Disclaimer: Not mine!
SUMMARY: Charlie imparts some worldly advice to Claire's baby the night of his birth.
First off, I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who's given me such incredibly kind and touching reviews for "Picket Fences." I honestly didn't think that story would be so well-received, so please believe me when I say EFFUSIVE thank you's to all my lovely readers. I only hope this sentimental little offering will be half so well-liked! Please read and enjoy. Thank you!
The air was still, cool and humid. Water ran down the rocks in another part of the cave, falling with a soothing sound into a rippling pool. Outside, the sky was clear and black and pinpricked with stars like a diamond-studded blanket. It was a beautiful night in paradise.
Inside the cave, every soul was asleep save one. Charlie sat in flickering torchlight beside Claire's bedside, watching her sleep. Her face was drawn with exhaustion, her hair plastered in straggled clumps to her forehead and temples. The gentle movement of her breathing was comforting. Charlie watched her chest rise and fall, and for the first time in a long time, he gave thanks to God for his blessings.
The labor had been difficult. All one had to do was look at Claire's slight frame and narrow hips to know childbirth would be a hardship. It had lasted the better part of a day, almost sixteen hours, and Charlie couldn't remember ever being so scared in his life. Claire had always been so gentle and tranquil, like a reflecting pool, but during the labor he had seen her sob, scream, give up and fight back, in a frenzied, constantly repeating cycle. His hands were aching from her constant squeezing, but he ignored the pain, grateful to have been some use to her when she needed him. They'd never talked about him staying with her during delivery; somewhere in the past month the unspoken decision had been made, and when the time came for him to be at her bedside, he had been there with bells on. He didn't know anything about lamaze breathing, but he knew that when he leaned down to whisper soft words of encouragement in her ear, she seemed to listen, and her grip on his hand seemed to loosen just a fraction. So he kept talking to her, whispering and singing half remembered songs, for hours on end. His throat went dry, but he kept talking. He couldn't think of a thing to say, so he started talking nonsense, babbling to her in a stream of consciousness monologue. Somewhere in there, he was almost certain he'd told her he loved her, but he couldn't be sure, and he didn't dare ask.
Charlie's eyes drifted down to her side, where a tiny sleeping bundle, wrapped in a soft cotton button-down (minus the buttons) and a warm airline blanket, was breathing quietly. Claire's instincts had been right -- she'd had a boy. He'd come screaming and kicking into the world, angry at being forced out of his mother's warm body. Charlie could imagine that same rage himself. But now the newborn, was sleeping, exhausted as his mother. A foolish grin played across Charlie's lips as he took in the red, wrinkled face and the tiny fists bunched up against the baby's chin.
"Your mum's not sure what to name you," he murmured, anxious not to wake either mother or child. "Maybe she ought to call you Rocky, eh?" He gently traced a finger over the newborn's little fist, and shivered at how warm and alive the baby was. So many people had died as a result of this island; this new life was incongruous against all the death that had preceded it.
"Normally your dad would be here," Charlie continued, more to distract himself from his morbid thoughts than from anything he actually had to say. "He'd be standing at a big window, looking into a little room with a bunch of little baby beds, and you'd be in one of them, wearing a little blue hat and little blue booties, wrapped in a little blue blanket. I'm sorry you don't get to have your father here, but I'm glad I get to see you."
Suddenly, the baby's eyes opened. Not wide, barely aware, but nonetheless, two distinct shards of blue in a red face.
"Oh, hey," Charlie soothed, silently cursing himself for waking the little boy. He touched the child's hand with his index finger again. "Shhh, you're not supposed to be awake. You're going to get Charlie in trouble, yeah? Your mum's going to wake up and see us and she's going to hit me with sticks." He chuckled softly.
He felt butterfly touches against his hand and looked down to see the baby's hand opening and closing against his finger. As he watched, the tiny fist closed around his finger.
