Title: Washed Ashore

Rating: PG-13/T

Summary: Charlie returns to the beach but when he seems changed his friends wonder exactly what happened. Epilogue to The Belly of a Whale by falafelfiction. Thanks Cappy for the beta and the bunny.

Characters: Charlie, Sayid, Hurley, Claire, Desmond

Word Count: 7,716

Disclaimer: points You see those five characters listed up there? If I owned Lost they'd be the only characters on the show. So what does that tell you: )

He was insisting on bringing the bodies back with them. Sayid wanted to argue but instinct told him to relent. Charlie had been held captive by these women for weeks and now Sayid and Desmond watched as the young man cried real tears over their corpses. He knew better than to ask, but he also knew that even if he did, there were some things they may never know about what Charlie had experienced.

Sayid had interrupted Charlie gently to ask for his assistance with the musical code to the lock that jammed the radio signals to and from the island. Charlie laid the body of the brown haired woman back down, followed Sayid into the chamber and entered the code without a word, his mission at last completed. When he was finished he returned his attention to their victims.

Sayid kept Charlie in his sight. Working silently but for stifled sobs, Charlie dragged the bodies until they were side by side, folded their hands together over their bloodied torsos and covered them each with canvas. Charlie moved so slowly, lovingly, brushing the dark hair from the face of the women to whom he had sung Happy Birthday. It was a macabre sight -- he looked as if he was putting a young child to bed. Desmond and Sayid exchanged curious looks, and then Sayid crept up from behind and placed a hand on Charlie's shoulder.

"We should go," he said.

Charlie continued to gaze at the dead brunette on the floor as if entranced.

"She's coming with us," Charlie said finally, still facing her. "She only ever wanted to leave this place. At least I can give her that."

"What about the other one?" asked Desmond, pointing at the blonde.

Charlie went silent again. The blonde was the one who had held the grenade and threatened to blow up the station and everyone in it. Clearly she was the more hostile of the two, and Sayid fully expected Charlie would think nothing of abandoning her to the deep.

So he was surprised when after a moment Charlie said, "We'll take her too."

"Charlie, she tried to kill you," said Desmond.

When Charlie turned to face them both, his eyes were on fire. The weight of his stare combined with the lurid cocktail of old and new beatings on his face nearly caused Sayid to take a step back. This was not the funny, congenial young man he remembered.

"I know what she did," he said, "and she's coming. They belong together."

Desmond was shaking his head, perplexed. Sayid imagined this was not turning out to be the rescue mission his Scottish friend had expected. He had probably presumed that they would ambush the station, overpower their enemies, rescue the hostage and make a clean getaway; but situations like these are never clean. Weeks in isolation as a prisoner can do things to a person -- strange things -- eroding one's resistance and sense of purpose so gradually that by the end the person that emerges is hardly recognizable from the one that went in. Things you were once so certain of become muddled and confused. Sayid had seen it happen to trained soldiers -- men who had once been programmed as effectively as any machine to hate their enemies -- and he had experienced it himself.

Danielle Rousseau had held Sayid captive for over two days, during which time he was questioned, drugged, beaten and electrocuted. But concurrent with her torture regimen, she had shared her story of shipwreck, illness, loss and fear. By the time Sayid left, he too had desired to bring Danielle with him, back to camp, so that she should never be alone again. Despite everything that she had done to him, he was truly disappointed when she had declined. An outsider would say that made no sense, but emotions rarely do.

Charlie had been held here for almost a month. How much more so would he have been affected? He was not the first captive to develop feelings for his tormentor. It was a normal defense mechanism, part of the mind's instinctive urge to survive. As Sayid looked at Charlie, it was clear to him that his friend's behaviour could not be explained by his treatment at the hands of these women. Apart from the cuts and bruises on his cheeks, Charlie looked thin and malnourished, fresh welts and rope burns stood out on his bony wrists. Charlie wasn't mourning these women because they had been kind to him. He was feeling this way because he had learned to.

And now he needed closure.

"Dragging two bodies back to the beach isn't going to be easy, brother," argued Desmond. "For one thing, they won't fit in the bloody canoe."

Sayid knew his friend was right, but he also knew that Charlie was not going to back down, and that this was neither the time nor the place to sort things out.

"It's all right," Sayid said. "We can bind them with rope and tow them."

Desmond looked at him as if he had gone mad right along with Charlie, but Sayid took a confident and convincing stance.

"We'll use the oxygen tanks as well. It will work," he said.

Desmond sighed and turned to gather the equipment. "Let's just get the hell out of here," he muttered.

