The Strongest Tether
by Sarah B.

The nightmare came again, as Archie knew it would.

It started out as it often had, since the beginning of his confinement in the Spanish prison. No images, no sounds, only feelings, a vague and dreading sense of what was to come. The sense of being asleep, of trying to pull back into wakefulness only to be pulled deeper, like a hapless traveler caught in quicksand. Wearily Archie tried to fight the fear, tried to summon whatever strength he had to confront these demons that he knew he would never be rid of, but it was no use. Surrender was inevitable, and fighting the nightmare was so exhausting, when he knew it would be a futile fight. So Archie gave up, and slowly tumbled forward into the ink-black depths.

It was not quite so bad, at first, but it never was; Archie saw hazy outlines only, felt nothing more than the disconnected ache of long-ago abandonment, familiar pain comfortably worn. What was he looking at? Images drifted by, but never long enough to be sure: the cold and empty halls of his childhood home perhaps, the lofty manor house that was like a tomb after his mother died.

Footsteps - surely they were his own, searching for someone to play with, someone to hold him at night like his mother had. Footsteps searching, long and rolling echoes through the tall and cavernous rooms, but there was no one. No one.

Archie was alone.

The nightmare deepened a little, and Archie twisted within it, trying to find a way out. Salt air - a biting wind - where was he going now? A ship, a big ship, he'd never seen one so big. The house was gone, his father and brothers were gone, but that was all right because this was bound to be better. Bound to be, because he believed his mother when she used to tell him that he was special, that he was funny and thoughtful and that those were good things to be. Someday you'll go out in the world, Archie, she would say, and you'll make all kinds of friends, you'll see. Good friends who will stand beside you and encourage you to succeed, who are brave and strong like you are.

Archie carried those words in his heart and saw the big ship looming before him, and even in the dream he could feel the excitement of a new world opening and the thought, so many people. So many people - I'll show my brothers. I'll make the best friends in the world. They'll see.

Then the ship melted in front of Archie's eyes, shimmered downward in a curtin of dark red, and he knew. Knew where he was, where he would always be, and felt himself trying to run. Run - but where? He turned around and around, feeling his heart beat faster as he searched for some escape from what he knew was coming. There was nothing but darkness.

And suddenly, he couldn't breathe.

Weight - there was a horrendous weight on his chest, and Archie desperately tried to draw breath, but none came. A white-hot stab of pain shot through him, then another, and Archie felt a surge of terrible emotions all at one - fear, betrayal, loss, and an agony he could not put a name to but it hurt, it hurt and all he could do was curl himself up and weep bitter tears as the pain washed over him, with nothing to slow or stop it. A scream began somewhere deep inside him, but his soul was steeped in such hopelessness that it did not come out except as an abject, unheard whimper. Then the agony subsided, only because it had used him to the fullest, and all was silent again.

Silent - but this was the worst part of the nightmare, and Archie knew it. The part of him that knew he was dreaming struggled to awaken, but instead he was pulled deeper within himself and felt once again the merciless heat of a blazing sun. The loneliness, before a mere pinprick in the hollow of his breast, was growing, looming, and without seeing Archie knew what was before him.

A vast and endless sea. The sharp, unremitting pain of being struck, and the relentless shame of memory. And the horrible, horrible feeling that every nightmare brought anew, awakening groggily and thinking he was back home on the Indy, then opening his eyes and finding himself adrift, adrift and alone, the tether-rope he thought would be secure cut, and everyone - everyone gone...

Oh, God, it was unbearable! He was being abandoned again, feeling that first terrific shock again, where was the ship? Where were his men? They wouldn't leave him alone, they had to be nearby, and again the sunburned eyes scanned the horizon with the single thought, they must be here, they must be here -

- and then, finally, the despairing knowledge that they were not there.

