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In the Forests of the Night

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Prelude I - This is a dark house, very big.

In the mornings, Claire forgot. As she stirred slowly, a twitch of her little finger, a stretch of her arm, reaching, seeking, finding--nothing. Slipping from sleep into wakefulness was the icy plunge into a loch in winter, a knife's edge of pain so sharp it left her gasping, the gut-punch of reality at first making her heart feel like it would stop before the adrenaline of a body in pain made it hammer so hard she wished it would.

It had been four months since she had come back through the stones. Four months of this, of stretching for Jamie as a flower turns toward sunlight, before the bright shock of day brought her fully into the world, wide awake and aching all over again. Some days she felt she would die from the pain of it. Some days she wished she would.

Slipping her feet to the cold floor and groaning, stretching her back, trying to release the tight muscles as she supported the weight of her swollen belly, Claire was struck, every day, by how different it all was. When she had been pregnant with Faith, every day had seemed a gift, one that had never been assured in the wake of Black Jack Randall. The happiness of it all had been blinding: Jamie, rubbing her feet every night; Murtagh, a damp gleam in his dark eyes and a smile whenever he thought she wasn't looking; Fergus, coltish with the excitement of new life; the nights of sighs and sounds as Jamie sought to discover the shifting terrain of her new and unfamiliar body. She had been filled to the brim with joy once. Now she felt like nothing so much as an iron pot, rusted through. It wasn't that there was no joy; she could still be taken by surprise and made breathless by the beauty of the autumn around her, so warm even now. It was that any joy lingered for a flash before seeping away, ebbing beyond her reach back into the earth where the rest of her heart lay.

Worse, she was ashamed. She hated this child. Hated it. Loathed it. Couldn't bring herself to think of it at all except in fiery anger. If she'd just stayed, if she'd just lied and said he was wrong, that she couldn't be carrying a child, that it was too early, that she was too thin--couldn't he see that?-- she could have died with him, maybe. As it was she was here. Alone.

And as she discovered, it was far more difficult to be alone when someone else was there with you. Frank was there. Seemingly always. His eyes tracked her every move, fingers twitching in her direction as he stopped himself from reaching out. Opening and closing his mouth, the words always sticking in his throat. That was fine. Hers were stuck too.

She didn't remember it being so ungainly, pregnancy. Faith had been born early--far too early--and she was desperate at the thought of experiencing something new without him. And this late stage was certainly new. How could her stomach be so large? It seemed impossibly large as she held it up; she sometimes wondered that it didn't rip clean off the front of her body. As if in compensation for her absolute emptiness--or was it deadness?-- the child was active, so active. Every other second a kick would come to some internal place, like being battered from the inside out. She felt herself like a hollow shell, emptied out of all its former residents.

She rose from the bed at long last and softly padded her way to the bathroom. Morning ablutions she wielded like the Eucharist, one of the few sacraments she had left. She loved the shower and hated it in equal measure, a tangible symbol of all she had missed before and all she had wished never to see again. Turning away, she made for the kitchen. "Nothing a cup of tea can't fix," Frank had told her endlessly since her return. It made her want to lob a teacup, the pot, all the boiling water in all the English kettles in all the world at his head. She didn't, though; a quick flex of her jaw and then a distant smile in his general direction was her only response, ever, as she turned her back on him and leaned towards the stove. Today, he was up and out early, off to the college for some reason or other. Perhaps she should have felt stung, nettled by his increasing avoidance of her, but damned if she wasn't just relieved. It made things easier, being alone with no one else around.

The house around her was cavernous and dark, too large a house for their paltry amount of furniture. She found a gnarled part of her soul loved it, this Virginia Woolf house. Its rooms evacuated, so like the chambers of her own heart and lungs; its windows, staring emptily out at the gray street beyond. They shared a kinship, they two, and during the day she would rattle around like an old ghost and run her fingers over the mantle, the columns, the doorways--soft touches tethering her to the reality of this place. Today, though, she had places to be so a quick morning tea and tasteless bite of something and she was out the door and once more thrown into a strange and unwanted land.

