Scalpel & Needle (Christmas Special)
Ficlet – Nutmeg
Christmas is not only a celebration of birth. It’s a celebration of the ones around the manger in Bethlehem – a woman evicted of her own body for another’s salvation, a man who loved enough to believe, three dreamers with a kingdom who dared to look at the sky and see a star shining with promise. We gather around a table, a fireplace, an emotion, trying to replicate that feeling of divine touch, of finding true meaning in each other. In the family we become, either by love or will.
The house smelt of slightly charred gingerbread cookies, spilled spices on the counter and fragrant spruce. Christmas on a can, add only water and the season’s merriment.
Claire’s forehead creased in concentration, as she placed the finishing touches on a series of packages. Red ribbon circled her neck, like a stressed seamstress on a deadline with her measuring tape, and artistic twigs and leaves peeked under snow-white paper and small decorating pinecones.
When the ominous sound of a key turning the lock of the front door echoed down the hallway, the female surgeon froze. Then, as Jamie’s joyful whistling reached her ears, she desperately fumbled with the piece of paper in her hands, trying to casually hide it under her elbow.
“Hello there.” Jamie entered the living room and grinned at her, already unbuttoning the top of his formal grey dress shirt. The blue of his eyes was waveless, a sea with no clouds on the horizon. Sometimes the comfortable and casual way in which he moved around their house still took her breath away. “Ye look frazzled, mo ghraidh. What are ye up to?”
“Just tired, Fraser. Christmas preparations are hard work.” Claire shrugged nonchalantly, slightly smacking her lips in demand for a kiss. He smiled widely and leaned over to take her breath away, meticulously, like a man with a plan. She hummed against his slightly frosted lips, cold and chapped from Edinburgh’s ruthless winter, and caressed his nape with her fingertips, deepening the kiss. As soon as their mouths were satisfied, Jamie held her palm and kissed her knuckle next to her silver band, as he always did when they were apart for a time. A silent renewal. I will always kiss you again. “I missed you. How was the conference?”
“Long. Tiresome.” He grimaced, tracing her cheekbone with his thumb, making sure of her every bone. “Too many surgeons in one place, if ye ask me.” He complained in a grumpy voice, and Claire snorted in amusement. “I still canna believe that you put me up to it in representation of the Royal Infirmary. What exactly are the perks of being married to the Chief?”
“Me, looking oh so sexy upon your arrival.” Claire raised a brow, pointing to her messy bun and chemise featuring a group of goofy reindeers. “Did our residents enjoy London?”
“Rachel was ill for most of it, poor lass.” The surgeon shook his head, his long fingers playing with the ribbon around her neck, the corner of his mouth twitching. “I suggested that we came back home earlier, but Malva insisted that we stayed for the whole thing. Wouldna take no for an answer.”
“I’m sorry I imposed my resident on you.” The female surgeon said mournfully, nervously fidgeting with scraps of wrapping paper. “I hope she wasn’t too much trouble. I know she can be a tad too eager, but Malva wouldn’t stop speaking about that robotic-assisted laparoscopy workshop.”
“How will you ever be able to repay me, I wonder?” Jamie’s eyes levelled with hers, shining with mischief and a hint of all-consuming desire. “Is there a wee gift for me somewhere in here, Beauchamp? Ye look like ye’re sitting on top of a time bomb. Compromised as fuck, aye?”
“Language.” Claire playfully swatted him on his chiselled thigh, while stealthily moving an inch to lean further over the decorated paper under her arm. “I was just finishing these parcels to send over to some friends. A few homemade hand lotions and soaps, nothing more.”
Jamie raised a brow and opened his mouth to add something, when a loud stramash – sounding remarkably like a hoarse air raid siren – boomed on the hallway. As the couple stared perplexed, a shot constituted by fluffy grey fur scampered furiously against the Christmas tree in the corner, making it swing and then collapse with a roar capable of making their ears ring. Coloured balls, glittered trinkets and assorted baubles scattered around the floor, forming true constellations of disaster, as the illuminations weakly flickered one last time before they finally died.
