I am not, as a general rule, particularly fond of surprises. As a woman who greatly values her autonomy, I am none too keen to surrender control of my person, my environment, or my senses without strong provocation.
Knowing this about me, Jamie took great pains to catch me unawares this morning.
He came up behind me in the kitchen while I was grinding herbs, supplicant and worshipful as a sinner before the cross.
“Madainn mhath, mo chridhe,” he whispered, giving my earlobe a delicate nip before his mouth dragged open along the curve of my neck. His fingertips began to tease the thin cotton of my blouse, tracing feather-light circles until I shivered, my nipples pebbling in his hands. I tilted my head back to him with a breathless sigh of pleasure, melting into the wall of solid muscle behind me. I started to whisper something beguiling to him in return, but whatever endearment had been budding on my lips, it warped into a high-pitched yelp when – without warning – Jamie’s wandering hands suddenly clamped tight over my eyes, his fingers interlaced to form a makeshift blindfold.
No amount of protesting, threatening, squealing, thrashing, or kicking at his shins had been able to dislodge him, either.
“I have a surprise for ye,” is all he would tell me, a beaming smile pressed to the back of my neck. Then the ruddy bastard marched me forward, across the cabin, out the door, and into the woods beyond.
I’ve lost all sense of direction since then. I can’t see a damn thing, not even shades of light that might give some indication as to the sun’s position. It’s all I can do to clutch desperately to his wrists for balance, giggling and cursing in spurts as he guides me over the sloping, leaf-strewn terrain.
“How much further?” I ask for the third time in as many minutes.
“Just a few more steps.”
“You said that twenty paces ago!”
He laughs, but doesn’t deny it. “Steady, Sassenach. Almost there, now.”
“Listen. If this is about the burnt stew, there are easier ways of exacting revenge than to – aack! What was that?!”
“Only a tree root. Watch yer step through here.”
“Pick up yer feet, ye wee goose, and there’ll be nae problem!”
“Jamie, this is ridiculous! Where on earth are you t–”
“Here. Stop.” His grip tightens on my head, effectively halting me in my tracks. “Now, put your hand out straight ahead of ye.”
I hesitate, feeling irrationally afraid of whatever it is he wants me to reach out and touch. The fingers of my right hand stretch and recoil several times before finally landing upon something solid. It isn’t moving, whatever it is; I find that to be slightly reassuring. Still with some reluctance, I pat the surface and find it to be flat and rough and grainy – a plank of wood, maybe? Groping blindly down the area in question, my hand catches on a piece of curved metal. Definitely a handle of some sort.
“Um, alright. It’s… it’s a door?”
I can hear the smile in his voice. “Aye. Open it, then.”
“Oh, God. Is something going to jump out at me?” The irrational terror strikes again; apparently this is a side effect of sudden blindness, coupled with total reliance upon one’s devilishly gleeful husband/captor. I wriggle back against him, letting out a squeal. “Jamie!”
He rubs his grinning stubbled face into my neck, which only elicits more writhing and squealing. “Och, would I do that to you?”
“Well I would have said no, but I didn’t think you’d blindfold me and march me out into the woods either, so…”
“Just open it!” He laughs. “Nothing will harm ye.”
Still tittering nervously, I push once, meet resistance, and try pulling instead. The door swings outward on a squeaking hinge, and I feel Jamie lift a foot to catch and hold it for me.
“Alright, then, Sassenach. Ready for your surprise?”
“I’m not sure,” I answer honestly, but I’m grinning anyway. “Am I?”
“Aye, y’are.” He plants a kiss on the back of my head, and finally lets his hands drop away from my eyes. The sudden onslaught of light is blinding, and I squint and blink furiously to try to clear my vision.
But even when I do, I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing.
I haven’t the faintest idea how he’s managed it – or when; he’s been working from dawn to dusk with the harvest! – but we are standing in the doorway of a small, sturdy cedarwood shed that I’m fairly certain did not exist yesterday. Feeling wildly disoriented, I spin my head about, trying to get my bearings. We are several yards behind the cabin, somewhere between the smokehouse and the river. I’m not delusional; there was nothing here before! Nothing but old wooden posts…
… that Jamie placed here a year ago, to mark the spot where he promised me a “wee shed” for my herbs and physician’s knives and such.
I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten all about it. We barely managed to finish our cabin, the livestock enclosures and the smokehouse before winter struck, and then we were so preoccupied with the minor matter of survival that I hadn’t ever...