"Oh," he murmured, his throat tightening. "Little guy, you're supposed to do that with mummy's and daddy's. You haven't seen any movies yet, but that's how it happens. So you'd better just let go now, before you make Uncle Charlie start blubbing like a schoolgirl. All right?"
Nothing. Just that same placid gaze, and the gentle pressure of a tiny hand.
Charlie swallowed. "Stubborn little fellow, huh? Well, that's good. Being stubborn can be good, as long as it doesn't get out of hand. Don't ever be so stubborn people think you're a mule. That's not strength. That's fear."
He bit his lip and glanced at Claire. She hadn't moved during his little conversation. Bolstered with new confidence, Charlie turned back to his audience and smiled.
"I've been through the wringer in life, little guy," he whispered. "I know some things, and perhaps now's as good a time as any to tell you. Maybe you'll remember all this, somewhere in your subconscious, where it'll keep you safe and happy. Or maybe you'll forget. We'll see. Here goes."
He took a deep breath.
"First off, don't do drugs," he said, and couldn't resist a self-derisive laugh. "Ever."
He looked at Claire. "Second, listen to your mum." His face softened. "She's a beautiful, smart lady, and she loves you like crazy. Never EVER do anything to disappoint her. There's nothing worse than disappointing the one person in life who loves you without question." Looking back down to the newborn, Charlie blinked away the blur of tears that had suddenly sprung to his eyes. "You just remember that, and you'll never do wrong. You've got a good heart -- she gave it to you."
He smiled again, settling into his rhythm. "Third, listen and learn. Watch what Jack does. Watch what Kate does. Watch what Locke and your mum do. They'll teach you everything you need to know to grow up and be safe and be strong.
"If you have to choose what's hard or what's easy, choose hard. It's almost always going to be right. I think I read that in a comic book somewhere, but it's always been true in my experience."
He tilted his head, feeling his throat tightening up again. "Do great things while you're young," he murmured. "Then you can savor them when you're older. When you're sitting in a dark room, trying to sleep, and you're eighty years old, you won't be scared to death to close your eyes and remember the stupid bloody things you did when you were a kid. Make yourself proud of yourself. Don't take yourself for granted."
The baby's hand was loosening now, his eyes drifting shut again. Charlie smiled. "That's right," he murmured. "I shouldn't be bothering you with all this when you're only a few hours old, eh? I haven't learned half these lessons, and I'm old enough to be your bloody father." He swallowed, glancing at the hand still wrapped around his index finger. "You just get some sleep, so your mummy doesn't kill me in the morning."
"What makes you think I'd kill you?"
Charlie looked up quickly and found Claire's sleepy blue eyes watching him, a placid smile on her face. "Did I wake you?" he asked softly, prepared to walk out of the cave and feed himself to the island's resident monster if he had. "I didn't mean to."
Claire shook her head faintly, yawning and stretching her back ever so slightly, wincing at the lingering soreness of her intense labor. "It's hard to sleep on stone at the best of times," she reminded him, settling back down again and heaving a sigh. "Let alone when your insides have been mashed and beaten like a butter in a churn." She laughed, and winced, and sighed, and opened her eyes again. Smiling, she asked, "Did he say anything?"
Charlie frowned in confusion. "Who?"
Claire nodded in the baby's direction. "Him." Her eyes sparkled with suppressed laughter.
Charlie grinned and chuckled. "No, but he was a captive audience," he said. Softly, he added, "He has blue eyes."
Claire smiled. "A lot of babies do when they're first born. They'll probably change as he gets older."
Charlie shook his head. "No, I don't think so. I think he's got his mum's eyes. Lucky little guy."
Claire laughed quietly, gently stroking the baby's blanket with her thumb. "Help me hold him?"
Carefully, Charlie lifted the sleeping baby up onto Claire's chest. She cuddled the boy close as Charlie moved around to sit behind her, lifting her up ever so slightly so she could rest her head on his lap.
