One- Afghanistan 2006
“Stay still, soldier.”
Jamie stopped struggling, acquiescing to the air of command coming from her disembodied voice. Her British accent, unmistakable. Did that mean he was back on home ground? Had he been extracted or was she only a decoy and he’d been captured?
“An IED. You have injuries in your hand and leg. The shrapnel also hit your eyes. They need to stay bandaged tight and you mustn’t move your head too much.”
The ease accompanying the recitation of these facts told him it wasn’t the first time she’d given him this information. He put his uninjured hand up and met nothing but air. Ifrinn , he hated not being able to see! He held back the sigh when she clasped her fingers in his. The touch, he noticed, was familiar, as well.
The feel of her palm soothed him and helped his mind snap back to life. Months of training in the Military Intelligence Corps automatically took over and he felt a semblance of control.
“H-how long?” He responded automatically in the language spoken by her, though he heard the hesitation in his tone as his mind took extra seconds to flip the Arabic of his thoughts over to enable him to speak the same words aloud in English.
He freed his hand from hers and tentatively touched his face, trying to get a feel for the extent of the damage. Every bone in his body hurt. His lungs felt scorched and his face was on fire. The temptation to rip the bandages off and get cool air on his skin almost overwhelming. Yet above all of these impulses, Jamie’s body had one urgent need foremost in his mind.
He had been trained to ignore fear and withstand pain in order to complete his mission. He could push both aside, but not this---this essential life requirement. He tried to form the words -- English springing to his tongue now with ease-- but found his throat too dry. He tried to wet his lips but he had no lubrication and it didn’t help.
“Open your mouth a little wider, I have ice.”
Claire watched her patient’s chapped lips part and his hand ball into a fist. She placed small slivers on his extended tongue while he made inarticulate sounds of relief. Iron will prevented him from blindly reaching out, hoping for a lucky strike so he could drain the cup.
“I know you want more. Keep this down and you’ll have it.”
She saved his life that afternoon, one wee spoonful at a time. An angel of mercy, surely.
When it was finally time for her to go, she squeezed his fingers once again in reassurance and was surprised by how firmly he gripped hers in return.
Claire sighed in relief knowing that he was on the road to recovery. She’d spent hours sitting beside him this week, her strong, capable hands caring for him. Trying to heal him by touch as much as medicine.
When Jamie next surfaced to awareness, he was conscious only of the pounding in his head. Crushing, crippling, he could not even think. His jaw clenched tight in an effort to squelch the small whimpering noises that occasionally slipped out from his lips. His whole world narrowed to the rhythmic pulse of his throbbing head, hand and heart.
“Focus on breathing, Captain Malcolm.” That voice again. Ah dhia! “Your convoy was hit. You are being treated at the 22 Field Hospital. All will be well.”
He was back under the provisional command of the British Army, he understood that much; but his CO had yet to repatriate him or terminate his mission. Her use of that name reminded him he was still under operational orders to maintain his cover as Alexander Malcolm. As he lay helpless trying to take his mind away from the pain, Jamie realized that he’d begun thinking in English once more.
“I know it feels like you are dying but the pain is a good sign; it means you are healing. You’ll feel a little pinch. That’s it in and out, steady on. It’s all you need to do for now.”
Jamie felt her hand on his chest. He concentrated all his energy on the splayed palm over his heart, her finger tapping in time to his rhythm. Thump thump.Thump thump. By focusing on her touch, he was was able, second by agonizing second, to shift his awareness away from his own body to her fingertips and his pain eased.
Jamie placed his hand over hers, keeping it in place.
“Thank you kindly, lass. Do ye ken anything about the men of the battle group? The 51st Squadron?” (shoutout to @phoenixflames12 An Endless Night)
“You came in with a dozen others. Most have been released----”
“Nurse Randall, is he awake?” Came an interruption from the doorway. Jamie would know that voice anywhere.
“Ah, Major MacKenzie, perfect timing.”
The hand under Jamie’s wriggled free and he heard the scraping of chair legs moving over the floor.
“I’ll be back in an hour or so to change the bandages on your hand, Captain.”
Dougal sat heavily on the chair next to Jamie’s bedside. His forearm resting near the lad’s shoulder. He looked him over carefully but, wrapped up like a mummy, it was hard to tell whether his nephew looked better than he had yesterday.
“How do ye feel?”
“Like shit.” Jamie answered truthfully.
Dougal chuckled a bit. “If it’s any consolation ye look like shit, too.”
“The information you provided was accurate. The 101st Airborne rescued all but one of the hostages— Reza wasn’t with the others. Your assessment of him being the insider and betraying the rest of the team is likely correct. The lads met you at the rendezvous point. Just as we slipped you back into our ranks, the convoy was stripped of its’ tactical support. IEDs. They got lucky or we got unlucky.” Dougal placed a comforting hand on his upper arm. “Rest yer heart Ja--Alex, going back as ye did, ye saved Ian’s life, though he was med-evaced out. His leg was crushed.”
“Likely he’ll lose it, below the knee.”
“Tell me the rest.” Jamie mentally braced himself.
“The rest can bide, lad.”
“Who didna make it?” An anguished whisper as his heart plunged into his feet. His uncle made a mmphm sound.
“Rupert. He didna suffer. I ken it’s small consolation. Ye pulled Elias and Gavin out of danger, everyone but Rupert got to medical in time. They’ll recover. Ye need to preserve your strength, you have a long road ahead of yourself, too. I’ve called Jenny. She’s already on her way to London to be with Ian. I brought you your duffle, there’s not much in it but enough to see you through.”
Jamie’s good hand unconsciously floated near the bandages around his eyes.
“That’s good, then. Am I…?” He couldn’t form the words, give voice to his major worry. Jamie felt his uncle touch his shoulder in a comforting gesture.
“High command will release you as soon as we confirm the second infiltration unit is in place. Your tests and medical chart have already been reviewed by the Hunter Clinic, ye ken they’re the best. They said they couldn’t start treatment until the swelling goes down so the delay won’t compromise your care. Dinna fash, Shakespeare, you’ll get your sight back, God willing.”
“Ye Tien Cho, no’ Shakespeare.” Jamie corrected.
It was a familiar rib between himself and his family. He had a keen mind and an uncanny feel for analyzing written languages including Chinese, Arabic and French. He’d been recruited straight out of university even before he graduated when his talents became obvious. Fluent in half a dozen languages, Jamie had become a highly valued field operative.
Yet from the time he was in grade school, Jamie could always be found with his nose buried in a book of poetry. He had the heart of a romantic and no amount of espionage training would eradicate that. Poems fed the most private place he had inside of himself.
After his mother and brothers died, when he returned from difficult missions, following his father’s fatal stroke, at the most painful and challenging moments in his life, he could always return to the written page, to the poets whose words gave him perspective on his own grief, offered him hope, helped him rebuild the fortress that sheltered his soul one verse at a time. Reminding him what it was that made him himself and no one else and he had withstood no small amount of chaff about it for from his family. Over time, his love of poetry had become as much a part of his identity as his piercing blue eyes.
When not on duty, Jamie had spent much of his spare time in the last few years compiling the complete works of Yi Tien Cho, an obscure 18th century Chinese immigrant who rose to fame in the Qianlong Emperor’s court. Rather than surrender his manhood to remain a royal scholar, Yi Tien Cho fled his homeland landing first in Scotland.
Jamie loved the man’s story. Part mystery, part adventure and all underpinned by amazing poems inked in the hands of an artist whose elegant brushstrokes were as recognizable to Jamie as his own penmanship. Jamie had traced his journey from Edinburgh to the West Indies then ultimately to Canada, tracking down and attributing dozens of formerly anonymous writings to him in the process and translating each newly discovered treasure. Jamie’s private collection contained two score of original scrolls, each poem etched in beautiful calligraphy. He was hoping to publish a special book of the art and poems when it was complete and give the famed fung-wong (bird of fire) the recognition he so richly deserved.
“Aye, well ye also went through an Alasdair mac Mhaighistir and Harry Quarry phase as I recall.” Dougal teased, naming two of the UK’s most profane 18th century laureats.
“I was sixteen!” Jamie protested.
“I’ll keep ye in my prayers, Shakey. You’ll be back to finishing yer wee tome soon enough. Just follow doctor’s orders so you can start to heal.”
“Thank you, uncle. Please tell Angus….”
“Nah, lad you’ll tell him yourself when you see him.” Dougal clasped his outstretched hand in farewell.
Two - Afghanistan 2006
“Wake up, soldier!”
Someone was screaming, horrible, terror filled sounds. He returned to himself in a matter of seconds. He pressed his lips together and the noise stopped. Jamie realized then just how uncomfortable he was. His body had curled up like a shrimp tight upon itself in the small bed, despite his injuries.
“It was only a dream, Captain Malcolm. That is my hand you feel on your shoulder. You managed to get your injured hand under yourself, that’s why it’s throbbing. I’m going to reposition you. Then you’ll be able to free your leg and get your hand out. Ready?”
Jamie was breathing hard and only nodded in answer. As she disentangled him, air from a nearby fan cooled his heated skin. A wet towel brushed gently over his cheeks and neck brought further relief.
He’d graduated from ice chips to water and he gratefully gulped her offering, heedless of the fact his sloppiness caused spillage over the cup, soaking her arm as she held the rim to his lips.
“Can you lie back? I need to change the bandage.” Claire leaned down and pushed his hospital gown out of the way.
He let out an undignified yelp at the unexpected contact of her fingers on his upper thigh. He hadn’t understood which dressing needed tending.
She asked as she snaked the loose end of the thread free and gently lifted his leg to unwind the soiled gauze.
“Aye, just surprised….a bit.”
“No, Captain, don’t try to help, just relax the leg. That’s it.” Claire chuckled to herself. So often the soldiers tried to bear the weight of limbs to spare the medical staff the task of lifting but what they really needed was dead weight so they could control the movement.
None of the injured seemed to realize that they’d be in less pain if they would stop tensing up in an effort to protect their hurt limbs. Claire made a sound of frustration. Well, no help for it. This was going to hurt. She deftly repositioned his leg, ruthlessly continuing even as pain radiated through his body, he flinched in response.
“You goddamn, bloody bastard!” She muttered under her breath.
Jamie’s shocked, “Sorry, Nurse Randall!” Made her realize she’d spoken out loud.
“Forgive me, Captain, I wasn’t talking to you. Your bandages have twisted and won’t lay flat. I’ll have it in just...one ...more...there, I got it!”
Jamie could hear the smile in her voice and she rewrapped his leg in a matter of moments, he thanked her then melted back into the pillows and sighed in pleasure.
“Better?” She asked, receiving a Scottish noise of contentment in response.
“Yer a kind woman, with a gentle touch.” He told her. “Thank you for caring for my scratches.”
“They are just a little bit more than scratches; and, if you had seen me setting the bones in your pinky and digging out the shrapnel out of your leg in the OR, you might not’ve formed such a favorable opinion of my skills.”
“No danger of that, I canna see anything.” Jamie infused the response with a humorous tone but she caught the underlying fear, too.
Small, almost imperceptible shivers ran through his body, and not from the cold. Claire thought of what she might say that would bring him comfort. This was her third deployment with the British Army, her second with the 3 PARA battalion but her first experience with the lads of the 51st. Claire knew an offshoot of that battle group contained an elite corps of the 1st Intelligence Security and Recon Brigade.
Her soon to be ex-husband, Frank Randall, was a writer who did loads of research for his spy novels. She’d had dinner with a number of consultants working in counterintelligence. Having learned what to look for, Claire had developed a feel for covert operations over her years in the Medical Corps.
She had no doubt Alex was a fake name and that his mission had derailed in some unexpected way. He often mumbled in his sleep as many patients on serious pain killers tended to do. She’d heard him muttering in English and Arabic. Few of the patients coming through their doors in the last week had complete medical records on file. Most had only half- filled personal profiles, smacking of falsified identities. All she knew about the so-called Mr. Malcolm’s medical history was his blood type.
His injuries, and those of at least three of her other patients, weren’t consistent with the snippets of information contained in the official reports she’d read appended to patient files in their transfer orders. Claire hadn’t said a word about the discrepancies yet. She needed to talk to Colonel Gowan first. He was the superior officer in command of the medical corps. He’d let her know what needed to be done.
Claire had heard all kinds of tales about the 51st. Major MacKenzie was reputed to be a fearless, if not occasionally foolhardy, leader. She didn’t waste a lot of time trying to puzzle out the real story. Claire knew from long practice that such operations were rife with rumours and gossip.
Alex Malcolm had no memory of the attack, that much was clear. The official report stated that the Captain’s injuries were sustained when a secondary device detonated as he was dragging his men to safety. Claire couldn’t find any medical evidence on the bodies of the men she treated that provided any support for the reported explanation that two IEDs were responsible for the injuries. Several men had bullet wounds, including the dead man. But there was no report of a fire-fight in the records.
Yet this brave man had headed into the bullets or bombs, in an effort to protect his team. A man like that, who would put the safety and welfare of his men above his own, was not a man lacking in courage. Claire knew that his leg and hand, while painful, weren’t the cause of his nightmares.
Though he tried to pretend otherwise, there was no question her patient was disconcerted by his blindness, or, in non-clinical terms, freaking the fuck out, but hiding it well. Little wonder, Alex had been trapped in this bed for days, he’d had one visit and a handful of calls at odd hours but other than that, nothing but time to think about the team’s casualties and his own injuries, as well. Lying helpless, sightless and still with the weight of such matters pressing on him? Claire knew she’d be crawling out of her skin if she were in his shoes.
“I think it might just be time to get you on your feet, soldier. How would you like to go for a walk?”
She was taller than he imagined, Jamie thought, getting a sense for her dimensions as she secured the sling for his injured hand, adjusting it with an expert familiarity. Then they were off and Jamie was leaning heavily on the arm braced across her shoulders.
As they walked through the sparsely populated recovery room, Claire heard a few low hums of appreciation and someone whistled behind her back. There were smiles and winks from soldiers and medical staff alike watching their steady but slow progress through the ward.
Jamie was hyper-aware of the solid support of her arm around his waist. She was what was helping to keep him vertical and he focused on staying that way. They’d gone maybe fifty steps when he turned to her.
“My arse is hanging out of the johnny for all to see, aye?”
“Yes, indeed.” Claire agreed, glancing around, “and a fine ass it is too, judging from the appreciative reactions you are getting.” Her patient started to laugh.
Claire had been drawn to him, a moth to a flame. She’d seen it often enough to know the infatuation for what it was. An attraction, a flirtation, the attachment that occasionally drew caregiver and patient. His life had been in her hands for a time. Claire found with Alex she couldn’t detach into her professional mode.
Perhaps that was why she couldn’t look away from him just now. Why she’d been so transfixed. This was the first time she’d heard him laugh, the first real smile she’d seen on his lips. He’d been utterly transformed. The sound cut straight through her and the way he looked as she opened the doors to usher him out into the sunshine, as he turned his beaming half-covered face skyward, became a moment she knew would live inside her heart forever.
Jamie’s leg was screaming with each footfall, each step painfully slow, but he was moving. He almost whimpered when he felt the sun warm his skin. A soft breeze kissed his cheeks, and he felt her hair dance and ruffle across his upper arm, tickling his chin and the hollow at the base of his neck. Inhaling deeply he caught the scent of apricots. Her shampoo, perhaps?
Jamie felt his body being bent and pulled downward.
“Sit.” She commanded, her arm coming away from his back while she deftly smoothed his hospital gown under his butt cheeks. His knees unexpectedly buckled and he groaned as his body weight collapsed.
“That was a nice trick, Nurse Randall.” He commented appreciatively. The sun was strong but he knew the heat of a blush was warning his face at the moment.
“Long experience.” She assured him. “I do have a care for my reputation, Captain. Imagine if my charges returned with singed dangly bits?”
She was inordinately pleased that she’d made him laugh again. Since he couldn’t see her staring at him, she felt free to look her flll. His beard was starting to grow in, the tawny reds and russets springing to life on chin and cheeks. He was sweating. The short walk from bed to the outside enclosure had exhausted him. A proud man, he would not have been able to turn around and retrace his steps without a short rest. She was glad he’d followed her lead.
They sat in companionable silence for a time.
“How long have you been here?” Jamie asked.
“About six months. I’ve been scheduled to go home a couple of times but my tour of duty keeps getting extended. You?”
“On this mission? Six weeks.” Said in such a way she had the feeling he’d felt every hour of every day of the time.
“Not easy is it?” Claire sympathized. The bench was a tight fit and he felt her shifting, though she took care to not brush against his injured leg.
“No, but it’s never boring. The lads in my unit, they’re all good men. Ian, The one with the leg? He and Rupert enlisted same time as me. We…..” Jamie stopped speaking as the horror of reality set in.
“I’m sorry about your friends.” Claire said.
He didn’t reply, but ducked his head down and took a deep breath.
Her hand reached out and held onto his. He tried to compose himself but she knew he was crying.
“I am not sure if it will help, but the men you risked yourself for will all live.”
Jamie heard the desire to comfort him in her voice. He appreciated her gesture but he was too raw, too upset to accept any words of consolation just yet.
“Sorry, lass. It hasna sunk in yet. What’s been lost.”
Claire knew he meant the loss of limb and potentially his own sight as well as the loss of life. Against such sacrifice, what could she do to lessen his pain?
“Do you...would you like me to write a letter from you to his family?” She watched as his mouth formed a grimace. “Captain---” she began.
“Why don’t we walk back. Think about what you want to say and I’ll stop by tonight at the end of my shift?”
“Thank ye kindly, Nurse Randall, but no. I’ll be writing my own letters soon as my sight returns.”
Claire’s heart was undeniably touched by his attempt to put a brave face on things.
“If I’m calling you Alex, you can’t be Nurse Randalling me all day long. My name is -----”
“No, dinna tell me. I’ll be reading your name off your badge soon enough, as well.”
“You know I’ve served with Brits and Aussies and Americans but I have to say by far the most stubborn soldiers I’ve met are Scots! You can’t keep calling me that-- you make me sound like I should be in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Jamie chuckled. “My best guess is ye look nothing like Nurse Ratchet, Sassenach.”
“Oh, ho, I am familiar with that epithet.”
“Then ye ken it’s no insult.” Jamie was smiling once more and that was what she wanted to see.
“Well, Alex, let’s get you back on your feet before you fall over from heat stroke.”
As she turned him back toward his room, he commented, “It would be worth it, Sassenach. I didna ken how much I needed it, the feel of the sun on my face, to be walking and back under my own power.”
“Don’t go getting any ideas of wandering off now that you’ve had a taste of freedom, my lad. I’m the healer and, for now, I’m in charge. Don’t forget you are under my power.”
“And happy to be there, dinna fash, I’ll obey yer orders, General Sassenach.”
An Affair to Remember is a 1957 movie starring Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant about those moments in which your life changes course and the redemptive power of love, with a screenplay by Delmer Daves, Donald Ogden Stewart and Leo McCarey. For this fic to work, I needed a book so in this story it’s a novel based on the movie.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“His transfer still hasn’t come through.” Dr. Joe Abernathy updated her. “Dr. Hunter is set to take over his care the second he is back in London. Just continue to keep the eyes covered. We’ll start him on a low grade steroid since the swelling is still fairly pronounced. The optic nerves need to recover. The stitches in the leg can come out in a day or so. You can start working the hand, a little light PT, keep the pinky out of it though, the break needs to heal but the other fingers need to be kept limber..”
“Very good.” Claire responded.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in Oxford? I thought your program started at the end of the month?”
“It does and I am. It will be a race between the Captain and me to see who gets the first available transport out.” She joked.
“You’ll make a hell of a doctor, Claire.”
“Thank you, Joe. Your letter of recommendation was a huge factor in my admission to the accelerated track. Meantime, what shall I do to distract my patient?” Claire was poking around the small space that passed as a doctor’s lounge.
Cards, chess, backgammon were all out. She’d given him her ancient ipod mini so he had some music but she knew how bored he must be. Alex had grown familiar enough with their tiny compound to be able to walk outside and back by himself. He never seemed to get lost, a regular homing pigeon, that one.
“Read to him, that might help. Do it while he’s flexing his fingers.” Joe suggested.
“Hmmm. Of our vast library here what would you suggest?” Claire dubiously eyed their paltry and mostly sensational selection of novels, almost all missing their cover pages.
“Oh, this one for sure.” Joe held one of the few hardcovers aloft.
“ An Affair to Remember ?”
He smiled at the doubt in her voice. “It’s very witty and touching. Not a ripped bodice in sight. And while most of it takes place on a cruise, no pirates either.”
“Promise?” Claire laughed.
“Cross my heart.”
“That’s it, you are doing just fine, Alex. Even pressure squeeze the ball in then release, not too hard.” Claire watched him closely making sure he wasn’t overdoing it.
The Captain was wearing a pair of battered khakis and a non-descript navy blue tee shirt, worn thin with repeated washings. Though by the smell wafting her way, it had been awhile since it was last laundered.
He had maybe three outfits to his name. Perhaps when he fell asleep she would grab everything for a quick wash. She smiled at the thought of seeing him back in a johnny. As completely unprofessional as the thought was, Claire missed the little keeks she got of his lovely, firm backside.
Her divorce with Frank was almost final, he’d been the one cheating on her, so she told herself to squelch the feeling of guilt that stole over her. This was the wrong place and the wrong time, of course, but something about this man called to her. Being with him reminded her that it had been over a year since she’d felt the tender touch of a lover.
Jamie felt her hand hovering above his, but not in contact. He deliberately clenched his fingers tightly. Jesus, that hurt! But when he felt her hand gently touching his, he thought it was worth the price.
“Easy, there.” Claire’s fingers fitted over his to show him the motion. “Like this.”
He’d hurt himself all day just to let her patch him up all over again. She, simply put, eased him and quieted his mind. Her mere presence was healing, even when she kept her hands to herself. But when he felt her fingertips on his skin, Dhia! He’d tried not to acknowledge this truth, telling himself she was only doing her job, after all. Yet day by day he found himself inexorably drawn closer to her.
Lately, he found himself thinking about her constantly, wondering what her life outside his room was like. What were her dreams, her hopes, her fears? He’d give a year of his life in exchange for being able to look into her eyes, to be able to see if his own feelings were mirrored in them. Desperately needing to know if they sparkled when she smiled and narrowed to menacing slits when she was angry, to carry a picture of her eyes as they reflected her soul in the memory of his heart.
Claire was standing so close, he could smell her soap, this time a hint of lilacs, and felt the heat of her body next to his own. God everything was so hot, he was practically melting but he’d not move away for worlds just now.
“Better?” Jamie asked, fumbling just a bit to keep her close.
“Mmhmm, Much.” She encouraged.
“Distract me, lass?” He begged.
“Alright. I brought a book, all the rage in the doctor’s lounge.”
“Doctor’s lounge, is it? Ye live well.” Jamie teased.
“Yes, between the picnic bench and the fridge that almost makes ice, we are in the lap of luxury out here in the desert.”
He laughed. He loved her sense of humor. She’d been the silver lining of the dark cloud that threatened to overwhelm him. Lately she’d started stopping by in the evenings when her shift ended, keeping him company over dinner. Nurse Randall had kept his demons at bay. She had a lovely voice, he thought, as she began to read.
The story was set in the 1950s aboard a luxury liner on a cruise through the Mediterranean and onto New York. The main character, a famous playboy named Nicky Ferrante,returning to his wealthy fiancé when the ship reached it’s final destination. While aboard, he meets Terry McKay, who also has someone waiting for her in Manhattan.
“I’m sorry?” His face appeared at the opposite side of the porthole which was framing her face vividly, momentarily distracting him.
“Hmm did you need something?” Her smiling eyes intrigued him.
“I believe you have my cigarette case.” He informed her.
“You caught me red-handed, I’m a jewel thief.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“You’re right. I was headed to lost and found, I stumbled upon it when I--- hold on, how can I be sure it belongs to you?”
“By the engraving on the inside.” He confidently said.
“To Nickelo---Oh my! You can’t be--- the famous Nicky Ferrante? As I live and breathe. You’ve been on the covers of every magazine! Life and GQ and was it...Town and Country?”
“Cosmo,” he deadpanned, “Can I have it?”
But Terry refused, reading the rest of the inscription.
“Ooh My French is rusty but what I can read is making me blush. Will you tell me what it says?”
“In French?” He asked hopefully.
“Mmmhum,” she shook her head back and forth, “that wouldn’t do me much good, would it?”
“Well...I mean…” he sighs, “Oh alright! It reads, In memory of three nights aboard La Gabriella.”
“That’s her yacht, is it?” Terry murmured.
He had the grace to look sheepish. “What else?” He lied.
Claire smiled to herself. Alex was working through the PT with ease and Joe was correct, the book had a charming appeal that had them laughing aloud at the witty banter.
“I am glad you found it, I’ve been going crazy with just myself for company. I must talk with someone.” Nicky confessed.
“Oh dear, I am not good at that sort of thing.” Terry deflected.
“It’s just that you have an honest face. I can trust you, can’t I?”
Terry find herself intrigued despite his bad boy reputation, “Mhmm?”
“Your room or mine?” Smooth as silk, he didn’t even bat an eye as he asked.
“My mother told me never to enter a man’s room in months beginning with “J”.
“She must be delightful, your mother. What is your name?”
“Terry McKay. I am by myself on this cruise, too.”
“Ah. And is that troubling you?” He said understanding.
Nicky walked around her cabin, trying to get a better feel for her. “Thank you for rescuing me. I hadn’t met a single pretty girl since I came on the ship and I got scared.When I found you, I knew I would be ok. Cigarette?”
“No thanks. Do lines like that actually work for you? Or would I be surprised?” He really was too, too much, Terry thought.
“If you were surprised, it would surprise me.”
“Are you making a nasty crack? Two can play at that game.”
“I don’t doubt it.” But he smiled when he said it. Her eyes narrowed. She’d show him she wasn’t going to fall for his Lothario act.
“Watch me. I take it your trip on La Gabriella wasn’t her maiden voyage, I wonder if you fiance Lois found out about it?
“Of course, who do you think introduced us? They are best friend.” He told her.
“Well goodness you do run with a terribly friendly crowd.”
The afternoon flew by as Claire and Jamie both fell into the story of the budding shipboard romance between the jaded Nicky, trading on looks and charm, the consummate kept man and Terry McKay, in similar circumstances, but nevertheless determined to persevere in an often hostile world.
Two souls trapped in time and space, held captive by their circumstances reveling in an idyllic interlude before returning to the reality of their disparate lives.
As she read, Claire couldn’t help but feel an odd kinship with Nicky and Terry. They’d reached the end of the first chapter. Reluctantly, Claire closed the book.
“Time’s up, Captain.” Claire announced.
“Mmphm?” He made a kind of Scottish hum. “But it was just getting good!” He protested like a child negotiating for a later bedtime.
“Rest your hand, now Alex.” Claire reached over and plucked the exercise ball from his palm. “You need a break and fresh air.”
Written for the Outlander Secret Santa 2017
Chapter 4: Merry Wishmas
Special huge thanks to Scarlett_Peacock for letting me borrow Vianne! her Just Desserts is just divine and can be found here: https://archiveofourown.org/works/9505229 (Link is in the body of the chapter, too!)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Click on the link to read Scarlett_Peakcock Just Desserts
Four- Afghanistan 2006
She’d taken his stitches out the next day. The area was healing up nicely. He’d been on the phone again when she’d come by to see him that morning and this was the first chance they’d had to talk.
“God! it’s hot as blazes out here.” He’d remarked.
They sat in the shade cast by the mess tent, trying in vain to catch some of the anemic breeze. Claire wasn’t sure which was worse, when the wind howled or when the air was still as death. There seemed to be no in-between in this region.
“I know, I feel like I’ve been roasting for half a year. I can’t wait to be any place where there is the possibility of sleet and ice and snow!” Claire laughed.
“So Christmas is your favorite holiday?” He teased.
“I do have a particular fondness for Christmas music and if I’m the one driving all passengers must join the sing along, no exceptions. I have yards of garland, twinkling lights and beautiful ornaments from the 1930s and 1940s. So yes, I’ve been known to deck the halls with the best of them. I love to make pizelles, but I am a traditionalist.”
“Italian waffle cookies?”
“Mmhm. When I was a little girl I lived for a time in Rouen, France. I met Vianne Raymond as a child.”
“The chocolatier?” He was suitably impressed.
“Yes, I had no idea she was famous. She’s a Michelin three star chef now, but back then she was just my friend, Vianne. The recipe was handed down for generations in her family. You have to make them one at a time with the right press. She gave me her Nonna’s, it’s cast iron specially made with her initials. There is no substitute that I’ve found that works half as well. Vianne told me the secret was patience and never making them when it’s rainy or snowy. The cookies melt in your mouth. Like manna from heaven! Christmas is my favorite time of the year, certainly.” She corrected. “But my favorite holiday is Christmas Eve.”
“That seems like an odd distinction, aren’t they the same thing?”
“Why no, not at all.” Claire sounded genuinely surprised.
“Really, why’s that?”
“Because Christmas Eve is when everything you’ve ever dreamed of is still possible. That magical in between where your greatest wish can still come true! I have a silly bookmark given to me by my uncle. I still use it.” She laughed then, “Actually, I am using it right now for the book we’re reading. It’s tooled in red leather and has sparkly gold lettering that says Merry Wishmas!”
“What did ye dream of? What was yer greatest-- “He inflected the next part with some humor, “Merry Wishmas wish?”
“That my family would find me.” She said very softly. “My parents died a month before the Christmas I turned 7. I knew what dead meant but..still. I used to dream that I’d wake one morning in my own house, back in my own bed and I’d run down my own stairs and they’d be sitting at the table. My mom reading the newspaper and my dad tinkering with something like he always did. I stopped doing that for the most part except during the holidays. I always thought of them more, then. I made the same wish every Christmas Eve because that’s the day your heart’s desire can come true even if it’ll take a miracle.” Claire’s voice trailed off. Horribly self-conscious she had no idea what to say next.
Alex jumped in just then.
“Mmphm. My hand’s a wee bit sore.”
“Well, that’s to be expected. I’m still going to make you do your exercises.” Claire had regained her equanimity.
She placed the ball firmly in his hand. He started squeezing it.
“Good lad!” She said approvingly and opened the book once more.
“ Where were we? ” The captain opened his mouth to tell her and Claire touched his upper arm fondly, laughing. “That’s actually the first line of this chapter, I wasn’t asking a question.” She clarified. He made a go on gesture.
“I spent my childhood in a small town in Ohio. I always wanted to be a school teacher, well a vet and then a school teacher.” Terry and Nicky were strolling on the upper deck of the ship, doing their best to pretend that they weren’t the objects of rabid speculation from the other passengers.
“But then you said that wasn’t for you and you grew up.” Nicky speeded her forward.
“Rather quickly, I’m afraid.” She told him and she filled him in on the story of her life. “And so I started singing at parties and in clubs. After my set was over, I spent the rest of the evening trying to get out of there.”
“Hard was it?”
“Yes, between the men who wanted to buy me a drink and the manager chasing me around backstage---”
“Did anything horrible happen when….?” Nicky’s eyes flashed with concern.
“Oh, No, of course not!” She refused to look at him and Nicky wasn’t sure whether to believe her or not.
“But the story has a happy ending. My knight in shining armour rode in to the rescue. He saw me one night and was quite the gentleman. He told me I didn’t belong in a place like that.”
“I just bet he did.” Nicky’s expression made clear his mistrust of Kenneth’s motives.
“And so I -What?” Terry looked up thinking she heard him say something. Nicky gave her a dead-eyed stare.
“What, what?” He asked palms all upturned innocence.
“You said something…”
“Me? No.” Though he was thinking something, Terry could see.
“Well, you’re right!” Terry admitted. Nicky laughed in genuine amusement.
“I belonged, according to him, on the upper west side, in a building with an elevator and a doorman.” Terry smiled wistfully but her grin faltered when she caught the look Nicky was giving her. It seemed to say surely she hadn’t bought the line of bull good ole Kenneth was feeding her!?
“So you determined you needed to fix yourself up so as to not be out of place amongst the scenery, hmm?” Nicky asked. She missed the biting tone of his voice.
“Hmm-hum” She agreed. “With his guidance I educated myself in all manner of refined cultural aspects of life. Things like fashion, literature, music and art.”
“Became the right kind of woman to marry, I see.” He bit out.
“Do you have a problem with that?” How dare he judge her -- he of all people!
“No, of course not.” He told her.
She knew he’d understand, he might not like it but they were both pragmatic to their core. In a world whose alternatives were eeking out a desperate living singing at all hours, fending off unwelcome sexual advances or sitting pretty in the lap of luxury, she’d undeniably made the right choice and he knew it. He’d done the same, after all. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t slightly ashamed on his own behalf.
Just then a photographer snapped their picture. They looked like they were having an intimate tete a tete. Had that image been released for the world to see, Nicky’s Lois and Terry’s Kenneth would not be so understanding and they would both land in a world of trouble. Terry shot him a panicked look.