-

The doctor stared at her appraisingly as she sat on the examination table. Probably at some point in her life--back when Claire was still here-- she would have met his gaze with frankness. Now she alternated between staring listlessly at the poster of a baby in the womb and at the water stain on the ceiling. It looks like a rabbit, she told him, quietly in her heart.

"I'll be frank with you Mrs. Randall. You are endangering both yourself and the child." He was a short, unassuming man, with kind eyes and a deft touch, and she hated him, all at once, so suddenly it felt like a canon blast in her chest. Her whiskey eyes narrowed to slits as she saw his face for the first time, really, since she'd walked in the door. If he was taken aback by her sudden vehemence, he didn't show it. Instead he heaved a great sigh through his nose and sat down on his stool.

"Have you been eating at all? Have you even stepped outside? Because I'll be honest, Mrs. Randall, I can clearly count each one of your ribs. Your skin is paper thin. I'd bet my license your hair is falling out."

Her eyes slid away from his at this, his gaze so urgent, so earnest, so clearly kindly-meant.

"I've seen hundreds of happy couples awaiting the birth of their first child. Bluntly put, this isn't what that looks like. Like it or not--and I can tell it's not--I am your doctor. If you expect to get through this with yourself and your baby in tact, you will have to tell me eventually."

The sudden rush of tears to her eyes made them burn, burn as much as she hated this doctor, this city, this world, this time.

A pause, an assessing look so quick she might have imagined it. "So I'll ask now: is there anything you need to tell me?" Other doctors, ones less aware, less kind, less gentle, might have carried on at this point. But Dr. Campbell--a Scottish name, a final, bitter irony--just sat as the silence unfurled.

Claire had kept her word; she had told not a soul beyond Mrs. Graham about it all. But here, now, with this kind doctor in this sterile room she felt her ribs begin to crack open like the crushed shell of a snail on the sidewalk, the wreckage of a life inside. She didn't tell him everything--of course, how could she?—but she made a story that made it real. A husband lost in the war, she, already pregnant, reconnecting with an old school friend who had offered to marry her. She didn't tell of the hate in her heart, the bitter loathing that choked in her throat with every passing second, but she wondered if she didn't need to. He saw it well enough, it seemed.

At the end, she sat. Like an empty husk or a log of wood burned to cinder, still holding its shape until the smallest movement caused it crumble into dust--sparks, in the night sky, Jamie close behind her, a hand spread wide against her stomach and a raspy laugh in her ear--she waited, curling in on herself. Dr. Campbell said nothing, merely reached out a hand and laid it on hers. "My sons died in the war, you know." It was said bluntly, uninflected, safely compartmentalized behind the screen of professionalism and that hidden, dark place that every doctor kept inside of them. "I know you were a combat nurse. And I can tell that you saw the worst of it."

Christ, if he only knew, Angus bleeding out under her hands, the American soldier crying out for his mother, loss layered upon loss until absence was all that was left.

"But as a nurse, you must know this cannot go on." A tightening of his hand on hers, a firmness that bespoke of resolve. "You must keep on living. If not for yourself, then for this baby." A slight pause, and then with a ragged edge "If you don't, what a damned terrible waste."

The words hung on the air between them and Claire felt the rage inside her, the only thing keeping her warm, ebb away like the tide from the shore. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes."

-

As she trundled back home--just a bus ride and a brief walk--Och, look at that bird, mo nighean donn…— Claire stopped short in front of a store she'd never bothered to notice before. Herb McNutt's Garden Store! the sign out front cheerily shouted at her. Before she realized what she was doing, her hand was on the knob, and, pushing the doorway gently in, she was greeted by a chiming bell. "Out in a tick, darlin'!" shouted a voice from somewhere in the cramped shop. The aisles were too close together and haphazardly arranged, but stepping into the outdoor space beyond was like the first thrill of rain after a drought. Claire was conscious of the gentle smell of earth and loam, so familiar and so dear to her. Slowly she became aware of a kindly older woman, standing behind her, pretending to neaten one of the disordered shelves within the store. Claire stood there, paper skin, sunken, dark eyes, planet-sized belly, and exhaled, before turning abruptly and asking "Have you any mint?"

