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Downhill

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“Yer Mam would be sae happy fer ye, Jamie.” Slowly, tentatively, one large, weathered hand reached towards his face, calloused fingertips brushing gently over his cheek. “I ken she’d love her as much as I do.”

Letting emotion take control, Jamie crushed his father to his chest, holding tight. “Thank ye, Da. Fer e’rything.”

 

Chapter 50 – Finish Line

Never before had Claire felt as utterly devoid of warmth as this moment. The cold hadn’t hit her all at once, striking instead with all the slyness and cunning of an evil stepmother. Crowning her with white crystals and coating her lashes with diamond dust, its treacherous beauty beguiled her into childlike wonder and compliant immobility. She only realised the danger when it was already too late; when the ribbons of satin silver had eaten their way through her clothes, seeping through her skin and gnawing at her bones.

Left raw and vulnerable to the rising winds, nose and toes were the first to turn into useless blocks of ice. With her core temperature dropping from one low to the next, she was soon too stiff even to shiver, muscles no longer obeying her command as glacial gusts pulled at her hair and lashed at her face. Frozen to the marrow, even the blood in her veins moved thick and sluggish, recalcitrant to perform its essential duty. All she could do was sit and wait; watching with a mixture of abject impotence and morbid curiosity as the walls of her glittering tomb climbed higher and higher.

The last light was just about to be swallowed up by the flurry of virgin flakes when something crashed into her side, shattering the wintery illusion. Claire jerked awake with a hiss, her hand flying to the tender spot where something hard had found an unsuspecting target in her liver.

It took a moment to find her bearings in the unfamiliar space, dimly lit and moving as it was, but when her eyes landed on the potential culprit—a shark-socked heel now resting listlessly on her thigh—the fog of drowsiness lifted. Although she was still smarting a bit, Claire couldn’t help but smile at the sight. William was curled up like a ginger cat next to her, gangly limbs and loose hair spilling out over the chequered bench seat as his ribs rose and fell with the even cadence of those lost to dreams.

Her own was still startlingly vivid in her mind, causing the hairs on her neck to rise as she caught a glimpse of the night-covered snowscape rushing past. She averted her gaze from the hauntingly beautiful view, directing her focus on the large man seated across from her. Head propped against the windowpane, Brian was out as well, his breath painting fleeting images on the glass.

She was glad to see that the exhaustion that had made him collapse into his seat barely a second after entering the compartment no longer knotted his brindled brow. While every leg of their journey from Inverness to Vienna had gone as smoothly as could be, trudging their way through two layovers with an 8-year-old who had a tendency to stop walking when distracted by a foreign advert was enough to wear the most seasoned traveller down. And that was well before navigating a maze of underground tracks to embark on a six-hour train ride.

Claire had only allowed herself to slip under once she’d made sure that one of the attendants would wake them in time for their arrival in the heart of the Austrian Alps. Now that she was awake again, however, and the rolling hills gave way to jagged mountaintops, the bone-deep weariness of travel could no longer compete with the excitement simmering beneath her skin.

Not long now, Fraser. We’re coming.

 

About an hour and several blurry shots of a new moon suspended over an inky sky later, the train finally reached its destination. It had only just come to a halt when Claire, bags slung over both shoulders, had already rushed towards the nearest exit, trusting that Brian would follow with William on his back.

Squeaking and hissing, the doors finally slid open. As soon as the gap was wide enough, Claire hurtled through and down the steps into the embrace of a clear January night. After three months of separation from the man who owned her soul, she had no regard for the bitter air nipping at her face or the snow crunching under her boots. The only thing that mattered was to find him.

Her heart began to race the instant her feet met the ground, sensing the nearness of its mate even before the soft Highland lilt pulled her gaze towards him.

“Sassenach.”

Abandoning the luggage on the deserted platform, she was running before making the conscious decision to do so, throwing herself into Jamie’s waiting arms. He caught her with ease, squeezing her ribs almost painfully tight as he lifted her off the ground and crashed his mouth to hers.