“My, what a terrific thing that is, let me see…”Nicky exclaimed and reached for the camera before the photographer cold react.
He neatly removed the cartridge and handed it to Terry for safekeeping over the protests of the little man. Terry promptly dropped it overboard.
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for being so clumsy?” Nicky joked.
“ I am accident prone, what can I say?” Terry agreed. “But Nicky, this must stop. You garner too much attention even though we aren’t doing anything. Right or wrong, the gossip...”
It was wrong, all right, Nicky’s favorite kinds of wrong in every way. God he liked this woman!
“You don’t mean it! We’ll be floating at sea for days and days until we get to New York. I’ll go mad without your company.”
“Go for a long walk in the sunshine.” Terry suggested.
“I’ll be in trouble if it rains.” She laughed but could not be swayed.
“I can’t.” She reaffirmed with regret in her eyes.
“I don’t want to make trouble for you.” The kindness of his tone was almost her undoing.
They resolved to go their separate ways. Yet despite the size of the cruise ship, it proved much harder to avoid one another. They met accidentally over and over. In the pool, at the card table, even, yes, taking long walks in the sunshine and they found themselves unable to resist. It felt like fate was pushing them to be together.
“Sassenach, has that ever been you?” Alex suddenly asked her as they walked back to his room.
“Been me how?” She asked.
“Did ye ever feel the need to change yourself to fit someone else’s idea of what ye should be?”
She thanked God he couldn’t see her expression in that moment. Why was he asking and how had he known?
“Hasn’t everyone at some time or other?” Claire tried to fluff off the question.
“Mayhap.” He conceded but he waited her out.
“I’ve already told you about my parents. I lived with my uncle after that but Lamb died before I started uni. The world can be a harsh place to one so young.” She said soft was a whisper. “Survival requires you to adapt.”
Somehow he’d known they were at the crossroads between two intersecting hallways. He placed his hand on her elbow and took a path opposite of where they needed to go, ending up in the open doorway of a supply alcove.
He’d been busy, her captain, learning the layout of the building as if his future depended on being able to find the best place to hide or quickest escape route. He’d been trained well. Something tender stole over her as she realized the incredible determination of him. He wasn’t the type to concede a centimeter of ground, no matter his circumstances. Injured, blind he might be, but defenseless? Never.
He guided her into the recesses of the alcove, blocking anyone who might walk by from seeing her. His arms open at his side, palms turned up, inviting her to finish her thought.
“I’d like to think I’m older and wiser, now.”
His bandaged forehead came to rest against her smooth one. She could feel his breath on her lips.
“I’m sorry.” He told her.
“For what?” She wondered. “It’s impossible to go through life without feeling pain or losing people you love.”
“Aye.” He agreed. “No’ for that, though regrettable, no. I’m sorry for every second you’ve spent doubting yourself. Thinking ye needed to change for anyone to see yer what yer worth.”
He had no idea how to say this exactly. His hand came up and he stroked her face tenderly, feeling its shape, tracing the line of her from jaw to ear, her nose, sliding his thumbs over the heart shape of her face. Smudging his thumb along her bottom lip, seeing her with his fingertips. When her was done, he brushed back her hair, tucking errant curls around her ear.
“You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, Sassenach.”
Then he kissed her hard and spun around on his heel, moving quickly away. Claire had a queer feeling in the pit of her stomach thinking perhaps, despite his blindness, he might’ve been the first person who truly saw her just for herself. Looking not at her physical attributes but inside to her essence. Something warn spread from her heart to the rest of her body. By the time she was back out in the hall, he’d disappeared.
Written for Outlander Secret Santa 2017
Five- Afghanistan 2006
Claire had been thinking of him as she made her final rounds that afternoon. Spending time with him had been doing a number on her libido and her heart. Now that he’d kissed her? Well, she didn’t even try to stay away after her day was done. There was no place she’d rather be than with him.
When she checked in on him that night, he looked a bit uncomfortable. He was scratching his jawline vigorously.
“Alex?” She spoke softly just in case he hadn’t been aware of her presence. “Are you ok?”
His hand stilled. “I’m fine, Sassenach, yer shift must be done by now. Ye dinna need to be looking after me.”
Yet she saw his whole face light up in a smile when he heard her speak.
“I brought you an apple and some cheese.” She’d noticed he often got hungry between dinner and breakfast. “I’ll just set them in the drawer here?”
“Thank you, lass.” He told her, shifting a bit. Claire saw him surreptitiously rubbing his chin against his chest and arm.
“Itching is it?”
“God, yes. It’s worse tonight for some reason.” He admitted. “The heat, maybe?”
“And the pain meds will cause it sometimes as well. Would shaving help?”
Claire watched as Alex’s lips upturned in a wry smile of amusement.
“Aye, though I’ll wait until you or someone else is back on duty in the morning. That way if I accidentally slit my throat ye can be on hand to save me once more.” He scratched his cheek again.
“Do you have a razor?”
“In my kit.” He told her motioning across the room. Claire spotted the bag on the bureau.
“May I?” She asked.
“Be my guest, Sassenach.” He told her as he heard her rummaging around.
She gave a whistle of appreciation when she spotted it.
“A straight razor? My goodness, I had no idea men still used these. My Uncle Lamb had his until the day he died.”
“Are ye saying I’m a fuddy-duddy?”
Claire laughed. “Oh no! Possessing a straight razor and using terms like fuddy-duddy in everyday conversation makes you eccentric, not necessarily old fashioned.”
Claire smiled at him but, of course, he couldn’t see her expression. She thought he knew she was teasing anyway but added for good measure, “All you need is a pipe and cardigan and you are a sure bet to be a professor on any university campus anywhere. Lamb was one, so I am confident of my prediction.”
“I’ll have you know I was quite close to living exactly that life.” He admitted.
Claire ignored the obvious segue of “what’s a nice lad like you doing in a war like this?” question. He’d tell her in his own time what he was—or wasn’t. If he was a black ops agent he certainly wasn’t supposed to divulge his secrets. Instead, she chose a different line of inquiry.
“And if I were a student on said campus what class would I need to take to see Professor Malcolm in all his staid glory?”
“ Lost in Translation- Tortured Verse and Other Crimes - a survey of Asian Poems in Western Literature.” Jamie said promptly. He was aware of the dead silence that greeted his response.
“I like poems.” He shrugged. “And I canna stand reading ones ruined in the hands of translators with no feel for the beauty or artistry or cultural norms of the poets.”
He felt her hands cupping his face as she gently turned his cheek, one then the other. She made humming sounds. Her fingers ran gently through his softening stubble. Her nails inflicting a little extra roughness before the pads soothed the skin. It felt so good, Jamie found himself turning his head firmly into her outstretched palm to prolong and deepen the contact.
“Of all the things I imagined you would say, it wasn’t that.” Claire told him. “You are a very complicated man, Captain Malcolm. Why poetry?”
“Because poems are short and get right to the point.” Claire rolled her eyes, remembered he couldn’t see, then scoffed her derision of his dodge of the question. He took a breath and let it out, thinking of how to put it.
“Poems are a light in the darkness. A simple verse can bring a smile or hope when most needed. They are written by and for everyone-- bread for the soul.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“No, that’d be like picking children. But before I was deployed I’d just finished working on a translation from a Chinese poet named Yi Tien Cho. Would you--?”
“Of course!” She encouraged, fascinated by his obvious enthusiasm.
Ten years living dim and draw apart,
I don’t remember,
But forgetting is hard.
Even if we met, you wouldn’t know me,
In a dream last night I saw,
By the window of the little room,
You were combing your hair,
You turned and looked, not speaking,
Only lines of tears coursing down.
Year after year will it break my heart,
To watch but not be seen?”
(based on the poetry of Su Shi)
“Did he ever find her again or did he spend his life yearning for his lost love?” Claire wondered.
“I dinna ken, havena found any evidence one way or the other. He fled his homeland and left his whole life behind. He ended up in Scotland in 1764. No’ much of his work has been published. He’s a particular...friend of mine, I guess you could say.”
Jamie gave her a smile that melted her heart a little. She’d managed to take his mind off things but she saw his hand start to move toward his face once more.
“Well,” Claire said hoping to bring a little relief, “I am also a particular friend of yours and I shudder to imagine you trying to shave yourself -- even if someone is standing by with a blood transfusion at the ready. You’re sure to catch the blade on the gauze and then where would we be? Would you trust me to do it for you?”
“Of course.” Jamie told her truthfully but couldn’t resist adding, “I trust ye implicitly wi’ my wee blade, Sassenach.”
Claire caught the innuendo in that and laughed out loud.
“Let’s hope I am worthy of the trust. You’ll need to sit very still-- otherwise I may be the one pricking you!”
Her patient caught the ribald joke and chuckled, making her insides feel all gooey. He was sitting ramrod straight, as most soldiers, after hours of drilling, learn to do. She used her leg to position his a little wider so she could step in close enough to use the razor.
She’d warmed the shaving cream up first, such a simple gesture but so quintessentially her. That was his Sassenach thoughtful, practical and comforting. Jamie flushed a little as the thought came to him. Then her fingers were spreading the shaving cream with and against the grain of his beard. His breath hitched.
Claire hadn’t been paying attention, lost in the soft and rough of his cheek and chin. She found it impossible to ignore the firm muscle of his upper thighs where her legs could not help but touch his. It had been so long, God so bloody long! since she’d felt a man’s body against any part of hers.
He was tall, not terribly muscular, with a runner’s lithe body. A little like Frank’s body — well Frank’s body a few years ago at any rate, before he’d begun to spend hours inside writing away and gotten all soft and stocky.
Jamie was anything but stocky. Too thin for his frame, but nicely made. She’d allowed her fingers free reign as she massaged in the lotion, swirling and working his beard. He made a kind of funny noise on an inhale and she came back into herself all at once.
“Sorry!” Thank god he couldn’t see the blush spreading over her face. “It’s a little like finger painting.” She tried to explain but, of course couldn’t tell him what she’d really been thinking.
“I’m going to start on your right side.” She warned him, tapping the cheek so he’d know where to expect her touch.
For long minutes the only sound in the room was the sound of their breath and the scrape of blade on skin and bowl as she drew the blade over and over again.
His face emerged from behind the stubble one stroke at a time. Looking, were it possible, more handsome and impossibly vulnerable as the barrier of reddish beard fell away.
It was almost a meditation, so lost was she in her task. He was already so familiar to her but she found herself relearning his face anew as she worked. Noting his sharp cheekbones, the adam’s apple, the way his ears stuck out, just a bit, and were a little pointed on the ends, the knife’s blade of his nose, how much fuller his bottom lip was than the top.
As she shaved his mustache area, she’d pushed her fingers against his lip to pull the skin taut. They both held their breath together and exhaled at the same time when it was done, sharing a laugh at how in sync they’d been.
For a moment Jamie thought she might kiss him, And he raised his face upwards in anticipation. His heart fell a little when he felt her moving away. Jamie was startled to feel the warm washcloth pressed up against his face.
She took his hands, the hurt one very gingerly, and placed them on either side of the towel. He started to wipe as she finished cleaning up. He heard her carefully re-sharpen the blade on the strop before zipping the kit back up. Her body came back to stand up close to him once more.
Claire carefully pulled the washcloth from Jamie's hand. Unable to stop herself, she felt his newly bared skin once more tracing his bottom lip by compulsion. He moaned and felt her breath on his cheek.
Christ, what he wouldn't give to be able to touch her the same way she had been touching him. He needed it, as he needed air, as he needed sunlight, as he needed food. He felt his arms reaching up, so attuned to her he knew exactly where she would be and how she would feel once his hands came to rest on her hips.
Since he regained consciousness, Jamie had tried to set aside his dependence on sight for understanding. He hadn’t had enough time to fine tune his other senses. But---
“Sassenach?” Jamie heard her hum in response, “I know this is crazy.” Because it was undeniably insane. How could this have happened in just ten days? “But I ken it’s real. Please tell me ye feel it, too?”
Fire spread through his body when he sensed her lowering her face closer to his. Her arms came around his back and he felt the weight of her body resting fully against him, lowering inch by slow inch until she was sitting in his lap. A perfect fit. This woman had been made for him.
“I need to kiss you, Sassenach.” He’d been born to kiss her.
The novelty of having to listen with all his heart meant that in that moment he heard the soft sighing of her lips parting and being moistened by her tongue.
When his own came to claim hers he heard the soft sound as their lips met. His tongue danced with hers, gently and softly, reverently and tenderly. A promise made, hope hinting at desire.
Then she moaned and he let go of all restraint. He kissed her as if she was the essence life itself and she kissed him as if by doing so she could bring him into the light.
She was wearing too many clothes and she wanted him to touch her everywhere, all at once. An inarticulate sound came from her. She felt his hands moving toward her blouse, his fingers were shaking as they reached for her buttons.
Then he shoved her hard off of him. She was standing now, trying to catch her breath, struggling to understand what had just happened. She heard it then, the sound of a cart rolling down the hall.
“Ah, Mr. Malcolm, your medi----Nurse Randall, I didn’t realize you were still on duty.”
“I’m not, Maryanne. I was just checking in with the Captain. He had his first round of PT earlier.” Claire was relieved she sounded halfway normal. “I will see you tomorrow, Mr. Malcolm.” Claire told him.
His lips were swollen, sweat visible on his upper lip and he was breathing hard but she gave him credit for his aplomb.
“Bet on it, Sassenach.” Jamie told her.
Six - Afghanistan 2006
“ I suppose you grew up rather quickly yourself, hmm?” Terry mused over dinner, trying not to be intimidated by his looks or well deserved reputation as a ladies man. “Did your nanny read you bedtime stories from Lady Chatterly’s Lover?”
“I thought everyone knew that. A chapter a night then we would blow out the candles.” Nicky refused to be baited.
“We?” Terry’s eyes narrowed.
“I was only so big!” Nicky defended, hand floating midway up in the air in illustration.
“Sounds like an idyllic childhood!” Terry retorted. Nicky only smiled in return.
“And you’ve been putting notches into your belt since?”
“I’m on my third or fourth belt at least.” He looked away.
“Love connections all, though?”
“Must be hard to respect women who fall all over themselves to please you.” Terry guessed.
Nicky could feel her putting barriers up, describing him in such stereotypical terms that he hardly recognized himself. He was not that kind of man but she couldn’t know that. He needed to set her straight.
“That sounds like a nasty crack, you better be careful or it could become a habit. And you are wrong, you know. I always started out thinking of them as perfect, on the whole, I put them way up here.” Nicky’s hand shot above his head. “But as we get to know one another, things just….” Nicky allowed his hand to cascade downward until it fell below the table.
“I imagine that’s a lot of work for the two of you—you having to hold her up, her having to stand on that pedestal…” Terry smiles at him sympathetically.
“Quite. Pretty soon the thing starts to wobble, then tip and….” Nicky shrugs helplessly.
“C’est la Vie.” Terry agrees.
Eager to turn the tables and change the subject, Nicky took her hand in his. Too tempted to offer him comfort and liking how her hand felt in his just a little too much, Terry pulled her hand out and away.
Just then the waiter arrived with their after dinner drinks and the cheesecake they’d agreed to split.
“Everything is moving much too fast.” Nicky said after a while. “Like the bubbles in your glass. “ Nicky gestured to the waiter to pour him one as well. “You like pink champagne?”
He and Terry clinked their glasses in a toast. Nicky watched her eyes close and the small smile that played on her lips she savored the taste.
“My favorite drink. It ever apologizes for what it is-- a wonderful treat that makes life more enjoyable for a moment in time.” Terry told him.
“Why can’t this trip be a treat just like pink champagne?” He asked.
“Kenneth, for starters.” Terry told him.
“Jealous is he?”
“Of what? No, he trusts me we’ve been together for several faithful years.”
“Not one mistake? Ever tempted?” Nicky pressed.
“You make me sound boring.” Terry shrugged a little.
“He sounds like a paragon.”
“He must be for me to be able to resist you.” Terry tried to make a joke but her tone was sincere.
“So I guess we are back to walks in the sunshine and shuffleboard?“ Nicky gave her a self-deprecating smile.
“Mmhmm, afraid so.” Terry confirmed.
“No night baseball?” Nicky’s eyebrows waggled suggestively but he could not meet her eyes.
“Are you— my God! You are blushing!” Terry’s shocked tone caused Nicky to blush in a way he hadn’t for many a year.
“‘A temporary reaction to the novelty of rejection.”
“Oh your poor ego! I am sorry!” Terry was laughing at him now.
“Don’t be, me and my ego will just go for a walk. Care to join us?”
“I thought you’d never ask!” Terry said as he helped her rise from her chair.
As they walked onto the deck, Terry was bathed in moonlight, Nicky, with an artist’s view for color and composition, thought of how she’d look on canvas, how he might capture the play of wind rushing through her hair, the way her eyes drank in the stars above, how her lips curved in a sly smile as she glanced his way.
So strong was his vision, Nicky had to stop his finger from sketching what he was seeing in his mind's eye using fingers against his thigh, an old muscle memory trick was his starving artist years.
For the first time in a long time, Nicky wished he was back in the habit of traveling with easel and oils.
“What color is your hair, Sassenach?” Alex repeated.
“Hmm?” Claire’s head was still back in the book.
She marked their place and reluctantly closed the cover and noticed the smile that played on his lips. Lips that she’d watched all day, wondering when she’d get the chance to kiss them again. Her eyes drifted to his hand, still working the ball for PT. Hands she’d thought about roaming all over her body as she did anything but sleep all night.
“Oh, my hair is brown. Just...plain old dull brown, like my eyes. I’m rather nondescript I’m afraid.” She told him apologetically.
Jamie didn’t believe her for a second. Now that he felt the silky weight of her hair, he knew how beautifully it curled all around her face. He imagined her lips, with their sexy little bow, parted by her delicate sweet tongue that darted across them just before she kissed. Long torso, the promise of a firm, round arse, what he suspected were full, high breasts he ached to caress. Having no idea if there was anyone else about, if they were being observed, he dared not act upon his errant thoughts.
“And you?” Her voice suddenly broke into his thoughts.
“What about me?” He countered.
“I know from the beard your hair must be some shade of red but beards don’t tell the full story. Your buzz cut makes it impossible for me to tell if it’s strawberry blonde or carroty?”
“My sister Jenny says I’m a ginger. I dinna ken what she means.” He shrugged. “It’s red.” He confirmed unhelpfully and Claire found herself smiling, men!
“And your eyes? Joe, the surgeon who treated you cleaned them up and bandaged them before I scrubbed in. The chart says blue but what kind of blue-- and so help me if you just say it’s a blue blue I will throttle you.” Claire promised.
“Have ye ever seen a loch when the sun has hidden behind clouds? My eyes are like that kind of darker shade. No’ sky or silver in them at all, but maybe sharper or brighter? than ye would see on most. I expect it’s because of my hair but dinna take my word for it, Sassenach. You may judge them for yourself when….” Jamie trailed off at a loss. Hating the thought of saddling her with an obligation, of being seen as a burden, he found himself unable to ask directly.
Claire quickly glanced around. They were in the mess tent and not completely private. It was not a busy time and she saw no one actually looking their way. Her hand came forward to grasp his, easing their conversation. His fingerers twined with hers, variable, firm pressure conveying a meaning all their own that set her heart racing.
“When I visit you in London?” She ventured.
A flood of relief filled her entire body when he squeezed her hand hard and nodded his head.
“Yes... if it’s something ye might want to do?
“Yes, I’d want to. But I am not sure when...the logistics are complicated.” She began. “We haven’t had any time to talk, Alex.”
“It’s no’ Al--” Jamie’s lips were abruptly stilled by her fingers making a shhh motion over them.
“Do not finish that sentence, Captain.” She warned sharply as she caught the flash of movement in her peripheral vision.
Claire eyed the man who’d come into the tent. He’d spotted her and was slowly progressing toward them. Stopping at each table to say a few words to the men and women of his command. She had time enough to get this out.
“I know there are things you aren’t able to tell me yet, Captain. I’ll never demand anything of you that you can’t give me freely. I will ask you for one thing only. Give me the truth of what is in your heart and I will do the same. What it is that is between us….it has room enough for secrets but I will never lie to you about how I feel, and I’d ask the same of you. Do you agree?” Her voice was low and urgent.
His ears caught the sound of boots sliding through hard packed earth.
“Aye, Sassenach.” It was all he had time to get out, squeezing her hand hard in reply and letting go.
He wasn’t going to tell her his real name, he’d never betray his mission. He only wanted to give her the name of the family liaison in London and to warn her that the name they would give her in return would be different so she’d be prepared for it when she came to see him in London.
He felt her body rise off the bench they were sitting on. His own followed hers, instinctively sensing the air around them shifting.
“Colonel Gowan, good afternoon, sir! I see you got my message.”
Jamie snapped to attention, years of ingrained drilling took over.
“At ease, Captain. You seem to be coming along nicely. I know you are in good hands with Nurse Randall. Though I'm surprised to still see you here. Shouldn’t you have been transferred to London by now?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I’ll be transported as soon as HQ can release me, no’ much longer. Meanwhile, as you say, I am in good hands.” Jamie told him.
“Glad to hear it.” Ned turned to Claire and he inclined his head toward the tent’s exit. “I have a few minutes now if you’d like to accompany me on my administrative rounds and we can discuss that matter you raised in your note to me?”
Jamie assured Clare he could find his way back alone so she took her leave. Claire had been worried about her patients and whether they’d get the right medical care if the record remaind uncorrected. She was also wondering what to do with the information she’d learned and whether she had a duty to report the facts as she knew them or keep silent regarding the discrepancies between the official record and her medical evidence.
She knew she and “Alex” still had a lot to discuss, but it would have to wait until her shift change later that evening.
Special huge thank you to the wonderful email@example.com who let me borrow Murrayfield from her spectacular Stealing Tomorrow!
Chapter 7- Afghanistan 2006
The burden of doubt had been lifted from her shoulders following her conversation with the Colonel. Claire did as she had been instructed; but it had taken hours of documentation to finalize. She spent a moment observing her captain from the doorway.
He was pacing between bed and window, bathroom and bureau. She could tell he was mentally counting steps from the careful way he placed one foot then the other on the floor as he moved. He had changed into his faded red Murrayfield Fire and Rescue tee shirt and shorts, freshly laundered by her, to his profound gratitude.
He approached the bureau and struggled to open his kit, favoring his injured hand. She cleared her throat and he stilled at once. He attempted to nonchalantly lower his arm and place his hand down at his side.
“Do you need some help?” She asked him coming into the room and closing the door with an audible click. They had things to discuss and needed some privacy.
“No.” He said and moved back. His tone sounded a little short and clipped and he knew it. “I thought maybe….if I have need of the skill I should prepare myself a little at a time. Practicing finding things in a room without being able to….” He trailed off, not having the heart to continue.
Claire made a tsking sound but she didn’t try to pacify him with platitudes. Her troubles had lifted, but his had multiplied while they’d been apart. She guided him to the bed. He winced and a soft sigh of pain escaped his lips while he was settling against the pillows.
“Where does it hurt?” Claire asked (bloody stubborn man, she’d warned him not to overdo!) He held up his hand and a smile played upon her lips. “You look like a schoolboy hoping the teacher will call on him.”
That earned her a grin.
“Well, I feel like a schoolboy who needs to visit the school nurse.”
“Mmhmm.” She replied. “You’re thinking she’ll make you feel better?” He caught the teasing tone of her voice.
“Aye, and I ken just how she can make me feel better…” Jamie said suggestively.
He felt the mattress displace as she sat down across from him. Her other hand reached out until she was cradling his in both of hers. He squeaked when he felt her rubbing hand lotion across his throbbing skin.
She chuckled. “Not what you had in mind?”
He was shaking his head but didn’t pull away.
“Feels good.” He grunted.
Jamie relaxed as the tension slowly left his body. She pressed and caressed his palm in sure strokes easing the knots that had formed at the base of his wrist, forearm, upper bicep. Then tiny brushes, like puffs of air over his bruised fingers.
There was nothing lascivious in the way she was pressing his hand between hers but the intimacy of it moved him deeply. Ever since their shared kisses of last night he’d been thinking about it. Was it only his dependency on her due to his loss of sight that accounted for the feelings she was stirring in him? No, he thought not.
How strange, this pull of his heart to hers. He could almost feel it at the molecular level, because it was not based on looks, how could it be? It was her kindness, the thoughtful gestures of care, how that forthright mind of hers connected to his. In the way she reassured him with featherlight fingertips. Not just today but from the first day. It felt like they’d known each other for years.
She touched the index and middle fingers, the thick mound at the base of his thumb trying to ease the overworked tendons and ligaments. Claire moved with him as he slowly sank deeper into the pillows.
“Better?” Claire murmured.
“Much.” He assured her. “Come, lass you must be exhausted. Lay yer head wi’ me a minute, let me take care of you for a bit, aye?”
Claire closed her eyes enjoying the feel of his body, being cradled in strong arms. It was a good fit. Her ear pressed to his chest, she listened to the steady pulse of his heartbeats.
Perhaps in another life she might have fought against the feelings he aroused in her. She was technically still married and raw from the pain of losing the dream of her old life.
Then, too, there was this man’s life to consider. Facing the pain of loss himself, it was easy to assume his attraction to her was based on fear for his own future. Nothing more than the desire to anchor himself to something tangible until he got his feet back on solid ground.
So perhaps in another life, she might have dismissed his feelings, too, believing he was only using her as the handy mortar needed to temporarily shore up the cracks of his crumbling life.
But she’d seen enough death and destruction and hardship to last two lifetimes. So in this life she refused to dismiss his feelings or hers so blithely. No. Claire had never had a fling in her life and “Alex” was the farthest thing from a player as she could imagine. She smothered a chuckle.
God no. This man was a six-foot three walking, talking stalking her in her dreams, running into hell-fire to save his men, poem-wielding, fucking Scottish superhero.
What she felt wasn’t going to simply burn hot and fizzle out. This wasn’t a flirtation nor an infatuation. She knew very well the difference. The complications— and several spread to mind--were daunting. But willing hearts would find ways to overcome logistical hurdles, surely that much was true. That was her last coherent thought before her body sighed deeply and drifted off to sleep, safe in her captain’s arms.
They were still wrapped tightly around her when she woke. The room was dark now, the only lights were those from the outside that came filtering in the window. He was awake and she wondered briefly if he’d rested at all.
“I wanted to watch over you the only way I can for now.” He read her thoughts effortlessly.
“Please kiss me.” Claire raised herself up against his chest anticipating the moment.
“If my lips touch yours, Sassenach, I might no’ be able to stop. I’ve been holding heaven in my arms while you slept.”
Claire’s throat closed tight. He made her feel more cherished in three sentences than her husband had in all the years of their marriage.
“Earlier, you told me this was crazy and maybe you’re right but I don’t care if it is or not. I believe what your heart says to mine.” She would not be denied.
Jamie felt her lips on his and responded instantly. She felt him humming quietly in her ear, unable to keep himself silent as he kissed her jawline, then his lips fastened tight around her earlobe causing her to squeak and shiver.
Claire laughed, a joyful sound that made him grin. He returned to her lips kissing her slowly and thoroughly awake. She pulled back a little breaking the kiss.
He felt her palm against his, not holding his hand so much as pressing their palms together. She moved their joined hands flying them like a bird riding the current of the wind with him following her lead as if he actually could see her.
“Faceless, nameless and full of unknowns we may be but this is true.” She thrust her palm more firmly into his and rejoiced at his harder answering push. “How many times have you ever felt it’s like?” She wondered.
“Never.” He whispered and he squeezed her closer to him, kissing her forehead. “Ye saved my life, Sassenach.”
“I did not!”
“Ye did.” He insisted cutting off her denial.“Instead of sittin’ here feeling sorry for myself, torturing myself wondering why I’m alive when so many good men have perished and being pitiful, you remind me why I canna give in. Ye think me worthy. So I must be, aye? Not only do ye give me strength, Sassenach, ye give me hope. Maybe ye didna save my life, I’ll no’ debate ye on that point; but you are showing me what my life was made for. I belong to you now.”
Then he kissed her like a drowning man, he drank her in and spit her back out. There was nothing sweet or tender about it, no lingering gentleness but a craving, burning need to show her what he meant.
“Do ye belong to me, too, Sassenach?” A possessive desperation filled him.
“Je suis a toi.” Claire told him, I am yours.
“Yes, you are.” He told her. “All of you, Sassenach, every square inch from the top of yer plain brown hair to the tips of your toes belongs to me.” He told her, “I want all of it. Your joys and your sorrows, there is nothing of you I don’t want. I dinna ken what we have found here together but I canna stand the thought of leaving here without finding out. Will you let me in?”
She knew he was speaking metaphorically as well as physically, the need to dwell in her heart.
“Yes, I’ll let you in. I need to touch you and taste you and feel you inside me. Let me...” She moved to straddle him, pulling off her shirt and casting it to the floor. “...do what I do best. Take care of you...” Claire couldn’t stop touching him with her mouth and hands.
She felt him acquiescing, allowing her to take the lead. She could tell it wasn’t natural to him, to be passive. In that moment she understood how deep his feelings ran. He loved her, as improbable and illogical as it might be; it was real. She was sure of it.
Only that truth would have stilled a man like him. He let her, with trembling hands, slowly roll his shorts down his legs, run her hands up and under his tee shirt and remove it from his torso. No other man she knew would have resisted the urge to reassert his masculine pride; to prove to himself and his woman his superiority.
She’d been right-- this man would never use her. Even when she would have understood, even when she might have wanted him to, if only to give him a feeling of control over a world blown to bits.
Her eyes teared up watching him. He kept his own hands in check. She saw that strong, smooth jaw clench in restraint. The rise and fall of his chest as he breathed heavily.
Her heart lurched when she saw him biting his lower lip, groaning, resisting the opportunity to take over. Because he was putting her needs first, because hers were more important to him than his own.
“Feel my heart.” She held his fingers tightly against her pounding chest. Claire was making breathy panting noises, unable to keep quiet as emotions rolled through her body.
He kept his hand thrust against her pounding heart and could not hold back the moan as he felt the small, fierce weight of her sinking down on him. Strung tight, every nerve in her body felt alive, muscles squeezing and releasing on his length. His hands clenched her hips as he arched under, needing more.
A throaty groan while she surrendered herself to everything but the hot, hard body inside her. When she came, he was right there with her, pulling her against himself, holding her as they cried out together in a release so intense she couldn’t stop shaking.
Jamie pictured what her body must look like in this moment. Lush breasts, perfectly made to be cupped, covered in a light sheen of sweat and flushed red from her exertions. Her strong thighs gripping his body, head thrown back, eyes shut tight.
Does she know this is forever? That there never will be anyone else but her? He holds her close to him now. Feeling the need to possess her, to claim her just as she did to him. He flips her on her back. He’s growing hard again.
Barely a blink between beats because now he knows just how to kiss her, how to move his lips and flick his tongue just right. He knows that special spot on her neck that make her moan. How much she enjoys the pressure of thumb and forefinger against her hardened nipple. The way she cries out when he uses his teeth and scrapes her skin just so. He knows the way she sounds when he’s buried to the hilt in her. He knows how tight and wet she gets when he strikes her—- ah Christ! Like that.
Jamie can’t catch his breath, he is pistoning into her, moving at an unsustainable pace, rocketing faster and harder. He hears the noises they are making, loud and primitive and so full of aching need there is nothing he wouldn't do to satisfy her.
He holds out and holds on until at last— Jesus Michael and Bride!— she moves up into him and he can feel the orgasm ripping through her. He wants to wait until it’s done, until he knows she’s come back to herself because he wants her to know it’s him.
Unable to see the truth of it in her eyes, he selfishly wants to somehow make sure it matters to her but he can’t stop it from happening even as he feels the loss of a moment he’d wanted desperately.
As his toes curl and his release starts, he feels her hand grip him around the back of his head.
“I’m here, I’m right here!” Why was he even surprised she’d known? Been able to intuit it. Jesus, God! If he hadn’t already fallen he’d be a goner now for sure.
Claire’s arms came around him, keeping him close and he shatters and fragments and is put back together a different man, soothed by the peace of her soul slowly seeping into him.
Stick with me, it’s about to get very rocky…
8- Afghanistan 2006
He woke alone. It had taken him several long minutes to puzzle out the approximate time. He found his clothing more by following the scent of her laundry detergent. That apricot smell he’d thought was the shampoo. He scrunched the shirt under his nose and inhaled a few times before putting it on. A stanza from WH Auden came to him:
I’ll love you till the ocean is folded and hung to dry
and the seven stars go squawking like geese about the sky
And the years shall run like rabbits, for in my arms I hold
the Flower of the Ages and the first love of the world
For the first time since he awoke, blinded and disoriented, Jamie didn’t fear the future. He didn’t know what it would hold, but it held her at that was enough.
She found him in back of the mess tent, at their regular spot but he was sitting on the ground, resting against the crates they usually sat on top of, good idea she thought, much more private like this.
