There was a change in him. Horatio could see it behind the deep pools of his eyes, hear it in his laughter. Horatio could not help but think that Hamlet had been gone too long - not from the corruption and bitter plotting that ran through Elsinore to its core, but from Horatio himself, from his care and unquestioning ear. When Hamlet returned to Denmark, he had not shaved in some time, and his pale brown hair hung long and uncut about his shoulders. He had ever been such, to forget such little things if not prompted to them, but there had rarely been a time so long when Horatio had not been there to remind him.
Horatio watched, listened, as Hamlet rambled on about death and skulls, his hands dark with grave-dirt, and the longing to draw Hamlet near to him, to hold him close and keep all the rest of the world from him, was almost palpable. Had Horatio any less self control, he would have taken up Hamlet's hands and kissed each of his callused fingers, even in sight of the joking gravediggers.
But long years of the careful rhythms of the court of Elsinore had taught him that there were things that were spoken of and done only in locked bedchambers, and so he stood in patient stillness, listening, watching, falling back with ease into the place of which he had been bereft in Hamlet's long absence.
The court of Elsinore seemed to Horatio worlds away from his father's small holdings in the south. There, the work of the peasants was near, and the job of overseeing the household accounts something his parents managed themselves. Here, the castle itself was a self-contained world, where the laws of the outside world did not apply. Horatio knew that it was his father's dearest hope to have his son go to court, but he could not help wishing that he could have stayed at home.
He was presented to the King and Queen, who seemed to him not quite the stately figures that he had imagined. King Hamlet appeared like any man of his age with a great task upon him - distant, and slightly cold. Queen Gertrude was beautiful, no doubt, under her paints and the red dye in her hair, but no more so than Horatio's own mother. It was only Prince Hamlet, who sat at his father's other side, who seemed to Horatio truly, gloriously royal. His eyes were bright, and he was as handsome as a Roman statue of Mercury, with a princely bearing and a twist of clever humor in his mouth. Horatio felt himself staring. Prince Hamlet, so quickly that Horatio thought it could have been his own imagination, winked.
Before he rose from his bow and went to the other side of the room, Queen Gertrude lifted a hand, heavy with jeweled rings. "You are young indeed to come alone to court, boy. How old are you?"
"I have thirteen years to my name, majesty," Horatio said, speaking slowly so that he did not stumble over the words, "which my good father found sufficient for me to come here."
Queen Gertrude turned to her husband. "The same age as our Hamlet," she said to him, soft, but not so soft that the nobles in the room could not hear her.
The King nodded. "And his father is a right honorable man - I do remember him from the war." Raising his voice, "Would you join our son Hamlet in his lessons? There are few boys at court of his age, and we do wish companionship for him."
Horatio was almost too shocked to be glad. Not knowing what to do, he bowed again. "I would be greatly honored, your majesty," he said.
He glanced at the Prince, who glanced back. It seemed to Horatio that they shared a private smile.
Horatio was nearly halfway through shaving the weeks of stubble from Hamlet's face, and the familiar line of Hamlet's jaw was beginning to emerge again. The familiar rhythm of the action calmed Horatio - even Hamlet's unwillingness to sit still for it was accustomed.
"Ophelia dead! Ah, that all the antique gods should be so unkind, to take life from she who was their world's greatest ornament! It is a fate unjust, that her graceful hands should be cold with death-pallor while the villain Claudius' still hold's my father's scepter."
Horatio laid a palm upon Hamlet's cheek, half to steady the hand that held the razor and half for the contact of it. "She had gone mad, my lord - it was a cruel fate, but one which stemmed from that, inevitably, as rose-bushes do bear roses each year without fail."
"But madness is a strange thing, and thou dost know that, Horatio. If I, who have touched my hand to madness as though it was as near to me as one of these castle walls, had been with her at the breaking of her mind, then I could have warmed her fear-cold hands, and healed her injured mind. Why didst thou not help her, Horatio? Thy patient strength hast helped me so, why not help her?"
Horatio finished the shaving, and as he put away the razor he a moment to convince himself to refrain from telling Hamlet that it was Hamlet's own cruelty that drove Ophelia mad. "There was naught for me to do - her madness was truth, and not feigned as yours."
Hamlet exhaled a deep sigh, and rested his head upon his hands, his long hair covering his face. Horatio knelt beside him, taking his hands in his own and, when Hamlet lifted his head, kissing him, gentle, reassuring. "Mourn here with me, my lord, for here you are safe from the vipers which doth afflict your mind and soul."
Hamlet's bright eyes were brighter still with tears, and Horatio could feel his quiet trembling. He had been like this after his father's death, and then as well Horatio had felt that, however much he touched him and with however much gentleness, Hamlet's grief was somehow locked from him. "Thou art kind to me, good Horatio." He smiled, more bitter even than Horatio remembered him. "When I am King, my throne shall be sore unbalanced! For long have I wished for Lady Ophelia to sit at one side of me, and for thee to sit upon the other, so that I might have those two that I do love and trust forever in my company to give me what they can of help and of advice."
Horatio's heart and eyes felt sore with joy and pain. "Must needs you duel with Laertes?" he asked, softly.
Hamlet nodded. He seemed singularly unconcerned. "Aye, for that is how such things are done, and my uncle shall pin my refusal upon my breast as a mark of shame. But fear not for me, friend of my heart," he continued in a different tone, one of his hands moving to Horatio's hair, "for I shall use those skills in which my noble father hath given me good instruction, and the hot blooded cockerel shall falter even in those plans that fiendish Claudius has lain with all clear thinking."
