Title: Remember (Be Here Now)
Pairing/Character(s): Richard/Ben; Richard Alpert, Benjamin Linus, Alexandra Linus Rousseau, Charles Widmore.
Word Count: 7,810
Summary: Richard needs reminding, sometimes. For the lostfichallenge #92: Free For All and the 15pairings Prompt #10 - "Don't forget!" AU-ish. Spoilers through 5.12 - Dead Is Dead. Prompt Table: Here
Disclaimer: I own nothing but the plot. Baba Ram Dass (aka Dr. Richard Alpert) and his fascinating self and style are solely his own.
Author’s Notes: While revisiting the real life Dr. Richard Alpert for research, I was struck with the idea of trying a Richard-centric analysis of character relationships in the style of the actual-factual man himself, particularly in his masterpiece, Remember, Be Here Now – which is probably one of the trippiest and yet stunningly honest pieces of writing I’ve encountered. As such, I ended up with a weird, stream-of-consciousness, ramble-y feel that is really more of a vaguely connected series of vignettes than anything, and surprise, surprise, Ben is there too. Which was strange to write, the progression from father figure to friend and then to something more intimate, which led to a bit of OOC-ness, admittedly, but hey – in this fandom, anything goes. Besides; I’ve only ever come across this pairing once before, and it dealt more with the power-element of the two of them, so I wanted to try to portray something a bit different. Hopefully it’s not too frighteningly absurd.
Nominated at lost_fic_awards: Best Fic Featuring An Unusual Pairing, May 2009
Remember (Be Here Now)
"This is made in love, for love."
- Dr. Richard Alpert/Baba Ram Dass
The tent is dark, the shadows of the crackling fire outside playing on the canvas in sinister shapes, waxing and waning with the ebb of the flames. Richard treads carefully, quietly, peeling back the flap of the dwelling he’s commandeered for his new charge and slipping inside as noiselessly as possible, so as not to wake the boy - he needs as much rest as he can get. But it’s a moot point, he realizes, as he catches the subtle glint of his open eyes in the blackness.
“Where did you go, Richard?” The boy’s voice is groggy, strained; leaden with the kind of sleep that penetrates everything, borne of pain and exhaustion and the desperate need of the unconscious mind to be anywhere but present in the waking world. Richard takes up the damp cloth that rests near his bedside and wipes at his forehead, trying to cool his fever.
“Just had to take care of some things,” Richard assures him softly, stilling the cloth at Ben’s cheek and pausing to run a hand across the sweat-slick brow of the ailing child, slowly pushing the beads of perspiration across his skin with the pads of his fingertips, marveling that there is still breath in this boy’s lungs, blood in his veins - he should be dead.
“Charles came to see you?” he asks gently, without thinking, only sensing that the silence is something that Ben needs to have broken - it’s familiar, too familiar, and that’s why it bothers him. The boy, however, tenses sharply beneath Richard’s palms as he moves to wash his chest around the dressing of his wound, the desperate flutter of the heart under his hand rising to fever pitch, hammering hard enough to burst beneath the ribs, and Richard’s throat grows tight and dry with a strange combination of guilt and anger - he’s going to kill Widmore, this time; whatever the bastard’s done to upset this child, it’s the last straw.
“Easy,” Richard soothes, splaying his fingers gently just below the boy’s collarbone, frowning as he feels his pulse resonate in deep, shuddering beats around the skin ripped away by the bullet, threatening to reopen the barely-healing hole. “Relax,” Richard urges him, a note of pleading in his tone as he wills Ben towards the calm and still, rubbing gentle circles across his shoulder blades as he gasps for air, the pain of the jarring breaths causing him to cough and wince even more. “Shhh,” he whispers, running a cool hand across the feverish plane of the child’s cheek, holding it there until his respiration evens and the coughing subsides, his thumb measuring the rush of his blood through his arteries, sighing in something close to relief as he feels the urgency melt away, though the fear fueling the cadence doesn’t wane. “Careful,” Richard admonishes him, though with little force, his eyes soft as he considers Ben in the subtle glow from outside, watching the pain, both physical and emotional, that washes across those melancholy features; a face that’s far too old for a boy of twelve.
“He doesn’t want me here,” Ben replies, the sorrow in his voice intensified by the certainty that, once again, he has found himself among people who would rather he were gone.
“What makes you think that?” Richard doesn’t have to ask; wants nothing more than to assure the boy of just the opposite instead, but he can’t - something in him will not allow him to lie to this child, and thus, he finds he will instead have to rely on evasion, and the simple practice of picking up the shattered pieces after the truth has done its damage.
Ben licks his lips, and Richard notices how cracked they, how dry; he reaches for the canteen he’d filled before returning to the boy’s bedside, lifting it to his mouth and carefully supporting Ben’s neck as he tilts it back to pour the water slowly, trickling down his throat. “Is it hard?” Ben rasps half-way through a swallow, choking a bit in the effort.