“Kiss me quick, all’s quiet, no one is coming.” Claire huffed out as she dropped into his lap.
“Aye? Well, if it ‘twas you coming, Sassenach, it certainly wouldna be quiet for long!”
“That’s terribly bawdy for a nice respectable soldier like yourself.” She told him between enthusiastic kisses.
“I’m respectable! But you on the other hand, sitting in my lap, pressing the long sweet lines of your body against mine—” He touched her so she squeaked and moaned, driving him mad. “Yer trying to tempt me.” His rumble shivered down her spine while he whispered in her ear and kissed her neck.
“Is it working?”
“All too well, lass. Sit over here!” Jamie moved her off his lap with a decisive grunt.
Claire laughed and handed him the exercise ball for his hand. As he took it, his other hand came over the back of hers and brought it to his lips. He kissed it, lips lingering over her skin.
“I can converse in almost a dozen languages and fluent in half as many, but I canna find any words in any of them to tell you what is in here.” His hand moved with hers to his heart, an echo of what she’d done last night.
“Oh!” She said and then abruptly cleared her throat. She kissed his upper arm. “Company.” She softly warned as three men strolled within range and he let go instantly.
Claire picked up the book and opened it at random.
“There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere I could think of. I thought I’d lost you and after today I couldn’t stand the thought of it. ” Nicky was so relieved at first he didn’t really notice anything was wrong. “Terry, darling? Have you been crying?”
“Mmm-hmm. I told you that is what beauty does that to me. Today was the the most wonderful, memorable day of my life.”
“We changed course today, you know.” He told her.
“Being with Janou gave us both fresh perspective.”
“I wanted to thank you for being so kind to my grandmoth—-”
Claire abruptly stopped. “Oh I am sorry! I went too far! This part is after they return from visiting his grandmother.”
“Wait, did ye– ye read ahead?” He asked.
“Well– err yes.” He couldn’t see her blush but he heard the guilty tone. “I– well, it’s easier if I am familiar with it first.” She sighed. “I have a thing about reading in front of someone else. I didn’t learn to read well until the end of second grade and when we’d go around the room and the teacher asked us to read aloud, I stuttered and messed up. It was awful.”
Claire braced herself for the pity she was sure she’d hear in his voice and the casual dismissal of her explanation and her pride rose up like the fur of a bristling cat. She readied herself to let him have it.
“Thank you.” He said quietly and the air she’d been holding for her spirited self-defense whooshed out of her. Jamie wanted to say something more but he couldn’t get the words out past the lump in his throat.
Claire finally found the right spot, with her eyes swimming in unshed tears, it took her a bit longer than necessary.
“You’re going ashore?” Terry asked as they approached the island.
“Yes, I’m calling on a lady.”
“No doubt you have one in every port!” Terry hated her the snide bite in her comment but could not help it.
“In this case, it’s my grandmother.” He told her. Reading her expression he added, “I can see you think I’m a liar, come with me and judge for yourself.”
After a long ride up into the hills, Terry turned around and gasped as she took in the view.
“It’s beautiful down there, isn’t it?” He asked, gazing at her while she drank it in. This was his favorite place in the world.
“It is…” She started giggling.
“What?” He asked enchanted.
“Oh a silly old joke. If it’s so beautiful down there, why’d you take me up here?” She laughed at his grimace.
Terry found herself utterly charmed by Janou, who had apologized right off for the poor condition of her home.
“I know I should have a housekeeper but I have outlived two and I’m too old to start breaking in another.” She confessed shrugging her spry frame as Terry helped clear things away.
“I confess, my plan was to die at 80, but here I am at 82. I suppose I better start saving money for my old age.”
Terry laughed aloud, “Very wise of you.” She complimented.
She spoke of Nicky with such love and obvious affection. Terry discovered he played piano like a virtuoso and had incredible talent as an artist but his inner critic crippled him with self-doubt.
“And the worst part of it is Nicolo is so good at everything!” Janou told her.
“Hum-huh, a jack-of-all-talents.” Terry supplied.
“Yes. Everything comes too easily for him. He is always attracted by the art he isn’t practicing, the place he hasn’t been, the girl he hasn’t met.”
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have met him?” Terry ventured.
“No.” Janou said emphatically. “My dear, you are different. I have been worried about him.”
“I am afraid life will someday present Nicolo a bill that he will find hard to pay. But when I see him with you, I feel better.” Janou told her.
“Are any of your grandparents still alive?” Claire asked him.
“Aye, I have a grandsire but we arena close. My parents are gone. It’s my sister and I, cousins, aunts, uncles. I also have a godfather. He watches out for me. And you?”
“I’m afraid not. I never met any of my grandparents, I don’t think I have uncles or cousins.” She heard him make a Scottish noise of acknowledgement. “I have always thought it must be a blessing to know there are people in the world that belong to you.”
“Je suis a toi.” Came his response back to her, said with an intensity of feeling that stole her breath. I am yours.
“Oh, yes.” She whispered but didn’t want to cry. He sensed that and didn’t push.
“Are you a jack-of-all talents?” Claire asked him, groping for safer ground for conversation, and having to speak a little louder as the afternoon breeze kicked in and the tent started rustling and rattling in response.
“Me?” He said surprised. “No. I canna sing a note.” He joked but sat a bit and considered as he turned his back a little to break the dirt carried on gusts.
“But, maybe a bit like Nicky. I’m always trying new things, learning a new language, traveling somewhere, reading new verse. What about you, Sassenach?”
The wind was really coming up, the winds of 120 days they called it, intense storms rising out of nowhere and disappearing as quickly.
“I’ve only ever been good at medicine. I always wanted to be a healer. Alex, I have to talk to you. I thought maybe when I came to see you in London but I– I don’t want to wait. Like Nicky and Terry, our course has changed.” He interrupted her with a fierce kiss. She’d been getting all worked up, he could hear it in her voice. He cupped her face in the palms of his hands.
“Dinna fash, Sassenach, we’ve time.” Jamie tried to reassure her but her heart could not be stilled. Something compelled him to action, a need to claim her and let her do the same to him.
“There is so much I want to say. Now is not the right time but I need you to know what is in my heart won’t change and–”
“Give me your hand.” He told her urgently.
“Do ye trust me?”
“Yer hand, Sassenach!”
Once her hand was in his, Jamie pulled out a wee knife he’d had in his pocket. Keeping his thumb on her wrist, he held a sharp pocket knife just above the base of her upturned palm.
“Will ye take an ancient vow, traditional for weddings in my family, with me?”
“A wedding? Oh! Alex– I don’t even know your real name! And beside that I’m st —-”
Alex interrupted her and smiled at her with great tenderness.
“No’ a wedding, Sassenach. Mind, one day we will do this proper, in a church afore a priest and all our loved ones, when I can watch you walk down an aisle with yer ordinary brown eyes and plain brown hair curling ‘round yer face as ye smile at me like I’m the only man in the world, just as I will look at you. But today it needs to go a different way. Bound by secrets but no’ lies about how we feel, aye? Did ye mean it when ye said it?”
“Yes, what it is between us…it won’t change.”
“Let me in, Sassenach? Let me give you my heart and let this be just between the two of us for now.” He said softly. Claire nodded but then, remembering, whispered yes. The captain made shallow cuts at the base of their wrists and then pressed their bleeding hands together.
“Repeat after me now: Is tu o mo chuislean, it tu cnaimh de mo chnaimh….”
Slowly and with great care, despite the whipping winds and loud snapping of the tent and rope, Claire got the words out. Her emotions causing her eyes to water and her voice to warble. When it was done, he leaned forward to kiss her, pressing tissue onto her wrist and then translated for her.
“You are blood of my blood, Sassenach, my heart and my soul are yours till our life is done. I meant what I said last night. I want it all, the joys and the pain. No matter what it is, dinna be afraid. Je suis a toi, Sassenach. Tonight, ye’ll tell me what’s troubling ye.”
She flew at him then and kissed him. They were forced to rise due to the sand swirling around. It got into their ears, mouths and her eyes. Claire’s hair was whipping into her face. As she moved it out of the way she saw their hiding spot had been discovered by a couple of the orderlies who were veering off their normal route to stop by and chat.
“Rose and Duncan are about to say hello. I need to get to my rounds.” She’d put her mouth closer to his ear to be heard over the clanging noises of the shaking tent.
“Come find me later, aye?” His low pitched voice had no trouble cutting through the wind to her. She even caught the wealth of meaning he’d infused in his “Aye” Her hand squeezed his tightly before she left.
He didn’t fully catch her reply, it had been carried away on a fierce gust that had everyone hurrying inside whatever shelter was nearest to them.
In his dreams, though, he could still hear her promise, “Wild horses couldn’t stop me.”
Even now, ten years later, the memory of their parting haunted him.
It still had the power to wake him from a sound sleep whenever the night winds howled through city buildings, down mountain passes or over empty plains. But she, like her last words, had vanished on the wind.
Special thank you to @MagnoliasInBloom for letting me borrow The Clan from her Someone To Stay AU, which you can find in the link below.
Special thank you to Magnolias In Bloom for letting me borrow The Clan from her Someone To Stay AU, which you can find here
As soon as the plane taxied to a stop on the tarmac, Jamie took his earbuds out, stowing them in his pocket. His ancient ipod mini, one of his most precious possessions, had finally given out entirely. It was one of only two things he had to remember her by, his Sassenach.
Murtagh had helped him transfer every song on it to a smartphone. He reluctantly had to admit that his godfather had been right, this particular technology was especially useful to him and he should have joined the 21st century years ago.
He didn’t bother opening his backpack to feel for the other item he had to remember her by, he knew the book with it’s precious bookmark was there. Merry Wishmas in sparkling, but faded, gold lettering.
She’d loved and cherished it for many years and had left it for him to do the same.
Over ten years now. Like the Yi Tien Cho poem he’d recited to her:
Ten years living dim and draw apart,
I don’t remember,
But forgetting is hard.
A flash of brown curls and brown eyes no longer had the power to stop him in his tracks. He didn’t consciously compare every woman her met to her. The aching wish of her was simply part of who he was, like the scar on his leg or the migraines that could bring him to his knees.
He couldn’t stop himself from that half second of hope when he saw someone with a passing resemblance. He couldn’t help praying that this time and with this woman perhaps he’d feel that spark of recognition, that moment his heart would jump start back to life again.
He’d tried to move on, some days he did a good job of fooling even himself and yet….yet, in the deepest part of his soul a tiny light still glowed, a wee bit of him still wishing for a miracle. She was out there, somewhere and he knew in his bones she hadn’t forgotten him either, his Sassenach. Je suis a toi.
Jamie had, bit by bit, gotten on with the business of living. A vastly different life from what he’d imagined but still, friends, family, meaningful work. Even a warm connection now and again. But that never lasted. His heart wasn’t in it, after all.
He couldn’t bear thinking about the night she disappeared. The frantic, panicked search. Running through the halls, forgetting to count his steps, tripping and banging into things, disoriented and out of his mind with fear.
2006 -Afghanistan and London
He didn’t know any of the medical corps on duty. How could twenty men and women just disappear? Dr. Abernathy was gone, Maryanne gone, Rose was the only one left and she had precious little to say. Finally, one of the men took pity on him and let him know a cargo plane had been hastily loaded and took off with over a dozen passengers aboard around 21:00 hours.
If he had his sight he would have found a way to break into the communications room and look at the logs. But without his eyes, all of his carefully honed skills were useless to him. He paced and raged and demanded and got threatened with arrest for his troubles. They’d confined him to his room instead, locking him in. At some point he fell into an uneasy, exhausted sleep.
He was in London by the next evening. The long flight home he kept pressing his finger to his healing wrist as he thought of her, confident he’d get answers in the next day or two. Knowing she’d come find him at the clinic, listening to her ipod music the entire way back to the UK. His Sassenach was a huge fan of The Clan.
She had every album they’d ever made, from their first hit, Hey Lass to their most recent live concert release. The irony of the fact that he shared the same name as the lead singer and her not even knowing wasn’t lost on him. He listened to Someone to Stay over and over, the lyrics etched on his brain:
This isn’t an ending,
Only the beginning of something…
I promise I will wait
As long as it takes
Because your heart is worth it
While Jamie waited for her to come see him, he underwent a series of tests and small procedures during those first couple of days he was at the Hunter Clinic. He was facing a larger surgical intervention, one that he hoped would restore his sight.
He was surprised when Dougal came to visit him.
“How’s Angus?” Jamie asked.
“He has some good days and some bad. He misses Rupert, says he canna bear to touch any of his things.”
“It’s hard to imagine the one without the other. They were only marrit the one year.” Jamie observed sadly.
“Aye, but he’ll adjust in time.” Dougal said confidently. “How are you doing? Memory returned yet?”
“Nah. I still canna remember a thing. The two days before and the three after are a black hole. I’m sorry Dougal. I ken Angus wants to know what happened, but I canna help. I dinna even dream about it. As for me? I’ll tell you in a week or so when we see...well, if I can see.” Jamie huffed a little laugh.
“I was wondering, Uncle, if perhaps ye kent what happened to the medical team posted at the 22 Field Hospital? I never got a chance to thank them. I’d like to get in touch with Dr. Abernathy and some of the nurses and such.” Jamie tried to sound off-hand.
“Cut the crap, my sweet lad. I saw how much ye liked Nurse Randall. Ye always had a thing for a curly wig. And it doesna surprise me a bit that ye found one even though you were injured and blind as a bat. As to her, though, yer no’ going to be barking up that particular tree. I imagine she’s gone back to her husband.”
Jamie made a sound of disbelief.
“She didna tell ye she was marrit? Her husband is Frank Randall, the author of the Charles Jacoby spy novels. That’s why she sticks in my mind.”
Jamie sat heavily on the bed.
“Look, lad she was bonnie, I’ll gi’ ye that and there are worse things than spending time holding onto that sweet pair of chiochan.” Jamie’s outraged cry didn’t stop Dougal’s train of thought, “War makes strange bedfellows, aye? But I’d imagine gossip and rumors would ruin her career, get awfully ugly if it made the papers. Such unprofessional behavior. Not to mention the damage to her personal life.”
“Ye dinna understand. It wasna like that.” Jamie explained. “We love each other.”
“Mmphm.” Dougal prevaricated, not wanting to contradict the lad’s tender feelings but Jamie had a mulish set to his mouth that was all too familiar to Dougal.
“Jamie, ye ken well enough it’s easy to take a flirtation and turn it into something more in yer head. Remember Annalise? And Margo? Ye fell in love with them as well. Swearing up and down both of them were the one. As I said, I dinna blame you. When yer all alone and cut off from yer normal life it’s sometimes easy to convince yourself that a fling is something else.”
“She’ll come find me.” Jamie was confident of that fact.
“I doubt it.” Dougal said coldly-- best to tell him where things stood. “Ye’d better hope to God none of yer pillow talk ends up in one of her husband’s espionage novels, either. You’ll be facing charges of treason for violating the Secrets Act.”
“Ye ken me better than that!” Jamie defended.
“Jamie, she’s married. She was your nurse and ye were both on duty. At best you’ll come off as a foolish boy and at worst...well, she could be dishonorably discharged, may be even blacklisted from working again. Nothing good can come from questions being asked regarding workplace...liaisons.”
Dougal decided not to push. One thing he knew for damn sure was Nurse Randall was out of Jamie’s life for good. He’d like to spare the lad’s feelings on it, but that was the plain truth of the matter and he’d best start to make his peace with it.
Six weeks later Jamie’s sight had been restored. Well much of it, at any rate. But she hadn’t come to see him. She knew where he was, why hadn’t she come to him already? It made no sense but as his sight slowly returned, as he could do a little more each day, he started looking for her.
Combing through the phone book under the Rs was when he learned that his life, as he knew it, was irrevocably over. That was the first migraine. He had healed well enough to see and to function but not enough to return to military intelligence nor academia, either.
Even as Dr. Hunter and he experimented with medications, protocols, limitations of his injuries, Jamie continued his search. He learned very little about Frank Randall and almost nothing about his wife. His real name wasn’t even Frank Randall. He was a notorious recluse, paranoid and secretive. Try as he might Jamie just couldn’t get a good read on the man or his life. Desperate for a lead Jamie started calling in favors from his former co-workers in MI divisions.
At the eight week mark, Dr Hunter was ready to send him home. Jamie had an honorable discharge and a broken heart.
Just as he was preparing to return to his home in Scotland, Colonel Gowan came to visit him.
“I understand you have been making inquiries regarding Nurse Randall.” Jamie was wary of this man. He had a pleasant enough face but his eyes were steely.
“Aye. She was vera helpful to me in country. Now that I can see again I thought to thank her in person.”
“You need to stop.” He told Jamie bluntly. “It would be a grave mistake for you to continue to rattle cages and upset apple carts. You will cease and desist your inquiries at once.”
“Between you and my uncle I’m beginning to wonder just what the hell going on, Colonel. I am no longer under the command of the British Army, so ye can take yer cease and desist and shove it up yer arse. Sir.” Jamie caught the faint outline of a grimace around the commander’s mouth. He wasn’t a yeller, though, he’d give Gowan that much.
“You are still held to the Secret’s Act.” Ned reminded him. “So is she.”
Jamie said nothing, just waiting him out.
“I made a mistake.” Ned told him softly. “And because of that mistake her life and yours changed course.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Jamie had been frustrated and annoyed but he was suddenly alarmed.
“I’m bound by the Act as well. All I can tell you is that in the course of treating the casualties from the 51st, the medical team became aware of certain...shall we say discrepancies between the official reports of the events of the day and the medical reports. She came to me to ask what to do because she was worried about her patients getting adequate follow up medical care. I told her patients come first in our unit and to write it up. I dispatched the report to HQ in London and a couple of days later, all hell broke loose.”
“You’re saying the medical team’s been muzzled?”
“Not just muzzled. Reassigned, threatened, ordered in no uncertain terms to never mention anything about the raid ever again. Whatever it is, it goes high up. Unfortunately for Nurse Randall, your....affair didn’t go unnoticed. They had quite a bit of leverage and made no bones about using it against her.”
“Is she ok?” He asked in low tones, a panther ready to strike.
“Yes. I can promise you she is fine and she’ll remain that way as long as you drop this, as long as she -- and all the members of the medical corps-- refrain from any future contact with the 51st, everyone will continue to be fine. If not then I’m afraid your relationship will be exposed. Her career would be over. I’ve known the lass for seven years now. She would not be the same if she couldn’t be a healer. And you should understand that I feel there was an underlying tone of threat in how this was handled. Nothing obvious. But I am also concerned about the safety of the men and women who served under me.”
“Why the hell is the army doing this?” Jamie cried out. Impotent rage settling in the pit of his stomach.
“I have no idea but something happened out there, something that has been kept under wraps and that someone wants to ensure stays buried. I have never seen a reaction like it in my life. I am risking something telling you any of this. But I promised her that I would talk to you and tell you what I could. She didn’t want you to think she--”
“She didna tell me she was marrit.” Jamie bit out, unable to stop the words. The Colonel’s face split into a rueful grin.
“Things between her and Frank...the marriage was over in all but name long ago. Her feelings for you were genuine. There was no time and no opportunity. The entire medical team had less than half an hour to pack their things before they were herded to the transport bay. She tried to get to you but the MPs prevented her from leaving. I heard an earful when I tried to intervene. We were all under orders. Our duty is to carry out those orders. She pulled me aside at the last minute and made me promise to give you one thing, though.”
At this Ned reached into his briefcase and took out a book. An Affair to Remember. Jamie reached out a trembling hand. He held it, looking at its cover, swallowing, visibly shaken.
Her red leather Merry Wishmas bookmark peeked out from the top. His fingers shook as he touched the visible tip of it. Ned made a small noise and Jamie looked up, cocking his brow.
“It’s been thoroughly reviewed. It’s just a book, I’m afraid. There aren’t even notes in the margin.” Ned told him.
Jamie could not hide his disappointment.
“I understand you’re being discharged soon.”
“I’m sorry about your---” Ned indicated in the general region of his face.
“Don’t be. I’m grateful that Dr. Hunter was able to do as much as he did. So many others lost their lives or have worse injuries to cope with.”
“Still, for a man such as yourself.” Ned abruptly cut off that thought. “Well, I have done my duty here. Please stay away from anything to do with her. It would be very dangerous for you to keep kicking the hornet’s nest. For you, but especially for her.” He warned.
“I understand.” Jamie told him.
“I must have your word.”
“Ye have my word.” Jamie promised.
As soon as Ned left Jamie fell on the book. He knew he’d have a migraine within an hour. Like always, it would leave him nauseous, unable to move his head or turn on a light and the searing pain would take hours to subside. His eye injury had left him with intermittent double vision and a complete inability to read or be on a computer without crushing consequences. But he’d risk anything for her.
The only thing that jumped out at him about the book was that she’d put the bookmark in the wrong place, shoved willy nilly in the middle of a chapter ahead of where they had been. Perhaps it was where she had read up to on her own? He didn’t know.
In this part of the story, Nicky and Terry decided to return to their lives to try and make it on their own and become worthy of each other. If they were successful they agreed to after meet each other six months later. On July 1 at the top of the Empire State Building and marry. This was the scene where her bookmark had lodged.
Terry never made it that far though. She was struck by a taxi as she crossed the street to meet Nicky. Jamie skimmed the rest of the book for clues. His heart squeezed when he read the part where Terry and Nicky reunite and he learns what happened to her.
“I was looking up. It was the nearest thing to heaven-- you were there!”
Jamie was re-reading the bookmarked chapter when the pain became too much. He barely made it to the bathroom in time. An orderly stumbled upon him curled into a ball, mumbling on the bathroom floor with Dr. Hunter clucking at him for reading for longer than 30 minutes.
“How...I….did?” Jamie spat each word through clenched teeth, needing someone to take things out on.
“I know you read too long because at the twenty minute mark you start shaking, your double vision makes it impossible for you to see unless you close your left eye. Since you can’t wink worth shit, you have to hold one hand over it. Ten minutes after that, your heart rate shoots to 150 bpm and you start to sweat and the pain starts. You know very well that if you stop reading then, take your medicine and lay down with a compress over your eyes for fifteen minutes you will sidestep most of your side effects except the double vision which will last a couple more hours. If you are still reading past the half hour mark, not only does the pain at the base of your skull intensify but you get blank spots in your one good eye and you start to throw up. You can’t make coherent sentences and what you can say is a jumble of at least three different languages.”
“I’m...thinkin’...now?” Jamie grunted trying not to move anything from the neck up. His eyes were tearing up at the pain. He fought back the dry heaves.
“You’re thinking your doctor is an arse with crappy bedside manner.” Denzel apologized. “I know you don’t need me to tell you any of this. I’m sorry for what the next eight hours is going to bring. I’ll call your sister and tell her today is no good and to pick you up in the morning.”
Jamie grunted his thanks but was curled in the fetal position wracked by pain. He placed his hand over his heart. His fingers started tapping erratically. At first he couldn’t find the pattern. Agony was the only word to describe it. He needed to try and get some measure of control.
He concentrated on trying to find the silent moments between the heartbeats. If he could just get his fingers to tap out his heart’s rhythm, he could focus on surviving between elongated beats, drawing each tap out, slowly increasing by a fraction each moment of relief.
Then he felt her fingers under his. At last, he was able to find the pulse that would help him let go of his tension in excruciatingly slow throbs. There were the two of them now, moving in sync and healing him as together they followed the pattern of his heart.
It only happened when his pain levels exceeded what he could stand alone. A hallucinatory effect is what Dr. Hunter told him. Nothing was worth the pain of it, even the feel of her steady touch under his hand, but it was a true comfort.
Jamie more or less kept his word to Colonel Gowan. He didn’t make any overt inquiries about her. But he never stopped looking. He had been in limbo almost that entire first year following his discharge from the military.
He hadn’t wanted to make future plans. He spent a fair amount of time with his family but he refused to tell them anything. Dougal had at least called Ian to give him a head’s up, to explain about his bruised heart. But Jamie wouldn’t speak of the ambush or his stay at the 22 Field Hospital, even to Ian no matter how many times Ian tried to talk about what had happened. Jamie would simply get up and leave the room.
Jenny’s heart ached for Jamie, he was at Lallybroch but not home. To see him wandering from room to room without a wee book of verse? He hadn’t graced the table with a single discussion of his translations of Yi Tien Cho. The lively debates he’d had with people all over the world on verbs and adjectives, meanings ascribed to metaphors, calligraphy strokes and significance of imagery happened no more. He had no refuge, no comfort.
After a time it became clear to Jenny that he wasn’t going to get over any of it easily. The world had split for Jamie into the distinct halves of before and after. He never talked about his life before, his time at the Hunter Clinic, the woman who preoccupied his thoughts. Nor would he discuss how he was coping with the head injury that robbed him of the one thing that had always helped him make sense of his world. He hadn’t expressed denial, anger or acceptance. How could he move on if he couldn’t put it behind him?
“Jamie, ye canna spend yer whole life waiting. If it was meant to be, it would have happened by now.”
Jenny tried to be gentle but it wasn’t in her nature to see her brother in pain and sit idle. Jamie grunted-- an acknowledgement that he knew that she knew about it but as usual kept completely silent.
Jenny understood him better than anyone. She needed to find the strength to pull him back into the land of the living-- perhaps a different life than the one he had expected, but a life still worth living nonetheless.
The only way she knew how to get a stubborn Fraser to budge was a kick to the backside and then give him a hug. Resolutely, Jenny decided the time had come for Jamie to face his demons, whether he wanted to or not.
Jamie had been out walking. He could spend hours lost in his own thoughts wandering through the craigs and glens of his childhood. He’d come in, freezing cold, to the warmth and comfort of the Lallybroch kitchen, beef stew cooking on low in a corner of their ancient wood stove.
He was spooning a little into his mouth, burning his tongue in the process, when Jenny came in from the utility shed with a basket of laundry. When he saw the neatly folded familiar faded red, the top of each letter spelling out Murrayfield on his favorite shirt, he lost it.
“Jenny, Christ Jesus! What have ye done?” He shouted at her.
“The laundry.” She said one brow raised but the look in her eye told him she knew exactly what she’d done.
Jamie picked the shirt up and quickly brought it to his nose, trying to catch even a whiff of Sassenach on it. Nothing. Gone.
“Oh, Jenny, why did ye do it?” Jamie’s anger had vanished replaced by a broken whisper and a trembling lip.
“She is gone brother, but ye canna seem to face it. I’ve seen the way you hold that shirt next to your nose, the scent of her is more real to ye than the cotton it’s made of.”
“How could ye? She’s the only thing I have left!” As the first tears fell, Jamie’s knees gave way he curled around himself fisting the shirt in his hands. “Jenny, ye dinna ken. I-- we--she-- the Fraser vows.” Jamie whispered.
“Oh Jamie!” Jenny dropped to her knees and held him as he cried out months of tears and rage and pain. “I’m sorry, Jamie, so sorry. She is gone, as much a ghost as Rupert and I will be damned if I stand by and watch her memory haunt you day by day. Ye didna have the strength, but I did mo chridhe. I did. It’ll be better again soon, I promise. Lay yer head, man.”
The next day, Jenny called Murtagh and the course of Jamie’s new life slowly started to emerge.
Murtagh spent time with Jamie, learning what he needed, what he could do on his own. He drove him to his appointments, filled out his paperwork for him, read to him, wrote letters for him and together they started preparing him for what his next step might be.
Jamie had taken Murtagh into his confidence, telling him about his Sassenach and their bond. With Murtagh’s help and blessing, Jamie made one final effort to find her. Murtagh helped him book the flight, arrange for the taxi and hotel and most of all keep Jenny and Ian’s nebs out of it. His sister meant well but she’d try and talk him out of it. There was no way in hell he wasn’t seeing this through.
“Ye’ll call me and tell me what happens, aye-- I dinna care what time it is.” Murtagh told him sternly. “Wake me up if needed because I’ll likely no’ sleep well anyway.”
Jamie allowed the hope to rise up in his chest on the trip to the Empire State Building. It was 11 months from the time they’d parted. Just like in the book, he timed his arrival he arrival for 8 am on July 1. He half expected to see her in the elevator on the way up. Why else send the book to him with Colonel Gowan? Why else mark that chapter? He stepped with confidence out onto the observation deck, eyes riveted to the doors knowing his heart and soul would be returning to him today. As he waited, he listened to her mini iPod from 8 am until 2 am-- when they shut down for the night.
He stepped into the last elevator like a ghost. The fragmented memories of the man he had been shattered. Forsaken, scattered to the winds, Jamie wandered the city aimlessly. Nothing made sense. Numb, trying not to think, unable to stop thinking.
Eventually, he ended up in Battery Park looking at Lady Liberty, symbol of hope and opportunity and gaining much needed perspective. He wasn’t helpless or hopeless.
He needed to stop searching for lost things and find a new world for himself.
After the sun came up, he called Murtagh.
“I’m ready Ghoistidh.”
Chapter 10 Present Day 2017
Jamie stepped off the plane, heavy black leather boots clanging on the metal ramp.
Gingham, his partner of one year, pressed herself tightly to his side. He pitched his voice extra low, commanding and reassuring her, she was always skittish walking off the back end of a transport. He reached down and stroked her just behind her ears, smiling as she made a soft noise in the back of her throat. She saw Ghost before he did, followed closely by his godfather.
Jamie clasped hands with him, both of them ignoring the chaos of the unloading of emergency equipment and supplies.
“There ye are, Jamie-lad!” Murtagh called out. “Jesus God what did ye do to yerself?” He asked in wonder as he grabbed the second bag from Jamie’s hand.
Jamie smiled and moved his head back and forth letting his long hair fly in the breeze.
“Are ye saying I dinna look good as Goldie Locks?”
“Mayhap if Goldie was a surfer dude from Cali.” Murtagh scowled.
“Well, there was no help for it. The charity theme was Blonde Ambition and all the bachelors for the auction had to be blondes. Geneva insisted. What would ye have me do? Call in sick when the money raised every year benefits our org? Besides, Geneva would’ve killed me and I’m far more scared of her than of something that’ll wash out in a week or two.”
International disaster teams like their own relied on a hodgepodge of private and public funding and lots of side projects to enable them to stay afloat. Murtagh and he were lucky to have a few angels like Geneva Dunsany and her set that donated generously of their time and funds and Murtagh knew it.
“I kent hanging out with the big city gym rats’d come to no good. Ye’ve gained a couple stone of solid muscle, most in yer chest. God, you look like a fair haired Gaston.”
“Va ta faire foutre!” Jamie responded, go fuck yourself sounded much better in French and was on theme for his Beauty and the Beast insult.
“In that case I’ll stop being diplomatic and start calling ye Fabio!” Murtagh ribbed him.
Jamie laughed. It was good to see Murtagh. It had been a good four months. Jamie was living in New York on extended assignment while Murtagh held down the fort in Scotland.
Together they’d grown their company, SARD Global into a recognized leader in canine search and rescue operations. It took an average of 1,000 hours for a handler to be properly trained and about 600 hours for a dog.
Jamie trained both in all disciplines from air scenting, to trailing, to tracking. What a team specialized in depended on the dog’s strengths and the handler’s interests. Tracking dogs worked on lead, following a specific scent. Dogs like Ghost and Gingham were air scenters, trained to work off lead and alert on people trapped under structures, mudslides, avalanche and water.
The most challenging field was urban SAR, which required both handler and dog to know how to read air currents that shifted and moved inside buildings in various states of stability, how to safely move in such spaces, and clear each structure correctly. It also meant understanding how to interact with first responders and city planners plus overseeing large groups of volunteers who invariably showed up to help.
Teams trained weekly, all year round, to maintain their skills so they’d be ready when disaster struck. SARD Global trained as well as organized rosters of volunteer teams to deploy around the world when called, as they had been following this devastating earthquake in Mexico two weeks before Christmas.
“Mmphm.” Murtagh’s attention was diverted as they stowed bags and climbed into the Jeep. “No, Gingham, we’ve been over this before. She wi’ short legs, rides in the back.” At her whine Murtagh shook his head. “Dinna be a difficult lass, just there, right beside Ghost.”
Jamie sat in the now empty passenger seat and they started on their way.
“Ye spoil her, Jamie. Ye must put yer foot down so she knows who’s in charge.”
Jamie raised a brow. “She kens well enough who’s in charge. Her.”
Knowing they were speaking about her, Gingham thrust her furry head between the seats and rested it on the center console for a nice long head scratch.
”Isn’t that right, my baby?” Which got him a familiar chuff of agreement.
As they made their way toward the disaster zone, Murtagh filled him in on the situation.
“The quake impacted large portions of the city center. We know people are trapped within commercial and residential buildings. At least 40 buildings completely collapsed, scores are damaged.”
“Jesus.” Jamie couldn’t hide his shock. Hundreds were sure to be dead and injuries would be in the thousands.
“The area is mostly stable now. Some aftershocks. We’ve commandeered a hotel on the northside and taken over a local clinic a block away. The supplies that shipped on the transport with you will fuel the teams for awhile. Local crews are overwhelmed.” Murtagh told him.