From the wreckage of Christmas spirit, Adso wagged and meowed in what could only pass for a half-hearted apology.
“I think it’s your turn to be the bad parent.” Claire sighed tiredly – although her lips curved on a smile - and thumped Jamie on the chest. “Thank God, Sassenach isn’t a savage like our eldest.”
The second feline inhabitant of their household had been inherited by Jamie a couple of months before, after the sudden death of one of his elderly and overbearing patients. Not having anyone else she trusted as much as the redheaded surgeon, and feeling that her breast cancer might be getting ahead of her pig-headedness, Mrs. Baird had left very thorough instructions – written by her own Parkinson-ridden but adamant hand – that her most prized possession was to find a new home with her dearest doctor. Jamie, willing to care for his patients even in the afterlife, couldn’t manage to deny her.
While Adso was unapologetically of the stray variety - in spite of his regal aspirations - and on the slightly overweighed side, Sassenach was posh, prim and elegant. Her long fur was the soft golden colour of diluted turmeric and her eyes the shade of smoke from a witch’s cauldron. Two cats more different in upbringing and stance couldn’t possibly be found – and yet, since the day the newly-arrived had crossed the Fraser’s threshold, the couple of felines had become inseparable. Either playing with balls of yarn in a contest that invariably ended with heated bites and outraged meows, running senselessly after each other on the hall or sleeping nestled together by the fireplace, they were as close and in sync as two cardiac valves.
“Ach.” Jamie grumbled, brushing his forehead. With the prowess of a soldier making his away across an ornamental landmine, the male surgeon reached Adso and fished him from underneath the fallen tree. “Come here. Ye’ll get yerself hurt, mindless cheetie.”
“Take the homewreckers to the study while I clean this up.” Claire suggested, glaring in admonition at Sassenach who was peeking from under the table. She went to the small pantry by the kitchen to retrieve the large broom, quietly cursing against curious cats and unstable trees, and when she returned to the living room her heart fell hard and whole at her feet.
Jamie stood, with an embarrassed Adso nestled on his arms, staring at the incriminating gift that she had been trying to hide.
“Jamie.” Claire babbled, noticing with alarm the dark shade of pink appearing on his ears. With an inhumane whimper, Adso escaped Jamie’s arms and ran towards the kitchen, promptly followed by the youngest cat. Cowards.
“Why is this addressed to Jenny?” His eyes had darkened considerably, as if she had summoned all the storms within, piercing through her. Jamie’s fingers rubbed the paper, seemingly willing the ink to disappear under his touch. “Why are ye writing to my sister, Claire?”
While she had been Beauchamp from the first, and Needle in their most tender and uncovered moments, Claire was the name he usually uttered as her lover. It was the grace bestowed after yearning, heartbreak and recommencement. To hear it enclosed in such sharpness made her chest ache.
“I’m sending her a Christmas card.” She breathed deeply, determined to remain calm. “And I made her a nice ointment for chilblains – you told me how she used to suffer from them as a child, during winter in the Highlands. Thought I’d make a nice package to go with it.”
“Why would ye do that?” He tilted his head, studying her intently. His firm mouth was pressed into a livid line. “Ye ken we are at odds and haven’t spoken in years!”
“Well, maybe that’s why.” Claire uttered softly and crossed her arms, facing him squarely. “I know the pain this causes you, Jamie. I know you miss her. If the two of you are too stubborn and proud to take the first step – well, I’m bloody not. I can help you reaching out to what remains of your family.”
“Ye shouldna meddle in things ye dinna understand!” Jamie said harshly, the crimson on his face deepening. He looked like thunder in the summer, heavy with the promise of fire and smoke, of green grass turned to ash. “It’s not yer business to fix this, Claire.”