“Is what hard?” Richard asks indulgently, lifting Ben’s head just a little bit higher and encouraging him to take just a bit more to drink.
“Being here,” Ben answers softly, his eyes wide and deep in a way that Richard’s never seen before, in all of his years; perceptive in ways that unnerve him; “with... regular people.”
Again, the truth burns on the tip of his tongue, and for all that he wants to ask Ben what he means, asks what made him think such a thing, he knows that it’s futile, sees in it the infinite fathoms of those sad and eager eyes, and all he can manage is to nod and answer with honesty the one thing everyone suspects but he never confirms: “Sometimes.”
“I’m sorry.” And Ben doesn’t look away, doesn’t seem abashed even if he sounds it, but instead reaches up, slowly, to catch Richard’s hand in his own, holding it loosely as if to commiserate with him, as if to let him know that it’s okay.
“Don’t be,” Richard murmurs with a soft smile and a squeeze of the fingers bent under his before he lets go, and its in that moment that Richard understands what an extraordinary human being this young boy just might be.
“You’re always with me,” Ben spills in a sudden rush, his eyes retreating a bit and taking on a frantic sheen. “And I like that. But I’d understand, you know, if it got frustrating for you, and you had to leave for a while.” He sucks in a breath, and Richard’s gaze darts for a moment to the child’s chest, pale and still wet with sweat but the inhalation is less shaky, seems less painful for him, and Richard can’t seem to find any new stains of red against the bandages there. “I know I’m pretty ordinary,” Ben continues, clearly self-deprecating as he turns his head from Richard. “I’m just another kid. I can’t be very interesting for someone like you.”
Richard is struck by the reverence in his tone, and he knows only that he doesn’t like it. “Listen to me, Benjamin,” he insists with an urgency that draws the boy’s gaze back to him. “You are the farthest thing from ordinary.”
And he means it, he’s sure, not because of anything he might know or suspect, but because in that very moment, Benjamin Linus is the only person in the whole of creation who can make Richard Alpert take pause, if just for an instant, and let him feel again. His hand strays to brush back the boy’s hair, jostling his glasses a bit as the strands tangle between his fingers, leaving them damp when he reaches the tips; Ben simply stares at him, somewhere between amazement and uncertainty, and Richard knows the boy has never been shown this sort of attention, any sort of real affection before.
He deserves better, and Richard will make sure he gets it.
“Anything but ordinary, Ben,” he breathes as the child begins to drift back towards the haven of sleep. “Don’t forget that.”
It takes all of two hours for him to lose the boy in the sprawling green of the jungle - and he shouldn’t be surprised, really, because Richard always loses more than he gains; he cannot remember a time when this wasn’t the case.
He shouldn’t be surprised, but he is, and he cannot help himself from imagining the most grizzly of demises - attacks by wild boars and accidental cliff diving and impalements on rocky outcroppings with the starburst pattern of young blood staining the ageless stone, like a sacrifice, and it’s these panicked images in his mind that are most unsettling for him - worry is something he’s not felt so keenly in decades.
“Ben,” he calls out again, the vibrations of his voice dying quicker in the overgrowth each time, absorbed by the thick barriers of leaves, and there’s something stark and empty in the quick cut of the echo; he’s alone, and it makes his blood run cold, frenzied and nervous and fueled by all sorts of trivial emotions he’d thought he’d left behind long ago. “Benjamin!”
“Richard.” It’s a moan, and it’s so faint that he fears it might be wishful thinking, but it can’t be, it can’t because the urgency that sears at the pit of his stomach is real, so very real, and so is the hope that sparks against the center of his chest, barely daring, barely even here. “Richard!”
Richard runs, faster and more frantic than he’s run in many, many years because Richard Alpert doesn’t run, doesn’t have to, because he’s in no hurry to get anywhere.
How quickly things change.
“Ben,” he sighs, his relief at seeing two open eyes shining up at him when he finally reaches the clearing overpowering him for a moment; four sturdy limbs, though one looks a bit oddly-angled, and a chest heaving up and down with the breath of life are, for an instant, the most perfect things he’s ever witnessed, to simply know that this boy still exists - and it unnerves him more than he’s willing to own to, more than his interested in understanding.
“Oww…” the groan of discomfort from the ground spurs Richard back to attention, and he takes in the setting of the tree overhanging the sharp drop to the shoreline (a drop far enough to snap a neck, had he fallen forward instead of back) and he understands the basic mechanics of the incident without even having to ask. What he doesn’t understand is what anyone would wonder:
“What in the world were you doing?”
