The air around him is fresh as he descends, entering the tomb of the Capulet family like a thief in the night—like the fool he had once been, traversing every barrier and wall there might be between him and his beloved, too full of love to spare more than a passing thought for the dangers of his actions. Maybe that is why he can feel how the sense of dreaming, of walking, trapped in a nightmare, covers him as he leaves the world of the living and all that resides there, the murders, the feud, the blood, empty eyes, yelled curses, and rage that felt so fiery hot that it might set the world ablaze given the chance, behind. He can smell the grass. He can sense the pain that resides in Verona tonight, a pain that will surely become the familiar lust for blood before the sun will rise once more. If he focuses, he can almost believe that he can hear the nightingale sing somewhere up high above him.
But the truth of the situation is that the air around Romeo is far heavier than the stench of the grave could ever have been. The world follows him into the realm of the dead, etched into his senses, alive in the way he can still remember Mercutio, brave, bold Mercutio, cursing him, the Montagues, the Capulets, the entirety of Verona. For a moment, the thought that perhaps this is the curse coming to fruition around him, that perhaps it was Mercutio's final words that sent him down there, echoes in his thoughts, but he does not permit himself to dwell on it for another second. Mercutio, rash as he was, would never have done that.
However, as Romeo walks through the tomb, journeying deeper into the unknown, passing the late Capulets, the feeling of dread refuses to grant him even a moment of peace.
How many of them had been victims of the same senseless feud that had brought Juliet, his Juliet, in there? Romeo does not know the answer to the questions. All he knows is that the path to her seems to at once both last for an eternity, his legs shaking beneath him as each steps almost proves to be his last, and so short that he doubts it can have taken more than a second for him to leave the security of the banishment, of Mantua, and a place far removed from the blood and death that had come to seep into every corner of Verona, behind him.
For the truth is that he is not there to offer a final plea, to beg Tybalt not to carry the hate that had come to claim the life of so many into the afterlife. Only a few hours ago, Romeo could have sworn that the wish to try to make amends, to offer an apology that would be far too late, would be the only thing that could ever have brought him to this place. How things can change in just a few hours.
No. With a horrible, hoarse sound that does not deserve to even be compared to a laugh, escaping him, Romeo realises his mistake. It is not only hours that can change a man. Minutes, seconds, they can all do as much damage as an hour, though they might appear far shorter. A heartbeat. Is there really anything more than that to keep him from the abyss, from finally giving in and letting the waves drag him under?
How long has he not pondered that exact question? Gone into the fields, forest, humouring Mercutio and painting a smile onto his lips as he goes directly into the house of his enemies, Romeo does not know how much time has passed since the first time he looked down at the corpses that lie at the foot of the grudge no one can name the origin of and wondered with an almost numbing sense of emptiness when the time would come for him to just be another name shouted across the square while servants brandish their weapons, the butcher's knife and the tailor's scissors soon accompanied by the swords of the lords of Verona.
In truth, he had thought that death would come for him soon. The ideas his father had had for him had always seemed as intangible as the paintings that decorated the Montague house. Beautiful, naturally, and no doubt something that would bring him a great sense of joy one day, but also so unreal that he found it easier to close his eyes when he passed by, yearning for the unreachable instead, finding comfort in the pain it brought him.
He should have known. Romeo should have known. He should have been wiser, more mature. He should have seen the way the way the feud would make its way into every part of their lives, drawing lines across his parents face, making Lady Capulet seem older than the child she had once been. That was the nature of it, to give just enough to let the lords and ladies wish for more, to have something to blame for their misery, while only making their burden even heavier with every fight and battle that took place in the streets of Verona. But even then, Romeo had been blind.
Love, he had thought. Love would be enough to save them.
He had believed. He had laughed. He had loved and been loved.
And look at where that had brought him, forced to walk unseen, becoming a murder, slowly moving though the silent tomb to see his beloved.
In front of him, the room grows larger, opening up to a sight that Romeo knows will haunt him for as long as he may still breathe, life clinging onto him, refusing him the silence and solace he so desperately searches for.
