Title: Starting Over (Charlie/Claire)
Rating: K+

Summary: Post-Live Together, Die Alone. Claire worries about Charlie and what might have happened to him in the hatch. Angst/Romance
Warnings: none
Status of Fic: Completed.
Author's Notes/Disclaimer: I do not own the characters in this story, nor do I own any rights to the television show "Lost". They were created by JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof and they belong to them, Touchstone, and ABC.

Chapter One

Damn that buzzing, cursed Charlie as he tapped furiously at his ear. Like a bloody dial tone in my head. He was sitting with Claire under the cover of night by a campfire that was silenced by a crackle he couldn't hear. She was tending to Aaron in his crib while he was tending to his wounds. He didn't know what hurt worse: his arm that felt like it had been put through a meat grinder, or his head. He couldn't even find the words to describe how his head felt, although normally Charlie could come up with the words to describe almost anything. He was a song writer and he knew how to use language. Yet for some reason his power over words was escaping him. He was muddled and his head was foggy, his ears ringing. He felt like he was a million miles away, but even that couldn't begin to describe it. Why can't I describe it? Then he forgot what it was he wanted to describe. Ah well, he sighed, returning his broken attention to the cuts on his fingers. As he stared at them, he tried like hell to remember how he had gotten them. Something about a fork, he decided.

Over the feedback in his head he could partially hear Claire speaking to him. He strained to catch as many words as he could in order to string together a meaning.

"……happened……there……arlie?" She sounded like a radio station with a dodgy signal.

Charlie made his best guess at the question before responding. He decided to lighten the mood with a joke to deflect any concern about his condition. Charlie didn't want to worry Claire, but there was more. He also didn't want to set himself up for hurt by her possible indifference. Charlie always found humour to be the best defense mechanism and he was feeling particularly vulnerable at that moment and in need of some emotional protection. Claire was speaking to him again and he wasn't quite sure what that meant.

"You want to hear the part about me nearly being killed by the flaming fireball -- or the flying fork?" he asked with a mischievous smile that belied the throbbing in his head and arm. He couldn't tell how loud he was speaking, but he hoped he had managed to control the volume somewhat.

Claire didn't seem to appreciate the weak attempt at humour. She did, however, seem impatient. "I……be serious."

Be serious. Charlie got that. So maybe she thinks I'm making it all up. The truth was the fireball and the forks were all he could remember. Although he would have been happy to tell her more, someone was going to have to fill him in first. Charlie wasn't quite sure by Claire's expression whether she was concerned for him, or for the safety of the group as a whole. If she wanted serious then Charlie had no choice but to offer the most coherent response he could come up with under the circumstances.

"Nothing happened" he said, the words reverberating off the walls of his useless cavern of a brain.

"Well something……sky……weird……" she responded.

Okay, now this I do not get at all. What is she saying? In a moment of desperation, he resorted to his usual mode of operation and decided once again to insert a joke. That apparently didn't help matters, because now Claire looked like she was ready to beat him silly. Her look made him smile despite himself. Although she seemed frustrated with him, Charlie saw something else as well. It was in her eyes. She's……bloody hell, why can't I think of the word? Amused, was the word he finally settled on, since he couldn't tax his brain any longer to come up with a more suitable term. He wondered if thinking had always been this hard. He could no longer remember a time when he felt lucid. Damn. He really wished he could remember what had happened.

Charlie truly wanted to tell Claire more, but he couldn't seem to put his thoughts together. His arm hurt. How did that happen? His head hurt, but he didn't remember hitting anything. All he remembered after waking up bruised and bloody was that everything in the hatch started flying around and then eventually stopped. He somehow found his way back to the beach, although he couldn't recall at what point he had left the hatch. Bernard had asked him something about Locke and Eko, but he couldn't recall what his answer was. All he remembered was seeing Claire. She was staring at him and seemed relieved to see him. Her expression made him smile and forget his pain, if only for an instant.

As he sat by the fire, he looked at Claire. She was looking at him in a funny way that at first he didn't understand. Charlie was secretly glad they were no longer talking, because that wasn't working for him at all. But that odd stare coupled with just the hint of a smile. He didn't want to misinterpret her look. Charlie was still not sure whether Claire had forgiven him for lying about the drugs, for scaring her with Aaron. He'd been holding back, trying to give her the space she wanted.

Carefully, Claire started touching him, examining his wounds. She touched his hand and then his face, gazing at him as if she were seeing him for the first time. Charlie was afraid to move a muscle. If there was any chance he was getting the wrong idea he wanted to make sure he didn't end up looking like a fool. So he peered back suspiciously until he was absolutely sure. Then Claire leaned in and kissed him quickly and gently and he was sure. She was being a right flirt. He wished he could enjoy it more but the incessant buzzing and pounding in his head was making it impossible. At the very least he knew Claire was sending him a message, and better than anything she could have transmitted verbally. At that moment the message was received loud and clear: Charlie was being handed a second chance on a silver platter. He knew he wanted to earn her trust back, but beyond that he was unable to think straight. More than anything at that moment he wanted to feel whole again for her.

Chapter Two

She had forgiven him. Claire finally admitted that to herself tonight as she sat with Charlie after that frightening experience on the beach. She'd missed him over the past two weeks. She'd missed his goofy smile, his stupid jokes, the way he looked at Aaron when he held him and sang him songs. She missed the way they talked, and the way he looked at her when he thought she didn't notice. Most of all, she missed the way she felt when he was around.

