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Death-Mark'd Love

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"What sweet visage ensnares your heart this time?" Mercutio asked without even a token attempt at first exchanging civil greetings with Romeo, for he knew that besotted look on Romeo's face far too well to hold his tongue when confronted with it. Mercutio always silently despaired of seeing that look. True, such a look was unlikely to last, and in a few days or weeks the infatuation would fade, leaving Mercutio once again free to be the more constant flame to warm Romeo's heart and bed, but the pace of those days would seem interminable for all that they would appear but a trifling measure if one marked their tally with pen and paper.

"The fairest maid, so sweet, my Rosaline," Romeo sighed blissfully, seeming so lost in his own thoughts that it seemed likely that he was talking to himself and only answered Mercutio's question by accident.

Mercutio tried not to wince too obviously. Instead, he made his excuses and slunk off into the deepening summer evening. He was not sure if Romeo noticed at all, so distracted was he by dreams of his latest lady love. And now it was Mercutio's turn to sigh. He knew that Romeo did not mean to pain him so and would always return in the end, but in the meantime pain him he did. A thorn in his side, a ringing in his head, and a bolt through the heart all at once: such was the price of loving an impetuous youth who did not always seem to recognize or appreciate the depths of one's devotion. Loving Romeo Montague was like hunting with a half-trained hawk, rewarding times of laughter and excitement interspersed with disappointments and moments of despair.

Almost against his will, Mercutio found his footsteps turning down old familiar lanes and alleyways. This was a part of Verona which Mercutio did not visit with Romeo, because when he was with Romeo he had no need to visit it. Though Mercutio found little joy in thoughts of female flesh and gave what heart he had to Romeo, he was still a man of appetites not prone to monkish self-denial. Therefore, while Romeo sequestered himself and pined for the most likely disinterested Rosaline, Mercutio would seek his solace in other arms, the owner of which was like enough to Romeo in appearance that Mercutio might pretend it was no betrayal.

The sun was not long gone beneath the rim of the world when he reached his destination. A rhythmed knock upon a certain shadowed door gained Mercutio, as always, entrance to the abode. However, once within, unusual sights greeted him. The servant who opened the door was familiar, but little else was. All the once great furnishings were being packed away or were already gone, and the household was in chaos. And then the master of the house was before him with his arms thrown wide in greeting.

"Good den, Mercutio! How fortuitous your coming, for you saved me the trouble of sending a man to fetch you," said the man who was so like yet so unlike Romeo as he wrapped Mercutio in his arms and drew him to his breast. Once Mercutio was thus enveloped, the grasp was gentle but strong as steel, surrounding Mercutio like well fitted armor. Should Giaccomo, for such was the man's name, desire it, then that grasp would be unbreakable. Mercutio was not interested in testing that desire just yet. Instead, heedless of the already departing servant, he leaned closer still, pressing their bodies together and his lips against the lips that were not quite Romeo's. Giaccomo's lips, like the rest of his skin, were pale as the purest marble and just as cold, but Mercutio had become habituated to the chill so long ago that he no longer marked it. Much to Mercutio's disappointment, tonight Giaccomo had other things in mind, for all too soon he was pulling away and holding Mercutio at arm's length, looking him up and down, either taking his measure or fixing Mercutio's image in his memory. "I leave Verona tonight," he said as he released Mercutio at last. He gestured around them to the servants hurrying around them, most of the men heavily laden with assorted household goods. "By dawn's light, I will be far from here."

"Why such haste to depart? If it is creditors you fear, I have ample means to keep them from your door."

Giaccomo laughed. "Nay, dear Mercutio, gold concerns me not, neither its gaining nor its spending. I go because I have already lingered overlong in this city. I would have departed long ago, but your sweet company held me transfixed here. Alas, I can tarry no more." He gave another sweeping look, and Mercutio thought he saw Giaccomo's nostrils twitch. "I would ask if you wished to accompany me, dear boy, but I fear I already know your answer will be but one word, 'Romeo.'" Mercutio must have made some kind of noise, because Giaccomo laughed again. "Look not so surprised, good sir. Your taste in companions is too good for me to take offense from this slight. Come! Let us drink one last cup together and then part as friends, my final gift to you. It will be but a poor vintage yet one which I hope will give you cause to remember me in years to come."