Mrs. McNutt--"Herb's out in the field today, don-cha-know, who wouldn't be with this weather-ha ha ha!-but never fret, I can help with anything you need"-- the feeling of pressure on her wrist, his hand encircling the delicate joint entirely, a bright and happy bark of surprised laughter "Just like Mrs. Fitz, she is" whispered against the shell of her ear--turned out to be a woman of perhaps sixty or so. Claire had the uncanny sense of having been weighed and measured without her having realized it as the determinedly cheery Mrs. McNutt quickly produced a basket and began filling it with various seeds and garden supplies, using gentle, fleeting touches to direct Claire this way or that. She never lingered, but her touches were soft and warm, a human kindness that deftly penetrated the glass bell jar encasing Claire's soul but was gone before the fragile substance could shatter and leave her exposed and raw.

As she rang Claire up, she chatted with the happy, fast pace of most Americans Claire had met, asking "My goodness, you must be due any day now! After a long, hot summer, I bet you can't wait!" And Claire was aware, for a moment, of awkwardness as she quietly murmured "Oh no, well, not yet anyway, I still have 2 months to go." Mrs. McNutt cast a skeptical eye upon her before saying "You must be expecting an elephant if you're only 7 months along!" She didn't have the heart to tell the friendly face before her that "No, sorry, it's just that I'm starving, my doctor tells me, so maybe I just look bigger in comparison?" and instead tested out a rusty half-laugh that creaked like the fire grate at Lallybroch whenever it had to be moved. After completing her transaction and being encouraged by Mrs. McNutt to return-- "Let me know how those herbs get along, darlin', and be sure to bring that tiny elephant of yours along too!"--Claire stepped back out into the street, into a slightly brighter and stronger sun, as she slowly made her way home again.

Back in the Mad Woman's House, as she thought of it, Claire went directly out into the garden and surveyed her patch of land. Jamie had turned to her with the sun in his eyes that day when they had crested the hill and she had her first glimpse of Lallybroch off in the distance, and with joy on his lips and skin had pressed her down to the heather and into her, into the very core of her. The garden was small--she hadn't cared enough to check any of the yards while Frank and her ghost went house shopping--and bedraggled, choked down by decades of weeds and vines and neglect. Is this what her heart would look like ten, twenty years from now? But it got good sun and it was there, at least, and so with a creaky sigh she got to her knees and began to dig.

-

Two months later

Frank was in his study so Claire couldn't partake of her daily ritual of greeting the house with the touches that should have gone to Jamie. Instead, she made herself some tea and looked out over her herb garden. The gray winter light was flat and watery, but she didn't bother turning on the light. Instead she just looked. She remembered that day, over a month ago now, that she had first seen the seedlings sprouting through the dark soil. The joy of it was like a needle piercing through the pad of a finger, so deep it pressed against the nail. It hurt, Christ it had hurt, to be reminded that she might begin to live again.

She had been a model patient since her chat with Dr. Campbell, eating if not with relish then certainly with gusto. When Frank was gone on his long days at the college, she would sit before the fire and make soups and stews for her lunch, softly chatting to the house, to the baby, to Jamie.

She kept her promise in word alone, never speaking his name, but in the cloisters of her own mind she talked to him constantly, shattered again and again by the sense of his soul entwined around hers alongside the total absence of him. Today, the ache of her heart had started deep in her back. That was fine, though. As she knew, sometimes you felt the pain of a place somewhere else, as when a patient with a heart attack grips their left arm. It wasn't unusual for her to feel her heartbreak in her temples, her throat, her inner thighs, her womb. Another sharp jab, though, and the sudden sense of letting go when Claire looked down and realized that her skirt was soaked.

