“How exactly could a group of British schoolboys such as yourself could possibly wind up in all that trouble?” Robert Audley asks in wonder, after he's finished rocking his son. “What a story, son. What a story...”
Ralph stares at the red-haired boy standing a few feet away, without a parent to embrace, folding his arms in makeshift comfort. When their eyes meet Jack's pale eyes widen, but Ralph is the first to turn away. More tears sting his eyes, and he shuts them tightly.
For the first time in what feels like surely a lifetime... Ralph is surrounded by adults, who reason but don't listen, who discuss but don't believe. For the first time he is beginning to see why Jack had opposed them so. Jack...
He's at the scene again, the memory of the island, the hunters shouting, the sun glaring. He sees the clay mix in with the blood, the hunger in the boy's eyes as he runs towards Ralph in pursuit, as he chases him along the beach, holding his spear high and proud, a battle cry lulling Ralph into pure fear. He sees himself in Jack's eyes, just another pig that will squeal and screech as Jack runs him through.
“Excuse me...” A dark-haired woman approaches Jack, her voice timid, her stature slightly hunched. “Have you seen my little Simon? My son, he... he went to your school... St. Paul's... Simon Tweedy...”
Ralph opens his eyes to see Jack's face crumple. Ralph's heart is in his mouth; what could Jack even say, what could any of them say, that could possibly explain what had happened, or why, or attempt to console the mother of Simon Tweedy?
Jack opens his mouth to speak but falls silent almost immediately.
He shakes his head, and Ralph stifles a sob that starts in his throat and sings in his ears.
The beast took him, it was murder. He was washed out to sea with the flowers and the shells.
Kill the beast, cut his throat, spill his blood.
Jack supposes the worst thing about having to fit back into society is realising the impact of chaos on the island a moment too late. He misses being in charge. He wants to see his choir boys bow at his feet once more, raise their spears and charge forward beside him. But they're different now, they've reverted to how they were before things got bad. They now look at him with a mask of terror and resentment, refuse to speak to him, whisper things to one another. But never any outsiders; what happened on the island remains between those from the island. That is their unspoken rule.
Nobody breathes when the choirmaster gravely stands at the front of the room on their first day back and announces, with a pained expression, that they have lost a very special soprano to a tragic death. An epileptic fit, he says, caused Simon Tweedy's untimely demise. Jack's not sure who told the naval officer that the dark-haired boy was in the land of God – was it Ralph? He would've liked to pretend Simon was simply lost on the island, or perhaps he'd made it back but nobody knew.
The choirmaster looks so old right now, so old and sad. Jack's fists curl and he swallows a lump in his throat quickly, unable to meet the eyes of the other boys, who are watching him with such intensity he feels he might burst.
“Simon Tweedy was a very special boy. Very bright... very honest...”
Maybe there is a beast, and Jack hasn't realised up until now that it is him. What a twist of fate. What a cruel misjudgment.
Tears gather in his pale blue eyes, and Jack ducks his head to avoid the burning gazes of his hunters, his disposable hunters whom he whipped and laughed with and cheered with, the hunters he'd wiped blood on so happily as they straddled a sow and slit her throat.
If he had known he would feel so much shame, would he have tried to take Ralph's crown and wear it himself? Jack sincerely believes he wouldn't.
Manic chants ring in his ears. A pig's head is resting on a stick, reaping the evil with a twisted grin on its face.
“What's wrong?” The Lord of the Flies asks, his smile bearing no answers. “I thought you would have enjoyed the show! That rotten Simon, spoiling all the fun! It's a shame things went so horribly wrong, don't you agree?”
Jack says nothing, hears nothing, sees nothing. There is a low hum.
“What a spoilsport,” the Lord of the Flies pipes up, his voice a trill that sends Jack over the edge. His tears fall silently, ceasing to provide relief, the pain in his chest nearly unbearable. The Lord of the Flies tuts. “And here I was believing you were the one who understood. Why couldn't we have had fun on that island a little while longer?”
Around him, the other boys from the island are beginning to cry. Jack's ears roar, drowning out the taunts of the Lord of the Flies, overriding the sounds of the choirmaster's stirring speech and the boys' wails of despair. The only noise Jack can hear between the pounding of blood through his veins and the circling, jibbering laughter from the pig head is the whiny sound of a conch being blown, ripping through his comfort, silencing him.
I don't want this, thinks Jack as the conch grows louder. Make it stop, I beg. Make it stop.
