A Hundred Lesser Faces: (Seven)
Notes from Mod Bonnie
- This story stems from the premise: what if Voyager!Claire had gone first to Lallybroch instead of directly to the print shop in Edinburgh?
Many a red-headed man I’d passed on the long road from Lallybroch. Every single time, my stupid, desperate heart had leapt with joy; and every time, I cursed myself for the fool that I was. For Christ’s SAKE, why the bloody hell should he be on the road from Inverness, Beauchamp? Jamie Fraser is south, in Edinburgh, with his wife. With his daughters. Happy. So, pull yourself together.
So deep had been my longing, though, that my traitorous eyes had tried over and over to convince me that it might be, it MIGHT be this time! (even when the actual travelers hadn’t looked remotely like Jamie). Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, one had been a very tall boy no more than twelve, and I still had had to see his face from ten feet before I would allow my heart to quiet. Not him. Not him.
Blind hope, indeed.
But this time, as I whirled and fell on the hillside, heart exploding, in a single moment, I was certain. Even from a great distance, even two decades later, even not yet able to see his face through the snow-flecked gloom, even had he not been screaming my name, yes, I’d know the shape of that man anywhere. It was Jamie, tearing toward me on horseback, riding like the hounds of hell were at his heels. And the SIGHT of him? A relief and a love smashed through me, so deep and so visceral that I staggered downward; not running, not even making my way down the hill; just slipping, pulled toward his orbit.
Alive. I had known for months, believed, had confirmation from Jenny herself, and yet the proof was now there before my eyes. Not under a stone on Culloden Moor; that nightmare was now banished forever. Jamie Fraser was ALIVE.
I saw him kick hard, spurring the horse to an even more astonishing pace—how loudly must he have been screaming that I had been able to hear him from so far away?—and found myself bursting out with joyous laughter at the way his shirt flapped like a sail in the wind. Nothing changed, then, if the ridiculous man had ridden without a coat or a cloak against the wind and the sn—
This changes absolutely nothing, Beauchamp. This ends with you going through those stones, sooner or later. Make it sooner.
But he came for me—Jamie came! He’s HERE.
He’s happy. He may have come, but he’s happy. Don’t make him suffer by forcing this impossible choice.
Just let me say goodbye.
Let me hold him, just for —
Can you honestly do what needs to be done if you have to look him in the eye and pull yourself out of his arms?
“CLAIRE!—What are ye—? S T O P !”
I was running up the hill, stumbling and tripping, going as fast as I could. I couldn’t stop. If I looked at him—If I touched him…
Everything seemed to slow to single frames, impressions:
The slow shrill cry of my breaths,
the grass suddenly inches from my nose as I staggered low over a boulder.
Hoofbeats, closer, louder.
I’m running for my life through quicksand,
every footfall sinking me deeper, and slower, as the monster gets closer and closer and—
A fierce whinny, a curse.
A voice— my voice—screaming. “STAY AWAY!”
Boots hitting the ground,
Running, both of us running,
and I couldn’t stop.
I must not st—
Time smashed into its normal pace again as I fell, mere yards from the crest of the hill, and cried out in pain.
“CLAIRE!” God, he was so close, pounding up the hill behind me, no more than thirty—
“Don’t!” I shouted as I scrambled to my feet.
“DO—NOT—TOUCH—ME!” I screamed it over my shoulder with all the violence I possessed, a feral beast, cornered and ready to go for the throat as it went down.
Silence fell on the faerie hill. Stillness, and absolute silence.
When human thought returned, I was on my feet at the very top of the hill, the stones screaming their evil song behind me. My body was slung sideways, both arms raised in defense; my head hung at an improbable angle so as to look nowhere, see nothing: not the stones, not him. It was elemental in my body, in that moment: the absolute imperative not to look at him. If I could keep from looking, keep from getting trapped in those eyes, everything would be alright.
