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Underneath the Elder Tree

Chapter Text

William Fraser had never known a mothers touch in all his young years until he found one under the withering white flowering of an elder tree.

 

It had happened deep in the forest where the trees grew wild and their branches twined thick, creaking as they swayed from the brisk autumn wind. Their leaves rained down in a golden, sweeping haze, pushing the lad down unfamiliar paths hoping he would notice with just a turn of chin, a maiden fair to care for and she him.

 

But Willie was deeply distracted searching for frogs, speckled back and green, hoping to find a friend before the forest would cloak in frost and he, stuck in his cabin with only the cracklings of the hearth and his father's chatter for company. 

 

He peered into the dark crevices of craggy rocks only to find hissing beetles, bent on hands and knees to the wet rot of decaying logs, coming eye to eye with a brood of mice huddled in grey furry warmth that glared at him with scorn at the rude invasion.

 

Nothing that croaked or hopped.

 

Willie puffed a disappointed sigh to a wasted morning where all he had to show for his efforts was a runny nose that he rubbed along the arm of his too-big wool coat, breeks muddied at the knees that would earn him a tongue lashing from his father with pockets of uneaten worms writhing for escape in the folds. Not to mention a mucky stench clinging to him that left Willie fearing a bath most of all.

 

He scrapped a hole in the damp soil with the heel of his shoon, crushing the ring of fungi tops and releasing their pungent tang as he emptied his pockets of the wee limbless creatures that had coiled around one another in a slimy pink cluster. 

 

Trudging back home through the slippery mud that left a squelching gasp with every step, Willie caught a sight that had him sinking to the sludge. Tucked away amongst thistle weeds and ferns under a crooked elder tree was a woman curled upon herself like a doe lost in sleep. He felt his heart lodge thick in his throat as his father's voice echoed in his head.

 

"A beauty beheld in the wilderness is to never be disturbed nor trusted, mo mhac, for there is only treachery lurking where their souls aught to be."

 

It was one of the many warnings from his father's tales told by the hearth where the spritely fires would alight his grizzle-haired face in a molten sheen as Willie sat at his knee in wide eyed captivation with his wooden snake, Sawney , clasped tightly in his hands. 

 

The stories he'd tell were of witches, faeries, and other vile creatures that dwelled in trees tall enough to blight out the sun so as to snatch a wanderer who'd lost their way, or hide in the rings of standing stones, shaped like jagged teeth as howling wails escaped its maw, waiting for boys such as he.

 

But there were no towering rocks for the wee folk to hide, nor yet was the sun on it's descent to swallow him in night. No, today he would be like his father. Just as braw, just as brave, if maybe not nearly as tall for the lass in need. 

 

Squaring his shoulders (blood pounding in his ears), Willie picked up a long weathered stick to wield in his hands on the off chance she was one of the wicked folk and approached her like he would for his much loved hoppers - quietly, with hands and legs ready to sprint into action if things went awry. 

 

But as he got closer he saw the woman for what she truly was. 

 

She was clad in a ragged brown cloak, thrown open at the waist, where a sullied pale dress could be seen that gathered at her knees. The once fine embroidery depicting spring had succumbed to her travels, unraveling budding flowers with their strange blue leaves (of which Willie had never before seen) and long green vines stitched like the rippling waves of sea. There were rips in the sheer fabric exposing her protruding ribs where faint streaks of blood marked her skin white as snowdrops and white as Willie's face from the startling sight of red. He tore his eyes up to see her tangled craze of curls dark as his own that framed her face gaunt from hunger with lips tinted a deathly kiss of blue. 

 

Her being was such a lifeless thing that Willie thought her dead. 

 

Though to be sure, he gritted his teeth (with a stuttering breath that whistled through his nose) and poked her bared calf with his stick. She woke with a blood curdling groan, swatting her hand towards Willie, who promptly dropped his stick to frantically scamper away at having awakened the dead - if only he hadn't tripped over a tree root jutting up from the ground, falling with a graceless thunk.

 

" Ifrinn !" Willie yelped, sure he was on his way to meet his creator. 

 

But then the woman of the forest unfurled herself from a pallet of ferns and leaves, parting her dirt-speckled hair that revealed eyes of bewitching amber that glimmered in the rich evening light dappling through the boughs above. They landed on his face, transfixed to hers taut with shock - then darted warily to their surroundings. When nothing stirred from the bushes, the looming shadows of the trees, she found her breath and spoke with a voice gentle and warm as summer rain.

 

"Did I frighten you, little one?" 

 

Willie nodded, mouth agape. The sound of her flushing his cheeks. "D - Di' I scare ye?"

 

She brushed a hand along her calf, as she nodded back too. "Terribly. I thought you were a daring fox mistaking me for its supper."

 

The word supper raised the fine hairs on the back of his neck as he was reminded once more of his father's words. He dug his fingers deep into the soil grasping for a stone.

 

"Are ye of the auld folk that steals away boys like me tae feed tae yer weans?" Each word tumbled from the quiver of his mouth that both pained and amused the woman to hear.

 

"Oh, dear boy, is that what you think of me?" She gave him a smile to reassure him that she was nothing of the sort. "You will live another day and many more until you're very old and grey for I have no interest beyond the elderberries to fill my belly." She then laid her palms open at her lap, fingers numb and stiff. "I promise, you have nothing to fear from me." 

 

Showing more trust to a stranger than a boy really ought to, Willie let the burning breath he'd been holding pour out of him in a white cloud of relief. But a new worry took hold as he reached forward, grazing a stubby finger against her berry stained ones, icy to the touch.  

 

"Ye canna eat the berries off the tree, they'll twist yer innards somethin' awful and the black ones do ye worst of all," Willie said with a frown, regretting sharing his last chunk of bread with the wood mice. 

 

Then a kindness so obvious to a child came to mind.

 

"Come home wi' me!" He said with bright-eyed sincerity, propping high up on his knees. "We have bread and meat and soup that isna cold and a hearth sure tae roast ye - no' that it would," Willie added hurriedly." And -"

 

"I don't think your family would want you bringing home a stranger, especially one who has no means to pay such generosity back. Don't worry for me, I'll make do here as I am," she firmly insisted.

 

But Willie saw how her breath whispered from her lips chapped with cold, and how she shivered in her coat, threadbare and useless to ward against the wind growing sharper, seeping to the bone. And what would shield her from the cruel things that hunted by moonlight? He knew not a thing, he saw those scratches at her sides.

 

No, despite what she said, whatever she may be, Willie wouldn't leave her be. 

 

Stubbornly shaking his head, Willie replied, "I ken my, Da, and he would skin me tae my toes fer leavin' ye here in the cold in no' but tatters, hurtin' and alone. But I promise if ye come wi' me no harm will touch ye as long as I'm near."

 

A flicker of tenderness shined in her eyes, before shutting them tight, bowing her head, feeling faint. She pressed a trembling palm to her brow as her sight began to haze and prickle with white. She needed to send this fool-hearted boy away before the desperate sleep she so sought would take her. Quietly. Finally at peace.

 

The lad had simply come too late.

 

So she hardened her voice with all the grit she could muster, hoped it gleamed vile in her eyes like the creatures he thought she was. "You don't even know my name, nor I yours, boy. You owe me nothing. I need nothing. Now go home before the sun falls behind the mountains and you into the fangs of the beastly wicked." 

 

He flinched hard alright, but clenched his jaw just as quick, undeterred, and kicked himself to his feet with a throaty grunt.

 

"My name is William James Fraser, your servant," he said, sounding far older than his young years. He waited for a response and after several heartbeats it was given with a heavy sigh. 

 

"Claire," she answered simply with an exasperated look. "But this doesn't mean - "

 

"William!"

 

Came a worrying bellow, startling the two. They turned to see a man off in the distance crashing through the overgrown bracken, flushed red as his hair, frantically searching, searching. . .

 

Claire's hands balled into fists on instinct, her face marked with distress.

 

"Tis a'right," Willie said softly, trying to calm her. "It's only my Da. He willna hurt ye. He likes the lasses - I think."

 

Still, Claire forced herself to her feet, leaning against the trunk of the tree for stability as Willie reassured again that she had nothing to fear before rushing off to his father.



___





"Da! Da! Da!" Willie shouted, barreling into his father, all knooby elbows and knees. 

 

" Taing do dhia ," Jamie breathed as he kneeled and checked his son over for injury, feeling heart throbbing relief that he was whole and safe. Then he grabbed the lad by the shoulders to meet the ire of his eyes.

 

"Ye wee wretch!" He growled, though not entirely unkind. "Have I no' told ye time and time again yer no' to venture into the wilderness wi'out me. Tis dangerous for you, as it is for me. Yet here ye are again, blackening my temper, tearing my sanity in two. I aught to tie ye hand and foot but I reckon ye gnaw through the rope like the wee ratten ye are."

