A Hundred Lesser Faces: (Eight)
- The first section of this story stems from the premise: what if Voyager!Claire had gone first to Lallybroch instead of directly to the print shop in Edinburgh?
- The second section will explore the aftermath of Claire and Jamie’s reunion, following their journey as they work to build a new life together.
Section Two: A Hundred More
“So close,” that wretched, strangled voice kept choking out over and over again. “Claire—” He kept trying to hold her closer, wrap his body around hers still more completely, searching, searching for her, though he knew she was beneath him. “So—so cl—ose—”
To losing her. He had come mere minutes, moments away from losing her forever, again, right before his eyes.
“Shhhh, darling, I know,” she kept whispering into his hair, his neck, though she was sobbing as hard as he. “I know—It’s—It’s alright, love—”
“Don’t go…” The snow-flecked dark seemed to spin and scream around him, throwing everything into a hellish whirl that he couldn’t grasp, about to throw him off the very face of the earth. “Claire, ye canna—Claire—don’t—go—”
“I’m not going—anywhere—” she gasped out, clutching harder around his back. “It’s over, Jamie—All—over….” She cupped his head so urgently, so tenderly as she cradled him and wept into his shoulder. “Shhhh, it’s alright, love…it’s alright…It’s all over….”
He hadn’t let her out of his arms, not for one single moment.
Those minutes on the hill, his body, his heart, his MIND had all been on the verge of shattering from the terror that she was leaving him. The strength—the pure, desperate strength— it had taken to keep upright and to speak, to ask instead of screaming and lunging? Never, not even in battle, had he ever felt something like that: the absolute life of him being ripped apart before him, shred by shred, hope by hope, until he was no more than a bloodied, quivering plea.
But then, she had run to him and he had become flesh again, breathing and needing, with arms that could hold and a soul that could feel joy, this joy,
and the rest of world had gone still.
It had been hours—or perhaps only moments—before he’d crumpled to the ground. Utterly overcome, utterly dissolved in relief and love, in scarce-contained panic, he’d laid her down and covered her like a cloak with his body, surrounding her, trying to convince himself that she was real.
There, on the frozen ground of the faerie hill, oblivious to the wind and the snow, they’d broken apart in one another’s arms, each kept from vanishing only by the other grasping them tight enough to bruise, from feeling their arms, hearing what words they could manage to gasp out; and it was both everything and scarcely anything at all compared to what they each felt, in those moments.
She felt the same under his hands, exactly the same. It was the same voice—the same gentle hands—the same glorious spirit. She was Claire; and he was going to die from her.
“Are you shaking from—” She had to stop and get her sobbing breath under control before she could finish. “—from—crying— or cold?”
He truly didn’t know.
She pushed up his sleeve. “God, Jamie, you’re like ice,” she moaned. He felt her shifting and fumbling about. “Here, put—Take this—”
Though he was still shaking, still barely able to see through swollen eyes, he managed to pull the cloak out from beneath her and throw it over them both, heads and all. It was quite large, of good, thick wool, and a pocket of warmth instantly began to form around them. While he wouldn’t have thought the cold had been affecting him so very much, the change was like a dram of good brandy, rushing through his body from head to toe in an instant. His sobbing eased, his mind began to clear, his breathing slowing to something like a normal pace. He could hear hers doing the same, tapering and settling as the calm and the gentle pool of heat settled over them both.
He had had both arms around her before they’d shifted, hands gripping her side and twined in her hair, needing in every muscle and fiber of him to hold her. Now, in utter darkness, without even the faint glow of the snow-clouds to illuminate her, he could only reach for her face, needing, paradoxically, to see her, to look into her eye. And the moment his palm came to rest on her cheek— so cold and slick with tears—she gave a little whimpering sound that might have been his name, and she was reaching up for his mouth. He couldn’t stop kissing her; tasting her; touching her; couldn’t stop moaning her name. All the years—All the years of longing for her, and she was here in his arms, sharing his breath.
“I’m here,” she kept saying back against his lips, knowing that he needed to be told. “I’m here, Jamie….I’m here….”
