"

Mercutio laid the papers down on Escalus's desk and clenched his hands tightly. Benvolio laid a hand on his shoulder, and Mercutio glanced at him with a flash of gratitude in his eyes before he answered. "I have no proof, Uncle," he said, "but I know in my heart that there are more. Perhaps he has victims still living here in Verona, and we do not know about them, for they never told a soul."

"The boys in Mantua revealed their secrets," Escalus said. "As thou didst, six years ago."

"And one boy has died a cursed suicide, and another would have done the same, had a servant not found him. I endured in silence for five years, before I begged asylum from the only man in Verona with more power than my father. The other boys were not nephews to a Prince. I know that five families believed their sons' tales. How many more did not?"

Escalus made no immediate answer, but shuffled the papers on his desk around. "Thou art thy father's heir, whether thou wilt or no. Hast thou a response to these charges?"

Mercutio considered the question for a while. "Ay," he said at last. "My father had a house in Mantua. I would ask you, in my name, to sell it and make restitution to the families in Mantua, to which I shall append letters of apology for my father's crimes."

Escalus nodded. Mercutio sat up a little straighter, and clasped Benvolio's hand briefly for support. "I have also made a decision concerning the rest of my inheritance," he said. "My father used his wealth to hurt children and buy their silence. I will use it now to bring good into the world and make amends for my father's presence."

"Fair words," Escalus said. "How dost thou intend to act upon them?"

Mercutio sighed. "I know not. But I will think of something. First, I wish to know exactly what my father has left me." He turned to Benvolio. "This will not be easy, and I do not know if I have the strength of will to do it alone. Wilt thou lend me thy aid in this?"

Benvolio knelt down and took Mercutio's hands in his. Mercutio's eyes shone with the same fire that had always burned in them when he had fought on behalf of the victims of bullies as a child. It was one of his finest qualities, and one of the things that had made Benvolio love him. Now, the childish impulse to rescue the helpless had matured into a man's quest for justice. "I will help thee," he said. "Thou hast always had my heart. Thou hast my hands as well."

Mercutio smiled. "My father is dead," he said. "We will build him such a tomb as to ensure that his ghost will never rise until the day of his ultimate judgment."

Chapter Text

25. Both To Impeach And Purge

Upon examination, Mercutio's inheritance from his father turned out to be substantial. Giacomo Rinuccini might have been a brutish monster in his own home, but in public, he had been a suave and shrewd businessman. The income from several business ventures and an assortment of land holdings lay in banks in Verona and Mantua, managed by stewards. The house he had bought in Mantua had been sold, as Mercutio had requested, but his house in Verona still stood, though it had been locked for six years. Benvolio realized, with no small surprise, that Signior Rinuccini had probably been one of the wealthiest men in Verona, certainly wealthier than the Montagues, and probably wealthier than the Capulets. Mercutio, as the older son, had inherited the larger part of this fortune.

"I will not touch Valentine's share," he said. "That will remain in trust for him until he has need of it. But as for my own share, I intend to increase that as much as I may."

"Why?" Benvolio asked. "What sort of project didst thou have in mind?"

Mercutio shook his head. "I do not yet know. But if it is to be on a large enough scale to atone for my father's crimes, then it will require equally large sums of money. I do not intend to be cut short in my plans for lack of funds."

Mercutio had a good head for mathematics, but knew almost nothing about the world of commerce. In order to learn what he must do to nurture his inheritance, he met with Signior Capulet, who had done business with his father and had been almost as successful at it. Capulet was delighted to see that Mercutio had developed an interest in his father's calling at last. Mercutio accepted the accolades and the instruction, but did not inform Capulet of the real reasons behind his sudden interests.

When he was not meeting with Capulet, Mercutio visited the ghetto, to confer with the sons of Eliezer Moreno on the matter of investments. Solomon, the elder son, was one of the ghetto's most respected moneylenders, and his brother Ephraim assisted him, though his heart lay in studying surgery from his father. Solomon listened to Mercutio's questions and advised him how best to invest the income from Rinuccini's land holdings and how to improve the holdings themselves.

"He tells me that I can nearly double the profits from the vineyards if they are better husbanded," Mercutio said to Benvolio one evening. "I shall send letters to the stewards tomorrow and ask their advice on the matter." His hands shook a little as he removed his doublet.

Benvolio took Mercutio's hands firmly in his and kissed them. "That is an excellent plan. But what is the rest of it?"

"What dost thou mean?"

Benvolio smiled. "Thou art trembling, caro, though I know that thou dost try to hide it. What is it that causes thee anxiety tonight?"

Mercutio looked down at his feet for a moment. "It is the house," he said at last. "I must decide what is to be done with the house where I once dwelled. In order to do that, I must go there and look inside the place. Benvolio, sweet friend, I have not set foot in that house since I was fourteen years of age, since I –" He pulled his hands free and ran them through his hair in nervous frustration. Benvolio reached out and drew Mercutio into his arms.

"He is dead, Mercutio. He cannot harm thee."

"I know. But I must learn to believe it." Mercutio wound his arms around Benvolio's neck. Benvolio held him close and considered the situation.

"Thou wilt never form an objective opinion of the house if thou dost go there alone," he said. "Would it be easier if I were to accompany thee?"

Mercutio nodded. "Thy assistance would be most welcome. I would ask Romeo to join us as well." He stood back a little so that he could look Benvolio in the eye, but did not break the embrace. "You have been my dearest friends since my memory began. I would show you the home of my childhood."

Two days later, Benvolio and Romeo stood by Mercutio's side as he unlocked the gate with the key that Escalus had given him. Despite the apprehension of the moment, Benvolio had to admit to himself that he was more than a little bit excited and curious. Mercutio had visited him and Romeo at their home several times during their childhood, but they had never seen his home. Benvolio did not blame Mercutio for this, now that he knew what had happened in that house, but he was curious to see the interior.

Just inside the gate, they came upon an orchard garden overgrown with weeds. A few gnarled pear trees bore unripe fruit, but peaches and cherries hung luscious and fragrant upon their trees. A slow smile spread over Mercutio's face when he saw them. He strode to the nearest peach tree and plucked three fat, ripe peaches. He gave one to each of his friends and bit fiercely into the third. Romeo and Benvolio glanced at each other, surprised to see Mercutio showing so much interest in something to eat.

Mercutio noticed their surprise, and smiled at them. "These trees were forbidden to Valentine and me when we were small," he said. "My father would beat us when we tried to taste the fruit. But now he is not here to see it." He ate his peach, and licked the juice from his fingers. Romeo and Benvolio laughed and followed suit. Thus fortified with sweet, forbidden fruit, Mercutio unlocked the main door and led his friends inside the house itself.

