The first time Horatio runs into Hamlet, he thinks, just for a moment, that he's going mad.
He doesn't go by the name Hamlet, of course, any more than he himself goes by Horatio. That was a different time, a different place, a different life. But his face, his eyes, his laugh—they're all the same. They're all Hamlet. Horatio would know his prince anywhere.
He doesn't know why he's so shocked. He's living a second life, why not Hamlet as well? Maybe they've both been given another chance, and the senseless tragedy that stole Hamlet so cruelly from him doesn't have to happen this time. Unlike himself, Hamlet doesn't seem to remember who he is—was—and perhaps that's a good thing, because surely the knowledge of what he'd previously done would drive him mad.
He takes the time to befriend Hamlet, and for the first few months, all goes well. Then seemingly out of nowhere, Hamlet's father dies. Hamlet descends into grief, and before long he's muttering suspicions of murder, devilish plots, and Horatio watches it all unfold with a numb sort of horror. It's all happening again. The details are different of course—Hamlet's not a prince in this life, they're not even in Denmark, but the overall circumstances are more or less the same.
The day Horatio finds himself clutching Hamlet's still warm body to him, blood spilling out over them both, he begs God to deliver a third chance for them both.
* * *
The first time Horatio runs into Hamlet in the next life, he vows that he's going to change things.
He's not even sure anything bad will happen; it could have easily been some cruel fluke, a lesson from God he's yet to understand, but if it does, he swears that he's not going to let Hamlet die. Not this time, not again, not like the two times before. No matter what it takes, he'll find some way to keep Hamlet alive and by his side.
It doesn't work out that way, of course. Life rarely does. Horatio's vigilant, and he sees the signs early, but his attempt at interference only makes things worse. Hamlet dies before he even has a chance to slip slowly away from sanity, and Horatio only lasts two years in his grief before he takes his own life, thoughts of how he'll do better next time already filling his head.
* * *
Next time doesn't go any better, nor the time after that. Nor do the next five times. Horatio tries every time to put a stop to Hamlet's untimely death, to save him somehow, but it doesn't seem to make a difference. No matter what he does, Hamlet always dies in the end.
Each time, he can feel himself fraying around the edges a little more. Each new life, that first new meeting with Hamlet is a little less joyous, a little less filled with hope and determination. His smile dims more, the light begins to leave his eyes. By the twelfth time, he no longer tries to save Hamlet. He just lets it happen, and dies a little more inside every time that he has to hold Hamlet's body and sob.
By the twentieth time, Horatio's resolve has returned. He will save Hamlet. He can't keep going through this, can't keep watching Hamlet's life fade before his eyes. Just because he hasn't managed to save him yet doesn't mean there isn't a way. There is one, he knows there is, he just simply hasn't found it yet—he's not going to give up.
The thirtieth time Horatio runs into Hamlet, he knows he's going mad.
He kills Hamlet himself this time, and Hamlet stares at him as he gasps in pain, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth and running down his chin, the red stark against the paleness of his skin. His eyes are wild and there's betrayal in his face, but he says nothing as Horatio holds him, murmuring apologies and rationalisations that aren't rational in the least.
There's a certain sort of irony in it, Horatio thinks as he lowers Hamlet's now lifeless body to the ground, that in trying to prevent Hamlet's spiral into madness, it has driven Horatio himself into madness. It makes him laugh, but there's little real humour in the situation.
He won't ever kill Hamlet again.
* * *
After murdering Hamlet, Horatio almost had hope that it would stop, that the God he's beginning to believe less in would have mercy on him, but on it goes, the two of them continuously being reborn into new lives, seemingly forever doomed to repeat their tragedy. Throughout years, throughout decades, throughout centuries, it never ends.
His madness abates eventually, devolving into a numb acceptance that these are his lives now—a cosmic joke, or sick penance for not saving Hamlet the first time, back in that faraway life when Hamlet had been a prince and Horatio his servant and friend. It was lifetimes ago, but it still feels as recent as if it happened only yesterday, all the things he might have done plaguing his thoughts. Yet he knows too that it's an exercise in futility, for he now has done many of those things, and still Hamlet dies.
Somewhere around the mid-1900s, in his thirty-eighth reincarnation, Horatio hears a quote. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Hearing it sparks something in his brain, and he realises he's been going about things all wrong.
