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Atonement

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The warm, steady weight of the hand on her thigh woke her with a gentle squeeze. Claire’s cheek smeared against the window as she jerked upright in a daze, completely unaware of having fallen asleep in the first place. Blinking a few times to orient herself, she squinted around the interior of the car before her gaze settled on Jamie.

“Sorry to wake ye,” he said with a lopsided smile, then jutted his chin at the road ahead. “I just didna want ye to miss this.”

With a furrowed brow and bleary eyes, she followed his sightline, and slowly felt her features smooth into tenderness.

As they crossed the border into Scotland, Jamie brought her knuckles to his lips.

“Welcome home, mo chridhe.”

Claire let the word marinate for a moment. Turned it over and over in her mind like some old relic of childhood rediscovered many years later — nostalgic and familiar, yet strange, somehow, after such a long absence.

“Home,” she echoed quietly. Little by little, a smile unfurled across her face, and when she looked over at Jamie again, it bloomed into a genuine grin. “You know, I… I actually feel like it could be. Like I could belong here.”

Sparkling blue eyes cut back and forth from the road to Claire. “I knew you belonged here wi’ me almost since the first time I laid eyes on ye.” 

She hummed, her smile growing wistful as she turned her gaze to the horizon. While she’d visited Scotland once or twice on holiday as a child, her memories were vague at best. She remembered that it was very green and hilly, and so it was — and she remembered quite clearly the delicious bread pudding she’d shared with her mum at a Glaswegian pub one evening. Beyond that dimly pleasant introduction, the overwhelming fondness she felt for the place came from the born-and-bred Highlander sitting to her right. He’d brought it to life for her, woven descriptions and stories and memories so vividly and with such passion that they were knitted into her own heart now, binding her to him and to this land where, ironically, she didn’t feel like a sassenach at all.

It was Jamie’s home. And he was hers.

Leaning her temple back against the smooth, cool glass, she readjusted their hands so that they rested palm to palm, fingers entwined.

Ours, Jamie’s voice echoed in her mind.

Her eyes misted over as she watched the green hills stretch into the distance, nodding faintly to herself.

Ours, she agreed.

 



Keeping his eyes trained on the road before him took all the willpower Jamie possessed. He was especially conscientious about being a safe driver given how they’d met, but witnessing Claire’s awestruck expression as she took in the sight of Cairngorms National Park was almost too much temptation to resist.

The natural beauty all around them was breathtaking, right enough: snow-dusted mountains with jagged rock faces, glassy lochs and rushing rivers, emerald foothills and deep green pines… 

But all he wanted was to watch her soak it in.   

Contenting himself with stealing glances on straight, even stretches of road, he finally asked with a hopeful smile, “Do ye like it?”

Amber eyes blown wide in amazement, she echoed incredulously, “Like it? Jamie, it… This might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”

“Aye,” he whispered. Relief tingled across his scalp and washed down his arms in a wave of goosebumps. For Claire to fall in love with the Highlands, with the land and the lochs that had nourished his soul both as a lad and a man grown... it felt like acceptance of a vital piece of him, a validation he hadn’t realized he’d been craving.

He knew this drive by muscle memory; had taken it so many times over the years that he didn’t need to follow the signs posted throughout the park. There were dozens of access sites along the River Spey where anglers could try their hand at some of the best fishing in the world, but his da had long ago scouted out a prime spot for catching fat, sleekit salmon. They’d been coming here for weekend trips since Jamie was a wee bairn in green frog wellies, always parking in the same gravel lot to load up their gear and picnic lunch and hike the half mile or so to their own special spot, hidden off the beaten path.

Fortunately, the fishing season wouldn’t begin for another month yet; as Jamie pulled their rental car off into the familiar spot, he was pleased to find he and Claire were the only ones there on that icy January morning. She eyed him curiously as he cut the engine, but seemed content to follow his lead. They sat in pensive silence for a while as he looked out at the water, rippling cold and clear over the rocky riverbed.

So many memories.

But one in particular had brought him here. 

With a fortifying breath, Jamie reached for his Sassenach’s hand.

“My da used to bring me here, growing up,” he explained softly. Though his gaze never left the river, he could feel hers on his face, studying him. “We’d take it in turns, Willie and Jen and I, comin’ down on the weekends so we’d each get our own one-on-one time wi’ him. It was…” He paused, wetting his lips and searching for the right word. “Sacred, almost. Being out here. I dinna ken how to explain it, but…”

“I understand,” Claire whispered, squeezing his fingers.