She is there. Through all those hours, spurred by the desperation that even Juliet's words and love had not been enough to erase, Romeo had known from the beginning that, as long as he will be given the privilege of dying in her arms, as long as he will close his eyes, slipping away from life with the knowledge that she is there next to him, he will accept anything that might happen, will laugh at the stars above them if that is what it will take, unmoved by the threat of Lord Capulet finding him not only in his house but in the arms of his daughter. How like fate to laugh at his senseless arrogance, to send him a humourless smile as she wrings Juliet from his grasps, bringing her here, to sleep for the rest of eternity in a grave so far away from the sun and the life Juliet had once been surrounded by. If he closes his eyes, Romeo is sure that he will see her, see how she will tilt her head in an almost mocking gesture.
Did you not wait for death to claim you? Did you not wish for a reason to journey down here?
But Romeo does not close his eyes. How could he have done something like that when he can feel the sands of time passing around him? No, rather than granting himself the short-lived comfort of pretending that he may only be trapped in a horrible nightmare, Romeo moves forwards, and, with an almost torturous sense of pain, he forces himself to look at her, to take in the appearance of the girl lying on the stone slab in front of him. For he has to believe that she is not Juliet. Vibrant, vivacious Juliet, she cannot be the person lying in front of him, eyes closed, hair fanned out behind her, dressed in a gown that looks like it might swallow her whole.
White, Romeo notices, the realisation only truly hitting him then. The gown is white. Even with the beads, the silvery threads that decorates the pale fabric, speaking of a wedding that would now never be, a wedding that had already happened, the gown is still as pale as snow, and, while Romeo cannot name the exact reason for it, there is something so incredibly wrong about it that it feels almost like Juliet will rise any moment now, look up at him with the same kind of determined look in her eyes that had first caught him, pulling him towards her at the ball, and tell him that he should spare his tears for someone in need of them, that she had thought of a plan that would see them both far away from Verona and the violence.
But Juliet does not wake. Her eyes remain closed, just as she remains right there in front of him, unmoving, the white gown that should have been red seeming to almost make a mockery of how her face still looks as lively as the last time he had seen her, cheeks rosy and lips red. Even in death, Romeo supposes, the angels could not bring themselves to take her beauty from her, leaving her here, as little more than another victim of the pain and anger. Age will never claim her. She will never grow up, grow old, with wrinkles around her mouth that will grow deeper each time she laughed, with hair as bright as the stars above them, with eyes that would hold the memories of the countless years they could have spent together.
He knows he will regret it, and yet, Romeo cannot keep his foolish, heavy heart from betraying him, ordering his gaze to flicker away from something as simple as her lips and the words that would never spill from them again to instead rest on her eyes. If only he could look into her eyes one last time, if only he would be able to look at her and see more than his own face reflected in glassy, unseeing emptiness.
Poison. That was the word he heard repeated when passing through the city. Poison. To think that something so small, seemingly harmless could be what she would turn towards in her search for an escape. Romeo wants nothing more than to be able to scream at them, to stand in front of them all, clutching his love and broken heart to his chest while asking if that was what they want, if they have won now that Juliet is lying here.
Despite the way Romeo can hear his own despair echoing around him, the size of the tomb, the final resting place for the dead, acting as nothing but a chorus for his thoughts, the moonlight is still able to reach him, casting a pale shadow over both of them. Juliet had been brighter than any of that. Once, Romeo knows, Juliet would have chased the fear and the moon away, she would have opened her eyes, laughed at the blue hue of the light and been brighter than all of it, a candle against the raging inferno that was Verona, and Romeo would have been happy to sit there and let her gentle glow warm him.
But it was so easy to blow out a candle. And now it had happened, she had moved out of his reach, leaving his world to instead find her home in a place so high that Romeo can never hope to reach her. Truly, the feud, Mercutio's blood on the stones, blood that was soon joined by Tybalt's, the banishment, it had all just served to bring her to this point faster, but Romeo, he had been the first person to fail her. Had he only been stronger, if he had been able to restrain Mercutio, to make him listen, then, perhaps, it would have been different, he could have been there, rather than sent away to Mantua.
