Characters: Charlie, Desmond, Sayid, Claire and Hurley (Charlie POV).

Author's Notes: IT'S FINISHED! faints I hope you all find the ending satisfying. Big thanks to all the readers who have been following this story, posting reviews and encouraging me to update. I have loved hearing your feedback!

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"Charlie…" whispered a voice. "Charlie, wake up…"

Charlie had heard the whisperings of many voices in his cell. He could no longer distinguish between the real voices and the voices echoing around his mind. He supposed he hadn't heard a genuine human voice since Locke had stopped coming to visit him. Over the last week Locke had been bringing him water, wrapping him in blankets and whispering words of encouragement. Then one day something changed. Charlie had felt Locke's trembling fingers pressed against his neck, feeling for his pulse. He had heard Locke's panicked voice calling his name. Charlie had sensed these touches and cries, but was too weak to respond.

A few moments later Charlie had woken up to find Locke cradling him to his chest, trying to feed him with a small piece of mango. When the fruit touched his tongue it had tasted sweet and divine. The ripe taste of salvation. But it did not last. A gang of Others had burst into the cell and started yelling at Locke, saying they had seen him smuggling food to the prisoner on their surveillance cameras. They were angry with him for corrupting the test. Locke had protested that their test was failing – that this wasn't supposed to happen, that Charlie was meant to be saved. But the Others had sneered at him and said that Ben didn't care about the junkie. He just wanted to see the prophet. Charlie had curled into a ball as the Others dragged Locke away from him and slammed the cell door closed.

Since then, nobody else had come. Charlie had pulled the rough army blanket over his head and wished the world away. He had tried to fall asleep but the knawing of his empty stomach, the dryness of his mouth and the shrieking memories in his head kept him in a wakeful torment. He could hear the voice of his mother calling to him. A vision of her floated before his eyes. But every time Charlie felt himself reaching towards her the vision would change. He would see Ethan looming over him, his hands fastening around his throat, his cold eyes piercing him. Charlie would soon be screaming and gagging, his limbs thrashing wildly. He felt himself struggling desperately for life, because every time he looked into the face of death…the face looked like Ethan.

But it wasn't the voice of Ethan or his mother that was whispering to him now. This voice was more fearful and familiar. This voice was real.

"Charlie…come on, mate…say something!"

Desmond's voice. Charlie should have known that he would hear Desmond before the end. He had always promised to let him know when death was near.

"Des?" Charlie rasped. "Is it happening now, Des?"

"Not if I can help it, brother..." he answered.

Charlie kept his eyes shut, frightened that Desmond would transform into Ethan or worse if he opened them. He felt the chain being loosened from his ankle, the biting metal falling away from his skin. Charlie moaned as he felt himself being lifted up onto somebody's shoulders and carried out of the cell. Even with his eyes closed Charlie knew he was leaving the cell because the air wasn't so stale. He gasped and sucked it greedily into his lungs. Then feeling dizzied by the sudden sensation of movement, he allowed his mind to drift away…

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When Charlie woke he could feel wet grass between his fingers and a cool night breeze against his cheeks. His head was lying in somebody's lap and a dainty hand was caressing his brow. Charlie reached up and clutched this hand in his own. He squeezed the hand to assure himself that it was made of flesh. When he felt certain that this wasn't a hallucination he allowed his eyelids to flutter open. Claire's face was hanging over him. She was smiling through tears.

Claire's here, thought Charlie. That settles it then. I've got to be dying. He laughed weakly finding that he didn't care. He was just happy to see her again.

"It's okay…" she whispered. "You're safe now…"

He sighed. It was so sweet of her to lie.

Charlie glanced beyond Claire and saw Desmond hovering close by, watching him with concern. To the right of Desmond there stood a huge pylon. A girl with dark hair was crouching at its base, pushing buttons on a control panel. Suddenly Sayid came running down the grass slope to meet them.

"Where's Kate?" asked Desmond.

Sayid shook his head. "She wouldn't come. I told her they were releasing her, but wouldn't leave without Jack. She's convinced that he's been brainwashed. She told me to leave without her and tell James she is sorry."

Desmond frowned. "Who's James?"

"I've no idea…" muttered Sayid.

"The force field is down," the dark-haired girl announced. "You have to take your friend away and never come back here."

Desmond lifted Charlie once again and carried him passed the sonic barrier. Claire followed close by keeping a tight hold of Charlie's hand. Sayid stepped beyond the fence and then turned back to the girl.

"Alex…" said Sayid, his voice gentle and coaxing. "You could come with us if you want. You don't have to stay here with those people. If you like…I could lead you back to your mother…"

The girl looked dumbstruck. Then suddenly her face twisted into a snarl. She reactivated the sonic field and stepped back from the pylon.

"My mother is dead!" she hissed.

Charlie watched the girl as she fled into the night. His eyelids began to feel heavy once more. He allowed his head to flop...

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The next thing he knew he was lying with his back propped against a tree trunk. He could feel hard fingers pressing against his stomach and ribcage. A large hand cupped his face and tilted his head upright. Charlie cracked his lids and saw Sayid crouching in front of him, eyeing him critically.