Ben is silent for a moment, his eyes studying the hem of his tee shirt as he toys at the loose threads with his good hand, the one not hanging off to the side and turned ten degrees in the wrong direction. “Trying to see Hydra Island,” the boy admits sheepishly, and Richard wants to laugh, wants to share in what simple things still remain in the innocence of youth, so fleeting it might be gone when Richard looks to cherish it next - but he doesn’t laugh, because Benjamin winces as he tries to straighten himself, the break in his left arm severe enough to make lifting his torso precarious for the time being, and Richard needs to attend to more pressing matters; if he doesn’t now, it may be too late.
Because Richard loses more than he gains, and he cannot remember a time when this wasn’t the case. People come, and they go, and he tries his damnedest to keep them from laying down the roots around him that, once ripped away, will tear off a piece of his soul in the process. Sometimes he succeeds, and he gets better at it with time, but he isn’t perfect, and there are still those who slip through the cracks - they always have. He supposes that maybe it keeps him human, that taste of bittersweet failure that surges through him with the sheer force of life unending before the emptiness sets in within the blink of an eye; and all he ever knows is that they won’t last long, no matter how much he wishes they might, because they never do.
Even so, as he kneels to set Ben’s broken bone, he can’t remember the last time that the sting of that knowledge hurt quite so badly as it does just now.
“What are you thinking about?”
Richard knows his footsteps, the rhythm of them; can hear him coming from halfway up the hillside. He doesn’t mind, though, and that’s what sets Benjamin apart from the others - Richard’s never minded.
“Nothing,” he answers, his eyes far enough away to betray him even if he forgets that fact that Benjamin can always tell when Richard’s lying to him.
The young man lets it slide, though, doesn’t push him - almost as if he knows that Richard would tell him anything, if he is just patient enough; if he’ll only wait. The grass bends beneath his feet as he sits down next to Richard, folding his arms across his bent knees and leaning forward to take in the valley, the mop of his chestnut hair blowing gently in the breeze, and Richard notices just how much the boy has changed, how much he’s grown up - the masculine cut of his jaw, the pronounced line of his nose in profile, the shadow of stubble he keeps firmly in check.
“Richard,” he beings, his voice deeper somehow than it had ever seemed before, “how old are you?”
And that’s what Ben’s always been so skilled at - asking the questions that seem obvious, that everyone wants to know, but no one will ask, because no one else would get an answer.
Richard can’t explain what makes him reply, what prompts him, but he does know that it’s the same thing that stopped him that first day in the jungle, made him promise to come back for a scared, unhappy little boy; the same thing that clenched in his chest when he saw that boy unconscious and covered in blood, a dead weight hanging from tired arms; the same thing that’s always made Ben seem so different to Richard, made him special.
Whatever it is.
“Would you believe me if I told you that I wasn’t sure?”
He doesn’t have to look to feel Ben smile just a little, just enough. “I’d believe you if you told me you were a thousand years old, Richard,” Ben whispers against the wind, his voice a part of it, connected to the Island. “I’d believe you if you told me you were twelve.”
And whatever it is about Benjamin Linus, it feels warm within his chest; it feels like a deep of sigh of relief rushing through him - it feels like liberation and release and acceptance and it’s boundless, boundless enough to convince him to answer the question in the first place.
“I was thinking about how, long before any of the people here had so much as gasped their first breath, that those hills there,” he lifts a hand and slowly grazes the rolling hills beyond with the tips of his fingers in sweeping indication, “were covered in the most bountiful of fruit-bearing trees.” He smiles reminiscently at the memory of mangoes sweeter and softer than any he’s ever tasted, oranges that were plump and filled with the most flavorful juice. “My own private little orchard, just for my people and I.”
“What happened?” Ben asks, and it sounds almost as if he knows, somehow, even though he doesn’t; he can’t – and Richard doesn’t want to him to have to.
“The same thing that always happens,” Richard answers the horizon, his gaze intent upon the line between land and sky; never faltering, never wavering. “People are greedy, Ben, and they’re cruel. You can’t trust anyone.”
Ben seems to absorb the declaration for a moment, suspended between then and now, before he speaks again – his voice imbued with a strength that defies hesitation, that rejects doubt: “I trust you.”
And that’s all he needs, really, all he wants, and Richard can’t for the life of him fathom what he’s done to gain such blind faith from this vibrant young man, so unfettered by the cares he himself has amassed over the long and endless years.
And yet, looking into those eyes a little closer, Richard can see the hint, the hidden intimation that Ben isn’t quiet so free as he might like to envision; and that maybe, Richard’s not blameless for that.
“You’re always so sad.” Ben is still speaking, and Richard finds it hard to feel anything but the cold stab of guilt when he hears such honest concern in that voice. “I don’t like it when you’re sad.”
Richard’s not sure he even notices that he’s sad anymore; but he knows when he’s happy, knows that more often than not, those rare and wonderful moments involve the young man at his side.