“When I saw ye,” he said, a long time later, when the world had once more gone quiet, his hand pressed against her heart. “When I saw ye climbing up that hill, Claire—”
Jamie had found the horse a mile or two back. It was one of the Lallybroch mares, a beast he’d broken himself and would have known anywhere. Terror had driven him all the way from the Lallybroch dooryard, or so he had thought. No, he had only felt the true, ripping claws of it when he had seen that riderless horse and known that he had come too late. The furious minutes of that last hellish gallop were a blank in his memory, but he remembered the ecstatic fury of seeing her up there in the distance; seeing her turning; and then the life dropping out of him once more as she began to sprint upward, away from him, toward the stones.
“What would you have done?” Claire whispered, stroking his face. “If I had kept running?”
“I’d have run faster,” he said with what voice he had left, “and pinned ye to the ground until ye listened to sense.”
She stiffened. “…You’d have stopped me by force?”
He forgot the complete darkness enshrouding them and gave her a look. “If you’re asking ‘would I have done whatever I could to keep ye running off forever before ye kent all the truth’ you’re damned right, I would. I’d have tied ye hand and foot to a tree, if I had to.”
“You bloody man,” she muttered, and it was not said in fondness. “Nothing changed.”
Anger flared up in him, red-hot and blinding with panic, and he closed his hand tight around her wrist. “You were going to just leave, Claire,” he hissed. “Can ye honestly blame me? God, I’m still so furious that ye would have—Had I not—” He swore, shaking her. “You damnable, foolish wom—”
“Oh, is that the way of things?” she snarled at him, her breath hot in his face. “So, when YOU sacrifice your own feelings and well-being for love, it’s noble and right, but when I do, I’m just a ‘foolish woman?’”
“That’s—Damn you, that isna at all—”
She yanked herself out of his grasp. “Can you honestly tell me, James Fraser, that if the circumstances were reversed—if you’d somehow found your way to 1968—found that I’d married someone new—heard I’d had a child by him and was by all accounts blissfully happy—you’d have just waltzed right in and thrown yourself at me? You’d truly have put me in that position?”
“No,” he moaned, defeated, as the true tragedy of what she’d been planning to do for his sake settle around him. “No, I….I couldna have put ye through such a choice.”
“Well, I bloody couldn’t do it to you, either,” she spat at him, sobs starting to shudder through her again in her rage. “No matter how much—much it tore me apart to—”
“Oh, lass….” He felt her convulse and cover her face with both hands, as though she might hide from the terror of what they’d so nearly lost. “No,” he moaned, gathering her tight against his chest, covering her again, the intimacy between them knitting together once more. “No, it was noble what ye meant to do, Claire. If what Jenny told ye had been true, it would have been right. I—Christ, that ye would have done that for my sake…Thank you.”
“We’ve been lucky, Sassenach.” He rocked her softly, buried his face in her hair as she wept. “God….we’ve been so lucky, today. We were in the right places at the precise right moments to find one another again.” He kissed her, softly hushing as she had done for him. “And now, it’s all over, just as ye said… We’ll never be parted again, I swear it, Claire.” He sealed the promise with a kiss in the hollow of her neck.
“But what—what will we do?” she managed, voice taut with worry. “About Laoghaire? The girls?”
What will we do, indeed?
“I dinna ken….not precisely,” he admitted.
“That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence,” she said, with a tremulous smile in her voice.
Lovely wee smartarse.
“We’ll find some arrangement that separates me from Laoghaire as honorably as can be managed. You and I are still man and wife, after all. That must count for something wi’ the law.”
Wife. His wife.
Lord have mercy upon his soul, WIVES.
“It will be a tricky business, Claire, and I’ll no’ say it will be over quickly, but I will fight for it with everything that I have.”
“What if it can’t be managed honorably?”
He exhaled. “Then I shall find a way to reconcile wi’ dishonor.”
She choked out a laugh and held him tighter, sighing in deep relief. “Well, I’m glad to hear it. At least we’ll be in hell together, eh?”
“And a happy damnation t’will be.”
A warm, pulsing happiness had pushed away the tears from their sanctuary, and he suddenly wondered how long he could keep his eyes open amid such peace. He’d slept scarce more than an hour at a time on the ride from Lallybroch, and only then when he could no longer stay upon the horse. Each and every time, he’d awoken in a dead-panic that he’d slept overlong, leapt right into the saddle, and repeated the harrowing process over and over, pushing himself to the very limits until he reached Craigh na Dun.