She wanted to believe that he had never used those drugs. She had to believe it if they were ever going to have a chance together. Claire knew Charlie had used drugs in the past. He had admitted that much to her, but she simply couldn't imagine him doing that now that she and the baby were in his life. She wasn't sorry for turning him out, even though it had been as much for his own good as for her protection.

Unfortunately, he hadn't taken it well. The forced separation from her and Aaron had seemed to play havoc with his psyche almost immediately. He started having dreams that Aaron was in danger. He came to her frantic, but she wouldn't listen. First, he said he was sleepwalking. Next, that Aaron needed to be baptized. Claire had always trusted Charlie, but she didn't know what to think about his strange behaviour. It frightened not only her, but everyone around her; and the others had begun keeping him away. However, the more they did, the more erratic he became. The entire situation reached its peak one terrible night on the beach. After getting Aaron back, Claire's heart was filled with anger at the sight of a battered and broken Charlie on the sand. There was no room for sympathy, and in that instant Claire forgot. She forgot everything—the smiles, the jokes, the songs, the looks. They didn't exchange another word until two weeks later when Charlie arrived out of the blue with a case full of vaccine.

Bringing her the vaccine was thoughtful, something Thomas would never have done. Despite how she had treated him, Claire realized Charlie had never stopped thinking of her; even as he was giving her the space she had asked for. She didn't even know if Charlie was aware of how badly she had wanted this vaccine. She had once searched for it thinking it could help her son. She remembered being injected with it while being held captive by Ethan. He had told her it would protect the baby. Despite everything that madman did, and for reasons she couldn't fathom, she believed him.

Charlie said he had found the case of vaccine among the supply drop and figured she should have it. He had even tested it on himself first to make sure it was safe for her and Aaron. Claire was touched by that gesture. She was shocked at the selflessness of it, the risk Charlie had taken with his own life--not even knowing whether Claire would accept the vaccine or throw it back in his face. When Charlie told her rather casually what he had done, she was surprised to find that just as he had been thinking of her welfare, she thought of his.

The funeral was what really pushed her over the edge. Claire had almost lost Charlie once when she had sent him away. Then she stood beside Libby's grave and listened to Hurley mourn the loss of his friend. It was heartbreaking and Claire had been overcome with emotion. She suddenly had an image in her mind of standing over Charlie's grave. Their lives on the island had become so precarious. The thought of losing him for good scared her and before she knew it, she had taken hold of his hand and held it like a lifeline. Standing next to him wasn't enough at that moment; she needed to feel him to know he was there. She didn't know what was going through Charlie's mind when she did it, but she knew that life was short and she no longer wanted to hold back.

Now she was sitting with Charlie at the fire after some strange event had happened on the beach. She was worried when she didn't know what had become of him in the hatch. She had breathed a sigh of relief when he emerged from the jungle. Other than some cuts and bruises he had looked okay. He had even smiled at her.

Claire looked at Charlie now, as he rubbed at his head and tapped at his ear. Although he seemed to be in some pain, he was also joking with her in that way he used to when he didn't want to answer a question, going on about fireballs and forks like something out of a Lewis Carroll story. His bizarre evasiveness used to irk her but for some reason Claire now found it endearing. Perhaps it was because she was realizing how close she had come to losing him again. He could be as annoying as he wanted to be as long as he was here, Claire decided. If only she could hold his hand forever and never let go it would keep them both safe.

Still, she desperately wanted to know what had happened in that hatch and couldn't understand why he wasn't telling her. Was he trying to protect her from something, or was it really nothing? What was he doing there in the first place? All she knew was that it had something to do with Eko and Locke. Whatever the reason, he had probably risked his life to save someone. That's something Charlie would do. Claire looked at the cuts on Charlie's arm and fingers and wanted to make the pain go away. She looked into his eyes and remembered the smiles, the jokes, the songs, the looks. Charlie sat still like a statue. She leaned forward and kissed him and then watched as his defenses melted away along with her own.

Chapter Three

Later, they separated for the night and Charlie began the walk across the beach to his tent, kicking up the sand, the kiss still lingering on the edge of his thoughts. Claire hadn't asked him to return to his former spot next to her and he hadn't brought it up, partly because it had only occurred to him later. Charlie's brain was still feeling sluggish. It was just as well, as he wanted to take things slower this time and not put any pressure on her. It may not have been in his nature to do so, but he was forcing himself not to get too excited. Claire had forgiven him. For now that was enough.

The other reason he didn't push things with Claire was that by the end of the evening Charlie felt himself nodding off, and he just wanted to go back to his tent and sleep. As happy as he was about how the evening had transpired, Charlie knew he was still recovering from whatever had happened and he just wanted to be alone. The simple act of holding a conversation had become exhausting. Even thinking was exhausting, and he was hoping a good night's sleep would help clear his head.

He kept walking in the direction of his tent, but the trek seemed longer than he remembered it. Charlie slowed his pace, feeling perplexed. He couldn't help thinking he should have been there by now. Twice he had reached a tent he thought was his, but there would be someone else's things in it. True it was dark, but this was strange. He looked around and around where he swore his tent should have been, but he was unable to locate it. The harder he thought about it the worse his headache became.

Standing in the middle of a circle of shelters scratching his head, he looked like a lost child in a department store. He must have had such a forlorn expression on his face that someone finally approached him.

"Hey……okay?" he heard. Charlie thought he looked familiar but he didn't know the person's name.