Had he given up then? No, not yet, but in the nightmare time blurred together, events lost meaning and tumbled over each other, he had fought when the French took him prisoner, he had tried to escape time and again, always with the thought, they are looking for me, they are trying to find me, I must escape - I must - but the words grew weary, and a suffocating discouragement was gripping his heart. No one was coming, they were not looking, and it was hopeless, hopeless, hopeless...

Archie curled himself up again, felt himself cramping and stiffening and wept again - he was in the oubliette, and he knew his spirit would finally break, as it had threatened to for so long. Why had he ever questioned it? In his dream he looked up, and saw the bars of the oubliette and the bright moon beyond them and felt untold years of struggle and loneliness build inside him. It was so dark - so cold - and when he died there would be no one to care. Archie stared up at the moon and felt his neglected heart overflow with bitterness, and finally the scream which had been building inside him burst forth in a wail of ragged torment. It echoed, even after he had ceased to cry out, it rolled on and on and frightened him with its intensity -

"Good Lord! Archie!"

Hands were on him. Archie's eyes snapped open and he drew breath to scream again.

"Archie! *Archie*!"

Hands - arms - were around him, holding him up, holding him close. Not a cruel touch but a kind one, an anchor to cling to....Archie blinked, focused, felt a sturdy cot beneath his back and saw a dimly-lit cell. He blinked again, turned and saw ..."Horatio?"

The apparition nodded and gently eased Archie back down onto the cot. "Are you all right?"

Archie took a deep breath, felt his heart pounding like a hare after the chase. Memories came flooding back - Horatio finding him - Hunter - the Indy - returning to Spain - he groaned a little and wiped his mouth with his hand.

Horatio's voice came again, more worried this time. "Archie? I said, are you all right?"

Fighting a growing sense of embarrassment, Archie nodded and asked, "What happened? I - I didn't - "

"Have a fit? No," Horatio said softly, and Archie felt a comforting hand on his shoulder.

He fought the urge to cringe away from it; the last thing he wanted was for Horatio to see his weakness. He remembered now where he was, and how Horatio had found him, and the thought that he had just replayed his nightly trip to Hell for his superior officer shamed Archie greatly.

But there was no help for it. And truth to tell, there was some solace in waking in the night to find Horatio there, even if it was humiliating. Archie breathed deeply, and decided to stay silent until sleep took him again.

Surprisingly, though, Horatio did not return to his bunk. As Archie closed his eyes he felt Horatio pat his shoulder one last time and then say, "I'm sorry, Archie."

There was an unaccustomed tone in those words that Archie couldn't place, and he cocked one eye open. "Sorry? For what?"

"For waking you," Horatio grumbled, turning away and running a hand through his hair. "And half the compound, I should imagine."

Archie frowned. "What are you talking about?"

Horatio sat with his back against Archie's cot, so his face was hidden, but Archie could plainly see his friend's hands clenching and unclenching as he spoke. "I'm certain you'll think me weak, but there are times - I have nightmares, Archie, and I cannot stop them. In the oubliette - in a boat at sea, with the rain lashing down - "

Something slowly began to dawn on Archie, and he whispered, "Horatio - did you cry out just now?"

There was an exasperated sigh, and Horatio nodded his head. "I startled you awake, Archie, I didn't mean to! But these - these visions are terrible to me. I've never had them before."

Horatio had cried out....the cry of fear had not only been Archie's, but Horatio's. He had heard it in his sleep, and echoed it. Archie gradually propped himself up on one elbow and looked at the back of Horatio's head. "You've never had nightmares before?"

Horatio half-turned toward him, and Archie was surprised at the depth of shame written on his friend's face. "Not like these. They make a child of me. I confess I was almost glad to return here, for I feared what would happen if I had an attack on the ship."

Archie blinked in amazement. He had never heard Horatio admit to vulnerability before. Trying to think of a response he came up with, "Well, Captain Pellew thinks you walk on water, so I doubt he'd be bothered."

