Title: Iterations

Rating: PG/K+

Summary: Variations on hope and survival.

Characters: Charlie, Desmond, Claire and others

Word Count: 2394

Warning: Spoilers through the season three finale

A/N: Dedicated with love to Charlie Hieronymous Pace, the true hero of Lost. If only your fate had been in my hands. I would have taken much better care of you.

Disclaimer: More than ever, I wish I owned Lost but alas, I do not.

"It's not Penny's boat! We've got to warn them!" yelled Charlie as he came running out of the transmission room that was quickly filling with water.

Charlie hoped liked mad that he would distract Desmond enough so he wouldn't notice the image of the woman his clairvoyant friend wanted to see more than anything in the world. There was no time for that now, no time to prepare the scuba gear. They had to escape the quickly flooding station and make it back up to the surface the same way they had both made it down. Any moment, Desmond's premonition would come true.

He should have been concerned that now that he was attempting to escape his fate and save himself, that rescue might not come. But with the unexpected news, Charlie began to wonder whether Desmond's vision of salvation was even accurate to begin with. How did he know who these people in the helicopter were? If Naomi was lying they could very well be dangerous, and he could be sending Claire to her death. He had to warn her. Now more than ever his imperative was not to die, but to live.

Charlie grabbed Desmond by the shoulders and turned him around to face the moon pool. The water was already ankle deep on the deck, causing the water level of the pool to rise dramatically to meet it. Charlie could no longer be certain where the deck ended and the pool began. Standing side by side, they inched their way to the point where the ground dropped beneath them. When they reached the lip of the pool, they took deep breaths and jumped.

Desmond being the stronger swimmer, he immediately took the lead. Charlie followed close behind as they groped for the edge of the station where they could begin to swim up. It seemed to take forever and Charlie's chest began to ache. He could still see Desmond, but he was getting smaller, the murky water blurring his form. He fought to keep up but the gap grew wider until it felt as if he were swimming backwards. He wished he had the ability to call out, to tell him he needed help. He wondered if this was the moment Desmond had foreseen when he had told Charlie that he drowned.

What an odd sensation, Charlie thought. A bit like flying. Weightless. Although the water was bone chilling cold it felt almost womblike and comforting. Charlie relaxed his body and prepared himself for the unknown, more certain than ever that he was meeting his fate. He could no longer see Desmond; where the surface of the water once sparkled like a mirror he could now see only blackness. An instant later, the darkness was replaced by a white flash so intense that his eyes burned behind his lids, and then...

He was floating again. Above the island, he could see the beach camp below him. His friends were all there, grouped together in a tight circle around a helicopter on the beach with a large cargo hold, like the kind they used in the military. They were climbing on with large smiles and animated gestures. Charlie saw Sun and Kate and Sayid. The only one not smiling was Claire. She stood on the periphery looking around, frantic, clutching Aaron and asking if anyone had seen Charlie. Most just shook their heads and proceeded to their salvation in the sky. Claire held back on the verge of tears. Hurley was trying to coax her forward while Jack tried to reason with her but she was inconsolable.

Charlie frowned. "Just go, Claire. I told you not to worry about me. It's okay, I did this for you."

He wished he could talk to her, to put an arm around her and guide her onto the helicopter himself but it was as if he had no tongue, his words only echoing in his own head, useless. Claire was beside herself, and Charlie's frown deepened at the thought that he had made her this upset.

He thought it was her despair that was causing the pain in his chest, but as it grew more intense Charlie knew something strange was happening. He didn't even seem to have a body and yet there was this intense pressure where his insides should have been, like he was being yanked by an invisible wire attached to his gut. He winced as his breath left him completely, and then...