Not wanting to sound like a loon for not being able to find his own tent, Charlie smiled and responded, "Yeah mate, I'm fine".

The curious bystander didn't look convinced, but he turned and left just the same. Charlie wandered around for another few minutes until he finally spotted Sawyer's tent and then remembered his was nearby. Even still, he didn't completely let down his guard until he looked in and saw his guitar. Then he breathed a sigh of relief. That was weird. I must be more tired than I thought. He was glad, because he was getting so tired he had been about to give up and go to sleep right on the beach.

As soon as Charlie hit the blanket he plummeted into a deep heavy sleep, the kind that makes your body feel like lead. He was aware of nothing until he began to dream. He found himself back in the hatch corridor, lying on the cold concrete floor and covered in blood. He was awake but his body felt so fatigued he was unable to move. It looked as though something had exploded. He smelled something burning. There was debris, dust, and sparks from live wires everywhere, and broken pipes that hung from the ceiling. His ears were ringing in that now familiar way, but above it all Charlie heard a sound. It was a baby crying. He knew in his heart it was Aaron. The wails were coming from behind the blast door, lowered like an iron guard, an intractable impediment to rescue.

Charlie tried to lift his head but it felt too heavy and his limbs seemed like they were pinned to the floor. He felt exhausted and was having difficulty keeping his eyes open. He tried to shout but no sound came. As he struggled, he heard another sound--the steady repetitive tone of the computer's four-minute alarm. Charlie panicked as he knew instinctively that there was no one around to push the button. The sound of the baby's cries filled him with terror. Finally, he turned his head to the side and saw Claire. She stood over him with an intense expression, unmoved by his condition. Charlie tried to say her name but was still unable to speak. Claire crouched down beside him, put her hands on his shoulders and began to shout, "What's wrong Charlie? Why can't you save him? What's wrong? Charlie get up! GET UP!"

The dream faded as Charlie awoke to being violently shaken by Claire. He still had that heavy, sedated feeling and had to force himself awake. It was daylight. Claire was beside herself and on the verge of tears. Charlie opened his mouth to speak and was relieved to find he had his voice back.

"Claire?" he said drowsily, fighting through a semiconscious state. "What's wrong?"

"I've……try……wake……five min……so late……worr……" was as much as Charlie could make out.

He shook his head and struggled to stay awake and focus on Claire, but she looked a bit blurry. He squinted and blinked. She seemed frightened. He couldn't imagine what had happened to make her so upset. He was dismayed to discover that the ringing in his ears had failed to dissipate with the night, but he only needed to see Claire's frantic expression in order to understand her. Charlie didn't know what to say. The dream he had was eerily similar to his previous dreams about Aaron in danger, and that concerned him. That time he had thought he had been losing his mind.

He was sure he didn't want to tell Claire about it, or about him not being able to find his tent last night. She was just starting to trust him again and the last thing he needed was her questioning his sanity. It was enough that he was starting to question his own. He was fine, he was sure of it. A bit hard of hearing perhaps, but he told himself that it would clear up eventually. It was just a dream, and last night he was just tired, so he got a little confused. Claire continued to stare at him, panic in her eyes, waiting for an answer. He hated to see her like this, so with all his effort he sat up slowly, his arm still sore and painful, his head still in a fog. He didn't know how many hours it had been, but he felt like he hadn't slept at all.

"I'm fine, Claire. I guess I was just really tired after yesterday, that's all" he said slowly, rubbing his eyes with his open hand and slurring his words a bit.

Claire sat down next to him. She was trembling slightly and pleading, "Are……sure……Char……what……yester……?"

As hard as he tried he couldn't understand her, but it bothered him that she had gotten herself so worked up over what he hoped was nothing.

In an attempt to put her mind at ease, he put an arm around her and could only repeat, "It's nothing, love. Don't worry. I'm just a bit tired, but I'm fine."

His eyelids were getting heavy again, and although he wanted to lie back down, he willed himself upright for Claire's sake. He didn't want her to worry about him, not when things were finally going good between them. Claire still looked concerned and a bit puzzled, but said nothing.

Chapter Four

Claire was up early as usual, feeding Aaron. She didn't mind it. She considered it her peaceful quiet time before most of the camp awoke. That morning in particular she was reflecting on the events of the previous day and night. She thought about what it would mean to have Charlie back in her life.

She didn't regret kissing him. The realization that she was learning to trust again made her feel empowered, renewed with strength. She knew now that Charlie would never abandon her like Thomas did. Charlie wasn't perfect; he could be a bit overprotective at times, but he once swore he wouldn't leave her and he hadn't. She was now willing to accept the whole package for better or for worse. Claire knew that she could be a handful at times too. Everyone had their baggage.

As the morning wore on and people began materializing on the beach, Claire joined in among the various conversations over what went on the day before. People were comparing notes. Everyone heard the same loud sound that Claire did, the sound that had vibrated through her body and made her ears hurt. Some people saw a white light, whereas others described it as a beautiful lilac colour. Claire thought its brightness was like looking directly into the sun, only there was no heat. Then it stopped and she saw a large metal object soaring through the air. She was so transfixed she forgot to move. It was Bernard that pulled her out of the way of the massive hatch door, likely saving the lives of both her and Aaron. Everyone was in shock, but when it was all over, her first thought was of Charlie.