 

"I'm sorry, I dinna mean to stray far." But Willie was hushed from speaking more by a gentle shake of his shoulders. 

 

"That's always yer excuse, lad. Either yer sticking that heid of yers down foxholes or trying to snap yer neck climbing trees to gather bird feathers." Jamie had to refrain from rolling his eyes when informed they were, "No' just any feathers". 

 

"So what daft thing was it this time?" 

 

A smile touched Willie's lips, his face aglow. "I found a faerie woman, I'm sure of it. I promised she could come home wi' us, have supper wi' us and ye say it's a mighty sin tae break yer word, bad as lyin'."

 

"Aye," Jamie said quietly after a moment's troubled hesitation, eyeing him very closely. "I have told ye so." And ran a hand over his sons head, feeling for a bump. "Does this faerie of yers have a name?"  

 

"Claire," Willie said excitedly. "I'll show ye to her." 

 

He was then dragged to his feet towards the lone elder tree amidst the mossy sprawl of birch and pine, where the woman proclaimed to be faerie was where she'd been left - leaning against the drooping shade. Only now she was grasping a dagger, staring with eyes large and feral at the man in front of her, whose pulse convulsed at his throat.

 

Jamie's hand flew to the hatchet belted at his waist that could swing at animals twice his size with a graceful ease, but Willie exclaimed, "No Da!" knowing this as well.

 

"Claire's only scairt of ye! Please dinna hurt her!" The wee lad planted his feet to the grass and threw his arms around Jamie's hoping to weigh it down. Instead the elder reached with his other hand but with the wooden handle pointed at Claire.

 

"Does my son tell me true? Do ye hold that blade to protect yerself or to harm?" 

 

Her blurring gaze jumped from Jamie to Willie, whose face had gone ghost-white, yet still he kept true to his word, and moved to stand between her and his father like a devoted knight. With her eyes beginning to sting and an unaccustomed warmth flaring small beneath her breasts, Claire lowered her hand but kept hold of the dagger that had been hidden in the folds of her ruined dress.

 

Parting her lips she murmured near breathless, "I - I only lost my way." Then all went deathly black and chilling as she fell to the mottled, crackling leaves.

 

"Ye killed her!" Willie cried as he came to Claire's side.

 

"How could I when I laid no' but eyes upon her?!" But Jamie too sank beside her, with guilt rippling sickly in the pit of his stomach for raising his hand to one who now looked so pitiful and small. Gently, he rested his hand against her ribs, cringing at how he could feel the starving curve of each one, and found  that she did indeed still breathe.

 

"She's no' dead," Not yet anyway. She made a small sound, a strangled whimper, in unconscious agreement.  

 

"Then we bring her home, right?" Willie's voice was an anxious plea, as he smoothed Claire's curls from her face.  

 

"Seems we must as she has no other." 

 

Jamie then glanced up to the sky where clouds of stormy grey began to billow and whirl, slowly veiling the last orange rays of sunlight. Swiftly, he took off his wool coat and wrapped Claire tight, holding her flushed to the heat of his chest, wondering how she hadn't frozen before being found.

 

"What about her dagger?" 

 

The long blade laid off to the side and rather than leaving what had been aimed at his gullet, Jamie belted it aside his hatchet.

 

As he hoisted her up in his arms and walked down the sloping, steep paths home (with Willie uncharacteristically quiet, but with his lone urgent chant of "Hurry, Da" while casting worried glances his way) Jamie pondered who or what he embraced. This woman with eyes like no other being he'd ever known or dreamed of, yet fragile as any mortal man.

 

Where did ye come from, lass?







Chapter Text

Below a sky of thunderclouds and the ceaseless tide of  rain and wind, was the cabin beneath the swaying pines and sycamore that Willie called home.

 

Behind it's shuttered windows, the young lad had been quick to start a fire, stoking the flames to a roaring blaze that freckled his face and hands with ash. But even as the sparks of fire danced like sprites in the hearth, he was gripped to the bone with worry that the fire was still too small, the room still too chilled, for Claire lost in sleep.

The woesome lass he found in the forest hadn't surrendered her desperate hold of his father, forcing him to sit with her in his armchair where the two of them were wrapped together beneath a heavy patched quilt. Yet still she trembled, even as he gathered her closer to the unfailing warmth of his chest, where his heart begged hers to keep to the beat of his.

 

Over the fire a kettle began to whistle, and Willie jumped from his little wooden stool by the hearth to pour the bubbling water to a waiting pewter cup already prepared with a sachet of herbs to steep. He then propped himself on his elbows over the tabletop, peering into the steaming brew beginning to color and bloom with a fragrance so sharp it had him scrunching his nose and spitting his tongue out in distaste.

 

It was a far cry from the feast he'd promised Claire, but his father assured him it would heal what festered black in her blood (he had gone very quiet when Willie told him of the elder berries).

 

Taking another dubious whiff convinced him the horrible smell alone would wake her.

 

After readying the drink with a thoughtful dollop of honey (then another heaping two), Willie tempered it with cool puffs of breath as he carefully brought it to his father.

 

Jamie gently patted Claire's dirt-smudged cheek to rouse her, grimacing at how his fingers dipped into her skin, stretched thin and delicate as lace. She shuddered beneath his barest touch, groaning and clenching her long lashes in drowsy defiance that reminded him of Willie when forced to rise early in the morning.

 

But never had his son's eyes been bruised with such dire fatigue like hers. Nor had his flesh ever been threatened with a beating, never bloodied. Never -

 

He cleared his throat twisting tight as his wame, imagining what cruelty had befallen this woman and stroked her cheek with the gentlest touch.

 

"I ken ye're feeling ill, lass. Rather be lost to yer dreams than awaken amongst strangers. But ye must try to drink a bit of tea for what's ailing ye, then maybe a bowl of broth and bread if ye can stomach it after. Even a nip of whisky if ye like." The corner of his mouth lifted slightly, thumbing away a long errant lock from her face. "Come now Claire, ye've made it this far."

 

For a moment all that was heard was the rain falling on the roof and the crackle and snap of the logs in the hearth succumbing to the burning heat of the flames. Then her lips slowly parted as though to speak, the furrow in her brow deepening, but what came was a shaky gasp of incoherence that choked into a sob.

 

" A nighean ," Jamie hushed into the dark dishevelment of her curls, as he rocked her gently like a bairn, smoothed his hand down the bony knobs of her back, while she cowered against his shoulder, grasping hard to the breast of his sark. "Tha thu beò, tha thu slàn. . ." But only the raw and rasping wail of her heart between them echoed back.

 

The elder Fraser then looked from Claire to Willie and reached a freehand to cup his son's bowed, teary face, and promised him too all would be well.





//





Having soothed Claire's cries with the lulling will of his voice, Jamie tried once more to coax her to drink, pressing the pewter cup gingerly to her mouth as a soundless prayer left his. Her response this time was immediate. Slowly sipping the warm liquid to its final amber drop that spilled down the length of her sheer white throat. By the second dose her trembling had finally begun to ease, but still her mind was clouded, her flesh too wearied to rise.

 

"Another cup for her, Da?" Willie yawned loudly, hunched elbows to knees where he dutifully sat to keep watch of the flame and Claire.

 

Jamie shook his head in fond observance.

 

"Ye've done enough for yer lass t'night, mo mhac. To bed wi' ye while ye can still stand."

 

"I dinna need tae sleep," Willie glared, hooking his feet around the stubby legs of his stool in protest. . . Then cracked into a yawn so wide Jamie could see the red waggle in the back of his throat.

 

"Mebbe a little," he admitted sheepishly, rubbing his smudged palms across his face and through his hair. A gesture inherited from his father. "But I ought tae see Claire through the night till she wakes and sees me and kens she's safe."

 

Jamie lifted a ruddy brow in question. "And she'll think otherwise if ye're no' hoverin' above her like a wee bee?"

 

"Weel," he drawled, tilting his head to one side. "What'll happen if Claire wakes tae yer face, Da? She didna like ye before. She took tae her knife and fainted."

 

Jamie hesitated to reply. He hadn't forgotten the way those unnatural eyes of hers bore straight to the mad beating of his heart, still aching tender for her beneath the strain of his ribs. But looking down at her now - the gentle rise and fall of curls nestled in the surety of his arms, almost innocent to behold  - his only concern was what tormented her enough to weep.

 

"I canna say till she stirs," he said at last. "But at the very least she has no blade in her hands nor the strength or reason for violence. But if ye canna keep yer eyes open and fall heid first to the fire, what good will ye be to her then?"

 

The boy frowned.

 

"None sae much," Willie mumbled flatly, his legs now dangling, watching them tap defeatedly against the floor.

 

"There's still the morrow," Jamie reminded him. "And by then she'll wake wi' a pink to her cheeks and gratitude on her lips for the young lad who showed more kindness than most men twice his age."

 

Willie blushed shyly from beneath the ruffled fray atop his head, glowing like a firefly from the cast of flames. "Ye really think she will, Da?"