Benvolio did not know many of the details of Signior Rinuccini's banishment, but it seemed that he had left in a hurry, with no time to close the house properly. Romeo shook the heavy curtains covering the windows, then pulled them open. Daylight streamed into the receiving room, revealing rich appointments barely dimmed with time. The furniture stood, undraped and covered with a thick layer of dust, precisely as it had been when Rinuccini had left. The cushions and tapestries, shielded from the light, had not faded much, and the tables and chairs seemed to be in good condition.

"The furniture must be cleaned," Mercutio said, "but if I must sell it, I think it would fetch a good price."

"Wouldst thou sell everything in the house?" Romeo asked.

Mercutio shrugged. "I know not. But I know that, should I choose to do so, the furniture in this room would bring a rich sum. That is information that might be useful."

He led them out of the receiving room. They toured through various corridors and antechambers, all in varying states of neglect and disarray. Finally, they came to the private living space. Mercutio opened one creaking door, and a faint smile drifted across his face.

"This was the chamber I shared with Valentine," he said.

No one had tidied the place since Mercutio and Valentine had left it. The cover on the bed was mussed, and several items of children's clothing lay strewn over the floor. Romeo bent and plucked a doublet and a set of hose from beneath a chest. Mercutio smiled.

"So that is what became of that outfit," he said. "I favored it, but it was not among the clothes that my uncle's guards brought to the palace."

Romeo shook out the clothes and laid them on the bed. "I had forgotten how small thou wast as a child," he said. "Now I remember that there was a time when I was taller than thou."

"Ay, before I did grow into such a beanpole," Mercutio said, laughing a little. Benvolio put his arm around Mercutio's waist and laid his head on Mercutio's shoulder.

"Thou art the perfect height," he said.

Mercutio ran his fingers through Benvolio's hair and gave him a swift kiss, then gently pushed free. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "Come. There is one more place that must be inspected."

He led Romeo and Benvolio down the corridor and stopped before one particular door. He put his hand on the door, but did not push it open. A shudder ran through him, and then another. Benvolio glanced at the old clothes, still in Romeo's hands, then at Mercutio. He put a tender hand on Mercutio's shoulder. "This is thy father's chamber, is it not?" he asked in a low voice.

Mercutio nodded. He swallowed convulsively, then opened the door in one quick movement, and led his friends inside.

The first thing that Benvolio noted was that, though Giacomo Rinuccini might have been a stingy man in some aspects of his life, he had indeed known how to spend money when the result mattered to him. Even beneath six years of dust, the bedchamber was impressive. Thick, rich tapestries hung on the walls, the chairs were deep and inviting, and the wood of the wardrobes glowed. The bed stood on a small dais. It was tall and imposing, draped in rich red velvet embroidered with gold thread. As in the boys' chamber, the covers were askew, confirming that Rinuccini had left Verona too suddenly to put his house in order.

Mercutio stood with his arms wrapped tightly around his body, as if he feared that he would fly apart otherwise. His eyes were wide, and his breath came in short, uneven gasps. Unwillingly, as if some outside force controlled his body, he approached the bed. Romeo and Benvolio followed him. They did not touch him, but Benvolio stood close by in case Mercutio collapsed and required aid.

Mercutio slowly reached out and touched something tied around one of the bedposts. Benvolio looked more closely at it and saw that it was a long, narrow thong of tough leather. He thought he could make out dark stains on the thong. Mercutio drew back and rubbed his hands over his wrists. Romeo peered at the thong and shot a questioning glance at Mercutio.

"For my wrists," Mercutio choked out.

Benvolio sucked in a shocked breath. "He bound thee?"

Mercutio nodded. "After I grew old enough to fight him. He did not care for resistance when he plunged his tool into my body." His face paled at the memory, and for a moment, Benvolio thought he might faint. But he regained control of himself swiftly, reached down and pulled back the bedclothes. All three young men stared in horror at a dark, brownish stain on the sheet.

"What," Romeo asked softly, "is that?"

"It is blood," Benvolio said. "Old blood."

Mercutio nodded. "It is my blood." He turned away from the bed and moved into Benvolio's arms, deep tremors coursing through his body. Benvolio held Mercutio for a few moments while Romeo stroked his hair. Without another word, they left the house and returned to the garden. Romeo cleared a space beneath a cherry tree, and they sat down on the grass. It was still a beautiful summer day, and the sun shone down to warm them. They did not speak for a while. At last, Mercutio looked up.

"I remember now," he said. "I remember the last night I spent here. My father was angry that night – I know not why – and he assaulted me more brutally than he had ever done before. I feared that he would kill me, but he did not. When he finished, he seemed satisfied, and freed my hands, though I was too sore to move. Then he spoke to me. He said that he had held off long enough, that it was time to train Valentine in this game. That was the word he used. I had shielded Valentine as long as I could, but that grace had run out. So I waited until my father slept, and then I crept back to our chamber. I roused Valentine and hauled him from the bed. That night, we stole out of the house, and I took my brother to the palace to beg asylum for him from the Prince."

Benvolio held him tightly. "Never before have I heard a tale of such courage," he said. "Thou art truly a man of strength and will, and it is my privilege to be thy companion."

Mercutio gave him a brief smile of thanks, then clasped his friends' hands. "I have decided," he said, "what I will do. Valentine and I were fortunate, for we could take refuge in the palace. But there are other children, such as those unfortunates in Mantua, who have no place where they can flee. I wish to create such a place. I will use my father's money to turn his house into a refuge for children who have no place to go."

Romeo smiled. "I have heard of such places. The Innocents' Hospitals in Florence and Bologna are well known."

Mercutio nodded. "And now Verona shall have one as well. This house that was my prison will become a home at last."

"Hast thou sufficient funds?" Benvolio asked.

Mercutio considered the question. "Not yet, but I can now begin to estimate my financial needs. I think I must sell much of my father's furniture, for most of it is not necessary in such an institution. But one piece I will not sell."

Benvolio thought he could guess which one, but he asked anyway. "What is that?"

Mercutio's eyes glittered. "My father's bed. I shall burn that."

"And we will help thee," Benvolio said, catching Romeo's eye. Romeo nodded his agreement, then reached up and began to pluck cherries from the tree for his friends.

Now that Mercutio had a goal in mind, he pursued it with the same energy that had driven him to seize opportunities and chances all of his life. When men of rank visited the palace in search of ways to ingratiate themselves with the Prince, Mercutio described the orphanage and hinted that a donation might attract his uncle's favor. He hired workers to clean and empty the old house, and sold wardrobes and weapon racks to buy simple beds for children. Escalus approved of the project and donated some of his personal funds to it, as did Paris. Valentine offered his share of the inheritance, but Mercutio turned it down.