“Isn’t there anything I can do?” Ben asks softly, and his voice seems closer somehow, even though he hasn’t moved. ‘Turn back time,’ Richard thinks wryly, almost bitter. ‘Change the past. Rewrite whatever history has left me to live while everything around me fades.’ He clenches his fists, squinting his eyes closed against the sun before indulging in the very last of the self-pity he will allow himself: ‘Make it all disappear.’
“Just be here, Richard,” Ben assures him with a hand on his shoulder, as if he had heard his thoughts. “Be here now.”
Richard thinks, for this boy, he might be able to try.
Richard doesn’t announce his presence, but instead stands just within the opening of the tent, listening to the heavy breathing of the man whose back is to him, and the gentle whine still emanating from the bundle in his arms.
“I couldn’t just kill her,” Ben repeats, his voice desperate and keening - the only words he knows - as his eyes dart without focus, unseeing. “I couldn’t. She’s...” His chest is heaving, and every inhale is heavier, less efficient than the one that precedes it as he begins to panic, beings to lose his composure; he had maintained it when it mattered, and it seems to have finally abandoned him now that the weight in his arms, the infant cradled there registers firmly in his mind as belonging to him.
It takes Richard three paces to reach him, placing his hand steadily on the cuff of Ben’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” he murmurs, his gaze dipping to try and coax Ben’s own from studying the floor beneath the baby he holds. “You don’t have to explain yourself.” There’s more to the statement, more to that little reassurance that both of them can feel but neither will say - amongst these people, Ben had always had to justify his choices and his actions, to prove his loyalty; he was always explaining himself, just never to Richard.
“Charles is wrong,” Ben states simply, the churning hatred and passion behind his words a force within themselves, so contradictory to the tentative, almost nervous longing that shines in his eyes as he studies the innocent baby as she moves against his forearm, stirring dreamily in her sleep.
“I know,” Richard answers with equal plainness - it isn’t hard to see that Charles has finally proven true each and every reservation Richard has ever held silently against him, and it’s begun to bring more harm than any of them had bargained for. “Charles has been wrong for some time, now.”
Ben says nothing, and only looks forlornly out at nothing, his arms tightening around the makeshift blanket that holds the tiny baby girl. “You wouldn’t remember,” Richard speaks purposefully, his tone low but not subdued, “but when you joined us, when you were wounded...” he swallows hard at the memory; “I carried you to the Temple on my own. Charles was furious when he found out, more because I think he knew what it meant. You were my choice, Ben.” The younger man’s eyes grow wide at the idea, as if so many pieces suddenly being to fall into place - why Charles dislikes him, why for so long it was only ever at Richard’s urging that he was asked to do anything for them, away from the Dharma Compound; why Ellie stares at him with such blatant disgust and fear, and why Richard gives a damn at all about him.
“And I think you know what it means to be my choice,” he adds significantly, watching as Ben tries to process what he’s saying, tries to make sense of it, the heartbreaking wave of hope that passes across the younger man’s features still shrouded by the overwhelming veil of confusion. Richard breathes softly, staring hard at Ben as he drops carefully onto his bed, and imagining idly where they might place a cradle.
“Charles...” Ben starts, but trails off, unsure as to where he can even imaging going with the thought, uncertain if he’s willing to entertain the possibilities, only to be shot down from the very summit of his hopes.
“Charles was never my choice to lead these people,” Richard clarifies, his dark eyes keener, brighter than they should have been, gleaming in the low light and penetrating deep into Ben’s very soul.
“Sometimes,” Richard stops him, crossing the space to sit down next to Ben, “in waiting for the perfect fit, you have to make do with what you have.”
It doesn’t escape Ben that Richard doesn’t elaborate, doesn’t name names, but for the moment, it doesn’t matter. “And suffer the consequences of it?” he asks, his tone wavering between honest curiosity - one shred of innocence that Richard had somehow managed to ensure he maintained, through everything - and the accusation against Charles, against Jacob, even against Richard for allowing it to come to this at all, for allowing it to go this far.
“Sometimes.” And that’s it, really. Richard has nothing more to say, and Ben has no reply; and the silence, this time, is something that Richard feels the need to dispel, because it resonates somehow with everything he doubts, everything he cherishes, and everything he cannot acknowledge that he’s terrified of losing.
“Raise her, Benjamin,” he says softly, and Ben’s eyes flicker up to his in an instant, shock and indignation skimming the surface of a resignation that’s already taken hold in his gaze.
“How?” he asks, almost resentful; reluctant, “I don’t know the first thing about raising a child.”
“Perhaps you should have thought about that before playing the hero, then.” And Richard doesn’t know what, exactly, prompts him to say that - but what he does know feels a little too much like selfishness, like jealousy for his comfort.
