When she comes to him, it’s with a bloodied apron still tied around her neck and curls askew. Someone’s blood streaks her upper arm, smeared into a dried out whorl thanks to a hasty wipe. A glance at her and Jamie knows tension lies between her shoulder blades like a lead weight and that the balls of her feet are aching.
He’s no better off than she is, exhausted to the very marrow of his bones. He’d been ready to close his eyes and welcome sleep until she crept in, but now his only thought is of following through on the warm bath he’d conjured for her in his mind. It takes time to fill, but the moment he helps her into the tub and she sighs, he knows he would do it again, even so late at night. Reaching behind her head, his fingers find the material holding her curls at bay and lets it go, sending them chaotically floating free.
“Close yer eyes, a nighean.”
She does as she’s told and becomes malleable under his hands as they meticulously work to rub her feet under the hot water.
“I haven’t sat since five-thirty this morning.” Her words leave her on a weary sigh; the moon and stars have been out for hours now.
“Ye push yourself too hard, Sassenach. If ye dinna do more to take care of yourself, yer body will decide to slow down for ye,” Jamie chides gently, hands working a calf, delighting in her soft groan.
“Who’s the medical professional, here, Captain?” She cracks one eye open to look at him. “I know you only arrived here a few moments before me, and you were gone when I woke.”
He’s quiet as his hands move back to a foot, pressing his thumbs into the arch gently and rubbing outward. When he replies, his eyes flicker toward her face. “Cannae do reconnaissance in the bright, open daylight, Nurse Beauchamp,” he retorts with her own title. “And the day cannae be done only because I was workin’ early.”
“So, you’re saying that telling me how much sleep to get isn’t hypocritical?”
She’s won when he can’t think of a good retort, and she smiles smugly, proud of herself for outsmarting him there.
“It’s no’ a bad thing to take a break when ye can get it, was my point.” He switches feet, focused on his task.
“Hello, pot. I’m kettle,” she teases, though it’s really quite sweet, his worry for her. It endears him even more to her heart, though he’d done well enough the day they’d met two years ago, buying flowers from her at the park for his young niece.
“We both do too much and we ken it, but—”
“—but we have one another to lean on,” she finishes, smiling as he moves to the head of the tub in order to capture her lips in a kiss. One of his large hands cradles her face and she reciprocates, enjoying the feel of his stubble against her fingertips.
“I missed ye today, mo nighean donn,” he murmurs huskily, ducking his head a little further to press his lips to her neck.
“I thought about you earlier while I was debriding a wound,” Claire informs him, even as her head tilts this way and that to grant better access to skin begging to feel the imprint of his lips.
“That’s no’ a verra pleasant association,” he notes, pulling back as an eyebrow raises, looking at her in faux disgust. “What did I do to deserve it?”
With a light thwack against his arm, Claire leans forward as Jamie moves behind her to begin rubbing her shoulders. Enjoying it for a moment, she closes her eyes and practically purrs as he pauses to pour warm water over her skin. She gets around to answering just as his thumbs gently begin to work against a small knot at the base of her neck.
“I mean, I thought of you when I saw the extent of the man’s injuries.” Her tone softens. “I was more worried about you today than usual. I heard about the impromptu raid.”
There’d been a chance to get close to an enemy camp under the cloak of night, from a direction so heavily wooded the Austrian officers likely wouldn’t have thought to put more than a handful of men on the perimeter. Jamie’s assumption had been right, and within moments it was clearly a fight they could win if he made the call to charge. He did, and they had; the fighting had been done within fifteen minutes, though a victory today couldn’t guarantee the next fight would be won as well.
“By the time ye heard of it, I was likely already plotting our next course of action wi’ the General,” he points out.
“What does that matter?” she asks in confusion. “I’d be lucky if I received word within the month if you—” The phrasing of her statement sits bitterly on her tongue and she pauses to reach up, covering his hand on her shoulder. For a moment, both of them are still until she speaks again. “I see men die every day, Jamie, a countless amount of them. Too many to keep up.”
The hitch in her voice, as subtle as it is, is enough for him to move around in order to see her face. Reaching out, he rubs his thumb over her temple in slow circles in an effort to soothe. “May I tell ye something, Sassenach?”
As he helps her lean back against the tub to relax, she nods. “You can tell me anything.”
Fishing for the washcloth and soap, Jamie lathers it before beginning to wash her body slowly, starting with her closest arm. He’s quiet as the cloth travels up and under her arm, then across her chest to the other side. He’s working his way down a hip by the time he speaks again.
“Before every battle, I think of ye. I think of how I left ye that mornin’, warm in bed and sprawled out right in the middle.” She’s taken to sleeping draped over him, and when he rises for any reason, she curls into the heat he’s left behind. “I think of the way ye look when ye fall apart beneath me, crying out my name, and I remember the way it feels to have yer lips press to mine. When I’ve thought of all that, Sassenach, then I pray for God to protect me, so I can live to feel ye again.”
Claire looks at him with wide, amber eyes that reflect the fire in the small hearth behind him.
“And are you ever afraid?”
“Christ, aye,” he quickly admits. “But no’ of death itself.”
