Disclaimer: I own none of the characters within.
Author's Notes: Set in the flashforward universe, but before the sequence from "Through the Looking Glass."
There are no shadows at night. Jack is grateful for this. During the day, the shadows flickering in his peripheral vision take on the shapes of things long forgotten, the faces of people left behind. Out of the corner of his eye, the street lamps become palm trees and the roar of traffic becomes the mellow lullaby of the ocean waves. He hears a song on the radio, and a nearby shadow seems to become the transparent phantom of a musician friend who is buried somewhere deep and unreachable, cradled in the womb of the sea. Only at night does he find any peace. In darkness, there are no shadows. Nothing beckons just out of sight, and he can finally rest the head that has spent all day turning as fast as it can, desperate to catch a glimpse of the grizzled old wise man as he passes between the trees.
The worst phantoms are the one he can meet face to face, the ones he can talk to but can't communicate with. A dark-haired woman, her jaw set hard against any looking back, her eyes dark with regret and a thousand unspoken apologies. He feels like he's talking through her, like his words go pouring into her ear but then spill uselessly out the other, drowned out by the airplanes that go screaming by overhead, taunting him, teasing him with echoes of what he left behind. She leaves him with only the tattered remains of his memory to keep him company. It's not enough.
How many are left? Not so many as you would think. After all of the battles and hardship and trials by fire, his people have fallen in ways both undignified and senseless. His apartment is filled with newspaper clippings detailing illnesses and car accidents, every mundane and pointless death imaginable being inflicted on the best and bravest people he has ever known. He drinks to forget. He drinks to remember. In the fog, in the darkness and the absence of shadows, he can create images so real that he can almost touch them, instead of the diaphanous phantoms that haunt him in the daylight hours.
He has nowhere else to turn. He has no one else to talk to. With a heavy heart and a surprisingly clear mind, he puts on his imaginary miner's helmet, switches on the light, and burrows deep into his newspaper clippings, sifting through the scraps and snippets until he gets to the real gold, the slips of paper with addresses and phone numbers scrawled on them. He finds the one at last that he laughed at when it was first given to him by the gentle giant, the sympathetic millionaire who couldn't bear to leave a broken man in the cruel hands of a system he wouldn't be able to understand or fight.
That scrap of paper guides Jack to an apartment even smaller and more miserable than his. He doesn't hesitate before knocking on the door. He doesn't feel any indecision, just resignation created by unbearable loneliness. He wonders if he will recognize the man inside. Like a flash of lightning, he remembers the hatch, the descent, the terrible uncertainty of not knowing what could be in there. He feels the same now. It comforts him, brings him one step closer to home.
The door opens awkwardly— it's hard for someone to open a door when they're in a wheelchair, but with some painstaking maneuvering, he manages it. He parks his chair in the doorway and squints up at his visitor.
"Oh, darn," Ben says coolly. "I thought you were the groceries."
Jack looks over his head and into the apartment, sees that all the shades are drawn and the interior is shrouded in darkness. Some sort of kindred spirit stirs in him, creaking from misuse and decay, feeling out across the abyss for an answering spirit from Ben. Nothing yet.
"Can I come in?" Jack asks politely, his voice scratchy from a combination of screaming and booze.
"Sure," Ben smiles mirthlessly. "Why not?"
He turns himself around and wheels off into the darkness. Jack steps inside and closes the door behind him, and as the source of light from the hallway is cut off, the apartment becomes almost completely dark. The only illumination comes from the halos of light around the window shades, the sunlight fighting to get inside. Unprepared, blinded by the sudden absence of everything, Jack gropes helplessly for the wall, feeling his way along until he stumbles against a table. He follows its edge, hoping for a chair, finding none, then recalling stupidly that the apartment's sole inhabitant takes his chair with him wherever he goes. Jack sits on the table itself and prays it will hold his weight (as if he even believes in prayer anymore).
Expertly swiveling the necessary one hundred eighty degrees, Ben faces Jack and looks up at him. He is an eerie silhouette, his skeletal hands folded patiently in his lap, his neck looking too thin to support his head. Even in the dark, Jack can see how much weight he has lost, how small he has become.
"I'd offer you something to drink," Ben plays the host with wry sarcasm. "But judging by the smell of your clothes and breath, your taste in beverages is quite different from mine. I wouldn't want you to get excited."
Ben's voice still sounds the same, soft and hypnotic, and Jack is immeasurably comforted by the sound.
"A glass of water would be fine," he says gratefully.
The creak of wheels is loud to the point of being unnerving, only because everything else in the apartment seems muffled by apathy and time. When Ben opens the fridge to get a pitcher of cold water, Jack sees a makeshift paper shade over the lightbulb, minimizing the possibility of any excess light. While Ben always did remind him of a nocturnal animal, it would seem that he has transcended resemblance and moved into actuality. When he returns with the water, Jack feels how cold his hands are as they brush against his own in the transfer of the glass from one grasp to another.