A tiny nod, a squeeze in return. “Da wasna a man of many words. More of the strong, silent type, ye ken. But out here, sometimes we’d… we’d get to talking a bit. He’d ask me about what was going on in my life, and I’d vent to him about school and friends and suchlike. Trivial things, mostly. But he never made me feel small about them. He listened to whatever I had to say, and he’d offer advice when I needed it.

“I was… thirteen, I think, the first time I had my heart broken.” He shot Claire a wry smile, and she returned it knowingly. “She was a year above me, and I thought she’d hung the moon and stars. Followed her around like a lovesick pup my entire eighth year, hopin’ she’d notice me.”

Claire gave a sympathetic hum of amusement. “Wouldn’t give you the time of day?”

“Nah. Wound up datin’ the lead in the school musical, and I kent then and there I didna stand a chance. Cannae carry a tune to save my life.”

A genuine laugh burst out of her then, and she leaned back against the headrest, whisky eyes dancing. “Poor little love.”

“Thought that was it for me,” Jamie chuckled. “Came out here wi’ my da that Saturday and spent half the day bletherin’ about how I’d never know love again.” All at once, the humor drained from his face as he looked over at her again, reaching up to ghost his fingertips over the apple of her cheek. “D’ye know what he told me?”

Her gaze softened, lips pursed in a half smile. “What?”

Jamie swallowed. “He said that there would be any number of lasses that would break my heart, but that I’d learn something from each one — about love, about women, about myself. That the grief was normal, when a relationship ended, but I shouldna dwell on it overmuch, ‘cos she obviously wasna the one who was meant for me.” Very lightly, he skimmed the pad of his thumb over Claire’s bottom lip. “So I asked him, ‘Da, how will I know when she is the right one?’”

The question hung between them, thrumming expectantly in the silence, as she turned her lips into the flesh of his palm. “And what did he say?” she whispered.

Slipping his hand back into her curls, Jamie tilted her head to look up at him. “He said I’d just know.” His features creased in a smile as he leaned down to brush his lips over hers. “Thought it was a cop-out at the time.” Their lips molded together twice more before he murmured against her mouth, “But he was right.”

It would have been all too easy, he recognized, to lose himself in the velvet heat of her tongue — to climb over the console and push her seat back, slip his hands beneath her jeans and…

On a panting breath, he wrenched back from her mouth while he still had the willpower to do so. They shared space and air as their pulses slowed, hooded eyes locked until he could hear again past the deafening rush of blood in his ears.

“Come, Sassenach. I have somewhere I want to show ye.” 

Without another word of explanation, he opened his car door and stepped outside. A shock of icy wind blasted him the second he was on his feet, doing him the favor of subjugating his half-hard cock. As she exited her side of the car, Claire yelped, hunkering her face down in the collar of her jumper and wrapping her arms around her middle while her curls whipped around her face.

“Jesus H. Christ, it’s cold!” 

“Aye,” he laughed as he hurried around to the boot. “Welcome tae Scotland.” He wished he had a parka for her, fur-lined and heavily insulated, but wool was the next best option for the cold and damp. And that, thankfully, he did have. “Hang on, somewhere in here I have my — ach, here we go.” 

With a small, reverent smile, he pulled his father’s plaid from the bottom of his suitcase and unfolded it carefully, stretching it out between his spread hands in invitation. “Come here, a nighean.”

He glanced up just in time to watch Claire’s eyes mist over with recognition, with nostalgia — with the undercurrent of guilt that persisted even now. “I’m fine,” she lied poorly, pivoting a half turn away from him as though it would hide her violent shivering. “Let’s just go.” 

Eyes soft and knowing, Jamie approached her with measured strides, slinging the plaid up over his shoulder so he could reach out to take her in his arms. “Are ye now?” he murmured. She winced a little, knowing as well as he did that she was a terrible liar. While his palms smoothed up and down her juddering spine, he teased in a low voice, “Ye’re shaking so hard ye’re making my teeth rattle.” 

Claire indulged him with a snort that halfway resembled a laugh, then burrowed her cold wee nose into the curve of his neck. They rested that way for a long moment, huddled together while the winter wind whistled and whipped all around them.

“You know why I can’t accept it,” she breathed at last, so faintly he felt it more than heard it.

A sound of acknowledgement, though not agreement, rumbled in his chest; aye, he knew she still blamed herself for his father’s death, and she knew well enough his response to that. Readjusting slightly, he wrapped one arm low around her waist and brought the other up to stroke her hair.

“Remember when I asked ye,” he said quietly, “back at the bridge, whether or not you thought yer parents would approve of me?”

