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Wittenberg: Vice and Inclination

Title: Vice and Inclination [<--technically still a working title but whatever]
Characters: Hamlet, Horatio
Word Count: 2,243
Universe: Wittenberg verse shared with fog_shadow
Acknowledgements: Many thanks as per usual to the aforementioned fog, my beta reader and co-creator and Useful Greek Scholar, to whom this fic owes its reference to Iphigenia in Tauris (because Greek is still Greek to me, even if it wasn't actually to Casca)
Summary: On a night when most students are out carousing, our protagonists inquire into such questions as the definition of virtue and Horatio's capacity (or lack thereof) for certain vices.

Note: This fic was composed for an asexual fanwork challenge spanning the month of April. As my interpretation of Horatio has always been asexual (before I was even familiar with the term), I figured I would produce something for it. Fics were required to somehow or other feature asexuality or at least include it significantly in the story.


Once the events of the day had come to a close, the celebrants dispersed throughout the streets of the city, ultimately to regroup in less formal and in some cases less sanctioned venues: Wittenberg was no Paris, true, but it was also no exception to the inevitabilities that accompanied any significant concentration of students. Indeed, riding upon the publicity of the recent reform movement, the student population at the once-obscure Wittenberg had reached an unprecedented density, making it the single most popular university in Germany --- and consequently one of the more difficult places to find lodgings.  Thankfully, not all of this crowd was permanent. There was a significant ebb and flow to the head-count at Wittenberg, which followed after the cycles of the academic calendar: now it was high tide, but once the more anticipated lectures and disputations had passed, the waters would reliably fall.  Many of the present throng were not even seeking degrees, Wittenberg having become something of an academic tourist attraction. Languages, costumes, and customs from all corners of Europe mingled rudely through the streets, swamping the taverns and terrorizing the locals.  It was a crowd at once remarkably diverse and remarkably monotonous, for beneath the colourful multitude of accents and appearances, the city was essentially knee-deep in a homogenous soup of young men: Latinate, full of youthful arrogance and zeal, equal parts brilliance and idiocy. 
In the midst of this soup, the Prince of Denmark had distinguished himself as something of a wild card in his recreational habits. It was difficult to guess, on any given occasion, whether he was actually to be found amongst the hoard of student revelers, and if so with which part of it, for his whereabouts depended on a notoriously impenetrable whim, and although he had made memorable impressions upon many, no one circle of friends could claim him as a regular. Tonight, as it happened, the coin had come down against common revelry, and Hamlet sought out instead a more solitary form of celebration. Nearly all who encountered the prince were struck by his natural dramatic bearing, but only a few knew that he had in fact made some private study of that art: he rehearsed now, cycling through all the material he had memorized, propelling himself energetically through the deserted corridors and stopping occasionally to assail a portrait or confess undying love to an alcove.
Eventually, Hamlet directed his peripatetic act towards one of the more exclusive common rooms and found to his delight that it too was deserted. Closing the door behind him, he drew himself up into a posture of solemnity and prepared to recite.
“Good even to your lordship --- I thought I might find you here.”
Hamlet started. Had habitual public exposure not taught him to control his reactions, he would have jumped outright. After surveying the room a second time to confirm what he had already surmised, he cleared his throat and recited a speech regardless: one belonging to Orestes from Iphigenia in Tauris --- a Greek play, in honour of his one-man audience.* When he had finished, said audience applauded respectfully, and the actor bowed with a flourish. There was a brief moment of silence before he let down his mask, and both students fell prey to fits of laughter.
“The Ghost of Wittenberg,” said Hamlet through his mirth. “Thought you’d find me here? Dear sir, you appear to have the matter the wrong way round, for surely I have taken the active role in this discovery --- albeit inadvertently.”  
“There is much to be said for strategic positioning,” said the ghost. "By the by, the third instance of `chthonos' should have been `chthoni'.”
Hamlet cursed, momentarily put out.  Reassuming his good humour, he glared accusingly at Horatio. “It’s because you were here.”
 “If it is any consolation, your accent was flawless.”
“But this is high praise!” Hamlet cried, raising his eyebrows in a mockery of surprise that both covered and conveyed his delight. “I humbly thank you, my kind sir.”
“There need be no thanks for an honest assessment,” said the other, “But if you are looking for praise, I will concede that I deem it far better entertainment than there is to be had elsewhere this evening.”
“Well” --- Hamlet’s eye darted mischievously to the window --- “there is entertainment, and then there is entertainment. But we all know Horatio doesn’t go in for entertainment. Oh no, Horatio is a paragon of virtue."
Horatio frowned. “That depends upon one’s definition of the term.”
 “Say on?”
The scholar readjusted himself slightly in his chair. “If you hold,” said he, assuming a detached and almost professorial tone, “as did Aristotle, that virtue is measured by a want of inclination towards a vice, then I am indeed its paragon. If, however, as others will hold, virtue is the discipline to withstand temptation, then my present abstinence merits me no such title.” He paused, as if he had completed the thought. Hamlet opened his mouth to pry further into the slippery question of defining a virtue and had to clip his utterance short when the other continued unexpectedly: “It should be noted, however, that in some instances the absence of a certain vice may stem from a deficiency that extends not only to the vice but also to all related matter, vice or no. One does not praise a poor carpenter for having never abused a sacred office through the practice of simony: he is simply not a man in a position to act at that level --- justly or no.”
Horatio fell silent again, and Hamlet observed him intently, wary lest he should tread upon any further confidence. He had by now fully disengaged from the more frivolous conversational loop he had been about to lead them down, and was instead quickly calculating how best to take advantage of this new opportunity for inquiry into the species Horatio. When he was quite sure that no further addition was to be made, he put forth his question with delicate, inquisitive humour, pacing in a semicircle around Horatio’s chair as he spoke:
