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A Place to Belong

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After getting her bearings, Claire made her way downstairs and outside. She wandered the grounds a bit aimlessly until she heard thudding from the stables. It was the time of day where the horses were grazing, so there was only one thing that could be making that noise. Claire peered inside to see Fergus hurling horseshoes at one of the beams, grunting loudly with every throw.

He depleted his stock, so he quieted and made his way to pick them up again. Claire rapped on the door, and he looked up in surprise.

“Is it alright if I come in?”

He sighed and threw down the horseshoes. He leaned against the beam he’d been aiming at and slid down into the hay, head in his hands. Claire took this as tentative permission and slowly made her way toward him, and he did not object when she sat down next to him in the hay.

“I heard about the pistol, Fergus,” Claire said, trying her best to keep her voice devoid of accusation, but firm all the same. “I know you’re the one that fired it.”

He kept his head in his hands, fingers threaded through his curls and elbows on his bent knees, staring blankly ahead of him.

“That was a foolish thing you did,” she said evenly. “You could have been arrested and flogged. Somebody else could have been. Rabbie, who is your friend. Or your Uncle. Mary MacNab just took the fall for you. Something seriously terrible could have happened to her.”

The boy’s jaw hardened.

“Why would you do something like that?”

“To protect the bairn,” he said simply.

“Fergus,” Claire said, demanding he look at her. He did, reluctantly. “Do you really believe that a raven could have hurt the baby?”

“If I did? Will you call me stupid since you know better because of where you come from ?”

Claire blinked back her shock for a moment. Did he really think so poorly of her to assume she’d berate him?

“No,” she answered, as calmly as she could muster. “I just...I think you know better than to bring very real danger to Lallybroch because of a superstition.”

He took a fistful of hay in his hands and started tearing individual strands with short, angry movements.

“So you are saying I am stupid.”

“Fergus…” Claire sighed with exasperation. “I’m trying to have a conversation with you. I’m upset by everything that happened today, and upset knowing that you had a hand in causing it.”

He started tearing more furiously at his strands of hay.

“And I wanted to try to understand,” she continued. “You’ve been...so different lately. I want to help you if I can.”

“I’m fine .”

“No, I really think you’re not! Even before today you’ve been irritable and very short with me.”

He abruptly stood up and punched the beam he was leaning against, and Claire jolted in surprise.

“This behavior is dangerous in this world! Don’t you understand?” Claire stood up. “If you’d gone after those men that hurt me, they’d have shot you without a thought! Or mutilated and maimed you! Is that what you want?”

His nostrils flared as he briefly nursed his now bruised and battered knuckles.

“If you don’t get that temper under control, something terrible is going to happen. You can’t be so bloody impulsive.” She went to reach for his hand to check for any blood, but he pulled away.

“I am not a child anymore,” he said hotly. “I do not need coddling.”

“Christ, Fergus! What has gotten into you?” She crossed her arms, eyeing him in disbelief. “Have you even heard a word I’ve said? Do you not understand the danger you’ve put this family in?”

“It is my job to protect this family!” he shouted. “I am a man now!”

“You will not be a man until you learn to think before you act!” Claire spat. “And shooting at a bloody bird with a weapon that you know was hidden for a damn good reason is not thinking before you act!”

“I do not need you to mother me anymore!” he fired right back, and Claire felt a harder blow to her gut than the Corporal’s boot. “You are afraid of the whole world, but I am not!”

Her throat began constricting with tears of rage.

“Fergus — ”

“You would hold on to me so tight I would choke if I let you! Because you are afraid!”

“I’ve very good reason to be afraid!” she cried. “Don’t you understand what it would do to me if something were to happen to you?”

“Happen to me? Or happen to Milord?”

She froze in shocked confusion for a moment. “What...?”

“I have been trying...for years to be what you need me to be, to be what you lost! And it is never enough! So now I will be what I need me to be! A protector, a man!”

Claire almost collapsed to her knees. Not because she was shocked, but because he was right. And she knew it.

“You have been...since Milord... figé dans le temps ...you cannot...you cannot let it go! And you want me to be...frozen with you! To never let it go!”

Claire felt the earth beneath her shifting and her throat dry up.

He’s right.

“Well I have grown while you stayed frozen. And you cannot be angry with me for that.”

“I’m...I’m not angry, Fergus. I just....I want you to grow, and have a life, but you can’t be reckless, especially since you’re claiming to be doing it for the sake of the family!” She chanced a step closer to him, digging her fingers into her arms for stability. She lowered her voice, softened it. “No matter how old you get, I’ll never stop worrying about you.”