Charlie had come to her earlier that day and told her that Eko needed him and he was going to the hatch. He didn't have time to elaborate, but it had something to do with Locke and the button. He had told her where he was headed because he didn't want her to worry. Thinking back on it Claire wondered if perhaps he knew even then that he might not return. After the strange light and noise she had told Bernard all she knew but neither of them was able to make sense of any of it. She was relieved when Charlie returned, even though he seemed a bit dazed. After seeing the hatch door, she had feared the worst.

By midday, Claire was surprised to find she still hadn't seen Charlie. She knew he had been respecting her request for space, but after last night she was expecting he would show up with the sun. Maybe I scared him off. Was I moving too fast? Misreading the situation? Her insecurities rose up and she began to feel regret for the first time. Then Claire had another thought. Charlie was acting odd last night. Odder than usual, she noted with a wry smile. She still didn't know what had happened in the hatch, but maybe it had something to do with his strange behaviour. Suddenly, she felt compelled to go check on him to make sure he was alright. Handing Aaron off to Rose, she set off towards his tent.

Claire had made a conscious decision the night before not to invite Charlie back to share her space just yet. She wanted to take that part of their relationship more slowly this time. She didn't want them to fall back into the roles of friends-playing-house. Claire wanted to know the feeling of "dating" again before rushing to move in together. That was a mistake she had made with Thomas.

The island was such a scary place that initially she had taken comfort in the presence of the first person who was willing to spend time with her. Truth be told, back when she was still a pregnant "time bomb of responsibility waiting to go off", Charlie had been the only person willing to spend time with her. You don't scare me, he had told her, and over the weeks she came to believe him.

Thinking back now, it was selfish of her. She had allowed herself to lead Charlie on because he made her feel safe. She greedily accepted what he was willing to offer without regard to his feelings, even as she knew he was falling for her. Then she really did get scared, and pulled back altogether. This time Claire wanted to be sure she did not send mixed messages. If she made a move towards Charlie, it was going to be because she meant it. In the time they had spent apart, her feelings toward him had blossomed. Claire was now more sure of what she wanted than ever. Judging by Charlie's reaction last night, she was pleased to discover it wasn't too late. He had seemed happy, which made his absence now even more mysterious.

Claire's thoughts returned to the present as she reached the open front of Charlie's tent. She had half expected to find him sitting there playing his guitar, but instead he was still asleep. That was strange in itself, but Charlie was also still in his clothes from the day before. A bit early for a nap. Has he not gotten up yet? He was on his back. She knelt down beside him, watching him for a moment, listening to his soft slow breathing. He didn't stir, shift positions, nothing. She didn't want to disturb him but something felt wrong.

"Charlie?" Claire called softly. No response. She called his name louder a second time. Still nothing. She gently shook his shoulder. Charlie didn't move.

Okay, Claire, don't panic. He's fine. Just wake him up and you'll see. Despite her words, a lame attempt at reassurance, Claire's heart began to race in a rush of adrenaline. She didn't remember him being such a heavy sleeper. In fact, he often woke before she did to the sound of Aaron crying in the night, something she remembered distinctly because it often had made her feel slightly inadequate. This really wasn't right, but with Jack not around, she didn't know what to do.

Claire tried slapping Charlie's face lightly, and then a little harder. Her calls grew more frantic despite her inner pleas to stay calm. Finally, after several minutes of no response, she grabbed both shoulders and began shaking him roughly. "Charlie, get up! GET UP!" she cried, holding back tears.

Just as she was about to run for help, Charlie's eyes opened slightly but he still seemed lethargic. Although she refused to even consider the possibility as true, he acted like he was drugged. He appeared to be drowning, struggling to stay above water. She almost burst into tears when she heard his voice.

"Claire? What's wrong?" he drawled, pulling his hand up to his head.

She fought to keep her own voice steady. "I've been trying to wake you for the past five minutes. it's so late and the day's half gone. I was getting worried."

Charlie seemed surprised to hear that. As if to prove something to her, he began to sit up-- although he still appeared to be half asleep. "I'm fine, Claire. I guess I was just really tired after yesterday, that's all".

Claire sat down next to him. She was trembling slightly from shock. Looking straight into his eyes she pleaded, "Are you sure that's all? Charlie, what happened to you yesterday in the hatch?"

Charlie stared back at her with a look of total confusion, as if she were speaking a foreign language. Then he sighed, put an arm around her, and repeated nonsensically, "It's nothing, love. Don't worry. I'm just a bit tired, but I'm fine."

Claire knew he had likely been asleep for over fifteen hours, yet he looked like he was going to drop. She was convinced his sitting up was just an act for her benefit. The minute she turned away he'd be down again. For the first time, Claire wondered if Charlie wasn't more injured than he was letting on. She began to grow more curious about what actually did happen in that hatch.

Chapter Five

Charlie only wanted to go back to sleep but Claire refused to leave his side. So they sat and watched the ocean waves, until eventually he began to feel more alert, the drowsiness replaced by a mild nagging headache. After a while Claire stood and insisted that Charlie accompany her back to her tent. Charlie looked up at her, her strong wide legged stance a picture of obstinate determination. Then she put her hand out to help him up and he smiled. He admired her at that moment; he coveted her strength. Charlie took her hand and agreed to go for her sake.