“You mean, then, that there exists a field in which vice and virtue are commonly played out that is as unavailable to you as the sky is to a fish?” As Horatio still said nothing, he continued: “Let us take Gluttony as a trial. If gluttony and all related matter is foreign to you” --- he peered warily at Horatio --- “I suppose now you are going to tell me that you do not eat --- or perhaps that you eat only air, as the chameleon, or nectar, as the gods? I won’t have it, you know: I have seen you eat. Now, if you were to tell me that you are incapable of drink --- that I might believe” --- he grinned --- “though you know I do not think it beyond remedy.”
“I observe that your lordship has also opted out of that particular vice tonight.”
Hamlet held up a finger: “That also is not beyond the range of my volition.” He spun about and strode over to the window, through which he could hear, faintly, the sounds of merriment and misdemeanour. Hamlet prided himself on his ability to be a part of anything and everything --- or rather to play the part of anything --- without ever fully showing his hand. Yes, he knew there was fun to be had on the other side of the window, and though he was half inclined to teach his fellow scholar a thing or two about Danish customs, something about the manner of Horatio’s recent confidence restrained him. He was being unusually free with his thoughts, and Hamlet doubted that dragging him out to a tavern was likely to loosen his tongue any further, in this instance.
At length Horatio spoke again.
“If you must know, my lord, I appear to suffer from a certain deficiency of the blood, when held up against others of our age and circumstance. Mind you, I do not find myself particularly inclined to drink either, but it is not a matter foreign to me entirely.”
“Ah!” said Hamlet, turning back to him. Well. That answered some of his queries concerning Horatio's opinion of brothels. He considered making some further remark about Horatio’s potential aptitude for drink, but decided to let the matter rest for the night. There was a faint smile upon his face --- not so much mischievous now as inquisitive, and entirely open-ended.
“Well,” he said at last, his tone still demurely playful, “I confess it does not surprise me: you are very pale.” Horatio heaved a sigh of long suffering, but the corners of his mouth twitched upwards. Pacing away from the window, Hamlet continued, addressing his comments to the ceiling: “In all honesty I myself have very little natural inclination in that realm. Curiosity, yes, but real inclination?” He turned to Horatio. “I’m not entirely sure I know what that is, or how I might identify it, in myself. And perhaps it is so with all things, to some extent: that what we may observe and identify as forces in others, from an exterior vantage point, we cannot pin down with the inner eye. You yourself have suggested as much --- but which eye, do you think, is more profound? Alternately, it could be that there is a real physical difference in your humours that accounts for this peculiarity --- a permanent deficiency of the blood, as you say. In either case,” --- here he pulled up a chair opposite Horatio and sat down in it backwards, crossing his arms ruefully over the top --- “I should consider it a boon. Even if we do not praise the carpenter for refraining from the abuse of office, we can at least grant that he is fortunate to have side-stepped the matter altogether.”
“That being a matter which you yourself shall not be so fortunate as to avoid.”
Hamlet sighed extravagantly at his fortune and slumped down further over the seat: “Indeed, no.” He stared pensively at the floorboards, and Horatio took the opportunity to return to the book he had been engaged with prior to their encounter. He was a paragraph in when Hamlet interrupted him again.
“What if I were to tell you, Horatio, that I have been in love with . . . the winter, or the sky, or . . . a figure of the mind? Would you think it at all comparable to that topic favoured by the poets? Or would you guess I meant something more like . . . an oft-cited and little evidenced piety? No, on second thought do not answer --- the answer is that you would not guess. Yet where would you shelve the question for further inquiry? For chances are that somewhere in that calculator’s mind, you do distinguish, if only for practical purposes of organization, and beneath that distinction lies a notion --- vapourous, unexamined and yet for all that unshakeable --- the notion that love between two human individuals is somehow more natural, more valued, or at least more expected than that of which I speak.”
Although Hamlet’s eyes were still searing the floorboards, Horatio was now looking upon his friend directly, with full attention.
 “My lord you mistake me. I have no such notion.”
“Have you ever loved, then?”
“In a sense.”
“Yet you distinguish…”
“Between different types of love.”
“I do.”
“So you do!”
“I do not follow.”
“Have some notion . . .”
“Why, don’t you?”
Hamlet sighed and averted his eyes once more, this time towards nothing in particular --- the window, perhaps, or the night sky.
 “I do not.”
Horatio said nothing, but continued to look at him.         
“You must think me insane,” said Hamlet.
“Not at all.”
He turned to meet Horatio’s eyes in earnest, then, and did not look away.
The eyes were small and brown and surprisingly plain, Hamlet noted, when subjected to the direct gaze. Before he had taken them as windows --- or even mirrors --- but now . . . where was his secret? He readjusted his perspective slightly, softening his focus to take in the whole, then doing a round of particulars, noting the dark strands of hair that had fallen before the face --- neglected, beginning to clump --- the impassive, almost feminine line of the brow and the deep shadows that fell to either side of an incisive Roman nose.  Something stirred in the depths of the eyes then, there, but when he brought his attention back to them it was gone.  Unable to recall what he had been about to say, or perhaps even the fact that he had been about to say it, Hamlet persisted in his investigation and Horatio held up his end steadily, neither moving. At some point, it fleetingly occurred to Hamlet that he had never held another’s gaze for so quite so long --- nor so unabashedly. A bit later it occurred to him that, were he to let this evolve into a competition of attention span, he would most certainly lose.  Perhaps it was this thought that spurred him --- either out of concession or preventative action --- to return to the world of words: he formulated a question, and several moments later, he spoke.
“What are you thinking?”
Horatio did not so much as blink.
“I am watching you, my lord.”
“And am I interesting to watch?” Hamlet smiled.
“Your eyes never settle,” said the observer.
“They do not.”