 

"Aye, I'm mighty proud of ye too as yer mam above surely is. But dinna make a habit of talking to strangers ye happen upon in the woods." He touched his jaw, grizzled red. "I'm no' ready to go grey just yet."

 

Beaming brighter than firelight, Willie hopped to his father to bid him goodnight then leaned close to Claire on tip-toes and whispered sweetly to her ear, "Be ye faerie or other, please dinna bite da's face or gut him in the gullet or curse him tae misfortune or - "

 

"Willie!"

 

"And a g'night tae ye, Claire!" Willie hurriedly said, and scampered off to bed, almost tripping when called to wash as well, and muttered a very quiet " Damn " as he shut his bedroom door.

 

Jamie chuckled quietly and sank further to his chair, legs stretching out long and straight, the movement causing the small hand still at his chest to dig past sark, straight to skin.

 

"Di' ye no' hear the wee lad, faerie woman?" He said jokingly through the wincing clench of his teeth, and curved his large hand easily around hers, gently urging her fingers to loosen.

 

"I'm no' going anywhere. I ken I'm under yer keeping, tis the way of yer kind, aye?"

 

To his murmurings Claire sighed warmly with content and softly nuzzled his neck that flushed like a rose in spring bloom up across his cheekbones, brightly at his nose tickled from her hair, while her grasp became a harmless caress of his fingers, twining them with hers.

 

"Weel then. . ." Jamie croaked, clearing the sudden tightness seizing the muscles of his throat and settled himself for a very long and sleepless night.

 

But as the shadows reached further across the cabin walls from the slowly dwindling fire, Jamie began to doze off, his weight drooping heavily on top of Claire that had her squirming, swiping clumsily at his chest.

 

Drifting sluggishly to consciousness.

 

Jamie jostled awake and palmed her cheek, thinking she was in the wicked throes of a nightmare. But it was when he spoke her name that she finally opened her bleary eyes that all at once flared like whisky gone aflame as they landed on him.

 

Willie had been right.

 

Like a rabid beast she raised her hand to strike at the strange face before her, but he caught her wrist and pressed it firmly against her chest in restraint.

 

"I mean ye nay harm," he tried to assure her. "I -"

 

But the woman was too panicked to listen as she struggled mightily in his grasp and when a strike of rising thunder slashed through the sky, she found her voice, hoarsely demanding,

 

"Let. Me. Go."

 

And to her surprise he did.

 

Claire scrambled off his lap but her legs buckled uselessly beneath her, pulsating with pins and needles as she dragged herself towards the hearth.

 

"Lass, please -"

 

Hearing the creak in the wood of his approach, she raised her arm like a shield in front of herself, hand clenched to a fist, ready for savagery. But when she felt no pain upon her, Claire peeked over her forearm and saw Jamie knelt on the floor an arms length away, meeting her shrieking gaze with the utmost gentleness of his.

 

So very blue and boundless, brilliant as the summer sky.

And a mirror image to that stubborn small boy who offered her his helping hand.

 

Her fear waned for a skittering heartbeat, enough to gather breath.

 

"Y-You're Willie's father."

 

"James Fraser," he uttered kindly, then tipped his head to the door closed at her right. "And the wee lad will be verra mad wi' joy to see ye when he wakes."

 

She felt a wave of warmth thinking of the sweet boy but then her memory clawed back in force.

 

"You wanted to drive a hatchet through me."

 

His body tensed, taken aback. "It was raised in warning for the sake of my son as you raised yer dagger to me first. Aimed right for my gullet as I recall."

 

Lower than that.

 

"Then why bring me here?" Her voice cut low, edged with suspicion. "Why not leave me where I was?"

 

"You have to ask?"

 

Jamie could see her throat bob. She was shivering terribly again despite her proximity to the hearth and twisting, twisting, the fabric of her ruined dress almost sheer as gossamer.

 

All that was left of her clothing. . .

 

His nose flared sharply as he averted his gaze and grabbed the quilt that had tumbled to the floor. He held it out for Claire to take, but she stared warily at the offering, then Jamie, and made no move to take it.

 

"Ye need no' be scairt of me, Claire," Jamie implored, laying the quilt in the precarious gap between them. "The lad and I have only done our best to care for ye, to keep ye well and safe. I've given ye naught but drink to drown the berries ye ate and thawed ye like I would a lamb. Nothing more, I promise ye."

 

Claire fastened her scrutiny on the great breadth of the man in front of her basked in gleaming firelight. He was so much larger than herself and more than capable of breaking her arm with absolute ease if she dared reach for the iron poker she had glanced behind her, long and lethal as any blade. Yet there was nothing threatening in his manner that she could detect, nor the wickedness of deceit in his words.

 

He spoke only truth.

 

She loosened the air held in her lungs and tentatively reached for the quilt.

 

"I believe your word," she said, albeit warily.

 

"But ye dinna trust me just yet. And until then that poker ye've set yer eyes on may just strike me betwixt my own, aye?"

 

Claire's mouth twitched, as she wrapped herself in the soft fabric, finding an unexpected comfort in the threads stitched with the scent of woodsmoke and faintly of musk.

 

"As long as you keep to where you are and let me take leave I won't have to."

 

Jamie gaped at her as if she'd grown a third eye.

 

"Are ye mad woman? The rain will carry ye off yer feet, if no' the wind, and thin as you are it will take naught but two steps."

 

God above must've been on his side for the wind lashed hard against the shutters and the wind began to howl like a famished pack of wolves, making her skin break out in gooseflesh and her bottom lip quiver before she bit her teeth to it.

 

"I willna have my son finding ye deid a foot from our doorstep and that's final whether ye like it or no'."

 

"I don't like it at all," she spat. "I can take care of myself."

 

He huffed dryly and shook his head.

 

"And ye've done a braw job of it, lass. Traveling so late in the year wi' barely a stitch of cloth to ye. I'm surprised ye've managed this far in these mountains wi'out a trail of wolves snapping at yer feet."

 

Illuminated by the licking flames of the hearthfire, Claire held the fury of the thunderclouds in her eyes that made Jamie both flinch and wonder if she were of a human soul or made from the vengeance of the earth and wind, maybe even the heavens above.

 

Yet the pout of her chin gave him the befuddling impulse to caress the dimpled skin there with his thumb.

 

"I managed fair, more than fair until I lost my way." She swallowed, hands clenched, rebuking the memory. "Now all my belongings are at the belly of the river. What I have on me is all that's left."

 

"I'm sorry," said Jamie with deep sincerity, not so much for her lost belongings but for whatever damning force had torn her dress. Had her fists at the ready. Where the tips of her fingers were splotched with elderberry juice that only the very wretched would dare to eat.

Seeing his glance, Claire was quick to ball her hands beneath the folds of the quilt, away from his sight.

 

"But I meant what I said,'' he continued.' I canna have ye out there, weak as ye are. But if ye willna do it for your own sake I ask ye to do so for Willie."

 

For the first time he saw a shining tenderness flash in her eyes as she contemplated her decision, a glimpse of what earned his son's devotion. Felt it pull at him from deep within too.

"Alright," she reluctantly agreed, quiet as a whisper.

 

"Good," Jamie sighed with relief, and passed a hand over his tired face. It had been too long a day.

 

"Then I'll bother ye no' more t'night, though I canna guarantee Willie willna be asking more of ye come dawn. Ye can have my room for the time being - to yerself," he emphasized, seeing her scandalized face. "With nae bother. I promise ye that."

 

"You needn't trouble yourself with me. Here by the hearth will be fine," she said, as she stretched the tail end of the quilt out along the floor.

 

"Wee as he is, Willie will have my heid if finds ye on the floor and I wouldna care much for myself either. Ye have a place here wi' us until the storm passes," he paused, looking up at the ceiling as a crack of lightning bellowed above. "Which may verra well keep on into the morrow and even then. . ."

 

He then glanced once more over her ragged person making her fidget where she sat.

 

"Mr. Fraser, I will accept your kindness if it'll keep you from looking at me with such pity."

 

His brow knotted with a hint of a smile underneath the scraggle of his dark ginger beard. "I wouldna dare to. Ye're still in arms reach of the poker."

 

To his surprise and utter delight she let out a small breath of a laugh, making her shoulders relax as she combed her tangled curls from her face.

 

"And it's Jamie," he said. "And I'm verra happy ye've admitted defeat."

 

He then raised himself slowly from the ground with a loud pop to his knees that made him groan.

 

"Well, you Fraser men don't make it easy. Both of you are fairly stubborn."

 

"My folk are worse than mules I'm afraid. No reasoning wi' us, even when we're in the grave."

 

Her smile grew and so did Jamie's quickly mounting with fondness.

 

"I've never met a mule before but I have the blood of one, I'm told."

 

"Then I imagine we'll get along terribly well then, Sassenach ." He then reached down for her hand and she stared at it with complete uncertainty and flicked her gaze to his.

