"Micheletto…" Cesare struggled to keep his eyes open. This was a far more pleasant hallucination, his henchman, his friend –more even than that – sitting at his bedside.
He'd seen the devil and he'd seen Juan. The devil had not seemed so terrifying, for Cesare did not believe in him. But Juan, his brother's bloody torso and water bloated features, the stench of death as he leaned over Cesare, that had been too real.
"Shall I murder you as you murdered me?" Juan had asked, fingernails sharp as daggers scratching over Cesare's feverish skin.
He'd managed to scream for help, to yell for the guards, and Juan was gone. Lucrezia was at his side a moment later with a cool cloth, damping his face and soothing him. It was all right, he was safe, he would live, she would not leave him.
Cesare had lost all sense of time. He didn't know if he would live nor even if he wanted to, for at times every breath was a struggle, and the agony was too much to bear, sometimes sending him into blessed unconsciousness only to drag him back with one sharp stab of pain. He was barely sure what was real or not anymore, and he would prefer death rather than to be left enfeebled in body or mind.
Poison, it had to have been poison didn't it? Cesare remembered only snatches of the events following his collapse and given what he did remember of the treatments this memory loss was welcome. The physicians had surely suspected an assassination attempt, for it seemed unquestionable that this was no ordinary sickness to strike both him and his father at the same time.
His father; was the Holy Father still ailing or recovered? The alternative was unthinkable.
And now Micheletto appeared to him and Cesare felt relief for the first time since he'd doubled over in pain a day or a week or a month ago. Even a hallucinatory Micheletto was a blessed sight. Surely this shade could protect him should the ghost of Juan reappear to threaten vengeance.
"My lord." Micheletto's low voice was soft, comforting. Battle-hardened fingers gently smoothed back Cesare's limp hair from his sweat-drenched skin. "Do not exert yourself. The worst is over, I'm told, but you are still weak. Lie still and heal. I will watch over you, you and the Lady Lucrezia."
Cesare, reassured, let his eyes close and fell into a dreamless sleep.
"You're really here," Cesare said, stunned.
"Yes, my lord." Micheletto agreed.
"I had thought you a figment of my imagination."
Micheletto frowned. "You have suffered much." He picked up a goblet and held it out to Cesare. "Water, which I have tasted for myself."
Cesare managed a few gulps of water, grateful for the cool liquid against his throat. Micheletto took the goblet back.
"Thank you," Cesare said, which seemed inadequate because Micheletto, his beloved Micheletto had returned after all that had passed between them.
Beloved? Cesare had never dared admit that, even to himself. His brush with death had given him fresh insight. In that moment he swore he would never deny himself again. He would take what he wanted and damn the consequences.
"I will fetch your sister," Micheletto said.
Cesare reached for Micheletto's sleeve. He wanted to see Lucrezia but he also did not want Micheletto to leave him. Not when he had just got him back, not while he had so many questions, and not while he was still too weak to defend himself.
"Wait," Cesare said and Micheletto hesitated before taking the seat which Lucrezia had occupied frequently during Cesare's illness. "Are you truly returned to me?"
"I am real," Micheletto said, placing one hand over Cesare's.
"But are you returned to me?" Cesare prayed it was the case.
Micheletto bowed his head. "I am, my lord. I have grieved for my losses long enough. I needed only a good reason to give me leave to return to your service, for I feared you harboured ill-feeling at my abandonment."
"No," Cesare assured him. He placed his other hand over Micheletto's. "No, never anger or ill-will, my friend. Only grief at your departure, for I understood your reasons."
Micheletto's mouth quirked at "my friend" before he became sombre once more. "Your sister sought me out, had a letter sent to me telling me of what had occurred and asking that I return to protect you. From her words I feared you were dying. I came as soon as could and I have been close by ever since. I will never leave you again, Cesare Borgia. I vow this, and may God strike me down if I prove false."
Cesare nodded. He released his grasp on Micheletto, leaned back into the pillows. "What of my father?"
Micheletto was silent and Cesare closed his eyes.
"Is he dead?"
"Yes," Micheletto said. "I am sorry."
Cesare swallowed. "Please fetch Lucrezia," he said, choking out the words. He blinked away hot tears, surprised he had enough fluid in his body to cry at all. He heard Micheletto move to the door and the door shutting behind him.
Moments later Lucrezia was on lying on top of him, sobbing with grief for Rodrigo and relief for Cesare's stride towards recovery. Cesare held her as best as he could, fingers caressing her golden curls, saying nothing but "Sssh," and "Sis" and pressing kisses to her forehead.
Micheletto had taken up his position by the door once more and Cesare felt no sense of shame or anger at being watched by him during this most tender of moments. In fact he took strength from Micheletto's presence and the security it offered.
When Lucrezia's tears were spent she sat up though she was still pressed close to Cesare. "I fear for our family," she told Cesare in a hushed whisper.
"We are Borgias," Cesare said. He would protect Lucrezia no matter what. "We will endure this tragedy. We will be victorious against our enemies." His eyes flicked to Micheletto and a small smile crossed his lips. "And we are not alone."
Micheletto bowed his head in acknowledgement. Lucrezia looked over her shoulder at him and gave a proud smile.
"We needed him," she told Cesare. "I asked, and he came."
"I am happy you asked, my love," Cesare said. "And happier still that he responded."
It would take time for Cesare to recover his strength and their father's death would have serious repercussions. There were enemies on every side of them, and Cesare's will would be tested as never before. Those he most loved were those he should not desire, his own sister, and a lowborn man. And yet with those two people at his side, Cesare felt renewed hope.
Together they were invincible.