Jamie wasn’t surprised. With such a huge area of destruction, any city would require outside assistance.
“Disaster Recovery sent a full medical team down. So if we can find them, at least we know they’ll be looked after, no’ like that shit show in the Philippines.”
Jamie nodded. They’d been on the ground within 48 hours in the Philippeans and as they pulled survivors out of twisted and shattered homes they quickly ran through the meager medical supplies they had on hand. Not enough bandages or disinfectant, no operating theatres that were functional, not enough doctors.
Jamie shook his body, willing the memory of the soft weight of the boy in his arms to go away. Jamie’s feeling of triumph as he pulled the wee bairn alive from the wreckage of the cyclone faded fast. He did CPR for over an hour, willing him to hang on until a doctor could be found. Murtagh finally intervened and told him he needed to stop. The boy was long gone and Jamie wasn’t doing anyone any good.
Gingham, her maiden deployment, had done her duty and then some, pressing her body against the boy trying to keep him warm as he slowly turned cold. The one saving grace of that experience had been the unbreakable bond he’d forged with his furry partner.
Jamie followed Murtagh to his room. He took a moment to quickly unpack. He pulled out several rolled pairs of socks and dropped them into the open drawer. As he turned he caught Ging grabbing a pair and nosing them under the bed.
He smiled to himself and pretended he hadn’t seen her do it.
“Hmm. Murtagh I coulda sworn I had five pair in there did ye take one?” Jamie asked.
“What would I want yer smelly sock for?” He scowled.
“I dinna ken. Hmm well four’s as good as five I guess.” He shrugged.
Jamie turned back to his duffle, pulling his work boots out and laying them next to the desk before ducking into the bathroom to stow his Dopp kit.
Gingham chuffed and Murtagh looked over at her just in time to see her pick up one shoe and nose it under the bed. As Jamie came out of the bathroom, she promptly sat her butt down and looked at the ceiling.
Jamie’s eyes narrowed, he poured both dogs some water and urged Ging to drink up while he was busy preparing his kit and Ging’s pack. Jamie loaded the vest pockets with extra food and basic first aid supplies.
When he was finished he went to put his boots on, discovering one was missing. Jamie affected a tone of puzzled outrage.
“Gi’ it back, man!”
“Give what back?” Murtagh asked.
“My boot!” Jamie was able to see Gingham out of the corner of his eye. She had one ear cocked to the side and one straight up avidly watching. He almost laughed out loud. Such a silly lass!
“I dinna have it!”
“Where did it go, then?” Jamie turned and looked at his pup whose tail was wagging so hard that her backside was shaking with excitement. “Look, Ging!” Jamie asked giving her the command for finding an object.
When Ging found it with lighting speed, Jamie responded as she’d been hoping.
“Ach! Yer a beautiful, clever wee beastie. Finding my shoe so quick!" He vigorously rubbed her down and stroked her behind the ears taking out a special treat, as Gingham knew he would. Murtagh scowled and Ging chuffed proudly.
"Ye must stop spoiling her!" He reminded Jamie.
"Who's a good dog, too?" And unrepentant Jamie gave Ghost his own wee treat.
After his boots were on, Jamie kneeled and strapped the pack on Ging. She knew once her safety vest was on it was time to get to work. They followed Ghost and Murtagh out into the street.
The SAR teams had come from four countries, Jamie easily interacted with each of the teams on this shift, switching effortlessly between languages, sometimes carrying on multiple conversations at once. All handlers were trained in ham radio use and carried handhelds because cell phone coverage was often sketchy and too expensive for such deployments.
“Find it.” He said, this command was used when her task was to find humans not objects. Ging started moving and Jamie followed her closely as she scented the air.
They would then work the building, floor by floor. Jamie made careful note of every “alert” she gave. He stopped her now and then to mark or flag or give her instructions. The broken glass and exposed rebar presented infinite challenges to Ging’s body and the bright orange vest she wore helped protect as much as identify her as a rescue dog.
“Over!” He let her know to step careful.“Tunnel,” let her know to crouch down. Meticulous, tedious, exhausting and dusty. Climbing over debris, he and Ging made their way, as carefully as possible into the cracks and splits of pulverized cement and lumber reduced to rubble.
“Show me.” Jamie asked her. Ging returned to the location of her finds. This ensured that she’d altered correctly and not because of a first false hit. He'd trained Gingham to alert on both living and dead. Some dogs were cadaver only; but Gingham had a wider range of skills. That meant that they wouldn’t know whether the person was living or dead until they dug down.
They’d spent the last four hours clearing several structures, marking searches with the quadrant used for USAR, noting date of search, number of live and dead found, and any other hazards. Once the building was completely searched and cleared, a large circle was spray painted around the quadrant ensuring no one wasted time on a cleared building.
They’d found five bodies before Ging hit on a living person. Jamie gave her proper praise for her alert-- careful to calibrate his reaction. In cases where the handler knew a dog would end up finding more dead than living, it was critical that the dog get praise and rewards for all alerts.
It crushed Ging when all she found were bodies. She worked for praise and understood the different values people placed on live finds over body recovery, because live finds were always met with greater enthusiasm from the first responders, diggers and bystanders. Gingham worked just as diligently and just as hard to find a dead body as a live one but didn't get the same adoration. It made her feel as if she'd been bad when she noticed the grim silence of a body retrieval.
Jamie had been ready to ask one of the volunteers to go hide behind a low wall and lie still just to ensure Ging had a living rescue on the day, which would help her sleep better tonight. Thankfully, that was no longer necessary. With the help of a team of local volunteers, they’d extracted an elderly woman.
“Me llamo Nina,” she’d told Jamie.
Dehydrated and frantic about her perro, Oscar, she had a broken ankle and Jamie suspected a couple of broken ribs as well.
He promised he’d look for the pup himself just to get her to go in the ambulance. To his great surprise, he stumbled upon the wee beastie an hour later. It was Ging who found him.
Jamie watched as Gingham picked her way quite gracefully through the obstacle course of brick and twisted steel firmly prodding the little dog along.
He decided that now was a good time to call it a day. Six hours was the limit of Ging’s working stamina. If asked, she’d go the clock round but it wouldn’t do them a lot of good over a multi-day deployment such as this one. Better to come back on fresh legs and nose tomorrow. Jamie signed off over the radio and called in his last coordinates, letting the team know he was making his way to the clinic so if anyone needed supplies for the morning they could call it in.
Jamie clipped a lead on wee Oscar. He mostly carried the leash for show, Ging almost never used one. Once Jamie entered the clinic, it took him no time at all to find Nina, she was resting on a cot, leg in a cast, an IV bag replenishing her fluid levels. Nina’s color looked much better, he was gratified to see.
“ Buenas tardes, Nina. Traje a un amigo para una visita .” Jamie told her as Oscar jumped on the bed happily licking her face, soft barking sounds coming from the back of his throat.
“¡Jamie! Haces milagros. ” Nina’s eyes shone with happiness. “ Ay! Oscar cuidado!”
“No es un milagro, es entrenamiento y buena suerte, y la ayuda de Gingham. ” Jamie told her. For while Gingham was a Godsend for the people she found in time, they relied on training and happenstance more than divine intervention in their line of work.
Just then, the IV unit began to alarm, startling Oscar into defending his mistress with vociferous barking. Judging by the reaction among the other patients, the increased noise level was not appreciated.
Jamie couldn’t find the button to turn the sound down and instead moved quickly to a crate of medical supplies. He grabbed the saline and began to change out the bags.
“Hello, you scamp. I take it you are the cause of all this ruckus? You must be Oscar.” Said a good-humored British voice behind him. “I’ve heard all about you and I see you brought a friend.”
Jamie did the best he could to restart the flow of the drip but was unable to figure out the right combination of buttons. He half turned to see a tallish woman in scrubs giving Gingham a quick scratch behind the ears and leaning over to check Nina.
“How are your ribs?” She asked.
“ Sensible al tacto.” Nina hissed.
The woman asked, “Dolor?” Pain was one of the few Spanish words she knew.
“No mas.” Nina responded.
“But sensible? ” The woman doubled checked. “Uhum?”
“Aye, mistress, it means tender, when ye touch it.” Jamie spoke up.
“Ah. Well, to be expected.” She offered Nina a smile of reassurance meanwhile her heart began to beat a little faster, as it always did when she heard a Scottish accent.
“Here let me---” The woman ducked around the blonde collassis standing behind her and efficiently reset the IV unit.
As she spun back she became tangled in the leads. She tripped hard into the man and his arms came around her body automatically, steadying her and putting her back on her feet. She was laughing while trying to get herself free.
“Pardon! I just need to--” She dropped to a crouch to work a line free.
Jamie bent down to help just as she stood back up and her forehead made solid, hard contact with his nose. There was an audible crack.
“Ow!” His hands came up to his face.
“Sorry!” She had a vision of the most startling eyes and then he shut them tight.
“Christ, I think my nose is broke!”
“No, it isn’t.” She said confidently.
Piercing deep blue orbs snapped back open.
“When you break it the sound is more like a crunch. Besides you’re not even bleeding. Here move your hands, let me see.”
Jamie lowered his arms and she rose a little on her toes to get even with his face. She placed her fingers expertly along the bones and moved his head a little to the left and then right. Jamie stopped breathing. Her touch rocketed through his gut.
“Not broken.” She declared releasing her fingers. He really was extraordinary looking. Huge across the shoulders and chest, long blonde curls falling to his shoulders.
“Are ye sure?” He sounded doubtful.
“You can trust me, I’m a doctor— or at least I will be by the end of the year. Claire Beauchamp.” She thrust her hand out and noticed the way his eyes twinkled good-naturedly.
“Jamie Fraser, at yer service, almost Dr. Beauchamp.” His large hand enveloped hers.
Warmth spread through her at his touch. It was the accent, she knew, that was the only rational explanation for her reaction. She didn’t even like blondes, especially beefy ones, she reminded herself.
“Call me Claire, please.”
Jamie reluctantly let go of her hand but they continued to stare at one another. It was the muted accent of English of her voice maybe —though the vowels were flattened like an American’s.
That and her eyes...it must be. He hadn’t known such a color even existed. A vibrant, rich cognac with just a touch of golden honey and full of warmth.
Shit, if she had a mass of curls under that tightly tied OR cap, he was done for. It had been a very long time since he’d felt like flirting but something
about Claire made him want to tease another smile from her lips.
The silence stretched out. From behind them, Nina piped up.
“ Ella es la doctora muy hermosa, ¿no?”
“ Estoy de acuerdo. ” Jamie agreed, she was gorgeous, no question.
“Hmm?” Claire asked and to her surprise she saw him blush and looked over at Nina who had a tiny smile on her lips. Claire decided to change the subject.
“Do I detect a Scottish accent?”
“Aye, at least the company’s there, but I’m based in New York at the moment. Canine search and rescue. My partner, Gingham.” Jamie nodded toward the dog.
Claire bent down and gave Ging a proper rubbing, which she ate up like the love hound she was.
“Gingham?” Claire looked up and saw Jamie nodding. “What an awful name for such a wee lassie!” Claire said with a laugh. “And you are undeniably a lassie, aren’t you, sweet girl?” At this Ging slowly rolled over and went belly up. Shameless pup.
“Aye, she’s bonnie.” Jamie agreed. “The year she was placed one of the auction prizes at our annual fundraiser was getting to name the dogs. A costume designer won the bid and all the dogs from that year have names like Velvet and Flannel. Ging likes her name, don’t ye a leannan?” At this Ging gave a soft chuff.
“Gingham. Beautiful!” Claire looked her over reconsidering. “I think you are right, it suits her fine. How is the nose?”
The nose had stopped hurting the second his hand touched hers but he was reluctant to lose her company.
“Do ye have aspirin, perhaps?”
“Come with me to the supply area and we’ll see what we can find.”
They took their leave of Oscar and Nina. Jamie trailing behind...speaking of which he couldn’t help but note she had the roundest —-
“Oomph!” To his surprise, he ran smack into Murtagh almost tripping over Ghost.
He recovered his balance quickly but he could swear Ging had known why he was distracted. She gave him a yip and was grinning at him with her tongue hanging out in that goofy way she had, one ear sticking straight up and a certain cock to her head. PHe mumbled a Gaelic “haud yer wheest” at her.
“You ok?” Murtagh asked with some concern upon seeing that he was accompanied by a doctor in scrubs.
“Oh, aye, just returning a wee pup to his mistress. The woman we pulled out earlier today.”
“Ah! The one wi’ the leg? How is she doing?”
“Happier now.” Jamie made the introductions.
Claire shot a brow up into her forehead at the sight of yet another dog in the clinic.
“Ye headed back to the hotel?” Murtagh asked.
“In a bit, Claire was just getting something for my head.” Jamie said casually.
“Did ye no’ bring yer pills, then?” Murtagh asked with some surprise. “Ye ken—-oomph!” Jamie drove his elbow solidly into his godfather’s side, squelching any further comments.
“I get headaches after I fly, sometimes.” Jamie said in response to Claire’s raised brow.
Murtagh stared at him in disbelief. What he got, usually the night of or the morning after, was a killer vice squeezing the base of his skull, always.
What helped blunt the impact was a high protein, low caffeine diet, physical exertion to lower his blood pressure, doubling his normal fluid intake, regular doses of his meds and limiting all reading, especially the common passive reading everyone does unconsciously - emails, texts, signs, billboards. Jamie had worked hard to become aware of and minimize such activities.
“Then my knock on your nose certainly isn’t going to help matters.” Claire said.
“I’ll be fine wi’ just aspirin.” Jamie insisted.
Murtagh pretended not to see Jamie’s quick get ye gone, ye old busybody head jerk and followed his godson.
Claire made a right this way gesture that had her leading an odd parade of dogs and Scots into the small exam area that doubled as their current supply room. Jamie dutifully swallowed the aspirin.
Murtagh had decided to drop by the clinic at the end of his shift to restock their field supplies and that was what he proceeded to do, loading items into the saddle kits worn by the dogs and their own packs.
Claire handed a clipboard of forms to Jamie. He made no move to look at it.
“Sorry, regulations, we need to try and track the medical supplies. I’ve no problem with your taking them but I do need to account for their use.”
She pointedly looked down at the clipboard. Jamie followed her gaze briefly then flicked his eyes back to Claire and made a mmphm sound but still didn’t pick the pen up.
“Just a quick note of what you grab will do, the form isn’t hard to fill out….” She hinted once more.
Why was he just standing there? She tried to avoid stereotyping the man as a lummox-- blonde, a little clumsy, big muscles, big hair and uncouth. His unwillingness to start helping was tipping from awkward to rude when Murtagh stood up and Jamie shoved the clipboard into his hands.
Claire wondered at the almost dismissive gesture. Was Murtagh expected to do everything like some underling?
Then Murtagh started talking and she realized that far from paying no attention, Jamie had followed everything Murtagh did closely and Murtagh had relied on Jamie to track quantities and distribution.
“How many rolls of gauze?” Murtagh was asking as he made his way down the form.
“18 large and 12 small, three boxes of butterfly clips, ye placed the extra in my sack, no’ yours.” Jamie told him.
“Four in my saddle three in yours. With two boxes of topical lidocaine split between them.” And so on all the way down the list.
Once it was complete, Murtagh handed everything back to Claire.
“Thank ye kindly, Claire, we’ll get out of yer hair, now.” Murtagh started moving through the door, Ghost in tow. When he noticed Jamie’s absence he called back.
Claire listed to a rapid fire exchange in Gaelic. Spanish and English and Gaelic? The timbre of his voice in his native tongue, echoed within her heart and it started hammering.
Is tu o mo chuislean, it tu cnaimh de mo chnaimh…..
Her throat seized up and she started to hyperventilate. Claire willed herself to take shallow deep breaths and stay standing on her feet. Ridiculous! This man was three times the size of her Alex, and Alex was undeniably a redhead not a platinum towhead.
And anyway, Jamie didn’t seem to like reading or writing. Claire couldn’t help but notice not only had he passed off the forms to Murtagh, but he’d not reset Nina’s IV despite changing the drip with easy familiarity.
She didn’t know why he didn't try and figure out the IV machine sequence codes, because he could have easily done that just by a quick scan of the digital readout on the unit.
Yes, indeed she was absolutely mental. This man was as far away from Alex’s refined type as she could imagine. And yet there was something about him that reminded her of Alex.
He’d shown such great care and concern for Nina, bringing the dog to her rather than a shelter, changing the IV drip instead of calling a nurse. He also worked in a difficult field requiring self sacrifice. And he was Scottish. And his voice! Those were similar actually. God to hear the delightful rumble of Rrrs in that lilting, lovely accent. And they were both multilingual and had a lovely sense of humor.
“When do ye get off shift, Claire?” Jamie repeated.
“I wondered if I needed to come by and take Oscar to a shelter or if ye ken the medical crew coming on when yer shift ends and could clear it wi’ them?”
“Oh.” Claire had no idea why she felt disappointed that he’d been asking for a work related reason. “No it’s fine, I’ll tell the next shift, no need to trouble yourself.”
Jamie held his hand out and she put hers in it. Her stupid heart started beating harder at his touch. That hadn’t happened in over a decade.
“Thank ye kindly, Claire. Perhaps we’ll see each other again?”
Jamie didn’t want to let go of her hand. He wanted to pull her closer and reach up to to her ridiculous cap and...Jamie stepped back, forcing himself to get out of her way.
“Yes, Jamie, I’m -“ her face flushed a pretty pink, “thanks.”
She had nothing to thank him for but he was gratified she wasn’t indifferent to his touch since hers did all kinds of things to him.
Aye, Jamie thought they would definitely see one another again soon if he had anything to say about it
Quick note to thank @thenameismj and @linagaen for their help!
Chapter 11- Present Day
Claire ate a light supper before heading back to her hotel room. She was exhausted from working back to back 12 hour shifts. Her final two weeks of clinical field work. A long time coming. Hard to believe that she’d be a licensed physician before the New Year.
Her program, based at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston trained nurses to transition to physician assistants and then to doctors. The grant-subsidized program required all PAs to have a minimum of 350 hours providing medical care in disaster areas, giving students the hours necessary to finish out the requirements for the innovative alternative physician licensure program.
Claire had been working in a FEMA funded mobile clinic set up in the wake of the deadly hurricanes and record flooding that had pounded the southern states when she got the mobilization call for Mexico.
The damage had been both better and worse than she’d imagined. The destruction haphazard, depending on the age and construction of the buildings, the soil composition, the way the fault lines criss crossed. On this side of the city, water and power were slowly being restored. Other parts were pitch black in the night. No one had cell or internet yet, landlines were mostly down. But progress was ongoing and she was making a difference.
Claire couldn’t seem to settle. New place syndrome. It always took her a few nights to adjust. She grabbed her shawl and went for a walk in the hotel’s private gardens. A quarter moon glowed dimly overhead and all the stars were out. It was preternaturally quiet in a city still reeling with shock.
Claire perched on the lip of the central fountain. The rushing water created a soothing sound. She turned her face upwards taking in the vast night sky and fought against the rush of tears flooding her eyes.
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, how I wish I may, I wish I might have this wish I wish tonight.
Are you proud of me baby girl? As promised, here I am. I told you, our family takes it’s vows seriously.
Claire would never be able to look at the moon and stars without thinking of Faith, an aching hole burning through her heart.
But tonight it had company. Alex was foremost in her mind and that hadn’t happened in a long while.
Do ye belong to me, too, Sassenach?
“The other half of my heart is inscribed with your name.” Claire thought.
When Faith was very young and unable to sleep, Claire would grab their thick plaid picnic blanket and lay it out on the little square of lawn that passed for their backyard in Jamaica Plain, just outside of Boston. The two of them would snuggle up and look at the stars, talking of him.
“He’s watching the heavens, too, Mommy.” She’d say.
“Yes,” Claire agreed, “and he’s thinking of us.”
“Tell me the story again.” Faith loved hearing about her father.
“He was a Scottish soldier. He loves poetry and traveling.”
“And speaks every language.” Faith cut in making Claire laugh.
“Not every language. But many.”
“Does he know Lao?” Faith asked.
“I have no idea, but I know he’d be impressed that you do.”
“Not everything, just what Laya and her mommy teached me.” Faith’s best friend Laya had indeed taught her many words which Faith had absorbed like the sponge she was.
“He is brave and smart. Taller than Dr. Joe and he had---”
“Red hair!” Faith cut in. “And blue eyes like me! My name is Faith Alexandra ‘cause that’s his name.”
Claire had done her best to give Faith a father in the only way she could under the circumstances. It seemed cruel and pointless to tell her Alex never even knew she’d been conceived, so she stuck as close to the truth as she could.
“Yes, but your hair is brown like mine and your eyes are a light sky blue.”
“I miss him. But he can’t come here ‘cause it’s too ‘ngerous. But one day he’ll find us.”
“Yes.” Claire kept that small spark of hope alive inside her.
“And he thinks of us every night when he looks at the stars, too and asks God to ‘tect us.”
“Speaking of which, it’s time for bed, baby girl.” Claire would say. “So let’s say our goodnights.”
“Goodnight birds, goodnight flowers, goodnight car and Mrs. McIntosh, goodnight tree. Goodnight stars! Goodnight man in the moon, tell Daddy we wished he was here!”
Oh, Alex, how you would have laughed hearing all the things that came out of Faith’s mouth! Faith, their miracle child and so like him in spirit. She’d saved Claire’s sanity those first few years.
Years when she’d been unable to think of him without going mad with the wanting, tempted beyond caution to call Denzel Hunter and demand he tell her Alex’s real name, needing to be with him, talk to him, see him. Tell him about their daughter.
But she couldn’t. It would put his life in danger, and Faith’s. How many nights had she prayed them sound? That he be safe, dear lord, he and our child.
She didn’t regret her decision, even now, even knowing how hard it would become, she knew it was the only option she’d had. Alex would’ve been in awe watching Faith. She’d shown just as much courage as her father, even as the cancer ate away at her vulnerable little body.
Claire brushed tears from her face hearing their daughter’s voice in her head.
“Don’t be sad, Daddy will come soon.”
“I’m not sad baby girl. I have you.”
“And I have you, Mommy! No tears!”
“I’m trying Faith,” Claire thought knowing how she would have hated to see Claire’s tears.
Boston, Last Christmas Eve, 2016
“That’s why you have to promise me, Mommy.” Faith told her. She was as pale as the sheets that draped her hospital bed as she rolled to look at her mother’s face.
“What’s that, sweets?” Claire asked scooting over a bit in the bed to give her room.
“No matter what happens to me, you’ll finish the program.”
Claire bit back the knee-jerk desire to reassure their daughter that she’d be perfectly fine. The stem cell therapy was experimental but Joe said that if it worked, it would cure her. They were out of alternatives, having tried every other available treatment for her cancer.
“Faith, my place is here with you.” Claire told her firmly. “And since you aren’t going anywhere, I’m not either.”
“But don’t you see, Mommy? You must. You helped Timmy feel better and Gus and Bridget.”
“But I do help them, I got through the first half of the program, I went from nurse to PA.”
“Silly, everyone who sees you knows you were born to be a doctor. If you were a doctor you’d help so many more kids like me and them!” Faith said with an ordered kind of logic.
“‘Sides, Daddy wouldn’t like it if you didn’t and I want him to love me not blame me.”
“What?” Claire couldn’t hide her shock.
“Daddy’s not here because of me. Because you and Daddy had to ‘tect me. I’m here and he isn’t and you miss him. And you can’t be together because of me. And you never got to finish doctor school because you were by yourself when I was born. You were proud and happy when you went back to school again. And you were so close Mommy. ‘Member? I was supposed to live with Uncle Joe and Aunt Gayle last summer so you could do your ‘nternship? Then I messed it up by getting sick. So you need to promise me you’ll finish.”
“Faith, you didn’t do anything that caused your cancer. There is nothing to fix, things just happen sometimes. Your Daddy, of all people, understands that. Besides, I would much rather be your Mommy than a doctor.” Claire promised her.
“But I need you to be both and so do you!” Faith said with absolute conviction. “I promised you Mommy, when I got sick, I promised I wouldn’t give up. ‘Member?” Claire had tears in her eyes and could only nod. “I’m keeping my promise so it’s time for you to promise me.”
“How can I promise you that? If this works then----”
“Then I’ll be fine and you need to keep going. And if it doesn’t then--” Faith’s wise eyes looked into her mother’s, “Then you’ll be fine if you keep going. Either way, it’s what you need to do. I want my Daddy to be proud of me and I think he’d be disappointed if he knew I stopped you from being you. Please?” Suddenly Faith started crying.
Claire stared at her in total astonishment. Their daughter had gone through excruciating testing and treatments, had to live cut off from normal life in an isolation pod in preparation for the transplant, had been poked and prodded and poisoned by drugs that, if they didn’t kill her, might just save her. Through it all, she’d never cried, never. Now the tears were pouring down her cheeks.
“Please Mommy, promise me you’ll do it before next Christmas. You just need two months to finish.”
Claire was surprised by her tenacity and unwillingness to drop it. Then her baby pulled out the trump card.
“It’s my Merry Wishmas and I want it with all my heart! Please, Mommy promise me no matter what, you’ll finish it!”
Mexico City, Present Day
Claire gave one last look at the small sliver of man in the moon, resolutely wiped her face and took a few deep breaths.
“Are ye alright, lass?”
Claire jumped. “Of course!” She insisted even before turning her face toward the voice.
“Do ye need--Claire?” Jamie was both concerned and delighted to see her here, on the one hand she was obviously upset on the other, he loved running into her again.
“Jamie?” She saw him nod. “No Gingham?” She asked and her throat loosened seeing his tiny smile.
“No, I sprung for a babysitter and snuck out!” He teased. “Murtagh has her. When I left she was curled up wi’ Ghost, snoring away. It’s no’ likely she’ll even ken I’m gone.” Jamie hesitated, not sure whether to go.
“Would you like to join me?” Claire asked, indicating a spot next to her.
Jamie grunted a yes and perched next to her on the edge of the fountain. Claire was once again struck by the sheer size of him. He smelled strongly, but not unpleasantly, of physical exertion and Claire could feel the wet and heat wafting from his body.
“Did you go for a run?” She was surprised after the day he’d had.
“Aye.” Jamie was quiet a moment and seemed to pluck her thoughts from her mind. “It was a long day but it helps sometimes. I have trouble… settling when I travel.”
Jamie looked her over carefully. Even in the dim light he could tell she’d been crying. He instinctively knew if he asked her if she was ok again she’d give him the same brush off -- another variation of a stiff upper lip.
“You ken how it is.” He said softly, to spare her any need of reply and changed the subject. “Stars are vera bright wi’ so few city lights, aye?”
“Beautiful.” She breathed.
“Do ye see that cluster there, like a lopsided I?” When she nodded he continued, “that’s the constellation Ara and the blue star that is part of it? It’s from a type of star called a super-giant. It took over a millenia for the light of that star to travel the universe so ye could see it tonight.”
“How insignificant we must be by comparison.” Jamie’s observation put things in a certain perspective, Claire thought. “Yet, I still take comfort imagining someone up there is paying attention and is watching out for us anyway.”
“The river of heaven turns at night,
And floats the stars around.
Calls to mind loved ones lost,
Yearning to be found.
Celestial silence, the cry of a loon,
Give my message to the man in the moon.” *
Jamie softly recited staring up at the sky and he turned to smile at her. She didn’t return his grin. She couldn’t speak over the tightness in her chest. Jamie had unwittingly brought her full circle back to how her evening had started. Thinking of Faith asking the man in the moon to watch out for her Daddy.
She didn’t return his smile, but stared right through him as if unable to believe someone like him spoke to her in verse. He knew it shouldn’t bother him, what people thought. But every now and then, Jamie bitterly resented what life had taken from him. Remembering the look on her face when he didn’t pick up the clipboard at the hospital earlier, and not self-conscious but at least mindful of what he must look like to her, a sweaty, muscled jock with flyaway platinum hair, he tried to make a wee joke.
“I may not have graduated uni, but I did pay some attention in school.”
It was one of his more familiar deflections, he had a slew of them at the ready to use when someone noticed his lack of normal reading and writing activities and dismissed him as someone of low intelligence.
Claire hadn’t heard him, he realized. She wore an expression that was almost as sad as it had been when he first sat down.
That wouldn’t do at all. Jamie stood up and stretched a hand out to her.
“Would ye be willing to do something wi’ me?”
Claire made eye contact with him and this time he saw a tiny smile playing along her lips. She was striking, even more beautiful by starlight than daylight. Then he realized her cap was gone. Masses of curly hair floated around her, framing her face, falling in waves down her back.
With barely a hesitation, she slipped her hand in his and stood to join him. There it was again, that spark in his touch.
She knew she was tired and emotionally at a tipping point, heartsick and lonely but, even so, something was pulling her to him. Her ears were filled with the sound of fluttering wings and a quixotic thought floated in her mind that it was the reverberation of her soul newly awakened.
Jamie had Claire stand facing him, he nodded at her and she at him, each smiling a little in mutual reassurance. Then he began the slow, familiar rhythms of the 24 forms of Tai Chi with Claire following him as they mirrored one another.
“Tis the art of yielding, flowing around obstacles, learning to keep yer balance bringing yourself into harmony wi’ the constant cycle of change that is life.”
“That’s quite a tall order for one evening’s work.” Claire teased.
Jamie chuckled. “That’s why it’s called a practice. Think of it as moving meditation. I canna sit still, nor wi’ crossed legs, so I’ll no’ be lighting the incense ‘n chanting.”
She stepped like a dancer, transitioning fluidly between each move. Jamie told her a little about each form represented. Claire was lovely to watch, not just the long, lean lines of arms and legs, the elegant stretch of her neck but how she connected the information with the movement.
She was thinking with her body, anticipating the movements, now barely a second or two behind him. Her sad mood flowed out of her and he was surprised to note that he could physically see her centering and grounding herself as they continued down the traditional 24 forms.
Claire watched Jamie move with surprising grace. Never rushing a movement, always certain of each footfall and extension, completely in tune with himself and this process. He relaxed his body and it was a pleasure to observe him. She was utterly charmed by the stories he told her about each form.
“Step back, lass and repulse the monkey.” He instructed. “Dinna yield to the temptation to keep jumping around wi’ yer mind. Reach up there, pat the high horse, just like it sounds, Aye.”
Powerful he may be, Claire thought, but this was a man who tempered the raw energy of his body with discipline and thought, restraint and purpose.
“As heaven and earth, move yer body and think of the revolution of a day, the four seasons, tis called the single whip but ye move more like a light breeze, that’s it.” He encouraged her.
After about 25 minutes, Jamie brought the movements to a close.
“I really needed that, you’re a good coach. How long have you been practicing?”
They were walking back to their rooms and she watched him out of the corner of her eye, trying hard to reconcile his external appearance with his renaissance psyche.
“Oh, about seven years gone, I expect.”
“Any particular reason you started?”
“Aye.” He said. She could see him trying to figure out how much he wanted to tell her.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be nosy.” That earned her a smile.
“I suffered an injury some time past. I healed in my body but no’ my mind. I sometimes let my temper run away with me, became nastier wi’ the drink, but that was just the excuse I used to justify my acting out. Murtagh, the one ye met with Ghost?” Claire nodded and he continued, “He’d finally had enough. By that point in time, he’d stuck with me through some fairly ugly times and more than one brawl and was one of the few people whose opinion mattered to me. He told me I needed to find a different way to handle myself. He gave me the choice of medication or meditation.”
As he’d hoped, Claire laughed.
“Well, this is me.” Claire said as they approached her door.
“I’m on the next floor, 222.” Jamie told her. “Just in case ye need anything.” Claire smiled at him and held out her hand, which he clasped in his. They both looked at their joined hands and sighed, making them each chuckle.
“Jamie, I, well...thanks--” Claire faltered and laughed at herself, she always seemed to be thanking him.
The truth was she felt the stirrings of happiness deep in her heart and it scared her and excited her but how could she say such things without appearing foolish? They’d only just met, afterall.
“Would ye maybe like to meet me again tomorrow?”
The two established an easy rhythm after that, meeting up for meals at the start and usually the end of the day. She found him excellent company and a balm over her restless spirit. When they were pressed for time, they would grab coffee and a pastry on the way sometimes joined by Murtagh, Ghost and Gingham.
No matter where they went, Claire noticed that Jamie never so much as glanced at a menu or, for that matter, read the specials hanging from chalkboards or marques, preferring instead to ask servers what was good there that day. She was beginning to wonder if maybe it was dyslexia.
Claire was utterly surprised to discovered that Ging enjoyed her morning coffee. Jamie, apparently did not. Jamie would prepare the drink, a small amount of cream, a spoonful of sugar and leave t to cool, untouched.
After a few minutes, Ging would give a little yip and Jamie would incline his head in such a way that gave her permission. She would rear onto the table for just a split second to grab the mug up by the handle, gently but firmly holding it in her teeth and delicately place it on the ground where she fell upon it like a --- well, like a dog. Tongue and head flying in every direction, spattering the drink over her muzzle, forehead and even ears. It always made Claire laugh.