“I survived in the brothel for almost eleven years before you and Milord found me, and I was just fine!” Claire felt a brick drop into her stomach, nearly jumping in surprise at his shouting in response to her soft words. “I have been a man for a long time already!”

Claire’s chest heaved with pained betrayal, and she was unable to bite back vengeful, spiteful rage in return. She and Jamie had rescued him from that place, from an eventual fate worse than death. How dare he throw that in her face?

“Oh, please! The only thing you learned from that place was how to sleep around, unsafely at that!”

Before the absolute horror at the words that had come out of her own mouth could set in, Fergus was already winding up to fire right back.

“You see? I knew it! This is not about a pistol and a bird!” Fergus spat. “ You need me more than I ever needed you! And now, you are angry with me! You are angry with me because I am not enough like Milord! Because no matter how I try, I will never be perfect like he was! And you will never forgive me for it!” He picked up another horseshoe and hurled it across the stable before storming away.

“Fergus!” Claire’s voice broke, and she felt fragments of her heart fly through her chest and cut her open. “Wait!”

What have I done…?

She hiked up her skirts and sprinted after him, her voice catching in her throat every time she tried to shout after him again, but a pair of arms caught her around the middle, and she yelped.

“Dinna follow him jest yet.” Ian’s calming voice entered her ears, and she ceased her feeble struggle. She hadn’t even noticed he was anywhere nearby. “He needs to be alone wi’ his anger fer a while.” He shifted her in his arms so he could look her in the eye. “As do you.”

Claire’s chin trembled and she bit down fiercely on her lip. “I said such...horrible things to him…”

“Come on, let’s get ye inside.”

“He’ll never forgive me…” Claire sputtered, unable to fight Ian as he gently pushed her toward the house.

“It’ll be alright, lass. He’s still yer boy.”

Claire shook her head, weeping quietly.

I’ve just lost him forever.

——

Claire stood and began helping the girls clear the table. Her eyes kept flicking up to the doorway, as if willing Fergus to appear. Claire had cried to herself in her room for a bit before Brianna came looking for her, and she spent the rest of the day escorting children in and out to see the baby, tending to Jenny, and watching the children while she rested. Fergus had been gone the entire day, and he hadn’t even returned for supper. Claire had insisted that Mary make a plate for him, nearly certain that he’d come home to eat. If she knew nothing else about him anymore, she knew he had the appetite of three grown men.

But he didn’t come home.

She teared up again as she took his untouched plate in her hands.

“Mary,” she said. “Could you keep this set aside in the kitchen...for when he comes home?”

“Aye, Mistress.”

Claire felt a tug on her skirt.

“Mummy?”

She looked down to see Brianna, fists full of utensils. “Where is Fergus?”

Claire sighed. “I don’t know, lovie. He didn’t want to come to supper tonight.”

“Is that why you’re sad?”

Always so intuitive, so full of empathy.

“I’m alright, Brianna. I’m just a little worried.” Claire caressed her head with the hand that was not holding dishes. “But he’ll be home soon.”

She nodded, content to accept her mother’s words as truth, and scuttled off after Maggie and Kitty toward the kitchen.

Brianna was now sleeping in her own bed, in a room with Kitty and Maggie. In the last few years, Jehu had proved incredibly effective in alerting the family of an upcoming seizure, and Claire finally felt comfortable letting her sleep in a separate room. After finishing with the dishes, Claire was dragged up to their bedroom by both Kitty and her little shadow. They passed the Laird’s room, and Maggie shyly tugged on Claire’s skirt.

“May I say goodnight to the bairn and to Ma, Auntie Claire?”

“Stop tugging,” Claire scolded the younger girls before turning back to Maggie. “Yes, love, wait here.”

Claire knocked on the door before poking her head in. She informed Jenny that Ian was taking a look at the ledgers before joining her in bed, and she led a procession of little girls to give Jenny and the baby a kiss. On the third floor, Mary MacNab already had the twins asleep in the nursery, and young Jamie and Rabbie were playing chess in their room; rather, Rabbie was helping the lad find his footing with the game. She noted that Fergus was not with them; he would be if he was home.

Claire stripped the girls down to their shifts and tucked them into bed, Brianna and Kitty squeezed into one bed with Jehu sleeping on Brianna’s pillow.

“Goodnight, little faery,” she kissed Maggie’s head. “Goodnight, little heathen,” she kissed Kitty’s, earning a giggle for the nickname. “And goodnight, my little girl.”

“G’night, Auntie.”

“Goodnight, Mummy.”

Claire blew out the candles and made for the door.

“Mummy?”

“Yes, darling?”

“When Fergus comes home, can you tell him to give me my kiss?”