Though the tension in her muscles didn’t release, she inclined her head just a little. 

Jamie gave a nod in return, then eased down to graze his lips along the dove-soft skin behind her ear. “I know that mine would have loved you too, Claire. They would’ve been so proud to welcome ye into the family. To see ye draped in the Fraser colors.” He could feel her chin begin to tremble with the threat of tears and cuddled her in closer against him. Drawing in a lungful of clean, cold, pine-scented air, he looked out to the river, to the peaceful majesty of the mountains beyond. “That’s why I wanted to bring ye here, mo ghràidh. Daft as it sounds, it’s like I… I can feel my da here, somehow.”

Claire sniffled once, then lifted her head from his shoulder to look at him. “It’s not daft, Jamie,” she whispered, cupping his cheek in her hand. Their gazes locked, searching, reading; he could almost watch her resolve take shape, see the exact moment when the decisive battle of her instincts was won. 

A fragile smile pulled at the corners of her mouth as she reached up to slide the Fraser plaid down from his shoulder and around hers. Jamie’s eyes brimmed at the sight, wet and aching with love, but he barely had time to nod his understanding before Claire released him with a squeeze and broke away from his embrace. 

Brow furrowed, he turned to call after her as she walked back to the car. The protest died in his throat, though, when she kept the plaid clutched around her shoulders and began to rummage through the open boot for something else. Confusion gave way to curiosity as she retrieved whatever it was she was looking for — something small enough to fit in the palm of her hand — then closed the boot and came back over to him. She looked up at him through her lashes, suddenly shy as she brought her clasped hand to hover between them. When she spoke, her words shook. 

“I think… my mum would have liked it if I wore this.” 

Jamie’s gaze flitted back and forth between her face and her hand as she slowly unfurled her fingers to reveal a delicate pearl-inlaid hair comb. Recognition sparked at once; it had been one of the items she’d placed in her cardboard box of important mementos back in Boston: keepsakes, heirlooms, pictures of the people she loved. One of those few belongings she’d cared enough about to want to save when she’d been ready to let go of everything else. He’d never gotten the chance to ask her about any of them, but he did now, reaching out to reverently touch the row of perfect, age-yellowed pearls.

“Was this hers, then?”

Claire nodded with a watery smile, stroking her thumb along one of the silver tines. “She wore it on her wedding day. It was a gift from her grandmother.”

Jamie waited for her to meet his gaze again, silently asking permission. When she gave it, he took the comb gingerly from her outstretched hand and smoothed her wind-blown curls back at her temple, then slid the tines in along the curve of her head. Taking a step back to admire the effect — the gleam of ivory contrasting beautifully against her rich, dark hair — he nodded his approval, his throat suddenly thick with emotion.

“Bonny,” he whispered, tracing his fingers down the curve of her jaw.

Inexplicably struck shy, they both stood face to face in silence for several beats. All at once, it was as if a whole legion of butterflies took flight in Jamie’s wame, racing and twirling and diving as the enormity of what came next finally struck him in earnest. Licking his dry lips, he let out his breath in a controlled huff and smiled nervously at her. 

“My hands are shaking.”

“So are mine,” Claire laughed, but the levity faded as quickly as it had come as she took a step closer and twined her fingers with his. “Hold onto me.”

And so he did.

Up the side of the mountain, he gripped her tight for balance and reassurance as they navigated the muddy ruts in the trail, the slippery moss-covered rocks and gnarled tree roots they had to clamber over to reach the spot he had in mind. By the time they crested the summit, they were both pink-cheeked and breathless and had forgotten the cold entirely in the exertion of the climb. His father’s plaid, still knotted securely around Claire’s shoulders, was thoroughly flecked with mud now, and her wee comb had begun to come loose. With a pant of a laugh, he fixed it for her, while she picked pine needles and a wayward twig out of his hair.

“God, we’re a mess,” she huffed, grinning ear to ear.

“Aye.” He beamed right back at her, unable to resist leaning over to snag a kiss. “But we made it.”

With raised eyebrows, Claire glanced around the unimpressive landing of dull grey rock they currently stood upon, catching their breath. “Don’t take this the wrong way, darling, but…”

Jamie threw his head back with a nose-scrunching, full-body laugh, then stretched out a hand to her again. “Over here. Come on.”

It had been a dreich morning, misty and overcast for the vast majority of their drive, but little by little the sun had made a valiant effort to peek through the oppressive cloud cover. Jamie chewed his bottom lip with anticipation as they ducked under one last copse of fir trees and around the final bend, knowing that if the weather cooperated, and the view was clear…

Deo Gratias, he prayed, his heart soaring as he stepped out onto the broad, flat outcropping of rock overlooking the valley.

