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“There must have been a moment at the beginning when we could have said no,” says Guildenstern. The wood creaks beneath their feet. The heavy rope is scratchy against Rosencrantz’s throat. “But somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time.”

The floor drops from under his feet. The rope tightens. His neck cracks.

There’s a frantic knocking at their shutters. “Rosencrantz! Guildenstern!” a voice calls. Rosencrantz blinks his eyes open and stares pleadingly at Guildenstern, bleary with sleep.

Guildenstern rolls out of bed, groaning in protest. “Yes?” he snaps at the messenger. Rosencrantz can’t hear the reply. His eyes slip closed.

He’s woken again by Guildenstern shaking him. “Get up,” the other man orders, tossing a set of travel clothes at him. “I’ve already packed for the both of us.”

Rosencrantz dresses clumsily. “What did he say?” he asks. “The messenger?”

“A royal summons,” Guildenstern tells him. “A matter of extreme urgency.”

We were sent for. The words are on the tip of his tongue, like a half-forgotten song. When he opens his mouth, they slip away.

The floor drops. The rope tightens. His neck cracks.

There’s a frantic knocking at their shutters. “Rosencrantz! Guildenstern!” a voice calls. He blinks his eyes open. Above him are rotting rafters. There should be a clear sky, he thinks; the blue haze of twilight. A raven’s caw, the creak of a rope.

“Yes?” he hears Guildenstern snap at the messenger.

There was something before this. He can’t remember. He’s forgotten.

Guildenstern throws a set of travel clothes at him. “Get up,” he orders. “Help me pack.”

Rosencrantz pulls on his clothes and does up his laces meditatively. “What did he say?” he asks.

“A royal summons –”

“– a matter of extreme urgency!” Rosencrantz interrupts triumphantly as the phrase comes to him.

Guildenstern looks disgruntled. “If you already heard, then there was no need to ask me.”

“We were sent for,” Rosencrantz says slowly, and then again, more firmly: “We were sent for.

“Yes,” Guildenstern agrees, a curious expression on his face.

“Let’s not go.”

“What?” Guildenstern exclaims, dropping the tomatoes that were in his hands. “But we were sent for!” he protests.

There must have been a moment –

“That doesn’t mean we have to go,” Rosencrantz counters reasonably.

“A royal summons,” Guildenstern protests, his voice rising. “A matter of extreme urgency!”

“Fearful that we’ll come too late,” Rosencrantz says, “but too late for what?”

“A royal summons,” Guildenstern repeats firmly. “We were sent for, and we must go.” He shoves a set of saddlebags into Rosencrantz’s arms. They go.

The floor drops. The rope tightens. His neck cracks.

There’s a frantic knocking at their shutters. “Rosencrantz! Guildenstern!” a voice calls. He opens his eyes. There’s the taste of blood and bile in the back of his throat. He can smell the sea, the scent of preservation and rot.

“Yes?” he hears Guildenstern snap at the messenger.

“A royal summons,” Rosencrantz says dully to him when Guildenstern returns. “A matter of extreme urgency.”

Guildenstern gives him a sideways look. “I thought you were asleep.”

“I was,” Rosencrantz agrees. “And so were you. But we always wake up, don’t we?”

Guildenstern raises his eyebrows and shrugs his shoulders. “Someday we won’t,” he reminds Rosencrantz.

There must have been a moment –

“Are you sure?” Rosencrantz asks.

“Nothing is more sure than death,” Guildenstern answers. “It’s a constant, a dependable end. Everyone will die, everyone was born. A nice, clean, finite length of time.”

“Everyone will be born, everyone has died,” Rosencrantz murmurs to himself. There’s something... something he’s forgotten.

There must have been a moment –

“I think it’s the other way around,” Guildenstern says, at the same time Rosencrantz blurts out, “Let’s not go.”

They both pause, staring at each other.

“I think I had it right,” Rosencrantz finally ventures.

“What?” Guildenstern snaps. “We can’t not go. We were –”

“We were sent for,” Rosencrantz interrupts. “Yes.”

“A royal summons, a matter of extreme urgency,” Guildenstern protests.

“Let’s not go,” Rosencrantz repeats. When Guildenstern doesn’t reply, he continues. “What will happen if we don’t arrive in time – do you know?”

“I don’t know,” Guildenstern admits. “But I’m...”

“Fearful that we’ll come too late.” Rosencrantz nods. “Let’s not go,” he repeats a third time.

Guildenstern stares at him for a long moment. “Let’s not go,” he finally agrees.

