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Atonement

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Claire Beauchamp didn’t even read the page that changed her life.

Most nights, she had a nice, leisurely start to her shift. There was time to peruse her patients’ charts, make detailed notes, organize her workload on a spreadsheet — every med pass, vitals check, and dressing change listed in neat hourly columns.

Tonight was not one of those nights.

She’d hit the floor running the moment the day shift finished handoff. Six call lights, a spilled water, a wandering dementia patient, a dislodged and profusely bleeding IV, two requests for pain meds, and a full-blown projectile vomit later… she’d just barely sat down to chart when her pager erupted in a series of shrill, high-pitched beeps. On instinct, Claire smacked irritably at it to silence it. She had every intention of reading the message scrawled out in archaic block print, just as soon as she finished charting everything she’d done in the last hour and a half.

As fate would have it, though — or, rather, as Gillian Edgars would have it — she never got the chance. Ten minutes later, the charge nurse rounded the corner to the computer charting station, looking wild-eyed and disheveled.

“Did ye no’ get my page?” she demanded breathlessly.

Claire grimaced, and belatedly tugged the pager loose from her scrub top. “Shit. No. Sorry. What did you need?”

Gillian grabbed her by the elbow, pulling her to her feet and around the corner before Claire even had a chance to lock her computer screen. “I need my Velvet Hammer, that’s wha’ I need.”

A guttural groan wrenched itself from Claire’s throat. That couldn’t be good.

During her three year tenure at Massachusetts General Hospital, Claire had managed to acquire a bit of a reputation for her unflappable, level-headed demeanor with the more “challenging” patients. What that meant, she found out rather quickly, was that the worst kind of belligerent, demeaning, non-compliant arseholes were routinely hoisted off on her, because the charge nurses “knew she could handle it.” Her coworkers had taken to calling her The Velvet Hammer after Gillian repeatedly teased her that Ye’ll bash their skulls in and make ‘em thank ye for the pleasure. It was meant to be a compliment, she supposed, but what it really amounted to was more work.

To be fair, though, more work was exactly what Claire had been chasing these past few weeks. She’d racked up hours upon hours of overtime, working nearly double her normal appointment – sixty, sometimes seventy-two hours a week, if she could get away with it. She arrived at the hospital early and left late every day. Anything, really, to keep her occupied.

Anything to keep her sane.

Frank had texted her again on the way in to work this evening ( We need to talk, Claire. You can’t bloody well avoid me forever ). So whatever nightmare scenario Gillian was about to assign her, she supposed it would provide a much-needed distraction, if nothing else.

Steeling herself, Claire dug her trainers into the linoleum floor, forcing her coworker to stop and look at her. Welcome distraction or not, it didn’t seem particularly wise to venture into a warzone blind.

“Care to tell me what sort of fresh hell you’re dragging me into, here, Gill?”

The pretty young Scot winced, dragging her nails back through mussed strawberry-blonde hair. “Fresh hell is right. Mary’s in the locker room sobbin’ her guts out.”

“Oh, God.” Her stomach dropped. Mary Hawkins was a new-graduate nurse, barely a week off of orientation, and as skittish as they came. “What happened?”

“A fucking trainwreck, tha’s wha’ happened!” Gillian huffed out a sigh, gesticulating animatedly as she spoke. “The hospital’s at high occupancy, so the bed managers have been pagin’ me all day with these random off-service transfers, tryin’ to free up the ICU beds. I fought ‘em tooth and nail on this one before they went over my head and got the transfer approved. Fucking Trauma/Burn ! They said he’s plastic surgery, no’ ‘technically ’ a burn patient—” Her fingers arched in air quotes, accompanied by an exaggerated eye roll. “—so he falls under our jurisdiction. I tried to fight it, Claire, I swear...”

“What happened with Mary, Gill?”  

“I’m gettin’ there, haud yer wheesht! So we were down to the last bed, and I had no choice but to take this guy, and Mary was the only one open for an admit. I should ha’ just had her switch with you, I ken, I’m payin’ for it now! Anyway, she’d never seen a skin graft before, so when she did her first assessment, she tried to pull up the dressing to check the wound, and—”

“Shit,” Claire hissed through her teeth. Oh, she was being pulled in for damage control, all right. Most surgical sites were covered by a removable pad or gauze so that the incision could be carefully monitored. Skin grafts, on the other hand, were delicate, and needed to be left alone for optimum healing. The dressing covering it was literally stitched into the surrounding flesh to prevent tampering. It was an innocent mistake; they didn’t regularly take plastic surgery patients, so Mary’d never had a chance to learn. Still, Claire had a hunch that wouldn’t particularly matter to the patient whose raw skin the new nurse had tried to pry off, ripping at the fresh sutures in the process.

