A breeze carried my words overtop the horse’s head, bearing them toward the neat stone walls just visible in the distance; and having said it, I felt something—yes—relief shudder down my spine. Despite the years, despite everything…it did still feel like my home. Divinely-sent or mere desperation, I took the reassurance with all my heart, and kicked my mount hard toward Lallybroch; toward home.
It had been a last-minute decision, to come here, instead of to Edinburgh. In fact, I’d been fully through the stones and in Inverness boarding the carriage that would deliver me south! Then something clicked into place and before I even stopped to question myself, I was exchanging the coach fare for a horse and saddle, wondering why Lallybroch hadn’t been my plan from the start.
Well, no—I knew exactly why. Because the idea of going anywhere but directly into Jamie’s arms had seemed ludicrous.
He was ALIVE. And so close—I was *so close* to having him again, it was like a physical pain in my chest. the longing—the wanting….
But *think*, Beauchamp, I’d counseled myself in those vital seconds on the mounting block: a visit to Lallybroch will yield me *actual* information as to the whereabouts of those arms; a far cry more reliable than your hunch from a two-hundred year old artifact! I mean, *good Lord*, consider all the variables, here! Perhaps he’s moved to new premises across town! What if he’s abandoned his nom de plume for another and there is no longer an A. Malcolm printing in Edinburgh? What if he’s been so successful in his business, he’s moved to London to join a larger firm? Hell, what if he’s decided to make his fortune as a fur trader in Canada, for heaven’s sake??
Yes, the closer I got to Lallybroch, the more confident I was in the wisdom of my sudden volte-face. Even overlooking the more remote possibilities that may have taken him out of Scotland, a quick chat with Jenny and Ian could easily save me days or even weeks of roaming around Edinburgh asking after red-headed printers; and as an unarmed woman traveling alone and with limited funds, this was more than prudent, no matter how you looked at it.
I mean, surely, even if he did still occupy the shop in Carfax Close, he would visit home occasionally….
….and there was always the chance that even NOW, he might be…he COULD be…
Don’t get ahead of yourself, Beauchamp. One leap at a time.
I dismounted and led the horse on foot for the final approach up the road toward the house, as much for my own pounding heart as for the beast’s sake. Dear God…almost exactly the same as I left it twenty years ago.
The trees overhanging the dooryard; the sounds of cooking and chatting and children playing from inside the house; even the customary pack of dogs that heralded my arrival through the archway, howling and barking as befitted their time-honored station…Yes, it was home. My home.
“What do you think, lads?” I laughed softly, holding out my knuckles for the slobbering, leaping home guard to sniff. “Do I pass muster?”
Apparently I did, for they all began vying for my attention. I obliged happily, scratching behind ears with my free hand and murmuring dog-lover-nonsense to each of them in turn, wondering if goodwill and trust could be passed down canine generations.
“A good morning to ye, Mistress!”
I turned to see a stableboy of about ten hurrying across the dooryard toward me. A stranger, to my eyes, but with a warm, friendly manner, he bobbed a quick bow.
“Good morning!” I replied with a grateful smile as I relinquished the horse. “And what’s your name, lad?”
At my words, he jumped and uttered a gaelic curse, his reaction so violent that he dropped the reins and caused the horse to rear. It wasn’t until I’d reclaimed the beast—nearly getting my teeth knocked in— and turned panting back to the boy, to his pale and frightened face, that I realized what had been his curse: sassenach. Said not in affection, the way Jamie had from the beginning, and Jenny and others had picked up from time to time in jest: but in fear and disgust. The vehemence of it felt like a blow to my gut, and for the first time, I felt afraid, ludicrous as it was to be bowed before a young boy. Before, I’d been only suspicious to Highlanders. Now, after Culloden, after the Clearances—I was, objectively, the enemy.
The boy, to his credit, recovered with a good show of politeness, retrieving the reins and offering a murmured apology. He did *not*, though, offer his name. “Are ye expected at the house this morn, Mistress?” (Do you have a reason for being here, or are you an English informant fixing to burn the place down?)
“I’m an old friend of the family,” I said, with a concerted confidence and ease that I hoped would reassure him, “but, no, I’m not expected.”
In fact, I could say with absolute confidence that I would be the least expected person ever to darken Lallybroch’s door.
“Oh, aye,” the boy said. Polite. Wary. “If you’ll just follow me, Mistress, I’ll put awa’ the horse and then show ye inside until someone will be in to receive ye.”
My heart thumped and my hope screamed piercingly in my ears:
Jamie. Jamie. JAMIE.
My hands were shaking. I had to swallow and moisten my mouth to get the words out as I followed behind the boy toward the hitching post. “I beg your pardon, but does the…?” Nothing to lose, at this point, I suppose. “Is the laird in residence?”
“Mr. Jamie?” the boy asked over his shoulder, clearly surprised by the inquiry. “Aye, ‘course.”
He was here.
I nearly fainted where I stood.
Thank God!! Thank GOD I trusted my gut and came here instead of going to Edinburgh.
Jamie was near. My Jamie could be HERE at any moment!
God, what will—
“But he’s no’ to home just at present,” the boy added hastily. “Went up to Broch Morda for the day.”
“Oh! Oh, that’s—that’s quite alright.” In fact, it was a relief. I would have time to think, to plan; to prepare myself.
Dear God, Jamie!
“Shall I send a message after him to let him know you’ve business wi’ him, Mistress?”
It should be alone, when we met — to give him time to react in private — Lord, would he faint? Scream? Regardless, I did not want to be responsible for giving Jamie a premature cardiac arrest.
“That’s very kind, lad, but no, I’ll wai—”
“It’s Jamie Murray, he means.”
I whirled, my heart crushed with realization before I even finished the turn. Of *course* Jamie Fraser was no longer the laird; I’d known that; I KNEW that.
But even the ache of my desperation for Jamie vanished for that moment as I took in the sight of the woman standing in the open kitchen doorway. Older, weathered, just like me–but the same. My eyes filled with tears of joy and love and relief and I gave a little sob as I made to run to her, to embrace her.
But I was halted by a cold voice I didn’t recognize. “He’s no’ here.”
I stared as a dead person stares, looking but without conscious thought. It was a stranger speaking, a hostile stranger showing not a scrap of surprise or pleasure at my appearance. And her eyes—God, those blue eyes so very like his—staring me down— so bone-chillingly cold —
No, not just distant…..
Jesus, I wanted to whimper, Don’t you recognize me, sister? It’s ME…
But she did recognize me; and she did not like what she saw.
I braced my shoulders. Met her eye. And tried not to let my wounds show.
"May I help you with that, Jenny?"
Jenny didn’t answer; she didn’t even bother to raise her eyes as she arranged the tea, bannocks, butter, and preserves between us on the study table. I wasn’t surprised. She hadn’t said more than two words to me since we’d entered the house, nor had she allowed me any opportunity to walk about and reminisce. The sounds of whispers and laughter had echoed through the hall even from the first moment of entry, but my sister-in-law had left me no opportunity to investigate the other occupants of the house—would I know any of them, I wondered? She’d marched me into the study in a way that offered no room for protest and bade me sit while she went to fetch the tea (the best teapot, I noticed; not the one used for family).
No, I wasn’t at all surprised, at this point, given my reception in the dooryard, not by any any of it — only hurt.
Talk to me, Jenny….just TALK to me…
She didn’t speak, but I did catch her watching me with a laser-sharp focus as I lifted a bannock and took a small bite, not from hunger, just for something to do; and I could have sworn those eyes flared with — surprise? confirmation?
Whatever it had been, the next moment, it was gone, hidden once more behind a mask of boiling control, intent upon this soulless hospitality. So intently, pointedly was Jenny focused, in fact, that she didn’t even notice when the study door opened behind her.
She was younger than Bree, but not much; perhaps sixteen or seventeen. I certainly had never laid eyes on her, but I knew her at once. That dark, curly hair; those warm, honey-brown eyes! Even in that brief instant in which our eyes met, I felt such a strong rush of affection, the lump in my throat made it hard to smile at her; but smile I did. My niece.
And to my astonishment — not to mention, relief that someone in this house might not despise me—she smiled back; warmly, not taking those bright, questioning eyes off me, even as she gave a cursory knock and said. “Mam? D’ye need–?”
Jenny bolted like a startled deer, that frigid calm vanished in a second. In one fluid motion, she turned to the door and lunged into my line of sight, barking, “Out, Janet!” No, not into my line of sight: into her daughter’s….to keep me from view. “Out,” she snapped again.
A very unladylike curse from the daughter, a “NOW!” from the mother, and the thunk of the heavy door snapping closed, trapping me inside once more. Stunned, I managed a nervous laugh, to stammer in the direction of Jenny’s back that the girl was more than welcome to come in and share our tea. While eager to meet this young Janet Murray, I was still more desperate for another person’s presence, ANY person, to ease the tension in the room.
…and exactly one blink later, I realized in panic that Jenny had whirled to face me, that she had said something at the exact same moment, and that her EYES —
I should have been able to match her; Claire Beauchamp was not of the wilting violet genus; but Jesus H Roosevelt CHRIST, that look had me absolutely terrified as I asked her to repeat herself.
“I said…” Each word was slow and distinct; a hammer blow nailing me to the pillory. “Where. have. you. been?”
My thoughts, my explanations, they turned to vapor under her gaze, and I could do little more than gape up at her from my seat.
“You’re clearly no’ deid, as we were told.“ She was blazing, a snake coiled to strike. “And you’re no’ a fetch.”
I didn’t know what a fetch was, but it didn’t seem like something one would want to be.“No,” I confirmed, carefully, waiting. “I’m not.”
“Then, where in God’s name have ye been these twenty years, Claire?”
“Abroad,” I answered at once, relieved, recovering my composure enough to scrabble at the story I’d rehearsed on my long ride from Inverness. “I’ve been abroad,” I said, more confidently. “Working as an apothecary in the Colonies.”
She gave a soft, vicious laugh and turned her eyes upward for a moment. Then, she struck. “Had a *pleasant* life, have ye?”
The bite was bad enough, those fangs; but they had poison in them, too, coursing through my body, a promise of slow, creeping pain.
“Jenny,” I murmured gently, rallying myself into calm as I set down my teacup. This wouldn’t be easy. “I do understand how this must seem; but please, listen—”
“No, you’ll listen to me.” She was absolutely lethal with quiet fury, and didn’t blink once as she spoke in a low, rapid hiss. “Many’s the thing that’s been whispered of ye, before and after the ‘45. That ye were a spy that brought the English down upon us—that ye caused the great famine—that ye were a filthy witch or a hoor or both — ”
I tried to interrupt but she silenced me with a shaking finger and a basilisk glare. “But of all things, of ALL things, Claire, I would have gone to my grave swearing that ye loved my brother more than life itself.”
“I did.” RAGE had boiled instantly up in me and the accusation. “I DO.”
“Love doesna do what ye did to Jamie,” she spat, disgust manifested in every pore. “LOVE doesna allow a man to think the very heart of him has died — doesna let him go on living as an empty shell for near twenty years.”
No, it bloody well doesn’t, Jenny.
The strain of this tug-o-war of emotion was too much for my heart — my physical, frantically-beating heart. From bewilderment to terror to fury, I felt exhaustion and stress in every muscle and bone, the fatigue in every pumping of that poisoned blood — and now, shame.
If only I’d looked. If I’d looked sooner…not expecting to find him alive, but to honor his memory. Damn me to hell for it, I should have LOOKED.
I wanted to shrivel up and fade from existence, but Jenny would not have it. “Ye didna see him come back from Culloden, Claire,” she was saying, practically towering over me in my seat. “Ye werena here to drag him back from the brink.”
“I couldn’t be—”
“—But long after the wounds healed, the GRIEF kept Jamie near to death,” she seethed. “The pain ye caused him, Claire?—the agony of needing YOU, only you, and knowing ye gone forever? It was there on his face, in his bones—every day since—” she leveled a finger at me, “—since ye LEFT him.”
“I did NOT leave him.” I was on my feet, wanting to wrap my hands around her throat. “Jamie was dead. For twenty years, I’ve thought him dead and in his grave, so you can shut your damned mouth about matters of which you don’t know one bloody — ”
“Oh, I think I ken the way of things just fine,” she sneered, not shrinking back one bit before me. “Ye kent well the disaster to come — dinna deny it, for ye told me to plant the damn potatoes, did ye not? You KNEW—and so ye arranged a better life, a life less destitute than the one we —”
“Jamie SENT me away, Jenny.”
My teeth were gritted hard, the war between indignant rage and tearing guilt wracking through me. “I begged him to let me die with him that day — BEGGED him; but he wouldn’t allow it, said it was his duty to die, and that I had to go on without him, had to go far away. And it KILLED me, Jenny.”
I could smell my own sweat, could smell the salt and tang and fear in it as I tried to hold myself together, to say, “If Jamie’s been a shell for twenty years, well, so have I.”
She said nothing, but faced me down with the same fury.
“Every single day, I have grieved and I have wished — have cursed the Bonnie fucking Prince Charlie and his fucking war that slaughtered my husband and left me to go on without him — ”
“Only he wasna slaughtered. Jamie survived, and his own WIFE didna even bother to come back to check if— “
“He MEANT to die,” I shouted, hoarse and desperate, hoping volume would drown out the shame screaming in my ears. “Jamie MEANT to let himself be killed! He didn’t leave me any room for doubt on that point; you know precisely how he is.”
I was shaking uncontrollably. “I stayed away for twenty years because that was how I could bear it; the only way I could BEAR to keep on living. But as soon as I learned that he’d survived, I came. I gave up EVERYTHING to come find him, because Jamie was — is — everything to me.” I shook my head, seething. “And to have you stand here and accuse me—”
“Did ye think I was dead, Claire?”
Her voice had gone suddenly light; conversational, as though she had merely asked if I’d like more jam. With a shock, I found that I recognized that practiced, calculated calm, those razor-sharp meanings cloaked so expertly in cordial tones. Colum MacKenzie, manifested here in the niece who had never met him; the spitting rage of the past minutes subsumed in something deeper; something far more lethal roiling beneath the skin. A wildcat prowling.
At my silence, she smiled a cat-smile, shrugged, and looked around the room, her hands palm-up as if in mild curiosity. “And what of Ian? Did ye assume he’d died also? Along wi’ your wee nieces and nephews? Your wee Fergus? Remember them?”
“Of course I do,” I whispered, that avalanche of shame continuing to crash all around me.
She nodded, considering, almost amiably. “I dinna recall getting any letters or messages betwixt folk letting us know that ye might be thinking of us.” Her voice went hard with every word, each syllable distinct as her emotions started to break through that MacKenzie wall. “Nothing from ye, not even to ask had we yet starved to death in the famine you kent was coming.”
“Jenny…” My control broke and I was weeping before her. “Oh, Jenny…”
And as I stared pleadingly into her face, her own dam shattered, and I was utterly run through to find that the emotion pent up behind it was not merely rage — it was grief, too.
“Did ye think ye meant nothing to us, Claire? To me?”
There came a terrible, stricken sound in her throat as she tried to speak through the torrent, as she stared up at me with tears in her eyes as her face contorted.
“Even if Jamie… had been gone—If the Lord had seen fit to—to take him on that accursed field…. “ She took a step toward me, not in threat, this time. “…did it truly never cross your mind that there would be joy in us knowing that you at least had lived?”
“Oh, Jenny.” I crossed the distance between us and clutched her tight, holding her so hard I thought she would snap; but she held me, too, her head pressed tight into my shoulder, the both of us falling apart together. “Jenny…Jenny…I’m so sorry…”
God as my witness, I had mourned for her; for Ian, the children, for dear Fergus. They had been my family, and knowing the pain and hunger and grief they would face in the years after Culloden, without Jamie to watch over them — For Jamie, I’d had to live with only grief; for those remaining at Lallybroch, I’d borne twenty years of fear.
“I’m so sorry….I can’t— It’s—” I kissed and touched her hair as we swayed, as I grappled for how to explain—how to give some kind of acceptable reason for why I hadn’t been able to get word— “It’s so much more complicated than you—”
I almost fell on my backside as I flew backward, my shoulders screaming with the sudden, violent assault as Jenny pushed me away with both hands, eyes once again wide with disbelieving fury as she repeated the word. “Complicated?”
“No, that’s not —” I silently cursed myself. “Please, just let me — ”
“How dare you,” she whispered, shaking her head, the tenuous bridge that had sprung up between us now plummeting back down into the gorge below. “How. dare. you.”
“Jenny,” I pleaded as she turned her back to me, her entire frame shaking. “Jenny, listen —”
“I’ve heard enough.”
I reached out a hand to touch her shoulder, to beg her; but then lowered it again, and squared my shoulders: face this, Beauchamp.
“I love your brother with my entire heart, Jenny Murray. I left because he made me do so; and I came as soon as I learned he had survived.” A deep breath; a whiff of pine through the window giving me a sort of bracing strength. “There was a good reason that I couldn’t come — couldn’t write to you — and I will do anything, everything to explain why, in time. I swear it to you.”
“But first…please….I have to see Jamie.”
“I know he’s been working as a printer, in Edinburgh. All I ask is for you to confirm that he’s still there, and —”
“He’s marrit, Claire.”
My first week as an active-duty battlefield nurse, I was assigned overnight duty in the convalescent ward.
There were still emergency surgeries and intensive cases from the recent battle going on, leaving me the only one that could be spared to watch over those who needed no urgent treatment; those who were still mortally wounded—but for whom nothing more needed to be, or could be done. Determined to perform my duties well, I’d walked between the columns of beds in that wretched, foul-smelling tent, changing bandages by lantern-light, giving water to those that could swallow, and comfort where I could.
There was one man — Robertson, his name had been….He’d received horrific burns over a vast percentage of his body, and his moans of pain and panic were the heartbeat of that long night. Nothing I did, nothing I offered, nothing I said could soothe him —he just kept moaning, groaning, crying and whimpering like an animal…and staring up at me with one wild eye through his bandages. I’d been so chilled by that sight, by that man—who became not a patient to me, but a haunting.
I’d avoided him, eventually, stopped going to his bedside, even when his groans were at their most agonized—and the shame of that….It was like being pursued by wild dogs. I’d busied myself with other patients; busied myself with re-rolling bandages; busied myself with absolutely anything to keep from focusing on those anguished, pitiful moans; anything to keep out of that brown, pleading stare.
And there came a time in the night when his moans tapered —and then ceased entirely, with one…final….whimper….and even then, I didn’t go to him. I spent m ore than an hour telling myself that Mr. Robertson had fallen asleep at last, and wasn’t it a relief that the poor man had found some solace in somnolence at last.
I’d known —I’d KNOWN that he was dead— and yet I was too afraid to acknowledge it, to go to his bedside and confirm.
I’d cowered, refusing to face the agonizing truth
knowing that once I learned it, the truth—
not my fantasy, not my coping mechanism, but the TRUTH—
I couldn’t ever be the same.
Nothing could ever be the same.
“When?” My voice was a husk. A form.“To whom?”
“Does it matter?”
I was silent.
“He’s got a wife,” Jenny said, quiet, but slowly, carefully, so I wouldn’t miss a single word. “A home. A new life.”
The fabric of my skirt was rough and comfortless in my grasping hands.
“…And two wee lassies that love their Da.”
Something within me popped—a thread, maybe, one of many clumsy things that had been holding my heart together. I’d come back so blithely sure of myself; brimming with the anticipation of bringing Jamie news of that one child of his blood—To give him hope — to give him JOY.
Not just two children….two daughters.
What would news of another girl—one he’d never met—never would meet—even one conceived of the deepest love — mean in comparison to that? To having held his own little girls in his arms?
It would mean something…but not enough.
“Is he happy?”
My words were a choked bark of a thing; hurt and anger and longing as I hauled on those threads, forcing them to hold.
Jenny didn’t answer.
I was standing. I needed to know. “Is. He. Happy?”
If somehow this new life of his wasn’t blessed —If even despite the girls, the marriage was damaged, maybe —
“Aye,” Jenny said at last, meeting my eye with frank hardness. “Happiest I’ve ever seen him.”
Happier even than with you.
And just like that, the raw seams of my heart—so crude, so fragile, those threads—split open, the remnants fluttering into the shadows.
“You should be on your way,” Jenny was saying, “without delay, before you’re recognized and word travels.” She didn’t want me under her roof even for one night. It was written in every bone and muscle of her as she moved to the door. “I’ll be off to have Mary pack up food for your journey.”
“Please, might I — ” started to beg, then shut my mouth.
She turned, tight-lipped, impatient. “What is it ye need? A fresh horse?”
“Only paper. A quill.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Absolutely not.”
I held out my hands in surrender. “I’ll go, Jenny,” I whispered. “I’m going, at once, as you say. I swear it. I’ll leave and I’ll never come back.” My entire body hunched before her, pleading. “But for mercy’s sake, let me leave him my last words.”
She stared; but something stirred in her eyes.
“He won’t know where I’m bound,” I swore, panting with the effort to hold back the tears. “I’ll be long gone before he reads it. Please. Please, Jenny.”
I stared at the blank parchment for a very long time.
I made plans — I let my mind run rampant, schemes for how I would reach him, how I would FIND him in Edinburgh. Jenny didn’t bloody need to know. Jamie would WANT to see me! No matter what his sister — He had loved me first — He would want — he was —
even than with you.
…letting all the heartbreak wash out of me onto that page,
drop by drop,
my fingers wrenching in my hair,
until the page was damp with grief.
No future here.
Not for you.
Not with him.
And a long time after that, I wiped my eyes.
I wrapped something tight and impenetrable around my heart
Then wrote what needed to be said, what I needed him to know.
My hand did not shake. I did not let a single tear blur the ink.
I would be strong for Jamie.
He had been strong for me.
I would not take anything away from him.
About a week prior
“Uncle, please, please, PLEASE can I stay?”
“Ian, for the last time,” he said over his shoulder, paying the tavernmaid for the stores and nodding his thanks, “your Mam will up and geld me if I harbor her wee fugitive; and fond as I undoubtedly am of ye, lad, I’m no’ yet willing to lose my parts over it.”
“But we dinna have to keep it secret-like!” Young Ian insisted, bouncing on his toes like a toadling. “Ye can write to her! Tell her you’re taking me on as apprentice in the print shop! She’ll be fashed that I left, aye, right enough—but she canna object o’ermuch to me learning such a valuable trade, not wi’ her own brother watching over me!”
Not for the first time, that day, Jamie wavered.
Ian saw it and redoubled his pleading. “Come onnnnnn, Uncle Jamie, PLEASE?”
There were two important reasons that his whole being screamed at him to grant Ian’s wish, to let the boy stay on….but both were selfish; deeply so; and if he truly loved this lad, the nephew who was like a son—the only son he’d know, henceforth— it was his duty to show him the ways of honorable men.
…even as joyless as honor tended to be.
He jerked his head toward the door. “Get out to the stableyard, Ian. It’s past time we were off.”
“Uncllllllllle!” the boy groaned, running both hands through his hair, distraught. “Ye can tell Mam ye gave me a good beating for it before taking me on! Hell, ye can GIVE me the beating, and I willna make a yip!”
Jamie repressed the twitching corners of his mouth, keeping up his show of stern reproach. “On wi’ ye. It’s time to get ye home.”
I’d run upstairs the instant Claire was gone through the door—first to the bedchamber overlooking the road, then up still further to the upper floors, so I could see her for just a moment longer. For, damn me, but I couldna take my eyes off her…just kept—watchin’ her— until the last.
And even when the shape of her had long vanished over the horizon, I was still watchin’, staring into the spot where she’d been, the last place she’d inhabited before she’d gone away….just as she’d promised.
The letter—God, Claire’s letter—was clutched tight in my hand and heavy on my heart. But it was also heavy in my hand, I realized. There was more than paper, therein, I’d swear to it; firm, whatever it was, but not rigid, exactly, for I could still bend it easily.
I had the nail of my finger under the edge of the wax before somethin’….somethin’ stopped me—or could it be someone?—and I shivered.
Claire was in the doorway of the kitchen, cloak on, the letter clutched to her breast.
I stood, awkwardly. “You’ve finished?”
She nodded, and her eyes closed, of a sudden, and she looked so very young, like one of the bairns in a thunderstorm, all scared and—small—So sad, and—
—and I wavered.
But before I could say anythin’, Claire was there right before my face, pressin’ the envelope hard into my hands. She didna let go, just kept—holdin’ on to me, eyes boring into mine so I couldna even blink.
“Whatever hurt there is between you and me, Jenny—” Those whisky-colored eyes were shining wi’ feeling, ready to spill over wi’ it. “—I beg you to see that Jamie gets this.” She added her other hand and squeezed me so hard that own hands were shakin’ along wi’ hers. “Please don’t wait too long to give it to him.”
My voice cracked, and I couldna look away. “Why’s that?”
“There are things in here, that—” the paper crinkled, loud and violent, that bitty sound, “—that will give him peace….I hope.” A small, broken breath.
Peace…Peace for Jamie…
“Please, Jenny—PLEASE—promise me that you’ll give it to him.” Those wildcat eyes begged, and I could do nothing but nod. She heaved an enormous sigh and closed them, nodding, herself. “Thank you.”
She released me, then and made for the door, pulling her cloak tight about her. Her eyes were on the handle as she said, “Goodbye.”
And then before I could blink, she’d come back again and thrown both her arms ‘round me. Unnaturally tall as she was, my arms were trapped down at my sides, so I couldna have hugged her back, even had I wished to.
Her voice was a ragged sob of a whisper. “I do love you, Jenny.” She kissed my cheek.
And then she was out the door, gone. Forever.
And it was only as she was far, far gone, a vanished speck through a frozen windowpane, that I realized….
I *had* wished to.
I nearly leapt out of my skin as I whirled like a guilty bairn to the door behind, where Maggie stood wi’ her own babe on her hip.
“Ye’ve been up here for an age and a half, Mam. Did…” She gave me a significant look, “….something give ye a turn?”
“I’m fine, mo chridhe,” I promised, flustered-like, bustling past her down the stairs to resume my work and hide my face. “Perfectly fine, nothin’ to—”
“But who was she, Mam?” Maggie’s voice, her footsteps, chased me down the stairs. “The dark-haired Englishwoman? Why was she here?”
“She was a traveler. No one ye need be worrit about.”
“Mam, I’m no’ a wee bairn. We all heard the great skelloch the two of ye were makin’. Clearly she was someone ye kent well, and it sounded as though she had come were wi’ a purpose, and — “
“Maggie, do not— ”
“But what was it she wanted of ye, Mam? She stayed hardly an hour, and we — “
“I dinna wish to DISCUSS it, Margaret.”
From the look on her face, I’d shouted it, violently. She went all meek-like and left me standing alone on the stairs landing without another word. I started to go after her, but—I let my hands fall back to my side, clenching into shaking fists.
What was it the Englishwoman had wanted of me, Maggie, love? The woman who saw ye delivered into this world? Only to come make peace and to mend your Uncle Jamie’s heart…and I…
Hands of guilt seemed to shove me toward the door, toward the stables.
Janet Murray, go after Claire. Go after her right this moment. There’s still time to catch her up!
“Aye, and WHY should I?” I muttered under my breath, stormin’ to the pantry and busyin’ my hands, furiously flyin’ from task to task.
WHY? Because it was doomed from the start!
Dinna lay the troubles of their marriage at my feet. It was GOOD for Jamie to be marrit. He NEEDED a woman.
You saw her fetch at the wedding. Jesus God, woman, THAT was your warning. THIS is the test.
I wasna going to see my brother die alone, and I couldna have dreamed that she’d saunter in one day after—
No one could have supposed Claire was alive; but now that you know, you MUST make this right.
Go and stop her…GO!
She had no right —No RIGHT to just vanish as she did. God, the —the arrogance of it — I threw an old jar against the wall, the crash of the pottery against the stone some kind of satisfaction amid the storms of rage and of shame within me. — not to even CHECK !—And ‘complicated,’ she says…COMPLICATED!
She said she’d be able to explain.
All can be made right, Janet Murray. Go after her, beg her to —
I'll no’ beg that Sassenach witch for anythin’. The rage was boiling up within me, and suddenly even the promise of delivering her letter seemed like the vilest of insults. ‘Will bring him peace,’ she says…How could she POSSIBLY ken what can bring him peace, having been gone from him for twenty —
YOU would know, just fine, if it were Ian. Separation couldn’t change your knowing of him, could it?
I ignored that pleading, reasonable voice and stormed back up the stairs. The only sensible thing was to pretend as though the letter had never existed.
Jamie need never know. If he wasna precisely at *peace,* now, he’d at least settled into a living, and found a certain —
NO sense at all in opening up old —
And since when were love or mercy about *sense*?
What he doesna know canna pain him, and that’s all there is to it.
I stormed upstairs and threw the letter resolutely into the back of the drawer, coverin’ it over wi’ old underthings and rags where Ian wouldna find it.
But all the rest of the day, that stern voice haunted me, warred with me.
Go after her.
Leave me be.
What’s done is done.
No, it isn’t.
GO AFTER HER.
Claire let him suffer.
She stayed away for TWENTY—
She doesna DESERVE —
That was Jamie’s judgment to make, woman. Not yours.
I told her only the bare facts.
No. You lied to her.
He DOES have a wife!
He DOES have two daughters that called him Da!
You told her all the difficult truths and made them as painful to her as you could.
And you told one lie.
That Jamie is happy.
The guilt shuddered through me, a fist wrapped around my throat.
He’s still hurting…still raw….
From want of Her.
And you sent her away.
The look on her face as she begged me to give him that letter—
But the THINGS she did to —
What you’ve just done is worse, still — For you did it from spite, Janet Murray; of your own pride and —
Across the house a door CRASHED open and I reeled back from the spice cupboard as though shot, my blood poundin’ in my ears as footsteps came thunderin’ in from the front door. “What in GOD’s holy name—???”
“I dinna need to WASH to see Mam,” a grumpy voice protested from the foyer.
“Oh Mary, Michael, and Bride—IAN!!” I’d forgotten—completely FORGOTTEN to be sick with worry for my wee scoundrel who’d run away. Lord forgive me, what sort of mother FORGETS —
I flew across the house, my guilt over Claire momentarily replaced by outrage at myself and fury at my son and RELIEF. “Ian!!” I sobbed as I threw my arms around his thin frame. “Ian you –YOU–oh—!” I swore violently, a great string of things, but all grateful, all emphatic with love as I squeezed him tight, wetting his shirtfront “—I’m so glad you’re safe, a chuisle.”
“I’m fine, mam,” he said with a sigh, though he returned the hug.
I pulled back and slapped his shoulder, hard. “Well ye WILLNA be by the time I’m done wi’ ye! What were ye THINKING, Ian Murray, runnin’ away like that wi’ no word???”
“I DID leave word, Mam!”
“Oh, ye think a wee note is enough? Not in this house, Ian. God, I’m so fashed and so happy in one single moment—” True enough; I was panting with the rush of the relief and the fright of the last two weeks. I hugged him again, then pushed him toward the stairs. “Off wi’ ye—we’ll deal wi’ your punishment later.”
I turned from one Ian (well, the back of one, as he sulked off) to sigh in relief at sight of the other. “There’s my sweet lass,” he said, grinnin’ that bright, warm smile that I loved so well and holding out his arms to me.
All but fell into them, I did. “Mo ghraidh, ye found him.” I pressed my head against his chest, so happy to have him close; so happy for the relief of havin’ him hold me. There, against his heart, all could be well; all the voices and the shame and the rage could be silent.
He kissed me, touched my cheek, then turned for the study. “I didna do much." He thudded into an armchair and pulled me into his lap. “In fact, I didna even get to Edinburgh.”
“No?” I grinned, kissin’ his dear face. “Was he making such puir time? Chasin’ after lost pups and rabbits, again, aye?”
“Nay, he’d already been to Edinburgh. When I came upon him, it was head on, already on their way back to us.”
I jolted back. “Their?”
“Aye, Ian and Jamie.”
Go after her
“Aye, who else?” Ian kissed me, blithe as ye please. “Said he didna trust Wee Ian to come back unescorted, and rightly so.”
Go after her
“Well, and — it’s good ye were able to meet Jamie on the way.” I brushed my hands nervously down my skirt, tryin’ not to give in to the feelings risin’ up in my gullet. “He’ll have needed to be back in his shop as soon as possible.”
“Oh, nay, he left Fergus in charge. Said he was past due for a visit. No sense in him making the journey twice, now, is there?”
“Jamie’s — He’s — ?” I felt as though I were going to faint.
What if he finds out?
You MUST tell him.
I canna — I CANNA —
I screamed it at my conscience, but it wasna like the rage of before: a scream of panic. The weight of what I’d done—it was fallin’ down all around me and over me, smashin’ apart my anger and my stubbornness and my pride only to reveal beneath all my darkest shame and regret and —
“Jamie’s gone to Balriggan, then?”
“NO, a nighean,” came a grinnin’ voice that paralyzed me as surely as the bolt of a crossbow in my spine, “he’s behind ye.”
Lord, help me,
I started and jumped from the pillow in the dark, my whole body seizing and splintering wi’ panic—
But it was only Ian, of course, half-asleep at my back. He pulled me closer against him and kissed my shoulder. “Yr—tossin’ and turnin’ about like—S’matter?”
“Nothin’…Nothin’, only somethin’ I ate,” I whispered, tryin’ to catch my breath.
“Nay, lad, I’ll—I’ll do,” I panted, my blood racing and pounding. “Go b—back to sleep, mo ghriadh.” I pulled back the quilts and made to sit up. “I’ll—go take a turn— settle meself.” Nearly midnight, it must be.
Ian groped clumsily for me and caught my hand. “Lov’ye…”
Tears prickled in my eyes, sharp and hot against the air of the night. God, the tenderness of him—the sweetness and care and love this good man lavished upon me, always—
“D’ye think me a good person, Ian?” I whispered into the dark between us.