They go for a ride that day, not towards their destination, but just an aimless jaunt. Guildenstern takes the food that he had packed and they have a simple lunch in the shade of the trees.

“Why didn’t we go?” Guildenstern finally breaks the silence, rolling a coin over his knuckles. “We should have gone. It was a royal summons. Urgent.”

“We had a choice,” Rosencrantz replies.

“So this was, what?” Guildenstern snorts. “Simply an illustrative example of free will? A demonstration of man’s ability to shape the direction of his own life?”

Rosencrantz shrugs. “I didn’t want to go.”

“Proof of self-determination,” Guildenstern declares, warming to his subject. “That we are more than actors on the stage of life, following a pre-written script composed by an uncaring writer and consumed by a gluttonous public. We were sent for and yet we did not go! There will be consequences, perhaps, changes in the greater scheme of things.”

“Like the flap of a butterfly’s wings,” Rosencrantz agrees.

Guildenstern ignores him, the coin tumbling across the backs of his fingers. “Perhaps something terrible will happen and it will be our fault, because we were sent for and we did not go. But it will not be solely our doing, because that situation was surely the fault of another. A thousand choices have led up to this moment, and thus, can the blame land solely on the shoulders of one chooser? Or, in this case, two?” He nods to himself, satisfied.

Rosencrantz scoots closer to him and lays his head gently on Guildenstern’s shoulder. Guildenstern’s hand settles on his hip, his arm a warm pressure across Rosencrantz’s back. Guildenstern’s fingers trip over each other and the coin that was balanced across his knuckles falls to the ground. Rosencrantz glances at it briefly. It’s heads.

They ride back towards home, but the more they ride, the more foreign the woods.

“I think we’re lost,” Rosencrantz says.

“Oh, certainly,” comes a voice from behind them, and they turn to see a strangely familiar man decked in colorful, mismatched clothing. “You’ve been lost from the beginning.”

“Can you really be lost if you don’t know where you’re going?” counters Guildenstern.

“You were sent for,” the Player says, ignoring him. He’s staring at Rosencrantz instead. “But you did not come.”

“Do we have to come?” asks Rosencrantz.

The Player laughs. “Dear boy, it is essential. Without you, the whole thing falls apart.”

“What thing?” Guildenstern demands.

“Why, the play’s the thing,” the Player replies.

“And what parts do we play?” Guildenstern counters.

The Player shrugs. “It’s a speaking role, at least. Not everybody is that lucky.”

Guildenstern looks torn, but there is the remembrance of smoke in the back of Rosencrantz’s throat and a burning ache in his eyes. “No,” he tells the Player.

The Player cocks his head to one side, a curious look on his face. He studies Rosencrantz intently, then shrugs. “Do as you will,” he says. “If you can.”

They arrive at Elsinore. They’ve been trying to return home for days, but somehow they end up at the castle instead.

They’re late, though. A servant ushers them off their horses and hurries them to an audience with the Queen. They receive a letter and then they’re pushed onto a boat with some man called Hamlet.

“What are we doing here?” Rosencrantz asks plaintively, curled against Guildenstern in their cramped, musty cabin. “We didn’t want to come.”

“We got on a boat, didn’t we?” Guildenstern replies, carding his fingers through Rosencrantz’s hair. “Once you get on a boat, you don’t get to choose where you go.”

“But we didn’t choose to get on the boat,” Rosencrantz protests. He throws his legs over Guildenstern’s. “How did we get here?”

“We were sent for,” Guildenstern replies meditatively. “There was no choice in it, no free will. We were sent for, and we came. Our wishes were immaterial – choice, it seems, is only a thin veneer of delusion. We didn’t choose to be born. But we were, and were set on a course for death, no matter how we might have wished to avoid the whole blasted affair.”

“What happens after this?” Rosencrantz asks. He drags his fingers along the slope of Guildenstern’s chest. “After we disembark, what happens then?”

“We take a message to the King of England,” Guildenstern replies. “That’s what they told us.”

“And after death?”

Guildenstern shrugs; Rosencrantz’s head bobs up and down with the movement. “A two-bit funeral and a hole in the ground, not that we’ll be there to see that. And then the eventual decay, of both body and memory.”

“Whose memory?” Rosencrantz asks.

“Others', of course,” Guildenstern replies dismissively. “We won’t remember anything, then.”

There must have been a moment –

Rosencrantz sighs, snuggling more firmly into Guildenstern. “That would be nice,” he murmurs. “I think I’d like that.”

The floor drops. The rope tightens. His neck cracks.