He gasped roughly, air tearing at his throat, struggling as he broke the surface of the water. There was an arm around his neck, towing him along. Charlie's limbs felt numb and although he wanted to assist this person, he couldn't muster an ounce of energy. So instead he closed his eyes and floated, allowing himself to be carried along. His face felt misshapen; the salt water stinging his open cuts, serving as a reminder of what had happened down there, before Desmond had come to rescue him. They had barely escaped with their lives under a hail of gunfire and harpoons. Charlie wasn't even sure if he had been hit, he still wasn't sure, it had all happened so fast.

His feet hit sand and Charlie was dragged the final few feet until they both collapsed on the sandy shore. Desmond sounded exhausted, but at least he had the energy to pant. Charlie's breath felt shallow, insubstantial and unsatisfying. On the edge of his awareness he heard more gunfire and explosions in the distance. He turned his head to see Desmond who was looking at him in a way that was almost angelic with the hint of a smile laced with concern, his own personal Gabriel. Charlie's eyes drifted closed on the image, sensing nothing until...

He was awoken by the sound of a woman's voice. "Sir, we are preparing for landing, please bring your seatback to the upright position."

Charlie pulled his seat up in compliance. Then he turned to Claire in the seat next to him and winked.

"Almost home," he told her.

Claire smiled, but her eyes were distant. Aaron was asleep in her lap. "Charlie, maybe I should hang back when we get to Sydney, and give you and your brother a chance to catch up."

"But Claire I want you there," Charlie insisted. "I can't wait for Liam and Karen to meet you. And Aaron. Don't worry about me. We have all the time in the world to catch up."

Claire nodded and turned to look out of her window.

"I never thought I'd see Sydney again," she said. "It feels so strange, like I'm on vacation. I don't even know where home is anymore."

Charlie reached over and took her hand. "Home is wherever we're together."

The plane began its descent and Charlie made a silent prayer. The last time he took a flight the landing was anything but smooth. He closed his eyes as he felt the plane pitch forward and touch down with a series of bumps that caused his stomach to lurch. He leaned over and heard Claire calling his name in the distance when...

"Charlie? Can you hear me?"

He opened his eyes when he felt a warm tropical breeze brush his skin. He was on the ground in an unfamiliar tent on an all too familiar beach. Claire was kneeling beside him with Jack hovering above looking down. His face bore a professional mask. Charlie felt sick. He swallowed heavily to avoid retching before attempting to speak.

"What happened?" he said.

"We found you in the jungle three days ago," said Jack. "You had a head injury, a high fever. You were delirious. It's a miracle the Others didn't find you alone out there."

"Alone?" Charlie repeated, confused. He reached up to rub at his pounding head and pulled back when he felt the lump there. "Where's Desmond?"

Jack only stared back, looking slightly sheepish. Finally Claire spoke.

"Desmond is gone, Charlie," she explained. "He returned from the underwater station and told us you had drowned. The next day a helicopter landed about a mile up the beach. We ran to meet it but arrived only in time to see Desmond board it and lift off. No one else was rescued."

Charlie's pain was replaced by a numb shock. "But I did drown," he said. "He told me I had to and that if I did you and Aaron would be rescued! This can't be right."

"I'm afraid it is Charlie," said Jack. "I don't know how you escaped that hatch and ended up in the jungle but I saw Desmond get on that helicopter with a woman I'd never seen before…"

"A woman," said Charlie and then it hit him. "Penny."

Claire and Jack both looked confused but before Charlie could explain, he was bombarded with the woman's name repeating itself in his head. He didn't know why but he couldn't stop it.

Penny, Penny, Penny, Penny…

He shut his eyes and clamped down on his ears to try and block it out, but the sound only grew louder...

"Penny...Penny…" Charlie muttered.

He was freezing. Wet clothes and sand clung to his skin. Charlie felt the foam of the waves lapping at his feet as hands grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him back, away from their reach. Shadows ran across his closed lids and moved in time with the many frantic voices. Someone was coughing and breathing heavily, until one voice rose above the others.

"Charlie, are you all right?" said the voice of Sayid.

