Chapter 1: Misfortune
“Scheiße!” Lord John Grey muttered as he examined the rapidly swelling bruise in his left ankle. It already showed distinctive shade of red, radiating from the ankle bone and promising to develop into a spread of interesting hues from purple to blue to yellow.
“Heiliger Strohsack!” he said a bit louder, attracting the attention of Jamie Fraser, who was cleaning sand and mud from his boots just a small distance away. It hurt, it hurt bloody much, and despite having endured worse Grey closed his eyes and hissed through his teeth. The Scot’s only reaction to this unusually unrefined show of displease –amplified by the use of German swearwords, exclusively reserved to most dire adversities - resulted however in no more than a raised eyebrow before he got back to his task.
And it had all gone so well up until – well, until things have started to go bad.
A long planned trip to the Carolinas, naturally including a stopover to see his old friends, had taken an interesting turn when Fraser had suggested a visit to the local indian village not far from the Ridge. As Lord John had never had an opportunity to see natives in their own habitat, so to speak, he had accepted the offer eagerly. That it also offered a possibility to spend a few days alone with Jamie had been just an additional advantage.
Lord John genuinely liked Mrs Fraser, that indomitable force of nature, but sometimes he longed for the days of exclusively male congress. Somehow life in the company of men was simpler; no need to be on one’s best behaviour all the time, no need to pretend to be interested in topics that held no attraction to him, no need to play attentive participant in conversation at all times – things were just simpler.
They had set out in a canoe four days ago with an intention to leisurely paddle into a village under a day’s journey away, spend some time there and return in good time for the long-anticipated official opening of the Fraser’s Ridge’s new church. The weather had been good; brilliant blue skies and crispy air; that moment of absolutely stillness between the change of seasons before the cold grasp of winter takes its hold.
Arriving in the village they had heard that the village elder – the man Jamie specifically had wanted to meet - had gone up the river, and so they had made a snap decision to follow. Diverting their journey to another branch of the lively waterway they had paddled their way to another settlement and spent a few days in a world so different Lord John had never seen the likes of it before. Old ways of living, ancestral customs honoured - sleeping in a rawhide tent and eating squirrel smoked in a hollow tree trunk. John had found it fascinating albeit somewhat uncomfortable at times, but he wouldn’t have traded the experience for the finest leisure spas in the Continent.
“Something wrong with ye foot?” So concentrated had Lord John been in examining the cause of the throbbing pain he didn’t at first notice Jamie looming over him. He was soaking wet, water dripping from his loose hair, red strands tangled in disarray. Hair, clothes, shoes - they were both drenched, soaked to the bone.
John glanced up and winced.
“Umm, well, it looks like it might have sprained. Nothing serious I am sure. A trifling discomfort only.”
Jamie knelt in front of him and pushed his hands away.
“Let’s have a look at it, then. Being not exactly a stranger to sprains and hurts myself, maybe I canna help.”
His hands were strong and sure and despite being icy cold they felt comforting, and so Lord John leaned back and closed his eyes. An irrational thought popped into his head; that this was one of the very few occasions Jamie Fraser was touching him voluntarily. It felt odd. It felt …distracting.
He knew he ought to savour the rare occasion more, to preserve the memory of his touch on his bare skin to return to in those moments of weakness when he allowed himself to think of him - that way. Luckily those occasions had become rarer and rarer as years had gone by, and there was comfort in it. He had dangled too close to the abyss for too many times already, and despite the pull of that bottomless pit of futile longing, John was too much of a pragmatist to give in to it.
He pushed the thought away.
Jamie examined the whole leg from the tip of his toes up to his calves, pressing and turning the foot around carefully, rotating it and asking where it hurt and when. The pain subsided at first as if drawn away by those long fingers, but when Jamie pressed his thumb against the swell in the outer ankle bone Lord John let out a wheezing gasp, the shock of pain shooting through his whole body. Scheiße!
“Well, what I canna tell is that it is a wee more than just a slight discomfort. The bone may be broken, or at least fractured. Ye will be not marching on that foot for a while, a charaid.”
Jamie had suggested going back via a different route to take advantage of a shortcut he knew, and Lord John – being ignorant of the lay of the land – had readily accepted. And then things had started to go awry.
First the weather had turned; the approaching winter had made its presence known with dropping temperatures, chilly winds and cool rain. Then a short break on the dry land had left them to look on with horror as wind and erosion had finally toppled over a huge dead tree leaning over the water – right on top of their canoe, breaking it in half and scattering all their supplies into the fast flowing stream.
They had ran after it, of course, but even before reaching the water’s edge the canoe had already sunk and all their gear was either merrily floating away or plummeted at the bottom of the stream.
Some choice German swearwords had escaped Lord John’s lips then too, but overall the situation had not seemed that bad. They knew where they were – or to be precise, Jamie knew – and it would take only a full day’s steady marching to reach the Ridge again. They had water and nobody had died of not eating for a day.
So it had been with profound optimism they had started their trek along the shore.
They had walked as far as they could but fast descending darkness had forced them to stop for the night. Constant drizzle and loss of tinderbox prevented lighting a fire, but they had huddled against sand embankment as best as they could, and after a cold and dreary night filled with little sleep they had started off again.