“And what would you have had me do, Richard?” Ben shoots back with fire, his eyes narrowed and voice cracking a bit on his name, the way it always had when he was angry to the point of despair. The fight in him dies, though, almost as soon as it flares, and his eyes rivet again to the soft, rounded features of the perfect baby girl still held tight against him; he readjusts her subtle weight in his arms, and as she burrows closer to his warmth, he reaches out a trembling hand to touch her cheek, marveling at her. “I...” he swallows hard, brushing the back of his fingers along her forehead, the soft whisper of her first tufts of hair swirling against the skin. “I just, I couldn’t leave her for dead.”
Richard knows exactly what he means.
“What do I do?” he asks hoarsely, staring up at Richard with those water-bright eyes, eyes that have been Richard’s undoing for far too long, because they’re always so soul-crushingly mournful, so inexplicably lost.
“You love her,” he tells Ben, a certain understated conviction ringing through the words as he studies the tiny, sleeping infant cradled close against the other man’s chest, wondering at her - wondering so many things. “You love her, and you raise her to be better than yourself.”
After all, Ben hasn’t turned out so badly.
The sub is late, having been delayed due to a missed connecting flight, resulting in turn from being held up by security - one frivolous thing leading to another; but Richard can’t deny to himself the that he’s been worried as well as he can to everyone else. So when he looks up to find the outline of Ben cut hard and uncompromising against the hall light, leaning against the door frame and watching his daughter where she sleeps with the tenderest of eyes, Richard is relieved, pure and simple. He tries to rationalize that he’s grateful for Ben’s return on account of Alex, who has weaseled her way into his affections with no effort at all, but Richard knows that it’s more than that, more than vicarious empathy or logical association, and he knows it in the way his breath catches when he meets Ben’s shadowed eyes from across the room.
He knows, but he’ll never admit to it.
“She missed you,” Richard says softly, rising from the chair he’d moved to her bedside and setting the book he’d been reading to her on her nightstand, propped open to where they’d left off.
“I missed her,” Ben whispers fondly back, leaning down to press the gentlest of kisses across his daughter’s forehead, brushing her wild curls from her face as he smiles down at her. “But I somehow doubt that she was disappointed at having her beloved Uncle Richard all to herself for a couple of weeks.” His eyebrows are raised and a suspicious sort of mirth dances in his gaze as he watches Richard lead the way from the bedroom, and once they’re a safe distance from the sleeping child, Richard chuckles warmly in reply.
“Only when I couldn’t seem to remember the songs you sing to her,” he confesses with only mild embarrassment, having enjoyed the near-month of time with the young girl in his care just as much as he suspects she did, possibly more. “I think I’ve got them down now, but those first few days...” he shakes his head while Ben laughs at him.
“We’ll have to practice,” he assures Richard, striding towards the kitchen and approaching the refrigerator.
“Did everything go well?” Richard asks nonchalantly, knowing that it can’t have gone smoothly, at the least, to have taken so long, but feeling compelled to fill the void with something; the emptiness that whips through the pinpricks of black in Ben’s eyes - something happened off-island, and Richard’s almost afraid to know what it was.
“As well as can be expected.”
Richard doesn’t have to ask to know what that means, just as Ben doesn’t have to ask whether or not Richard would like a some of the chardonnay he’s brought back from the outside, instead just handing him the wine from where his fingers curl delicately around the thin stem of the glass. Richard takes it, and the bitter edge is pleasantly soothing as he leans against the kitchen counter, Ben settling into one of the stiff-backed chairs at the table and pouring himself a glass of something just a bit stronger – Ben hates chardonnay.
It’s familiar, this strange arrangement they have; but it fits, Richard thinks. It feels like home.
The look of shock in the eyes that turn to him through the leaves is surprising, if only because Richard wasn’t trying to be quiet as he searched the perimeter for the man. “Richard,” Ben gasps, automatic and without much thought. “I...” he looks lost for the briefest of moments before he regains control of himself, the shroud of unwavering leadership - that face of uncompromising, unquestionable authority - settling back into place. “What are you doing here, Richard?” The lacing of a sneer beneath the question, the impatience and frustration that brews just below the surface, is strangely reassuring.
“Looking for you.”
“Is something wrong?” his eyes narrow, first in defense, and then in more genuine concern. “Is Alex...?”
“Alex is fine.” It’s a simple statement, but it’s all that it takes to melt the apprehension from his face and leave only annoyance behind. “You hadn’t come back yet,” Richard explains with a casual façade that Benjamin accepts without question, but that Richard himself can’t quite buy into. “Mikhail logged you as having left the Flame hours ago. People were starting to worry.” People. People as in vague collective persons. People as in no one specifically; as in, not Richard specifically.
“Let them worry.” There’s a bitterness there that makes Richard nearly flinch with the force, the venom of it, but something else lurks beneath the words, something sinister and foreboding that twists against Richard’s ribs, sparking fear in him – the likes of which he’d thought had long since passed beyond his capacity to feel.