That dispelled none of Horatio's fears, but he knew that to say so would get him nowhere.
Hamlet was dressed for fencing, and he dropped his foil on the floor as he entered the room. Hearing the clatter of it, Horatio looked up from his book of Cicero.
"You have been fighting?" he asked, mildly.
Hamlet nodded. "My father hath gained the leisure to instruct me further. We fought with blunted swords, and when we had each worn the other out, he spoke to me of many things."
Horatio pulled a chair closer to his for Hamlet to sit down in. He did, looking at Horatio's book for an instant before he did so. "What is't that you did speak of?" He asked.
"Of a king's duties, and those that I owe to him and to the rest of my ancestors. He wished to speak to me of such before we returned for Wittenberg." Hamlet fiddled with a coin left on the table, tossing it lightly in the air.
Horatio thought of the distance that he had seen in the King's eyes, and the deep-drawn lines about his eyes. "It is a heavy burden that he does place upon you, and at an early time."
Hamlet's hands grew still, and he looked directly at Horatio, the brightness of his grey-blue eyes focused entirely on the other man. "It is a burden for which I have been prepared all the years of my life. Thou knowest nothing of it."
Horatio wished that Hamlet would start tossing the coin again, for the intensity of his gaze was discomfiting even to Horatio, who had always found it so unendingly fascinating. "I wish not for you to be hurt by it, and that is all."
"Dost thou think me not strong enough to bear it?" There was a sharpness to Hamlet's words.
"Nay, nay, that be not my fear. I wish only -" What? That Hamlet never need be King at all? That the two of them could stay at Wittenberg forever, reading and hearing lectures and debating all the subjects of the day over simple meals and simple ale? "My lord," he continued, his voice softer, "I fear for you as any man would fear for that which he loves most. You are strong, my dear lord, but the burden of kingship can weigh heavy on the strongest man."
Hamlet relaxed, minimally. "Fear not for me, Horatio. I have learned well from my father, and I shalt have thee at my side all the years of my reign."
They lay in bed long that morning, and Horatio wished for every minute of it that they could lie there forever. He had spent long hours examining each inch of Hamlet's body for things that had changed in their long separation, wishing to know each trifling injury he had received, each bruise, each callus. He had found that Hamlet had grown more tanned with sun than Denmark's short summers had ever made him, and that he had a new silvery scar on the back on a shoulder-blade, Horatio had kissed the scar, and not asked where it came from.
They had easily fallen back into their old patterns together, their old remembrances of what the other enjoyed, but Horatio could not forget his fear of what the next day would bring. For Claudius knew now, how dangerous Hamlet could be to him, and even if the duel with Laertes brought not true harm to Hamlet, Claudius would find some other way, that Horatio knew. And if Hamlet was to succeed in his old aim of killing Claudius, what then? Would the people of Denmark wish the throne ever to be got through murder? And would the courtiers ever support Elsinore's mad prince, the one who had killed Polonius and driven Ophelia deep into the water? Horatio was quiet, easily ignored, and he had listened during the time that Hamlet had been gone. Claudius was not disliked.
But the danger was not new, he did know that, and he could not protect Hamlet, only be there for him to come back to when he was tired and pained with grief and alone, only be there to listen to his endless poetic philosophies, only be there to laugh at his jokes and shave him, and remind him to change his clothes, and kiss him, forever, endlessly, like the unending rhythm of the ocean.
And so, when Hamlet got up from bed and put on a clean doublet and hose, Horatio did not draw him back or bar the door against his leaving, however much he wanted to.
"I do not know for certain how such things are done between men," Horatio said, hesitantly, for it seemed such a ridiculous thing to say when jokes about buggery were so common among the students at Wittenberg.
"I do not either, in truth," Hamlet replied, and it was almost a comfort to Horatio to hear that he too sounded uncertain, "but I'm sure that it cannot be something impossible to deduce. It is simply a matter of touching and of being touched, at its simplest, is't not? And we know well enough to do that."
Horatio would have wished to have touched Hamlet first, to have undressed him with tender care and ran his hands all over his body, watched his eyes close and his mouth open in pleasure, but Hamlet insisted on undressing Horatio first, and though Horatio thought himself thin and unattractive beside Hamlet's regal beauty, Hamlet seemed enamored with ever detail of him. He tried different ways of touching him, playful and curious in it, not hesitant and unsure as Horatio knew he himself would be. Hamlet grinned at Horatio's varying reactions.
"My lord," Horatio murmured, "You of all the world the most -"
"No," Hamlet stopped him, oddly serious in his tone, "Do not speak to me with such formality, no longer after this. Thou, my love, my beloved, I am thy lord but thou art mine as well."
Horatio felt the painful rules of court protocol slipping from him, and even as he knew that he would be unable not to revert to the formal form on days after this, when their bodies were not so close and the breaths not taken each in the other's hearing, he said, filled with the joyous exaltation of it, "Yes, my lord, my beloved, thou the dearest, the most handsome, the most wondrous of all the world."
"Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest," he whispered, and even as he knew that Hamlet could not hear him, he forced himself to speak to him informally, familiarly, imagining that again they lay together, close, skin against skin, the long moments unending.