Life is a funny thing. It is something that can change flow as easily as the click of one’s fingers, something that can derive from the path at any point and head just about anywhere.
That has been Ralph’s mantra since being rescued from the island, and that is why when he runs into none other than Jack Merridew eight years later, he doesn’t take this as a bad sign.
For a moment he thinks he is mistaken, and that Jack isn’t really there at all; it goes without saying that this has happened to Ralph in the past. Certainly the first couple of years after the group of boys were rescued, Ralph remembers that it took him a while to step outside without turning a corner and seeing Piggy or Simon, standing there perfectly alive and perfectly well, until slash wounds would appear, or their heads would split open, and the snow would dye a deep red until his father brought him back to his senses again.
Sometimes he would see Jack as well, and he’d think, just for a moment, that it could truly be real, that Jack could very easily be stood in front of him, ready to kill him with a stick sharpened at both ends, or ready to apologise, cramming on his black cap with the gold badge, those freckles fading into a blush of embarrassment, of remorse, regret.
Most of the times he could remind himself that Jack lived far away and would have no business in turning up just to torment him or make amends. These times he could laugh at himself for being so foolish and move on.
This encounter feels very real, though, and Ralph can’t help but feel both overwhelmed and relieved at the same time that he hasn’t gone crazy once more - Jack is here, and he isn’t hallucinating, and the two of them are grown men, combed into rules and order as they had been before things on the island grew sour.
Jack has certainly changed, Ralph notes as he eyes his former rival from head to toe. His skinny build has fleshed out a little, he realises, and his red hair has darkened significantly. His eyes hold a more bland look, a look that comes with age and order, and his face is fuller, a little stiff from the coldness of January. Jack blends in with the crowd around him, in a brown winter coat and dark polished shoes.
He looks so much better, but so much worse also.
Ralph watches as Jack’s face changes. Their fateful encounter takes place in a crowded street, busy because of market day. Nonetheless they continue to stand there in a stunned silence, even as pedestrians push past them and scold them for blocking their path.
“It’s you,” Jack murmurs. Ralph notes that Jack’s face is paler than usual, a sickly white colour that reminds him of sea foam, white sand, bone… probably because of the fact that Ralph, a ghost of his past, has appeared before him, like a haunting.
“It’s me,” Ralph agrees, also very alarmed. But this meeting doesn’t feel unpleasant to him. Rather, it feels as though he has been waiting for it for a long time.
“You look… well,” he tries, not wanting to tell him how rough he truly looks. Jack shrugs.
“Same goes to you. You’re a lot taller.”
“I should hope so, since the last time you saw me I was twelve.”
The sky has clouded over and Ralph suspects rain later on, but in this moment he does his best to ignore it, focusing solely on Jack. The boy - make that man - standing before him is shifting a little uncomfortably, unsure of what to say, which feels very out of character to Ralph, as he recalls a lot of their arguments whilst on the island revolved around who had the most to say.
“It’s probably going to rain soon. Maybe we should find a café or something,” Ralph suggests. Jack huffs.
“I can’t. I have work to do.” Ducking his head, he pushes past Ralph, mumbling, “See you around.”
“Maybe,” Ralph replies back, because what does he know, what does Jack know? They could see each other tomorrow, or the day after, or never again. As he always says, life is a very funny thing indeed.
He remembers, with a short tenderness, that there were moments as they lay on the ground at night, staring up at the sky as they drifted easily in and out of sleep, how wonderful it would be to be rescued. He thought, perhaps when we get rescued I’ll see daddy again. We’ll all be with our families and friends. But wouldn’t it be just perfect if, even only once, we were to find each other again?
These thoughts came before things got bad, before they killed Simon, before they killed Piggy, before they almost killed him as well.
As Ralph watches Jack fade into the crowd, he fails to miss seeing his former enemy pull away, heading towards a virtually empty coffee shop lingering on the end of the street.
Ralph heads in the same direction but pauses as he stands outside the window, watching through the glass as Jack orders something and sits there in his coat, shivering and alone, drumming his fingers on the table, trying to forget.
Despite the fact that Jack has blatantly lied to him Ralph fails to hide the smile that tugs at his mouth.
How hypocritical, and childish.
He should be getting back to finish that thesis, but no, that can wait. After all, he’s been waiting eight long years for this, and in Ralph’s eyes this should be taken into consideration.
He notes, as he is about to head through the door, that he needs to consider Jack’s feelings also; they may have been children in anarchy, but Jack did a lot of things one would most likely regret, so he reminds himself to tread lightly, before pushing open the door and taking off his coat and scarf.