Mantua. For a moment, the darkness around him seems a bit brighter. That will be their salvation. Though it had felt like the prince had brought an end to his life, perhaps Mantua will be their saviour. Safe from the hate, safe from their families and the fighting, Romeo has to believe they can find happiness. Yes, if he can only make it out of here, if he can figure out a way to escape the stench of the grave before it will claim him as well, Juliet will wake up. She has to; Romeo cannot allow himself to believe anything but that. That was, after all, the world he had grown up in.
Juliet feels like little more than a feather as he lifts her from the slab, the fabric of the gown surely trailing over the ground as Romeo takes a shaky, uncertain step towards the harsh light of the moon and the freedom it holds, but he continues nevertheless, not allowing himself even a moment to acknowledge the pain that echoes though every last part of him.
Mantua. As long as he reaches Mantua, all will be as it is supposed to be. In Mantua, Juliet will wake up; she will breathe; she will be.
"You will love Mantua, Love." it is not until he is already whispering the words to her, face buried in her hair, almost overwhelmed by how her presence still clings to her so long after she was first brought to look down into the sea, slowly moving closer to the edge and the wonderful promise of freedom another step forward holds, that Romeo realises what he is doing, how his voice is trembling, the words coming at uneven intervals, sounding more like the elders, hoarse and broken, rather than the fool who had once been able to make up for his poor diction and rhythm with the sheer urge to throw himself into the abyss in front of him, as he speaks to her. "The stars, Love, you will love the stars, twinkling in the sky above us, keeping the moonlight from reaching us. It—the prince meant it as a punishment, a way to show your father that someone would answer for Tybalt's murder," that is what he is, a murderer, trying for so long to avoid the senseless killing, only to become part of it himself in the end, but Romeo persists, "but I promise you, it is not. Not when you are there. Nothing could ever be a punishment as long as you are there."
Perhaps that is why Juliet is here in the tomb. A way to finally bring him to his knees, to leave Romeo with no other alternative than to run directly to the alluring embrace of death. Already, he can feel her presence in the tomb, feel how she is reaching out for him, whispering promises into his ears.
It is difficult to carry her, is it not? Tell me, how do you intend to reach Mantua? You lack both the strength and the wits to escape the city. No matter what you may do, by morning, I will have claimed both you and your love.
He cannot muster up the power to answer her, not when he feels the truth of her promise in the way his arms are shaking, what little strength the image of Juliet, his Juliet, smiling at him just once more, had granted him already ebbing away with every step he takes towards the light in front of him. And so, Romeo tries his best to banish the horrible, teasing tone of her voice, so full of confidence, giving off the impression that their fates have been decided already, trying to look at it with the same horrible look the prince had sent him in the minutes after Romeo had first felt both the warmth of his friend's and enemy's blood stain his hands and the loss of the childish youth that had still clung to him until that day, the same kind of sadness that he had thought he could spot somewhere behind the pain, rage, and sheer weariness that had rested above the prince.
Mantua. He only has to reach Mantua. Then, everything will be the way it is supposed to be.
He never does.
Romeo only manages another step before it breaks. What it is, Romeo does not know. It could be his heart, his sanity, the very world around him; the exact source of the pain and despair does not matter, not in that moment, not as he sees the ground fly up to greet him, Romeo barely finding the strength to wrap his arm around her, to bring his hand up to shield her while shifting around so that, rather than Juliet falling to the ground in a mess of fabric, death, and pain, a gesture that would have been an undignified dance for someone who had once been the person who came the closest to being the heart, bringing life into his world, Romeo is the one to hit the ground, a sharp pang of pain shooting up through his shoulder upon the meeting with the cold stone beneath him, Juliet being as limp as ever as she falls to the ground along with him.
For a moment, Romeo can only lie there, unable to even muster up the strength to sit up. Resting his head against the floor of the tomb, careless as it no doubt is, feels awfully tempting, the weight of the world pressing against his chest as Romeo once more buries his head in Juliet's hair, shielding himself from the world as he weeps.
So let them find him. Let them come to their daughter's tomb to find him there, the son of their enemy still finding the last bit of warmth in her embrace as he is killed. It cannot be worse than the burden that forced him to come here. Maybe then he will finally be able to find peace and freedom. Murderer as he may be, Romeo knows that even the fire that might await him in death cannot possibly be worse than this, the feeling of every breath poking at the wound, reminding him that Juliet had been forced to take his spot, that Verona has succeeded in killing what little warmth and beauty there was left in the world. Juliet will be an angel, no doubt about that. Looking up at the ceiling above him, Romeo can halfway picture it, the way her smile will perhaps be able to comfort another poor fool, how her mind, Juliet and her plans, the way she had tried to warn him, to make him leave that night when he had gone to her balcony, might save someone else.