Giaccomo handed him a cup of red. Mercutio had been expecting wine, but was mistaken. He drank anyway. He tarried a few hours longer, then departed with the thick taste of iron still weighing on his tongue. When he returned to the house the next day, it was deserted, as if Giaccomo had been but a mad dream Mercutio had conjured to help him pass the hours while Romeo dallied elsewhere, and now he was left to face all of those hours alone.

Romeo spent a week and a half sighing and pining and scheming ways to insert himself into Rosaline's presence, and then, once admitted into her company, he spent another two weeks trying to insert himself into Rosaline. Mercutio bore it as best he could, and if he mayhap developed a minor habit of grinding his teeth at what some might consider to be odd provocations, none spoke their suspicions within his hearing. Through all this time his only consolation was that Rosaline seemed to be as little enamored with these developments as Mercutio was. The tide was finally turning and Romeo finally growing wise to the idea that Rosaline wished him gone from her side when, instead of returning to Mercutio's arms, Romeo found Juliet instead.

And then Mercutio found himself on the wrong end of Tybalt's sword. The pain in his gut burned until it seemed to freeze him. Far sooner than he ever expected, he breathed his last.

He woke that night cold and hungering like he had never hungered before. It dawned on him, there in the darkness as he tore his way out of his winding sheet like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, exactly what Giaccomo's parting gift to him had been, and Mercutio did not know whether to thank the man or curse him as he had so recently been cursing all Montagues and Capulets. After very little consideration, he decided to withhold judgement on the matter until a later date. A more pressing concern was the blood debt Tybalt owed him. That morning, Mercutio would have been happy to settle it with steel. This evening, taking what he was owed using his teeth seemed like a much more appealing method.

Alas, it was not to be. Mercutio had only to stumble from his noble tomb and open his ears to the cacophony of the city to hear that Tybalt was already slain by Romeo's blade. The news was gratifying enough to bring a brief semblance of warmth to Mercutio's unbeating heart, but it would not fill his belly and left him without the target which would have. Then a thought struck him. There were other Capulets yet able to bleed, and Mercutio knew exactly where to find them all. His feet barely touched the paving stones as he made swift passage to his prey.

Once again he would be denied, this time brought up short by a familiar scent. He had only ever beheld Romeo using his dull, human senses, but now with everything heightened and sharpened, Mercutio knew him at first whiff all the same. The wall which had seemed so insurmountable not three nights ago was now easily leapt over, and then he was slipping between the fruit trees with the swiftness and surety of a night hawk, just one more shadow among many. The oranges hung heavy on the branches around him, perfectly ripe a waiting for human hands and human mouths, but their sweet breath hanging in the still summer night almost choked him, and he knew he would never desire their sweet taste again. The revelation was but a passing thought, though, because Mercutio was seeking a different sort of sweetness now, one to surpass all others.

A perch atop the balcony railing was as easily attained as entry into the orchard. The doors were standing open to their full extent, no doubt in hopes of catching what little coolness the night air had to offer, and there before him lay Romeo and Juliet, sleeping the exhausted sleep of the newly joined, as tangled in the sheets of their wedding bed as Mercutio had so recently been tangled in the shroud of his grave. Mercutio should have been furious. He should have become the embodiment of the plague he had wished to befall both their houses, throwing himself onto the sweating bodies, tearing their throats, and drinking their pumping life's blood until he had had his fill, Juliet's for taking his Romeo away from him more thoroughly and with more finality than any other woman had ever managed and Romeo's for being so easily taken and for so quickly forgetting the one who loved him first and above all others.

Instead, he could not even bring himself to feel jealousy. He made no move from where he stood hidden in the shadows outside their door, drinking in the sight of the both of them. There was no need to hold his breath to assure silence; his need for air for anything other than speaking was now a thing of the past. A great many things which had once been constants for Mercutio were now things of the past, but not so his love for Romeo, which remained steady and true. He could not bring himself to harm the one he loved even as the sight before pained him more deeply than Tybalt's blade had managed.

