When Horatio met Hamlet, he didn't actually realize he was a prince. Horatio knew he was popular, sure. There was a group of boys vying for his attention like crows pecking seeds off the pavement. Horatio was never one to try and get anyone's attention and set up his things on the other side of the lecture hall.
Most of the time, Horatio sat alone. Whatever the opposite of popular was, that was Horatio. He was an academic first, a scholar first. He was there to learn, not win the attention of the sharp eyed boy on the other side of the class.
However, Horatio didn't have to win it. He was given it. Later, Hamlet would tell him that it was exactly his disinterest that drew him over.
Hamlet took the chair beside him, saying, "This seat taken?"
Horatio raised an eyebrow, because Hamlet was already there, already taking the seat.
And that was where they sat together, every morning. Hamlet would ignore the people who tried to get his attention and sit with Horatio.
And Horatio learned a little about Hamlet, that he took notes in the neatest handwriting Horatio had ever seen on a boy. That he had expensive pens and food snuck away in his bag, both of which he would silently pass to Horatio. He didn't learn his name until they'd sat together for a month, and in turn that he was a prince.
"My lord." Horatio said, the next time Hamlet sat next to him.
"Oh no." Hamlet's face twisted. "That's not what I want to hear."
"I can't exactly call you anything else."
"I heard you call me 'that idiot I sit with in third period'. I'd prefer that."
Horatio's smile went wry, even as his heart raced at the implications. "Too bad, my lord. You don't get to pick."
Even in this, Horatio was contrary. It was what Hamlet wanted, someone to be contrary, because his smile split over his teeth, an orange slice.
And so they knew each other's name, their titles, and they were friends. Horatio submitted to this like the ice breaking underneath your feet and plunging you into frozen water. One moment he was a scholar, the next he was the closest friend to a prince.
Hamlet refused to leave him alone, following him out of class and ranting about whatever was on his mind that day. He never seemed to need a response from Horatio and it took a long time for him to actually offer one. Or two. Maybe a dry comment here or there. Until Horatio was hard pressed to remember a time when he didn't have the Prince of Denmark following him around, monologuing about political injustice or how his potatoes were served cold.
Hamlet invited him to the most ridiculous things, as if Horatio wasn't a complete nobody and utterly out of place in any royal setting. But he went.
The first time Horatio met Hamlet's parents was at his birthday, where he wandered around the fancy grounds at Hamlet's side and felt more lost than he ever had. Hamlet's father had a deep voice and couldn't seem to stand still, and his mother eyed Horatio with an expression he hadn't seen before.
Everyone else looked at him like he didn't belong. But Gertrude looked at him differently.
"Why you?" Gertrude asked, when she managed to corner Horatio alone.
The anxiety was masked with Horatio's classic unflappability. He didn't pretend to misunderstand her question. He said, "I do not know, my lady."
Gertrude studied his face for a long, uncomfortable minute. She said, "He will lead you into hell, if you're not careful. He has no regard for others."
Horatio found the statement unkind and untrue. Harsh. But his social status made him unable to deny her. He said, "I have nowhere else to be."
For some reason, that made her smile a little. She said, "That's why he chose you, then. Loyalty. And calm. He has never been calm, not since he was born. You can be useful."
With that statement, she swept off, with as much the flair for dramatics as her son. Horatio tried to loosen his death grip on his drink.
And he was useful. Gertrude got his phone number, somehow, and called him in the middle of the night. She was looking for Hamlet. He wasn't there.
"I'll find him." Horatio said, with confidence he didn't have. However, it wasn't hard, because Hamlet picked up the phone when he called. So Horatio put his coat on and met Hamlet halfway, walking around the streetlamp-lit town as it sparkled from satellites suffocating the stars and listened to the woes of a prince. Then he took Hamlet home, and accepted a single nod from Gertrude in the window.
What the fuck ever was his life, anyway.
No one ever wanted Horatio around except for Hamlet, and Gertrude was the only one who seemed to notice his existence. She occasionally would grill him for an inside scoop on Hamlet, which he never provided. His loyalty was much better. And she would sigh and say, "I'm glad he has someone in his corner."
Horatio would watch the back of Hamlet's head as he ran around, singing praises for something or other, and wonder how he managed to get in this corner.
Because Hamlet was a star, shining, bright. But that was the cost -- because the star is the end of a life cycle, it was the flare before the burn out. And to be watching as Hamlet stumbled and fell, wrapping himself in dark and misfortune...
Sometimes Horatio met Gertrude's eyes and wanted to tell her everything, in the naive want that she still had Hamlet's best interests at heart. But she was human, and she'd shown her hand, and she wanted selfish and strange things. It was terrifying to be alone in Hamlet's corner, being the only thing holding him to reality.
Horatio never asked to be there but he could never leave. He'd devoted himself to a cause that was lost, to a man with passion and heart that was in danger, a precipice of action, of inaction, of fear.
Horatio still saw Hamlet as a boy, not a prince. He said my lord and his heart said my friend. He reached for him and watched as time went on and Hamlet failed to reach back.
But still Horatio stayed in his corner. Once upon a time, Hamlet refused to leave Horatio alone. Now, it was the other way around.
Gertrude still looked at him with the same eyes, torn between her own family and duty. Hamlet didn't look at him anymore, sharp eyes elsewhere, on phantoms, on past and future and pain. Horatio looked at the present and shut his eyes.