The walk back across the beach combined with the smell of the fresh air and saltwater made Charlie feel better by the time they reached Claire's tent. She gave him some food and water and left him to go retrieve Aaron. Charlie felt spoiled, self conscious from all the attention. He wasn't used to anyone fussing over him. That was usually his role. While he waited for Claire to return Charlie tried to think of ways he could return the favour. If she could see her way clear to trusting me again maybe I could help out with Aaron. He quickly quashed that thought for fear of Claire's reaction to a sore subject. I better not press my sodding luck.

In an effort to stay awake, Charlie busied himself with a pen and paper, attempting to turn phrases and thoughts into song lyrics. But the effort turned out to be too much for his brain as the words on the page began to dance and blur into one another, becoming something unrecognizable. Charlie was reminded of the sensation he had as a child when he would read a book in a moving car. Suddenly he started to feel sick. He got up and ran into the jungle just in time before his stomach contents made a hasty exit, Claire's gesture of food coming to naught. Charlie stayed under the protection of the cool trees until the nausea vanished. Then he turned back in the direction of Claire's tent.

Just before he reached his destination he tried to recall what he had been doing before he left. I wanted to help Claire. Help out with Aaron. With this in mind Charlie reached the tent and turned to the crib where he expected Aaron to be. It was empty. Charlie felt his heart leap into his throat, his awareness filled with the notion that he had just done something horribly wrong. Where is he? Wasn't I watching him? The very air felt surreal and twisted as Charlie panicked. Then he spun around eyes wide and in the distance saw Claire approaching with Aaron in her arms. Charlie was expecting her to look upset. Perhaps she had found the baby left alone while he was in the jungle and was angry at him. But as she came closer it wasn't anger that Charlie saw in her face. Charlie braced himself for some unexpected fallout nonetheless but was met only with a look of concern.

"Cha……wha……wrong?" she asked, her eyes scanning her tent for evidence of something out of place, something to possibly explain Charlie's demeanour.

Instantly Charlie realized he was never watching Aaron. Claire had him the entire time. How could he forget such a thing? Charlie couldn't even begin to explain to Claire what had just happened. He was full of fear that she would think he was acting barmy again and couldn't be trusted. This can't be happening. Not now. He had to come up with a story.

"I, uh, was looking for something" said Charlie, quickly finding his pen and paper and grabbing for them like they were dreadfully important. He held them up as if they represented proof of his sanity, "My notes. I just forgot where I put them." He would readily admit to being a bit absent minded since at that moment it was the preferred alternative to being a complete nutter.

Claire nodded with something less than full conviction. She didn't spend long thinking about it however because she seemed to have news to impart.

She shrugged, "Oh. Well……at……beach……Locke, Eko……Des……back".

Charlie's ears picked up the crucial bits of information. So he's back, is he?

"Are they?" he said, appearing to sound disinterested.

But Charlie was very interested. He wanted to make sure that Locke would no longer interfere in their lives. He and Claire were starting over, and he didn't want anyone, especially Locke, to get in their way. Charlie decided to make an excuse to disappear so he could have a talk with John Locke. John Locke, John Locke. He tried to burn the name into his brain so he wouldn't forget. Then he sat with Claire and played with Aaron for a while until he felt the connection between Claire's news and his own disappearance would no longer be made.

When enough time had passed, he turned to Claire and said casually, "I'm gonna go back to my tent and get my guitar. I've been writing some lyrics down and I want to work on the music."

Claire nodded and Charlie left in search of John Locke.

He finally found him sitting alone on the sand at the very edge of the beach. Charlie noticed he had been doing that quite a bit lately, as if after having looked to the island, he now looked to the sea for some sign of his destiny. Charlie frowned at the thought of the countless times he had spoken with Locke about destiny. In the end it had all been for nothing. Now their former friendship lay in ruins, and Charlie had no interest in repairing it. The only relationship he was interested in preserving was with Claire.

In light of recent events, it looked to Charlie as if Locke were trying to keep his distance from the mass of people who were still asking each other about the bizarre light and sound. Charlie could understand why Locke would sequester himself. He wondered how the others would feel if they knew that Locke's decision to lock Eko out of the hatch to satisfy his own curiosity about the button had put everyone at grave risk. When Charlie thought about the danger it had brought upon himself, Claire and Aaron, he grew even angrier. Charlie wasn't looking forward to this conversation, but he knew it had to happen. He clenched his fists, steeled himself and marched forward.

"John" he said, commanding his attention.

Locke looked up at Charlie with a blank expression. Although he had nearly gotten Charlie killed, he seemed neither surprised to find him alive nor the least bit curious about his condition.

Since he wasn't responding, Charlie continued. "Claire's giving me another chance. We're together now. I came here to tell you to leave us alone."

Charlie expected a reaction. Indignation, an argument or something, but Locke just stared back. He appeared different somehow, smaller, than the John Locke he once knew. Sitting before him was a broken man, a man without direction or purpose. Charlie didn't know what was worse, the response he had been expecting or this insufferable silence.

He raised his voice, deciding he preferred confrontation to this pathetic repose, "Did you hear me? You're not going to come between us again."

Finally Locke spoke. Charlie stared hard at the man's lips and focused all of his concentration on every word, because Locke was speaking softly and Charlie didn't want to misunderstand. He sounded exhausted from somewhere down deep, world weary. "Charlie, I know it took……strength……throw your drugs away like you did. I'll respect……wishes." Then he turned his gaze back to the sea. The conversation was over.

Good enough. Charlie turned and left, knowing that was all he was going to get. He told himself that whatever Locke was going through now, more than made up for all the misery that he had put Charlie through over the past weeks. Locke had been brought down low and Charlie was satisfied.