And yet, Mercutio's love was not quite the pure, selfless love the poets exalted in their tales of chivalry, because he did not think he could ever be content to slink away without a word and leave Romeo lying in the embrace of his new wife while believing Mercutio to be as dead as by all rights he should be. Mercutio came to a decision. It was a matter of practicality as much as covetousness, he told himself. Juliet was still so very young, and Romeo was impetuous enough to often seem even younger than that, and from where Mercutio stood all paths open to the couple were equally liable to send them hurtling toward death. Mercutio himself was admittedly not much older or wiser, but somebody needed to look out for the both of them, and who better than he who had so recently proved that even when death was inescapable it could sometimes be rendered less binding than expected?

A bird called, recalling Mercutio to himself, and soon the sounds of Verona's other early risers began to find their way to his ears. Had he truly let so much of the night pass unheeded while lost in thought, oblivious even to his own hunger still in need of sating? He pulled his gaze from the sleeping lovers for the first time in long, unblinking hours, and took stock of his surroundings. The horizon was only showing the first bruise of false dawn, but now that Mercutio was once again heeding his surroundings, he could feel the oppressive weight of the sun already beginning to sap his strength and trying to push him back into the grave. Another bird called and then yet another. Instinct told him he could survive walking under full daylight but would suffer such weakness as to regret the attempt. Common sense told him that all the city knew the face of the Prince's freshly slain kinsman and would question, perchance with blades and fire, why he was on his feet in the streets instead of lying in his family tomb like a well-behaved corpse should be. Any further delay on his part would be most unwise.

Mercutio cleared his throat. The resulting noise was more like a death rattle than he would have liked, but it accomplished his goal, sending Romeo jolting upright with a gasp to sit stock still, blinking and staring into the darkness without really seeing, in that strange state of alertness without full consciousness which Mercutio had witnessed so many times before as Romeo's body roused itself from slumber faster than his brain did.

Juliet, so suddenly half-deprived of her bedmate also began to wake. Her return to consciousness was slower but steadier than that of her husband as she asked, "Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day." Her hands making a fumbling quest to locate his arm and thus drag him back down into bed. "It was the nightingale, and not the lark, that pierc'd the fearful hollow of thine ear," she continued when she received no reply. "Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree. Believe me, love, it was the nightingale."

"It was the lark, the herald of the morn, no nightingale," Romeo said at last, finally awake enough to speak. "Look, love, what envious streaks do lace the severing clouds in yonder east. Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. I must be gone and live, or stay and die."

That was Mercutio's cue to officially join the conversation if ever there was one. "A third option waits for those who'd hear it," he said, peeling himself out of the concealing shadows to stand silhouetted in the open balcony doorway against the too quickly brightening sky. To Juliet's credit, though he could hear her heartrate spike in surprise, she did not shriek or cower at the sudden appearance of a stranger dressed in his burial day finery at the entrance to her bed chamber, nor did she scowl over much when her husband flung himself the rest of the way out of bed with a joyous cry to embrace said stranger. "Peace, peace, you fool," Mercutio laughed quietly in return, the fondness in his voice giving lie to his chastising words, "lest you wake all nearby who doubtless are not friendly to your cause." He wanted to crush Romeo to his chest and never let go. He wanted to find out if Romeo's blood tasted as heavenly as all logic said it must. He forced himself to be content with a stolen kiss and, as hidden from Juliet's view as he could manage, a clandestine lick against Romeo's neck.

"But I thought you dead! If I thought wrong, then...." Romeo trailed off, unwilling to give voice to the rest of the thought, but his look of flushed joy melting into blanching horror was all too plain, and Mercutio could guess his path of logic. If Mercutio was not dead, then that meant Romeo had sought to avenge a death which had not happened, killed Tybalt, and earned himself banishment from all he knew and loved for nothing. For one so swift with a rapier, Romeo had a tender soul, and his conscience would not endure the weight of such perceived folly without breaking him.

