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From a Safe Distance

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She's not over it. She still remembers Juliet's face disappearing into blackness, blood blossoming dark red on Sayid's clothes despite everyone's best efforts, the disbelief etched into Jack's face when the bomb never went off, black smoke hovering over the dead, the searing flashes of white that made her stagger from pain.

In her dreams, she doesn't leave. She stays there, a prisoner, a pawn. The jungle suffocates her with green. Sawyer jumps from helicopters and never raises his head above water. Jack insists blowing up a bomb will solve their problems.

In her dreams, Edward shadows her, a smirking sentinel. In her dreams, Claire's features replace those of Juliet's as she hangs on for dear life, just out of reach.

Aaron remains motherless.

*

"Your-- your nose is bleeding."

"Then we ain't got much time."

*

Fifteen months away from the island, and she's started singing Patsy to herself in the shower at night.

She's bronzed; her freckles don't stand out as much against her sunkissed skin. Aitutaki has treated her well so far; she works for a man renting out sailboats and diving equipment, and she's good enough -- reliable enough -- that his questions rarely intrude. Her customers are tourists, many of them English-speaking, and the bulk of her income comes in tips.

Nobody knows her.

She lives in a shack by the beach, a four-room building with wooden floors she had to sand to keep herself from getting splinters in her bare feet. She's carried a small photograph of Aaron since the night she took him to Claire's mom, and it's one of the only decorations on her walls. The picture is worn and stained, taped together at two edges, but she can make out his face like it's a beacon.

She has a small television and a smaller radio, a bed that's a little too hard, a fridge full of fruit and juice and bottles of Matutu Kiva. Her shower leaks, but the island taught her to live with bigger problems.

Her safe passage off the island was bartered for in life and death, in past and future, and even though Jack's plan to get them back to who they originally were failed... she's learned her lesson. She doesn't want to deal in science fiction or the supernatural. She doesn't want to talk about what Eloise did or why Richard never aged or how Jacob steered her. All she wants is for her life to be her own.

Not the island's.

Once again, she's not supposed to go back home. This time she never even tries.

*

"That wasn't Juliet any more than it was Edward I saw walking around last night. Or Locke back on the beach."

"Well, it sure looked like her to me."

*

The night a familiar face shows up at her door she's startled speechless.

"Once a man knows where to look, Bonnie Parker, you ain't so hard to find."

She's not the only one with rough hands. It could be her imagination, but she thinks he's leaner. His hair is longer but smooth, his jawline scruffy but not from complete lack of a razor. His dimpled grin hasn't changed, but she notices it comes slower than it used to.

The slight limp he walks with as he enters the room gives her the sudden need to blink against the threat of tears; her mouth quirks into a half-smile that's almost wistful. "And what're you doing looking for me?"

Part of her thinks it should be too painful for him to see her again. Part of her wishes she didn't feel fragile enough not to hug him a second time.

It's the three years she didn't share with him that she hears in his hesitation and sees in the wry twist of his lip. The Sawyer who jumped out of the helicopter so long ago would've just come out and said it. "Seeing how you're doing. Paying a friendly visit. We're kind of war buddies, in case you hadn't noticed."

War buddies. It's a phrase that should be reserved for the army careers of people like her dad.

"Look, I can scram if you don't want me here."

"No." Even she's surprised by the speed of the word out of her mouth. Her forefinger and thumb find her earlobe and tug. "I'm just surprised to see you. That's all."

Don't go is something she can't say.

*

"Do you know how long I've been trying to convince myself that what's done is done? I did it after my parents were buried, I did it when we crashed on this damn island in the first place, I did it for a long time after you left, and I'm trying real hard to do it again now. So why don't you indulge me for once, Kate? I want to know why you came back."

*

"Don't throw any rocks at me, but I think island life suits you, Freckles."

The nickname tumbles out of his mouth so easily. This is the man who could barely look her in the eye for days after Juliet died and then could scarely do it again after admitting what had rattled Juliet that day. He was the one who demanded to know why she went back to the island, who at first seemed willing to give up on them all when they started catching jungle glimpses of a red shirt and a spill of blonde hair.

She'd thought they'd lost him then, emotionally if not physically.

"Guess I could say the same for you, LaFleur." She likes how easily he folds into one of her chairs and props his feet up, makes himself right at home. He seems a little amused by the idea of this being her place; she keeps catching him looking around with curiosity in his eyes, and she can't imagine what he would've said if he'd seen her house in California. "What should I be calling you these days, anyway?"

To think that traditionally she's been the one with list of aliases a mile long.

He spreads his hands in a gesture that's almost generous. "You can call me whatever you want. Ain't like I won't answer to any of it." After a moment, he makes an amendment. "Except Jim. Never did like it."

"Did you go see Clementine?"

"From a safe distance. We both know what Cass thinks of me these days. She would've called the cops all over again if I'd shown up at their doorstep, and that just ain't my kind of welcome party." He runs one hand over his chin, and a grin creeps onto his face again. "But you were right: the kid's got my smile."

The laugh she huffs out is only a little self-conscious.

The word lonely never entered her head until he walked across her floor.

*

"Dude, I'm pretty sure our trip here counts as you breaking parole. If you go home, isn't that... you know, it?"

"I won't go home."

*

Four days later, he sleeps on her sofa instead of making the trek back to his hotel. He turns down the offer of her bed even though they both know she'd fit better on the sofa than he does.

There is no innuendo, no blatant flirting, and she feels the absence of it. It seems silly to miss that, but she does. She craves his company so acutely that she's too proud to put words to it. She wants him to crack jokes about her low-maintenance meals and raise his eyebrows at her tending to the potted plants on her sandy shoebox-sized patio. She wants him to make her laugh and roll her eyes at the same, to get annoyed with her toaster and mutter son of a bitch in her kitchen, to complain bitterly about how awful the Kiva ale is and then drink as much of it as she'll let him anyway.

She wants him to tease her so sharply it stings and look at her with that affection that peeked out in the days before she first left the island.

It's a surprise when he doesn't let her down.

She wears Freckles as an unadmitted badge of honor, the one thing that's stayed the same over the years that she can revel in. Somehow it means more than it did before, but still she laughs when he asks her if getting a cane to play up the limp would make him more irresistible to women. She doesn't let him hear the end of it when she catches him putting on cologne. Her eyes linger stubbornly whenever he tugs his shirt over his head and races her to where water meets sand.

She wonders if they've been through too much, if the island is deep in their blood and they can never survive anywhere but places like this, tucked out of the public eye and away from what they used to know, with sand a permanent fixture between their toes and the sound of waves both their lullaby and their wake-up call.

They're bound to each other, she knows. By teasing and bartered kisses and a shared love for a little girl named Clementine, but also by cons and side-by-side cages and secrets and too much loss.

And by being capable of a love that other people wanted... but not enough to want to remember it no matter what. Rather than soften the blow, time and distance have only made the decisions hurt more. If she was so worthy of love then, wasn't it just as worth it for someone who loved her to want to hold on to the events that shaped her into who she was?

At the time she'd finally felt convinced that any chance to do right by Aaron by reuniting him with Claire was the chance she had to take. Now, with the choice behind her and ultimately -- painfully -- pointless, it's too easy to think about the motivations of others.

She doesn't think about it as much with Sawyer -- James -- around as a guest, and she likes it that way.

They argue, laughing, over the last of the Kivas until she finally offers it to him.

For a kiss.