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To Ashes

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*~*~*

The whisky was abundant, Jamie having lugged two barrels of the stuff from the distillery just for the occasion. It was a crisp October night, the bonfire giving everything an orange glow and a smoky odor. It made Claire think of Halloween, and she smiled as she overheard Bree tell Jem in hushed tones all about pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating.

Tonight wasn't Halloween, though. It was Claire's birthday. She didn't care to think about how old she was getting - the gray hair on her head was enough of a reminder. She took a sip of her drink, swallowing any thought of her birthday and instead focusing on Bree's story - of a Halloween past (or future?) One where Frank had taken Bree trick-or-treating. She'd dressed as a princess, if Claire remembered correctly.

She tried to recall where she'd been that night. Most years, Claire had been the one to take Bree round the neighborhood. But that particular year, she hadn't. Had Claire gotten stuck at the hospital? No...she didn't think so. She rubbed her upper lip as she thought, shifting to lean further into Jamie, the cold night air stinging her cheeks. She wanted to turn into him, to bury the memory in his shirt, but it wouldn't let her. It gripped her tight, squeezing her chest and bringing tears to her eyes.

She'd been at home that night, she suddenly remembered, a jolt of fresh anger rising within her like she was in the house in Boston, staring at Frank Randall as he played his game. She could smell the upholstery of his leather couch, the wood of his desk, the green ferns she's placed in his office to brighten it up a bit.

"It was meant to be a faerie costume," Claire grumbled, swallowing another gulp of whisky.

"What?" Jamie asked, only half hearing her.

"I'd even made a bow out of a tartan scarf I'd bought in secret. I didn't think Frank would notice. It was only a small bit of Scotland hidden away in her bloody Halloween costume." She worked her jaw as she remembered, the way Frank distracted Bree with some store-bought cookies while he quietly ripped her Halloween costume apart in his office as Claire stood watching, utterly helpless to stop him.

The bow was gone, and the thin paper faerie wings were torn off, leaving only a pale pink dress and a tiara.

 

"Fairies and tartans, Claire?" Frank had asked quietly, keeping his voice low so Bree wouldn't hear.

"It's harmless, Frank, and Bree will look adorable."

"I won't allow it, Claire. Did you really think I wouldn't see? Wouldn't connect the dots? What, do you think I was born yesterday?"

Claire had fought back an eye roll, had taken a deep breath to calm herself.

"It's just a costume, Frank," she'd pleaded.

"I thought we'd come to an understanding, Claire. I don't want any of that… that nonsense in this house. And to put it under Brianna's nose like that." Frank paused, pulling a pair of scissors from his desk drawer then closing it with more force than strictly necessary. "The poor girl doesn't need to know her mother isn't entirely...sane."

Frank shot her a cold look as he cut the bow into pieces, burying the remnants in the rubbish bin.

"Christ, Frank, you really think I've been talking to her about--"

"I'd hope you haven't. Look, you should stay in tonight. I'll take her out. You've got that wild look about you - Heaven knows what the neighbors would think." He scoffed in her direction, then picked the costume up and left the room, shutting Claire inside.

She'd heard the two of them in the kitchen, Bree squealing over her costume, Frank explaining away Claire's presence with words she couldn't quite make out.

The Wild Look.

Claire could still feel the weight of his words, could feel the cold porcelain of the bathroom sink as she leaned over it, examining herself in the mirror, wondering how a depression so deep could make lines on her face, how a gulf between her body and soul could be so intensely huge. She’d gone out the next day, Frank’s words still running through her mind, to purchase a tartan dress for Bree; gorgeous red, gold, and black - it suited her, and Bree wore it whenever Claire could have it clean, tucked beneath a sweater or a coat. Frank never knew - at least, not to Claire’s knowledge.

Claire took another sip of her drink, letting the alcohol fortify her. She wanted to go shake Brianna, tell her the truth about that night. Instead, as usual, she bit her tongue. It was best, she'd told herself. Best to forget those twenty years, leave them where they were.

But they still ate at her.

In small, seemingly inconsequential ways, in tiny moments like this one, where a memory surfaced, the buried resentment bubbling to the surface. Claire let her hand run along the ground until she felt a rock. Solid, heavy, and just the right size for her palm. She slung it as hard as she could at the fire, managing to startle both the children and Young Ian.

She mumbled an apology, taking yet another sip as she felt Jamie's comforting embrace grow tighter around her middle. If he knew something was bothering her - and he likely did - he didn't say anything.

When one memory popped up, inevitably more would follow, and tonight was no different.