Jack looks up as a bell overhead chimes, and he turns back quickly, all confidence from eight years ago long gone. Ralph sits down opposite him and rubs his hands together.
“It’s really cold out there.”
“What do you want?” Jack demands, small eyes staring back at him with a mixture between frustration and anxiousness. “What do you want from me, Ralph?”
For a moment Ralph feels speechless, lost in the presence of Jack’s strong words as he felt he often was back then, but soon his voice floods back.
“I should be the one who’s confused here,” he quips. “Didn’t you say something about having work to do?”
“I don’t feel like talking right now,” Jack replies through gritted teeth.
“Or do you just not feel like talking to me?”
Silence reigns over the two boys-turned-men as they eye each other with a mixture of ferocity and gratefulness: for they had forgotten, in these eight years apart, that the friction that cast them away from one another was also what ended up drawing them together, like two feathers caught in the wind, like two shades of coloured clay blending together.
At last, Ralph decides to speak.
“Eight years ago, we were rescued as you were about to kill me, and we went back to our normal lives.”
“How were things for you, who didn’t care for society and rules?” Ralph wonders aloud as a waitress brings Jack the cup of tea that he’d ordered. “I always wanted order, so being welcomed back into a society that also cared about that was a blessing. But I imagine for you it must’ve been hard.”
“Hard? Please. Just because I… changed… on the island… it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t easily go back to being head boy. Even off the island I was respected and envied by many.”
“Sounds like a dream,” Ralph replies dryly. He also orders a cup of tea and frowns at Jack Merridew from across the table as the waitress leaves. “Somehow, though, I find it difficult to believe that you snapped back into place just like that. You may have been chapter chorister, you may have been head boy, and you may have sang a mean C sharp. But all of these things put together are useless because of what I’m asking you. All of this doesn’t mean that you didn’t struggle to adapt to this life again.”
“You shut up, Ralph,” he says aggressively. “You shut up.”
They lapse into silence once more.
Ralph thinks to himself, he has waited so long for this chance to come around and he would gladly wait another eight years, a decade, three decades, a century. The way Jack sits before him, fiddling with his hands and looking to hurt somebody, brings a smile to his face despite the uncomfortable silence between them.
“I’m glad to know you’re a changed man, anyway,” he says at last, clearing his throat. “I mean, unless you still dictate a tribe of hunters in between lectures.”
“Very funny,” Jack growls. “I’ll have you know I’m doing better now, much better. What happened on the island stays on the island, do you understand?”
“Perfectly,” Ralph replies shortly, sitting up straight. “I mean, if I were the one leading a civilisation of killers I’d probably want to keep quiet about it too.”
“Will you stop?” snaps Jack, slamming a fist down on the table loud enough to catch the attention of the waitress stood behind the counter. “I’m not proud of the things I did, you know! After what happened on the island… you weren’t the only one who had to suffer afterwards!”
“Maybe. But at least you were alive enough to feel that pain.”
This spills from Ralph’s mouth like blood spilled from Piggy’s head, and he bites his tongue desperately to prevent further damage, but it’s too late now. Jack’s eyes darken.
“I didn’t just suffer, Ralph. I regretted . I still do. You think eight years has changed us at all? You think growing older has made me forget? Do you really think that finishing school and maturing as a person has wiped those kind of memories from my mind? Damn you, Ralph! Damn you for ever thinking so lowly of me!”
Ralph is taken aback by the fury in Jack’s voice but says nothing, instead choosing to watch his fingers drum irritably on the table. Yes, he was happy about this marginally unplanned rendezvous at first, but he should’ve known better than to think it would all run smoothly. After all, this is Jack Merridew he’s dealing with.
“…I never said that,” Ralph says evenly, once he is sure Jack has calmed down enough not to punch him in the face. “I’m not here to say such things. I’m here to…”
He pauses, drinking in the sight of Jack’s pale eyes dark with anger. What is he here for? He’s been waiting for so many years to see Jack once more, but why? This face of terror, who once ordered his grotesque execution, should’ve been the last person he wanted to see purely for old times’ sake, but that was all it was, wasn’t it? He didn’t want to blame Jack for what happened, and how that corrupted island ruined their lives.
“…I think I’m just here to say sorry.” Ralph offers Jack the tiniest of smiles, the latter, for once, speechless. “All this time you’ve been thinking it was all your fault. It wasn’t. I’m not going to speak of it lightly - you did terrible things and played a big part in Simon and Piggy’s deaths - but so did I. We were foolish and mad, and now we’re big and old and still haunted by it. If Simon and Piggy saw us now…”
“Don’t say any more.” Jack can no longer look Ralph in the eye. He folds his arms tightly, lips a thin line on his face.