Charlie waited until Desmond crossed the length of the moon pool before standing. Turning to Sayid, he forced a reassuring smile that didn't quite match his tired eyes. In truth, he looked like he was barely keeping it together.

"Thanks mate," he said.

Sayid knew Charlie wasn't fooled for a minute by Sayid's bravado. His assurance that transporting the bodies back would be a simple matter was a gesture of friendship and compassion. They both knew it would be cumbersome, but Sayid would do it. It was as if they were back on the beach, shelling coconuts and swapping stories about the men they had killed and the aftereffects. They understood each other, and Charlie had long ago earned Sayid's respect.

He could grant him this one wish.

More bodies.

The last thing Hurley wanted to see was more bodies, but no one ever asked Hurley for his opinion. He was charged with the task of waiting at the cable on the beach for the outrigger to return – hopefully with Charlie in it – and to alert the camp if they didn't make it back by sundown. Desmond seemed pretty sure that Charlie was alive, but then again the guy was a few bananas short of a bunch. Maybe that was why they decided to keep quiet about this rescue mission – they didn't want to get anyone's hopes up.

After Libby's death the blow of Charlie's hit Hurley like a sucker punch. He began spending more time talking to the mounds in the graveyard than to his campmates. He even started talking to Charlie's busted guitar, the only memorial they had to his friend, buried up to its neck. He had to assure everyone including himself several times a day that he wasn't crazy. He kept looking over his shoulder, thinking he'd be next or worse, that it would be someone else he was close to.

Hurley remembered a time not long ago when he was filled with such a surplus of optimism that he had to share it with everyone around him. He was sure that Kate and Sawyer would be all right and they were. He just knew that Jack would return and he did. He was convinced that Charlie would conquer the ever present threat of death that stalked him like a shadow –

--but he didn't.

At least Hurley hadn't thought he did when Desmond returned to the beach alone after their war with the Others. They've had a lot of sad days on the island but that was saddest.

Then one morning the crazy Scottish dude ran into Hurley's tent screaming, I saw Charlie! Hurley was so shocked he just laughed and laughed. An hour later they grabbed Sayid, because who else would you grab in that kind of situation but Sayid, and they were off to the Looking Glass station again.

Now Hurley waited, sitting in the sand like a great Buddha, rocking with his eyes closed, chanting something his father had told him once that he had never forgotten.

You make your own luck…

You make your own luck…

Despite his Catholic upbringing, it was the closest he had ever come to prayer. He opened his eyes when he felt the cable move in his hands.

They were back.

They were moving in slowly, methodically, but when they got close enough, Hurley did a quick head count. When he got to three, he jumped up, waved his arms and yelled.

"Hey! Charlie!! Duuude!!!"

He bounced on his feet, energy coursing through him like he hadn't felt in weeks. He couldn't wait for the boat to reach the shore so he ran out into the water to meet it. When the ocean reached his waist, he stopped. There was something else out in the water that they were dragging. Desmond was using the cable to tow the outrigger in while Charlie and Sayid were each holding ropes attached to two oblong floating shapes that looked disturbingly like bodies.

More bodies.

The sight combined with Charlie's intense expression caused Hurley to back out of the water. He decided he could wait to hear this story. Still, he was just so relieved that his friend wasn't dead that when they did hit the beach and disembark, Hurley couldn't contain himself. As Desmond pulled the boat onto the sand to dock it, Hurley reached out for Charlie in an enormous embrace, pulling him out of the boat with surprising ease.

It was like hugging air.

Charlie had always been a small guy but it felt like he was barely there. He felt his long lost friend hugging him back – sort of -- but he wasn't looking at him. He was gazing out somewhere at Hurley's side and scratching absently at his wrists that looked pretty torn up. He was dressed in weird clothes like combat gear and seemed inanimate, or maybe he just had a lot on his mind.

"Are you okay?" Hurley asked.

Charlie didn't answer, but just looked back over at Sayid. The Iraqi was holding the ropes that bound the bodies; they lay behind him on the sand like a couple of child's sleds.

"Who are they?" Hurley asked.

It was like no one wanted to answer his questions today. He couldn't figure out what the hell was going on, except that Charlie was alive again but still seemed dead.

"We should take these around the perimeter of the camp to avoid questions," said Sayid. "We'll bury them with Ethan, yes?"

He was asking Charlie. Why was Sayid asking Charlie where the bodies should be buried? Charlie nodded silently and they were off, with Sayid and Charlie lifting one corpse and Hurley and Desmond taking the other.