My throat felt sore, the words as raw and frail and desperate as my pathetic heart. “Am I truly good? Or have I only been good at pretendin’ to be…while I’m no more than the verra worst kind of filth?”
The question rang out into the silence; unanswered. He’d have reassured me, had he actually heard, had the soft, familiar whiffle of his snorin’ not already resumed. It was as well not to be coddled wi’ comforting lies. I kent the truth well enough.
Oh, but how I ached to wake him, to tell him at least of Claire and the evil that I’d done; to let him hold me tight and safe while I wept into his chest; let the comfort of him surround me, soothe me, as he convinced me wi’ gentle kisses and soft words that all would be well, that he’d carry the burden wi’ me—that I wouldna be alone, ever.
Alone like Jamie.
Alone like Claire.
This was my penance: this coldness—this regret—this utter, writhing, blistering shame. I’d taken away any chance for their happiness, so for the rest of my life, I had to bear it; to atone, myself, however I might. Emptiness, carried alone: a fitting punishment for my crime.
I kissed Ian’s brow, slipped out of bed, found my shawl, and made my way down the stairs toward the study. I reeled a bit on the treads, my head achin’ and spinnin’, and small bloody wonder, for I’d drunk heavily all the evenin’.
At first, it were only that I was preparin’ myself for the task at hand, hopin’ the drink would brace me, give me courage for when I found the right moment to face Jamie. Every time I looked at him, though, the gentle hunger in his eyes that lit over bein’ wi’ family; the smile on his face as he played with the wee bairns, as he joyed in the balm of home—of love—God, my coward’s heart had bucked and fled, at every opportunity.
And by the time I might have finally confronted things, the drink had taken hold, bringing my fears to bear, and I’d staggered up to my bed long before anyone else, and dreamt of screams of pain—and sorrow—and—
Now, I was surprised and relieved to find as I reached the bottom of the stairs that I was hardened, a wall of conviction slowly rising up around me, protectin’ me. Jamie need not know; Jamie must not be told. It was too late, after all; Claire was too far gone. I’d done wrong, to my everlasting shame. I’d committed a terrible, cruel evil against them both. But what good would it do to torture him wi’ that knowledge, now? When he had no chance of findin’ her? None. T’would be only agony to him, that wisp of hope, now vanished by my hand.
No. He couldna ever be told. It was the kindest thing I could do, now, to keep the secret from hurting him further.
All that remained was for me to find a way to live wi’ myself—drink and distraction; and there was always a good decanter of whisky in the study along wi’ the books. I pushed through the study door and was no more than two steps in before I collided wi’ something solid and—
My candle was somersaulting through the air and onto the good rug, and just as suddenly, quick fingers snatched it up again before it could catch.
“I’m so sorry, Jen,” Jamie was sayin’, settin’ the candlestick on the table next to one of his own before turnin’ back to grin at me, all sheepish in only his shirt. “I couldna sleep and came down for a dram and was looking at the books just there by the door, and—” He stopped and blinked, surveying me in alarm. “Lass, you’re white as a sheet and shaking like— Are ye hurt, dove?”
“No, its—I’m fine—” I shrank back from his touch, from the heartbreaking sweetness of the endearment.
Only—agony to him, now.
It’s far pa—past—(breathe)—too late—damn me to hell for it.
I turned hastily for the door. “I didna mean to intrude upon your quiet, Jamie, I’ll just—”
“No-no-no, dinna be daft,” Jamie laughed, eagerly, stepping swiftly around me to block the door. “Stay! Sit wi’ me a time—have a drink.”
“No, really, I should—”
“Jen, we barely got to speak all this evening,” he said, and there was more than a touch of hurt in that soft voice, those soft eyes. “Please? Stay wi’ me?”
Brother, if ye only kent what I was, you’d cast me out into the cold this moment, and have me walk until the very sea swallowed me up.
And I’d deserve it.
“Come on, wee fool,” Jamie said, gently, but in truth, he was begging. He wanted her to stay. He needed her to stay, to help drive this terrible sadness away, tonight.
At last, she relented, and let him close the door. He held out his arms to her, and after a very long moment, she came to him. “It’s very glad I am to see ye, lass,” he whispered into her hair, trying not to let his voice crack with just how glad he was of it.
Lord, why did she sound so tentative around him, tonight? She had been cool toward him all the evening, busying herself with the meal and with clearing it, and with taking another whisky, offering him one, but then bustling onward to the next task and retiring early before they could exchange more than a dozen words.
“Tell me true.” He gently took her by the shoulders and held her far enough away to look her in the eye, beseeching. “Have I done something to wrong ye, lass?”
She gaped at him, going even paler than before. “Wrong me?”
“I dinna think I’m mistaken in noticing you’re no’ pleased to see me, this visit. So I’ll ask again….Have I done something that’s wronged ye?” Even moments ago, she had seemed barely to touch him as he embraced her. “I’ll do anythin’ I can to make it right, I swear it.”
“Never.” To his astonishment, her face fell, and she made a little sound almost like a sob as she at last hugged him tight, a real embrace. “You would never do anything to wrong me, Jamie.”
He held her close, the sense of home finally settling around him. His blood—his sister.
“I’m sorry, Jamie,” she said, muffled into his chest, “I am glad to see ye. I’m just—no’ quite myself, tonight.”
“Is something amiss wi’ ye then, dove? Are ye feeling ill?”
“No, I’ll do.” He could have sworn she shuddered, but she pulled back and put her hands on her hips to study at him with brows drawn, as she always did, the dear, wee busybody. “Lord above, you’re too thin, ye great toad.”
“Are great toads typically thin?” he laughed, placing a kiss on the top of her head and moving to settle onto the plump cushions of the settee.
“Aye, and your voice all scratchit like one, to boot,” she laughed with something like her usual fire, curling her legs under her on the armchair facing him. “But truly, do ye get yourself fed at all, in Edinburgh?”
“Aye,” he said, passing her a whisky glass, “not grand fare, mind,” he winked, or tried to, “but dinna fash: I make it a special point of policy to eat every day.”
“Well, that’s good. Do it more, aye? You’re—” She shook her head, looking actually pained as she took him in again. “You’re….wasting away, Jamie.”
He waved a hand in dismissal. “That’s why I must visit my sister, whose excellent cooks will always get me fattened up again.”
“I must thank ye again for seeing my wee Ian safely home to me.”
“’Course, Jen,” he murmured, “happy to do it. The lad continues to be quite the handful, I see.”
“God,” she groaned, “I’ve not the faintest idea what’s to be done about the wee eejit. S’like tryin’ to trap a breeze upon a mountaintop. I’m sure he’ll ask to be allowed to go back wi’ ye wi’ our blessing this time, but—”
“I’d no’ mind it, owermuch” He tried to sound casual, not as desperately eager as he felt. “In fact, I verra nearly let him talk me into letting him stay, this time.”
“Wheedles something fierce, does wee Ian,” Jenny agreed ruefully. “I suppose ‘tis good for his hope of catchin’ a wife one day. A boy that’s so plain best ken how to wield charm to his good uses, at least,” she said with a grimace and a deep draught from her glass.
“Aye, that’s so,” Jamie laughed. “He can argue the black off a boot. Though, it was less to do wi’ him than me,” he added quietly, a moment later.
“I’d have been happy for the company.” He shrugged, trying for nonchalance, but it was a shrug of unease. “It’s quite lonely, there in the shop.” His emptiness rang into the very corners of the room in the saying of it.
Jenny heard it too, and put on a cheery, winning manner as she scoffed, “Nonsense, you’ve got Fergus, aye?”
“Fergus is a great help, true, and an even greater comfort to me,” he agreed. The boy—Christ, he was fifteen years or more past being a *boy,* but Fergus would always be so, to Jamie—was his pride and his right hand.
“But, of course, ye may not ken how often Fergus is gone from Edinburgh seeing to—other business. Scarce half the days of the month, do I see him, in fact.” He shrugged. “And of course, I’m alone in my rooms, after the shop closes. Wi’ only myself for company, the conversation tends to be a trifle repetitive.”
He meant it as a wee jest to lighten the mood. It didn’t work, for either of them. There was a fair-sized lump in his throat. Jenny’s hands were tight around her glass, her eyes down. He knew he shouldn’t speak so, so wretchedly self-pitying, but damn him, he needed to have someone hear him and understand.
“Sometimes, I go an entire week or more wi’out anyone—not a soul— speaking to me as if they knew me. And it can be longer, even, wi’out anyone saying my real name to me….In Edinburgh, ken, I’m Alexander Malcolm.”
She gave a weak smile, whispering, “Sawney.”
“Aye. And folk smile and bow and say, ‘Good Day, Mr. Malcolm.’….‘Shall we see ye on Saturday, Sawney?’….’When are ye thinking of taking a wife, Mr. Malcolm?’”
The empty glass shot from Jenny’s hands and spun ‘round on the carpet. Neither of them moved to pick it up, and Jamie found he couldn’t stop talking.
He swallowed. “Before the cave—prison—England——”
Lord, that he might be safe.
“—I didna truly ken how much it meant to me to be….known. Myself. And after everything that’s happened these twenty years, I now find most days as though—” He shook his head. “—as though I’ll just fall away and vanish into naught, from lack of it. I havena….” He dropped his eyes, too ashamed to look her in the eye as he spoke the darkest desolation of his heart, “I can hardly even name the broken pieces of me, any longer…..let alone hope to put them back together.”
Jenny blinked hard as though holding back tears. Lord, no, there were tears in her eyes, to his shame. He wasn’t saying these things for pity. It was simply the truth of his heart, and it was a true gift to be given the grace to say it aloud, rather than having it tear him apart in the quiet of his mind, day after day. And yet it pained him to grieve Jenny so, to give her any more reason to fear and fret for him.
He started to say so, but she suddenly blurted, “Maybe—” She was pale, and Jamie could swear she was trembling. “Maybe ‘tis time to—to come back to Balriggan.”
“No,” he said at once with half a laugh, standing and walking over to one of the bookcases.
“No, I said.”
“I ken things wi’ Laoghaire—”
“There’s no’ moving me on this,” he said, more sharply. He had no desire for her to dream up another scheme for rehabilitating his personal happiness. “I’ll continue to do right by them, of course, see them taken care of but…No. I’ll no’ try to find comfort, there, again.”
“Jamie, mo chridhe, please just listen—” She was right on the verge of weeping, from the sound at his back. “I ken she’s not—that she’s… what she is…but I dinna want—” There came the sound of Jenny throwing up her hands in desperation, “—Ye shouldna spend the rest of your days alone, Jamie, wi’—wi’ no JOY! The thought of—”
“There is no joy to be had at Balriggan, sister. Not that kind.”
He turned to her and gently grasped her shoulders. “You’ve known me all my life, Jen,” he said softly down into her face, contorted as it was with shockingly-vehement feeling. “I’ve been wrong about many things; been hasty and reckless and a fool, when my emotions got ahead of my better judgment, or before I kent proper facts—” He cupped her cheek, his voice hoarse. “—but trust me to ken my own heart, at least: to be alone, to be empty, is better than—than that; to lose what pieces of me still remain to—anger…bitterness….”
She stared up into his face, lips pursed, eyes red and glistening, voice trembling uncontrollably. “But can ye no’—?”
He released her and kissed her cheek, putting all his self into being strong and brave-faced once more, as was his duty. “Dinna fash yourself about me. I’m sorry I let myself carry on down such a maudlin road, this night.”
Jamie smiled, as warm and broad a smile as he could, as he walked past her back to the settee, meaning to sit. “But it means a great deal to me how much ye do trouble yourself for my sake, truly. I ken ye always mean the best for me, Jenny, and I’m—”
The sob burst out of Jenny like a cannon blast in the night and Jamie whirled, reaching for an absent dirk. “Jen, WH—”
Her face was a broken thing behind her hands. “I’m so—sss—so SORRY, brother.”
“Sorry?” Jamie felt as though he’d been hit by a charging horse. That wasn’t pity in her ‘sorry’: it was true apology. “Whatever for??”
“For the fool that I am,” she sobbed, the tears flowing over her fingers. “After all ye’ve been through—your own sister ought—OUGHT to—Christ, Jamie, I’m so—ashamed.”
“Jenny, dove, mo chridhe,” he whispered as he reached for her, “what on earth are are ye going on ab—?”
“Wait here—” she managed to choke, already staggering for the door. Her eyes were wild and she put out a staying hand as she went. “Dinna move, just—Just—wait!!”
Too stunned to do otherwise, Jamie stood unmoving on the study rug, mind racing, absolutely at a loss to guess what had come over her.
When at last she came back through the door, she was white as death, a paper, or envelope, perhaps, clasped against her breast.
“Jenny, you’re frightening me. Tell me at once what’s happened.”
“I’ve done—” Her chest seemed to cave in around the envelope, wracked with her sobs. “I’ve done a terrible wrong against ye, brother.”
“Nonsense,” he vowed, moving toward her to sort things out. “Whatever’s the—”
“Don’t,” she hissed, halting him with a frantic shake of the the head, her teeth gritted. “Just—stop.”
He raised both his hands to her in desperate plea.“I dinna understand, Jenny.”
She closed the distance between them with halting steps and forced the envelope into his hands, holding her own tight around them. He couldn’t take his eyes off her face, for it was an expression he’d never seen there—absolute anguish and absolute shame.
His eyes dropped to his hands. Aye, a thick envelope, the face bare and unmarked.
He turned it over and saw the single word there written:
J a m i e
He might have been screaming—he might have been crying—he might have fallen into a dark pit, with the earth closed in over him.
He was on the ground, his leg aching from where he’d fallen against something. The envelope stared up at him from the floor and he stared back.
those five letters
written in Claire’s hand
a thin interlace pattern pressed into the blood-red seal.
Jenny was sobbing. “She was here— Claire was here, Jamie—”
“Claire’s gone—” he was screaming or whimpering, “Claire—is—GONE—”
“She came back.”
“No, she came for ye—CAME here—
Nothing made sense
“—And I did such grievous wrong by ye in the things I said to her.”
There was no damned SENSE in the words that she—
C l a i r e
Jenny kneeling before him.
Jenny, grabbing his hand, hard. “She said it would give ye peace, what’s inside.”
’ CAME for’—?
Jenny, pressing the packet against his chest wi’ his own hand, holding it there, tight.
Jenny’s face, mere inches from his, breaking apart with weeping—all but mute from the violence of her pain. “I'm—so—sorry, Jamie.”
A kiss on his cheek, and then she was gone.
Watching like one paralyzed as the envelope fluttered once more to the ground onto its face.
J a m i e
…his real name.
He lunged, but he couldn’t even lift the envelope. His fingers felt like claws—lacking thumbs—lacking everything except brute force. He managed to rip off the seal and force open the pages, but he could only press it flat onto the floor with both his hands, hunched over it like a starving beast over its kill.
And though he’d feared it some nightmare, his soul burst like the lungs of a drowning man as he read—as he believed— the words beneath him:
“My own Jamie,”
My own Jamie,
Almost six months ago, I learned that you survived Culloden. You made history, my darling! Q.E.D.
As many nights as I’ve lain awake in those months cursing myself for not having looked sooner, I know I shall thank God every day of my life for the series of events that led me at last to the right pages, to you. When I fully realized what it meant— that you had been spared the death you faced so bravely that April morning, the death that has haunted my thoughts and my nightmares for so long— It was like a wound, the oldest and deepest scar ripped back open, inch by inch. I was completely laid bare from it, from the storm of emotions warring within me: such joy, such anguish for the lost time (how many more years could we have had, Jamie, had I looked?), such fear—and then joy again, because the years of grief could now be ended, and *against all reason!* I could see you again.
Likewise will I thank God every day for the small voice in my head that nudged me at the very last moment to go first to Lallybroch, rather than to your shop in Edinburgh. Please thank Jenny for me. She explained everything.
It is for the best, that it happened this way; easier, I think, for all concerned. Perversely, despite the shock, I find myself smiling in this moment: for we promised there would be no lies between us, remember? It is a promise I make to you again, today. You can know, then, with absolute certainty, that it can be no lie when I tell you that I am glad — glad and on-my-knees grateful to Heaven— that you have found true happiness.
After all the pain and the loss, the war and the hunger and the suffering you’ve endured, to know that you have a wife with whom you’ve found something new and wonderful; that you have had the joy of holding your own children in your arms, to have seen them be born and grow? It is a balm, Jamie, a comfort to know that despite all the cruelty fate has dealt you—dealt us— you have been blessed with such great and abundant joy. Never would I wish anything less for you, just as I know you would not for me.
It is my deepest prayer that as you read these words, you will know the truth of them, will be able to feel my heart through the page, and KNOW that from its very depths, I wish you every happiness with your wife and your daughters.
And yet I couldn’t leave, couldn’t go back from whence I came, without telling you about another little girl, who was born the 23rd of November the year of Culloden.
I hope the contents of the brown packet, here enclosed, tell you more than any words could about your daughter—our daughter—Brianna Ellen.
Jamie was shaking—no, he was — crumbling.
Every breath wrenched through him, agonizing, and the tears were falling, blurring his vision. He had to sit back on his haunches to keep them from dropping onto the page and blurring her precious words.
His hands were quaking with
Jesus, GOD in
He COULD NOT think
Thoughts, words, they were—
They failed him, simply abandoned him as he shook on the study rug. Only his body seemed to know the way, for he was snatching for the parcel, tearing at the string binding the paper. There was an oily, unidentifiable wrapping within, then a layer of soft flannel, and then —
The sound that escaped him—He didn’t even know there existed such a sound within him. It was terrible and beautiful at once, and though it was in no language, what he felt, his lips over and over formed a word, the only word he could muster: “No….NO….”
For as though a great knife had cut through those terrible, looming stones on the accursed hill, Jamie held his infant daughter, newly-born, sleeping there in the palms of his hands. The portrait—picture?—painting?—was all in shades of grey, and yet somehow lifelike as a true bairn in miniature before him, like peering through a spyglass straight into that distant life.
He had not a single thought to spare for how, or by what means…
He could only trace the bitty wee fists curled on the blanket, the sweet wisps of hair on the tiny skull.
“Oh, mo chridhe…”
He couldn’t look away, could not even blink, though tears were coursing downward.
God, the child —this very child —
—delivered safely into the world and into the arms of her mother—her mother.…
The babe had lived—LIVED.
The pad of his thumb caught slightly as he caressed her cheek, and the portrait slid upward just enough to reveal — “Ohh…Jesus…”
She was grown to a toddling child, eating a cake that was smeared all about her face. And damn him if he didn’t LAUGH amidst the weeping to see just how pleased with herself she looked for it, a cuddly toy raised in triumph like a sword, four wee teeth visible as she giggled out a victory cry.
There she was again, older, standing in a great snowfall, naught but wee cheeks and grinning eyes visible under the great padded suit she wore against the cold.
Older, still. Three? Four? Sitting proper-like in a pretty frock with her hair combed smooth.
Such a sweet face—
Older, still, standing with a wee box in her hand beside a giant something with wheels, proud and eager, eyes bright.
And then he was gasping as the spyglass world ignited into blazing, brilliant colors. He saw his daughter’s hair, red and victorious and shining against the black coat of the huge dog she hugged tight; saw the pink flush of her cheeks, spread down her neck as it always did his, when he was happy and exuberant.
On and on flashed the paintings, these captured moments of his daughter’s life.
Going fishing and doing a damn fine job of it.
Playing uproariously in the sea-surf, splashing and laughing with complete abandon.
Absolutely lovely as as she grew out of girlhood, and God, how vividly he could see Claire in her, as she did—in the lines of her, the way she held her mouth, tilted her head—that broad, clear brow that begged to be kissed, reverently—
Laughing, carefree, safe.
Braw and strong as she chopped wood. Good lass!
Gazing softly out a window, seeming not even to notice her image being captured.
until he was gasping and looking at the last portrait, of an achingly beautiful young woman sitting on a rock before a fire, making camp for the night, perhaps. Her face was cast in the same golds and red as her hair; the dreams of her heart seeming to dance across her eyes—as they always did her mother’s. His daughter…grown.
The paintings were strewn all around him on the carpet, a tableau of her; her life. On his knees he bowed over them, overwhelmed and shuddering with great sobs as he looked, and looked, and looked.
She would be—
…..she was well.
The child HAD been safe.
It hadn’t been for naught.
He fell, then, and sheltered her like a cloak, keeping his child, his daughter, safe and shielded from the world for just one moment; safe…his….
It was only sudden, ripping, screaming panic that yanked him out of the quiet calm, searching wildly, fumbling with desperate hands—
But relief tore from his throat just as suddenly as he found a second page:
Not everything can be captured in a photograph, of course (that’s what they’re called. Did I ever tell you about them?), and there’s so much I long to tell you about this wonderful person.
Will you believe she’s been taller than me since the age of thirteen? She carries it like a queen, though, like I imagine your mother did. She doesn’t slouch or try to hide. Not Bree.
Oh, yes: most people call her Bree, for short.
She bites her nails, when she’s thinking hard. I don’t even think she notices when she’s doing it.
She’s absolutely brilliant, Jamie, studying at one of the top universities in the world to be a historian. You would be so very proud of her.
She’s not perfect, of course. Perhaps her biggest flaw as half-Scottish is that she HATES whisky, haha. I’ll do my best to win her over, though, don’t you worry.
She’s a spectacular artist, another way in which she takes after her grandmother. She captures you, completely.
That statement, actually, is true in more ways than one. Our Brianna is captivating, in every way.
She’s an absolute wonder with maths and figures —as natural to her as breathing, it seems, just like they are for you.
She smiles in her sleep, just like her father.
She’s so like you, Jamie, it breaks my heart.
After Frank died—But Lord, I haven’t said anything of him.
It was two years ago. He had a good, full life, and he loved Bree more than anything in the world. He could have been cruel, could have taken out his anger upon the child, the very breathing manifestation of the ways in which I’d betrayed him—but he didn’t. From the moment he first held her, Frank loved her as his own, and while things between he and I were tenuous, to say the least, I will always love him for the father he was to her, for the sacrifices he made for her. I hope that is a comfort to you, and not a blow.
After he was gone, after giving her time to grieve, it felt important that Bree should know about you, about the stones. It took—well, it frankly took a bloody lot of luck and a jolly good miracle to get her to believe, *but she does.* She loved Frank with all her heart, but she knows now that Jamie Fraser was her father. IS her father.
You should know that she was instrumental in finding you. She persisted when I would have faltered under the doubts and the fears. As ecstatic and overjoyed as I was at the news that you were alive, I was so afraid Jamie, for you, for me, for Bree.
Even though I know she, too, was plagued with fears, she remained strong; and she kept ME strong. Even at the very stones, when I was so wracked with guilt over leaving her forever that I would have stayed, for her sake, she was there to strengthen me, to tell me not to look back. She said that she was giving me back to you, and that if I didn’t go, *she* would. ‘Someone has to find him and tell him I was born,’ she said, and she meant it.
THAT is the kind of person your daughter is growing to be, Jamie: determined, and brilliant, and selfless for the sake of those she loves; *and that includes you.* She asked me to give you a kiss, just from her. I’ve left it here, on the page, for you to keep, always.
Brianna has been the greatest joy of my life since we parted, a joy that would have been richer only if I had been granted the grace to raise her with you at my side. Thank you for her. THANK YOU for making me go on, for her sake. Despite everything, it has been a good life. Even in those long years of grief, I had the joy of seeing you every day, of seeing your spirit, there in the child of our love. And I’m so very grateful.
I’ll keep telling her about you. There wasn’t enough time, before I left. She’ll be able hear everything, now. I promise.
Jamie shook his head hard, fast, feeling for a third page that wasn’t there. “No…”
Be happy, Jamie Fraser, and LIVE.
“No,” he moaned. his eyes clinging to the fleeting words, even as he begged them not to stop. “Claire…”
“Mo nighean donn, don’t —
Those next seconds were everlasting, each terrible, catastrophic truth echoing in his soul like the toll of a great bell, over and over.
She had been here
Claire had been here
She was sitting at the bottom of the staircase, crying hard into Ian’s shoulder. When the study door crashed open, her head shot up and she jumped to her feet, her face pure terror. “Jamie, mo ch—”
“When?” He snarled it, and Jenny convulsed with a deep sob like a swallowed scream, and covered her face with her hands.
Jamie was thundering toward her, a veil of red over his vision as he demanded, “WHEN?”
Ian—in a shockingly deft and smooth movement given the leg—shot to his feet, shielding Jenny from Jamie’s rage with his body.
In all truth, the rational parts of Jamie’s mind were glad for Ian’s presence, for that was the only thing keeping the blood rage from taking control, from taking revenge. “WHEN was she here, woman?” he bellowed over Ian’s shoulder, “How fucking long did ye see fit to keep—”
Ian shoved him, eyes blazing. “You’ll NOT talk that way to—”
“Mor—ning—”Jenny sobbed, her voice a strangled whisper, “—gone before—Jamie! Oh, Jamie, I ken I’ll—never for—give mys—for—”
“HOW MANY MONTHS?” he roared, overtaken by despair, overtaken by rage, becoming a nameless beast under it. “HOW MANY YEARS, JENNY?”
“This morning—” she wailed, “To—TO—DAY—”
And then a great wave, tall as a mountain, rose up within Jamie, blasting out everything within him in a single cataclysmic moment of clarity.
T O D A Y
Then she was—
She could be no more than—
He vaulted up the stairs four at a time, paying no heed to Janet and Wee Ian and the others who were gathered at the top of the staircase, wide-eyed and pale and gaping.
Less than a minute later, he thundered back down past them all, breeks only half-laced under his boots, traveling bag on his back.
“No,” Jenny moaned, grasping at his sleeve as he passed and trying to hold him back. “Jamie, ye canna—Ye CANNA catch her, she's—GONE—she’s—”
He shook her off, hard enough to knock her off-balance, and ran to the kitchen, shoving what food he could lay his hands on into his sack and moving straight to the door, so crazed with determination he could barely see what it was he took. Food didn’t matter. Fatigue, already tugging at him, didn’t matter. Claire was—
“Jamie, she’s nearly a day ahead—” Jenny caught the handle just as he did, eyes absolutely wild. “Ye dinna even ken where she’s bound or—”
He spared his sister one look, and let all the hate and contempt, the rage and the betrayal show there as he growled, “I ken precisely where she’s bound.”
Craigh Na Dun
I brought a heart into the room
but from the room I carried none with me.
No, I chided silently, staring around the pitiful shack, blank. I had left with a heart: I'd left with Bree, the love of my second life, and that little heart had kept me tethered to life until I’d found myself again.
....but the heart with which I'd entered? That was no more.
They were still here, watching me from the damp, dark corners of the cottage: the fragments. I could feel them. Aching.
Yes, this is where you left us. You made it out, but we remained. Here we shall remain, now that...
My body was a no-man’s land. On the one side, grief: staggering in detail...unending...ripping me to shreds with every breath; on the other, utter nothingness: numbed oblivion...the absence of anything human. One force would rise up to charge, emboldened, and then be summarily routed, annihilated. The process would reverse and repeat over and over, leaving nothing but a throbbing, bleeding stalemate between. Mutually-Assured Destruction.
I closed my eyes and swayed, my arms limp at my sides, a finger searching for the mark at the base of my thumb.
‘I want to take away your touch with me.’
A past me had said that, here within these walls.
‘...to have something of you that will stay with me always.’
Only, nothing was ‘always.’ Not even that.
True, I could see it, still, the faintest of white lines forming the letter J; but any palpable scar had vanished into the smooth landscape of the skin.
Strange: I had never once allowed myself to acknowledge that fact. Doing so now—It plunged me into a cold, chill darkness, where only my terror was heard. Over the years, as I felt it fade, and fade, and fade, I had let myself cling to the fantasy of ‘always’; had permitted myself to never actually touch the spot, nor look at it—only to tell myself it was there, to cling to the safety and comfort of this one, tiny delusion. Yet, the cruel reality was that Jamie’s last touch was now no more than a photograph: a single moment in time, captured in the record, visible, but with no dimension. An image. A hint at a memory.
Jesus H, Christ, but it’s the *memory* that matters, Beauchamp, so stop being foolish. You’re a physician, damn you: you should know better than anyone that scars are *supposed* to heal. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change the memory.
Yes, the body, so perfectly adapted to regenerate and prolong us, will do everything in its power to erase the imperfections life inflicts upon it. The platelets will descend; the threads of fibrin will lash and bind; the white blood cells will attack infection at the breach, keeping the small hurt from becoming fatal. It is how we—physically, fundamentally—go on.
The body cannot comprehend that its healing power, that very erasure, is a wound in and of itself; that our hurts and imperfections might be nothing less than our deepest desire; that even pain—
‘...I don't care if it hurts; nothing could hurt more than leaving you.’
“Wrong again, Beauchamp,” I whispered, my voice catching. This could hurt more. Leaving him again, half our lives gone; facing the remaining half alone....and that, after rising from loneliness up to a great peak of hope—only to—
But you know he’s alive, this time, Beauchamp. You know he’s happy! You know he’s going to live to be an old man, perhaps to see his grandchildren. For Pete’s sake, you maudlin creature, surely you can agree that that fact makes this day far better than the eve of Culloden.
....but I didn’t expect to endure anything of the like again.
But now you *shall* endure it, Beauchamp. Now, you move on.
‘Move on?’ How?.... I can’t even move from this spot.
I blinked hard up at the ceiling, fists and teeth clenched, tears falling. “Damn you, Jamie, how did you bloody do this?”
He’d been so brave—so fucking brave in those final hours under this roof. He’d known that he must send me away, must do so because it was the best chance for me, for our child. He’d touched me; roused me; smiled for me; reassured me; joked and laughed, even, as best he could. He had been strong and HIMSELF, to the end.
And here I was — twenty-odd years later, leaving by the very same route for his sake, for his chance for a good and happy existence, just as genuinely assured in my conviction as he—falling apart.
How had he remained in one piece? How the bloody hell had he managed to say goodbye without even shedding a tear, damn him?
‘I would sleep once more this way—holding you, holding the babe.’
Because he had known for a fact that he would die the next morning. He wouldn’t have to live with that emptiness, with a broken heart, or so he had supposed; and so he’d kept his tears at bay because he knew I would. I had to go on, and so he’d rallied for my sake, presented himself to me as a man calm and at peace, so as not to make my task—my grief, the reality that I would have to be the one to walk away forever—any more excruciating than it already was.
So brave. Strong.
I would do the same for you, Jamie, if it fell to me. I hope I could be strong for you.
But if there were any grace that had been granted to me, in this final, broken chapter of our story, it was that I was spared having to look my love in the eye as I gave him up to a better life;
that I, at least, could let my tears fall freely.
A sudden draft stirred my flimsy skirt, bringing me sharply to awareness. I shivered against the frigid air, mindful through my disorientation of how sharply my knees ached. The light outside had shifted since I entered the cottage. The sun had long since disappeared behind the horizon, leaving only the dim grey-pink of November twilight.
Time, Beauchamp. Walk out the door. Only a quick walk up the hill, and it’s over. No sense in prolonging it any further.
It was time; and I found myself moving with purpose, though not toward the door.
There, at the back wall, in that opening where the boards had long since fallen away, I stood, silent and still. Snowflakes—scattered, sporadic— brushed my cheeks, but I paid them no heed.
The very last place I'd seen him; felt his touch; felt him within me.
The damp, rotten wood felt so soft and smooth under my bare palm. Warm. Living.
‘Name him Brian...for my father.’
“Come find me, will you?” I whispered to the wind, forcing a smile. “When we’re both gone into what comes after, c—”
My throat closed.
I pictured seeing the outline of a tall, etherial figure, in that after-place...and seeing his arm circle around the waist of a small woman; the both of them stretching their arms out toward two little girls, running to them.
Would he even see me?
‘I will find you....
“I shall hold you to it, Jamie Fraser.” I rubbed my thumb once over the plank. “Til then, my love.”
It was a much more strenuous climb than I remembered. The icy, twilight air stung my lungs as I gulped it down, the burning in my muscles only heightening the sensations of grief, of panic, of regret, and loss. I wanted to let myself fall, there on the slope, and weep, just sleep until I vanished into nothing.
But the thought of Bree’s face kept me going up that hill, step after aching step.
You’ll see her, soon.
Only a hundred yards more.
You’d prepared yourself to never see her again, and now you’ll have years and years
Fifty to go.
Just think of the surprise on her face.
Think of how relieved she’ll—
“C L A I R E !”
My heart stopped.
I swear, it actually
Many a red-headed man I’d passed on the long road from Lallybroch. Every single time, my stupid, desperate heart had leapt with joy; and every time, I cursed myself for the fool that I was. For Christ’s SAKE, why the bloody hell should he be on the road from Inverness, Beauchamp? Jamie Fraser is south, in Edinburgh, with his wife. With his daughters. Happy. So, pull yourself together.
So deep had been my longing, though, that my traitorous eyes had tried over and over to convince me that it might be, it MIGHT be this time! (even when the actual travelers hadn’t looked remotely like Jamie). Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, one had been a very tall boy no more than twelve, and I still had had to see his face from ten feet before I would allow my heart to quiet. Not him. Not him.
Blind hope, indeed.
But this time, as I whirled and fell on the hillside, heart exploding, in a single moment, I was certain. Even from a great distance, even two decades later, even not yet able to see his face through the snow-flecked gloom, even had he not been screaming my name, yes, I’d know the shape of that man anywhere. It was Jamie, tearing toward me on horseback, riding like the hounds of hell were at his heels. And the SIGHT of him? A relief and a love smashed through me, so deep and so visceral that I staggered downward; not running, not even making my way down the hill; just slipping, pulled toward his orbit.