 

"Is that an insult?"

 

He grinned and gestured with his chin at his open hand, urging her to take it. "It means a strange lass in a land not her own. Seems fitting, don't ye think?"

 

How right he was.

 

She was no woman of the mountain, Jamie was sure of that. Maybe she really was a faerie woman like Willie hoped she was. Or something even more marvelous.

 

But that was a question for another day.

 

Chapter Text

Claire dreamt she lay in a cove of trees. 

 

She could feel pine needles pricking the soft skin of her cheeks and tree sap matting her curls with sticky sweet gold and crushed oak leaves that twined around her fingertips. Yet the air around her was warm. Warmer than a woodfire. More enveloping than sunshine. It seemed to sink deep into her weary bones and hollowed heart, branding her like a tender kiss.

 

And for a moment she forgot who she was. Hoped she'd never have to wander from the haven beneath the trees as she breathed in the earthy musk that filled her lungs, knowing true peace.

 

But then a noise ripped Claire from her sun-dipped oasis, awakening her with an upright start, and for a span of three heartbeats she knew not where she was. Couldn't remember who had shuttered the windows that rattled from the wind or lit the fire burning slowly to embers before her. 

 

Nor did she remember who’d given her their bed that was big enough to fit a bear, with a quilt that wrapped around her, smelling like the sun, the earth . . .

 

Of kindness.

 

Her memory returned to her then. Of the bitter cold and her shaky breath, curled underneath that crooked old tree. And of her confrontation with that stubborn man. Jamie Fraser.

 

After Claire agreed that she would wait out the storm, she took his hand to stand (embarrassed that she was too weak to do so herself) and nearly toppled onto his chest.

 

“Sorry,” she began to say, a flustered tint to her cheeks, but Jamie shook his head and bent to pick up the quilt that had fallen, placing it back around her shoulders. Smiling a little when she sighed, grateful for it's warmth.

 

“There’s no need for ye to be, Sassenach,” he said, taking a tentative hold of her arm, his touch light as moth wings, lest she sway again. “Come, sit yerself back to the chair and I'll fetch ye a bit of bread and broth or maybe -”

 

He politely looked away, adding - " Would ye like to wash?"

 

The offer of food and a bath was mighty appealing but another wave of fatigue washed over her. As well as a desperate need to be alone to gather her thoughts. 

 

“I think I'll fall asleep mid-bite and dip if I do.”

 

She could see him wanting to protest, his eyes passing over the thinness of her face. But he must've felt her limbs growing heavier and seen the extra flutter of her lashes that she hoped conveyed her tiredness, for he sighed and gave his grip on her a light squeeze.

 

“A'right then, this way, lass.”

 

Inside his room, she leaned against the wall while watching Jamie light her a fire, bright as morning light. He then pulled from his drawers a clean woolen sark for her to wear but dared not meet her eye as he shyly placed it at the foot of the bed and pointed with his chin at the basin of water beside the window.

 

No, he was definitely not a wretch, she thought with some amusement.

 

Before he closed the door, Claire stopped him and very simply and gratefully said, “Thank you.” 

 

Jamie answered with a sweet crooked grin that crinkled his eyes and shrugged.

 

“Ye needn't thank me, Sassenach. Not ever. Now get yerself to bed.”

 

Then he wished her goodnight.

 

Alone now, she moved closer to the fire, shivering again, and felt a mad impulse to throw herself to the flames if only to keep her bones from clattering.

 

If only to keep herself from thinking about the rain.

 

Of where exactly she was and how far away she had been carried from where she'd lain. 

 

Feeling a whimper rise unbidden in her throat, Claire carefully pulled her ruined dress up over her head with a sharp intake of breath as her bare mottled flesh met the air. She took stock of her scrapes and bruises, nothing serious she could see. Though when she ran her fingers across her ribs, she found she could play a hollow tune that echoed the one carved in what was left of her heart.

 

Rubbing her hand across the tears fallen to her cheeks, she quickly dressed and burrowed into bed, tucking her dress beneath the pillow. Except for a sheer embroidered corner that she traced and traced until her eyes drooped.

 

Her last dimming thought hoped and prayed to have a dreamless night.

 

She hadn't of course. But it wasn't the nightmare that the rain always plagued her with. This one had been peaceful. 

 

Almost . . . loving. . .

 

Claire shook her head then left the bed to open the shutters, the light making her squint. She smoothed her hand over the foggy windowpane and saw it was still a miserable gale of wind and rain just as Jamie predicted, and weak as she was, she wouldn't have been able to withstand the weather either.

 

Stubborn man was right.

 

She would have gone on berating herself if it weren't for the sweet and eager whisper behind her.

 

"Claire?"

 

She turned around and was startled to find Willie at the door and gazing at her from a pair of sparkling dew drop eyes, caught between excitement and wonder, brimming with uncertainty.

 

"D'ye feel any better?" He loudly whispered, face frowned with concern as he looked her over. She blushed and tightened the neckline of her sark, a loose fit that threatened to slide off her shoulders and pool at her feet.

 

“I do, thanks to you, sweet lad,” said Claire in the same hushed tone as Willie (blushing at being called sweet) and sat back in bed, a blanket pulled around her. “But why must we whisper?”

 

Willie plopped down beside her on his knees. Hair unruly as the wind. Honey smudged on his chin.

 

"Da said no' tae bother ye, that ye'd come out when ye'd wake. So I came tae see if ye had and ye did, so I'm no' a bother. . . Am I?"

 

Claire couldn't help but smile, feeling a sudden bubble of laughter in her belly at his blather. “A bother you are not, just a surprise you were with such a tender foot even to my hearing."

 

Willie grinned, big and wide.

 

"That's what da says. He thinks I'd make a good hunter like him if only I'd quit being sae sweet tae our supper." 

 

And speaking of supper. . . "But there's nay worry for us feedin’ ye,” he assured. “There's food like I promised ye and I can bring ye as much as ye like, whatever ye like. Even if it's greens or the funny drink da likes."

 

Claire's mouth twitched, guessing what that "funny drink" was.

 

“You really are gallant as a knight, Willie, and a most thoughtful one too.” 

 

A second wave of heat crept to the tip of Willie's nose and ears as a bashful smile tugged at his mouth.

 

"Does that mean I have yer favor?"

 

Claire raised a teasing brow.

 

"What do you think I am, Sir Knight, a jinn?”

 

The wee lad shook his head with an awed expression on his face and told her exactly what he'd been imagining that made her fidget where she sat.

 

 

He thought her a faerie, maybe born in a flower's bloom.

 

Or was it a raindrop from heaven come down to earth?

 

Did she have wings like a flutterby hidden on her back? 

 

Or could she talk to the wee things that lived in the wood like frogs and squirrels and birds? And what of the big beasts, like the bears and wolves? 

 

 

Willie went on and on without sparing breath and would have carried on but another's voice interrupted the two curly tops.

 

"I seem to recall ordering a wee gomeral to leave our guest be or he'd be hung by his ankles down the privy hole where my razor currently resides."

 

At being reminded of the foul stenched threat due to his theft and clumsy fingers (He'd wanted his father's dirk but didn't think he'd miss the razor), Willie jolted to attention, facing his father standing at the doorway.

 

"Claire was awake, Da! I didna poke her or pinch her any. I just wanted tae see her and I have, and speak to her like I am. D’ye ken she maybe talks to birds?"

 

Jamie looked at his lad with the most baffled expression and could only nod along.

 

"Be that as it may, ye still dinna barge into a lasses room - for it's hers until it's not - especially when -" Jamie glanced at Claire , wrapped in the bedding, then quickly away. "did ye even think to let her dress, laddie?"

 

Willie looked to Claire then back at his father with a quizzical expression.

 

“But she is dressed, Da.”

 

Jamie rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed.

 

“A’right. Out wi’ ye.”

 

Willie groaned and hopped off the bed but not before telling Claire to hurry as he skipped out the room, leaving his father behind.

 

"Shouldn't you follow him? This lass isn't properly dressed." Claire gave Jamie a sharp look seeing his lingering stance.

 

"I shall,” he said, ears pinking like Willie's. “ Only - I have something for ye to help wi’ that."

 

It was then she noticed Jamie had something tucked under his arm, a bundle of fabric that he handed to her. She unraveled the folds and held out a simple shirt with sleeves that didn't reach her ankles, some knits and an arisaid that carried the comforting scent of woodsmoke and musk. 

 

"I did a quick stitch to that auld shirt of mine while ye slept. It might still fit ye troublesome but ye'll no' be swallowed by it. And though it's seen better days the arisaid will keep ye warm, better than yer dress, ripped as it is. "

 

She looked up at him with a touched expression as he stood shyly, hands in the pockets of his trousers.

 

"My modesty thanks you," she said earnestly. "I never could do much with a needle and thread. My hands are better suited to catching fish - and don't give me that look that begs to differ or I'll regret ever thanking you." 