“Isn’t coffee bad for her?”
“Oh, aye.” Jamie agreed. “But so far it hasna seemed to have an effect. She likes thinking she’s part of the crew. So seems little risk and gets the morning off to the right start. Besides, on missions like this-- when I travel-- I canna seem to tolerate caffeine until the afternoon. Seems a shame to let it go to waste.”
“He spoils her.” Murtagh added critically. “But he canna seem to help it. No’ like my Ghost.”
Murtagh proudly nodded toward the shepherd sitting on his dignity and pretending to take no notice of Ging’s slovenly eating habits. Claire did, however detect a small line of drool just dripping down Ghosts jowls. He was undeniably an obedient boy but not immune to temptation.
It did not go unnoticed by Claire that despite his censure of Jamie, Murtagh always saved a few bites of whatever he was eating in a napkin, sneaking it into Ghost’s mouth when he thought Jamie wasn’t looking. On one of those occasions, Jamie caught Claire catching Murtagh and shook his head imperceptibly warning her not to let on she’d seen anything at all.
A couple of times Jamie stopped by the clinic in the afternoon with Gingham to check on patients they’d brought in or to just give people a smile by having Ging wander around the ward for a little petting.
She’d asked him to come today though. A boy had been brought in, she thought he was about 8 or so who hadn’t uttered a word, though he followed every direction given. He didn’t appear to have any serious injuries save a contusion on his forehead and some deep bruises and cuts. He’d been found with an older man, DOA, perhaps his grandfather, but no other family. They didn’t know his name or who to call for him.
Jamie had broken the ice using Gingham, kneeling down on the floor next him. The boy was smiling and petting her, following the low rumbling instructions Jamie was giving him in Spanish. The boy spotted a children’s storybook that one of the nurses had placed on his bed earlier that day. As he thrust it into Jamie’s hands, Jamie cast around the ward, a look of near panic on his face. The boy thumped the book hard.
Clearly he wanted Jamie to read it to him. Jamie, undeniably was fluent in the language. She saw Jamie shake his head in negation and tried to put it back on the bed, but the boy shoved it back into Jamie’s lap. It was a picture book of fairy tales by the look of it.
Claire was fascinated to see Jamie take the book. He closed his eyes, keeping them closed while he inclining his head downward. His fingers traced the raised, shiny letters of the title. It looked a little like someone reading braille. She knew he felt the second thump from the boy on the cover. He carefully opened the pages and looked down. He swallowed hard.
Then he picked the boy up and placed him on a little chair, one of those used in kindergarten classrooms. After the boy was seated, Jamie placed the book in his hands and, using a series of hand gestures brought Gingham to lay down in front of the chair.
Jamie sat down next to Ging, facing the boy. Jamie thumped the cover of the book hard himself and looked up expectantly. He did it once again calling the boy “pequeño profesor.” The boy giggled.
“Yo soy Carlos.” He told Jamie.
“Carlos ¿que?” Jamie asked.
“Torres.” The boy told him.
For a moment Claire thought Jamie would press him for the names of his parents or other relations but he didn’t.
Instead he nodded at the book, “Por favor, Profesor Torres.” Whereupon the boy opened the book and started to read the story to Jamie and Ging. She saw Jamie let out a sigh of relief.
Clever Scot! He seemed to have solved both their problems on one try.
That night she met him for tai chi at the fountain. The moon had vanished but so many more lights had been restored in adjacent buildings that the little garden was brighter than usual, glowing, reflective light. After, she invited him to sit with her and enjoy the unusually warm night air.
“Music?” He asked her as he opened his pack and brought out a bottle of wine and two plastic cups from their rooms. She nodded and he spoke into his phone calling up a playlist on the speakerphone.
“No mugs with handles? Is wine is off limits for Gingham?” Claire asked gesturing over toward a sleeping pup on the other side of the courtyard.
Jamie smiled, “She’s a cheap date.” He told her as he handed a glass over. They sipped in companionable silence for a time.
“Thank you for helping Carlos. Once you got him talking everything came pouring out of him. I think we will be able to find his family now.”
Jamie grunted to let her know he heard her, but didn’t seek any praise for what had happened.
“Oh-- The Clan?” She asked and he nodded. “God, I love them, always have. Hey-- did you know you share the same name as the lead singer?”
Jamie’s eyes closed briefly, it would have to be Someone to Stay wouldn’t it? As he looked into Claire’s happy face he put his Sassenach completely out of his mind and smiled for Claire.
“Aye.” He told her.
Claire scooted her body next to his so they were touching. If she closed her eyes she could feel the body of another Scot a decade earlier. It confused her, when she tried to hold both men in her mind. She forced her eyes to open and turn to him.
“Will you tell me why you don’t seem to read or write much? I thought maybe it was dyslexia but now I am not so sure?” She asked softly. He swallowed the rest of the wine in his glass and then poured another, topping hers off as he did.
“Why do you want to know?” He wondered. When he turned to her his expression was unfathomable. She could feel him begin to put up barriers between them and that was not the outcome she’d wanted.
“A long time ago I knew someone who made me feel safe. He felt the same of me. When I lost him, it took me a long, long time to accept that he was gone. Ever since I haven’t met anyone who I thought might want… that needed….” Claire stopped speaking trying to find the right words. Finally she gave up and shook her head. “I’m sorry I’m not saying this right. It’s only if you wanted to trust me with your secrets, I’d keep them safe. That’s all.” Claire looked away, embarrassed, having made a cake of the whole thing.
How was it possible for her to feel this way about Jamie? What about her feelings for Alex? She hadn’t lived a nun the last ten years, but her heart hadn’t been in danger of anything on the handful of dates she’d been on since. This felt dangerous and exhilarating.
She turned back to him, but her eyes stayed glued to his chin. He placed his fingers gently underneath and pushed her head slowly upwards until her eyes locked on his.
He was looking straight into her heart, making it squeeze and trip over itself. She was breathing way too fast and didn’t want to look away anymore. He slowly dropped the mask that usually shielded his thoughts until she was looking into the deep blue of his soul.
“I never speak of it. Not even to my sister. Murtagh is the only one who knows. I will tell you, I promise. But first, I want to kiss you, may I?” Jamie was looking into her beautiful warm whisky eyes with his heart in his throat.
Her mind understood well enough that Alex was lost to her, that it was time to move on. Her stupid heart had refused to believe it and clung to the foolish hope that he was out there. Was there such a thing as a soulmate? If there was how was it possible to find two such souls in one lifetime?
She steeled herself for the disappointment that would inevitably follow, as it did each time she’d tried to move forward, each time she’d kissed a man hoping to taste the echo of her captain.
“I haven’t done this in a very long time.” She whispered as they moved together.
Jamie reached for Claire. She felt so good in his arms. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then she noticed something.
“You can look at me, if you like.” Claire whispered, almost shyly.
Jamie stopped a hair’s breadth from her lips. He swallowed hard.
“It’s just...something I always do.” Jamie reassured her.
Foolish habit, he knew. But he had been closing his eyes hoping against hope to feel it, to feel the echo of Sassenach on Claire’s lips. How could he feel this way about two people in the world? He’d gotten the gift of a lifetime with his Sassenach and although he knew with absolute certainty that kissing Claire wouldn’t be the same, his eyelids had fluttered closed on the hope anyway.
“Jamie,” she whispered, then bit his lip, not a kiss, not their first kiss at all and not hard, but enough to catch his attention and his eyes popped open in surprise.
“It’s me, Claire.” She told him firmly. His heart was beating wildly in his chest and suddenly he wanted to, needed to kiss her more than anything in the world-- her--Claire.
“Please watch me as you kiss me, watch me because I need you to see me . I know to you it might only be a kiss but to me it feels like I am giving you part of my heart. Right now, more than anything in the world, I need to know it’s as real to you as it is to me.” Claire was on emotional overload. Hoping she hadn’t scared him off but trying to share something of what she was feeling with him. A tear squeezed out of one eye. She desperately hoped he hadn’t noticed.
His eyes were still on her face as their lips met. She felt Jamie, felt that moment when he was holding her , undeniably her, Claire, in his arms. He watched her through hooded lids as she threw herself into the kiss, watched as her eyes closed first, watched as she surrendered to the feelings they stirred up by touching one another.
Claire kissed him then. She kissed him stupid and breathless and boneless. Kissed him with every pent up emotion she’d been feeling.
Jamie gave himself over to the freedom to do the same. His eyes closed tight and he tasted the wine on her lips, the hunger of her body for his. It wasn’t the same, none of it was the same and yet it he felt a similar sense of something taking flight when he held her in her arms.
Beyond that though was a sense of unending gratitude that he could feel this way again, that he wasn’t doomed to a half-lived existence. He had no idea what he’d done to deserve a second chance, to get so lucky to have found two such women in his lifetime but he wasn’t fool enough to waste time on puzzling it out.
She was half standing up now in order to kiss him deeper, his arms came around her and pulled her to his lap. She moved against him, kneeling in his lap, precariously placing her knees against the rim of the fountain while held in the vice-like sure grip of his arms. She made noises, high squeaking noises he answered in low rumbling encouragement.
The heat and burn of longing went through the two of them.
The earth shook.
No really, it shook.
He broke the kiss. Her forehead was pressed against his and their eyes locked together. She was smiling even as the ground seized again.
“Are ye still wi’ me, Claire?” He felt her head nod.
“What happened?” She asked breathlessly.
“I’d say ye rocked my world, but that’d be so cheesy you’d never let me forget it.”
“I think the disaster manual says that we should take cover at once when there is an aftershock.” She told him.
“Oh? In that case my room is closer, follow me, lass, I’ll see about getting us undercover.”
*Poem Jamie recites was based on the poetry of Zhang Juiling
Originally this was to be end at Chapter 12 but it got too long. It will have another chapter plus an epilogue.
Present Day, Mexico City
They fell into his room, Jamie maneuvered her sideways into the tight space against the wall between closet and bathroom. He kissed her behind her ear and took her bag from her hand, throwing it into the room. It landed with a jangle of metal buckles and rings on the table in the living room part of his “suite.” They heard it slide and skitter across the polished wood and land with a muffled thump on the carpet.
“Oh, sorry!” Jamie made a move to turn on more lights and go pick it up.
“No!” Claire told him, “leave it.”
She pulled him firmly into her and he leaned her against the wall, pinning her arms above her head and kissing her passionately on her neck as she arched toward him.
He pressed his body into hers, she answered by rocking her hips firmly against him, unable to hold still. They both moaned and he felt their lips widen as they smiled.
Gingham started to whine. Jamie shushed her in a Gaelic command, eyes flicking to dog then immediately back to Claire. Ging yipped.
“Will she settle?” Claire wondered.
“I dinna ken. I havena... it’s been a long---I’ve never brought a lass home before.” Jamie’s eyes shone with good humor, but he was blushing.
Jamie told Ging to be at ease a command meaning she wasn’t “on duty” and could entertain herself until called back to active searching. Claire was vaguely aware of her presence in the room but with only the lights of the mini-bar and half closed bathroom door, she couldn’t see much past the edge of the hallway. Then her attention was diverted as Jamie’s lips claimed hers.
He used his tongue just right, alternating between urgent demand and playful glide. The touch if his lips lit something deep within her. She’d only know one other man who kissed her like this, like she was the only person in the world for him, like she belonged --- Je suis a toi the phrase came unbidden, unwanted. Her eyes popped open and she broke the kiss.
No! No, no, no not this, not now ! Not when she’d finally found someone who made her feel like she was returning back to herself. She needed to remind herself that this was a different time, a different place, a different man and it was real, far more real than the memory of what she’d lost.
“Jamie,” Claire whispered and he heard something broken in her voice. He felt a slight tug against the hand encasing hers and he released his grip at once.
He pulled his head back so he could look at her and then very deliberately stepped his body back, too, sensing her need of distance and squelching the pain of the knowledge.
Please, no! Holding her, kissing her, watching her responding to his touch set his blood boiling as his heart pulsed back to life, carrying the oxygen his soul had been deprived of for years.
“Do ye want to stop? Is this no’ what----” Claire’s fingers on his lips shushed him. She shook her head no. He could not stop the soft sigh of gratitude that passed from his lips.
“I’m-- I need a minute.”
Claire was trying to catch her breath. Her fingertips were lightly touching her own lips as she stared at him trying to get her bearings. After a moment or two, her hands fell down by her side and her body slumped against the wall behind her. Jamie continued to watch her. He inclined his head, looking a little bit like Gingham when she was puzzling something out. He saw her lips flicker in a tiny smile.
“It’s alright, Claire.” He told her. “Match my breath. Just like the forms we do by the fountain, aye?” He told her.
She watched him inhale, heard his exhalation. On the next round she joined him, again and then again until they were breathing together. His hands slowly reached out to hers. He interlaced the fingers on each hand.
“Just you and me,” He told her.
Then he started pulsing her hands in time with their breathing. It was hypnotic and erotic and yet not. A strangely intimate thing to be doing. Steadying, permissive, something they were doing to each other and with each other. Looking into each other’s eyes the entire time, no censure, no judgment, just curiosity and an open willingness to try this together.
Jamie stilled his fingers and started the pulse using his palm alone. She followed his lead. A minute passed and then Claire switched it back to pulsing their fingers instead. Jamie followed her this time and when Claire began to breathe louder and faster, he again changed up in response.
The exercise had turned undeniably sensual and deeply profound. The smile she gave him this time melted the last of the ice dam around his heart and he returned it in full measure.
Slowly, with great deliberation, Jamie closed the space between them. Eyes open he moved lips above hers. He felt the air stir between them.
“Better?” He asked.
Mmhm . She nodded. She arched into him expecting a kiss.
“Claire,” He whispered almost touching his lips to hers. “I want you and I’ll no’ pretend otherwise but ---” Jamie pulled back and his eyes moved over her, trying to read something in her expression. He shook his head decisively.
“Will ye come sit wi’ me out on the balcony?” Their hands were still locked together and his chin gestured toward the sliding glass doors at the far wall. She nodded and he led her to the bistro table.
He snagged a bottle of red on the way out and some glasses then sat down. The hotel was situated near the top of a hill. His room was on a lower floor so the view wasn’t particularly scenic but they did look down the street and over a small section of the city. He looked enormous in the small chair wedged between the table and glass slider.
Claire’s passion slowly cooled. She felt a little less reckless and a lot less daring and so she was content to refocus on conversation. Except he wasn't talking.
“You were very good with Carlos.” She ventured.
“Och, I love spending time with bairns. My sister has three and is pregnant with twins! I’m no’ a father myself but the next best thing to it is being uncle to them.”
“What gave you the idea of having Carlos read to you to get him to speak?” She asked him, watching his face split into a grin.
“He wasna reading to me, lass, he was reading to Gingham.”
“Reading to the dog?” Her tone was puzzled.
“Oh, aye. Do ye ken much about search dogs?” When he saw her shake his head he continued, “Ye need to drill wi’ them constantly. If not, then you and the dog are useless in an emergency when teamwork counts. So we are always looking for ways to get the dogs out into the community. The more people they meet, places they go, scents they smell,” he grinned at her, “helps them become more adaptable to unfamiliar surroundings and they must look to their handlers for instructions so it helps strengthen that bond. No’ every drill needs to be a life or death exercise.” Jamie paused and took a couple sips of his wine.
“And?” Claire inquired raising her brows.
“Some years past I met a lass who hated reading out loud in school. She stuttered and was teased.” Claire felt a deep well of sympathy for the girl, knowing all too well how that felt. “Even as an adult, the memories of it pained her.” Claire grunted in understanding. “My niece Kitty had a bad lisp. Janet and Ian, my brother-in-law, they run a wee farm. Raise chickens. When it came time to feed them, my sister would bring a book and have Kitty come and help. She’d tell my niece that they needed to be read to. If she did a good job, they’d lay more eggs. If they had extra eggs my sister promised to make cookies. Kitty loves sweets. She never lisped when reading to them so it was a good process overall. Though, having watched it a few times, I have to say chickens make vera poor company. Terrible attention spans.”
Claire laughed and Jamie smiled at her. “I never forgot about the lass who hated reading in class, so I wondered if such a thing might work for other speech impediments- no just lisps but stutterers and kids that fear public speaking. I trained Gingham to be an attentive listener. It’s no’ hard to do but it does require the dog to follow commands and not be so distracted as to wander away. It still counts as training and the kids love it. It’s been so successful we just got a grant to expand into fifty school districts.”
“And the girl who inspired the whole thing, what does she think about it?” Claire was charmed by the story since she could relate to it so well but his expression grew shuttered and sad, he wouldn’t meet her eyes. Claire put her hand in his.
He was still looking at the street when he said, “Dinna ken. We lost touch some time ago.”
“Jamie,” Claire waited until he made eye contact. “Why don’t you like to read?”
“It’s not that I don’t like to-- God! For most of my life I was never without a book in my hands. I was hurt in an explosion and had a number of operations to patch me back together. After the first operation, I was left with seizures.” He told her. “After the last, I was mostly in one piece but working on a computer, reading and writing for any length of time gives me migraines.”
“No. If I dinna read or write too long, if I take my medication, exercise, stick to eating the foods I ken dinna trigger me then I can go weeks wi’ out a bad one.But not avoidable altogether. I’ve no’ had a month in the last decade wi’ out having at least one bad one.”
“What is a bad one like?” Claire asked.
“The pain is indescribable. I get vera sick. I canna think or move or talk. I have double vision, blind spots. I’m usually better after eight hours if I’m lucky.” He told her.
“And if you are unlucky?”
“I get incoherent wi’ it. Speak in tongues and hallucinate. ” He sounded like he was joking but she knew he was dead serious.
“It must be hard living life without being on a computer or reading or writing everyday.” Claire tried to imagine it.
Jamie couldn’t speak and only nodded. He simply wasn’t used to discussing it and found himself at a loss to accurately describe how different his life had become. He didn’t like the look in her eyes, they were full of concern but he feared the moment she found him pitiful.
“There are a lot of things that help. One of the reasons I practice tai chi is to help me control my heartbeat and refocus my breath which can help get me through a bad one. I text in emoji, use speech recognition software, I have an admin that does all my paperwork. Murtagh covers for me when he can. I have a lots of little things I do that minimize the impact. But it can be...inconvenient.” Claire gave him a snort. His broad features melted into a grin.
“I guess you were fortunate that you weren’t a writer or editor.” She teased. Jamie’s expression closed at once.
“Well, no’ anymore.” He said softly.
“Oh Jamie, I am sorry. I’m normally not so thick-headed.” She looked so stricken that he squeezed her fingers to reassure her that he was alright. “So you found a career you loved that wasn’t a desk job?”
“Aye. I’ve known Murtagh all my life, when my mam died he -- well my Da wasna thinking right and Murtagh spent a lot of time wi’ me, took me under his wing. He was the fire chief of our local. I’d been part of the Murrayfield fire brigade since I was in high school. Murtagh always had dogs and if one showed any promise he trained them even way back then. There was nothing as thrilling as watching one of Murtagh’s pups find a missing child or locate someone trapped in a fire. Murtagh put in his 20 years then retired and founded SARD. After I was injured, Murtagh took me under his wing again, he helped me adjust...after. Drove me around, filled out my paperwork, got me drunk, talked to me, let me vent. Ye ken Murtagh has vast experience wi’ Fraser men when they arena thinking quite right. But he told me since I was such a pain in the ass he might as well find a use for me and started me wi’ the dogs. A few times he was short handed for workshops and classes for handlers and I filled in. By the time I was ready to try my hand at a new career we both realized I’d already started. I have an ear for languages, a knack for working in groups. I’ve been deployed any number of times and like the travel part of it-- even in such circumstance, especially somewhere I havena been. I like the challenge of it and the dogs-- ye canna believe some of the personalities packed into a wee ratten under 50 pounds..” Jamie told her.
“You are very good at it.” Claire told him honestly. He had a trick of turning strangers into friends within five minutes of meeting them. Jamie could charm old and young alike, people liked him, trusted him and respected him. “My patients all seem to light up when you and Ging come visit.” They smiled at each other.
“And you, Claire? How did you pick medicine?”
“It kind of picked me. I was always interested in it. I started as a nurse. I’d been thinking about medical school for years. I even got so far as one semester of classes but a traditional kind of schooling wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t juggle schedules between everything. Then I got lucky. I work at a hospital in Boston with a program to retrain existing medical staff. It’s focus is less lecture hall and more on the job training. I’ve worked my way up to a physician’s assistant and now I’m almost a doctor.”
They finished the bottle of wine. As their glasses emptied Claire decided to mention the elephant in the room.
“I know why I stopped you earlier tonight. I’ll tell you, if you want. But Jamie, I have to know. Did you stop because you thought I’d not want you when you told me about your injuries? Because if so—-“
“No.” Jamie interrupted her. “No, Claire. Maybe if ye werena a doctor---” she started to correct him “Almost a doctor,” He conceded, “it might make a difference but I am assuming ye’ve seen worse and ye dinna strike me as someone who’d bat an eye at my medical history.”
Claire voiced accord with his assessment.
“It’s good that you know just in case something happens. But no. I stopped because before we continue with that I need to tell you something else. Even if it means ye change yer mind about wanting me, I’d rather there be honesty between us. I am no’ someone who sleeps around casually. I dinna have...vast experience with women. I was in love before, with someone who was vera precious to me.”
Claire’s heart dropped to her feet but she managed to keep her eyes on him.
“We haven’t been in touch for many years. She’s gone...lost to me except for that part of her that lives in here.” Jamie tapped his heart. “It’s easy to keep that kind of love alive if ye never let anyone else into yer heart. It’s impossible for anyone new to measure up. Ye...put what ye had on a pedestal and it stays perfect, nothing makes it wobble. I held on to the dream of her— of us becoming reality. For years that was enough but the hard truth of it is that it’s is cold and empty existence. It’s no’ one she woulda wanted for me.”
Claire hadn’t noticed the tears running down her face. It was as if he was talking about her own life story. The aching loneliness of missing someone that much, the fear of letting go. The tricks memories play on your mind, the doubts that prey on it.
“When ye told me about the man that made ye feel safe enough to share yer secrets and told me ye wanted me to look at you as we kissed, when ye needed to ken it was as real to me as you, I thought ye might’ve had something like it in your own life. But then in the room, when ye said ye needed a minute...ye have a glass face, Claire. I can see the pain of loss and the struggle to find your balance all over it. It’s one of the reasons I thought ye might enjoy practicing tai chi wi’ me.”
Claire nodded but couldn’t speak. Her losses and heartaches and grief came over her as she cried. Jamie didn’t intervene and that felt like a gift-- she’d heard enough platitudes and cliches about moving on, about God never giving you more than you can handle, about the stages of grief - denial, anger acceptance to want to scream. You didn’t just get over it. Grief, as she well knew, wasn’t a linear pattern.
Some days she had the strength to put it in perspective and focus on the here and now and other days the weight of what she’d been carrying all alone ran her over with the force of a mack truck and she just wanted to roll into a ball and pretend none of it had happened. To see the bald head of a little girl undergoing chemo or the flash of a red beard could trigger a feeling of unfairness so alien to her she needed to look away from its source. It was still difficult for her to walk into a PICU.
Since meeting Jamie, she had been able to try focusing on the present and let go, in small degrees, the hardships of her past. Jamie reached a hand to her.
“I stopped because I needed ye to know.”
“To know what?” Claire’s eye drilled into him.
“When I kissed her it was like dancing in a ring of fire. It wasn’t usual, what we had. That’s why the hope of her filled my heart for years. But when you and I touch, it’s like I have a living flame in my arms. Perhaps I am a coward, Claire. What I feel when I am with you, it scares me more.”
“Why?” She whispered.
“You and I together would burn hotter than a brand and leave a more lasting mark. Before, with the lass I told ye of? I was only a few years out of my teens. But since then, I’ve seen some hard years and all that comes with them. To have that feeling— that passion--- again and to lose it as a man?” He shook his head back and forth.
Jamie chuckled a little bit. “But then I think what a great fool I would be to walk away from this for I ken how rare it is. Yet, as grandiose as it is for me to say about myself, I’m a man of honor and it didna feel right for me to keep silent. I wanted to tell you so you could decide if you might be willing to take the risk together?”
Seeing Claire’s stricken face Jamie’s own paled. He looked miserable and guilty.
“Was it wrong for me to tell ye such things? Can ye understand why I had to?” His throat was working overtime to swallow. She could see the visible effort it took for him to reign in his emotions.
“God, Claire. When we kiss I dinna ken who I feel I am betraying more: you or her.”
“Oh, Jamie.” Her heart ached for him and for herself. She understood only too well. Claire felt the hot spurt of jealousy almost immediately smothered by compassion.
“Maybe if I was a girl instead of a woman I wouldn’t understand. Maybe if I hadn’t lost a love of my own, your feelings wouldn’t make sense to me. I told you that your secrets were safe with me, and I meant it. I do understand what it’s like. When it’s too painful to remember and too hard to forget. But what’s lost is gone and what’s found is here. I want to see where this goes.”
Claire looked at him, her eyes moving over his face, searching intently.
“Will you come to bed with me, then?” She asked him reaching her hand out.
Jamie took it and she locked eyes on him then deliberately squeezed. They started to breathe in sync without conscious thought.
She stood up with him and they moved inside the room. She offered her other hand to his. Hot and bothered once again, Claire shuddered as the hand pulses triggered a sensual throbbing inside. His eyes narrowed as he watched her catch fire once more.
Claire’s next inhale was far sharper and Jamie was now controlling the rhythm, longer and slower, urging her to slow her breathing and control the sexual energy that was flowing between them.
“What are you doing to me?” She whispered as her fingers flexed together with his.
“It’s no’ me doing to you, Claire, it’s us together, when you look into my eyes and see my heart, when I look into your eyes and see your spirit.”
Watching Claire’s expressions, the way her skin flushed pink, how her lips parted and her tongue flicked out seeing those eyes letting him see inside her overtook his own emotions.
“Claire, this isna just a kiss to me, either. I’m real and I ken it’s you. That piece of yer heart yer giving me? ‘Tis an even exchange for the part of mine I’m giving you. Keep yer eyes on me.”
It started tender and precious and soft. When she saw his eyes fill with tears she lost it, a few of hers fell, too but this wasn’t an ending, only the beginning.
The here and now of Jamie and Claire.
The next kiss was hard and hot and full of need and this time she wasn’t thinking about anyone else, only about Jamie and how he made her pant and moan.
He saw it, the moment she stopped using her brain and let her body do her thinking. She unselfconsciously told him, in words and noises and moans, how he was making her feel.
“Ye make me ache wi’ the wanting Claire. I dinna want to stop until I feel ye coming apart against me, my finger or tongue or cock.”
“When you look at me like that stopping is the farthest thing from my mind.”
He laughed but didn’t break eye contact. Both his hands clamped down and stayed down. Instead of allowing her to release the tension it only caused her to shift her weight toward him seeking, wanting just as much as he. Her face flushed. She was losing her focus and having trouble breathing. He maneuvered them to the bed and they lay on their sides, they reached for eachother, kissing and touching.
She tugged his shirt up. Jamie’s hands slid under her tee, finger and thumb rubbing a breast. Her hand snaked inside the waistband of his shorts. True Scot! Jamie hissed in surprise.
They moaned together in response to what the other was doing, and exchanged grins hearing themselves. They each made tiny noises, soft pants, hums and moans. As sexy as those were, Jamie found himself mesmerized by her face.
Her browned butter eyes, a color completely her own, expressing every emotion. Narrowing when she was concentrating, opening wide and unfocused when he touched her a certain way but always, always Claire moved her gaze back to his own eyes, locking on his every few seconds, checking in visually with him, moving her lips a certain way to grin or give him an open mouthed smile or pucker up in a silent “oh.”
He moved his thumb and forefinger on her sensitive nipple. She answered him by rubbing his length firmly, moving downward and lingering near the base of his erection. Spinning themselves higher and higher.
She loved watching him, piercing blue eyes that shielded nothing from her. How he responded in small ticks and tells when he particularly enjoyed something her hands were doing. She felt no hesitation as she moved in even strokes and firm circles.
Then she realized they were still touching and breathing in tandem. Her fingers moved in time to his, his loud inhale filled her lungs. She was already so wet but the thought of him touching her core turned her legs turning to jelly. She thrust her hips forward urging him to action.
He slid his hand down the front of her pants. “Christ!” upon discovering just how much she was enjoying their foreplay. “I’ve never felt anything so hot and so wet.” He panted, drawing his fingers through her core as he ran his tongue over a hardened nipple.
Her head snapped against the pillow and her eyes rolled up. The breath exploded from her and she was shaking. He shifted position and groaned loudly which caused her eyes to fly back to his face.
He moved his lips just over hers and breathed a little louder, with purpose against her slightly parted lips.
“Breathe with me, Claire.”
He took his free hand and pushed lightly against her abdomen. He did that frequently when running through the tai chi forms to teach her how to move the chi in her body changing the flow of energy as she moved. She could feel not only how it was moving through her body, but his as well.
Her eyes, already locked on his widened in surprise. He made a joyful sound of acknowledgement and nodded just a little.
“Play with me---” She urged him.
Suddenly he was everywhere all at once, moving his mouth hard and deep and clawing at her with the same desperation she was feeling. His other hand bent her head back forcing her head back, kissing her neck, her breasts, her lips, moving his fingers with urgency. Dizzy and off kilter, she clung to him, needing to get closer, to feel more.
Then a more determined expression stole over his face. His fingers pulsed inside her, and she gave him a knowing look as the hand on his erection became more insistent. He sucked in a nipple, hard and tight against his tongue. Her fingers squeezed and released in time with the suction of his mouth. Then he stopped exhaling, pulling everything in his mouth inward, a tug so strong she felt it in her womb. She forgot to breath.
Jamie curled one of his fingers up high, while the outer knuckles slid against her clit. He pressed on a spot deep inside her so deep no one else had ever reached it. Finally, finally he released her breast from his mouth and twisted his wrist.
She heard his cry of triumph as he saw her back arch off the bed. The sound bolted through her and she flushed from toes to neck. The world literally fell away and ceased to matter. It was just the two of them, the beat of her heart pulling at the string she’d wrapped around his.
Jamie felt it moving through her and it ignited his own desire even though her hand no longer moved over his cock. It was as if she’d forgotten about him entirely. He thrust into her upturned hand anyway, not in demand but in unconscious need. He felt a little thrill knowing that his fingers were the sole focus of her life at the moment.
“I can feel ye, Jesus, Claire, yer about come so fucking hard!” He pressed a little harder which had her panting, desperate for release.
“Watch!” She managed to say on a high breathy plea. Her hand slapped the bed hard, giving her leverage to move her head and shoulders off the bed, needing to be closer to him.
From the back of her throat came a sound that he’d never heard before. It was earthy and dark, full of wonder and need.
He made a choking kind of noise in return. Then she was shaking in release. He’d never seen anything to rival her in that moment. Her eyes darkened almost to a true brown and she shuddered again and again. Her release crashed over him with the sound of her high keening cry.
It exploded out of Claire and into his core. She felt him quivering against the hand trapped in his shorts. Then his cock grew harder and his balls seized up, all the air whooshed out of his body, his eyelids fluttered closed and he was grimacing as if hurt but her hand stayed dry. He climaxed without ejaculating, imploding inward.
Claire realized that as helplessly as she dangled on his arm, it was she who played the tune of his body. She felt invincible. She quickly shed their clothing. He was rock hard and weeping and beautiful to look at all over but her gaze was riveted to his groin. There was something in her visual field that was off somehow, a niggling at the back of her mind but then he pulled her against him and she ceased thinking coherently.
“I want you inside me.”
Together they made sounds of relief when joined. Jamie gripped her hips tightly and moved them in a hard, pounding rhythm, enjoying watching her expressions and listening to her wee noises when he found an angel she particularly liked.
But he wanted to hold her to him, feel their heart beats pounding together. He lowered himself until he was able to cradle her tightly to him as his hips continued to thrust. One hand moved down and rubbed against her core. She was still slick and hot. He brought the hand up to her mouth and she sucked his fingers into her mouth.
“How do we taste?” He asked her.
Her tongue slipped and slid over his fingers, sucking them in as he thrust in her. His mouth hung open and he breathed hard.
“Incredible. I can’t wait to take you in my mouth.” She told him then laughed when she felt his response.
He dragged his knees tight to her backside, forcing her hips off the bed and exploiting the new position to push harder into her. One hand splayed over her belly with it’s faint criss crossed lines stretching a few inches here and there from hip to center, he helped her tilt her pelvis just so.
“Can ye feel that?” He asked as he pulsed and throbbed inside her.
“Yes, God, don’t stop just a little ----” He rocketed into her with enough force to cause her to lose her voice. “Again!” She demanded once he pulled out again. He did it over and over until at last, at last he could feel she’d hit the point of no return.
“Jamie!” Her hands clutched at him, her nails scraped his back. She was screaming now and his balls seized up. “I’m coming, oh please come!”