Jack gulps down the water like it's the antidote to the poison that has been seeping through his blood ever since the helicopters came. Ben watches him quietly, his head tilted like a bird's.
"You know, Jack," he almost smiles as he says this, "If mutual hatred alone was enough to kill two men, we'd both have been dead a long time ago."
"Yeah," Jack sucks in a breath after drinking such cold water so quickly. "I know."
"Why are you here, Jack?" Ben still has the habit repeating the name of the person he's talking to. "Did you come to humiliate me? To mock me?"
"I just wanted to..." he shrugs, carefully sets down the empty glass. "To talk."
Ben snorts at him derisively, even that one sound swollen with contempt and disgust. Jack flinches against it, can't bear to look him in the eyes. No man can look into the eyes of someone he has wronged so deeply, someone whose warnings he chose to ignore out of a grudge, someone who wasn't even allowed to save himself after trying and failing to save others from themselves.
"I wanted to say," Jack says slowly. "That you're not the only one who has nightmares filled with the sound of helicopters."
"I don't have nightmares," Ben counters instantly. "You have to sleep to have nightmares."
"I'm sorry," Jack says automatically.
Pushing himself forward through the darkness, Ben latches his pale, spidery hands onto Jack's knees, digging his fingers in like claws, his eyes hot with rage as he glares up at him in the grip of scorching fury. In spite of this incredible anger, his voice remains remarkably soft, which is perhaps even more dangerous, like a gun being silenced by a feather pillow.
"Jack," His voice trembles, incredulous. "Do you realize what you've done?"
Jack, sitting up on the table, takes no comfort from this height advantage. In fact, he has never felt so small and miserable, not even when he was a child. The grim wisdom in Ben's tortured eyes makes him feel younger than he ever did in his youth, and as much as he hates it, he knows he deserves it.
"Yes," he swallows with great difficulty. "I do."
And in that deadly, stifling darkness, unhindered by alcohol or tricks of the light, chased into the past by those blazing eyes, Jack remembers.
The bright tropical sun, warm and reassuring, as they wait by the radio tower for their salvation to arrive. Jack absently walks to Claire, touches the soft head of the child she carries, feeling touched by some deep understanding of life, feeling the earth rolling slowly under his feet, feeling the distance between himself and reality finally closing.
Ben wakes up, lifts his bloody head and moans, "What have you done?"
Danielle raises an instinctive fist to strike him again, but Jack says, "Don't, Danielle. He can't do anything now." And he walks over to him to gloat.
"Did you hear that, Ben?" he sneers. "They're on their way. You've failed."
"You have no idea what a mistake you've just made." Ben's eyes are full of despair. "You were not meant to do this. This isn't how it's supposed to happen."
"Oh, it's happening all right." Jack is almost dizzy from the euphoria. "And you're going to see it happen. You're going to watch as every single one of these people gets on a helicopter to go home. And then I'm going to kill you."
Ben's eyes light up with... hope? He nods in agreement, "All right. Kill me. But let me call my people and tell them I'm not coming back."
As thrown as he was by the agreement to execution, Jack is not fooled. "You're not calling anyone. I'm not giving you a chance to ruin this."
"You've made the choice for your people, Jack, and I'm not going to stop you." Ben's voice climbs in pitch, quivering with anxiety. "Now let me protect my people."
Jack shakes his head and laughs, "Nice try."
Minutes crawl by. The clearing hums with eager voices. Some are crying. Some are embracing. Everyone is going mad from the wait. A few curious flies smell blood on the hot jungle air and come looking, landing on Ben's bruised face. He shakes them off. They come back. He shakes them off again. Jack is amused by this, and somewhere deep inside he wonders how he has reached the point where he could take such pleasure from another man's pain.
Suddenly, Kate grabs his arm and says, "Jack, do you hear that?"
They all listen, and they're straining their ears so hard that they are almost deafened by the sudden hum of distant helicopters, like leaning against a door that suddenly opens. Rousseau hears them approaching and says a gentle goodbye to her daughter before turning to vanish into the jungle where Locke already disappeared. Ben hears them as well, and his eyes darken as he prepares himself for death.
The copters are able to land one at a time in the clearing, each one filling its belly with weeping survivors before lifting off and allowing another one to take its place and opens its doors. Jack watches them go, his people, his flock, one by one climbing to safety and lifting off into the sky. His eyes burn but he has no tears left to cry. His knees feel weak. His hand tightens on the knife he pulled from Naomi's back, and as the last person gets into the last helicopter, he turns to face the man tied to the tree.
"Finish it," Ben says calmly. "I'm ready."
