Disclaimer: LOST is the property of ABC.

The Right Thing

She wanted to tell him she hated him. She wanted it to be the only thing she said to him, ever. And she had once already, when they'd first brought him back. He had looked at her, and even though he was beaten so bloody that she actually started, he still managed a twisted grimace of a smile and a sardonic, "Hello, Juliet." So she'd spat the words at him, with everyone looking on, and he'd just shrugged and said, with his glance flicking to his daughter, "Join the club."

Jack had looked at her -- as if she was going to have anything to do with deciding what to do with Ben -- but she had just averted her eyes and walked away, a strange twisting in her stomach that she couldn't identify.

Ben looked so pathetic now, though. They'd finally untied him today, with the proviso that the ropes would be back tonight. It would be too easy for him to disappear into the darkness while everyone slept, after all.

When Sayid had grudgingly taken the bonds off Ben's wrists, the man had looked, for a moment, completely lost. Alex was nowhere to be seen, and Juliet could see, from her vantage point off to the side of the proceedings, the flash of pain in his eyes. Then he had turned and trudged away -- not far, of course, or he'd find himself tied to a tree again -- and sat in the sand near the water, staring out at the horizon.

His shirt was still splattered with rusty bloodstains and filthy with dirt and sweat. He looked broken. He was broken -- everything had been taken from him, and what hadn't been taken he had pushed away or destroyed, himself. Despite the burning rage she'd harbored against him for months, she felt a twinge of pity. Ben had been abandoned by everyone, lost everything, and now he was among people who despised him, tolerated and kept alive only because they didn't subscribe to his brand of governance. That fact must have stood out very starkly in his mind.

He had nowhere else to go. So he wouldn't run. Juliet knew that. But something stopped her from explaining this to Jack and Sayid, and it wasn't just that part of her enjoyed seeing Ben put in his place. Another part of her didn't want to articulate the depth of his humiliation, as if doing so would strip away the last shred of dignity he had. No matter how much she hated him, no matter what he'd done to her, no matter what he'd turned her into, she wouldn't do that.

With a sigh, Juliet tightened her grip on the water bottle and the plate of fruit she'd been holding. Five minutes ago she'd planned only on planting the two things in the sand next to Ben, then turning promptly around and walking away. Instead, she approached him slowly. His shoulders stiffened a little, and she knew that he knew she was there.

"Hey," she said softly. "Is this seat taken?"

Ben looked at her sharply, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. And why wouldn't he be suspicious? They hadn't had many civil conversations lately. "You're in luck," he told her at last, motioning vaguely.

She sat down gingerly, putting the water and fruit in front of him. "I brought this for you," she told him. She couldn't help but notice that his wrists were rubbed raw and were oozing blood, but he didn't react to the pain they were surely causing him.

"Thank you," he said simply, looking back to the ocean. His eyes reflected the blue of the water and looked as distant as the horizon he was gazing at.

The two of them sat in silence for some time. Juliet did not let herself think. If she did, her mind would turn instantly to the way Ben had treated her -- his lies, his manipulation, his cruelty. She had come to him because he was alone, because the one person left on earth who should have cared about him did not -- or at least was too confused at the moment to show it -- and she thought basic human decency should allow for the man to have a little company.

As if he could read her mind (not the first time she'd thought he could), Ben asked with forced casualness, "Have you seen Alex?"

Juliet pressed her lips together, feeling another stab of pity for him. "Ben," she said gently, "you have to understand that Alex is dealing with a lot right now."

A tiny exhalation escaped him. It could have been a sigh or sardonic laughter; Juliet couldn't tell. Suddenly, he turned to look at her, his eyebrows raised ironically. "I've really made a mess of everything, haven't I, Juliet?"

She was taken aback. Had he changed so much in the last few days? Biting her lip and furrowing her brow, she could only reply, "Yes. Yes, you have, Ben."

With a humorless smirk, he said, "Well, thank you for your honesty." Once again, he looked away from her, but this time, she kept staring at him. "Do you have something you want to say?" he asked her, finally, though he didn't turn his eyes to her.

"Oh, I have a lot of things I want to say." When he glanced at her, she said, "Right now I'm just wondering why you haven't said a word about what I did."

He shifted so that he was facing her, instead of the ocean, and she had to stop herself from wincing at the view of all his wounds. Blood was still encrusted around the cuts, and she realized guiltily that no one had bothered to clean him up. "What?" he asked her, though she could tell he already knew.

"You face," she replied. "It's a mess."

With a nod and that same humorless smile, he remarked, "It looks worse than it feels." For a very long moment, he just stared at her. She returned the gaze in a way that she had not always been able to do, and he finally said, "I haven't said anything to you about what you did because it's over."

"Over?"

He shrugged. "I failed. Utterly. And everyone's going to pay the price." He quirked an eyebrow, and it was almost ominous. "So I don't care what you did, Juliet. We're all going to be killed, anyway." She didn't say anything in response, a little shocked at the dead serious tone that he delivered this news in. Of course Jack had told her exactly what had happened on the way to the radio tower, but she hadn't thought Ben would keep repeating this. After a second, he added, "I was hurt, of course."

Juliet glanced out to sea, suddenly certain that the freighter would be visible and almost afraid for the sight, for some inexplicable reason. "It was nothing personal."

He actually laughed a little. "Yes it was, Julie."

Shaking her head at his use of the nickname, she said, "I just wanted to go home."

A shadow of an indefinable emotion crossed his face. If Juliet didn't know better, she would have called it sadness. "I know."

It was impossible, Juliet realized, to hate him like this. This was not the same man that had kept her imprisoned for three years. For a second, she let herself remember the way things had been between them once, before she had understood that he had never planned to let her go home. She had missed his easy companionship, though she had absolutely refused to acknowledge it. This moment felt almost like those days, both of them sitting quietly, demanding nothing from each other. In a minute that sense, that gossamer illusion, would be gone, of course, torn by whatever one of them said next, which would invariably be the wrong thing. The two of them were good at saying exactly the wrong thing to each other, there was no doubt about that.

But then, Ben shocked her by saying something so right that her mouth dropped open slightly. "I'm sorry," he told her quietly. "I got all of it wrong."

The met each other's eyes, and Juliet saw sincerity etched on his face. She bit her cheek, considering, and came to a decision, saying resolutely, "I'm going to come back later and clean up your cuts."

Ben raised his eyebrows, and it reminded her again of the way things had been before. He had gotten the same expression on his face the first time she'd accepted a dinner invitation from him. "All right," he said.

She nodded at him and got to her feet, brushing sand from her pants. She did not know where she and Ben would go from here; if there was anywhere to go from here, but she found that her hate had unexpectedly dissipated and, surprisingly, she was glad.