 

Jamie couldn't help but chuckle and rubbed the back of his neck.

 

"Then I'm happy to have pleased ye so. And that ye’re looking fair better than the night had me believe,” he added, with a gentle touch to his voice.

 

Claire knew what he spoke of, how she may have been as good as dead without him, but instead passed a nervous hand through her curls shooting every which way and said -

 

“You're far too kind and maybe a little blind. I'm sure I look a great deal worse than you say.”

 

Then her belly protested that had his mouth turning upward and hers a thin line of warning.

 

"Och, I'll see to it that we fatten ye to rival any sow this side of the mountain." He winked absurdly like an owl and she would have loved to laugh if he hadn't vexed her.

 

"On any other day I would take insult to being compared to a pig but I find the idea at the moment to be more than appealing. But just this once."

 

Jamie grinned wide.

 

"I shall keep it in mind, Sassenach. Now I'll fetch ye some hot water so ye can fancy yerself up and just maybe Willie will have left something from his lunch for ye.”

 

That took her aback. “Is it not morning?”

 

He cocked his head to the window. “We're a few hours shy of evening, lass.”

 

After Jamie filled the bedside basin with hot steaming water and left, Claire cleaned herself up and dressed, the clothes caressing her in warmth that was so like her dreams. Making a sudden flush bloomed across her face , from hunger Claire was sure, and left the room to reluctantly meet the day.

 

//

 

Just as Claire had been promised, the Fraser men had a banquet waiting for her as if they had welcomed into their home a queen. 

 

There was steaming rabbit stew with turnips and onions, a big loaf of bread for dipping, fat oatcakes drizzled generously with honey (by Willie of course) and bits of this and that to fill her belly for days to come.

 

“You weren't joking about fattening me up were you?” Marveled Claire, as she was ushered wide-eyed into a chair by Willie, who plopped down beside her, raised on his knees.

 

“Ye’d be growing a wee tail too it were up to the laddie,” chuckled Jamie, as he poured Claire a glass of water from the tables pitcher. “He was asking me if I could find a bear for ye to eat.”

 

“A bear?” Claire repeated.

 

”Aye,” said Willie, who took it upon himself to load her plate with food. “But da said what we had would do ye jest fine but not 'cause he's scarrit 'cause da’s not scarrit of anything. Except mebbe a skunk, aye Da?”

 

Jamie tore a piece of bread in his hands, giving one half to Claire and the other to Willie who's cheeks puffed like a chipmunk with each happy bite.

 

“I'd rather tussle with a skunk and stink for a year than come face to face wi’ a bear,” he said, and pushed a plate of butter towards Claire, looking a wee bit intimidated at the mountain of food before her. “Now let's leave the lass be so she can eat in peace lest her bread go stale and her stew go cold .”

 

Willie swallowed the last bit of his bread and frowned, slumping onto his bottom.

 

“A’right,” he mumbled.

 

But Claire nudged his arm, offering him a smile.

 

" I don't mind the company. Better than hearing the rain pelt the roof."

 

Willie looked up at her with a great bright smile but Jamie shook his head. “Ye asked for it, Sassenach.”

 

That she did. 

 

In the days that followed where the days were dark as night, Willie's chatter was there to distract Claire from the gloom.

 

The first day, after she'd eaten, Willie had taken her hand (warm and slightly sticky) and proudly showed off every corner of the cabin to his guest in a way only a little boy would.

 

He showed off the black spot on the floor, scorched from a fallen candlestick, when he saw a rat above his head crawling along the rafters. He then pointed at the dented copper pot hanging above the hearth that his father threw at said rat and the other battered two beside it when one lone vermin became a brood. 

 

(Jamie had been stricken red, adamant that there were no rats to be seen in over a year and had given his son a gaelic hush.)

 

Then Willie brought Claire to the cupboard he wasn't allowed to touch that kept his fathers ale and whisky. But in a secretive whisper (and with revulsion contorting his face), he told her he had in fact sipped from one of the bottles and warned against her doing the very same. 

 

(She would another night with Jamie. . .)

 

Through the window as they watched the flashes of thunder, he tried to point out where their small garden was, the bitty hen house and shed for the two goats they had. 

 

“The goats I like but they nibble m’hair and their shit stinks worse than hell and -”

 

“Willie!”

 

“But ye said so yerself, Da!”

 

But most importantly, Willie showed her the pantry where their food was stored. His favorites were the dried apples and jars of jam and had picked the fruits himself.

 

“Weel, the strawberries and blueberries and the raspberries I did. I had tae wait for the apples tae fall and I made sure there weren't any worms in them this time,” Willie grinned, as he proudly shared with Claire a jar, who declared she'd never tasted anything so delightful. 

 

(While telling herself a worm wasn't the worst thing a person could eat)

 

And during all this she'd catch Jamie's eye. Kind-hearted always but glinting with questions as he watched her. That had her excusing herself, feigning tiredness, much to Willie's dismay.

 

The second day she had slept in again, her dreams untroubled once more. As always Willie was there to pounce on her the moment he saw her face to tell of the day he had planned for them over a breakfast that had been set aside for her.

 

But Claire couldn't help but notice who was missing.

 

"Where's your father?"

 

Willie, munching on one of Claire's bannocks she had given to him from her plate (filled to the brim again), mumbled from a full mouth that he was outside.

 

"In that!" Claire moved to the window trying to see through the blur.

 

"In the shed I think. There's always chores tae do but he said it's his job and mine's tae keep tae ye and for God's sake to keep out of the rain and the mud or he'd tan us both and -"

 

"Tan us both?" Claire looked over shoulder and quirked a brow.

 

Willie took a sip of goat's milk that left a milky streak above his lip. "Dinna fash. Da's never done so. He just likes tae say so 'cause he's scarrit for me and now you too." 

 

He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "Are ye done eatin'?"

 

With a hand at her full belly she gave him a nod, and Claire was dragged into his room with the excitement of a lad who'd been given a puppy to play with. He showed off his collections of rocks and brambles, jars filled with acorns and snail shells, bits and bobs of twine and fishhooks and picture books that had bird feathers and flowers and leaves pressed between the pages, and -

 

"Did your father carve these?"

 

Claire twirled a skillfully carved wooden fox between her fingers that she picked up from the windowsill. It was one among many woodland figurines that could fit in her palm, each one a breath away from life.

 

"Aye. For games and such and so I dinna bring home another critter like a she-coon again."

 

"Again?" Claire half chuckled, wondering how many animals the wee lad had sweet talked into his keeping and if she counted as one.

 

Willie nodded. "Da didn't like her. Said she'd pluck my eyes out with her wee claws but I told him she wouldna and had tae hide her in my room but then she crept intae da's room when I slept and tried tae eat his face - at least that's what he tells me but I think she just tried tae clean him cause da's got hair all over just like her kin."

 

Laughing now at the scene so bluntly described, and how Willie pulled his face into funny faces with his hands mimicking it all, Claire encouraged him to tell her more about these animal encounters (and how his poor father had apparently suffered from every single one).

 

During the tale of the blue backed lizard who'd escaped up his father's trouser leg, the rain had softened to a light drizzle but the wind had bellowed loud and a crack of wood splintered outside. Willie leapt to his feet off his wee bed and nearly made it through the front door before Claire pulled him back by the shoulders.

 

She didn't know anything really about the care of children but she was sure you didn't let one out with tree branches falling around. So Claire told him to stay put and without waiting for him to argue back had crossed the threshold outside.

 

It was cold. 

 

And without a coat her bones instantly began to clatter with each step she took that sunk into the mud. But she pushed forward with her arms braced around herself as she blinked away the misty rain from her dark lashes and hollered for Jamie. He was behind the cabin and lifting a very large and heavy looking branch off the side of the goat shed, the wee animals whinging inside at being disturbed, when he turned around hearing his name, eyes blaring wide.

 

"Are ye mad woman!" Yelled Jamie seeing Claire. He heaved the fallen branch as if it weighed nothing at all off onto the ground, and stomped towards her with mud splashing up to his knees.

 

Claire rather felt like running back inside remembering what Willie had said and could see that impulse burn in the icy blue of his eyes that froze her on the spot.

 

"Willie and I heard a noise and he was worried about you so I came to check to see if you were alright."

 

If he heard her he didn't acknowledge it. Just threw an arm over her shoulder and began to pull her back towards the cabin. She opened her mouth to protest when the wind slammed against her, right into Jamie's side. Sturdy as a mountain he didn't even sway, only held to her tighter, practically picking her up from the mud’s slick grasp.

 

Inside, Claire untangled herself from Jamie, shivering from the damp now seeping into her clothes. While he moved his gleaming gaze to Willie, who'd been watching the whole scene from the windowsill.

 

“You,” he said firmly. “I told ye to keep an eye on yer lass -”

 

“Excuse me?” exclaimed Claire, wiping a hand against her dewed face. “ I don't belong to anyone and I certainly don't need a child to look after me.”