They had been making good progress despite being forced to make a few side excursions to avoid rocky formations blocking their way. And it had been during one of these side sojourns when they had crossed a narrow but wild side-stream when the disaster had struck. That it had been Jamie who had lost his footing on the rocks had been surprising - normally he had the agility of a mountain goat. Whatever the reason, he had slipped and toppled over, hitting John at the back with his shoulder. In a vain attempt to gain footing he had stepped awkwardly, caught his foot between two boulders and fallen into the icy water, whose freezing bite had shocked his whole body so that at first he hadn’t even realised something being wrong with his ankle.
Now Lord John was however painfully aware of something being very, very wrong.
He moaned in frustration. They were still several hours away from their destination, the night was almost there – he didn’t have time for this now. And neither did Jamie.
“Are you at least unscathed?” he muttered through pursed lips.
Jamie shrugged his shoulders. “Aye, just a bit bruised.” He flashed a quick grin. “My dignity mostly.”
He straightened to his full height and stretched his body. Dark blue eyes scanned their surroundings, looked up at the sky and the fast descending sun at the horizon. He had turned serious and his furrowed brow and tightly pursed lips portrayed a man assessing all aspects of their current situation and reviewing options how to respond to them.
Lord John was used to being a leader and a decision maker, rarely a follower. Yet he had no urge to take control but was happy to just sit there and lay his fate in Jamie’s capable hands. It felt strange but comforting to trust someone so utterly to let them take charge. Where Jamie went, he followed, what Jamie said, would be done.
“It will be dark soon. I dinna like the look of the clouds – rain or snow will be upon us before the night falls.” He rocked on his heels, back and forth, back and forth. “We canna continue with yer foot in that shape.”
“We may not be able to continue our journey, but you can. Just leave me here, and send some men over to fetch me once you reach the Ridge.”
Jamie huffed. His jaw was set and he had an air of someone who had made up his mind and entertained suggestions only to humour the proposer.
“If I leave you here, you dinna survive the night. Last night was cold enough but this –“ he lifted his head and sniffed the air “- will turn man’s blood to ice.”
“No, really, I insist. I’ll be well enough, no point for you to stay here and freeze.” Lord John knew it would be miserable, but he couldn’t bear the thought of Jamie sacrificing his comfort for him. That he would do the same in a heartbeat if the tables were turned, he refused to think. It was always easier to give than to receive.
“Claire will never forgive me if ye perish under my watch. Nor will I. Have ye ever been caught out in a snow? Dripping wet as now? Felt the clothes on your back stiffening as they freeze over, robbing your lifeblood and making ye shake and shiver so hard that your teeth rattle? And then ye start to feel warm and comfortable and drift into a nice sleep; peaceful sleep that will never end if ye give in to it. I have, in the Highlands, and it was a close call.”
Jamie turned, not even feigning to welcome any further rhetoric and strolled towards a large tree leaning over the embankment. He studied its base and gnarling roots as if measuring its value.
“Together we have a chance. So we’ll take it.”
Lord John stared at Jamie. The picture he painted was not a pretty one, but how would both of them staying improve the situation?
Then it dawned on him.
The previous night had been cold and miserable, and in normal circumstances such situation would have called for sharing the body warmth; sleeping back to back or side to side to preserve the heat and protect each other from the elements. Yet John hadn’t been able to gather the courage to suggest it. Had it been any other man, a close friend or a casual acquaintance, he would have had no qualms in suggesting such an arrangement - it was a common practice with those forced to sleep in the rough.
But he hadn’t, and neither had Jamie.
Matters were good between them – the hard won accord and understanding the result of mutual respect and genuine friendship. Yet John knew there was something visceral in Jamie’s reaction to anything hinting at his own ‘unnatural inclinations’ - and what situation could be more likely to raise such reactions than sleeping side by side? Why Jamie reacted so strongly, he didn’t know, but guessed that something deeply traumatic was behind it. So as his friend – his true friend – John accepted it and never questioned him or his reasons.
Jamie was already hard at work, digging a hole between two gangly tree roots with his bare hands and a piece of flat rock. Seeing that his mind was made up and knowing how stubborn he could be when it was so, John pushed away his qualms, gave up his attempts for more arguments and hopped to his aid on one foot. If he was not good for walking, at least he could still dig a hole.
After a long exertion that had the additional advantage of warming them due to their bodily efforts, Jamie instructed John to remove all his clothes but his undergarments, wring them as dry as he could, and then put back on only his shirt and breeches. He did the same, and John felt ridiculously proud of himself for keeping his back turned to him throughout. There was no need to increase inevitable awkwardness any more than necessary.
He heard the rustle behind him, dribbling of water, the sound of wet bundle of cloth hitting the ground. The air had indeed turned chilly and John’s skin was covered in goose bumps, even after wrangling still wet set of clothes back on. The first few snowflakes floated lazily through the air and landed on a wet ground, immediately melting away – but he knew there would be more.
After a time John estimated to be suitably long he turned to face Jamie and saw him squinting up at the sky again, scowling. Their eyes met and Jamie nodded, as if in an acknowledgement that this was a battle they were facing together and it was time to take the first stance.
Lowering his big bulk awkwardly to that shallow depression on the ground Jamie first settled himself into it, then beckoned John to follow and lay beside him. After a few clumsy shifts and turns they found positions that were at least bearable, and finally Jamie positioned their wrung but still damp overcoats on top of them as a protective layer. Their waistcoats he bundled over their heads while explaining how it was important to keep their heads covered to prevent heat loss.