Alive. I had known for months, believed, had confirmation from Jenny herself, and yet the proof was now there before my eyes. Not under a stone on Culloden Moor; that nightmare was now banished forever. Jamie Fraser was ALIVE.
I saw him kick hard, spurring the horse to an even more astonishing pace—how loudly must he have been screaming that I had been able to hear him from so far away?—and found myself bursting out with joyous laughter at the way his shirt flapped like a sail in the wind. Nothing changed, then, if the ridiculous man had ridden without a coat or a cloak against the wind and the sn—
This changes absolutely nothing, Beauchamp. This ends with you going through those stones, sooner or later. Make it sooner.
But he came for me—Jamie came! He’s HERE.
He’s happy. He may have come, but he’s happy. Don’t make him suffer by forcing this impossible choice.
Just let me say goodbye.
Let me hold him, just for —
Can you honestly do what needs to be done if you have to look him in the eye and pull yourself out of his arms?
“CLAIRE!—What are ye—? S T O P !”
I was running up the hill, stumbling and tripping, going as fast as I could. I couldn’t stop. If I looked at him—If I touched him...
Everything seemed to slow to single frames, impressions:
The slow shrill cry of my breaths,
the grass suddenly inches from my nose as I staggered low over a boulder.
Hoofbeats, closer, louder.
I’m running for my life through quicksand,
every footfall sinking me deeper, and slower, as the monster gets closer and closer and—
A fierce whinny, a curse.
A voice— my voice—screaming. “STAY AWAY!”
Boots hitting the ground,
Running, both of us running,
and I couldn’t stop.
I must not st—
Time smashed into its normal pace again as I fell, mere yards from the crest of the hill, and cried out in pain.
“CLAIRE!” God, he was so close, pounding up the hill behind me, no more than thirty—
“Don’t!” I shouted as I scrambled to my feet.
“DO—NOT—TOUCH—ME!” I screamed it over my shoulder with all the violence I possessed, a feral beast, cornered and ready to go for the throat as it went down.
Silence fell on the faerie hill. Stillness, and absolute silence.
When human thought returned, I was on my feet at the very top of the hill, the stones screaming their evil song behind me. My body was slung sideways, both arms raised in defense; my head hung at an improbable angle so as to look nowhere, see nothing: not the stones, not him. It was elemental in my body, in that moment: the absolute imperative not to look at him. If I could keep from looking, keep from getting trapped in those eyes, everything would be alright.
It was a ridiculous logic, I knew; somewhere in the recesses of my consciousness, that was obvious. Jamie Fraser was HERE. He wouldn’t simply let me walk away unacknowledged; but such was the depth of my panic and hysteria that I couldn’t move. I was bare millimeters from completely falling apart, abandoning all my noble resolve, and flinging myself into his arms, begging him to choose me — take me — and damn the fucking consequences.
But it still wouldn’t change a bloody thing, the rational half of my mind whimpered. He would still be married. He would still have his children. We still could not be together, or at least not under any circumstances that honor would permit. I still could not force him to make that choice.
Hold yourself together, Beauchamp. No tears, remember? You said you could do the same for him; could be calm and sure for him. Now, do it. Stand strong.
“....Mo nighean donn?”
That flower-stem snap.
That voice—Jamie’s sweet, clear voice; my very heart speaking aloud, quietly, but with every ounce of pain and longing that I felt in my own breast.
“Look at me, mo nighean donn.”
My mouth was dry and my entire body was shaking, each word an effort. “— Can't—”
A sudden, vicious snarl. “LOOK at me!”
I half-growled, half screamed, “I—CANT!”
Desperate. So desperate, that ‘can’t’. I was shaking. Going into shock, in fact. Could feel the darkness and the manic energy and the absolute inability to retrieve words or actions closing—
“Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp.”
He said it like he always said his own name: low and distinct, with honor in every syllable.
“I have ridden,” he said, in a voice so quiet and deep and measured, “night and day for nigh on a week, terrified that—terrified th—*Please,*” His calm vanished and the words were tumbling out of him in a frantic rush. “Please, for the love ye bear me, for the love that brought ye to find me: TURN.”
God, but I can’t stand.
“By everything that is holy...” A whispered moan. “Let me see your face, mo ghraidh.”
....and damn my weak, foolish heart, I turned. I looked.
Day and night for a week, he’d said, and I believed it. Even at a distance of twenty feet down the hill, I could see just how bloodshot his eyes were, wide and wild. He was pale, underneath the red of wind and exertion, paler than I remembered. That glorious hair was now worn long. If it had been tied back, the ride and the wind had undone it. It was wild and tangled, whipping about his face, his chin covered in stubble that nearly amounted to a beard. His clothes—nothing but shirt, breeks and boots— were filthy and torn and splattered with mud. He looked, quite simply, dead on his feet.
He was the most beautiful sight I'd ever beheld.
God, you’re so like her, I wanted to moan. I’d known it, had had my heart broken every day to see the proof of him in our daughter, and yet seeing him now before me, I was absolutely run through to find her broad, good-humored face there, the same dark blue eyes aslant the high, flat cheekbones and wide mouth.
He’d aged, of course, as had I. The lines around eyes and mouth were deeper, the skin more weathered and coarse, but it was still him. His nose had been broken, at some point. It made him look fiercer, though perhaps that was simply fatigue and the vast waves of emotion obviously rushing through him, through us both.
Jamie had staggered back a pace or two back as he stared up at me, nearly toppling down the steep incline. “Jesus....Christ...” he whispered. The back of his hand was pressed to his mouth as though to stifle a cry, “You’re....You....” The hand became a fist and he shook his head as a gasping smile broke from him. “Claire—God, Claire, mo chridhe!” He moved, about to sprint up the hill.
I jumped backward. Raised my arms against him. No.
Hurt. Betrayal. Pain. It was as though I had shot him at point-blank range...And something deeper shone beneath it all: some blazing intensity I couldn’t quite identify. He looked as though he would bleed out there on the spot, from this newest wound.
So will I, my love.
But he heeded me, standing completely still. His hands shook, half-raised before him. He simply didn't know what to do with them—I knew because I didn’t know what to do with mine. His mouth worked as he tried to speak, to ask, to say something, but failing. Those eyes held everything, though. Pleading.
Silence on the hill. Silence and screaming.
“You—survived,” I managed at last, weakly, with something like a laugh.
“Aye—” He exhaled in a huge rush, clearly grateful that I'd broken the stalemate. “It was a verra close thing.” He spoke fast and frantically, babbling, even, as though terrified to let silence fall again. “I should have died in the battle, or from the firing squads after, or of my wounds festering, but— Aye, I—I was—spared.”
“Thank God,” I whispered, and his eyes lit with such hope and relief that I could have cut my bloody tongue out at the root.
STOP this instant, Beauchamp. Nothing has changed.
Jamie was the one to break the silence, this time. “Your letter,” he gasped out.
“You read it, then?” A stupid thing to say. He’d obviously read it, but I clung to conversation just as he had. The stupid words were something, something to keep from falling off the edge of this insanity. “When?”
“By providence, I arrived at Lallybroch the same day you’d left, and....Oh, God, CLAIRE....”
Oh, God, Jamie.
Each time my name left him, it seemed to tear a piece out of both of us. I could only look down at him, waiting.
“When I saw your hand on that letter,” he said, voice shaking uncontrollably, “the print of your ring in the wax, I ...”
He shook his head, at a loss, mouthing it over and over. I...I....
Through the snow, though darkness was creeping steadily around us, I could see the first tear sliding down his cheek. “....I felt as though I were dying.”
So did I. So do I.
“To know you’d survived—that you’d come back, and—and,” his eyes lit up. “Brianna.”
From his lips, our daughter’s name sounded like strange music from another world, and I wanted to listen to it forever.
“It would have been enough—more than enough—only to ken our bairn had lived, that the both of ye had lived and been cared for, but to....Claire, I simply couldna believe my eyes.” He shook his head, violently. “To see...to SEE the lass...our daughter.” Jamie released his sobbing breath and closed his eyes, holding out his hands before him, tears streamed down his cheeks. “Her entire life, there before me... and she so happy and so braw and bonny and—God, it tore out my beating heart.” He heaved a breath and smiled up at me, beaming with love and joy, though it was difficult for him to get out the words. “She’s—more wonderful than I ever could have imagined, mo ghraidh....Our Brianna.”
I forced a smile and choked down a sob. “I’m so honored,” I whispered, so haltingly, so carefully, so, so carefully, “to have been able—to bring her to you, in some way.”
My own love.
Nothing has changed.
I took a step, two steps, backward toward the stones. This was the part where I was to be strong.
Jamie’s eyes snapped into laser-focus, a predator’s, and that unknown intensity I’d seen earlier flamed now into life. It was anger.
“Why would ye just GO?” His voice was still wretched with pain but he was snarling, stammering, growling in mounting fury. “Ye—ye came for me and—Ye came all the way from your time through the stones and then meant to go back and leave forever wi’out even—Damn ye, woman, ye didna even—If I hadna come just in time—Foolish—wretched, FOOLISH—” He hurled the demand toward me with his entire body. “WHY?”
“You *know* why.” It was all but a moan.
He growled again. “Ye dinna ken —”
“I know that you’re married,” I got out, moving sideways around the rim of the hill, countering his advance. “I know you have children. Jenny told me everything—how hap—”
“No, Claire, ye dinna understand!” Something had shifted in his eyes — relief? — and he was once again still, though scarcely fifteen feet in front of me down the hill. “Jenny lied. She lied, Claire,” he insisted, the words falling out of him. “She lied and made ye think I was—”
“ You're not — ??”
Jenny lied! Thank the bloody stars above, the horrible bitch LIED!!! Jesus H—
My smile broke through like the dawn, a blaze of glorious, raging happiness as I gasped out, “Then, you’re not married?”
And I watched as that hope shriveled and vanished to dust. His eyes dropped to the ground. “I am marrit.”
I swayed, eyes closed. I couldn’t bear this any longer, couldn’t take this agony raging in my heart, both the emotional and the physical heart. I felt light-headed, felt pain in my limbs. I couldn’t be strong. I couldn’t.
Just a little while longer. Say your farewell, and be gone. It will be alright, Beauchamp.
“Then she didn’t lie,” I said, simply, my throat burning with the effort not to wail. “You have a wife and two beautiful daughters.” I caught my breath and opened my eyes, managing to smile, though I was so very near the brink. “I meant what I wrote in the letter. Every single word. I want you to be happy—and I’m glad that you are. I’m glad that you have a family and that they have made you happy.”
His brows were drawn up, making him look absolutely crazed. He mouthed the word like he’d never heard it before. Happy?
“But I—” Somehow, I kept up the smile as I whispered through wooden lips and burning throat and the tears. “—but it means—that I have—to go, now— before—”
“NO,” he snarled, springing with sudden force. I staggered still further away around the hill as he bellowed, “You’ll NOT—”
“BE STILL!” I bellowed back.
And once again, he heeded me.
“For God’s fucking SAKE, you bloody — Scot!” I shouted down at him, suddenly just as furious as he. “Have you NO notion of what — Don’t you understand? I’m giving you up! I’m letting you go!” I gestured wildly behind me to the stones, choking on my tears. “I’m leaving so you don’t have to choose! Do you think I’m so arrogant as to believe I’m worth upending your happy—”
“DAMN YOU, woman, I havena been HAPPY in TWENTY YEARS!”
Silence on the faerie hill. Silence and screaming.
When he spoke again, it was once more in that quiet, aching whisper.
“Jenny led ye to believe otherwise and may she be damned for it.” He took a step forward, pointing. “But in that letter, ye renewed a promise to me; and I’ll give ye the same, now.” Another step.
I stepped back.
He surrendered, went to his knees, hands clenched in the posture of oath-taking. “No lies, Claire.” His eyes blazed into mine. “Nor secrets. Not ever. Not now. I swear it on Brianna’s life.”
God, my heart...
“Will ye hear what I have to tell?”
...it simply couldn’t take this.
But I nodded.
“I left Laoghaire more than a year past.”
The outburst was so violent, so loud and so shrill in the wake of my long silence, that it startled us both. Jamie had to put a hand out to steady himself as he jumped, and the acute panic of a fresh hell showed across his face. “She—Jenny didna—?”
“No, she BLOODY well DIDN’T!”
“Aye, well—ah ...ehm...Claire?”
He was peering leerily up at me, and little wonder, for I was laughing—actually, CACKLING with laughter, hands clutched to my belly as I doubled over with it.
“No, Jenny didn’t tell me who,” I sighed, when I had calmed down (marginally). “The only detail your darling sister deigned to divulge about your wife—”
Of all people. Of ALL the marriageable women in all the bleeding Highlands. He had married —had had children with—loved—
All levity, all scorn dropped out of me, and my voice cracked, a whispering shell. “—was that you were happier with her than she’d ever seen you....And that you had two little girls that call you Da.”
“But they’re not mine, Claire. They’re not mine,” Jamie said again more urgently as I stared. He gritted his teeth. “And I shall wring my sister’s neck for a wicked liar when next I see her, for she kens fine that I’ve not had ninety-nine happy minutes in that marriage since it began.”
I was so cold. Frozen, in every cell.
“Two years ago, we wed,” he began carefully. “She was marrit before, twice, and found herself a widow wi’ two bairns to feed just as I was newly come back from England.”
His words were running together, a bit. There was so much warring within him, so much he clearly wished to say, but cold and fatigue and emotion were taking their devastating toll.
“I’m fond of her lassies—Marsali and Joan. They're aged fifteen and twelve and have had a cruel, rough way of it, in lives so short. Wi’ all that they’ve endured, I was glad—honored, even— for them to take me into their hearts as a father, but hear me, Claire.” He held my eye. “I've shared scarce more wi’ them than what loving gentleness I could offer, and a scant few months of meals shared ‘round the same table. No more.” He shook his head with a sound of shame and regret. “Christ, I sound an unfeeling wretch. I do care for them, I do.”
But they weren’t born of his love; nor had he had a hand in raising them.
“I did have hope, at the beginning; hope that perhaps there could be some —tenderness between us. Nothing like—” He make a vain gesture up at me and closed his eyes, as though he couldn’t bear it. “—like what I kent it could be between a husband and wife, but something good to keep me sane; keep me alive....Can ye see?...Have ye kent that same hope, Claire?.... Only she couldna; or I couldna. I’ll accept the blame in full, but in the end, the ‘why’ and ‘who’ dinna matter. It was a broken thing within months, and I knew that if I’d stayed....”
He hung his head, and for the first time, I could truly see the twenty years that had gone from his life.
“I left for Edinburgh; have been there ever since. I provide for them, but I havena called Balriggan home for over a year...nor shared her bed since long before that.”
The wind whistled between us. What he was saying...
I was numb. I was...It was like I was underwater, with news being shouted to me from dry land as I slowly drowned.
“I’ve lain wi’ three women, since you’ve been gone,” he blurted suddenly, urgently against my silence, his voice so miserable, his eyes imploring. “Laoghaire, and two single-night encounters, and from one of those—From one of those nights...”
“William,” he whispered, nodding in confirmation, his eyes absolutely wretched but shining with the need to confess. “He’s a — a bastard, in England, and I shall never see him again. I’ve never told anyone of him, not even Jenny or Ian. His mother, his putative father—they’re both dead. He’s highborn, in the care of a man I trust. John will give him a good life; better than ever a convicted traitor could.”
He closed his eyes and I could see his mouth working furiously as he tried both to form words and to hold back his weeping. “But he’s my son,” he whispered. “My only son, alive in the world because of me, and he’s bonny and canty and strong, just like Brianna, and there are days when I canna seem to live wi’out seeing him, holding him, or —” And he went silent, hiding his face in his hands until he could manage to speak. “Nor can I regret that he lives, for those years I had near Willie were the closest thing I’ve had to—to — And that only a shell of what....”
He raised a hand up as though he would cup my cheek across the chasm between us; then dropped it. Both hands lay on his thighs, aimless.
“No. Happiness has not been granted me, Claire.” He stared at his palms, speaking in the barest, broken murmur. “My heart left wi’ you and the bairn; and while it is my duty to go on, to care for those under my protection, as I shall do, I've had little joy save the knowledge that at the end, I'd die and be able to find ye, just as I promised. Two hundred years, I said I’d wait. I’ve been counting.”
The snowflakes danced around us in the near-night, oblivious to desperation or to miraculous sparks catching in dark, deep places.
“And to then learn in a moment that you’d come back...”
I tried to speak; but I was shaking so hard that I couldn’t open my mouth. I clenched it tight, feeling the tears slipping over my lips.
“Claire?” he moaned, reaching out a hand. “...Lass?...Love?...I feel as if I shall die if I canna touch ye....Please.”
My knees had locked — everything within me had locked, between Jamie and the cold— and as I tried to adjust my footing, I accidentally stumbled backward a pace.
Despair escaped out of him and he jumped up as though to run to me, but he thought better of it, and came back down to his knees.
“Twice, I brought ye here to send ye away, mo nighean donn, because I knew a better life awaited ye on the other side of those accursed stones. Perhaps it does, this day, as well, but this time, I shall beg. Don't go.”
He raised both clawed hands to me. The tears were flowing so violently and his face was so deeply contorted so as to be barely recognizable.
“Don’t go. Stay wi’ me. Stay. I canna...I canna do it...Please....*please*....”
I was paralyzed, completely immobilized by — by —
“Is it too much to forgive, Claire?” came the cracked moan of my heart through the darkness that had suddenly hidden him from me entirely. “Laoghaire and—and William? Do... do ye not want me?”
“God, Jamie...” I whispered, so softly that surely only the grass and the snow could hear.
It was the first time I had said his name aloud to him.
“....you're all I want.”
“Then what else matters?”
Nothing else mattered.
And I was flying down to him, and he was flying off his knees to catch me, and the feeling of his arms around me, of Jamie’s arms around me at last was —
Like lightning, striking upon the sand. A flash of light, of power, instantly transforming the hundreds of tiny fragments— the millions of shards weathered to all but nothing by time—into a single, molten one. A whole.
“So close,” that wretched, strangled voice kept choking out over and over again. “Claire—” He kept trying to hold her closer, wrap his body around hers still more completely, searching, searching for her, though he knew she was beneath him. “So—so cl—ose—”
To losing her. He had come mere minutes, moments away from losing her forever, again, right before his eyes.
“Shhhh, darling, I know,” she kept whispering into his hair, his neck, though she was sobbing as hard as he. “I know—It’s—It’s alright, love—”
“Don’t go...” The snow-flecked dark seemed to spin and scream around him, throwing everything into a hellish whirl that he couldn’t grasp, about to throw him off the very face of the earth. “Claire, ye canna—Claire—don’t—go—”
“I’m not going—anywhere—” she gasped out, clutching harder around his back. “It’s over, Jamie—All—over....” She cupped his head so urgently, so tenderly as she cradled him and wept into his shoulder. “Shhhh, it’s alright, love...it’s alright...It’s all over....”
He hadn’t let her out of his arms, not for one single moment.
Those minutes on the hill, his body, his heart, his MIND had all been on the verge of shattering from the terror that she was leaving him. The strength—the pure, desperate strength— it had taken to keep upright and to speak, to ask instead of screaming and lunging? Never, not even in battle, had he ever felt something like that: the absolute life of him being ripped apart before him, shred by shred, hope by hope, until he was no more than a bloodied, quivering plea.
But then, she had run to him and he had become flesh again, breathing and needing, with arms that could hold and a soul that could feel joy, this joy,
and the rest of world had gone still.
It had been hours—or perhaps only moments—before he’d crumpled to the ground. Utterly overcome, utterly dissolved in relief and love, in scarce-contained panic, he’d laid her down and covered her like a cloak with his body, surrounding her, trying to convince himself that she was real.
There, on the frozen ground of the faerie hill, oblivious to the wind and the snow, they’d broken apart in one another’s arms, each kept from vanishing only by the other grasping them tight enough to bruise, from feeling their arms, hearing what words they could manage to gasp out; and it was both everything and scarcely anything at all compared to what they each felt, in those moments.
She felt the same under his hands, exactly the same. It was the same voice—the same gentle hands—the same glorious spirit. She was Claire; and he was going to die from her.
“Are you shaking from—” She had to stop and get her sobbing breath under control before she could finish. “—from—crying— or cold?”
He truly didn’t know.
She pushed up his sleeve. “God, Jamie, you’re like ice,” she moaned. He felt her shifting and fumbling about. “Here, put—Take this—”
Though he was still shaking, still barely able to see through swollen eyes, he managed to pull the cloak out from beneath her and throw it over them both, heads and all. It was quite large, of good, thick wool, and a pocket of warmth instantly began to form around them. While he wouldn’t have thought the cold had been affecting him so very much, the change was like a dram of good brandy, rushing through his body from head to toe in an instant. His sobbing eased, his mind began to clear, his breathing slowing to something like a normal pace. He could hear hers doing the same, tapering and settling as the calm and the gentle pool of heat settled over them both.
He had had both arms around her before they’d shifted, hands gripping her side and twined in her hair, needing in every muscle and fiber of him to hold her. Now, in utter darkness, without even the faint glow of the snow-clouds to illuminate her, he could only reach for her face, needing, paradoxically, to see her, to look into her eye. And the moment his palm came to rest on her cheek— so cold and slick with tears—she gave a little whimpering sound that might have been his name, and she was reaching up for his mouth. He couldn’t stop kissing her; tasting her; touching her; couldn’t stop moaning her name. All the years—All the years of longing for her, and she was here in his arms, sharing his breath.
“I’m here,” she kept saying back against his lips, knowing that he needed to be told. “I’m here, Jamie....I’m here....”
“When I saw ye,” he said, a long time later, when the world had once more gone quiet, his hand pressed against her heart. “When I saw ye climbing up that hill, Claire—”
Jamie had found the horse a mile or two back. It was one of the Lallybroch mares, a beast he’d broken himself and would have known anywhere. Terror had driven him all the way from the Lallybroch dooryard, or so he had thought. No, he had only felt the true, ripping claws of it when he had seen that riderless horse and known that he had come too late. The furious minutes of that last hellish gallop were a blank in his memory, but he remembered the ecstatic fury of seeing her up there in the distance; seeing her turning; and then the life dropping out of him once more as she began to sprint upward, away from him, toward the stones.
“What would you have done?” Claire whispered, stroking his face. “If I had kept running?”
“I'd have run faster,” he said with what voice he had left, “and pinned ye to the ground until ye listened to sense.”
She stiffened. “...You’d have stopped me by force?”
He forgot the complete darkness enshrouding them and gave her a look. “If you're asking ‘would I have done whatever I could to keep ye running off forever before ye kent all the truth’ you’re damned right, I would. I’d have tied ye hand and foot to a tree, if I had to.”
“You bloody man,” she muttered, and it was not said in fondness. “Nothing changed.”
Anger flared up in him, red-hot and blinding with panic, and he closed his hand tight around her wrist. “You were going to just leave, Claire,” he hissed. “Can ye honestly blame me? God, I’m still so furious that ye would have—Had I not—” He swore, shaking her. “You damnable, foolish wom—”
“Oh, is that the way of things?” she snarled at him, her breath hot in his face. “So, when YOU sacrifice your own feelings and well-being for love, it’s noble and right, but when I do, I’m just a ‘foolish woman?’”
“That’s—Damn you, that isna at all—”
She yanked herself out of his grasp. “Can you honestly tell me, James Fraser, that if the circumstances were reversed—if you’d somehow found your way to 1968—found that I’d married someone new—heard I'd had a child by him and was by all accounts blissfully happy—you’d have just waltzed right in and thrown yourself at me? You'd truly have put me in that position?”
“No,” he moaned, defeated, as the true tragedy of what she’d been planning to do for his sake settle around him. “No, I....I couldna have put ye through such a choice.”
“Well, I bloody couldn’t do it to you, either,” she spat at him, sobs starting to shudder through her again in her rage. “No matter how much—much it tore me apart to—”
“Oh, lass....” He felt her convulse and cover her face with both hands, as though she might hide from the terror of what they'd so nearly lost. “No,” he moaned, gathering her tight against his chest, covering her again, the intimacy between them knitting together once more. “No, it was noble what ye meant to do, Claire. If what Jenny told ye had been true, it would have been right. I—Christ, that ye would have done that for my sake...Thank you.”
“We’ve been lucky, Sassenach.” He rocked her softly, buried his face in her hair as she wept. “God....we’ve been so lucky, today. We were in the right places at the precise right moments to find one another again.” He kissed her, softly hushing as she had done for him. “And now, it's all over, just as ye said... We’ll never be parted again, I swear it, Claire.” He sealed the promise with a kiss in the hollow of her neck.
“But what—what will we do?” she managed, voice taut with worry. “About Laoghaire? The girls?”
What will we do, indeed?
“I dinna ken....not precisely,” he admitted.
“That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence,” she said, with a tremulous smile in her voice.
Lovely wee smartarse.
“We’ll find some arrangement that separates me from Laoghaire as honorably as can be managed. You and I are still man and wife, after all. That must count for something wi’ the law.”
Wife. His wife.
Lord have mercy upon his soul, WIVES.
“It will be a tricky business, Claire, and I’ll no’ say it will be over quickly, but I will fight for it with everything that I have.”
“What if it can’t be managed honorably?”
He exhaled. “Then I shall find a way to reconcile wi’ dishonor.”
She choked out a laugh and held him tighter, sighing in deep relief. “Well, I’m glad to hear it. At least we’ll be in hell together, eh?”
“And a happy damnation t’will be.”
A warm, pulsing happiness had pushed away the tears from their sanctuary, and he suddenly wondered how long he could keep his eyes open amid such peace. He’d slept scarce more than an hour at a time on the ride from Lallybroch, and only then when he could no longer stay upon the horse. Each and every time, he’d awoken in a dead-panic that he’d slept overlong, leapt right into the saddle, and repeated the harrowing process over and over, pushing himself to the very limits until he reached Craigh na Dun.
It wasn’t merely the actual fatigue—it was the relief. Many a time in his life—from battlefields to his examinations in the Paris days—he had witnessed the body’s incredible stamina to push through lack of sleep, of food, and of physical strength. It will go to incredible lengths to complete the task at hand, to survive. When the deed is accomplished, though, it takes its own, and fairly well damns the consequences. Jamie was hungry, true, but that could wait. Sleep, though...No, that could wait as well. In the growing warmth of her body and his together, captured by the warm cloak, it was harder and harder by the minute; but he didn’t want to miss a single moment with her. Not one.
“Will you tell me....” It was such a tiny voice that asked it; so tentative and careful. “...why Laoghaire?”
He stiffened, steadied himself with a breath. It was a fair question.
“She was...there,” he hazarded, “at the right time, when I was come back to Lallybroch. It was Jenny’s idea, ken?”
“Mm.” A great deal unsaid in that mm, perhaps having to do with the destructive nature of Jenny’s ideas of late.
“She seemed—sweet, I suppose. Eager, and—Wi’ the wee lassies to feed, she needed me; and I needed—I needed something, too.”
Claire didn’t say a word.
“I am sorry, mo chridhe. I ken it’s—painful.”
“Well, I certainly dinna delight in thinking of the men that have shared your bed.”
To his surprise, she bristled. “It’s not that she was another woman, Jamie. It’s that it was her.”
“I do ken she was quite the jealous brat, all those years ago, at Leoch,” he said, carefully, at something of a loss. “But she was naught but a wee lassie at the time. Surely ye can forgive her a few youthful indiscretions?”
“Youthful ind—?” He heard her choke back whatever retort she had planned and instead breathe through her nose, calming herself. She was being careful, so careful, but there was true indignation, there, true hurt, kept in check for his sake.
“Say it, mo ghraidh.” He touched her face, bent down to kiss her. “Tell me what it is.”
“Wouldn't it trouble you,” she said, very quietly, “if had chosen to marry someone who’d gone out of their way to have you hurt and killed?”
“Cranesmuir? Surely you remember that little episode?”
He felt a jolt run through him. Then it walloped him over the head like a brick. “Laoghaire? She was—?”
“Jamie, she was the one who arranged for me to be taken with Geillis Duncan, that day, for Christ’s sake! You knew that! Surely we discussed it??”
“We certainly DID NOT. Sassenach! BELIEVE me, had I I known, I would never have taken her to wife. NEVER.” He gripped her tight, as though he could look into her eyes. “Had I KNOWN....Christ, the wicked wee bitch!”
She laughed at that. “Well good, I’m—That’s a burden off my mind. I’d certainly have understood if you’d remarried. I did understand, until you mentioned her name. Lord,” she laughed, groaning. “Laoghaire bloody MacKenzie. Laoghaire....Fraser.”
Lord forgive him, he had given Claire’s would-be murderess his name, shared her bed. “I’m—I’m truly so ashamed, Sassenach.” He felt as though he would vomit. “I’m so sorry for this. After what she did—”
“Don’t be,” she said at once, and he heard the sincerity in her voice. “You didn’t know, and would have had no reason to ask. It’s water under the bridge. Though,” she said with good humor, “I do reserve my right to make snide comments from time to time, at her expense only, not yours.”
“’Tis only your due,” he laughed weakly, grateful for the gift of levity, which did help the anxiety and shame abate.
“Jamie, can I ask, does it....?”
More to do with Laoghaire, surely.
“Does it what, mo nighean donn?”
“Does it frighten you? How—easy this is?” She touched his chest. “Like it was only yesterday we last saw each other?”
He released the breath he had been holding and touched her face. “It frightens me only insomuch as it makes my heart feel whole again; and it hasna been for a verra long time. It frightens me to feel that I must learn anew how to hold all these emotions in my heart, once more. But the comfort and the—us-ness between us? I couldna ever be frightened by that; no more than I could be frightened of my own voice.” He gently laid his palm flat against her breast. “Mo chridhe.”
She traced the lines of his collarbone. “I very nearly went to Edinburgh first, you know.”
“Aye, ye said, in the...your letter.”
It was tucked away in his satchel, along with the PhotoGraphs; and he would keep it, always, but he wasn’t altogether sure he could bring himself to read it again.
“All the way here from Lallybroch, after I spoke with your sister, I wondered if I ought to have gone there first.” She paused. “Do you think it would have been easier on us? If I had just appeared through your shop door?”
“It would have given me back a hank of grey hairs that I’ve gained in the last week.”
She laughed, but was not to be dismissed. “What would you have done?”
He’d have been toiling away at the presses, no doubt, with no notion of great happenings about to take place. Perhaps Fergus might have been present, but most days it was him alone in the shop. What would he have done, when he’d heard her voice with no warning? He’d likely have fainted, as he nearly did at Jenny’s news...but beyond that? What would he have done with Claire Beauchamp before him, alive and well and glowing like the June sun, ready and willing to spend the rest of her days with him?
“I ken I wouldna have told ye all the truth...about Laoghaire and William.”
“Oh? Why should that have changed?”
“Is it no’ clear? I’d have been so scairt that it would be too much to hear.” He shook his head in growing conviction. “For all the terror and the near-missing in the way things did come to pass, at least I was able to tell ye all, Claire, wi’ no hesitation. There was nothing more to be lost and so I was able to just say everything, some things I hadna ever once spoken aloud to everyone! It just—The truth was the only thing that could keep ye from going. And so while I canna say this is precisely how I’d have wished things to occur, everything is known between us, now, and that is right. Do ye see?”
“It was a gift to both of us, in its way,” she whispered, “though I know it wasn’t easy.”
“No.” He squeezed her hand, feeling the fine bones and the unbearable silkiness of it. How he wished he could see her. “But if ye’d come upon me in Edinburgh, so far from home, from Laoghaire, wi’ me living under a false name already.... Lord, if you’d just arrived there before me? Handed me the moon and offered this miracle of which I’d vainly dreamed for so long? Could I have told ye I had a son? Could I have told ye was marrit and risked ye leaving at once?” He swallowed, ashamed of the truth, but knowing it was truth all the same. “No. I’d have kept it from ye as long as possible. Maybe forever.”
“No you wouldn’t,” she said with immediate, easy confidence. “You’re too much of a noble hero-type to have conscienced any such thing, Jamie Fraser, and you know it.”
God, does she truly believe that?
A new terror gripped him and he felt his mouth go utterly dry.
The man he had been these last years—James Fraser or Alexander Malcolm or whoever he might be when he was alone only with his thoughts—had been shaped so deeply by grief and bitterness. Crushed first in the loss of her and the bairn; then laid low by the years of hiding and imprisonment, the strain of clearances upon his family; then William, first the fear of him, then tentative joy, and then the loss, forever; and finally rushing up that crest of hope, that desperate hope that something good was to be found in marrying again, and the ache of crashing down onto the sharp realities below.
Claire held in her arms a man bitter and broken. Was he one that she could love, really love, once the euphoria of reunion had worn away? Was the shattered man he had been merely a relic of loneliness that would now vanish with her presence? Or would traces remain? Perhaps the Jamie she had loved had ceased to be and could not be revived. In fact, he was certain that it was not so very far from the truth.
“I’m none so very noble as ye might wish to believe, Sassenach.”
He felt her stiffen.
“Perhaps it’s that I’ve lost too much to honor, or....I’m...” He withdrew, trying to touch her as little as possible as he got the words out. “Ye must ken I’m not altogether the same man of twenty years ago, Claire.”
“But I’m truly not, Claire. I wish to be, will endeavor to be, for your sake; but I have.... such fears.”
The wind had ceased to wail outside their cloak shelter. He could hear every intake and exhale of her breaths.
He suddenly felt her hand, cool and sure, touching his cheek, the other coming to rest on the curve of his breast. “Is your heart still mine?”
“Yours,” he croaked. “Yours, mo nighean donn. Never did it stop being so.”
“Then, we’ll manage with the rest. All the rest.” She cupped the back of his neck to pull him down closer. “I see what you fear, what you dread you are. Perhaps I couldn’t have seen it, if I’d found you in Edinburgh; but I’m here now, and I see you.”