“Hi,” Claire whispered against his stubbled skin as she slid down his front, relief tingling in her blood at the feeling of his body flush against hers again.

Standing nose to nose, his reply was just as breathless, just as desperate. “Ye’re here.”

One ungloved hand settling in the curve of her waist and holding her close, Jamie raised the other to her face, ghosting over cheekbone, eyebrow, and lips as if he still didn’t quite believe it.

“I’m here,” she said, pulling his face down into a searing kiss, giving them both the physical confirmation they needed.

Simply happy to share the same space and air, they swayed on the spot, completely lost in their reunion, when a throat was cleared behind them.

“I dinnae want tae interrupt, but could we mebbe move this somewhere else?”

It was the sound of that sleep-roughened husk in place of Brian’s usual rich timbre that had both their heads snap in his direction, cheeks reddened by equal parts self-consciousness, cold, and guilt.

“Of course.” “Aye. Aye, o’ course.”

Both were quick to reply, hurrying over to where Claire had dropped the bags.

“It’s grand tae see ye, Da,” Jamie said, lifting the heavier one onto his shoulder.

Brian nodded, the shadows of the streetlamps deepening the drawn look on his face. “Good tae see ye too, son.”

“Speaking o’ sons…” Jamie’s gaze shifted from his father’s face to a younger, drooling version of his own. “Hey, wee man,” he said, the softness of his voice matching the sweetness of his expression as he brushed a large thumb over the apple of William’s ruddy cheek.

It didn’t matter that Claire had seen him do that very thing thousands of times before; she would never tire of being witness to it. That an imposing man like Jamie was capable of such tenderness would melt her heart every single time, making her feel warm all over despite the crisp temperatures.

One eye cracked half-open, William only managed a torpid, “Hullo, Da,” before drifting off again.

“Here, let me take him.” Handing the bag over to Brian, Jamie manoeuvred Willie expertly onto his own back, securing him with a firm grip. “Come on, this way. The hotel’s no’ verra far.”

Drained as they were, neither Brian nor Claire needed any convincing. They set off at a brisk pace, happy for their family to be complete again.



“Awright, we’ll see ye at breakfast, then.” Jamie turned the brass knob, his other hand reaching for Claire’s.

Stealing one more look at their sleeping boy, she added, “You know where to find us if you or Willie need anything.”

“I doubt we’ll be doing anything but sleep like the deid,” Brian replied with a tired smile playing around his lips, “but aye, I ken where yer room is. Now get yerselves gone. It’s been a long day, and taemorrow’s no’ going tae be kind if we dinnae get some rest now.”

Signalling her agreement with a barely stifled yawn, Claire followed instinctively as Jamie stepped into the panelled corridor. They exchanged one more wave of goodbye and headed towards their own lodgings.

 

The instant the door fell into its lock, the world outside and all its small noises and loud responsibilities faded into insignificance.

All those insufferable months of ending the day without the other’s kiss goodnight ebbed away under the tidal intensity of his gaze. All those abstinent weeks of dinners and documentaries lacking doting glances and silly jokes dissolved at the sound of his heavy breathing in her ear. All those interminable hours of waiting for that next blurry video call evaporated beneath the softness of his lips. All those torrential minutes of yearning for a loving caress were washed away by sure hands engulfing the swell of her hips. All those infinite seconds of incompleteness, of missing a vital part of oneself, were drowned in the waves of his familiar scent—warmer and more comforting even than home.

Guided by that inexplicable connection, they were floating, drifting, dancing like particles at the beginning of creation, carried along in a current of their own making. Following in the steps of that primeval choreography, they shed their layers until there was nothing left but skin on skin and the melody of two hearts becoming one again.

Jamie rose above her like a midnight sun, enveloping her in his pulsing heat until their bodies aligned and all that remained was one decisive move forward. Hovering, his breath fanned out over her face and chest, the same old question blazing in those sapphire orbs.

Are ye ready?

There was no need to think.

