The Last All-Clear (8)
Notes from Mod Bonnie
- This story is a series following the premise: “Imagine if Jamie travelled through the stones, but instead of finding Claire in Boston he found himself having arrived years too early, when the War was still happening and Claire had yet to meet him… What would he do?”
- A wee bit o’ mixing of showverse and bookverse details, hope ye dinna mind.
(Part 1) September 17, 1942: A Rusty Nail
(Part 2) December 3, 1942: Comb and Glove
(Part 7) Samhain, 1946: Inverness |
(8) April 16, 1948: The Hill
The first time I went through the stones, there had been no sense to it, no words, no meaning. Unprepared as I had been, my mind had stayed four steps behind my body, completely incapable of processing the experience until it was long over, leaving even now only a vague impression, that of hurtling through an insidious, shrieking darkness. That senselessness had been a blessing, I now knew, no matter how terrible the experience itself had been. This time…
This time, it was like one of those horror-story medical cases where the anesthesia doesn’t fully take effect, where—unbeknownst to anyone— the patient is conscious and feels every single agony…. but is unable to move or scream or even blink.
This time, I could feel everything, see everything as it happened, and yet I was completely powerless to move, to speak as I bled out, was torn apart. This time, there was no distraction, no senseless oblivion, no blessed, rushing current of time to speed the torture. There was only the truth, sharp and vicious, a thousand knife blades tearing through my flesh as I fell:
Jamie is gone
Jamie is dead
Then the world broke apart, and I was falling through real air toward real grass… and into Jamie’s arms.
“Oh, thank God,” I moaned. My knees buckled, the crippling blow of sudden relief too much for my body to withstand, but Jamie kept me from falling. Jamie. My fingers scrabbled to hold him tighter, to convince myself he was real. Jamie. “Thank — God — !”
“You’re here,” he was gasping back, hands frantic, his cheek wet against my forehead. “You’re—here—You’re you!”
It hadn’t worked. Praise be to God and all the saints for all of eternity, the stones hadn’t worked. They’d spat me right back out at Jamie’s feet.
“Jamie — ”
This man—This kind, gentle, powerful, caring man….My husband…
Abject relief and even the sensory comfort of him vanished as reality roared back in. “Jamie….Jamie, don’t make me do it!”
For, I knew it as deeply as I knew my own name that one botched attempt would not be enough to dissuade him from getting me to the safety of the twentieth century. He wouldn’t give in. Well….neither would I. I fisted my hands hard in his coat as I gritted out, “You can’t make me try it again.”
“’Try’?—What d’ye—?” He stiffened, then squeezed me tighter, his breath fast and shallow against my neck as he said, urgently, “No! Claire, listen! Ye have come—”
“They didn’t work—I can’t get through! You can’t go fight, now—” I was sobbing, completely senseless in my despair. “You CAN’T—You have t—You—Come away with me, Jamie, me and the baby —”
I pulled myself harder against him, absolutely berserk with determination that he must not die—that I mustn’t leave him. I’d relented once, down below in the cottage; had felt my heart break in two as I agreed to go, because he had begged, and I’d seen no other way. I’d touched the bloody stones for him, for his child, meaning to go back to my old life for their sake, if not my own; but the stones had had other intentions, thank God, and so now I would do the begging. “Jamie—don’t throw your life away—Come away with me, love—stay with—”
“Claire,” he said, louder this time as he cupped my head, kissed it. His voice was cracked but full, radiant, even, with some powerful emotion I couldn’t name. “Mo chridhe, listen, ye dinna understand! You’re—
“We can run away, ” I whimpered, twining my fingers in his hair, even as I memorized his scent again, greedily clinging to the feel of him for the last time, some part of me knowing the futility of every word. Still, I begged. “I’ll go anywhere—anywhere—Just don’t give yourself up
“Sassenach, look at me.” This was said more sharply as he tried to pry me away and tilt my face upward. “Lass, l—”
I wouldn’t yield to this again; I WOULD NOT sit back and submit to —
He must have pushed me, for I was reeling backward, clawing at empty air, my eyes so blurred and swollen with tears I could barely discern more than the direction of the sunlight.