Instead of Horatio trying to save Hamlet, why not see if Hamlet can help save himself?
* * *
The problem with that, Horatio soon finds out, is that there's no way to explain everything without looking mad. And perhaps he still is, just a touch—for surely anyone would be after watching their friend die for the past four hundred or so years—but it's frustrating nonetheless when Hamlet laughs him off and shoves a beer into his hand. "You've been studying too hard," he says. "Relax."
Horatio relaxes, and two months later when he's watching his friend's coffin being lowered six feet under, he tells himself that he'll have to try harder the next time.
And he does, but it's little matter when he waits too late, thinking that Hamlet might better believe him after events have already been set into motion, only his friend's already caught too deep in the throes of his grief and insanity, and there's nothing Horatio can do.
The fortieth time—
The fortieth time, Horatio never runs into Hamlet. It's well past the point by which he usually meets him, and Horatio sinks into despair, thinking it's too late, he's missed his chance, that for whatever reason Hamlet's not been reincarnated and now he can never be saved—
—but then he sees the headline of a newspaper as he passes by the chemist's, and there's a picture, and it's Hamlet. He hurries inside and tosses a crumpled up fiver at the clerk as he snatches up the paper, not bothering with change, and waits until he's in the privacy of an alleyway before he reads it.
It's definitely Hamlet, and a familiar enough story. The details and the death are always different, but they always exist. He skims quickly: father died under suspicious circumstances, mother remarried father's business partner, son went mad with grief and killed them both before killing himself.
Horatio stares at the paper for a long time, wondering why they didn't meet, why it all played out without him, what was different about this time. After hours of thought and aimless wandering around the city, he can reach no conclusion. He goes home and hangs himself.
* * *
The next time Horatio runs into Hamlet, in the forty-first life, he doesn't wait. He lays it all out immediately, explaining everything to him. The first death, and the ones following, and all his attempts to save Hamlet. How he doesn't know why they keep being reborn into these new lives, only that they do, and he remembers every single one of them, and though he has no proof, he's certain he's meant to save Hamlet if this odd reincarnation is ever going to stop.
Hamlet looks at him for an eternity, his expression carefully blank, until Horatio's squirming uncomfortably under the weight of that gaze, inwardly begging whoever might listen—he'd given up on his belief in God by the thirty-fifth rebirth—that Hamlet will believe him.
Finally, finally, Hamlet opens his mouth. "Horatio," he says, and a heartbeat, a moment of hope that's a second and a lifetime, and then, "you're quite mad. Please don't come near me again."
Horatio swallows, his eyes downcast. "Right," he says, and takes his leave.
* * *
The forty-second time, Horatio decides that if he can't tell Hamlet, he'll just have to show him.
As luck—fate, destiny, pure random happenstance, he no longer knows—would have it, they wind up roommates at Wittenberg, the very same university they attended all those lifetimes ago.
"Hi, I'm Horatio," he says to the other man. It's not the name he goes by in this life, of course, but he wants to give Hamlet as many reminders of their past selves as possible.
"Hamlet," comes the response, and it throws him off for just a second, because Hamlet hasn't been Hamlet since the very first time, but he takes the hand offered to him with a smile, thinking as hard as he can of a mere moment in a previous life, doing his best to project that moment to Hamlet.
It makes no sense, of course, but then, nothing about this crazy situation has ever made sense, so why should it start now? Maybe the only way to fight madness is with madness, and he simply went about it wrong before.
"Huh?" Hamlet says as Horatio ends the memory. His eyes dart around the room, a confused frown on his face. Horatio can't be certain, but as mad as the whole thing sounds, his idea seems to have worked.
Horatio doesn't betray any of that, however, only raises an eyebrow, affecting a calm he doesn't feel. "I said I hope we can be good roommates this term."
"Yes, so I do. I'm quite looking forward to this term. It's good to have a new roommate, my last one was a nightmare. The stories I could tell you..." Hamlet trails off, looking embarrassed, but Horatio's well used to his tendency to talk too much.
He offers the other man a small smile. "You'll have to tell me one some time."
"Yeah," Hamlet says, and heads into the empty bedroom. Horatio watches him go, true hope blooming for the first time in ages. He doesn't know why, but he has a feeling that this time is going to be the one. No matter what it takes, he'll save Hamlet.
Hamlet can't die.