Disclaimer: "LOST" is the property of ABC.

The Freest Man

"and just remember you called it all bullshit, it still is and if you stop giving into it you can walk away the freest man" -- Tilly and the Wall, "The Freest Man"

The rain pounded on the ground and it was dark, so dark, and then suddenly she was there, blond hair sheared short and matted to her head, eyes more black than blue and unreadable besides, and questions flashed through Ben's mind, too quickly to really take any form. He didn't voice any of them.

"Ben." She sounded tired. And something else.

"Juliet." He knew he sounded composed. Cool, distant. In control. He was none of those things. But he maintained appearances. Sometimes he felt that appearances were all he had left.

"What the hell are you doing?" she asked, still sounding tired. Meeting his eyes, though. She was looking at him at last. The thought made him laugh to himself. He wasn't much to look at.

"I could ask the same of you." It was such a broad question, though. One that he knew she didn't expect him to actually answer.

She paused to wipe water and her bangs from her eyes. "I've been looking for you."

Ben tried not to start. He tried not to react. It had been a long time since she had said anything remotely resembling those words, and he knew it showed on his face, registering as just the barest flicker of surprise and shock and -- goddammit, happiness, even though for all he knew she'd been looking for him to put a bullet between his eyes.

It was clear, from the way her eyes narrowed just slightly and the way her lips thinned, that she'd seen. She knew. And he was pleased, actually, that she could read him still. "Here I am," he returned. A drop of water slid down his nose and into his mouth as he did so.

"Here you are," she agreed. "What are you doing?"

Shrugging, Ben looked up into the sky, squinting against the stinging drops of rain. "Going for a walk."

For a second, he heard a soft noise, almost like a snort of laughter, but when he glanced back at her, her expression was the carefully blank mask she'd perfected. "Why are you here, Juliet?" he asked finally.

Thunder rolled distantly and Ben's eyes skimmed over her, searching for a gun, a knife, anything she might use to give her hatred of him expression at last. She seemed to know exactly what he was doing, because one corner of her mouth lifted in a distant half smile. "Maybe I was just taking a walk, too. Lucky I stumbled across you, wasn't it?"

"That depends entirely on what it is that you want." Dancing, always dancing around each other, Ben mused. A complicated dance, like a tango. Yes. That brought a slim smile to his face and in another time, another life, he would have told her why.

A silence hung between them, full of rain on pavement and unspoken dreams threats promises apologies (Ben couldn't choose just one, not for her). Maybe she wouldn't tell him. It was obvious it required something of her, something she was struggling with deep inside herself, by the way she held her face, cool and still and statuesque as a Classical marble. Her mask would not crack while they toyed with each other.

"Julie," he tried softly, hesitantly.

And for an instant, she looked as though she was about to snap, break, turn and run, and he knew, knew with a hard wrench in his gut that he'd never see her again.

Then, somehow, the wild flash in her eyes dimmed, and she was not running from him, pulling away from him, like she always always had and like he thought she always would, until the end of time. Or at least until their insignificant lives ended. Something else crept into her face, maybe a softness, though when was the last time he'd thought of her in those terms? Still, there it was, slipping nearly imperceptibly into her eyes and the lines around her mouth, sloughing the years and harshness from her face.

"I want to talk to you."

"Talk?"

"That's it."

He eyed her. "Start talking."

A slight smirk danced over her features and he was back, back in the sun, meeting her, talking to her (really talking, not the trite social niceties of an introduction), feeling something in her, something kindred, something special, something that he (don't say it don't think it) loved.

"Is this what you wanted?" she asked, straight to the point, no dancing, no games.

This time he didn't bother pretending he wasn't startled, because he didn't think he could, not when she'd somehow gotten in his head, forced her way through a crack in the sturdy wall of lies he shielded himself with. "It doesn't matter if it's what I want--"

"Don't be an ass, Ben," she interrupted.

He ignored her. "Jacob wants it, you know that, that's all there is for me--"

Now he was going to say, that's all there is for me now, but she cut in, talked right over him, snarling vehemently, "That'snot all there is, Ben, and you know it."

Stillness again, as his mind flicked through all the possibilities contained in that statement, a whole universe of possibilities, and the stillness became charged with everything unsaid between them, everything that had been there before that she'd buried deep within herself, keeping it away from him, far far away, because she couldn't deal with it. Wouldn't. Didn't want to come to terms with it.

