TITLE: Canaries
AUTHOR: Mnemosyne

Disclaimer: No son mios!
SUMMARY: How Charlie and Claire fare, so fare they all.
RATING: PG-13
SPOILERS: None of note
CHARACTERS: Charlie/Claire
NOTES:
It has been SO very long since I've written C&C, and this felt great. I've been meaning to write this particular story for a while, and finally got the time and the inspiration to do so tonight. I hope you'll give it a read! Please let me know if you enjoy!

PS – Is it Wednesday yet? ;)


The rest of the islanders watch them like they're canaries in a coal mine: how Charlie and Claire fare, so fare they all. Today, Charlie brings mother and child a plate of poached fish with a spicy mango chutney for lunch. The day's a good one, and the castaways breathe a sigh of relief.

This isn't to say their moods set the tone, but rather their moods reflect the tone. Charlie and Claire absorb the brunt of the island's fury like lightning rods on a barren mountaintop. When a problem occurs, one or both of them always seems to be near the epicenter, and the other castaways have learned to watch and follow their lead to decide if the situation calls for calm, fear, or blind panic. Some of them feel guilty about this; Kate wrestles with it everyday, and Sun tries to ignore it. Even Jack notices, despite the fact that if there's one lightning rod that stands taller atop the mountain than those of the island's resident couple, it's the one belonging to the doctor. He chalks it up to intrinsic compassion, one of the few things that reminds him he was a doctor in a previous life, before he became The Leader. He watches Charlie, he watches Claire, he sees them absorb hit after blinding hit of cruel island-shaped irony, and comforts himself that at least they always come through in the end.

So far. To date.

And that's really the problem, isn't it?

Because one of these days, one or both of them is going to be struck down by the hamfist of Fate's cruelty, and there will be no more canarying for them.

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Somehow all this watching excludes baby Aaron, though if there's one thing every islander can agree on, it's that the baby has caused Claire more heartache than should be legal. Not that the child is at fault; it just seems the island has latched onto the squalling, squirming bundle and made it a top priority to heap nothing but pain and suffering on the mother who brought the little boy into the world. Aaron doesn't know what's happening around him – isn't aware of the kidnappings, the paranoia, the Whispers in the Woods. All he knows is that his mother loves him, and that there's this funny looking man who dotes on them both. That is, if he knows anything at all. The other castaways all find themselves hoping, at one point or another, that he doesn't. It will make it easier when it all comes crashing down.

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The moments, when they come, are small but prescient.

There was the time people watched as Charlie helped Claire tidy up her sleeping nook, tucking away toiletries and smoothing creases out of her blankets. Permanence, that's what it meant. Finality. They were setting up house, spring cleaning in the oldest of traditions. There was something comforting and oddly fulfilling about the act, for the watchers as well as the participants. Everyone slept a little better that night, and when they woke in the morning, the day seemed less grim.

There was the time Charlie took Aaron to the beach while Claire took a nap, only to have the sky open thirty minutes later and the rain pour down like a monster out of myth. Thunder had awoken the sleeping mother, and she'd spent the afternoon fretting at the mouth of the cave, snapping at anyone who dared approach her, chewing her nails down to the quick. Charlie came back an hour after the rain stopped, dripping but smiling, a squirming Aaron in his arms, only to find himself wrapped in a sobbing Claire's embrace. She cried so hard her knees gave out, and the three of them ended up sitting in a puddle for the next twenty minutes until Charlie could convince her the world hadn't ended. The rest of the castaways watched the scene with guarded expressions, suddenly reminded that the cruelest cuts didn't come from other people; they come from Mother Nature.

No one slept very well that night.

The time Claire threw Charlie a birthday party, and the shock on his face had been priceless. "How did you know?" he'd asked, as she plunked a paper cone on his head.

"Because you told me, silly man," she'd answered, grinning. "And you have to wear the hat."

"When?"

"All day."

"No, I mean... When did I tell you?"

"A couple of months ago."

"And you remembered?"

"Course I did, Charlie.

"Bloody hell, Claire, I didn't even remember and it's my own sodding birthday."

"That's why I did it for you. Just because we're stuck on an island in the middle of nowhere with no hope of rescue doesn't mean I don't get to taunt you about being an old man. Isn't that right, Aaron?" The baby had gurgled with happy delight, toying with his mother's hair. Claire had grinned and got up on her tiptoes to kiss Charlie on the cheek, whispering, "Happy birthday."

The birthday boy blushed. Life goes on.

There was the day Charlie disappeared and no one could get Claire to eat. She sat by the fire and rocked Aaron to sleep and stared at the flames like a thing in a trance. They found him nearby, at the bottom of a ravine, head bloody and face swollen from where he'd slammed into a rock on the tumble down. There had been a lot of hushed whispers and furtive glances that day, as Claire sat by Charlie's side while Jack sutured him up and checked his pupils and tested his ribs for soft spots. Claire watched and waited and everyone wondered, "If something happens to Charlie, what will she do?" When the younger man opened his eyes a few hours later and made a quip through swollen lips about the doctor's face being pretty enough to kiss, an inaudible sigh of relief had rippled through the caves.