She saw him. Even in darkness, Claire saw him.
“I love you, Jamie Fraser.”
And though that was a point on which he had never held the faintest doubt, the hearing of it now, her declaration, his true name....
To be seen, and yet still be loved.
Tears came, fast and many, and he made no move to halt them. She pulled him down to her breast, murmuring love over him again and again as sleep pressed itself upon him, her hands holding him. He could sleep, at last. Claire was watching over him.
A kiss in my hair and a murmured, “Good morning, Sassenach,” brought me out of my stupor.
“Is it?” I croaked. I made a bleary-eyed reconnaissance, but could ascertain only that I was a) on a horse, b) in front of Jamie on the saddle, my head lolling on his shoulder, and c) blissfully warm against his chest.
…d) quite unbelievably happy.
“Is it good?” He tightened his arm around my waist, and I could hear the smile in his voice as he leaned his head against mine. “Aye, never better.”
“No,” I laughed sleepily, snuggling back into him and squeezing his arm, as it was the only bit of him I could reach. “Is it morning?”
“Nay, quite a few hours to dawn, still; but we’ve arrived in good time.”
The cloak—tucked around us both like his plaid might once have been—slipped a little, and the chill rushed through my clothes as I peered out into the darkness. Inverness. The streets were quite dark and it was hard to discern much of anything other than that we were making our way down a reasonably wide street or avenue. To be frank, though, I couldn’t have given a fig for sightseeing at the moment, in any case. All that mattered was that we were in a reasonably modern town with an inn, meaning a hot meal and a warm bed were mere minutes away.
Jamie kicked up the horse and turned down a sidestreet, his hand instinctively coming up to keep me from getting whiplash as we made the turn at speed. I don’t know why such a practical movement should touch me so, but there came a sudden lump to my throat, and I clutched him back as tight as I could, closing my eyes to savor him. Jamie.
God, it still hardly felt real. It was like…
…like trying to sleep after you’ve spent the day on seaboard, or swimming in the ocean. Even if it’s hours and hours later, lying on the mattress that night, you still feel the rise and fall of the water in your body, the memory of it, something within you triggered into perpetual motion, no matter how much you might have hated the waves nor how many miles your bed may be from the sea. There, then, on the horse, in my body and behind closed eyes, I still felt the physical sense of running up that terrible, screaming hill. I still was being eviscerated with every heartbeat in the knowledge that I had to let him go forever, again; that I would never see him again; that it was the end
But it was all over. He wasn’t happily married; I wasn’t making him choose between me and his own children. His life was ready and waiting for me. Thank you, I whispered silently to whomever might be listening. Thank you, thank you, a thousand times more, *thank you.*
Jamie had slept in my arms, there on the hill. Not for very long, certainly no more than an hour, all told. But oh, how I was glad of it, of the chance to just hold him in peace, to hear the steady rise and fall of his breathing, counting every rise and every fall against my chest, knowing he was safe and mine (How many times had I held his daughter in just that way, in just that peace?) …and beyond that, to immediately cement the intimacy between us.
It was that, I think, that kept either of us from suggesting a move down the hill into the relative warmth of the cottage. At face value, it was an excellent and obvious plan. While the snow had tapered off to a mere scattering of flakes here and there, it was bloody well freezing, and the wind was not gentle. And yet such a notion had felt to me an enormous risk, one I wasn’t willing to take.
We were afraid not to be touching, I think; fearful of any gap, however momentary, that might form between us if physically separated. Something would snap out of place, a voice within me had screamed in warning; hesitations or fears or the awkwardnesses resulting from TWO DECADES of separation. If we weren’t touching, those things might so easily slip into the still-gaping cracks—gorges—that existed between his life and mine.
For my part, even if he had suggested moving down to the cottage— I felt an icy chill come over me at the very thought. There were just too many ghosts in that place, both of twenty years ago and of mere hours. It’s where I had said two devastating goodbyes to the love of my life, and even under these ecstatic circumstances of our reunion, I didn’t think I could bear being under that roof again. It would have reminded me too viciously of the loss and regret and wasted time that lay beneath the surface of our joy, and those were raw and throbbing enough as it was.
No, that cottage could not be a house of joy for me, again.
And so, when he’d awoken, temporarily refreshed from his hellish ride, we’d taken care to always stay linked—even if only hand in hand—as he located satchel and horse (he’d whistled, and the beast had bloody appeared! A veritable John Wayne!), and got us on our way toward Inverness. A few hours’ ride, we’d decided, was well worth having a good meal and a warm bed awaiting us at the end, and the method of travel allowed us to stay holding each other the whole way.
A warm bed.
Before my mind could fully articulate the anxieties underpinning those two words in relation to this evening, there came a Gaelic command rumbling richly against my back and we slowed to a halt.
The dingy public house was torchlit and reasonably inviting-looking, I was surprised to find. A stable-boy came promptly up and Jamie exchanged a few words in Gaelic while hopping down from the saddle, swiveling his satchel to the back, and reaching up to help me dismount.
I swung my leg over and made to slip down into his outstretched arms, but then froze dead like scented prey. “What? For God’s sake, WHAT??” I wanted to crawl out of my skin. He was looking—staring—up at my face as though in horror. “Jamie,” I croaked in dread, “just bloody say—”
“—most beautiful woman…I’ve ever seen.”
The breath left me in a whoosh. I smiled down at him, but—nervously. “That’s very sweet, Jamie.”
He was being kind, and I didn’t doubt he was happy to see me, but I was staunchly middle-aged, and no two ways around it. My face—however much I took care of it—had been weathered by time and parenting and more than a decade of a punishingly-demanding job, and in that moment, I wanted to bloody crawl into the ground to hide from him and never ever come out.
“Truly kind, love,” I repeated tightly, trying to move things along, “but you really don’t have to say—”
“I do,” he said at once, his eyes never once leaving mine as he lifted me slowly down. “I must, for it’s the truth.”
“To you,” I started to say.
“To any man that’s the eyes wi’ which he was born. Claire, mo chridhe, ye are….you…You’re the same.”
And even the scattered snowflakes seemed to slow as we looked at each other, there in the flickering torchlight.
We’d both been so frantic on the hill. I personally had spent tremendous energy in trying specifically NOT to look at his face, and by the time we’d finally fallen into each others’ arms, it had been full-dark. That time held close under my cloak had kept us in darkness, too, meaning that this was the first time we’d gotten the chance to truly study each other at length. And God…even filthy and matted and half-dead with fatigue, he was unspeakably beautiful; he was Jamie.
So slowly, he lifted both hands and cupped my face between them, drinking me in still deeper, shaking his head wordlessly.
“Dear holy God…” he whispered after a few endless heartbeats. “So ye are a witch, then?”
He said it with the exact same expression on his face as back on the hill when he’d first gotten sight of my face. Is that what had made him stagger back? My smile back to him was genuine, playful, almost. “If you like.”
But there was no jest in his own eye. “Claire….Jesus…” And he could say no more.
I was fairly well speechless, too, and could only pulled him down to me, taking his lips softly and slowly.
But then, the distance did wedge between us, and fast.
It happened quite naturally, likely without a thought, on his part. He simply let go my hand as he passed through the tavern door to go speak with the proprietor, and I felt a cold emptiness fall between me and him, like a sudden eclipse. In that darkness, the doubts assaulted me in great, unrelenting barrages, one after another, after another.
You need to guard your heart more carefully, Beauchamp. The other shoe will drop any moment.
You and Jamie are just riding the high of being together. This isn’t real life—this is only the honeymoon. This might fall apart in weeks.
Even if everything with Laoghaire goes right, WE might go wrong.
What if we can’t stand each other after a time just like happened with them?
Beauchamp, that’s poppycock, and you know it. You wouldn’t have come back for him—left BREE for him—if you weren’t certain.
That was so. That was comfort, at least; and everything we’d experienced thusfar since crashing together on that hill had felt right, had felt true.
But GOD, the anxieties had the upper hand, now, and I felt as though I were the only person for miles, alone in some wasteland in my heart. Fear. So much fear.
I had thudded down onto one of the long benches, apparently, for I blinked and was looking at my hands before me on a table. Claw-like, they seemed. The hands of an old woman.
He’d spoken true when he had looked into my face and proclaimed beauty, for I’d seen it in his eyes and heard it in his voice, but it wasn’t him I was worried about, so much, but me. Us. It was truly occurring to me for the first time that it had been a long, long time since I had been actually intimate—fully intimate—with a man, and that perhaps it had been too long. I could feel the truth of that fear in my very bones: that perhaps I wasn’t capable of such an intimacy any longer. Yes, I acknowledged, feeling a vice tightening around my chest, something in me would certainly have been lost.
There had been sex in my years with Frank, yes, plenty of it, but not passion; need and urgency, of course, but never anything coming even remotely close to that sense of one-ness that Jamie and I had shared so naturally, so instinctively from the beginning. Frank…Frank was….
I felt my body seize up, a great weight pressing down upon my face to smother me. So many years ….So many long years in which the very concept of being touched by a man (….my only experience with being touched in that way by another human being…) was inextricably linked with having hurt him, being resented by him, resenting HIM right back. Sex meant sensing the other women on his skin and not being able to say a damned word (because of the other man—THE man— that still lingered in mine!). It meant wanting—needing—so badly to touch and be touched, and yet being unable to get true relief, nor seek it elsewhere or ANYWHERE, and being left only with this writhing, seething, screaming —
Time was not the only thing that had been lost.
Those aging hands were shaking and my entire body jumped in panic when a steaming platter appeared on the table. “The cook was awake, thank God,” Jamie said enthusiastically, taking the seat across from me and tucking into the bread and cheese and honey with gusto.
There was a savory broth as well, making it an excellent meal in any century, but I couldn’t seem to taste or smell anything. That didn’t keep me from fixing my eyes carefully on the food, though. It was something to occupy my hands and my attention.
Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, I screamed weakly into nothing. What if I couldn’t do this anymore? What if I could do…that anymore? The way it ought to be done? The way I wanted to be with him? The way—GOD, the way I’d craved for twenty fucking—?
“Are ye quite well, mo nighean donn?”
I started and the piece of bread I’d been pinching and balling up rolled away off the edge of the table. “Yes, I—Sorry, just—” I smiled, though it could hardly have been convincing. “Lost in thought.”
“Aye,” he said, graciously not pressing me. “Is it enough food? Shall I get more?”
I shook my head and demurred, feeling as though I would vomit or faint from the dark storm roiling within my heart.
He went back to his food, inhaling it at lightning speed.
Just take my hand, I begged him silently, but couldn’t get my lips, my lungs to comply, nor my own fingers to move. Just grab onto me, Jamie, and then everything can be alright. Everything *might*….God, Jamie, please…
But I could see that he was already preparing to leave the table, sopping up the last of his broth with bread. “You go on up to the room, mo nighean donn. Top of the stairs on the left. I need to go directly to talk to the keeper (while he’s still awake) about buying a shirt off him, and perhaps a mirror to shave, and then I’ll be up to join ye presently.”
The expectations—his AND mine—
No, it was mine. My own expectations were the ones making the room spin, along with the knowledge that I almost certainly couldn’t meet—
“You don’t need to shave for my sake, Jamie,” I said hastily, not meeting his eye, trying (failing) to sound casual. “I’m sure you’re bone-tired.”
He caught the implication immediately and only nodded. “I am, and I thank ye, but I’ll be shaving all the same. I want to—to be presentable for my wife,” he said formally, not meeting my eye either. He started to say something else, but then stood quite suddenly and brushed crumbs off his hands as he walked around the table, making for the kitchens. “I willna be long, I swear it.”
I jumped to my feet, violently enough that my head spun. “Jamie, wait, I—” but I stopped, my mouth working vainly before I shut it again. He was looking down at me expectantly, with a hint, I thought, of a keen anxiety in his own eye.
My mouth was slack. I didn’t bloody know how to say it. Well, no, I did.
You don’t HAVE to have sex with me tonight, Jamie, if you don’t want to.
I DO want to have sex with you—want it a great fucking deal, in fact—
….but I’m also TERRIFIED of it—Almost more terrified than I’ve EVER been at the prospect of going to a man’s bed…And it will be next to impossible to explain why and it will likely make you angry or sad or both and so I shall avoid it like the plague…
….and even though I just said you don’t HAVE to have sex with me, on some ridiculous, vain level, I honestly don’t know what I’ll do if somehow you DON’T want me, or if you can’t find me sexually attractive or—
Before I could voice any of this, he stepped directly in front of me, took my face in his hands and kissed me. I’m here, the kiss said.
And then he dropped a hand to my hip and pulled me tight—gently, but nonetheless firmly—against him, so I could feel—
He nodded and gave the tiniest smile.
I blinked, taken aback. “How do you bloody do that? STILL??”
“I’m none so verra decrepit, Sassenach.” The corner of his mouth twitched in that way that still drove me wild. “And as for how, if ye dinna ken the process by now, I’m none so verra—”
“Not that,” I groaned, laughing but completely serious. “How can you still know exactly what I’m thinking?”
He quieted and took a pace back, studying me, though thank God he didn’t let go my waist. “Ye think just because we were apart these twenty years, I stopped thinking of ye?”
That startled me. “Well, no, Jamie, of course not, but—”
“Not just about ye,” he clarified. “Thinking of ye as though we were speaking to one another, throughout the day, throughout the years…..What ye’d say in a conversation that was wearying to me….What your face would have done in seeing some sight or other at my side…..When—whether—ye’d laugh or only roll your bonny eyes when I made a joke….” He cupped my cheek. “… And picturing always how your truth would ever be in plain sight on that face for me to find. Ye’ve kept me company, these twenty years, Sassenach, whether ye willed it or no’. Naught but a lonely man’s pitiful longings, true, but ye stayed wi’ me.” He swallowed, his voice going still more hoarse as he finished, “And I’ve been given a gift this day to learn that my pale imitation was a true image, Claire….for you’re exactly as I recall. I ken ye like I ken the sound of my own voice.” The last was a whisper. “STILL.”
I dipped my head so he couldn’t see that I was trying not to cry.
He brought my chin back up and kissed me softly, kissed my closed, tear-straining eyes and my brow and my temple, before whispering in my ear and pulling me once more against him. “And aye, Sassenach…I want ye.”
And that meant a great deal, I reflected, watching his long hair swishing behind him as he disappeared down the corridor to the scullery. It was one great weight off my mind, the weight of vanity and fretfulness over the body. While I chided myself for its foolishness, it had NOT been a meaningless burden in honest reality. Hadn’t getting Joe Abernathy’s sworn statement regarding my sexual attractiveness been (absurdly, I grant you) one of my pre-requisites for deciding to find Jamie at all?
Yes, Jamie wanted me, and Lord knew I wanted him back.
But could we truly be one again, in that way that had changed everything all those years ago? We might, in some abstract sense, yes, for whatever it was between us it was still there; but in looking at the bald facts and making a clinical assessment, was I still able to supply my half of us, and all that it entailed? Was I still ‘me’ enough to love him, truly love him, body and soul?
I honestly don’t know.
That honest admission had the seams of my heart—so new, so fragile—aching. Anxiety and dread and shame in myself dogged me in every lonely step up to our empty chamber.
Just touch me, Jamie. And forgive me if I fall apart.
“Mind yourself, laddie,” chided the cook from behind as she passed by the doorway. “Pay heed to that blade, or ye’ll be cuttin’ your throat along wi’ the beard!”
He answered with something lighthearted and offhand, for she was a kind woman and he greatly appreciative of her generosity. Whereas the innkeeper had shuffled sleepily off to bed as soon as he’d paid for their lodging, she—a lady of advanced years who bade him address him as Flora— had ushered him to her own chamber off the kitchens and settled him before the glass with soap, water, and razor, ‘at no charge, laddie, dinna fash yerself.’
Jamie saw to his surprise that the face in the reflection was nearly smooth. He’d been shaving mindlessly, it seemed, only the skill of long habit guiding his hand while his mind wandered—raced.
God in Heaven, did I not survive all those years of loneliness only by dreaming of being in Claire’s bed? And yet here he was, about to walk up the stairs and enter that very place, that sacred, hallowed place, and damn him, his hands were trembling.
Thank God they’d managed to exchange those few words after their hasty meal. She knew for certain now that he wanted her. That worry had weighed on them both, he thought; a natural insecurity given their age and long absence. But even as he’d left her standing there at the table, he’d known she was still hesitant, that something about the impending intimacy between them still troubled her. Damn his eyes, he ought not to have left her side until he’d discovered what it was, that nothing might be between them. As it was….all he could do was wonder.
Did she take other men in our time apart?
…Apart from Frank, he supposed he meant. She had gone to be the bastard’s wife again, after all, and certainly there would have come a day when they resumed—when they likely would have— Well, and they had loved one another before Claire had fallen into his own life, had they not?
But after the Englishman died? Did she seek out comfort in other lovers? Were they on her mind, tonight?
Though it made his blood heat and boil to consider it, he could hardly cast the first stone with regards to that possibility. He thought of Geneva, of Mary, and despite the accustomed pangs of shame, he couldn’t truly regret those nights, after all. Mary, in particular, had given him the gift of touch, something for which he’d starved himself for seven long years. Her tenderness, her softness with him had kept him feeling human for a long time after. If Claire had felt such emptiness in her time, if someone had offered her the same gift, that ounce of sanity, his most reasonable self (not to say the loudest of the voices in his mind) could hardly begrudge her for having taken it.
If that’s indeed the case, though….what will she be thinking on, this night? About….how those other men were good to her? Or because they were cruel? Jesus, what if—
“I must say,” came Flora’s voice again as he finished and set the razor down, “we dinna often get folk hereabouts that care so verra much about how they look.” Glancing up at her in the mirror, he saw that she was examining him appreciatively—not lewdly, but as though taking genuine pleasure in the sight.
He gave a gracious bow, grateful for the interruption from his uneasy thoughts. “Then I’m all the more grateful, Mistress Flora, that ye were able to accommodate the needs of a poor, vain wretch so down on his luck.”
She hummed graciously and dipped her head, wiping her hands on her apron. “Bound somewhere important in the mornin’, are ye?”
“Nay, it’s only that I’m here wi’—” He cleared his throat. “Wi’ my wife, this night.”
“The brown-haired lass? Well, an’ I should ha’ HOPED she was your wife, a ruiadh!” she snorted. “We’re no’ runnin’ a house of ill-repute!”
Jamie wondered what she would say were he to divulge that he was, technically, willfully engaging in bigamy. Technically only, thank God. “Aye, she’s my wife,” he said firmly, to reassure both Flora and himself. “We’re reunited, this day, after a long separation.”
“Separation?” she repeated dubiously.
“We…” He needn’t say anything at all, of course, for it was no one’s business but their own; but even despite his worries, he couldn’t help but grin (and feel the prickling of tears in his eyes) to share their news, even with a stranger. “We each thought the other dead for many years, and found each other again only hours ago.”
“Oh, how GRAND!” Flora beamed, clapping her hands together, then coming over to clasp his own warmly. “And what a blessing! God was smilin’ upon ye, and no mistakin’ it.”
With a startling flood of both affection and grief, he realized that it was Glenna Fitzgibbons she minded him of. Corpulent of body and cheery of feature, she moved with that same indomitable energy, certain of her domain and any that chose to enter it, and yet warm and lavish in showing love and care to those in her charge.
She took a step back to look him over again, then gave a derisive pfft. “Well, in THAT case, a shave isna goin’ to be enough. I’ll draw ye some hot water so ye can wash up a bit wi’ a cloth. I’ll fetch some of my best chamomile soap for ye, too.”
“That’s most kind, Mistress Flora, I thank ye,” he said in genuine gratitude. With sudden inspiration, he asked, “Will ye offer the same to my wife? Not—” He flushed. “Take care that she doesna think I’m insinuating that she—ah—”
“She already requested a basin and got it, dinna fash, though I didna ken the grandeur of the occasion.” Flora was already bustling about, and he could hear the sounds of water being ladled into a ewer from the hearth. “We’ll reserve the insinuatin’ for comment on your own person. Beggin’ your pardon, a ruiadh, but ye stink to highest heaven and back.”
“Canna just say that you’re wrong,” he laughed.
“A long-lost wife…restored….” Flora murmured contemplatively as she returned and walked about, gathering the bathing supplies. “All the more reason to scrub the road off ye, then, for as bonnie as ye are, I dinna think I’m wrong in observin’ that she’s a good sight fairer, even on yer best day.”
“Aye, she is certainly that,” he said, laughing at the spirit of Mrs. Fitz present here, that could make him feel warm and happy even while being fussed and picked over like an unruly bairn that’s fallen in the manure pile.
Ten minutes later, he was wrapped in linen towels, shivering from the icy drafts of night air on his wet skin, but clean for the first time in weeks. Flora had left him be as he bathed, but as he was casting about for clothing, she reappeared, tsked, bade him ‘Be still, wee gomeral. You’re far from done,’ and plunked him down onto a stool with surprising force. A moment later, a warm, woolen rug settled around his shoulders and she took up a spot behind him, beginning to work through the snarls in his hair with a comb.
After a time of sitting tense and ramrod-straight, he closed his eyes and surrendered to the calm of it, to the soothing sensation of the tiny tugs at his scalp. His mother had brushed his hair just so, when he was a wee one prone to snarls from rough days at play. Years later, his Claire had done the same, her touch light and soft. She had always brought his face around, when she had finished, to kiss him, sometimes melting down into his lap and wrapping her arms around his neck…
That very woman, his beloved wife….She was upstairs, waiting for him. He could still scarcely comprehend the joy of that simple truth. She was whole. She was here.
She’s expecting me…
Expecting a man that can please her.
And therein was the greater part of the worry that had caused his hands to shake. Jamie wanted so badly to give her pleasure as he used to, and yet he hadn’t satisfied a woman—not in that way, not to his knowledge—in over twenty years. With Mary, and then with Willie’s mother, it hadn’t felt the time or place for that kind of passion. With Laoghaire—God, how he’d tried, but with no success. Try as he might to justify himself by insisting that she had been cold long before they wed, and there naught HE could have done about it, the icy fingers of doubt gripped at him, now.
I wasna able to please one wife. What if it wasna Laoghaire that was the problem at all? What if I canna—
“There, laddie,” Flora interrupted with fond finality, smoothing the back of his head tenderly before moving to the table. “That’s much better, aye? And here’s the fresh shirt. Tis many years old, but clean and sturdy, and should fit ye well enough.”
“You’re verra kind, a nighean,” he said, touched by her care and not a little hoarse from it. He examined the shirt. “‘Tis extremely well-made,” he commented appreciatively, seeing the fine, strong stitches, the linen showing hardly any signs of wear.
“Made it for my youngest….Tàmhas,” she said, with a catch in her voice. “…Drumossie, ken?” He gripped her hand. He knew.
A long time after she’d excused herself, Jamie stood before the mirror, staring at the man therein; and, unbidden, the vice around his heart eased, a calming peace flooding inward in its wake.
Even if he made a grand mess of this, even if he couldn’t please her the way he used, or made himself to look a fool, this was still a day of miracles. Here he stood, in the garment of a man who had died on Culloden field—died as and where he himself should have died—and yet, he had his sight, his freedom, the use of his hands and legs, a home, and a living…and Claire had been restored to him, beyond all reason and all hope.
He brought his hand up and kissed the scar at the base of his thumb, pressing it to his heart, as he had done for twenty years. It was theirs, now, this world, to do with as they wished, and though he didn’t know what those wishes might be, he knew there was no fear greater than the hope he had in his wife. In them.
As she’d said herself only hours ago, ‘we’ll manage with the rest. All the rest.’
“Come in,” came her startled answer.
The candlelight danced beautifully around the walls, bathing all in a warm, red glow. Claire was already underneath the blankets, but they fell away as he entered, showing that she’d a sheet wrapped around her, tucked under her oxters like a garment. “Sorry,” she mumbled as he stared at her bare, elegant shoulders framed by the dark curtain of her curls. Her cheeks reddened and she dropped her eyes. “I—didn’t have a shift or anything.”
“No, dinna be sorry,” he said hastily. Lord, there ought to be no sense of forwardness between them now. They were married, after all, and in fact, the very notion that she’d undressed for him made his heart lighten even more than it had downstairs. If he had had any doubts, still, that she truly wished him to—
“You shaved,” she said. She was smiling, weakly, nervously, but with real happiness across the dim room. “Let me see?”
He set his things on the table by the door and came to her, kneeling beside her on the mattress. She came up on her knees before him and took his face between her hands, gasping a bit as she ran them up and down. “God…you’re just the same, too.”
“A bit worn ‘round the edges,” he murmured, following her touch with his cheek, savoring her.
“But beautiful,” she whispered. She traced the lines around his eyes, the crooked knot—yes, that would be new to her—that now shaped his nose.
They knelt there, knee to knee for a long time, clothed in their linen wrappings, just drinking in the sight of one another.
She swayed precariously of a sudden and he reached out a hand to catch her round the middle but she fell backward onto her hand. Her eyes went wide with shock as she realized what she had done, and she covered her face with both hands, shaking. “Oh, Jesus…”
It was almost like being back on the hill, that shock and hurt. “Mo ghraidh….?”
No, she hadn’t just fallen. She had recoiled from him.
“Mo ghraidh?” he implored, reaching out a hand but not daring to touch her. “Claire?”
She was crying. He thought she wouldn’t reply, and she didn’t, but she did reach out blindly and grab onto his hand, hard. He clung to it, nudged closer and pressed it to his lips, then his heart.
“I’m sorry—” she was whispering, hanging her head. “I’m so—so sorry—”
“You’ve naught to be sorry over,” he said intently, keeping her hand pressed tight to his chest. “What is it, lass? Is it— same as was troubling ye below? Over…going to bed wi’ me?”
“I want this—” she gasped out, “I want it—Want to touch you—want you to touch me— but I’m so—just so—”
“—afraid,” she gasped out at last, her voice a strained whisper between quick, shallow breaths. “I’m so afraid.”
He forced himself to speak softly. “….Of me?”
“NO!” she breathed at once, shaking her head, hard. “Jesus Christ, no….Just—Damn, I don’t—It’s just—FRANK, and—”
“Fr—?” Jamie felt rage boil up within him, revising his conclusions from those earlier speculations and feeling them burning through his mind. “Did he hurt you, Claire? If the bastard forced—”
“NO,” she moaned, vehemently, “NO, Frank would never do that. No. Not his fault. It’s me. My fault.”
His chest eased, but the thought of what else the bastard Englishman might have done to her for all those years—MUST have done to her to make her feel these things, to be ‘afraid’ in a man’s bed—was enough to make him wish to slash his way through the goddamn stones and kill him… were he not already dead.
“Claire, hear me,” Jamie said with decision, squeezing her hand in both his own. “We dinna have to do this, tonight. We shall—”
“I’ve wanted you every day these last twenty years—” she interrupted, her eyes squeezed tight shut as she laid one hand on his chest. “And I want you now, Jamie, I do. God,” she moaned, “more than I can—” She took a deep, shuddering breath and trailed off.
“Mo chridhe… you can say anything to me. Anything. Ye ken that, aye?”
“It’s just been so long,” she whispered, trying to keep the tears at bay. “Frank was the only man who touched me since you and I parted, and I—I can barely wrap my mind around what it’s supposed to be, anymore.”
Christ, it shouldn’t matter to him—and he cursed himself roundly for a shameful, wretched hypocrite—but he silently rejoiced and shuddered in relief. Only Frank.
“I don’t know the way, anymore, Jamie,” she was saying; so mournful and heartbroken, that voice. “Something—It took something from me, to be…to be without…to not…Damn…Fucking, fucking damn….”
He remained kneeling beside her as her breaths stayed shrill and strained, waiting, trying to think. Frank hadn’t forced himself on her, and yet their intimacy had left her with fears and doubts, had her struggling to look him in the eye.
Could it simply be that they never found the secret of one another after she returned? Just as Laoghaire and I did not?
“It’s…maybe no’ precisely what ye mean, Claire…” he began slowly, very quietly, “…but I can say in truth that I havena felt— joy in a woman’s bed since ye went away…. Is it anything like that?”
She stilled and looked up at him, then nodded, whisky eyes glassy. “Yes.”
A pulse of relief and love filled him and he grasped at it, reaching out and cupping her cheek, holding onto her lest she slip away again. “To be hungry and desperate?” he went on, holding her eye with such sadness in both their hearts, “and to get something of it, to crave it again and again because ye think that this time it will be better, but to always leave the bed all the emptier in your heart? And feel that emptiness hardening ye into someone ye scarce recognize?”
It was a long time before she could manage to finish. When she did so, it was so faint he couldn’t understand her.
“Heat,” she repeated in a whisper as desolate as the winter wind outside, “without light.”
…Heat without light….
Aye, that was just the way of it. Need and hunger and the fire rousing to slake it, but no accompanying brightness, no beam of light in which to bask and be soothed in one’s heart. No relief or comfort: just rippling scalding, choking air that suffocated, rather than sustained.
“And it used to come so easily, with you, the heat and the light together,” she whispered, trying not to fall apart, “I need it again so badly, and yet I’m afraid… of what I’ll do if I can’t give you that same—”
The word fairly burst from him, breaking his face into a smile of pure joy without his bidding.
“W-what?” she croaked.
“Sorcha,” he said again, brushing the hair from her eyes. “’Tis your name in Gaelic, mo chridhe. Did I never call ye that, before?”
“Not that I can recall.”
He’d thought of her by that name for so long a time: her very self in his own language. His forehead pressed against hers, he looked deep and long and lovingly. “It means ‘light.’”
She inhaled sharply and gasped out something like a laugh. “You’re making that up.”
“Even in English, the root of your name has to do wi’ light, or brightness, or clarity….Et en Français, aussi.”
“Au clair de la lune….” she recited. By the light of the moon.
“Aye, just so.” He had her face in both his hands now, and he thumbed away her tears, kissing the tracks left behind. “You are my light, Sassenach. Ye always have been, in name or no.’”
Her lips trembled as she smiled. “And you’re mine.”
“Then we’ve everything we’ll ever need.” He kissed her. “We can love, and never fear.”
Claire fell slowly into him, then, wrapping her arms around his neck, weeping, not in despair, but in the sweet surrender of trusting, of loving.
“When we wed,” he whispered into her ear, kissing the dear, warm spot just behind, “we barely kent one another. Ye didna want me for your husband, that was clear enough, and I had resigned myself to what ye could and couldna give me…. And yet that light was upon us even that first day, aye? Even wi’out your willing it, ye felt it, that—that— rightness between us?”
“Yes.” She was nodding, hard, her hands gripped tightly in the back of his shirt, her lips softly caressing his neck. “I felt it.”
He held her tight, rocking them gently. “We didna earn or deserve it, that day. We hadna prepared for it or practiced it as to be ready or worthy. It was a GIFT, that joy and ease between us. I believe it shall be granted us again, just as freely.”
And in saying it, he, too, believed, the last of his own fears and insecurities loosening their grip and floating away.
He kissed her neck, her hair, then tucked her to his chest and laid them down, holding close around her back as they lay facing one another. “Tell me what’s in your heart, Claire.”
“Thought I had been,” she sniffed, wiping her eyes, though he could hear the hint of a smile.
“Nay, but if we were to stay just like this until morn, only sleeping in one another’s arms, and leaving the rest for another—”
She made a frustrated sound. “I’m not saying I don’t WANT—”
“I know,” he cut her off gently, half-laughing, “I ken, Sassenach, but there’s nay hurry, aye? There’s the two of us now, and I’ll not let ye go.”
She touched his face and exhaled, trying to smile.
“Aside from any fears, what is in your heart right at this moment?”
“….Happiness….” she said at last. “…such unfathomable happiness.”
“I…I can hardly believe you’re here. That I’m here.” Her voice cracked. “I’m still reeling from relief and joy from the hill….and I’m…overjoyed….” She ran the back of her knuckles down his cheek, staring intently into his face. “…that you finally know about our daughter…that you’ve gotten to see her face and learn that she’s safe….. that I’ll have the rest of my life to tell you about her.”
He kissed her hand, pressing it tight against his lips. She kept on, the sorrow and abating from her voice with every word, replaced with warmth and joy. “I’m grateful that I know about Laoghaire…and the girls….and William…. I want to know more, in time, but there are no secrets between us, now, and that’s—You are who you appear to be….as I remembered you to be…..And Jamie, I’m so happy you’re alive,” she choked out as she pressed her forehead to his, her voice trembling, “and I can’t believe we finally get to keep one another this time…. To have you and hold you… I couldn’t ask for anything more….Nothing.”
“I have two hands,” Jamie said hoarsely as he held her, “and they’re yours…. I have a body, and it is yours….. Anything that I am, I give to ye freely again today, Claire Fraser.”
At hearing her name, that name, she let out a tiny, broken sound and pulled him down to her mouth. Almost at once, the kiss changed, became harder, urgent. His mouth and his hands and his body responded to hers without conscious thought, seeking her with every movement, every breath.
His arousal was strong, violent, but he forced himself to pull back enough to look into her eye…..and at last, there was no fear written there.
With a ferocity that startled and ignited him, he captured her mouth and slid his hand beneath her head as she rolled onto her back. With the other, he untucked the sheet from beneath her arms and bared her, sliding his hand down her length. She moaned into his mouth as he cupped her boldly, felt the warm, wet fullness of her there between her thighs, and that sound was honey to his soul.
She moved with him, the two of them joined by the trailing of his fingers through the slick center of her; her gasps when he moved up toward that small, precious spot; the exquisite pain of her fingertips digging into his flesh as he circled and caressed it. Claire was coming alive for him, moving against his touch to double every sensation. He could have wept only to feel her rouse to him so, but to watch her face breaking again and again with that beauty, to hear against his neck the same sounds that he’d treasured in his heart all those lonely years—He felt as though he were running up a mountain and down it again all at once. “Claire,” he could only groan into her hair, her skin, scarcely aware of his own body, enthralled to hers, “Jesus, Claire….”