"Keep thy money for now, Valentine," he said. "Perhaps one day thou wilt take a bride and have a family, and I would not impoverish thee before thy life can begin."

But the most startling donation of all came from an unlikely, but welcome, source. Shortly after Mercutio had begun to spread the word about the orphanage, a chest full of money was delivered to the palace, along with a letter addressed to Benvolio. The seal indicated that it came from Uncle Tiberio. Benvolio had to look twice at the seal to assure himself that he was seeing correctly, as Uncle Tiberio had not communicated directly with him since the night that Benvolio had moved into the palace. His hands trembled as he broke the seal and read the letter.

To my nephew Benvolio:

Word has reached me that Mercutio intends to found an innocents' hospital here in Verona, and that thou hast committed thyself to this work as well. I confess that I am surprised at this course of action, but I find myself deeply moved as well. So long have we been at odds over thy behavior that I had almost forgotten the depth of charity and affection in thy heart. I do not know that I will ever fully understand thy devotion to thy consort. However, I recognize the honor and integrity that becomes a true gentleman, and I see it clearly in thy dedication to this enterprise.

In recognition of thy finer qualities, and in honor of the man whom I am still proud to claim as my own nephew, I have sent thee a modest gift intended to further the cause of a home for the orphans of Verona.

Thy loving uncle,

Tiberio Montague

Benvolio read the letter out loud to Mercutio, almost overcome. It was not a full reconciliation, but now he knew beyond any doubt that Uncle Tiberio did not intend to shut him out any longer. "He has taken me back," Benvolio said softly. "I have a place in his heart once again."

Mercutio smiled, and embraced Benvolio. "Thou hast always had a place in his heart," he said. "He has remembered it now, but thou hast always had it. If he had truly cast thee out, he would not have permitted thee to come here to dwell with me."

Still holding the letter in one hand, Benvolio indulged himself and kissed Mercutio thoroughly, a slow exploration of lips and tongue that left both of them breathless and a little shaken.

"Let us deal first with thy uncle's generous financial gift," Mercutio said. "And then tonight we shall comport ourselves as befits a gentleman of honor and integrity and his devoted consort." His eyes shone with promise, and Benvolio's smile broadened. It seemed that the founding of the orphanage might heal wounds in more souls than Mercutio's alone.

Chapter Text

26. As Willingly Give Cure As Know

Founding an orphanage was not a task to be accomplished swiftly. Even with all the resources already at their disposal, Mercutio and Benvolio worked on the project for many months. Mercutio wrote letters to the directors of the Innocents' Hospitals in Florence and Bologna, requesting advice on the administration of such an institution. Both men responded readily enough, and Mercutio and Benvolio eventually traveled to Bologna to visit the orphanage there. They planned to stay in Bologna for four months, so that Mercutio could learn about the workings of the Innocents' Hospital in minute detail.

Bologna was a much larger city than Verona, and Benvolio marveled at the lively commercial and artistic life he saw there. Bologna boasted one of the most ancient universities in Europe, the Alma Mater Studiorum. Mercutio noted Benvolio's sighs of envy when he watched the students milling around the university's buildings, and arranged special permission for Benvolio to attend the lectures of one of the university's more notable philosophers in the mornings. When he showed Benvolio the letter, Benvolio was so overcome that he could not speak for a moment.

"I know it is not the full university education that thou dost covet," Mercutio said, "but as long as we are here, I would have thee take advantage of what opportunity is available. I think that thou needst not spend every hour in every day at the Innocents' Hospital. Attend thy philosophy lectures, and join me at the Hospital in the afternoons. That will be sufficient."

"Oh, Mercutio," Benvolio breathed. "How can I ever thank thee?"

Mercutio laughed. "It is a small enough service. Indeed, I should be the one to thank thee. All my life, thou hast given me love even when I did not merit or comprehend the grace. Were it not for thee, I should have died that day in the piazza when I fought Tybalt. I owe thee my life and my sanity, and four months of university classes is small enough repayment for that."

Benvolio read the letter again, hardly able to believe it. "How didst thou manage this?"

"Ah, well," Mercutio said with a smile. "When thou dost consort with the nephew of the Prince of Verona, thou shouldst receive some benefit."

Benvolio attended the philosophy lectures eagerly. His old tutor had never been much interested in humanist philosophy, and had preferred to teach Benvolio and Romeo pure theology and the basic works of the Greeks instead. Now he learned of the greatest writings of the modern era, and heard also about the works of Avicenna and Averroes.

He was not surprised that his fellow students were so clever and insightful as to put him to shame most days. He had expected that, and relished the challenge that they gave him. What did surprise him was that two of these fellow students were women. Christina Bernardi and Katharina Mantelli were the daughters of wealthy merchants who fully expected to marry either similarly wealthy gentlemen or titled nobles when they had received their degrees. Once he had moved past his shock at seeing women discussing philosophy at all, Benvolio was delighted to realize that both Christina and Katharina possessed as much wit and insight as any of the male students.

"We are fortunate to live in Bologna," Christina told Benvolio. "The Studium is the only university in Italy to accept women among the ranks of its students."

"And your fathers do not fear that the education will make you unsuitable for marriage?" Benvolio asked.

Christina and Katharina laughed. "On the contrary," Katharina said. "My father believes that the degree will make me more suitable for marriage. What man would wish to marry a woman with whom he could not make conversation?"

Benvolio thought of the way that he had courted Mercutio, over books and long, idle discussion, and had to admit that Katharina had a point. When he told Mercutio about the conversation, Mercutio immediately agreed with Katharina.

"Women in Bologna are permitted to do many things," he said. "It is a great city that recognizes the talents of all its inhabitants, and profits by it. Imagine what Verona could be if Juliet or Helena enjoyed the same freedom."

That, too, was a valid argument. As fond as Benvolio was of Romeo, he had to admit that Juliet was far shrewder than her husband, and would grow to be a lady of wit and wisdom. Romeo might have chosen in haste, but he had chosen well.

The four months in Bologna flew by like a dream. Benvolio was sorry to leave the Studium, but was grateful that he had been able to attend even for so short a time. Once he and Mercutio were on the road, however, he found that he missed Verona and was looking forward to coming home. For his part, Mercutio had learned much about how to run a foundling home, and had already come up with some ideas that he intended to implement as soon as he could.

