Queen Gertrude has never liked him. She of course has never said anything – no one ever says anything they actually mean in Elsinore – but it is in her eyes, in the curve of her mouth when she speaks to him, deigning to throw a few words in the lap of her son’s friend. Companion. Nurse. Whatever it is you would like to call Horatio this week.
“You still receive letters from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” she says at one point, Hamlet bowing in deference to his parents, Horatio several feet behind him keeping his mouth shut. The councillor’s son whose name he can never quite recall is glaring at him, but he does not mind; everyone glares at him in Elsinore.
Horatio asks him about it later; Hamlet throws his head back and laughs, bright and just a little bitter. “Childhood friends,” he dismisses with a wave of his hand, the movement jerky, tense. “They always seemed far more interested in each other than me, anyway.”
And that, Horatio reflects, was probably the heart of the matter. He sometimes thinks he has only really lasted this long because from the moment he saw Hamlet he was never able to look anywhere else.
It is often very difficult, holding one’s tongue. The castle is full of murmurs, of lowered eyes, of saying things that mean nothing in order to prevent revealing the truth. Horatio misses Wittenburg, the noise of school, the way Hamlet smiles in sunlight that is not tainted by the far-reaching shadows of the castle walls. It is too quiet here and there are too many lies and too many things that happen behind closed doors.
Hamlet spends a lot of time with his father and Horatio hates the way he looks afterwards, fingers curling into his palms, lips bitten together, eyes downcast, something like disappointment in everything he will not say. That disappointment is nothing compared to the kind that clouds their king’s face whenever he looks at his son, hiding a scowl behind his beard, turning away from the concerned tilt of his wife’s mouth.
Horatio wants to say he doesn’t understand you and he equates that with not loving you but that doesn’t make it true. He wants to say I know how hard you are trying even if no one else does. He wants to say you are enough for me, Hamlet. More than enough.
He says nothing at all.
Ophelia has a waterfall of red hair and a mouth incapable of smiling and thin white hands that she knots together in what is either genuine anxiety or an affectation, and Horatio cannot hate her because there does not seem to be enough of her there to hate.
He is not sure what it is about her Hamlet is distracted by because there is nothing to cause the distraction; she is sweet and quiet and obedient and perhaps Hamlet likes the obedience but then he has never been one for orders, for authority. He plays the part of a prince and the whole kingdom pretends they are not worrying about what it will be like when he eventually becomes king.
Horatio worries more than he should do, perhaps, but Hamlet has never been strong, has always been more inclined to books and papers and thinking and none of that will make the king that they need. Ophelia cannot even pretend to be the power behind the throne because she does not have power of any kind; Horatio has seen the ways her father attempts to keep her a child with walls of words, the way her brother curls his fingers around her wrist too tight and for too long.
Hamlet either does not see this or does not want to see this and says that he intends to woo her. Horatio does not hate her. He wishes that he could.
Horatio does not know if he is taken for granted or not. He sometimes thinks he is; he wonders if Hamlet can recall a time when he did not have Horatio to listen to every last one of the thoughts in his head, from his passing whims to the nasty twisting black thoughts that no one should hear but which Hamlet does not seem to be able to keep to himself.
It is occasionally frightening to realise just how much Hamlet trusts him, the position he has placed Horatio in. Horatio cannot leave but he cannot know some of the things he knows and the silence in Elsinore is deafening and also a relief because without it Horatio thinks Hamlet would have compromised himself beyond any thought of rescue or redemption.
At other times, Horatio thinks there is something marvelling in the way Hamlet looks at him, something surprised and relieved and maybe even grateful. He never asks for clarification for fear it is just wishful thinking.
Hamlet is shaking and his mouth is cold and soft against Horatio’s and he is not sure who moved first or if it matters.
What he does know is that Hamlet does not know what he is doing and Horatio does; oh, he does. He refuses to let himself move, hands curled loose by his sides and breath frozen in his chest, eyes closed because he thinks he probably should not look at this, at whatever this is. This is too fragile to touch, too fragile to analyse, and Hamlet will do both of those things and then it will shatter.
For the moment, though, there is silence and a kiss that is barely a kiss but which is something, and maybe Hamlet is confused and maybe he is not and Horatio cannot ask until Hamlet chooses to tell him. Perhaps he has spent too long mired in someone else’s introspection.
A banging on the door startles them apart; a messenger stands, wide-eyed and panting and Hamlet has no eyes for anyone else.
The message on the man’s lips is: my lord, your father is dead.