He smiles against my shoulder, and presses a kiss there. “Happy birthday, Sassenach.”
If I wasn’t shocked into silence already, that would have done it. My mind works frantically, counting... Tuesday, Wednesday, Thurs… yes. God, he’s right. Thursday October the 20th, 1768. I turn to look up at him incredulously, mouth hanging slightly open. He’s smiling down at me, blue eyes warm and twinkling.
“Have a look,” he suggests, giving my waist a little nudge. “I brought a few of your wee herbs and supplies out already. Hope you dinna mind.”
Mind? I think, but I’m not sure if the word actually makes it out of my gaping mouth. With slow, faltering steps, I step into my new shed, trying to take in everything at once.
A broad wooden beam stretches across the back wall at waist-level, forming a basic counter and workspace. Above that are three built-in cabinets, each containing ten rows of tiered shelving, spaced such that the labels on each jar or bottle can be easily read at a glance. He’s organized my collection of herbs, tonics and salves alphabetically from left to right, top to bottom, exactly as I would have done. A few of my more recent acquisitions have been taken from the mantle in the cabin and strung up to dry in the window (a window, he’s even made me a window overlooking the river!). A sturdy three-legged stool is tucked neatly beneath the counter, and a matching one sits in the corner by the door. A deerskin cot takes up the entire length of the wall to the right, a fine woolen blanket folded up at its foot.
“I wasna sure exactly how you’d want things arranged, so feel free to move anything around if it isn–”
“How?” I stammer, wheeling back to face him. It’s about the only word I can come up with at the moment.
Jamie shrugs modestly. “I built it. Young Ian helped.”
I shake my head in disbelief. “I gathered that. But when did you—? I ju – I had no idea you were—” I sound like a bloody skipping record, so I shut my mouth for a moment before trying again. “It’s just that you’ve taken me completely by surprise, is all!”
“Well, that was the idea, Sassenach.” Jamie smiles tenuously, his hands wringing the fabric of his trouser legs. The nervous anticipation on his face makes him suddenly look much younger than he is. “Do… do ye like it, then?”
“Like it?” I say breathlessly, still spinning on the spot, trying to take it all in. “Jamie, I can’t even begin to… I’m speechless!” I zero in on him, then, realizing that I haven’t actually answered his question. Grinning from ear to ear, I cross the three steps back to him and take his face in my hands. “Yes! God, it’s – it’s wonderful, Jamie. You’re wonderful.” I let out a gust of incredulous laughter, pressing my forehead to his. “I just can’t believe you managed to–”
His mouth is on mine, then, and I open to him with a moan of relief. This is a better idea anyway; much less chance of me making a rambling fool of myself, still plenty of opportunity to thank him properly for his efforts. I press him backwards into the wall, and he grunts as I crush my full weight against him, kissing him hungrily. It’s been a full two weeks since we’ve done this, I realize, suddenly conscious of just how badly I want him. When Jamie opens his mouth to gasp for air I press my advantage, slipping my tongue forward to thrust against his in a blatant imitation of what I need from him. With a strangled moan he surges back against me, his own tongue hot and urgent, while his hands fumble down to my skirts, rucking them up at the hip. He takes a rounded buttock in each palm and grips hard, pulling me flush against him so that I can feel exactly what I’m doing to him. I grin, making an animalistic noise of hunger as I take his lower lip in my teeth. Reaching behind me, I grab one of his hands and slide it down to part the slick folds further below.
“A Dhia,” Jamie pants, his breath shaking. “You’re wet.”
He isn’t wrong, and saying so isn’t helping matters any. I press my hand hard against his, urging him on, and Jamie smirks against my mouth. He slides a fingertip into me, then, just far enough to tease. A small noise of distress catches in my throat, and I grind shamelessly against him, seeking more.
“Jamie,” I whimper, and he pulls me up, bracing my weight so that I can wrap my legs around his waist. His lips crush against mine as he carries me to the middle of the shed. We break apart briefly, panting, as he looks around, considering our limited options: against the wall? The floor? The cot, maybe? That’s an inviting possibility, and both of us eye it appraisingly, guessing at its strength. It would hold either of us individually, to be sure, but the combined twenty-four stone of us, pounding frantically…
Our eyes meet in the split second before our mouths do, coming to the same conclusion: the counter will do.