"Dude, what's going on?" he asked Desmond as they walked behind.

Desmond looked as pained as Hurley felt.

"If I had any notion I'd tell you," said Desmond.

"Is Charlie okay or not? He's acting weird."

"Aye," said Desmond, "But since he's barely said a word since we left the station I'm afraid I can't tell you more than that."

"What happened to him?" Hurley asked.

"I don't know," said Desmond.

They were approaching their destination – the mound of earth far removed from the camp graveyard – the place where they buried their enemies and other undesirables that didn't deserve to spend eternity alongside their friends. Suddenly the situation became clear to Hurley. Charlie was acting much like this after he had shot Ethan, the man who tried to kill him first. Were these the people who were holding Charlie hostage, and did he kill them?

With a collective groan they dropped the bodies onto the grassy hill. Once again, Charlie spoke to Sayid like they were sharing a secret between them.

"You don't have to do this," said Charlie, "bury them, I mean. Just bring me a shovel and I'll take care of it."

Sayid seemed to be assessing Charlie for both his physical condition as well as his state of mind. Hurley knew that sometimes people say they want to be alone when they really don't. While Sayid was trying to decide what to do, Hurley thought he'd let his friend off the hook.

"I'll stay," said Hurley to Sayid. "I think we got it covered."

Charlie glanced at Hurley but didn't protest. Desmond still looked like he was in the dark but Hurley was sure Sayid would remember that he and Charlie had done this before.

"All right," Sayid said, "I'll be back with the shovels."

Desmond gave Charlie a light pat on the back before departing.

"Welcome home, yeah?" he said.

Sayid and Desmond went off and Hurley was alone with Charlie for the first time. It was as awkward as a first date, they both shuffled and stared for a minute or two until Hurley burst out, remembering, "Oh my God, Claire! We have to tell Claire you're back!"

He had expected Charlie to slap his forehead and go rushing off to his girlfriend's tent. Hurley imagined how happy she'd be. Claire was devastated when they thought Charlie had died to get everyone rescued. He only just realized now how strange it was that since he'd been back Charlie hadn't mentioned Claire or Aaron at all.

Charlie barely reacted to Hurley's words, or it was more like he felt embarrassed because he didn't know how to react. Hurley remembered how Charlie's eyes would light up at the mention of Claire and Aaron. Now it was like that light was gone.

"It's okay Hurley," he said. "Let's just do this first. I'll go see her when we're done."

Hurley stared at his friend, or what was left of him. This was wrong. Charlie should have been asking about Claire and whether she was all right. He should have been anxious to see the baby. He should have been happy to be back, happy to be alive. Hurley wondered whether Charlie would ever be the same again. He felt a little sick to his stomach at the thought of what he must have gone through to make him act like this. He didn't know what to do other than to show his support.

"Sure, dude," he said, "no problem. Do you want talk about it or…"

"No," Charlie snapped. "I mean, thanks but I'm fine."

Hurley backed down just as Sayid appeared with the shovels. Charlie's words seemed hollow, and he wasn't buying them. It was like Ethan all over again, when he finally had to send Sayid to talk to him. This time, it seemed like Sayid already knew more than Hurley did. At least Charlie was confiding in somebody, he thought.

They worked until sundown. Hurley had dug a lot of graves in the last four months. Recently he had dug the grave of a man that he had killed himself -- a man that had been holding three of his friends at gunpoint until Hurley ran him down with the Dharma van. He had been expecting to feel something… stress, remorse or even just a touch of queasiness. But as he shoveled the sand Hurley had thought of all the things the Others had done to his friends. He thought of the innocent people who had been kidnapped, threatened, terrorized, beaten and even murdered for no reason that the Others would explain to them. Hurley had felt nothing for their corpses. They messed with us, so we messed with them, he considered to himself. Hurley was saving his feelings for the people they'd hurt.

He looked sideways at Charlie. Man, they had all suffered, but it seemed like Charlie had taken more than his fair share of damage. Hurley was sweating bullets, but he could hear Charlie's breathing grow heavy and strained, eyes locked on the hole before him. Hurley put his shovel down, judging that they still had a foot to go.

"Man, I need a break," he said.

But Charlie wasn't stopping. In fact he was speeding up, intent on finishing. "There's just… a little more," he panted.

Hurley watched from his seat on the edge of the grave. "Charlie, take five," he said. "Like you said, we're almost done anyway."