“Don’t, Ben,” he counters, knowing this man and knowing how he is, knowing how broods and manipulates to achieve the ends he desires – it’s what keeps them going, the two of them; the fact that Richard knows exactly what Ben does, and only allows Ben to succeed when he wants him to.
“What have you been doing out here?” Richard asks, surveying the scene a bit closer now: Ben is propped against the trunk of a large tree on the outside ring of the clearing, his right leg tucked beneath him while his left leg sticks out, and he looks strangely pale, though it might be the trick of moonlight.
“Looking for some privacy,” Ben winces as he shifts his weight, and it’s only then that Richard notices the dark stain of something viscous, something diabolically lethal mingling with the dirt, smeared carelessly on the stray leaves and soaked through the pant leg of Ben’s khakis.
“My god,” Richard breathes as he sees the blood, the urgency in his voice growing quickly as he notices the sheer amount of it – too much of it – as he crouches next to Ben, slowly rolling the fabric up above what appears to be a knife wound, much deeper than a graze but too shallow, and not nearly deliberate enough to have been a stab, that’s still leaking long trails of black – colorless in the dark, but stark against the white of Ben’s skin; the scent of metal, copper is now inescapable, and Richard doesn’t know how he missed it before. “What happened?”
Ben glares at Richard, long and hard, before answering stiffly. “I ran into the Frenchwoman.”
Richard knows better than to push that subject. “How long has this been bleeding?”
“It’s nothing,” Ben insists, pulling away from where Richard is wetting the edge of his overshirt with his mouth and blotting away the dried blood on his skin, trying to gauge what new blood is pouring from the wound. “It’s nothing.”
“The hell it is,” Richard nearly growls, adrenaline pumping unwarrantedly through his veins, a fierce protectiveness taking hold of him. All he can see is the blood, and all he can know is that it’s coming from Ben – the details, the particulars, die away in irrelevance.
“It’s slowed,” Ben protests, moving more purposefully from Richard’s attention, bending his knee and opening the break in his skin just a little more, inviting it to open and pour forth just a little bit quicker than the staunched pace it had subsided to before; “it’s fine.”
“Stay still,” Richard breathes, and the sound is so low that it’s almost frightening, willing Ben into submission as Richard presses the sleeve of his own shirt over the wound, encouraging it to clot with the pressure as he watches Ben through feral, wild eyes. “You could have died out here.”
Ben snorts derisively, narrowing his gaze down to dual slits that seem to sneer at him from behind delicate lashes. “Don’t be so dramatic,” he scoffs, but Richard isn’t having any of it. Dramatic, overstated as it may be, the point remains, and Ben is going to hear it, to know it; Ben is going to understand that his antics, his selfishness have driven Richard to anxious despair for the very last time.
“Don’t you understand?” Richard all but hisses, all but screams. “Do you have any idea what would happen here without you? You have responsibilities to this Island, Ben; responsibilities to its people.”
People. People as in nondescript groupings of individuals. People as in not one distinctive person; not explicitly Richard, and Richard alone.
“Responsibilities to your daughter.”
Richard Alpert was never a coward before he met Benjamin Linus.
“But no responsibilities to you, do I Richard?” Ben barks back at him, no holds barred, eyes blazing and tone livid. “No. I’m only here at all because you want me to be. I lead at your whim. I serve your purposes,” he chuckles humorously, his features lightening for the briefest instant before hardening, and growing dark again. “I’m a useful puppet,” he articulates with exact precision, every consonant echoing through the night; “a plaything to occupy your time until you move on, until you find someone new who will as eagerly depose of me as I deposed of Charles. But I don’t need your pity,” he finally slows, finally looks at Richard instead of just in his general direction; sees through him as only Benjamin can. “And I never did. Just because you did me the so-called favor of saving my life. I don’t owe you anything Richard, I don’t owe you a goddamned thing.” There’s hate in Ben’s eyes, and Richard doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know what to do. How did it come to this?
Richard Alpert was never uncertain before he met Benjamin Linus.
“You should have let me die,” Ben seethes, his voice deep and vile, poisonous to the very air they breathe because he means it – he means every word.
Richard Alpert knew who he was before he met Benjamin Linus.
“Say something, damnit!”
Richard Alpert doesn’t know anything, anymore.
“I didn’t save you for the sake of manipulating you, Ben,” Richard answers softly, because it’s the only thing he can say, the only thing he knows he can manage to put into words amidst all of the insinuations of emotion and attachment and something bold and deep beyond them both that he cannot, will not acknowledge, but cannot outrun forever.