I was screaming his name, so frantic in my disorientation that I thought I’d touched the stone again and that he was gone…Gone….
But he was shouting my name, too, near at hand, though the sound seemed muffled, as though I were beneath deep water. I reached blindly for it, but the tone of command in his voice cut through, harsh enough to halt me. I stood, still unable to see, heaving, waiting.
“Claire…. mo ghraidh.…”
So soft, that voice, now. Gentle. Beaming, with —
“Open your eyes, Claire. Look at me.”
The 2,557th day
God, how it broke my heart to see ye, so, standing in the circle, your face so pale and thin. The hollows of your cheek and collarbone stood out so painfully in the gold of the fading sunlight, and I could hardly bear the shame of it, of bringing that suffering upon ye. For all my own struggles and fears in our time apart, I have had seven years of plenty. Even in the worst of my days in this century, I never went to my bed starving, hardly one night in all those years, thanks to the kindness of many a stranger. You, though…. God, Claire, to see ye thus, your back hunched over as though ye would fall at any moment, scarce minutes removed from those wretched months of war and hunger, and with child, no less. Christ, our own wee bairn…
Still, though my heart was squeezing fit to burst, though I was aching to hold my wife, to have you and the bairn safe in my arms at last…. I confess, the foremost feeling within me was unspeakable joy. Though my bones still seemed to scream from those agonizing hours of waiting, today, of fearing the worst with every minute ye didna arrive, I was all but laughing as I caught ye, held ye, the happiness so visceral and complete that it imbued my limbs, my breath, my tongue. For, the days of fear were gone, those hundreds and thousands of days, banished. You’re here, Claire. My Claire, the one I married. The one who knows my heart, and I, hers. All that remained was for you to look up, to see me, to see my joy and know your own, once ye understood the miracle at hand.
At last, ye did look, peering up, out from that darkness pressing down upon ye. You blinked once, straightened a bit and looked more closely. Another blink. I watched your mouth open as ye tried to speak, the wind blowing your hair about your face, but no sound came forth.
My own voice scarcely could make itself heard, though I tried to smile as I gestured toward my garments. This isna precisely how ye left me, moments ago, aye?
Between the tears and hunger, the fatigue and the lingering panic, I couldn’t seem to fix my eyes long enough to put words to what I was seeing, to reconcile the contradictory realities before me.
Jamie Fraser—my Jamie—standing on the other side of the clearing of Craigh na Dun. That was reasonable. He’d been only at the bottom of the hill, after all, when I’d left him.
But his hair cropped short?
His face suddenly clean and shaven?
His clothes— his clothes….?
“Ye did come through the stones, mo chridhe,” he was saying, his face alight. “And so did I.”
“No…” I shook my head and staggered a step back.
“…..It’s 1948.” He spoke each word slowly and carefully, repeating it. “Nineteen hundred and forty-eight.”
I swayed, time and reason seeming to pulse and stretch absurdly, like a rubber band. This was a dream. This was nothing more than a bloody fever dream of grief and emotional turmoil and pregnancy, my subconscious soothing me with a fantasy world in which I got to keep both of them, Jamie and our child, forever, in a place of safety. That world isn’t real, Beauchamp. This isn’t real. I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my mouth to keep from screaming. This isn’t real, no matter how much you want it to be.
“Claire, hear me. Time has passed. It was morning a moment ago, aye?” He was speaking quickly, urgently. “Look about—’Tis sunset, now. This isna the morn of Culloden. It canna be. Ye see how I’m dressed. Ye felt me in your own two hands, just now, did ye not?” He took a step forward. “We’ve come through the stones, both of us. I’m real.”
I could do nothing but stare and try to stem the flood of yearning before it could break me apart from the inside. I tried to speak, but could only mouth one word: How…?
“When I saw the redcoat making chase for ye, I followed, running up the hill after him,” he said, moving slowly toward me.
I had heard footsteps behind me as I ran to the stones…. just minutes ago…
“I crested the hill just as I saw ye vanish,” he said. “I fought him as the sun came up fully, all across the circle floor. At one point, I made a lunge for him but missed, staggered, and threw out my hand to stop my fall, but I fell against the stone by accident…..I passed through.”