“Aye. Shit. So what I need from ye now is hyper-competence, my Velvetiest of Hammers.” Gillian slung an arm around her shoulders and began to lead her down the hallway again.

As they passed the clock mounted on the wall above the nurses’ station, Claire let out a groan, suddenly remembering all of the charting she still had yet to finish. “You picked a fine night to throw this at me, Edgars. My assignment is—”

“I’ll mind yer assignment while ye deal with this. And Mary’ll take one of yer other patients in exchange for this one. Maybe a gentle wee lamb like yer auld biddy in room 62?”

“Oh, sure,” Claire sighed. “By all means, take my easy patient.”

“Ye’re a braw lass, Claire Beauchamp.” Gill patted her shoulder in commiseration. “A bonny wee warrior. My favorite nurse to ever walk these halls.”

Claire shot her a look. “Coffee. You owe me coffee.”

“Large dark roast, two creams, sugar in the raw. Aye, on it.” She gave a mock salute. “And dinner, too, if ye want! Thai food? Hmm? Pizza? Ali Baba? Dumpling Palace? You name it, Beauchamp, I’ll have it delivered and waitin’ for ye once ye sort out this whole Fraser mess.”

“Fraser?” Claire echoed, pulling the pen and note paper from her scrub pocket. “Is that his name?”

“Aye, James Fraser. Room 43. Twenty-six year old male, motor vehicle accident—” If she caught Claire’s flinch, she kindly chose not to remark on it. “—extensive trauma. Ripped his back clean off. Three skin grafts sae far and he’s still a hot mess. Had every complication in the book: sepsis, necrosis, shock. Too many blood transfusions to count.” Gillian lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper as they approached room 43. “Puir bugger. Dinna blame him for bein’ like he is. I’d be a right heinous bitch if ‘twere me.” Her lip curled upwards in a half-smirk. “If it’s any consolation, he’s no’ horrible to look at.” With a wink, she spun on her heel and backpedaled toward the relative safety of the nurses’ station. “And he’s Scottish, too, like yer favorite charge nurse!”

“Joe isn’t Scottish!” Claire quipped as she held her palm out beneath the automated hand-sanitizer dispenser. Gill turned around mid-retreat to mime stabbing herself in the heart, her green eyes twinkling.

Claire was still smiling over her shoulder and rubbing Purell between her hands as she stepped into James Fraser’s hospital room for the first time. After enough years in this profession, the standard introduction bloomed on her lips automatically: “Good evening, Mr. Fraser, my name is Claire, I’ll be your nurse t—”

She stopped short when she actually looked up and got her first glimpse of the patient in question. Her customary script dissolved into a choked little “oh ” before she could catch herself.

Gillian had failed to mention that James Fraser was a giant.

Truthfully, she couldn’t see much of him; he was stretched out on his stomach, his hulking form covered by a starched white sheet. A mop of matted auburn curls peeked out over the top, but the bottom hem barely reached his mid-calf. Someone had taken the footboard off the bed so that he wasn’t scrunched up, but they hadn’t gotten around to extending the bed frame. As a result, his bare feet were dangling a good six inches off the end of the mattress. It was a strangely endearing sight – almost childlike, somehow. A faint smile touched Claire’s lips before she tucked it away behind a mask of cool professionalism.

She attempted to cover the momentary lapse in decorum by clearing her throat. “I’ll, ah, I’ll be your nurse tonight. I’m here with you until 7:30 in the morning.”

No response.

After the whole dressing debacle, she supposed he’d earned that much. Could be worse; she certainly preferred stony silence to explosive anger. In any event, carrying on a one-sided conversation with an embittered patient had become almost second nature to her by now. She pressed on brightly, clasping her hands in front of her. “Right. First thing’s first. Let’s start by fixing that bed, shall we?”

The patient didn’t move a muscle; made no effort to acknowledge her presence whatsoever. Pursing her lips, Claire turned on her heel and saw herself out, the mechanical whir and squelch of the hand sanitizer dispenser the only sound in the room.

Five minutes later, she returned with a teetering stack of supplies piled up to her chin – not only the mattress insert, but also all of the other essentials she thought he might need for a long hospital stay: lotion, Kleenex, chapstick, deodorant, body wash, shaving cream, a razor, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a wide toothed comb, a menu, the channel list for the TV, a ballpoint pen, and a little notepad with the hospital’s logo printed across the top.

