Horatio, even after their university days, never quite stops playing the student. He takes his refuge in words; perhaps it's in words that he'll find, or free himself of, the Lord Hamlet, so it's words, unrehearsed, that take Horatio to Elsinore. Yet when he watches his lordship watch the girl called Ophelia (watches her return the prince's gaze with hesitant, lingering eyes), he never finds what words he wants.
Instead, he writes: It is love, or perhaps the idea of it, then hastily scratches out the sentence. He's missing a corner of the story, and knows it - knows it from the way the prince and the lady dance awkwardly around each other, as if each is compensating for an invisible, severed limb, knows it from the expression the prince wears whenever he takes a swig of Horatio's wine.
Horatio fills page after page with the old king's death, the new king's marriage, his lordship's icy rage, and still, has only speculation. Speculation, that is, and memory.
The room at Wittenberg smelled overwhelmingly of books, the first time Denmark's prince bore Horatio down to the bed, smelled of ink and yellowing pages as his lordship's hands pressed bruises across Horatio's bared shoulders, Horatio's fingers curling tight into the blankets.
The prince, fully clothed, buried his face in Horatio's neck, harsh breath whispering against sensitive skin over and over again, "You are a good friend, Horatio. You are such a very good friend."
Horatio bit his lips, did not speak, but wrote across the scrolls of paper in his mind's eye: But I do love --
He never did complete that sentence.
There exists, Ophelia knows, a world of events outside Hamlet's moods, their enigmatic encounters, that fragile juxtaposition between his rages and his tenderness. Her brother, perhaps, could puzzle it out, or force an answer from those half-silent conversations. Still, left to her own devices, she knows enough to feel the beginnings of a fear that lingers in the crevices of her soul, its cause always just barely out of her grasp, a fear that twists itself up with anger and confusion and hurt when Hamlet flings her aside.
It's Hamlet's scholarly friend, Horatio, who later finds her hunched over by the brook, her shoulders trembling with long-suppressed sobs. He pats her back, hesitantly at first, then with more assurance as he gathers her awkwardly against him, and holds her that way until she's calm enough to speak without a tremor in her voice. "He is losing his mind," she tells him.
Horatio doesn't answer, and she looks up at him. His eyes are kind, and infinitely sad. "You know," she says, in a tone that falls short of an accusation, and into resignation. "You know."
It's more than that, though. It's as if she's looking at a mirror.
She makes as if to hit him, but can't seem to muster the strength, and his hands catch her (small, damnably vulnerable) wrists. "My lady," he begins, but everything in her revolts against spoken conversation. When their lips meet, she thinks of their lord, and when Horatio curls flush against her, does not weep.
There's a wrongness to their embrace. It's a wrongness that seeps into her bones and tingles in her flesh, as she cries out, horrified at how she relishes it.
But all will be well, in the end, she tells herself desperately, her nails scrabbling down Horatio's back. When her brother returns from France, he will set things right, as he always does, and all will be well.
She believes this, earnestly and faithfully, to the day she goes to her grave.
"You don't have to go, you know," Laertes said, after Hamlet first announced his intention to leave for university. He added, gruffly, "You aren't really such a terrible swordsman that you should have to retire to life behind a desk."
Hamlet grinned, a little crookedly, and tossed aside the foil from their fencing game. "And you," he retorted, clapping Laertes on the back, "are not such a mindless fool that scholarship would be wasted on you. You don't have to go to France, either." His hand lingered for a moment, startlingly warm against the space between Laertes' shoulders.
Something in the air shifted then, and Laertes drew a breath in, almost said, Stay, my lord, for god's sake, let us both stay at Elsinore. Ophelia is here, and your parents, and it would be enough, my lord, for a kind of happiness.
Instead, he let the breath out, and closed his mouth.
In the moment before the duel begins, Horatio looks at his lordship's opponent, and absurdly, sees Ophelia. It's ridiculous, of course. Laertes uses his anger like a weapon, where his sister would have bottled hers away into seemly, maidenly sorrow; his movements are forceful and full of dark intent, where hers were ever demure, unsure, an expression of hesitancy in a world of irrevocable purpose.
What is it then? Horatio writes, feeling feverish. Is it a trick of light, or memory, or sentiment?
Ophelia lost her mother when she was young enough not to understand, but old enough to have bad dreams. Her father was kind enough, but a world apart, and she didn't dare disturb Queen Gertrude or the king.
Her brother made an irritable sound, when she tugged at his blanket, but he rolled over automatically to make room for her in the bed, and his arms went around her on the first sob. "It's all right," Laertes murmured, still half-asleep, "I'm still here. I'm always here."
He'd make her leave eventually, she thought, clinging to his shoulders. He would let go, and make her leave.
"Don't cry," he instructed instead, as her tears soaked them both, "don't cry. Shh, shh."
When the prince touches him now, Horatio flinches at the look in his eyes. But when the prince's fingers snake across Horatio's skin, removing the latter's garments one by one - sometimes with painstaking reverence, other times with violent desperation - Horatio opens his mouth only to find that words still die before they reach his tongue.
Then his lordship has Horatio splayed across expensive carpets, or bent over the edge of a table, or slammed against the wall of the library, and Horatio, biting his own lip until it bleeds, denies the prince nothing.
"Do not ever touch her," Laertes said.
Hamlet, newly home from university, smirked. "There was once a time when you might have given your blessing for me to marry her. To love her." His voice twisted the words into something hideous.
Laertes' hands curled into involuntary fists. "You love no one."
Hamlet laughed, shortly. "Did you not enjoy France? I hear that you mean to return, and soon." He tipped two fingers under Laertes' chin, and wrenched, drawing his old playmate forward. "Come, what's the matter, my friend?"
Laertes jerked out of the prince's grasp, as if the latter's fingers burned. "Before," he spat, "before, you could touch things without breaking them."
But now, the Prince of Denmark lies sprawled in Horatio's arms.
(Their fingers brushed, the first time they shared a drink at Wittenberg.)
Horatio thinks of Ophelia, mad, holding fast to him with one hand, and with the other, reaching for a brother she doesn't see.
(She used to dance coyly around her prince, and everyone said she could tease Laertes out of his foulest moods.)
He thinks of Laertes facing the prince, thinks of the blades drawn between them.
(But before, that was the stuff of children's games.)
Childhood ends, though.
When Laertes dies, he thinks of his father, thinks of justice, thinks of the color of the sky in France.
Mostly, though, he thinks of this: Don't cry, don't cry. Shh, shh.
Once, Horatio saw the three of them together: the prince, his lady, her brother.
They looked young and beautiful, painted over by sunlight in the solemn corridors of Elsinore, and were happy.
Horatio's loyalty falters, only for a moment, but it's long enough for him to know, in an instant, what resistance feels like. The cup rests between his hands, and when the dying prince tries to take it from him, Horatio's knuckles whiten for bare seconds.
But his lordship speaks, speaks for the last time, and Horatio remembers that there are words, still. Words, words, and the ending to this long tale.
So the cup slips from his fingertips.
How it might have ended:
I loved you. I loved you so very dearly.
How it ends:
The fall of the sparrow.