*An english translation (1999, David Kovacs) of the speech runs as follows: O Phoebus, where have you brought me this time by your oracles, into what net, since I avenged my father's murder by killing my mother? I was driven from my country as an exile by successive attacks of Erinyes, and many are the circling laps in the race I have run. When I came and asked you how I might reach the end of this whirling madness and my labors, [which I performed wandering about Hellas,] you commanded me to go to the land of the Taurians, where Artemis your sister has an altar, and to take the goddess' statue, which they say fell from the sky into this temple here. You told me to take it either by guile or by some stroke of luck and, when I had completed my dangerous task, to give it to the land of Athens (my orders went no further than this): when I had done so I would receive rest from my labors. Persuaded by your words I have come here as a stranger to this hostile land. But, Pylades, I ask your opinion (for you share this labor with me), what are we to do? You see that the walls on all sides are high. Shall we climb up on ladders? Then how can we avoid being seen? Or shall we pry the bronze doors open with crowbars and thus enter the temple? But if we are caught opening the doors and breaking in, we will be put to death. Rather, before we are killed let's get away on the ship that brought us here!



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 31st, 2013 03:23 am (UTC)
!!! I saw this recced on tumblr and I love it.

This is just perfect:

“But this is high praise!” Hamlet cried, raising his eyebrows in a mockery of surprise that both covered and conveyed his delight. “I humbly thank you, my kind sir.”

It's just so fitting for Hamlet, that he's so pleased by Horatio's praise - after all, if Horatio says it, he must mean it - and that he hides his pleasure by exaggerating it. It's a neat little bit of foreshadowing, come to think of it, as well as a completely believable way for a person to respond to a compliment. <3

The writing in this story is really lovely, and your characterizations are fantastic. I love that Hamlet is about to steer the conversation into witty banter but /stops/ when Horatio starts sharing a confidence instead. And I love that Horatio doesn't let Hamlet down here - when Hamlet confesses the weird and potentially embarrassing thought, Horatio may not quite get it, but absolutely respects it because it's Hamlet's.

I'm sorry, this was meant to be a coherent review and instead I'm a puddle of emotions over here. But this is fantastic. Well done! :)
Dec. 31st, 2013 04:22 am (UTC)
Hello, what a pleasant surprise! I am deeply flattered, and immensely pleased ---- thank you so much for the review, and especially for articulating the particulars of what you liked. I'm terrible at finding forums for my work or forging online connections of any ilk, really, so I'm amazed you managed to stumble across this and more amazed still that you loved it.

I would invite you to check out the comm, but alas it is rather dead. (Sigh.) I have the hardest time finding people whose ideas about Horatio mesh well with mine and . . . and when I do, I hardly know what to do with them. I wish i knew you in person so I could invite you over for tea and conversation with me and my housemates. Short of that, SO GLAD YOU LIKED IT YAAAAAAAAAY.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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