Claire’s answer to him would always be yes.

Responding in a language as old as time, she fused her mouth to his and welcomed him into the very core of her being. At last, their orbits merged, causing passion to flare and soft curves to melt into solid bone. Surrounded by the gasping echoes of their union, fingers and lips chased the flames of desire across belly and ribs, over shoulder and biceps, along thigh and back, until they collapsed with the brightness of a million stars in their eyes and the taste of eternity on their tongues.

 

It was a good way before sunup when Claire roused, enwreathed in the earthy smell of a meadow in spring. She’d been drifting in and out of sleep for a while, half-irritated, half-titillated by the teasing prickle of thistles or some other spiky plant against her flank, but it was the sweet murmurings of a warm breeze skidding across her skin that had pulled her fully towards consciousness.

Now that her sleep-clouded mind began to clear, however, she found that her head was pillowed on downs, not grass, and what she’d mistaken for botanical flirtations were in fact the ferocious first sprouts of a fiery beard whispering Gaelic secrets to her belly.

“What are you doing down there?” she asked drowsily, carding her fingers through his silky tresses.

Leaning into the touch like a big cat, Jamie turned his face up, the delicious rasp of his stubble sending a shower of tiny sparks flying through her veins.

“Jus’ saying hello, mo ghràidh.”

The tease came naturally as she drew two fingertips over the shell of his ear, “To my stomach?”

“Weel…” Even if she couldn’t see much in the dimness of the room, she could feel the heat of self-consciousness warming the skin under her fingers. “I ken it’s silly, but…but it migh’ no’ be all there is anymore, no?”

“What do you…?—oh.”

Understanding dawned with a distinctive flutter beneath her diaphragm. Had it not been much too early, that tiny flicker of sensation could have indeed confirmed the quiet hope in Jamie’s words.

“Maybe,” Claire said softly, lips curving upwards at the thought. “We’ll see in a few weeks.”

The bedframe gave a tinny squeak as Jamie scooted up the mattress and settled his back against the headboard, drawing her between his legs. Feeling his strong arms around her middle, fingers moving in idle patterns over her skin, Claire relaxed into the warmth of his chest with a contented sigh.

“I did some thinking, Sassenach.”

“Mmh?” she nuzzled into his neck, catching a faint whiff of musk from their earlier exertions. “About what?”

“The future, mostly,” Jamie replied, the flat of his palm spanning the soft curve of her belly.

“And?”

His ribcage lifted with a deep breath under her shoulder. “And I’ve reached a decision.”

Knowing that he would say whatever he had to say in his own time, Claire didn’t prompt him, instead closing her eyes and listening to the steady thrum of his blood beneath her ear.

“I’ve decided no’ tae come back.”

Her eyes snapped open again, every trace of sleep gone as she sat up and twisted to face him. “What do you mean, ‘you’re not coming back’?”

“It means,” he took her hand and entangled his fingers with hers, “that this is going tae be ma last season.”

“Jamie…” she began, her pulse quickening. “Are you…are you sure that’s what you want?”

His eyes shone like stars in the low light, teasing the spark of hope inside her into a steady blue flame. “I am, Sassenach.”

“I don’t want to play devil’s advocate here,” Claire continued, rearranging her limbs more comfortably in his lap. “You know I’d love nothing more if you didn’t spend so much time away—but it’s your dream and it’s going so well this year and—”

“Aye, and it was a grand dream,” Jamie interjected, brushing her hair behind her ear. “And I was lucky. I ha’ lived it far longer than most. But it was the dream o’ a boy, Sassenach—one that didnae ken what else was out there fer him.”

“I ken what I’m gi’ing up,” he said, conviction evident in every small inflection as his fingers traced the slope of her neck down to her shoulder. “But I feel like it’s the righ’ time tae do it. I’ve nae lasting injuries tae speak o’, and I get tae go out on a high, doing masel’ and ma country proud.”

“I…I don’t want you to quit because you feel like that’s what I want.”