Charlie didn't seem to hear him. And now Hurley noticed that his friend was swaying slightly. His pupils were unfocused and his face was rapidly paling. The guy was about as stable as an upright sheet of paper. One stiff wind and Charlie was gonna collapse; falling forwards into the shallow grave he was standing in. Hurley reached out and caught his arm. Unsteadied by the motion, Charlie's knees gave way and he sank to pit's bottom.

"Okay that's it…" said Hurley, shaking his head. "Give me the shovel." Charlie's hands clasped the spade tighter, refusing to let go. Hurley's face hardened and he raised his open hand. "Dude, do I have to slap you again? Give it to me!"

At the sight of his hand Charlie flinched. Ducking his head and raising an arm to protect his face from some imagined blow, he allowed Hurley to take the shovel. Hurley didn't like the way Charlie cringed. He looked all shrunken and timid. That wasn't the Charlie he knew. Just what had these people been doing to him?

"Dude, I didn't mean…" Hurley stammered, feeling ashamed and more scared than Charlie looked. "I wasn't gonna…"

"Hurley, I need to finish," he said in a quiet voice.

"No way man," said Hurley. "You're done. Go get some food. Go see Claire. I'll finish up here."

Charlie leaned against the dirt wall, protesting with a shaky voice. "No Hurley, I have to do this."

"Dude," said Hurley, "I'm not hearing it. I'm sick of bodies, but I'm gonna bury these for you, because I'm your friend and I love you and… well, because I'm just thankful it's not your grave I'm digging."

Charlie looked away, wiped the sweat from his face with the bottom of his shirt and muttered, "I have to."

"Why?" shouted Hurley, "Did you kill them?"

"No!" Charlie cried. "It's complicated."

"What's so complicated?" asked Hurley.

"She protected me!" he screamed, ripping the shovel back out of Hurley's grasp with both hands. For a minute, Hurley feared Charlie was going to take a swing at him but then he realized he didn't have the strength. Instead, he planted it in the earth and pleaded, "I have to do this for her."

Hurley came closer to make sure he had Charlie's full attention. He didn't have a clue who these dead people were or why they seemed to mean so much to Charlie but at least he had learned enough at Santa Rosa to work a little psychology.

"Dude, if she cared that much then she'd want me to help you," he said. "Right now Claire needs to know you're alive. Don't keep her waiting anymore. After that get some rest, you look like hell."

Charlie crawled out of the hole and staggered off. Hurley watched him go. He may be messed up, he thought, but he's here. Charlie was alive, and that had to mean something. It meant there was still some hope after all.

It was gonna be okay. Maybe not for a long time, but eventually they were gonna pull through this. They were gonna make it.

If Charlie was alive, Claire had yet to see proof of it.

She had heard the rumours; it was hard not to. There wasn't much to do on the island but gossip, and everyone was saying that Charlie was alive and that he'd returned. Of course no one could verify that they'd actually seen him, so that's where Claire was stumped, but the word was that he had shown up with Hurley, Desmond and Sayid that very afternoon.

The trouble was, she hadn't been able to locate any of them that first day.

So as excited as she was at the news, she was forced to let it go and hope that Charlie would soon come to find her. But the next day, he still hadn't. So Claire went looking for someone with some answers. That was when she found Hurley hanging some shirts up on the line.

"Hurley," she said, "everyone's saying Charlie's back. Is it true?"

Hurley looked confused. "Well, yeah. He was supposed to go see you yesterday. Didn't he show up?"

"Oh my God. Then it is true?" she said, bringing her hands to her gaping mouth. "He's really alive? How can that be?"

"I swear," Hurley said. "He was being held prisoner down in the underwater station. Maybe he was just too tired to stop by and wanted to rest up first. He's kind of been through some stuff."

"Charlie's really back," she repeated, unable to believe her own ears. "Hurley, where is he? Where is he now?"

Claire felt a nervous flutter in her stomach over this bizarre set of circumstances. She didn't know what was stranger, the fact that Charlie was alive or that he hadn't come to see her the moment he got back. She thought he had died, and he had to have known that, but apparently Charlie went and took a nap first. Was he all right? She must have appeared a bit hurt because Hurley took pity on her and put down his washing.

"C'mon, I'll help you find him."

They searched the beach and the tents until they finally found Charlie sitting alone on a hillside. According to Hurley he was looking a bit better already – he had washed and changed his clothes back to his familiar tee and sweatshirt. An empty bowl and spoon sat on the ground next to him. He certainly didn't seem too busy, thought Claire. Hurley must have thought the same thing because he became awkward and refused to walk with her any further. It was almost as if he were scared of his old friend and his inexplicable behavior.