He closes his eyes and lifts his chin, exposing his throat for a quick and easy kill. Jack raises the knife, then pauses. It's too easy. It's too simple. He realizes that Ben has manipulated him one last time, and his pride can't bear it. He's not about to throw Brer Rabbit into the briar patch. With a swift slash of the knife he cuts the ropes instead.
"I'm taking you with me." he growls.
Ben's eyes snap open in horror and panic, and he emits a shrill scream, "No!" before making a break for the jungle. Jack catches the end of the rope still tied to his wrist, and Ben jerks in the air and falls hard to the ground, twisting and writhing against his restraints.
"Jack, please!" he bawls. "Don't do this! Just kill me! I can't leave here! Please! Kill me!"
Jack feels the savage grin on his face, even though he's not consciously aware of forming it, as he finally discovers a way to hurt his enemy, and hurt him deeply. He catches up with Ben and slings one of his flailing arms over his shoulders and drags him towards the waiting helicopter. Ben fights and kicks and screams for mercy. One of the rescuers walks towards them uncertainly, offers to help, and the two of them combined manage to wrestle Ben into the belly of the beast. As soon as the door closes and they take to the air, Ben curls up on the cold metal floor and becomes very still.
Once the helicopter lands on the freighter and they're all walking about on deck, hugging and cheering, Jack sees Ben staring wistfully at the horizon, at the beautiful green island fading into the distance. Their eyes meet. Ben speaks, in what Jack will later identify as the last spoken words in the novel 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'— but there's Ben for you, so well-read, so civilized.
"Oh," Ben sighs brokenly. "All that I have ever loved."
And when he turns to walk away, he suddenly convulses in agony and collapses. Mystified doctors will later conclude that an old incision close to his spine suddenly reopened, paralyzing him permanently, but when Jack kneels next to the straining, suffering man lying prone on the deck of the ship, he already knows.
And here he is now, crippled and festering in this lonely apartment that millionaire Hugo Reyes bought for him out of sympathy— no one could turn a deaf ear to the piercing screams that had echoed across the deck as his back suddenly ruptured and blood splattered out like the stroke of a Jackson Pollock painting, and tender-hearted Hurley was especially moved by the plight of a man who had only hours before been his sworn enemy. Shunted away and forgotten by all, a leader of many who now has no control over his own legs, this is the miserable fate that he had begged to be spared from, the fate which Jack has condemned him to. Looking into his eyes, Jack sees reflected back at him every mistake he ever made, every warning he ever ignored, every piece of advice he failed to heed until it was too late.
"I made a terrible mistake," he confesses uselessly.
Ben stares at him, slowly shakes his head in disbelief, then laughs in a short, humorless cough.
"Jack," He pulls himself away to a reasonable distance again, a safe distance. "Did you come here for absolution?"
"I came here because I have no one else."
"Oh, yes," Ben smiles darkly as he begins to understand. "I read the obituaries too, you know. Of course, I don't keep them in a scrapbook like you probably do. Does it get expensive, traveling to so many funerals? But then I forget that wonderful golden pass of yours. I find it amusing, the way they pretended to give you those free tickets, when you've already paid such a terrible price for them."
"I just got back from Bernard's funeral." Jack feels tears prickling his eyes like bee stings. "After he lost Rose, he just couldn't..."
"They weren't ready to leave. None of them were ready to leave." Ben folds his hands and leans forward in his wheelchair, his gaze accusatory. "Tell me, Jack, how many are left?"
"Well, there's Kate." They used to meet by the airport and talk, but now she doesn't answer his calls. "And Sawyer." Who still treats him like the competition; they haven't spoken in a long time. "And there's Jin— wait..." Jin suicided, unable to cope after Sun died from the complications of her pregnancy. "Hurley's alive." And miserable and alone. "Um, Desmond..." Killed with Penelope in a head-on collision with a truck. "Claire and Aaron are all right." He's not even sure if that's true, he hasn't heard from her and has no idea where she is.
"The list goes on, doesn't it, Jack?" Ben catches his gaze and holds it. "Even our mutual friend Karl was killed by a driver who seems to have had the same fondness for alcohol that you do. Do you know, I think he may have been actually decapitated in the accident." He smiles morbidly. "Of course, he found the time to get Alex pregnant before he left. Funny old world."
"How is Alex?" Jack asks quickly, desperate to change the subject.
"How should I know?" Ben snaps, annoyed by the question. "The last time I saw her she came here, swollen to the point of bursting with that idiot's child, and told me it was the last time I would ever see her, that she would never let me hold her precious baby." He scoffs. "I don't know why she bothered. I never expected anything from her."
"Don't you ever wonder if she's—"
"If she's what?" Ben's anger is weak, half-hearted— he's too tired for this. "If she's all right? If the baby has her eyes? Is it a boy or a girl?"