Horatio winced and shook his head. "That is precisely why this shames me so. He holds me in such regard that I cannot show any weakness. But I must... there must be a way to end these." He turned to look at Archie. "How do you manage it?"

Archie's eyes widened - Horatio Hornblower, asking HIM for advice! Smiling a little he said, "Well, you have seen the answer to that, Mr. Hornblower: not very well."

"No, no," Horatio disagreed, twisting himself to face Archie fully, "Do not denigrate yourself, Mr. Kennedy. I must know. I - I was only in the oubliette a short time, and it haunts me still. I do not have your strength, your defenses against ... against..."

Archie watched his friend struggle for a few moments before saying quietly, "There's no word for it, Horatio. I know, because I gave up trying to find one long ago."

Horatio looked at him helplessly for a moment before asking, "But how do you deal with it, Archie? What sees you through the pain?"

Archie sat back a little and thought about this. He thought about his own nightmare, the surging torments, so fresh but now like a distant memory. What had seen him through?

Then he knew, and with a smile reached out and took Horatio's hand, holding it strongly. Looking squarely in Horatio's uncertain eyes he said, "This, Mr. Hornblower. The tether of friendship, that cannot be sawed through or gnawed by fear or distance. *Your* friendship, when you looked at the broken wreck I had become and saw the man within worth saving. That is what has seen me through. You saved my life, Horatio. And whatever it takes, I mean to return the favor."

Horatio stared at the hand gripping his, as if he did not quite understand it. As Archie let go, Horatio blinked and said, "You returned with me to this prison - you didn't have to, Archie. I was not expecting you to, in fact."

"I am aware of that," Archie replied, almost cheerfully. "And the men who came with me know that too, yet we all owe a debt to you, Mr. Hornblower. We will stand beside you, and fight along with you, no matter what the tide brings. If you remember that, Horatio, it will help when the nightmares come. I promise you."

Horatio looked at the floor, clearly digesting this. Archie thought of something else and said, "By the way, don't worry if you wake up again shouting - I've tested these walls myself and they're very thick."

Horatio glanced at the door and nodded; but Archie still saw the embarrassment in his eyes.

Horatio, embarrassed! Shaking his head Archie said, "Don't be ashamed to say you're hurting, Horatio. Those things are meant to break a man's spirit. I let you see me at my bloody rock-bottom worst, damn it. Who would understand better than I what wakes you up screaming in the middle of the night? And I will NOT think the less of you for it."

Horatio's eyes darted to the floor, then back up at Archie again. Was there a little comfort in them? "Thank you, Archie."

An understanding, then. A connection. "My pleasure, Mr. Hornblower. Now please go back to bed before you catch your death of cold on that awful stone floor."

Horatio smiled and climbed back onto the bunk - the lower one, thank God, or who knows what might happen if he had another nightmare! Archie closed his eyes and settled back on the cot, knowing that there would be much conversation - and not a little bit of teasing - about the side of Horatio he had just been shown. It was remarkable, but it made him feel better to know that the amazing Horatio Hornblower hurt too - and needed to not feel alone.

"Archie?"

One quiet word, drifting through the darkness. Archie rolled over. "Yes?"

"My thanks for - for being here. I think...it will make things go much easier."

Archie smiled. "I think that is true for both of us, Mr. Hornblower. Good night."

"Good night."

Silence, and shortly thereafter the even, untroubled cadence of Horatio's breathing. *Perhaps the demons will be kept at bay for both of us* Archie thought hopefully, and realized he was very tired. With a relaxed sigh he turned over on the narrow cot, and drifted off to a deep and peaceful sleep.

But just before he drifted off he thought he could hear his mother whispering in his ear, *Someday you'll go out in the world, and you'll make all kinds of friends, you'll see. Good friends who will stand beside you and encourage you to succeed, who are brave and strong like you are.*

Archie smiled and thought, good night, mother. Thank you, because you were right. I did.

The end