"If this hospital is truly to be a refuge," he said, "it should be a good place, one where the children will receive welcome, care, and training so that they can make their way in the world without the guidance of their parents."

Benvolio heartily approved of this goal. He was sure that a not insignificant portion of Mercutio's troubles stemmed from Escalus's neglect as well as from Giacomo's abuse. He would not see the children at this orphanage suffer the same fate.

Their friends and families welcomed them back to Verona with open arms. Benvolio and Mercutio told their friends the tales of their adventures in Bologna, and their friends listened with held breath. In return, Romeo announced that Juliet was expecting a second child. Lady Capulet and Aunt Susanna both worried about Juliet enduring another pregnancy so soon after having Marcello, but nothing could be done save to hope for the best. For her part, Juliet was eagerly anticipating the new baby, and wished for a girl. Romeo said that he did not care whether his second child was a son or a daughter, only that it be born healthy and live. He asked Mercutio to stand godfather when the baby was born, and Mercutio agreed.

In the meantime, there was much work to be done. Some of Mercutio's investments had begun to pay off, and he set about furnishing the house and equipping it with workshops and a schoolroom.

"We must begin to engage nurses to care for the children, a priest to instruct them in spiritual matters, and schoolmasters and artisans to teach them the arts of the world," he said. "I would also have a physician on retainer."

"Why?" Benvolio asked. "Dost thou believe that these orphans will be so constantly ill as to require a physician nearby at all times?"

Mercutio shook his head. "I do not think we will need a physician on the grounds at all times," he explained, "but I do wish to have one available when we have need. Children may come to this refuge ill or wounded, and I would have them cared for from the moment they set foot in the door."

Escalus approved of this plan when he heard of it. "I agree that this hospital should have a physician," he said. "Especially during time of plague. If one child succumbs, others might fall ill as well."

Mercutio smiled. "I had not thought of that."

Escalus nodded at him. "Then it is well that thou dost come to me for advice on occasion. Hast thou given any thought to potential candidates for these positions?"

Benvolio placed on Escalus's desk a list of several artisans with whom he had spoken, who had agreed either to come to the orphanage to teach the children or to accept them as apprentices when they were of an appropriate age. Romeo had spoken with Friar Lawrence, and Lawrence had found two brothers of his order who would be willing to serve as priest and teacher.

"The abbot has approved their petition for this work already," Romeo had said. "Friar Lawrence says that the abbot looks kindly upon this sort of work, and hopes that it may win more souls for the Holy Church."

Escalus considered the list of names, and nodded. "This is a good beginning," he said. "Nurses for the small children are easily found, I suppose. Verona has a goodly supply of widows who might undertake this service in return for room and board. What of the physician? Has either of you found a suitable candidate?"

"I have," Mercutio said. "I would retain Eliezer Moreno in this capacity."

Escalus did not express overt disapproval, but his expression changed from one of interest to one that was completely unreadable. Benvolio swallowed nervously. Mercutio straightened his spine, ready to insist if he had to do so.

At last, Escalus sighed. "I have no personal objection to the Jewish surgeon," he said, "but others might."

"He is the best physician in Verona," Benvolio said. "He saved Mercutio's life. Had I an ailing child, I would trust him to Eliezer without a second thought."

"His skills are not in question," Escalus replied. "But there are other things that must be considered in this choice. The law of Verona does not allow such an office to be held by a Jew."

Mercutio shrugged. "Then I would ask that that law be changed, Uncle. It is within your power to do so. You have bent the law before, for my sake and for Benvolio's."

"Thou and Benvolio live here discreetly, under my protection. The matter of the Jewish surgeon is different. It would be . . . unseemly."

"The abuse of children is unseemly," Mercutio retorted, "and that is what Eliezer will help to mend."

"It would be a waste not to take advantage of Eliezer's talent," Benvolio added, before an unfortunate argument could erupt. "In Bologna, I saw women running businesses, practicing crafts, even studying for degrees at the Studium. Bologna flourishes because it uses the talents of all its citizens. Why should Verona not do the same?"

Escalus was silent for a moment as he considered the issue. Finally, he scooped up the papers and handed them back to Mercutio. "I will bend the law for Eliezer if thy donors will agree that he is the man for this post," he said. "Though thou must explain thy choice of physician thyself to those men who have invested their money in thy venture. I will give thee no aid in that matter."

Benvolio did not expect that such a task would be easy, but Mercutio was committed to his choice of physician and was prepared to make his argument as many times as he needed to do so. His wit and eloquence, which had entertained his friends as a boy, now served him well to convince the wealthy men of Verona to maintain their investment in a foundling home with a Jewish physician on retainer. Mercutio's most striking argument was the scar on his chest from his duel with Tybalt. When he explained how he had acquired it and how he had survived, some of his donors, including Uncle Tiberio, declared themselves convinced at once.

Others, such as Signior Neri, required more persuasion. "Perhaps the Jew cared for you," he said, "but your kinship with the Prince is known throughout all Verona. Who is to say that he would extend the same care to orphaned children without such connections?"

"He has said it himself," Mercutio answered. "Eliezer Moreno is prepared to give the same care to Verona's foundlings that he would give to his own family.'

Signior Neri gave a laugh that was more than half a snort. "Even if that is so, why should we entrust Verona's foundlings to a faithless Jew? I would not put my own children into the hands of such a one."

Mercutio's eyes flashed, and Benvolio stepped into the conversation before things could get out of hand. "No one is asking you to put your own children into Eliezer's care, Signior Neri," he said. "Eliezer would be responsible solely for the children dwelling in the foundling home."

"They are the children no one wants," Mercutio added. "They are the orphans who beg on the streets of our Christian city, or who are mistreated by their Christian parents. Perhaps Eliezer is a Jew, but he is also a man, and he is willing to care for these children of men."

"Eliezer will give no spiritual instruction," Benvolio said. "Friar John will do that. Eliezer will heal their bodies so that they are prepared to receive Friar John's wisdom into their souls, even as the prophets prepared us for the coming of Our Lord."

Mercutio shot Benvolio a significant glance at that last remark, but held his tongue. Signior Neri pondered their words.

"Bianca my daughter never had need of such attention from a physician," he said after a while.

"Bianca was cherished and doted upon in a fine home," Mercutio replied, his tone somewhat more gentle than before. "The children who would have need of the innocents' hospital will not have had such loving care. What you gave to your daughter, Eliezer is prepared to give to these children. He is a father himself, after all, and knows the joys of healthy children."

Signior Neri heaved a great sigh. "Very well," he said. "Your arguments have merit to them. I will agree to the appointment of Eliezer Moreno as physician to your establishment." He moved to his desk, extracted a scrap of paper, and scrawled a note to that effect. After the ink had dried, he rolled the note, tied it, and handed it to Mercutio.