He swats the questions away like flies, and Jack remembers the insects buzzing over his bloodied face a lifetime ago. Now his eyes have adjusted completely to the dark, and he can see that Ben's hair is turning grey, that he seems to have aged considerably and painfully since that distant day when helicopters were on the horizon and time was running out. He thinks of wild animals that, when taken from their natural environment, begin to waste away from sheer despair. He has the sudden thought that Ben might actually be dying, then wonders how such a man has survived this long at all, torn from his home and with his pride and dignity shattered and thrown to the wind. In truth, Ben is already a ghost, a shadow of the man he used to be. Jack, with a pill bottle in his pocket and the taste of booze still in his mouth, can relate.
"I came here..." Jack hates being up on the table, so he hops down and kneels in front of Ben in a position of humility and shame. "I came here because I feel like I'm the only one who wants to go back."
"Do you remember how you felt when you first crashed? How desperate you were to get back to all this?" Ben leans down to stare him in the eyes. "That's how it feels now, doesn't it? All you can think about is going back there, about going back home."
"Yes," Jack almost chokes on the word, it hurts so badly. "Yes, I want to go back."
"So you came to talk to me because I feel the same." Ben leans back in his chair and spreads his hands like a magician proving he has nothing up his sleeves. "What did you think would happen? That I would gush hysterically about how lonely I was, how much I long to stroll barefoot down the beach of my homeland? Did you think we could weep together and reminisce about our dear old island? Here, Jack," He reaches out and roughly grabs Jack's hands in his own. "Maybe if we hold hands, close our eyes, and wish real hard, we can go back there again."
Then he yanks his hands away in disgust, using one of them to rub his exhausted eyes, perhaps trying to wipe away the tears that may have formed there.
"You know, my mother died giving birth to me," His voice is faint, almost inaudible. "I never knew her, so I always considered the island to be my mother. It took care of me, gave me a home, kept me safe. By taking me away from there, you've orphaned me a second time."
He bows his head and becomes very still, silently grieving his loss. Slowly, tentatively, Jack lays a hand on his knee, then bows his own head in respect and commiseration. The kindred spirit that he felt when he first saw him suddenly stirs again, and this time, he feels an answering echo from Ben, as though some invisible tendril has stretched out from both of them, meeting on the air and gently twining together in mourning.
"We can never go back," Ben says weakly. "I wanted to die on that island. Now here I am. No one will come to my funeral."
"I will." Jack's voice is quiet, but full of conviction.
Ben smiles sadly and says, "I know. And you'll be the only one. That's your curse."
The silence is heavy but peaceful, like being wrapped in a quilt that smells so warm and familiar that you don't mind the fact that you can hardly breathe under its weight. Jack wishes they would both die right now, that they could throw off these useless bodies and take flight, their spirits racing fast and low over the sea until they returned home. Jack holds his breath, and even though his eyes are closed, he feels Ben do the same. They will their hearts to stop beating.
Then they both exhale in long, disappointed sighs, tinged with a little bit of awkward laughter, both of them feeling foolish. They try to smile at each other, but each can see the hurt in the other's eyes.
Ben says (in a soft tone that could almost be heard as affectionate), "Go home, Jack. Get drunk."
Jack stands, his knees aching, and shrugs, "It won't help."
Ben nods (with unmistakable affection now, or maybe it's just too dark in here to know for sure), "That's never stopped you before, has it?"
Jack is laughing before he realizes it, that fine line between laughter and tears, because it's so true that it shouldn't be so funny. Ben doesn't join the laughter, but his mouth twitches in a sort of smile as he looks away, keeping his amusement to himself— even in captivity, an intensely private man. They hesitate awkwardly like dance partners after the music ends, lingering uncertainly, not sure whether it's time to leave the floor yet.
Finally, Ben clears his throat and says, "I'd offer to walk you to the door, but..."
Jack flinches at the sting, but forces a nod of acceptance as he responds, "Yeah, it's all right."
He turns to leave but is suddenly stopped in his tracks, dazzled by the simple beauty of what he sees. When he entered this place, he was completely blind, stumbling helplessly through the darkness, not knowing what he might encounter as he forged ahead. Now, with his eyes adjusted to the absence of light, he sees everything as it truly is— the bookshelves lined with the great classics, the old upright piano with a Chopin nocturne open on the stand, the elegant glass sculpture on the coffee table that forms iridescent curves like a splash of water frozen in time— it leaves him breathless, this glimpse of a world that he hadn't even been aware he was passing through.
"You know what they say, Jack," Ben's voice is distant, dream-like. "Hindsight is always 20/20."
"Yeah," Jack says hoarsely. "I know."
And when he opens the front door, his vision explodes into hot white light. He looks back over his shoulder, Orpheus looking back into the Underworld, but Ben is already retreating back into the darkness. All Jack sees is his shadow, slipping across the floor like a swimmer gliding just under the surface of the sea.