"Uh…," said Hurley. "There he is. I'm sure he can't wait to see you."

Claire looked sideways at Hurley. They both knew how ridiculous that sounded. Hurley just shrugged and shuffled off, leaving Claire to pick up the pieces. She should have been shouting, laughing and running into his arms, but the sight of him made her pause. He seemed to be concentrating so intently he didn't even notice her careful approach until she was standing right in front of him. She knelt down and when they came face to face he looked at her for the first time with a flat expression.

"Hey, Claire," Charlie said. "How are you?"

"I'm okay," said Claire. "I heard you got back yesterday. I can't believe you're alive. Why haven't you been to see me?"

Charlie shrugged. "I'm sorry. I just wanted to clean up first, and get my head together."

"Are you all right?" she asked. "What happened to you?"

"How's Aaron?" he asked, conveniently shifting focus and looking at something interesting in the distance.

"He's fine," said Claire, growing more concerned by the minute. "Charlie, look at me."

When he refused, Claire reached out and touched his cheek just below an angry bruise that appeared several days old. When she made contact Charlie came to life, but not in the way she had expected. His eyes flared with something – fear or annoyance? --and he pulled back sharply out of her reach.

"What's wrong?" she said.

The flare went out and he relaxed again, though it looked more like an act to her. He tried to smile but it seemed empty, like a mask.

"Nothing," he said. "Claire, could we talk later? I'm still a bit tired today. I could come by tomorrow."

Claire stared, wondering who this man was in front of her because it wasn't her Charlie. This certainly wasn't the first time he had exhibited bizarre behavior, but there was something about this that was particularly unsettling in its calm. She would almost prefer to see him raving and impassioned, anything to look alive. He looked rather like someone who had reached the end of his days and was now just sitting around waiting to disappear.

"Sure," she said, pretending she understood, "tomorrow, then."

When she was a fair distance she looked back over her shoulder. Charlie hadn't moved an inch. Claire decided there was nothing for it but to seek out Desmond or Sayid and find out what the hell was going on.

An hour later, she was heading back to her tent with little to show for it. Sayid and Desmond had told her practically the same thing – that Charlie had been held prisoner, likely tortured, and when he was ready to talk about what happened he would – but she did manage to drag out of Desmond a strange story having to do with one of the women they'd shot. He didn't know who she was but Charlie had actually cried over her death and had insisted on bringing both women back for burial. That explained his absence the first day, she thought, but it did little to help her now. His ordeal was over, why wasn't he coming back to her?

Claire spent the night and much of the next morning thinking things through. She felt as though she once had a window of opportunity with Charlie, a chance to get closer, to explore a relationship, but she had failed to take it. When she thought he had died, she had to work through the pain and regret of not appreciating him. But now that he was back, despite the appearance of a second chance, Claire still felt as though that window was shut. Charlie was acting cold and distant and if she didn't know any better, she would swear he was avoiding her.

Despite Charlie's reluctance, Claire was determined to do things right. Charlie just needs to know how I feel about him, she reasoned. He's not talking to me because he thinks I don't care. She would set him straight when she saw him next. He had said they would talk that day.

When the day grew old but still no Charlie, Claire's insecurities deepened. She knew he was around; she couldn't help but ask after him and try and spot him somewhere on the beach, but he wasn't seeking her out and it disturbed her. He hadn't even held Aaron since he'd been back and Claire had been counting on the child as the perfect lure. It felt like she didn't even know Charlie any more.

When she could stand it no longer, she went and found him in the kitchen. She wasn't interested in explanations; all she wanted was a single promise.

"Charlie," she said, "would you please come and meet me in my tent tonight?"

"Tonight?" he said.

"You don't have other plans do you?" she asked with a touch of sarcasm she couldn't contain.

Charlie looked at her suspiciously. "No, but why?"

"Just promise me you'll be there," she said. "No excuses."

He sighed, and Claire could see a bit of the old Charlie in his expression. It was the look he gave when he felt he was being chastised for something. She had to resist the urge to smile.

"Okay," he said. "I promise."

Claire went out of her way. She took Aaron to Sun and Jin, straightened up her tent and lit candles. She put on makeup and perfume that she had stashed away for special occasions. Digging up a lacy little white top and short set from the impractical pile of clothing, Claire felt pretty again for the first time in almost a year. It made her realize she had never done this with Charlie, had never tried to seduce him. Things might have been different if she had. He might not even have gone on that suicide mission in the first place if he believed that a future with her was better than dying a martyr. But he didn't believe he had a future with her, and that was her fault.