“It’s been eight long years,” Ralph says tiredly. “What we did was terrible, but letting it consume our lives is-”
“Don’t you dare tell me to forget it, Ralph,” Jack barks, anger flashing in those pale eyes. “Don’t ever tell me that. Of all the things to say… Jesus…”
Ralph stays silent as Jack shakes his head.
“I would rather be consumed by this guilt in secret than pretend I had nothing to regret at all. You can say this because you don’t know what it’s like, refusing to feel remorse. On the island, these kind of feelings were unheard of, they were the reason you were almost killed. When we were rescued I finally felt it, and it’s never left. So don’t tell me to forget I ever did what I did. Denying is worse than regretting. So much worse…”
Ralph rests his hand over Jack’s, who rips his arm away like it is a raging fire spreading through a jungle. The former, however, can’t stop smiling.
“Thank you. You’ve finally come forward. Thank you…”
He’s never figured out what the beast actually was. Sometimes he believes it was all of them, sometimes he believes it was a sea monster or giant snake. Sometimes he selfishly thinks it was Jack, but then realises that holding a burden that great by oneself is an impossible task, even for someone like Jack Merridew.
The two leave the café in a cold silence and fail to meet each other again in the weeks that pass. Ralph isn’t worried, though. He knows one day they’ll meet again because they are like left and right, north and south, forever drawn to each other like moths to a flame even when going in completely different directions. He doesn’t mind that Jack probably hates him, or that they parted on bad terms, because for what felt to be the first time ever, Ralph understood Jack’s thoughts. There’s no telling how a person is feeling before they show you, and for the first time he was completely let in.
Ralph doesn’t care that Jack has always been an enemy, even when they were friends. Similarly to how lovers are drawn to each others light, Ralph is drawn to Jack’s darkness, and knows that Jack feels the same. They are connected by the shadows of their past, the ones where flames spread and blood spilled and boys laughed. Maybe they are their own beasts.
He's sure if he could ask Simon, he would say the same thing. And, he believes firmly, Piggy would surely understand, despite how life is scientific and how that wisdom in his large head was destroyed the moment the rock came crashing down, that evil is not a solid mass but changeable, fluid.
When he and Jack meet again, he vows that he will explain it all, they will be able to forgive themselves, they can be free of the burden of what happened on the island, the chains that cling to their feet and hold them back. Until that time comes he will wait patiently, as he always does, until Jack next comes around.
“Which is better, Jack? To be feared, or to be loved?”
Ralph asks him this carefully in the early hours of the morning, when it is drifting away from darkness and into the light of day. Snow is piling up outside the window of Jack's creaking house and he is grateful for the covers, but not so thrilled about whom he is sharing them with, the fact that the two of them are stark naked and the fact that they are stark naked and sharing a bed in the first place.
Things weren't supposed to get so out of hand. He had been determined to keep his distance from Ralph Audley for as long as possible, probably spanning over at least two reincarnations and most likely a lifetime of running and hiding. It had been two years since their last conversation in that drafty old coffee shop and he had been well on his way to piecing his life together when Ralph had conveniently walked into the same pub as him and had bought him a round. It was a little embarrassing to be such a lightweight in the face of somebody like Ralph, who looked like he would get smashed easily but ended up being the more sober of the two as they stumbled home on a late Friday night.
It really should have ended there, the two of them realise that now, but of course it didn't because when has their relationship, if it can even be called that, ever truly ended? There has always been that bizarre attraction there, the desire to pursue and retaliate and overpower for the pure sake of knowing where they stand in each others eyes. It didn't disappear eight years later and it hasn't disappeared three years after that. If they have managed to maintain this appeal after eleven years of witnessing each other at their worst, on the brink of life and death, of good and evil, it makes sense that they would end up kissing one way or another. If this was their punishment for the acts of evil committed on the island all those years ago Jack remembers thinking selfishly in his intoxication that he didn't mind all that much.
“To be feared or to be loved?” Jack echoes the question hollowly, eyes glazed over. “What sort of question is that? If you aren't feared, the love comes too easily. When fear is present, love ends up shutting you down.”
“You're not answering the question,” Ralph quips, pushing himself up on one elbow. His body is covered in fading scars, many more simply hidden by the covers, and Jack's thoughts wander uneasily to the number that were undoubtedly inflicted by himself. The marks etched into the skin covering his ribs, his upper arms...