“That’s no’ the reason.” He must have sensed her doubt, because he went on before she could protest further, “Look, I’m no’ going tae pretend it dosenae play a major role in that decision—o’ course it does. Racing down mountains isnae exactly the safest occupation—I’ve nae illusions about that, and neither do you. I ha’ a responsibility tae you and tae Willie, and I take that responsibility verra seriously.”

Squeezing his fingers, she said, “I know you do.”

“I also ken that I’ve reached ma peak, physically speaking. I dinnae think I can do much better than I’m doing righ’ now.”

Although Jamie was generally a humble man, Claire understood that he wasn’t being modest now. Having spent the better part of his life calibrating and fine-tuning his own body—testing and challenging its abilities whilst braving sometimes nauseatingly dangerous environments—he knew himself inside and out. If anyone was able to tell how far he was able to go, it was him.

“But I’m mainly doing it fer masel’,” he kissed her knuckles and placed her hand right above his heart. “I’ve ne’er loved life as much as I do when I’m wi’ you, Claire. There’s nae medal, nae prize, nae honour, that I want more than spending the rest o’ mine at yer side. And if that means that I get tae be there e’ry step o’ the way fer any child we may ha’,” fingers fanning out over her abdomen, his eyes glowed with affection, “I am well pleased wi’ the world.”

She swallowed, a bonfire of emotion raging inside of her chest, and leaned into him, one pale hand moving to cover his. “Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

His smile lit up the room like the perfectly crooked beam of sunlight it was. “Show me, mo ghràidh.”



The sudden appearance of her best friend’s face on the screen, accompanied by a demanding buzzing against her fingertips, startled Claire to a point where she almost dropped her phone on the pavement.

“He—"

“Tell me that was jes’ some stock photo ye sent me,” Geillis croaked out on the other end of the line.

Smiling, Claire took a step to the side, making room for a family of four bustling down the road with their skiing gear. “Would that help minimise the jealousy I can hear there?”

“Mebbe.”

“Well, you got me, Duncan,” she sighed for dramatic effect. “It’s horrible, absolutely disgusting and not like a fairy-tale backdrop at all—you’d hate it, trust me.”

The answering chuckle turned into a short coughing fit. “And that’s why ye’re ma favourite person in the world, hen.”

“Excuse me? What does that make me?” a voice in Geillis’s background asked.

“Third.”

“Third? the voice asked indignantly. I’m only third?”

“Och aye,” Geillis said as matter-of-factly as her hoarse voice allowed. “Claire, then the bean, then you.”

“Why am I the one making soup fer ye then, eh?”

“Say hi to Greg for me.”

“Claire says hi—”

“Number Three says hi back tae Number One,” he shouted above Geillis.

“Awrigh’ ye nutjob, ye made yer point, noo get yersel’ back tae the kitchen.”

Laughing into her glove, Claire shook her head.

“Only because ye asked sae nicely, ma luv.”

There was a static rustle, and then Geillis was back. “Sorry aboot that.”

“I see it’s still going well between the two of you.”

“Aye, weel…”

Those two syllables were enough for Claire to know how her best friend truly felt about it.

“I’m happy for you, Gee.”

“I’m happy too, hen,” despite the scratchy quality, her tone was as soft as Claire had probably ever heard it. “At least, I will be once I get somethin’ other than feckin’ soup again.”

“I heard that!”

“Congratulations on yer fine hearing then, Mr MacLean. If ye’re too much o’ a wuss fer honest feedback, make something I can chew.”

Claire gave a small chortle as she pushed her way into the pine-scented, slow-murmuring atmosphere of the hotel lobby.

“You two are perfect for each other, you know that, right?”

“I ken,” Geillis admitted in a raspy whisper. “But ye cannae let the man know it. Would blow his ego completely oot o’ proportion. Anyhoo,” she continued, “speakin’ o’ perfect fer each other—how was yer reunion wi’ the big Ginge? Still as disgustingly in love as e’er, I presume?”