When he returned to Claire's tent she was looking at him quizzically, "Where's……guitar?"

Bloody hell. Charlie had forgotten about his alibi. "Oh, I changed my mind. It wasn't a very good song anyway."

Chapter Six

After the scare she'd had when she woke Charlie in his tent, Claire was determined to spend the rest of the day with him. As she did, she grew more suspicious that something was going on. First it was that look of utter panic he had on his face when she returned to the tent with Aaron. It was almost as if Charlie forgot that the baby was with me. But Claire knew that was absurd, no person in their right mind could forget such a thing. Still, she didn't buy his lame story about his notes being mislaid. Then, when he returned empty handed after telling her he was going to retrieve his guitar, she decided to watch him even more closely.

Claire busied herself with Aaron, using the baby as a screen while she watched Charlie furtively from across her tent. When he thought she wasn't looking, she noticed him wincing, rubbing his head and hitting his ear. He must have sensed that he was being watched because he turned away from her and sat looking out from the tent. Claire decided to try a little test.

"Charlie?" she called to him from behind. He continued to sit and stare as though he hadn't heard. Claire stepped closer and put her hand on his shoulder and Charlie jumped, startled.

Claire was shocked. "Sorry" she said, pulling her hand away.

Charlie relaxed, and then he reached for Claire's hand and pulled her down to sit next to him. As he toyed with her fingers he took her in, studying her as if she were a puzzle he was trying to solve.

"Claire," he began "I've been trying to figure some things out. What happened yesterday on the beach? You never told me."

Claire stared back in surprise. She knew she had told him. It was part of their first conversation around the fire last night. What was going on? Instead of trying to remind him of their talk however, Claire decided to try another test.

She spoke slowly in full volume, telling him as if for the first time, "There was a loud sound, like a hum, and the sky turned a weird violet colour. After it stopped, the door from the hatch landed on the beach."

Charlie let go of her hand and stared at her with a worried expression. Claire couldn't tell if the information sounded at all familiar to him. It seemed rather as though he was working furiously to translate what she was saying into something intelligible. He looked away, lost in some thought.

When he didn't speak, she reestablished eye contact and asked him in the same loud clear voice, "Do you remember anything else now about the hatch and what happened there? How you got hurt?"

Charlie seemed to understand this time but appeared to be growing more frustrated and upset. He shook his head, as if he hoped to somehow make the pieces fall back into place. Then he rubbed furiously at his forehead and shut his eyes.

Instead of responding to her question, he looked up, grabbed both her hands and held them tight. Eyes misting over, he asked again, more desperately, "Please. Tell me again what happened on the beach."

Claire nodded and patiently repeated her story, slowly, word for word, as if she were speaking to a very young child. As she spoke, she observed Charlie appearing to hang on her every word, as if he were trying to memorize it. Realization was beginning to dawn on Claire but she suppressed her fear so that it wouldn't show. Charlie was distressed enough without having to be concerned about her.

When she finished speaking Aaron woke up and began to cry. Claire sighed, mildly irritated by the interruption. Charlie released his grasp on her and she got up, went to the baby and held him for a few minutes until he fell back asleep. She returned him carefully to his crib and then turned back to sit with Charlie. Time for the final test, although by this time Claire believed she could predict the outcome.

"Charlie?" she asked, "Can you tell me what happened on the beach yesterday?"

He looked at her as if at first the answer was on the tip of his tongue but when he tried to verbalize it, the information had vanished. "No" was all he said, voice shaking.

Claire was moved to tears for Charlie's predicament but she kept them to herself. He looked scared to death. After the countless times he had helped her, it was now her turn to be there for him. To do that, she needed information.

She reached out, lightly touched his cheek and stroked his hair. Then she spoke, reminding herself to keep her voice raised. "Charlie I think you have a head injury. You're having trouble hearing but there's more. I need to go and find out what happened to you so I can help. I'm going to ask Rose to come and watch Aaron. Please wait here until I get back."

Charlie nodded like an obedient child and Claire knew he wouldn't protest. After all that had happened to him in the past twenty four hours he appeared to want answers as badly as she did. She stopped by Rose's tent, procured her help and then went to find Locke. She found him sitting alone on the beach in quiet reflection.

"John? Can I talk to you?" asked Claire, twisting her fingers nervously.

Locke looked at Claire and paused. For a moment Claire feared he was going to say no and then he spoke. "Sure you can. What is it Claire?"

Relieved, Claire pressed on, "I need to know what happened in the hatch yesterday. Can you tell me?"

Locke paused again and Claire thought that he was deciding what information he was willing to impart. Finally, he made his decision and replied curtly, "I'm sorry Claire I can't help you."

"But you have to," Claire insisted, "There's something very wrong with Charlie and I need to know what happened to him."

Locke put out his hands and shrugged, "Charlie was out in the hallway with Eko. I wasn't there. From where I was nothing happened. I'm sorry."

Claire could sense that she was being lied to. His explanation didn't make sense. There was something Locke was keeping from her, possibly from all of them. For the first time, she considered John Locke with a considerable measure of distrust and she suddenly felt uncomfortable in his presence. After what had happened between them, she supposed she should not have been surprised that he would be unconcerned for Charlie and unwilling to help. Perhaps he was even angry at her for forgiving him.

She was turning away to leave in frustration when Locke called to her, "Claire. I think it's important for you to know that Charlie's not using drugs. I saw him two days ago throwing all of the statues into the ocean. They're all gone."