She stood up slowly, like surfacing from the middle of a deep, cool pond. "Frank?"

He called back from his study, almost as far away as she. "Yes, Claire?"

"I believe my waters have broken. Give me a lift?"

The pain was different, not worse nor better, than the terrible time with Faith. By the time they had got to the hospital, Claire was doubled over, gasping and sweating with it. Frank's normally cool and polish veneer had abraded, and his eyes darted around the room as though there might be an answer for him there, somewhere, to a question he had forgot. She was quickly settled into a room, feeling contraction after contraction bear down on her and the distinct sensation that she might be splitting open. She noticed when the tone in Dr. Campbell's voice shifted, when he started barking orders at a nurse. Her upper lip was wet as she began to say "What's--"

"Mrs. Randall, not to worry, we just need to wheel you down to the OR for a caesarean, and everything will be just fine," Dr. Campell's voice cut smoothly across hers. His tone left no room for argument, but still she struggled to get her questions out, finding each one smothered by the rapid action around her.

Claire felt like the house in the Wizard of Oz, picked up and blown far away, because before she knew it she was in the OR, staring up at the bleary face of Dr. Campell, who was saying "That's it, Mrs. Randall, tha--"

-

She awoke with tears still wet on her face, having started crying during sleep. It wasn’t an irregular occurrence, so she wasn’t much fussed by it. "Not to worry, sweetie," a pretty, young nurse chirped from the foot of Claire's bed, where she was examining Claire's chart. "Some people just react to anaesthesia that way—the crying, I mean."

It was a moment before Claire was conscious of the conspicuous absence of the weight of her belly, before she was grinding out, “Please—my baby, where is my baby?" The nurse's face suddenly crinkled into a very genuine smile.

"Oh, Mrs. Randall—“ she started to say, when suddenly Claire’s attention was caught by Frank, holding a small bundle against him, and behind him, Dr. Campbell, with another one.

The astonishment was blinding—Jamie’s gobsmacked face staring at her, pale with fear and joy together, "Two mo cridhe? Two!”—and as Claire inhaled she felt a tidal wave of something else, something she'd thought lost to her. By the time she had regained enough of her head to start to listen, she heard Dr. Campell say “—quite unusual not to catch it earlier, but these things do happen. Never you fear, though, both are quite happy and healthy. Largest set of twins I've ever seen, surely! Good job you had a caesarean, Mrs. Randall, eh? In a natural birth, well… thank God for modern medicine!” as his sincere smile beamed down at her. He leaned further, to pass her his bundle and said, "Mrs. Randall, your son," and then taking the bundle from Frank to lay it gently on her other side, "Mrs. Randall, your daughter."

The nurse came while Frank was recovering his wind down the hall, and ostensibly fetching Claire a cup of tea. She knew it was wrong, she did, but she took the chance and did it anyway. "Excuse me, Nurse? Could we record the names now?" The nurse, being quite agreeable, grabbed the form and responded "Of course, Mrs. Randall! How about your son?"

Claire's heart pounded, squeezed in the vice grip of the man who was gone. She had promised to name their son after his father, but— Looking down at the bright red of his crown, the shape of his face, the slant of his eyes—my God, it's you entirely, she told him—she gasped out as though punched "James. James Alexander Murtagh Randall." She had to spell "M-u-r-t-a-g-h" out to the nurse, who looked cheerfully puzzled but gamely struggled on. Frank would be furious, probably, maybe, but she could always tell the baby he was named after a friend of Uncle Lam's. Was it so wrong to ask for this little bit? They could never call him Jamie, nor James, no, but surely it wasn't so bad to wish he had his father in some way, if only attached to his name. If he went by Alex, surely it wouldn't be so bad?