 

"Ye damn well need someone to, Sassenach. Just look at how we found ye before ye did something irrevocable.”

 

Jamie regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, she looked as if he'd punched her in the gut.

 

“Say it,” she dared him, glaring viciously. “Before I did what. . .”

 

Jamie drew a long breath and raked a hand through this disheveled hair, looking downward, ashamed at himself, and listened as Claire walked away to his bedroom, locking the door he was sure.

 

"I'm sorry, Da. I ken ye told me tae look after her. I shoulda done better."

 

Jamie kneeled down in front of Willie and held a hand to his cheek.

 

“Hush, mo chridhe. Forget what I said. I was cross is all and took it out on ye like a bastard. Forgive me?”

 

Willie nodded, laughing a little at his father calling himself a bastard.

 

"Good. There's no one I trust more than you, ye ken that right?"

 

"Aye, Da," said Willie, and smiled sweetly when his father kissed his mop of curls.

 

"Ye should tell Claire too."

 

Jamie tightened his jaw, glancing to the side where she disappeared to. "I dinna ken much about women but I ken when to leave them be." 

 

"I dinna ken much either but I think Claire will like ye more if ye say ye're sorry for being a bastard mebbe on yer knees like in the books ye read me wi' mebbe some flowers too cause girls always like them ye say -"

 

"Willie," Jamie squeezed him softly by the shoulders. "Never call yer father a bastard to his face even when he is one."

 

"What should I call ye then?"

 

A Dhia, he thought.

 

"Just say I was in the wrong and leave it at that."

 

Willie shrugged. "A'right. But I still think Claire will like it more if ye say ye were what ye said."

 

Jamie let out a heavy sigh and was quiet for a moment before he spoke. "Aye, I think so too."

 

Nearing the dark hours, Jamie finally heard the click of the door open and jumped to his feet, meeting Claire at the doorway of the bedroom. Before she could speak or slam the door in his face he followed Willie's advice.

 

"I'm sorry, Sassenach," he began, earnestly. "What I said was unforgivable. It's just when I saw ye there pale as bone and shivering so it reminded me of how you were a heartbeat away from taking yer last breath when I held you in my arms looking the verra same. It frightened me in a way I haven't felt for a long time. To have the care of someone only to lose them. But it doesna give me the right to be a bastard to ye."

 

"No, it doesn't, '' she agreed, wondering about the losses in this man's life that left such a scar on him to make him overreact. But knew one must be of the unspoken wife and mother missing from this home. And she felt a lurching stab of kinship with him while wishing wholeheartedly she didn't. 

 

"But I am sorry for giving you such a fright. Twice over." 

 

 "Three," said Jamie, holding up three fingers. "Ye've given me three near heart attacks since I've met you. Starting with when I first laid eyes on ye. And ye ken well why, wee swordsman."

 

Claire laughed, hand to her chest, feeling it swell in a way she never felt.

 

"Then I forgive you if you forgive me."

 

His shoulders sagged with relief and smiled.

 

"Och, ye did it wrong, Da," said Willie, from the corner. "Ye were supposed tae get on one knee."

 

Claire's face went the color of her heart now bolting beneath her hand.

 

"On your knee for what?!"

 

By the third day, Willie had taken to Claire with such affection (and she, an undeniable fondness for him), he began speaking of springs and summers she would never see. Going as far as trying to teach her the different ways to mimic bird calls with his fingers fluttering like wings.

 

It was then Claire felt the need to remind him of her departure and how soon that would be.

 

They were seated by the hearth with Willie on his little stool and Claire at his knee. He'd been showing her his favorite book all about animals, with colors painted in lovely detail of creatures beautiful and strange. His chubby fingers had landed on the slicked skin of a seal, when she placed her hand over his atop the page.

 

"You know I'll have to leave when the storm passes Willie, don't you?"

 

He gripped the edges of the book that was larger than his lap, brow scrunched as he reluctantly nodded. "That's what da says, but he hopes ye stay longer."

 

"Your father said that to you?"

 

"No, I just ken so. He just wants ye safe and happy like me," 

 

"Why wouldn't I be?" Before she could catch herself, Claire reached a hand to brush a lock behind the boy's ear, where memory of a loving touch doing just the same to her whispered at the shell of her own. 

 

 "Cause you were hurt and lonesome when I found ye and I dinna ken why ye want tae be so when ye leave, " croaked Willie, eyes glossing over. 

 

A creak in the floor boards saved Claire from speaking a lie of a family waiting for her return, a home all her own. She looked up to see Jamie who nudged her shoulder with the back of his hand to kneel at Willie's hunched over form, where he spoke to his son soothing words that sounded of a gentle salve to more than one breaking heart.

 

That night, Jamie tried to cheer Claire up after putting Willie to bed (for once he did so without protest), by enticing her with a game of chess and a dram. She never played before nor had she ever taken a drink of spirits to her lips but she agreed wanting distraction.

 

Quickly though, Claire found she didn't care for the game.

Nor his cocky grin when he toppled her worthless rooks and knights, leaving her queen unguarded. Poor thing never had a chance to rule triumphant. Yet it kept her mind off the small lad and she found the taste of whiskey to be more than quite enjoyable.

 

Birdsong greeted Claire the next morning. 

 

And when she opened the shutters the soft glare of dawn was there to caress her face. But a smile did not touch her lips.

 

With a quiet step, she approached Jamie, already awake and staring out the opened door, tapping a rhythm against its frame. He looked over his shoulder, his cat-eye blues keenly taking in her solemn face, the hesitation to speak as her bottom lip was trapped between teeth. 

 

So he did so for her.

 

"Would ye care to walk wi' me, Sassenach? Tis a bonny day of sun we have for ourselves and yer wee shadow I see scowling behind ye." 

 

Claire followed his gaze to see Willie peeking from behind his bedroom door that quickly closed.

 

"And," Jamie spoke again, voice sounding softer.

 

"We must set ye on yer path wherever that is."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Beneath the great trees that sparkled with dew, weaved a golden, leaf strewn path Jamie and Claire trudged slowly down upon with Willie wedged between them. Not daring for a second to part from his lass’ side.

 

His attachment to Claire wasn't something that surprised his father. As the days passed he had seen the lad's affection grow and deepen despite his warning from the very beginning, that she would leave, bound for elsewhere.

 

Willie hadn't liked that at all and whimpered.

 

“Why can't ye make her stay, Da? Don't ye want her to?”

 

It was a question Jamie had no answer for and had been struggling with the issue since the first night Claire stumbled into their lives. Just the thought of her vanishing in the wilderness alone had been enough to keep him up at night, with the same image haunting him. Of her lying under a starless sky. Bloodied and breathless as snow fell upon her, burying her in white to be quietly forgotten.

 

Her fate weighed so heavily on his mind and heart that he even lashed out at her, when he saw her in the misty rain. A waif of a woman who could be carried off by the breeze at any moment. And though he begged forgiveness, and was somehow blessed with the grace of it, he still couldn't shake the fear of her leaving the safety of his keeping. 

 

It wasn't until the subject was broached again by Willie that Jamie decided to confront the woman over a game of chess and a nip of whiskey to ease her tongue of the questions he'd been dying to ask her. 

 

Offer all he could to help.

 

And this time, Jamie knew she wouldn't be able to hide in his bedroom or seek Willie's company to avoid him like she had done so before.

 

But the questions were never asked. 

 

The second she took a sip of whiskey, her lips lingering on the rim, he was captivated by how her cheeks bloomed in color that sweetened her face, the scrunch of her features lost in sharp sensation, the way her mouth finally smacked in approval.

 

And how she giggled to herself, sounding like the plucked strings of a harp, staring down into her cup looking mesmerized by the golden liquid.

 

Jamie didn't think he'd ever seen anyone so perfectly lovely in all his life.

 

"Is it supposed to taste like I swallowed an ember?"

 

Charmed at her delight, he chuckled along with her. "Aye, delicious isn't it?"

 

She nodded and went for a second heaping gulp and Jamie had to nearly crawl over the wee chess table between them to stop her before she drank the entirety of the cup. 

 

But her rosey cheek expression didn't last long once the game began. 

 

Barely fifteen minutes in, she was cornered on all sides of the board, muttering about how she was so much better at draughts and why they couldn't just play that as she twirled a rook in her hand, her eyes gleaming and aiming for the spot between his eyes.

 

Jamie quirked a ruddy brow. "First the poker and now the rook? And after I shared my drink wi' ye too."

 

Embarrassed at having her thoughts read, Claire dropped the piece to the board where it rolled off the table traveling underneath his chair.

 

"Yer aim's terrible, Sassenach," grinned Jamie, reaching a long arm below to retrieve the wooden piece.

 

"I'd watch what I'd say if I were you. I still have my knights, you know."

 

"That's the bishop."