“Oh, because I was good enough to say your peace if you were dead, but I’m not allowed to help you while you’re alive?” The female surgeon opened her arms in frustration, irritation building up like a large and clogging wall on the back of her throat. “Am I supposed to wait until you make me a widow to send that fucking letter?” She laughed humourlessly. “What can you say to her, dead, that you can’t find it in you to say, living?”
“And ye thought ye could just decide for me, aye?” Jamie clenched his jaw, placing the package back on the table with a loud thump.
“I wrote it under my own name. I didn’t exactly pretend to be you.” Claire’s shoulders slumped. She felt chilled, beyond skin, bone, blood, into the infinitesimal cells in her body. “I thought that – I thought that if I made the connection, in time it would help healing your relationship.” She took a tentative step towards him, whose body looked closed off. Detached. “Have you not promised me all of your scars? And have I not promised you a place to bare your soul?”
Claire searched his eyes, trying to hold on to the luminous end of the phantom thread that always connected them. But Jamie’s eyes escaped her.
“Fine.” The female surgeon said in a small, almost inaudible voice. “It’s your choice. I’ll go to bed now – I’m tired.”
Leaving a silent Jamie standing alone, Claire padded to their bedroom. She didn’t bother to lay down inside the coverlets; instead, she covered herself with a warm sherpa throw in a quilted pattern, that smelled uncannily like Jamie. They had made love – patient, time-bending, memorable - beside the fireplace, before he left for the conference, and afterwards they had nestled underneath it. He had told her something in gaidhlig and, in spite of not understand it, she had believed it. As she always did.
The sky over the skylight was leaden and everything felt cold as metal. For weeks there had been the promise of snow, but the expert meteorologists on the telly had failed repeatedly, to the point where it became a national joke. Ten pounds on not snowing until Hogmanay.
Her eyes wandered to the other side of the room, as they always did just before she fell asleep when Jamie wasn’t beside her.
Across the wall opposing their bed, secured by small wooden clothespins hanging from a transparent nylon thread, was a collection of photos. Moments in time between Jamie and Claire, captured by eager hands and eyes that whispered come and look. They were Jamie’s idea of a dreamcatcher.
While mostly light coursed through the cracks in who Jamie had been before he was shattered in Syria, there were still nights when he wasn’t able to sleep – in spite of the skylight and Claire’s unwavering arms around him. Usually those came after a night when nightmares flourished out of the field of his memory, firecrackers loud enough to deafen him. He would spend the night awake, following the moon’s ever-changing position, his open hand against Claire’s drumming heart. Her life, her blood, the only thing that soothed him.
In an effort to further ground himself, images had started to appear against the stark white paint, postcards to happiness with no sender. The first photo, on the left extremity, showed Jamie as he had been in their distant getaway in Portree, ghosts of salient bone kissing his skin, the clouds around the harbour all over his eyes. Back, when he was a man in between. The next image had been taken by Geillis and showed them with their backs turned to the camera, walking together down a hallway, their blue scrubs loose and fingertips mindlessly touching. Their joined hands, the day after their handfasting, as if the suture was still there between them, lasting a lifetime. A couple of Jamie’s drawings from his therapy sessions – the figure of a man, sitting alone in a road surrounded by ruins; then its twin, the woman who appeared to sit next to him, the hint of reconstruction, edification, creation around them. A weekend in London, smiling to the camera together in Camden. Sunburned, inebriated and bursting with happiness under a Croatian sunset. A dozen of polaroids of a life so hardly won, conquered, every day cherished.
Claire felt the sudden weight on the mattress, the slight shift in pressure that indicated Jamie’s presence next to her. She bit the inside of her cheek, the words she wanted to yell, hiss and argument bursting through her gum, completing the cycle back into her bloodstream yet again.
“Christmas night, another fight,” Jamie softly chanted, his hot breath against the back of her neck. He didn’t touch her – he never touched her without her consent when she was cross with him. “Tears we cried a flood.”