She lay alluringly across her bed, feeling a bit silly but knowing it would be worth it in the end. She imagined afterwards they would stay up talking until dawn, Charlie telling her everything that had happened, and she would listen and tell him it would be all right. She would be there for him, in a way that she never was before. She wanted to be there for him in every way now.

A short while later, Charlie's head poked through into her tent. When he saw Claire, he ducked back out.

"Sorry," he called through the tarp. "If you're still getting dressed I'll wait out here 'til you're ready."

Claire laughed. "Its fine Charlie, you can come in."

He peeked in again and then stepped over the threshold. Looking around the tent at the mood lighting and sniffing the scented air, he smiled a bit and blushed.

"What's all this then?" he asked.

Claire stood up, went to him and spoke the words she had been rehearsing over and over in her head for the past hour.

"Charlie, I know there were times before when you must have been disappointed in me. Things haven't gone the way you've wanted them to between us. Well, starting with tonight I was hoping to make up for that."

"Claire," Charlie started, "You didn't have to do all this…"

"Shh," she said, placing a finger on his lips and leaning in to his chest. "It's all right. I don't know what you went through, but… I want to remind you what it is to feel alive again."

Reaching up, Claire kissed him, teasing his lips open with her tongue to show she meant business. Charlie was surprised at first and froze, and then she felt him relax and respond, putting his arms around her, low on her hips. Claire had almost forgotten what it felt like to be caressed but just a taste made her hunger for more. Still kissing, she led him back towards her bed and pulled him down with her. Charlie's mouth moved down to her neck while his hands moved upward under her shirt. He seemed studied and practiced, but before she could be too pleased with herself, she reached down, unbuttoned his jeans and he stopped.

"Claire, we don't have to do this," he said, sitting up.

She was full of arousal, and so her answer came out with a slight whine.

"I want to," she said, reaching up and trying to pull him back down.

"Well I don't!" he shouted, standing up and backing away.

Claire froze in shock. When Charlie realized what he had done, he softened.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I mean I do, but not like this. Not here."

Claire sat up and pulled her blanket around her, suddenly feeling quite exposed.

"Here is all we've got," she said.

Charlie sighed, frustrated. "I just mean… a month ago this would have been perfect, but now… I can't."

"Why not?" asked Claire. "Am I the problem?"

"God no," he said. "I just can't do this."

It was as she feared. Claire had lost her chance, had taken him for granted and let him slip away. She suddenly felt ridiculous sitting there in her lace with her candles.

"Does it have something to do with the underwater station? Desmond told me about what happened down there…" she began.

His voice changed -- the soft tones of lovemaking replaced by a hard edge. "Desmond doesn't know a bloody thing."

Claire continued, "He told me about the two women you brought back, and that one of them… you…" She stopped, unable to find the right words but desperately needing to ask. "Did you love her?"

Charlie laughed. "Love?" he scoffed. "Love had nothing to do with it."

Claire raised her eyebrows. She wanted to be compassionate for what he may have gone through but she was also feeling rejected and there was no way to hide that. Her insecurity bubbled to the surface, turning green.

"Did you have sex with her? With them? Is that why you've been acting this way?"

The look Charlie gave her made her regret her words instantly. Claire didn't know if he was horrified by the suggestion or if she had hit the nail right on the head. Either way, she knew she had touched a nerve.

"You don't understand," he seethed.

"I want to understand," she countered. "Help me."

Instead of responding to her plea Charlie turned to leave. Claire called out, knowing she might not get another chance. "Don't go! Why won't you talk to me?"

Charlie spun on the spot, bursting out, "You're actually jealous? I don't need this! What do you want me to say Claire? That the entire time I was down there I thought of you? Is that what you want to hear? Well, I didn't! I was a bloody prisoner! I'm sorry if it's not as romantic as you thought -- all candles and…"

"Stop it," she said, "I don't believe you…"

"It's true!" he shouted. "I didn't think of you, I didn't think of Aaron, I thought of nothing but myself and how I was going to survive another sodding day without getting beaten or shot or worse! That was it, and I'm not proud of it! So now you know."

Claire felt like she had been told all right, but she wasn't buying it for a minute. "Don't feel ashamed," she said. "If you were hell bent on surviving as you say you were it was because you believed you had something to live for. If you don't mind I'd like to believe I was in there somewhere."

Charlie's anger faded but he didn't respond.