 

She narrowed her eyes at him, incensed like a haughty feline, then reached over to his side of the board and flicked the top of his own bishop.

 

His shoulders shook with laughter as he handed her the fallen piece. She took it and couldn't help but smile too. Their fingertips brushing ever so slightly.

 

And that's when he heard it. A hum weaving through the air.

 

Jamie asked Claire if she heard it too. 

 

Her brow knitted together and she tipped her head to the side, listening for a sound. Then a smile so very dear unfurled at her mouth.

 

"How can a boy so small snore so loud?" 

 

It was then Jamie heard Willie loudly snoring away above the crackle of the fire and the wind bellowing like a wave over the house.

 

That hadn't been what he heard at all. But there was a certain sweetness to it if only because it put a smile on Claire's face. One he didn't have the heart to disturb.

 

So they played a little longer. . . And more pieces rolled off the board. Until they were rearranged into a game of draughts where Claire won every round while Jamie wondered about that strange, luminous sound unaware it was an awakening from deep within himself.

 

But now on their last day together, no more could he delay. 

 

//

 

Willie held a death grip on Claire.

 

He had one arm roped around hers in a vise while he gripped her hand with his other, pressing it against his chest where his heart flailed like broken wings beneath.

 

“Chin up Willie,” urged Claire, trying to muster a cheerful smile that didn't reach her eyes. “We have the morning to spend together don't we? Unless you mean for me to have conversation with the top of your head?" 

 

"Hmmpf," Willie grunted, rather deeply for his stature, and buried his face to the sleeve of Claire's big heavy coat (Gifted to her by Jamie, of course, after declaring hers being only fit for kindling).

 

She sighed and looked up at the branches overhead, dotted with plovers chatting away. "Maybe the birds will be more friendly to me. You did teach me their calls."

 

The boy remained silent but now squeezed her arm and dragged his step so that hers would slow too.

 

"Willie. . ." Claire softly chided, and looked helplessly over at Jamie.

 

He sighed and laid a gentle hand on his son's shoulder to hold him still and dropped down to his knee. 

 

"I ken ye're hurting, a bhalaich. There's nothing comparable to being parted from someone ye care for. But yon lass is right. The morn' will be lost if ye keep on as ye are."

 

Willie lifted his face, fuming red like a bull.

 

"Why should I care when ye and Claire dinna care at all!" He yelled, and ran off with tears in his eyes. 

 

Claire moved to follow him but Jamie stopped her with a hand on her arm.

 

"He'll be a'right, Sassenach. The lad's too taken with ye to let ye out of his sight." 

 

Sure enough she saw his little legs slow their pace to a copse of trees up ahead, angrily yanking fistfuls of leaves from the bushes and tossing them to the air. "It's best to leave him be till we have a talk, you and I."

 

Claire looked ready to bolt just as Willie had done.

 

"What is there to speak of other than my sincere gratitude for your kindness towards me and a farewell that should have been said at dawn."

 

Jamie's eyes were intent on hers. A decision made. 

 

"Are ye sure about parting ways, Sassenach? Because ye dinna have to. No' t’day or even in a week. Ye could stay with us. Have a home, for however long ye need." 

 

H O M E

 

The word alone was enough to make her eyes sting. But this wasn't her place. Would never be. . .

 

Claire vehemently shook her head, fretful fingers clutching the pewter buttons of her coat just under her chin.

 

"You're only saying this for Willie's sake, to spare him from heartache."

 

"Claire," said Jamie gravely. "I say it because I fear ye have nowhere to go, nor kin to call your own."

 

"What of it?" Her voice warbled, even as she tried to harden her words and gaze. Errant curls flying around her red, chilled cheeks. "I'm no one to you. No longer of your concern. And I free you from any obligation that I've burdened you with."

 

Jamie furrowed his brow, tight as his fist grappled at his chest.

 

"Tis more than an obligation I feel towards ye, a nighean. I held yer life in my arms, felt yer heart beat to mine. You are a soul known to me. And I canna bear the thought of ye alone in the forest, not after how I found ye . . .What coursed through yer veins -" 

 

"Marks a poor decision that will never be repeated," said Claire, averting her gaze to the trampled wet leaves beneath her footing, as her heart panged heavily with regret. But then she felt the lightest, caring touch of Jamie's hand caress her cheek, imparting a tender warmth that soothed the anxious breath that clouded between them . . .

 

And somehow the rapid beat of her heart that now thumped a melodic beat.

 

"S'alright, a nighean," Jamie gently murmured, head bowed close to hers. "Ye've not a thing to fear as long as I'm around." 

 

Claire's body suddenly went stiff as if bloodless remembering the same promise she'd been given as a child, and took a step back, leaving Jamie to look upon her with confusion.

 

"Not a thing you say? You're offering a stranger to live in your home for however long she dares to. One who is wretched. Been forced to twist her tongue to lie with a hand swift to thievery."

 

"Have ye stolen from me or lied to my face?" 

 

"Of course not," she bit out, then wondered why she hadn't lied. Why she didn't just turn on her heels and run.

 

"Then I beg ye to trust me as I have wi' ye, Sassenach. To care for ye as any friend would ." 

 

His gaze bore into hers, pleadingly, and Claire felt her resolve start to crumble. 

 

For how tempting it would be to not be alone, if only for a little while . . .

 

She then glanced from Jamie to Willie, fingers fidgeting in indecision . . 

 

Heart galloping with want and need of something more than memories to keep her warm

 

Then before she knew it, Claire rushed to the ring of aspen trees, with Jamie beaming behind her, where Willie sat on a stone stabbing the ground with a twig. 

 

It would only be later that Claire would regret having not fled back to the forest that day, back to wherever that crooked elder tree was. Past the bubbling brooks and sweeping cliffs, gone without a glance to those left behind. 

 

As her mother had long ago

 

And all her kind before

 

Chapter Text

Dawn had risen in delicate blooms of lavender and blushing heather across the waking sky, down to a pine drizzled cabin, quiet inside. Only stirring with the shuffle of Claire dressing for the day about her room.

 

Hers

 

To have

 

To keep

 

Where she could litter the floors with crumbs of bread, warm with honey, never to be stale. Dress without fear of a presence lurking, panting, leaping, as she dashed through trees, toppling over jutting stones, desperate for a brook, a stream.

 

Only to be seized by her hair in a fisting twist.

 

A ribbon lost. Rips of cloth, bruising skin.

 

A blade unseen tearing fatty flesh that had her fleeing, crossing waters rushing rapid, crawling beneath a tree.

 

To a home where Claire could sleep without worry, deeply, soundly, wrapped in a heat that seeped across her skin that always held a chill. Like now within the silence of the surrounding four walls, luring her mind to wander, blurring to a blue dipped memory.

 

She, young and shivering in her mother's arms where warmth slipped away with every slap of wind, as they laid in a ditch overgrown with weeds, far from home to a destination elsewhere. Her mothers breath at her cheek, voice losing shape from years gone and farther still, warning Claire of others who found themselves bound to men, so desirous of a woman's flesh to unsheathe them of their very soul for the secrets flickering behind their eyes. The silkiness of their skin.

 

“What of, Father? Did he steal yours away too, Mama?” A question hushed in broken breath, as Claire feared that her father was not the noble knight her mother had proclaimed him to be.

 

A beloved man whose hollowed heart held her endless tears and gasping prayers to breathe with life again. Those desperate pleas fell heavy as the dirt scattered around him as he laid in darkness amongst a sea of flowers, picked by her smudged little hands, to keep forever beautiful.

 

"Mama?" Claire persisted, squeezing her mother to speak despite the quiet flow of grief she felt dewing her crown of locks.

 

“Yes, he had but no more will he ever, my darling. Nor will you ever know the cruelty of any mans heart as I."

 

The vision dimmed, love warm whisked away to infinity by the sounds echoing in the air of a man anything but cruel. One Claire felt an intangible pull to trust despite her wary instinct that thought her a fool, whispering of the white petaled tree where the promise of all that she was still waited for her.

 

Calling for her.

 

But so did the tuneless whistle that stole a gentle sound from her, felt sharply in her cheeks dimpling in a smile. That same oddly beating thrum of her heart, the only call she cared to answer of a man who thought her friend.

 

And now she of him.

 


 

 

Woodsmoke lightly scented the air, drifting through a window left ajar as the newly kindled logs in the hearth caught a rising flame, heating the kettle to and fro along with Willie, drowsily draped across his father's chair, legs swung over the arms. While the lad had been eager to rise to quell his ever insatiable appetite, the lack thereof was enough to keep him stuck between the brim of wakefulness and the heavy pull of dreams.

 

No bother to Jamie though, as he rose with a sigh from his crouched position in front of the budding fire, arching his broad back to crack the bones knotted from another hard night spent on a pallet. That would have to be tended to and soon, he thought. But until then, Jamie rolled up his sleeves, baring the coppery brush of his arms, getting on with a breakfast of bannocks lest his son wither away to dust, belly first.