Yes, life goes on. It also ends. But thankfully not today.

The time Charlie took his shirt off when they went to bed. That garnered a few raised eyebrows and murmured comments, but nothing the couple could hear. He did it so easily, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to strip down to the skin in front of so many prying eyes. A few quick movements and the t-shirt was up, off, over his head and chucked in a ball at the foot of the bed. Even among the married couples on the island, partial nudity like that was rare; not so much for modesty as much as practicality. It was hard to run through the trees being chased by an invisible monster when the jungle vines were whipping your chest red and raw.

Claire was already half-asleep on their thin, homemade mattress of blankets and palm leaves, but she'd smiled sleepily as he tugged back the blanket and slipped in beside her. That was nothing new; they'd been cocooning together for months. Nor was the way she snuggled up close and tucked her face into his throat. But the way he stayed on his back, and her fingers spread out over his heart, and their breathing seemed to synchronize, and they simultaneously closed their eyes...

That was new.

The other castaways didn't know what to draw from their example, so they all drew something different. Most people decided it was a sign that things were settling down, literally and figuratively. They hadn't heard from the Others in months, no one had died lately, and even the weather was cooperating. Perhaps normality was just reexerting its dominance.

Other ones – the wiser ones – decided it meant something different. It meant they still had hope. There would be another tomorrow, and another after that, and in many ways that was the most important lesson the pair had ever taught. Because when the canary comes out of the tunnel with beady black eyes still shining and then looks ahead and sees another, darker tunnel on the horizon, it would be so easy for its little heart to give out. And there is always another tunnel, even if it's hidden around a corner or down a narrow passage. But when the bird keeps blinking and looks down the maw of darkness and peeps and cheeps and calls the tunnel's bluff...

It could shore up the heart of a lion.

They were under less scrutiny for a week after that. Partially because of a tacit agreement that the pair deserved a little more privacy, and partially because everyone was feeling too good to stare. A lot of them didn't know why.

Other ones – the wiser ones – did.

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It's unspoken, this community of voyeurism, but that doesn't mean it goes unnoticed. There's only so long a person can be stared at by dozens of interested eyes before the whole system gets exposed. Charlie and Claire are no different, but they take it in stride and don't say a word. Claire no doubt shrugs it off as the casualty of being the island's resident "Virgin Birth," and where Claire goes, Charlie follows. The religious metaphors are rife, and as the first Christmas on the island approaches, the eyes start to linger a little longer, as if expecting Claire to hood herself in blue and Aaron to sprout a halo like a Renaissance rendering of the baby Jesus. Charlie is already halfway to Joseph, with his scraggly beard and hand-me-down clothes that make him look older than his relative youth. The baby wasn't born in a manger, but the going consensus seems to be that a clearing in the jungle under a moonlit sky is close enough.

Maybe, come Christmas night, they'll see a plane go by; their very own guiding star.

After a while the pressure gets too much, and one afternoon when Aaron won't stop crying and the entire cave is watching the family tableau, Charlie spins around and glares at them with eyes that would have lit a bonfire. "Enjoying yourselves?" he demands, voice a harsh bark. "Having fun? Bunch of worthless Lookee Lous. Can't find anywhere better to put your eyes, eh? Get out! Go on, find somewhere else to stare! We're tired of being your bloody entertainment!"

Everyone had looked shiftily at each other, then quickly away. But no one left, and Charlie didn't bother to tell them again. Instead he knelt down next to Claire and baby Aaron, using his body to shield them from the rest of the cave as the pair cooed soft words to the squalling child in an effort to ease his distress.

After a while, the eyes came back. After a while, they always come back.

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Everyone's ticking down a silent hourglass, morbidly wondering who will be first: the rock star with the hard history, or the angelic young mother with the bright future. Either one would be a tragedy, which means the islanders can't depend on cliché to solve the riddle. Instead they watch, and gauge, and bide their time, each castaway separately wallowing in guilt, glad that he or she isn't the island's resident barometer; each one silently thankful their name doesn't start with C.

Claire eats her poached fish, and Charlie nibbles a bit here and there off the prongs of her plastic fork. They're happy together, here in this moment, and everyone silently decides to avert their eyes. Occasionally someone will glance up, just to see how they're getting on, and always finds them laughing and joking, playing with the baby or quietly watching each other's eyes. There's a comfort there, a quiet thankfulness for the other's existence that strikes a chord in even the most jaded of hearts. A sweet chord. A middle C.

Eventually an eye glances up and finds the family gone. There's a pang of fear that lasts a split second, until they see that Aaron is gone, and his bag of baby paraphernalia, which means they've just gone for a walk; maybe a swim. The tension dissipates and quietude returns. But the echo is there, unsettling and disturbing, which says there's a good chance one day the pair will go missing and it won't be so simple as a walk in the woods. One day they'll go missing, and stay that way.

But not today. Today's a good day. Today there was fish, and fresh mango chutney. After a while, they're sure to come back.

After a while, they always come back.

THE END