There was a suggestion of a drizzle in the air as Horatio stepped off the bus and walked along the all too familiar street that leads to the hospital. He drew the collar of his coat closer and made his way along red brick buildings.
The receptionists smiled at him as he signed the visitors' book. He drew a breath. His hand shook as he put it on the door handle. He wanted to find one of the doctors or nurses first, wanted to know what state of mind his friend was in so he could steel himself for what was to come.
He passed by the staff office and knocked, waited for someone to invite him in, then put his head round the door.
"Hi, I'm here to see Hamlet. How's he doing today?"
The doctor at the computer to the far left smiled and nodded at him. "He's fine," she said. "Horatio, is it?" - "Yeah." "He's really looking forward to seeing you." "Thanks," Horatio said and closed his eyes in relief. This is all he can ask for these days.
There had been a wild period for about a month after The Incident, when no one could be around Hamlet at all. Horatio still remembered the pain of their first meeting, when Hamlet still hadn't been quite right and had suddenly attacked him in the middle of their conversation. He had carried bruises for a week afterward because he hadn't stopped it himself. One of the nurses had pulled Hamlet off him and Horatio had sat in A&E for an hour because they'd insisted.
He knocked at Hamlet's door. His hand had barely left the wood when the door was opened and Hamlet greeted him with a grin that made Horatio's heart ache in his chest.
Once upon a time, a meeting like this would have been followed by Horatio falling into Hamlet's arms and just about managing to kick the door closed before landing on the nearest available surface – but things were different now, very different, and so it was followed by hello-how-have-you-beens and are-they-feeding-you-alrights and careful navigations of personal space as they sat down, Hamlet on the bed, Horatio on one of the chairs at the small table by the window.
"I've brought you some books," Horatio said as he sets his backpack down. There was a smirk in his voice, a memory of their days in Witenberg when you wouldn't have caught Hamlet dead doing any of the assigned reading.
"I hope some of them are wild fantastical romances," Hamlet said, bouncing on the bed.
"Yes", Horatio says, "of course." He stacked them on top of one another on the table, waved the cover of one. "But I want you to keep learning while you're in here, so you'll have to read one of these ones also, before I come see you next. I shall quiz you."
Hamlet jumped down from the bed and sat in the other chair with one fluid motion. He examined the books, flicked through the pages one by one.
"Thank you," he said. His voice broke on the second word.
And that was it, Horatio thought. That's what remains of us when we're out of pleasantries and out of jokes and out of conversations about the weather.
"It's no bother, you know how much I like the library. I'll bring it to your room, piecemeal."
He meant it as a joke, but Hamlet, for whatever reason, must have heard something else entirely. He pulled his feet up on the chair and hid his face between his knees.
Horatio knew there was nothing he could do to stop this. He sat very still and watched Hamlet's body shake. Grief, shame, guilt – he was certain he'd hear what it was once Hamlet found the words.
"I'm sorry," Hamlet finally said, head still between his knees. "I'm sorry you got dragged into this."
"I have never been dragged anywhere. I have always made my own way in the world." Horatio wasn't completely sure this was what he was supposed to say, if this would make everything worse. But then, what had set Hamlet off the last time had been fairly innocuous as well, so he figured truth was the best way forward.
Hamlet readjusted on the chair. His face reappeared after he wiped it on his sleeve. He stretched one arm out in Horatio's direction.
"Hold my hand, Horatio, please."
Horatio knew where this was coming from. He hadn't touched Hamlet since he went into hospital, for many reasons. The fact that Hamlet put a man in a coma because of his illness and the attack two months ago made him wary. There were other feelings as well that kept him from touching Hamlet, feelings that he wouldn't necessarily admit to himself. It wasn't that he didn't want to, not as such, but he feared what would happen as a result.
"It... what happened... it hasn't changed anything about how I feel about you. But it has changed how I can express those feelings."
He looked at Hamlet with a pained smile. He hoped that somewhere the Hamlet who argued semantics with him late into the night, who tied Horatio up in strings of pretty words until Horatio , a willing participant, fell down and into his lap, was hearing what he wasn't saying.
"You can touch my hand, I promise, it's safe. I promise."
Horatio reached out with trepidation. Carefully he held up Hamlet's fingertips, then closed his hand around them.
Hamlet gave a sob and his face disappeared again; Horatio reckoned he was overwhelmed by even this small kindness he didn't think he deserved.
"My prince," he whispered and lifted Hamlet's hand to his lips; slowly kissed the tip of his index finger. He closed his eyes and indulged himself for a second, imagined where this gesture would lead if things were different, saw himself in Hamlet's arms, pinning him down on the white sheets, his brown hands wrapping around Hamlet's white sides.
