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Atonement

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“Good evening Mr. Beauchamp, Mrs. Beauchamp. My name is James Fraser.”

His voice lifted into the night — casual, conversational, just loud enough to be heard over the rush of dark water beneath them. 

“It’s, ah… it’s an honor to finally be able to speak t’ye in person. Claire’s told me so much about the both of ye.”

He faltered for a moment; opened his mouth on a half-breath and closed it again. “Sorry,” he exhaled shakily, pressing his palm to the small of her back. “Just a wee bit nervous. I want to say the right things, ye ken… make a good first impression.”

 




She hadn’t thought anything of it when he’d taken M40 heading northbound out of London. It was the fastest route to Inverness, after all. 

Nor when he made to exit the motorway an hour later. They were both tired; she assumed he meant to find a hotel where they could stay the night, start the rest of their drive fresh the next morning.

It wasn’t until he turned on his indicator at Oxford Ring Road that Claire realized where he was taking her.

No… Jesus H. Christ, he wouldn’t… 

After the initial paroxysm of panic had burned through her, she was left staring at him with the smoldering embers of indignation.

Hurt.

Anger.

Resentment.

Jamie knew what this place meant to her. He, of all people, should have understood that she could never come back — that she could never face the sight of that water, those guard rails; the grassy bank where she swam to safety; the stretch of road where she waited for help, retching river water and silt and and bile while her parents… 

Several hundred meters before the bridge, Jamie pulled the rental car over to the side of the road and turned on his hazard lights. He sat quietly beside her for what felt a small eternity, resting one hand on the gear shift while the other clenched and unclenched on the steering wheel. As the silence stretched on, it was all Claire could do to glare at his profile in the dim blue light of the dash, her lips pursed and chin quivering with the effort to keep tears at bay.

“I can turn around, a nighean,” he said at last, softly but decisively. “Just say the word, and I swear to ye, I’ll put us straight back onto the motorway.” Though he’d tipped his head toward her as he spoke, his gaze was trained on the bridge ahead of them, as if he were seeing something ahead that she couldn’t. “But you should know that the reason I brought ye here is ‘cos I… I’d like to have a word wi’ yer parents.” He finally turned to look at her then, every line of his face etched with tenderness. “And I think it might help ye to hear it.”

Drip by scorching drip, Claire felt her indignation begin to erode, running down her cheeks in slow, heavy streaks.

Jamie knew her. 

In moments when she didn’t even know what she needed, he always seemed to intuitively understand how to help her.

And right now he thought she needed this. 

He wouldn’t force the issue. Claire believed him; she could tell him no, and he would turn around, no questions asked. Part of her wanted to do exactly that. Her survival instincts were screaming at her to run away, far away, as fast as she possibly could. 

But she’d been running from this place for twenty fucking years. 

It hadn’t helped.

Jamie had. 

He’d been the only person to ever hear her darkest, most painful confession — to learn exactly what she’d done, what it had cost. And rather than condemning her for it, he’d drawn her close, whispering the words of absolution her soul had been starved for. 

In one hour, he’d given her more comfort than she’d known in two aching, empty decades.

But that had been a different set of circumstances entirely: tucked away in a hospital room in Boston, thousands of miles from this place, carefully removed from the sights and smells and sounds that would be a vivid, inescapable reminder of everything that had happened that night. 

And here, under Jamie’s unflinching, knowing gaze, she felt as though there was nowhere left to hide. It was as if every last nerve ending in her body had been flayed bare, raw and exposed and terrifyingly vulnerable. 

He knew what he was asking of her. He knew, and still...

Trust me? he’d asked at the airport, holding her eyes with the same expression that he’d locked on her now.

At long last, Claire swallowed against the knot in her throat, giving him a slow, tremulous nod. 

“Okay,” she breathed.

 




His Sassenach had tucked her face beneath his chin the moment they were out of the car, shaking like a leaf and steadfastly refusing to look at their surroundings. He could feel the occasional tear drip onto his neck as he walked her to the middle of the bridge, but her steps never once faltered. 

