August 12, 2012, The Pride of Spitalfields, London, England
The pub throbbed with the revelry of dozens of drunken patrons. Jamie grinned at the irony that their arrival had probably thrust the establishment past its occupancy load. He’d just finished a ten hour workday, he was thirsty, and he wouldn’t be filing a fire code complaint anytime soon.
As the rookie at his station, Jamie drew all the short straws. He made the coffee at the start of each shift. He climbed the tower with heavy wet hoses draped over his shoulders. He was on call every night of the past seventeen, as London swelled to bursting with Olympic athletes and spectators. And now that the Games were over, so was his enforced prohibition, but he was still responsible for getting his coworkers their chosen drinks first.
Jamie was blessed with an uncomplaining disposition that made these petty hardships easy to bear, but after three trips between the bar and their overflowing table, having his elbows jostled, ale spilled on his shoes, and, on one notable occasion, his rump squeezed by a lewd hand in the heaving crowd, he was more than ready for his long-awaited drink.
“Waddaya mean ye’re out of lager?!”
“Sorry, mate. We’re inside the security zone, so our distributor can’t get ‘is lorry in. I jus’ pulled my last pint for this young lady here.”
Following the barman’s casual hand gesture, Jamie observed the woman on the barstool next to him. She was turned away, chatting with whoever sat beside her, so his first impression was of riotous dark curls, slim shoulders, colt-like legs wrapped in a jean mini-skirt, and an untouched pint of Tennent’s sitting on the bar by her elbow.
He tapped her shoulder. No response. Tapped again, and added a loud but polite “Pardon me,” in order to be heard over the crowd. A pale hand lifted in dismissal was the only indication she had heard him. He was starting to get pissed off, but short of grabbing the beer and making a run for it (both beneath his dignity and having a low degree of probable success, given the close confines of the bar), he was out of options.
Just as he was about to order a whisky instead, the woman finally turned in his direction, and the cacophony all around blurred to nothing. A delicate face, transformed into something fierce by the intensity of her gaze. She was looking imperiously down her nose at him, and it brought to mind a childhood visit to the Edinburgh Zoo; the lioness gazing out of her enclosure with piercing golden eyes.
“Wot?” the lioness demanded, and he dropped back into his surroundings.
“Are ye gonna drink that pint, lass?”
“I beg your pardon?” He had never before considered himself a meek man, but she was putting that hypothesis to the test.
“Yer lager. I asked if ye planned tae drink it. I’d like tae buy it from ye, if no’.”
She spun her knees in his direction, ignoring her companion entirely to focus on him. She wobbled a tiny bit on her stool, and he got the impression she wasn’t entirely sober.
“Let me get this straight,” she pronounced with a faint slur that bordered on a lisp. “You want to know whether I intend to drink my beer? Is that it?”
He nodded, tongue-tied for once.
“For what purpose do you think I purchased it, if not to ingest it?”
He couldn’t tell if she was secretly laughing at him, or furious. He was accustomed to using his dashing good looks (an ex-girlfriend’s turn-of-phrase) and Scottish charm to talk his way into or out of any situation, so her prickly demeanour posed a unique challenge.
“I dinna mean tae infer ye’d only bought a pint for decoration, lass. Only, tis the last lager in the whole place, and I reckon I need it more than ye.”
He recognized his error as soon as the words left his mouth. This was not a woman who took kindly to being told what she did and did not need.
Instead on pouncing on him, she flashed a feline grin and proposed terms for their stand-off.
“That’s an interesting propo-prop-proposition, lad. That you need this pint more than I do. Here’s what we’re going to do. My friend... Geil, get over here... is famously impartial. Now you, sir, are going to plead your case as to why you deserve this pint. I will do the same, and to the victor go the spoils, as it were. Are we agreed?”
He felt very much like a mouse being toyed with by a particularly malevolent cat, but his inherent competitiveness refused to let him back down at this juncture. He sensed he was about to be bested at his own game, but he was looking forward to finding out exactly how.
“Aye, agreed. Ladies first, if ye please.”
“Oh, I bloody well think not. This all started with you coveting my beer. You first.”
Jamie grinned and ran his hand through his hair, trying to collect his thoughts. From across the bar, he could see his mates watching his exchange with this vexing woman, their laughter muffled by the din.
“Aye. Alright. Weel, I’m a firefighter, ken? A probie in my first six months o’ service. My uncle Dougal is my captain, but tae show there’s no favourtism, he gives me all the shitty tasks, the worst shifts. Which means I’ve been on call since the Games began, cooped up inside w’out a drop tae drink an’ a flatmate who snores like a congested hippo, while the entire world ran riot o’side my window.”
He paused here to see if his tale of woe was having any effect, but the lioness merely raised a finely arched eyebrow, as if to say ‘is that all you’ve got?’ He dug his heels in for the long ride.
“An’ when I did get a call-out, twas always some daft drunkard who forgot his beans on the hob watchin’ Mo Farah’s race or somesuch.”
Nary a muscle moved on her face.
“An’ I stubbed my toe somethin’ fierce the o’er night when my flatmate...”
“The congested hippo?” she clarified.
“Aye, the congested hippo. The bastard dragged our couch against one wall sae he could, and I quote, do justice tae Bradley Wiggins. I walked inta it on my way tae take a piss.”