Jamie shifts my weight into one strong arm, and uses the other to push my skirts back up again before he sets me down on the wooden beam. I spread my legs for him and take a single scoot back.
I realize my error immediately, eyes flying wide.
I arch off the counter with a piercing shriek as my backside sears with lancing, flesh-ripping pain. “SCHZZZ— OW! Owowowow! ” My feet hit the floor and I double over, grasping Jamie’s thighs to hold me up as I curse and hiss through my teeth. “Jesus H. ROOSEVELT—!”
Above me, Jamie is frantic. “Claire? Are ye alright? Claire! What’s happened? Did I hurt ye?!” His hands hover over me, desperately trying and failing to locate the source of my pain.
“Bloody fucking son of a—”
“I’m so sorry!”
“Not YOU!” I growl, and then my gasps of pain dissolve into sputtering fits of giggles. I lean forward, burying my head in Jamie’s thigh, my whole body convulsing. He’s gone stone-still, and it occurs to me that he must think I’m crying. I can’t bloody breathe I’m laughing so hard; I don’t have the ability to correct his misconceptions at the moment. In fact, tears have begun to stream down my cheeks, and my lungs are bursting for want of oxygen, and I think I might actually die, here and now.
At last, my husband begins to catch on. “Are you… laughing?” I nod helplessly against his thigh, shrieking for air, and Jamie lets out a choked sound of relief. His hands bury themselves in my hair, holding me steady, and after a moment he laughs, too. “Christ, lass, ye scairt me half to death! What the devil’s the matter with you, to make ye carry on like that?”
“I… my…” I wheeze, burst into another fit of giggles, make a hum of restraint, and try again. “Oh, help. It’s my… it’s my arse!”
Jamie can’t help but shake with laughter too, watching me incredulously. “What about it?”
“Oh God, I think it’s splintered to Hell.” I grasp at his arms and try to right myself, giggling and wincing in turns. “Damn you, Jamie Fraser, stop laughing at me!”
That only makes him laugh harder. Ignoring my attempts to raise myself upright, he steps around me and lifts up my skirts to inspect the injury. His warm fingers skim lightly around the stinging areas, and I suck in a sharp breath through my teeth.
“Ifrinn! You werena wrong, Sassenach. At least five splinters, by my count. Big ones, too.”
“Well take them out!”
He makes to pinch a splinter between his nails, and I screech, “Not with your fingers! Did you bring my surgical tools out here? I have needle-nosed tweezers in my pack.”
While he gets up to rummage in the cabinets, I take a deep breath and try to sober myself by figuring out how many years it’s been since my last tetanus shot. They’re good for ten years, and I’m fairly certain both Bree and I got our boosters in her freshman year of high school, so I should still be all right…
Jamie drops to his haunches beside me, triumphantly holding up the little black roll of surgical tools. I motion for him to unwrap it and he does, though it’s clear by the look on his face that the term needle-nosed tweezers means nothing to him. I indicate the correct tool, and he plucks them from their strap, pinching the little tongs together experimentally.
“So I just…?”
“Use the tips to take hold of each splinter, as close to the skin as you can. Get a good grip before you pull them out; try not to leave any pieces behind.”
He sets his tongue between his teeth in concentration, and I lower myself to the floor on my hands and knees, bracing myself. There’s a long hesitation, a studious pause, and I recall only too vividly my husband’s inability to give me an injection of penicillin when I injured my arm in the Caribbean. God, I hope he can do this; unlike the injection, this is one task I simply cannot perform on myself.
Before I can open my mouth to offer words of encouragement, I feel his thumbs press into the skin around a splinter, followed by the pinch of metal and a sharp sting as he rips a shard of wood free. I clench my buttocks instinctively at the pain, which of course only makes the rest of the splinters burn viciously. Tears spring to my eyes and I bite down on my lip to stifle a cry.
Jamie crawls around to the front of me, holding the tweezers up to show me a bloody fragment of wood. Pride and concern take turns flickering over his face. “One down,” he offers comfortingly. I touch his arm, and try to smile.
“Good man. Keep going. Just keep going until it’s done, all right? Don’t mind me.”
“Oh, I mind ye, Sassenach. Dinna think for a moment I’m enjoying this. But I ken it has to be done, and no help for it, aye?”
“Correct. And I don’t particularly want to ask young Ian or one of the tenants to do it, either.”
“No, canna have that. There’d be too many questions we dinna have the answers for.”
I give a little snort. “Should have just had me against the wall.”