Claire almost burst into tears again. Fergus kissed Brianna goodnight, every single night. When she was younger, she refused to go to bed without it.

“Of course, sweetheart. Goodnight.”

Claire checked on Jenny and the baby one final time before retiring to her own bedroom. She changed into a fleece nightgown and stoked the fire a bit. She was very reluctant to get into bed tonight. It had been several months since Brianna was regularly sharing her bed, but Claire still ached with that absence. It reminded her of when Fergus was still a little boy, and had decided he was ready to sleep on his own again after months of clinging to her in his sleep in grief or in fear. She remembered being woken by heartbreaking little sounds, feeling him thrash in his sleep, and she wondered if his nightmares still plagued him even after all these years. She wondered if she’d done enough to help him.

And of course she felt that she hadn’t.

Yes, she clung to Brianna in her sleep so she could feel if she began seizing; yes, she’d offered comfort to Fergus by letting him sleep beside her. But there was something inherently selfish in it as well, something that she now recognized and could see for what it was.

She realized suddenly that she had no idea how to sleep alone.

And then it hit her how painfully alone she was.

She was forced, then, to reconcile that she’d used that tangible pain of loneliness to hurt her own son, even without realizing, all those years ago. He’d never get back that youth she’d stolen from him.

Rather than get into bed and be reminded yet again of its emptiness, which would inevitably lead to being reminded of her shortcomings and failures, she curled up into her chair by the fire and stared at the burning embers. Hours into her silent, tearful reverie, slow footfalls graced the steps, and she assumed them to be Ian’s. But the more she listened, the more she realized that there were two feet, not one foot and a wooden leg. She had to physically restrain herself from throwing herself out of her chair and chasing after him.

Instead, she poked her head out the door in time to see him slowly make his way up to the third floor. She silently followed after him, making it up the stairs just in time to see him enter the wrong bedroom.

Brianna’s bedroom.

She stood outside the door, out of sight.

“Bonne nuit, ma petit lapin.”

She heard him kiss her head, and Claire could fully picture Brianna’s lips drawing into a smile in the light of Fergus’s candle, even as she slept. She always did that when offered affection in her sleep, like her father. So entranced Claire was by this idea that she didn’t even hear Fergus approaching the door again. They both jumped out of their skins when he shut the door behind him to see Claire standing right there, clutching her shawl tightly.

“I...” Claire stammered. “I’m sorry. I just...she wanted you to say goodnight. But I see I didn’t have to tell you.”

Fergus did not meet her eye, but he nodded.

“I’ll just...” She cleared her throat. “Goodnight.”

She quickly turned and fumbled her way back down to the second story without waiting for a response. She knew he didn’t want to see her, let alone speak with her.

She spent a few more lingering minutes before the fire before dragging herself into bed. She lay there for an indeterminable amount of time with her eyes wide open, her own hateful words repeating over and over in her mind.

And then there was a knock at the door.

She jerked into a sitting position and lit a candle, pulling her shawl around herself again. She opened the door to see Fergus standing there in his sark, wearing trousers that looked like he’d hastily pulled them on.

“I...couldn’t sleep,” he mumbled, still not meeting her eye.

“Me neither.”

They stood there for a moment, taking each other in.

“Do you...want to come in...?”

Without a word, Fergus stepped inside. Claire put her candle on the nightstand and sat on her bed, then patted next to her in invitation. Fergus sat his own candle beside hers, and then sat down.

“Remember when you used to be in here all the time?” Claire said softly. “You were so young then.”

Fergus nodded silently.

“So much has changed since then...and yet not very much has changed at all.”

He continued staring ahead, the moonlight illuminating his wild curls, and candlelight flickering in his wide eyes.

“What I said to you about the brothel was unforgivable.”

Claire felt her throat tighten and her pulse quicken after the words left her mouth, but she thanked God that they left her mouth at all.

“It is not your fault where you were born and how you were raised there. And I had no right to use that against you. It was despicable. And what you said...” she continued before losing her nerve. “Well, you’re right.” She debated whether or not to mirror him, to stare at the wall and pretend he wasn’t there. But she decided instead to look at him, to pour as much love and tenderness as she could into her gaze, just in case he should decide to spare her a glance.

“I’ve never, ever been angry at you for it, but you were right when you said that I wanted you to be like Jamie. I’m...” She swallowed thickly, fighting the urge to look away from him. “I’m so ashamed of it, but it’s true. I allowed you to put that pressure on yourself because...deep down I wanted you to. And that’s not fair. It was so wrong of me; it is so wrong of me. All these years.