Christ, but she was a brave wee thing. 

If there was a choice to be had, he would have bundled her right back into the car, sped off into the night and taken her somewhere she felt safe. But with time, he had finally come to understand that there was no such place; the memories of this bridge haunted her no matter where she went. Someone should have been here to help her process the trauma twenty years ago, when she was just a bairn, soaked to the skin and standing in this very spot. Instead, her guilt had been allowed to fester, to permeate every last crevice of her soul until there was no escaping it. 

What had happened here, on this bridge, was the root of every insecurity, every doubt, every ounce of self-loathing in the woman he loved. And as excruciating as it might be, he knew that she would never be able to heal until the ghosts of that night were finally laid to rest. 

So he meant to have a word with Henry and Julia Beauchamp. 

He’d started off with a strong enough introduction, he thought, but stumbled as the weight of what he was doing began to hit him in force. Failure was not an option here. He couldn’t misspeak, couldn’t phrase anything in a way that might unintentionally hurt more than it healed. 

Courage, man, he counseled himself. She needs you. Just speak from the heart, aye? 

Burying his face in her hair, he filled his lungs with the warm scent of her, then looked back out over the metal railing, lifting his voice into the crisp winter night. 

“I think, before anything else, I should start off by thanking ye,” he continued. “Your daughter is the best person I’ve ever known in my life. She’s… completely and utterly selfless, she… she’s kind, and compassionate, and whip smart, and—and stubborn, Christ is she stubborn.” He made a soft hum of amusement, and felt some of the tightness ease from his chest. “She makes me laugh harder than anyone. She can light up a room just by walkin’ into it, and she immediately puts everyone at ease, makes them feel comfortable. Safe.” 

He could feel Claire’s resistance in the bowstring tension of each muscle, the subtle shake of her head against his neck. He smoothed a reassuring hand over her back as he spoke, but even if it strained every last self-deprecating instinct she possessed, he knew that these were the words she needed to hear. 

“And I ken that she’s grown into this… incredible woman because of the values and the… the empathy she learned from her parents. That much is plain in the way she speaks of ye. So I think it’s only right that the two of ye should hear it from someone who… who’s been on the receiving end of it, ye ken? Someone who’s only able to stand here speaking wi’ ye tonight because your daughter saved my life.”

“Jamie,” Claire finally croaked in protest, trying to raise up to look at him. He tightened his hold just enough to still her, then cuddled her back in, laying his cheek on top of her head.

“It’s natural for her, ye ken. She’s a born healer. Before I knew anything else about her, I knew that. The very first day I transferred to her floor in the hospital, another nurse, a new one, she, ah—she almost ripped my skin clean off.” At the mere memory, he clenched the muscles of his back reflexively, wincing. “And I snapped, I was… raging at her like some kind of animal, screamin’ and cursin’... and it wasn’t even about that. See, I’d, ah… I’d just learned that my father had been dead for six weeks, and my own sister hadna told me. I was out of my mind wi’ grief. So this was just the last straw, I suppose. And the first thing the charge nurse did was send Claire in to calm me down. And she did, she…” His voice grew faint, and he paused for a moment, swallowing thickly and turning his lips in to kiss her crown.   

“She touched me. She found me when I was broken down, weeping like a bairn, and she gave me her hand. She asked me about my Da, she… she gave me space to… to grieve him, but she wouldna let me take the blame for his death, even when I was so sure that it was all my fault.”

“It wasn’t,” Claire choked out, and the pads of his fingers gripped into the soft flesh of her shoulder, desperate for her to hear her own words.

“I canna help but wonder what would have happened if someone had been here to do the same for yer daughter.” He dropped the register of his voice to a low murmur, right against the shell of her ear. “If someone had taken her hand that night, standing where we are now, and told her that a… a bairn askin’ for an ice cream cone was not responsible for what happened here.” 