"It is a shame that thou didst not decide to study law," he said. "The passion in thy voice might melt the heart of even the hardest judge."

"Perhaps," Mercutio said, a faint trace of a smile on his face from the compliment. "But there are many fine lawyers in Verona. As far as I am aware, I am the only one who wishes to institute a foundling home."

"That, too, is a fine calling," Signior Neri admitted. "And perhaps just as necessary."

In this way, Mercutio spoke with all the wealthy men of Verona who had contributed their gold to his cause. When he had convinced each of them that no disaster would come from the appointment of a Jewish physician, he presented his case to Escalus once again. He and Benvolio brought all the notes and letters into Escalus's study in a basket, and upended the basket over the Prince's desk. Escalus raised his eyebrows, but began to open the notes and read them.

When he had finished, his expression was stern, but his eyes twinkled. "Very well," he said. "Go and inform Eliezer ben David Moreno that he is offered the post of physician on retainer to the Innocents' Hospital of Verona."

Chapter Text

27. All My Fortunes

When Mercutio and Benvolio informed Eliezer that Escalus had agreed to allow him to serve as physician, Eliezer's eyes sparkled. Solomon and Ephraim sat back with satisfied expressions on their faces, and Sarah embraced her father. "Perhaps we will be accepted as citizens of Verona in time," she said.

Eliezer patted her arm. "Perhaps. But for now, I will simply enjoy the freedom to practice my art openly." He turned to Mercutio and Benvolio. "I thank you for your trust and faith in me. You will not regret this day."

Benvolio ducked his head to hide the blush that he could feel creeping up his face. "I have never once regretted putting trust in you, sir," he said.

Eliezer smiled. "And I am glad of it. But the sun will set soon, and the ghetto will be locked." He escorted his guests to the door, where they parted with a final bow.

After they left the ghetto, Mercutio and Benvolio went to a tavern. Over cups of wine, they reviewed the list of positions to be filled at the foundling home. Benvolio smiled. "I believe Eliezer was the last. We have found all of our workers."

Mercutio shook his head. "That is not quite true. There is still one who must agree to the position."

"Who is that?"

"Thou art the man." Mercutio smiled, but his eyes betrayed some nervousness. "Thou hast been most generous with thy time to aid me in my mad venture," he said. "Dost thou wish to continue and assist me in running the home? If thou dost, I will ask my uncle for thy contract, and he may find another to train to replace his secretary. But I will not require thee to leave if thou art comfortable in thy present post."

Benvolio opened his mouth to reply, but Mercutio raised his hand. "Do not answer now. I would have thee think about this choice."

They finished their wine and went home. Mercutio had a geography lesson, and Benvolio had a stack of accounts waiting for him. The secretary smiled when he entered the study. Benvolio sat down and looked at the accounts before glancing up shyly at the old man he had come to respect.

"Mercutio has asked me to serve at the foundling home," he said quietly.

The secretary nodded. "That is no great surprise. Do you intend to accept the invitation?"

Benvolio shrugged. "I do not wish to desert you here. This position was the reason that I was allowed to come here at all, and I will not abandon a responsibility so lightly."

The secretary laughed. "Ah, Benvolio, do not give that idea more weight than is its due. You came here because Mercutio had need of you. He has need of you again, and I see in your eyes that the cause is yours as well as his. I have no mind to stand in the way of a true calling. Go with my blessings."

So Benvolio entered the bedchamber that evening to find Mercutio waiting for him. He shed his doublet, and then put his arms around Mercutio and drew him down to sit on the bed. "I have made my choice," he said.

"What hast thou decided?"

Benvolio took his lover's hands and held them. "My heart ached for thee when we were children, caro, when I saw thy misery at thy father's hands and knew no way to put an end to it. I was helpless then, but I am helpless no longer. If I could not save thee then, I can join with thee now to save other children from such a fate. I will join my fortune to that of this foundling home that we have worked together to build."

Mercutio smiled, and leaned in to kiss Benvolio. "Thy words are most welcome, and I am glad of thy choice," he said. "But thou art mistaken in one respect. Thou hast already saved me by thy love, and thou dost continue to do so to this day." He ran his fingers through Benvolio's hair, a gesture that never failed to send delicious shivers all up and down Benvolio's spine.

Very gently, Benvolio pushed Mercutio down onto the mattress as the hot blood began to sing in his veins. "Then let us carouse to the joining of our hearts and our fortunes," he murmured, his voice husky.

Mercutio, his eyes already beginning to grow dark and glassy, nodded his consent and reached for the laces of Benvolio's shirt.

Several days before Mercutio and Benvolio planned to open the orphanage, Romeo sent a message to the palace. After a long and frightening labor, Juliet had given birth to her second child, a daughter, almost a month early. The baby was small and had difficulty breathing. Uncle Tiberio had urged Romeo not to wait too long to have her christened. Romeo's message concluded by asking Mercutio and Benvolio to come directly to his house.

When they arrived, Friar Lawrence was already there, along with a young novice standing by to assist him. Juliet lay wan and pale in her bed, the midwife, her nurse, and her mother fussing over her. Marcello toddled around, crying because the adults in the room were afraid. Benvolio picked him up, and the nurse shot him a grateful look. Romeo asked Mercutio if he still wished to stand godfather to the new baby, and Mercutio agreed. Aunt Elvira arrived moments later, and agreed to stand godmother. Aunt Susanna placed the baby into her arms.

Friar Lawrence brought forth a small vial of holy water and began the christening. Romeo announced that the baby's name would be Olivia. With all due ceremony, Friar Lawrence welcomed Olivia into the faith. Aunt Elvira placed Olivia in Mercutio's arms, and Mercutio held her so that Marcello could greet his new sister. Romeo then returned his daughter to Juliet's arms, and the midwife shooed everyone out of the room so that Juliet and Olivia could rest.

Juliet was sick and weak for many days after the birth, and Olivia's health was precarious as well. Lady Capulet wondered if they ought to send Olivia off to a wet nurse in the countryside, but Aunt Susanna argued that the baby was not strong enough to travel. When Juliet's fever suddenly rose, Uncle Tiberio called Benvolio and Mercutio to come to Romeo's home quickly so that they might be at Romeo's side if the worst should happen.

A strange physician hurried in and out of Juliet's chamber, and Romeo sat outside, with Friar Lawrence at his side. When Romeo saw his cousin and his friend, he rose to his feet and stumbled forward to embrace them. The physician summoned Friar Lawrence into the bedchamber, and the three young men were left alone. They sat together in silence, for there was nothing to say. Benvolio put his arm around Romeo, and Mercutio held his hands tightly. The hours wore on.