“Jamie—” She was mounting and gathering under his touch, her legs and hips moving languidly, her cries becoming more urgent and and more frantic with every stroke.
“Aye, Sassenach,” he moaned, circling and pressing harder, feeling the throbbing wetness of her. “Now—please—”
“Wait,” she panted, slipping out from beneath him and pushing him back onto the pillows. It didn’t cross his mind to question her. He obeyed by instinct, pulling off his shirt and emerging from the cloud of white to see her straddling him, poising her body—Jesus, her exquisite body—just above him. He was half-sitting, hard and aching for her. Her legs trembled with wanting, too, but she reached slowly forward to pull him up, to kiss him, to press herself against his chest and twine her fingers in his hair. Their eyes locked and the world vanished for a moment in a burst of breath and light as she sheathed him to her.
He grasped her tight, hands gripping and holding as the two of them gasped and shuddered from the shock and wonder of being joined and naked; ONE. Her breasts were so full, begging for him to put his mouth on them, but he couldn’t look away from her face.
“Jamie—Love—” she moaned, settling him still more deeply within her body.
He could see tears gathering in her eyes even as her entire body trembled and shuddered with the growing tension. She gasped and rolled her hips, her hands shaking and her breath catching, eyes fluttering. “I’m going—to—”
“Please,” he begged, “please—let me feel you—” He moved within her, and she upon him— And almost instantly she cascaded around him, pulsing and rushing and crying out with that sound—THAT SOUND— “Sorcha,” he moaned, her release nearly taking him, too. He couldn’t hold her close enough, couldn’t treasure her deeply enough. “Mo sorcha….”
“More,” she moaned before he could say more, grabbing his face and moving along his length with a ferocity that tore from him a feral sound to match her own, “More.”
He lost all speech and all restraint. He plunged up into her, his mouth on her neck, her breasts; his hands raking across hips and thighs and arse. They moved together, he taking her and she, him, joined in a fury of need and love that had them both gasping and snarling and moaning and near-weeping.
At one pass, she thrust down upon him such a way that he nearly lost himself, and in a flash, he was throwing himself forward with a growl so that she was beneath him, his hands under her buttocks, pulling her to him fiercely with every movement. Claire cried out, a sound of both need and satisfaction that echoed around the room. They were on fire, the two of them, thrusting and seeking with such wild energy, it was like nothing he had ever felt before. Every inch of him burned for her.
But there WAS light along with the burning. Even as they raced and tore and pounded, her eyes were in his and she was shining, smiling even as she destroyed him. As they each neared the end, they were beaming, glowing with such the most glorious joy. The most glorious light.
After it was over, after she had come around him and he within her, there had been no slumping of exhaustion, none of that immediate, selfish isolation of the mind and body in adapting to the altered state. He had pulled her at once back up and knelt; knelt so that she could hold him as much as he, her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and cupped his head in both hands, touching his hair, his face, saying his name again and again like a prayer, as he was hers. They were both crying, hard, but they were tears of joy, a cleansing of all fears and all sorrows.
“Thank you,” he gasped out suddenly, broken with it, “for coming back for me.”
She had left everything. She had left EVERYTHING she knew, the entire life she had built, on the mere hope that he still needed her. He did need her. He always would.
She held him, body and soul. “I always will.”
Firstly thank you all for your patience while I put this story back in the fridge to marinate for a bit. It was time well taken, on my end, and I’m now eager to get back into it!
As many of you may know, Sam and Cait picked chapter 7 to dramatically read from during a recent Harper’s Bazaar feature! (http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/film-tv/a13060287/outlander-sam-heughan-caitriona-balfe-video/)
It was the loony thrill of a lifetime, just to have been involved in that, so sincerely, thank you all for your excitement, here and on tumblr. I felt like the belle of the dorky sound effects ball!
This was a chapter I had written and queued a month or two ago before I opted to put the story on the backburner. As you maybe see, it has a LOT of A Malcolm feels, so from the Harper’s Bazaar thing to 3x06 airing yesterday, I’d say the timing here was just right :D
Thank you all. I love you to pieces!
Waking to see the morning sunlight igniting his curls into radiance, framing his still-sleeping face….
Watching him, waiting eagerly, as though for a shooting star, to perhaps glimpse a fleeting, somnolent smile…
Leaning over and kissing his face, smoothing away that long, beautiful hair and whispering a secret that only his dreams would know:
‘God…how I do love you, Jamie Fraser….’
Yes, that’s how I would have LIKED to awaken on this blissfully-complete morning.
As it was, I was JOLTED out of sleep by a great cataclysm taking place on the mattress beneath me and a stream of unintelligible curses ricocheting around the walls like so many whizzing demons straight out of the bloody pit.
Damn me, I couldn’t manage to get my tongue to catch up with my brain or my eyes to unblur, but I managed to rally and slur out like a lunatic: “HURT??”
“M’back,” came the strangled reply as my hands found him.
As my eyes adjusted, the room revealed my bare-arsed husband contorted into an impossible shape on his side, trying to both clutch at and keep from moving the muscles of his lower back.
“Roll onto your belly,” I instructed at once, supporting his hips with both hands to help keep the motion steady. Lord, I thought he would lose a tooth at any moment from how tightly that jaw was clenched against the pain. “Has this happened before? Did you injure it? When? Wh—”
“Sassenach, a moment,” he moaned. Using the strength of his arms, he lowered his chest the few inches to the mattress with a great gasp, exhaling stertorously before answering. “Not injured, not anytime that I can recall, but aye, this has happened bef—gahh—” Another shudder as he laid his forehead to rest on his arms. “Several times over the last few years. Canna explain it, it just—Christ— seems to come on as it damn well pleases.”
“And in the times that it’s happened?” I balanced on my knees as I ran my hands over his bare skin, checking for any herniation or trace of a tear, though I thought either to be unlikely. “What have you done to get rid of it?”
He gave an approximation of a shrug. “Waited for it to pass.”
“For how long?”
“One, maybe two days.”
“Of course you did, bloody hero.”
Laying both palms flat on the small of his back, I applied a gentle pressure, then jumped as he arched in a great spasm of pain. He was strung tight as a bowstring, the poor man, the muscles taut and convulsing like mad.
“But where are ye going?” he blurted in acute distress as he felt me leave the mattress. “Sassenach, please, dinna—”
“If you lasted one or two days in pain last time,” I said firmly, adjusting my blanket toga at the door, “you can wait twenty minutes for me to fetch some oil and hot water.”
It actually only took ten.
“The cook was very helpful,” I explained as I carefully climbed back onto the bed with my tray of supplies. “Grinning at me like a cat in cream all the while. Do I have you to thank for that, by any chance?”
An interrogatory grunt.
“Ded ye have a PLAYSENT evening, then, lassie?’ I drawled in imitation of Ms. Flora's jocular teasing below. “Ye wairked him that WEE BET too hard, sounds to me! Och, but I’ll wager he’s no’ altogether fashed aboot et, backache or noo! Ye braw wee thing!”
“Terrrrrrible,” Jamie laughed, then instantly regretted it.
“Oof, sorry, darling, here you are,” I said, sobering at once and lifting the hot brick wrapped in rags. “Show me where?” Feeling the gentle heat settle on the spot, Jamie moaned again, but this time in relief. “Try to relax your back as best you can, my love….That’s it….Let the heat soak in….try not to tense up again….Good….This will help, I promise.”
I couldn’t help admiring him while he lay obediently still, stretched out on his belly like a cat in the sun. His body, though not quite as it had looked at twenty-five, was still firm and beautifully fit. It seemed—fuller, somehow; muscled, certainly, perhaps even more densely than before, but with a less chiseled aspect, to my eye, that paradoxically made him look all the more more powerful.
I couldn’t resist laying a hand on his buttocks to feel the neat, shaped muscles beneath. He started a bit, but then relaxed, humming a happy, contented note. “It’s wonderful to have ye touching me again, Sassenach,” he said huskily.
“It’s wonderful to do the touching,” I murmured, meaning it. I surveyed him eagerly, each long-lined limb and gentle curve, and felt a sudden twinge of something like annoyance. “How bloody have you managed to stay so fit?”
I mean honestly! The man was a goddamned Adonis.
He snorted, but answered readily enough. “A bachelor’s diet… That in addition to lifting heavy crates and operating the printing press day after day—It all does a man good, I suppose.”
“Evidently so!’ I adjusted the position of the brick. “Truly, you look wonderful, Jamie, whatever you did to maintain yourself.”
“Well, I…” He stopped, sounding surprised and a little hesitant. “Ye ken, I suppose I’m grateful that, in all the confusion and rushing about, I didna have much time to worry about my vanity.”
“I had to catch ye first, after all,” he said, with a smile, reaching back to touch my thigh. “But I do wonder…. Do I look verra much an old man, Sassenach? Seen now in all my flesh, I mean?”
“Old?” I shorted. “At three-and-forty? Hardly.”
“Well, but many a man in this time looks considerably the worse for years at such an age, Sassenach. Surely you’ll remember that yourself, from before.”
“True… but you’re hardly the sort likely to waste away from bodily neglect, Jamie Fraser.”
“No, indeed,” he said, smiling and sounding more than a bit relieved. “I did always—well—”
He broke off, shyly, enough so that I was grinning like a fool in anticipation of the secret he obviously wanted to share. “What did you do, exactly?”
He shrugged, and this time, it didn’t hurt him. “I tried to do all the wee things ye’d taught me, ken? Cleaning my teeth of an evening or dipping a blade into boiling water before touching food wi’ it, and the like. Eating live things, as often as I could, too.” I was beaming, but he wasn’t finished. “Even when I was in prison, I made it my duty to see that all my men ate as many green plants as could be scavenged, to ward off the scurvy, so….” He broke off, still that shy, pleased smile in his voice. “Those things could only have helped in terms of preservation, aye?”
“Most definitely,” I said, genuinely touched and not a little choked up. “The nutrition, especially.” I couldn’t help bending over him and kissing the warm skin behind his exposed ear, then the russet curls above. “Thank you for taking it all to heart and taking care of yourself; and doing your best to share it. I do hope it helped others, but if it meant that you alone were able to keep all your teeth, then I’ll still thank my lucky stars.” I kissed his temple. “And on a purely aesthetic level…’all your flesh’ looks incredible, Jamie.”
“That’s most kind of ye to say, mo nighean donn,” he said, his voice a soft purr in his ever-relaxing state. “I’m no’ saying this only to be kind in return, but…” He turned his head to lay on one cheek, craning his neck around. With a fiendish grin, he tugged the blanket from out of its tuck under my armpits and growled in soft appreciation at the sight left in its wake. “Ye look unbelievably fine, yourself.”
I flushed and grinned, for, much to my own surprise, I believed him, my not inconsiderable insecurities and fears of the night before having evaporated into the dawn. “Ten or more years of working on one’s feet does a lass good, herself, I suppose.”
“Your feet?” he grunted as he reluctantly turned his head back forward, his voice muffling into his arm. “How do ye mean?”
Had I not mentioned in the letter? No….I suppose I hadn’t been able to bring myself to say much about what *I* had been up to in our twenty years apart. It had been easier to focus upon the news of Bree. No use giving him anything of me to drive him mad, I’d thought at the time.
Shaking off the remembered despair of that day, I brightened and said, a little shy now, myself, “After Bree was grown old enough to go to school, I got my medical degree. I became a doctor.”
Jamie’s head whipped back around over his shoulder, a movement simultaneous with the immediate unbidden ‘GAHH!’ of pain that ensued.
“CAREFUL!!” I snapped, “Don’t you dare thrash about like that! Lay your head back down this minute!”
He obeyed, grunting and wincing, but tugged me up toward the pillows so he could look me in the eye without twisting. His eyes were wide and blue as he stared. “Ye became a doctor? A physician?”
“Yes?” I said, suddenly rather nervous, given the intensity of his disbelief. “Erm….a surgeon, more specifically, a doctor that cuts people up to fix the ailments inside the body— cutting out sickness and so forth, then stitching them up again. It’s…” I cleared my throat. “Well, it’s a rather prestigious specialty, even as far as physicians go.”
“Claire…. That’s—” He’d been watching me intently as I spoke, his smile growing wider and wider. Now, he was unabashedly beaming. “That’s marvelous, lass. Did ye no’ say once that all the doctors were men?”
“I was the one and only woman in my class,” I admitted, glowing with no little pride under his eye.
“Oh, well done, Sassenach!” He beamed up at me, running his hand over my leg, squeezing. “Tell me ye showed them all up tidily—Made them think twice or thrice about underestimating a woman’s capabilities?”
I grinned and nodded. “Made something of a point of it, I must say.”
He laughed, delighted. “God, how I should have loved to see the looks on their faces.”
“Well, it wasn’t always good fun, seeing those faces, but the end satisfaction more than compensated for the occasional nastiness.”
Removing the brick from his back, I poured some sweet oil into my palms. As the heels of my hands met the now-supple skin, he gave an ecstatic groan of pleasure.
“Lord, Jamie! You’ll give Flora even more to smirk about if you carry on like that!”
“Feels grand,” he said in his defense into the pillow.
“So I can HEAR! Wake the whole tavern, why don’t you!”
Despite the rather lewd soundtrack, the massage did work wonders, and soon, he was able to move his head and neck about with no pain to the strained back. “Whatever it was about the profession that kept ye on your feet,” he said, doing so to look back at me again, “it did do ye much good. I mean, Christ, lass, ye look scarcely a day over thirty.”
I snorted so loudly my hands skidded off his rump and the resultant disturbance made the bed timbers squeak.
“It’s true!” he insisted, almost affronted. “I mean, look at ye! What is your age? Forty….?”
“Forty-eight.” I groaned with all the agony of defeat, working my thumbs into the base of his spine.
“Mm-HM!” he grunted in triumph, a suspicion confirmed.
“Where I come from, witches are well-known for looking old,” I said, rolling my eyes. “And if I’m a witch, what does that make you, being married to one, mm?”
I could feel the muscles easing under my hands. “You know, I’m fairly confident I massaged you like this once or twice before.”
“I recall. My neck was terribly tight once on Charlie’s campaign, and ye sorted it right out. You’ve always had a good touch, mo chridhe.”
“Did it not occur to you to try massage, then, those other times you threw out your back like this? Rather than waiting about for days for it to pass on its own?”
A too-long pause followed, and when he spoke, his voice was clipped. “Aye, it did.”
I let the silence ask the question for me.
“There are verra few people I’d allow to see my bared back, Sassenach…. let alone touch it.”
And somehow, that single statement made me sadder than nearly anything else could in relation to what Jamie’s life had been like since we parted.
I wondered suddenly whether he had allowed Laoghaire, but then banished the thought, feeling it an intrusion even to speculate on the possibilities. Still, to have no one in his life—either to hand when needed, or at all—who could do such a task for him; no one he trusted enough to render him such an intimate service…
I leaned down, filled with tenderness and heartache, both, and kissed his shoulder, then the broadest of his scars, laying my head gently upon him, just to have him know I was there. Here. Always,
My heart thumped with a sudden warmth, a memory. He’d allowed me to see these scars that first night at Leoch. For whatever reason, by whatever nudging of fate, he’d decided to trust me, nearly at once, before I even knew his real identity or he, mine.
The shoulder beneath my cheek heaved with a slight shrug. “You’ve always been a special case, my Sassenach.”
“Mindreader,” I muttered in mock-accusation, planting one more kiss and sitting up, grateful for the lightening of the mood. “Bloody great warlock.”
As I finished the massage, he stretched and began to sit up with intake of breath that, quite suddenly, broke off; not in pain, but from an unspoken word abruptly halted.
“What is it? Does it still hurt?”
“No, it—Well, a bit, still, but no, I can move now, at least. Only…would ye be willing to have a look at my leg as well? Medically speaking, I mean. It doesna pain me all the time,” he added hastily with a sad smile, “and certainly not at the moment, but as you’re a physician now?”
My gut clenched. I had all but forgotten the passage from the Lord Melton’s journal. ‘A great wound, festering and pustulant.’ I swallowed, nodded, and whispered, “Of course, Jamie.”
He rolled onto his back, eyes carefully cast aside, though I don’t think it was lost on him that it took all my will and restraint not to gasp from the shock and grief that welled up in me at the sight, the sheer fury at whoever had dared to hurt him so. The fact that a twenty-year-old wound could still look as gruesome as that—
“Jamie,” I moaned in a whisper, spanning my hand across his thigh to better see the eight full inches of twisted, ghost-white scarring running up the thigh and toward his groin. “My God.”
“It’s no’ a pretty sight, certainly,” he said, uneasy, reaching for the blanket, meaning to cover himself. “I’m sorry, lass, ye dinna have to—”
“No!” I breathed, reaching out my other hand and laying it over his belly. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it—It just—” I swallowed, but the lump in my throat still remained as I looked into his face. “It makes it so real…. What you went through. You didn’t die, but—God, how you suffered.”
He opened his mouth several times, different responses dancing through his eyes. In the end, all he could do was nod.
A tear rolled down my cheek as I ran my thumb across the mangled bit of scar barely covering his femoral artery. “How on earth did you survive this?” I whispered.
The silence rang around us for a long time, unbroken.
Jenny, beloved sister who had watched over him all his life, who had saved it after Culloden; to whom I must owe my own, if she personally had stood herself between him and this certain death, refusing to let it claim him.
….Jenny, who out of spite and God-knew-what-else, had nearly cost us both this second chance at a life together.
However would we—could we ever— reconcile the two?
“I suppose,” Jamie sighed, reading my thoughts once again, “we really must be discussing what’s to be done, about Jenny. Laoghaire. Us.”
I nodded, knowing he was perfectly correct, but with my own thoughts still many, many years away, on Culloden field, where my heart had lain and suffered. On impulse, I bent over him and kissed slowly along the entire length of the scar, pressing my cheek against his thigh afterward, as though touch and sheer will and desperate love could erase the vestiges of his agony, all of it.
“I’m glad ….that ye didna have to see me that way, Claire, when I lay in fever…” His voice was choked and hoarse with emotion. His hand came to rest on my scalp, warm and complete as an embrace. “…..but I’d have done anything to have ye there wi’ me, even so.”
I reached up and found his other hand, squeezing hard. “So would I.”
"There ye are, Sassenach,” Jamie boomed, pushing off from the wall against which he’d been leaning and adjusting a new black tricorn and cloak smartly. “Took ye long enough! What kept ye?”
I bristled a bit, snorting. I’d risen promptly enough, I thought, when Fiona knocked at the door and gave me Jamie’s message, a feat of which I’d been rather proud, given the utter rock-like state from which I’d had to rouse.
“May I ask WHY you felt it necessary to have me meet you out here?” I asked, quite politely. He gave me a mild look in return. “Four blocks away? Outdoors? Before noon? In November?”
“Och, that’s simple,” he said at once, with a cheeriness that suggested it should be perfectly obvious to anyone in possession of wits (God, how I’d missed this man and all his nonsense). “I should have thought the events of the past day had made it clear enough that we’ve absolutely no chance, you and I, of having any sort of logistical conversation in that room.”
Crankiness vanished, I now suppressed a sheepish grin. “I do think you enjoyed that day and that room, though?”
“Supremely,” he said, his fine teeth flashing devilishly. “And if we didna have onlookers at present, I’d invite ye against yon wall to show ye just how much.”
We’d glutted ourselves in every way it was feasible to glut. At Jamie’s direction, Fiona’s kitchenmaids had kept the wine and food and whisky coming, all making the last twenty-four-or-more hours little more than a hedonistic blur, punctuated by wild, luxurious lovemaking that even now had my legs wobbly and loose; a blur from which I would have been more than happy never to refocus.
“Still,” Jamie went on, “casting aside the appealing prospect of rumpling your petticoats on this fine morn, might I alternately earn forgiveness by saying I’ve brought breakfast?”
“It’s a jolly good first step,” I said, stepping close and letting him see the laughter in my eyes before kissing his chilly lips.
He’d brought mulled wine and savory pies, both still piping hot, leaving me the high ground to scold him for giving me hell about alleged lateness, which I did, all chastisement met only, of course, by grins and kisses, damn his wonderful hide.
We sat on a bench by the river and devoured our little feast, watching the boats and waterfowl inching their way around the choppy expanse. As loathe as I had been to drag myself out of bed, put on clothing and venture into the chill, I had to admit, there was something singularly wonderful about being out in the crisp grey of mid-morning, the cold bracing and clearing to the senses.
“So,” I said at last, those cleared senses steeling themselves against the necessary topics. “Logistical conversation time, mm?”
“Aye,” he said with decision (and perhaps that same frisson of dread), taking one last swig from the wine jug.
“Laoghaire, I suppose, should—”
He took my hand, cutting me off. “Perhaps even before that…”
“Oh? Seems to me that’s—she’s, I mean, the most significant hurdle in our path, don’t you?”
“No—I mean yes, aye, she is. Still…” He squeezed my fingers and looked out to the river, weighing his words carefully. “I think perhaps we ought first to decide what it is we’re striving toward.”
Well! That was a rather grandiose way of putting it, and I said as much.
“I only mean,” he clarified, letting go my hand and turning toward me on the seat, “what is it that ye want?”
“Isn’t that obvious?” I said, assuming his own earlier sweet smugness. “I want you.”
“I want ye, too.” He leaned in and kissed me with a happy hum. “Always. Though, I am being serious, Sassenach. It will make things clearer if we can say aloud what it is we envision for these years ahead, as many as are granted to us, so that naught is lost by dint of assumption.”
“Well, then… I want to be your wife,” I said, a little lamely. Then I rallied, and began to think it through more clearly. “No—I want us to be man and wife with no ambiguity as to other spouses.”
“I want…” I went on slowly, thinking, “for each of us to pursue occupations that give us pleasure.” I cast a glance at him. “Does printing do that for you, by the way? Do you actually enjoy it?”
“Do ye ken…” He scratched his jaw meditatively. “I dinna think anyone has ever asked me such a thing, in reference to printing or anything else.”
“Well, I come from a very individualistic time, my dear. Can’t help but carry it over.”
“Aye, you’re a verra peculiar woman, Sassenach. But, aye, the printing trade is methodical and needful, and I’ve got the tools already acquired, so I see no reason to learn a new one.”
“Not exactly what I asked,” I laughed, “but I suppose that’s as close as you’ll come to self-actualization. So: you, able to print; me, able to practice medicine. Simple enough, as long as we stick to a city. But, speaking of assuming, I’d more or less taken it for granted that we would both go to Edinburgh, to your shop. I’m certain I can find my way as a healer, there, even if it means starting very small. Are you thinking otherwise?”
“Maybe so,” he admitted, brows drawn in thought, going quiet for a few moments too long.
“Tell me what you want, Jamie.”
“Everything you yourself said,” he said quickly. “The only thing more I would wish, in terms of specifics, is … to live under my own name. Our name.”
“Not as Alexander Malcolm,” I said, understanding beginning to spark.
“I didna care a mite when it was only me, ken. I wanted a life on my own, or rather, a life away from Laoghaire, and if an assumed name was the requirement, then so be it. But now, wi’ you returned, back in my life and my arms for good, the thought of living out my years as Sawny Malcolm…still worse to oblige you to assume the role of Mrs. Malcolm—”
“I should scarcely mind, Jamie,” I said at once. “I hope you know that.”
“And I thank ye for it,” he said, with a genuine, albeit strained smile, “yet now I’ve pride and joy in my heart that I hadn’t before, and not to be able to spend the rest of my days under my own name, that of my own family…?” He trailed off, shaking his head and setting his jaw.
I certainly could understand his point and his unease. Had it not rankled me, from time to time, when I allowed myself to think of such things, to be living out my own days as Claire Randall? The constant itch of feeling that it was naught but a sham identity, neither who I was born nor who I would have chosen to be?
“Would your clientele desert you, do you think, if you came clean and began going by James Fraser in Edinburgh?”
“A good many. Though, perhaps not all, only—Well, Laoghaire would be the greatest danger in that regard, as well.”
“Oh? How so? Would she come to your shop and set it ablaze?”
For, if I knew anything of Laoghaire Fraser née MacKenzie, it was that she was dangerous when the ‘woman scorned.’
“Not that I’d put it past her,” he said with an unhappy smirk, “but should all the legal proceedings run afoul and scandal spread over it, the news will be known in Edinburgh eventually. To be kent for the one-time traitor Red Jamie might just bring a certain profitable notoriety (particularly to those many that supported Charles and his cause), but to be whispered about as a recent bigamist scoundrel… It—wouldna be good.”
“No….No, I suppose not.” I scratched my nose, thinking.
“Then there’s the smuggling to consider,” he said gamely, though his eyes went a little shifty with discomfort.
He’d told me about his other business ventures offhand sometime in the last day. I’d been very drunk at the time and had found the entire prospect hilarious for some reason. By the light of day, though, it was certainly far more sobering.
“In that enterprise, at least, I am already known as Jamie Roy, not Mr. Malcolm. I mean to step out of that operation altogether,” he said suddenly, looking sharply at me, “but it may take some time to do so, find a buyer I hope, wi’out bringing my government protectors down upon me. They’ll no’ take kindly to the loss of their take, aye?”
I nodded. “Then…once you’ve removed yourself from the smuggling business in some form, we relocate and start fresh? In Glasgow, perhaps? Even here in Inverness? This place is big enough to need printing services, surely?”
“Aye, certainly,” he said, his gaze casting appreciatively around the expanse of Inverness, “and perhaps, it shall come to all that; though I think only in the colonies might we truly begin anew, wi’out the whispers following us.”
My throat constricted. “You want to emigrate?”
“It’s the last thing I wish,” he said fervently, lacing his fingers in mine. “I never wish to leave Scotland. Still, I willna have ye tormented by gossip and scandal for my sake.”
“It’s hardly your sake, as I’m the bloody reason there’s to be scandal in the first place!”
Despite himself, he laughed. I seized the opportunity and squeezed his hand tighter. “Jamie, it doesn’t matter if we’re the Malcolms in Edinburgh or the Frasers in Glasgow or Mr. and Mrs. Von Trapp in a Hobbithole in Norway!”
“In a what-hole?”
“The point is,” I went doggedly on, “as long as I can publicly call you my husband, and as long as I can be a healer, I will be happy. That’s all I need. As to the where and the by-what-means… lead on, my love. I’ll be there.”
His hand, big and warm and solid, came up to gently hold my nape as he kissed me.
“Oh, no, wait, forgot one,” I said abruptly as we pulled back, counting my wishlist out on my fingers. “Husband-calling. Healer. Not being burned as witch for it.”
“I think that’s more than reasonable,” he said fairly, a twinkle in his eye. “Speaking of which…Laoghaire.”
“Better add a fourth: a day when we never have to speak that name again.” We shared commiserating sighs. “Will you be seeking an annulment, then?”
“Aye, that or some sort of divorce settlement, if such can be managed. I dinna wish to cause her shame, but I willna conscience the possibility of having her as my wife in any form to be going on with.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“If you agree, I shall write to Ned Gowan today.”
“NED!?” I shouted in delight, startling two stately gentlemen passing by. “Don’t tell me he’s still alive?!”
“He is, and still practicing the law, forbye, in Edinburgh. I’ve encountered him several times over the years, passing in the streets. He’s quite the spry wee thing. Shriveled as dried beef but sharp as a knifepoint, still.”
“Well, I’ll be damned!”
“Well, I hope ye won’t be, nor I. In any case, I should like to write to Ned and ask if he might travel to Broch Morda at once upon receipt of the letter, to assist in settling the matter.”
“At once?” My glowing heart fell into my boots. “Does that mean we’ll be going back to Lallybroch? Directly?”
“Believe me when I say that a part of me wishes nothing more than to stay here at the inn forever.”
“Three guesses which part.”
“But I also ken,” he went on, passing over my lewdness, which sadly did not have the desired impact of distraction, “that I willna be able to sleep easy until this is all put to rest. I dinna wish to be seen as sneaking about wi’ ye. Besides,” he said, raising a hand and tucking a strand of curls behind my ear, running the backs of his knuckles gently over my brow and temple, “every day spent curled up in our wee nesting place, here, unspeakably happy as I would be every moment, there should always be the nagging in the corners of my mind, reminding me that I’m only on borrowed time ‘til all is resolved for good. ….What do ye think?”
I sighed. “I think you’re likely right about that.” I rested my head on his shoulder. “It doesn’t make the prospect of leaving said love nest any more pleasant, though.”
“Indeed, it does not. Still,” He tilted my chin up with a finger and kissed me, his mouth warm and comforting and tasting of sweet wine, “we’ll make it a pleasant journey.” Another kiss. “And ye willna convince me to give up our warm bed for the road until tomorrow morn, at least.”
“Well then,” I said meaningfully with a raised eyebrow, “we’ll have to make the most of that warm bed between now and then, won’t we?”
**Note that this installment draws from Frank and Claire’s marriage as depicted in the book, rather than the show. (namely they did keep having sex over the years, and they didn’t talk about the mistresses until the very end)
The breath caught in his chest as she threw him onto his back and moved upon him, quick and mighty as lightning. It wasn’t his own bodily sensation that caused him to go mute, though the shocks coursing through his body were world-altering in their own right. It was the sheer look of her; the grace and power with which she moved in the fire’s glow on this last night in this sacred place; her, seeking her own pleasure above all, wild with it and unrelenting.
She tilted her hips suddenly back, putting a hand down behind her as an anchor before moving anew. He moaned so sharply that she laughed at him as she spurred herself harder and faster, riding him. Though he was more roused than he could imagine, his body vivid with pounding blood and heaving breath and more, more, God, please more, he found that with every punishing, glorious stroke, he grew more and more still, transfixed by the sight: woman, lost to her own pleasure.
He himself was lost before he realized it, but didn’t make a sound or even a whisper as release took him. Awareness was a far away thing, barely lapping at the edges of his being. There was only her.
It was only the mighty tremors of Claire’s release, wringing him, that brought him back to his senses. A deep groaning sigh. The feel of sweat on his lip. The fact of utter satisfaction warm within her body, still pulsing hot and perfect around his cock. She didn’t move to extricate herself at once, and he ached with gratitude for it. She only moved her weight more securely onto her knees, closed her eyes and arched her back as she sighed into a massive smile of satisfaction. Those lovely hands moved through her hair and down her chest as she relished every wee aftershock, her breathing steadying slowly, slowly. Even now, she beamed with it, laughing, her closed eyes, her mouth, her brows alight, in a way he’d never seen before, he thought: or perhaps he had, and only forgotten the way of it. Not just happiness, nor mere physical satisfaction : surprise….. delight…. and something else….. something deep within.
That something called to him in his soul, reached out its tendrils, wanting to be known. Very softly, he moved his hands from her legs to her hips, stroking in gentle response.
Her eyes opened and she smiled still wider, taking another great sighing breath. “Sorry, love, I just—just sort of lost myself to it, didn’t I?” Eyes blazing with mischief, she planted her hands on either side of his shoulders and moved her hips lewdly. “Don’t worry, though, we’ll get you to—”
“I did,” he assured her with an exhausted smile.
“Oh?” She pushed promptly upward and extricated him experimentally. “Good Lord, yes you DID!” she laughed in astonishment, shooting a hand between her legs to spare the sheets as she trundled across and off the bed in search of a towel. “You were awfully quiet about it!”
“I got caught up in watching ye,” he said simply, watching her even now with that same awestruck need.
She heard it, and turned from her ablutions at the washstand, bottom lip between her teeth, flushed with pleasure.
He couldn’t stop himself. Though his legs wobbled, right on the verge of complete refusal, he crossed to her and put his arms around her, reverently. “Ye moved so….so—” He leaned his cheek against her sweet, fragrant hair, the curves of her hips and back fitting against him so perfectly, even more than before, he thought. “I dinna even ken the words for it,” he admitted, his soft laugh sounding a little choked. “But I wouldna have disturbed ye for the world.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t more present,” she said, and there was true unease in her voice. “I should have—”
“Nonsense,” he promised fervently, “Christ, it was—” by reflex he said the word in Gaelic as he kissed her neck, feeling the weight of her hair.
“It was what?”
“Breathtaking,” he translated a bit sheepishly.
“Oh,” she breathed, grinning, then another ohhh as he flicked his tongue under her ear, bringing up gooseflesh and a shiver of latent pleasure.
He held her close and savored the salt of her and the scents of their mingled satisfaction. “I couldna recall ever seeing such a focus come over ye so, during.”
She gave a nervous sort of laugh. “Yes, well…. twenty years will do that to a lass.”
He started to ask ‘Oh? How so?’ but then stopped the foolish words from transgressing his lips. He himself had lived those same twenty years of wanting, had he not? Then again, perhaps not altogether the same. She had had far more in the way of marital pleasure than he, in that time. Hadn’t she?
“Ye said—” he began, then hastily revised, turning her around to face him to buy a few moments. “Ye dinna have to answer this question, Claire. Say the word and I’ll never mention it again.”
She looked wary, but nodded. “Go on, then.”
A careful pause, then gently: “What is it that Frank did to ye?”
She blinked. “Did to me?”
“Ye said, before our first time here, that he didna force himself on you…. that he wouldna do such a thing….And yet,” he ran a knuckle down her cheek, seeking, trying not to wound, “ye did mention him, then, in that moment of fear and doubt, such that made ye nervous to—”
“That was mostly deprivation speaking, that night, I think,” she said with an air of forced lightness, moving back toward the bed to carry on the same ruse. “That and simple nerves.” She gave him a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes as she got into the bed. “Don’t worry about Frank. It wasn’t him that had me upset. That was all me.”