She was still fighting, resisting; so rigid in his arms that each smothered sob felt as though it might splinter her bones. 

Jamie held her tighter still, but he didn’t stop. Christ, he didn’t dare stop. 

“I ken if you’d been able, you would have told her yerselves. Explained that you were the adults; you were the ones making the decisions. You knew, Mr. Beauchamp, that ye’d worked all night and been awake all day. That ye were nodding off at the wheel, and too tired to be drivin’ home. Just like I knew that it was an eejit move to take off my seatbelt and reach down to grab my mobile.” He nodded faintly to himself, then fixed his gaze on the shimmering reflection of the moonlight on the river. “We made our choices, you and I. And we paid the consequences.”

Claire broke then.

Her knees gave out from beneath her without warning, and the full weight of her slumped forward into Jamie’s arms. He would have carried her, if he could. She was so small, so fragile — it physically pained him to not be able to scoop her up, as he might have done a year ago. 

But it was also right, somehow… he recognized that there was something right about the fact that he slid down to the ground with her, holding her right where she was.

For a long while, he simply cradled her in silence, gently repositioning until she was sitting between his bent knees, her limbs wrapped around his torso like a vine. The sobs ripping through her were so merciless, so violent that they were completely soundless, save the desperate, shrill gasps for air she was trying to drag through a clenched windpipe. 

He squeezed his eyes shut, gritting his teeth to keep from trying to comfort her just yet. 

Somehow, he had the feeling Claire had never done this: never grieved with her whole body, let it ravage her, consume her. 

And she needed to.

But every muscle fiber in his body burned with the need to do something; as a compromise, he began to sway her, just slightly — rocking on instinct to the metronome of his own heartbeat. 

“Leig a-mach e, mo ghràidh,” he whispered, his lips pressed to the soft skin just behind her ear. “Tha e ceart gu leòr.”

Claire had no Gàidhlig, of course, but the encouragement behind the words seemed to reach her just the same. She gripped him with white-knuckled fists and locked ankles, allowing him to anchor her as wave after wave of crushing grief battered her from the inside out.

And, in time — as with even the most ferocious of storms — the worst of it finally passed. 

The frantic, breathless sobs gave way to rapidly stuttering ones — and those, in turn, eased gradually to rhythmic, whimpering hums. When Claire had enough lung capacity to stop and sniffle between breaths, Jamie knew the time for comfort had come: the hand that had been holding steady at the base of her skull softened and slipped through her curls, while the one at the small of her back began to massage deep, calming figure-eights over the muscles knotting her spine.

The effect was immediate: Claire heaved out a deep, shaky sigh, and relaxed against him, boneless and spent.

Christ, how he wanted to collapse with her. It felt as though they’d both run a full marathon already. He had said much, and the heady exhaustion of catharsis was right there with open arms, tempting him to slip down with her. 

But he had brought her here for a reason. And he couldn’t lose his courage — or his motivation — quite yet.

Gently, he guided Claire’s head up from his shoulder, and gave her a wee smile as he wiped at her swollen eyes and runny nose with his shirt sleeve. She let out a soft, pained breath that was almost a laugh, and he couldn’t have stopped himself from kissing her in that moment for anything in the world.

Long after he’d released her bottom lip from between his, he rested quietly with his forehead pressed to hers, listening to the sobering babble of the river below them. He let himself get lost in it for a moment; tried to imagine himself as a bairn of ten, listening to that deceptively peaceful sound as he waited for help that would not come fast enough. Shaking his head faintly, he cupped Claire’s face in his hands, and slowly drew back to look at her.

“The weight of what happened here is more than any one person can bear alone,” he rasped, so hoarsely it was barely audible over the sound of the water. “And for so long, ye’ve had no choice but to carry it yerself.” His own vision was too blurred to be able to see her clearly, but he felt a fresh trickle of warm tears slip over his fingers, and tenderly brushed them away. “There’s nothing I can do to change those twenty years, Claire. But I can promise ye that no matter what happens, you’ll never be alone again.” 