Claire spun around, fists clenched, fury rising in her throat, over what Locke considered to be assistance. "I know he isn't. That's not the problem," she snapped. Then she turned on her heels and stormed off back in the direction of her tent.

She was walking with a determined stride, stewing angrily in her juices when she heard a voice call to her, "Hello again lovely lady. How's that wee little fella of yours?"

Claire stopped in her tracks at the familiar cadence. Then she turned to face their newest inhabitant. He was sitting against a tree, in much the same position as when they first met, minus the bottle. At the moment he was her one hope.

"Desmond! Can you help me?" she pleaded.

"I'd love to" he said, beaming as he rose.

Claire crossed her fingers and forged ahead, barely stopping for breath as she vented. "Something's wrong with Charlie. He's having trouble hearing and remembering things. He's tired, dizzy. He can't seem to tell me what happened to him in the hatch. He needs a doctor and with Jack gone……" her voice trailed off as she choked back tears she could no longer control.

Desmond listened sympathetically, stepped closer and put a hand on her shoulder to calm her. He nodded as if it all made sense. "I'll tell you what happened, sister. Those two mad buggers tried to blow open the blast door with dynamite. He was caught in the explosion. If he was unconscious for a while he likely has a concussion. A blast like that would scramble anyone's brains."

An explosion. Everything was making sense now. Claire was so relieved to have an answer that she burst into tears. Desmond put his arms around her and held her as she cried, her tears soaking his shirt. She had been holding her emotions in for so long for Charlie's sake that the dam finally burst.

"It's alright, love" said Desmond, "he'll be okay."

Claire's sobs subsided and she pulled back, collecting herself. She shook her head, "No, I know, it's just……Thank you. Thank you for the answer. He was just acting so strangely and he couldn't explain why and I was so worried and……"

She stopped ranting when she noticed Desmond was smiling at her. He probably thinks I'm overreacting, thought Claire. But he wasn't there when I couldn't wake Charlie up. He didn't see him when he would hear something and forget it a minute later. He can't know how I felt.

Still, she was afraid she was making a fool of herself in front of the newcomer so she sobered up again just as Desmond spoke his final words of reassurance, words that were music to Claire's ears.

"Look, miss. I'm not a doctor but I was almost one. I know a thing or two. If it will make you feel better I'd be happy to look at your friend, yeah? I just can't stand to see a beautiful girl cry."

Chapter Seven

While Claire was gone, Charlie sat next to Aaron's crib and watched the baby sleep. The effect was soothing, like meditating. Without having to strain to hear someone, to struggle to process his own thoughts, Charlie felt relaxed as he concentrated only on Aaron's gentle breathing and the rhythm of the rise and fall of his chest. Watching a baby sleep was like basking in a worry free world. Everything else around him vanished and nothing else mattered.

Charlie felt his own heartbeat slow, matching time with Aaron's. As soon as he felt up to it, he wanted to write the baby a lullaby, but for now just watching him would have to be enough. Charlie was trying to adjust to the feeling of just being without having to do all the time. It wasn't as easy as it would seem.

Rose's arrival brought an end to his mini vacation, but he didn't mind. Claire must have told Rose what was going on because at that moment the woman seemed more concerned with him than she did with the baby. Since the time they had spent together back when Claire was missing, Charlie had come to consider Rose to be one of the few people on the island that he could talk to. When he had been at one of the lowest points in his life, Rose had listened without judging and had helped him in a way that he felt his own mother would have. Now when he saw her he was reminded of that time and grateful once again for her presence.

Charlie knew for certain that Rose had been informed of his situation when she came up to him and spoke rather loudly, almost comically, "Charlie, how are you feeling?"

Charlie smiled. "You don't have to be quite so loud Rose, I can hear you."

"I'm sorry" she laughed, slightly embarrassed but good natured as always.

"So I guess Claire told you then" he noted, evading her question and moving from Aaron's side, sitting a few feet away on the ground so as not to wake him.

Rose sat down alongside him. "She's awfully worried about you" she said.

"Yeah, it sure seems that way" said Charlie. "But I don't get it. After all that's happened, I don't know why she bothers with me. I'm more trouble than I'm worth."

"Maybe it's because she loves you, even if she hasn't admitted it to herself yet" observed Rose, smiling wryly at her own insight.

Charlie looked at her in disbelief. "What?" He wasn't going to allow himself to even consider that possibility. A thought like that was fraught with danger.

He shook his head, "No……Anyway, how could I be there for her like this?" Charlie took his fist and rapped himself in the head in frustration. "I can't string two bloody thoughts together. I'm useless."

Charlie felt Rose's arm wrap around him in an embrace. "Charlie, you don't always have to do for people in order to get them to like you. Sometimes it's okay to just let someone be your friend. Give her a chance to care for you for a change."

Charlie tried to consider Rose's words, but the harder he thought about them the more his head hurt. The effort the conversation was taking was making him tired. Finally he gave up, rested his head on her shoulder and closed his eyes. He wanted to float away into nothingness again, where life was less complicated. They sat together in a cocoon of silence and waited for Claire's return.

Some time later, Charlie felt Rose gently nudging him. He must have fallen asleep. He looked up to see Claire returning with Desmond in tow. He wondered why their former hatch man was coming here, but then Charlie realized he had forgotten why Claire had even left in the first place, so he had no hope of solving this puzzle. Again, nothing to do but be, thought Charlie helplessly.

