When he heard that the players had come, Horatio went to the gates of Elsinore to see them. He enjoyed the theatre as much as any man, but the news of their arrival set his heart to rapid beating for a much less academic reason: nothing cheered Hamlet like the company of actors, and the prospect of something lifting his spirits was to Horatio like an anodyne's relief from pain.
He did not find Hamlet among the players, though they did say he'd been there some time before. Horatio couldn't imagine what might have drawn Hamlet away from something so tempting as an afternoon spent watching actors rehearse, but the prospect worried him, and his buoyed spirits sunk as he searched the palace for his prince's more likely hiding places.
It was in the library that he finally spotted, first with relief and then a spike of anxiety, the darkly garbed form of Hamlet. This would have been Horatio's own sort of sanctum, surrounded by silence and impartial knowledge, but the Hamlet he knew at Wittenburg took to crowds of people when he sought relief from stress. That was not to say Elsinore's library was not an impressive one: it was irregularly shaped, with many walls, each entirely spanned with dusty bookshelves. Above the parallel rows of free-standing stacks, an open second story wound around the perimeter of the room, reachable by a spiral staircase. It was on this second story that Hamlet sat, curled in a corner by a high window, his back against a bookcase and the light from outside playing over his pale and drawn face. Horatio climbed the staircase, purposefully making enough noise to signal his coming. Hamlet didn't look up until he was almost beside him, but when he did, a measure of the inward-turned distress that Horatio found so worrying smoothed away.
"Horatio," he said in greeting.
"My lord," Horatio replied, seating himself beside him on the floor. "I had hoped to find you enjoying the company of the players."
"I've been to see them and gone," he said, as if he were retelling a vague story he'd heard, not talking about the kind of people he would have ignored his studies to spend time with at Wittenberg. His eyes were unfocused, distant, and it was not difficult to see that the preoccupation which strangled his personality had not lessened its hold. Horatio waited patiently; it was the only response he felt might be correct. "I have also seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," Hamlet continued after a time.
"Oh? They are your childhood friends, are they not?" They had been at Wittenberg as well, but Horatio didn't know them. Friends of Hamlet or no, they did not travel in the same circles as Horatio. Like the players, he would have hoped such an encounter with them would be cheering to Hamlet, but his prince's troubled expression told otherwise.
"I wish that men were more like books," Hamlet replied. After this long knowing him, Horatio was used to responses that sounded not like responses at all, and he merely made a questioning sound. "One can trust books," Hamlet explained. "The words are there in clear print for him to read. He can trust to the constancy of their motivations, to their truthfulness."
"You have forgotten your classics, my lord," Horatio said wryly. "In his Histories Herodotus wrote down every word he heard, regardless of its truth."
Hamlet tilted his head to look at him, for the first time meeting his eyes. "But every time you open the pages of his book, the words printed there stay the same."
Horatio returned his gaze, eyebrows slightly furrowed, and tried to work out Hamlet's meaning. Finally he ventured: "You believe Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are deceiving you in some way?" Hamlet turned back to the window.
"They tell me they've come to Elsinore because they desired to see me."
"I told you the same."
Again Hamlet looked at him, and this time there was a slight exasperation in his face, a lessening of seriousness that Horatio counted as a victory, however small. "My dear Horatio, you are nothing like those-- those Punchinellos."
Horatio's mouth pulled in a bemused half-smile. "What makes you call them so?"
Hamlet snorted, but the exasperation was suddenly stripped away by a subtler hurt. "Do you think they came to see me out of altruistic friendship alone? No. They are mere puppets in this." In another moment the hurt was gone, replaced by a mask of tired introspection that frightened Horatio all the more. "Perhaps we all are. Nothing but puppets in this shadow-play that passes for life."
It was just this kind of bleak observation that had taken over Hamlet's mind since Horatio arrived at Elsinore. As he continued to observe the change, a cold sort of dread accompanied it, settling on him slowly, like a layer of snow. Their only communication had been through letters, after the news of the king's death came and Hamlet left Wittenberg (in a wordless rush, leaving his books and his clothes and Horatio behind), and even then, those letters had been so formal Horatio wondered if Hamlet feared they were being intercepted and read. He had longed so to see Hamlet in person - selfishly, to reassure himself - and he arrived to find the reality even worse than the letters.
None of Horatio's rationality, his precious equilibrium, could stand against this slow drowning despair. It shamed him to relinquish it, but there was only one thing with which he could hope to combat Hamlet's descent, and that was unflinching, naked devotion.
"If I have strings, my lord," he said, "no one holds them but you."
A tinge of color broke over Hamlet's too-white face, and his smile was thin, but true. "I hope that you have none at all where I am concerned, Horatio."
"You allow me to act without them when we're together. It's a rare gift in this life."
"You are the only one I trust," Hamlet replied, as if that were the one undeniable truth in the world and it shocked him that Horatio had to be told it. "Everyone else poses, and schemes, and constructs wheels within wheels to crush me. And I would gladly let them, were it not for-- for my obligations."
"And, I hope," Horatio said, fear eating at the edges of his heart, "for the love of your friends."
Hamlet's eyes did not leave his, but a stillness grew in them that froze the breath in Horatio's lungs. Without conscious thought, Horatio's hand sought for and found Hamlet's, and he clung with a desperation he hardly understood. Awareness flooded Hamlet's expression, swiftly followed by regret, and then - though whether in apology or reassurance or diversion Horatio never knew - Hamlet kissed him. After a moment, he felt Hamlet's hand on the back of his head, and they rested their foreheads together and breathed. Horatio experienced a dizzy incongruous mixture of elation and bottomless fear.
"Fear not for me," Hamlet said softly. "I am done with this multitude of minds. I will equivocate no longer." He got to his feet, and purpose seemed to fill him like a goblet, just shy of overflowing. "I had an idea before you came, Horatio - finally, an idea. There will be a play tonight. I will write it myself." An energy burned in his eyes as he paced back and forth, but in spite of this change, Horatio felt no reassurance. "Through it the players will reenact Claudius's murder of my father, and as he watches it... as he watches it, we shall watch his face, and there we will see his guilt even plainer than words on a page." He stopped and faced Horatio, as if to see how his plan impressed him.
"And what then?" Horatio asked at last. "What then?"
Hamlet watched him, the fire still burning. "Then, I will kill him."
The mere sound of the words struck Horatio with a chill, but he could not force himself to feel surprised. Instead, he felt as if they were caught in a maelstrom, spiraling toward an inevitable end. "And then? Once justice has been done? Will things be the same as they always have?" It wasn't a challenge, but Horatio hoped it would be a warning.
Hamlet continued to gaze down at him, and indecision chased itself across his face. Then he shook his head and held out his hand. "For later, Horatio. I cannot think on that now." He opened his fingers, imploring. "Please."
Horatio took his hand, and followed him. It was all he could do, in his love - he would do no different, never, no matter where it led.