"Charlie, wake up…" he said, tapping his cheek. "I need you to tell me precisely how many days you were kept without food."

Precisely? Charlie had lost all sense of time in that cell. Hours and days had blurred together as he had fallen in and out of consciousness.

"Bloody ages…" he groaned.

Sayid sighed and continued to examine him. Suddenly Claire knelt down beside him, kissed him on the cheek and promptly began spoon-feeding him. Charlie grimaced. They didn't have to treat him like a baby. Then he tasted what was on the spoon and his face broke into a smile. Peanut butter.

"This is my last jar..." said Claire, offering another spoonful.

"Claire, slow down," Sayid advised. "Don't give him too much. He needs water first. He's suffering with dehydration."

"Sayid, I know what I'm doing, okay?" Claire rebuffed. "I took care of my mum for years. Charlie needs to eat something nutritious. He has to boost his immune system, otherwise he is going to get sick!"

"Listen Claire. When I served in the Republican Guard I dealt with many prisoners who had been subjected to starvation. You mustn't force too much food on him at once. His body has to readjust to the intake."

"I know, Sayid! Look, I've gone through our supplies and divided everything up into food groups. Charlie just needs to have a little bit of each one before he goes to sleep. He needs them all to make him healthy again. I'll make sure he has enough water too. Why don't you go off and look at your maps?"

Sayid sighed again. "Claire, you're smothering him."

"I am not!" she protested, much offended.

"Yeah, you are, Claire…" said Charlie with a sly smile.

Claire turned and narrowed her eyes at him.

"You're getting a taste of your own medicine then."

Charlie laughed. He was still feeling wasted and enfeebled, but it was a blessing to be in the company of his friends again. Just breathing in the fresh air once more was enough to revitalise him. Sayid eventually gave up and allowed Claire to fuss over him while he built them a campfire. It wasn't until the fire was burning that Charlie caught sight of Desmond. The Scotsman was sitting slumped on the opposite side of the clearing with a faraway look on his face. When he saw Charlie staring at him he nodded and winked. Charlie turned his attentions back to Claire. After she had managed to get a little more food and water down him, she wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and helped him to lie down. They fell asleep in each other's arms.

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The next morning they began their long trek back to camp. Sayid and Desmond took it in turns to carry Charlie on their backs. Charlie complained bitterly about being treated like an invalid, but they insisted that he wasn't to exert himself. So Charlie reluctantly allowed himself to be carted along like a piece of luggage. As they made their journey by day Charlie found himself wincing and shielding his eyes against the intense sun. He realised that he had become conditioned to coldness and shadows.

That evening, they camped in a cave. Sayid and Claire finally gave way to their exhaustion and lay down to sleep while Desmond took the watch. He sat against a boulder in the cave mouth, staring at a crumpled photograph. After a moment Charlie rose to his knees and began crawling towards Desmond. He felt frail and decrepit like an old man. He could feel his bones jutting under his papery skin. He was stiff in the joints and covered in goose-bumps. He felt very aware of his skeleton. He was just a shaky little bag of skin and bones.

Desmond noticed him and shook his head.

"Get back to sleep, Charlie," he ordered, his tone stern and disapproving. "You need to recover your strength, brother."

Charlie snorted. "Recover my strength for what, Des? For the next death that the universe has got lined up for me?"

"Don't think like that, mate…"

"Why shouldn't I?" he complained. "You came all this way! You risked your lives to rescue me. But what was the bloody point, Desmond? You said yourself you can't stop this forever. Why keep trying?!"

Desmond held up his photograph. "Charlie, do you remember the night you had your dream about Penny? Miss Widmore?"

Charlie squinted at the girl in the picture. He had never seen this woman before in his life and yet she seemed strangely familiar to him.

"While you were sleeping…" Desmond continued, tightly, "…I lifted my rifle, I aimed it at your head and came close to pulling the trigger."

Charlie flinched in alarm. "You what?!"

He shrugged. "I didn't think you stood a chance, brother. I thought the death visions would only get worse if I tried to put it off. I didn't want you to suffer. I thought it was the only thing I could do for you…"

Charlie squirmed, feeling sick to his stomach.

"What stopped you then?" he asked.

"You did. All of a sudden you had this wee smile on your face. I could tell that you were dreaming. I could see by your expression that you hadn't given up. I thought, well, if this man still has hope then I've no business taking his life…and then I learned what you were dreaming about..."

Desmond stroked his thumb over the photograph.

"You know, brother, somebody once said that me and her weren't meant to be together. For a long while I was stupid and cowardly enough to believe them. But not anymore, pal. You've got me hoping again. Its thanks to you I know that Penny still cares for me. That she is still out there looking for me."

Desmond turned and looked Charlie in the eyes.

"So I'm damned if I'm going to let you give up now. You best pull yourself together, soldier. Because we aren't finished yet."

Charlie hung his head. "So when does it end, Des?"