Desmond approached and peered down at Charlie seated on the ground with Rose. "Hello there, brother. Your lady friend here tells me you've been having some trouble."

Charlie eyed Desmond suspiciously. Was everybody on this sodding island talking about him? "Trouble?" he asked, "Yeah, that'd be one way of putting it."

Claire spoke up, possibly sensing Charlie's reluctance, "Charlie, it's alright. Desmond has a medical background and he says he knows what's wrong. He knows what happened in the hatch and he wants to help."

Charlie looked at Claire and then at Desmond. If it meant he could finally get some answers he'd be willing to talk to him. But if he was going to tell Desmond everything there were some things he didn't want Claire to know. He had no wish to scare her or raise her concerns about him as a suitable companion if she knew some of the dreams and other strange things he had been experiencing. When talking to Claire about how he was feeling, he had kept the details deliberately vague. She still didn't know the half of it. Charlie decided he wasn't going to speak to Desmond in Claire's presence.

He looked back to her, "Claire, would it be alright if I talked to Desmond alone?"

Claire seemed taken aback. Before she could respond however, Rose spoke up and Charlie breathed a sigh of relief for the highly perceptive woman's assistance.

"C'mon honey" said Rose, taking Claire by the elbow, "let's you and I take the baby for a stroll while the men talk."

Claire took the hint and the women left with Aaron, who was just waking from his nap. After they left Desmond sat, taking Rose's place. He turned to face Charlie.

"Before you start I should warn you that you're gonna have to speak up" said Charlie, with a small dose of humour and a grin.

Desmond nodded and reached out and felt around Charlie's head for any bumps. "Aye. I heard about that. Do you remember hitting your head on anything?" he asked.

"Mate, I'm lucky I can remember my own name" said Charlie. "No."

Without responding, he picked Charlie's head up by the chin and looked at his eyes as he continued talking, "So I take it you don't remember the explosion then, yeah?"

Charlie tried to think. "Explosion? I remember fire. Was that the fire I saw?"

"Most likely," said Desmond, dropping his hands, "Do you remember seeing any dynamite?"

Dynamite……dynamite, thought Charlie. Then he looked up in surprise, pleased that he had remembered something. "Eko needed it. He asked me to get it for him and we took it to the hatch." Then Charlie paused, disappointed, the flame of knowledge extinguished again, "But I don't remember why. I don't know what he did with it."

"He tried to blow open the blast door," replied Desmond. "He was somewhat less than successful. After that you asked me to help you because Eko was hurt. Do you remember that?"

Charlie put his head down between his hands. This was starting to give him a headache again. "I don't know" he sighed. The he looked up again, "There was stuff flying around right?"

Desmond nodded. "How's your long term memory? Do you remember where you grew up?"

Charlie answered quickly, relieved there was a question he knew the answer to. "Manchester."

"I'll assume that's correct, then" he said. "Anything else bothering you?"

Charlie pointed to his ear, "I've got this ringing and headaches, felt a bit sick earlier……Oh, and I forgot where my tent was, and then I forgot where the baby was. That was lovely. I've been really tired and having these weird dreams about the baby again."

"Again?" repeated Desmond, eyebrows raised in confusion.

"Yeah, well, the thing is I've had them before. It's a long story." Charlie shrugged, sorry that he'd mentioned it. "Am I ever gonna feel normal again?" he asked, changing the subject.

"You've got a concussion. It may take about a week, maybe more, but it will get better on its own. Your hearing should get better as well. I can check on you again next week or sooner if you like. In the meantime, just take it easy and try not to do too much until the symptoms subside. If you're concerned about your memory you may want someone with you all the time. It might be easier to get confused if you're alone, yeah?" said Desmond.

"Right, thanks" said Charlie absentmindedly. His focus was now on one thing. "Hey, Desmond, I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't tell Claire about the dreams and the baby and stuff. We were having some problems before and well……I did some stupid things then. It's really important that she can trust me not to go off the rails again. I want her to know that I can still look after her and the baby."

"Well, that's your business, but if I were you I wouldn't worry." Desmond replied, as he rose to leave. "You didn't see her when she came to me for help. You're a lucky man. She loves you, brother." With that Desmond smiled and left, just as Charlie saw Claire from a distance returning alone.

She loves me. Why does everyone keep saying that? Are they seeing something I'm not? Am I that daft? Charlie wondered to himself as Claire approached him cautiously and sat down. "Is everything alright?" she asked, with a hint of trepidation.

Charlie nodded. As he answered her he looked down at his fidgeting fingers in the sand, making a difficult admission, "He said it would take about a week to get better……and well, until then I could probably do with some help."

Claire looked at him, "Charlie, its okay to ask for help. I want you to know you can trust me."

He returned Claire's gaze, slowly coming to terms with his own honesty, "I was afraid you would put me out if I started to be too much trouble again. I thought I was going mad. I didn't want you to be scared of me, or think that I would hurt Aaron."

Claire reached out and took his hands, "Charlie, you're injured. It's not your fault. As long as you're honest with me I want to be there for you. But you have to let me."

"I know" he replied. "I just want to be able to prove myself to you." Just then, Charlie remembered something and wanted to share it with her, "I want you to know I did something the other day. I found the last of the heroin on the island and I threw it away. All of it, in the ocean. There's nothing left."

Claire didn't respond and he wondered what she was thinking. Then she moved closer and kissed him and Charlie knew.