stefanie_bean: (hugo claire blue)
[personal profile] stefanie_bean
Chapter 19: A Balm in Gilead
Pairs: Hurley/Claire, Jack/Kate, Sayid/Shannon
Characters: Hugo Reyes, Claire Littleton, Jack Shephard, Kate Austen, ensemble
Genre: Slow-build Romance
Length: 3700 words
Rating: M
Notes: WIP, canon-divergent

After the Oceanic 815 crash, Jack told Hurley to stay with Claire. Hurley does just that, and they fall in love. In this "LOST in three seasons," people talk to each other more, and most of them actually get to live.


Chapter 19: A Balm in Gilead

Morning breaks over the settlement. The Swan Station has only been open to the castaways since yesterday, but someone has already lugged a gallon container of cooking oil down to the beach, along with a few cast-iron pans. The delicious smell of a fry-up hangs in the air.

Claire, baby in arms, lifts a fried plantain to her mouth. She's not used to eating one-handed, and the morsel slips from her fingers to the sand. “Oh, bother.”

“Here, have some of mine,” Hurley says.

He's such a love. She grins, saying, “You'll have to feed me like one of those little birds.”

Into her open mouth he pops one bit of plantain, then another. Breakfast finished, they stroll over to the small crowd surrounding Jin and Michael. They've just put the finishing touches on the shower, its tank made of metal from the fuselage, with a slide plate controlled by a wooden lever. The entire structure rests on a stout log frame, with a bamboo screen for privacy. Best of all, there's a palette to stand on, instead of mucky sand.

“The water should be warm,” Michael says to someone inside, invisible behind the bamboo lattice. “Tank's been full since yesterday.”

From behind the screen, Claire makes out a muscular brown arm reaching around for the lever. It engages with a loud snick, followed by a rush of water and several high-pitched shrieks.

“Warm? You lied!” Shannon bursts from behind the screen, soaking wet and wrapped in a towel.

“I'll warm you up,” Sayid answers.

Shannon shrieks again, this time with laughter, and dashes away. Sayid gives chase, hair streaming over his wet shoulders, clutching his own towel around his waist.

Hurley laughs in great guffaws, while Michael raises his hands in confusion. “I guess the water cooled overnight.” Jin fights to keep a stone face, but loses. It's the first time Claire has ever seen him laugh.

After zig-zagging through the beach camp to peals of laughter, Shannon and Sayid duck into their tent.

“Okay, show's over,” Michael says. He scrutinizes the shower, the flow control requirements clearly more complicated than he imagined. To Hurley and Claire he says, “Don't know why I'm bothering, since there's a shower in that bunker.”

“Man, that's like half an hour away. You'd need another one by the time you got back.”

Hurley's reassurance seems to cheer Michael a little. “Come on, man,” he says to Jin. “Back to the drawing board.”

“Drawing board,” Jin repeats. “Keep trying, so we make better. Next time.”

Hurley and Claire continue eastward along the sea-strand, Claire nursing the baby as they go. They pause at a spot where the waves lap at wide, flat rocks strung with seaweed. Soft lavender clouds tinge the sea with violet and soften the morning sun.

The baby squirms a little, full as a tick. “Guess he's ready for a burp,” Claire says.

Hurley holds out his hands. “I always wanted to try this.”

“Watch his head. They have rubber necks at this stage.”

Hurley cradles Aaron in both of his big hands, cupping the baby's head as it flops across his shoulder. He pats the baby gently until he makes a tiny burp, more like a low-pitched squeak. With the baby cradled against his chest, he sways back and forth in that way of his. It fills her with tenderness as Hurley nestles the tiny infant against his huge body, gazing down at the precious bundle.

Claire loves mornings on the Island better than any other time of day, and morning alone with Hurley is even better. They haven't had many moments like these, even before the baby arrived two days ago. In a weird sense she feels pregnant again, not with a child this time, but with the enormous story which she carries inside her, too big to be told anywhere except on this isolated stretch of beach.