John followed his lead, lying as he was instructed to, helping whenever possible by tugging a piece of cloth here, straightening a crumpled sleeve there. When they were done, they lay still as two peas in a pod, covered so that only their eyes and noses were exposed to the air.
Snowfall had increased and John followed the fat, big snowflakes descending on them, silently, gracefully. They were beautiful to hold but also lethal harbingers of death, and he wondered if what Jamie had said about the death by freezing was really as beautiful as it sounded. He had ever experienced only the first part, the cold reaching into the morrow of his bones making them ache – nothing peaceful in it.
It was silent, unnaturally silent, no wind to make trees come alive with their song, even the sound of the stream being subdued at this stretch of water. All he could hear was Jamie’s breathing; slow and steady, accompanied by the rise of his chest in the rhythm.
“This willna be cosy but this will see us through the night. In the morning when the sun is up and our clothes have dried up a bit, I will leave ye here and march to get help. I’ll get a few strong lads to come and carry you back, and Claire will have a look at yer foot and all will be good again.”
Jamie’s voice was low and soothing, but John didn’t miss a slight edge in it. For the hundredth time he recognised how easy it was to see why he had been Mac Dubh in Ardsmuir, Himself to his tenants in Lallybroch and the leader of his people in the Fraser’s Ridge – and why men didn’t hesitate to lay their life down for him. Jamie Fraser genuinely cared about those under his protection and showed it both with his actions and his words. Who would not be comforted by such a man?
He sighed. The night was going to be long.
Chapter 2: Things Needed To Be Said
Some discussions have been postponed for too long and some matters buried too deep... finally time to face them arrives.
Thank you for your kind words on Tumblr and here for my first Outlander attempt... here comes the second chapter! (You can find me in Tumblr as ladytp).
There was no question about getting any sleep, at least not for Lord John. The pain in his ankle had changed from a raw jolt to a dull but insistent throbbing, and he was cold, so cold. Jamie had been right; staying alone without the ability to move about freely to stave off the cold would have been his undoing. Even now, lying side by side so that their bodies touched at length so that he could feel warmth emanating from Jamie, John was shivering. He tried to subdue it as to not disturb his companion, but there was only so much he has control over his body.
“Ye rattle and shake like a wee rabbit in a fox hole. Are ye very cold?” A low voice so close to his ear startled John and he drew in an involuntary breath.
“I’ll live,” he muttered.
“Would it help if we laid closer, maybe on our sides?” The suggestion was tempting; spooning would increase the touch points of their bodies and preserve the precious body heat even more effectively than the soggy layers of cloth on top them. But how? John couldn’t imagine Jamie turning his back on him, but equally how would he feel pressing against John’s back?
Without waiting for an answer Jamie turned, his chest towards John.
Submitting to his fate – and only slightly disturbed by the notion - John rolled on his side and felt Jamie pressing against his back.
And sensed the moment when Jamie’s whole body became rigid, hardly suppressed tension of his every muscle vibrating through the thin layers of cloth between them. His breathing changed too; withheld breath, air through his nostrils, then another moment of stillness. Without seeing his face John could imagine it; clenched jaw, furrowed brow.
Jamie’s left arm was draped on top of John’s shoulder, and it trembled slightly.
The relief of his warmth was immediate, but was soon replaced by discomfort. Why Jamie was doing this for himself when it was clear that his whole being was repulsed by it, John wondered, getting annoyed. Whatever was at the root of Jamie’s anxiety had nothing to do with him – why should he feel guilty about it?
Without stopping to think John blurted out his irritation.
“Really Jamie, if you believe that in this situation, our lives hanging on by the thread, I could think of anything else but survival, you are simply flattering yourself.”
“I canna help it. It’s nought to do it with ye,” he murmured, and immediately shame and regret flushed over John. It was abundantly clear that Jamie has suffered something so traumatic that even his iron will couldn’t overcome it, and he felt ashamed of challenging him on it.
Again, without consciously planning to, the question that had been lurking at the back of his mind for a long time dropped from the tip of his tongue.
“What happened to you? Who made you react this way?”
Long silence ensued and another wave of regret for John. It was not for him to be privy of Jamie’s personal tragedies; why would he imagine being entitled to them and cross the boundaries they had set on the limits of their friendship already a long time ago?
As John was trying to find words to take his question back, Jamie inhaled loudly.
“A redcoat. Captain of His Majesty's Eighth Dragoons in the army of King George I.” His voice raised hardly above whisper, his words low, cold, menacing. “Captain Jonathan Wolverton Randall, Esq.”
It was Johns turn to stiffen. It was one thing to suspect something, another to have it confirmed.
A redcoat. No wonder his reactions towards Lord John had been so visceral, especially at times when he had been still carrying his uniform, proudly.
That Jamie knew the name implied that it had not been a random attack, not like his own experience all those years ago. The memory of it still came back to him every now and then, but John had made his peace with the incident long time ago including a conclusion that it was probably for the best that he had never learned the identity of his assailant.
He regretted bringing the matter up – the last thing he wanted was to bring Jamie’s nightmares from the past back – especially in this time and place. Hoping to close the matter swiftly he faltered to find the words.