It wasn’t merely the actual fatigue—it was the relief. Many a time in his life—from battlefields to his examinations in the Paris days—he had witnessed the body’s incredible stamina to push through lack of sleep, of food, and of physical strength. It will go to incredible lengths to complete the task at hand, to survive. When the deed is accomplished, though, it takes its own, and fairly well damns the consequences. Jamie was hungry, true, but that could wait. Sleep, though…No, that could wait as well. In the growing warmth of her body and his together, captured by the warm cloak, it was harder and harder by the minute; but he didn’t want to miss a single moment with her. Not one.
“Will you tell me….” It was such a tiny voice that asked it; so tentative and careful. “…why Laoghaire?”
He stiffened, steadied himself with a breath. It was a fair question.
“She was…there,” he hazarded, “at the right time, when I was come back to Lallybroch. It was Jenny’s idea, ken?”
“Mm.” A great deal unsaid in that mm, perhaps having to do with the destructive nature of Jenny’s ideas of late.
“She seemed—sweet, I suppose. Eager, and—Wi’ the wee lassies to feed, she needed me; and I needed—I needed something, too.”
Claire didn’t say a word.
“I am sorry, mo chridhe. I ken it’s—painful.”
“Well, I certainly dinna delight in thinking of the men that have shared your bed.”
To his surprise, she bristled. “It’s not that she was another woman, Jamie. It’s that it was her.”
“I do ken she was quite the jealous brat, all those years ago, at Leoch,” he said, carefully, at something of a loss. “But she was naught but a wee lassie at the time. Surely ye can forgive her a few youthful indiscretions?”
“Youthful ind—?” He heard her choke back whatever retort she had planned and instead breathe through her nose, calming herself. She was being careful, so careful, but there was true indignation, there, true hurt, kept in check for his sake.
“Say it, mo ghraidh.” He touched her face, bent down to kiss her. “Tell me what it is.”
“Wouldn’t it trouble you,” she said, very quietly, “if had chosen to marry someone who’d gone out of their way to have you hurt and killed?”
“Cranesmuir? Surely you remember that little episode?”
He felt a jolt run through him. Then it walloped him over the head like a brick. “Laoghaire? She was—?”
“Jamie, she was the one who arranged for me to be taken with Geillis Duncan, that day, for Christ’s sake! You knew that! Surely we discussed it??”
“We certainly DID NOT. Sassenach! BELIEVE me, had I I known, I would never have taken her to wife. NEVER.” He gripped her tight, as though he could look into her eyes. “Had I KNOWN….Christ, the wicked wee bitch!”
She laughed at that. “Well good, I’m—That’s a burden off my mind. I’d certainly have understood if you’d remarried. I did understand, until you mentioned her name. Lord,” she laughed, groaning. “Laoghaire bloody MacKenzie. Laoghaire….Fraser.”
Lord forgive him, he had given Claire’s would-be murderess his name, shared her bed. “I’m—I’m truly so ashamed, Sassenach.” He felt as though he would vomit. “I’m so sorry for this. After what she did—”
“Don’t be,” she said at once, and he heard the sincerity in her voice. “You didn’t know, and would have had no reason to ask. It’s water under the bridge. Though,” she said with good humor, “I do reserve my right to make snide comments from time to time, at her expense only, not yours.”
“’Tis only your due,” he laughed weakly, grateful for the gift of levity, which did help the anxiety and shame abate.
“Jamie, can I ask, does it….?”
More to do with Laoghaire, surely.
“Does it what, mo nighean donn?”
“Does it frighten you? How—easy this is?” She touched his chest. “Like it was only yesterday we last saw each other?”
He released the breath he had been holding and touched her face. “It frightens me only insomuch as it makes my heart feel whole again; and it hasna been for a verra long time. It frightens me to feel that I must learn anew how to hold all these emotions in my heart, once more. But the comfort and the—us-ness between us? I couldna ever be frightened by that; no more than I could be frightened of my own voice.” He gently laid his palm flat against her breast. “Mo chridhe.”
She traced the lines of his collarbone. “I very nearly went to Edinburgh first, you know.”
“Aye, ye said, in the…your letter.”
It was tucked away in his satchel, along with the PhotoGraphs; and he would keep it, always, but he wasn’t altogether sure he could bring himself to read it again.
“All the way here from Lallybroch, after I spoke with your sister, I wondered if I ought to have gone there first.” She paused. “Do you think it would have been easier on us? If I had just appeared through your shop door?”
