AN: Please note there is discussion of depression and attempted suicide in this fic.
Discaimer: All Hornblower characters and situations are the property of the CS Forester estate and of Meridian television. No ownership is implied or inferred. This is done for love only.
Archie awoke to pale starlight creeping through the windows. The fire had burned low and was smouldering, the tang of ash filling the air in the room. He lay still for a moment, listening for his tormentor and heard only slow regular breathing. Looking over, he saw that Horatio was back in his chair, asleep at his post. Dark shadows played across his face and half hid him from sight.
Archie sighed, glad not to have to endure him for the moment. Horatio was his friend, but was also his victim and the cause of his current grief. His victim because he knew Horatio would blame himself, and the cause because he would not simply allow Archie to die. Emotions raged in conflict in Archie's mind, although he maintained his silence with difficulty. It would not do to awaken Horatio now and have to explain his thoughts, feelings and course of action. He could not bear to have Horatio on his back about food and drink when all he wanted was to cease to exist. Horatio, who was strong and brave and everything Archie was not, but who acted as if Archie were a man like him. Horatio, who pressed him to drink and to eat and to get better, whose will he had no strength to fight off although it wrenched him to the core to give up the control of being allowed to die, the one piece of himself he had left.
In the dark of the night, Archie allowed the grief and self-pity he carried to come to the fore. He was a failure, in life and now in seeking death. Why had he not acted more decisively? For all that he thought he wanted to die, was ready to die, could make the sacrifice to be free of Horatio's demands that he get better and rejoin the crew of the Indefatigable, he was too much the coward. Death was a coward's way out, to be sure, but Archie was too fearful even for that. He could have taken the razor that Horatio had talked the Don into providing him and slit his own throat. Or failing that, he could have asked Hunter to do the deed – he knew the other man bore him no good will and wanted only to see him out of the way of their escape plan. But Archie could not even do that. He chose the slow route, the painless route, the route that allowed his friend ample time to save him and delay their escape even further. No, Archie was too much the coward even to kill himself effectively.
Horatio stirred, and Archie glanced over to him but the other man simply shifted in his sleep and settled down to calm and quiet breathing once again. Relieved, Archie rolled his eyes back to the ceiling and wondered at Horatio. He truly believed what he had said about his not being lauded for rescuing him, but Archie knew that would be the way of it. He did not begrudge Horatio his brilliance, for he had seen long ago that his friend could outstrip him and many others, but he realised as Horatio did not that the men, and the other officers, recognised that quality too. Horatio would always be lauded and revered, or envied by lesser men, but he would never know that was what was happening. That was the drawback in being the best friend of a better man: when one was in the light, the other was inevitably in the shadow. Archie would never seek to take that from Horatio, but he did not wish to put himself back in the position of always trying and never quite matching up. It was a bitter truth, but Archie envied Horatio, who had saved him more than once already, and saw that he was a lesser man. He did not want to live with that truth any more than he wanted to live with the shreds of his sanity that had been left him by the Don's treatment.
Archie was a shell of a man. Pieces had been taken from him a bit at a time, on the Justinian, where he had rotted in purgatory with men little better than he, where Simpson had broken the back of the work by reducing him to nothingness, a coward who jumped at shadows and suffered fits in the night. He had lost yet more on the Indefatigable when he had imperilled an attack with his illness and had been struck down – and Archie knew who had struck him down, remembered that well enough. Horatio should surely see him as worthless after that encounter. But he had lived, to be picked up by a French frigate and to have the final remaining shreds of himself torn away as every attempt to fulfil his duty and escape was thwarted and punishment was rained down upon him. He was a broken man, a coward and a fool who was worth nothing and did not deserve to live.
And yet, Horatio was determined to save him. He had been there when Archie awoke from his torment, had listened to his resolve to die and his half-formed thoughts of why that should be the case, and then firmly refused to allow it. He had pushed and Archie had backed down in the face of determination and had taken a drink, the water bitter on his lips. He did not want to live, but Horatio wanted it, and so it was.
Horatio stirred again, and woke. Looking over, he was that Archie was awake and rose, filled the cup of water and once more moved to Archie's side.
"Drink this," he said softly but firmly. "You didn't have much before, you must be quite badly dehydrated." Knowing that his battle with Horatio was long over, Archie took a sip while his friend held the cup quite steady. They repeated the exercise until Horatio was satisfied, and he placed the cup on the table, but remained seated on the bed next to Archie. Against his will, Archie found comfort in the closeness.
"How do you feel?" asked Horatio. Archie's mind flooded with answers. Angry. Bitter. Worthless. Hopeless.
"Tired," he said quietly.
Horatio nodded. "I'm not surprised," he said. "You get some more rest, and in the morning we can get some food into you and you'll feel better, I'm sure."
Archie wanted to scream, to tell him that he would never feel better, that he might smile and hide it but he would feel this way forever, lost and alone and utterly wretched, worthless and always the burden on Horatio's back. He had tried to die and had failed, which made him worse than nothing, less than nothing, just a useless piece of flotsam that should be allowed to drift by without notice.
"Thank you," he said instead. Horatio smiled, and there was something in his eyes that was sad, that maybe he understood better than Archie thought, but the words would not come. He reached out and pressed Archie's shoulder.
"Go back to sleep," he said. "It will be better in the morning."
Archie nodded and closed his eyes. He feared it would never be better, but he would never tell Horatio what he thought in the dark of the night.