The moment hangs between them, silent yet full of meaning. Gulls dive for fish, because death still happens on this Island, as Claire well knows. On the grand scale of things, however, life seems to be winning. The deep stillness blossoms into something living and real. Hurley gives her a small smile, and it's clear he feels it, too. The wind picks up his hair and plays with it so intimately that were a woman doing it, Claire would feel jealous. The baby lies asleep on his chest, as if transfixed by the beating of his heart.

Crabs scuttle past her feet, picking up bits of seaweed or fish carcass. Out to sea, the ocean changes from lavender to the purest blue Claire has ever seen. The stillness breaks when she finally speaks.

“Rose and I, we were talking yesterday, when you went to the Swan.”

Hurley, still lost in the moment, just nods.

“She helped me understand something I've wondered about since the crash. Why people healed from their injuries so fast. Why I've gotten better so quickly after having Aaron.”

Recognition lights up Hurley's eyes. “Like I, um, haven't needed my psych meds.” He hangs his head, embarrassed. “Even if I did have a panic attack.”

“You didn't need meds to get over it,” she reminds him. “Look, Rose was sick, really sick, with Stage IV uterine cancer. The treatment was just to buy her a little more time.” The enormity presses on Claire, as if she had barely believed it herself until now. “She and her husband were coming back from their honeymoon when we crashed.”

“Wow,” Hurley breathes out, almost too low to hear. “The way she talks about him, I thought they'd been married like thirty years.”

“I know, right? Listen, though. Before we crashed, she had all sorts of symptoms, and had to carry around a bag full of pills. After the crash everything was gone, the pain, having to use the loo all the time, and above all, the worry.”

“She told you all this?”

“Me and some of the other women. She said I could tell anyone I liked, that now it was time to testify.”

“Testify,” Hurley repeats. “Like, spread the good news.”

There's more, but Claire hesitates. Jack is convinced that the crash has broken Rose mentally, and Jack doesn't need to utter a single word to be convincing. The baby must feel the change in mood, because he stirs on Hurley's chest and whimpers a bit, before settling down again.

“When she was waiting to board, Rose dropped her bag of scrips. The chemo had done something to her nerves, made it so she couldn't hold onto things easily.”

Like Claire, Hurley has seen Rose shell crabs, cut the spiky skin off a durian fruit without pricking herself, fry up plantain, all without a tremble. “Holy crap,” he mutters. It's clear he believes her.

“All the pill bottles rolled everywhere.” Claire pauses, still struck by the size of what she is about to say. “Someone in a wheelchair helped her pick them up.”

“A wheelchair. Like the one we use to move stuff around.”

“That very one. Hurley, Rose says this person survived the crash, and they're walking around just fine on this beach.”

“Who?” In his head, he's clearly running through the same mental list she has, ever since yesterday. Like her, he's coming up blank.

“She wouldn't say. It was their story to tell, as she put it.”

“Did she at least mention if it was a dude, or a chick?”

“She was careful not to.”

“Damn, it could be anybody. Well, not me. It wasn't me, I swear.”

“Me, either.” She laughs, mostly out of sheer relief that he believes her, and thus Rose. “I don't think it's as important who it was, as that it happened at all.”

Hurley says, “Claire, what is this place?”

The concern in his voice comes across so warm, so sincere. She has never felt as close to him as in this moment, not when his sizable flesh trembled under her hand or thrust itself all up inside her, not even during Aaron's birth. Some vast presence fills the empty beach, waiting for them to acknowledge its age, its size, that it has waited a very long time. Finally she says, “I don't know, Hurley. I just don't know.”


* * * * * * * *


Later that morning, Claire announces that she wants to trek along with Hurley and the others to the Swan Station.

Jack frowns in disapproval. “Claire, don't you think—“

“Nonsense. I've never felt better.” That's not quite true, but she feels orders of magnitude better than being nine months pregnant. True, her breasts are tender. She's always thirsty, and she could eat a whole smoked ham by herself. Her maternity pants flop even with the drawstring pulled tight, but she can't fit into her old, ordinary-sized jeans.