 

By the time Claire emerged from her room, Jamie was stickied white in oat dough from brawny wrist to blunt fingertips while crooning like a thrush, (without the harmony, but ever so the pitch) that could only delight the blessedly deaf. But from his lips the song vanished as his attention was drawn to her curls flowing wild in rebellion from their binding braid, framing a face softly nestled like a pearl, glowing in fondness seeing Willie's dozing form.

 

And then her eyes that could shame the very sun, a wonder that coaxed his sons imagination and in this moment Jamie's, of an otherness that enveloped her like a veil, a shield, now settled on him. The dusted hairs along his arms lifted, tingling to the back of his neck in what he reasoned was from a breeze slipping through the window.

 

But why was it warm as if sunkissed by spring?

 

An uneasiness struck through him, or rather a wave of something foolish stoking hot in his wame that had his hand hovering white and dangerously close to his cheeks to swipe away at the creeping heat. But he caught himself just as a smile curled at Claire's mouth in a prelude to a laugh that tempted him to be that very fool if only to hear the joyous sound.

 

Jamie wanted her happy always.

 

"Did Willie have a restless night?" Claire asked, dispelling Jamie's pondering, quietly in voice and touch that grazed Willie's hanging foot, tugging his wool sock dangling near off his toes to a snug fit.

 

Jamie shook his head in response as he wiped his hands on a strip of cloth. "Far from it, only the lad is no morning lark as he's had ye believe, what wi' him trying to charm ye these days past. I have to throw him over my shoulder half the time just to get him moving as I did t'day. And even then, as ye see."

 

Claire did see in a way that sputtered a giggle out from her belly, as even the spouting kettle only provoked a scrunch of Willie's dark brows in annoyance. Mindfully, she removed the steaming pot from it's hook where it gave a whimpering splurt, moving towards Jamie when he beckoned her near, upturning the bowl of dough with a heavy plop.

 

"Let's have ye earn yer keep, Sassenach, and maybe we can wake that wee lazy boy of mine."

 

Under lashes Claire gave Jamie a skeptical look, poking a finger to the mound. "I'm not afraid of hard work but I must admit I have a hand that lacks the skill to prepare anything remotely edible. They're better suited covered in dirt which is what you'll be salivating for if you have me as your cook."

 

"Were ye a miscreant as a child then? Forgoing yer chores to climb the tallest trees, perched like a curly wig bird without a care for falling and breaking bones, turning all who loved ye grey?" Jamie's wicked tease of a grin dwindled as Claire's paled to a thin line, dragging her hands to grip the powdery edge of the table leaving ghostly streaks. She didn't want to speak of a time that haunted her like a phantom, yet she didn't want to be a mystery to entice curiosity.

 

Chancing a glance when Jamie uttered his apology, she saw the disquiet darkening his blues, carving deep around the set of his jaw that regretted ever opening and Claire then reasoned that no secret of hers would unfold from sharing a childhood memory.

 

"I was skinned from palm to knee if you must know." Claire began, offering Jamie a sheepish smile that eased his marked concern. "Disobedience was a skill I mastered from the moment I could walk. Always leading me astray from home to anywhere that crawled with life different from my own."

 

And oh how she wandered and disobeyed with devilish glee before disillusionment tainted her in blood but Claire pushed that aside for the precious wonderment she once had.

 

"My dresses were miserably torn and stained, replaced with trousers that fared even worse, all because I would hide in the crooks of split trees and old fox holes just to see of I could brave the dark. I even carried my -" her breath hitched in momentary hesitance, only to carry on as she was unable to prevent buried memories from spilling free.

 

"I even carried my father's satchel in my explorations, stole it really. Filling it with every sprig of green I could possibly find, pressing them to his books with the roots still dangling between the pages, and father would always say I must've born under a cabbage leaf for how could he ever have such a troublesome daughter as I."

 

Claire hastily blinked away a glimmer that shaded her amber eyes when the sudden quiet built between them was bridged in light reply.

 

"My da reckoned me a changeling. A hellion most days." Jamie half laughed, taking the burden of memories on himself as he handed Claire a rolling pin, gesturing to the dough with a flick of his chin.

 

"I gave the poor mans heart holy hell with my recklessness, spending my youth wi' a band of lads riding on horseback raiding cattle, crossing swords - for fun mostly, mind ye, lass. No' even a whisker bristled my chin." Jamie rubbed his now full mass of hairs, leaving streaks of flour amongst the golden copper that had Claire bearing a smile bright.

 

"Most often though, it was for opening my mouth when I should'ha kept it closed. Always questioning and pestering, challenging every word from his mouth, whether it an order or simple conversation over the weather. I have a knack for that, as ye know, Sassenach."

 

"Me standing here and not knee high in the forest underbrush is testament to your persuasive skills."

 

"I'm starting to think my offer of shelter had more to do wi' the promise of a decent meal." Jamie squinted his eyes to a catlike slant of judgement, clicking his tongue at Claire. "Ye're punishing that puir bread like it's insulted yer virtue."

 

"Regale me on how exactly your father handled that gaping mouth of yours." Claire huffed even as a grin peeked from seeing Jamie drag a finger down the bridge of his nose leaving another stripe.

 

"By grabbing me by the scruff, damned exhausted he would be too, and have my mam deal wi' me. She could make a grown man piss himself wi' just a look, so ye can only imagine what it felt like as a snot nosed bairn, squirming and hoping I didna wet her floors."

 

Jamie shifted in his step, creaking the wood underfoot at just the very thought which begged the question…

 

"What did she have you do then if not dirtying her floors?"

 

Leaning on the table he eyed Claire in consideration or rather her slender, mussied hands, having resorted to palming needlessly at her handiwork to make a perfect circle. "If ye manage to no' burn the bannocks, I'll tell ye, Sassenach."

 

They dipped their heads towards one another then to the mess that was Claire's attempt at domesticity. She arched her brow in question at the misshapen circle between them with Jamie giving it a satisfactory nod.

 

"My mam would appreciate the effort. The proof is in the taste she'd say." He gave the rolled out dough a light pat before sectioning it off to a cast iron pan to set over the fire, with one piece clearly larger than the rest. "And no doubt reward ye wi' this piece here, big as my fist to be slathered in molasses or jam, always in butter and a fat slice of he ham. Too bad yer drooling devoted will nip yer fingers if ye try for it."

 

Claire cast a glance to Willie as she made her way to the hearth with the readied bannocks, where he was now bare footed, wool socks kicked to the floor.

 

"He isn't much trouble at all is he?"

 

"None so much considering I'm the one who sired him, but he'll grey me soon enough I reckon. Turned my father's by the time I was his age, or so my godfather has told me."

 

"Is he the one who could pipe smoke through his nose and spit farther then he could piss?" Willie had painted a rather colorful image to Claire of a man seldom seen yet left a lasting impression of awe.

 

"Aye, a charmer Murtagh is to any young lad or lass who cares to live the life of a scoundrel. He has the keeping of my parents land, my birthright since they've passed." Like yours, he would have said but he wasn't willing to upset her as even just the mention of loss shook her to a flinch and that wouldn't do.

 

"Tis no' much," Jamie continued, as Claire fixed her attention to poking the logs. "Only a stone walled home bigger, larger though than this patch of wood, wi' fields to farm but I hope to travel wi' Willie when he's older or the very least big enough to mount a horse himself."

 

"So until Willie sprouts like a weed you're stuck living in a lonely place?"

 

"The living here may be harsher with only a small village days away from here, but when I stumbled to these mountains it took my mind off my troubles - for a time at least." He shrugged dismissively, more to himself to rid the image of another woman. “Now it's just Willie and I under this roof, with you, our fairy lass, who ought to keep her eye on - Sassenach! Ye dinna fan the - Daingead!"

 

 


 

 

It was the thick acrid smell of bread blackening to a crispy brick that finally stirred Willie to wake, nose pinched and teary eyed, then quickly bolting upright to Claire's howling curseswith his father hissing right along while hurrying out the door, smoking iron pan in his towel wrapped hand.

 

"Was that breakfast?" Willie questioned, swatting at the smoke and his own cloud of disheveled curls, only to be answered with a cough.

 

Still blanketed in a thinning grey the threesome took to their morning meal made solely by his father's hand, that had Claire stained the shining pink of failure, yet sitting defiantly straight, daring the man in front of her to babble a remark.

 

He did of course, head tilted with a mouth full of mocking buttery delight .

 

And despite her glaring demeanor, she laughed full hearted and in such a way that illuminated his father's being, flaring indistinct in a gaze unabashed towards Claire.

 

Because of her.

 

It was then a seed planted in Willie's mind rooting deeply inside his heart. Thriving. Shooting to his thumping fingertips on how to make a moment of happiness flourish past days and weeks. Long through the winter, far beyond the summer.

 

Where he might gain a mother of his very own.

 

To have

 

To keep

 

Always