Claire continued, "You swam down to that station thinking it was flooded. Sayid said it took a musician to enter that code and turn off the jammer. If it hadn't been for you and your stubborn determination to survive there would be no hope of rescue. The entire camp is calling you a hero."

"Well I don't feel like one," he muttered before turning away again and storming out of the tent, "I feel like rubbish."

Claire pulled the blanket around her shoulders, suddenly feeling very cold. Shivering, she lowered her head into her hands and cried from some emotional place she thought she'd never visit again. She had already grieved over Charlie once, so why did it feel like she was mourning him all over again?

Desmond yawned. He had been woken up last night by the sounds of a loud argument coming from Claire's tent. He wasn't surprised. Charlie had been acting like a coiled spring since he returned. It was only a matter of time before he snapped. Desmond just wished it hadn't been at Claire. The poor girl had been through enough already. But then so had Charlie.

Desmond knew that now, because after the screaming had stopped the visions came.

It was as if Charlie's enraged voice had triggered them. They were unusual in that Desmond could tell they were not prophecies of the future, since he clearly saw the two women that they had killed alive and well in the underwater station. Charlie was with them and in a montage of flashes Desmond witnessed a host of unspeakable acts. Each scene hit him like a face slap, causing Desmond to wince.

He sensed the pain and degradation in sympathy for his friend combined with the anguish of his own responsibility. He was the one who had sent Charlie down there after all. It may have been Charlie's choice but only because Desmond had told him there was no other if Charlie wanted his Claire rescued with her child.

If what Desmond had seen had really happened, Charlie was not going to get over it until he talked about it. From what he had managed to hear last night it seemed as though Claire had had no luck on that score.

Desmond had no right to expect Charlie to open up to him, a relative stranger, when he had refused to talk to his friends, but considering the strange bond they shared and the information Desmond already possessed, Charlie just might consider him to be the perfect third party. It was worth a try; Charlie's brooding and unpredictable behavior was beginning to set the whole camp on edge. His miraculous survival meant that he and Claire had a chance at a future, but first Charlie would have to move past this.

Although Desmond had been unable to get back to sleep that night, he waited for a reasonable hour, and then changed and headed for Claire's tent. As he expected he found her alone. Her eyes were red, encircled by shadow, and she sat on the edge of her bed dressed in jeans and a tank top. Rocking Aaron in her lap, she looked like a hurt little girl with a dolly. When she saw Desmond she frowned, appearing very much the way she had when he had first returned from the station alone -- the day he played the part of the messenger of death.

"Claire," he asked, "are you all right?"

"If you're looking for Charlie he's not here," she said sadly.

It pained him to see this island family fall apart. It was something he had never meant to happen – an unpleasant side effect in the race to save Charlie's life.

"Is there anything I can do?" he asked her.

"You can get me some answers," she said. "Desmond I don't know what to do. Charlie's so angry at me and I don't know why."

Desmond shook his head. "I don't think he's angry at you Claire. I think he's angry at himself."

"But why?" she cried. "What he did was so brave."

"I'll talk to him, yeah?" he offered. "I'll see if I can find out what's eating him."

"Thank you," she said. "I was so happy to have him back, but… It feels like he's still somewhere else."

Leaving the tent Desmond found Charlie in what had become his favourite moping spot. Desmond guessed that on top of everything else, Charlie now had the fight with Claire to be sullen over, something he had to have regretted deeply. He was falling deeper and deeper and needed a helping hand to climb out of his pit of depression.

"What'cha doing brother?" Desmond greeted as he dropped down next to his friend.

Charlie turned his head slowly to look at him and then back at the ocean.

"Waiting for rescue that won't come," he said.

"And how can you be so sure about that?" he asked.

Charlie sighed. "Because I didn't die," he responded. "I failed."

"You turned off that jammer," Desmond noted. "You didn't fail. We can call for rescue now and one day it will come, even if it's not the rescue we thought it would be."

Charlie nodded but said nothing. After a moment Desmond said, "Charlie, I know what happened. Last night I had these flashes of the station…"

Charlie glared at him, flushing slightly. Desmond knew he had to be as delicate as possible or Charlie would simply get up and leave.

"I saw you in the moon pool," he began, "tied with a rope, and again on the floor in a room and tied to a chair and a bed. I also saw you… with them. You don't need to hear the rest do you?"

"No," said Charlie, looking away.

Desmond thought back to Charlie in the station that day, strangely sobbing over Greta's dead body, cradling it like some twisted Romeo over his Juliet.

"Did they force you?" Desmond asked.

He was surprised when Charlie answered, "Not enough."

"How's that?" Desmond asked.

