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Chapter 6: The Watcher in the Woods
Characters: Hugo "Hurley" Reyes, Jack Shephard, Kate Austin, James "Sawyer" Ford, Michael Dawson, Bea Klugh, assorted Others
Rating: T
Length: 2209 words
Status: Complete
Notes: Set between Season 2 and 3.

Summary: The quest to find Walt has failed. As Hugo makes his lonely way back to the beach camp, he discovers that the Island is stranger than he ever imagined.

Chapter 6: The Watcher in the Woods

A small but distinct noise rose out of the jungle in the direction from which Hugo had just come. The hairs on his arms stood up, and he turned cold even in the afternoon jungle heat. The noise wasn't a growl, not exactly, more like a sigh. Definitely not a person's sigh, though. The noise came again, closer this time, accompanied by soft leaf rustles and the snapping of twigs. It would have been crazy not to run, but Hugo didn't. Instead, he parted the creeping vines like a curtain and there, in a bare patch between thick trees covered with a riot of those big twisting heart-leafed plants, he saw it.

A bear. A polar bear, in fact.

Hugo had heard the stories: how Sawyer on their second day on the Island had shot a polar bear which had attacked their small group of explorers, and how much he'd complained that no one would help him skin or dress it. He could of used a bear skin rug, Sawyer grumbled, but those lazy sons-of-bitches couldn't care less. Of course when Sawyer went back to get it later that day, the carcass was gone. Or how another bear had chased Walt, only to run away when Walt stabbed it. The bears hadn't been seen since, not around the beach especially, and so people stopped talking about them. But it always stayed in the back of your mind, that there were bears on this Island.

This bear wasn't growling or charging, though. And it wasn't all that big, either, not like the ones Sawyer and Walt had described. Unless they exaggerated, of course. Which wouldn't have surprised Hugo one bit. Walt had been just a kid, and Sawyer was, well, Sawyer.

If this bear had stood on its hind legs, it would have been a bit above Hugo's height. Its face and muzzle were long and graceful. The bear's eyes shone blue deep as a night sky, and the sunlight reflected in them glinted silver, sharp as stars.

The bear walked towards Hugo, giving him that long, slow look all the while, a look which froze him where he stood. Its thick white fur had a pale blueish tinge. The bear came quite close to him, and then gave him a powerful nudge right at hip height with its muzzle, almost like Vincent when he wanted your attention. It then passed him and walked on ahead.

If it was a hallucination, it was a damn good one.

That nudge didn't make the bear unreal, though. Another supposed hallucination had heaved a coconut at Hugo a week earlier, and while the bruise on his stomach had faded, the memory of the pain remained. Real or not, the bear's gesture was unmistakable: Follow me.

So Hugo did. The two of them pressed onward for hours, Hugo always at the bear's rear. The long thick fur on its business end made it impossible to tell its sex, but its graceful, almost serene movements and its smaller size made Hugo think it was female. Once in awhile the bear turned back to give Hugo one of those long piercing glances, and when he stopped to drink, it paused as well, its mouth narrowed into what almost looked like a smile.

Slowly Hugo began to recognize clumps of trees, or the way a particular cluster of tall ferns draped over a certain set of rocks. He was headed for the caves, where the jungle was so cool and shaded because even the late afternoon sun couldn't penetrate the thick canopy overhead. At any moment he expected to turn a corner and come upon the wide cave entrance framed by a small waterfall which endlessly filled its small pool, yet never overflowed.

The bear turned around and gave a growl, but Hugo kept pushing westward towards the caves anyway, drawn by what, he didn't know. It was as if a sweet voice spoke to him, not one he actually heard, but one which came deep from inside. Its tones were tender and sympathetic. You wanted to lay your head on that voice's shoulder and give up whatever you were struggling with, just let the voice take over and decide it all for you.

Here you are at the caves, the voice suggested. Why go back to the beach at all? Everyone you cared about back there is gone, except for Claire, maybe, and she doesn't need you. She has Charlie to look after her, now that the two of them are back together again.

Hugo shook his head, hard, as if he could toss off those soft, insinuating tones the way Vincent shook off water, but the voice went on. And there was Locke too, if Claire wanted. Sooner or later Charlie and Locke would probably start punching each other out over her. No point in hanging around to look at that, was there? If Hugo went back, he'd get dragged right into the middle of all of it.

And did Hugo really want to be the bearer of bad news, the one who had to tell everyone that the whole trip had been a stunning failure? Not only were Michael and Walt gone, but the most important people, the biggest contributors to beach life besides Locke and Sayid, they were gone too, and probably for good. Everyone would look at him with pity and contempt, it being obvious that even the Others hadn't wanted him. Everyone would blame him. Then more people would head out into the jungle to stage yet another failed rescue. They would die, and that would be on Hugo's head, too. Hadn't he done enough? Hadn't he hurt enough people?

You had the right idea last week when you told Libby you were going to run off to the caves and live alone, the voice said. Then Hugo's eyes stung with tears, because the voice had spoken Libby's name in a way so ripe with tenderness, so full of love, that he almost couldn't bear it. The voice understood everything, it seemed. How forlorn Hugo had felt, how lonely. How nobody at the beach would understand, even if Hugo did tell everyone the truth, as Bea Klugh had instructed.