Yes, as the weight of realising that, even in death, he will still not be able to reach her presses him to the ground, Romeo tries to hold onto that thought, getting what little solace he can find from it. And yet, the weight of knowing that he will be separated from her forever no matter what he does pushes him back down, effectively rendering any attempt he might have made at sitting up, at escaping, at trying to find anything that might be enough to force him to continue to live on for even a day more, futile. He does not want to. Even if there is a part of him that fought to stay alive the way he had seen Mercutio do, Romeo doubts it will be enough to combat the hopelessness. No matter what happens, no matter what comes next, it cannot be worse than this, to continue to live on. And who is he to say that he might not be offered another chance, saved by Juliet's love. It has already saved him once, pulling him back from the edge; who was to say that it could not do that again, even if it was a miracle that could only happen after his death?
The vial, the glorious vial that holds his escape, light as Romeo rationally knows it is, feels heavier than anything, heavier than the sword, heavier than Juliet's lifeless form, heavier than life itself, and for a moment, Romeo can do nothing but look at it, seeing the liquid inside splash against the glass around it. How lucky he had been that it had not been broken in the fall, all hopes of salvation slipping away from him along with the liquid.
In that moment, Romeo understands. He looks at the poison, the quick end tempting end, pulling him forwards after Juliet, and knows why it is forbidden to sell it. It is not, as he had once thought, the prince's desperate attempt at keeping the families from killing each other, preventing a particular brutal servant of the Montague family—or perhaps it would be the Capulets, Romeo truly does not know the difference anymore—from sneaking a few drop of a strong poison into their well, opening up the gates of the city, inviting death to feast in the streets, giving her even more than she has already been able to claim through the feud. No, the sale of poison had not been outlawed due to any such concerns. Instead it is to hide the irresistible pull of the end, of knowing that all that stands between him and rest is a simple movement, bringing the vial to his lips, tilting it up and letting the herbs, the tastes of the poison, bring a quick death to him.
As he lies there, looking at the fading light reflected in the glass, Romeo understands it all. Much like he knew that Juliet meant certain death and found himself drawn to her despite that, he cannot bring himself to place the vial back down upon the ground and come to his senses, fleeing into the night, much less finding the strength to throw the glass bottle away from him, seeing it crush against the wall.
Around him, Romeo sees how the shadows grow longer, no longer staying close to the walls, instead twisting over the floor, reaching out for him, singing their song. The lid is easily removed, Romeo throwing it to the ground, not caring to see where it lands. What does it matter now? His time is running out; he can feel it, feel how the chance, his last chance, is slipping away from him. Soon, the sun will rise, but it will be a poor imitation of it, a garish, pale light that cannot bring any warmth into the hearts of those beneath it. That much, Romeo is sure of. With Juliet lying here, fading with every passing second, every heartbeat that still separates him from her, the sun will only be a faint whisper of what it has once been.
No, without Juliet, he does not want to see the morning. As frightening as the pull of the shadows, of the shape he can see moving towards him, a deathly smile playing at her lips as she reaches out towards him, an icy grip closing around his wrist, bringing the vial to his mouth, tipping it, letting the poison run down his throat, is, Romeo will follow her into the night a thousand times, if that it was it takes.
But of course it only takes a single time, a single drop of the redemption he has longed for for so long.
Juliet had once described their parting as a sweet sorrow, a smile bringing light to her eyes as she had promised that they would meet again in the morning. As sweet as the freedom that overcomes him is, Romeo can only hope that the feeling of being pushed under, water enveloping him, might be the dawn that will precede the morning.
A kiss, feather light and yet deeper and hungrier than anything Romeo has ever felt, pressed against his temple, darkness, coldness, and, far away, just out of his reach, someone screaming his name, pulling him up, throwing their arms around him as they sob into his chest.
He is pulled under by the waves.