The jeans she was going to wear after the birth, on the return trip from Los Angeles to Sydney. After giving Aaron up, never to see him again. Never to play with his tiny pink toes as he nurses, or stroke the soft blond down on his round head. Never to wipe away the tiny bubble of milk that forms when the nipple drops from his sleep-slack mouth.

What was she thinking? The idea of adoption seems like madness now, because Aaron's very being is tied to hers by invisible threads. He's barely been out of her arms since the hour of his birth. Nothing will take him from her, not if she can help it. She remembers what she did when threatened, knows she could cheerfully do it again for the sake of her tender infant son.

Jack must sense some of her resolve. “Okay, but if you feel tired, you stop, all right?” A faint smile breaks out in spite of himself. “It's just that I've never had a nephew before.”

Kate laughs at this, and the amusement is infectious. “I'll stick to your pace, Claire, don't worry.”

“Mind another tag-along?” Rose says.

“Of course not,” replies Claire. “The more, the merrier.”

“You want me to carry the little guy for the first leg?” Hurley asks.

“I'm fine,” Claire says.

As they head out, Claire sweeps the beach camp with a final gaze. Sayid has already left for the Swan, leaving Shannon in her usual sunning spot. Shannon's pink, flushed glow isn't just from heat and humidity, but from morning love as well. Before Sayid left, Shannon teased him about bringing her “something nice from the Swan.”

The little sigh of envy escapes Claire before she can stop it. She sneaks a glance at Hurley, pulling an empty wheelie suitcase ready to be filled with Swan Station loot. She likes having her non-pregnant body back, but not for that. No way. Not that Hurley would pressure her, but even so, just the thought is overwhelming.

She misses Rousseau, too, who has abandoned the beach camp and returned to her own compound. No one knows where it is, and she's made things plain that it's to stay that way. Only Sawyer brought up the notion of tracking her, and just once. In a firm voice, Kate said to him, “What, that Winchester 70 she gave you isn't enough? You follow her, you're going to get yourself killed.”

That must have knocked some sense into him. Jack's group passes by Sawyer, stretched out like a lazy cat on a sunlit porch. He's reading The Stand, even after grumbling how Hurley had brought back the original short version, not the uncut one. But beggars couldn't be choosers when they were stuck on Mystery Island, could they now?

In other words, everything on the beach radiates peace and harmony.

Halfway to the Swan Claire knows she's bitten off more than she can chew. It's not that she's tired, but shifting Aaron from one shoulder to the next, then cradling him until her arm gets numb exhausts her. Her earlier light mood fades, and suddenly the child feels like a leaden burden. “You go on ahead,” she tells Hurley and Kate.

“No way,” Hurley says. “I'm not leaving you.”

“She won't be alone,” Rose puts in. “Come on, honey, I didn't want to go to that damp old bunker anyway. You and me will just head back for some mid-morning tea.”

Hurley looks dubious. Far ahead of them, Jack and the rest of the band vanish through the dense trees.

“I'll tell Jack that you and Rose are going back,” Kate says to Claire. Hurley starts to protest, but Kate's already speeding down the path to catch up with Jack.

“I'm going back with you,” Hurley says.

Claire hates feeling like a drag on the whole project. “If you do that, you'll panic everyone. They're expecting you to catch up with the group. Rose and I will manage.”

Hurley's fleshy face sags with disappointment. “Aw, I wanted to show you around.”

Claire grows more frustrated with each passing second. “There'll be time enough for that. Look, why don't you bring me a surprise?”

“A surprise?”

“Bring me one, too,” Rose says, a teasing note in her voice.

“You got it.” He brushes Claire's cheek in a quick kiss, still wearing that dubious look. Wheeled suitcase jouncing behind him, his broad back soon vanishes into the jungle gloom.

Claire doesn't get a hundred steps before the baby starts to fuss. Warm wetness collects under his bottom, and she sighs in frustration. “Rose, I'm afraid I have to pull over by the side of the road here.”