He couldn’t have stopped it. He made a bellowing noise and his body froze in place until it was over. Then he collapsed on top of her, utterly spent, drained of everything. He squeezed the tears from his eyes even before he knew he was crying. The worst part was he had no idea why he was crying. He’d just had one of the most incredible experiences of his life. Would she hate him for it? Leave and never return? That thought wasn’t helping him master his emotions.
He felt Claire’s arms come up around him and she held him as he wept. Claire felt tears gather in her own eyes, equally disconcerted by the unexpected feelings welling inside her. She felt him relax completely and melt into sleep before the tears had even dried on his cheeks.
They woke later than usual the next morning, both sitting bolt upright in response to Gingham shaking her head then scratching her legs against he side so hard her collar was jangling.
“Fuck, I’m late!” Claire cursed.
“Good morning to you, too.” Jamie smiled and Claire laughed, kissing him bad breath and all. He was too fucking adorable and she was too happy to care.
She called dibs and ran into the bathroom. In less than five minutes she’d emerged, wrapped in a towel and looking for her things.
“Jamie? Did you see my bag? My room key?”
They looked about and it was not in line of sight which they both knew it should have been-- it fell from the table last night.
“God, this would have to happen the one morning we are both getting a late start!” She said on a frustrated groan. Then Jamie started laughing. Claire looked up at him and he held her gaze as his eyes flicked to Ging.
“Who’s my good girl?” He said playfully,
Ging cocked her head and her tail started wagging eagerly.
“Look Ging!” He commanded.
Claire watched as the dog unerringly nosed into the closet and unearthed her bag. Jamie, in the meantime, had grabbed one of her special treats and surrendered the payment to their extortionist. He handed the bag to Claire who was smiling.
“Why you little thief!” She said as she scratched her behind the ears. “I can see Murtagh is right about spoiling her.”
“Aye, I’m a soft touch, good thing she’s no’ a child. I’d be wrapped around her little finger right enough!” He said.
Claire’s expression abruptly stilled. She didn’t need a glass face for him to read the grief and sadness there. For a second he wished she was actually better at hiding her emotions. All he wanted to do was take away her pain. He started to say something but her fingers came up to his lips.
“I had a wonderful evening, Jamie.” Her eyes shone with unshed tears which alarmed him. “Do you want to get dinner tonight?” She said on a whisper.
“Aye.” He managed to get out.
“Good, we can talk then.” She kissed him softly then was out the door.
After she left, a thought came to Jamie that kicked his legs out from under him and he sat hard on the bed, thinking it through, remembering the criss-crossed lines across her stomach. But he knew he was right. Like Jenny. Stretch marks. From carrying a child. Oh God!
Present Day Mexico City
He was late, which wasn’t like him. Claire had run by his room, knocking and got no answer. She was not good at sitting idol. After charming the front desk with a ridiculous story about needing a search dog, she got Murtagh’s room number and wasted no time knocking on his door.
“I thought he was wi’ you, lass.” Murtagh told her as he dialed Jamie’s phone. It went right to VM.
He sent a text, a picture of him with a question mark and the initials MIA. There was no response.
“He told me he gets bad migraines sometimes.” Claire ventured.
“Aye, but if so he’d be in his room.”
“There was no answer when I knocked on his door.”
Murtagh brushed past her and led her down the hall to Jamie’s room, he had an extra key. They let themselves in, finding Ging alone. Claire reached down to pet her furry head, trying to reassure herself as much as the dog.
Murtagh sent another text, a picture of ET (phone home). They heard a soft ping. The phone was somewhere in the room, but they couldn’t find it.
“Well, he couldna have gone far, lass or he’d have his phone on him. Where might he go on the grounds?” Murtagh looked worried, Claire equally troubled.
“The fountain!” Claire said as all three of them left the room and headed out to the enclosed garden.
They didn’t have to wander too far to find him. Just beyond the door, Jamie lay in a sprawled heap. Ging gave a chuff of distress and started whining, licking his face and nuzzling her nose under his arm trying to get a response from him but he was unconscious. Claire could see his chest rising and falling. Ging lay down beside Jamie and put her chin lightly on his chest.
He was bleeding profusely from a head wound and a laceration over his right eye. Murtagh helped Claire straighten his body out and that’s when they noticed he was surrounded by pieces of smashed plaster. There had been any number of aftershocks since they arrived in Mexico City, so many that Claire had ceased noticing them. They looked up and saw the line of decorative molding clinging to the roofline and the empty spot where the damage had occurred.
Claire made a makeshift bandage, carefully covering the deep cut along his eye socket and the other abrasions on his head. Murtagh applied direct pressure to the bandage to stem the bleeding while Claire check him for any other injuries. He was breathing normally but his skin felt hot to the touch.
“Lass, can you call Esteban? Tell him Jamie was hurt and to send an ambulance?”
Claire nodded at once, calling the central number would delay the arrival of an ambulance, a direct appeal would ensure quick results.
“Does he take anything for his migraines? Regular medications?”
“Aye, in his pack.” Murtagh told her. His hands were getting faintly red from the bandages but he kept the pressure on the wound area.
“Can you stay here with Jamie, I’ll run Ging back to the room and grab his bag?” Claire asked.
Once back in his suite, Claire looked all around for his backpack. She couldn’t find it, her mind getting more and more frantic. Remembering this morning, she checked the closet, it wasn’t there. But she remembered the command.
“Look, Gingham!” She asked. Gingham moved her head in a cockayed slant and stayed put. “Please, sweet girl, I need Jamie’s bag. Look!”
This time Ging spun and went toward the bed. Claire gave a cry of relief and dove to her knees, reaching under the bed and pulling it out by the shoulder straps. Ging sat on her butt and looked expectantly. Searching for both the medication and a Gingham treat she opened the zipper. The bag was packed with extra supplies.
Claire pulled his hoodie out, noted the phone was there, snagged a scooby snack that lay in a small bag on the top of the pile, throwing it out to Ging who wolfed it down sloppily, making Claire laugh despite the circumstances. Rather than waste more time looking through the bag, Claire swung it over her shoulder and raced back down to Murtagh and Jamie.
Claire hadn’t left his side and neither had Murtagh. The number of people in the clinic was minimal now that the rescue operations were winding down. Jamie had the room to himself and it was a quiet night. There were four different cuts, two were long and deep and covered a good portion of his scalp. Those and the one on his eye needed stitches. It was in a fairly difficult spot along his eye socket. She irrigated everything and then looked up at Murtagh.
“I’ll have to cut a lot of his hair to stitch him up. It would be easier to shave most of it down and his hair would grow in better after, would that be ok?”
“Och, please ye’d be doing us all a favor getting rid of that abomination!” Murtagh told her. “That’s one good thing to come from this, if ye ask me. I’ll no’ miss the long or the blonde!”
“Is that not his natural color?” Claire asked surprised.
Then she blushed a furious shade of pink realizing that was what her brain had registered last night. Jamie’s pubic region resplendently sporting a bush of ferocious auburn hair!
Murtagh’s eyebrows rose comically high and he chuckled. Claire realized that Jamie had told no tales of their night together to his friend. She didn’t know why that pleased her -- she’d known the night was special to both of them and neither would mention in casual conversation.
Murtagh grabbed the scissors and started cleaning him up. Claire was shaving down to the cuts and stitching them as she went. When she was done, she took out the clippers and gave him the longest buzz cut she could manage, trying to neaten it up as she went.
“I’ll have to wrap his eye, it may be easier if I just take the bandages all the way around his head. Will you hold him forward?”
Murtagh watched Claire finish her work. She was quick on her feet and extremely capable. He lay Jamie’s wrapped head back down on the bed. He knew why Jamie thought the world of her and all during the day today the lad had been walking on cloud nine, happy. Happy in a way that Murtagh hadn’t seen in over a decade.
He sighed. The lad couldn’t catch a break it seemed. Just when life was looking a little brighter for him. He’d come awake disoriented to find his eye covered, but no help for it. Still, Murtagh needed to try and ensure that the boy woke in minimal pain.
“Did ye get his medications out of his bag?” Murtagh asked, straightening up and taking his jacket off.
Out of the corner of her eye, Claire made a distracted note of the fact that Murtagh was wearing a faded red T-shirt with the name of his fire station emboldened across the chest. Red wasn’t really his color.
Claire reached behind her to open the backpack. It was rather warm in the clinic and Claire made a mental note to grab a fan from the supply closet. She started digging into Jamie’s bag, pulling out the snacks, medical kit and digging her fingers down to find the pill containers. Her fingers hit the hard edges of a book.
Carried around by a man who didn’t read unless absolutely imperative. What could be so important that he put something so incongruous into his rescue pack? A bible? A Spanish dictionary? A Mexico City atlas?
She pulled it out quickly so she could dig under it but before she’d even put it on the bed, the cover caught her eye. She couldn’t breathe. An Affair to Remember hardback edition. Mesmerized she traced her fingers over the title and sat down hard onto the chair by Jamie’s bedside.
She cracked open the book at the beginning and saw that he’d added his initials to the first page. In neat, beautiful script he’d written “ If found return to JAMMF-- Reward will be paid” with an email address and a telephone number. She stared at the initials. What was Jamie Fraser doing with her book?
Murtagh saw her face and immediately came to her side.
“Claire?” He gently touched her arm.
Claire didn’t respond. She was drawing in air in wheezing mouthfuls, Murtagh was a little concerned she was going to faint. He gently took the book from her hands and placed it in her lap so he could take her hand, noting her thready pulse as he did so and using his other hand to try and rub some life into her now cold skin.
“What’s amiss, lass?” He asked softly.
Claire looked up at him. Her eyes were swimming with tears. The hardback cover of the book was digging into her thigh a bit as it cracked open to where the bookmark divided the pages. She looked down and a sound of wonder and pain, a broken “oh” came from her mouth. Her hands were shaking as she reached for it.
She clutched the bookmark in her hand and couldn’t stem the flow of tears. The feel of it-- smooth and rough in different places, the letters a little more fadded than she remembered, but the very smell of the red leather so dear to her. Her Merry Wishmas gift. Claire could feel the blood drain from her and she almost fainted.
Murtagh had squatted down beside her and placed his hands over hers.
“Claire, tell me, aye?”
His eyes were so full of love and concern she was able to get control over herself. She turned back to the title page inscribed in his initials.
“His name?” She whispered.
“His full name. What did his parents name him?” She demanded, her eyes boring into him.
Murtagh looked down to where her fingers were tracing Jamie’s full initials.
“James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.” He told her and the sound that came from her broke his heart.
“James Alexander Malcolm ….” She whispered fiercely.
All this time. He’d kept it with him all these bloody years? Claire looked at the man in the bed trying to reconcile her heart and her head. Jamie was far larger than Alex. But with the bandages across his face, his hair once again in a buzz cut with an underlying brownish hue, not blonde at all and the hints of red stubble now lining his jawline, she could see the obvious similarities.
Then she remembered feeling his thigh last night and if she closed her eyes she could see the scar there. Her stitches, she should have recognized them at once except she’d been focused on something else entirely. Oh God!
Then she was looking up at Murtagh once again. Her hand shot out hard and she twisted part of his tee shirt into her fist. “Murrayfield…. Fire and Rescue? That looks exactly like one of Alex’s shirts…”
Murtagh caught her as she fainted, slumping forward onto the floor. He placed her gently down and grabbed some water and a clean cloth.
“Are ye ok lass?” He kept asking, rubbing her forehead with the rag. Finally she fluttered her eyes open.
“I’m fine, honestly.” She told him, taking a sip of the water and sitting back up in the chair.
“Ye scared the piss right out of me!” He told her.
“Jamie was a soldier once, a captain, wasn’t he?” She asked. Having no reason to lie Murtagh nodded once.
“And a scholar? He studied traditional Eastern poetry and liked translating from the original language?” Murtagh nodded again.
“I met him...in Afghanistan, eleven years ago.” She said quietly. She nodded at the book. “That’s ours.” She told him.
“Yer the Sassenach!” Murtagh exclaimed. Claire’s eyes filled with tears again, but happy ones this time. To hear that name again!
Murtagh sat down hard on the edge of Jamie’s bed trying to take it all in.
“But that means---Christ!”
“Indeed.” She raised a sardonic brow at him.
But Murtagh didn’t return her smile. His anger became palpable.
“Do ye have any idea how long he searched for ye? You and your husband both!” Murtagh gave her a look. “Ye lied to the lad, ye were marrit. Yer husband is a fucking ghost -- Jamie called in many favors and couldn’t find the man. He apparently exists only in those spy novels that no doubt bring in a pretty penny so I guess I ken why ye wouldna want to leave him. Do ye just play at medicine under assumed names all over the world? Jesus! I can hardly look at ye. Jamie was devastated when ye didn’t come to see him at the clinic. He lost everything that mattered to him. God how he needed ye, Nurse Randall and ye just abandoned him!” Murtagh pointed an accusatory finger at her.
Claire flinched and turned an even lighter shade of white, suddenly understanding just how fraught with complications this reunion of theirs would be. She thought about whether their meeting would put him in danger again. Whether she needed to race back to Boston? But Jamie knew who she was now. Where she’d been living, how to find her again. There was no way she could protect him by keeping herself from him anymore. Thinking it through she realized that the time had finally come for them reconcile past and present and make a stand. She’d need to call Frank as soon as she could. And Ned. And Joe.
“Where the hell were you all this time? Why did ye no’ meet him at the top of the Empire State Building? Ye are a cruel bitch. If ye didna intend to meet him, why the big fuss wi’ Ned Gowan about making sure he gave Jamie yer book? Do ye ken Jamie stayed there for 18 hours? Ye didna show! Do ye have any idea what that did to him?” Murtagh was shouting now. “I canna believe he fell back into the clutches of such a selfish, wicked beesom!”
“I did go to meet him. I was there the entire day and into the night! Freezing my ass off and suffering from morning si---” Claire broke off abruptly. She didn’t really know Murtagh. Jamie trusted him but that wasn’t enough given the stakes.
“ He was the one who didn’t show up! And there was no way I could take the risk of contacting him directly, how could I when it might endanger our….loved ones, or even lead to his death? Our only chance was the Christmas Eve rendezvous!”
“Christmas Eve? Christmas Eve-- what in God’s name are ye talking about?” Murtagh was furious and made more so by her shaking head. “Look here, lass Jamie made me read that infernal book to him a dozen times or more looking for clues, anything that might tell him what had happened and how to find you. The only clue was that ye’d marked the page where Terry and Nicky meet at the top of the Empire State Building at July 1. That’s exactly what he did and ye were no’ there!”
Claire shot to her feet. “July 1? July 1? He waiting that long? My God, that would have been almost a year after we’d parted!” She pulled out the bookmark and held it out to him in proof.
“Not July 1! Christmas Eve! He was supposed to go four months from when we left Afghanistan. Christmas Eve!” She choked out, her mind spinning back to the conversation between herself and Alex/Jamie.
“What did ye dream of? What was yer greatest-- “He inflected the next part with some humor, “Merry Wishmas wish?”
“That my family would find me….I made the same wish every Christmas Eve because that’s the day your heart’s desire can come true even if it’ll take a miracle.
“I told him that Christmas Eve was the day made for dreams. I had only a few minutes to think, I knew if I tried anything more obvious they’d have taken the book from Ned. I had only time to put the bookmark in that chapter. I thought for sure when he saw it he’d understand the message. It never occurred to me to meet him July 1 and would have been a bit hard for me to do anyway. Not impossible because if I had thought of it, I would have done it. And you are wrong. I did try and find Jamie. Right after landing back in London. I couldn’t go to the clinic, it wasn’t safe. They were watching me, I had a “handler” following me. I knew I couldn’t be obvious in my search so I never called anyone or asked directly but I did scour the internet for any information on Alexander Malcolm or on his sister Jennifer Malcolm. I tried to ---” Claire cut her words off as another thought came to her.
“ My sister Jenny says I’m a ginger.”
“ Janet and Ian, my brother-in-law, they run a wee farm…”
“Oh God-- Jenny is short for Janet, not Jennifer.”
Claire sat hard on the chair.
“But then Dougal MacKenzie caught up with me. He found me at Oxford. I had just started medical school to become a doctor. He made the most convincing threats. He told me he would kill me if he learned I had gotten back together with Alex and he warned me that if anyone from the 51st Regiment had any contact with me, they would be killed outright or I would be. I called him delusional. I told him I do not respond to threats and that I would be seeing Alex very soon. I should never have done that but I hate bullies. To prove that he wasn’t making idle threats, he managed to get me dismissed from my medical school program. My appeal was turned down. When I tried to go back to work I discovered that he’d also had me blacklisted from working as a nurse anywhere in England. I had no doubt after that that if Jamie and I ever got back together and he learned of it, he would hurt me or Jamie. And then when I discovered I was carrying our---”
Claire stopped again and cleared her throat.
“Jamie couldn’t find me because I had to disappear, I couldn’t be found again by the Major. I had to protect Jamie and our family. Claire Beauchamp isn’t my real name. Frank is my ex-husband. We have been divorced for almost 11 years.” She told Murtagh pointedly, “He is very good at subterfuge. Frank Randall isn’t even his real name. He is a paranoid conspiracy theorist and from about our second year of marriage, I had real doubts about his executive functioning in the real world which is why I kept re-upping for international deployments in the army -- because I couldn’t see living with him full time. But in this one instance, Frank’s brand of crazy was the most amazing gift. He helped me assume a new identity and go into hiding in a new country. Most of all he ensured I could work as a nurse in America so I could put a roof over our head and had a way to earn our keep. I don’t take a dime from him and I never have.”
“I’m sorry, Claire. Truly sorry. I love Jamie as a son. I would protect him, especially against anything done by that bastard, Dougal MacKenzie, for all that he is Jamie’s uncle.”
“They’re related?” Claire’s shock was evident. Murtagh nodded. The sorrow in his eyes almost made her cry again.
“And his child, Claire? What of Jamie’s child?” Murtagh’s eyes pierced her and his heart squeezed tight and small seeing her tears run down her cheeks. She’d planned on telling Jamie about her daughter over dinner. But the reality was she’d need to tell Alex about their daughter when he woke.
“Aye, I’m a soft touch, good thing she’s no’ a child. I’d be wrapped around her little finger right enough!” He said.
Claire cried harder, great gulping sobs that ripped through Murtagh. But it wasn’t for herself or their daughter she cried. No. Murtagh would always remember that night that she had cried a river of tears for everything Jamie had lost. His career in the military, his Sassenach as he knew her, the relationship he’d had with his uncle, his joy of reading, the comfort he found in poems, his hope of academia as a second career, the books he’d never write, the classes he’d never teach at the university, the scrolls and calligraphy he’d never collect, the daughter he’d never known.
When she’d cried herself to exhaustion, Murtagh placed her gently into the bed with Jamie. It was the safest place for the two of them. He’d gotten Joe’s number from Claire and decided to make a few phone calls while she and Jamie slept. Angus and Ian were first on his list, then he would make his way down it until he’d set some things in motion.
Jamie was still asleep when Claire woke a few hours later. Too restless to sleep, she picked up An Affair to Remember and started reading the last chapter, the one she’d not had a chance to read to Alex. But she remembered it well, she found and began to read aloud to him, to Alex/Jamie. It’s words taking on a new depth of meaning, bittersweet, achingly poignant.
Terry was still shaken by the incident in the theatre. Seeing Nicky with Lois, sitting there in the seat while Ken went to get her wheelchair. Her first night out in public since her accident. What were the chances that she and Nicky would both be attending at the ballet that night?
She was unable to move, couldn’t stand up and hug him, which she wanted to do so badly and only murmured a quiet hello. Still, she told herself, that was for the best. Nicky had to have moved on in the six months since her accident, afterall. Her landlady made sure she had some tea and stoked the fire. It was a cold Christmas Eve in the city. As she went out the door, in came Nicky. Terry was only half surprised.
“Hello Terry, it’s been a long time.” Nicky said casually, though his eyes darted all over her apartment, taking in her single status, her spartan furnishings.
“Nicky, it’s good to see you.” She decided honesty was the best policy here.
“May I?” He asked gesturing to a chair next to her. She realized she’d forgotten her manners.
“Oh, please.” Terry drank in the sight of him, his dear face a little more haggard and worn. “It’s good to see you.” She repeated.
“You said as much.” His tone a little harsh. “I’ll bet you are wondering how I got here.”
“Un-huh” She agreed.
“I was looking in the phone book for a man named McGee and there you were, Terry McKay and I thought my oh my could that be my old friend Terry? We haven’t spoken in ages.”
“And you guessed right.” She smiled a little.
“Mhmm. But I realized I hadn’t been very good to Terry. I was supposed to meet her and skipped out on it without letting her know. So I knew at once I needed to come see her and tell how sorry I was in person.”
“That was very nice of you.”
“Wasn’t it though?” The angry bite in his tone was unmistakable,
“Yes, because I have thought of you many times, wondering how you were.” She told him.
“You did? Really?” He scoffed but she nodded truthfully anyway. “So you weren’t mad that I skipped out on you and didn’t meet you? You must have been mad at least in the beginning?”
“Well of course I was.” She looked at his face trying to read him. The sadness in his eyes was almost her undoing. “I said to myself: who does he think he is to do this to me?”
“Did you wait long up there at the top of the 102nd floor?” Nicky prompted.
“Yes a long time let me see. I must have waited until…?” She looked at him.
“Midnight.” He told her.
“Oh.” She breathed. He’d waited for hours and hours.
“And then what did you do?” He prompted again.
“I got angrier and angrier because I had been waiting for hours.” Terry looked at him.
“In a thunderstorm.” He looked at her with a deadpan expression.
“Oh…” Terry said faintly, it must have rained when she was in the OR. “And so I decided to go home and get drunk. Blind stinking drunk!”
“But not you, you didn’t do that.”
“Well maybe a little nip here and there. Every night. For a month or two.”
“Do you blame me?”
“Of course not. But then I felt badly. I mean the least I could’ve done was send you a note.” Nicky told her.
“Well, maybe by the time you thought of it you didn’t know how to reach me.” Terry said, thinking that she hadn’t sent the note because she had been undergoing operation after operation and then rehab to learn how to live life in a wheelchair.
“But you swore if you ever saw me again you’d be sure to ask me. So here I am.” He told her plainly looking for answers.
“No, we didn’t say that.” Terry stalled.
“No?” He was incredulous. Here he was sitting in her living room, did she not have the common decency to tell him why she hadn’t been there?
“We said that if we didn’t make it we’d sure as hell have a good reason!” Terry said emphatically.
“No more questions.” Terry said firmly, eyes pleading with Nicky not to press the matter any further.
“Terry, I walked all the way here to wring your neck for not meeting me that day and you expect me to just drop it and leave without getting any answers?”
“Mmhum.” She said. “And how are you Nicky?”
“Oh, I see you get to ask questions but not me, huh?”
But Terry smiled at him then and he wanted to tell her, suddenly he couldn’t wait to tell her.
“I’ve started painting again. It’s not much but it’s a start. I’m self supporting. I see there is no ring on your finger so you must be too?”
Terry nodded. “What do you paint Nicky?”
He was looking around the apartment again. “Mmm? What? Oh, portraits, still lifes and such. I brought you something as well. It’s Christmas Eve after all.”
“Oh how rude I don’t have anything for you.” She said.
“Well, actually it’s not from me, its from Janou. She told me when she --- well, she wanted you to have it.”
“Oh Nicky, I am so sorry!” Terry knew the package contained Janou’s beautiful shawl. And the only reason she had it was because Nicky’s grandmother had died. Terry carefully wrapped it around her shoulders.
Nicky stared at her. “You know I painted you exactly like that.” He paused, looking again. “The gallery owner called me a few days ago. He told me that a young woman had come into the shop and admired the painting very much. She had no money but he asked if I would give it to her anyway because she-- well she was in a ----” Suddenly Nicky started opening doors and looking in earnest.
When he opened the door to the bedroom he saw it. The painting he did of Terry wearing the shawl. Beneath it was her wheelchair. Stunned, Nicky leaned hard against the door, closing his eyes in agony.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Terry? If it had to happen to one of us, why did it have to be you?” Nicky choked out. Oh God! She hadn’t made their rendezvous because she was paralyzed.
“Don’t look at me like that, Nicky please. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I was hit by a taxi crossing the road. I was looking up. It was the nearest thing to heaven-- you were there!”
Terry and Nicky were both crying. She wiped his eyes with the shawl. Don’t cry darling! Don’t! If you can paint then I can walk!
Claire put the book down and placed her ear gently against Jamie’s chest. Listening to his heart beat, lulling her almost back to sleep again.
A painful groan had Claire turning over in the bed. She managed to get a basin under his mouth just in time. Jamie curled over again in pain. She quickly cleaned everything up then turned off all the lights and lowered her voice.
“Migraine?” She whispered.
He made further sounds of distress then suddenly moved his head outside the bed and hissed out something in a mixture of Gaelic and Spanish that she couldn’t understand.
A bad one.
His skin was burning up. Sometimes concussions led to neurologic fever. That could lead to stroke. She had to lower his blood pressure and fever quickly.
“God damn you, captain! If you die here now Jamie, I swear I’ll kill you!”
Claire quickly pulled out his migraine medicine, he had almost everything she needed, blood thinner, pain and anti-seizure medications. She quickly dissolved the works into a liquid concoction and added an antibiotic, then injected the lot into him. She took her place sitting vigil beside him. He was having a little trouble regulating his breath.
“It’s alright, shhh. I’m here. Just breathe with me.”
Claire started the tai chi breathes, making them loud enough for him to hear her. She tried to hold his hand but he resisted, finally resting the palm of it on his chest and covering it with his own hand.
A distant memory came flooding back to her and she started thump thumping her fingers in tune with his heartbeat. Jamie sighed deeply and his own fingers followed her rhythm.
He changed his breathing to inhales between the finger movement and drawing out the pauses between the beats longer and longer. She joined him as he did so, whispering to him to let him know he wasn’t alone. She could feel him relaxing just a little as his medication kicked in and the breathing did its trick. His hand tightened hard on hers.
“Sassenach?” He whispered, his voice full of awe and wonder.
His other hand touched the bandaged eye but he made no move to remove it or sit up. He knows! Claire’s heart started beating harder in her chest.
“Yes, my love?”
“Ye came back, then, to find me?”
“Yes.” She told him.
“I knew ye would.” He whispered, a tear rolled down his cheek and caused her own eyes to well up.
“I searched for you for so long, so vera long, my Sassenach. I knew ye wouldna leave me like that. But I couldna find ye anywhere except when ye’d come to me, just like now. Whenever I am afraid and in so much pain with my head that I knew I must die. You’d put your hand on my heart and I could catch my breath again. But I never saw your face, my Sassenach and ye never called me by my name.” He broke off in a sigh.
“I’m here now.” She whispered. Jamie’s hand tightened on hers. He picked it up and brought it to his lips and kissed her fingers.
“My love. I knew ye must forgive me, Sassenach. Once you knew.”
Knew what? Claire wondered.
“I havena loved anyone but you, my Sassenach no’ since the day ye kissed me, do ye remember?”
“I do, I was shaving you.” Claire had tears in her eyes.
“I waited for ten years or more for ye, Sassenach. But now I must let you go.” He said with deep sadness.
“Why?” Her voice was sharp and he winced.
“I met someone. Ye’d like her, I think.”
Of all the nerve! Claire thought but tried not to overreact. He was making no sense at all, she wondered if this was one of the side effects of his migraines or his meds.
“She is a healer, like you. She---Claire.”
“Claire. Her name is Claire.” Jamie’s face light into a huge smile, though even his unbandaged eye stayed closed. Claire’s entire body sighed in relief.
“Tell me about her.” Claire urged, some little devil prodding her on. Though it was a little unfair to ask such a thing of a man out of his head with pain and fever but really, who could resist such an opportunity?
“She’s smart and kind. Wise. Beautiful and strong. She makes me feel...alive. God! Sassenach! Do ye ken what it is to live for ten years wi’out a heart?”
“I have some idea.” She told him with no little irony.
“I never thought to find such a thing again. She is so like you, Sassenach.”
“So you are giving me my walking papers are you?” Claire could not help the ridiculous feeling of anger and jealousy that welled up in her for all that she was angry and jealous of herself. Irrational but true emotion welled in her heart.
“How could there be two such heartbeats on this Earth that call to me? I’ve spent days hating myself for it. But tis a gift, no? To find yer soulmate? I told her about you. I couldna play ye false or her. That is why I must let ye go.” He said with real regret.
“Have you slept with her?” Claire bit her lip.
God, this was all kinds of wrong! She should be ashamed, she knew, but found she couldn’t help it. The look of pure joy in his smile followed by a bright red blush on his face was the only response.
“Is she a better lover?” Claire needled. Ok seriously, she needed to stop. No more questions!
“No. But I think I am. Or maybe I have just come to appreciate it more having been without for so long. I canna tell you what a joy it is to ken that I can rouse her body to mine just like I could with you, my Sassenach!”
Claire laughed, she couldn’t help it. My God! She fell in love with him all over again.
“Oh Jamie, my love, open your eye. Look at me.” Claire touched his forehead above his good eye. He slid it open.
“Oh God! Oh Christ! What in God’s name are ye doing here? I thought it was a fever dream.” Jamie looked at her hard, his heart hammering triple time in his chest.
“No, it’s just me. Claire.” She reached her hand out.
He grabbed it hard in his own. His mouth opened but no sound came out.
“Sass--Sassenach?” He picked her hand up and kissed it again. “Yer real?”
“So are you, Alex.” She was crying now. Kissing him and sniveling all over him.
“Claire!” His hand fisted in her hair and he stared at her face. “Yer hair, Sassenach. It’s no’ dull brown at all! Neither are yer eyes!”
“What color are my eyes?” She demanded, ridiculous man! Brown was brown!
“The color of warmth, good whisky and love.” He told her seriously. “Oh God, Claire! You really are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” Jamie brought her to him and kissed her hard and with such tender longing she temporarily forgot their difficult situation.
“ Je suis a toi, Claire and you belong to me.” He waited until she’d agreed, “Tell me everything, aye?”
Claire filled him in as best she could.
He listened and asked a few questions. Then he stilled completely and his breath came short once more. He reached his hand to her abdomen.
“And the child?” He watched her eyes, her glass face. “Oh God, Claire, our child?” He guessed.
She nodded and took his hand.
“Jamie, my love.” He didn’t want to hear what she was going to say, he started shaking his head no back and forth harder.
“Shhh. I’m here, I am with you but I must tell you about her...about our daughter Faith Alexandra.”
Jamie made a small soft sound and crumpled.
“Jamie you’ve been so strong through everything. Stay strong, love. You must listen with your whole heart. And most of all, forgive yourself for there was nothing you could have done differently nor I. The most important thing was that Faith loved you her whole life.”
“Our...daughter? She knew of me?” Claire nodded through her tears.
All that long afternoon Claire shared the story of her life since they last were together. About Merry Wishmasses and the Empire State Building, finding herself unexpectedly pregnant, about Joe Abernathy and New Gowan and Frank Randall. Her assumed name and the medical evidence shed compiled then reported under the direction of Ned Gowan. And most of all, she told him about Faith. About the life of their incredible, remarkable daughter.
When she was done Jamie asked if she had any pictures of her.
“Oh yes!” She told him and promptly brought out her phone.
“My mother’s eyes.” He whispered.
“The sky blue? Those are my mother’s eyes, exactly, Sassenach.”
He looked for over an hour, before his head started throbbing and his eye was swollen with tears. She didn’t think it was just coincidence that it happened just as Jamie got to pictures of Faith taken one year ago, just as her treatments began and her hair was all gone. Her body so thin that you could see her collarbone and cheekbones cutting sharply across her delicate pale skin.
When he woke, he seemed very excitable.
“I had a dream. About the ambush. I think I remember some things, finally!” He told her. He had Claire tell him again about the ambush and her report on the medical evidence.
“Wait, lass two bodies? There was only the one-- only Rupert.” Claire was shaking her head and described it again for him. When she was done he was smiling.
“Are you sure, Jamie?” She asked for the millionth time.
“This is the only way, Claire. No, dinna look at me like that we have to do it now. You know I want to stay wi’ you to go back and meet-- God! But ye ken we must strike before Dougal kens anything is amiss. We have a few days, no more, to get the evidence before the military tribunal that Ned managed to coral into listening to our story.”
“If something happens to you I’ll never forgive you, Jamie! Haste ye back! We will meet you at noon on Christmas Eve and so help me God if you are late I will follow and drag you back by your thick red curls. And you won’t like it a bit!”
“No, Sassenach. I’m sure I wouldn’t.” He smiled and she felt the reassurance and promise in his kiss. Claire still looked worried. “Dinna fash, mo chridhe . I’ll be home before ye know it.”
“I’m holding you to it, James Alexander, Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.”
“You do that, Dr. Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp.” He looked her dead in the eye and then added, “Fraser.”