He blinks both eyes at me owlishly – his endearing, baffling version of a wink. “Aye, I’ll remember that for next time.” Crawling back behind me, he resumes his appointed task, digging into my flesh with quick, efficient little pinches and tugs, talking to me all the while in the same low murmur he uses to calm horses. “Although, come to think of it, I dinna reckon it would be any better that way. It’s the same wood made the walls as the counter, ye ken. ‘Twas a braw cedar we felled on Roan Mountain, near 100 foot tall. Took six of us and a team of draft horses to get it down the ridge. We used some of it to build the new paddock, and the rest for this wee shed o’ yourn. Splintered our hands bloody in makin’ it, too. Shoulda thought of that before settin’ ye on the counter, I suppose.”
“Well, they do say hindsight is – oof! – 20/20,” I agree charitably. Then, with a wince, “How many more?”
“Last one. It’s the deepest, and no’ verra big. I’ll have to dig for it. I’ll try to be gentle, but…”
“Just do what you can.” I wish I had something hard to bite down on. Lacking anything else, I take a mouthful of my shirt and clamp my molars into the wad of cotton. He’s right; he does have to dig, and it takes everything I have not to jerk away from him as he pries and twists and jabs the tweezers repeatedly into my skin. At last he manages to clinch his prize – he utters a little ‘aha!’ as he does so – and tear it free of its flesh prison. I can feel a rivulet of blood begin to trickle down the curve of my buttock, and before my husband can even think of wiping at it with his shirt tail, I rasp out, “Bandages, Jamie! Get clean bandages and alcohol.”
He’s up in a flash, digging through the cabinets again. I hear him reading labels under his breath until he finds the bottle he’s looking for, then the sloshing of liquid, and then he’s back behind me again, wiping up the dribble of blood with a startlingly cold cloth. It doesn’t burn until he reaches the open cut, but then I hiss out a string of curses that I’m sure is making him blush red straight to his ears.
“I’m sorry,” he mutters with sincerity, exceedingly familiar himself with the sting of alcohol in an open wound.
“Just—hold—it—there,” I clench out. “Until—the—bleeding—stops.”
He does as he’s told, but I can feel the tension radiating off of him, as palpable in the air as static electricity. It goes against all his instincts to inflict pain on me, no matter how necessary. I force myself to take deep, slow breaths, so that there isn’t the faintest hint of tremor in my voice when I instruct him, “Good, Jamie. That’s good. Now get a fresh bandage and a bit more alcohol, if you would, please. You’ll need to cleanse the other sites as well, so they don’t become infected.”
He’s stone silent as he goes about his task, and I bite again into the shoulder of my blouse to keep silent myself. A few more burning swabs later, and it’s done. I hear Jamie release a shuddering exhale as he carefully lowers my skirts back down. He climbs to his feet and reaches down to offer me a hand. With clenched teeth, I hiss in a breath and let him pull me up.
As soon as I’m on my feet, his arms wrap around me, clutching me to him. I realize suddenly that he’s trembling. I press a kiss to his breastbone and then nuzzle into the hollow where his neck meets his shoulder, unsure of who’s meant to be comforting whom. I suppose it doesn’t matter – I am comforted, and so is he; though his grip on me doesn’t slacken a bit, I can feel his breath coming easier, the hammering pulse in his carotid slowing gradually to its normal, steady rhythm.
“I didna like that one bit, Sassenach,” he whispers into my hair after a long while. “Hurting ye.”
I make a little hum of assent, pressing my lips into his shoulder. “Now you know how I feel. Do you see why I’m constantly reminding you to be bloody careful?”
“Mmphm… But ye’re a healer, no? Ye do this for a living.”
“It’s different,” I whisper, “When it’s someone you love.”
A shiver runs through him, and he nods, holding me tighter. Without a word, he drops his forehead in invitation, and I lift up to meet it, rubbing my nose against his. A large hand slides up to cradle the base of my neck, and then he kisses me, slow and tender. He makes a humming noise in his throat when I touch the tip of my tongue to his. I expect him to open to me, and am momentarily confused when he draws away. I look up at him, searching, and find his eyes moist with devotion.
“Lay down on your side, mo nighean donn,” he murmurs, with a gentle nod in the direction of the cot. “I want to cherish ye for a while.”
My mouth is suddenly dry. I swallow, breathing hard, and manage a nod.
I suppose it is my birthday, after all.