He might have been imagining things, but there was a slight twitch at the corner of her mouth.
“An’ when I was a lad, my big sister convinced me twas a fairie livin’ in my clothes press tha’ stole my socks, an’ since then I canna grab my trousers wi’out crossing my fingers first.”
He wrapped up with his most winning smile, the one usually reserved for his mam and first dates. His adversary observed him dispassionately, but at least her friend, the purported judge of his performance, looked suitably amused.
“That’s it, then? A three week dry spell, a boorish flatmate, and lasting childhood gullibility?”
“Thas’ about it, aye,” he admitted. He supposed, if nothing else, it spoke well to his life thus far that he hadn’t been able to surface any more sympathy-worthy incidents.
The woman lifted the controversial pint, and for a fool-hardy moment he thought she was going to hand it to him. Instead, she raised it in mock salute.
“I’m deploying to Afghanistan in the morning,” she said, and took a long drink, her leonine eyes never leaving his over the rim of the glass.
Several hours and a couple whiskies later, Jamie stepped out onto the pavement and breathed the relatively cool midnight air. His mates had a good laugh at his expense when he’d returned to their table empty-handed, with neither lager nor the lass’ number.
The door behind him opened, and the woman in question staggered outside, leaning heavily on her much-shorter friend.
“If it’s not the lad who believes in fairies!” she exclaimed upon noticing him. Of all the details for her to remember. He tipped an imaginary cap in their direction.
“An’ how was yer lager, milady?”
“Dee-licious,” she proclaimed before stumbling sideways and nearly pulling her friend down in a heap with her.
“Can I help ye, ladies? Per’aps call ye both a taxi?” he suggested, worried about their ability to navigate home without coming to ruin.
“T’won’t be necessary, lad,” the shorter, red-haired one said. He realized belatedly she was Scottish as well. “We live jus’ down the way. Although... I could use yer brawn to get ‘er up the stairwell, if ye wouldna mind.”
The brown-haired one with the uncanny eyes started to sing to herself.
“I’m so happy I could diiiiiiiiiiiiiiie...”
“Is she always this macabre?” he asked her friend, draping a slack arm over his shoulder and trying to steer her slight weight in the right direction.
“Wouldna ye be, in ‘er shoes?”
“She’s really a soldier, then?” he asked, mystified by this singular creature.
“Army nurse,” her friend clarified, and he found himself relieved. At least she wouldn’t see active duty. Although why he should care was beyond him.
“I canna imagine...” he said, mostly to himself.
“Weel, one man’s combat zone is another woman’s escape route, ye ken?”
He didn’t, but it wasn’t any of his business, and they had already arrived at the door of their building. After a great deal of maneuvering and cursing during which their burden remained only marginally conscious and completely unhelpful, they finally got her settled in bed with a towel, a basin, a tall glass of water and three paracetamol. Jamie got only a vague impression of her room, but it was surprisingly feminine with wispy drapes and an elaborate print of an ancient city on one wall. He didn’t know what he had been expecting. Camouflage linens, perhaps?
“Thank ye sae much for lending a ‘and, lad,” the redhead spoke as she returned to the tiny living area. “Ach, I dinna even think tae ask yer name!”
“Jamie. Jamie Fraser. An’ twas nae bother. Except fer the lager. Tha’ was blatant cruelty,” he jested.
“Ye didna stand a chance, but ye acquitted yerself admirably, Jamie. Can I offer ye a beer now, as a consolation prize?”
She was looking at him in the particular way that women did, when what they were offering wasn’t what they were asking for at all. He considered the situation. It was just past midnight, and he was off the next day. His flat had nothing to offer except Geordie snoring and passing gas. Her roommate wouldn’t be waking anytime soon. And while she was no lioness, her friend was very pretty, in her own elfin way.
“Whas’ yer name, lass?” he asked as she handed him a cold bottle, their hands brushing deliberately.
“Geillis. Geillis Duncan.”
January 1, 2015, The Royal London Hospital
His eyes refused to open, so he relied on his other senses to understand this new world. There was heat so intense that it froze. Mechanical bleating. The smell of antiseptic and stench of vomit. An alien rasp that, after countless repetitions, he realized was his breath.
“I need a main line for electrolytes, right now!” He thought he recognized the voice. The whirlpool of sensations was making him nauseous, so he focused on its familiar pitch and cadence.
“...third degree burns extending across sixty percent of his back... Christ, where is that fucking trauma resident?”
A creeping chill started near his elbow and sent icy needles towards his heart. He wanted to panic, but couldn’t draw air into his lungs to scream. The mechanical bleating grew violent.
“It’s alright,” the voice soothed. “Here, take a deep breath.” A pressure around his nose and jaw, followed by the blessed rush of oxygen into his lungs. The hammering of his heart slowed slightly.
“That’s it, soldier. Deep breaths. Can you open your eyes?”
He fought against the heavy weight that seemed to press on him from every angle. The overhead lights were blinding, and he squinted against tears. A blurry smudge hovered above him. Blinking furiously, the smudge resolved into dark curly hair pulled back from a face half-covered in blue surgical garb. Between the horizon of the mask and the heaven of her curls shone the most intense pair of leonine eyes he’d ever seen.
His last conscious thought was that he was happy she made it back to London safely.