The two women plant themselves on low, flat rocks screened by thick shrubbery. As Claire changes the wet baby, his squeaks change to thin, piercing cries which echo on the trees, and Claire's frustration rises even higher than before. She's so bad at this, what was she thinking, setting off into the jungle with a baby? And what was Hurley thinking, to let her do it?

That's stupid, she tells herself. Hurley doesn't know any more about babies than she does.

The weight of responsibility falls on her like bricks. As Rose unpacks a fresh nappie, Claire stuffs the wet one into a precious ziploc bag, already starting to fray from multiple washings. Stretched across her thighs, the baby works himself up into lusty screams, his tiny face scrunched and red, little limbs flailing.

Claire can't fight the tears which spill down her cheeks, and a few even splash onto the baby's chest. “What am I going to do? Oh, my God, I can't even manage the simplest things—“

Rose's firm voice brings Claire back to herself. “He's nervous because you are.”

Something stubborn inside Claire wants to argue. “How do you know? I mean, I've talked to most of the women in camp, and guess what, Rose? Nobody has had a child. Nobody! How does it happen that with all these women here, no one's a mother?”

When the baby stops to catch his breath, the forest spreads out around them, vast and very still. Suddenly a twig cracks as if underfoot, followed by a few faint rustles, then silence.

“Did you hear that?” Claire says. Her obsidian knife is strapped to her calf with a piece of leather belt, but she's afraid that if she reaches for it, Aaron will slide off her lap.

“Probably just a bird.” Rose does a fair job of keeping a tremor out of her voice. “Come on, honey, let's head back.”

As soon as Claire start walking, Aaron settles against her, quiet. Under tall trees arched like a green cathedral, Rose sings in a quiet contralto, the words weaving themselves into the soft breath of the jungle itself.

“There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul...”

When she finishes, Rose says, “I was a mother.”

Still lost in the song's rhythmic enchantment, Claire almost trips over her tongue to apologize. “I never thought to ask you. Just the women who were younger.” It sounds even more stupid now that she's said it. “God knows what I was thinking.”

“It's all right. I kept quiet for a reason.”

“Oh, Rose, what happened?”

“I was real young, just out of high school. The daddy was a silver-tongue devil, all talk and sparkle till the Army gave him a one-way ticket to 'Nam. My momma was furious 'cause she knew I'd have to drop out of business college, but she wouldn't hear of me giving the baby up. We'd raise it together, she said. Turns out, it didn't matter.”

Claire takes Rose's hand and pulls her close, knowing what's coming next.

“Things were different then. Lots of women who lost babies never saw them, but the nuns at the hospital made sure I got to hold my Maddie till she passed.” She brushes away the tears, but it's clear that Rose will never brush away the memories.

Claire knows why Rose never said anything, at least not before Aaron's birth. “I'm so, so sorry.”

“She's at peace. I know it.”

The noon-time jungle has grown quiet again, as if all the birds have gone to sleep, or flown away somewhere else. Even without twig-snaps or rustling, Claire still feels like they're being watched.

Rose goes on, “I know everything's gonna be all right.”

“I hope so.”

“I know so. Because Maddie told me.”

Claire's first instinct is to reject the whole crazy notion out of hand, but a small voice inside stops her. Who the hell are you kidding? She herself had gone to a psychic, and not just on a lark, either. She had really believed that he could tell her what to do about the baby. Psychics channeled the spirits of the dead, didn't they? Astrology implied that the stars could affect lives through unseen forces.

Was this any crazier? “How? What happened?” Claire asks in a hushed voice.

“I saw her three days ago, up by the caves. The trees started to whisper like they were saying prayers, and there she was. A little girl, so sweet and pretty, hair up in braids like I had at that age. 'Don't worry,' she said. 'Bernard's coming real soon.' Then she just kind of faded away.” Rose wipes her eyes. “I don't expect you to believe me.”

“Listen, I do.” As Claire speaks, her words form into a pact, one which sets her feet on a fixed path. It's real, all of it. Real as keeping Aaron, real as loving Hurley. Or believing Rose, for that matter. Claire might look at the path behind her, but she can never go back.

What else will I come to believe about this place?