She doesn’t ask the question, but it’s there in her eyes before he raises her hand to his lips to kiss her knuckles.
“I ken what losing another person would do to ye, Claire.” Her father first, then her mother, her uncle, a husband. Everyone who had pieces of her heart has taken them to the grave. “So it terrifies me, the thought of leaving ye.” The ugly truth is that men are dying so quickly there are moments Jamie isn’t sure how anyone will survive to the finish. It could happen any moment, the bullet or bomb that ends it all.
“Then you’d better see to it that nothing happens, soldier,” she commands over a lump in her throat that she knows he can hear.
Done washing, the cloth is lost to the water again as both large hands cradle her face. “I would find ye, Sassenach. If we were ever parted by death, I would find ye. Even if it meant enduring purgatory to pay for my sins, for every lie from my tongue and death by my hands, I would wait and be tortured if it meant being wi’ ye again.”
“We’ve picked a terrible time to be in love, Jamie.” Tears spill over in warm rivers down her cheeks, and Jamie reaches out to wipe them away with a gentle touch.
“Even if I should fall tomorrow, I’ll ken that in my time on this Earth, I was given a rare woman.” His smile is warm, letting his thumb drag across the apple of her cheek. “And when I stand before the Almighty, I’ll be able to tell Him that in the time we had together, I loved her well.”
“Don’t be in a rush to relay that message,” she manages, sniffling even as her tears continue to quietly drip into the bathwater.
Jamie kisses her damp cheeks, shaking his head, murmuring, “The Devil himself would have to drag me away from ye, mo chridhe.”
Quietly, they breathe one another in until the bath is cold and he lifts her out, helping her dry. Donning a thin nightgown, she slides into bed first, and when he’s beside her she scoots against his side with her head resting on his chest. Her mind is still moving too quickly to relax, caught up in what ifs and endless horrific scenarios.
He knows it, can feel it in the way her body stays tensed. She’s dragging her fingers up and down his arm slowly — something she only does when her thoughts are tumultuous. He doesn’t push her to speak; instead, Jamie alternates running his fingers through her hair and massaging the back of her head.
Everything she can think to say she’s said before, but it doesn’t stop her from saying it again.
“I don’t know what I would ever do without you, James Fraser.”
“Dinna think of it, Sassenach,” he urges, brushing his lips across her temple.
“You still have to marry me after this great bloody war,” she points out, raising her head to look at him. “I told you when we started to get serious—”
“Aye, that ye never wanted to marry again. But somehow, I convinced ye then, didn’t I?”
She huffs a little, some of her tension beginning to give way. “You were stubborn.”
“I had to be more stubborn than you.” The last word is said even as he absorbs a light smack for the comment. “Ye only lash out because that’s the truth of it,” he chides with a slight smirk.
The truth of it was, five weeks into their relationship, he’d helped her carry her groceries into her flat, and when she’d tripped on a corner of the rug, he’d caught her effortlessly. It was the sort of thing depicted in frivolous romance novels she claimed she never read; their eyes met, and somehow she’d known he would completely demolish the walls she’d built around herself, brick by brick.
Now, there’s a war raging on with no guarantees, and she burrows closer to him.
“Tell me more about Lallybroch,” she requests, sleepiness creeping into her voice. “Tell me what our lives will be like.”
Once they’re both settled (Claire’s weight a comforting warmth draped across him—except for her cold-as-ice toes against his legs), Jamie’s eyes close, arms wrapped securely around her as he imagines it.
“There are so many rolling green hills it looks as though they go on forever, Sassenach. And the house itself, the moment ye walk through the doorway the love and warmth wraps ye up and lets ye know yer home. I remember my mam, Jenny, Willie, and I waitin’ for my da to arrive home from the fields every evenin’, sitting on the front steps.”
Claire makes a soft hum of acknowledgment, imagining it between drifting thoughts. When she murmurs, her voice already sounds far away.
“And how many children do you envision?” she asks, unaware, for now, of the life growing in her womb.
Jamie smiles to himself, rubbing the back of her head with his fingertips. “Four, at least. A good, even number. I ken ye like my red hair, but that gives me the odds of at least one bairn wi’ your coloring, mo nighean donn.”
“We’ll see. I think even your traits are stubborn.”
He squeezes her with a low chuckle, then goes quiet, the pull of sleep tugging at him, as well. Still, he has room for one more thought, unsure now if in the lapse of conversation she’s fallen asleep.
“We’re going to be alright, Sassenach. We’ll go home, love one another, and no’ ever worry about being apart again. We’ll lose track of all the evenin’s I come home to ye.”
He waits for a response, and when one doesn’t come, he realizes her breathing has evened out in sleep. Raising his head, his lips press softly to her hair, his words coming easily in the Gàidhlig.
May the Almighty protect you and watch over you. Carefully, slowly, one hand moves between them, so awkwardly angled that only his fingertips can brush her stomach.
May He protect you and our children from harm. Now, and always.
With a final kiss to her forehead, he lowers himself back down to the pillow and keeps Claire as close as he can.
Until morning, when the uncertainty of war rages on.