“I do apologise sincerely for asking - I shouldn’t have done it. It is not for me to know your private matters.”
A slight relaxation in Jamie’s posture, a huff of warm air past his ear.
“And…I am sorry. So sorry,” John added, quieter.
“Dinna fash. Maybe ye should know, should have known earlier. To see why it was so hard for me to accept ye as ye were. Are. Although I ken that ye are nothing like him.”
“This man…he took you against your will?” Since it appeared that the door had been opened and Jamie was not in a hurry to bang it shut again, John was curious to know more. A captain of Dragoons – must have been at the time of the Rising. After Culloden, perhaps, before Ardsmuir?
“In a way, aye, and in a way, no. I was to be hangit in the morning and he had Claire too in his grip. He threatened to…” Jamie swallowed, the motion of his throat against the back of Johns head, “…so I told him that if he lets her go, I wasna going to resist. And I dinna. Even though he made me do things…” Rest of the sentence was inaudible and John was glad of it.
God’s grief! To be forcibly coerced was one thing, but at least one had the comfort of knowing that one wasn’t playing any part in one’s own humiliation. But to be forced to act? To willingly submit oneself to machinations of a madman?
“But you were not hanged after all?” What a foolish question it was, of course he hadn’t been! John winced. But how long had he been…
“Aye. Claire came back to me that morning – with my kinsmen and a herd of Highland kine. They took me out of there and I lived.” Once again Jamie’s voice lowered almost to a whisper. “I dinna want to, at first. But Claire dinna let me go. She can be stubborn like that.” A hint of smile creeped into his voice. Lord John could imagine; if Jamie was unremitting with his love for his wife, Claire Fraser was his equal. Neither of them would let the other one go, not without a fight.
Momentarily Lord John wondered if he would ever know a love like that.
“And that one night did the damage? To your soul, to your whole self?”
“It wasna just that night. That demon had been after me for years. He was the one who did my back – over hundred lashes, two times, hardly a few days in between. And then he had the gall to admire his handiwork when he had me at my word.” The hate and venom dripping at every word Jamie spoke was unnerving and despite his shivering having subsided Lord John felt a cold chill at the back of his spine.
“What happened to him?”
“I killed him. At Culloden.’
Jamie spoke matter-of-factly and if John had felt a chill before, now he realised that he had been much closer to death than he could have ever imagined that day in Ardsmuir, all those years ago at a game of chess.
“I am glad you did. I am so sorry it happened to you.” There was not much else he could say, nothing would change what had been done to Jamie and what scars he had been carrying in his soul ever since.
“The worst thing was that I reacted to it.“ Now that Jamie had started talking it seemed he wanted to get it all out. John recognised it for what it is; the burden of holding something buried deep inside one’s chest for years, then finally letting it go. It could sweep a man on its path, so irresistible was its pull.
“He conjured my wife into that cell with us, and I was being delirious of the pain of my hand – he had broken my fingers with a hammer and driven a nail through my palm,” Jamie offered as nonchalantly as if he had spoken about a casual meeting over a tables of cards. “And he touched me and I… I reacted.’
Oh. John had heard of that shame. Men having been forced to have sex blaming themselves for the way their bodies had reacted as if it meant that they had been willing in the act. The life of men like him was not without its darker side and without the protection of law, bad things happened.
“You know it was not you, do you? It was just your flesh reacting. The same as if you stick your fingers down your throat and vomit – it is just a reaction that has nothing to do whether you feel nauseous or not.” If he could provide this little bit of comfort to Jamie, even after all these years, he wanted to do his best.
“A flesh reacting? But isn’t mind the master of one’s flesh?”
“Not always. Like now; if my mind could tell me not to shiver I would stop doing it. But it can’t, and I shan’t.”
“Hmmm.” An added Scottish noise at the back of his throat suggested that Jamie was not prone to take John’s word for it. “How would ye ken such a thing?”
“In my social circles I hear things,” John said dryly. “Take it from me, you are not the only one.”
“You too?” A tone of surprise.
In the face of Jamie’s confession John had no option but to be totally honest.
“Once. Years ago. I was young, newly joined the army. It was nothing like what happened to you; just a quick fumble in the dark, by force - I never knew who it was. From thereon I went nowhere without a dagger.”
“You dinna like it then?”
Dear Gods! Sometimes thickness of men made John want to weep. Even Jamie, as educated and sophisticated man as he was, could be such a dullard at times.
“Would you like it if a woman would take you by force, submit you to her desires and under her power, and there was nothing you could do about it? If the autonomy of your body would be stripped away from you and you had no bargaining power, no choice - not whatsoever?” A flash of anger spiced his words with harshness he had not intended, but – really?!
John knew that there had been something sinister behind Willies conception. He had never had an impression that it would have been an act of true love, or that Jamie would have taken advantage of Geneva and seduced her by his own free will. Some kind of coercion must have had taken place, and knowing Geneva John had no doubts where it had originated. Yet she couldn’t have taken him by force – so whatever it had been, it couldn’t have been an experience tinged with forced submission and utter sense of powerlessness.
Still huffing his righteous indignation John felt more than heard Jamie’s act of contrition; a swift squeeze on his shoulder, a muttered apology.