He gasped for air as if he'd just run a mile. He never figured out who withdrew first, but Hamlet's hand fell out of his and his back straightened and then they sat opposite each other again, with a gulf between them that was too wide to cross. For a long minute, the air was heavy with everything they couldn't yet, couldn't maybe ever, say.
"I think you should go now," Hamlet whispered. Horatio nodded. "I'll leave you to your reading."
He closed the door from the outside before he broke. He thought he could physically feel his heart burst open inside him but he made it out to the visitors' area before he slumped down on one of the benches and cried.
It had never been easy to love Hamlet, but now he felt pushed to his limits. He
Laertes pulled Pol's door closed from the outside and leaned against it. It was always easy with Pol, in a way – nothing changed about his state, he would probably never wake again, it was something you could just get used to, like bad weather – and yet, there were things that made this difficult if not impossible. His father was in a limbo between life and death now, and it was Hamlet who had put him there, and legally he wasn't even responsible. It had been a delusion, something triggered by grief over his father's death and a conspiracy that he believed was working against him somehow. Laertes had not quite found out the details, but then he'd been busy first looking after his father and then his sister, and all he knew was from conversations with hospital staff. He hadn't seen Hamlet or spoken to him since the Incident and he feared it would only end with Hamlet in pieces.
He blinked to dispel the thoughts of violence. They wouldn't do around his sister. His sister, who was another matter entirely. There had been all kinds of speculation about her relationship with their father after her suicide attempt and it had unsettled Laertes a great deal. He had a lot of blind spots where Ophelia was concerned, but – this? He hadn't known, and still didn't know, how to ask the questions about that which he desperately wanted answers to. He was mostly of the opinion that this should be left to the professionals who were dealing with his sister now, and yet he couldn't help feeling that if there had been anything untoward, he ought to have seen it...
He had reached the adolescent unit and went through the motions of signing in and chatting with the nurses.
Thanks to Gertrude and Claudius, Ophelia had her own private room here. Much as they might have loved their son, they realised that his actions had caused other people pain and tried to make up for it in the only way they knew. Laertes certainly wasn't complaining about that, although naturally he wished it had never been necessary in the first place.
"Laertes!" Ophelia dropped the book she had been reading and ran towards her brother. He caught her in a hug that lasted a little too long, then let her go. She looked well – she had put on a few pounds, which made her look healthier than the last time he'd seen her.
"You look well," he teased, "are you sure you belong in a hospital?"
"Well, they say I'm on the mend, so hopefully not too long now." SHe took the packet of grapes out of Laertes' hands, opened it and started eating.
"Sweetness for bitter people," she commented.
Laertes snorted, not sure whether a laugh was appropriate.
"Do you want to go outside? It's cold but the sun's out, it's lovely. We have really nice grounds for walking."
He looked at her quizzically.
"Yes, I am strong enough. Wait a second, I'll go get my coat and sign myself out."
Laertes stared at the back of her head in bewilderment. Ever since the night she'd almost drowned herself, he'd felt completely at sea when it came to judging anything about his sister.
She reappeared with her coat and they made their way through a side exit into the hospital grounds. She was right – they were nice to walk in; with evergreen trees all around as a sight barrier and the lawn underfoot still green, fighting winter.
They walked in companionable silence for a while.
"The flowers are all sleeping," she said, a propos of nothing. !All gone back to their roots in the cold ground, sleeping for months and months until the sun comes out."
"And wakes them up again," Laertes said. He thought of Pol, who would sleep through the winter but not wake up with the sun.
"Like Dad and me," Ophelia said. Laertes' heart skipped a beat.
"How do you mean?" He asked. His mouth was dry.
Ophelia pulled her hat into her face.
"Just, there was something not quite right with him. Remember when you went away to uni and he said goodbye to you twice?" - "Yes, of course." Laertes couldn't stifle a grin. "Gave me money twice, too."
Ophelia sighed. "Yes. Because he'd forgotten that he'd already done it."
Laertes inhaled sharply but said nothing. These were things Ophelia had kept for a long time that needed out, and he had to give her space to let go of them.
"He kept forgetting you weren't around, and he had this weird bee in his bonnet about... about... well, about Hamlet and me. But I think I could have gone with the king of all England and he wouldn't have liked it. He made us break up and look where that got him."
And there it was. Laertes remembered his own ribbing her about Hamlet and felt his ears burning.
"Ophelia..." Laertes' voice was very soft. He knew he needed to tread with caution now, but he needed to ask the question; he needed to know."
"Ophelia, did Dad ever..."