“I object to the ‘disgusting’, but yes,” Claire replied, a smile breaking out on her face. “God, you’ve no idea how good it feels just to be with him again, and—"

“And the sex is still mind-blowing, aye?”

“That’s not what I was about to say, but…” A familiar tingle coursed down her spine. “Yeah, very much so. My legs still feel like jelly from this morning.”

“Good,” Geillis said with a dirty grin in her tone. “Glad tae hear ye’re enjoyin’ yersel’ while workin’ on ma next godchild.”

“Actually, about that…”

A groan erupted from her best friend’s throat. “Dinnae tell me I started makin’ that pregnancy pillow fer nothin’.”

“No—wait, you started making a pillow for me?”

“Weel, aye,” Geillis coughed. “Mary said it helped her get through the worst o’ it, and I remember hoo much ye were sufferin’ wi’ yer pumpkin belly back then. Gi’en that ye chose the same giant Viking tae father yer next, I thought it wasnae likely goin’ tae be any smaller, sae—”

“And this is why you’re my favourite person in the world, Gee.”

“No, I’m no’. I’m number three on yer list but I’m fine wi’ that because,” she took a deep, raspy breath and added much louder, “third place is a feckin’ good place tae be.”

A tiny smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth, Claire dropped the key card on the sideboard. “You sure Greg heard that?”

Geillis replied with the acoustic equivalent of a shrug.

“Sae what’s this aboot then if ye’re no’ ha’ing second thoughts? Surely ye cannae be awready…?”

“No, no second thoughts at all. It’s still very much on the table—or bed, rather.” Wedging her phone between shoulder and ear, Claire slipped out of her boots and coat as a lewd chuckle vibrated against her eardrum. “And well, as much as we’ve made what little time we had count these past few days, I wouldn’t know it even if I were.”

“It’s good news, really,” she carried on, her gaze trained on the forested mountain ridge rising into a cerulean sky. “Jamie told me he’s going to retire after this season.”

There was a brief moment of silence followed by a cautiously hopeful, “That means…”

“That he won’t be away anymore, yes.” Her heart did that ecstatic little flip against her breastbone again. “He’s going to be home every single day.”

“And ye dinnae ha’ tae worry whether he’s going to miss anything,” Geillis added with similar excitement.

“Exactly.”

“That’s no’ jes’ good news, hen, that’s fantastic news!”

The joy that had been bubbling underneath the surface since Jamie had told her of his plans finally broke free. “I know, I know. I can hardly believe it yet.”

“Why are ye still chattin’ tae me then? Ye should be ridin’ that—”

“Bloody hell, Duncan,” Claire laughed, tucking a strand of curls back behind her ear. “Get your mind out of the gutter for once. He still has a job to do until then, you know.”

“He’s got somethin’ far more important tae work on noo if ye ask me, but hoo’s his day job goin’ then? Still acin’ it?”

“Don’t you worry, we’ll get to that soon enough,” she replied, feeling a distinctive tug below her navel at the thought. Tucking her feet under her bottom in the armchair, Claire put the call on speakerphone, “Jamie is doing so well, Gee. I mean, this season’s already been going great with him making it into the world cup ranking in almost every race, but now he’s placed in the top ten in the first downhill training. He even made it to third today. And he deserves it, it was such a good run!”

“Someone’s verra proud o’ their man, eh?”

“Well, yeah, I am.” A soft smile dimpled her cheeks. “I’m so happy for him. I can tell he’s excited for the Super-G tomorrow, and not just because he drew a good start number. I think it makes it extra special for him that he’s on top of his game and that he gets to share it with the three of us.”

“Mmphm, I bet.”

“He actually managed to talk the race director into allowing us into the starting area today so he could give us a small tour, show us what it’s like for the athletes first-hand.”

“And? Hoo was it?” The question was followed by several puffs and a slurping noise.