“You were...you were a child when we lost him, Fergus. The things I expected of you...it was wrong. And you did it all without a second thought, and I took it for granted and expected you to be alright with it. Because I thought you could somehow handle more than normal little boys. And I realize now that that was grossly unfair. And you were right. I...I needed you, Fergus. And not the way that a mother should need her son. I used you for comfort when I should have been looking after your own comfort and safety. I leaned on you too heavily, so heavily that I...I’ve pushed you away from me now. And I don’t know if I can ever fix it.”

Her vision clouded but she forced herself to continue.

“I’m so...so sorry, Fergus. I don’t know how I can ever apologize enough. You don’t have to forgive me. I won’t blame you if you never do. And I won’t be angry if you never do. But please... please know...” Her voice broke and she inwardly cursed herself. “That I love you. And nothing could ever change that. No disagreement, no pistol or crow or bloody Redcoat.”

She chanced a trembling hand on his cheek, brushing her thumb over his delicate cheek bone. “You are and always have been my son since the moment I laid eyes on you. If I could go back and...and stop myself from failing you as I have...I would.”

She kept her hand there for a moment before pulling it away and folding her hands in her lap. She hadn’t lied; she didn’t expect him to forgive her. She expected him to get up and leave without another word. She sniffled and blinked back more tears, wringing her hands. The silence was stifling, tangible, and long. It felt like neither of them blinked or breathed for hours.

“You have not failed me, Maman .”

Claire blinked then, several times. In shock.

“I was...angry. When I said I did not need you,” Fergus continued. “You have never failed me, not for a moment since you saved me.”

Saved him .

“You apologize for needing me more than you should...but I needed you to need me. I needed petit to need me. I needed to...prove to Milord. That I...”

“Prove what, darling?” Claire didn’t reach for him, despite how everything in her urged her to do so.

“That I was worthy. That I deserved to have been his son.”

“Fergus...”

“Taking care of you was never a question, Maman . Milord trusted me to. I know he did. And if he knew about his daughter, he would trust her to me, too.”

“But you were so young...” Claire reasoned. “You couldn’t possibly have been a substitute for a father. For a husband.”

“You do not understand...” he said with quiet frustration, but directed more at himself than at her. “I went from...being nothing. Having nothing. To having...family.”

Claire’s eyes welled up again, and she bit fiercely down on her lip.

“It was...how you say... accablante ...”

“Overwhelming,” Claire said softly.

Oui . To suddenly...belong.”

A tear rolled down Claire’s cheek, and she did nothing to stop it.

“I went from nothing, to something that was...everything. I went from a nobody, to a son, to the man of a family. A broken, wee family...but still a family. I had to save it from being broken. Like you and Milord saved me.”

“Oh, my darling...” Claire said. “You didn’t need to repay us for taking you in. You never, ever had to do that.”

“I know. It was not repayment for your sake. But for mine. I cannot...explain it better.”

But Claire nodded. “Something for your soul. Not for us.”

Oui .” He nodded. “And when you put it that way...that is selfish too, non ?”

“No, Fergus. It isn’t.” She dared to reach for him again, putting a hand on his knee. “It’s noble and honorable. Like your father taught you to be.”

He finally turned to look at her then, meeting her eye.

“You are everything he would want you to be, Fergus. I know it in my heart. You had him for such a short time, but he raised you in his image, and it’s made you who you are.”

Non, Maman . You have raised me in his image.” Fergus covered her hand with his. “I would not be Milord’s son if you did not show me how.”

A small sob erupted from Claire, and she couldn’t stop herself from cupping his face in her hands. “He would be...so proud of you. Of the remarkable young man you’ve grown into, the wonderful brother you are. And the wonderful son you are.” She squeezed his face gently. “ I am so proud of you.”

“You forgive me then?” he asked. “For being un petit imbécile ?”

“Of course,” Claire sniffled. “As long as you can forgive me for being un grand imbécile .”

Oui , I can.”

“Oh...come here...” Claire pulled him to her, pushing his head into the crook of her neck, ignoring that he was far too tall for the position now. He didn’t seem to mind either, as he burrowed himself there and returned the embrace. Claire fervently kissed the crown of his head, and she heard him sniffle.

Mon petite soldat ...” Claire whispered into his hair. “ Mon fils. Mon fils courageux .”

They stayed like that for a long while, rocking gently and crying silently.

“We...will be alright? Won’t we?”

Fergus slipped out of her grip to look up at her, and for just a moment, she became lost in his eyes, and she swore she was looking at her eleven year old mischief maker.

“Yes, darling,” she answered. “We will.”

And then, in another instant, she could not see her little boy anymore. Before her was someone who was truly becoming a man, and she’d never been more proud or grateful to say it.