“Nay, I canna say I would enjoy it. I havena. That wasna verra kind thing to say, I am sorry.”
John’s irritation left him as soon as it had arrived and his mind returned back to Jamie’s confession. A captain in His Majesty’s army, clearly prone to sadism and manipulation, pursuing a Scottish laird for his own nefarious purposes – and Jamie being forced to give his word to submit to him. “…he made me do things…,” Jamie had said and suddenly John felt bile rising at the back of his throat.
He was as familiar as any with the dark underbelly of the world he and his kind inhabited, and how the rejection by the civilised society encouraged dark men and dark deeds, fully aware how their wickedness could often lead to no repercussions because of the stigma of shame and lawlessness. And Jamie, still surprisingly naïve about the ways of human reactions…
“Surely your wife told you that you can’t blame yourself for any of it?”
“Aye she did. But she wasna there, in that cell. She didna have to…”
“I am sorry but I beg to differ - she is a very wise woman and a healer and I am convinced her knowledge is superior to yours about how human body works. And for what it’s worth, I am telling you the same thing. And I know some things she may not.” John tried to deliver his words as convincingly as he could, knowing how self-doubt and self-hate could eat even the strongest man from the inside. He himself hadn’t been immune to their effects either – if not exactly on the same matter, there had been enough mornings when he had looked at himself in the mirror and hated everything he saw.
Jamie had finally seemed to let go some of his tension; the long limbs pressing against him might not have been exactly fully relaxed, but some of the earlier rigidity was gone. John didn’t dare to move, afraid to break the precious moment. He tried not to think of the shape of Jamie’s thighs or the swell of his shoulders, both much too close to him in a way that could not be described as anything else but intimate. He tried not to think of things that he had schooled himself over the many years to shut out of his mind. Yet every shift and every slight movement steered his thoughts to those forbidden paths, edged him closer to the precipice – and he welcomed it, and he hated himself for it.
What kind of a sick mind can do such a thing, after hearing that?
Silence followed but somehow John didn’t think the conversation was over yet. The restlessness of the man behind him was palpable, the tossing and turning in their confined conditions. He didn’t press on it though – sometimes things took their time and words were hard to come by. If Jamie still had something to say, he would do it in his own, good time.
“Ye ken, I could never understand what is it in ye that makes ye wanna… ye ken?” There was no accusation in Jamie’s voice, only genuine puzzlement. Yet the fact that he seemed to be willing to discuss the matter John knew to be an anathema to his faith and disgust him in a way that went deeper than the ordinary kind of revulsion common with other people, touched him.
John remembered the argument they had once had about the nature of the Sacred Band of Thebes – a band of Greek warriors consisting of pairs of male lovers – and the revulsion Jamie had shown then towards the whole notion that such relationships could be anything more but feeble indecency of cowardly men to relieve their lust.
“I don’t know either – all I know is that I can’t help it. It is not a choice – I wish it was, as surely I would have chosen differently to make my life easier.” John chose his words carefully, tiptoeing around the subject as if walking on a field of shards of glass.
“Hmmph,” was Jamie’s eloquent response.
Well, at least it was better than a tirade how only men who lacked the ability to possess a woman or were cowards who feared them, or an outright denial of John’s true self.
John had accepted a long time ago that his feelings for Jamie were always going to be one-sided and in an odd way had still gained comfort from the simple existence of them – better to have loved and not loved back than not to have loved at all, and all that. He had accepted that the most he could expect from the object of his affections was friendship and respect and turning of a blind eye to his failures as a human being – and on most days that was more than enough and he was happy to have it.
And yet every now and then he found himself wishing he would someday get more; an open-eyed acceptance of himself as he truly was, warts and all. Suddenly an urgent need pushed itself forward and compelled by it to act John turned slightly to face Jamie.
“It is who I am. It is who I have always been – and I dare say, will be until the day I die. I am sorry if it doesn’t suit your views of the world or the teachings of your God, but I can’t lie to you. Oh, I know, I have lied most of my life; to my family, my friends, my comrades in arms, everyone. I must, as otherwise I will be doomed.”
Jaime stared at him, his eyes narrowed. Moonlight illuminating the landscape was just enough to outline his features and a glint of his eyes.
“But I refuse to lie to you,” John finished, sucking his cheeks in defiantly. Part of him felt a bit ridiculous – maybe not the best idea to lay down ultimatums in such a gregarious situation.
Jamie didn’t let go his scrutiny, his eyes sweeping over John’s face. They trapped him – those slanted eyes, dark pools in the feeble light.
“Aye, there is honesty between us and I’ll not want to see it change.” Jamie finally said, slowly. “I see you, I hear you. I canna say I understand any of it – but there are other things in this world I canna work out and I accept them all the same.”
“I being what I am does not mean that I would be like some other men – like that captain from your past. I hope you give me the courtesy of believing that.” John’s moment of defiance was draining in the face of cold and hunger and throbbing pain and most of all, Jamie’s silent acknowledgment of its righteousness, and suddenly he felt tired, so very tired.
“I ken. I ken that well. I am sorry if I have ever given you to believe otherwise.” Jamie lifted his hand and squeezed John’s shoulder, a cumbersome move but sincere.
“I am sorry too. And now that I know what is behind it – not that I wouldn’t have figured out that it must have been something horrid – I am twice as sorry for ever putting you through it.”