Still, that sense of wrongness at her words that night clouded his heart. He wasn’t sure if he could bear it, the thought of having there be parts of her closed off to him forever, no matter how painful they were to his own heart in the opening.
“Tell me ‘no,’ Claire, if ye will,” he said, steeled and serious, standing in wait. “I’ll heed. But I shall ask all the same… May I know more about what it was? Between the two of ye?”
She looked back at him, eyes sad and soft. At last, she beckoned him, and he went, letting her lift the quilts to welcome him into that place of warmth and trust next to her. She made no move to touch him, though. She lay on her back, a pillow clutched to her chest as she thought, prepared herself.
“The truth is that…Frank and I were very seldom intimate. Less and less as the years went on; hardly ever, in those last five.”
Reactions to this warred violently in Jamie’s heart: from his own selfish, beastly joy to aching sadness for the emptiness in her voice, and back again to possessive pride and absurd rushes akin to victory. He hated himself for it, but he was a man after all, and he could hardly be deemed wicked for wanting more of his own wife than another man had gotten. Then again, he, too, had been in a cold marriage these past years, and knew it was nothing over which to rejoice, for what it did to a person.
“Why was it so?” he said at last, the bitter gall of Balriggan allowing him to banish all but Claire’s heart from his mind.
“Why indeed?” she murmured, training her gaze upon the rafters. “I suppose…. it was simply that we never recaptured it, what we’d been before.” A slight smile. “Glad you and I have managed it better, the recapturing.”
He kissed her shoulder. Glad—Ecstatic—Flabbergasted—Blessed. “Was it that way from the first? Wi’ Frank?”
“Well, it—Yes….Honestly, yes.” She closed her eyes, brows furrowed as though fighting off an ache. “We did try, both of us, particularly when Bree was very small… It tended to come in waves, though. Frank would put in an effort, and I would be cold to him. A time later, I would feel a period of tenderness for him, and try to reach out anew, but then I’d see only stone in his eyes.” She blinked a few times. “It was just too broken,” she said, resigned. “I’d hurt him too deeply, and kept hurting him: for being too lost in grief and wishing, enough that he knew he’d never be enough for me again.”
Though he bore no love for the Englishman apart from gratitude for whatever protection he had provided them, Jamie could certainly understand the deep hurt such actions would inflict upon a man’s heart and pride.
“When we came to one another,” she went on, “it was from desperate need, or, at our lowest points, in anger — never tenderness or gratitude or peace….The vase could never be unshattered, in the end.”
Very softly, he lay his hand over where her two lay clenched together.
“Will ye perhaps forgive me…” he said after a time, “for admitting that I canna seem to settle which of the two would have been better, to my mind? That, or for all to have been well again wi’ him?”
“I will.” She squeezed his hand. “I can’t settle that either, most days.”
“He was good to ye, though?” he asked carefully. “He never mistreated ye?”
“He never beat me, and he was a wonderful father,” she agreed, “and at times he was supportive and caring of me in ways that I appreciated.”
Jamie thought about making a dry wee jest about how she ought to put that in a sonnet, rhapsodic as it was. He held his tongue, though letting her speak. Aye, well— he let her speak until he realized what it was she was saying.
“—besides the mistresses, really, and the–”
He bolted straight upright and looked down at her in horror, but she shrugged, as if it were no great thing. “Mistresses. Women he slept with besides me.”
“I ken what they ARE, Claire, but who did the wicked shite think he was, Louis of France??”
“Well that’s a bit much, don’t you think?” She propped up on one forearm, face almost-defiant. “I’ll wager you can think of any number of people less grandiose than Louis of France that engage in extramarital—”
“I CAN, but—”
“It can’t be altogether shocking to believe that a man should seek—”
“THE HELL it can’t! From the allegedly-honorable man with whom I entrusted MY wife and child, it can!!”
Damn her hide, she laughed, and collapsed onto the pillows with a casual sigh.
“Claire, Jesus!” he snapped. “How can ye be so sanguine? Over the man that shamed ye so?”
“Oughtn’t you to ask if it shamed me?” she asked, seeming curious rather than angry. He spluttered, but she took pity on him and answered seriously. “Of course it wasn’t flattering, love, nor was it something I’d have expected, ever. Still… I tried not to let it get to me, and it didn’t. Well, except for the odd boil-over day every several years.”
“Just how long did it go on?” he demanded.
“Ten years or more, with several different women,” she said, with that same damnable detachment that made him want to shake her, but more so to find the bastard Randall and tear him limb from limb. “He thought he was discreet, and on the whole, he was. I’m certain that Bree never found out, thank God…. but I knew,” she said, a coldness of memory coming into her voice. “I wanted to end it with him so many times and let him make honest women of them. Hell, I had wanted him to divorce me immediately, when I returned, but I— ”
“And before you start in,” she snapped, eyes swiveling to his, already blazing, “YES, I would have been whispered about as a divorcée, but there was already gossip aplenty flying from being the faerie lady who’d come back from the supposed dead pregnant, and it wasn’t as though I had that much further to fall from ‘wanton whore’ or ‘raped’ which would have gotten me treated just about the same, of course. So, you’ll forgive me for thinking that I might have better done what was best for me and Bree and let the world judge as they bloody well would.”
She was angry, and so was he—Angry at her, angry at the English bastard, and perhaps above all, angry at himself for having sent her back to a man that would have done her false, treated her so. Still, his heart softened to see the wetness in the corners of her eyes. He’d scarcely thought about the specifics of what she’d have had to weather upon her immediate return. God, would they truly have called her a whore? Had they shamed her for it? ….Had Frank?
“Did ye never call him out for it?” he croaked at last, not wanting to dwell upon the aftermath of Culloden. “The mistresses?”
“Once,” she said, releasing the breath she’d been holding, “right before he died, but I never questioned his prerogative to seek out what and who he wanted.”
He groaned. “Why ever NOT, woman?”
“Maybe I felt I hadn’t any right to call the kettle black,” she said with no small irritation. “I had chosen you over him, after—”
“That isna the same, Claire, and ye ken—”
“I knowingly chose to stay with you while still under vows to him,” she said firmly. “The fact that the two of you could never run into one another in the supermarket hardly changes the similarity.” She threw up her hands. “Honestly, some days my genuine thought was ‘why the hell oughtn’t he find what happiness he can, since I can’t and won’t love him again?’”
“’Why the’—? Because you’re YOU, Claire!” he all but shouted. “Ye deserve to be treated better, DAMN YOU!”
A soft reply. “That’s true. I did. I do.” She gave him a sad smile. “But would I have preferred to have him pine over me forever? Cast me long looks across the breakfast table, one decade after another….the weight of his wanting a constant shadow over me? Would that truly have been better? No,” she answered herself at once. “No, I don’t think I could have withstood that…that pressure on my heart; that obligation to pretend to want him in return—because I would have tried, I think. I’d have felt I owed it to him.”
Owing. Pretending. Withstanding.
“But most days….” Her voice had gone faint and eerie. “Some days it wasn’t about pots and kettles. It was a way to win.” Her gaze was fixed on a point unseen, intent, distant, that sinister chill in her whisper frightening and powerful. “Frank sleeping with other women made him someone I could ignore; someone I could be above; write off and focus on myself and Bree and my work and what I wanted. It felt…like justice…..If I’d done him wrong by loving another man, then the mistresses meant Frank was no better….That helped, some days, the spite of it; others, it…..”
She suddenly came back to an awareness of him, and her expression fell, shame creeping in. “I’ll wager you didn’t believe me….when I said I’d been a different person too, since we’ve been apart.”
His heart had broken and softened long before she looked at him, but he took the invitation nonetheless, and lay down beside her, pulling her into his arms. “I can believe,” he said, tracing her with warm, smoothing caresses, “because I see the depths of those hurts and those griefs…but they’re no’ a mark upon ye, mo chridhe. They’re naught but memory, now.”
She exhaled and nodded. “I want to believe that, too.”
He kissed a tear or two from her cheeks, then drew the quilts more snugly around them for sleep. They had a long journey to begin on the morrow, after all, and many nights of cold, rough sleeping with it.
“…Frank was the only person who shared your bed.”
“…Not that the thought would give me pleasure, mind….” He could barely hear his own voice in the dark. “Still…if Frank were seeking pleasure elsewhere—did it never occur to ye to do the same? Not to play him false, but perhaps only to find some small good thing for your own happiness?” He thought of Mary MacNabb as he said it. “To keep ye whole?”
“It did occur to me.” She ran her knuckles very softly down his hip. “….Maybe I was afraid that if I allowed myself to be open to small happinesses in that way…. I’d find another you.”
“Someone I could love. It was easier to forbid myself even to consider such a thing.”
“Oh, lass,” he whispered, tears prickling in his eyes, “Had I truly died, I’d have wanted ye to have love in your life. Ye ken that, aye? Please tell me ye do.”
“I know,” she whispered back, her own tears wet on his chest. “I let Bree be my love. I let it be my work. I didn’t want to love anything else; anyone else.”
“And was it easier?” he asked, into the warmth at the top of her head.
“Yes…But not complete. So far from that. All those long nights, I felt so—brittle…empty…and so often, I would have given anything just to have someone touch me.”
And so had he.
“There will never be a day that we are alive together,” he said as sleep finally curled around them, warm and safe as a plaid, “that I shan’t touch you, mo nighean donn. I promise.”
Several days later
On the road to Lallybroch
“We spent so many nights like this,” I murmured into the dark, my voice raspy with a coziness that had my limbs and eyelids and every last cell of me blissfully heavy, “in those early days, you know?”
“Mmmm,” came the equally-cozy reply against my breast as Jamie nuzzled closer, tucking his arm more securely around my waist. “That we did.”
“Journeying back to Leoch after the wedding... even on the war campaign,” I said, smoothing his hair back softly over and over again. “Just you and me, sleeping out in the freezing cold....on the hard ground.... snuggled up cozy and warm together under your plaid....”
“...Quietly fornicating,” he sighed dreamily.
“Well, we DID, did we not?” he said, laughing too as he dodged my playful swats, indignant. “That was the greater part of my first weeks learning to be a man, if ye dinna recall!”
I was gasping for air. “It—was—NOT!”
“Managing to avail myself wi’ twenty-odd men about? It most certainly WAS, Sassenach! Well, ‘managing’ may not be just the word,” he admitted, running his hand suggestively over my bodice. “In truth, t’was half the fun of it, trying not to wake the others.”
“Jaaaamie,” I groaned, still giggling like a schoolgirl.
He kissed his way up to my neck. “Even more fun when we did.”
I tsked, reaching up to hold him by the ears. “I don’t know how it took me so long to realize that you were such a dirty exhibitionist, Mr. Fraser!”
“Aye, well, I felt I’d done more than my part in abstaining for so long. I wasna inclined to show restraint once I’d been righteously loosed, ye understand.”
My belly shook as I pulled him up to kiss me, full of tenderness for that eager lad of so many years ago. “God, how I loved you.”
“Did ye, then?” he murmured against my lips, pulling back just slightly, enough to look me in the eye. His gaze was serious. “And now?”
I put my hand on his cheek. “I’m here,” my voice cracked out into the dark, “aren’t I?”
He laid me down and moved overtop me, one hand pushing up my skirts, gentle as a breath of wind, the other slipping beneath my head. He held me, this man, telling me with his skin, the warmth of his breath, the powerful swells and falls of his body that he was there, too; that he chose me.
We fell asleep afterward, I think, or else both simply drifted away into a close, sated quiet. The crack of the fire brought me back to the present with a start—and a fear—and a command: Just ask.
He felt the shift in my body and pulled me closer against his chest, the blaze of his heat contained within our nest suddenly stifling, rather than comforting. My thoughts, or dreams, or whatever they had been, continued to flicker in the back of my mind, sternly. Just ask. Just ask him.
I reached over, touching his face in request.
His eyes flicked open a crack. “All well?” came the croaky whisper, sweet with a smile.
“.....Will you tell me about William?”
His eye opened the rest of the way, and his head lifted, shocked and wary.
“Your son,” I clarified, for one inane moment panicking that I’d misremembered the boy’s name from the one time he’d spoken it on the hill. “I’d like to hear more about him.”
“....Are ye certain?”
That question, the hesitation—it terrified me even more than the original fears that had prompted me to take the risk and ask.
We’d talked about Brianna often, in these days together, for Jamie asked about his daughter every chance he could get, always with that same shy hunger, intent upon the answers like an acolyte in search of vital truth. What had she been like as a child? What was she like now? What would her life be like going forward? What moved her to tears? To laughter? What were her aspirations? Who in God’s name was this Roger villain? Had she an aptitude for learning? Was she kind? Could she hold her own in an argument, like her mother?
I’d fully expected for William to come up in these conversations; for Jamie to make small comparisons, connections between his two living children, and yet, time and again, he’d stayed conspicuously silent. Every day that passed without mention of that small boy in England had brought my fears higher, the speculations as to the why and wherefore growing more and more rampant in my mind.
“Would you rather not speak of him?” I asked seriously, swallowing my resolve and pushing forward. “Do you...prefer I didn’t know?”
“It is yours for the knowing, Claire, if you wish it of me.” Hurt had already been pinching at the corners of my heart from the distance in his manner, but it tripled and quadrupled as he pushed up to a seat, replacing the blanket overtop me. Likely, it was only so I wouldn’t be chilled by loss of his body heat, but I felt the blow of it. Stay there, it, too, said to my anxious mind.
“I scarcely knew her,” came his voice at last, hollow, but steady as he looked out into the night. “I was nothing more than a laborer on her estate, but she approached me, told me that if I didna— ”
He’d fallen silent at once at the touch of my hand on his back, but wouldn’t turn to look at me, even as I rose to sit beside him. He was waiting, though, waiting for words that I couldn’t seem, for the life of me, to find.
How, Beauchamp? I asked of myself as I studied the fabric of the blanket in the firelight. How to walk this balancing act between openness and honesty on the one hand and the avoidance of profoundly unhelpful truths on the other? I didn’t want to know about this woman, about what her ‘one night’ with Jamie had been like. Though some morbid curiosity stirred within me, I admitted, the wiser part of me knew that any tiny detail about the encounter itself would settle and fester in my heart, and to what end? None. There was no benefit in it; no healing or purpose; not to me; and yet to say to my own love and heart, ‘don’t tell me anything— I’d rather not hear about those uncomfortable parts of your life’....
“If you want to tell me about her,” I said in the end, striving for strength, “I’ll listen..... But I truly did mean that I wanted to know about him.”
He did look at me then, quietly astonished.
“About William,” I whispered, my chest inflating with relief to see life in him again.
“I didna think—” he said slowly, quietly, “—that you’d want to hear about such things.”
My heart squeezed and stretched, wanting to reach out and protect his, mend all the broken, missing parts. “He’s not a thing,” I said, my throat tight, too, with that sad incredulity. “He’s your child.”
With a small sound, he reached for my hand, squeezing it and pressing it hard against his mouth, overcome. “That means...a great deal to me...”
I nudged closer and squeezed back, lacing my fingers with his.
Of course, it did trouble me, on some selfish, territorial level that Jamie had fathered another child. Of course there were moments when the very thought of it brought anger and jealousy roaring to the surface, leaving me bristling for Brianna’s sake as much as my own. Still, to think of the years of loneliness Jamie had endured, all the loss and grief and emptiness....and then of a small boy, who alone had belonged to him amid such brokenness....
“Did you ever get to see him? Your son?”
Bree had been my own guiding light out of that gray nothingness after Culloden, had she not? Love of her had kept me whole in a period when lack—of connection, of hope, of direction, of Jamie— would have left me completely exposed to the relentless, weathering sands of grief. If this boy existed in the world, I needed to know that he, too, had been protection against the storm of emptiness: a breath of life to the one who had given him his.
“Aye,” he said at once, and the spark of light in his voice spoke volumes of that bittersweet (yet sweet, in the end) truth for which I’d hoped. “None so verra much when he was a wean—only the odd glance from time to time. I was naught but a groom, after all, wi’ no cause to be about the house. But when he was grown old enough to walk and begin to talk? Aye, I was able to see him a great deal when he was brought to the stables.”
I leaned my head against his shoulder blade, my arms gently encircling his waist from behind. “He would have needed to become accustomed to horses at an early age, I suppose?”
“To be sure. That and...” I felt his shoulders shrug in that gesture of subconscious discomfort. “I have my suspicions that the Dunsaneys knew....what I was to him.”
I straightened at that. “....that he was yours?”
“They never said, of course. They likely wouldna have wished to admit it, even to themselves. Still: Lord Dunsaney always took particular care wi’ Willie, and that he chose to leave the boy in my care so often—at such an age when it ought to have been governesses? It led me to think long and hard upon the reasons why that would have been his lordship’s choice.”
“Maybe he simply saw you as an admirable, trustworthy man?” I suggested, hoping to ease his mind. “Someone William could learn from?”
“'Tis possible. Likely, even. They both were grateful to me for saving the babe’s life—(I’ll tell ye the tale another time, I promise, Sassenach)— but even so, I canna imagine that entrusting him to me so oft was done wi’out reason, nor wi’out much discussion and debate amongst husband and wife.” He leaned his head back against mine. “But it doesna matter, in truth. Even if it were naught but good fortune, I’m grateful. So verra grateful..... For the chance to know the lad—to pass the hours and days wi’ him..... Teach him what I could....Learn the ways of his mind and his spirit...” He made a sound deep in his throat—I didn’t know if it was a sob or a laugh. “It went by so quickly, that time wi’ him....and yet I feel as though I could recount each of those sunny days until my last.”
“I can’t imagine,” I said quietly after a time, “what that must have been like. To be near, and yet be unable to...” I could hardly finish, the concept so heartbreaking as to strike me mute. “...to have your little boy know fully what you felt for him.”
“Aye. Well. Ye must keep the heart shielded most times, do ye not? Hidden back in some deep place that it mightn’t be vulnerable to hurt— even from people that might give ye joy?”
I knew that. God, how deeply did I know.
“But you didn’t always shield your heart from Willie, I think. I can hear it in your voice.”
“We had a bond between us,” he conceded. “Though I couldna be his father, I was something to him— a favorite friend, of sorts.”
“Like calling to like?” I suggested with a squeeze.
“Aye... perhaps...” He shrugged. “Or maybe he just liked being out of doors.”
“He could have been out-of-doors with any of the grooms.”
He nodded, shyly, accepting my gift. “He’s a sweet lad. Loud and obnoxious, to be sure, wi’ a foul temper on him, but in those times when he wasna screeching like a spoiled fox-pup...he was such a tender wee fellow. A keen mind, too, in the way he’d ask questions and keep after the answers, long and determined enough about it that I’d be set to tear my bloody hair out by the roots— but God, if I didna live for it—to witness that curiosity within him.”
I smiled, remembering those several years in which the never-ending siren of, ‘Why, though, Mama? Mama, WHY??’ kept me in a perpetual cycle of sheer exhaustion and sheer delight.
“I hope he remains so,” Jamie was saying, his voice soft. “That he doesna let the spoiled temper within him win out over the kindness and eagerness.”
“You manage well most of the time,” I offered, hoping to reassure. “You were never spoiled, I’d wager, but you do have to balance the temper and tenderness within yourself, even now.”
“Aye...Aye, that’s so.” The thought did seem to help him, for his shoulders relaxed, ever-so-slightly. “All I wish is for Willie to be well, in his life....to grow to be a good man. But then, some days...” He shook his head, hanging his head ruefully. “I find myself hoping—a vain hope, foolish in its entirety—a wish, only—that time should have stopped, then, at Helwater when he was four or five, and that he might have remained so, always. That sweet, wee laddie...mine...”
I held him tighter, letting his pain seep into me, that he needn’t bear it alone.
“What does he look like?” I asked suddenly, realizing I’d not even tried to picture the boy.
“Brown hair,” Jamie said quietly, “.....but wi’ eyes like mine.” He was answering the question before I even could voice it. “Apart from the hair, he looks like his sister. Remarkably so.”
Before I could speak, he was tugging me forward, pulling me into his lap and holding me tightly, pulling the blanket around us both. “Ye ken....for so long,” he said, lips pressed into my hair, “William was our bairn, aye?”
That sent a shiver up my spine, and he felt it. “I didna ken that our babe would have been a lass, and so there were times.....” He stopped. “I kent it was—maybe that it wasna right. In fact, I ken that it was wrong, to Willie, and to you, and to our child, all. Still, in those moments when it was just the lad and me, when I could take his hand in mine, or say a prayer over his head, or hold him close—I would close my eyes and—”
He shook his head and broke off. When he resumed, his voice was hoarse and labored. “There was once, when Willie was verra small, not even three, that he ran off from a picnicking party on the moors before a storm. Set everyone off into a panic, he did—minutes on end of not knowing where the lad had gone, or if he’d fallen into a great hole or broken his neck or—” He swallowed. “I was first to find him—safe and sound, only frightened. It couldna have been more than a few moments we were alone, but I still remember the sense within my soul as I lifted him up and clasped him to me and—”
His voice broke, but he forced himself to look me in the eye as he said it.
“It was as though for just a moment, it was the mists of time I’d fought through, calling, calling and fighting with all my soul, until it was our wee babe held tight to my breast—my lost one, found at last.”
“Ye said in your letter that Brianna would have come herself, had you not. Did she mean it?”
We were laying down again, held close in tear-choked quiet, both straining not to give in fully to our sorrows. “I believe she did,” I managed to get out, forcing a breath of a laugh. “She’s stubborn. Like her father.”
“But I suppose I mean...would it have even been possible?” he pressed. “Could she have passed through?”
“I...I truly don’t know.”
He nodded, making a small sound of acknowledgement and, I thought, sorrow.
“It’s only,” he said suddenly after a long silence. “I’ve imagined it so often, these past nights...what it would be like, if she were to come looking—if she were to find us.”
My heart leapt up into my throat with longing—To see my baby again, after I’d resigned myself to leaving her forever—
“I don’t think it’s likely, Jamie,” I said regretfully. Better to banish fools’ hopes, for both of us.
“Aye, I ken that,” he said quickly, squeezing me tight in reassurance. “In truth, even if she were of a mind to come, I shouldna ever wish her to risk the dangers. Still... ‘tis a dream in my heart; same as those that sustained me in those long years alone. A happy reverie....”
He inhaled, shakily, almost a gasp. “...that one day I should turn a corner, open a door, say, and there she’ll be before me. She wouldna ken my face, but I should ken hers,” he whispered with glowing fervor, “and I imagine that it would make a difference to her, somehow...the fact that I knew her face amongst the crowd...And then I awake from the dream and ask myself: would you know her, man? Truly? She....I dinna mean to sound....Tis hard for me, Claire, to place her. Even wi’ the photographs, even wi’ all you’ve told me of her—I try to conjure her up in my mind, and yet when I try to reach out and know her, speak to her.... she vanishes.”
It broke my heart, that thought—that even in this time of miracles, that Jamie would never know Bree, nor he, her; that she would remain a story and a frozen image.
“I understand, Jamie,” I blurted, moved by an unexpected need to absolve him. “That it will always be easier, with William, and even with Joan and Mar—Marg—?”
“Marsali,” he filled in helpfully, though he was already wary.
“I do know you’ll always feel the love of them more, since—”
“Just please hear me that I will understand,” I insisted. “That it’s alright to speak of them. I know that it will always be different, that theoretical love of her, versus—”
“But Brianna—Bree—” He stopped as he said the diminutive, as though it had taken him quite by surprise “—She’s the child of my heart. She’s ours.” He touched my face. “I have spent these twenty years loving her, in the way that I could, and I shall spend the rest of my days doing the same. No matter how much I miss Willie, I’d give anything—anything for the chance to see my red-haired lass—just to hold her to my breast for one moment and tell her what she is to me—to hear her voice.”
I would have given anything for that as well, for Jamie, but also for me. Her absence had been a quiet, constant ache in my belly these past weeks. Speaking of her so, of that longing, that permanence of separation...
“Jamie....Does it ever make you angry?”
“At the injustice? At God, if he exists? At your own self?” My teeth gritted in reflex as the emotions roiled within me, loss and fear and grief and love, all together. “That we couldn’t all have lived our lives together? That it was our lot to have our happiness in fragments? Our lives spent apart from one another and them, in turns?”
“I spent twenty years in that anger, mo ghraidh,” he said simply. “I called it sorrow most days, but it was rage, pure and violent. It nearly killed me, at times, and I wanted it to. I wanted it to blaze up and erase all the pain and longing forever..... But that wasna my path. My path was to wait for you.” He bent and kissed me. “And if our joy has been fragmented—at least we held each piece while we could.”
I wasn’t conscious of the tears flowing again until Jamie was kissing them away. “They’ll both live their lives....Willie and Bree. They’ll be happy.”
“So will we, mo nighean donn. We’ve the greatest piece of the glass in hand, now. We’ll no’ let it break again.”
End of Part II
Several days later
“Will you PLEASE be so kind as to explain,” I called as I let my skirts fall and tiptoed carefully back through the brush to where Jamie was holding the horses, “why it is we never have to stop for YOU to take a piss?”
“I’ve a twelve-gallon bladder,” he called back without missing a beat. “Had it made special for long rides.”
“HA bloody HA.” I drew up level with him, fumbling in my pocket for a bit of bread as he bent to tighten my horse’s girth strap. “Admit it: you’re an actual sorcerer.”
“Well, and If I were, I would hope I could magick wi’ more profitable stuff than piss.” He grinned at me over his shoulder, hair escaping his queue and hanging in his face. “I’ve been able to make water off the side of a horse since I was a boy, Sassenach.”
“What?” I sputtered, laughing through a mouthful of crumbs. “While still riding?”
“Tis a bit more difficult in breeks, ken, but wi’ a bit of careful wrangling, aye, it’s quite manageable.”
“Wrangling, mm?” I hummed, imagining John Wayne, lasso in hand, facing off with a ferocious horned beast intent on wreaking havoc. “How do you keep the wind from—”
“A man must choose his timing wisely, to be sure,” Mr. Wayne himself said as he straightened. “Do ye no’ recall all the times I’ve let ye ride ahead this past week?”
“So THAT’s what you’re doing! I always thought you were just after a pleasing view of my rear aspect,” I said, in mock-affront, giggling as I brushed off my hands and prepared to remount.
“Tis a most agreeable added benefit.” He touched my arm and placed a sweet, warm kiss in the tender spot where jaw met ear, sending warmth all the way down to my toes.
“Here, lass, wait a moment,” he added abruptly a minute later, preventing me from stepping back up into the stirrup. He was fishing about in his sporran and came out with a handful of coins, which he pressed into my hand.
I stared at it. “What’s this?”
“Money,” he called carelessly, walking around to his own horse.
I rolled my eyes at him over the saddle. “I can see that, darling, but why do I need it?”
“For the inn. The turning for Broch Morda is just ahead.”
“Inn?” I repeated, dumbly. “....Aren’t we going straight to Lallybroch?”
“No, we’re not.”
“But—Hold the bloody phone,” I said, moving around my horses’s head to stand in front of him. “Ever since Inverness, haven’t we been talking about ‘leaving for Lallybroch,’ ‘getting close to Lallybroch’ and all that?”
“A generalization, on my part,” he shrugged, making ready to mount up, “I’m sorry if ye were misled.”
“Apparently I WAS,” I said pointedly, alarm bells starting to ring. Jamie was not a man to make careless omissions. I caught his sleeve as he made to swing up. “Jamie, wait—”
“We’re not going to Lallybroch.” The finality in his tone said what the words did not.
“You mean not at all?” My mouth had actually fallen open. “Why ever—oh.....Oh, for heaven’s sake.”
His face was rigid with controlled feeling. “I’m no’ prepared to go knocking on the door and pretend as though all is well between us, Sassenach.”
“Well of course not!” I said, throwing up my free hand and letting my own tempests fly free, control be damned. “It isn’t all well, after what she did! But surely it’s better to go confront her and get it all out in the open! You’re not planning to shun her for the rest of your lives, after all.”
“Am I not?”
I was so stunned, I couldn’t immediately think of anything to say, and so just stood there, dismayed to see the mask of steel and spikes that had so suddenly hidden my playful Jamie of moments ago completely from view.
He had been very quiet on the topic of Jenny in Inverness and on our ride, only getting a sad, almost confused look about him in the few times her name was spoken. We’d not talked about any specifics pertaining to Jenny, either of feeling or plan for the future, but from that mournful look—so utterly foreign to me, on Jamie’s features— I’d presumed that it was primarily hurt and betrayal with which he had been wrestling in his heart. The expression on his face now, though, told me that even if that had been the case, hot fury had since claimed dominance within him, bordering on sheer vengeance.
“Jamie, come now,” I said soothingly, deciding to try and bring things back into a rational sphere. “She’s your sister, whatever else she may be, and I know how much you love h—”
“She’s a woman,” he corrected slowly, his consonants sharp and fearsome as his gaze, “who had enough hate in her heart to willfully see you and me consigned to misery apart for the rest of our days. I’ll no’ seek out reconciliation wi’ such a person.”
“I’ll be on my way,” he said over me, “and you’ll stay at Broch Morda until I return.”
I nearly snarled ‘Oh, I WILL, will I?’ but settled for a, “Did it not cross your mind that I might want to mend things with Jenny?”
I honestly wasn’t sure that I had, before that moment. In fact, the entire way from Inverness, I’d used the long stretches of quiet to rehearse many a biting jab and condemnation to throw at the wicked woman’s feet when I saw her. That hot coal of anger had kept me warm and satisfied, justified in the knowledge that there would soon be reckoning, or so I’d assumed. There was nothing like a truly terrifying rage, though, in someone as large and dangerous as Jamie, to make one try to put aside their own vindictive glee and transmute calls for blood toward forgiveness.
From the look on his face, I honestly didn’t know what Jamie would do or say when next he saw his sister (surely he wouldn’t actually do her harm, but—), and that fact frightened me enough to have me grasping at any straws within reach. “I never thought of you as a petty person, Jamie,” I tried, “but this is—”
“’Petty’?” His nostrils flared dangerously. “Are ye truly telling me, Sassenach,” he snarled, “that if things had been reversed—if one of your own family had tried to keep us from—”
“I don’t have any family apart from yours,” I snapped, but then quickly groaned and rubbed my temple, seeing that line of argument going nowhere. “It’s the here and now that we have to contend with, Jamie! Surely you know there’s wisdom in that.”
“I may ken it,” he admitted tightly, “but my mind’s made up.”
We were both standing tight-strung between the horses, holding onto our respective reins as though they could anchor us from further outbursts.
Not a foolproof plan, evidently.
“So where the hell are you supposedly running off to while I hide at the inn?” I blurted, that ‘until I return’ finally clicking into place.
He spoke tersely but at once. “To speak wi’ Laoghaire. Break the news and hammer out an understanding wi’ her until Ned can arrive to settle things before the law.”
Well...Yes, that made good sense, I supposed.
Still, I was vexed enough to keep on the offensive, though I hated hearing the petulance in my voice. “All this time, you’ve been planning to just go off and leave me alone? Without even bothering to talk to me about it?”
“I am sorry for no’ being more clear about my intentions, but—” He was blinking hard and gritting his teeth. “Jesus, Claire, surely ye can understand that we canna be seen together in town, let alone let it be known that we’re sharing a room,” he hissed, telling me that he was just about as near the end of his rope as I was. “Risk the gossip getting back to Balriggan before I myself do?” He shook his head mightily. “You’ll go to the inn and wait there until I’ve gotten things in hand, and ye can greet Ned when he arrives, forbye. I’m sorry, but there’s no other way to see it all safely sett—”
“Of course there is, you brute of a man! Going to LALLYBROCH! Surely your family wouldn’t ever allow the gossip to—”
I fell silent, and could have cursed him for it.
He let go the reins and slowly stepped forward, cupping one hand to my face. The touch itself was gentle, but his eyes were deadly serious, in no way threatening, but no less terrifying for it. “I love you. With all my life and heart, I love you. Ye ken it to be so. But this is my sister; my marriage needing to be dissolved. I need ye to let me do things in the way I see fit, this time.”
Well, fuck you, too, I wanted to spit, but I gritted my teeth. “Fine.”
I realized too late that there had been a moment of soft pleading in his eyes as he spoke the last words. I watched in dismay as it vanished, leaving only hard coldness. Then his touch, too, was gone, and a minute later we were mounted, riding toward the crossroads in complete silence.
Damn you, Jamie Fraser, AND your wretched sister. And Damn you too, Laoghaire notFraser, while we’re at it. TWICE.
I’d known moments like this would come creeping in between us, sooner or later—the perfectly natural clashes and disagreements of married people, those moments of misunderstanding from poor assumptions and hasty conclusions; of wholeheartedly wanting to chuck the other person into a ravine for being a stubborn arse. Of course, those moments were inevitable ; I’d known that from the beginning. I had just hoped they wouldn’t come so soon.
Easy, though, Beauchamp. Take a breath.
I obeyed, letting the sharp snap of the mid-morning wind brace my churning temper.
This was a very unusual set of circumstances, I forced myself to keep remembering, with pressures of all kinds falling squarely on Jamie’s shoulders. I had, of course, had the advantage of months and months in which to prepare for our reunion, to set my affairs in order and rearrange my life with all loose ends tied. Jamie, though, had been taken completely and utterly unawares. It should be no surprise that it would be a bumpy journey, on his side, both logistically and emotionally.
I took another deep breath, feeling some of the ire evaporating. While I still thought (knew!) going to Lallybroch first to face the 60-inch beast head-on was the best course of action, I supposed I could find it in my heart to support his choice and afford him some control over how to approach his own tangled web, the one he was unraveling for my sake.