There’s a frantic knocking at their shutters. “Rosencrantz! Guildenstern!” a voice calls. He opens his eyes. There are tears on his cheeks. A scream is lodged in his throat. Rosencrantz carefully opens his mouth. It doesn’t come out. It might be stuck behind the sharp crick in his trachea. He closes his eyes.

“Yes?” he hears Guildenstern snap at the messenger.

“Can we not go?” he asks plaintively when Guildenstern returns. “Can we just... go back to sleep?”

Guildenstern is silent for a long time. Rosencrantz eventually cracks one eye open. Guildenstern is staring at his neck like he sees something that isn’t there.

Slowly, Guildenstern shakes his head. “I don’t think so,” he says unsteadily. “I think we have to go.”

“Stay,” Rosencrantz pleads. He’s so tired.

Guildenstern swallows. “All right,” he replies softly. He lifts up a corner of the bedsheets and slides under them, molding himself to the line of Rosencrantz’s body. “We can stay.” His hand comes up to gently stroke Rosencrantz’s neck, the movement hypnotic, obsessive.

Rosencrantz smiles, drops a lazy kiss on Guildenstern’s head, and falls back asleep.

He wakes later to an insistent tongue in his mouth and a hand down his pants. He gasps into the kiss, surging up against Guildenstern’s body above him.

Guildenstern swallows his breath. He bites desperately at Rosencrantz’s lips and his fingernails score red lines down his neck.

Purposefully, Rosencrantz gentles the kiss; uses his hands to soothe and soften and calm. He pulls back just enough to look into Guildenstern’s eyes.

Guildenstern stares back with a futile terror. He grips Rosencrantz hard enough to bruise. An answering terror rises up in Rosencrantz, threatening to climb into his throat and suffocate him, to cut off his air –

They fall back into each other, a furious mess of lips and teeth and limbs. Rosencrantz bites into Guildenstern’s shoulder, Guildenstern’s fingernails dig into his back, and between them is sweat and semen and blood.

They end together, screaming silently into each other’s mouths, unable to tell where one begins and the other stops.

Later, Rosencrantz – or maybe Guildenstern – stumbles out of the bed to fetch a rag. Guildenstern – or maybe Rosencrantz – gently wipes them both clean. One of them slips back into sleep. The other watches, and counts their synchronized breaths.

They are dragged out of bed and onto a boat.

“Why are you doing this?” Guildenstern cries as they shove an envelope into Rosencrantz’s hands. “Why is this necessary?”

Rosencrantz opens the envelope, curious. The message within is completely blank.

“We can’t be that important,” Guildenstern continues to protest. “If we weren’t to show up, what would happen? What do we do that is so crucial? Why can’t two other actors take our places? We get on a boat. It’s not that hard. Anyone could do it. Why do they need us?”

“Without you,” the Player says, strolling out from behind the mast, “it just can’t be done. The ending won’t make sense, you see.”

“What ending?” Rosencrantz asks. “There’s no end to all of this! Why must we –” He cuts himself off and swallows thickly.

The Player looks at them both with something akin to pity. “Every tragedy is composed of a thousand smaller ones,” he says, almost kindly. “A father is murdered, a mother is married. A boy is driven to madness, a girl driven to suicide. And at the end, a man dies – a confluence of tragedies that makes it greater than all the rest.”

“But what has that to do with us?” demands Guildenstern.

The Player shrugs. “A tragedy’s not a tragedy unless it’s witnessed. Without an audience, a tragedy’s just change of state – a passing from life to death, from innocence to knowledge, from madness to sanity.”

“Shouldn’t it be the other way ‘round?” Rosencrantz asks. “Sanity to madness?”

The Player just smiles.

“It still doesn’t make any sense!” Guildenstern growls, frustrated. “Why us? Why must we be present? Is our existence on this boat really of such importance?”

“You’re a small step along the path of causality, a building block in the foundation of rationality.”

“And for this,” cries Guildenstern, anguished, “we must die? At the end of it all, this must be our fate?”

“Well,” the Player says, “people do like to tie up loose ends.”

“There must have been a moment at the beginning when we could have said no,” says Guildenstern. He’s staring at the rope around Rosencrantz neck, a desolate look in his eyes. “But somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time.”

“Honestly,” says Rosencrantz, reaching out and intertwining their fingers. Guildenstern grips his hand so hard it goes white. “To tell you the truth, I’m relieved.” He looks away so Guildenstern doesn’t see the lie.

The floor drops from under his feet. The rope tightens. His neck cracks.