John rolled back on his side, staring ahead at the edge of their crudely constructed resting place, broken roots of plants sticking out of bare earth in front of his face. Jamie scooted a little closer, pressing his whole body flush against his. John felt warm, he felt protected, he felt all kinds of ridiculous things a man of his age and stature should have left behind to his youthful years.
“Try to sleep, a charaid. Time goes faster that way.” With that muffled expression against John’s neck Jamie sighed deeply and relaxed – this time genuinely.
Lord John didn’t find sleep for a long time, too busy cradling the small expanse of unbearable tenderness and contentment inside his chest. It ebbed and flowed at Jamie’s every breath against his neck, and those of his own, taking on the same rhythm. Yet eventually his eyes grew heavy and he slipped into a deep sleep.
And that was how Claire found them in the morning, still in the same position, only parts of their faces peering under the garments that had frozen stiff.
Chapter 3: Aftermath
Here's the last installation of this little ditty, a glimpse to the life at the Ridge - and into Jamie and John's complicated friendship, and Claire's views on that. I hope you enjoyed it!
Claire was worried. It was not like Jamie to stay away longer than intended without sending a word, and certainly not like him to miss an important event in their little community. The new church – as small and crudely built as it was – was an important milestone for the Fraser’s Ridge and Jamie wouldn’t want to miss its consecration for the world.
She was not the only one; Young Ian and Roger Mac had become increasingly restless as days had gone by, and finally snapping the previous evening they had declared their intention to go scouting the next day. To trace Jamie and Lord John’s route to the indian village, find out if something was amiss and bring them home, one way or another.
Claire had gone to bed with an eerie premonition that something was amiss, and had woken up before the daybreak still carrying the same feeling. She missed Jamie, missed his warm body next to hers, his morning ritual of kissing her softly when he noticed she was starting to stir, the smile spreading on his wide mouth when she complained the hour being much too early. She wanted him back – the sooner the better.
As the men had already planned to go find him, however, Claire knew there was not much she could do about it – so stifling a yawn she decided that as long as sleep evaded her, she might as well get some things done.
After getting dressed she tidied her surgery, crushed herbs and set them to stew in a hot pot. Having finished that task she took a basket of socks in need of repair and sat in the glow of the kitchen fireplace to yarn them, pricking herself with a needle even more times than normal.
Anything to pass the time.
Sucking her thumb the third time to quell the blood of a needle prick Claire glanced out of the window and sighed noticing how it was hardly a sunrise. Finally giving in to her restlessness she acknowledged that such a sedentary and delicate activity as mending socks was not for her, not now, and decided that a breath of fresh air might be just what she needed.
There was a place up the small stream flowing east of the Ridge where she had once noticed an abundant field of hen of the woods – mushrooms that were as good for eating as they were for medicinal purposes. It was late in a year for them to be at their best – but for brewing concoctions, freshness was not always required. On the contrary, sometimes dried specimens gave stronger brews.
And it would get her out of the house.
Claire garbed herself quickly, not being put off by the snow that had fallen during the night. If she would ride Clarence, it would not take long for her to reach the place, fill her basket and return – maybe even in time to bid farewell to the explorers before it set on its way.
The feeling of purpose filled her with new energy, which was however not reciprocated by Clarence, who protested vocally for being taken away from his small and cosy stable.
“Come now Clarence, a walk in the woods will do you good too. You are getting fat and lazy, you know?” Claire cajoled the resisting animal, who was not however impressed. Eventually, Claire nonetheless won the clash of wills and the two started off towards the woods.
Claire liked Lord John, she genuinely did – but she couldn’t help the feeling of irrational jealousy sometimes creeping into her mind when she saw Jamie and Lord John conversing. There was easiness between them, an unbroken chain of shared memories, camaraderie that exists between two men thoroughly familiar with the world of men, so different to that occupied by women – at least in that time and age.
And there was the bond they shared through Willie.
And there was the love that shone out of Lord John’s eyes every time he looked at Jamie, no matter how hard he tried to hide it. Although not obvious to everyone, Claire recognised it, as it was the same look Jamie directed at her and which made her heart swell, even after all the years they had shared.
Claire knew of course she had absolutely nothing to worry in regards to Lord John’s feelings towards Jamie. As a matter of fact, she felt sorry for him for them – to love so hopelessly, without a chance of ever being reciprocated, must be a torment.
The ride was brisk, Clarence having finally submitted to the idea of being taken out for yet another ambling through the woods. Claire closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, enjoying the clear cool air filling her lungs, trusting Clarence to pick his way surefootedly across the landscape. Birds had started their tentative chirping once the sun had risen and the snow in the ground was already melting away, only burrowed patches still resisting the warm rays.
Claire stopped at an elevated spot next to the stream – too low to be called a hill but still giving her the advantage of the view over the terrain. If she remembered correctly, the mushroom spot was not too far away. Maybe around that bend over there... Raising her hand to shield her eyes against the sun Claire scanned the landscape and stopped at an oddly shaped structure on the ground.
It was rectangular – too symmetric to be formed by nature. Flat, slightly depressed, partially covered by snow. Maybe it was remnants of a fire pit, dug by a band of hunters some time ago?
