It was that time again. Papa was being torn away from Fraser's Ridge by business, this time in the form of a letter that Mother Claire had successfully hidden from him for a few days. She'd smiled mischievously at William when he'd caught her in the act; a sly finger pressed to her lips with a low shushing sound. He'd only smirked and pushed out a single huffed laugh at her behaviour. No one liked when they left anymore and if he was honest with himself, he didn't like it much either. Though he wasn't ready to say that out loud to anyone. Jamie even feigned disbelief and apology when Papa found the letter, a proper panic twisting his kind face even as the dread set in. William couldn't blame Mother Claire for delaying this moment.
The leaves were rustling as they fell and the winds turned colder every day. Soon the snow would come and he knew from the distant look in his Papa's face that he had hoped they'd be stuck on Fraser's Ridge this winter. William was pausing his hasty packing to scrounge for some bread and cheese to aid his endeavours when he stumbled upon them. Mother Claire and Papa in the kitchen in a tight embrace. Willie sighed and looked to the floor in front of him, not wanting to interrupt a private moment or see his father's despondent reluctance. This was the only place he ever smiled anymore. It was why he permitted so many trips to the Ridge and was mostly happy to accompany his father even as he awkwardly hunted, fished or chopped wood with Jamie Fraser and permitted such things like questions of his childhood, growing up at Helwater.
A strange sound made him look up at the scene, despite himself. Willie gasped wildly at the sight of his father crushing Mother Claire to him in an unexpected passion. Their faces were wrought with agony even as they coiled together with the entire length of their bodies, lips molding to each other. Willie was about to barge in and ask what this was about and took one step in that direction only to reveal his other father, sitting on the edge of the table, facing them. Watching. Fraser's face screwed up with its own misery as he stalked towards them slowly and ran his great palms down Papa's face when he pulled away from Claire. William looked away and stumbled back a few steps before whatever came next. He already knew it would drive him truly mad and at least had the sense to save himself from it. He lifted his hand to wipe the sweat that was threatening to fall down his nose and bolted through the front door as fast as his feet would take him.
He barely remembered entering the bar or sitting down, and he was sure this wasn't his first pint of the night though he couldn't say how many. The candle glow turned hazy and the roars of laughter from nearby tables hummed in his ears as his thoughts rolled one into the other. His father, an adulterer? There were times in his life when he assumed a different offense but this was truly unexpected. Or was he if Jamie knew? In his current state, Willie started to believe that he'd made up that part entirely due to panicked shock. Or maybe none of it was real at all? A sharp clap on his shoulder pulled him from his musings as he turned around slowly to reveal a shady figure with a low, whispering tone that had him standing on his feet in moments and swinging his beer at the man.
But now he was on his back, blinking up at the rafters of the inn he'd escaped to. His head throbbing and his ears ringing from something beyond the copious drink, the dark figure nowhere in sight. As he got to his feet, at an embarrassing speed and without the help of any of the oblivious fools surrounding him, William stumbled and tried to place exactly where the newest pain was coming from. A sweet voice ushered him along until he was lying down on feathers and trying only to keep his eyes open. The loss of time was disconcerting as he struggled to put the pieces of his memory back together. The ache in his neck, he discovered, was distracting his coherent mind and he heard the madame ask if there was someone he'd like her to fetch for him. When he found himself alone in the room, he still wasn't sure if he'd given her a name.
Willie sat up and felt the room spin. The throb in his skull was consistent and fractured his sight so the room shifted and blurred to the beat of it. Was the red glow a trick of his vision or an effect of the strange light coming through the curtains across the bed? He stepped towards it instinctively and had to shield his eyes from the bright attack.
"William!" The sound of his father's voice made him turn as he swayed on his feet. The abrupt strain in his neck had him reaching for it and smearing his hand in something sticky. There was blood there and he pushed his fingers back into the wound to make sure he knew it with his rational mind. When he finally looked up, Papa wasn't there at all and the fear that coursed through him buckled his knees until he fell onto them. A strong, gentle hand on his cheek—cool as ice on his overheated skin, a fever perhaps?— made his eyes lift to see Lord John's tender gaze. Willie's eyes drifted shut as he sank into the man's arms.
"You are here. I thought…" but his tongue felt too large in his mouth and he found he couldn't make out the words in his mind. His father only smiled at him like he'd done all his life.
"Of course, I am. Where else would I be?" Even the sound of his voice made William calm in body and spirit.
"With me." The door slammed shut and Willie gaped and shuddered at the violence of it. Mother Claire's voice hadn't held such malice since they thought Jamie Fraser dead. Suddenly William was falling again without Papa's arms to support him. He looked for the man but there was nothing until he saw him step into Claire's arms.
"And I'll never be anywhere else again." It was his father's voice but this wasn't right. It wasn't him or Mother Claire for that matter. Where was Jamie? Never had he desired his true father's presence more than in this moment. He would put an end to whatever dalliance this could be. The singular focus between them enraged William to the point that he saw his exposed skin turning pink and could only imagine the state of his face and neck. He was breathing heavy now, like he was unable to catch his breath and there was a sudden itch underneath his skin that he wanted to tear right through to get underneath. The picture of two of his parents—and the decidedly wrong ones—in a lewd tangle of tongues and limbs was distracting enough to stop him for the moment.