“I mean, it’s not terribly exciting to look at, if you don’t count the view around it. It’s mostly stamped-down snow with a lot of gear strewn around, but as far as amenities go, Kitzbühel is probably the fanciest venue there is—according to Jamie and Rupert, at least. And the guys we met up there were so lovely. I was surprised how sweet and chatty some of them were, especially right before they’re supposed to race down that hell of a mountain.”

“I cannae imagine I’d be up fer a chat if I had tae go doon a feckin’ sheet o’ ice on twa boards at 80mph.”

“Seriously, Geillis, you have no bloody idea. We got to look out of the start house, and I mean, I knew this was supposed to be the most difficult track on the circuit, but…I almost fainted seeing how steep it really was. I honestly don’t understand how Jamie does it—how any of them do it.”

“Aye, I wouldnae fancy doin’ that masel’.”

“William absolutely loved it, though. Being so involved, getting to see everything up close and not just on a TV screen or from the stands. That just made it a completely different experience.”

“Nae big surprise there.” Geillis chuckled knowingly. “Hoo aboot gramps? Is he enjoyin’ it? It’s his first time, no?”

“You know how Brian is,” Claire said, fondness for the Fraser in question turning her vowels velvet and tender. “He’s not a man of many words, but he’s had that bounce in his step since we got here, so I’d say he’s having a good time. In fact,” a smile formed on her lips as she caught a glimpse of the new message she’d received, “I know he’s having a good time right now, because he just sent me a snapshot of him and William from the toboggan slope.”

“Toboggan slope sounds like good fun tae me. The question is, why are you no’ wi’ them?”

“Oh…eh…”

“Aye?”

Claire could practically hear the fair eyebrows wander up her best friend’s forehead.

“I’m at the hotel.”

“That’s no’ an explanation.” Geillis was definitely grinning now. “But I’m guessing ye won’t be alone there fer much longer, aye?”

Heat rising from her neck to her cheeks, Claire replied, “Well, no. Since tomorrow is the first race, Jamie only has to go through his cool-down and recovery routine after that training run today, then he has the rest of the day off.”

“I see,” Geillis gave a short laugh that turned into another cough. “Weel, I’d say enjoy yer afternoon then, but I awready ken ye will. Jes’ dinnae wear him oot too much—he’ll need some o’ that juice fer taemorrow.”

“I’ll be careful.” The promise was given freely—if with a healthy dose of underlying laughter. “Now go and have that soup.”

“Love ye, hen.”

“Love you too, Gee.”



For one brief moment, Jamie stood completely still. Face upturned to the low-hanging alpine sun, he breathed in the cold world around him, one lungful at a time. The smell of pine sap and ski wax filled his nostrils as the chirps of some ravenous forest fowl joined the chorus of laboured grunts around him.

He was prepared—as well as he’d ever been to do this.

As if on cue, Coach Tryon’s gruff voice announced, “It’s time.”

Nodding, Jamie took another deep breath, drawing in sweet, clear oxygen into his lungs before opening his eyes to two pairs of goggles dangling in his face. It was a familiar ritual that needed no communication beyond the pointing of a finger.

Tryon’s salt-and-pepper brows rose into a deeply lined forehead as if to ask, Are you sure about that?

Jamie confirmed his choice with another determined incline of his head. He wanted the golden ones. With the sun at the northern back of the slope providing enough light to see all the bumps and tracks in the snow, he knew he didn’t really need them, but the shade of coloured glass reminded him of his leopard-eyed love.

And today, he wanted Claire with him on the ride.

The taste of her still lingered on his lips, sweet and heady like the promise of spring. The mere recollection of her soft body against his spurred him on, flooding his veins with heat and poising his muscles for action. And while it was the echo of her parting whisper of I love you that expanded his chest with confidence, she wasn’t the only one Jamie would take down that mountain with him.

Slipping into his start number, he felt his father’s pride settle like a coat of armour around his ribs, and the sight of that bright little puffin sticker at the base of his helmet rekindled once more the faith in himself that his son bestowed upon him so freely.

The bindings snapped shut with that customary click, fixing his booted feet in place. Then, it was time to move towards the start house.