Sometimes the simple questions were the hardest to ask, so it was with no small amount of willpower that he forced out, "Then what else is there?"

Juliet didn't answer for a moment. "Do you remember once, you told me you'd leave it all if you could?"

"I didn't--"

"You did," she pressed. "Not in so many words, but I saw it in your eyes, Ben. And I saw that you couldn't say it outright, because if you left it then you'd have to let everyone. You'd have to let me leave."

So what if he'd thought it, if maybe maybe he'd dared to think about if his had been a normal life, no island no DHARMA no Jacob, and he'd met a normal woman in a normal way and yes Juliet, maybe if that had been their lives. Maybe, and he didn't know how to go on from that word.

"I can't just walk away. Jacob needs me."

She grabbed his shoulder tightly, nails digging into his skin through his soaking shirt, and looked him in the eyes, blue gaze piercing and sharp. "Jacob doesn't fucking need you," she spat. "Real people need you." When he didn't respond, she sighed, a harsh sound to fit her harsh new appearance. "You can have Jacob. You can have the island. Or you can have something more."

He wasn't sure how much Juliet knew about having more. In fact, he thought she was just like him, always yearning and striving to have that elusive more, but never knowing exactly what it was or how to get it. And passing it by in the process.

"Ben."

He met her eyes and was surprised by the earnest emotion there. "What does it matter to you, Juliet? Why would you waste your time hunting me down?"

"You're not that hard to find," she replied quietly.

Not an answer. "Why?"

Juliet opened and closed her mouth several times. Then, carefully, so so carefully, she said, "I had to."

With a twist of a smile, Ben said, "That's something I can understand."

"I know." Her nostrils flared and her lips twitched, the mask now completely fallen away. Hesitating, she said, "I've let you push me around for a long time, Ben. I haven't asked you for much. But I'm asking you for this."

Ben snorted. "Not my forgiveness?"

"Never that." She arched an eyebrow. "You know I've done what I had to do."

With a small nod of agreement, he remarked, "You've never given me yours."

She shrugged. "I didn't realize you wanted it."

Needed it, actually, but he just shrugged. "I still don't know what you want me to do."

"Sure you do."

Furrowing his brow at her, he asked flatly, "Do I?"

Juliet gave him a tiny smile, half genuine amusement, half exasperation. "You've probably got three or four contingency plans in place, anyway. You don't need me to tell you what to do. If you wanted to do it."

The rain lessened somewhat. "If I did, maybe I'd want a few suggestions." It seemed transparent, like she'd be able to see through him and he was crystal crystal clear, that she knew how many things he really wanted out of his life even though he'd never have any of them.

Juliet tilted her head thoughtfully, the way that always made her look girlish, innocent, when she was anything but. "If I was calling the shots?" She quirked an eyebrow at him and he nodded, prompting her to go on, to tell him how to live. "Fake your death. Change your name." She held out a hand and there, thrumming in the space between them without her needing to make a sound, was the unspoken,Come with me.

"Does the word 'freedom' mean anything to you?" she asked with a half smile.

Ben hung, perfectly balanced, perfectly indecisive, knowing a man like him didn't just disappear, knowing also that a man like him could do whatever he set his mind to. Knowing that he had no real attachment to his father's name and he could stop being Benjamin Linus in that instant.

"Let me ask you one thing before I decide," he said, watching her for her reaction, studying every blink, every breath.

She looked a little surprised. "Okay."

"If I apologized to you...would you accept it?"

For a moment, she remained silent, and he was impressed with her, proud of her, that she stopped to really think about what words meant. Then, slowly (so so slowly) she reached out to him, touched his face, traced a finger along his jawline. "Yes," she said simply.

Ben nodded. He was tempted to kiss her, but one step at a time, one leap into the unknown at a time.

At last, he took her hand, or maybe she took his or they took each other's, and they stepped out onto the sidewalk, into the flow of the city and the world. Ben fished in his pocket for his cell phone to drop it in the street, where it would be crushed by traffic and scattered in the the puddles reflecting skyline and wavering rain-scattered light.

This was, he supposed, the closest to a happy ending he was ever going to get.