Beside him, Claire gasped, then stopped breathing altogether.

“Jamie…”  

He could only nod and take his Sassenach’s hand, perched on the edge of such unspeakable glory that only the Almighty Himself might have painted it. The sun broke through the clouds in long slants of gold, glittering on the water below and dappling the old birch grove around its perimeter in a thousand shades of green. From this height, the rivers looked like so many ribbons, curling and twisting through the landscape until they converged in a great sapphire centerpiece, the blue of the loch so rich and so fathomless it looked as though you could swim for an eternity and never reach the bottom. 

On still mornings, the distant call of birdsong echoed up from the valley, but it was the wind that sang for them that afternoon – the low, ancient song of the mountain. There was no rhythm to it, no melody; it faltered, died down to fragile wisps only to roar to a crescendo again, triumphant and booming, no less powerful for its erring.

Jamie turned to Claire with tears in his eyes, praying to God she could hear it.

If not now, then in time.

In time.

Taking both of her trembling hands in his, he asked softly, “Ready?”

A deep, shuddering breath, and she smiled at him. 

“Je suis prest.”

 




“Tell me again,” she whispered into his neck, pressing a kiss to the skin before she nestled back in again, “what the words meant.”

Beneath the delicate strumming of an acoustic guitar, she heard Jamie swallow. “The vows?” he asked hoarsely.

At her nod, a low, tender sound hummed in his throat. He’d told her on the cliffside, with the sun blazing bright on his copper hair and a sheen of tears in his eyes. And again in the car, with her fingertips stroking the intricate silver ring on her finger over and over, still unable to wrap her mind around the fact that this was real. If he begrudged her the translation again, there was no sign of it; as they turned slowly around the room, he smoothed his palm up and down the curve of her back, his breath warm and steady in her hair.

“You are blood of my blood and bone of my bone.” He recited the words with care, lingering over each line as though swearing them again. “I give you my body, that we two may be one. I give you my spirit, ‘til our lives shall be done.”

Claire closed her eyes and saw him again, bathed in sunlight, the wind in his hair, the full splendor of the Scottish Highlands eclipsed by the joy on his face.

Her husband’s face.

The longer she basked in it, relived the moment over and over, the more it was slowly becoming real to her. 

My husband.

The handfasting hadn’t been any more official than an elopement would have been; it held the same bloody twenty-nine-day wait period of any other formal wedding ceremony in the UK. But whether it was legal on paper or not, there was no question between them: they’d married on that cliffside, bound to one another in every way that mattered. 

… except one.

The day had been theirs alone, and in her heart she privately admitted that she was glad she hadn’t had to share the moment with anyone else. But no matter how he tried to deny it for her sake, Claire knew how deeply Jamie wanted his family to be there with them on their wedding day. And so, after they’d exchanged rings and a soul-searing kiss even more breathtaking than the vista, she’d made him another promise on the way back down the muddy trail to the car. 

In a year’s time, they would have a church wedding. Stand before the same altar his parents had, and his grandparents before them, on and on back. They would sign the paperwork and change her surname legally to reflect the one she’d already adopted in her heart. 

And they would invite his family to be there.

Whether or not any of them would actually show up was another matter entirely, and one she and Jamie didn’t yet agree on; he still seemed certain they would come around long before then, while Claire harbored the very real fear that they never would. But she’d made the promise anyway, knowing what it meant to him, and sent up a silent prayer that perhaps Jamie would be right after all.

She hoped he would be. He had been about everything else thus far.

As she’d been the one to find the Bear and Ragged Staff back in Oxford, she let Jamie pick their lodgings on their wedding night. He’d taken her to a quaint little bed and breakfast halfway between the national park and Lallybroch, where a sweet, plump old lady with an incomprehensibly thick Highlander accent had trilled her congratulations and handed them an old-fashioned iron key to the honeymoon suite with a wink and smirk. It was, by Claire’s estimation, likely the exact same as every other room in the place — decorated in pink floral wallpaper, with old lace curtains and a faint musk of mothballs and potpourri — but the bed was probably the most comfortable Claire had ever felt, and the darling hostess had sprinkled soft white rose petals on the duvet and left out a plate of homemade shortbread biscuits just for them. 