"Isn't he beautiful?" Claire murmured, stroking the baby's cheek.
Charlie nodded, running his fingers idly through her hair. "He'll make all the little girls go weak in the knees when they see him."
Claire laughed softly, careful not to jar the sleeping baby, and raised her eyes to gaze up at Charlie. "Is it wrong that I'm glad it happened here? With you and Jack and Kate and the others?"
Charlie furrowed his eyebrows and shook his head. "I don't see why it would be."
Claire's eyes went distant and she nodded, satisfied. "Good," she said softly, before looking back to the baby. "I was supposed to give birth in a special clinic just outside Sydney. They had all kinds of expertise in midwifery and modern methods of natural childbirth. It was supposed to make it easier and less stressful." She sighed and closed her eyes, rubbing her head against his legs and getting comfortable. "But it would have been missing something very important."
"What's that, then?"
Her eyes opened again, and she gazed up at him. "You," she murmured.
Charlie felt his cheeks turn bright red. "Claire…," he murmured sheepishly.
"Shh, don't try and act like what you did was nothing, because it wasn't It was a very important something. And I'll never forget it." She reached up over her head to take his hand and squeeze, albeit it gently, mindful of his sore fingers. "And Charlie?"
"I love you, too."
For a split second, his heart stopped. He looked down into her eyes, searching for the lie in her statement, and saw nothing but truth. Claire didn't believe in masking her feelings; she'd said as much to him on several occasions. Now she laid her eyes open and let him see everything.
"Thanks," he murmured, not sure what else he could say to let her know how much her admission meant to him.
When she smiled, he knew he didn't have to say anything. She knew, because she was Claire, and Claire could read him like constellations. "You're welcome."
After a few quiet minutes, Charlie saw her eyes start to drift shut. Smiling, he kept stroking her hair as he murmured, "Go back to sleep, luv. Before you know it, that one'll be up and wailing for his supper."
"Mmm," she murmured dreamily, her eyes closing fully, body relaxing against him. "You sleep, too…"
"Bit hard to do with a beautiful woman dozing in my lap, luv."
"Then lie down."
Mumbling something incoherent, she idly patted the sleeping mat beside her before wrapping her arms once again around her sleeping child.
Charlie glanced at the place she'd touched, then at her face, then at the mat again. He didn't know if he was ready to be a father, but Claire was obviously offering him the role, if he chose to accept it. Being a father meant things like responsibility and constant worry. The baby wasn't a day old, and already Charlie was worrying about how they would keep him safe from all the dangers on this island, both known and unknown. If any were to happen to the baby or, God forbid, to Claire, he didn't know what he would do. He didn't think he could handle it. He didn't know if he could live up to the expectations Claire placed on his shoulders. For years, the only person he'd had to look out for was himself, and look at how badly he'd screwed that up. Now she wanted him to help her guard the well-being of her little baby boy? Was she crazy? Didn't she know he was a consummate jackass? Fatherhood meant sacrifice, and sacrifice was HARD.
Shifting carefully out from under her, Charlie made sure Claire was comfortably on her sleeping mat before crawling around to kneel beside her again. Gazing down at the pair of them, he felt his heart seize in his chest from the sheer RIGHTNESS of it all. This island was either a miracle or a curse, but so far it had given him sobriety, stability and a family to call his own. He had no complaints.
Stretching out carefully beside her, Charlie rested his head on the pillow beside Claire's and watched her hair stir in time with his breathing. She mumbled something in her sleep and snuggled closer to him. Charlie shushed her quietly, murmuring soft lullabies in her ear as his arm came up to wrap around her, carefully securing the baby as he did so. Claire was warm against him, and her steady breathing made his eyes droop and his limbs feel heavy. Giving in, he let his eyes slide shut.
"Sweet dreams, luv," he whispered in her ear, then gently rubbed the baby's blanket with the palm of his hand. "You too, little guy. Daddy's here."
If this was hard, he couldn't begin to imagine easy.