"It's not Penny's boat," Charlie muttered, tossing and turning as if in a nightmare. "It's not Penny's boat."

A hand pressed down on his shoulder to settle him, firmly but with compassion.

"We know," said Sayid. "There was never any rescue."

At his words Charlie slowly opened his eyes, bringing one hand up to shield them from the harsh glare of the sun. "But Desmond said the helicopter..."

"Aye," came the voice of Desmond from Charlie's right. He sounded like he had aged in a short time. "There was a helicopter Charlie, but it wasn't rescue. I'm sorry."

Charlie turned to look at him for the first time. He was soaked as Charlie was; his face worn and weary with the burdens of the universe. While Charlie waited for an explanation, it was Sayid who gave it.

"Naomi's team was here for the Others, to avenge the mass killings of the members of the Dharma Initiative," said Sayid. "They arrived en masse, slaughtered them all and then left."

"Left?" said Charlie. "You mean they abandoned us, just left us here?"

"Not all of us, Charlie," said Desmond. His eyes were full of intense regret, even more than he had shown all those times when he told Charlie he was going to die. Charlie knew from his expression that Desmond's news was far worse than that. "Before they left, they took Claire and Aaron with them."

The words were like a stab in the heart. What had he done? He felt his breath being sucked from his chest as he sobbed, unable to control himself. He turned over and buried his face in the sand...

"Daddy? Daddy, Mummy says you have to get up, dinner's almost ready."

Charlie stretched and reached out from where he lay on the living room couch, grabbed the five year old by the waist and pulled him in to a hug. The boy screamed with delight.

"Now I've got you," said Charlie with a maniacal laugh, rolling Aaron up and on top of him.

Aaron pretended to fight but was in no hurry to escape. He stretched out and rested on Charlie's chest.

"You know I've written a song for you," said Charlie.

Aaron's eyes lit up. "What is it?"

"It's a song about Aaron the king," said Charlie, brushing at the child's hair. "He slays dragons and protects his people from danger."

Aaron giggled. "What about Hope?" he asked.

"I've written one for your sister too," said Charlie. "When she's older I'll tell her about it. Until then I'll just sing it to her."

"I like it when you sing to me," Aaron said.

Charlie gave Aaron a squeeze. "So do I. Now let's go and help your mum."

As Charlie stood he could hear Claire talking from the other room. It sounded like she was on the phone, arguing about something.

"No!" she was shouting. "I'm not leaving! I promised him we'd stay together."

"Claire?" said Charlie as he entered the kitchen to investigate, but as soon as he crossed the threshold the room was plunged into darkness and he plummeted into it…

Charlie groaned as he hit the ground. He could still hear Claire off in the distance as well as a commotion on the beach. He shivered. He was soaked, battered and bruised.

"Claire," Jack was saying. "Don't worry. We'll find him. He'll catch up."

"No he won't," Claire was insisting. "If I don't find him now I'll never see him again, I know it."

"They're not going to wait forever," Jack argued. "You have to go now."

Claire wasn't having it. She spun and began to shout to the trees, towards where he lay, exhausted. "Charlie!"

With his last reserve of strength Charlie pulled himself up with the aid of a tree trunk. His vision spun, and he could only guess at the direction of the beach, but he followed the sound of Claire's voice like a siren call. He staggered like the undead, until the forms of his friends were just within his field of vision and he could be assured that they had seen him. Then he gave way and collapsed again.

Someone was turning him over, feeling for his pulse. Claire's soft, delicate fingers were on his face. "Charlie we're going home, all of us. You did it."

He had only the strength to nod. Then he felt Claire lift his hand and slide something onto his finger. He didn't need to look because he knew what it was.

"This belongs to you," she said. "You can hold on to it to give to Aaron someday, but not yet."

Charlie tried to smile through his exhaustion, but he wasn't sure if it came through. Instead he made a small sound and repeated in a whisper, "Not yet."