The silent, beautiful trees have no answer.


* * * * * * * *


When Claire and Rose push through the bracken surrounding the beach camp, Sun and Faith run to them with anxious faces.

“We're fine,” Rose says. “We never made it to the Swan. Just decided to come back for a rest instead.”

Claire's row of first-class seats has never looked so inviting, but Faith tugs Claire away. “You're lucky. We just finished this for you.”

The women flock to Kathy and Shana's circle, where Faith holds up a garment like a flowered apron with four wide straps. Claire stares at it without comprehension, until Sun says, “It was my husband's idea. In his village the women carried their babies to the fields in slings.”

“You guys...” Tears sting Claire's eyes at this enormous kindness. “I can't thank you enough.”

“While you were in labor, we tested it with a sack of passion-fruit,” Faith says.

Shana adds, “You're lucky you didn't see the first tries. Glad it wasn't a baby.”

“It's a bit tricky to tie at first,” says Faith. “But when you get the hang of it, you can secure Aaron by yourself.”

It's easy to criss-cross the straps around her shoulders and tie them in the front. The baby rests secure against Claire's collarbones, and best of all, for the first time in two days her hands are free. She stretches her arms and deposits kisses on the baby's head. The women watch, admiring their handiwork.

“Such a cunning idea,” Claire says. “It holds him right up.”

Faith grins and says, “I have a feeling we're going to need a couple more of these.”

Sun just smiles.

Claire's so entranced by her free hands that at first she doesn't notice the throng returning from the Swan. When Hurley smiles from across the beach, though, the full meaning of Faith's remark hits her. They could be here long enough for Faith and even Sun to have their babies.

Hurley gapes in open surprise at the baby sling as he drops the laden suitcase at his feet. His smile widens when she proudly points to a pot of crab chowder, simmering in coconut milk. “Jin snagged the crabs for me, but I did the rest.”

Jin hears his name and looks up from tending his own fire, so Claire beckons him over.

Hurley pulls out a pair of dikes from a suitcase pocket. “Hey, Jin. Sayid thought you might use these for, you know, nets and stuff.”

Before Jin can turn to go, Claire says, “Wait. I didn't thank you.”

When he seems confused, she points to the baby snug in his carrier. “For the sling. Sun said you came up with the idea.”

He breaks into a broad smile and says a few sentences in Korean, repeating one distinctive word several times.

Podegai?” Claire says, tugging on a strap.

Jin clearly likes being the teacher for once, rather than the taught. “Podegai is for baby. Keep him safe.”

Hurley fumbles for something else in the suitcase. “Dude, your English is getting awesome.”

“Thank you.” Jin gives a small bow, puts the wire cutters in his pocket, then points to his shelter. “I must go back. So Sun can cook.”

“Sure, man. Gotta keep those home fires burning.” Hurley turns to Claire, and she can smell the forest on him, green and cool.

Maybe I can do this being-a-mother thing after all, she thinks.

“I got you something special.”

She couldn't have predicted in a million years what he presses into her hand. It's a Lisa Frank ballpoint pen, bright with yellow daisies, pink peace signs, and violet squiggles. She clicks it a few times, experimentally.

Hurley's one step ahead of her. “It works.”

“It's wonderful. I had one just like it. I think my pen's about to dry up, so this is perfect.”

He's positively beaming. She reaches for him, but the sling makes her have to hug him from the side. As she nuzzles his soft upper arm, she finds that sideways has its advantages too. “What on earth would it be doing in that place?” she muses, comfortable against his body.

“Dunno. This was under a chair. Weird, huh? Like it just rolled there or something. You don't mind that it's not new or nothing?”

“Of course I don't mind. By the way, what'd you get Rose?”

He shows her a tube of Dharma-brand lip balm, unopened. “Guess I better go give it to her.”

As he crosses the camp, she inspects the pen. Everything from the Swan so far has been packaged in stark black-on-white, save for this bright enigma wrapped in candy-colored mystery.

(continued)

(A/N: “There is a Balm in Gilead” is a traditional 19th century African-American spiritual.)


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