“Oh my god!” The female surgeon snorted, pressing her forehead against her pillow with her eyes closed. “You are such a ridiculous human. And it’s not even Christmas night yet.”
“Oh when you're still waiting for the snow to fall,” He committedly went on, his voice strained both from the high notes and a generous dose of mirth. “Doesn't really feel like Christmas at all.”
“Is this your idea of an apology?” Claire looked over her shoulder and quirked her brow, watching her husband’s remorseful glare. “Torturing me into forgiveness?”
“Aye.” He nodded and relaxed bellow her palm when she touched his face, going almost slack with relief. “Is it working?”
“It depends. Will you sing me tuneless Christmas’ songs every year?” Claire traced his bottom lip, her nail grazing with just a hint of increased pressure. His only punishment. “Please say that you will.”
“No one will have my Christmas’ songs but ye, Needle.” He promised softly, his voice slightly husky, nuzzling her curly hair fragrant with lemon and rosemary. “I am sorry. I shouldna have lashed out at ye when I ken fine well ye were only trying to help.”
“Well, I wasn’t entirely in the right either.” She kissed the hollow of his throat, marvelling in the intensity of his scent there. Ripe, honest, comforting. “I shouldn’t have tried to go around your back. I should have talked openly with you first.” Her mouth sealed around his and she gently pulled his body against hers.
“Hmmm.” Jamie hummed contentedly against her lips, as Claire punished him with a scorching kiss. “Ye taste like fine rum. And nutmeg. Ye are verra delicious.”
“I was drinking eggnog and was too annoyed to remember brushing my teeth.” She bumped his nose and offered him a little peck on the corner of his swollen and shiny lips. “Not exactly a Scottish tradition but I used to have it with Lamb at this time of the year. I like to remember him by drinking it.”
“We – the Frasers – used to have traditions too.” He said in a low voice, no more than a confession against her skin. Jamie’s left hand, the wrist branded with a one-year old tattoo made out of love and fortitude, sought her right hand and entwined their fingers. On Claire’s own wrist the word “Needle” was still tender and new, the ink yet to fade and join the very particles of her flesh. “I never managed to carry on with those gestures – without them.”
“Will you allow me to send Jenny the present?” Claire asked, gently caressing his shoulder blades and the valley between them where the road of his spine travelled. “Because you belong with me, James Fraser. With me. Not swallowed by regret some day, when there’s no time remaining to reconcile.”
“My army of one.” Jamie whispered reverently, his forehead leaning against her chest, just above her heart. “My sister and I said some pretty terrible things to each other. I’m afraid she won’t forgive me – if I was deid it wouldna make a difference, but now I’ll know. I’ll hurt.”
“Yes. And you will go on living, knowing that you tried.” She combed the thick auburn hair behind his ears. He turned his head, their eyes locking, and Claire knew he would trust her to carry his heart anywhere, even beyond the limits of his body. “You are the bravest man I’ve ever known. In this you will be too.”
Jamie grabbed his phone, patiently awaiting on the nightstand. “Will ye stay with me, Claire?”
“All my life.” Claire assured him, her voice unhinged. She leaned her face against his shoulder as he dialled the number, never forgotten, like a numeric sequence that would open a passage to the path back home. Their wrists pressed together, blood calling to blood, a shared cadence that made sense of everything. Her spare hand searched for his heart, silently promising she would keep it beating, even when he wished it not to.
“Aye?” A woman’s voice with a strong Scottish lilt sounded on the other side of the line. Claire felt Jamie’s shallow breathing and pressed herself harder against him. “Hello? Is that ye, Fergus? Is the damn phone no’ workin’ properly again?”
“It isna Fergus.” He said softly, his voice strong and clear in spite of his fear. “It’s me – Jamie.”
And Claire watched as perfectly crystalized snowflakes finally started to fall all over Edinburgh, drifting down the skylight, until everything was made pure and silver-gilt.