"She is dying," Romeo moaned after a while. "My dearest beloved Juliet is dying, and I am left alone in a world grown cold."

"She is not dying," Mercutio said firmly. "She is fighting. Thy wife is stronger than she appears. Were she truly dying, the physician or Friar Lawrence would have summoned thee. They would not let her die without seeing thee one last time."

Romeo dropped his head into his hands. Benvolio sat up and looked around. "Where are our godchildren?" he asked. "Marcello and Olivia should be here to comfort their father in this time of need."

"They have long since been put to bed," Romeo said.

Mercutio stood up. "Then I shall fetch them out of bed," he replied, and strode away. Privately, Benvolio wondered if the children's nursemaids might not have something to say about that. However, it seemed that Mercutio's charm could still work its miracles, for he returned in short order carrying Olivia, with Marcello toddling after him, clutching at the ends of the sash that decorated Mercutio's doublet.

Romeo held out his arms, and Marcello crawled into them. Father and son embraced for a long moment, and then Mercutio carefully deposited Olivia in Romeo's lap. Olivia fussed for a moment, then fell asleep. A moment later, Marcello snuggled down against Romeo's side as well. Lulled by the weight and steady breathing of his children, Romeo finally bowed his head and slept. Benvolio dozed fitfully on the bench beside him. Whenever he woke, he saw Mercutio watching the door.

The physician came to them in the morning. The man looked exhausted, but his face showed no grief. "The lady Juliet's fever has finally broken," the physician told Romeo. "I believe that she will recover in good time. She has asked to see her lord and husband."

Romeo glanced at the ceiling and muttered a brief, heartfelt prayer, then handed Olivia to Benvolio. The physician smiled, and ushered him into the bedchamber. Marcello crawled into Mercutio's lap, and they waited for Romeo to emerge.

When he did, the news he brought was decidedly mixed. Juliet would survive, but her body had suffered from the strain of bearing two children at such a young age. The physician had advised Romeo that Juliet would likely never bear another child.

"That is not such a tragedy," Romeo told his friends. "I have a son and a daughter already, and I am content as long as they and their mother are spared to me."

"Then we must do what we can to care for them," Benvolio said. "They are doubly precious now." In his arms, Olivia woke up and began to fuss. Benvolio bade his cousin farewell and carried his little niece away in search of her wet nurse.

When Juliet had recovered her strength, Mercutio formally opened the Innocents' Hospital. Friar Lawrence blessed the building in a small ceremony that the Montague family and the Prince's household attended. The first innocents who dwelled in the home were a pair of infant twins who had been abandoned at the Franciscan abbey earlier in the month. The friars had cared for them until the Innocents' Hospital was ready to take them in. When the ceremony was over, Benvolio noted that the young monk who carried the babies in a basket had looked distinctly relieved as he handed the basket to one of the women engaged to care for the orphans.

"That is not so surprising, I think," Mercutio said. "Those men who devote their lives to the Church generally do not expect to find themselves caring for infants. Such a home as this is far better prepared for that task."

Benvolio picked up one of the twins from the basket and cradled the baby in his arms. "He is almost as beautiful as Marcello and Olivia," he said.

Mercutio smiled. "I wish that I could immortalize this moment. Thou dost look so joyful, it is as if thou hadst seen an angel from on high."

Benvolio returned the infant twin to the basket, and put an arm around Mercutio's waist. "I told Romeo once that I had only one regret when I chose thee, and that was that I would never have children," he said. "But now we have two, that we shall cause to be raised in love and safety."

Mercutio laughed. "We shall have far more than two, and we shall always have small children until the end of our lives. I hope that thou wilt not weary of them."

"Nay, never." Benvolio shook his head. "Who better than thou and I, who cannot create life between us, to appreciate these children as their own families could not?"

For almost a year, the twin boys, named Sebastian and Benedetto, were the only permanent residents of the Innocents' Hospital. Slowly, the beggar children of Verona began to explore the place. Mercutio instructed the cooks to provide simple meals for those children who arrived at appropriate times, and soon there was a regular contingent appearing around noon. Some came from families who sent them out to beg as a means of supplementing the family income, but some had been orphaned by accidents or disease, or had been abandoned by parents who either did not want them or could not care for them. These children began to linger at the home after they had finished their meals, and Friar John soon organized them for lessons.

The orphaned and abandoned children were no dullards, and when they were asked to remain as residents of the Home, they agreed readily. They received a basic education from Friar John, and most either began apprenticeships or went into service when they were old enough. Those children living at the Home helped to care for the babies and the gardens. In particular, Mercutio gave his father's orchard garden to the children. In exchange for taking care of the trees, the children were welcome to the fruit. Valentine laughed out loud when he heard about that.

"Father must be turning over in his crypt," he said. "He would beat us merely for looking at his fruit trees."

"That was not all that he did," Mercutio replied. "But those trees will find their fruit just as appreciated now as when Father guarded them with such an eagle eye."

The Innocents' Hospital had been established for roughly a year and a half when a small boy arrived at the door. He was nervous and on the verge of tears, and flinched away when the maid who greeted him tried to take his arm. Mercutio, upon hearing about the child, summoned Eliezer at once. Eliezer spent a full hour with the boy, of which, he reported, he had spent slightly more than half coaxing the child out from underneath the examination bed. He described a pattern of bruises and welts, both old and new, that he had found on the boy's body. Benvolio nodded sadly when he heard that, remembering the days when bruises had blossomed in similar patterns on Mercutio's body.

Mercutio and Eliezer immediately went to report the case to the Prince, and Benvolio instructed the nurses to make up a fresh bed for the little boy, whose name was Cardenio. The Prince agreed that Cardenio should stay at least one night at the Innocents' Hospital, and sent the Watch to locate and question the boy's family in the meantime.

Mercutio woke with a cry in the middle of the night, gasping that he had felt his father's hands on his body once more. Benvolio held him close, stroking his hair and murmuring soft nonsense until his trembling eased. "It was a dream, caro, nothing more," he said. "Thy father lies in his grave, and Cardenio is safe within the walls of the refuge that thou hast created from thy father's house."

Cardenio's father was livid at his son's flight, and demanded the boy's return. Escalus, showing more patience than Benvolio had expected, heard the man's arguments in full the next morning, and then denied his request. "You have used him worse than a beast of burden in your household, sir," Escalus said. "I am the Lord of this city, bound to give protection to all its citizens, even the youngest among them. Cardenio will stay at the Innocents' Hospital until such time as I deem it in his interest to leave."