I was opening my mouth to say something, a gentle word or reassurance, if not apology (I wasn’t prepared to be that magnanimous yet), but before I could, we were at the juncture, and Jamie was turning his horse toward the left fork, toward the unseen Balriggan. He jerked his head toward the right. “It’s no’ far to the inn, a half-hour at most. Introduce yourself to the keeper as Malcolm, if they ask for a name. “
“I’ll come as soon as I can, or else send word.”
He opened his mouth to say more, closed it, inclined his head, and was off.
I exhaled in a great whoosh as I watched him ride off with speed, frustrated beyond measure both at him and myself. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, mm? We would have at least one sunset, likely many more, before this mess was settled between us, not to mention the great behemoth of Laoghaire’s shock and reaction to weather, and a widespread scandal to mitigate once the word good and truly spread. Yes, it would be a long many sunsets, together or apart.
The impulse to go after him pulled tight and anxious in my belly—Go tell him you love him, you fool; wish him good luck in the dealings with Laoghaire; let him know you’re on his side—but fear and hurt won out, and I kicked up the horse toward the right, picking carefully over the rocks on the steeply-graded path.
We hadn’t climbed more than fifty yards when, without warning, an almighty screech rent the air. The horse was rearing beneath me practically before I could register the sound, let alone look to discover its source. I might have managed to keep my seat, but the horse was new, neither of us used to one another, and when she bucked, I went launching off over her right shoulder.
It was only by providence that the trajectory landed me in the bracken and not against the boulder two feet away at the edge of the path, else I would have dislocated my shoulder or broken my collarbone for certain. It was my army training, though—twenty-five-or-more-years aged, but still apparently sharp—that made sure I tucked the shoulder and rolled rather than throwing out my arm. Still, even without broken bones, the pain and impact of the landing was unbelievable. As I sat up, groaning, teeth-rattling shocks of pain were coursing up my spine and down to my stunned fingers and back. I curled the limp arm tight to my chest, trying to catch my breath, trying not to vomit from the pulsing lightning storm happening in my line of sight.
I heard a strangled sound, whipped my head around, and saw Jenny bloody Murray standing on the loop of the road above me, where I had been about to turn the horse before being thrown.
She was wrapped in a traveling cloak, the mule she’d been riding completely forgotten behind her, as was the basket that lay on the road, contents scattered. She was staring down at me as though at a ghost, but one that she meant to do battle with to her own death. “Is it you, Claire?” she demanded, voice high and deadly-fierce as her brother’s with shaking energy; a blazing valkyrie ready to attack. “Tell me this moment, are ye real?”
"Real enough for you to have gotten me chucked off a real horse, if you hadn’t fucking noticed!” I snarled, cradling my arm.
But damn her, the woman’s face completely fell and she burst into tears as she ran for me, sobbing, “Oh, Thank God, Claire!”
“Oh Jesus, Claire, I’ve been—I thought ye were—I canna believe—”
I yelped as Jenny, oblivious to my injured arm (Jesus, maybe I had fractured something), flung both her own around me, kneeling before me in the road and clinging like she would never, ever let go, gasping. “He isna—The marriage isna happy—The bairns are no’ his—He’s—Oh, God—Claire! Ye came back!”
I didn’t push her away. I didn’t even move, come to that. I was too bloody stunned to do anything except sit like a stone, arms pinned to my sides, absolutely dumbfounded as the words poured out of my tiny sister-in-law in frantic sobs.
“Jamie, he—he read your letter and went straight after ye—Ran out wi’ his soul afire but it was —Each day that’s passed, I kent deeper and deeper in my heart that he’d lost ye for good and that it was all my FAULT and—Oh my God....”
This last was a whimper as she held me tighter and fell completely to pieces against my shoulder. “I’m—so—sorry—Claire,” I heard faintly as she shook. “So—verra—Even before I told Jamie, all the day before he arrived, it was eatin’ me alive wi’ SHAME, and—”
I managed to pry her loose and hold her back by the wrists to look her in the eye. A creature more different than the cold, vicious woman who had sent me away from Lallybroch three weeks ago could scarcely be imagined. There were deep, dark circles under her eyes, and she looked as though she’d lost a frightening amount of weight in a short time. She looked pale, thin, and utterly defeated. There was no steel of biting judgement in those Fraser eyes, now, no seething poisonous anger—just an open wound of regret and relief, from which her jumble of half-coherent thoughts kept running out in bursts.
“I tried to tell him—tell Jamie—how truly sorry I—but he wouldna—He was so angry wi’ me, Claire—blazin’ and—ANIMAL wi’ rage and—” She shuddered, violently, the panic written in every line and twitching muscle. “ — and he had every right, but—And then he was gone, so sudden-like, burstin’ out the door after ye — Ridin’ like he’d race to hell to get ye back—But he kent ye might already be lost, forever, ag — again, and—” She sobbed harder. “And I didna have the chance to make him hear how sorry—How much I hated mys — HATE myself for—”
She flinched at the word as violently as if I’d slapped her, though I’d spoken it with painstaking gentleness, scarcely more than a whisper. In fact, I felt almost beatifically calm. Between Jamie’s recent fury and Jenny’s obvious devastation over what she’d done, my own rage and need for revenge seemed very distant in my heart, at present. It was shocking, honestly, how steady I felt in asking it, as though I were only mildly curious: “Just tell me why.”
“I was angry,” Jenny said at once, the words tumbling out in a choked, breathy rush. “Angry that ye’d left us wi’out a word—left Jamie alone.”
That much I’d known already, but I couldn’t ignore the need to be justified. “Jenny, I didn’t lea—”
“I know.” She took my face in both her hands, and for the first time in all the years I’d known her, I felt like the smaller of us. Her eyes were soft with sorrow, wide with the need to be heard. “I do ken it, Claire. Or...rather....I believe ye— that there must be more to things than they seem. I trust your word.”
There was such sincerity in her eyes, such tenderness and love in her touch, that I felt my throat tighten—at the sheer childlike relief of having this woman’s warm light stretched out to cover me at last, after such a devastating first reunion. Still....I couldn’t simply forget.
“Why couldn’t you believe it then?” Still calm, my voice, but it trembled as I struggled to suppress my own tears. “When I was telling you so to your face—why couldn’t you trust in me, then?”
She had withdrawn her hands and closed her eyes at the first question, lips pursed, head bowed, like a convicted offender, submitting to the axe. I didn’t think she was going to answer at all, but then a small voice—
“Maybe I was jealous.”
For one blazing moment of disgust, all thought of tears vanished, and I wondered if I could take back every single word to Jamie about the necessity of reconciliation. If this woman was honestly mad enough to begrudge a brother’s love toward his wife—
But I saw her expression as she struggled to catch her breath to speak, and my heart quieted at once.
“Not only do ye appear out of the clear blue sky, Claire—after so many long years, but ye show up lookin’ all— so — ” She gestured helplessly to my person. “So damned beautiful and young and healthy and—And life has clearly been far kinder to ye than it had been for us, and....When I saw ye in the dooryard— I could feel it in my body, ken? As though it were a fire, set off at the edges of my mind, burnin’ up my decency and compassion and—Christ, all my good sense, and — I kent it was wicked .... heartless..... but I couldna help meself.”
“And that—that jealousy,” I said carefully, still levelly, with no scorn, “was enough to make you want to take Jamie away from me? Me away from him?”
“Yes — NO! — No, it wasna—I canna—It was EVERYTHIN’, Claire! All of it together! And perhaps most of all, there was the fact that — ” She looked up at the sky as though for help, a little moan of despair escaping her lips. “I’d been the one to push Jamie into the damned marriage in the first place, see? ME. And I’d kent even then that it wasna blessed. I saw your own fetch at the weddin’, for Bride’s sake, and I was fool enough to ignore it, and—And if ye’d come back, now, it would mean I’d been wrong to have him go through wi’ it, when I’d been given plain warning from above, and the GUILT of it—” She heaved a breath to choke down the rising panic, and I had to give her credit for looking me dead in the eye as she said it. “I made up my mind that it was better to act as though ye’d never been there. I‘d bury the the letter and no one would be any the wiser....It was reckless, shortsighted....cruel....I was lookin’ after my own selfish heart....I did ye both so much wrong, unforgivably...I’ll never stop tryin’ to make it right...if ye’ll let me.”
The shame of admission hung heavy on her shoulders. I could see it, weighing her down like a cross, all those wrongs. Anger. Indignant rage. Petty resentment run amok. Crippling guilt. Didn’t I know the power of those things, too? To wound and damage?
I reached out and took her hand, squeezing.
She looked up at me at once, eyes still brimming, clinging to the tentative hope my touch promised. “Everything can be well again, Claire, I swear it. Ye came back, and once he kens it, Jamie will put aside Laoghaire at once, I know he—OH!”
Before I could interrupt and tell her that I knew, she was standing and trying to pull me to my feet, too. “We’ll go after him, together, at once! I’ll leave a message for the family in town and we’ll ride until we find him. Ye’ve no idea—NONE—how overjoyed he’ll be to see—”
“Jenny—Jenny, stop!” I gasped. She was so alight with the fire of promised action, redemption, that she didn’t notice I was resisting, nor that she was hurting me. Yes, I must have had a hairline fracture or some sort of damage beyond bruising, for my vision was going black around the edges as I tried to get free of her grip. “Jenny, there’s no need! Jamie and I—”
“GET AWAY FROM HER!”
Jenny jumped, and though Jamie’s shout had startled me as much as her, I was also deeply touched to see that her immediate reflex was to shield me, flinging her arms out wide to face the attacker.
When she realized who it was, though, saw him leaping down from the horse, she started sobbing harder and was running toward him, flying on a wind of breathtaking joy. “JAMIE! Oh, Ja—”
But he brushed past her as though she weren’t even there, leaving her standing in the road.
“What has she done to ye, mo chridhe?” he demanded as he dropped to his knees next to me, hands jarring more than gentling in his haste to check me over. His voice was urgent but cold in his alarm. “She hurt ye?”
“I’m fine,” I panted, “just landed on my shoulder, but I’m fine. An accident”
“I heard the screams—and you’re bleeding,” he said, voice still frighteningly alien, and sure enough, the fingers he brushed over my hairline had blood on them. “What did she do?” he demanded again.
“She didn’t do it on purpose,” I said at once, “the horse got spooked and threw me and—It was a complete accident, Jamie, truly, Jenny didn’t—”
Both our heads swiveled to watch the hoarse, broken voice. Jenny was surveying the pair of us with such a symphony of emotion and realization moving over her face and body, it was both beautiful and painful to witness. “Oh, God be praised,” she whispered, crossing herself, beaming beneath her sobs. “Jamie, mo chridhe—Ye found her in time!”
Her barely-contained joy drained ounce by ounce as Jamie stood.
“Tell me what it is you’re doing here, Janet.” His voice was deathly quiet. Dangerous. “Why it is ye came to encounter my wife today and cause her harm.”
She was pale, but determined. “I was on my way to visit Maggie, and just happened to come across her on the path and—Jamie, I tried to tell ye at the house,” she blurted suddenly, stepping toward him as though she couldn’t control her own body. “How sorry I was. I meant it, trul— Jamie? JAMIE, stop this moment, where are ye going?”
For the moment she’d confirmed that our meeting had been pure coincidence, Jamie had turned to help me to my feet, ushering me firmly toward the horses.
“Jamie, ye canna go!” Jenny was begging. “Wait!”
“Jamie, wait,” I echoed, panting, head spinning in more ways than one as Jamie helped me get my foot into the stirrup. “W—”
“Ye must stay and hear me out!” Jenny was hovering at Jamie’s elbow as he lifted me bodily up into the saddle. She was getting more desperate with every word. “Ye canna turn your back on me like this, brother! Ye must—”
He whirled and she leapt backward. “Tell me what it is, precisely, that I MUST do for your sake, Janet.”
From my forced vantage point in the saddle, I had a clear view of the heartbreaking scene on the roadway. Jamie, enraged, drawn up to his full height, like a bear about to attack; Jenny, ten feet away but all but cowering before him, eyes tight-shut, lips pursed and shaking, waiting for the slicing of claws. He would never physically harm her, I would have sworn to that; but there were sharp edges in his voice, and no mistaking them, deadly enough to slice and maim, leaving permanent scars.
“Would I EVER have kept Ian from ye so?” His teeth were clenched tight, as were his shaking fists. “Would I EVER have turned him away? Your very heart, the breath of your body? Shunned him at the door, as though he were worthy of less hospitality than a stranger? Wi’out a thought for your heart or happiness, let alone his?”
“No...ye wouldna....Never could ye have done such a terrible thing......No decent person...” She was sobbing again; it was a wonder she was able to speak at all. “But Jamie, mo chridhe, listen to me, let me apol—”
“Ye LIED to her!” Jamie bellowed, lunging a step forward before he could stop himself. “Deliberately deceived her into believing me happy with Laoghaire—” this he spat with the utmost contempt, “then let hour upon HOUR pass upon my arrival before telling me a GODDAMNED word about her having been there! That there was still a chance I could catch her!”
“It came down to a matter of MOMENTS, woman—the difference between reaching Claire in time and losing her forever. Had ye waited two minutes longer to tell me, it would have been as though you’d slit her throat before my eyes. And I dinna think I shall ever be able to look upon ye and see aught but that very knife in your hand. The fact that I caught her in the end doesna change what ye meant to do—what ye did—to me.” He leaned forward and snarled, contempt and hatred in every syllable. “So tell me what it is I MUST do, this day. What I owe you.”
“What I did—was—wrong—Evil,” Jenny gasped out, coughing and struggling to get enough breath, “I kent it then, and I ken it now. I’ve scarcely eaten nor slept since ye left to go after her, nor been able to leave my bed for the shame of it—But ye found one another,” she gasped out again, trying to smile and move slowly toward him. “God restored your true heart to ye at last, despite my terrible actions.” She was nearly close enough to touch him, and she reached up to lay a hand on his cheek. “I’ll do anythin’, whatever ye demand for the rest of my life—to make it right wi’ ye both, mo chr—”
He turned his back before she could touch him, and was mounted on his horse the next moment, turning us in the direction Broch Morda.
“Jamie,” she moaned, both arms clutching round herself, as if they didn’t know what else to do. “Please.”
“Jamie, wait,” I said quietly, but then stopped. I knew that now was not the time for forcing rapprochement, but my heart was absolutely breaking for both brother and sister. But I had to say something, to give him one more chance to stay. “Aren’t you going to Balriggan? To settle with L—?”
“Not today.” He kicked up and galloped off toward town without a backward glance.
I did look back, though, and the look on Jenny’s face as she crumpled haunted me long past the time she disappeared from view over my shoulder.
It was twenty-three years ago.
It was 1743, I was standing in a clearing in the Scottish mountains, and Jamie was punching trees.
It would have made me glow with a precious joy, the nostalgia for those innocent days long ago, save for the fact that the circumstances prompting the reprise before me in the glade was tearing my very heart open. I sat silent on my horse, not for the world daring to steal this moment of catharsis from him.
The years did show on Jamie, I suddenly realized with a painful blow. There was the natural aging of his face and body, of course; that I had noticed at once, but his overall manner had also shifted in our decades apart. He was guided by the same forces as always (humor, sharpness of wit, honor, action), but a more subdued version of them, on the whole. He was still uniquely, indelibly him, and even so, the Jamie I’d had the joy of getting to know again these past weeks was different, marked by a quieter maturity of spirit, well befitting a man who had suffered grief and loss and the enduring of them, too.
I knew all this because the person I saw in that clearing was, by contrast, once again the young man he’d been when I met him. Powerful and wise beyond his years, even then, but young enough not to have mastered the balance between them. When the upheavals came, reason and control could so easily be lost in the rage, leaving him at the mercy of only the power, the fury of his fists. I was watching Jamie MacTavish, punching trees…. and weeping.
We’d spoken scarcely ten words in the twenty-odd minutes since we’d left Jenny standing broken in the road. All ten of those had been from me, breaking the silence to say, apologetic but with due urgency, that he’d been right—we couldn’t be seen together in town. He’d reined up and stared at the buildings of Broch Mordha in the distance as though he hadn’t had the faintest notion—let alone a care—for which way we’d been riding. He’d nodded, though, and turned us to the left, leading me up the craggy mountainside.
I’d fallen considerably behind him on the ascent, my arm—still throbbing—making it doubly hard to keep my seat up the steep grade, a fact for which I was now thankful, if it had given him this moment of solitude in which to release all his feeling. My gratitude was fading quickly, though, as the throbbing intensified, and finally I could sit still no longer. I tried to dismount quietly, but was acutely aware of how off-balance and weak I felt with one arm out of commission. I hissed a quiet curse to further discover that my skirt was caught in the stirrup. I was going to have to slide and hope for the best.
Before my bottom properly left the saddle, strong hands were at my ribcage, lowering me down as gently as a child.
“I’m so sorry, lass.” His eyes were lowered, lips and breath working furiously, but he spoke with urgent concern. “I ran off and didna give a thought for—” He cupped my stiff elbow gingerly. “Can aught be done for it? Is it broken?”
“No, I don’t think so….” I straightened it experimentally. “Just battered and bruised. I think it will be fine, just….” My voice broke a little. “Just needs time.”
It rang in the silence, that truth, filling the remote corners of the glade. Truth didn’t make the pain any less real.
I chanced a glance into his face, tear-streaked and wild, still, and watched as the strength drained from his eyes. He put his arms carefully around me in a gesture of soothing comfort, but it was me supporting him, and we both knew it.
“I’m sorry….” came his rasping voice. “You were right.”
I hugged him closer with my free arm. “About what?”
“What ye said….on the road, before we parted ways.” The words resonated from his cheek into the top of my head. “About it no’ doing me any good to be angry wi’ her.”
“Well, I….I don’t think I did say that, precisely….”
“You were counseling me toward reconciliation, and I wasna—I couldna—” He made a sound of frustration. “Believe me, mo chridhe, I didna ever mean to speak to her so—Only to stay far away until I should come to better terms wi’ it in my heart, perhaps, one day.”
“I do believe you.”
“Seeing her so unexpectedly—” It took him considerable effort to formulate each word. I could feel it, there against his chest. “I was—My blood was already boiling from when you and I— I just—Christ….I’m no’ proud of….. I’m sorry.”
I wasn’t certain he needed to be sorry, but I hummed a loving word or two and stroked his back. “You were justified in what you said—as much as it hurt to hear you say it….and to watch her hear it.”
It would be a very long time before I forgot the sight and sound of the indomitable Jenny Murray’s heart breaking… the way she’d begged….
He nodded, swallowing hard. “Christ, what a mess,” he croaked.
And Christ, it was.
We stood held close together for a time, sheltering in one another. The wind had turned sharply chilly, and I was shivering. He felt it, and rubbed his hands briskly up and down my arms to warm them, looking around with purpose.
“Here,” he said with new brightness, leading with a gentle hand on my back, “this way, Sassenach.”
He’d remembered the place quite of a sudden.It was only thought of getting Claire out of the wind that had been in his mind, and it certainly was the perfect spot for that purpose, well worth the quarter hour’s walk through the dense forest, even with the horses. It wasn’t until after he laid eyes on it that all the memories flooded back and choked his heart.
A stream had run through the hollow, long ago, slowly carving out the rock thirty-odd feet downward and creating something of a miniature canyon in the mountainside forest. It was wider at the top, yet narrow enough that only the barest trickles of sunlight slipped through the cover of the trees lining either side, giving the whole space the air of a cave. A gilded cave, though, with the dim light making the soft stone glow with a comforting stillness.
He carried Claire in his arms down into this wee gorge, ignoring her protests that she was ‘perfectly fine,’ and made the several trips more necessary to unsaddle and hobble the horses, and bring the saddlebags down, urging her to eat and rest. He had no intention of going anywhere until the morning, and they may as well pass that time in comfort.
No, he hadn’t been thinking of the past when he’d turned them in this direction. If he had, perhaps he would have chosen another spot, far away.
He could still see them, as he looked around the crags and shadows: a young Jenny, a scrawny Ian, both of them laughing and scrabbling about with shrieks of play. He could still hear his own voice, forbye, the squeaking soprano of boyhood, calling across to them; the hoots and teasing; the childish disputes and make-pretends. So often, they came here. Whenever Da had business in town, the three of them would tag along and disappear into these hills, this enchanted spot. This place had been their pirate’s cave, or else dragon’s lair. Especially in those middle years, after Willie was gone, but before Mam had been taken, those times had meant healing; joy. Da would come to collect them at the end of the day, usually having to scoop them off the ground from where they’d collapsed, exhausted from the day’s exhausting merriment.
That ride to Lallybroch at sunset was always eternal, the road seeming to go on, and on. Yet even when they were all so tired they could barely lift their heads, on the ride home, Jenny would always keep her arms tight around Jamie’s chest, all the way. She would never let him fall.
A rabbit suddenly stirred from the leaf mould and scampered off, bringing Jamie back to the present, to Claire, who was sitting on a boulder with her bread in hand, not eating, looking up at him, clearly waiting for an answer.
He stared blankly, but then the echo of her question suddenly crystalized in his ear, his mind apparently more present than he: You could see that she was truly remorseful, couldn’t you?
“Aye,” he said at once, then sighed and went on more slowly, wearily. “Aye…. I ken she wants to make it right.”
The way she’d wept—the desperation in her eyes as she’d let every bit of her agony show—as she’d pleaded with him….
Still, his wame pulsed and reared with the anger still seething below the surface of his skin. “She wants to make it right,” he repeated, teeth clenching, “but is it only because she canna bear there to be a rift between us? Does she truly understand just how—unforgivable it is?”
“I do. I think she does, anyway.”
She told him of what had taken place before he’d arrived, galloping up the road toward the sound of their screams; of all that Jenny had told her.
He sat beside her on the boulder and rested his chin on his hands. “So what’s to be done, then, Claire? I simply…carry on as if naught has happened?”
“Well, I….I don’t know….”
“I can regret my harshness on the road; my closed heart…but to forgive…”
He shook his head, and wanted very much to vanish from the face of the earth. Move on, he might; but to genuinely forgive her in his heart; to love his sister with the same fierceness as before?
“You two are very much alike, you know.”
Jamie looked over at his wife with a wan smile. “Leave a man a modest handful of moments to retain his righteous superiority, will ye?”
“I mean it, though,” she said, standing and walking about nervously. “You’re cut from the same cloth, with the same Achilles’ heels. Anger. Stubbornness. Leaping to conclusions. You get notions in your heads from anger, and it takes a great amount of work to get them out again.”
She wasn’t wrong, but he hardly wanted to say so.
“I remember the very first time I met Jenny, it was you that had done her wrong.” She wasn’t cruel about it, Claire; not meaning to throw it in his face. Still, she did not shy away from speaking the truth. “You thought you had the measure of what had happened with Randall those years before, and those assumptions you made—You clung to them, and flatly refused to let her tell you the truth.”
He rankled with shame at the memory—the things he’d said to her……
“It nearly broke the two of you apart before you’d had the chance to reconnect. You let fear and rumor and anger lead you, rather than her word, and—Jesus Christ, I didn’t think you two would ever reconcile from that.”
Nor had he. He’d completely forgotten, in that haze of anger and shame and guilt for his own perceived failings toward Jenny, who his sister was and how best to show her love. He’d forgotten, willingly turned his back upon such things in favor of his own selfish pride, and he’d hurt her by consequence. Unforgivably. And yet, forgive him she had.
“It doesn’t excuse what she did,” Claire said, sitting back down next to him. “ and had we not gotten extremely lucky, the consequences of her wrongdoing would have been unthinkable. Only… Making her suffer— it might be what she deserves, but…”
She let him sit in silence for a long time. He’d missed Claire in so many ways, in that long dark time; but perhaps most of all, the fundamental solace of her; of being supported without hesitation and without caveat in the most troubling of times. A partner. A friend.
He turned at last and put his arms around her, kissing her head. “I’ll go to Balriggan in the morning,” he said quietly, “then to Maggie’s. To talk to Jenny.”
Claire heaved a great sigh of relief and laid her head on his shoulder, the escaping tension within her leaving her limp and warm and wonderful in his arms.
Minding her tender shoulder, he pulled her onto his lap, letting the solid weight of her anchor him to sense and to love and reason again. “You’re a good woman, mo chridhe.”
She snorted, and made a flippant jest.
“Ye are,” he repeated, completely serious. “You’re good for me.”
She softened and touched his face. “You’re good for me, too, Jamie Fraser.”
He kissed her, slowly. “And yet, you’re dangerous, forbye.” He’d meant it to lighten the mood, but his throat burned from keeping it from devolving into tears. “You make me bold again, Sassenach. Bold enough to think that, now having ye again, I dinna need anyone else. Not a single person more in my life.”
“Maybe we don’t need anyone else,” she said after a moment with a sad smile, “but we’re past the days of forever losing people we love. Least of all deliberately.”
Well past such a time.
He thought of the lass, and said a silent, fervent prayer as he held close the woman who’d given her life and love, as though somehow the touch might reach their daughter.
Aye. Life was fleeting and all the more precious for it. He’d go to Jenny. He’d find the path to forgiveness.
“I would feel the same way as you,” Claire said suddenly.
“The same way as what, lass?”
“You asked me before the crossroads, ‘what if it were reversed, and it were my sister who had betrayed us’…..And yes, I would have been just as enraged and unready to forgive, I know it.” She tilted her head up and laid her hand on his cheek. “And YOU would be the one talking me down, and telling me to forgive.”
“Would I, then?”
“You would.” She leaned her forehead against his. “You’re my conscience. And I’m yours. It’s just how it works, you and me.”
He was. and she was. And it was. And all he could do was open his heart and pray that it never ceased to give thanks for it.
When I woke in the early hours of morning, Jamie was gone.
We’d spent the rest of the day in quiet peace—talking, sleeping, making love, drinking, wasting the hours away, putting by strength for the next day’s trials.
I barely had the chance to think about how painful the pang of separation was, before I saw the tiny posy tucked into my bodice: heather and other winter-dried plants tied up with a bit of string, the whole thing no bigger than my finger. And damn me, if tears didn’t well up in my eyes. Jamie was not a man prone toward romantic gestures—romantic in speech and action, yes, but in terms of gifts, this was likely the only frivolous one I’d ever received from him.
I was warm and giddy as a schoolgirl as I packed up and rode the short way into Broch Mordha. I kept my head down, not wanting to attract attention, but no sooner had I broached the high street when—
“Are you Missus Claire?”
A grubby boy of six or seven was staring up at me in the saddle, almost accusingly.
“Erm…yes?” I said cautiously. “Yes, I am. And…. who are you?”
“Peter Mac,” he said automatically, looking supremely bored as he shoved a sealed letter up toward me. “I’m tae give ye this.”
“Oh—Well—Thank you very much,” I said in polite astonishment, having no choice but to reach down and accept the missive. “How did you know who I was?”
“The short wummin said how as ye’d be the Englishwummin wi’ a great heap o’ hair like a haystack.”
“Quite.” My breath tightened. Jenny.
The boy ran off, and I ripped open the seal, scanning the contents and feeling the blood draining from my head.
“Oh….” I moaned softly, feeling like I’d been run through the gut. “Oh, Jenny….”
Damn your hide, James Fraser: ye havena called this place ‘home’ in more than a year, and ye left it because ye couldna bear to bide within its walls. Why in all of God’s creation should ye be feeling MOURNFUL about bidding it farewell for good?
This was far from a meaningless query to pass the time. It had his teeth grinding together as he turned up the path from the main road.
Claire called it ‘nostalgia.’ Algos, he supposed, for pain. Nostos, for returning home.
Aye, well, he thought cynically, I was fully mindful of the pain in my arse that it would be to return to this home today. All the memories of screeching and shouting and, still worse, the silences— with all of that, that he should feel the least bit wistful for the days spent within those approaching grey walls defied all logic and all damned reason.
....That’s not true, man.
No. No, it wasn’t.
The wee loch, there on the left as he ascended the path, was where he’d taught wee Joan to fish. Laoghaire had shaken her head and gone on and on about how it was wasted time to teach a daughter such a thing, but he remembered the light in Joanie’s eyes when she felt that first tug on the line, treasured the laughter of those many hours afterward spent in the same spot.
Marsali had never cared to fish with them, though he’d never taken offense. In fact, she’d been old enough when he’d wed Laoghaire that Jamie should not have been surprised had she largely ignored his presence in her mother’s house, independent as she was.
And yet there was the rowan tree, over in the east meadow, just in sight. He’d sat under that very one with her, the time she’d come home from the schoolhouse in tears. One of the other lassies had said something cruel about her appearance, it turned out. It had been to his utter amazement when Marsali had fallen right over onto his shoulder and cried out all her heart onto his best shirt. She’d gasped when she realized, and started up in a panic, apologizing, wiping her nose furiously and nearly in tears afresh from the worry she’d ruined it. And then, there had been the sweet, happy warmth that stole over her eyes as she’d heard him say that she mustn’t worry, that it would all be fine. That had been the first time she’d called him Da.
Jamie felt the ache of them in his heart, of Marsali and Joanie. If there was no other light or happiness in that brief period here, there had at least been the blessing of being a father. That was no small thing. Not at all.
He’d told Claire more about it, about them, on their many long talks on the ride from Inverness. He’d been so desperate on the faerie hill, so bloody desperate to keep her from running to the stones that he’d not done the wee lassies credit, only blurting that they weren’t his, as if they were no more than strays to him. He hoped he’d said something at the time about that he did care for them, but he could not truly remember, to his shame. Claire had listened as he’d made that right, though, and though he kent it made her long for Brianna—as, Christ, it did him, as well—she was gentle and eager in her questions, taking nothing away from those memories, accepting them with an open heart.
Christ, that they might understand, the lassies, he thought with a pang of that uncomfortable grief as he dismounted in the dooryard. He was anxiously looking about for them as he fastened the reins to the hitching post, half-wondering as he did so had he not best unsaddle the poor lad, as it might take some length of time to—
“I SAID ye werena to come here!”
She was standing in the doorway, her white kerch shaking, face dark with fury, a burning fuse about to go off.
He’d spent the entire ride from the spot he’d left Claire near Broch Mordha thinking about Laoghaire: just how he should greet her, how to school his face, how to say what he must yet also convey the due compassion and understanding and gravitas for this crucial encounter. As much as he hadn’t wished to spend a single moment more as her husband, even before Claire reappeared, neither did he wish her ill. The revelations would be cruel and hurtful, at no fault of her own, and he had no wish to make it more difficult for her to bear. He’d thus played out all possible eventualities in his mind, everything she might say or do, and practiced his consequent explanations, his gentle assurances that would make things right in the end—or, right as they might be.
At sight of her in that moment, though, her eyes blazing and hostile against him with no provocation, all these honorable and careful intentions seemed to vanish.
“I’ve a right to be here, Laoghaire,” he snapped, feeling his hands stiffen involuntarily.
“Oh ye DO, do ye?” She crossed her arms and leaned forward from the stoop. “Well, and if so, apparently ye dinna wish to keep it!”
"What are ye—?”
“I expressly said that ye were not to darken this door again, James Fraser.”
“You’re out of your damned mind, woman, for I seem to recall ye screaming at me NOT to go to Edinburgh.” His blood had gone straight from pique to a raging boil. God in Heaven, what was it about Laoghaire MacKenzie that brought out every shameful, wicked urge within him? He felt the anger taking over, felt powerless to rein it back. He gritted his teeth. “I notice you’ve no objection to my money coming over your threshhold every—”
“That money is the LEAST ye can do, after what ye’ve done to me,” she snarled, her eyes going small and pinched, “after ye—”
“Are the lassies to home?” he demanded, cutting her off. If it was to be ugly, this encounter, he wouldn’t have the two of them bear witness to it.
“Both off visitin’ their uncle,” she said, “and thank heavens for it, for I wouldna have them near a villain such as you for one minute more.”
The sting of that barb went deep, deep enough that he swayed where he stood. “Now, see here, ye foul—” He swore. “Have I not done my duty by ye as best I—”
Laoghaire’s laugh cut through him, a high, humorless sound, unhinged. “Oh aye! The honorable Laird Broch Tuarach always—”
He himself take a step toward her, as though he might truly reach out and strangle her. “I am no longer the Laird—”
“Oh, for Christ’s bloody sake, I KEN THAT,” she shouted, throwing her hands up. “Ye always thought me witless, Jamie Fraser. ALWAYS,” she hissed, “and the fact that you’re here before me this moment is— Coming here, against my—To push my nose still further into the—”
“Laoghaire!” He was shouting far too loudly, far too violently, but he couldn’t stop. “Will ye STOP blethering and tell me what in God’s name you’re talking about?”
“I’m TALKIN’—” She matched him, coming down another step and pointing a finger toward his chest as though it would shoot a dart right across the twenty feet between them. “—about yer sassenach HOOR.”
Jamie felt quite as though he’d been pushed underwater: everything went quiet and cold, not allowing him to move, for the shock. There was not room in his heart even to be indignant for Claire’s sake. In fact, he couldn’t find a single word in his brain.
“Are ye goin’ to deny it?” she was demanding, “or will ye just stand there forever wi’ your gob hangin’ open like a—?”
“Bide, Laoghaire, for one—” His mouth was dry, the dread making her voice and his seem echoey and distant. “You’ve heard, then?”
Her eyes went bright and the brows livid. “Of course I heard, you coward.”
Christ, what a disaster. All his careful planning, all his good intentions and—
“I heard because ye sent your dear sister here yesterday. Coward.”
“I did no such—”
He stopped, feeling the blood drain from his head and the world go fully and completely unreal. “.....Jenny?”
“Dinna be playin’ the fool wi’ me, Jamie Fraser, when I ken full well ye sent her.” He stared, and that made her angrier. “To have her come in your stead to break the news and browbeat me until I agreed to the terms of an annulment, too scairt to do it yourself like a man.”