"It ends when Penny comes."

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The following morning Charlie wasn't feeling so weak and sickly anymore. His appetite was raging. He ate two pieces of fruit, some salted pork and an Apollo bar that Claire had brought along in her pack. He insisted on walking that day, though he still needed to be supported on either side by Desmond and Claire. With a map in his hand, Sayid led the way back to camp.

"We finished your church," Claire told him, brightly. "Everybody pitched in. Even Sawyer. Just wait till you see it, Charlie."

He smiled, contently. Charlie really felt like he was returning home. He was looking forward to seeing all those raggedy lean-tos again. He couldn't wait to see Aaron. He was itching to play his guitar. Hell, even the sand fleas didn't seem so bad after the ordeal that he had survived.

Charlie's stomach plummeted when they stepped beyond the tree-line. The camp was deserted. The tents were unoccupied. Fruit platters lay half-eaten on the kitchen table. It was like discovering the Mary Celeste. Charlie's dream came flooding back to him and his heart began to race. Claire screamed in horror and broke from his side when she saw her baby's crib lying empty.

"Aaron's gone!" she wailed, sobbing and fraught. "What's happening, Charlie? Where is he? Where is everyone?!"

Desmond and Sayid were speechless, rooted with shock. Suddenly a sound came into Charlie's ears. He could hear a dog barking.

"Vincent…" he gasped.

Charlie encouraged his companions to follow the sound of the barking, remembering how he had followed Vincent in his dream. Sayid and Claire hurried over the sand and then came to an abrupt halt, staring at something a little way down the beach. Desmond helped Charlie to hurry after them.

They could scarcely believe what they saw…

Four helicopters were parked in the sand just a short distance from them. The crews of these choppers were unloading crates of food and medical supplies from their small crafts. The survivors of Flight 815 were huddling in blankets, being served with warm drinks and being asked concerned questions. Three months after their plane crash they were finally getting some care and comfort. Vincent was bounding around the rescue site, barking and wagging his tail.

Claire gasped with relief when she saw Sun and Jin sitting together, holding Aaron between them. She rushed towards them, fell onto her knees and began thanking the Korean couple profusely for looking after her son. Charlie smiled to see Sun placing Aaron back into Claire's arms. Suddenly his view was blocked by a large Latino man with fuzzy black hair and a huge smile.

"Charlie! Dude, you're alive!"

Sayid only barely managed to restrain Hurley from crushing his malnourished friend in an over-enthusiastic hug.

"Guys! Can you even believe this?!" Hurley exclaimed. "The choppers landed here this morning. They picked up that signal from the Flame Station. Charlie, dude! You like totally got us rescued! You're like the fricking hero of the hour here! Whoa man…you're not looking so good though. We seriously need to get some hot dinners in you. Hey, when we get home what do you say we all go out for some fried chicken together? Man, I can't believe we're actually going home. Dude, I'm gonna see my mom again! I hope she isn't pissed that I missed her birthday…"

Hurley's smile faded a little as it suddenly dawned on him that Jack, Kate and Locke had not returned with them. He asked what had happened. Sayid took Hurley aside to explain the events of their rescue trek.

Charlie and Desmond were left standing together. Charlie turned to look at the man who was keeping him upright with a firm hold underneath his arm. Desmond's eyes were scanning the faces of the rescue team. He seemed to be searching for a face that he would recognise. A face which he had been longing to see again. Judging by the disappointment etched on his features, Desmond had looked over every face and had not found her.

Charlie sighed and glanced towards the ocean. His eyes widened as he noticed a woman standing alone on the cusp of the sea. A woman with golden hair that was being tussled by the wind. Her head was bowed in sorrow. It seemed as though she had wandered away from her fellow rescuers…like she needed a private moment to release some tears…because she hadn't found what she was looking for either…

"Desmond…" said Charlie, pointing towards the sea.

Desmond followed his gesture. Charlie heard his breath catch in his throat. Desmond immediately took a step forwards. Then just as suddenly he stopped and looked back at Charlie. He seemed worried that Charlie would collapse in the sand if he left his side. He wanted to be certain that it was okay to let him go.

Charlie gave a little nod to say he was fine. He didn't need Desmond to hold him up anymore. Charlie was feeling confident that he could stand on his own. So Desmond uncoiled his arm from Charlie's shoulders and took a step back. He stood beaming at Charlie for a moment as though feeling a sense of honour and achievement, feeling that his quest had been fulfilled and the cycle had been broken. Penny was here. Desmond didn't hesitate for another second. He turned and dashed towards her.

Charlie shielded his eyes from the morning sun. He watched Desmond and his girl approaching each other slowly on the shoreline, reaching out to one another with trembling fingers. Both were laughing, weeping and breathless as they clasped the face of their lover between their hands.

Charlie averted his eyes as they began to kiss.

He hobbled over to the rest of the survivors. He noticed that Claire was smiling at him, pleased to see him walking unsupported. Claire's smile was more than enough to nourish him. For once it seemed like fate was smiling on them too.

The End