"It would have been easier if they had," he said, "but… I didn't let it get that far, I just gave in. I should have fought it but I didn't."

"They were the ones with the guns," Desmond pointed out. "You were doing what you had to do. Don't blame yourself."

"Who else am I gonna blame Des? It was my bloody choice."

"Did you really have a choice?" Desmond countered.

"I could have let them kill me!" Charlie cried. "There's always a choice. I was supposed to die, but I was a coward."

"You were trying to stay alive for us, remember? To switch off that jammer. That was your mission, not to die for nothing. Surviving is not something to be ashamed of."

Charlie went silent again but Desmond could practically hear him thinking, trying to make sense of it all. Desmond still wasn't getting the whole picture. Why was Charlie carrying such a heavy burden of guilt? If it was Claire he was concerned about Desmond was sure she would understand that what had happened wasn't of his making. Charlie wasn't responsible for what had been done to him as a prisoner, anyone would see that.

"There's a lot you don't know about me Des," Charlie began. "Before we got here, I was in a band. I don't really talk about it anymore because no one cares but… we had a hit record and things got kind of crazy for a while. It was sex, drugs and rock and roll without question. We were a living cliché. I had a heroin habit; I slept with a different nameless girl every night, often more than one. When I got to this island, I was just a few steps from death already. Stretching out my drugs to make them last was the only reason I didn't overdose." He paused and looked Desmond in the eye. "You may think it started with your flashes but it didn't. I've been on borrowed time for a good long while."

Desmond stayed silent, listening. He found it difficult to imagine Charlie as the man he had just described when Desmond had only known him as the helpful campmate, responsible surrogate father and companion for Aaron and Claire.

Charlie must have sensed what Desmond was thinking because he continued, "When I met Claire, it changed me. I didn't want to be that person anymore -- selfish, hedonistic, always chasing after the next empty rush without regard for anyone, never allowing anyone to get close. But being down there in that station – with them – brought back everything I hated about my former life. It brought out the worst parts of me – the parts I had thought were gone along with my drugs."

Desmond was beginning to understand. If there was one thing he knew about, it was self-loathing. The realization that you can make the same mistakes again and again through life was a bitter pill to swallow. It made concepts like hope and the promise of redemption hard to accept. It was a difficult paradox, and it reminded Desmond of his own past.

"I was once with this girl," Desmond began, "before Penny. We dated for years and finally got engaged. She and her family made wedding plans, and right before the big day I got cold feet and ran out on her without so much as a word."

Charlie was interested. "What did you do after that?"

"I did what any man would do – I joined a monastery," he smiled. "It didn't matter though. You can shun all your worldly possessions but you can't cloister yourself from yourself. I dropped out, met Penny and committed the same bloody sin all over again. We're human."

Charlie shook his head. "That's no excuse…"

"You're right pal. For what I did, it was no excuse. I had free will. You didn't. What happened to you was going to play out one way or another no matter what path you chose. I saw it Charlie. I saw everything they did to you. It may have dredged up unpleasant memories but there was nothing you could have done."

When Charlie nodded and his expression warmed, Desmond thought it looked as though he was prepared to start forgiving himself.

"I said something to Claire that wasn't true," Charlie confessed. "I told her that when I was down there, I only thought of myself and getting out of there alive."

"Why did you tell her that?"

"I just felt like I had been so disloyal to her – to everyone here who depended on me – by submitting to them and for the feelings I had for Greta. I don't know if it was love or pity but it really made no difference. It's ironic but I guess in a weird way you could call that growth – the old me wouldn't have felt anything at all. But I got caught up in it. Greta looked out for me and in return I got stuck in the middle. I was disgusted with myself. I didn't feel like I deserved Claire so I pushed her away."

"I heard about what happened last night," said Desmond. "Claire's pretty upset."

"She was trying to reach out to me last night and I rejected her," said Charlie. "But the truth is, towards the end I did think of her and that was what finally gave me the strength to start fighting back. She saved me, just like she did when we first met."

Desmond smiled and put a hand on Charlie's shoulder.

"Maybe you should tell her that," he suggested.

Charlie grinned and the light returned to his eyes. He was coming back.

"I will," he said. "Thanks."

Desmond rose up and left. There was a time when he had thought that a suicide mission was the most difficult thing to imagine. He recalled admiring Charlie's heroism when the young man had volunteered to face certain death to ensure the rescue of the camp. But while sacrificing oneself to save others was brave, sometimes it took even more courage to survive and learn to carry on. Charlie was going to be okay. They all were.