I couldn’t stop staring at those fists, clenching and unclenching at his sides, twitching, then stilling again, just a few feet before me.
“I’ve been here ever since.”
"You didn’t fight in the battle?” The words seemed to come from somewhere outside my body as I watched those hands, transfixed, my lips scarcely moving. “You…didn’t die?”
“No, I didna die,” I heard him murmur with a breath of a laugh, gentle and soft and him. Alive. “I woke up here, in this very spot….. and I’ve been waiting for you, for this day, praying you’d be safely delivered to this year……And here ye are, at last. Claire, I—” His voice broke at that, a grating whisper, and I watched as the fingers began stretching out toward me, trembling. “Mo chridhe…. I’ve missed you so….All th—” He had to stop. When he spoke again, the tears were choking him in good earnest. “—all these years, I’ve— ”
“Who’s the prime minister?” I heard myself blurt.
The hands twitched. “…..Beg pardon?”
“The prime minister,” I snapped, the rush of annoyance somehow momentarily bracing to my fracturing sanity. “I know for a fact I never told you, so tell me right this damned minute who the bloody pr—”
“The prime minister of the United Kingdom….” I watched as one hand reached out and took mine, warm and confident as his voice. “…. is Clement Attlee.”
A sob and a gasp escaped my throat at the same time, a wretched pain slicing through me as the other hand raised up to my face. “Dinna fash, my Sassenach,” he said, though tears were pouring down his own cheeks, framing that same crooked smile. “Mr. Attlee’s doing a fine job of it.”
I must have blacked out for a few moments, for the next thing I knew, my arms were already around his neck, my feet barely touching the ground and my ribs ready to crack as he crushed me to him. We were both crying, sobbing, and I couldn’t seem to hold enough of him at once. Him—Jamie—JAMIE—“You—fucking—bastard!!!” I ground out through gritted teeth against his shoulder (his real, 20th-century shoulder!!). “BASTARD!”
He laughed, sniffing through the weeping. “I love ye too, Sassenach.”
“You were going to die!” I snarled, truly and mightily furious, coughing and gasping for air even as my limbs went liquid from relief. “You were going to go to that battlefield— and let yourself be slaughtered— you FUCKING —”
“I know….” he murmured at once, all levity vanished as he sobered and held me, his hand coming up to twine in my hair and cup my head, hard. “I know….You were so brave, mo ghraidh…Thank ye for doing as as I bade, for the bairn’s sake. It meant everything to me. It means everything.” He kissed me, just below the ear, exhaling, shuddering against my skin. “But now, w—we dinna have to grieve—anymore.” He was crying so heavily he could hardly get the words out. “We’re here…. to—gether.”
“How long?” I choked out.
“Forever, mo chridhe—We’ll have all the time in the—”
“No—” I said, feeling the horror pooling in my gut, enough to make me push back to study his face above the collar of his waxed cotton jacket. All these years, he’d just said. “….How long have you been waiting?”
He replied, but so quietly I had to ask it again. He cleared his throat and couldn’t look me in the eye as he said, too carefully, “Since— 1941.”
The sound that issued from me—
It wasn’t possible. If it truly was 1948, then the stones kept time in exact parallel. Jesus H Christ, I had left him mere minutes ago, how could he possibly—POSSIBLY—?
Very gently, he took my hand and turned it over. The letter J carved at the base of my thumb was oozing blood, the scabs having torn off sometime in the last few minutes from grappling with him, I supposed. He laid his own hand palm-up to show the mark I myself had made upon him. I stared. For so very long, I couldn’t do a goddamn thing except stare, my eyes and mouth both moving furiously but without sound. In contrast to the raw, screaming red of my own fresh wound, his C was the barest, faintest crescent of white, so long-healed as to all but have disappeared amid the lines and wrinkles.
“…Oh, Jamie…” I reached up for his face with both my hands, my heart absolutely breaking for him. My eyes were wide and streaming, though I still dared to hope that I’d misunderstood. “…..Seven years?”
I expected him to make a joke, to tease or try to lighten the mood, but he only nodded and kissed my hands, laying his own atop them on his face as he continued to weep.