“Brought you a few things,” she told him cheerily. Since he still wouldn’t pull the sheet down from over his face, she named each item aloud as she set it on the end table beside him. Unfortunately, her attempt to win Mr. Fraser over with a load of hospital-issue swag appeared to be falling flat; he remained silent and unmoving for so long that Claire finally decided to just leave him be. There was still the matter of the bed to be sorted, though — she couldn’t very well leave him with his feet dangling.

Circling around to the control panel, she quietly explained what she was doing as she pressed the little arrow button to elongate the bed. The machinery gave off a grinding whine as the frame stretched. Once it was extended as far as it would go, she moved down to the foot of the bed with the extra mattress insert tucked under one arm.

“Mr. Fraser, do you think you could lift your feet up for just a moment while I—?” She blinked a little in surprise when he immediately bent his knees, ankles crossing in mid-air, before she could even finish her sentence.

So, not a deaf-mute after all. Stubborn as all get out, but not totally incompliant, either.

She could work with that.

“Thank you,” she murmured as she slipped the insert into place and tugged the fitted sheet out around it. She smiled at him automatically, forgetting that he couldn’t see her. Resisting the urge to sigh, she added, “All set.”

She didn’t miss the way his calves had begun to tremble a bit, fatigued by that slight bit of effort. His legs slumped back to the bed like a deadweight the moment she gave her permission. God, how long had he been in the ICU? Gillian had mentioned three skin grafts, and judging by his level of deconditioning, it must have been several weeks of bedrest, at least.  

A tiny crease formed between Claire’s brows. She really needed to get a look at this patient’s chart before she proceeded much further with trying to care for him. She’d had a few plastic surgery patients over the years — reconstruction after breast cancer, usually — but nothing recent, and never anything this severe. She was flying by the seat of her pants, here, and the very last thing she wanted to do was cause this poor man any more pain. Particularly after his rather rocky introduction to the unit.

Which reminded her…

“Mr. Fraser—” She hesitated, twining her fingers together thoughtfully as she spoke. “I wanted to apologize to you for what happened earlier. Mary is one of our newer nurses, and I’m afraid we don’t see many skin grafts on this unit. For what it’s worth, she feels horrible for—”

“S’fine,” a deep, hoarse voice whispered beneath the sheet, so faintly that she thought she might have imagined it.

Swallowing back her surprise, Claire pulled over a wheeled stool and sat down by the head of his bed. “It’s not,” she said earnestly. “You trust your nurses to know how to care for you, and we betrayed that trust tonight. You have every right to be upset.”

There was another long stretch of silence, and she thought perhaps he’d clammed up on her again. She shifted her weight, and was taking a breath to launch back into her apology when the soft Scottish brogue spoke again. “T’was an honest mistake. I’m no’ upset.” A pause, an audible swallow, then he added faintly, “No’ about that, anyway.”

At last, she watched his hand drag up beneath the sheet to take hold of the upper edge. She held her breath unconsciously as he pulled it away from his face.

… and released it in a sharp exhale as his eyes locked onto hers.

She could live to see a thousand years and never be able to describe it: the raw agony reflected in those pools of fathomless blue, or the desperate, echoing ache it roused in the very marrow of her bones. She was a nurse; she’d always had the instinct to nurture and to heal. This was something else entirely. The very molecules of her body ignited with the need to comfort him, to touch, to soothe.

It was madness, really. He’d spoken less than a dozen words to her. He was a perfect stranger. Yet she knew by the shift in his eyes that he felt it too… the spark of recognition, of understanding; the strange and sudden intimacy amongst broken souls.

For the space of several heartbeats they simply stared at one another in silence. Then, finally, James Fraser opened and closed his mouth, wet his lips, and stammered hoarsely, “Yer name, lass... what did you say your name was?”

Her lips moved, but hardly any sound breathed past them. “Claire.” She cleared her throat and tried again. “My name is Claire.”

“Claire,” he echoed quietly, experimentally. The sound of her name in that soft burr elicited a tremulous smile, a fluttering exhale. She dropped her lashes then, breaking eye contact in a desperate bid to regain any semblance of professionalism.

“It’s a pleasure to finally put a face to the name, Mr. Fraser.” Her fingertips brushed teasingly over the hem of the sheet, gathered just below his shoulders. She could still feel the warmth of his skin lingering on the starched cotton. There was another long beat of silence, and Claire glanced up to find that his eyes had never once left hers. She swallowed against a suddenly dry throat, feeling her cheeks flush at the unabashed intensity of his gaze.

“Jamie,” he murmured at last, the lines around his eyes crinkling in the ghost of a smile. “You can call me Jamie, if ye like.”