"He never hurt me. Not physically, that is. I assume that's what you mean," Ophelia said. Laertes exhaled an "Oh, thank God," and in the same moment, Ophelia turned and hugged him so hard that it knocked all the wind out of him. Next thing he knew, she beat her hands against his chest, letting out sobs and sounds of frustration. He held firm, gave her something to throw herself against, softly said her name as though he was taming a wild animal. Finally, she held onto his lapels, tilted her head back and screamed at the heavens. He caught her when she finally calmed and fell against his chest. She beat her head against it, but this time it was a soft rocking motion that didn't hurt him.
"I only wanted to go to the same place as him," she said, her voice muffled by Laertes' coat. "I thought I'd put him there, but I didn't, did I? Yes, if I'd never gone with Hamlet, he'd probably still be... he'd be... not sick, but that's like saying if you'd never gone to uni, if we'd realised he was ill, if if if."
Laertes held her and tried to hide his face from scrutiny. There was so much that she still hadn't said, so much that hid behind the expression "not physically". His loyalties had always been to both his father and his sister, but he thought that, in light of what had just transpired, it was all but impossible to be loyal to one without betraying the other. He held the two halves of himself together as best he could.
"Let's go inside," he said into her hair. "That was exhausting," he tried to joke, "and I was just watching."
Ophelia didn't react to the joke. She pulled her hair back behind her ears and nodded firmly.
Laertes never knew how he got her back to her room but next thing he knew, he was leaving her in her bed and kissing her goodbye.
He made his way to the hospital cafeteria. He suddenly felt a bit feeble and thought that some coffee and a snack of some kind would go a way to restoring his strength for the drive home.
It was inevitable, Horatio supposed, that he'd have to meet Laertes eventually. They were carers for three people in the same hospital, after all, and besides there was more tying them together.
Laertes at his table in the cafeteria was trying his best to pretend he hadn't noticed Horatio's presence, but he wasn't fooling Horatio. And for some reason, Horatio and this moment thought it best to follow something Hamlet had said back in the day: "The readiness is all."
He went over to Laertes' table, clutching his coffee, and sat down with him.
"Hi," he said, mostly to signal his presence and to make clear that he wasn't prepared to be ignored for the sake of convenience.
"How is your sister?"
Laertes looked up at him with an expression that made clear what he thought about the audacity of the question. But they were in a public space, and Horatio thought he must be safe from any physical attacks at least.
"She is as may be expected," came the noncommittal answer. Horatio nodded. "I'm sorry," he said. Laertes snorted. "Not your fault," he said. "Your boyfriend, on the other hand..." - "He's not, we're not... not anymore." - "Well, thanks for that update on your personal situation, geek, I'm sure that changes everything." He sipped his coffee. "Why do you come here, then, anyway? If you're not..." "It's coplicated, " Horatio said and immediately regretted the words. Laertes groaned and rolled his eyes in response. "Do me a favour, mate, and don't talk to me unless you have something useful to say?" He downed his coffee and set the cup down with feeling.
"I never wanted any of this," said Horatio in a last-ditch attempt. "And you never did either. But if you think I can get out of it easily, you need to think again."
Laertes took a deep breath, then responded. "Last I checked, blood was thicker than water. And no doubt thicker than whatever binds you two together."
"Yeah, "Horatio said without missing a beat. "That's how come his mother is so much better at visiting here than I am."
Laertes' ace lit up with interest and Horatio continued.
"They haven't been once. They pay all the bills, but... not once."
"Jesus," Laertes said.
"Yeah," Horatio breathed. "So maybe I can be forgiven for taking a responsibility here for someone I loved. Love. Whatever."
They sat in silence, weighed down by thoughts of their respective failings.
"You should see someone about this," Laertes said finally.
"I wish your sister all the best," said Horatio.
"Yeah, whatever," Laertes said and got up. Horatio stared at the back of his head as he walked away.
They hadn't ever really spoken, but Hamlet had told tales out of school on particularly drunk nights. Horatio had never been sure of the exact nature of their relationship but whatever else it had been, Horatio reckoned it must always have been explosive. Laertes, as drawn by Hamlet, had always occurred to him as a young man full of conflicting desires and intense emotions; something volatile, almost feral.
But perhaps, he reflected, that had been Hamlet projecting.
Horatio felt numb as he got on the bus that night. If a different set of circumstances had brought Laertes and him together, there might well have been an actual conversation to be had there; comfort, even friendship to be found.
The people they loved forever out of reach; in need of care neither of them was prepared or confident to give, and both of them stuck, the pause button of their lives pressed until further notice and tethered to the past by events that had always been beyond their control, however much they might try to convince themselves that it was otherwise.
He sighed and forced himself to look forward, into the darkness, into another night that wouldn't stop him from hoping for the dawn.