The rage, the soul-searing fury that emanates from every inch of Ben’s frame sinks hard and heavy into the pit of Richard’s stomach; and Richard feels himself floundering, staring numb into the space beyond what lies directly in front of him. Then, without warning, Ben’s lips are pressed hard against Richard’s mouth, and it’s not a surprise, really; it’s only mildly shocking in that Richard’s mind had never known this was what everything else within him had wanted until the very moment it occurred. It’s an angry kiss, a vicious one that aims to bruise, aims to draw blood and force passion, but Richard can’t even bring himself to care, at first, because Ben’s tongue is breaking through the barrier of his lips and Richard’s sucking it hard into his mouth and it’s been so long – so fucking long – and he tastes so perfect in ways he can’t describe, and it kills every good thing within him to break away but –
“I can’t,” Richard severs the contact between them, his heart throbbing at his throat where Ben’s fingers are still dancing across his vulnerable skin, ready to strike, and there’s pain in those eyes for only a breath before it’s gone, hardened beneath layers upon layers of disillusionment, of cold and calculating cynicism.
In those eyes, there is no room for love. Richard can see this, but isn’t ready yet to understand what it means for him.
But they both have roles to play, and it is because of this that Ben smiles, a smile that shakes to the very bone, burned behind Richard’s eyes as Ben leans in – needing the last word like he needs air in his lungs. “I can,” he breathes, a death threat against Richard’s lips that travels straight to the heart of him, vibrating painfully against the violent cadence of his pulse as the younger man carefully lifts himself to his feet, slowly testing the strength of his injured leg before limping purposefully away from the clearing, leaving Richard to wonder after him as he hobbles off, blood drying hard against the lines of his palm like a promise, an omen.
Benjamin always has a plan.
Richard can tell when Ben isn’t alright; he can always tell. So when he retreats to his home exceptionally early one mid-September evening, Richard knows that it isn’t just the fact that Alex is, once again, refusing to speak to him after he caught her traipsing off in the direction of the Temple with that Karl boy and forbade her to see him for a whole week; knows it’s not just the persistent ache in his back that’s been tormenting him for weeks on end; knows that it’s not even simple fatigue from the hours he keeps, waking before the sun and retiring long after it sets, pursuing that which he deems most important for their progress, their survival here, in this place. It’s when Richard sees the deep bags, the bruised circles of exhaustion tattooed deep beneath those bloodshot eyes that he wants nothing more than to go to Ben, to do whatever he can to make it easier, to make it hurt just a little bit less.
Because Richard might be stubborn, but he isn’t a fool, and he knows it’s not a matter of coincidence that he’s made certain to avoid Ben, to never find himself alone with the man for not mere months, but years now - years that he’s felt the true, interminable length of for the first time in centuries; knows it’s not a coincidence that the loss of him, of his presence and not just his ghost from across the fire pit or to his side by mere chance, cuts Richard like a knife through the very core of him; that the taste of his mouth is something Richard wakes up to every morning, without fail – a mingling of dew and the tang of the earth sealed by the sunrise that reminds him of what he’s missing, that surges through his chest and wakes his heart anew with every dawn. And he’s come to just one conclusion about all of this: he’s lived what seems like an eternity, and yet he finds himself measuring his world by relativity - that which involved Benjamin, and everything that didn’t.
It has to mean something.
For as long as it’s been, Richard is surprised that Ben doesn’t confront him, says nothing when he enters his house, makes his way down the still-familiar path to his bedroom, and eases open the door with a long, echoing creak that makes it impossible to ignore his presence - Ben says nothing, doesn’t move from where he lays beneath the sheets, his face to the window opposite where Richard stands, but the set of his shoulders, the stiff, soundless absence of his breath sifting through the room gives him away, if any doubt still existed, and Richard can fight no longer - he’s tired, too. He walks to the bed and sits at the edge, laying a hand through the comforter at the center of Ben’s back, silently asking forgiveness, for amnesty, if only for the night.
“I don’t know what to do,” Ben whispers suddenly, his voice strained and oddly-pitched, his breath quick and unsteady. “I don’t… I can’t…” His head shakes back and forth against the mattress, and Richard’s hand moves up to the crook of his neck, his fingers trailing down over his clavicle.
“You can,” Richard protests fiercely, his voice alone seeming to set the other man at ease as Ben’s muscles relax under his touch. “You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for,” he assures him, meaning every word; he wishes, not for the first time, that he’d told Ben that he was proud of him - Richard doubts that anyone has ever told him as much in his entire life. “Despite everything, you endure.” He cannot say any more, cannot confess that he needs Ben to endure, needs Ben above all else; but he doesn’t need to - what he’s given is enough.
“Don’t leave me, Richard,” Ben breathes almost soundlessly, unshed tears cutting through his voice without pity or remorse. “Please.”
“I won’t,” Richard promises, running a fingertip along the line of Ben’s chin, leaning in to press the ghost of kiss just behind his ear, hoping that the gesture will say all of the things that he can’t, that he knows he may never be able to.