Boston Present Day
Jamie grabbed his duffle and bade the taxi driver to wait while he fished the extra key Claire had given him out of his pocket. It was a lovely craftsman style home, twinkling lights framed the wide front porch. A snowman was standing vigil on the front lawn. He quickly rooted through his bag and pulled out his heavier winter gear, then stowed everything in the front hall.
Just as he was rushing back out the door his eye caught sight of the uneven red bow tied haphazardly around a pair of hockey skates. Familiar with Claire’s neat stitches, Jamie knew the ribbon hadn’t been tied by her hand. On trembling fingers he pulled out the note he’d found tucked into the skate boot. CU Soon!
He heard Ging before he saw them, she raced up from behind a copse of trees to greet him as he sat on the bench set out on the banks of the mill pond behind Joe Abernathy’s house. In the distance he could see several people gliding in loops, the occasional shout or laugh carried to him on a cutting, sharp wind. Jamie rubbed and petted Gingham in between securing his laces. Then he pulled his hat down tighter and stowed his gloves inside his zipped parka.
The first time he held her wasn’t going to be through dozens of layers. He stepped out on the ice. It had been a long time but the movement came back to him readily. Good thing, too because suddenly his attention was riveted on the scene in front of him. They were arm in arm, floating across the ice. Claire’s curls flying out behind her, laughing in response to something her skating partner said. When her eyes caught his, everything in front of him blurred.
He should have closed the distance but he couldn’t move, much less see. Her head was covered in a knitted white and green striped hat. The blue of her coat matched her eyes. Her cheeks were bright red but it was the smile that stopped his heart. He opened his arms and she hit him at speed knocking any remaining air out of his lungs.
They almost went down but didn’t.
“Whoops! I’ve got you Dad!” Her laugh rang out and echoed over the shoreline.
As he wrapped his arms tightly around her, his hands carelessly knocked her hat off her head. Jamie pulled back and stared. She was so much taller than he’d imagined and stronger. The solid weight of her incredibly reassuring. She had his mother’s eyes and the hint of her mother’s curls, a living breathing miracle.
His fingers stroked her tresses and then brushed her cold cheek as Claire retrieved the hat and shoved it unceremoniously back on her head.
“Keep it covered!” Claire scolded.
Faith’s hair was now long enough to cover her ears, just barely. It had grown out so much in the two months Claire had been gone but not quite enough for this kind of weather.
Faith broke eye contact with her father in order to roll her eyes at her mother. Jamie laughed, the look was so patently Jenny in attitude and inflection, which earned him no brownie points with the Mrs. He shimmied over to Claire, kissed her gently and took her in his arms. Claire held him tightly to her enjoying the feel of him.
“I take it back, Sassenach,” he whispered for her ears only, “yer only the second most beautiful I’ve ever seen.”
Claire was in grave danger of crying, the last thing she wanted to do.
“And you,” She said pushing him away from her and pointing at his exposed digits. “Put your gloves on. Can’t you feel the wind chill? You’ll freeze to death before we can get home and open a single present!”
Jamie smiled at her, dutifully doing her bidding. Then he held his (now covered) hand out to Faith.
“Come, mo nighean donn , teach me how to dance o’er the pond like you and yer mother.”
It had been, Claire reflected as she set mugs of hot cocoa in front of Faith and Jamie, a perfect day. Jamie had gone out for a run as soon as they got back. He needed to in order to stave off the migraines. Ging accompanied them. She, Claire reflected, knew the neighborhood better than Jamie did. Now night had fallen and the snow, which had done no more than threaten all day, started coming down. Christmas carols softly played in the background.
A splendid fire kept their large kitchen with its extra sitting parlor warm. This room was the reason Claire had bought the place. The tree was set up in the salon, a nicely formal space but the living in this house was all done here. Ging was snoring from her perch under the kitchen table (all the better to catch scraps and spills).
Faith was curled up on the sofa placed in front of the hearth, Jamie’s arm wrapped around her. He hadn’t stopped looking at her, especially now when Faith wasn’t paying any attention to him and he could look to his heart’s content.
Jamie realized that their daughter’s hair was a funny mix of his and Claire’s brown yes, but a reddish highlighting shot through it. He kissed the top of Faith’s head and took a big gulp from his mug. His eyes widened as he tasted the whisky and he shot Claire an appreciative smile.
“It goes with anything!” She shrugged.
Faith was blowing on her unenhanced drink to cool it down.
As Claire cleaned up, she could hear Faith and Jamie talking in low voices, catching every few sentences.
“ I hate needles myself, always have. ” ….“It was fun staying with Uncle Joe, Lenny makes me laugh.…..“ And the chemo made yer hair fall out? ” ….. “It was hard on Mom, too.”..... “ I’m no’ a bit surprised to hear yer mam helped you and all those other children .” ….. “Do you think Ging can come to the hospital for my next appointment and we can visit the kids still on the ward? They’d love her!” …. “ Oh, I’m sorry, mo nighean, I ken how hard it is to have friends pass on.” ....
Claire turned the burner down low, the stew was ready but would keep awhile and sat down in the chair opposite them with her own drink.
“You’ll have to tell me all about what it was like over the next few days, aye? I’m proud of ye, Faith.”
Faith scoffed and Jamie gave her a surprised raise of the eyebrows and then smiled at her, a huge, wide, knowing grin.
“Sick of folk telling ye that?” He guessed and Faith nodded.
“Well, proud I am and ye’ll no’ say anything about it, lass, it’s a father’s prerogative. But I ken what ye mean just fine. Yer thinking ye went through the treatment and had no choice so it wasna a matter of bravery. If ye had to make a choice, then maybe ye’d need to be brave, aye.” Faith nodded solemnly. “It just so happens that is no’ what I am talking about. I’m talking about encouraging yer mom to finish her program and become a doctor. It was a vera unselfish thing ye did Faith. I’m bursting with pride that my daughter has so much of her mother’s courage and heart inside of her.”
Claire watched Faith absorb his words, deeply touched — more so when she saw father and daughter share a sweet smile of understanding and then turn their faces to her. She’d tried to imagine what it would be like to have him here, thought of little else in the week he’d been in London. Yet, she hadn’t fully appreciated what it would mean to have Faith receive the same love and support from her father, nor what it might mean to have the same in regards to herself.
“Can we open them now?” Faith asked.
Claire nodded and the girl let out a delighted hurrah and ran from the room. Jamie tried to look at Claire, but his eyes started to blur again, it was all too much.
“Happy?” She managed to say aloud but got only a nod in return. “I love you.” She whispered.
Jamie made a strangled sound and pulled her out of her chair, the force of his movement bringing her to his lap. She wrapped her arms around him and he tucked his head into her chest and squeezed her.
“ Is tu o mo chuislean, it tu cnaimh de mo chnaimh. Oh, Claire!”
“Kid’s back!” Faith announced, but honestly she didn’t mind seeing her parents hugging, didn’t even mind the tears she saw in his eyes. He wasn’t ashamed of the fact that he had feelings. That was nice.
Everything about her Dad was so much more than she expected. He was huge, tall and broad, a big booming voice, bright blue eyes. He had a way of looking at her like they shared the best secret in the whole world or like he thought she was about to say something he would think was “vera” funny. He was a hugger and that only seemed right because so was her mom.
Faith was carrying a basket full of wrapped presents. Jamie looked at Claire unable to read her expression, for once. He’d only brought a few things with him to give for Christmas, there had been so little time. He started to get up to get them from his duffle but Faith’s hand on his arm stilled him.
“These are for you, Dad.” She told him. Jamie eyeballed it. There must be a dozen in there.
Claire smiled. “We’ll do presents and stockings in the morning. It’s Merry Wishmas time, a special Christmas Eve tradition.”
Claire reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a small wrapped parcel. Claire looked at Faith and nodded and Faith grabbed a second one and placed it in the center of the table.
“You first!” Faith invited.
“I wished for you, Faith. To have more Merry Wishmases with you. And also I wished that by the time I picked you up from Joe and Gayle’s that you and Lenny would have successfully cleaned up all the TP from the neighbors’ trees.” Claire said clearing her throat. Jamie looked startled. Faith didn’t strike him as a mischief maker.
“It was on the bucket list.” Faith shrugged.
“No, lass, ye canna leave it there, out wi’ it, aye?” Jamie demanded.
“When I got sick, Lenny asked me what was on my bucket list. I didn’t have a bucket list so he told me to get cracking on it and he and I would do it together.” Faith explained.
“So our daughter thought she was being cute and funny by putting this ridiculous list together just so she could make Lenny do stupid things. The first one was walking into the wrong bathroom.” Claire explained and Faith began to snicker.
“The look on his face when that lady screamed made it worth it.” Claire shot her a displeased look. “Anyway, I put TP’ing trees at Halloween on the list, too and so we did it.”
“This is Faith’s Wishmas ornament gift to me.” Claire said as she opened the little package. It was a tree made with duct tape of various shades of green. “You have been hanging out with Joe. Thank goodness they haven’t come up with a surgical grade of the stuff! I swear that man would use it for everything if he could. I like it though!” Claire told her. “Your turn, darling.” Faith told her.
“I think Dad should go next, he has lots of catching up to do, and you know I already got my Wishmas.” Faith said in all seriousness gesturing at the basket.
“And ye think I havena?” Jamie asked shooting his brows into his crew cut and gesturing uncertainty at the basket.
“What is in there are ten years’ worth of Christmas Eve Wishmas gifts. We made one for you every year.”
“Ye wrapped them every year and kept them...for me?” Jamie was amazed. Claire saw him biting the inside of his lower lip. After a few moments he ventured, “ Mo nighean , is there any particular order?”
Faith shook her head and handed him the basket. Jamie held it in his hands and considered it carefully. He was overwhelmed, Claire could see.
“Go on, Jamie. They’ll be a surprise to us, too. We haven’t seen them in years.” She told him.
He pulled out the first one and carefully separated the tape from the wrapping. Once opened they could see it was from Christmas Eve 2012. It was an ornament shaped like a gingerbread man, badly made and a little crumbly. With it came a picture of a family circling an off kilter Christmas Tree with a few bulbs and a star. Running paint, long since dried smudged it here and there.
“The Leaning Christmas Tree of Pisa!” Claire exclaimed.
“I draw them straighter now!” Came the indignant response.
“Just barely!” Claire teased and Jamie laughed.
He saw Claire’s neat hand on the bottom labeling the figures. Faith, Mommy and Daddy, Mrs. McIntosh.
“Oh! Mrs. McIntosh!” Faith exclaimed.
“She was a neighbor who babysat for Faith when we lived in downtown Boston.” Claire told him.
“Ye pick the next one, lass.” Jamie gestured to Faith.
Jamie was handed another and another. Each year a came another ornament and a picture or other momento clearly all made by Faith. All shapes and sizes everything from paper machè to pipe cleaners to yarn, a rainbow explosion of colors. Every one a testament to the effort Claire took to keep his spirit with them and make his existence real. Claire told him true, Faith had known him her whole life.
The one from last Wishmas 2016 wasn’t an ornament at all. A letter was in the package that went with it. Jamie eyeballed it. Faith, without batting an eye, picked it from his hands.
“May I read it to you?” She asked with a knowing look at her father.
He looked her in the eye.
“I thought I was the one supposed to read to you?” He said in a small tight voice, revealing his discomfort with the role reversal.
“You are going to teach me how to do searches with Ging and martial arts and Chinese and Spanish and Gaelic and all the poems you like. I’d say it’s a fair trade.” She looked up expectantly.
He caught it again, that look in her eye so familiar to him. He felt as if he was looking into his mother’s eyes and his Mam was telling him to set aside his pride and not be a numpty.
“Oh, well, in that case we’ve a bargain.” The good humor had returned to his face.
There has been no snow this year, it’s been pretty warm overall but it still looks like Christmas with the decorations. Mom is worried about me and not in a holiday mood but I am! I want my Wishmas this year to come true more than any other one I’ve made. My Merry Wishmas is for her to finish her program and be a doctor.
I had another dream last night. I saw you and Mom together. She looked so happy. Mom always said you had red hair but she was wrong, you have hair just like on my old Barbie dolls. The two of you were dancing by a fountain.
I made you something different this year. It’s a horsehair bracelet. My friend Laya rides every week and she taught me how. If I am not here for the next Merry Wishmas, then you and Mom never have to look at your ornament from 2016 and get sad thinking it’s the last one. I believe with all my heart you and she will be together for some future Merry Wishmas.
Jamie insisted that Faith clasp the bracelet on him at once. Claire just hugged her. That moment was hard but not as hard as the one that came when they found the first ornament from 2007, a rough lacquered overlay of Faith’s baby footprints on a Christmas bulb.
The note was written in Claire’s hand, and she picked it up when she saw what he’d opened, a soft “oh” escaping from her lips. Although her voice wobbled and warbled but she managed to get through the letter.
I can’t bear to remember last Christmas Eve yet cannot forget it either. I don’t know what happened but I’ll try and take a page from An Affair to Remember and imagine that you must have had a very good reason for not being there.
I need to tell you a little of what happened. Frank handed me the keys to my new life, a new name, and the education and work credentials that came with it on the promise that I would not waste this second chance by being foolish enough to keep searching for you.
I could never leave light enough footprints to be invisible and could endanger you and our family. I must let go. This ornament is a reminder to myself and you the reason why can’t keep looking back but must turn my gaze to the future. I leave you her footprints on this ornament. Please find them and follow them to us.
Do you remember the poem you shared? It is about us, is it not? I don’t recall all the words exactly but something about “even if we met, you wouldn’t know me….year after year will it break my heart to watch but not be seen?” I keep visiting my local bookshops. Here in Boston, many of them are connected with local universities. I cruise the international literature sections looking for a book by a Scottish professor of Eastern poetry. One day I will see it or you will see me. I am sure of it. How do I know this? I have faith, Alex,-- actually, we both have Faith. Faith Alexandra.
As I hold her in my arms I know I made the right decision. Frank, damn his eyes, was right. I understand now that ferocious instinct of parent to protect a child. I would make the same choice if I had to do it again and when you see her, I know you would tell me the same. So it’s up to you now, you must come find us. We both miss you terribly.
Claire’s voice cracked on the last word and she couldn’t look at Faith or Jamie. Her chin started to quiver. Jamie took one look at her face and lost it. He took them both in his arms and buried his head in Claire’s neck, while running his hand over Faith’s short hair.
Yup, Faith thought as he squeezed her even closer, he was definitely a hugger.
“Open this year’s, Dad.” Faith urged.
Jamie laughed when he saw it. It was a simple ornament with a picture of Claire, Faith and Gingham standing next to the snowman out front. They’d dressed the man in a colorful scarf and sunglasses, stuck a baseball hat on his head and pipe into his mouth. They’d leaned a chalkboard sign against the snowman’s middle that read The Frasers 2017.
“We’ll take a real picture tomorrow!” Faith told him. “Let’s go put these on the tree now!”
It was a simple thing really, hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree, admiring all of the ones added over the years but he’d always remember his first Merry Wishmas with his family. Walking around the tree following Faith as she picked out each empty branch and matched space with offering. The delight of looking at the tree from across the room was a new experience for him, with his eye catching some bouble and knowing the story behind when it had made.
Then it was time for supper. A simple thing, cozy at the table, fire crackling. Talking of everything and nothing and laughing at pure silliness. After, Faith showed Jamie the special table to set out Santa’s milk and cookies and then she kissed them both goodnight.
He and Claire spent some time getting things ready for the morning, making sure the oranges were in each stocking, Jamie in awe he had one at all, setting out the Christmas crackers by the breakfast table already laid for brunch the next day, dutifully eating a few bites of the cookies, munching half a carrot and sipping some milk. She held her hand out to him and offered to pour him something of more substance in front of the kitchen fire.
“Come, Sassenach, sit here wi’ me.” Jamie patted his lap. “I need to hold you a minute.” His arms came around her and he tucked his head into her chest while Claire ran her hand through his short, stubbly hair and kissed his forehead.
“Do you want to talk about today?” A soft inquiry.
He shook his head. His heart was too full and the words would all trip over themselves in the attempt. It was enough, it was too much, he needed more. All of these thoughts raced around and found no outlet.
“So?” Claire asked, moving on to a more digestible topic.
“I still dinna like him, but I do owe Frank a debt of gratitude.” Jamie began. Claire laughed a little. “Was it simply an odd coincidence that Frank had been researching the weapons trade in Helmand province?” He asked her.
“No. After hearing my story, Frank suspected that there was some part of the story that had to be an insider job. He thought it might be related to arms dealing--or opium trade he wasn’t sure. There was simply too much money running through the system for it not to have an effect on greedy and unscrupulous men. The corruption was widespread, in the rank and file, the government, the tribal leaders, security personnel. Men would literally walk briefcases full of cash, worth millions across the border every week. He never had your information, though, beyond what I knew. Frank had, on his own, discovered an entire company of soldiers had been ensuring safe passage out of the country for cash and for shipments of weapons with only a small handful of the troops knowing that they were doing so. I didn’t know he’d met Angus or knew about his connection to Rupert. We almost never spoke except for a call or two a year. But I knew I could trust him with your life, Jamie. I knew he’d been researching for awhile. Knowing Frank, a fictionalized version of your story has already formed the basis for another Charles Jacoby spy thriller.”
“Maybe so or maybe no Sassenach but I’ll no’ begrudge him the success it is sure to be. Ian told me that Angus has been working on a story for the Financial Times tracing the origins of arms to ISIS and how they acquire their weapons, many of which originate in the Uk or the US. Part of his story tells the history of a group of interpreters in Afghanistan who, ten years ago, tried to call international attention to widespread corruption in their local government. They kent there had been rampant misappropriation of funds used to purchase weapons instead of going toward infrastructure improvements as promised. One of their rank died mysteriously just as they were getting ready to take their complaints to the Hague, to a task force reviewing the disbursement of aid through various NGOs. The interpreters had detailed the elements within their own government that they personally knew, because of the work they had done as interpreters, were responsible for diverting funds from infrastructure projects to weapons sales. They had heard a rumour that the interpreter who died had been working with a branch of MI-5’s military intelligence corps and together the two of them could paint a picture of a vast smuggling network and demonstrate who within the local government and who within the military supplier ranks were working together and forming the back end of this smuggling operation. However, that agent also vanished. Without those two points of contact, the presentation couldn’t be arranged and nothing was ever brought to light. Nothing was done to stem the weapons trade in Afghanistan either and many of those weapons are today in the hands of the insurgents in the Middle East.”
“I bet I can guess who the agent from MI-5 was?” Claire waggled her brows at Jamie and he smiled but did not confirm her suspicions.
“I know Rupert was one of the men who died. But who was the other man and how did he die?”
“Patience, Sassenach, married as ye are to a Scot, now ye must learn to tell a good story and listen to one as well.” He kissed her forehead and continued, “Angus spent the last year assembling financial data on offshore accounts traced through a dozen companies tied to illegal weapons trades. Last week, thanks to you Claire, I was able to put Ned Gowan, Frank and Angus together and they were quickly able to analyze the data and bring it to General Hal Grey-- who, in 2006 was in charge of 101st Airborne in Afghanistan. They have been able to identify several of the insiders, Dougal included. He played a significant role in the weapons trade-- but there are dozens of others, some are manufacturers, some in shipping, some are international conglomerates. None of them should be dealing in arms to hostile elements. Angus says there are hundreds of millions of of dollars at stake and the origins started in Helmand all those years ago.”
“And how did you get involved in all this?”
Jamie sighed. “I had been placed undercover posing as an arms dealer from the UK. I was making the rounds, visiting local tribal strongmen. It was a sting operation to root out some of the corruption that was rife in the agencies the British Army dealt with, the diplomatic attachés and British contractors that crawl out of the woodwork like privateers in times of war. It took me several weeks and the help of Reza, an interpreter whose cousin was one of the high placed ministers in charge of dispersing the money to help the local Afghanis.” At this Jamie raised an ironic brow.
“Reza was well connected, I take it?” Claire asked.
“Aye, he introduced me to many folk in agencies and security groups. They were eager to meet Mr. Alexander Malcolm and find out what weapons and ordinance I could get into their hands. I made two large deliveries, to demonstrate my bona fides. Along the way I met some other Afghanis who were also like Reza.”
“Mmmphm. An interesting group. They kent a lot about the Americans and the British and had ties with the military. With their help, I started identifying a network of British and American military personnel, Afghani security forces and ministers involved in the arms trade. All they’d wanted, Sassenach was what the government had promised to them-- clean water, electricity, safety, things we take for granted in the Western world.”
“So you learned more than you bargained for about this smuggling network?” Claire observed.
“I was going a bit beyond my mission in gathering this intelligence, aye. But I couldna turn a blind eye either.” Jamie confirmed. “I didna ken there were British military on the take before I started. Though perhaps I should have anticipated that. Without telling anyone on the ground in Afghanistan, I had placed a tracking device into the third shipment and watched as the arms were diverted out of the country. I realized that the safe passage out to Pakistan had to have been greased along by UK military cooperation. I could see the possibilities in that arrangement-- using the existing system to bypass the various embargos that were in place against selling to hostile countries a dealer could broker a series of sales of the weapons that would eventually get smuggled into Pakistan and then onto various countries in the Middle East and Asia.”
“Wait. Let me see if I have this right. The Americans and other allies would pay someone like Alex Malcolm, or any arms dealer for weapons from the UK?”
“Or China, the Eastern Bloc, the US, all over really.” Jamie confirmed.
“Then using the money the arms dealer was paid, he would repurchase the arms from the Afghanis who didn’t really need them? For what? 2/3rds--”
“More like one third, Sassenach.”
“Oh, well that’s quite a scam-- for ⅓ of what the arms merchant had been paid and then the arms dealer would pay the various regional commanders for safe passage to smuggle them out of Afghanistan and then resell them again-- under an assumed name I suppose?” Jamie nodded, “For what? Double?”
“Och, five or six times what the Afghanis would sell them back to us for. They ended up in the Middle East mostly.” Jamie filled her in.
“And this is where Angus’s reporting and Frank’s research meet?”
“Aye. Turns out the company that provided the safe passage and spawned a network of cooperative smugglers was the one under Dougal MacKenzie’s command. I unwittingly tipped him off by telling Dougal about the seven interpreters, including Reza who were trying to stop the corruption. Dougal quietly had all the interpreters rounded up. But Reza, God Bless the man, went over Dougal’s head to Hal Grey. General Grey is in charge of the 101st battalion and ranked well above Dougal. He ordered the 101st Airborne to rescue the hostages. Dougal couldna afford the scrutiny that would come with so many dead and let the men holding the interpreters hostage know they needed to release them wi’out a fight. Reza was trying to warn me about Dougal.”
“How does my information come into play?” Claire asked.
“Well, Dougal told me Reza was an insider working with the corrupt officials but that was no’ the truth. I met the 51st at the extraction point. But Reza was there. He couldna have known about the pick up unless Dougal told him. Then the convoy was diverted by an IED. That was the first explosion. It was Dougal, it’s the only explanation that makes any sense. The IED redirected the trucks to a new location. Then there was a second explosion meant to get me and Reza. The second IED did considerable damage. Rupert was killed and Ian’s leg was harmed. But Reza and I were alive, vera imprecise things, IEDs. But Dougal had his backup plan. Snipers were in place and while he wouldna have wished to harm his men if it could be helped, Dougal needed to protect his criminal activities. That is why the medical evidence doesna track. Why the report is two IEDs but only one did harm, the first was diversionary and why there were so many more injuries from bullets than the explosion. Likely Dougal wasn’t told that the snipers were so heavily used-- he thought he’d created a good enough cover story. Thank God ye never shared the information ye had wi’ him Claire.” Jamie told her.
“So when you had that dream and I told you in was two bodies?”
“I had inklings in my dream, being diverted, the sense I needed to protect someone. When ye told me two were killed, one was a soldier and one was a local it all came back to me. I was no threat so long as I had no memory. Then as time went on, I became less of a threat since Dougal wouldn’t believe anyone had traced the funds from so long ago. Dougal had several higher ranking officers and higher placed private contractors with lucrative weapons contracts in place. Everyone was making good money. So when yer report came in, they git concerned -- it set off alarm bells in London. They thought the cash cow was going to be slaughtered. So, as a hedge against my remembering anything, they shut you and me down. If ye hadna fled, changed yer name---” Jamie held her tightly, “Thank God ye listened to that mad bastard, Frank!” He told her.
“So it’s done, is it?” Claire asked.
“Aye.” Jamie told her. “Claire. Dougal will never lay hands on ye again, nor make you do his bidding under threat to me or Faith. He’s been arrested, never even saw it coming. He will have a military trial so no chance to warn anyone else-- all those trials are kept tightly under wraps. You and the lass are safe. Forever.” Jamie watched as Claire sighed deeply and all the tension left her body.
“Good!” She nodded her head and kissed him.
“Claire --” Jamie looked at her, struggling to find the right words.
“Just say it.” She encouraged.
“We didna discuss what happens….now.”
“What happens to whom?” Claire’s puzzlement was genuine. She saw Jamie bite his lip.
“Do ye really want me to stay? Do ye need to give it some time? Shall I...would you like me to go and find a hotel?” Jamie asked, it had been weighing on his mind.
Claire looked at him carefully but she had no idea what he was aiming at.
“Do you wish to go?” She asked, carefully setting down her drink. Jamie’s eyes brimmed with unshed tears.
“No, I don’t want to go. But I’ll no’ have ye come to me from a sense of obligation. I, on the other hand, owe you my soul and I ken it well but I dinna want to assume anything.”
“I have burned for you for over ten years, don’t you know that?”
Jamie looked her over carefully. “We are marrit, then?”
“You are my home, Jamie. Whither thou goest, I will go.”
Jamie let out a sound of relief. “Faith and you will stay put. I ken you’d pull up stakes for me and I love ye all the more for it. But I go wi’ you, Sassenach, wherever you are, I will be there, too.”
Her eyes carefully roamed over his face. Something else was on his mind.
“Claire, before, the picture wi’ the snowman?” When she nodded he continued. “Ye wrote “the Frasers” on it.” He ventured.
“Yes.” She told him, waiting him out.
“There are the two of you and the one of me. If ye would rather...that is if ye think Faith would be more comfortable if she remained Beauchamp, then I can be the one to change my name instead.”
At this Claire laughed uproariously.
“Good lord, Jamie! Beauchamp is a name Frank picked out of a hat. For that first year I pronounced it a million different ways. It’s tough to spell and hard to pronounce. You are very sweet to ask but no. Faith is very excited to be plain old Faith Fraser.” Claire assured him.
“And you, Claire?”
“What of me?”
“Are you...vera excited to be Claire Fraser?” The quirky smile was back on his lips.
“Whoever you are, James Fraser, I will be your wife. Always.” She told him honestly. “Now, can we dispense with this nonsense? We are married at least in your family tradition we are. We took vows, Jamie Fraser. We’ll make it official before the New Year.”
“Is that so? Well then, wife, let me take ye upstairs and have my wicked way with you.”
He insisted on keeping the lights on. He wanted to see her, all of her. She stood proudly before him, he before her and he took his time memorizing the lines and planes, curves and narrows of her body. He slowly stepped closer to her. He held the palms of both hands up and she fit hers to him. They pressed them together.
“This is the first time in o’r ten years, aye?” Jamie’s voice was thick with emotion.
“First time for what?”
“First time my heart feels whole. I canna tell ye what it is to touch you and to know you.” Jamie lost his words when her fingers laced in his and she squeezed his hands in hers.
He kissed her deeply and she danced her tongue along side his moaning with need. His lips ignited her senses. Jamie reached one arm behind her, locking onto her backside and squeezing her ass, pulling her against him while his other hand clutched at her hair.
She was tasting him, wrapping her arms tighter around his broad back, moving her hips against him. Her tongue meeting his stroke after stroke. Jamie had to feel her, he couldn’t wait. He hoisted her up against him and laid her on the bed. She grabbed his shoulders urging him on top of her.
He kissed her breasts, rubbed his hands over her hips and dipped to her cleft. His thumb striking her as he kissed her neck. She was very ready and still he spun her higher. She was making those noises he loved and her hand was grabbing his ass again and clenching it so that he rubbed against her making her groan.
He rose above her then stopped, staring into her eyes. One hand cupped her cheek in tenderness and love. Some part of him unconvinced it really was her. The intensity of his eyes unraveled her and she arched firmly into him taking him by surprise.
He groaned. Then he clenched their hands together. Like the gears of a clock they entwined and fit seamlessly, unlocking the mysterious connection that had always been part of them. On each thrust, she rose in an answering rhythm.
He smiled at her and her heart hitched. She lifted off the bed to kiss him and nipped his bottom lip. Jamie gave a surrendering cry and unleashed all his energy into moving deeper and deeper within her, groaning now with each pass and striking her core. She prolonged the sensation by arching into him. Her climax was steadily building. They were sweating now, the effort of joining, fusing as one.
Jamie stilled himself and looked into her eyes again, only flexing his hips. Claire felt him move against her in a lazy, slow circular motion that stretched the pleasure out then forced her to wait. He did it again and again. Suddenly he reared back and came into her hard. Like the drop of a free fall, the room started spinning.
He felt her release as she shook hard, calling his name over and over again.
“Sassenach! Oh God, Claire.”
He felt her flooding him one last time as she caught that moment of perfect radiant joy on his face, his hips rocketing into hers one last time.
He was on the edge of sleep, holding her tightly to him, unwilling to let go even in the surrender of sleep. Vaguely he heard a grandfather clock somewhere downstairs striking midnight.
“Kiss me, Jamie!” She whispered turning over so he could. When he broke the kiss the question was in his eyes but he soothed her as best he could. Claire looked at him through her tears.
“I love you Claire, always. We have Faith and each other.” He used his fingers to dam the flood. “What is it, mo chridhe ?”
“It’s Christmas Day and my family is all with me.This is the first time all my Merry Wishmases have come true.”
Chapter 15: Epilogue Part One
Six years later.....
Six Years Later....
“Pregnant?” She croaked, her hands were shaking a little and she suddenly went pale. “When— how?”
“Och and ye a doctor, Sassenach,” Jamie said reprovingly. He gave a small grunt of effort as he pushed the last chair into the corner, clearing the space where they put up the Christmas tree each year.
“That wasn’t what I meant and you know it!” She laughed in spite of the unexpected news, the noise echoing in the now emptier space. Jamie took a moment to look at her as she was framed by the big bay window of their formal parlor. They rarely spent time in this room except for Christmas, as the huge kitchen was the heart of their home-- had been from the beginning. Though these days, the Fraser homestead was bursting at the seams.
“I ken we discussed no’ wanting to go through it all again, but Faith is so good wi’ the weans…” Jamie put his arms around his wife, nuzzling her ear and making deeply contented noises as he did so. She shivered in spite of the unusually warm late November day. “Yer no’ truly upset about it, are ye mo chridhe ?”
Unbidden, his hand moved to rest low on her abdomen, fingers lightly stroking downward. His eyes met hers directly and she knew he had guessed the real reason for her reaction. How did he do it? she wondered for perhaps the one thousandth time since they’d found one another again. She placed her own palm over his hand and gently squeezed.
“No,” she told him but the glistening in her eyes said otherwise. “It sounds so stupid saying it out loud.”
“Ye dinna need to say a word. We never could explain why ye only got pregnant when Gingham did. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in yer wee medical books, Claratio .” Jamie teased-- an incorrect quote that both Faith and Jamie used whenever Claire found herself stymied by a medical mystery that, to her great frustration, could not be explained. “I ken right enough that having Ging pregnant without you being so will feel strange, and aye, I do feel it ridiculous to say aloud, too. But, Claire, our son had to be the last for us, and ye ken well enough why. As grateful as I am for Faith and our wee ones, yer body wouldna have tolerated another babe.” Jamie’s finger tips abruptly paused their southward journey, just above the crisscrossing lines of cesarean section scars that webbed her underbelly. He knew not to press, that oddly numb below but sensitive on top line of tissue, one of the few things on her body that his touch didn’t make feel better.
“I know, Jamie…. I do. We made the right decision after Julian. I imagine even little “Nelle” thinks so.” Claire said pronouncing their fictional fourth child’s name as Neal .
“Baby Henrietta will forgive us for not having her when we meet her in the great by and by. And for what it is worth, Sassenach, this will be Ging’s last.”
“I still say our sweet baby Jules dodged a bullet by having a good sense to be born a boy. I shudder to think what would have happened had you actually had the option of using Henrietta.” Claire laughed using her preferred nickname for their son and didn’t miss the smirk on Jamie’s lips as he replied.
“ Ian ,” Jamie began drawing out his special name for Julian an extra beat or two, “woulda been a perfect Henrietta. And you shouldna be arguing the matter wi’ me as you started this Fraser tradition by naming our second daughter Brianna after my Da in the first place.” His hands started roaming over her body of their own volition. “When is Fiona returning with the weans?” Jamie whispered hot in her ear. The cool shiver raced down her back once again.
“Mmmh ah, how much time did you need?”