"Now, on to baby girl!"

Her eyes fell upon their daughter--their daughter--her hair just as bright as her brother's and her older sister's. The same exact hue as baby Alex, but already more wild, snarled atop her head like a nest of birds. She and her brother were so perfectly alike, so much more Jamie than Claire, though both did have their mother's clear, high brow. For now they were perfect—perfect—and she cleared her throat before saying thickly, "Brianna Janet Ellen Randall". The nurse gave her a smile and a wink and then went off to file the paperwork, and Claire lay back in the bed and felt as her heart began painfully and laboriously to beat again.

The first months passed in a haze of approximately no sleep with two newborns in the house. Claire became aware slowly, though, that while Frank rushed to assist Brianna in any way, holding her, changing her diaper, singing softly to her, he rarely if ever did the same for Alex. At first, she assumed she must be imagining things and let it lapse from her mind. But as she watched with renewed vigor, she began to notice that Frank seemed to avoid any look at the baby. Claire felt ill, nauseous in the pit of her bones. Brianna, a girl, would at least forever be separate in Frank’s mind from the man who had fathered her. But the twins could have been identical, but for their genders, and their looks hadn't come from her: it was clear Alex was indelibly his father's son, just as she had described him.

But Jamie. Jamie had asked her to go to Frank, to be with Frank. His final request. But how could she stay knowing that Frank might ignore a child without his ever knowing why? The night after she had realized, Claire sat on the bed with her back facing away from Frank, and bit out, "I understand this is difficult, but if you cannot be a father to both these children, you cannot be a father to either of them." Claire could feel him stiffening, even across the bed. But to his credit he only sighed out, like the hiss of air from a spent balloon, "Yes. Yes, of course, I know. It's just-- God damn, Claire, he looks just bloody like him." Her jaw flexed with anger as she said quietly, "I know. But he is a baby, and it is not his fault. And you cannot punish him for something he did not do."

Days later, Frank would come to her, an apology on his lips as Claire stood still while he kissed her, saying, "We can make this work, we can."

It was odd to have the Mad Woman’s House suddenly feel full. Claire hadn’t had much experience with babies, not really, her role ending as she had slotted the ones she had helped birth into the arms of their parents. She had always thought that they would all be the same, like amorphous little blobs of something that might one day become a person. To her deep surprise, having always favored nurture over nature, she found that she was now cohabiting with two quite new individuals.

Brianna was exuberant from the first, joy spilling from her in helpless chattering, always with a hand flung wide towards whoever was most near. She had a stubborn streak a mile wide—A true Fraser she is, mo ghràidh as he smiled, and trailed his fingers down her spine—and would squall with the force of a tiny, red-faced, wrathful god. But her anger was as quick to leave as it was to come, and the smiles left behind took Claire’s breath away.

Alex was solemner, quieter. He fussed here and there, but mostly expressed his displeasure with his sister’s carrying-on with a scrunching of his face, a miniscule mirror of his father. It was as if the two parts of Jamie’s soul, the bright, brash one she had married and the one tempered by pain and by deep love, laid bare to her in the wake of Wentworth prison, had lodged themselves in their own two children. She wondered at it; sometimes she would read John Donne’s Metempsychosis to the two infants, far too small to understand the words, and wonder too if this had been the journey Jamie’s own soul had traced, taking root in their children, the only two pieces she had left of him.

It was remarkable, too, a gift really, to see them together. As the months drew on and they began to try with more constancy to speak their own thoughts, she noticed a curious thing that would pass between the two of them. Still in their babies’ babbling, they would chat back and forth, almost all day, as though they were having a conversation just they two. At night, kept awake by her grief that felt even keener as she looked upon them, Claire would creep into their nursery to watch them sleep. In contrast to their waking hours, Bree would sleep curled up, her hand resting on her little barrel belly. Alex, on the other hand, sprawled wild and free in these dark hours, kicking his feet and hands in punctuation of his dreams. But they slept together, her two tiny ones, always touching in different constellations—sometimes a hand, a foot, a forehead—faces turned always in towards the other.