“I ken it’s no’ much,” Jamie had apologized, rubbing the back of his neck self-consciously as they entered the room. “But Mrs. Fitz is an auld family friend, and I’ve been comin’ here tae visit her all my life—”

“It’s perfect,” Claire had whispered, and meant it. This place — this part of his history, his childhood — felt like another piece of home clicking into place; it felt, she imagined, like staying at her Gran’s house would have, had she ever had a Gran to visit.

After they’d showered away the grime of the mountain trail, Jamie had watched her towel off from across the room with a gleam in his eye she couldn’t quite place. When he told her to put on the best dress she’d brought with her, Claire had flashed him a bemused look and told him coyly that asking her to get dressed was not what she expected him to say. He’d only nodded to her luggage and repeated himself, apparently intent upon a bit of a surprise. 

Minutes later, she’d stood before him in a midnight blue cocktail dress, taking in his smart trousers, button-down shirt, and gray silk waistcoat. Her eyes had roved over him, and his over her. Finally, though, Claire had stepped forward, the fabric of her skirt swishing around her knees.

“Where are we going?” she’d asked when he grabbed his mobile off the bedside stand and scrolled through it, searching for something.

As quiet guitar strains began to strum from the speakers on his phone, Jamie had looked up at her with a small, lopsided smile. “Nowhere.” When he’d set the mobile down again and opened his arms for her, Claire’s features had softened in understanding. “I just want to dance wi’ my wife on our wedding night.”

The playlist was acoustic, soothing: Damien Rice, Eva Cassidy, The Civil Wars, Iron and Wine. At first, she’d wondered if he had just selected a preset Spotify playlist to suit the mood, but a sidelong glance at his mobile revealed the title at the top: 

Mo Nighean Donn.

It was another layer of intimacy, of vulnerability far beyond the scope of anything she’d experienced before, listening to the words her lover had chosen to speak to her through song. To hear the heartache and the hope, the celebration of the quiet, mundane moments that meant everything to her too, the dreams for their future…

She held him closer with each song, and felt him relax into her, understood and safe.   

With a whisper against his neck, she’d invited him back with her to the cliffside, asking again for the interpretation of the vows that had made him her husband, and her his wife.

Blood of my blood, and bone of my bone…

Over and over they revolved in place, lost in their memories of the day, in the music, in the intoxicating closeness of one another. When they reached the final track, Jamie said nothing — only swallowed thickly and buried his face in her hair. And as she listened, Claire’s eyes welled until the moisture spilled over, one droplet rolling down her cheek, then another.

 

We will run and scream

You will dance with me

They'll fulfill our dreams

And we'll be free

 

We will be who we are

And they'll heal our scars

Sadness will be far away

 

Do not let my fickle flesh go to waste

As it keeps my heart and soul in its place

And I will love with urgency 

But not with haste

 

As the last strains of guitar and banjo faded, still they danced, neither yet willing for the moment to end. Turning slowly in the silence, Claire’s senses seemed sharpened somehow. She was acutely aware of every infinitesimal movement, every whisper of sound: the rasp of their footfalls on carpet, the twitch of his fingers curving into her lower back. Her heart pounded so hard she could feel it thump against her ribs. Beneath her palm, Jamie’s did too. And his breaths above her, deep and heavy, only thickened the air in the room until she could barely breathe for the ache of love expanding in her chest.

With faint, almost indecipherable movements, the hand that lay over Jamie’s sternum began to work open the buttons on his vest, and Claire felt his breath shake in her hair as he took his turn, slowly drawing down the zipper on her dress and stripping the sleeves from her shoulders. All the while, their languid swaying never faltered. He danced her back to the bed as she stepped out of the silk pooled at her feet, as he shrugged out of his vest, as his open mouth found hers.

With the first sweep of tongues, they were panting, struggling for breath as fingers tugged at what clothes remained between them. When at last Jamie kicked away his briefs and kneeled naked between her legs, Claire pulled him hungrily down to her mouth again, sighing with pleasure at the sensation of his bare skin against hers. Desperate for relief of the throbbing that had begun in her core, she wasted no time in reaching between them to take his shaft in hand and guide him to her entrance.

Smiling against her mouth, Jamie huffed a laugh. “Easy, Sassenach.” 

“Please,” she begged with a roll of her hips. “I want you inside me.” 

A sound like a purr hummed in the back of his throat as he brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead. “Were ye no’ listenin’, mo chridhe? Wi’ urgency…”  

Claire’s mouth fell open in a soundless gasp as he sank in to the root, filling and stretching her until the pleasure bordered on too much. They both went still for a moment, wide-eyed and panting, as little by little a smirk crinkled his face.

“But no’ wi’ haste.”