It was a ridiculous logic, I knew; somewhere in the recesses of my consciousness, that was obvious. Jamie Fraser was HERE. He wouldn’t simply let me walk away unacknowledged; but such was the depth of my panic and hysteria that I couldn’t move. I was bare millimeters from completely falling apart, abandoning all my noble resolve, and flinging myself into his arms, begging him to choose me — take me —and damn the fucking consequences.
But it still wouldn’t change a bloody thing, the rational half of my mind whimpered. He would still be married. He would still have his children. We still could not be together, or at least not under any circumstances that honor would permit. I still could not force him to make that choice.
Hold yourself together, Beauchamp. No tears, remember? You said you could do the same for him; could be calm and sure for him. Now, do it. Stand strong.
“….Mo nighean donn?”
That flower-stem snap.
That voice—Jamie’s sweet, clear voice; my very heart speaking aloud, quietly, but with every ounce of pain and longing that I felt in my own breast.
“Look at me, mo nighean donn.”
My mouth was dry and my entire body was shaking, each word an effort. “— Can't—”
A sudden, vicious snarl. “LOOK at me!”
I half-growled, half screamed, “I—CANT!”
Desperate. So desperate, that ‘can’t’. I was shaking. Going into shock, in fact. Could feel the darkness and the manic energy and the absolute inability to retrieve words or actions closing—
“Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp.”
He said it like he always said his own name: low and distinct, with honor in every syllable.
“I have ridden,” he said, in a voice so quiet and deep and measured, “night and day for nigh on a week, terrified that—terrified th—*Please,*” His calm vanished and the words were tumbling out of him in a frantic rush. “Please, for the love ye bear me, for the love that brought ye to find me: TURN.”
God, but I can’t stand.
“By everything that is holy…”
A whispered moan.
“Let me see your face, mo ghraidh.”
….and damn my weak, foolish heart, I turned. I looked.
Day and night for a week, he’d said, and I believed it. Even at a distance of twenty feet down the hill, I could see just how bloodshot his eyes were, wide and wild. He was pale, underneath the red of wind and exertion, paler than I remembered. That glorious hair was now worn long. If it had been tied back, the ride and the wind had undone it. It was wild and tangled, whipping about his face, his chin covered in stubble that nearly amounted to a beard. His clothes—nothing but shirt, breeks and boots— were filthy and torn and splattered with mud. He looked, quite simply, dead on his feet.
He was the most beautiful sight I’d ever beheld.
God, you’re so like her, I wanted to moan. I’d known it, had had my heart broken every day to see the proof of him in our daughter, and yet seeing him now before me, I was absolutely run through to find her broad, good-humored face there, the same dark blue eyes aslant the high, flat cheekbones and wide mouth.
He’d aged, of course, as had I. The lines around eyes and mouth were deeper, the skin more weathered and coarse, but it was still him. His nose had been broken, at some point. It made him look fiercer, though perhaps that was simply fatigue and the vast waves of emotion obviously rushing through him, through us both.
Jamie had staggered back a pace or two back as he stared up at me, nearly toppling down the steep incline. “Jesus….Christ…” he whispered. The back of his hand was pressed to his mouth as though to stifle a cry, “You’re….You….” The hand became a fist and he shook his head as a gasping smile broke from him. “Claire—God, Claire, mo chridhe!” He moved, about to sprint up the hill.
I jumped backward. Raised my arms against him. No.
Hurt. Betrayal. Pain. It was as though I had shot him at point-blank range…And something deeper shone beneath it all: some blazing intensity I couldn’t quite identify. He looked as though he would bleed out there on the spot, from this newest wound.
So will I, my love.
But he heeded me, standing completely still. His hands shook, half-raised before him. He simply didn’t know what to do with them—I knew because I didn’t know what to do with mine. His mouth worked as he tried to speak, to ask, to say something, but failing. Those eyes held everything, though. Pleading.
Silence on the hill. Silence and screaming.
“You—survived,” I managed at last, weakly, with something like a laugh.
“Aye—” He exhaled in a huge rush, clearly grateful that I’d broken the stalemate. “It was a verra close thing.” He spoke fast and frantically, babbling, even, as though terrified to let silence fall again. “I should have died in the battle, or from the firing squads after, or of my wounds festering, but— Aye, I—I was—spared.”