It didn’t really matter what it was, but Claire’s curiosity had been raised – and since it was directly on her route to the mushrooms, she decided to take a closer look.
She hopped off Clarence’ back, wanting to stretch her legs and study the mysterious formation closer. Approaching it she took in its dug edge that looked too fresh to have been done a while ago, then the shapes of something that looked like bundled clothes, then the opening between two such bundles letting her see what was buried underneath…
…and Jamie’s red hair partially covering his face as he lay on his side, his tresses mixing with the blond streaks of Lord John.
Claire gasped. Were they dead? Even before she gathered her skirts to run closer, she registered the healthy red on both of their cheeks and after another look, she could surmise even breathing suggesting that they were, in fact, in deep sleep.
Just as she was about to exclaim her presence and joy of finding them, something held her back for reasons she could not explain. Studying closer the scene in front of her Claire registered the way Jamie’s forehead rested against the curve of Lord John’s neck, his shoulder leaning so close over John’s that it suggested that his arm was wrapped around the other man.
They both looked peaceful, corner of Lord John’s mouth slightly upturned so it looked like he was smiling in his sleep. His eyelashes were long and dark, resting against his cheek, making him resemble a fallen angel from a renaissance painting. Claire couldn’t see Jamie’s features clearly, but his eyes were closed and his bearing relaxed, his breathing steady and even.
Disturbingly, Jamie’s protective stance holding the other man so close to him reminded Claire of the many times he had held her so – tightly, closely.
…and if necessary, the protection of my body as well… The words came to her, those that Jamie had said on their wedding night.
The sight in front of her was peaceful, calm, and disturbingly intimate – as if she would have walked into lover’s embrace.
This is ridiculous.
She broke out of her momentary hesitation, not willing to dwell on disturbing implications of the scene.
“Jamie! Lord John! Thank God you are here! What happened?” Her exaggeratedly cheery proclamation was followed by an immediate action in the burrow. Jamie was the first to react, lifting his head and breaking into a wide smile.
“Sassenach! What are ye doing here?!”
Loud exclamations, tossing off the snow covered clothes, the weary travellers stiffly rising up to their feet– the joy of reunion swept away any other thought and soon Claire was too busy examining Lord John’s by now notable swollen ankle that she had no time to process the sight that had initially greeted her.
Clarence received only mildly protesting Lord John on his back and the party returned to the Ridge poste haste, mushrooms all forgotten.
It was only later that evening that Claire allowed herself to wonder again about the view she had witnessed.
The returning explorers had been received with relief, arriving just in time before Young Ian and Roger had been ready to set on their journey. A few chosen jests were exchanged about the planning of men and actions of women, but it was all good-hearted and jovial. In truth, Claire suspected that her already impressive reputation as a conjuring woman and seer was only going to increase because of the incident, and no matter how many times she would insist being only after mushrooms, the story would grow and grow more in time.
Besides, she could not for sure say even herself whether it had been just mushrooms or the nagging feeling she had experienced that had set her on the road.
She attended to Lord John’s foot in her surgery, confirming that he indeed had a shattered ankle bone which would require considerable rest before he could step on it again. Both men had been provided with a hot bath and even hotter soup to banish away the lingering effects of cold chill, and over the day they had regaled their adventures to a rapt audience. Their description of how they had survived the night in the burrow was met with nods and understanding – it was the best way to go about a night in the cold, and every man and woman in the house would have not thought twice about it.
As if he had sensed Claire’s eyes on him at the time Jamie had raised his eyebrows and shrug his shoulders almost imperceptible, acknowledging her unasked question. How could you let him so close to you? And that was all she had to settle with until she would get him on his own later that evening.
Claire didn’t talk with Lord John again that day, but she saw him sitting at the end of the front veranda of the house just before sunset. He must have hobbled there with the aid of rude crutches Young Ian had procured from somewhere, which were now leaning neatly against the bench. He was facing the forest, almost hidden by the dried branches of a vine that had gone wild at one end of the porch - and Claire didn’t fault him for that. A big house full of people, including young children, must be as far away as possible from a quiet estate of a widowed gentleman, and time for himself was probably what he needed.
Lord John was contemplating his hands when Claire first caught a sight of him; staring at his upturned palms, then rotating them around as if in wonder of possessing such appendices in the first place. Claire had a mind to join him and gauge his reaction to her now that the most urgent doctoring was out of the way, but then he sighed deeply, leaned his back against the weathered wood of the wall and closed his eyes – and Claire stopped on her tracks.
His expression… there was a slight furrow between his eyebrows, but rather than conveying anger, it seemed to express concentration, Claire thought. She was not the best reader of faces and human emotions, but what she could gather from her vantage point behind the door, Lord John appeared calm and contemplating. The slightest hint of a smile played in the corner of his mouth, alternating with that furrow. Overall, he seemed to be a man experiencing conflicting emotions, if anything else.
Was he thinking of the previous night? What had happened? Claire prevaricated, observing Lord John for a bit longer, but in the end she didn’t have the heart to interrupt his musings – whatever they might be.
She would just have to wait for the evening and privacy of their bedroom to talk with Jamie.
Claire brushed her hair absentmindedly, waiting for Jamie to undress. She could still see at the back of her mind the protective hold Jamie had had on Lord John, the mixing of red and blond hair on the makeshift pillow. Others could think the arrangement being only pragmatic, but they hadn’t seen what she had, and Claire knew things could not be so simple - there had to be something else.