He didn't hear the door this time but saw the figure of Jamie Fraser come up behind John Grey as he indulged in his wife. Their wife, technically. Willie slapped his palm against the side of his head to shake the dastardly thoughts from his skull. This was wrong. Lord John William Grey was a good, honourable man who… liked the company of other men for Christ's sake! There would be no world where he started a sordid affair with a woman. And least of all this woman. As if he'd conjured it himself the taller man bent to nuzzle at his father's neck like a lover until Papa turned and latched onto Jamie's lips. Claire wrapped her arms around John from behind and her eyes closed like she was in a state of contented bliss as her husbands melted into each other's arms.
"Oh, my poor boy!" … no, it couldn't be.
But there she was. "... Mama?" Willie's voice croaked out a name he hadn't said in so many years he was surprised his lips remembered the shape of it. She looked how she did on the ship to Jamaica, pale with her eyes sunken into dark sockets. Isobel was smiling at him even as she looked quite… well, dead. "Mama… how?" He knew it was impossible and yet the feeling of her graceful fingers sliding across his scorching cheek was impossible to doubt.
"My sweet boy, what have you done to yourself?" Her smile was warm even as his overheated skin ached—but it was turning into something else. She was turning into something else. Or someone… someone who looked like her but different in such a way that he noticed. Her hair darker, just like his, in fact and her eyes the most clear blue. Her skin was flushed, if still pale and her lips came to a perfect bow. This woman was quite beautiful in an alarming sort of way, not like the settling nature of his mother at all. But the smile was quite the same and it quieted his furious heartbeat even as it disturbed it.
"Little William. My, how you've grown… " Her voice also sounded like Mama's but with more energy and confidence. Willie recognized her but not in a way that fit into his memory distinctly. Her dainty hand reached out to his face just as his mother's had but he saw it turn grey and paler as her features flickered to those of the woman who'd raised him. How very eerily similar they were. No… it couldn't be...
"Stay away from him!" Jamie's voice roared in his ears like it was coming from everywhere, making the blood thicker and blazing in his veins. William wanted to scream at him to leave them be but the image of his mothers was already gone. Had it even been there to begin with? It was so hard to know for sure as he grappled with the floorboards for a crisp sense of reality. The image of elongated fingers with dark, wiry hair curling at the knuckles that didn't belong to his own hands but moved as he did was enough to have him wailing in fear. Willie scrambled to the corner of the room as quickly as he was able in his weary state and tried to catch his breath.
Now there was a fog and Jamie, still… but different this time. Less grey in his hair and the red a more vibrant colour than it was now, shorter too. Jesus… Mac. William never expected to see his groom again, not as he was then. Mac was worried and stood as fierce as a feral cat ready to pounce on his opponent across the room. Willie looked that way to see who it could be though he expected it to be his Papa. He had to do something. But the man he saw wasn't familiar to his eyes at all; an older gentleman, round around the middle with a powdered wig that covered any distinct features beyond dark eyes, crazed and lifeless at the same time. The man was holding a baby and a… my God. What kind of monster would…
The gunshot cracked in the air so loudly, William expected to feel blood trickle from his ears from the sound. He hadn't even realized Mac was holding it let alone pointing it towards the man threatening the child. But there was a gentle hold on him again, covering his poor ears and cradling his head as if to protect him from it all. Mama. She was at his side but centered on the scene in front of them, her face brighter this time but heavy with streaks of tears and grief instead of illness. He tried to call out to her, but except for her touch Willie wasn't sure if she could see him at all.
Mac took careful steps as he picked up the child and waited for a sign of life. Only the smallest quirk of his lips had William sighing with relief. A lightning bolt down his spine, all fire and power, stretching it tight against his skin and burning him from the inside out, erased the strange vision from his sight. The howl from his lips made his throat ache and in that moment he was sure that something inside him wanted out. It crawled beneath the surface and tried to scorch its way out, taking hold of his muscles so they worked against him. He jerked and bent in impossible angles until it felt like his bones were not only breaking but being ground into something finer.
This is what it's like to die then. He'd wondered about it before in his early days in the army but definitely expected something more heroic than a fever. His father would laugh at his arrogance at the notion and be sure to tell him that a hero's death isn't as common as one would think… Papa.
"... William? William, can you hear me?" It was Papa's voice for sure, but all he could see was black. The pain was still there though his limbs were restrained now and the rough wood beneath his body was softer now, pillowy. He wasn't on his hands and knees at all but flat on his back tucked between solid weight.
"William, my darling. Try to be still." Mother Claire… but surely…
"Try tae stop fightin', mo mhac!"