It was quiet, though not for lack of company.

Whether it was fear, respect, or awe—or maybe all those things combined—the hushed atmosphere of the Hahnenkamm start house always lived up to its morgue-like reputation.

And yet, despite the muted interactions between the other two athletes and their coaches and the present referees, there was something indescribably vivacious about it, too. The very air crackling with anticipation, eyes were wide and focused, shoulders braced, as each of them went through their individual starting rites.

Before long, it was Jamie’s turn to approach the start gate.

It was his last chance to check whether everything was as it should be. Buckles were tight. Gloves sat snug. Goggles secured in place. One, two, three hearty thumps to his breastbone to activate his thymus gland. Excitement thrumming in his veins, he edged his skis underneath the starting wand, curved poles piercing the hardpacked snow outside as he sought the grip he would need to propel himself forward.

Bent at the waist, Jamie waited, strung tight like a bowstring just before release.

The all-clear had barely registered when he’d already catapulted himself out of the gate, rapidly gaining speed as he skated down the black ice. Baring his teeth in a grin, Jamie accepted the challenge of stone against bone that lay before him.

“And that’s number 22, James Fraser entering the course. What an explosive start!”

Headwind slashing at his cheeks, he took the first sharp turn. Right. Over the unforgiving flume of ice. Left. More hard ice. There was the lip of the first jump. Knees pulled in, he took off.

“A mighty jump over the Mausefalle the tall Scot is showing us there. Good landing and already back in position.”

Fists extended in front of his face, he hurtled through the compression into the next turn, the gates a red blur as they flew past him.

“Really attacking the gate poles there, Fraser. He’s moving towards the Steilhang now.”

He was moving fast; fast, so fast; faster than he’d been in the training.

He dipped slightly to the left, using the momentum to come out high. Yes! Still, the net was close—too close on his left as he rocketed past into the Brückenschuss.

“That was a really close call with the tail of his ski, but Fraser keeps going, now entering the Gschöss. Look at that fine tuck position! Top speed for him in this section, looks like he’s got some good gliders on his feet.”

Just out of the Alte Schneise, he lifted off again, jumping down into the next stretch of inhospitable white.

One breath, two, and another, as he accelerated.

Fast, so incredibly fast. The Seidlalm jump was suddenly in his face.

“Ohhh he lost his balance there for a second, but well recovered and back in position over—look at that, he mowed down that gate with his shoulder. He’s going to feel that tomorrow!”

Adrenaline pumping through him, he barely felt the impact of the hard plastic. He was looking ahead, always ahead, ready for the next turn.

Softly to the right. Double left.

The wind roaring past his ears, he dove into the Lärchenschuss.

“Fraser’s approaching the Oberhausberg now, some smooth turns he’s showing us. Nice and round—that’s looking very good. And now over—”

His heart pounded as fast as his wings.

“Which line is he going to choose?”

Sharp left into the compression, he was fast. Too fast to stay up high.

His teeth rattled, thighs burning with the threat of exhaustion, as he rode across the glaring ice of the Traverse.

Fast, he was still fast. Deliriously fast.

Edges biting into the relentless ice, he kept above the blue course line, resisting the pull of gravity.

“He’s taking all the speed into the Zielschuss now. 88.2 miles per hour!”

He launched off again, taking the stomach-turning plunge into the home stretch.

Another hard landing. Calves shaking.

The big red arch.

Almost. Almost there.

“1:55.59, .60, .61 aaaand—"

Close. So close.

Now!

 

Jamie made it over the finish line with lungs all but devoid of air. His pulse was hammering in throat and groin, drowning out the cacophony of cheers and cowbells exploding around him.

Ripping the goggles off, his first instinct was to search for her face. Even amidst the red and white sea of flags, it took less than a heartbeat.

There she was.

Standing next to their son—freckled face split in a glorious grin atop his grandfather’s proud shoulders—Claire was wearing that golden smile that lit up his entire world. It was all Jamie needed to know that he'd already won.

The End