He reached for her left hand and held it tight for a moment — considered wrapping his pinky around hers to make it official. 

But she needed more from him now. That’s why they were here.

So instead, he brought her knuckles to his lips, then smoothed his thumb back and forth over the delicate skin as he looked back out at the river one last time.

“Which brings me back to you, Mr. and Mrs. Beauchamp,” he said, swallowing hard against the lump in his throat. His voice couldn’t waver, not for this part — even if it did feel as though his wame was trying to wrench itself up his esophagus.

“I’ve done a fine job of tellin’ ye what you already know about yer own daughter,” he continued, huffing out a tight laugh to cover his nervousness. “And I want ye to know that, more than anyone, I realize what she deserves. And I’m, ah… I’m unemployed at the moment. Dinna have a car, or a place to live. Dinna have much of anything to my name except a mound of medical debt. I would lay the world at yer daughter’s feet, but I have nothing to give her.” With a wee frown, he brought Claire’s third finger to his lips. “Not even a ring.”

She gasped, then.

Understood.

Her fingers clenched around his until they were bone white, and she exhaled brokenly, “Jamie…”

He didn’t dare look at her. Not yet. He would never finish if he did.

“But with your blessing, Mr. and Mrs. Beauchamp, I would spend the rest of my days reminding your daughter that she is loved. That she is worthy of being loved. Even if we dinna have much, I think… I think I can make her happy.” He dropped his voice to a whisper as Claire bowed her head into his chest. “I’d verra much like to try.” 

It seemed she was incapable of saying anything but his name, choked once more into the folds of his coat. 

But it was certainly better than no.

With a trembling hand, Jamie curled a finger under her chin and eased her up to look at him. He nuzzled away her tears as they fell, then kissed the salty softness of each cheek.

“Do ye think they’d approve of me, Sassenach?” he asked quietly.

Claire opened her mouth to try to answer him, but no sound came out. When at last she bobbed her head in a vigorous nod, he felt his bones turn to water with relief.

“Thank Christ.” He grinned into a panting kiss. “Because I would have asked ye anyway.” 

His lips closed over hers twice more before he clasped their joined hands between their chests. He couldn’t kneel, not with her currently sitting in his lap — but he found he didn’t care overmuch about the unorthodoxy of it at all… only that she knew, finally and forever, that he was hers.

If she’ll have ye, he reminded himself, feeling his throat turn to sandpaper. Ever since he’d returned to her, Claire had been trying her damndest to push him away at every turn, convinced that it was better for him, somehow, to be without her. And whether or not he’d done enough to persuade her otherwise still remained to be seen.

Both of their hearts were pounding by the time he managed to gather enough moisture in his mouth to be able to speak again. “I know ye have yer doubts, mo chridhe, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I dinna ken what the future has in store for us. Canna promise that it’ll be easy, but… but what I can promise is that I am willing to do whatever it takes to make this work.” He leaned back so he could look her straight in the eyes, even as hers overflowed with tears, sparkling silver in the moonlight. 

“When I was sick wi’ the meningitis, when I thought I was dying…” he continued softly, “All I could picture was the life I would never be able to have wi’ you. All the mornings waking up wi’ you on my chest, and.. and the evenings curled up on the couch, listenin’ to ye gripe about subway tile.” He smiled crookedly, but the expression softened as he leaned in to graze his nose up and down the length of hers. “The day I would finally look up to see you walking down a church aisle to meet me.”  

His lifted his thumb to stroke slowly over her cheekbone, sweeping a tear-matted curl behind her ear. “At the end of my life, you were all that mattered. And you were what brought me back. So now that I have a second chance to get this right, I need to ask ye… Claire…” 

He brushed his lips against her temple. “Elizabeth…” 

Her brow. “Beauchamp…” 

Her mouth. 

“Will you marry me?” 




“Leig a-mach e, mo ghràidh,” = let it out, my love.

“Tha e ceart gu leòr.” = it’s alright