“Thank God,” I whispered, and his eyes lit with such hope and relief that I could have cut my bloody tongue out at the root.
STOP this instant, Beauchamp. Nothing has changed.
Jamie was the one to break the silence, this time. “Your letter,” he gasped out.
“You read it, then?” A stupid thing to say. He’d obviously read it, but I clung to conversation just as he had. The stupid words were something, something to keep from falling off the edge of this insanity. “When?”
“By providence, I arrived at Lallybroch the same day you’d left, and….Oh, God, CLAIRE….”
Oh, God, Jamie.
Each time my name left him, it seemed to tear a piece out of both of us. I could only look down at him, waiting.
“When I saw your hand on that letter,” he said, voice shaking uncontrollably, “the print of your ring in the wax, I …”
He shook his head, at a loss, mouthing it over and over. I…I….
Through the snow, though darkness was creeping steadily around us, I could see the first tear sliding down his cheek. “….I felt as though I were dying.”
So did I. So do I.
“To know you’d survived—that you’d come back, and—and,” his eyes lit up. “Brianna.”
From his lips, our daughter’s name sounded like strange music from another world, and I wanted to listen to it forever.
“It would have been enough—more than enough—only to ken our bairn had lived, that the both of ye had lived and been cared for, but to….Claire, I simply couldna believe my eyes.” He shook his head, violently. “To see…to SEE the lass…our daughter.” Jamie released his sobbing breath and closed his eyes, holding out his hands before him, tears streamed down his cheeks. “Her entire life, there before me… and she so happy and so braw and bonny and—God, it tore out my beating heart.” He heaved a breath and smiled up at me, beaming with love and joy, though it was difficult for him to get out the words. “She’s—more wonderful than I ever could have imagined, mo ghraidh….Our Brianna.”
I forced a smile and choked down a sob. “I’m so honored,” I whispered, so haltingly, so carefully, so, so carefully, “to have been able—to bring her to you, in some way.”
My own love.
Nothing has changed.
I took a step, two steps, backward toward the stones. This was the part where I was to be strong.
Jamie’s eyes snapped into laser-focus, a predator’s, and that unknown intensity I’d seen earlier flamed now into life. It was anger.
“Why would ye just GO?” His voice was still wretched with pain but he was snarling, stammering, growling in mounting fury. “Ye—ye came for me and—Ye came all the way from your time through the stones and then meant to go back and leave forever wi’out even—Damn ye, woman, ye didna even—If I hadna come just in time—Foolish—wretched, FOOLISH—” He hurled the demand toward me with his entire body. “WHY?”
“You *know* why.” It was all but a moan.
He growled again. “Ye dinna ken —”
“I know that you’re married,” I got out, moving sideways around the rim of the hill, countering his advance. “I know you have children. Jenny told me everything—how hap—”
“No, Claire, ye dinna understand!” Something had shifted in his eyes — relief? — and he was once again still, though scarcely fifteen feet in front of me down the hill. “Jenny lied. She lied, Claire,” he insisted, the words falling out of him. “She lied and made ye think I was—”
“You’re not — ??”
Jenny lied! Thank the bloody stars above, the horrible bitch LIED!!! Jesus H—
My smile broke through like the dawn, a blaze of glorious, raging happiness as I gasped out, “Then, you’re not married?”
And I watched as that hope shriveled and vanished to dust. His eyes dropped to the ground. “I am marrit.”
I swayed, eyes closed. I couldn’t bear this any longer, couldn’t take this agony raging in my heart, both the emotional and the physical heart. I felt light-headed, felt pain in my limbs. I couldn’t be strong. I couldn’t.
Just a little while longer. Say your farewell, and be gone. It will be alright, Beauchamp.
“Then she didn’t lie,” I said, simply, my throat burning with the effort not to wail. “You have a wife and two beautiful daughters.” I caught my breath and opened my eyes, managing to smile, though I was so very near the brink. “I meant what I wrote in the letter. Every single word. I want you to be happy—and I’m glad that you are. I’m glad that you have a family and that they have made you happy.”