Juliet must have sensed this also, for she had risen from the bed and crossed the room to draw Romeo out of Mercutio's cautious grasp and into her own warm embrace. The looks she gave to Mercutio as she did so was sharp but not accusatory, and Mercutio began to appreciate how she might be a worthier love for Romeo than any of the other women he had ever pursued. Mercutio could respect that. He could maybe even love that. However, such sentiments were not what Romeo needed, at least not immediately.

"Nay, you thought right, Romeo. Fear not on that account," Mercutio said, taking one of Romeo's hands and bringing it to rest against the cold skin of his neck where, at treasured moments in the past, Romeo's fingers had once lingered lovingly over the pulse point, enjoying the tactile proof that he could make Mercutio's heart race with desire. No such proof met his touch now, nor would it ever again, though Mercutio loved and desired him still. Romeo's mouth opened in surprise, and Mercutio rushed to assure him, "Both your honor and your safety are complete, for you have naught to fear from me on either account. I am not as I once was, but my regard for you is unchanged. Yet hold your questions if you can, for they can wait and what else I must say cannot." He glanced at the sky again, more as a reminder to Romeo than anything else. Mercutio no longer needed to look to the sky to know that the harsh light of day was drawing uncomfortably close. "But first," Mercutio said, and though he continued to speak to Romeo, his gaze slid to meet Juliet's, "I beg you, introduce me to your lady and have her bid me enter, for we have not properly met, and by your leave and hers I hope we three might all help each other live happily ever after."

"Enter, dearest friend, with all haste," Romeo said, pulling at Mercutio's arm, all his previous hesitancy instantly forgotten, but Mercutio did not budge from his place at the threshold.

"Nay, Romeo," Mercutio chided, "it is the Capulet house I seek to enter, and husband to a Capulet you may be, but none would grant this to be your home. My dear lady Capulet, beloved of my beloved, would you allow a humble shadow of the night to darken your abode?"

Both Mercutio and Juliet pretended to ignore Romeo's faint squeak of, "Please, Juliet," as Mercutio made his deepest, most courtly bow. When Mercutio looked up from his low bend, he saw a faint smile tugging at the corner of Juliet's lips. The look she gave him seemed almost fond. Mercutio thought that perhaps she, like himself, was willing to make otherwise unthinkable allowances if it meant seeing Romeo smile more often. She gave Mercutio an appraising onceover as she straightened from his bow, and her smile grew a tiny bit wider. Well, Mercutio had always known he was more appealing than his cousin Paris.

"Enter, good Mercutio," Juliet said at last, "For a beloved of my Romeo should also be a beloved of mine."

"You have my deepest thanks, my lady," Mercutio said, bowing once more before he entered.

There was much to be discussed. Logic and law dictated that there was no escaping Romeo and Juliet's tangled plight without death, but there was 'death' and then there was death, and the young lovers could choose between the two as they so pleased now. And choose they did, with a haste not entirely spurred by the encroaching dawn, because it was an easy choice. What need had they for daylight as long as they had love?

Their plans made, Mercutio slipped back out into the tattered remnants of the fading night. He paused only to break his fast upon one saucy Capulet servant who he recognized as one Peter and doubted any but perhaps Juliet's Nurse would miss. The blood flowed faster and sweeter than Mercutio could have ever imagined. He emptied the boy in moments and carried the body away with him to leave in a dark alley and delay suspicion. Then, still wiping his mouth clean like a child after his first messy taste of berry cordial, Mercutio slunk back into his tomb with the sunlight nipping at his heels. As he drifted into the icy torpor that passed for sleep when one was no longer living, Mercutio decided that, all in all, it had been a night well spent.

Within days, Verona thought Romeo and Juliet as slain as Mercutio. They escaped into the wider world, no longer tethered by the binds of hereditary feuds or obligations, free to seek their happiness wherever they wished. They were very happy together for centuries after what everyone thought was their tragic story became legend. In all that time, Mercutio could never get over how beautiful Romeo and Juliet's lips looked when stained with crimson, and they forever both said the same about him.

So if some night you go to the theater and hear three people laughing at Shakespeare's greatest tragedy while everyone else is in tears, now you know why.

The End.