When he heard the news, Mercutio threw his arms around Benvolio and cried out for joy. Escalus's words had set a precedent in Verona. From that day forward, the Innocents' Hospital would truly serve as a refuge not just for those children in desperate need of a family, but also for those in need of a place to which they could flee.

Chapter Text

28. And Cut Him Out In Little Stars

"My lord Benvolio?"

Benvolio started into wakefulness at the soft voice and the gentle touch on his arm. He had fallen asleep in a chair before a crackling fire. The chair was not immediately familiar, and for a moment he was not certain where he was. He stretched, wincing at the creaking in his joints. For a man of fifty-nine years, he supposed that he was in good health, though he had not the bodily strength of his younger years and his memory was no longer what it had once been.

The tall, thin, blond boy of fourteen who had woken him stood by the chair, an expression of gentle concern on his face. For a moment, Benvolio was convinced that it was Mercutio who stood before him, a boy once more, but then his full memory returned. He was in his small personal chamber in the Innocents' Hospital, where he had resided for the past two years. The boy who had woken him was Ferrucio, one of the foundlings, who had attached himself to Benvolio as a replacement for the grandfather who had cared for him in his earliest years.

Ferrucio smiled at Benvolio, now that it was clear that the old man had woken fully into the present day. "It is nearly time for dinner," he said. "Will it please you come downstairs to dine, or shall I ask the cooks to send something here?"

Benvolio shook his head, and swung his legs slowly to loosen them. "Nay, there is no need for such trouble. I have had a refreshing sleep, and I will present myself at dinner with the rest. Go on, Ferrucio, and wait not for me. I shall come in my own time, but I would not have thee be late for a meal on my account."

Ferrucio squeezed Benvolio's hand gently, then bowed and hurried out of the chamber. Benvolio sighed as he watched the boy go. It was truly remarkable how much Ferrucio resembled Mercutio at the same age, and Benvolio occasionally forgot and called Ferrucio by his lover's name. But every time he did so, his memory would give a painful jolt, calling forth that dreadful morning nearly two years earlier, when Benvolio had woken to find Mercutio dead in his arms.

It had not been unexpected. Mercutio had been ill, and the physician had concluded that his heart had simply stopped in the night, a peaceable ending for an old man of fifty-seven. Benvolio had acknowledged the truth of that, but had still mourned bitterly for his beloved companion. Neither Valentine nor Benvolio had wanted to bury Mercutio in the Rinuccini family vault, next to the bones of the father who had abused him. Instead, they had chosen to use Escalus's vault and inter Mercutio with his mother's family. He lay near Paris and Helena, and Valentine had promised Benvolio that there would be space for him as well, when the time came.

In the meantime, however, Benvolio had been unable to face sleeping alone in the bed that he had shared with Mercutio for so many years, and had taken up permanent residence in the orphanage that he and Mercutio had built. The children treated him as a beloved uncle, and he indulged them with stories and games. He had watched hundreds of wounded, abandoned, and orphaned children heal, grow up, and learn trades over the years, and he had loved them all. They had mourned Mercutio's death with him, even those who had long since grown up and gone off to have families and children of their own. Ferrucio had taken it upon himself to ensure that Benvolio had whatever he needed, be it a cozy chair and a warm fire, soft food for his aging jaws, or simple companionship.

Benvolio stretched again. He had dwelled long enough in the past for today. It was time for dinner. He pulled himself carefully out of his chair and made his way to the dining hall. The children were just seating themselves at the long tables, and a placid friar in his middle years cleared his throat as he searched through the great Bible on the lectern for the passage he intended to read during this meal. Benvolio smiled at him. He was Friar Paolo now, but once upon a time, he had gone by the name of Sebastian, one of the very first children to call the Innocents' Hospital home.

Benvolio sat down at the end of a bench and bowed his head along with everyone else as Friar Paolo led them in saying grace before the meal.

After dinner, Ferrucio came to Benvolio to announce a visitor. It was Romeo, the venerable head of the House of Montague. Romeo made a point of visiting his cousin as often as he could, for he knew well the pain of widowhood. He had had many years with Juliet until she began to complain of pain in her abdomen. She had fought valiantly for several months, but had died at the age of thirty-seven, of a tumor. Marcello and Olivia had sustained their father through his grief, and had each presented Romeo with a new grandchild not long after Juliet's death.

Romeo, his hair white as snow, chatted with Benvolio for a while. They walked out to the garden, where there were stone benches built against the orchard wall. They reminisced about their youth and about the loves that had enriched their lives.

"Tell me, coz," Benvolio said. "Why didst thou not remarry after Juliet died? Thou couldst still have sired more children, and any young lady of Verona would have considered it an honor to be thy wife."

Romeo smiled. "I had no desire for another wife," he said. "Marcello and Olivia were fully grown and had no need of a stepmother. And after I had fought so long and so hard for leave to be Juliet's husband . . . how could I dishonor her memory by taking another maid to Juliet's bed? What of thee, dear cousin? Hast thou not found a pretty boy to catch thy eye?"

Benvolio laughed, though there was no mirth in the sound. "Nay. I do not often go out into the world any more. I live almost as a monk, with my books and my prayers, though I suppose that monks do not live with as many small children as I."

"There thou hast the right of it," Romeo replied. "I am glad to see thee here where thou art loved. I confess, there were times when I worried for thee after Mercutio's passing, about who would care for thee, since thou had no children of thy own."

"But I have children. This home is filled with them, and they care for me as if I were truly their father."

Romeo nodded, and they fell silent for a while, enjoying the warmth of the day. It was nearly Lammas tide, and the summer heat, which had once seemed so oppressive, now warmed bones grown chill with age. Benvolio asked after the health of Romeo's children and grandchildren, and Romeo indulged him with a few tales. Benvolio was particularly glad to hear that Marcello and his wife prospered, and had begun to seek a husband for their daughter.

After a while, Romeo creaked to his feet, and Benvolio did likewise. "I must take my leave of thee now," Romeo said. "I promised some time to Marcello so that we might review our household accounts together. Be well, dear cousin, and I shall see thee on the morrow."

Benvolio escorted Romeo to the door and embraced him once before Romeo left. Ferrucio appeared out of the shadows, and Benvolio smiled to see him.

"I think that I shall return to the garden," he said. "Wouldst thou be a dear boy and fetch me a cool drink?"

"Of course." Ferrucio offered Benvolio his arm, and Benvolio leaned on him as he slowly made his way back to the bench. Ferrucio ensured that Benvolio was seated comfortably, and then hurried back to the house.