“Yes I am.” Jack arches an eyebrow and sits up, regarding the marks and scars on his own body. There are fewer than Ralph's, yet there are still some, serving as a constant reminder of all that went wrong on that island. Eleven years may have passed, but it doesn't make the burden of responsibility for those who were lost any less easier to bear. “They're both as awful as the other.”
“Yes, but to you, which means more?” Ralph eyes him warily, his hand sliding beneath the covers and finding Jack's thigh. “Which will save the world, Jack? Fear or love?”
“Like I have any right to talk about things like love,” he scoffs, trying in vain to slap Ralph's hand away. “I'm the true sinner here, remember? I have no right to make that choice. What about you? I'm sure you have some sort of philosophical answer tucked away in that thick skull of yours.”
Ralph hums, leaning back a little, looking at peace with himself. Jack knows better than to believe it; when you have committed unspeakable acts, there is a certain mask of calm and righteousness you have to hold up, or else you'll fall down.
“I don't know, Jack. I guess in the end, I never really figured it out either.”
“You mean someone as whole and content as you can't answer something as simple as that?” Jack is purposely spiting him – the sooner Ralph accepts their facade needs to stop, the better – but Ralph is as unaffected by the venom in his words as he was three years ago, when he tried to confront Jack on these matters after so many years apart.
He swings his legs over the side of the bed, ignoring the cold, and reaches for his shirt. Arms grip his shoulders and pull him back down.
“Don't leave. We're finally starting to communicate.”
“What are you talking about? This is my house, you know,” Jack grumbles, though he discards the shirt and lies back down, too tired to argue properly. A pain shoots through his lower back and he curses. “Damn you, Ralph.”
“It's not my fault you were too drunk to get it up,” Ralph reminds him, an impish grin on his face. “Anyway. I think it was good we met tonight.”
“For us, or for you?” Jack scowls. Outside, the pace of the snowfall increases gradually, piling up. “Face it, you only bought me drinks to seduce me to sleep with you. Besides jamming that in my ass, what else did we achieve?”
Ralph, for the first time that night, blushes a little. “That wasn't my intention, you know. All I honestly wanted when I saw you was a chance to talk to you about how you've been and how I should have probably been more tactful during our last conversation, you know, I just wanted to discuss things. But then we were staggering into your home and you started kissing me and it all sort of happened that way. Definitely not planned.”
Jack is now also red in the face, and he turns over so his back is to Ralph. Quietly, Ralph traces his finger down a pale scar on Jack's skin, picking it out of the freckles and other assorted nicks and marks acquired during their time on the island.
“It's not like this is going to be a regular thing, is it?” he mumbles, his heart thudding dully in his chest as Ralph's index finger runs down his back. “Christ, your hands are cold.”
“Oh, of course not,” Ralph agrees, smile dim. He stares at the coiling copper hairs at the nape of Jack's neck and wonders how it would feel to plant his lips there, how it would feel to embrace Jack's quaking body as he did so. “I mean, sharing a bed with Jack Merridew? Much too territorial. I feel like we'd be fighting every night and hitting each other over the head with the candlestick over there.”
Jack eyes the brass candlestick and his lips twitch. Ralph has always been a strange one.
“Still, maybe it wouldn't be so bad once in a while,” he mutters into the pillow, and Ralph's arms wrap around his skinny waist. Skin presses up against skin and Ralph's mouth, hot and needy, presses to his neck. He lets out a startled sound, entire body tensing, but he doesn't dislike the sensation. It's hard to say how he feels completely. He supposes this time eleven years ago he could never imagine facing Ralph and reliving the butterflies he felt shifting in his belly when he clutched the conch so desperately, let alone be sharing a bed with him, lying against him, breathing the musk of his scent, his sweat and his saliva.
“Even if I never forget the island,” he gasps out as Ralph's tongue runs down between his shoulders, “even if I never forget Simon and Piggy, even if I never forget the terrible things I did to you and everyone else on that island, I-”
His words are cut short as Ralph's hands move elsewhere, bringing him to cry out, the smallest of tears welling in his eyes. Ralph can't see them, of course, or Jack would surely drop dead of the shame; but he can sense them, and he covers Jack's eyes with his free hand, shrouding his vision in the darkness of his palm.
“I forgive you, Jack,” he says into the creamy skin of his shoulder, into the freckles and the milky skin. “The past is the past. You are forgiven.”