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Even if I Must Tame Cerberus

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Lucrezia understood Cesare's anguish. She felt it too.

The blade had been meant for Cesare. She could not wish it had found its target. Yet she wished that Micheletto could have deflected the poisoned blade without having it plunge into his own body.

The would-be assassin was dead and Cesare regretted that, she knew, that he had not kept the man alive to question – to torture. Cesare was unhurt physically but an emotional wreck. Lucrezia hadn't seen this level of rage since the attempt on their father's life. He cared for Micheletto in a way perhaps even he did not truly comprehend.

She'd sent him away, putting her small frame between the bloodied Cesare and the terrified physicians tasked with saving Micheletto. "Brother," she had told him firmly. "Go and wash his blood from your hands. He would not have you stand here sullied."

Micheletto had never lost his temper, at least that Lucrezia had ever been party to. He would have been distraught if the roles had been reserved, guilt gnawing at him, but he would have watched proceedings with a detachment that Cesare was incapable of.

Cesare had stared at her and Lucrezia had put a hand on his arm. "I will take care of him," she promised and that was what finally let Cesare leave the room.

With Cesare gone, Lucrezia turned all of her attention to Micheletto and his care. She began demanding answers and giving orders. She cursed her limited knowledge and swore to improve it when she had the chance, all the while praying her skills would be enough.

When all that could be done had been done, the wound cleaned and stitched and what remedies agreed upon had been administered, Lucrezia was left alone to continue to nurse the wounded man.

"You must not die," she told him, wiping his face with a cool cloth. "Cesare cannot lose you again. He dare not admit how much he loves you and needs you. How there was an empty space in his life when you left which was filled only when you returned."

She put the cloth aside, held Micheletto's hand in hers, one hand clutching his wrist so she could feel the reassuring beat of his pulse against her fingers.

"He spent so many years refusing to acknowledge his love for me," Lucrezia said, and it was a relief to be able to say the words aloud. Micheletto was unconscious but even had it been otherwise he was perhaps the only one she could confide in. "So I know what I am speaking of when I say he feels the same way about you."

She glanced over at the door, ensuring they were still alone. Guards lurked in the corridors but in this room at least they had privacy.

"He always wants what is most forbidden," Lucrezia mused. "And so he hides that desire, even from himself, until it can be contained no more and it erupts with fury, sometimes in ways it should not be expressed. You are so cold-blooded, Micheletto, in contrast to Cesare's fire. He needs you at his side. He needs us both, but I cannot be with him on the battlefield. So you must offer counsel when I cannot, and remind him to breathe, and comfort him even when he denies he is need of it, and shield him –"

She swallowed. "Shielding him is what has brought us here," she acknowledged. "You must live, Micheletto. See how he needs you. See how it would be my beloved brother I would be tending if not for your sacrifice."

*

Cesare returned later with clean clothes and hands, sad but no longer irate.

He lifted Micheletto, cradled the unconscious man against his own chest, so that Lucrezia could attempt to pour more elixir down Micheletto's throat.

"He saved my life," Cesare said, as they worked to lay Micheletto down in a comfortable position, Lucrezia fussing with the bedclothes. Cesare smoothed back a loose strand of hair, though Lucrezia noted how he let his knuckles brush against Micheletto's cheekbone afterwards in a gesture that was purely affectionate.

"And better him than you," Lucrezia said. "His soul would have been torn apart had he allowed you to come to harm. But it grieves me too. I care for him also, our beloved assassin."

Cesare gave her a look of surprise.

"He must live," Lucrezia said. "Even if we must make a deal with the devil to secure his life."

She knew that Cesare no longer believed in God, denied the existence of heaven. Lucrezia still believed. Her faith had been shaken and changed over the past years, but she still thought there was a merciful God who ought to reward those who, like Micheletto, were devoted to those they loved.

So she would pray, even if Cesare would not. She would pray and she would tend Micheletto and she would comfort Cesare as much as he would allow her to, until this was decided one way or the other.

"I would march into hell," Cesare agreed. "I would tame Cerberus and plead with Hades to have him restored to me."

Lucrezia lifted an eyebrow at the reference to Orpheus but said only, "He is not dead. You need not besiege the Underworld yet, brother." Though if anyone could or would dare, it would be Cesare.

"But you fear he may not survive."

Lucrezia shrugged. "It is out of my hands," she said. "I am doing all I can." She did not say it was in God's hands, lest it send Cesare into another spiral of rage and despair. She did not say it was up to Micheletto for she was certain he was doing his best to fight the toxin and would not place any further burden on him.

"Then we must wait." Cesare paced the room, halted by the fireplace. Lucrezia moved to stand behind him and rubbed at his back. Eventually her gentle touch moved him and he let his stoic façade slip.

He gathered her into his arms, clutching her so tightly she could barely breathe. He shed a few tears, keened his grief into her hair, let her bear his pain. Lucrezia let him unburden himself. Later she would demand the same, but for now she must be the strong one. She must hold her head high and act with calm resolve until an outcome was certain.

*

Later they both ate in the room, picking at the food they were attempting to eat because it was necessary rather than because they truly had any appetite.

"Did you mean it?" Cesare asked apropos of nothing.

Lucrezia blinked, attempting to guess where his thoughts lay. "Brother?"

"That he is our beloved assassin."

A smile quirked her lips. "Yes."

Cesare studied her a moment. "I did not know you had come to care for him so deeply."

"As deeply as you do," she returned, the touch of a challenge in her tone.

Cesare nodded grimly.

"And we are fortunate to have him care for us both," she said.

"You truly believe he will live?"

He needed her to say yes, and Lucrezia glanced over at Micheletto, sleeping soundly now. If he survived the night she would be certain but it looked increasingly likely he would live and Lucrezia took the risk.

"I do."

Cesare nodded and began to eat with more gusto. Lucrezia sipped her wine and prayed she was right. They truly did love and need Micheletto, but if he was taken from him then, Lucrezia swore, she would be at Cesare's side as they marched into the Underworld in order to bring him back.