And who's Bea Klugh, anyway? the voice continued. Just some crazy old woman, probably a liar like the rest of the Others. Never mind her, though. Who appreciates you at the beach camp? No one needs you down there. But up here, ah, up here, I need you.

Screw the beach camp, Hugo said to himself. He didn't even notice that the bear had disappeared from the path ahead of him. All he could think of now were the caves, the coolness of the water in their pool, their dark recesses, the sweet relief of not having to face confused faces and incessant questions. Not even the thought of the two dried-out bodies sleeping in their cleft bothered him now. He plunged into a vine-draped thicket all lit from behind by the western sun, pushing aside long creepers that gripped him like tentacles and stuck in his hair, almost as if they wanted to block his way. He swore a little, then shoved them aside even harder.

Then, almost right up into his face, directly in his path, stood the bear like a massive silver-white tank. It leaned its head down a bit and snarled, baring long white teeth which ended in points so sharp they were almost invisible. Its gums were blue-black as its eyes, which had lost their kind expression and were narrowed now in anger.

“Holy crap,” Hugo said. He backed away slowly, then turned back the way he'd come, towards the east, away from the caves. He fought the urge to run until he could no longer hear the bear's breathing behind him.

Then Hugo bolted, running faster than he ever had in his life. At any second he expected to feel the bear's teeth in his back, expected to hit the ground with claws raking his back to shreds. A few moments later it became clear that nothing chased him. Except for the sweet, melodic calls of some songbirds either too far away or perched too high up to see, the jungle was silent.

He sunk to his knees, panting like a locomotive, heart feeling as if it would burst. He looked around carefully, but the bear was nowhere to be seen. With a resigned sigh he plodded further east, the late afternoon sun at his back now, his round broad shadow stretched out before him.

The terrain grew familiar once again, and Hugo recognized the area around the Swan Hatch's back door. He flushed hot with shame as he passed the spot of his first stash, a hole at the base of a tree trunk covered with a few palm fronds, where he had hidden Dharma food stolen from the Hatch's pantry. Then he forgot about his embarrassment, for where the Swan Hatch had once stood there was only a deep pit strewn about with debris.

“What the hell happened here?” Hugo said out loud. He plopped himself heavily on a fallen log. Above him the green-crossed sky shone full of slanted sunlight, as if a giant had tossed handfuls of gold coins onto the canopy one after another, until they rained down in a glittering shower onto the jungle below.

Out of the shadowed forest, silent as a huge cat, glided the bear. For a second Hugo thought of running again, but the bear's movements were slow and gentle. It came over to him and rested its heavy head across his thigh.

For a wild moment Hugo thought that not only the Swan Hatch but maybe the camp at the beach had been flattened as well, that he had trudged back all this way for nothing but heaps of broken sticks and fractured, tarp-covered bodies. What had he been thinking, wanting to go to the caves. That was nuts. If the beach was flattened, they were going to need help down there.

That soft, insinuating voice had already faded like a barely-remembered bad dream. Hugo laid his own great head down lightly on the bear's, and without thinking plunged his hands into the soft fur around its neck. It was as if that moment when the bear had snarled and almost charged had never happened. The bear's fur was cool even in the dappled sunlight of late afternoon, and he rested there for what felt like a long time.

But the anxious vision of the beach camp in ruins and the people crushed still stayed with him. “What's the use?” Hugo said, some of the old doubt back. In answer, the bear gave his face a little lick, just like Vincent would have. It was a gesture so warm, so friendly, that Hugo patted its head as he would have Vincent's. But down in the bear's blue-black eyes there swirled a wildness Vincent's eyes had never held. Then the bear licked Hugo several times along the soft round curve of his neckline, down to where the sweat gathered.

“You like the salt, huh?” he said.

In answer the bear rose and moved away from him, skirting delicately along the edge of the pit. Hugo struggled to his feet and started after it, but the bear turned and in an unmistakable gesture, shook its head, Good-bye. It didn't seem possible that something so white, so large as the bear could literally melt into the greenery and disappear to nothingness, but it did.

Time to head back to the beach and do what he needed to. Hugo heard a rustling in the bushes ahead of him, but didn't think anything of it. It was probably his bear-friend, circling back to check on him and make sure he headed in the right direction.

Man, it was hot now, the worst part of the day in the jungle, when there was no breeze and the western sun stalled in the sky like it was never going to set, when the thick humidity hung over the jungle like a living cloud.

The rustling continued. It's just that bear again. Might as well have a drink. He fumbled for Bea Klugh's canteen, paying no more attention to the approaching sounds. Just as he raised the canteen to his mouth, something split the air with a sharp whoosh. A swift-flying knife imbedded itself in the canteen, shivering as if it met some huge resistance. It should have gone right through the canvas and into Hugo's face, but instead, water just squirted everywhere.

“Dude,” Hugo exclaimed, as John Locke and Charlie Pace noisily thrust their way through the bushes towards him.

* * * * * * * *

There was something else weird about that day, too. Bea's canteen was never the same. It was as if the air had been let out of it or something, because it shrank up, dried and deflated, its olive and red stripes fading to a dull brown the color of dead leaves. On his way back to the beach camp, Hugo tossed it away like old fruit peelings.

Just another afternoon on Mystery Island.

(the end)


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