If only he could but Willie had lost control of his body before they'd arrived… if they were really here. He couldn't be sure. Not anymore. There was a white hot rage at the pit of his stomach rising in his throat that was threatening to explode at any moment. As much as he didn't want to be alone, he prayed his family was nowhere near him when he couldn't hold it back any longer. It wouldn't be long now. He should tell them to leave. There was no hope for him now… not after…
His mind went blank. His eyes peered open and saw his prey leaning over him, concern and fear in their eyes. How… delicious. His nails, long and thick scraped against the sheets under him, cutting through in one scratch. His tongue licked over tiny pointed edges of daggers in his mouth. A growl echoed in his chest until it pushed past his snout in a vicious snarl… snout? And then a shrill scream filled the space in the room, blood splattering the only window letting in the strange, hazy light. William's breath was coming fast but from the opposite of fear and pain this time. The blood rushing in his ear didn't stop, pulsating with the rhythmic beat of the fever that changed him forever.
"Willie!" His name in a familiar voice startled him awake. Which voice, he never found out for the faces of all three of his living parents crowded him on the small bed. He looked around the room and found it familiar too. It was the room at the inn the maid had brought him into when he started not to feel quite himself. But wasn't there… hadn't he…
"You gave us quite a start. How're you feeling?" Willie blinked at the warm expression on Claire's face, all concern and doctorly mothering. He'd be lying if he said he hadn't always enjoyed this side of her. She was brushing sweat-soaked hair from his face and sharing looks with his fathers, communicating something silently. Once he was sure his eyes were open, he was surprised at the change. That strange, glowing haze was gone and replaced by the fading light of the evening sun. Still dusky reds and yellows but quieter somehow.
"I… I'm unsure. Are you… are you all really here?" He hated the weakness in his voice but was calmed by what came next. Papa grasped his hand tightly and squeezed his arm in comfort like he always had from the other side of him. There was a calming smell of camomile and lemon, perhaps that he inhaled greedily. It seemed to be a link to whatever state of consciousness he was currently in.
"We're here with you, my boy. It seems you've fallen ill and the barmaid was wise enough to send for the right doctor, thank God." The huff of relief in the man's voice and smile that stretched his lips was a perfect salve on his scorched soul.
"Ye were thrashin' somethin' fierce when we came. Tryin' tae claw yer own skin—" Jamie's voice was tight from the chair in the corner and when William looked, his eyes were bloodshot and swollen around the edges. Mother Claire interrupted the rest.
"An infection is all. I've applied the salve to the wound and with some proper monitoring and treatment at the Ridge, you'll be right as rain in no time." She was stroking his face again in that soothing way that made him sink further into the feathered bed and let his eyes drift shut again. "No need to worry the lad about it further." He didn't need to see to know she was directing a pointed look at the other men in the room.
Willie heard Jamie's groaning breath and smiled despite himself. He opened his eyes towards the man and felt an unexpected pull towards him. "Right as rain she said, and I'm of a mind to trust her on that. Though it means we won't be leaving for Virginia as soon as we'd hoped." He spoke for Jamie's benefit and even let a hint of his smile show through before he turned to look at his Papa in question.
Lord John looked confused before he shook his head and blustered through his response. "Of course. We'll stay as long as we must. I'll have my office take care of it." He looked towards Claire and Jamie before smiling brightly again. "Whatever he needs to get well."
The smile, different on each, but telling all the same brought back the memories that drove him to this moment in the first place. William took his time to look between them with suspicion. It was Jamie who had the sense to return the look with a question in the eyes they shared.
Willie sighed. "I saw you. The three of you… or, I think I did. I can't be sure now so forgive me if it was all a part of the fever and I can't tell the difference after the fact." He waited to see if their responding looks would show any sign of the truth but he only found different versions of concern. His heart was starting to thump in his chest again and William only hoped he could keep his wits about him this time. The predictable evening light from the window steadied his uneasy thoughts. "In the kitchen. You seemed quite upset about our leaving and were… saying your goodbyes?" He couldn't bear to say the words, true or not, and hoped at least one of them would find his meaning.
Jamie's face was impassive as he'd always known it while Papa's mouth drew tight in a straight line as he considered the words but it was Mother Claire with her glass face—as he'd heard Fraser refer to it before—that told him what he needed to know.
Willie's jaw was surely in his lap as he gawked at each of them separately. It took a few moments to gather his thoughts and none of them seemed to know what to fill the space with either. Finally, he lifted his arm in his father's direction.
"But, Papa, I believed you were not so inclined as to even want… " and found he couldn't finish as he gestured towards Claire.
Lord John straightened his back like he'd only seen after being called out unfairly. "I'll have you know I was perfectly capable of performing my husbandly duties towards your mother,"—Willie hoped whatever God was true would strike him down in that moment— "and am perfectly capable of doing so with any woman if it were necessary in such a way again."
William couldn't trust his senses but thought he heard Mother Claire mutter, "And you are." The only proof was a sharp look through dark lashes in her direction from his father that made his stomach lurch.
"'Aye, John. As ye've well reminded us." There was a chiding in his Scottish brogue but when Willie looked his way in desperation, the resounding smirk was unmistakable. "'Ave mercy on the lad, will ye?"
William Clarence Henry George Ransom prayed for death from whatever infection he suffered from and sunk back into the pillows and pain beating in his blood. Anything—even the vile, sick things of his recent dreams—was better than imagining this.