“Oh, my love….” I kissed him, kissed his tears, the devastation of his reality ripping through me as though they were my own years that had been lost; my own heart that had been alone for close to a decade. There were no words, but I couldn’t stop murmuring what I could. I love you….I’m so sorry….It’s alright… It’s over.
“I love you,” he repeated back, letting me hold and soothe him, as he had me. “I love you.”
“But, where did you go?” I whispered at last when the questions became too frenzied to ignore. I tried to search his eyes, my own surely incredulous and horrified. “What….what did you do for all that—” Jesus “—all those years?”
His eyes flicked open. He took a steadying breath, kissed me, very gently, then released one hand to reach into his pocket. Turning my scarred one over once more, he placed something delicately in my palm. It was still warm from the heat of his body. A smooth pebble of cherrywood, carved with a interlace dragonfly.
I thought I’d seen ye shocked, already; thought that you had already been overcome to the most extreme point possible by the day’s revelations. I was wrong, for your reaction in that moment, seeing the token in your hand, the one I made for ye, all those years ago—That reaction was something the like of which I’ve never seen on your face, Claire, so visceral and true, it sent waves coursing through me that took my breath from fear and love, both. I hope never to give ye cause to feel such a thing again.
You studied my face, wild-like, seeking your friend of old, within….and finding him. Ye covered your mouth with both hands to keep from wailing.
It’s really him, ye wept through your fingers, —really you.
C’est moi, I said, touching your cheek. It’s me.
One hand dropped to your heart and clutched hard as ye sank to your knees, tears streaming freely over the other.
It was the only way I kent to live wi’ myself, I said, or something of the like as I knelt beside ye, put my arms around ye. Being near to ye, in some way.
That what ye kept saying. I could see your eyes above your hands, clear and shining and full of love and awe, even as the most terrible sobs wracked your body.
It was difficult to speak the words, any words, for I, too was being bowled over by the weight of it all, the immensity of release from this last burden, this last secret that had so long been crushing my heart. I felt myself swaying on my knees, the world spinning around us.
You came to find me? you said, incredulous, broken-hearted. All those years, you watched over me? Helped me?
As best I could, I said.
You did, you whispered, nodding fiercely as you wept into my chest and pulled me close, tightly enough to bruise. You did. More than you know.
My heart leapt, for I thought surely ye must mean the night in the ditch. Though, when I asked of it, ye didna seem to comprehend that of which I spoke. You stared up at me, trying to fathom what I might possibly could mean.
Then all at once you jolted as though struck by an electric shock. I saw you remember.
You were there? you said, again and again. You were there with me…..Jesus Chris, you were there….
Time seems to have juddered out of place, then, for I canna precisely recall how much of it passed. I canna recall how my body was situated, or yours. I canna remember what words we might have spoken, or, for that matter, if we were able to speak at all. I think not, on the whole. All I ken for certain is that I was holding you, all my heart running down my face as I clung to you and to the bairn; that everything was well, that all was clear, at last.
When the night had fallen, though, and you were asleep against my breast, I carried you here to the campsite and laid you down upon the blankets, tucking you in against the chill of the night. I couldna sleep, myself. Not yet. I watched you, for a time, wept some more (I’m a most damnably fragile man, mo chridhe; I do hope you’ll forgive me) and then turned on the electric torch, that I might write to ye. One more letter, one final letter, before closing this wee book for good. After all, I dinna mean to be spending many days apart from ye, in the lifetime to come, Sassenach; none at all, if I should have my own say in the matter.
Lord, but what else remains to be written, apart from rejoicing here on this page that we are safe; we are together; we have our child; that we will live, Claire, long and happily; and that, by divine grace, I was able to keep my promise.
Do you recall it? The one I made near Carryarrick, just after ye told me about that night in the ditch? About the Americans? I promised you that no matter what might come, you would never be alone again; and you weren’t, not for a single moment as ye fell through the stones; not in that darkest, most fearful night of the war. Whatever luck or chance or providence brought it about, guiding my steps, you were protected. You were never alone.
Aye, that was it: what I was repeating over and over as we lay there shaking and weeping on the ground before the stones.
You weren’t ever alone.
[y e s , t h e r e ’s m o r e]