The sun shone warm upon Benvolio, and the cicadas buzzed in his ears. Without quite noticing it, he drifted off into a gentle sleep.

Benvolio was suddenly aware that he was not alone. For a moment, he thought that Ferrucio had returned with his drink, but then he took a closer look at the figure standing beneath a pear tree. The youth was taller than Ferrucio, and a few years older, with piercing blue eyes, and a mischievous smile that still melted Benvolio's heart even after so many years. Mercutio stood beneath that tree, in the full bloom of youth, and then Benvolio knew that he was dreaming.

He dreamed often of Mercutio, and found great consolation in those dreams. Sometimes Mercutio spoke to him, but more often, he remained silent. Benvolio did not mind, for he was content merely to look upon his lover's face once more. There were times when it seemed to Benvolio that Mercutio was fairer now than he had ever been in life. In his dreams, Benvolio saw Mercutio as he should have been. Mercutio's face was free of the fear and anger that had haunted it in his youth, and he moved with the easy, confident grace that he had never quite mastered during his lifetime.

Benvolio could have watched him play forever, climbing the pear trees, and eating the fruit, and he would have been content with that. But Mercutio spied him, climbed down from the tree, and came to stand before him. Benvolio smiled, and tried to rise to greet him, but found that his body would not move.

"It is a pleasure to see thee again, caro," he said, and was glad to see Mercutio smile in response. "I grow lonely without thee."

"Thou hast Romeo to bear thee company," Mercutio replied, "and the children as well. Ferrucio adores thee."

Benvolio nodded. "Ferrucio is a charming boy, and I am glad of his friendship. But soon he will learn a trade and take his place in the world. His life is barely begun. Romeo and I are old men now. We have had our joys already."

Mercutio frowned, as if he were considering a thought before sharing it. "Hast thou no desires left?" he asked. "No dreams?"

Benvolio looked around the garden. "All that I asked of life I have been granted. I had a family that loved me as their own son. I have seen our ancient feud with the house of Capulet wither and die, and peace come to Verona in its wake. I found love, and I was privileged to be allowed to keep that love for nearly forty years. I have a godson who prospers, and I have helped to give hundreds of other children a new beginning to life. What is left for me to desire in my twilight years?"

As soon as Benvolio had finished speaking, two thoughts struck him. The first was that there was much that he had not seen or done during his life. The second was that he did not mind. It seemed to him that he had accomplished what was important, and that the lack of anything else was regrettable, but not overly so.

Mercutio listened to Benvolio's recital of his life without comment. "Is that all?" he asked after a while. "Dost thou truly desire nothing else in this world?"

Benvolio opened his mouth to reply, but then realized that Mercutio's question was valid. There was one thing he wanted, more than anything else. It was an impossible desire, and he had long ago resigned himself to that. But that resignation did not negate the fact of its existence. Long ago, in the days of his youth, he had wanted something that he had thought was impossible, but that had not prevented him from wanting. His wish had been granted then. Perhaps it would do no harm to voice his wish now.

"I want to hold thee in my arms again, caro," he said softly. "Every morning, I wake, and I am alone. I gave thee my heart while we were still boys, and now thou hast taken it to thy grave and left me bereft. There is a yawning void in my life where thou art not, and my only remaining desire is that this void might be filled again, if only for the short span of a dream."

Mercutio appeared to consider Benvolio's statement. "What of Romeo?" he asked. "And Ferrucio?"

"Romeo lives surrounded by his children and his grandchildren," Benvolio said with a shrug. "And Ferrucio cannot remain attached to an old man forever. Neither of them could ever take thy place."

"Then there is naught remaining to bar thee from thy final desire?" Mercutio asked. Benvolio's mouth went dry, and he shook his head. Mercutio nodded, as if a decision had been reached. Then he smiled, and offered Benvolio his hand.

Benvolio stared, not quite comprehending. "I cannot move," he said. "Whenever I see thee in my dreams, I am rooted in place, and I am powerless until I wake."

"This dream is different," Mercutio assured him. "If thou dost truly wish to move, then thou wilt have that power."

All of a sudden, Benvolio realized what Mercutio was truly offering him, and a cold shiver ran through him. He thought again of the orphans who loved him and begged for stories, of Ferrucio who attended him so faithfully, and of Romeo who was as his own dear brother. But he had spoken the truth to Mercutio. They had their own lives, and they would continue without him. Benvolio's work was over at last, and his reward stood before him. All he had to do was reach out and take it.

Slowly, he laid one withered, trembling hand in Mercutio's. Mercutio gave a gentle tug, as if he were assisting an old man in rising. Benvolio was aware of a powerful wrenching sensation, a sense of strength without pain, and then he was standing at Mercutio's side. Dazed, he looked down at their joined hands, and saw that his was smooth and shapely, a young man's hand. He turned and looked at the bench. His body, shrunken and wrinkled, crowned with silver hair, sat there, hunched over as if still asleep. Then he turned back and looked into Mercutio's eyes, and everything else faded into unimportance.

Mercutio ran a hand through Benvolio's hair, his old gesture of invitation. Benvolio wasted no time. He took Mercutio's face in his hands and kissed him, slowly and thoroughly, reveling in the sensation that he had feared he would never enjoy again. Mercutio returned the kiss just as eagerly, without fear or doubt, and when their lips parted, Benvolio felt joyous tears stinging his eyes.

"Thou art changed,caro," he said, unable to express his thoughts any other way.

Mercutio, as always, discerned the unspoken meanings in Benvolio's words. "I am healed," he said, "as I was never fully healed in life. It is true, what we were told, that all things are made whole now. Come, let us walk among the trees of the garden, and I will tell thee more about what is to come."

Benvolio kissed him again, and the two youths walked away, their arms around each other's waists.

A few moments later, Ferrucio returned to the garden, bearing a cup of cool water drawn straight from the foundling home's well. He saw the crumpled form sitting on the bench, and thought at first that his ancient confidant had fallen asleep again. But when he put out his hand to wake Benvolio, he knew the truth. The cup fell to the ground and shattered as Ferrucio sank to his knees and wept.

Benvolio made his final journey the next morning. Friar Paolo led the requiem Mass, and Valentine and Romeo walked together as a group of boys from the Innocents' Hospital bore Benvolio's body on a bier to the monument of the royal household of Verona. As the funeral rites drew to a close, Valentine followed the bier into the tomb to ensure that Benvolio was laid beside his beloved Mercutio. With a final prayer for the soul of a strong, gentle, and loving man, Valentine drew one shroud over their two bodies, and then left the tomb.