Disclaimer: 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.
A/N Thank you Rabidsamfan for the beta!
Horatio insisted on feeding him. Archie suspected that it was not so much that he was weak – although he was, as weak as a newborn kitten – but more that Horatio needed to know that he was eating, needed to see his own determination that Archie would live reflected in the other's actions. He would not see this watching Archie pick feebly at his food, so he insisted, and Archie ate. It was comforting, although he admitted it to himself with some shame and would never voice the thought to anyone, to be held in the other man's arms and supported while he drank. It was the closeness that brought him comfort – even the morning Horatio took pity on his vanity and proceeded to shave Archie with his own hands, the gentleness and closeness of touch brought a warmth that Archie had not felt for many months, and had thought he never would again. Unbidden, the thought entered his mind that maybe, just maybe, all was not lost.
Archie's first relapse came the day after they returned to their cell. Hunter continued to despair of him and followed his every movement with glares, which could not be avoided at such close confines. Horatio had allowed him to feed himself for the last few days, and so when supper came around Archie found himself playing moodily with his broth, unable and unwilling to consume it. The pressure built around him, Horatio watching and pretending not to with growing impatience, and Hunter doing the same with a gleam of triumph in his eyes. Finally Archie snapped, and instead of pushing the bowl away he hurled it across the cell to spatter over the door. His bowl was closely followed by his cellmates'. Hunter glared, but it was the resignation and understanding in Horatio's eyes which Archie could not bear.
That night he woke with a start from a fit. Horatio was kneeling beside him with concern in his eyes, but Archie turned away and pressed his forehead against the hard stone of the wall, riddled with guilt and shame.
It had taken an age but finally, after weeks of treating Archie like a delicate vase, Horatio's temper snapped. He shouted at his friend, furious that he was once again lost in melancholy. Why, he shouted, would Archie not just cheer up, dammit, and see that he had everything to live for, if only he would reach out and take it? Why would he not concentrate his gaze on getting strong again, and quickly, so that they could take the first opportunity to escape and return to the Indy? Did he, after all they had been through, really want to sit the war out in the comfort of his cell?
Hunter smirked in triumph as Horatio turned away from the startled look on his friend's face, and closed his eyes in shame. He took a deep breath, tried to calm himself, and turned back, ready to apologise. He was startled to see that Archie was smiling at him.
"So you are human, Horatio," he said. "I was beginning to wonder."
Returning to the yard, once he was strong enough to leave the cell, was one of the hardest things which Archie had ever done. Facing Hunter was one thing: facing the men was another thing entirely. Gingerly he stepped out into the fresh air, the sun bright on the white sand. Hunter and his cronies crowded together at a distance and eyed him suspiciously. Matthews and Styles, on the other hand, turned to him and offered him small salutes which reflected, if nothing else, their commitment to Horatio. Archie nodded briskly to them, but was glad of the distraction when Horatio steered him to a pillar and produced from nowhere a lexicon and a small novel. He did his best to be interested, but wondered in his heart if he would ever be fit for command again. He doubted it.
Lying on the floor with Horatio in his arms, Archie thought he should be crushed by the weight of responsibility. Hunter was injured and ashamed, Horatio exhausted and sore from his spell in the hole in the ground, so he would have to be the strong one. He, who had thought never to be strong again. As gently as he could he lifted his friend to the single bed and helped Hunter back to the lower bunk to rest his leg. Thanking the god of small mercies that Horatio had only been locked away for a little over a week, rather than the month's spell he had suffered, he turned to nursing his friend as best he could. He lifted Horatio's head and shoulders and supported him as he drank, and then offered him the food they had held back every day in the hope that he would be released. He changed Hunter's dressing with a slightly less dirty rag and went out to the concerned men to report on the well-being of their officers. He rubbed Horatio's calves when they cramped in protest at their treatment and held him while he slept, offering what comfort he could against the crowding dark that he knew was haunting his dear friend. It seemed strange to him, but in taking responsibility, in being the strong one, some little of the darkness he carried with him seemed to lift and was carried away on the warm Spanish breeze.
On the deck of the Indy, in the light of day, the wind was strong with the tang of the salt and rattled in the rigging; everything about the ship was all that Horatio had promised it would he was exhausted from the exertions of the previous day, and he did not feel well, as Horatio had predicted he would when this moment came. The darkness he carried with him would take longer to dispel than this. And yet... something glimmered in his heart, gave him strength enough to face Captain Pellew, the captain he had let down so badly. Strength enough to stand by his friend and take his part, even to agree to go back to the small world where the pieces of his heart had been stripped away. In that moment, he knew that he would always take Horatio's part, would always stand by the friend who had given him back the tiny ray of hope he now carried against all the crowding darkness. He could not be the man he had always wanted to be, but he could be this man's friend. That was enough, and perhaps it always had been.