The fire suddenly felt far too hot, and Claire stumbled to her feet, Jamie following suit. She took a few unsure steps, kicking rocks, then caught her foot on a root. She felt Jamie catch her, but she shook him off. Her head was swimming, her lips were numb, and she knew she'd had far too much to drink. But the words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.

"Why couldn't we have just stayed with you?" she pleaded, taking in the sight of Jamie's bewildered face.

“What’d you do, Uncle?” Young Ian chimed in, half amused.

“Nothin’, ye wee midge. Go on, now. I’m taking your Auntie inside.” He turned to Claire, reaching for her - more to steady her than anything else.

"Sassenach," he said in a low tone. "Let's.. let's go inside."

"No!" She pulled away from his reach. Glancing over to Bree, she caught her daughter's eye. Claire straightened a bit, tried to smooth the rough edges, though the memories were still all there at the surface.

The time Frank got angry at her when she wasn't ready for a dinner party right at seven. She'd been running late, had had a horrible shift at the hospital, and an even worse nap afterward, her head full of dreams that made her weep.

The day Bree answered the door to a woman she didn't know; Claire watched from the kitchen as Bree explained that no, her daddy wasn't home.

His insistence that they remain a unit- for Bree, though Claire knew Frank only wanted to save face, that he couldn't bear the blight of divorce upon his good name.

The times she'd feel more like herself- the Good Days, she called them, but Frank would find some way to break her spirit, to remind her of all she'd promised him, all the ways she'd hurt him.

The party had died down now, all eyes on Claire, and she was slowly sobering up, reluctant as she was to admit it. She pushed past Jamie, bending over rather recklessly to grab the cup she'd left resting on the ground. She swallowed the remaining whisky, the burn satisfyingly painful.

"I didn't like Frank, Brianna. Not at all."

She said the words, or she thought she said them, but she got no reaction for a moment. Claire briefly thought that perhaps she'd imagined it, that this entire birthday celebration was a dream.

It wasn't. Reality came crashing down upon her when Bree finally spoke. She'd walked closer to Claire without Claire even noticing.

"It's all right, Mama. I know."

The wind knocked out of her, Claire finally allowed Jamie to take her back to the house. He helped her out of her dress, boots, and stockings. Her limbs were heavy and they both swore and laughed as they bumped heads.

Soon, clad only in her shift, she rested next to Jamie, a fire going in the hearth, warming the cozy bedroom. She burrowed under the quilts, savoring Jamie's ability to double as a furnace.

She told him everything, laying there in the dark. It was probably more than he would've liked to have heard, but her mind wouldn't stop, the unloading of so many miserable, wasted, unhappy years of her life. Time she would've rather spent with Jamie, no matter how cold or hungry or scared, she would've followed him anywhere.

Jamie shifted his weight, easing himself onto his back, holding her close to him all the while. She felt him sigh, his heartbeat a thrum against her ear.

“I thought you said-”

“I didn’t want you thinking of me like that - in that sort of situation, unable to do anything to get myself out. Well, I tried, but he wouldn’t allow it for his own selfish reasons. I didn’t want to upset Bree, either. Tried to shield her from the worst of us.” Claire swallowed hard, the thing she wanted to say at the tip of her tongue. It felt wrong, but she figured she’d said everything else tonight - why not say one more awful thing?

“I was relieved when he died - it felt like I’d been smothering, and finally the weight over my face was lifted. I felt like I could breathe.”

“I understand.”

He said nothing else, but the impact the Randalls had had on both their lives was laying there between them, another link in the chain holding the two of them together.

Claire heard the pop of the fire, a log falling, throwing sparks.

“Will Ian have put the fire out?”

“Aye, he knows not to let it burn all night.”

“Do you think Bree’s angry with me?”

“I’m sure she knows more than you think she does.”

Claire planted a kiss on Jamie's chest, grateful for his mere existence. She felt grateful for him everyday, but tonight it was especially sweet having him near, feeling his skin under her hands, blood rushing through his veins, the sound of his breathing. All that had come before was mere memory, a flit of a thought, a flash held in some image or object. Jamie, though - Jamie, she could grasp in her hands.

“I’ll throw it all into the fire tonight - I’ll let the memories of Frank burn, turn to ash. I’m sure I’ll carry some guilt when it comes to him forever, but I can, at the very least, stop torturing myself.”

She was another year older, and it was another year on the Ridge, with Jamie, with beloved children and grandchildren. It didn’t get better than this, she thought, causing Jamie to hiss as her cold feet came into contact with his legs.

“Shall I stoke the fire?” he asked, moving to get up.

“No. I’m warm enough.”

Jamie stroked her hair, then her cheek, as she let her eyes fall closed. She didn’t dare move and break the spell, wishing instead to dwell in the night with her lover, dark and safe.