Strange Love Grown Bold
Mercutio's eyes snapped open, and all his muscles tensed as he sucked in a muffled gasp. For one dreadful, half-smothered moment, he did not know where he was, or who might be lurking in the darkness, or what might be the source of the weight across his back that pinned him securely where he lay. In that moment, he was a boy of thirteen years, tied to a bed as a father he hated and feared and loved prepared to . . . no.
Slowly, Mercutio's vision adjusted to the faint glow of a thick candle set in a bracket on the wall of his bedchamber in the palace. His gasping breath calmed, and his racing heart slowed as the true nature of his surroundings revealed itself. He was no boy, but a young man of nineteen, and the weight across his back was no secure binding, but the loose embrace of Benvolio, his friend and lover. Though the chill of late autumn had begun to permeate the chamber, the bed was warm and smelled comfortably of bodies and linen and sleep. The weak light from the candle was just enough to provide reassurance when Mercutio woke in the night, and the only sound he heard was Benvolio's deep, regular breathing.
Careful not to move too much, Mercutio twisted around so that he could see Benvolio. Benvolio sighed and shifted onto his back, but did not wake. An absurd flourish of pride blossomed in Mercutio as he realized that Benvolio still slept; he had not woken his sweet friend with screaming this time. Encouraged, Mercutio slid free of Benvolio's embrace and sat up, leaning against the carved headboard of the bed.
The shade of a smile tugged at Mercutio's lips as he regarded Benvolio's sleeping form. Benvolio's sleep was deep and peaceful in a way that Mercutio knew that he himself achieved only rarely. Benvolio's dark curls shadowed his face, but Mercutio could still admire the pale expanse of his bare, smooth chest, which seemed to glow softly in the candlelight. Benvolio had fallen asleep naked, as was his habit after such times as they engaged in night's sport.
Even as he appreciated the view, Mercutio huddled a little deeper into his own nightgown. He knew that he ought to sleep without it on these nights, that it was little more than a foolish affectation. He also knew how easily such a garment could be torn away, shoved aside, or pulled up to trap head and arms. Nevertheless, he found that the thought of sleeping so bare and exposed chilled his heart. It was a true stroke of fortune that Benvolio had no care for this little foolishness, and indeed would often help Mercutio to search for and don the nightgown before bestowing the last kiss of the night on Mercutio's lips.
Benvolio's mouth moved a little, and he murmured something that Mercutio could not make out. A smile flitted across his face. It was clear that Queen Mab had sent him a lovely dream, and Mercutio was glad of that. He knew well the horror that the fairy midwife could bring if she chose, and he would not have wished it on his old nemesis Tybalt, let alone his sweet friend.
Benvolio was the gentlest person that Mercutio knew - even Paris's wife Helena lost her temper more often - and every night he was grateful that such a person was the one chosen to share his bed. What he did there with Benvolio was so vastly different from what he had been made to do in his father's bed that he sometimes wondered if the two were really the same. Even the taste of Benvolio when Mercutio took him in his mouth was different. His father had often overpowered Mercutio with his sour bitterness, but Benvolio left only a salt taste that was not at all unpleasant and that faded quickly from Mercutio's mouth, leaving only a memory behind. And afterwards, Benvolio would kiss him and embrace him with such tender passion that Mercutio found himself dreading less and less the prospect of doing with Benvolio the same deeds that he had done with his father.
Perhaps this was something akin to what Benvolio meant when he spoke of love? That deceptively simple word was a riddle that had consumed Mercutio's mind for the past year, ever since Benvolio had first uttered it in his presence. It was the reason that Mercutio still lived, for Benvolio had loved him enough to defy the law of Verona and persuade a Jewish surgeon to treat the wound Mercutio had received the last time that he had fought Tybalt. And it was the reason that Benvolio slept at his side, for Mercutio's uncle, the Prince of Verona, had turned a sympathetic ear to Benvolio's declarations of love, and had taken him into the palace when Lord Montague had prepared to hurl him into the street. And yet, for all the power of the word, it still slipped through Mercutio's mind like the most gossamer of dreams, leaving only the faintest shadows of meaning in its wake.
Benvolio loved him; he knew this, for Benvolio never ceased to tell him so. Mercutio also knew that Romeo loved his wife Juliet; indeed, it was impossible not to know that, for that passion had upended the entire social landscape of Verona. One expression of love was quiet and steadfast, while another struck with the force of lightning. Perhaps the answer to the riddle lay somewhere between those two examples.
Mercutio considered what he knew of Romeo and Juliet's situation. It struck him that they were constantly racing to greet an unknown future with open arms. The image made him smile, but there was truth in it. Romeo had told him of the tumultuous night and day in which he and Juliet had laid eyes on each other, danced, kissed, conversed all night in Juliet's garden, and married the next afternoon. As Romeo told it, he had been a creature of pure need, always driven by the next intimacy, the next meeting, the next opportunity to move closer to his newfound love. That drive towards the future had not altered after the marriage; their son, little Marcello, had arrived recently, and Romeo already spoke of the fine young man Marcello would grow to be.