Ben turns to him, his jaw slack and his eyes wide, disbelieving and yet critical - wanting, needing to believe, but unable, unwilling to suffer what it will mean for him if it’s a lie. Richard can’t bear the anguish in those eyes any longer, and in a moment his head is inclined to fit his mouth to Ben’s, pressing their lips together as Richard moves closer to him, sliding a hand behind his head and drawing that soft, pliant mouth deeper into his, relishing the taste of him, the warmth of his tongue, the smooth cut of his teeth, and the frantic beat of his heart through his skin, a throb that urges him with nearly as much fervor as the way Ben sucks Richard’s own tongue in between his top and bottom teeth, eager and urgent and yearning, as if this is the end of everything, and this one moment, between then two of them, is his last chance to prove to the powers that be that he has lived, and lived magnificently.
And it was all inevitable, really, because Benjamin always gets what he wants; Richard just hadn’t really bothered to entertain getting the same in the process.
But then a plane drops from the sky, and nothing else matters.
The clock face is stoic, stately; the white of it gleams in the speckles of color that stream through the stained glass, empty shadows of blue and gold, like the reflection of stars in the sea. The hands point close to north - in just moments, the hour will strike and the day will change and it will be the nineteenth; his birthday.
He’s been watching them, of course, all of them, and it’s only days now until Eloise will need him to act, to begin gathering them - to start following John a little bit closer, to make sure that everything falls into place as it’s meant to; to arrange for the ends to finally be justified by the disappointing means he’s been given to work with. There’s not much time to waste, but Ben likes the quiet here, likes the still, and the way that the kneelers give under the weight of his legs, so like the soft soil of the jungle; ironically, this place feels more like home than anywhere has since he left.
In a way, Ben is the most steadfast believer of them all.
And yet, with his head bowed and his hands steepled, he knows he needs forgiveness; needs to be absolved of his crimes, needs to be punished - the blood that clings to the flesh of his palms needs to be washed away; the blood of both the dead and the living.
Ben thinks of John, and knows that what he’s done to the man is nothing compared to what he’ll have to do. He doesn’t like it, but he knows it must be done.
Ben thinks of Ethan, and Goodwin, and for the first time feels sadness for sacrificing them; not guilt, and certainly not regret, but in his mind, he sees heartbreak on the face of a woman who finds the man she loves to be dead, and he feels something of her pain, if only for a moment - striking and unforgiving. And so he mourns it, because love is the cruelest thing to lose.
He thinks of Juliet, wonders if she’s survived - thinks she would, out of all of them. She had endured worse, much of it because of him.
He thinks of Alex, and there are tears wetting his cheeks as he stares straight ahead at the empty pulpit, seeing nothing and not truly needing to; the residual ring of the gunshot is enough to tear him in two, and he knows that it will never go away.
And Ben thinks of Richard; wonders if the man ever knew how much Ben thought of him, how much Ben needed him; thinks of him and needs him. He was the father a boy had always needed, the friend a teenager had always wanted, and the only person that a man could trust with everything, every part of himself.
He thinks of Richard; he doesn’t know that Richard, staring off at the breaking waves in the distance a thousand miles away, thinks the world of him, as well.
Ben owes him more than he will admit; owes him his life, so many times over. And Ben cannot think of Richard anymore than this, because it hurts and Ben is tired of hurting, tired of having to watch everything he cares for, everything he’s ever dared to love, slip away from him - and so often of his own doing.
It will all be over soon.
When Ben catches sight of him, Richard doesn’t know what to say, barely even knows what to do except to hold out his arm, reaching a hand to catch him - and Ben, for all his games, doesn’t even make the pretense of pretending it’s a formality, of clasping it in a handshake the means nothing; he grasps at Richard like a dying man, and Richard is his last breath, his last hope, his salvation for the briefest of instants where Benjamin Linus forgets himself and lets everything fall, everything break, even himself - he sinks against Richard’s chest as he pulls him closer, sliding his arms around Ben with an uneven sigh as he simply relishes the return of the only family he knows, the only love he’s felt in far too long.
They say nothing, do nothing, except to hold each other steady, and Richard knows that Ben can feel everything he cannot say, knows he will notice the hitch in his breath just as Ben knows that Richard feels every stray tear drop that slides from where his face rests on Richard’s shoulder. They’ve both long since realized that this is all they have; they’re alone without each other, and neither of them deserves anything more, really; only now, they’ve finally come to the conclusion that neither of them deserves anything less, either.
Ben’s hands against his shoulder blades begin to slide, and Richard feels his frame sink low against him before pulling him to his knees, his strength failing him as he drops to the ground, kneeling in the damp soil of the jungle as his arms tighten around Richard’s waist, an anchor against everything that is, everything that was, and everything that is to come.
And for the first time in far too long, Richard knows that there is nowhere he would rather be than right here, right now.