His brows were drawn up, making him look absolutely crazed. He mouthed the word like he’d never heard it before. Happy?
“But I—” Somehow, I kept up the smile as I whispered through wooden lips and burning throat and the tears. “—but it means—that I have—to go, now— before—”
“NO,” he snarled, springing with sudden force. I staggered still further away around the hill as he bellowed, “You’ll NOT—”
“BE STILL!” I bellowed back.
And once again, he heeded me.
“For God’s fucking SAKE, you bloody
Scot!” I shouted down at him, suddenly just as furious as he. “Have you NO notion of what
— Don’t you understand? I’m giving you up! I’m letting you go!” I gestured wildly behind me to the stones, choking on my tears. “I’m leaving so you don’t have to choose! Do you think I’m so arrogant as to believe I’m worth upending your happy—”
“DAMN YOU, woman, I havena been HAPPY in TWENTY YEARS!”
Silence on the faerie hill. Silence and screaming.
When he spoke again, it was once more in that quiet, aching whisper.
“Jenny led ye to believe otherwise and may she be damned for it.” He took a step forward, pointing. “But in that letter, ye renewed a promise to me; and I’ll give ye the same, now.” Another step.
I stepped back.
He surrendered, went to his knees, hands clenched in the posture of oath-taking. “No lies, Claire.” His eyes blazed into mine. “Nor secrets. Not ever. Not now. I swear it on Brianna’s life.”
God, my heart…
“Will ye hear what I have to tell?”
…it simply couldn’t take this.
But I nodded.
“I left Laoghaire more than a year past.”
The outburst was so violent, so loud and so shrill in the wake of my long silence, that it startled us both. Jamie had to put a hand out to steady himself as he jumped, and the acute panic of a fresh hell showed across his face. “She—Jenny didna—?”
“No, she BLOODY well DIDN’T!”
“Aye, well—ah …ehm…Claire?”
He was peering leerily up at me, and little wonder, for I was laughing—actually, CACKLING with laughter, hands clutched to my belly as I doubled over with it.
“No, Jenny didn’t tell me who,” I sighed, when I had calmed down (marginally). “The only detail your darling sister deigned to divulge about your wife—”
Of all people. Of ALL the marriageable women in all the bleeding Highlands. He had married —had had children with—loved—
All levity, all scorn dropped out of me, and my voice cracked, a whispering shell. “—was that you were happier with her than she’d ever seen you….And that you had two little girls that call you Da.”
“But they’re not mine, Claire. They’re not mine,” Jamie said again more urgently as I stared. He gritted his teeth. “And I shall wring my sister’s neck for a wicked liar when next I see her, for she kens fine that I’ve not had ninety-nine happy minutes in that marriage since it began.”
I was so cold. Frozen, in every cell.
“Two years ago, we wed,” he began carefully. “She was marrit before, twice, and found herself a widow wi’ two bairns to feed just as I was newly come back from England.”
His words were running together, a bit. There was so much warring within him, so much he clearly wished to say, but cold and fatigue and emotion were taking their devastating toll.
“I’m fond of her lassies—Marsali and Joan. They’re aged fifteen and twelve and have had a cruel, rough way of it, in lives so short. Wi’ all that they’ve endured, I was glad—honored, even— for them to take me into their hearts as a father, but hear me, Claire.” He held my eye. “I’ve shared scarce more wi’ them than what loving gentleness I could offer, and a scant few months of meals shared ‘round the same table. No more.” He shook his head with a sound of shame and regret. “Christ, I sound an unfeeling wretch. I do care for them, I do.”
But they weren’t born of his love; nor had he had a hand in raising them.