“It would have given me back a hank of grey hairs that I’ve gained in the last week.”
She laughed, but was not to be dismissed. “What would you have done?”
He’d have been toiling away at the presses, no doubt, with no notion of great happenings about to take place. Perhaps Fergus might have been present, but most days it was him alone in the shop. What would he have done, when he’d heard her voice with no warning? He’d likely have fainted, as he nearly did at Jenny’s news…but beyond that? What would he have done with Claire Beauchamp before him, alive and well and glowing like the June sun, ready and willing to spend the rest of her days with him?
“I ken I wouldna have told ye all the truth…about Laoghaire and William.”
“Oh? Why should that have changed?”
“Is it no’ clear? I’d have been so scairt that it would be too much to hear.” He shook his head in growing conviction. “For all the terror and the near-missing in the way things did come to pass, at least I was able to tell ye all, Claire, wi’ no hesitation. There was nothing more to be lost and so I was able to just say everything, some things I hadna ever once spoken aloud to everyone! It just—The truth was the only thing that could keep ye from going. And so while I canna say this is precisely how I’d have wished things to occur, everything is known between us, now, and that is right. Do ye see?”
“It was a gift to both of us, in its way,” she whispered, “though I know it wasn’t easy.”
“No.” He squeezed her hand, feeling the fine bones and the unbearable silkiness of it. How he wished he could see her. “But if ye’d come upon me in Edinburgh, so far from home, from Laoghaire, wi’ me living under a false name already…. Lord, if you’d just arrived there before me? Handed me the moon and offered this miracle of which I’d vainly dreamed for so long? Could I have told ye I had a son? Could I have told ye was marrit and risked ye leaving at once?” He swallowed, ashamed of the truth, but knowing it was truth all the same. “No. I’d have kept it from ye as long as possible. Maybe forever.”
“No you wouldn’t,” she said with immediate, easy confidence. “You’re too much of a noble hero-type to have conscienced any such thing, Jamie Fraser, and you know it.”
God, does she truly believe that?
A new terror gripped him and he felt his mouth go utterly dry.
The man he had been these last years—James Fraser or Alexander Malcolm or whoever he might be when he was alone only with his thoughts—had been shaped so deeply by grief and bitterness. Crushed first in the loss of her and the bairn; then laid low by the years of hiding and imprisonment, the strain of clearances upon his family; then William, first the fear of him, then tentative joy, and then the loss, forever; and finally rushing up that crest of hope, that desperate hope that something good was to be found in marrying again, and the ache of crashing down onto the sharp realities below.
Claire held in her arms a man bitter and broken. Was he one that she could love, really love, once the euphoria of reunion had worn away? Was the shattered man he had been merely a relic of loneliness that would now vanish with her presence? Or would traces remain? Perhaps the Jamie she had loved had ceased to be and could not be revived. In fact, he was certain that it was not so very far from the truth.
“I’m none so very noble as ye might wish to believe, Sassenach.”
He felt her stiffen.
“Perhaps it’s that I’ve lost too much to honor, or….I’m…” He withdrew, trying to touch her as little as possible as he got the words out. “Ye must ken I’m not altogether the same man of twenty years ago, Claire.”
“But I’m truly not, Claire. I wish to be, will endeavor to be, for your sake; but I have…. such fears.”
The wind had ceased to wail outside their cloak shelter. He could hear every intake and exhale of her breaths.
He suddenly felt her hand, cool and sure, touching his cheek, the other coming to rest on the curve of his breast. “Is your heart still mine?”
“Yours,” he croaked. “Yours, mo nighean donn. Never did it stop being so.”
“Then, we’ll manage with the rest. All the rest.” She cupped the back of his neck to pull him down closer. “I see what you fear, what you dread you are. Perhaps I couldn’t have seen it, if I’d found you in Edinburgh; but I’m here now, and I see you.”
She saw him. Even in darkness, Claire saw him.
“I love you, Jamie Fraser.”
And though that was a point on which he had never held the faintest doubt, the hearing of it now, her declaration, his true name….
To be seen, and yet still be loved.
Tears came, fast and many, and he made no move to halt them. She pulled him down to her breast, murmuring love over him again and again as sleep pressed itself upon him, her hands holding him. He could sleep, at last. Claire was watching over him.