“Are ye still wanting, lass? I thought this morning….” at this Jamie’s eyebrows wraggled suggestively.
“Oh, yes, very much so,” Claire’s face flushed, “but you’ve been gone nearly two weeks.” She reminded him, shifting her hand back between their bodies and gliding it gently over the front of his flies. The surprised push of air on her neck gratified her enormously.
“Aye, well, I came home three days early.”
“You think that makes any difference?” She asked, turning around in his arms and rubbing cheek to cheek against his jawline. Sometimes, like now, Claire found it impossible to suppress her feelings. The mere sight of him was enough to set her heart racing. The last few years still seemed unreal to her. The life they were living now, far more than she had ever dreamed possible.
Jamie’s hands gripped her backside and pulled her in tight, “come wi’ me then?”
Claire made a tiny thrust closer into his body and his fingers began kneading her rear. She could feel his growing interest and kissed him hard and with all the pent up longing from his recent absence.
“We...should get….going,” he panted between kisses.
“Y...yes we s-should,” she agreed.
The temperature in Jamie's studio above the garage was sweltering. Claire could feel the sweat starting to prickle along her temple and immediately made a grab for the elastic band around her wrist, pulling her hair into a messy bun on top of her head as she shed her jacket, dropping it carelessly onto the bench by the door. He’d partitioned the space about two years ago, separating the office from his special workout room.
“How did you get it so hot in here?” She asked.
“Ach, indoor/outdoor propane heater.” He answered gesturing to his newest acquisition. “The Garden upgraded their patio dining area and gave it to me as a goodwill gesture.” He said modestly. Claire made a hum of satisfaction. It was a lovely gesture from Hannah and Isobel. She knew they appreciated everything Jamie had done in helping them recover and reopen so quickly after a bad fire nearly destroyed the popular local eatery.
“It must be at least 85 degrees in here.” She observed.
“30 Celsius, to be sure.” Jamie responded, stripping his shirt over his head and shucking his shoes. Claire laughed.
“Sorry laddie, but I'm firmly an American now. I couldn't think in Celsius anymore if my life depended on it.”
“Well luckily for you, Sassenach, it doesna.” Jamie made a gesture toward the exercise floor. “Join me?”
The heat had never bothered either of them. It may have been fifteen years since they’d worked in the desert, but those years of acclimation weren’t forgotten.They were both sweating freely by the time they had finished running through their Bikram poses. It wasn’t quite the right temperature for “hot” yoga, but their bodies had limbered up nicely by the end. Claire was taking a moment for contemplation and reflection while Jamie finished up.
She’d had a difficult time bouncing back from her last pregnancy. Soon after Julian’s birth, she joined a local dance studio to take a special postpartum class and from there begun exploring active spiritual practices. The mental discipline needed for yoga was one of the things that helped her re-establish her mind-body connection. Jamie, of course, took to the practice immediately and challenged himself, then her, with more vigorous formats.
Claire watched him out of the corner of her eye as he held an inversion pose. The tendons in his arms visibly shaking from the effort of stillness. His body was just as fit now as when she first saw him in Mexico all those years ago. She’d never mention it, but, every now and then, she’d catch sight of him and see his old form, the long loose limbs of Alex's body and felt an inexplicable sense of missing him even though he was right there. Looking down at the extra rolls across her stomach and the cellulite of her inner thighs, she scolded herself. Being such a sensitive issue for her, Jamie would never mention it either, but she was sure he sometimes longed for her younger self, too.
She held her arm self-consciously across the bumpy expanse of her midsection, feeling her gravitationally-challenged breasts resting on her forearm. With each subsequent pregnancy, her body reshaped itself, but, after Julian, Claire was ready to buy the Mom jeans and granny-panties and call it a day. Not feeling at home in her own skin was still something she struggled with despite making steady progress.
“Yer more beautiful now than when first we met, lass.”
“Stop doing that!” Claire’s tone came out too sharp in her surprise. “....and you were blind when first we met.”
“Mayhap, Sassenach but, even so...I saw ye clearly from the start.” Jamie reminded her as he turned off the heat and toweled off.
“You did.” She agreed.
A shaft of afternoon sun filtered through the window and cast a glow between them. Jamie scooted across the mat on his knees, wiping things down, moving towards her and into the ray of light until it haloed around him.
“Don’t move.” She held her hand up in a gesture that made him pause, uncertain what she wanted and his eyes came to rest on hers, watching her drink him in.
He was from another world just then. The sun bleached out the deep blue of his eyes but highlighted the shape of his shoulders, the fine hairs stubling his cheek and jaw, the erect nipples poking out from his sweat soaked shirt. His shorts had slipped as he moved so the flat plane of his ab muscles guttered into his hip bones and then lower. The savage beauty of a bruise she hadn’t noticed that was fading into a greenish yellow on his bicep, and the red crescents she’d had the pleasure of leaving on his outer thighs this morning.
His eyes followed hers as she gazed up and down. When she saw the marks on his skin, her cheeks stained pink. Claire rarely noticed what she did in the heat of the moment but he knew she was deeply moved by the evidence of their physical connection.
“Take it off.” Her request came out as a hoarse whisper. His cock stirred but he hesitated as he reached for the hem of his tee. “It’s been months since I’ve seen you naked in daylight.” She encouraged. Jamie’s heart sped up, his zen equanimity was going to be short-lived today.
“Well, no’ much has changed since then.” He observed. She nodded, agreeing with the statement but gestured for him to keep going. Jamie knelt before her, the shadow of his body stretching larger as his arms rose overhead to fling his tee shirt away.
He didn’t wait for an invitation to come to her. Claire was right, it had been a long eleven days and the way she was looking at him now, made him crave her anew. No matter how many years they’d been together, he always wanted her with the same ache as the first time.
“Are ye returning the favor?” Jamie tried to use a playful tone but even he could hear the edge in his voice.
Claire hadn’t voluntarily bared the whole of her body in the light to him since Julian’s birth. His rational mind knew her reluctance to expose her midriff wasn’t about him, and he’d learned, the hard way, that telling her how much he missed it didn’t do anything but make her more self-conscious about it. His hopeful eyes followed her as she slowly stripped off her shirt. She wore a light supportive tank underneath, a semi-sheer, strappy criss-cross, open-back number that he knew would stay on by the way her hands bypassed her shoulders and hooked just inside the waistband of her pants. Jamie’s face set itself into a neutral blank, least she become aware of his disappointment. Jamie couldn’t make her understand how insignificant the changes of her form were. When he saw her, he saw her; but until she could love all of herself once more and recognize that her beauty came in many forms, Claire needed him to accept her limits and give her time to relearn herself once more.
Jamie’s mood shifted when he caught sight of her mirroring his position and raising her hands. Their eyes trailed down their arms as they moved closer and stopped palm to palm, breathing together.
“Oh it’s been far too long since we have done this.” Claire said.
Jamie could only nod, for he’d already been taken deep, caught in the undertow of her body pulling his. He focused with deliberate intention on the energy moving through his chakras then on turning it outward. If she was calling to him, he must answer her in kind. A surprised gasp let him know when she felt it, too. Claire squeezed her fingertips against his and the wetness of sweat and heat had them sliding effortlessly together.
“I can’t go slow.” Claire told him, breaths coming short even now.
Jamie could see her trembling and fought the urge to let her set the pace. It would be so easy join her in the race ahead but he wanted her to know how precious she was to him, that he would make the world slow down for her, stop time if need be, for them.
“Let me, mo nighean donn .” He brought her fingertips to his chest so she could concentrate on his heart beating against her hand.
She made a little mewling sound down low in her throat and his eyes fixed on the gentle hollow there, throat chakra. His fingers rose to outline the graceful lines of her neck, up the column of her esophagus, fluttering against the small wisps of hair that had escaped the elastic tie as he moved his hand. She felt the squeeze of finger and thumb on her ear lobe and shivered. His lips parted but he made no sound. An audible inhalation from him shot a thrill of longing down her spine. He shifted his gaze and they were looking into one another’s eyes.
“Jamie,” a whisper from her lips as soft as the knuckles that grazed the fabric covering her nipples, stroking over her heart chakra, touching the exposed valley between her breasts, slipping under the loose cotton and shivering against each rib as he moved lower down her body.
“From here, together,” his fingers pressed, driving her awareness back to the air filling her lungs. She held herself still between his hands and together they focused on controlling the breath. He dropped all resistance, opening fully and inviting her to connect their energy together.
Jamie gasped and had to close his eyes as it pulsed strongly between them, too wild at first to control. They hadn’t been child-free and alone together for months and Jamie wanted to savor this time with her. Claire started moving gently against him, breasts and upper thighs occasionally touching as they flowed together. He lowered his face, readying himself to kiss her when she pulled back an infinitesimal distance, leaving his mouth hanging just above hers. His lips quirked up in appreciation even as his hands squeezed hard against hers.
“Dinna play wi’ fire, Sassenach,” he warned.
“Burn me.” Claire dared.
“Spread yer legs wider.” Jamie suggested.
Claire pushed against the mat but her knees slipped far wider than she’d intended. Jamie’s breath hitched feeling the unexpected heat of her sex against his thigh. He grasped her arse hard with both hands, pushing her down.
“Oh,” a panting exclamation as Claire adjusted.
Jamie could feel the folds of her sex, slick with excitement and the hard, swollen pucker of her clit brushing against his quad as she settled. He splayed the fingers of one hand against her middle, reminding her of their breath.
“Dinna leave….” he begged. Claire’s awareness had been growing distant and he felt it snap back to him. An imperceptible nod and by the third inhalation, he felt her connection come roaring back into him. He was riveted on the erotic beauty of her riding him. Jamie ran his hands up and down her body, then anchored her by her hips. She made a desperate noise as he contracted his thigh. Claire was biting her lower lip hard in a desperate attempt to stifle the sounds of her pleasure.
“No, mo nighean donn ,” Jamie said, his arm securely supporting her back while his other hand cupped her jaw. Her mouth opened at once and a small whimper eeked out. Her lower jaw tensed and her bottom lip curled inward. Jamie knew at once what she was about and he was not having it.
“Please…dinna do that. Let me….” Jamie hooked his thumb gently inside her mouth, pulling downward. The question wordlessly asked by her expression, “hear ye, Sassenach.” Ah Dhia, it had been such a long time since she’d let herself go. Claire playfully bit his thumb and he pinched her arse in retaliation making both of them groan, but he could tell she was still feeling self-conscious. The world tipped sideways.
“What are...that?” Claire couldn’t form a coherent sentence while he shifted her down on the mat. He stretched himself above her, taking his body weight on his arms and toes, not quite touching her. Enjoying the anticipation building between them, then his mouth pressed against hers and she purred against his lips, feeling him grin.
He made his way down her neck and chest, using his lips and tongue to draw a line of kisses to her heart. His eyes rose up in question, waiting for her nod before he grasped the top band of her tank in his teeth and, using chin and jaw managed to free her breast closing his lips firmly on her nipple. Sometimes, she didn’t want her nipples played with, residual sensitivity from nursing children. Today, she welcomed his touch. Jamie danced his tongue expertly around her and hummed in satisfaction when her hand closed behind his head to press him closer.
He switched his attention to the other breast, employing a similar excavation technique. For just a moment he took in the sight of her. Her breasts were gorgeous, if anything, the residual coverage of the tank made it feel as if what they were doing was even naughtier.
“Why Mrs. Fraser, ye seem to have come a bit undone.” He remarked, breathing heavily. Claire glanced down, enjoying the way the band supported her cleavage and popped each breast upward like a pagan offering to her husband.
“So I have. You...ah, you wouldn’t happen to know what might be done for my condition?”
“Oh aye, Sassenach, if I may?” He lowered his mouth and she could see the twinkle in his eyes. Then her own eyes rolled back in her head as his mouth fastened over her nipple, first one, then the other.
She moaned and her fingers tightened, not caring that she was pulling his hair in her enthusiasm. Jamie felt especially close to her with his ear picking up her heartbeat and having the joy of pleasuring the places on her body that nurtured him and their bairns. Tenderness washed over him, and desire. Jamie could feel his arms shaking with more than muscle strain.
Jamie released the suction, placing a soft kiss over her heart before moving lower. His hand cupped each leg, exposing the secret heart of her. He settled himself between her thighs and lowered his face. Claire’s fingers rubbed along his cheek, their smiling eyes met for an instant before she became distracted by the sight of him tasting her.
“Oh, God…” she groaned, catching his soft chuckle.
Jamie shrugged his arms urging her legs to drape over his shoulders, then he moved fingers, tongue, and lips in tandem. Her fist pushed against her mouth, as it did whenever he loved her thus, fear of waking the children foremost in her mind. He pulled a soaked finger from her and grasped at her closed hand, bringing it down next to his mouth. He rolled his thumb over her index finger and held it to her clit until she began to rub herself. Jamie shifted his position, boosting her rear and bracing his hands near the small of her back. He lost himself in the moment to the accompanying sounds she no longer held in check.
Claire was so relaxed that she almost missed the sound of a car pulling into their driveway. By the excited chatter that accompanied the slamming of doors, she could tell Faith was home. By the time she’d hastily dressed, Jamie was already at the window looking down. His arm came around her shoulder and he shot her a quick sidelong glance and a secret smile watching their eldest daughter. Claire’s heart overflowed looking at him.
Jamie was an amazing father. There was something infinitely tender about watching such a strong, intimidating man caring for their babies that made her heart squeeze with an almost painful pleasure. Just the everyday things no one would ever notice would make her eyes fill with grateful tears. Jamie’s huge hand cradling Bree as water cascaded over her at her christening, coming back to bed with a forgotten burp cloth still draped casually over a shoulder after rocking his newborn son to sleep. Jamie’s curls intertwined with Bree’s pigtails, bending down to help her tie her shoes before preschool, anchoring one rabbit ear and patiently waiting for her to form the second, both their tongues sticking out sideways in concentration. All the small moments he’d never had a chance to experience with Faith.
Yet, as wonderful as he was with their little ones, there remained an unbreakable bond between him and their oldest that had only deepened over the years. They were kindred spirits and despite having had the raising of Faith as a single mother for her first decade of life, in her teenage years, Faith was turning more often to Jamie for parental guidance.
Years ago, when Claire discovered she was pregnant with Bree, she spent a lot of time worried about how Faith might react, would she think her parents would love the new baby more than her, what could they do to prepare her for her new brother or sister. Jamie wanted to tell Faith right away, pointing out that Faith was thirteen, not three. But Claire had wanted to find the perfect time, the right words. Weeks went by. Each time Jamie broached the idea, Claire found an excuse. It was one of the few things they actively disagreed on.
“Ye dinna ken she’ll have figured it out by now, Sassenach?” His eyes lit with humor having finally, at the three month mark, gotten her to agree to actually discuss the matter with him instead of brushing it off.
“No! Of course not! How would she?” Claire leapt up off the chair and started pacing. Jamie started to open his mouth to explain it to his wife when she spun around and added, “children never think their parents have sex. Teenagers especially!” Claire’s emphatic tone brokered no argument, especially because she’d decided to ignore the incredulous expression on Jamie’s face. “She’ll be mortified.”
“Och, the lass willna bat an eye, especially no’ after Gingham had the pups on her closet floor.” Jamie laughed.
Remembering Faith’s reaction to Ging’s small litter of two, Claire cracked a smile. “I just...now that we know we’re having another girl, I don’t want her to feel jealous or like we’re replace----”
“Claire, Faith will be thrilled. Courage, love, we must tell her now afore ye start to waddle.” He managed to duck before the pillow smacked him on the head. Claire, at three months, was barely showing but her husband professed a deep longing to see her in the latter stages of pregnancy. Claire sighed, agreeing to do it that night at dinner. When she finally did say it, Faith’s reaction had been completely anticlimactic.
“Yeah...what are you...about 14 weeks?” Faith had asked passing her father the salad dressing.
“You...knew?” Claire was flabbergasted. Faith shrugged in response. “But...how?”
“Jeez Mom, surely you know that by now?” Faith giggled and to Claire’s absolute mortification it was her own face, not Faith’s, that turned beet red. “When I ran out of pads and tampons and there weren’t any in the linen closet, realized you hadn’t bought any in awhile. Dad said he’d get me some from the store. He got these great ones that are a lot more comfortable than the ones you normally buy.” Faith added matter of factly.
Claire’s eyes shot to Jamie and it was his turn to shrug. To Claire, though, that conversation more than any single event spoke to the strength of the bond between them.
Now, they looked out while Faith said goodbye to Lenny. Claire had managed to get her messy afternoon delight hair back into a bun and looked presentable enough and was just about to leave Jamie’s office to meet Faith in the driveway when Jamie made a little grunt from the back of his throat. His eyes narrowed speculatively and she followed his gaze to where Faith’s hands were joined with Lenny’s...and then their lips met in a kiss that was well beyond a just friends kind of buss.
“Well...she is sixteen .” Claire noted.
“Aye.” Jamie agreed.
“The box of condoms is still untouched.” This observation earned her a mmphm. The box had appeared on the top shelf of the linen closet on Faith’s last birthday, with almost no fanfare other than a passing reference that if she ever found the need, their daughter could help herself. Jamie had insisted, telling Claire his father had done the same for him.
“I’ll speak to Joe before New Hampshire.” She concluded.
Lenny and Faith had remained close all through high school, but now that Lenny was in the throws of applying to colleges-- some clear across the country-- it was becoming more apparent that something had shifted between them but Jamie knew the surest way to get the kids to clam up was to leave them to the tender mercies of their physician parents.
Claire and Joe were wonderful doctors and great parents besides, but neither one of them had ever understood that Faith and Lenny didn’t want to talk to Dr. Mom or Dr. Dad about their sex lives. Both Abernathy and Fraser households discussed such matters openly. The difficulty, however, was that every time “the talk” came up in school or even just around the kitchen tables for years Joe and Claire put on their physician hats and imparted way too much in depth information-- including hands-on demonstrations (with banana or anatomically correct dolls) and while the clinical approach was certainly a highly efficient means of communication, it left something to be desired on the human interaction level.
Jamie said nothing to Claire but made a mental note to call Gayle in a few days. The annual Abernathy-Fraser Winter Weekend was fast approaching and they needed to get a game plan in place.
Shoutout to @futurelounging for letting me use Hannah and Isobel from her awesome The Gardener story!
Jamie took a step back and eyed the tree.
“Would ye look at that?” he exclaimed, “‘tis crooked! A leannan, did ye no’ tell Da ‘twas fine afore we set the base?”
“Aye aye, cap’in” Jamie snorted as his daughter gave her current favorite reply. Bree’s palm attempted to make a salute but her finger got stuck in her barrett and Jamie reminded himself that she was three years old and painted the walls of the bathroom with toothpaste (among other horrors) if left to her own devices too long and therefore her interior decorator aesthetic left a bit to be desired. Jamie sighed and dove under the tree to straighten it as best he could. He was enjoying a rare midweek day off and decking the halls for Christmas.
“Mr. Fraser?” A tentative voice from just outside the parlor.
“Fiona, I thought we’d moved past ye ‘Mr. Frasering’ me?” Jamie rolled his eyes, but he knew Fiona wouldn’t be offended. He adored her and blessed the stars that Jenny had found an Inverness lass and sent her to them. It was his pleasure to tell her to take some extra time off when he could cover an afternoon for her. Fiona smiled at him, try as she might, she couldn’t get comfortable calling either of her bosses by just their first names.
“Dr. Claire texted to say she was just heading into an unscheduled surgery and likely to run late and ye should go ahead and get the boxes from the attic.”
For the first time Jamie noticed Fiona had taken extra pains with her hair and was wearing a little make up. “Och, Ernie’ll be coming by then?”
“Aye, we’re going ice skating,” she beamed. Fiona watched as Jamie’s expression became tender, eyes resting on Bree who was busy petting a napping Ging.
“The first time I saw Faith, she was gliding around Joe’s pond.” Jamie said. Just then a soft ring sounded out.
“It’s your ayeFiona!” Bree chortled excitedly. Fiona laughed, that one never got old.
It was Ernie letting her know he’d be in the drive in less than five. Fiona grabbed her scarf, startling a little bit upon realizing that Jamie was holding her coat open. She shrugged herself into it, smiling her thanks and turned back to him.
“Jules’ll be waking up soon, do ye want me to wait here while ye grab the boxes?”
“Nah, lass, I’ve got it. Have a grand time.” Jamie said confidently and thus began the Afternoon From Hell.
He’d started the day with a mental list of chores, some routine- the laundry, a good deep clean of the kitchen and mudroom, final swipe of the leaf-clogged gutters and a few special ones--like organizing the tree decorations and airing out the hunting gear in preparation for their upcoming trip. An ambitious list to be sure but not impossible and Claire would be pleased for his efforts.
The thing is, caring for young children is always hard, especially when you are outnumbered and they are mobile. Ian woke a half hour earlier than expected. Jamie was so distracted trying to convince Bree to get out of the washer so he could change over the laundry, he missed his son’s initial cries. Once he’d finally removed Bree from the washer, she’d hid under the counter where the detergent was secured by what was clearly a parent, and not a child. proof locking mechanism, Ian was in a right swivet.
Jamie hurried up the stairs, carrying Bree sideways like a mounted swordfish up the stairs, and she was still cackling when he deposited her in the rocking chair. Ian’s decibel level had risen exponentially with each step. Just as Jamie was turning to get to his son, Bree stood up on the seat of the rocker and began driving her momentum forward and back. Christ, the last thing they needed was a trip to the doctor and a big bruise for their holiday snaps.
“I love you, Bree, but yer bum must be on the seat, ye dinna want an ouchie.” He said, Ian’s cries were starting to crawl up his own nervous system and he felt the urgent need to see to him.
“Bum seat! Da!” Now she was jumping and he was about to physically remove her down to the floor when she suddenly stopped, eyeing him. “I love phone.” She told him, hands on hips.
“Ye wee extortionist!” Jamie had no time for a lecture on morals though and he fished his phone out of his pocket and held it up and then made a sit gesture with his hand. Bree plopped down on the chair and squeezed her fingers to her palms in a “gimme gimme” gesture.
At last Jamie was able to get Ian from his crib. Ian stopped crying mid-wail and Jamie immediately smelled the reason for the early rising. By the squishiness of the pants covering his chubby little thighs, Jamie had an inkling this was going to be a bad blowout. Jamie’s eagle eye assessed the diaper changing area: box of wet wipes, check, double sided vinyl covering, check, an entire stack of diapers already out of their packaging, check. Baby powder, cream and diaper genie all within his arm span. Ok. He was going in.
A further assessment of the situation had him briefly considering laying Julian on his tummy to provide more immediate access to the red--er brown-- zone in the hopes of avoiding the inevitable squirmy wormy of wriggling child on diaper changing cloth that happened whenever they lifted the boy’s feet up into the air but by the time he actually made it to the changing table, logistics were the least of his worries. What the hell had Claire been feeding the lad while he’d been away? It couldna have been that color going in, that’s for sure. Jamie gagged as he started to slide the pants down. He had a wet wipe at the ready, trying to clean Julian up even before the diaper removal. Jamie had to turn his head to the side for a breath of semi-clear air.
“Da!” Bree exclaimed, “Baby Jules is a stinky minky!”
“Oh, aye, a wee skunk is our Ian.” As if he knew they were being less than complimentary, Julian began to cry. “Dinna fash lad, we’ll set ye to rights soon.” Jamie attempted to sooth him. His legs started to windmill. “No….no my sweet bairn, dinna do that.” Jamie held his feet down to keep him as still as possible, but then found himself out of position. “Bree baby, can ye grab me the wipes?”
Bree rocked in the chair and lept off like it was a swing and climbed up the changing table. When she caught sight of Julian’s lower half coated in mustard yellow and greenish-brown, she started coughing. Jamie had less than a half a second to react but his reflexes, and hand-eye-- or, in this case, foot-eye coordination was still in prime shape; and while Denny-the-Dump-Truck had never been called upon to carry such a load, his quick action managed to spare the carpet. Bree, of course, was hysterical which only made Ian start screaming anew.
“Dinna weep, Brianna. Look, ye only had a little melon in yer tummy. It’s ok, yer fine.” Jamie had no choice but to take one hand off Julian and help get Bree down from the table, pausing to rub her back and kiss her head. “Why don’t ye run to the bathroom and brush yer teeth. Ye still have the bubble gum toothpaste, aye?” At this Bree brightened up a little bit. Jamie barely spared her a glance as she went into the hall.
Christ, what a god-awful mess. A technicolor rainbow of ick in all its glory. He was a veteran of war, he reminded himself. He’d worked countless search and rescue operations in less than hygienic surroundings. He’d recovered bodies after days in the hot sun. He grabbed several wipes and gently lifted Julian’s fat bottom up and released the diaper’s side tabs, just as he was half way done removing it, Ian’s face turned bright red. Jamie heard it before he saw it.
In his mind’s eye, he shouted, “Stand Down! It’s A Trap!” And like every pint-sized wee terrorist he’d ever dealt with this one had the art of the bait bomb down pat. For as bad as the first explosion was, wee Ian had saved the real amo for this moment, when his Da was completely helpless and at his mercy. Stunned, Jamie watched in horror as his body’s natural reflex action kicked into gear and his hand shot out to catch what was coming from Julian. What in God’s name was he going to do with a hand full of----from down the hall he heard Bree calling his name. Now he was really nauseous.
“What did ye say?” He called back, having missed most of it.
“Your phone went potty.” She shrieked.
“Brianna Ellen Fraser! Did ye drop it?”
Faith placed a mug of coffee in front of her Da, decaffeinated as she wasn’t entirely sure his body had made the adjustment with his recent travels. She patted his shoulder, and noted his hair was finally dry but he looked completely done in. She took a look at the ziplock bag of rice, shaking it around until her father’s phone came into view. Clouds of condensation still visible on the screen. She suspected it was a lost cause. Poor Da, he’d had one hell of a day.
She’d come home to find her brother and sister laughing gleefully and running naked down the hall, being chased by her towel clad father. Julian stopped dead when he saw Faith, who was his current favorite person. He had wispy blonde hair and brilliant green eyes and was sucking hard on his binky. Aside from the never ending debate over his nickname, her parents’ one other running dispute was over the pacifier. Jamie was firmly in the anti camp while her mom was more inclined to let Julian age out of the habit. Faith’s foot hovered over the top step, however, one sniff warned her she didn’t want to venture off the stairs entirely.
“Lass, can ye help yer poor auld Da and please get Ian and Bree dressed while I clean their room? I’ve clothes in the basket on the kitchen table. The diaper bag is there, too.” Faith had known a good deal when she saw one and quickly retreated to the warmth and more pleasantly smelling kitchen.
Dressed and clean, she’d gotten them a snack, and her Da joined them when he was done. Just now her brother was chasing Cheerios under the table with his accomplice Ging and Bree was playing with her blocks on the rug by the hearth.
“Thank ye, Faith for yer help and wi’ the boxes. We can start to decorate the tree now if ye like? I dinna ken when Claire’ll be home.”
“Sure, what would you like to listen to?”
“You pick.” He said ducking under his head under the table to extricate Ian.
It was a little touch and go in the beginning, Julian had no expectations and Bree no memories of her last Christmas beyond seeing Santa at the local toy store. But with Faith helping, they managed to get the lights strung. Jamie placed the Merry Wishmas basket aside and helped the kids hang their bulbs and candy canes and then brought out the tinsel and stepped back. As expected, within three minutes, sparkly threads were all over the room, some even managed to land on the tree.
Seeing the weans fully occupied, Jamie and Faith began unpacking the wishmas ornaments. Jamie’s fingers stilled on the one made from a corsage Faith had worn to their first Father-Daughter Ball. She’d been twelve and worn an ice blue tea length dress and as she came down the stairs, he thought his heart would stop. She’d been right on the cusp of leaving her childhood behind and carried the promise of the beautiful woman standing before him now.
“So, how are yer classes?” He ventured.
“Going well, I may even start if I can get my free throw percentage up.”
“Ye’ve worked hard for it.” Jamie paused. “Yer seeing a bit more of Lenny Abernathy, aye?”
“A bit.” She met his eye and smiled. “I think its just begun to sink in that he’ll be away at college next year. He’s just...always been there, you know?”
“And yer going to miss him.” Jamie acknowledged.
“It willna be forever, he’ll be back weekends and vacations.” Jamie told her.
“I know...but it won’t be the same. His whole world is going to change. He’ll meet all kinds of new people.” Faith said.
“Do ye love him?” Jamie asked.
“Of course I love him.” Faith laughed but then caught the implications of what her father was asking. “And he makes me laugh and lately... I just want to spend time with him.”
“Faith, I want to respect yer privacy, but I dinna want ye to think I’m no’ paying attention. You and he are no’ at an easy age to be. I’m no’ saying ye should, but I’m also no’ burying my head in the sand and pretending yer still my wee bairn. Lenny is a verra special lad. Ye ken we love him too, but your our daughter, and if this is something you think you are ready for, we should make an appointment with Dr. Hunter.”
“God Da, we haven’t--look there is no better birth control than having your parents present you with a brother and a sister when you are a teenager. If you don’t believe me, go and count the condoms, they are all there!”
“I’m no’ asking!” He lied but something was off about her response. She’d been too quick to bring up the box, too defensive. They might not have actually used any, but they’d clearly been thinking about it, perhaps come close. Christ he didn’t want to be thinking about this at all, never mind her, he wasn’t ready. “Listen, I’m…..you and Lenny….the two of you are long past the age where yer parents permission or denial makes a difference. ‘Tis between you two, your bodies, your hearts, your decisions. But ye should ken yer mam has it in her head to talk wi’ Joe.”
“And you didn’t talk her out of it? I thought we had a deal!” Faith’s hurt gaze met his. “New Hampshire is in two weeks! And Ian is coming to visit us with his friends. Its gonna be so embarassing! Ugh, I need to text Lenny and warn him.”
“Do you want me to call Dr. Hunter?” He repeated, there was no inflection in his voice, a simple question only.
She sighed. If her mother and Lenny’s father knew she’d already been to see the OBGYN, then at least they wouldn’t be subject to “the talk” at every dinner chat while on vacation. And while the box of condoms in her house did indeed remain untouched, they weren’t the only box she and Lenny had access to. She knew exactly how easy it was to forget about condoms in the heat of the moment. Her face grew red.
“Fine!” She said, giving in slightly less than graciously and, needing to get out from under her father’s gaze, signalled to Ging for a walk. As she was heading out the door her father called to her.
“Can I borrow yer phone?”
“Oh! That looks marvelous!” Claire took in the newly decorated tree, noting that all the lower branches were covered in decorations that became sparser as her gaze travelled to the top.
“I helped!” Bree announced dancing with excitement.
“I can see that. Did you have fun, Jules?” At the sound of his name, Julian tore his attention away from his mother’s cardigan button. His arm gestured to the tree, and Claire had to readjust his weight in her arms.
“Candy canes and tinsel, too.”
“Tzel.” Julian confirmed and his head flopped hard on Claire’s shoulder. He reached for the binky tethered to his shirt, he was punch-drunk tired.
“Know what?” Bree said, “I few up in a dumb fuck.”
Claire laughed softly. Jamie was teaching his evening rappelling and rigging class at the local indoor rock climbing gym and she hadn’t caught up with his day, though Faith let her know his phone was out of commission.
“Come, lovie, tell me all about it as we get you ready for sleep.” Claire reached a hand down, heart tugging a bit as Bree’s fingers slipped into hers, she was so sturdy and independent, long since past the time for carrying. Claire unconsciously pulled Jules closer against her hip, finding comfort in the rhythmic smack of his binky against her ear.
Where had the time flown? It seemed like just yesterday Jamie had given her his Wishmas gift of two baby beanies that he’d knitted himself, one of a soft pink yarn and the other blue. That was five years ago. It had taken a little time to conceive with Bree though it had been easier with Julian. The stairs weren’t quite wide enough for three across but they managed with Bree chattering about how much she wanted a phone for Christmas the whole way up.
Jamie found her asleep in the rocking chair when he got home. Bree barely fitting on Claire’s lap. He winced imagining how uncomfortable his wife would be when she stood up. As he carried Bree to her bed, she only stirred a little bit but settled immediately once he pulled her blanket over her. He ran a hand along the top rail of the crib as he tiptoed past. Julian was flat on his back, his lower half bow legged and his arms flung over his head. When he turned, Claire’s eyes were on him and she smiled when he helped her rise.
“The tree looks lovely,” she told him in a hushed tone.
“I saved most of the Wishmas ornaments for us to put on, but, to be honest, Sassenach it’s been a hell of a day.”
Claire reached her hand out and placed a finger on his lips making a shhh noise. “We’ll do it tomorrow, ok?” She started toward the door looking over her shoulder at him to follow.
He didn’t move though and instead pulled her to him. They stood there for long minutes, he inhaling the scent of her hair, she closed her eyes, rubbing her cheek against his soft tee-shirt. Taking comfort in one another. Being married.
For the changing table spitballers (you know who you are (and how much I love you) and how talented I think you are). Hugs x Abby