Having the care of two infants kept her busy and exhausted, especially when Frank would parade them all out in front of some colleague or other at a dinner he hadn’t bothered to ask her about. He had stopped ignoring Alex fully, but she still sensed a careful distance in his interactions with the baby, a distance echoed by Alex’s always watchful stare upon his face.

As the weather grew warm, she began to bring them outside into her garden with her, laying them down on a blanket in her tiny greensward. Her plants were coming along nicely having survived the frosts and snows of winter, and here and there she would pick a leaf or a flower for them to touch, to smell, to taste. Brianna was always active; just now beginning to crawl, she preoccupied herself with pushing up, moving a few halting inches, and then tumbling down into the soft earth below as she chattered to Alex, telling him of her adventures.

Alex, though, tended to sit next to Claire, still and quiet save occasional responses back to his sister. As she moved from plant to plant, he would hold out a tiny palm in request and she would kiss it, softly, before giving him a pinch of mint leaf, a sprig of lavender, some lemon thyme. He would hold it up, as serious and solemn as a tiny Charles Darwin, and turn it back and forth, eyes sharp as he mapped his bounty by touch and taste and sight and smell.

When she was at her lowest, sometimes Claire would find herself resenting them for making her love them so deeply, part of her still wanting to drown in grief. But love them she did, so much more than she had ever thought possible, even with what it had cost her.

Years passed and the twins grew, becoming more and more themselves. Claire went to medical school, finding again a spark of who she once had been. The distance between Frank and Alex had only grown as the boy continued to, even as he became more and more the doting father to Brianna.

Claire confronted him about it, once, when the children were perhaps five, furious with the injustice of it. It was the worst fight they had ever had, accusations coming fast and deep. It was the first year of her medical training and the tension between them had been simmering, barely repressed, for months now.

At the last, her voice had cracked out between them, whipped like a lash deep into the back, “I want a divorce, Frank.” She had thought, prayed maybe, that this might be the end of it. But she had realized years ago—back with Jamie in Paris, maybe— that she had never truly known the corridors of Frank’s mind, never seen the all of him.

He was seething with rage, too, and hissed out to her, deadly as a snake, “Do you? And do you really think the court would give custody of two children to a mad woman?

Claire was taken aback. They had never discussed her story, not since that first time she had told him. She spoke from numb lips, “No one would believe you. There’s no proof.”

Isn’t there?” It was quiet, spoken with a gravity greater than threat. His eyes bored into hers, cold and frozen. “Do you not remember then? When you first came back—“ a sneer twisted his lips, “‘through’? You were drugged, sedated. You spilled everything out quite happily to the doctors, who very obligingly wrote it all down in your file. They suggested you might need to be committed. How terrible to think you might have had a relapse.”

Claire stared at him, stopped short. Her heart was pounding from very far away. “You wouldn’t. You’d have to take Alex, then. You wouldn’t.

He had turned at that and, leaning over the armchair into which she had sunk in shock, caged her between his arms, his face pressed close enough that she could smell the whiskey still on his breath. “Wouldn’t I?

She had shrunk away from him in some animal instinct of fear and rage. She had hated him then, hated him more than she had hated anyone. But stories such as theirs were neither easy nor clear, and she had known that as well as he. It was love of Brianna that had made him pull this his final card against her. And as much as she hated him, she also felt a taut tenderness at the knowledge that this man who she would never, could never, want was also the only person in the world who understood how she felt, willing to give up his very soul for the child they shared between them.

It was a curious bond forged between them that night and the air was heavy and tense with it. Neither had looked away from the other, so neither had seen the soft stockinged feet of a small little boy, peering at them from between the banisters before rising and silently moving off to bed.

They wouldn’t speak of divorce again, not until that day so many years later. The day Frank died.