Benvolio gave a sigh and shifted a little as the sweet dream left him. Mercutio's attention immediately shifted back to his lover, carrying his thoughts along. Benvolio rarely spoke of the future, and Mercutio wondered how much thought he gave it. Benvolio seemed comfortable and content with the present, often expressing his joy in some moment or other, usually after Mercutio had made some improvement in his schoolwork or had attempted some awkward expression of the confused affection in his heart.
He was constantly surprised at how content Benvolio seemed to keep company with such a poor and broken lover, and he wondered if Benvolio might tire of him some day. He hoped that, should that day come, Benvolio would break the news as gently as he did everything else. If Benvolio were to turn on him with force, Mercutio knew that his mind and soul would shatter, and he would descend irretrievably into madness. It was a fear that lurked in the depths of his heart, and he had not yet summoned the courage to share it with Benvolio.
Indeed, he only rarely acknowledged it to himself, for Mercutio was careful not to think too much about the future. The future could not be predicted. A hand could come from nowhere to strike with such force as to hurl a small child across a room. A body could be painfully invaded with only the slightest warning. A family could be separated forever at the word of a Prince, and a playful crossing of swords could turn deadly in a single sweltering instant. The future was certainly not to be trusted, and the present was too fragile to sustain much faith, either. Mercutio preferred to think about the past.
Sometimes he imagined that his memory was a strong, tightly locked and guarded chest, full of coins made of individual memories. His secret joy in Benvolio was that all of his memories of Benvolio were of shining gold. There was a coin for each gentle touch and kind word, for each eager kiss and comforting embrace, and for each time that Benvolio had released him without comment from an embrace that had grown too close and had sparked another surge of panic. Benvolio had never hurt or betrayed him, and that stainless account shone in Mercutio's memory. Every day saw more golden coins added to that account, and Mercutio loved to see that stock of wealth increase.
As he played with the idea of coins, Mercutio's mind began to expand upon the image. One of Benvolio's tasks was to assist the Prince's secretary in managing the long-term accounts that the Prince held at certain of Verona's public banks. Those accounts earned interest, which, Mercutio's tutor had assured him, was not the same as the sin of usury. The tutor had recently begun to take Mercutio's fascination with mathematics seriously, and he and Benvolio together had begun to teach Mercutio the intricate process of calculating interest on principal. At that moment, a thought struck Mercutio. If he counted his store of golden memories as principal, what form might the interest on that account take?
It seemed a question worth pursuing, and Mercutio did not feel that sleep would find him again soon, so he began to pursue it. Interest only accrued on money left in an account over a long period of time. Mercutio's memories of Benvolio stretched back to the days of earliest childhood, and that was certainly long enough to make the earning of interest possible. Each coin in an account of long standing acquired a value that was slightly more than its face value, so that, at the end of a year, the amount of money in the account had grown, whether or not new coins had been added to the account. Until the holder of the account asked to withdraw his money, the interest was something intangible, but it was still real and regarded as something of great importance.
The interest on a treasure of golden coins of memory would have to be something equally intangible, yet powerful enough to make the careful guarding of the treasure worth the while. It would have to be something that would grow slowly but inexorably, too small and insignificant to perceive at first, requiring a great leap of faith in its existence until it grew large enough to exert its own influence. After a moment's thought, Mercutio wondered if the interest on banked memories might possibly be love.
The idea pleased him more than he had expected. It still did not address his confusion about the nature of love, but it promised that he might discover that answer one day. All the idea required was a small glance at the future, enough to see the promise of understanding, and an equally small act of faith, the creation of new memories to increase his wealth of golden coins. When Mercutio looked at the future in this way, it no longer seemed chaotic and overwhelming. A small act, a small risk taken on the security of past consistency, promised a reward that Mercutio much desired.
The promise of one day being able to love Benvolio in the way that Benvolio loved him was so tempting that Mercutio decided to take that calculated risk. He turned his gaze down once more to Benvolio's sleeping form, and took in a long, lingering glance for courage. Benvolio had never hurt him before; it was reasonable to believe that he would not hurt Mercutio tonight, either.
Moving slowly, so as not to wake Benvolio, Mercutio lay down again and pulled the covers over their shoulders. Then, with equally slow, deliberate movements, he shifted so that only a nightgown and the barest whisper of air separated him from his lover.
Somewhere in the depths of his sleep, Benvolio seemed to be aware that Mercutio lay once more at his side. He gave a great, contented sigh that sounded almost like "Caro . . . " and reached out to embrace Mercutio again, drawing him close and enveloping him in his warmth and familiar scent. After a moment, Mercutio slipped a hesitant arm around Benvolio's body.
Mercutio was neither smothered nor pinned down. He was held safely in the gentle embrace of one who loved him. His small risk had paid off; Benvolio would not hurt him that night. Gradually, his muscles began to relax, and sleepiness began to steal over him. Just before he surrendered to the warm, fragrant darkness, he imagined a shining, freshly minted golden coin sliding into a slowly growing pile of its fellows . . .
And Mercutio slept, soundly and without dreams, cradled in his lover's arms.