She remembered how Jamie had once almost strangled older Ian – his best friend in the whole wide world! – when he had accidentally come too close to Jamie at night. It had happened when the two of them had had to share a quilt on a cottage floor in the Highlands, and the incident had forced Jamie to share the events of Wentworth prison with his shocked brother-in-law. As far as Claire was aware Ian Murray was the only other person who knew the reason for Jamie’s wariness of being too close to a man, unless he had shared the story with Jenny.
She knew the nightmares that still plagued Jamie sometimes, and how despite her whole being longing to lean into him and give him the protection and comfort of her body, she had learned that he simply could not be touched at those times. Not even by her.
Yet, nightmares or not, the thought that Jamie would willingly entangle himself with another man, especially one whom he knew with certainty harbouring sexual desires upon his person… No, it simply didn’t make any sense.
“What a verra fine feast it is to sleep in a proper bed in a proper house after the last few nights! Ye ken, I am getting too old for life in the wild,” Jamie sighed as he laid himself down, his big bulk moulding into the mattress with a grace of a big cat.
“It didn’t look too bad for you, last night,” Claire couldn’t help retorting. She stood up and crawled to Jamie’s side, allowing him to pull her for him.
Jamie frowned. “What d’ye mean? I was freezing my balls off, we both were.”
“When I saw you first, you looked…cosy enough.” Claire truly didn’t want to be the kind of wife questioning her husband about every little thing he did when they were apart, but she couldn’t get the sight of Jamie’s arm across Lord John’s shoulders out of her mind.
At first Jamie didn’t say anything, only adjusting Claire to a more comfortable position against him.
“Are ye…jealous, Sassenach?” Smile in his tone irritated Claire.
“No, of course not! I only wonder how you suddenly seem so comfortable with him,” she bristled.
“I have been comfortable wi’ John for a long time now. It hasna been difficult for us since, well, since Willie.”
“Not that comfortable; you were practically embracing him.”
Jaime turned to look down at her, his mouth working as if to say something.
“Aye, maybe I was. It was verra cold.”
“Didn’t it disturb you, you know, after all you have gone through – and being aware of how he feels about you?”
Another long silence, this time stretching so long that Claire started to doubt the wisdom of raising the matter at all. Me and my big mouth! Why couldn’t she just have left the matter?
Well, it was not exactly the first time she had plundered headlong into something she would have been better to leave alone.
“I told him.” Jamie’s voice was low but his words were clear.
Claire startled. “You told him what?”
“About Randall. And Wentworth.”
Jamie’s thumb was drawing a small circle on her shoulder, around and around. It was soothing, it was relaxing – and yet Claire was suddenly fully alert and raised her head to look at him.
‘Did I just say so or didna I?”
“Well, ye were right, it did curdle my wame to lay so close, and he noticed. And he didna ken it was not him that did it – and it didna seem right to me.” Jamie had not stopped the motion of his fingers and Claire settled down again. “And he did ask.”
Claire was digesting the news. She knew Jamie had guarded the shame of Wentworth – as he still saw it – close to his heart, not revealing it to anyone. Of the people who knew about it, most were dead anyway. And now he had shared it with someone who in a twisted way was – or had been – eerily similar in many aspects to Black Jack Randall and sure to raise many uncomfortable memories in Jamie over the years.
“What did he say?”
“He said he was verra sorry. And some other things. Things I shouldna tell to you, I reckon. But things it is good for me to ken.”
“Oh.” Claire was disappointed, she would have loved to know what had transpired between the two men. Yet she knew Jamie’s strong sense of honour when it came to things shared with him in confidence, and accepted that this was probably most she could get out of him.
“Well, I am sure he was horrified that such things were done by his fellow officers.”
“He was. And he reminded me that not all men are like that - you ken, men like him.”
Claire snuggled closer and inhaled his scent of soap and ash.
“He is right. What he is – he is not a sinner or wicked, it just that some people are born that way. Different. Like being left-handed or tone-deaf. In years to come it will be accepted better, although it will take a long time.”
Claire remembered the medical text books she had read during her studies, most still describing homosexuality as a disease, but with some new research at the time being more liberal in its interpretation. She remembered the whispered comments about this or that member of the faculty, some open about their inclinations, some still in hiding. Yet none of them were openly persecuted for it, not like in these times. Discrimination, for sure, death sentences, less so.
“John told as much – that he is what he is and canna change even if he wanted.”
“And you are fine with that?”
Jamie sighed deeply, the heave of his chest lifting Claire’s head up and down.
“I canna see as if I had any options. The wee sodomite is my friend, after all.”
“I am glad to hear it.” Claire pressed her lips on his bare chest. “But only a friend, eh?”
“Only a friend. For anything else I am happy with lassies.” Jamie kissed her forehead.
“Lassies? You have many in mind, pray tell?” Claire’s lips wandered lower and the familiar rush of warmth engulfed her body, anticipation of sensual delights.
“Only one, by my oath. Now, move up so I canna show ye how happy,” Jamie mumbled while taking a strong hold of Claire’s nightgown and starting to peel it off.
Claire gladly obliged and the image of Lord John’s lonely figure shimmered and disappeared from her mind.