“I did have hope, at the beginning; hope that perhaps there could be some — tenderness between us. Nothing like—” He make a vain gesture up at me and closed his eyes, as though he couldn’t bear it. “—like what I kent it could be between a husband and wife, but something good to keep me sane; keep me alive….Can ye see?…Have ye kent that same hope, Claire?…. Only she couldna; or I couldna. I’ll accept the blame in full, but in the end, the ‘why’ and ‘who’ dinna matter. It was a broken thing within months, and I knew that if I’d stayed….”
He hung his head, and for the first time, I could truly see the twenty years that had gone from his life.
“I left for Edinburgh; have been there ever since. I provide for them, but I havena called Balriggan home for over a year…nor shared her bed since long before that.”
The wind whistled between us. What he was saying…
I was numb. I was…It was like I was underwater, with news being shouted to me from dry land as I slowly drowned.
“I’ve lain wi’ three women, since you’ve been gone,” he blurted suddenly, urgently against my silence, his voice so miserable, his eyes imploring. “Laoghaire, and two single-night encounters, and from one of those—From one of those nights…”
“William,” he whispered, nodding in confirmation, his eyes absolutely wretched but shining with the need to confess. “He’s a — a bastard, in England, and I shall never see him again. I’ve never told anyone of him, not even Jenny or Ian. His mother, his putative father—they’re both dead. He’s highborn, in the care of a man I trust. John will give him a good life; better than ever a convicted traitor could.”
He closed his eyes and I could see his mouth working furiously as he tried both to form words and to hold back his weeping. “But he’s my son,” he whispered. “My only son, alive in the world because of me, and he’s bonny and canty and strong, just like Brianna, and there are days when I canna seem to live wi’out seeing him, holding him, or —” And he went silent, hiding his face in his hands until he could manage to speak. “Nor can I regret that he lives, for those years I had near Willie were the closest thing I’ve had to—to — And that only a shell of what….”
He raised a hand up as though he would cup my cheek across the chasm between us; then dropped it. Both hands lay on his thighs, aimless.
“No. Happiness has not been granted me, Claire.” He stared at his palms, speaking in the barest, broken murmur. “My heart left wi’ you and the bairn; and while it is my duty to go on, to care for those under my protection, as I shall do, I’ve had little joy save the knowledge that at the end, I’d die and be able to find ye, just as I promised. Two hundred years, I said I’d wait. I’ve been counting.”
The snowflakes danced around us in the near-night, oblivious to desperation or to miraculous sparks catching in dark, deep places.
“And to then learn in a moment that you’d come back…”
I tried to speak; but I was shaking so hard that I couldn’t open my mouth. I clenched it tight, feeling the tears slipping over my lips.
“Claire?” he moaned, reaching out a hand. “…Lass?…Love?…I feel as if I shall die if I canna touch ye….Please.”
My knees had locked — everything within me had locked, between Jamie and the cold— and as I tried to adjust my footing, I accidentally stumbled backward a pace.
Despair escaped out of him and he jumped up as though to run to me, but he thought better of it, and came back down to his knees.
“Twice, I brought ye here to send ye away, mo nighean donn, because I knew a better life awaited ye on the other side of those accursed stones. Perhaps it does, this day, as well, but this time, I shall beg. Don’t go.”
He raised both clawed hands to me. The tears were flowing so violently and his face was so deeply contorted so as to be barely recognizable.
“Don’t go. Stay wi’ me. Stay. I canna…I canna do it…Please….*please*….”
I was paralyzed, completely immobilized by — by —
“Is it too much to forgive, Claire?” came the cracked moan of my heart through the darkness that had suddenly hidden him from me entirely. “Laoghaire and—and William? Do… do ye not want me?”
“God, Jamie…” I whispered, so softly that surely only the grass and the snow could hear.
It was the first time I had said his name aloud to him.
“….you’re all I want.”
“Then what else matters?”
Nothing else mattered.
And I was flying down to him, and he was flying off his knees to catch me, and the feeling of his arms around me, of Jamie’s arms around me at last was —
Like lightning, striking upon the sand. A flash of light, of power, instantly transforming the hundreds of tiny fragments— the millions of shards weathered to all but nothing by time—into a single, molten one. A whole.
END OF PART I