He truly wasn’t meaning to vex her by his silence. It was only that, for the second time in the past minute, he found himself lacking a single useful sentence with which to avail himself. His thoughts, though—those were running rampant.
Jenny had come here, YESTERDAY.
‘....until I agreed to the terms of—’
“Ye....” Laoghaire was peering at him, head cocked. “... didna send her?”
“No!” he cried out at once, still not certain he believed what he was being told. “I swear on Joan and Marsali’s lives, Laoghaire. I was on my way here to tell ye myself.”
He wanted to beg for her to say more—What annulment? What terms??—but forced his tongue to be still, waiting.
Laoghaire was sizing him up, making him feel like an insect pinned to a board; but her gaze did relax, ever-so-slightly.
“Jenny did say ye didna ....but I wouldna expect her to do otherwise but to protect your good name.” She said this with no small measure of jeer. “Loves ye more than is decent, that badger of a woman. She didna seem happy about it all, though. I should have expected her to leave prancin’ about wi’ joy at her victory. Looked ten years older than she ought, and left lookin’ as worn and dejected as she came.”
Laoghaire spat into the bushes and crossed her arms. “I told her that you werena to come here, but however it came about, 'tis settled. I’ve written out my demands and signed along wi’ it. We’ll have it all written out proper before a clerk soon as may be, and then you’ll be good and free of me and your many tiresome duties at Balriggan.”
He was free.
Laoghaire.....Against all reason, she was willing to cooperate.
And Jenny had done it all.
“Did ye hear me, ye ungrateful man?” Laoghaire was clicking her fingers to catch his attention. “I said ye’re free to go about yer merry, swiving way.”
He blinked away the moisture and took a few steps forward. There still was much to be said, for his part.
“I am grateful. And I am sorry, Laoghaire.”
“I do mean it, though I grant that you’ve little cause to take me at my word.” He came closer, just a few feet away, and tried to meet her steely eye. “Even though things were.... werena often right between us, I’d never have wished to put ye through a thing such as this. I wouldna have done so, save—”
“Save that it was for her.”
“Aye.” There was no other truth but that, after all. “Save that.”
He forced himself to give her the honor of his full attention. He would not shy away.
“Will ye take some tea?” she suddenly asked, in the same manner as one might ask a leper to step the hell back from one’s newborn bairn.
He jumped and managed only a vague, “Ah—Will—?”
“TEA,” she said impatiently, jabbing a hand toward the doorway. “It’s cold out, and—” Another jab. “Will ye sit a while?”
Laoghaire didn’t say a word as she checked the water in the cauldron, nor seem to take heed as he moved around the kitchen, gathering the cups and small things. He set the teapot on the counter at her elbow, just so. The unexpected naturalness of it took him unpleasantly aback, and he sat down heavily at the table, head beginning to ache.
Dinna be feeling sorry for yourself, Fraser. Jenny gave you a mighty head-start on the matter. Be grateful you’re not full of buckshot this moment. Anything ye encounter less than that is a bloody great blessing, no matter how irksome or mind-boggling.
How had Jenny managed to talk Laoghaire into cooperation, he wondered. Had she just strode up and made her demands, going head-to-head with Laoghaire until she’d come out the victor? It would have been quite a scene, each of them so fierce in their own right. He felt the insane urge to laugh overtake him at the thought of his sister and his second wife, squared up at ten paces with pistols at dawn.
“I’ve had a good many hours to think upon things,” Laoghaire said suddenly, startling him back from near-hilarity as she ladled water into the pot, “thanks to your sister.”
“Have ye?” he said mildly, straightening in his seat and folding his hands formally. “What have ye been thinking, then?”
“How I’m glad things unfolded as they did.”
He waited for the fell blow, for the rest of the jest, for the barb clearly meant to follow this rabbit-snare of a declaration. When the silence became prolonged enough to make him realize she meant it, his, “Oh?” came out decidedly puny.
“Aye.” Her words were clipped, but calm enough. “That I was told the bald facts of it, wi’out discoverin’ it on my own.”
He heard the soft clink as she set the lid on the teapot, but she didn’t turn around from the counter, toward him.
“It was....quite the shock. I was mightily hurt, though Jenny will likely say she only saw me furious. I was, too.” She gave a small sound that might have been a laugh. “Chucked the honey jar at her head, I did. I’m no’ altogether sorry for it, yet, either.”
Jamie was alarmed at this but Laoghaire wasn’t finished. “I was angry....very, and still am.....but had I come across you and the sassenach wi’ no warning, or heard it whispered in town, and been forced to draw my own conclusions amid the shock....I think I would have done far worse than a wee bruise on the brow....In fact, I ken for certain I would.”
Her voice had been quiet through this whole exchange, and it became still quieter, nothing like the person she’d been in the dooryard. It was almost.... serene. “Havin’ had the day and night to let it settle in my mind helped things. It it isna tearin’ me apart wi’ anger, like it ought to have done. It isna right, any of this....but ‘tis better.”
“I’m...” He exhaled heavily, the palpable relief of hearing her speak so calmly, let alone speak such words, genuine and live-giving. “I’m exceedingly glad of it.”
She snorted.“I ken YOU are.” And just like that, she was back to the scorn-wielding valkyrie from the stoop, rolling her eyes as she turned. She plunked the teapot down, followed by herself in the chair opposite him.
He made a rueful sound in return but accepted the cup she poured him. They sipped in silence.
“One might say it was only a matter o’ time, anyway.”
He cocked his head. “What was?”
“Your h— your woman takin’ ye back in the end. I’ve been thinkin’ all the night that maybe t’was only the demand of justice for my deeds at Cranesmuir.”
She said it quite coolly, with no sense of shame or remorse, blue eyes clear and direct.
Jamie hadn’t the faintest notion of what to say in return. He’d never have dreamt of bringing it up in today’s conversations, there being the need for considerable soothing and deference for his own benefit, after all. Still, he’d thought of it many a time, since Claire told him the truth of Laoghaire’s treachery; how he would demand explanation of the foul besom for her murderous heart, for how she’d dared conceal it from him.
His fingers had clenched tight around the cup and she saw it. “I take it ye’d no’ have marrit me, had ye known?”
“No, I wouldna,” he agreed, unable to keep the edge from his voice.
“Always did find myself surprised,” she said bluntly, “when ye paid me attention at Hogmanay, then agreed to wed me. Thought for certain ye’d no’ have allowed me even a word.” She looked to the side, and he thought he saw the tiniest quiver in the muscles under her mouth.
“For the lassies’ sake, though,” he said more gently, “I’d have done all I could to see ye properly settled wi’ someone else.”
She said nothing to this, and he filled the silence by pouring more tea for them both, though neither cup was more than a finger from the brim. “But, if I may...” It was little more than curiosity, but Laoghaire had showed so many different faces in the past half-hour, he wasn’t inclined to ignore the impulse to try and understand her better. “Ye would see it as a kind of justice?”
“I’ll no’ say I’ll regret what I did...” she said rather hotly, setting her jaw. “But I ken that any saint worth her salt wouldna deem it an act of righteousness, either... So, if lettin’ ye free of this damnable marriage gives my soul a chance of salvation...Well, then, good riddance to the whole misbegotten affair.”
And that, Jamie thought, as he watched her raise her cup by way of avoiding his gaze, was as close to an apology as either he or Claire was likely ever to get.
“Other than the money,” she said abruptly, making him glance just as quickly up. She flashed him a fox’s grin. “Oh, aye, there’s money to be changin’ hands for my good behavior wi’ the annulment, bonnie lad, and dinna be mistakin’ it. I’m to live like a queen, I’ll have ye know.”
He bristled, but held his tongue.
“There’s only one thing I ask in exchange for my cooperation.” She was all steel and fire again, braced for a fight. Her fist was clenched on the table. “I didna put it in my written statement, but I’ll demand it of ye now, all the same, and if ye refuse, I’ll tear the thing up next I get hands on it and call your sister a liar.”
“What is it ye demand?” he said, making an effort not to grit his teeth in reflex and anger against the impending attack.
She drew herself up to her full seated height. “That you’ll write to the girls every so often, and allow them to send letters, if they wish it. ”
His heart went immediately to water, and he felt it seize, both for his own sake and for Laoghaire’s. That she thought low enough of him that she felt she must demand such a thing of him. He let go that thought, letting only pity for her remain. She was a good mother, whatever else she might be, and that she should think enough of the lassies’ feelings to make it a condition of her cooperation—Aye, it did her credit.
“You and I—” Laoghaire started, anxious over his silence. “Let us say that I willna shed any tears over loss of your husbandly comforts, but —I do fear what the news shall do to them. Joanie, especially. It’s why I sent them away to Hobart’s. I wouldna for anythin’ have them learn—hear in town that—” She gave him a look that he might have called ‘helpless.’ “It galls me, but they’ll be grieved, no matter how gently the thing is broken to them.”
“I shall write,” he promised at once, reaching out on impulse as though to take her hand. He thought better of it, and only gave it a quick pat. “And visit them, too...If you’ll allow it, that is.”
She nodded, stiffly, speaking in that clipped manner once more, but seeming to relax. “It’s the least ye can do, but it will—mean a great deal.”
His throat felt thick and tight. “They mean a great deal to me,” he said with all his heart.
A quiet scorn, this time.
“I did try, Laoghaire,” he said gently after a moment. “Try to be a good husband to ye.”
Her face went rapidly dark and he thought she was going to throw something at him. He’d have submitted, he thought: she perhaps deserved whatever blows she wished to give.
But as he watched, the most extraordinary changes passed over her. He’d never noticed, but her face could be as glass as Claire’s: he could actually follow the progression of feeling as she acknowledged the rage, calmed herself, and then forced the words to come out with an estimation of calm.
“It wasna all your fault,” she said slowly. “All the men I marrit turned bad, after a time.”
He was stunned, not only at the aspersions this cast on Hugh and Simon and himself.... but that upon herself.
She must have interpreted his astonishment as only in defense of his own character, for she gave him a defiant glare. “Ye never raised a hand to me, but ye changed, all the same. You’ll no deny that, I hope?”
No, he wasn’t intending to, but it simply wasn’t the way he would have described it. How he would, though.... Christ, that all his faculties of speech ought to have departed his wits on THIS day, of all days.
“Well, no,” Laoghaire amended, unprompted, surprising him further, “It wasna so much that ye changed from the time we wed until ye left. More that—It’s that I kent well the man ye had been, in your life before Culloden. And I saw, after a time, that ye couldna be that way again wi’ me.”
“Ye oughtn’t count that against yourself.” He gave her a sad smile. “A great deal happened between Culloden and the time we wed, such that....I couldna be that man even to myself, most days.”
She shook her head, just as sadly. “But ye could have been, wi’ the right woman. Ye’re that man again, these weeks since she found ye again, are ye not?”
His lowered eyes and silence were all the answer she needed. She gave a small hmm in her nose, and went on, matter-of fact. “I’ve long since known I wasna capable of anythin’ better.....Didna deserve it.”
He tried to protest, but she cut him off, apparently inclined to put on a brave face after such a careless moment of vulnerability. “Ye were better than Hugh and Simon, at least. Ye never once beat me. Above all, you were always kind to my bairns. Even if the laughable mess of this union vexes me to my grave, I shall always be grateful for that.”
Once again he opened his mouth, determined to respond to this astounding series of statements, but to his surprise, she groaned. “ ‘Grateful!’” She made a face and scoffed deep in her throat. “Didna expect to be sayin’ such a fool thing today, of all all bloody times.”
She startled him into a laugh, and after a piercing glare, she joined in. “Dinna be gettin’ accustomed to it.”
He inclined his head and raised his cup. “Never fear.”
And with that, the score was somehow agreed upon as even as might be.
They talked of matters of business, of when and where, both retreating to a cool reserve of voice and manner, to complete the interview as soon as might be. He thanked her for the tea, and stood to go, making her a leg that he hoped imparted respect, rather than mockery, though her face gave him no reassurance on this count. Changeable as a thunderstorm, this woman, for good or ill.
Still, one final thought niggled at him, urgent and insistent. His hand was on the very door, the farewells already said, before he managed the necessary courage. “May I say a thing to ye, a nighean?”
She stiffened, perhaps at the use of the endearment, however formal. She crossed her arms. “If ye must.”
He struggled with the words, knew it likely was unforgivable to say them, ungracious and insensitive....but felt that he owed them to her.
“It’s about love.”
The fire rose in her eyes and panic flooded through him as he saw it. “What about it?”
God help him. “I hope ye ken that it....It isna about deserving or not deserving a person.”
Her face slackened, going quite blank, but she didn’t look away.
“The person you’re meant for will.....” Naught but to press on, Fraser. “They’ll lay their love upon ye—to comfort and shield ye, but also to cover and forgive your failings. The gift of such a thing—it changes ye. It makes ye strive to be better, for their sake, but it isna anything like a reward for how ye are in your own self. I dinna deserve Cl—dinna deserve such a love, and yet it’s been granted. Freely.”
Wonders never would cease, it seemed, for a tear escaped and trailed down her cheek. He barely heard the words, and had to ask her to repeat them.
She looked like she’d like to throw something at him, and her eyes still blazed, but she cleared her throat. “I dinna dare hope.”
He gripped the doorpost, resisting the urge to go to her. “Nor did I, these past twenty years. But there is hope, all the same.”
Jamie’s knuckles tingled as they rapped lightly on the door.
She was invisible under the bedclothes but for the tangle of her hair. At his footfalls, she let out a sob into the pillow. “Just leave me b—”
Her head snapped up off the pillow. Christ, she was red and wretched and streaming such as he’d never seen her. She did have a bruise on her brow.
At sight of him, she pressed her lips tight together, tears overflowing down her cheeks, and she seemed to recoil, like a pup waiting for a blow.
It broke his heart with shame to see it, but there was no violence in his heart, and all the time in the world for mending.
He settled on the bed beside her, bent, and kissed her forehead, whispering, “Thank you.”
He felt her begin to shake and silently go to pieces. He scooped both arms under her and lifted her up, holding her close.
She was trying to speak through her sobs— “I’m so sorry, Jamie....So....”—but he hushed her gently and held her closer, the two of them rocking softly.
“Thank you, dove.....Thank you....”
Two days later
“I hope ye ken ye didna need to banish yourself out here to the frozen wastes, aye?”
I’d watched Jenny making her way up the slope toward me; had had plenty of time to tuck the photographs unobtrusively into my pocket. Still, even advance preparation couldn’t wipe the grin from my face, aglow from the tender refuge my daughter’s face had been for the last little while. I’d borrowed the packet from Jamie this morning, so greatly wanting Bree’s company, and finding it, each image of my baby girl stoking that small, warm light in my heart. I’d had to keep it covered over, most of the time since I’d come through the stones, smoored against the cold night of pain and grief, but it wasn’t gone. Never gone.
It was with a warm, happy pang that I realized my sister-in-law’s company wasn’t at all unwelcome, either.
“Well, for me,” I said brightly, turning on the stone block I’d chosen as a seat to more fully face her, “it seemed my choices were either to hide in the house, or hide out here.” I gestured wide at the breathtaking expanse visible from the old stone fort above the broch. “I’ll choose the heather over the priest’s hole any day.”
“No’ much heather in bloom just now, but canna just say I’d ha’ done differently.” Jenny sat down gratefully as I shifted my gathering basket to make room for her. A flask was produced from her bosom. “A place has a way of seemin’ to shrink to size of a thimble, when Laoghaire MacKenzie enters it.”
“Too bloody right,” I agreed, and we drank in companionable commiseration.
Jamie, too, had tried to assure me that I needn’t flee the house.
“Ye have the right to be in that room wi’ me, Claire,” he’d said seriously the previous night in our bed. “I’ve naught to hide from ye, and the consequences of what’s to be discussed are as much to do wi’ your new life as mine.”
He didn’t actively wish me to be there, though he was careful to conceal it. Bless him (sincerely!) for being so anxious to set my mind at ease, doing all in his power to make this time of upheaval as smooth as possible; to be vulnerable and honest with me; to leave all stubbornness and demands back on the road outside Broch Mordha. It meant a great deal to me, that deference; but I had only kissed him, my husband, and tried to set his mind at ease in return.
As much as I would have dearly loved to have been there to greet Ned Gowan, I would for nothing in the world have risked jeopardizing these crucial proceedings, and thereby Jamie and Laoghaire’s impending annulment. On no planet could I claim to have the knack of complete detachment from strong emotion; and if I wasn’t willing to take the odds on MYSELF not lashing out or exploding at some point, I sure as bloody hell wouldn’t be staking much on Laoghaire’s capacity for self-control. No, far better for all concerned that I stay clear until things were settled before the law, and leave no chance of she and I vexing one another into a brawl or an early grave. Besides, I’d assured Jamie, it was a marvelous opportunity to gather winter plants and enjoy the outdoors, some peace and quiet.
It was, too. I’d kissed Jamie and left the house before breakfast, my basket empty save for food and drink, my knife for roots and stems, and one of Jenny’s french novels. High and wide across the hills I’d wandered, gathering what useful plants I could find, intentionally exploring the far reaches of the property first, so that I wouldn’t even catch a glimpse of the road as Laoghaire arrived. No good could it do for my heart, I’d decided virtuously, to see what she looked like now and thereby further fuel my vitriolic daydreams about slapping her in the face so hard she fell on her arse, hopefully into a large mud puddle. No good at all.
I’d settled at the ruined fort after a few hours, once I grew tired of walking, just to enjoy the stillness of the moor and the sight of Lallybroch amidst it: speaking peace from its chimney smoke and promising comfort under the gently-sloping roof whose sight was home and family to me once more.
“Does this mean you’ve been banished?” I asked suddenly, struck with a qualm over what discomfort might actually be taking place at the house.
Jenny’s eyes twinkled but she shook her head. “Things were beginnin’ to draw to a close and I supposed it was best someone came to fetch ye back. I ken Jamie will be anxious to have ye near, by the time the other folk have gone.”
“It’s done? Already?” Hell, I'd brought enough food to last me through to suppertime and it wasn’t even noon!
“Well, not just yet, but nearly. Wi’ me in the room and Laoghaire’s written statement to hand, there wasna much negotiatin’ to be done, after all. It was mostly sittin’ and waitin’ quiet-like while Ned clarified and wrote things out properly (and talked in great detail about WHAT he was writin’ out and WHY and wherefore).... and consequently, keepin’ Jamie from stranglin’ the man.”
We dissolved into fond giggles for both men.
“Hold on, you don’t mean to tell me Laoghaire sat quiet, too?” I asked dubiously, handing back the flask.
“Aye, she did! .....Well.” Jenny rolled her eyes with a little snort. “She still glared incessantly, mind, and stayed rather red-faced throughout, and muttered a good many things under her breath or to Hobart, but she didna screech once, which is a miracle if I ever heard one. Never witnessed the woman so much in possession of herself. Whatever words passed between her and Jamie must ha’ made quite the impression.”
“All thanks to you, you know.”
“Aye, well.” Her gaze dropped quickly to her hands, which fidgeted intently with a loose thread in her skirt. “If it was able to pave the way for him—for the two of ye—then I’m most glad of it.”
“From what Jamie tells me, things could have gone very, very badly otherwise. We’re both so thankful to you.”
“I did wonder, ken, at the time, whether it was oversteppin’ still more, for me to tell her. Standin’ on the road, watchin’ the two of ye ride away, though, I felt I must do somethin’ or I wouldna be able to go on.” She shrugged stiffly. “And it wasna as though I had much more to lose, in Jamie’s eyes. Decided I might as well do what I could....and if someone were to get themselves shot by the foul besom in the doing, at least it would be me, and then maybe that would be enough.”
The simplicity and acceptance of that sent cold bloody shivers down my spine, and damn me, if every single one of my possible responses didn’t feel perfectly inadequate to the task. ‘Surely Laoghaire wouldn’t ever do such a thing’ (I had little faith in that); ‘Surely Jamie wouldn’t ever want you to be hurt’ (of which I was certain); and even the one that seemed best suited sounded so perverse I couldn’t stomach it: ’Thank you.’
Jenny and Jamie had stayed in her room a long time together the night we came to Lallybroch; crying mostly, Jamie told me later, and talking late into the night. Making amends. When Ian and I had peeked in to check on them, they’d been fast asleep, faced toward each other, her hand in his; curled up like puppies in a basket, I’d thought at the time, not sure whether to laugh or cry.
Jenny spared me having to respond just then by raising her head with a reassuring smile, nodding once, as though to seal the unease behind a closed door. “It’s verra glad I am, to have ye back, Claire, now that—now.”
“I couldn’t be happier,” I said, meaning it, feeling a grin breaking and flooding my heart.
“There is another thing I must say to ye.”
Warmth and joy turned to vapor. “....Yes?”
Jenny had sought me out the morning after our arrival, hugged me close and cried, repeating much of what she had already said on the roadway: of how devastated she was at what she’d done; how she would do anything to make it right.
Like Jamie, I’d mentally crossed the bridge of forgiveness even before we knew what she’d done for us with regards to Laoghaire. I’d held her close, rocking her and saying over and over that it was all behind us now. This hadn’t stopped her, though, from repeating the apologies (albeit with fewer tears) whenever she could — over breakfast, as we worked, when we met in corridor or kailyard — all but ignoring my insistence each time that we needn’t ever speak of it again.
This was nothing like the tone of those anxious reprises. This was tight, tense, and my mouth had gone completely dry hearing it. “What is it you... need to say?”
She looked out into the valley, steeled. “That it was wrong of me to presume to ken what your life was, in the time you were gone from us; to have the arrogance to accuse ye of havin’ an easy way of things. I ken ye endured much. I’m sorry.”
.....What the bloody hell had Jamie told her?
I cleared my throat, but my voice still came out in a phlegmy croak. “....’Endured?’”
She looked at me, seeming startled. Maybe she was thinking that was all she’d need to say. She must have seen in my eyes, though, that this wasn’t enough.
“I’ve been thinkin’ these last days, but also after Jamie went after ye....about what ye said of the time when ye were away in the colonies. That there was good reason why ye couldna send word?”
I nodded, and noticed she she seemed to struggle to breathe normally. A flush was beginning to creep up her neck.
“It’s been tossin’ about and around in my mind, tryin’ to think what that must have been—The circumstances that could have kept ye from bein’ at liberty to do what ye wished; and it finally, it came to me that if—That perhaps ye’d been.... God, please forgive me, Claire.” There was real anguish in her voice but she was determined. “I thought perhaps in the earlier years, before the apothecary shop...Maybe ye’d been pressed into service...of some kind or another... against your will—”
She wasn’t looking at me, but there was such shame and pity in her expression that— Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, was she thinking I’d been indentured into servitude? Or forced into a brothel to work as a—
“—and been too afraid later to say anythin’ of it.”
“Jenny....” I reached over and took her hand, shaking my head firmly. “It isn’t—”
“Ye dinna have to tell me a thing,” she said hastily, going still more pink and agitated, mortified. “I swear to ye, it isna—I dinna wish ye to tell me anythin’, truly: I’d no’ have ye relive anythin’ so painful or—” She pulled her hand away and covered her face. “Christ, I ken it sounds like I’m pushin’ ye to tell me things, and I promise, that ISNA my intent, damn it all.”
I waited, far more curious than upset or alarmed. “What is it you do intend?”
“I wanted ye to ken that I....”
She wasn’t accustomed to being this open, Jenny Murray. Her entire life, she had had to be strong; the one in charge of running things, keeping her feelings carefully subsumed for survival and efficiency. Having to bare herself now was a struggle; but this clearly was the true purpose that brought her up the hill, and she was a Fraser besides. She would say what was needed.
A sound of deep frustration, and finally: “That I care. That ye matter to me,” she said more firmly, seeing the blankness of my expression as I took this in. “I want us to be sisters again, Claire. I mean it, and wi’ that resolved in my heart, I feel the—I canna cease feelin’ the hurt of the things that have befallen ye, even if I never ken what they are.....It’s the same as I feel for Jamie, ken?”
I started to try and speak (say what, God only knew), but she stopped me, her eyes pleading. “He was gone from us for ten years—and I ache for each one because I ken he suffered,” she whispered, voice cracking. “I ken because he came back from Ardsmuir and England even more wounded in his heart than he left.....but I dinna ken why. I dinna ken what happened to my own brother. It’s the same as I’m feelin’ for you, Claire.”
She gasped for a breath, a strangled one, her throat tight on the verge of crying. “So I came up here to say that I grieve your lost years, too, whatever came to pass, but it doesna matter to me. No matter what happened, or what ye had to do to—what ye—What matters is, ye survived.” A tear did slip down her cheek. “And I want ye to ken that I’m glad you’re well, and—and that you’re here now, and that ye have a new start, and....”
I was absolutely dumb, struck through the heart by her passion, and so watched in silence as her face suddenly tightened into that mask behind which her brother, too, was so skillfully able to hide, smoothing out the raw emotion. She clenched her jaw and looked once more dead-ahead. “And that’s all there is about it.”
My mouth was making a vain attempt to move, to respond, but I couldn’t speak.
‘Your own lost years.’
To my surprise, when my gaze finally dropped, I was holding the flannel-wrapped parcel in my hands, there against the wool of my skirt.
I could hear the crinkle of the plastic beneath as I squeezed.
I didn’t endure you, Baby.
And you aren’t lost.
“Will you hear me out, Jenny?”
Now her eyes were wide with alarm. “About what?”
Jenny had said not a word as I told my tale, only stared, first at me, later at the photographs cradled in her hands.
She’d been looking at the last one for a very long time; at Brianna, grown.
Barely a whisper, but shaking with such feeling.
“—She’s beautiful, Claire.”
She breathed heavily. “And safe. In her.... her place.” A deep shudder. “Christ....”
She went speechless, then, mouth falling softly open without thought as she traced a finger over the image, the twins to her own blue eyes staring back up at her.
I’d watched Jenny’s face intently as I’d spoken; had seen her take in all that I revealed, felt my heart ease and rise with tentative joy as I witnessed the thoughts settling and taking root in her mind. Still, I had to ask.
“You do believe me?”
She looked up, startled. “Do ye think I could doubt?”
“Many would,” I said with a small shrug, “and have. Brianna herself, for one.”
She stared shrewdly at me for a moment. “I suppose...ye didna have any proper proof to show the lass....only your word. But no one could doubt wi’ the proof of it right before their eyes, such as this.” Her own eyes turned back to the photographs as though drawn by their spell, flipping to the one of the yellow school bus. “Not after seein’ for themselves the other world....the one that’s to come....”
I sighed out the last of my fear, feeling it vanish out of every pore before her honest belief. “Still, I would have understood if you didn’t accept things at first. It’s—a bloody lot to take in. You might well have dismissed the pictures as sorcery, or—”
“There are a good many things,” Jenny said, very simply, “that are beyond comprehension. Spirits. Miracles. Prophecies and visions. Fetches. But our belief or lack of it doesna make them less real, does it?”
This was said rhetorically, and it struck me for the first time in many years that while the permeation of science fiction novels and things like Doctor Who in popular culture might give a twentieth-century listener a conceptualization for the notion of time travel, a person raised such as Jenny was far more readily conditioned in an even more crucial way: to believe in things unseen.
Jenny looked back down at her hands, smiling again at newborn Bree on her blanket. “I dinna understand the how or wherefore of those things, no more than I can understand how a person could have come from a year—from a century that hasna yet come to pass.” She handed me back the photographs. “But I can believe. And I do.”
I smiled, tremulously, trying damned hard not to cry. “That’s more or less what your brother said, when I first told him.”
She smiled too, with a little burst of a laugh. In the same moment, though, her eyes fell dark, and I watched in horror as she crumpled, face falling into her hands.
“Jenny?” I very cautiously laid my palm on her shoulder.
She reached back and grasped my hand, clinging to it. “Just—It’s—Jamie, and—” She was weeping. “Give m-me a moment, aye?”
“All the time you need.” Belief or not, the magnitude of such things was too much for a body to bear—at least at first.
At last, she heaved a breath and looked up to the sky, shaking her head. “What ye’ve told me...revealed...” A sob. “It breaks my heart and puts it back together at all once...only it keeps on breakin’, again and again, and I dinna ken if it shall ever stop.”
"I’m so sorry... I had hoped—” I said carefully, “I’d hoped that it would ease you, in some way—”
“Oh, and it has,” she said, nodding hard. “Christ, it has. I feel such joy and such magnificent relief wi’ it. To ken for certain that ye didna betray or forget Jamie, or us—he sent ye; that ye always loved him, and ye couldna have come back; that ye...ye had to save your—” A small sob and a gesture to the pictures. “—your sweet, wee lassie.... Even the mere fact of her: that you and Jamie were blessed wi’ a living child..... It does ease me.... more than ye know. ”
She blinked hard and shook violently, struggling to get the syllables out aright. “But those in themselves are also tragedy, ken? All that you and Jamie lost to Culloden. Such .... such sorrows....”
I shifted and put both my arms around her, as much as for myself as to comfort. I held tightly to her, struggling to hold myself together, to keep from slipping off that same precipice of remembered despair and grief.
“And then there are the things that are only grief. For when I think back upon what Jamie was carryin’ all those years—No’ only loss but the knowledge and the uncertainty, both....Of where ye’d gone and why and what might have befallen ye. He had... To think that my wee brother had no one else to help carry that terrible burden alongside him....”
She pressed her head harder against my shoulder, truly at the point of breaking. “And knowin’ that I urged him to marry, when he kent full well—or hoped wi’ all his soul—that ye lived and breathed somewhere in the—in the place he’d sent you and the bairn.....And to ken that he never will know her...Never hold his wean in his arms...”
“He chose to marry Laoghaire,” I managed to choke out, smoothing her hair, even as my heart broke with all the other staggering truths to which there could be no counter or comfort. “He wouldn’t have gone through with it, if he hadn’t believed it was the right thing for him.”
“Aye.... Aye, you’re right,” she whispered. One fist was clenched hard in front of her mouth. “But my heart was so hard against him, Claire. So....scornful. In the years before Ardsmuir, when he wouldna consider marryin’ or even seek out a woman to keep him whole...when he couldna seem ever to shake your ghost from his shoulder. It... I judged him for it. I hated him for bein’ weak....for givin’ up on living. And I hated you, sometimes.... your memory, for having such a hold on his soul as to destroy him so...It shames me so unbearably deep, now that I ken the truth.”
Things went quiet, then, the whistling wind punctuated only by soft, small whispers from time to time.
When the sobs subsided for us both, she straightened enough to look at me, eyes still streaming. “But I ken better, now. I ken it would have been just the same for me. Were I him. Were I you. I would have mourned and wished and waited. I’d have let myself slip away and not kent what to do to want to live again.” Her hand cupped fiercely to my cheek. “I would have gone through to that place of safety for my child’s sake, if not my own. And I hope I would have had the strength to survive like you....and the courage to stake everythin’ on one hope....and come back.”
Jenny bade me go down to the house alone; insisted that she wanted to stay up at the fort for a time longer, to think. She would bring the basket, she said. ‘Go to him.’
I descended slowly down, winding through the grasses rather than the rocky paths, each breath a joy in my chest. The joy of being believed. Of truth. Of being accepted and loved.
In the upheaval of the past hour, I’d all but forgotten Laoghaire, but as I reached the plateau of the smaller rise just above the house, there she was, standing in the dooryard, standing with Jamie. They weren’t looking at one another; his hands were gripped respectfully behind his back; she was looking in the other direction. But their mouths were moving. Speaking terms was a good sign, surely.
Suddenly they both looked up toward the archway, through which came a wild pack of children, Jenny and Ian’s grandchildren mostly, who all veered in an exuberant swarm to vanish around the side of the house, leaving only—
Jamie walked stiffly forward, slowly, so careful and reserved. I saw him break, though, completely, when the smaller girl started to sprint for him. He closed the distance in a trice, his arms flung wide to catch her. She was tall for her age and surely heavy, but he held her as though she were little more than a toddler. I couldn’t see his face, but I could see hers, and it broke my heart. The other girl—Marsali?—came close, too, coming under the arm Jamie held out to her, the three of them woven tight in an embrace of such obviously-genuine feeling that my reflex was to look away, to give them privacy.
I didn’t though. I didn’t turn aside, and that brought a sudden, unexpected wash of peace over me, settling down into my very marrow.
For this, this scene before me, wasn’t something of which Jamie was ashamed. The fact that he loved these two girls was not something that needed to be covered up. This was one of the pieces of himself from those twenty years he wanted to keep, not bury away to shield himself from sharp edges; perhaps the only of those hundred faces that he did wish to recognize in the mirror: when he had been father, and had been loved as one in return.
Would he get to see them often? Would they come visit us in Edinburgh? Would we even stay in Edinburgh, for that matter? Would we—I let those worries drift away into the chilly air, keeping for another day.
Still, a thought bubbled up from my gut, the bitter, resentful part of my being.
You’re right. It isn’t, I answered it with a stab of oh-so-many different griefs and longings—Faith, Bree, and....yes, even William, for Jamie’s sake, foremost among them: It isn’t the way either of us would have planned.
Even if we settled in the perfect city with the perfect accommodations, the perfect professions for us both, and the perfect compatriots to support and befriend us: it wasn’t the life we’d dreamed of, when we’d first come to Lallybroch all those years ago; before Wentworth, before Paris, before Culloden.
And yet, as I watched their farewells, watched the three women ride away, as I felt my feet flying down toward the dooryard, I knew only a fierce, radiant sort of joy, defiant and wild and free. I felt it in each footstep and every breath. I felt it soar as I came into the yard and Jamie turned. I saw it in the smile that burst across his face, even though his cheeks were wet and his eyes red. And I cherished it in the feel of his body against mine as we crashed into one another.
No, it wasn’t what we’d have planned, but it was ours. It was us. Jamie. Claire. And between us, we could hold all the pieces—be they jagged, broken, or absent—that made us what we were. What we would be.